Some thoughts on "the Man upstairs"
Saying Farewell to "The Man Upstairs"

Hank Mattimore
Reproduced with Permission

My Dad often referred to God as "the man upstairs." He used the term reverently; with due respect for the Deity and at the same time an acknowledgment that God is eminently approachable. God, to my Dad and a whole generation of Christians, was perceived as all-powerful, the ultimate judge and decision maker.

But God had His soft side. For Pete's sake, you could talk to him, person to person. In a pinch, you could ask his Mother to intervene on your behalf. It was a down home kind of faith that was as comfortable as a pair of old jeans.

Modern theologians have a different perspective on the nature of God. They view Him/Her, not as outside of creation sitting in glory pretty much running things down on earth, but in everything and everyone. As Richard Scaine a professor at New York Theological Seminary for eighteen years, puts it, "When we pray we not so much address God as we express Him." Every breath we take is an expression of the God who is already in us.

That way of looking at God makes a certain sense to me. I can relate to the presence of God within us and all of creation. Jesus Himself proclaimed to all who would listen that "The kingdom of God is within."

But I wonder whether in our rush to acknowledge the immanence of God we are paying enough attention to His transcendence. What has happened to "the man upstairs" of my Dad's world? You know whom I'm talking about. the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the "who art in heaven" God who listens to our prayers ?

Theologians, no matter how learned, make me nervous when they appear to assume that their way is the only intelligent way of understanding the Deity. I think of St.Thomas Aquinas, one of the most brilliant minds the Church has ever produced, looking back in his later years on his compendium of theological thought and concluding "I know nothing at all of God."

What I think we have a right to expect from our more sophisticated modern theologians is that kind of wisdom, that kind of humility. They don't have all the answers. We need to hear from their lips an acknowledgment that we are all struggling to come to a better understanding of God.

The picture we had of God as "up there in heaven" may be hopelessly out of step with the new cosmology (which sees God as immanent in creation,) but before we say goodbye to the "man upstairs" we had better come up with a more nuanced understanding of the transcendence of God. God is in us but we are not God.

The pious older person who lies prostrate in front of the altar praying that God will intervene and help her son in prison should not be airily dismissed as being ignorant of the true nature of God. I submit that we all could discern more about who God is... on our knees.

Humankind's search for God is eternal. Our intellects are stretched as we strain to understand what will always remain beyond our reach. The God, who might be called "sacred radiant energy" by a proponent of the new theology, will remain our heavenly Father or even "the man upstairs" to many of us.

The search continues but it's wise to remember that God has not changed. He is the same, yesterday, today and forever. He is now and always has been a deep mystery, incomprehensible to our finite minds. We grope today with the mystery of God as we always have, with fear and trembling.