"Into my Arms" (An Interventionist God?) - A reflection on Nick's Caves song - Rev. Brian Moodie
(Scripture texts - Mark 9:24; Song of Songs 8:6; Psalm 22:1-2; 1 John 4:16)
The first time I heard Nick Cave’s song, “Into my arms” was only a few weeks ago. It was suggested to me by two people in response to the sermon series we’ve been doing exploring the lyrics and meaning of various secular songs.
The story of Nick Cave is an interesting one that unfortunately we don’t have time to explore fully here. He was born in Australia in 1977. At age 9 sang in the local Anglican Cathedral choir. In more recent years has lived in the UK. He has been deeply influenced by Leonard Cohen’s music after his girlfriend in his teens introduced him to it.
His life has also not been without its struggles and tragedies. At the age of 21 his father died in a car crash in what he described as the most confusing time of his life. He also struggled with a heroin addiction for 20 years. In addition, he has experienced the tragic loss of two of his sons. 8 years ago in 2015, his 15 year old son Arthur slipped and fell from a 60 foot cliff near Brighton, dying a few hours later of his injuries. And then just over a year ago in May 2022 his 31 year old son Jethro died from causes that haven’t been disclosed. The pain of losing his first son in 2015 affected him so deeply that he felt he had to move away from the UK and settled in Los Angeles.
In terms of his song writing, like Leonard Cohen, many of his songs reflect the influence of Biblical themes, most especially themes and imagery from the Old Testament, often giving them a sense of a religious feel. And this is true of his 1997 hit song “Into my arms” which we come to reflect on today. It is a hauntingly beautiful song filled with love and longing, doubt and faith.
In the opening line, Nick Cave makes a controversial statement “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” and in the second verse he writes that he doesn’t believe in angels. But he then goes on, almost in a way contradicting those sentiments, expressing his longing for God to direct his beloved back into his arms. In the chorus he seemingly addresses God directly, “Into my arms, O Lord, Into my arms, O Lord,” sounding almost like a hymn.
In a very real sense, the song was, and perhaps is an expression of Nick Cave’s own struggles with faith and doubt. The impression in that opening line is that Nick Cave was declaring himself an atheist, but that is not actually true. In 2011 he said that, although he has never been an atheist there are periods when he has struggled with the whole thing. He said, “Belief in God is illogical, its absurd. There’s no debate. I feel it intuitively, it comes from the heart, a magical place, but I still fluctuate from day to day. Sometimes I feel very close to the notion of God, other times I don’t. I used to see that as a failure. Now I see it as a strength, especially compared to the more fanatical notions of what God is.” A year earlier he said that he believes in God in-spite of religion, not because of it.
Interestingly the song itself was apparently written just after he had been to church at a time when he was in rehab. As he was walking back from church through the fields, the tune came into his head, and when he got back to the facility, he sat down at the cranky old piano, wrote the melody and chords, and then went up to the dormitory, sat on his bed and wrote the lyrics.
In his recorded lectures on music and songwriting, Nick Cave said that any true love song is a song for God, (in other words it points beyond itself to a longing for the Transcendent), and he ascribed the mellowing of his music due to a shift in focus from the Old Testament to the New. Despite the tragedies in his life, losing his father at age 21 and more recently two of his sons, in his 2022 book Faith Hope and Carnage he writes that he regularly now goes to church, saying that he characterises himself as not being a Christian, but acting like one.
And so, getting back to the song, in a very real way it expresses his own fluctuating struggles with faith and belief, an experience I believe shared by many people. And perhaps that is part of the power of the song. People can identify with his religious struggles.
And getting back to that opening line, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God”, we find that it is not in fact a statement from someone who considers himself an atheist, but rather a statement of someone who believes in the existence of some kind of God or Transcendent Reality, but has come to the conclusion that this Transcendent Reality does not intervene miraculously or supernaturally to change the course of events in life.
The belief in a non-interventionist God is not a new one. It goes right back to the 1700’s with the rise of the Enlightenment and what has been called the Age of Reason. With its emphasis on rational and scientific thinking, undergirded by Newtonian Physics, the idea of an interventionist God seemed less and less plausible to many people. And yet for many of this period the idea of atheism was not an alternative being regarded as a kind of descent into meaninglessness. Instead what arose was a movement called Deism. Deists continued to affirm the existence of God or a Transcendent Divine Reality, but did not have any expectations of God intervening supernaturally in the affairs of the world. Using the newly emerging mechanistic world view, inspired by Isaac Newtons scientific theories, God was conceived as having been the cosmic clock maker who in the beginning created the world or the universe, and then let it run its course, leaving it to run according to the laws by which it was made.
For some this provided a helpful middle ground. They maintained a sense of a Transcendent Divine Reality and their sense of obligation to acknowledge a Higher Wisdom and Authority, while no longer expecting this Divinity to intervene supernaturally in the lives of human beings. To live in harmony with God required for human beings to live in harmony with the laws of nature, physics and the laws of morality as they perceived them.
For such people who remained within the Christian fold, Jesus came to be seen primarily as a great spiritual or moral teacher but not as a miracle worker. The miracle stories were regarded either as later inventions attributed to Jesus to enhance the spiritual aura around him or as symbolic devices not intended to be taken literally.
And for some, this remains the only notion of God that makes sense to them. Some have found themselves reaching this point in their lives partly on the one hand because of the scientific world view which seemingly makes no room for what has traditionally been called the supernatural. Others have found themselves driven to this point by a struggle to come to terms with the question of Theodicy. If God is good and all-powerful, how is it that God allows terrible things to happen in this world? For some people, who still feel compelled by a religious sensibility and for whom atheism makes no sense, the answer that comes is that God is not an interventionist God. This appears to have been the point that Nick Cave had reached when writing this 1997 song.
In the end, all of us will have our own opinions on whether we believe in an interventionist God or not. Does God intervene in the day to day working out of life? Some Christians will answer this in the affirmative believing God to be intervening in their lives on an almost daily basis. Others will be far more sceptical of such interventions. They might say that if God can intervene in the smaller stuff of life then why doesn’t God intervene in much greater matters like preventing experiences of abuse, or wars or natural disasters? Still others might live in between these views with a sense of mystery and in a place of unknowing, for there are times when it has felt like certain events in life have been guided by a hand bigger than their own, and yet other times when they have struggled to navigate through what feels like a sea of confusion.
Even people who have given up formal religion, who do not like the term God, which might carry with it a whole lot of negative baggage for them, often instead, speak of “The Universe” seemingly conspiring at times to bring about something in their lives that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do themselves, the sense that life at times feels directed by some greater current.
And then you have also, the most confounding stories of people seemingly being miraculously saved from certain death or perhaps experienced an inexplicable healing.
Wendy told me a story she had read in a book by one of her favourite authors, Martha Beck a contemporary self-help and spiritual teacher. It is the story of a couple who were engaged to get married. They went on a hike in the mountains and before they knew it found themselves on a slippery slope that they could not keep their grip on. Within seconds they found themselves hanging on to a rock with their finger-tips trying unsuccessfully to pull themselves up. The young man could not keep his grip and before his fiances eyes he tragically slipped away and fell to his death. The young women told how, almost at the same time, she felt as if someone or something had taken hold of her waste pulling her up to safety, and yet when she gathered herself there was absolutely no-one around her. There was no doubt in her mind that someone or something had intervened to bring her to safety but she had no explanation for it, and even beyond that no explanation why she had seemingly been the recipient of this assistance and her fiance not.
Stories such as these are not so uncommon. There may be people in this congregation who might be able to tell a similar story. What is confounding is not so much whether strange and mysterious things happen, but why they happen in some instances and not in others. And it is not always a question of faith.
Bernie Siegel, a medical doctor has come across enough miraculous or unexplained healings to believe that they do happen. But he says, because they go beyond sciences ability to explain, such unexplained events are not included in the medical statistics, which raises the question how accurate these medical statistics are?
Does God intervene in this world beyond the laws of nature? Is God outside of life and from time to time makes a miraculous appearance and then disappears again? Or is God / Divine woven in and through life, constantly at work as the wisdom and intelligence of life itself, constantly at work and bubbling up from the inside? Are some of the things we call miracles or supernatural interventions simply beyond our current framework of understanding and one day humanity may come to a deeper understanding of how and why at least some of these things happen?
Do you believe in an interventionist God? Or perhaps have you rejected such an understanding of God and yet still hold on to some conception of God as the greater Wisdom or that Greater Good that embraces empowers and inspires us? Perhaps you have witnessed or experienced enough tragedies in life to no longer expect God to intervene and yet perhaps still have a deep sense of the reality of God and the sense that one day we will no longer see as through a glass darkly, that there is a wider perspective yet to be known in which some of the mysteries of life will make more sense.
I find it interesting that in the third verse of the song Nick Cave also names that which he does believe in. “I believe in love”, he says. And from the perspective of quite a number of passages in the New Testament, to believe in love is to believe in God, for as the writer of 1 John says, God is Love and to live in love is to live in God (1 John 4:16).
Whether we believe in an interventionist God or not is a conclusion each of us have to reach on our own. But ultimately I believe it is not the heart of true Christian faith. I believe that true Christian faith is ultimately to tenaciously hold onto believing in Love, despite the difficulties, trials and tragedies that we may experience in life, and to believe, as the writer of the Song of Songs puts it, that “Love is stronger than death”. And I wonder if that may just be what the story of the Resurrection might be about, whether one affirms it literally or symbolically, it points to the indestructibility of Love, that somehow the deeper we journey into Love the more we will discover a Reality that transcends the narrow perspective of our brief lives lived in these bodies in this world and discover a Life and a Love that goes beyond even birth and death. Amen.
May God bless you as you think upon and contemplate these things more deeply. Amen.
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