The face of God

Picture this scenario. A baby is allowed to crawl about on a platform with a pronounced checkerboard pattern. At one point, the platform drops off sharply, making a “cliff.” The checkered motif continues down the side and across a lower platform, making the cliff and drop easy for the baby to see. It’s actually safe for the baby to crawl across the space on the other side of the cliff, because it’s covered with glass. When he ventures up to the edge, he can feel that the glass is solid. But it looks like he may fall.

It’s a confusing situation for such a young child. Mom’s right there in the room, standing on the opposite side of the glass. But it’s not as if he can ask her what she thinks. So…will he venture out onto the glass?

The answer is…it depends. If mom smiles and beckons, the baby will generally smile back and crawl to her. But if Mom looks frightened or worried, the baby will pick up her fear and back away from the cliff.

This classic psychology experiment, known as the “visual cliff,” teaches us two things. First, babies have depth perception; they know the cliff is a threat. But second, and more importantly, the baby actually can ask Mom what she thinks. He doesn’t ask with words. Rather, he looks up at her face; her facial expression tells him everything he needs to know.

This is known as social referencing: babies learn about their environments not just by interacting directly with objects but by seeing the emotions that play out in their parents faces. Is it safe? Is it okay? They need to see Mom or Dad’s face to know.

And it’s partly because of experiments like this that I read Psalm 27 the way that I do.

. . .

Previously, we saw how the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible calls Psalm 27 a “triumphant song of confidence.” It would be hard to argue with that label if one read only the first six verses. Verse 6 ends with “I will sing and make melody to the LORD” (NRSV). But then the mood shifts abruptly:

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
    be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
    Your face, LORD, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
    you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
    O God of my salvation!
(vss. 7-9, NRSV)

The psalmist is distressed. He encourages himself to seek God’s face. But it seems as if God has turned his face away for some reason. Is God mad at me? The psalmist pleads with God: You’ve been my help and salvation. Don’t hide your face, don’t turn me away, don’t cast me off, don’t forsake me! I’m crying out to you — please, please answer me!

If this is a triumphant song of confidence, it’s one with discordant notes.

. . .

Another classic study is known as the “still face” experiment (you can watch the video here). A mother and baby are brought into a laboratory. Mom and baby vocalize and gesture to each other; the emotional dance between them shows on their faces. But then the experiment begins. Mom turns her head away for a moment, and when she turns back, her face is expressionless, still, and unresponsive.

Baby tries everything in her limited bag of tricks to get Mom’s attention, smiling, vocalizing, pointing. Nothing: Mom’s face remains a mask. Baby tries harder, reaching out toward her, flailing, kicking. Still nothing. Baby looks away, as if she can’t bear seeing Mom’s face like this. And after barely two minutes of this, she cries and wails, clearly distressed.

The baby, that is. (Although I imagine Mom didn’t enjoy it much either.)

The psalmist earnestly seeks God’s face and pleads with God not to hide it. Interestingly, family language then sneaks into the psalm. Having begged, “do not cast me off, do not forsake me,” the psalmist says, “If my mother and father forsake me, the LORD will take me up” (vs. 10).

On the one hand, this expresses confidence in God. But on the other, this way of saying it seems to imply how the psalmist experiences (or at the very least would experience) the still and unresponsive face of God: it’s like a vulnerable child being abandoned by a parent.

. . .

Psalm 27 concludes with words that could be read as a final declaration of confidence in God: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (vs. 13). But it depends on how one translates the Hebrew in this famously difficult verse. As we’ll see in the next post, the kind of confidence that the psalm portrays may actually be more open-ended, more tentative that the translation above would suggest.