Saturday, 24 May 2008

God's Panopticon

Reflecting on the panopticon thing (see yesterday's post) as I was going to sleep last night, and on the public's mixed reactions to CCTV as well, I think I realise why the thought of being watched doesn't worry me greatly. It's because I've been brought up in the Christian faith, and whilst sometimes I've doubted, of course, I've never really abandoned it even temporarily. So, basically, all my life, I've believed I'm being watched anyway - by God!

When I was a wee girl we used to sing a hymn (kind of old fashioned now - I've not heard it for years) that began "God is Always Near Me":

God is always near me,
Hearing what I say;
Knowing all my thoughts and deeds,
All my work and play.

God is always near me,
In the darkest night,
He can see me just the same
As by midday light.

God is always near me,
Though so young and small;
Not a look, or word, or thought,
But God knows it all.

To be perfectly honest, when I was a kid, I felt very uncomfortable whenever we sang that line, "Not a look, or word, or thought, but God knows it all". Yikes! (I thought). Oh dear! (I thought).

However once I got to grips with the fact that my faith teaches that God loves us IN SPITE of those looks, words, thoughts, or indeed actions that are bad, I came to find the idea of a heavenly CCTV, or panopticon, as I will now think of it, as very comforting. My favourite bit of the Bible is Psalm 139, which, oddly enough, is on exactly this theme.

Psalm 139 (The Message translation) A David Psalm

1-6 God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I'm an open book to you;
even from a distance, you know what I'm thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I'm never out of your sight.
You know everything I'm going to say
before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you're there,
then up ahead and you're there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful—
I can't take it all in!

7-12 Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you're there!
If I go underground, you're there!
If I flew on morning's wings
to the far western horizon,
You'd find me in a minute—
you're already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, "Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I'm immersed in the light!"
It's a fact: darkness isn't dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they're all the same to you.

13-16 Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother's womb.
I thank you, High God—you're breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
before I'd even lived one day.

17-22 Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I'll never comprehend them!
I couldn't even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!

23-24 Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I'm about;
See for yourself whether I've done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life


Anonymous said...

This is moving and a very good take on the panopticon thing. The other avenue is a little more disquieting. There is of course a C19th century panopticon preserved in Lincoln Gaol, where the prisoners had doors separating them from their neighbours each side in the hemicycle, tiered prison chapel. They could only see the chaplain. Sadly (I do ecclesiological research) a lot of churches both north and south of the border are like this. Classically, family units sitting together with a space each side (and perhaps a needy person isolated further along the pew). So a kind of invisible door each side of the family in church. Pointing this out doesn't usually go down too well of course, except with informants from organisations such as the Salvation Army. And also, counterintutively perhaps, it goes down well with (gathered-model) fundamentalists, who have a strong notion of 'fellow believer' rather than just 'the faithful'. The single and the elderly also tend to respond positively for understandable reasons.

AnneDroid said...

My goodness, I've never come across a church building like that before... Any google links I could view?

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I love Psalm 139.

Shannon said...

I call this one "God the Stalker." Gave me a lot of trouble 12 or so years ago, but it's better now and this version is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Googling words like Lincoln Gaol, chapel and isolation will give URLs like

which shows the panopticon set-up. (I gather you can visit it in Lincoln.) I'm sure as a prison chaplain it makes you shudder even more than the rest of us. We have Feltham just down the road where a friend of mine teaches remedial English. Noel