The God Who Is

How do you imagine God?

It might seem like a strange question. Most Christians probably don’t consciously imagine God in a certain way. “God is spirit,” we know, and cannot be depicted in any physical form (John 4:24; Exod 20:4).

da Conegliano - God the FatherBut I think we do all have a working sketch of God in our heads, a kind of rough outline of what we imagine God to be like, at least at a subconscious level. This working sketch of God isn’t so much found in our theology—we can quickly recite something resembling an orthodox doctrine of God, using terms like “Trinity,” “Father,” “omnipotent,” “eternal,” and the like. Rather, you can see how we really think about God, that “working sketch of God” we have, in how we talk about God when we move beyond the theological jargon, how we think and speak of God in our everyday life.

And I’m more and more convinced that most people—not just most Christians, but most people—imagine God to be just like us, only bigger and better. God is a bigger and better—stronger, smarter, and saintlier, infinite, immortal, and invisible—version of ourselves.

You can see this in the way people look for evidence for God’s existence, some finding it, others not. It’s as if God is a being just like us, who exists in time and space in the same way we do, and so inevitably leaves behind traces of his presence. God is just like us, only invisible and everywhere, so if we find the right clues we can do a little CSI forensic work and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists—or reject God’s existence on the same basis.

You can see this in the way people cling to language and metaphors for God as if the word is the thing itself—as if God really is a “he,” or a “Father,” or even a “god.” Most Christians, when pushed a little, would probably deny that God is male (that whole “God is spirit” thing), but many will still insist that masculine language for God is the only appropriate way to speak of God, instead of seeing this language for what it is: traditional language born of ancient patriarchal cultures.

You can see this in the way people pray. For some, it seems as if they believe we are literally coming into a king’s throne room, asking for royal favours. For others, it’s as if we are having a casual conversation with our best buddy—who just happens to be all-powerful and all-knowing.

You can see this in the way people speak of their “personal relationship with God”—and then in how they allow God in some areas of their life and keep God out of others, compartmentalizing their relationship with God just as we do all our other relationships.

You can see this in the way people think God meticulously controls everything that happens, from earthquakes and plane crashes, to that near-miss pulling out on the freeway or that amazing performance in the big game. For many people God is like a chess master manipulating the pawns on his board, or a puppeteer pulling the strings to make the world dance.

You can see this in these and many other ways. When you strip away all our theological jargon, most of us imagine God to be like us, only bigger and better.

Of course, one could well say that there are good reasons for thinking this way. The Bible mostly uses this kind of “God is like us only bigger” language to describe God, and it’s surely natural for us as humans to think and speak of deity in terms of our own human experience (what other experience can we use?).

But the Bible in many different ways points beyond this “God is like us only bigger” notion. God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the one “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things” (e.g. Rom 11:36). God is YHWH, “I Am…” (yes, the ellipsis is intentional).

Much of historic Christian theology and wider religious thought also points beyond this way of thinking about God as “like us only bigger.” Even just a bit of thoughtful reflection in light of the universe in which we find ourselves should dispel this idea.

So how then should we imagine God?

Well, we can start by ridding ourselves of the idea that we can come up with some kind of “pure description” of God, a way of thinking and speaking about God that is exactly as God is. All our language and thought reflects our human experience, our human cultures, and this is just as true of our language for God as it is of our language for dogs. In fact, this is even more the case when we are speaking of the Transcendent, the Infinite, the Divine—our language is inevitably metaphorical, it can only and always be analogy.

Understanding this can help us to properly use the language of the Bible for God, or the traditional terms of Christianity, or even popular God-talk. There is nothing inherently wrong with speaking of God as “he” or “Father,” for example. This language can even be helpful and good, as long as we understand that these words are mini-metaphors: “he” points to God’s personhood and not God’s maleness, and “Father” suggests that God reflects some ancient Jewish ideals of fatherhood and not that God is literally the male progenitor of offspring.

Of course, the flip side of this means that the biblical and traditional language for God is not the only language that can be used for God. There is no biblical or theological or wider religious reason why God cannot be spoken of as “she” and “Mother,” for instance. And sometimes the traditional language may cause problems in a particular culture and should be avoided. Imagine speaking of God as “King,” for example, in a culture where the only examples of monarchy have been irredeemably bad.

But is there a kind of bottom-line, trans-cultural, universal way to imagine God? The short answer is “no” (go back and read the last three paragraphs again). But there is a longer answer that qualifies this “no” somewhat, a way of thinking about God which I’ve found helpful.

You can get at this by looking at ways of thinking of the Divine that are common to historic Christian theology and even shared among the major religious traditions. When you do this, there are a few general notions that, though still mini-metaphors shaped by our human experience, are probably about as close as we can get to describing the essence of the Divine.*

Cianelli - Warm EmbraceFirst, God is Being. God is not a being, one being among many others. God is Being itself. God does not possess energy, as things in the universe do. God is Energy itself, pervading and sustaining the universe. God does not exist, as all things in time and space exist. God is Existence itself, and all things exist because God is, all things exist from and in and through and for God (pause on each of those prepositions for a moment). God does not live, in the way that living things are alive and not-dead. God is Life itself, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Second, God is Person. God is conscious self-awareness, conscious self-distinction, Consciousness itself. God is personal, relatable, the ultimate Subject who is and who acts in relation to the other. Just as God is the ground of being, so God is the ground of personhood: all things can be only because God is, and all persons can know and be known only because God sees and knows all things.

Third, God is Love. God not only relates to all things as a personal self, God relates to all things always and only in other-delighting, self-giving love: God loves. Even more, God is love: God cannot be anything other than love, the self joyfully given for the other. If God is Being, and God is Person, and God is Love, then the goal of all persons, who exist in God and are known by God, is love: loved by God, loving God, and loving others, in mutual enjoyment and delight.

Being. Person. Love. This is God.

Of course, this sharpens the claim at the heart of the Christian faith: it is this God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) in Jesus of Nazareth, “in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3).

And this—transcendent Being, Person, and Love, embodied in the man Jesus who lived, taught, healed, suffered, died, and rose again—this is how I imagine God.

How about you? How do you imagine God?

* These thoughts run roughly parallel to those of David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God, though he uses the triad of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss to describe God and our experience of the Divine. I’ve been thinking of God in terms of Being-Person-Love for some time, but Hart’s book is helping to solidify this for me (I’m still in the middle of it—yes, it’s one of those books).
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2 Responses to The God Who Is

  1. Ryan says:

    Hart’s book is excellent. It had the same “solidifying” effect for my views about the nature of God as I read it. Thanks for your thoughts here—very well articulated and helpful.

  2. Michael Pahl says:

    Over on Facebook one friend commented with this question: “Why the one attribute ‘is love’? There are multiple ‘is ______’ – why not some of those, why just ‘love.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love love, but love without content is then filled with our view, understanding, patriarchal, etc. ideas of love.”

    And here was my response:

    1) This is the most distinctively Christian note in the Being-Person-Love triad for thinking about God. One could use a different word to make it more generic (Hart uses “delight”), but I chose that because it is distinctively – though not uniquely – Christian.

    2) I do see love as the most essential of God’s personal attributes. I understand several other personal attributes as comprehended within God’s love (e.g. mercy, faithfulness). And those that are often pitted against or held in tension with God’s love I see as, when properly understood, either comprehended within God’s love (e.g. justice, moral holiness) or more properly not among God’s attributes of personhood but among God’s attributes of being (e.g. holiness proper as God’s uniqueness, otherness).

    3) And the reason for 1) and 2) for me is the Christian understanding of Jesus, centered on his suffering and death, as the ultimate revelation of God’s love. Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his suffering and death, flesh out the “content” of love. And this is behind my description of love in this post as “other-delighting, self-giving,” as “the self joyfully given for the other.” Jesus, of course, pushes this even further: this kind of love is to be shown even for the unlovely other, the unlovable other, even for the enemy other, even when it hurts us to do so.

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