The next stop on my prospecting journey deals with God. As a child, I had the “old man in the sky” image that many people have when they are asked to describe God. My God was a being “out there” who had created the universe. You would praise and pray to God, hoping your prayer would be heard and responded to. Yes, my God was an interventionalist God - well, when God decided to intervene. And when God “decided not to intervene”, we could rationalize this with a variety of reasons like: God is doing this for our growth, or there is a longer term benefit we don’t understand yet.
Why did I think about God this way? Well, first, that is what was “taught” in church. Secondly, since I saw the Bible as literal truth, the many Bible stories that would lead one to this model of God were clearly implanted in mind. Thirdly, I was pretty fortunate in life and was able to attribute at least some of that to the intervening of God to help out along the way. And finally, I didn’t spend much time thinking about or considering this topic.
As I have thought about God over the last few months, it has been surprising to me how difficult it is to describe God. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, I guess, since scholars throughout time have struggled with this very topic. So this blog entry may not do justice to a description of God, but for now, this is where I am at in describing my fundamental beliefs about God…
(1) God is ‘more than’ language can describe…but within that constraint, I like “isness without limits” as a description of God
- Although this may seem like a bit of a cop out, I thought I should start with this belief. I think God is ‘more than’ humans can conceive of and describe. So human words and language can’t adequately describe God (having said that…I’ll still do what I can in this blog entry).
- Paul Tillich, one of the most important Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, tries to describe “God” and uses phrases such as: “what is”, “ultimate reality”, “the ground of being”, “Being itself”, “isness”. I particularly like “isness”, but I would suggest God is more than just “isness”…I’ll get to that a little later.
- Thomas Keating referred to God as “isness without limits” which I personally like as a description. (1)
- In Exodus 3, the story speaks of a conversation between God and Moses and God describes himself as “I am who I am”...an interesting description for the author to use.
(2) God is ‘more than’ can be proven with evidence…but even without irrefutable evidence, I believe that God is real
- Is God real? That’s the question asked throughout the ages. I can only say that my fundamental belief is that God is real. Having said that, I recognize that there is no single proof or piece of evidence that can be referenced to back up that belief beyond the shadow of a doubt. So for me, it’s just that…my belief.
- So what has led me to that conclusion? Well, I’m sure that my Christian upbringing still has a huge impact on this. That is, I have always believed in a God. And there is no proof that there isn’t a God. And there are enough other factors that make we think that a belief in God is as rational and believable as a belief that there is no God. What factors you might ask? Well, the concept of “God” has been with humanity throughout history and throughout the religions around the world – this makes me think that these experiences point to something being there. Creation itself is so mind-blowing to me that I find it incomprehensible that there is nothing better to explain all of its mysteries and wonders than just matter and space. There seem to be a variety of “ecstatic” (i.e. out of oneself, or outside of one’s ordinary state of consciousness (2)) religious experiences (e.g. visions, shamanic experiences, mystical experiences, near-death experiences, and sometimes just a deep awareness of God’s presence) that seem to point to another layer of reality that leads me to believe there is a God. And it is clear that humanity continues to learn – that is, our scientific worldview is incomplete…we don’t know everything and can’t prove everything that explains all of life’s experience. Even “science” is finding out or understanding more all the time that there seems to point to the fact that there is more than just time and space to existence as we know it. So, in my opinion, we shouldn’t discount the concept of God merely due to a lack of scientific proof…this is too arrogant for my thinking.
- There is a concept known as panentheism (Greek words: πάν ( 'pan' ) =all, en=in and Theos=God; "all-in-God") which views God as both immanent and transcendent.
- As opposed to the “old man in the sky” concept of God, panentheism suggests that God is the encompassing Spirit in whom everything is…sort of like Tillich’s “ground of all being” and “isness”. This concept has been seen and talked about regularly in Christian circles (although not often referred to by this name). In Acts, God is referred to as the one in whom “we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Psalms 139 says “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” So with this thinking, God is right here (not some distant supernatural being who just sits in heaven from afar and looks down on us).
- But unlike pantheism, panentheism does not merely equate God with the universe. Instead it holds that there is more to God than just the universe itself. In Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity”, he uses the phrase “everything is in God, but God is more than everything” (1) to describe this thinking. More about this in the next belief.
- John Shelby Spong tries to describe the essence of God in his book “A New Christianity for a New World”. He uses a three-pronged description which I like as a starting point. He says that God is the ultimate source of life; God is the ultimate source of love; and God is Being – the reality underlying everything that is. Spong suggests that we worship God by living fully, by sharing deeply, by loving wastefully, and you must be willing to risk all, abandoning your defenses and your self-imposed or culturally constructed security systems (3)
- And while I like the description as a starting point, there is something in his description that doesn’t resonate fully with me. I believe that God is more than a source or energy or force. I think Spong would agree, but it doesn’t jump off the page to me when I read his work. I think of God as more of a presence than just a source.
- In that light, I see part of God’s essence as being personal and relational in nature, and I believe that we can interact with God. As an aside, I know many people don’t like the personal language we use to describe God. Personally, I think that I’m okay with personal language for God mainly because it is human nature to use this type of language to describe things (see belief #1 above on the inadequacy of language!). I would just caution against literalizing the personal sayings or it tends to distort who God really is.
- As a personal and relational God, it follows that God can be experienced as an experiential reality. That is, God is experienced firsthand rather than a secondhand belief. Some people seem more open than others to experiencing the presence of God. “Some writers on spirituality speak of “emptiness” as a condition of the psyche that makes possible being filled by God. For whatever combination of reasons (genetic inheritance, socialization, spiritual practices, and so on)” some people are so “empty” that they can be more filled with the Spirit. (4) In my future blog entry on “Christian Routines”, I hope to return to this topic.
- Through this experiencing of God, I think we interact with God and God with us. I don’t see God as interventionalist God – otherwise, there are too many unexplainable non-interventions for a God of love, justice and compassion that I believe God to be. Having said that, I don’t deny that there are some paranormal and supernatural happenings which can’t be explained. I don’t know if there is some link between these events and God, but I’m content not to be able to take a position on this one way or another at this point in time.
- And while God may not intervene, he is a presence within our lives, and by interacting with God, we get to “know” God (not know about God, but experience God). On a side note, I recently noted that in John’s gospel, “eternal life” is defined as “to know God”…as opposed to an afterlife/heaven which is the typical interpretation of “eternal life” in John’s gospel (especially in the context of John 3:16).
(5) The essence of God’s character is love, compassion, justice, and peace.
- Through our relational experience with God, the goal is for a transformation at the deepest level of our being so that our lives emulate these characteristics.
- In the monarchical model, God is imaged as king, lawgiver and judge – a distant powerful being. The effect of this image is a “performance model” for Christian life. Sin and guilt are central to this model with a focus on required repentance and salvation from sin. As a result, the Christian life quickly becomes focused on “meeting requirements” or “measuring up” – the self is perpetually “on trial”.
- In the spirit model, God is seen as near (as opposed to a distant king), personal and relational. The effect of this image includes creation looking different (it isn’t what God did to create the universe, but what is continuing to happen in terms of the relation between God and creation), the human condition looks different (humanity’s central problem is not sin but estrangement or blindness to the presence of God), and sin and salvation look different (sin isn’t “breaking rules” but more focused on unfaithfulness – that is, making something other than the Spirit central; and salvation isn’t about the future and after death, but focused on something that happens in the present in our relationship with God as Spirit).
POSTSCRIPT: 3 YEARS LATER A FEW CHANGES...I STILL BELIEVE IN "GOD", BUT NOT AT ALL DUE TO ECSTATIC OR RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES. AND I DON'T SEE GOD AS "RELATIONAL" OR "PERSONAL" LIKE I DID AT THE TIME OF WRITING THIS. AND I DON'T THINK WE "EXPERIENCE" GOD AS I WROTE. AND I WOULDN'T DESCRIBE GOD'S CHARACTER IN THE SAME WAY. I NOW SEE "GOD" MORE AS A CONCEPT THAT HUMANS CAN USE TO DESCRIBE HOW OUR LIVES CAN EVOLVE TO LIVE LIFE TO THE FULLEST.(1) Thomas Keating remark referred to Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
(2) Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).
(3) John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).
(4) Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999)