Who or What is God?
Here is the text of an Engaging Issues lecture given by our former Minister, the Revd Donald Horsfield, on Tuesday 5th November 2013 in our church. He repeated it on Saturday 18th October 2014 at Carr’s Lane Church, Birmingham, as part of a day of lectures and discussion on ‘Re-imaging God’.
As you can see from my title, I like to ask simple questions. But in this case, deceptively simple, because of that three-letter word G-O-D. Who or what is God? Where do we start to look for an answer? It’s all very well saying “ I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”. But it’s the only place we CAN start from. So where is here?
Where are we? Well, we are here, on planet Earth; hurtling through space, in this vast, amazing, mysterious, evolving Universe. That’s where we start from – with what we have and what we know. With our knowledge and experiences of body, mind and spirit.
It seems that we have a built-in need to explore: to understand and make sense of ‘our being here’: of being alive and self-consciously aware of the situation we are in. So what have we found out? What DO we know? And at this point, we pause to give thanks, to whatever gods there be, for all the scientific advances that have been made.
We look back on 13.7 billion years, to something called ‘the big bang’ – which set everything off: got the Universe going. And after being on the way, and cooling down for 10 billion of those years – the cosmic dance of elementary particles began. Primordial cells began to ‘take their partners’ and doh-si-doh with each other: connecting, inter-relating, and evolving, until simple life-forms appeared moving in harmony with the music of Creation. What a dance there was going on, to the movement of the Spirit; cosmic energy, which is still vibrating throughout the Universe, keeping it all going.
Then – 4.5 million years ago (give or take a minute or two) the first human beings emerged, as a unique and distinctive species. They (that is, we) began to develop, until some 200,000 years ago, ‘homo sapiens’ appeared on the scene. Having emerged from the primordial soup, we were very much ‘of the earth’; earthy, belonging to, part of, everything that was. Our origins, our earth-bound nature, is a scientific fact, that we mustn’t forget when we start bringing ‘gods’ into the picture.
Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, reminds us that “we share a common ancestry with every creature on earth. Our constituent atoms were forged in ancient stars. We are linked into a cosmic web.”
And that’s the context in which we are asking this question – who or what is God? First of all, we can DEFINITELY say that “God is a word in the English language”. And like all the other words, we put it there. So it’s up to us to say what it means.
We could look in the Dictionary for a definition – and we will in a minute: but let’s just ask ‘what kind of a word is it?’ Is it a noun? Does it refer to an object, like an apple or a chair or a policeman? Does it point to something or somebody, somewhere?
Well – the Oxford English Dictionary seems to think so, for it defines the word ‘god’ as “a superhuman person, regarded as having power over Nature and human fortunes.” Where did that definition come from? Maybe it was found on the wall of one of our cave-dwelling forebears! They must have had that kind of belief, in the face of all they didn’t know. The mystery of life and death: the earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, thunder and lightening, filling them with fear and dread. No wonder they pictured another world ‘up there’, populated by super-humans who must be in some way, running the show.
These were the sky gods, living in the clouds, on mount Olympus, and other high places; and needing to be pacified: offered gifts and sacrifices, to ensure their good favour; and keep them on your side.
Different cultures had variation of this same belief. A bit further south from Mount Olympus, across the sea, on Mt Sinai, one particular god, was writing 10 commandments on tablets of stone, and making promises to a select group of people, and the stories are to be found in the Hebrew Bible.
But gradually, the sky gods disappeared. They were dethroned and declared obsolete (at least by most of us gathered here tonight, I imagine: I hope!) We now look at the world and everything in it, from a more scientific point of view. We know what they didn’t know. There never were any gods ‘up there’. Those who want God have to look somewhere else.
Let’s go back to the word itself. If the word ‘God’ is not a common noun, referring to somebody, somewhere, perhaps it’s an abstract noun, like love or justice or fear. Such words, being abstract, are not ‘objective’… until we embody them in our actions. Maybe that idea opens up new possibilities, for discovering where the gods have gone.
OR…maybe the word ‘God’ is a verb? More possibilities there! How about understanding God as the verb ‘to BE’: especially if you have it in the present tense, of the verb ‘to be’ … which is..IS. Could we not say, what I’ve already hinted at, that God just IS: existence itself, and the Ground of All Being: that in which everything else exists, including ourselves. That we shouldn’t be looking for somebody, somewhere, but for meaning and purpose in our own existence: and if so, God is now much closer than used to be thought.
RS Thomas, the Welsh pastor and poet, who wrestled with God all his life, wrote a poem significantly called EMERGING (or we could say ‘evolving). He was questioning the concept of ‘God up there’, to whom we send our prayers, and he writes –
“it begins to appear,
This is not what prayer is about;
It is the annihilation of difference,
The consciousness of myself in You and You in me.”
That’s very close indeed)!
Now at this point, there is one important observation to be made. And it is, that there is a general understanding among all religions, that the ultimate reality of God is completely beyond reach of any set of words. That we cannot even conceive of what God might be. And so, to put it quite simply, we cannot say what God is: except that, whoever or whatever God is, is for us unknowable, incomprehensible and ineffable.
The Philosopher Wittgenstein put the position bluntly – “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” If only religions had taken that more seriously, and been a bit more humble and less aggressive, the world at present would not be in the mess it’s in.
Thomas Aquinas wrote 60 volumes of theology (theology – knowledge of God) and he finally concluded that “all I have written seems like straw to me” and he never wrote anything else after that. 60 volumes of straw! It makes you wonder!
So in view of that, maybe we should all just go home now, and keep quiet! But NO! Wait a minute. While we surely can’t say what God IS – we still have the word. It’s our word; and we have to give it the best meaning that we can.
All words point beyond themselves. The word ‘apple’ is not itself an apple. If you really want to know what an apple is, you have to eat it. The word GOD is not itself God. God is just a word, pointing beyond itself, to some kind of experience – just like the apple does. Our experiences, and what we make of them, is the only way to any knowledge of God.
So, we can never say what God is: that is we cannot describe God. We can only talk of God AS – that is, ‘as’ we understand what the word means. In effect, the word GOD is a kind of parable, that we have to unpack, and find it’s meaning for ourselves.
Jesus himself worked on that basis. He said, “the Kingdom Of God is like…” this, that and the other. He said that it’s “as if… a farmer were sowing his seed: a man building a house or planting a vineyard.” He told them to think of God ‘as’ – Father, Lover, Compassion, Peace and Justice. But these too are just words, pointing to experiences: so we must never get stuck on the words themselves, but always be open to discover new meaning in the words we have, including the word God.
So what’s been happening, over the years is that, homo sapiens, has been doing just that -‘evolving’; increasing in knowledge and understanding: about ourselves and about the world we live in. And our concept of Divinity, should also have been changing as we moved along. But NO! Under the protective care of religion, ideas of God have not changed, can’t change, mustn’t change – and the consequences have been very serious.
David Boulton, has written a very theologically exciting book, which needs to be read by all who have any kind of religious belief. It’s called ‘The Trouble with God.’ And the trouble is, that we’ve grown up (and put away our childish ideas) but God has stayed the same, yesterday, today and forever.
David Boulton had a Christian Evangelical upbringing, where ideas of God were fixed and final (infallible and unchangeable). But David himself did grow up, and this is what he eventually wrote:-
“The time came when I had to accept the blindingly obvious:
that religion itself was a human creation; a product of human
history, language and culture. Critically, and more controversially
that God himself was of our making: not we of His.”
Among others who have also moved on, we’ve already heard what Paul Tillich thinks. He is the one who defines God as ‘the Ground of all Being.’ Keith Ward, a fairly radical Anglican priest and philosopher, understands God as “A symbol, for the powers of good; for the possibility of goodness in our lives, which can challenge, inspire and empower us.” Focussing again, on ourselves and our experiences as the way, and the only way, into an understanding of what God means.
And in a similar way, Don Cupitt, an even more radical Anglican priest, thinks of God as “the ideal unity of all value, its claim upon us, and its creative power.” The many sky gods have subsequently merged into one God, and that one God no longer lives up there, but has come much nearer home: and is intimately involved with life down here on earth; and down here in the human heart. The very terms ‘up there’ and ‘down here’ are no longer relevant. We now understand that all and everything, is part of one creation (including whatever gods there might be): inter-connected and related in one vast cosmic web (as the Astronomer Royal pointed out.)
The beating of a butterfly’s wings in Japan is not unconnected with the hurricane in the West Indies. And spending a few pence extra on fair-trade goods, or writing to your MP, can prevent starvation in Africa.
Over the last 50 to 100 years there has been a Quantum Leap in our understanding of Creation, and of the God of Creation. It was Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit geologist, who died in 1955, who said that “after Darwin, and the rise of modern science, we need a new way of understanding God.” For which, as you can imagine, the Vatican branded him heretic.
The objective, supernatural, God on high, who from time to time intervened in this world no longer does so, and never did but is now seen to be intimately involved in the ongoing creative process. There is no ‘outside’ (or if there is, we couldn’t possibly know anything about it). If we want to engage with God, we have to do so on the inside, where God just IS.
But we cannot say ‘what’ God IS: we can only speak of God AS… as that in which we believe and to which we are committed. So when we use the word God, we are actually talking more about ourselves: about who we are; our hopes and dreams and the faith we have. We are talking about that wherein we can discover our connection with the cosmic web; the ‘oneness’ of all things: of which we are a part; and to which we belong.
Through this concept of the ‘oneness’ of all things, I am returning to the idea that God just IS. Full stop! Existence itself, which by definition is ONE, and we are part of it. Of course that is a statement of faith: we can’t prove it (anymore than science can prove the basis on which it operates); but we can live with it in meaningful way: the oneness and inter-connection of everything.
The carbon in our bodies came from dying stars. Our health and well-being depend on another star we call the Sun. The oxygen we breathe, and which keeps us alive, comes from trees. We are all sustained by a Universal Life-Force, which energises everything that is alive. This is where we are; this is where we belong; part of the Oneness of everything.
Any truth about God, must be the truth about the whole of Creation and not just religious truth. The revelation we really need to see, is not so much in Sacred Scripture, as in the Book of Nature. It’s not more theology we need, but more anthropology. We need to rediscover our connection with the rest of Creation, because that connection has been broken (essentially by the old theology of the God of power and domination, who rules from on high.)
We have lost contact with our roots, and as a result the future of the planet is at stake. Diarmuid O’ Murchu is a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order (and it’s amazing how many radical priest are surfacing in the the Roman Catholic Church!). He writes – “we are people in exile, precisely because we have lost the art of being able to see the connections.”
He says that “we have seen ourselves as separate and different and we have created a God in our own image, to justify our craving to divide and conquer the world.” Creating a God like Jehova, to lead us into battle and conquer our enemies. He says that, to get out of exile, we need to come home to Mother Earth. We need to repent of that original sin, of being separate and different, and remake connections with the Oneness (that I am calling God); from which we come and to which we belong. O’Murchu says that the original sin was not disobedience, but disconnection
This ‘craving to divide and conquer’ can be seen in our human history over the last 3000 years – empire building; slavery; holocausts; racism; the felling of forests; and the depletion of natural resources to fuel our greed. In a word, the mess the world is now in.
Understanding God as Oneness, will challenge us to change our ways: and there will be other benefits. Religions themselves will have to change. The old battles between, God and the Devil, human and divine; flesh and spirit; heaven and hell; us and them, will instead become a search for the common good as we embrace the Oneness in which we need to live and move and have our being.
Instead of an original fall into sin, from which we need to be savedby intervention from outside: we must whole-heartedly embrace evolution, and grow into the potential that we already have: it’s there built into our humanity, waiting, wanting to emerge.
This view of God will also enable us to regard Jesus of Nazareth, not as a divine visitor from heaven, come to pay the price of our sins – but as a genuine human being, whose insight and wisdom can make an important contribution to the changes that need to be made.
If Creation is our way to God, science will have something to say on the matter, ‘matter’ being a key word – the very stuff of which everything is made. Scientists too are looking for the underlying ‘oneness’ of all things. They may not call it God: their title is the Grand Unified Theory, but it’s the same search using different words, because it’s the same world we live in, and the same ‘stuff’ we are dealing with. So we’d better take note of what scientists tell us, or Galileo himself will rise up and denounce us!
Scientists are telling us that solid matter, is not so solid as was once thought. The new way of looking at Creation is called Quantum Physics, where at the sub-atomic level there is continuous movement. The Universe is understood to be “a vast energy field, in which matter is just a slowed-down form of that energy”
The universe gets curiouser and curiouser! Where will it end? Well, it won’t! Because it’s better to think of Creation as being without beginning and without end: and in that context, we can think of what’s going on, using the word SPIRIT, which is also without beginning and without end.
The word ‘spirit’ means breath or life. Spirit is our point of connection with the rest of Creation. Creation itself is ‘alive’, and we are alive, and it is one and the same Spirit, or call it Cosmic Energy if you like, which is keeping us both alive and in touch. We are connected with the Universal Spirit or Life Force, which you might want to call God.
I give you two quotations from Diarmuid O’Murchu’s book ‘In the Beginning was the Spirit’:-
- “The Spirit is the indwelling of God at the heart of the process of ongoing Creation, empowering and luring all things, into an unforeseeable future.”
- “That which dwells in the human heart, is one and the same Spirit, that dwells in the whole of Creation.”
Is this not an exciting and thrilling prospect, to be personally involved in that process? Well, it is for me! Our own little bit of ‘spirit’ being ‘at-one’ with the energy that is keeping Creation alive, and moving it on to the next stage of evolution.
And those of us who want to stay within the Christian framework (and I do) while we are exploring this spiritual dimension, can do so without the spectre of ‘heresy’ hanging over us (although it would be a pity to lose that privilege!) Spirit-Christology is a valid theological doctrine. It regards Jesus as a person who was deeply in touch with this same Spirit that gives life to us all: the Creator Spirit which energises everything that moves, drawing out the potential that is there.
In Spirit-Christology, Jesus, as the Christ, is regarded as the ‘ideal’; the perfect integration of the Creator Spirit with human personality. And on that basis he is an example to follow; a teacher to inspire. And so, for Christians, Jesus can still be seen as the Way, the Truth and the Life: or even Saviour, if that’s the language you want to use.
Spirit-Christology enables you to discard much of the theological baggage the Church has accumulated over the years. No need for a virgin birth; sacrificial atonement; bodily resurrection or ascension back to heaven where the old gods used to live; returning sometime from there.
There are other advantages too, in thinking of God in terms of Oneness and Spirit. It has room for both the immanence and transcendence of God. We can feel the immanence, which is the presence of God, as our own spirit is awakened by the touch of the Eternal Spirit.
Poetry rather than theology is better suited to express this, and William Wordsworth does it better than any:
I have felt ……
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
A motion and a spirit, that impels
all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
That’s the immanence of God beautifully expressed. The transcendence of God, is the ‘oneness’ which as yet, is beyond us: except as an ‘ideal’ to aim for and be inspired by. From where we are now, we cannot fully comprehend what this will be: but the awe and mystery and wonder of it can grip us, and hold us, and draw out the best that is in us.
My intention in giving this talk has been to recommend the concept of ‘God as Spirit’ and God as Oneness’. To me, this is exciting, challenging and realistic. I can identify with it in a deeply personal way: and yet it’s more than personal. People are using the word ‘trans-personal’, which implies that while it is not less than personal, it is pointing to a transcendence that is greater than the sum of the parts.
Who or what is God? There can be no last word on this subject. But TS Eliot comes pretty close:-
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
BOOKS CONSULTED FOR ‘WHO or WHAT is GOD’
Diarmuid O’ Murchu
In the Beginning was the Spirit.
Religion in Exile
the Trouble with God
God – A guide for the Perplexed
John F Haught
Making Sense of Evolution
God as Spirit