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What you believe about God is what your life is

12 February 2016

How we understand God will affect the whole of the Christian life, but that understanding is no easy matter. Anthony Towey explores its implications

God as G_d?

HOW we understand God will affect the whole of the Christian life, but that understanding is no easy matter. Meister Eckhart cautions that “God talk” risks being a mere “flapping of gums”. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are surely wise, when referencing the Almighty, in writing “G_d”, since there is ineffability — “unspeakable mystery” — at hand.

In the Christian tradition, St Anselm’s famous phrase, that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, is as much a “non-definition” as a definition. And yet Christianity does have its creeds, and does assert that God has revealed Godself in history. As such, we are surely emboldened to say something,even if we are aware that we cannot say everything,nor even say anythingwell. As St Augustine of Hippo wrote, human words are inadequate when it comes to speaking about God, but we use them because not speaking is even more inadequate.

Because our words are inadequate, even to speak of God demands a degree of humility — and many of us fail at the first hurdle.


God as light?

SO WHAT shall we do? When in doubt, follow the advice of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, and “start at the very beginning”. Genesis is an ancient meditation on the mystery of the cosmos, and there we find the first hint of God’s essence, as darkness is sundered by a word that is light. Yet the light that is God is not something that we look at; rather, it is what we see by.

If God’s presence is not always clear to us, that can be owing not to an absence, but to God’s all-pervading presence — as the water is to the fish, or the air to a bird. That, however, is only half of it: God is distinct from creation. Christianity does not believe in pantheism; but to deny God is to risk blinding ourselves, because “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28).

“And in thy light shall we see light” (Psalm 36.9). Although sometimes we feel we are far away, it is God who looks for us, not we who look for God (Genesis 3.18).


God as Is?

GOD’s cosmic, personal, intimate, and elusive nature is further evidenced by the revelation of the Holy Name (Exodus 3.14). Told unexpectedly, from the fiery shrub, to liberate his people from Pharaoh, the stuttering, homicidal runaway shepherd known as Moses quite reasonably asks to know God’s name. “I AM WHO I AM” comes the answer.

What else could God say? “I just Is” would have sounded like some rap artist, or Ali G. God’s godness IS. God cannot be defined by anything other than Godself. While the Canaanite thunder god, Ba’al, or the Philistine fish god, Dagon, are defined by theirfunction, this God is undefined as being: a God, not of anything, but of everything; a God who has an unfunctional sabbath as the sacred day.

The West is addicted to functionality, and God messes with our utilitarian mindset and pecking-order attitudes. I AM is God of the lowly as well as the mighty; of our being before our doing.


God as us?

IN THE New Testament, taking light to its limit, taking being to an extreme, and taking intimacy beyond categories, we find: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . All things were made by him. . . in him was life; and that life was the light of all,” as John anchors reality in Christ Jesus (John 1.1,3a, 4).

In Genesis, God creates by means of word,and, since we reveal ourselves through our words, the proposal here is that by the logos — “word” — becoming flesh, the heart of God is light, spoken in a human life (John 1.18). Through incarnation — “enfleshment” — humanity made in the image of God is renewed by God in the image of humanity (John 1.14).

Pilate is unwittingly centre-stage in a cosmic trial of truth, as he at once beholds God as King (I AM) in broken humanity (ecce homo) (John 18.37-38, 19.5).

To love is to suffer. To live and die in truth, to lay down our life for our friends, is to participate in the mystery of God.


God as triune?

THE earliest Christian theologians revelled in the poetry and power of these mysteries — Jesus as the icon of the invisible God, and the breaking open of the heart of God poured out as Spirit in joy and mercy (Colossians 1.15-20; Acts 2.1-13; John 20.22). The God revealed in Christianity was not the “unmoved mover” of Aristotle, a mere magnetic north of positivity. Likewise, aloof or alone conceptions of monotheism were no longer coherent in the paradox of God revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit.

Suddenly baptism was more than forgiveness, more than affiliation; no less than a portal through which believers were plunged into God’s inner life of love, which the Greeks called the divine dance (or perichoresis), and which Dante described as “the love that moves the sun and other stars”.

As words fail, the doctrine of God is ultimately best experienced rather than examined; fathomed rather than described. It is the music rather than the words of the "Hallelujah Chorus" that “voices” the mystery of God’s inner glory.


God for us?

“IN THE name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”It is no surprise that ultimately almost all our pieties begin and end inside the triune mystery. Long before we crystallise divine love into words, “God” is an involving, relational reality — a God for us, not against us (Romans 8.31). We are eternal because God Is. To paraphrase the words of a Balzac character, “When I became a parent, then I understood God” (from Old Man Goriot).

The utter benevolence in which we stand is symbolised by the Father; our beloved belonging is symbolised by the Son; the breath of our cherishing is symbolised by the Spirit. The Christian doctrine of God leads us to a necessarily modest, but generous, place of confused certainty and bewildered conviction. It is a wisdom that begins and ends with our gratitude at the revelation of God-as-love loving, and our call to be light-of-that-light, living in truth-of-that-truth.


Dr Anthony Towey is Director of the Aquinas Centre for Theological Literacy at St Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill. He is the author of An Introduction to Christian Theology: Biblical, classical, contemporary (T & T Clark, 2013).

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