Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What is God?

Sometimes people tell me they don't believe in God, and when they describe the God they don't believe in, I think (or say) "I don't believe in that God either." Usually, it's some version of God as a Jewish Zeus, enthroned in the clouds of Heaven, hurtling lightening bolts or visiting pestilences on those who displease him. Much as I love Michelangelo and Baroque art, I think their images of God present a distorted view.

Jews and Muslims don't depict God. To Jews, this is, in part, because God is ultimately unknowable. We can discover attributes about God, but we can't completely understand who God is.

The Bible uses many metaphors to describe God. I started a Bible study once with a group in which we were going to study 122 names of God in the Bible, but the study was too abstract for the group, so we dropped it. Some names I remember are creator, all knowing, wisdom, love, shepherd, all powerful and lord. The many names, of course, point to the multi-faceted nature of God.

I like N.T. Wright's notion of God as not far away, but as all around us here on earth, separated by invisible and yet permeable walls. This, to my mind, aligns with the early Quaker notion of God as present and accessible.

I also like the description of God in 1 John as love: "God is love and he who lives in love lives in God and God in him."

What I find within all the unspeakable violence in the Old or First Testament is a group of people growing in their discernment of a loving God. Most of the violence in the Old Testament is perpetrated by humans, and is, unfortunately, an honest depiction of how humans behave. Sadly, the Israelites often believe they are enacting God's will with their violence. Whether or not this is true, I don't know, but there are clues in the Old Testament that God deplores the violence and allows a military state to develop only to show the Israelites the unpleasant consequences of that way of life. And the vision of Isaiah and other prophets is not of a glorious and hierarchical warrior state but of a gentle, equalitarian and peaceable kingdom.

Many people say they can't believe in a God who would allow suffering. Clearly, a God who prevents all suffering doesn't exist. The bigger question becomes how we retain faith in God amid all the suffering in the world. One answer is to see God as giving us free will and letting us suffer the consequences of our choices. Another is to see God as particularly present to those who suffer, but that doesn't always seem to be the case. Another is to acknowledge there is so much we don't know or understand but that we do see glimmers of something totally loving and beautiful that we call God and yearn for. Another is to realize that we humans can alleviate much of the suffering in the world with our own actions. Another is to see a bigger picture, in which suffering never totally subsumes love and hope. Jesus' life can be understood as showing that love overcomes violence, humiliation and pain. The power of the Roman Empire, which tried to shut down Jesus, collapsed long ago, but nothing has ever been able to shut down Jesus' words or the followers, such as Francis of Assisi or John Woolman, who have tried to enact his vision of love and peace.

Sometimes when non-theists describe their non-God-infused universe it sounds very much like my God-filled universe. They describe believing in leadings, experiencing inner peace, loving nature, believing in the love-your-enemy ethic of Jesus as well as the entire tenor of the Sermon of the Mount, believing in social justice and believing in the power of a religious community. To my mind, believing in and trying to live out all of that IS believing in God ... but we're back to how we define God. So how do we do that?

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