Who is God?

I decided to broaden this post, perhaps fatally so. We shall see.

Because I am a Seminarian and I have the luxury of indulging myself, I’ve been thinking alot about the nature of God lately. Obviously, this is infinitely complicated, and I encourage any of you who read this and want to respond to do so in any way you wish. Like many questions I wonder about, this one is ultimatley unanswerable, but here a few disjointed thoughts.

A lot of our religious language, especially of the liturgical persuasion, speaks of God as sovereign. For me, however, this language doesn’t really ring true when compared to actual experience of 1) sovereigns and 2) God. We use the “sovereign” words like “Lord”, “Ruler of the universe”, “Creator”, “Christ the King” (for the incarnated God), etc., but these words seem like they must mean something different, because God isn’t a sovereign in the way that human beings are sovereigns, or even the way other Gods have been thought of as sovereign historically.

Not only does God not seem to legitimate any particular polity, but God doesn’t seem to enforce God’s own rules. God doesn’t seem to force anything, really, and isn’t a sovereign the one with a monopoly on the use of force? What kind of sovereign would allow their laws to be completely ignored, even trampled on? What kind of sovereign doesn’t send an army to save his child who’s going to be executed wrongly in a foreign country? What kind of sovereign says “ask and it shall be given to you” but then, when someone asks, often nothing is given, and no explanation is offered?

The answer seems to be: a non-sovereign one.

So, when we use all of our language about a sovereign God, we seem to mean something other than “sovereign.” Maybe we mean “sovereign of Heaven”, but then that begs the question “what is Heaven?” A magical place above the clouds where you play a harp when you die? (the Warner Brothers’ Heaven) Or is it the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus said was inaugurated with his arrival in the world, but which in the past two thousand years has had such a slow start? Because those are just two options, and they’re very very different.

Maybe we mean “sovereign of our lives” or even more vaguely “sovereign of our hearts”, but then where’s the evidence? Do we really lead more “Christian” lives than people who have come before us? Or even more “Christian” lives than non-Christians around us? Are we really justified/sanctified islands in a sea of depravity?

And even though our sovereign language about God comes from scripture, a lot of the time the God in scripture acts more like a trickster deity, like Raven or Coyote or Hanuman, than a sovereign deity. God seems to function through reversals; God’s will is expressed through irony, God accomplishes things obliquely, through counterintuitive intermediaries. In order to make the most important point, God becomes a human being, preaches and heals for three years, and then gets beaten up and killed. God is then resurrected, but is no longer incarnated, seemingly, and shortly thereafter disappears, to reappear, sort of, as tongues of flame and glossolalia and wind. And that’s just one version of the story that we have.

For me, there’s a diconnect between the God I experience, the God I speak about with liturgical language that I’ve mostly inherited, the God I philosophize about, and the God I read about in scripture. Now, obviously, there’s some connectivity there too or else I wouldn’t be spending my time in a Seminary. But still. It seems like God’s identity is very post-modern, very multi-valent after all. But this is a problem when someone asks you “who is God?” or “what do you believe?” or “what’s important about being a Christian?”, and the common answers (Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior) and the orthodox answers (see: every catechism ever written) just don’t do it for me. So I end up fumbling around like an idiot, like I just did on this blog. How can something so important to me be something I’m so bad at talking about? That’s a sad state of affairs, ladies and gentlemen.

9 thoughts on “Who is God?

  1. I don’t think it’s a sad state at all. I’d say, rather, that your fumbling for appropriate language is perfectly normal. Those who profess to know God and proceed to explain what or whom God is dont get a lot of support from me.I don’t think that God is so far beyond us that no understanding is possible, but full comprehension is probably not. Language is a human construct, and imperfect. There are concepts in one language that cannot be translated into another; two words may be synonyms in one contexts and antitheses in another. When that is the case, the use of language to describe, define, or discuss God is nearly useless. Well, perhaps not useless, but riddled with holes.So, perhaps a better way to phrase language’s relation to God is “it is always evolving.” I suppose my answer to your question “Who is God?” is: “I cannot answer this question using the materials (words, phrases, constructs) I have available to me. I know how I feel about God, at least I do on my good days, but I can’t offer you (or anyone, really) a description.Or, perhaps, it comes down to “God is an intensely personal experience, and any attempt for me to project my experiences or beliefs onto you would be empty for you.”This raises more questions than it answers. Sorry about that. But still, not a sad state of affairs. That is part of why you’re a seminarian, no? To find a way to discuss and explain God?


  2. yeah, that’s definitely a reason i’m here – one of many, i’m happy to say. while language is riddled with conceptual holes and limitations, i’m also not satisfied with leaving god unspoken of, or of keeping god contained in individual personal experience. god is also, ironically, our world for what transcends personal experience, even personhood itself. but i don’t want to say “god is personal”, nor do i want to say something bland and meaningless like “god is in everything”, which is similar to saying “god is in nothing”. at least to me.


  3. ..randoma sort of roundabout answer to this question would be to reverse the question and adjust your definitions of god and “is-ness” (if that is even a word). i tend to have panentheistic leanings, and could ask the question: “what isn’t god”.people who i know, that say that they “know” a personal god and that they have precise experience tend to not be able to describe their precise experiences very precisely. they speak in personal terms, and individual experiences that do not translate to a global conception. these types of claims to me, at least, also seem dangerous. you are marked, or think of yourself as inadequate if you also do not experience the same personal revelations. i would not be surprised if this drives at least some to make up, or “see” god where he wasn’t already there to feel more spiritual and connected, and to have something to talk about.going back to the panentheistic way, if you would name everywhere that you saw god, you would sound redundant and trivial. god justgave me a breath of air, and then i exhaled and it was god-o-licious, etc.. a lot of christians are uncomfortable with a panentheistic god because they feel that it doesn’t separate them enough from other groups. a personal god, with personal relationship is much more warm and cuddly than a big cold transcendent “it”. is wanting something to be a certain way the same as that thing actually being that way? i mean, i want to not have to go to work every day, and it would be really neat and cool, but my experience tells me that if i do that, i’ll be homeless in no time! experience for me has not given evidence for the existence of a personal buddy god who, like a genie, grants me wishes. i tried, and tried to convince myselfof that existence. try convincing yourself that a dog is a cat… being at seminary, i know you know that a transcendent god does have “official” support from at least some denominations, and throughout history. though, a lot of those people were branded heretics, especially the ones from ireland. =)i suppose the amount that you personify your sovereign god is directly linked to your background and upbringing, and what peoplein your peer groups tend to believe. if you sing CCM/Praise music every day, and read the bible literally, and and and and, you would create the “frame” for seeing god in that particular way. this for me accounts for at least the differences in personality of OTvs NT, and Christian vs Muslim vs Buddhist vs Hindu ways of seeing ultimate reality….. frames, or memes.. i guess that colors me auniversalist to a degree. [ an aside — does grace only work if you say the magical incantation of the sinners prayer?? ]i suppose i too see god as non-sovereign, but perhaps differ in the requirement for concrete definitions, read the bible as a reaction to the search for god at a particular time in history, (which resonates with me, by the way)so my comment was pointless and seems rather random but i’ll post it anyway. =) i suppose i wanted to chime in and say “word” to fumbling like an idiot, because you are right to run from the guru who has all the answers, or at least I think so, but then again, that is me as well. i’m prety comfortable withthe idea of transcendence without thinking i need a buddy jesus in a box to help me out of all my tribulations.anyway, from my experience in science, one is generally more open to the truth when they start out with a rough sketch rather thanconcrete details of what they expect.. .because we tend to mold and shape what we perceive to meet our already existing conceptions..(which leads to error)random..one question for you, or anyone — with a non-sovereign god, what goes through your mind when you pray, what do you think you are praying to when you pray, or perhaps you’ve remapped prayer as a silence rather than requesting type of thing. i’ve run the gamut of claiming things in the name of jesus, to asking for help, to just sitting in silence with singular thought towards transcendence (ala, centering prayer). i have felt that i’ve got the most benefit from the silence. though, people are often comforted if you pray outloud things that they would want to hear you asking god for, for them. [it always sort of rubs me the wrong way, because it just seems weird…]


  4. I think people wanting others to pray for them aloud is a way for them to feel less alone. We ask others for prayer when we want to feel some sort of solidarity (or that is what I’ve experienced), so hearing it aloud is comforting.As for how I pray, it’s generally just a conversation. Sometimes it’s in silence, other times out loud. Sometimes I have specific things to say, others I don’t speak (in my head or out loud) at all. Prayer isn’t so much about requests most of the time (again, for me – I can’t speak for others on this), but about finding a way to be closer to God, or closer to understanding God. Maybe that’s a request in itself.As a bit of an aside, on the personal nature of prayer, here’s a story I was told as a child that has stuck with me:A guest was to have dinner with the family one night, and after preparations were made and the table set, the guest was asked to say a prayer before the meal. He obliged, but mumbled through the prayer, and was silent for a moment, and when he finished, the family looked at him in a strange way. One of the children was the first to comment “we couldn’t understand anything you said.” The guest replied “that’s all right, son, because I wasn’t talking to you.”


  5. Oh, one other thing – a clarification where it isn’t really needed.When I said that God is an intensely personal experience, I didn’t mean that I have a God, and you have a God, etc. I meant more that each of us has an individual way of relating to or experiencing the transcendent God that you (._.) mention.


  6. browntreesnake:i agree with your statement about the individual experience of who/what god is. i think often times there are issues when people try to share their experiences, and the mappings don’t line up. it at best, causes confusion. thats not to say that it’s not good to share and discuss experiences / conceptions. [ as long as all parties present are capible of having said discussion without resorting to trying to proselytize on the grounds that they’re right and you’re wrong ]that sort of relates to the previous post on evangelism.ie, would jesus go out and try to liberate/convert people who are not already bound up in a theocratic / legalistic system of religious expressionm, or way of living?


  7. i think, in a word, yes. i think that Jesus was calling for liberation not only from something but also toward something, namely what he called the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. this might be spoken of “redeemed human society”.i think that, in Christ, everyone faces a challenge no matter who they are or what they believe. the God who Jesus embodied so famously is more than any idea, concept, experience, society, etc.i’m also not sure that proselytizing is always wrong. many people’s lives have been changed, for the better, because someone confronted them with the gospel message. on the other hand, of course, many people hate god and christianity for the same reason. maybe its the difference between:“this is a path of liberation and transcendence into fullness of being that is offered to you, in love, whether you accept or not” and“you will go to hell if you are hit by a bus today and killed, unless you accept jesus as your personal lord and savior.”the first, no one has ever told me. it is one aspect of the gospel in my own words. the other, i’ve heard dozens of times.that’s definitely a problem.


  8. I’d just like to put in a word, however belatedly, opposed to the popular “it’s good to be confused” postmodern paradigm. While I fully recognize the singular inescapability of our own particular existence and the vast chasm of difference which separates human beings from one another that makes it so hard to communicate experience in anything other than particularist terms… I think that this very situation is what makes it critical for us to face up to and grapple with truth claims.Make no mistake, what the New Testament tells us about Jesus is a very definite and presumably universal truth claim. I think any serious Christian needs to come to terms with this and formulate some kind of clear position in relation to it. I’m not saying you can’t be a universalist or an inclusivist, just that you ought to be intentional about being so.I guess my point is that I think Doug is right when he says it’s a sad state to be in to value God intensely, but not be able to talk about God coherently and even (gasp) authoritatively. I share this problem with him to a certain extent , conditioned by a certain repulsion of the CCM/evangelical language for God and a timidity about excluding other truth claims I see value in.And there’s the rub…Desiring to be open to conversation with different viewpoints we adopt a paradigm which is so vague and amorphous, based on “intensely personal experience” that it is impossible to converse. I was once told by a Buddhist monk that he found it much easier to dialogue with ultra-conservative Christians than with “open-minded” ones, precisely because the open-minded ones would never take a position on anything that the Buddhist could relate to.So, Doug, you DO need some language for God that is more specific and describes what you think is REAL not just what you personally experience. God should not be locked away in a private individual’s imagination, but have concrete impacts on the world around us, which can be described.Everyone agrees that language is inadequate etc… but that is no excuse for not taking a stand on something with genuine meaning – afterall God uses our very inadequate language all the time!


  9. it isn’t so much that postmodernism says “confusion is good”, but rather “confusion is true”, at least as i understand it. by simplifying, a postmodern would say that you are in some sense misleading, or mislead.the NT makes a lot of exclusive truth-claims, but there’s no reason we need to accept them. all religions make claims, and they’re mutually exclusive. to me, this indicates that they are pointing to some sort of experience or truth or way of being that transcends the particularity of each.that being said, particular language is the only place you have to start.i definitely wouldn’t say that god uses our inadequate language – rather, that we use our inadequate language about god. but the point is well taken that it is the only means we have, so we shouldn’t necessarily shy away. in fact, i don’t know if anything that god does can be properly expressed in language…lastly, i don’t know how to separate real from experience. i certainly don’t think i can make any claims of truths that are outside of my experience. i mean, what reason do i have to believe something i haven’t experienced – except faith in someone else’s experience or someone else’s words?the point is true, however, that you can’t stop with experience. if that experience doesn’t move you, it isn’t of value, and it has to move you to *do* something or *be* something, which means making a commitment, taking risks, etc. i think its very possible to describe what experience moves you toward.


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