How should we think of God? (Guest Blog)

Exodus 3.14

(Guest blog written by Aaron Burrows)

In this article, I shall attempt to discuss some of the tensions at play for modern Christians when attempting to imagine and understand the divine. It should be noted that I have, in this article, interpreted the divine to be the same as the God of Christianity. From the very beginnings of Christianity, prominent writers and scholars have claimed to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ God. Despite this, there are many different, diverse ways in which to conceive or imagine the divine. This leaves the modern Christian with an important question to be contemplated. That question is of course, how should Christians attempt to deal with present tensions relating to the imagination and understanding of God?

If one is to turn to the Hebrew Bible for an answer, imagery of an anthropomorphic or humanlike God who speaks, walks, touches, and sees is clearly revealed.  This divine Being is personal with very human emotions such as anger, indignation, love and pride. ‘He’ is often depicted by the Hebrew community with masculine traits, for example, Hebrew scripture often refers to the divine as a ‘father’ or ‘warrior’ etc. This God partakes in questionable acts since ‘He’ is seen to allow the killing of people [1], destruction of cities [2], get his followers to offer near sacrifices [3] among other questionable things. Although many Christians in contemporary society are taught that this anger is perhaps justified, is this the divine Being a Christian should imagine? There is certainly evidence of a more loving, ‘feminine’ God in the Old Testament, such passages in Hosea 13.8 and Isaiah 66:13 can certainly demonstrate this, yet feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, argue that the feminine aspects of God are far too often underplayed by male-dominated churches. Historically there has been an emphasis on picturing the divine as an alpha male, with this image holding strong authority over some Christian churches today. The immanent human portrayal of the divine seen here contradicts many contemporary Christian beliefs that insist on emphasising that the divine is completely non-human and further to that, uncapturable by the human mind. Fortunately, many Christians do reference God’s unconditional, loving nature, thus picturing the divine in a more positive light.

Within the Gospels, this unconditional, loving Being can be prominently seen through the teachings and actions of Jesus, who welcomes and forgives the sins of all, including the ‘unclean’ and ‘guilty’ (for instance, prostitutes and thieves and so on). This ultimately portrays the divine’s benevolence and respect for all people, including marginalised members of the community, such as women, thieves, and the poor. John’s ‘high’ Christological approach presents Jesus as God incarnate and therefore fully divine. Here Christians may attempt to focus on Jesus’ divinity and God’s act of bringing humanity back into a relationship with him. Others may look closer at the ‘low’ Christological approach of Mark’s Gospel. These people will favour Jesus’ message and teaching, pragmatically used as an example of how to live life. Here we are once more presented with two further portraits of the divine to imagine. One where we focus exclusively on divinity, the other focusing on the example of the earthly, historical Jesus. This clearly suggests that there are different ways to interpret Christianity and therefore as a consequence, this means there will always be different ways to attempt to imagine the divine today. But one issue remains. We must still ask ourselves to decide which Scriptural passages to base our imaginative reflections on and further to that, one may reasonably ask, can we really agree on a universal image of the divine removing modern tensions?

Ancient Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle [4] have also unquestionably had a profound influence on how God is to be imagined within Christianity, not only historically, but today as well. The immanence of God is removed, instead we are pictured with a transcendent God, an a-temporal being existing outside of the bonds and constraints of the universe, not subject to the mutable laws of space and time like we are. This notion of the divine was picked up by many prominent theologians, not least St. Thomas Aquinas during the thirteenth century. Aquinas supported one important notion of God; divine simplicity. He postulated that “whatever we ask, think, or say about God…we should never start from the supposition that God is something material and changeable[5]. Therefore, the divine should not be thought of in such a manner. This implies the divine Christian God cannot be physical like us, rather God is immaterial, immutable, and uncreated. John’s Gospel clearly maintains that “God is Spirit” (John 4: 24), and thought of as spirit, God should remain.

The ability to imagine the divine, traditionally interpreted as an omnipotent (all-powerful), benevolent God is, therefore, a very complex task for the serious Christian thinker. The great fourth century Christian theologian, St. Augustine, reflected on this difficulty in his Confessions. He emphasised his struggle conceiving the divine, whom he asserted cannot be thought of in any human [or physical] form [6]. St. Anselm of Canterbury, remarked, in Proslogion, that “God is greater than that which can be conceived[7]. The prominent issue becomes clear as we are expected to be able to imagine the divine, but we are constantly reminded that this ‘Being’ cannot be captured in totality by the human mind. Some Christian thinkers emphasise an apophatic approach to imagining and understanding God where we assert what God is not. This is ultimately a form of negation. Others approach the issue through the more traditional method, envisaging cataphatic knowledge where we state what God is, ascribing clear attributes or qualities on ‘Him’. God may be described cataphatically through analogy, symbol or myth for instance.

Another example of cataphatic knowledge can be readily captured and observed through artworks. The famous painting by Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, presents an elderly, protective, stern father figure in the sky giving a framework in which to imagine God. This form of imagery is hugely popular, particularly in Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The ‘old man in the sky,’ allows believers to personally relate to God, understanding that someone is listening to our prayers and possibly answering them. The issue is that this biblical image of God can be criticised as limiting and restricting of God, where we make the divine in ‘our image’. As a result, we end up misrepresenting God. This allows discrimination to be enforced onto others. One could argue that a prejudiced Western European mindset presenting the divine as a supreme, white male, legitimates those fitting this description to actively discriminate against those who do not. This ‘imaginative labelling’ is damaging for minorities.

Surely, we should then, as Gregory of Nazianzus once stated, the label “God as God”, a neutral or androgynous force [8]. Labelling God as ‘warrior’ or ‘father’, can be detrimental and marginalising on those who do not traditionally fit in line with this picture. Particularly, women, homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and many others. Mary Daly, the post-Christian radical theologian, once wrote that belief in a male deity leads to sexual inequalities. She famously wrote ‘if God is male, then male is God’ [9]. In other words, picturing God as our male master subconsciously gives men the power to think of themselves as master of women. If this is so, we need to abandon traditional conceptions of God and think of a new description or way to imagine the divine, one that is far more inviting and inclusive for all people.

For the many conservative Christian churches, a new outlook on the divine that moves away from traditional depictions will be difficult. Many may fear we will lose our long-lasting ‘sacred’ tradition, with change bringing uncertainties and imperfections [10]. Yet rejecting this change also means we reject the pluralistic nature of postmodern society. We should not fear to imagine the divine in new and original ways. As Terry Biddington states, “God’s essence resides in change[11], it is God’s hope to allow us to develop, reaching our own individual potential as human beings. This cannot be achieved if Christian churches cannot let go of their traditionalist values and not consider the modern context in which we find ourselves.

Perhaps Christians can learn from the Jewish theologian Martin Buber to resolve certain tensions. Buber attempted to establish how God can be thought of as a ‘person’ coined as dialogical personalism. Dialogical personalism is where we encounter the personhood of God but not in the way we experience other human ‘persons’ [12]. In I and You, Buber explains that there are two types of relationships one may experience. The first is I-It; impersonal relationships between an active member and a passive object [13]. The other being I-Thou; relationships defined as a “personal relationship of mutuality and reciprocity”, a bond which cannot be seen but is felt by both, there is no “specific content, but a presence of power[14]. Modern Christians should be influenced by this thinking, so the issue of imagining the divine will be far removed and instead we can focus on the most important aspect of our spiritual lives and that is developing a loving relationship with the divine. We can also learn from Islamic theology. For Muslims comparing God to anything else is a grave sin (shirk) [15] as there are always implications when we try picturing the divine. If we adopt this approach it may prevent us from tampering with the ‘image of God’ reducing many tensions within Christianity.

To conclude then, it is predominant for Christian churches to emphasise cataphatic knowledge of God. In other words, they dogmatically ascribe and affirm the divine’s qualities and attributes. This approach implies that God can be legitimately understood and captured by the human mind. Consequently, we limit and misrepresent God allowing our imagination to be ‘thinned out’ removing any form of originality. For example, to say ‘God is good’ is a statement which we cannot truly understand as God’s goodness is beyond any form of goodness we can contemplate. Therefore, as a compromise, it is perhaps apophatic ‘unknowledge’ which leaves us with a greater spiritual awareness of the divine. We become free to comprehend the divine through experiential means rather than set, traditional doctrines. Just like Buber believed, it is the individual and personal relationships that really matter, not the ineffable qualities we attach to the divine.

References

[1] Joshua 1: 18 (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] Genesis 19: 29 (New Revised Standard Version).

[3] Ibid. 22: 2 (New Revised Standard Version).

[4] Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, Goodness and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology (U.S.A.: Fortress Press, 2016), 62.

[5] Brian Davies, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, Edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 36.

[6] Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated with an introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1991), 111.

[7] Kenneth Einar Himma, Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence, Available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/ (Accessed: 14 November 2017).

[8] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 6thedition (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2017), 176.

[9] Malory Nye, Religion The Basics (London: Routledge, 2003), 75

[10] Terry Biddington, Risk-Shaped Discipleship: On Going Deeper into the Life of God (U.S. Resource Publications, Inc., 2010), 11.

[11] Terry Biddington, Risk-Shaped Discipleship: On Going Deeper into the Life of God (U.S. Resource Publications, Inc., 2010), 11.

[12] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 6thedition (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2017), 179.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 180.

[15] Victor W. Watton, A Students Approach to World Religions: Islam, edited by Brian E. Close (London: Hodder Education, 2014), 12.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Augustine. 1991. Confessions. Translated with an introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press.

Biddington, Terry. 2010. Risk-Shaped Discipleship: On Going Deeper into the Life of God. U.S. Resource Publications Inc.

Christ, Carol P. and Plaskow, Judith. 2016. Goodness and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. U.S.A.: Fortress Press.

Davies, Brian. 2009. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, edited by Taliaferro, Charles and Meister, Chad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Einar Himma, Kenneth. Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. http://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/.

McGrath, Alister E.. 2017. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 6thedition. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Nye, Malory. 2003. Religion The Basics. London: Routledge.

The Holy Bible. (New International Version).

Watton, Victor W.. 2014. A Students Approach to World Religions: Islam, edited by Brian E. Close. London: Hodder Education.

(Guest blog written by Aaron Burrows)

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