The Term “God”

It occurred to me this morning that the term “God” is actually not all that helpful, or that it is helpful, but not in the traditional sense. More often than not, discussions about “God” seem to tell me more about the believer than about anything “out there” or “in us”. It occurred to me that the abstract term “God” is rather more like a mirror than a window. Rather the mirror seems to reflect each individual’s personal response to the ultimate mysteries of our existence…the experiences I have had in nature seem so much more grand than the limited ways that most people use the term God would imply…Every person I talk to about these things seems to have a different God-concept than others I have spoken with…

 

Comment #1: If you denied your own beliefs just because other people had different ones, you would effectually hold no beliefs at all. It is no secret that God is a mystery. He’s a supernatural being that the human mind cannot truly fathom, so there will always be different interpretations of God. It all really does come down to your personal experiences with God. When you say you have felt led to do things, what else would lead you? Subconscious? But your subconscious could not possibly create completely new ideas in your mind, but rather react to ideas you already contain. Who is the creator of these new ideas for your life that you feel led to pursue but God (the Creator) himself? I don’t think another person’s opinions, which are and will always be present on any subject, should prevent you from firmly believing in God… because you have experienced Him.

Response #1: Maybe I am just looking for better terms to describe these experiences, since the term “God” and the pronoun “Him” seem so utterly to understate what I have experienced…

 

Comment #2: I think this is why humans have given God and Jesus so many names… Creator, Healer, Prince of Peace, I Am, Messiah, Lord, King of Glory… We have no human words to describe the greatness of God.

 

Response #2: I almost feel as though every conversation I have about God I need to start out by asking, “When you say ‘God’, what do you mean by that?” etc…so I do not deceive people into thinking that I agree with their conception of God outright…

 

Comment # 3: I think that’s a perfectly healthy to ask someone. No one has had the exact same experiences with God, so this is frankly unavoidable when discussing God at all. Many common views on God sprout from what is written in the Bible, but as far as a person’s personal views, everyone is different. My only advice is to cling to your experiences with God and form your beliefs around that, but also share with others those experiences because it may help someone else understand more of what God is.

Response #3: I think my literature background also makes it obvious to me that the Bible and other cannons of scripture are edited compilations of spiritual literature, written in many genres which explore concepts of God rather than tell us God’s opinions of us…

Comment #4: God’s opinions of us became obvious to me through my experiences with Him, and they are absolutely supported by the Bible. There is nothing to be done about the edited nature of the book itself. I do not believe that it detracts from our concept of God as everything I have read in the Bible eerily correlates to my own experiences… Answered prayers time and time again, overwhelming presence when I need God the most, care for me in the craziest circumstances (How did I come out of that car accident alive?) This is what God is to me, and the Bible has yet to contradict that.

Response #4: I definitely respect your experiences and how you have used the books that the Roman church included in the Biblical cannon to help find meaning in those experiences. In my own experience, the books of the Bible that do seem to help me make sense of my experiences (there are many that do not) do so in more of a metaphorical way, as symbols which allude to Truth, rather than as Truth itself. The ones that do help seem to be books written by writers to try and explore the ways we might relate to a force that is ultimately mysterious to us…I find much other literature immensely helpful in this sense as well, often even more so…I would love to sit down and have a more in-depth discussion on this at some point!

 

Comment #5: Our individual grasp or understanding of Him is not really what defines Him. Several children from the same family all have different experiences and understanding of their human father. Each child, so individual in their own personalities and ages and experiences. To describe their own individual concepts of who their Father is would be very different depending on their own personalities and the depth of their individual relationship with their “Dad”. A four year old, a ten year old and a twenty year old will all describe their “Dad” pretty differently as well. All talking about the same person, just different levels of maturity talking. What you’re experiencing will be different from what your brother is experiencing at any given time. But the “reality” of “who He is” doesn’t change. Our depth of understanding does. And the tremendous mystery of who He is, is so incredibly awesome. The older I get, the more I understand how truly little I know. I don’t think the God could be very big if our little minds could figure Him out.

A five year old doesn’t need to understand everything about his daddy…he is simply required to trust Him. To have faith in Him, that He is who He says He is. With time and attention that trust and faith grows into a beautiful maturity. As he is growing up his relationship deepens but is never identical to his brothers. The “Dad” is the same…their understanding is different.

He calls us to have the faith of a child. He does the rest. Looking at and listening to people around us (living horizontally ) can be disappointing and confusing. Keeping our eyes on Him and paying attention to that leading (living vertically) keeps us from sinking.
Don’t be afraid of ascribing your experiences to God because your experience may be something that will illuminate a truth about Him that someone else needs to see in their own journey with their Father.

Response # 5: I really like the points you make about “living vertically” and about differing “spiritual maturities” . Thinking of the God conversation that way does seem more promising. I think one of my main issues in talking about God with people is that rather than see the family as a metaphor that we can use to help us understand God (as you did), even in a limited sense, people often speak of it as a literal truth – but I guess coming to terms with that goes back to your point about spiritual maturity…

 

 

Comment # 6: I’d humbly suggest reading ANAM CARA by the late John O’Donohue.

Response # 6: Wow…synchronicity…I have this book lying on the shelf right in front of me…I purchased it a while back, but wasn’t quite sure why….weird. I will read it immediately…

 

Comment # 7: As a mirror, the label “God” offers a glimpse into how an individual responds to the inherent existential questions of existence.
Thank you for pondering and bringing questions.

 

Comment #8: It seems to me that power and authority are always in some way tied up with transcendent discourse. The fact that you feel that a term like “God” is restrictive simply shows that one group has been rather successful in getting their version of transcendence naturalized within our culture’s language and thought. Thus naturalizing their own authority as well. Your own post, then, functions as a sort of counter-discourse which undermines their authority by seeking to denaturalize their claims about the term “God” and its definition as obvious and a priori.

 

Mr. Goodpastor’s Response Concerning Syncretism

Forgive my short reply–I will aim for “lucid brevity” (to borrow from John Calvin!).
1.  On the silly ham salad analogy–please do not read too much into it.  As you know such rhetorical devices cannot be pressed too far.  The illustration was not intended to say that syncretism is combining all the bad elements of various religions (indeed some of them may be very, very good elements).  It was simply a very pedestrian way of saying that when you begin “mixing”–what you have is not what you had anymore.  It is something new or different.
2.  As to your wine or beer analogy–I do like it.  Some have called this the evolution of religious ideas–however, Christian theologians have rejected this on the grounds that Scripture is revelation (God’s words through and to man).  Theologians use the expression “progressive revelation”–meaning that over time God revealed more and more of himself to man–imagine a plot developing over time.  There is an evident “enlightening process” in the Biblical narrative as God reveals more of himself.  (Abraham, to Moses, to Paul–there is development.)  There is a certain “drama” in Scripture–with Christ as the hero–the “mystery revealed.” . As such–you certainly do see a “fermentation” process (to use your analogy).  The “wine” (story) gets better with time.
3.  On the relationship between Christianity and religions (often referred to as Christianity and Pluralism)–I cannot pretend to respond in a paragraph–but let me make a few points.  First, Christian theologians in general do not believe that all religions are evil and contain only bad elements. They do believe that “image bearers” are capable of having good, noble, and wise thoughts–and that most religions contain elements that are admirable.  Second, Christian theologians (especially missionaries) often use existing religions or philosophical ideas as “bridges” to help people understand the gospel. (Historically, some Christians have been better than others at this. Some have been downright ignorant and cruel unfortunately.)  This is not the same as saying to another religion:  “Your story is true.”  Instead it is a way of saying, “There are things in your story that will help you understand the true story.”  Third, for Paul (and Christian theologians in general), Christ is “The Occam’s Razor”–cutting away all the extraneous stuff that one does not need for salvation.  In other words–anything that diminishes His person and his work on the cross–must be “cut away.”
4.  On the relationship between Christianity and literature–the record in Christianity is mixed.  An early theologian named Justin came along in the 2C and argued for a positive relationship between Christianity and secular thought.  His famous dictum was “Whatever all people have said well belongs to us as Christians” (our modern version of saying that even a blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn).  Tertullian (another theologian) countered, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”  He spoke for some when he decried the use of Greek philosophy in theological debate.  Augustine came along in the 4C and spoke for most (and really won the day) when he said:  “Pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teaching and superstitions…” He is known for his analogy (and it is only an analogy) of the Israelites taking gold and silver with them out of Egypt during the Exodus.  Thus the infamous “plundering the Egyptians” (there is good to be found even among pagans).  In short, Christian theologians in general quote other thinkers–sacred and secular as evidence that people are made in God’s image and trying their best to understand who God is.  They then point to “special revelation” (scripture) as the source of “authority” (to use your word) in helping us rightly understand this mysterious God. (for a short overview of what Christians think about this–see Alister E. McGrath, “Christian Theology: An Introduction”, p. 16-19 and references).
5.  On ancient sapiential literature–and the relationship between Solomon and the “Instruction of Amen-Em-Ope” (as well as some near direct quotations in Proverbs from Amenhotep)–I think this illustrates Augustine’s point (and I’m with him here) that we can “plunder (take from) the Egyptians” for wisdom.  Christians believe that people are image bearers and capable of looking at the world and making wise observations about life.  Christians can and should interact with the world around them–even using the genres of creative people (the genre of wisdom literature was in vogue during the reign of Solomon) to articulate the Christian message.  I believe this illustrates beautifully the fact that God nods in affirmation when unbelievers say wise things (we might say “God, through Solomon, quotes Egyptian sages”–interesting thought!!!).  And he hopes, through wise instruction, to lead them to the Source of that wisdom.  (Again, see Justin’s quotation above.)
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