The problem with “God” language. Is “God” Personal? Michael Morwood
The first words put on Jesus’ lips in Mark’s Gospel is the call to “convert”. I do not see that as primarily being about behavior, but rather about the need to turn upside-down or inside-out established thinking and images about God and how people are in relationship with this mystery.
I think if Jesus were alive today and immersed in our contemporary worldview he would be challenging us to even more conversion – and he would probably be resisted, as he was in his time, by religious authorities concerned with institutional investment in a notion of God that keeps people dependent on their authority and power.
Change the notion or understanding of “God” and so much else would need to change.
The issue is: can we change the understanding – and be enriched rather than impoverished or threatened by the change?
And what is the change that our contemporary understanding of the universe and our place in it is challenging us to make?
I take a lead from the notion of “conversion” that suggests we turn inside-out or upside-down the understanding of “God” that religion has carried for centuries.
We have acquired an understanding of “God” that arose from the understanding of “gods” centuries ago. Inbuilt into that understanding is the notion that gods are personal beings, usually residing in the heavens. So naturally, we have always thought of “God” as a personal, heavenly being. Our Scriptures cemented this understanding of “God”: God thinks, plans, observes, acts and reacts, forgives, punishes, rewards – and took Jesus up into heaven. This God demands to be worshipped and notices if we do not do it.
That notion of God was relatively undisturbed in my own mind until I was exposed to images from the Hubble telescope and contemporary data about the size and nature of our universe. I then started trying to push the notion of a personal God beyond what I understand “person” to be, so that “God” could be co-extensive with and even way beyond the range of this universe.
What does it mean to maintain that “God” is “everywhere”?
Having struggled with this for the past twenty years or so, I’m now beginning to see (and it is only a beginning!) that I’ve been trapped in an unquestioned notion of “God” as a personal being. I’ve found myself needing to face the question: as I understand the universe today and my place in it, what does this word “God” point to?
That is the key question for me. And it turns everything upside down or inside out.
Christian theology has always maintained that “God” points to a reality, a mystery utterly beyond any human concept or understanding. At the same time, it has given us some good leads: God is the source of all; God is that reality that holds and sustains everything in existence; God is everywhere.
Presently I’m toying with associating “God” with “All That Is”. That is not a definition of God, but rather a lead for me to appreciate what “God” points to. It is a discussion starter at a time in history when we need a lot more discussion about this “God” reality, because the notion of a personal deity controlling the events on earth from the heavenly heights is not likely to sustain faith or any understanding of Jesus, prayer, sacraments and “church” for much longer.
The upside down process leads me not to start with a personal deity anymore, but to start with the mysterious reality I think the word “God” points to or underpins for me in the 21st century. Whether I look to “All That Is” or “Ground of All Being”, I understand I am dealing with a reality totally incomprehensible to me.
With this firmly understood, I can now personalize this reality – as I think Jesus would have me do: relate with whatever “God” is, trustingly, think of God like a loving mother or father, for this reality is life-giving and gracious beyond all measure.
I can marvel and appreciate and wonder that I give expression in human form to this reality, whatever it is. I can look to Jesus as revealer of this reality and how we humans are to give our best expression to it.
However, I can now appreciate that I am personifying a mystery. And this is the conversion process for me – to stop literalizing the personification, to move beyond the ways Scripture and doctrine and liturgy and Church/Papal statements take for granted that God really is an all-knowing, all-powerful deity who thinks and acts much the way a person thinks and acts.
Conversion is not easy. As in Jesus’ time, there are two major obstacles.
First, there is institutional religion’s resistance to any ideas that challenge its unique relationship with God or the notion of God enshrined in its Scriptures, its official teachings and worship. There is also the reluctance of religious power-brokers to empower “ordinary people”. Far better to keep God as the domain of the learned, priestly caste, and to keep people dependent on this group for access to and forgiveness from God.
Second, there is individual resistance to change. The notion of a personal God who is in control, who asks people to bear hardship, who loves me deeply and personally etc is deeply embedded.
People should understand that are not being asked to give up this way of personifying God – let us use whatever windows to the mystery that works for us – but to understand that it is personification of a mystery and is not what God is really like.
Of the two obstacles, the first is the major one. Individually, we’ll continue to use whatever windows/ pointers to or personifications of this mystery help us, so we are dealing here with a matter of personal understanding. But the institutional resistance more and more has the mark of intellectual dishonesty as a traditional notion of God as a personal deity, who plots and plans, reacts, makes “his” forgiveness conditional, intervenes and who wants everyone to belong to this institution is promoted and ruthlessly defended against any idea to the contrary. Here lies the major need for conversion in religion today – not on the level of the faithful, but on the level of institutional identity.
The Roman Catholic church has publicly proclaimed itself to be “a Church always in need of conversion”. Hopefully, whenever the next Council is summoned, its starting point will be the notion of God that makes sense in the 21st century. However else will the Church be a relevant voice in the world?