I don’t believe in a God. I believe in God. What may initially appear to be a petty grammatical difference without any real distinction actually has outrageous theological implications. Think about this for a moment: when you hear the word “God” what is the first picture that enters your imagination? Don’t overthink it either. Just get your gut-reaction, even if just in the privacy of your own innerworld. Did you picture a mean old man? An african women? A loving father? A light? An ocean? A dove? A rock? A lion? A king? A lamb? A tree? A shepherd? An abyss? A river? A tribal warmonger? A humble peasant? Something or someone else? Or did you draw a blank? It is a fascinating question to consider, because the pictures we hold of God, whatever they happen to be, matter a lot.
David Bentley Hart, in The Experience of God, makes a seemingly subtle but truly massive distinction between conceiving of God as a being and conceiving of God as Being. To imagine God as a being—even a really, really big and strong and powerful and super being—involves conceptually reducing God down to some discrete figure with limited boundaries and form, which also conveniently turns out to be something/someone we can rationally wrap our minds around. Instead, Hart says that an essential aspect of a classical conception of God in Judeo-Christian traditions involves affirming that God is not simply a being. Rather, God is Being. Or, as Meister Eckhart puts it, God is Is-ness. Incidentally, many popular debates [just search youtube] about whether God does or does not actually exist more specifically surround the question of whether a demiurge-style God—a God that is a being—does or does not actually exist. And I have to admit, though I believe in God, I come down on the side of the atheist debaters when I listen to these conversations, at least concerning the conception of God that is implicitly under scrutiny. These debates, however, are often tremendous adventures in missing the point.
This distinction between God as a being and God as Being raises an important question. Where is God? If God is just a being, then it would be possible for such a human-shaped (or pick your shape) ghost-being to be in one place and not another place in the cosmos, floating here or there as it/he/she pleases, but never being everywhere all at once. Rob Bell points out that if God is like this then we can divide the world up into holy places and unholy places, sacred and common, not to mention divide people up into those who God is with and those who God is not with. But if God is pure unbounded Existence, then God grounds and sustains all that exists, including our own existence, moment by moment, breath by breath, always actively giving us the gift of life out a constant overflow of unconditional love. If this God ceased to exist, even for a millisecond, then so would we. This means that we are constantly in contact with God. We are immersed in the Divine. God, as it were, has always been right here, hidden in plain sight. Because the curtain has been torn. God pours sunshine on the just and the unjust. Indeed, the whole earth is full of the radiance of God!
Consider a story in the Hebrew scriptures that describes an interaction between Moses and God. Moses is going to travel to Egypt to confront the Egyptian Pharaoh, demanding that he release the Israelite people from slavery. This is no small task. And Moses is clearly afraid. As he is working on mustering up the courage to go and do this, Moses asks God, “who should I tell them sent me?” Moses, in other words, was asking God for God’s name. What God says to Moses is really intriguing. God says, “Tell them that ‘I AM’ sent you.” In the ancient world, people named things and people and gods and so on so that they could isolate and identify one thing from another, one person from another, one god from another. Naming necessarily involved making distinctions and divisions, separating one thing from some other thing. And we still love to name all kinds of stuff today, as opening up any textbook containing technical language in science or medicine or philosophy or theology shows. But this God’s Name totally obliterates the very categories and assumptions of Moses’ original question. It exceeds the boundaries of what naming is supposed to be all about in the first place. It’s as if God says to Moses, “You can’t name Me. You can’t isolate me. It’s impossible. For I can’t be fit into those boxes.” Some suggest that this Name can also mean “I will Become what I will Become.” A more mind-bending name does not exist. This God is pure Being, pure Becoming. The Name God gave to Moses was considered to be so holy that ancient Hebrews developed the habit of substituting the “Lord” for the actual Name in their speaking and writing. For God’s Name was thought to be too holy to even speak.
Followers of religions that ascribe personal qualities to God—fatherliness or motherliness or capacities for intelligence, intention, or relationship, for example—sometimes mistakenly project additional human qualities onto God—such as physical-esque forms of a body, a face, hands, feet, and so on—if even only in the privacy of a particular believer’s imagination. The mistake is understandable from a human perspective: if God is like a father, then it seems only natural to imagine that maybe God looks something like my father. And some biblical writings do even ascribe human-like features to God, like hands, feet, a face, and so on (though theologians going back to ancient times have frequently affirmed that it would be a mistake to interpret these writings as implying God has a literal, physical, bodily form). Nevertheless, when we imagine God to be a being of any form, it’s easy to consequently imagine that this God created the cosmos in such a fashion that it essentially exists and operates independent of it’s/his/her own existence, like a machine would. God then shows up for the odd intervention or repair here and there, from time to time, as a mechanic would with a car. [As a side note, this concept of God also neatly fits with the mechanistic-style view of the cosmos we’ve inherited from Newtonian physics—which is increasingly recognized as being an insufficient total-picture of reality.]
“If you comprehend it, it is not God.” So wrote Augustine. Similarly, if you can draw a picture of what God looks like, whatever you have drawn is surely not what God looks like. The closest drawing would be no drawing, which is to say a blank page. For God is Spirit, meaning that God’s Being transcends the limitations and divisions of physical, space-time forms. Some Christians may object to these suggestions. They may say, hasn’t Jesus shown us what God looks like. Jesus is, after all, “the image of the invisible God.” This raises some excellent questions. Does Jesus display what God’s literal body or eyes or hands or feet or face look like? Or does Jesus, as the image of God, display the character of God’s love and intentions and heart (figuratively speaking) for all people? If its the former, then we have a problem, because there aren’t any extant mugshots of Jesus of Nazareth, nor are their any detailed physical descriptions of him in the gospel writings. Thankfully though, it’s the latter.
All things considered, having images of God can be perfectly fine nevertheless. We are embodied, visual people with fertile minds and imaginations. Issues arise depending upon how we hold and relate our images of God to the Reality of God, not to mention to ourselves, whether they be physical icons or abstract ideas. The second commandment Moses gave to the Israelite people was that they should not make for themselves any “graven images.” Creating humanmade statues of gods or goddesses for worship was widespread at the time in the ancient world. As such, the purpose of the commandment was to prevent people from confusing limited, lifeless, humanmade objects with the Unlimited Life that sustains all that exists. In our rational age we have largely moved on from this particular cultic practice of identifying God with limited humanmade objects. But we would be wise to recognize that the deeper meaning of the prohibition applies equally to limited humanmade abstractions. Whether images carved of rock or wood, or images made by the mind and imagination, both are limited reductions that at best can point us to the Real God that exists beyond them, or at worst become false idols that never could and never can contain God’s Full Reality. The danger lies in fusing images with Reality. What I am talking about is not atheism, either, though apophatic theology can have that vibe to it for those unfamiliar with its purpose and value. Actually, apophatic theology (or “the way of negation”) has had a longstanding relationship with its paradoxical partner, cataphatic theology (or “the way of affirmation”), in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Some Christians have even suggested that, oddly enough, modern atheist movements have served to purify us of certain Christian idolatries in the way good apophatic theology does.
Some Protestant Christians I notice have traded idols made by human hands for idols made by human minds. They assume they are free from idols so long as they can’t see them with their eyes or touch them with their hands. But this is a tragically mistaken assumption. Theological idolatry is much more pervasive than many assume. As someone raised in the Protestant tradition, I must admit that my first reaction upon reading about conceiving of God as Being was that I thought it sounded unorthodox. At the very least it didn’t fit within my existing mental concepts or categories for God. So coming to terms with the notion has been a humbling, gradual process. I was at first shockingly but then pleasantly surprised to discover that viewing God as Being is actually profoundly orthodox Christian theology, with strong roots in Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions. Apparently I was the one who had gone out on a shaky theological limb. What I initially feared was unorthodox turned out to be thoroughly orthodox in the end. Ironic, isn’t it?
What I am talking about is not a version of pantheism either, though it is much closer to pantheism than some Christians are sometimes comfortable with, at least in my experience. The Judeo-Christian traditions and scriptures have historically affirmed the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence. To have one without the other would present only a partial version of historic Judeo-Christian theology. For example, Divine transcendence without immanence tends to verge on deism, whereas Divine immanence without transcendence tends to verge on pantheism. So while what I am talking about is not pantheism in its strictest sense, I am also not talking about deism either. [N. T. Wright, incidentally, has cleverly distinguished between pan-theism (all is God), and what he called the-en-panism (God in all)] I suspect that many of the concepts/pictures that religious westerners who believe in a personal God hold are closer to a deistic, Enlightenment-influenced demiurge than they are to classical conceptions of God. I have no problem confidently admitting that I do not believe in that kind of God. I’ve never seen such a god, nor have I encountered any particular evidence or argument that has persuaded me to believe in such a god. I think that that kind of god happens to be nothing more than an abstract idol, an imaginary projection. Now on the other hand, the God of traditional Judeo-Christianity—I happen to find that God incredibly compelling. That God, some might say, is mind-blowing. To which I say, exactly.