You asked me about God. I think about God in a number of different ways.
Sometimes I think of God as being like the life energy that is in everything, that joins us all together. God is in everything. God is also in me and in you. I can be in tune with this life energy or out of tune with it. For me as an individual it has a lot to do with being at one with my true self. You know how sometimes you feel at odds with yourself or you know you’re not really being true to yourself? Well, for me, that’s the same as being true to God or it can be. I need to try to live in harmony with God and, if I do, then I’ll live in harmony with my true self and with the world around me.
Some people call that conscience, but for me it’s bigger than that. It’s life; it’s being in touch with the spirit and life of the universe. So it’s much more than knowing what is right and wrong. It’s a sense of oneness with other people, with nature, with myself. It is like knowing that they all draw on the same life energy – or they can. We all drink from the same stream. God is like the stream of life and love that flows through all things. I can let that flow in my life or I can block it. I can help it flow in the world or I can dam it up.
I can think of myself as a tree with my roots deep in the ground drawing up the moisture of that stream. The life moisture comes up into my being. Even to contemplate it can be very physically relaxing and renewing. I find it important to make time every now and again to get in touch with my roots and to sense the sap flowing up into my body. It also helps me be aware of where I block that flow so I can decide to change things.
It’s also a bit similar to that when I think of those around me and of the world of human beings. The life energy is about bringing harmony and wholeness. So, when I am in touch with it, I become more aware where there is disharmony, where the life stream is being blocked – in others, by others, by me, by us. So this is all connected with concern for justice and equality among people, with concern for , peace in that sense, because the same spirit energy which wants to make me whole and healthy wants this also for the world of human beings. It’s not just all about me and it’s not about peace or harmony at the expense of justice. Sometimes the sense of oneness is a sense of shared pain as much as it is of shared joy.
I feel that also for the world of nature. I am connected with every other person and I am also connected with the world of nature. There’s a sense in which what happens to them and to it happens to me. When I see nature savaged I feel a bit violated inside myself. When I see people treated like dirt, I feel dragged down too. We all belong together. So I’m not talking about me and my navel and how to escape this troubled world onto an isle of inner bliss now or in the future, but about how to live in the world in a way that is connected and engaged with what is going on.
As well as thinking of God as being like the life energy in all things, I also think of God as behind everything. It’s like saying: if it weren’t for God, there wouldn’t be anything; nothing would exist. That is not simple, but it has its roots in a sense of wonder. There is the wonder at the minute, the beauty of a tiny flower. There is the wonder at the immense: looking out into the universe of stars. If you have sat and gazed into the night sky away from the city lights, you will know the experience. How vast it all is: an endless array of worlds, stars, solar systems – and we see only a fraction of what there is! I find it hard to believe that there is not some intelligence behind it all. Something is behind all of this. I call that ‘something’ God.
The simplest way of expressing this is to say: ‘God made the universe’, but I’m not always sure that is so helpful. Immediately some people will think about the stories of creation in the Bible and take them literally. One of them says God created everything in six days. The other one says that humans were made like clay models and then breathed on and they came to life. These are ancient myths, which Israel shared with other cultures of its day and which it retold in distinctive ways. As such they are full of deep meaning, but I don’t treat them as literal descriptions of what happened. I don’t believe creation took place in six days. I’m not even sure that it makes a lot of sense to try to pin-point a beginning of time. But I do believe that God is the ultimate reason why there is not just nothing. So when I am close to the world around me, I feel close to God – and when I am close to God, I feel close to the world around me!
God as a person
When I talk about or think about God, I still prefer to speak of God as a person, not an ‘it’. For me, being a person is more than being a thing. So, I can speak of God as the life energy of the universe, but I soon find myself speaking of God in much more personal terms. I’ve always been used to speaking of God as a person; it comes naturally; and I also want to keep doing it. But when I speak of God as a person, I am aware of how easily that can be misunderstood.
The main thing is: God must be greater than things and greater than persons. God must be quite different from things or people. Even to think of God as a being seems not quite right. It might be better to think of God as Being itself, Life itself. Yet that all sounds too abstract. We know what we are driving at, but any attempt to define God seems doomed to failure. That seems inevitable because of what or who God is. When the Old Testament says people should not make images of God, it seems to be aware of this point. When Moses asks what he should call God, he is told that God should be called: ‘I am who I am’.
Shut up about God?
If we can’t define or describe God, we should perhaps simply shut up – and that is not a bad idea at times, especially when people have been talking about God as if they know everything. If rabbits could think about God, they would probably think about God as a rabbit. Human persons think about God as a person. To do so is quite inadequate, but at least it is saying there is something in God I can relate to. It is better to say something than to say nothing about God. If I tried to remain silent, I would soon find myself inventing something.
I would find myself inventing something, because out of my inner self I find myself wanting to respond at a very deep level to God. There’s a kind of primitive cry of thank you inside. Or sometimes there’s a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of the universe. Or sometimes there’s a sense of pain and anger which I feel God shares, too, at what goes on in the world. And some people with much harder life experiences than I have had would say: also a sense of pain and anger at what is happening to me. It is like there’s a ‘God frequency’ inside along which the human heart expresses its deepest joy and pain.
Problems about God as a person
There are a number of problems in thinking of God in personal terms and some of them are big enough to turn people off religion altogether. Some people believe that God has plans for people’s lives and sets those plans into action, like a puppeteer pulling strings. I don’t think of God like that. Not that I think we are completely free to shape our own destiny; we are much more shaped by what has gone on around us and by hereditary factors than we think. But that is very different from believing God has a detailed blueprint or that our fate is locked up in the stars.
For the same reason I also have difficulty with the idea that there is a God who pulls strings only sometimes, though I know that many people think this way. Some people understand prayer in this way: if I pray enough or rightly, God will alter the scheme of things for me (or for others): send the right weather, fix the car, find me a job, make me rich. It is easy (and probably a good thing) to poke fun at the self indulgence of many such prayers, but I don’t want to overlook that many of these are prayers for others made out of love and concern.
The difficulty is that if we believe God intervenes in weather and the like in response to prayers, why doesn’t God intervene in major famine and disaster areas? Is this ‘God’ unwilling, uncaring, needing more persuasion? This idea of God makes little sense to me and I am not comforted by the explanation that it is all part of a plan which I shall finally understand in the next world. I find it hard therefore to make sense of people saying God saved them from a motor accident or ‘took someone’ through a motor accident or cancer or the like. It might help people to accept and come to terms with what has happened by saying it was ‘meant to be’, but it does not fit my understanding of God. I am not being irreverent about God; I am being irreverent, perhaps, about some people’s ideas of God.
Love: making room and staying in touch
I prefer to think of God as having set the universe free to evolve and develop in its own way and that the magic of the universe is that forms of intelligence have evolved which can have an active part in shaping that development. To picture it in a mythical way, God has chosen not to take up the whole space, but has made room for others and made room for them to develop and evolve in their own way. God gives the world this freedom. Love means making room for others to be, giving them space and staying in touch. God stays in touch with the universe.
But how does God stay in touch with the universe? At one level I want to answer: I do not know and cannot know. Maybe we are encountering God not only in enjoying the universe, but also when we suffer the backlash of treating it badly, like it is a giant organism capable of repelling danger. Is that God or is that simply reaping the fruit of our own actions?
On the other hand, I find it absurd to think of God as just a kind of spectator, sitting in a heavenly grandstand, as it were, biting his or her nails in anxiety and compassion, hoping good wins on the playing field of life. God might as well not exist, if God is only to be thought of as the one who started the ball rolling and then left it to its fate.
So it makes sense to me to think of God as deeply involved with the universe, but not as someone looking on from outside and occasionally switching the controls when the right message comes in. Rather God is inside, within us, among us, seeking to bring life, love and peace to us and our world. We can know ourselves to be sharing in that life and love. We are partners with God in the ongoing development of the universe – in our own minute but significant way. Praying means deliberately seeking out this connection with God, taking time and making space in our lives to open our lives to God, soaking up the love energy from the roots up. God is in there with us – in joy, in struggle, in pain, in adventure, in creativity.
It also makes sense to me to think of praying for others as being a channel of God’s love and energy for others. I think of this less as my trying to persuade God to do something and more as my opening myself to God’s persuasion, to be part of God’s loving to others. I’m not really sure how this works, but sometimes there seems to be a connection between a praying person and the person or persons prayed for which is beneficial and I find this a way of understanding what happens when we pray.
Underlying everything I have said so far is an important assumption: that God (whatever it or he or she is) is good and not bad. It is possible to imagine a bad god, like one of those evil monsters of science fiction: some hoary evil genius on a distant planet having fun with humans, kidding them there is hope when there is no hope. Life is just one big, bad joke. Many people’s experience of life is not far from that.
But nor is God an old doting grandpa or grandma sitting on a golden throne up in the sky. That’s all part of the problem in thinking of God as a person. When we think of God as a person, we inevitably think of God in human imagery. Thinking of God as a wise old man or woman isn’t too bad an image! But mostly what has happened is that people have thought of the highest and best human being they can think of and then used that as the image for God. This can be enlightening or quite misleading. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Human images of God: good news and bad news
In most societies the most honoured person was usually the ruler, the most powerful, and, inevitably, male. Therefore people thought of God as king. A king sits on a throne; people bow before a king; a king should be obeyed without question, if he is a good king. And in families the most honoured person, the head of the house, was the father. Therefore people thought of God as a father. It is all very male oriented and very power oriented.
As people thought of God in these ways, two things happened simultaneously. The human models of what was important affected people’s understanding of God and, in turn, people’s understanding of God reinforced the human models of power in society and in the family. People were quite happy to picture God as king and father of the universe. If their understanding of kings and fathers was cruel and destructive, they happily attributed these qualities to God.
One of the more common models for thinking about God as a king and father, which reflected people’s ideals of human kings and fathers, was that of the benevolent dictator. This king retained his power and honour, but provided ways for his subjects to regain favour when they had wronged him and his rules. If they came to him and were truly sorry and perhaps offered some other guarantees, they could be forgiven.
If we use the model of God as a benevolent dictator, we can produce an account of the gospel which sounds something like this. God the king had disobedient subjects who had offended him by transgressing his laws and so by his rules ought to face punishment, but in his generosity he looked for a way of giving them a second chance. That had to mean finding a way around the rules. Jesus is pictured as the king’s own son. He offered the king a way out which didn’t compromise the king’s dignity and his laws. In an act of voluntary obedience, he allowed himself to become a substitute for others and to take the punishment due to them. This transaction then freed the king to forgive people without compromising his strict laws of reward and punishment. This system and its benefits applied however only for an interim period. In the long term the king would subject those who crossed him or rejected his system to everlasting torment. The father would shut the door on these children forever. This king’s violence was justified, however, because he was ‘god’ and because his laws by which all were judged were just. Seen from the perspective of the whole, the act of compassion in making forgiveness possible was only a temporary measure and an exception to the king’s normal behaviour.
Images of power and violence or images of compassion
Many people have drawn up the message of Christianity on the basis of this model. It is meant to be ‘good news’, but, on the other side of the coin, it is really bad news: it teaches that human beings are ultimately dispensable; in the long run they can be written off; it teaches that violence is justified against people if my cause is right, because ‘God’ is like that in the end; and it teaches that ultimately forgiveness is only a concession without surrender of power. God’s highest priority on this model is not love, but keeping the integrity of his rules intact. In the long run God is not really loving at all. Jesus figures in this model as an exception in the life of God, not as a revelation of the way God is.
This approach has had a major influence on society with destructive outcomes. It is not surprising that where it has held its sway, many forms of violence have flourished: international, institutional, domestic, interpersonal. Unfortunately, within the stream of Christian tradition over the ages this current of thought has nearly always been present. Yet, to me, it is a gross misrepresentation and distortion of what I understand the gospel to be. Even on the side of the coin where it is supposed to be good news, it remains bad news. In fact, I would claim, that the good news is that I can abandon this way of thinking about God. There are two reasons why I say this, one modern and one ancient.
First, our understanding of kings and fathers has changed. Our understanding of what are the best human models has changed. To begin with, why use a male image? Why not a female? God is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. But, more than that, we are learning to see power in a new way. No one has the right to do violence to another person. That is not because everyone has their faults and only a perfect person would have such a right (like a god). It is the violence itself which we have learned is wrong. The most enlightened legal systems penalise only with a view to learning, deterrence and rehabilitation.
These days we see government less in terms of rulers who have a right to power because of their strength or their virtue or their breeding and more as people elected to act for the interests of all. Compassion and caring is their agenda and we rightly complain when it is not there and when people seem to be in politics just for the sake of power. We look on compassion and caring as the norm to be expected, not as some hoped-for concession to be bartered from the ruler by transaction or special pleading. It is the people whose lives are marked by generosity and compassion whom we have learned to honour, not those with claims to self importance on the basis of aristocracy, wealth and power.
This also affects the way I understand prayer. In ancient society rulers were largely preoccupied with their own interests. If you wanted something done for yourself or for someone else you needed to petition the monarch; otherwise the monarch is not likely to take any interest or undertake any initiative. This has influenced people’s understanding of prayer: ‘God’ needs to be distracted from ‘his’ own interests and concerns to give attention to human beings. When, however, I start thinking about God as being always attentive and loving, I start seeing prayer in a different way. It has less to do with getting God to tune in to me and more to do with my tuning in to God and being available to be a channel of God’s continuing love and compassion in the world.
Forgiveness a concession or a form of loving?
Similarly, our understanding of human relationships has changed significantly. Forgiveness is not a concession on the basis of sufficient remorse being shown, but something we give freely. Forgiveness is giving up of power; it is when we no longer hold something, ourselves, back from someone or hold something against them. Fathers – and mothers – who maintain relationships with their children primarily on the basis of claiming their rights to respect and obedience and not on the basis of continuing love are impoverishing themselves and their children. I would hate to be respected by my children on that kind of basis – it is so distant.
It is not power and fear, but love that makes relationships work best. The kind of respect I want is the same I want to give to everyone else and also want for them: to see other people as unique individuals, to respect their right to their own decisions, to honour their boundaries, to meet them with who I am and what I need and have to give.
I would be shocked into serious self-examination if someone thought I needed to be appeased or persuaded before I would respond to others in love, as though I were somehow above loving or had a right to withhold love. I would be even more appalled if in response to my loving, people argued I should be praised because I went beyond what is to be expected or the way I am usually. Yet it is precisely this which I find regularly in expressions of Christian piety. People don’t want to believe that God actually wants to be loving and wants us to expect that love. At worst it is like they are saying: thank you for loving and forgiving us, because when you are your usual self we can only expect you to be quite cold and uncaring.
When we praise God’s love as unexpected and exceptional, we subtly reinforce our dominant value system, that ultimately what matters most is power and dignity not love and we show that we do not really believe in love. Our problem, in part, is that much of our language in church is drawn from the imagery of courts and kings and we find it hard not to be drawn into the value systems which they traditionally represent. God is not ‘stuck up’, does not need to be ‘bought’ by our deeds or Christ’s deeds. God actually cares and loves.
What I am saying is that on the two models which have been most influential for thinking about God, rulers and fathers, we have moved such a long way from the understanding which underlies the picture I outlined above. I am quite concerned, however, that many people still operate with a model of God which depends on human models which are no longer defensible in our world.
Jesus shows us a better way
There is a more ancient reason why we need an alternative model of God to the one parodied above. For my plea is only partly that we update our thinking about God. I also want us to ‘backdate’ it. I mean we need to backdate it to Jesus, because, despite the strength of the other model in his context, Jesus shows us a better way of understanding God. From Jesus I learn that compassion and caring are not exceptions to the norm in the life of God, but they are the way God is, was and always will be. God doesn’t need a transaction to be able to forgive and stay consistent with the law; God’s being and nature is to want to bring life and wholeness; and forgiveness and restoration are part of that. Jesus illustrated that over and over again in the way he responded to people. He wasn’t waiting around until he had taken the punishment, before he would feel free to love people.
Am I suggesting we abandon worshipping and honouring God? Are we to abandon reverence, the ‘fear of the Lord’? What is worship and honour? For me, honouring any person means acknowledging them for who they are, respecting that they are different from me and that I can never presume to know everything about them. It means having a sense of awe before others as I realise their mystery, their distinctiveness, and treating them as holy. This is the most I can give to others and the most I want for myself. It is also the most I can be for God and, I believe, the most God wants. Worship is opening myself to what I know God to be and letting myself sense something of what that means. My response may be one of silence, of awe, of praise, of singing, of joy or pain. I am in the presence of the love which gave birth to the universe, the love I see poured out in the life of Jesus. That is far from the image of a power-obsessed deity demanding fear.
God is not a super-king or super-father bent on cowering ‘his’ subjects or children to respect and obedience; God is like Jesus. Jesus, by what he said and what he did, turned the popular power- based image of God upside down. It is significant that when Jesus uses the model of a parent to speak about God, he tells of someone who runs down the road to embrace a wayward son with compassion. Jesus said that the greatness is not to be like those rulers who love power, but to be a humble person who loves people. These were his values. He came, he said, not to be served but to serve and give his life. God is also such a giver of life. The image of king we find in the gospels is the image of Jesus crowned with thorns on a cross. This is a deliberate subversion. For here is a new kind of power, an apparently foolish and powerless power. Here is the love that brought it all into being and which never gives up in its yearning to bring justice and wholeness to the world, even when it means being poured out in death. So when you ask me about God, I can’t help but go on to talk about Jesus.