Towards a more adequate conception of God
Since the birth of self-consciousness (some 250,000 years ago), human beings have been part of an ongoing process of imagining and creating new conceptions of God. In a very real sense, it is natural to our human situation. More directly, it is what we human beings do. It can be said–without exaggerating–that we human persons (the vast majority of us) want to believe in God. This is certainly true for me. Having grown up in the church, I want there to be a God and I like believing in this God.
However, to believe in God with integrity, conceptions of God have to be adequate to our modern experience. They have to be believable. This is where the disconnect is. For example, for many modern people, the God of traditional Christianity, the God of supernatural theism (the God in the sky), is simply not believable.
This is the theistic God, a very personal God, an actual being up there, out there, over there, up in the sky, in heaven (wherever that is), orchestrating and controlling events here on earth. This God of antiquity is thought to be external to the universe while being independent of human beings. This is the God of the three-tiered universe, with heaven above, hell down below, and the earth in between. While most traditional Christians very likely envision this metaphorically, still, this is the vision of God they hold to.
What is needed are new conceptions of God. Our challenge is to not be lazy in our theology. We have to work at it; and with honesty and integrity, we have to dare to imagine and work out conceptions of God that are adequate to our contemporary times.
God as the Great MORE of the universe
Always, there is a mysterious element to God, to God as MORE, more than anything we can think, say, or imagine about God. Simply put, God is the great more of the universe: more than our ability to describe God; more than our ability to measure God; more than our capacity to understand God. God is always more. It is this more quality that is the locus of the mystery of God.
Mostly, I think of God as Spirit (thus, the capitalizing of Spirit). I also think of God as infinite energy and love, as abiding presence, and as endless mystery. These qualities–energy, love, presence, and mystery–are aspects of Spirit. Spirit (including love, mystery, and more) does not have an exact location. It is everywhere and anywhere at the same time.
The idea/reality of Spirit eludes our ability to define it. It exists but we cannot say exactly what it is. Still, I think of Spirit as the fundamental essence of God. It is who God is, what God is, and how God is–all at the same time. The Spirit of God is God’s vital essence in the world. It is God’s presence with all God’s extraordinary qualities, which I and countless others tend to anthropomorphize (ascribe human features to). In this sense, language about God is totally metaphorical.
If we think about it, it is natural to anthropomorphize in some way. The most revered qualities (indeed, the only qualities) we know are human qualities. Virtually any quality of the gods–or any form of animal life–is identified or known by comparison to similar human qualities in ourselves. In this sense, it is hard not to anthropomorphize in regard to God.
In my thinking about God, God is personal, but again, in a metaphorical sense. It is useful to think of God as having some of the best qualities we humans have: qualities like love, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, tenderness, compassion, sensitivity, and largeness of spirit. But mostly, for me, it is helpful to think of God as Spirit (again, which includes infinite energy and love, abiding presence, and endless mystery).
God as the energy of love in the world is the healing balm of the universe. It is the energy in the world that calls our best human qualities out of us. God, as mystery, is a reminder–always–of the radical more of God.
In the heartbeat of our human adventure, where is God?
So, how do we think of God? For example, when a natural disaster or some mindless act of terrorism kills hundreds of people, does God feel? Yes! Does God grieve? Yes! Does God mourn? Yes! There is no human heart break or personal loss that God does not feel and for which God does not have deep compassion. God, the Spirit, is there (i.e., in us and with us) in our darkest hour and in our most painful moments. This is part of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion on the cross. On the other side of the suffering, resurrection comes.
God is also with us in times of joy and celebration. God rejoices along with us whenever love, goodness, and kindness win the day. To us humans, God is both real and understood metaphorically at the same time, which–again–is part of the mystery and the radical more of God.
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister. He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida. His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Florida.