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Towards a New Conception of God

Since the dawning of creation, God continues to be the great conundrum, the great mystery, the great unknown, the great challenge of human existence.  This God is not only the God of Christianity, but also the God of Judaism and Islam and other world religions who call on God’s name.

Human beings began creating conceptions of God from the moment they became self-conscious creatures–somewhere between 100,000 to 250,000 year ago.*  Historians, anthropologists, and psychologists suggest human beings did this to deal with the profound insecurities of existence–in particular human anxiety about our own mortality and our quest to live meaningful lives.

However, to believe in God with integrity, conceptions of God have to be adequate to our modern experience.  They have to be believable.  Having said this, I want to affirm that,  independently of our conceptions of God (of how we think about God), I believe in God.  The challenge for us is to not be lazy in our theology and to imagine and work out conceptions of God that have honesty and integrity for our contemporary times.  This takes effort; it takes work; it takes imagination.

While questions of belief or unbelief in God have always existed, it must be said that human beings are naturally spiritual and religious because of the pervasive mystery that surrounds our human situation.  Again, we do not know (like we know, for example, that the sun will rise in the morning, or that two plus two equals four) what happens to us when we die.  We also harbor grave concerns about human suffering, what it means, and what to do about it.  These concerns and the anxiety that rises out of them feed into the mystery of life and make us potentially more spiritual and religious.

Every generation has to work out its own understanding of God

One of the major points Karen Armstrong makes in her impressive book, A History of God, is that every generation has the responsibility to work out its own understanding of God.  In other words, every generation owes it to future generations to re-imagine God, consistent with its own understanding of life and in accord with the most recent advances in scholarship.

And underlying assumption of these reflections on God is that life, the universe, and everything in the universe, are in a constant process of evolution.  Over tens of thousands of years and more, human consciousness is always evolving.  Along the way, old ways become worn out.  They become inadequate to our ever-evolving, modern, every day experience.

*These suggested dates are from a lecture by John Shelby Spong on What a New Christianity For a New World Would Contain, 2013, Springfield, Missouri

In applying this to our conception of God, we have to be constantly re-imagining God.  The truth is, human beings have been doing this forever.  As images and conceptions of God come and go, new images are born.  In regard to God, just as the universe and human beings are constantly evolving, God, too, is evolving.  Far from being static–the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, as traditional Christianity likes to think about God–God is in an ongoing process of becoming.

God as Spirit and as the great MORE of the universe

In thinking about God, mostly, I think of God as Spirit.  I also think of God as infinite energy and love, as an abiding presence, and as endless mystery.  These qualities–energy, love, and mystery–are aspects of Spirit.  The Spirit (including love, energy, and mystery) 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 of God’s extraordinary qualities, which I and countless others, anthropomorphize (ascribe human features to) to a considerable extent.

In our thinking on God, always there is a mysterious element; in part because, always, God is MORE, more than anything we can think or say 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 more.  It is this more quality that is the locus of the mystery of God.

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.

As Spirit and as more, where is God in times of human tragedy and sadness.  God is there, in the grip of the pain and the heartbreak, doing what God can to bring renewal out of loss, light out of darkness, and life out of death.  In all things, God works through life.  Beyond the agony of the long night, healing comes with the morning.

As the psalmist reminds us in Psalm 13:1-2b,

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you

hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

In healing and in love, God comes, reassuring us in hours of darkness, celebrating with us in times of joy.  As Spirit and as the great more of the universe, God cannot be held back.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In.

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