Dear People of Holy Comforter,
Last week we considered the three ways God connects with us, especially in times of trouble (Serenity, Compassion, Life Force). This week we turn our attention to who God is (as opposed to just what God does for us) – and what difference does it make – especially in hard times? Might God just being God help us? That depends on who we believe God is.
Rabbi Richard Eliot Friedman in The Hidden Face of God[i] followed by Jack Miles in God: A Biography[ii] showed how the literary character of God evolves and shifts in the Hebrew Scriptures. Miles treated the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were one book, a novel. He asked who was the main character. It’s an axiom of literature that the main character is the one who changes most. Miles concluded God must be the main character in the Bible since he changes so much. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Miles recounts all the stages the literary character God went through on his way from being the Creator of Heaven and Earth to becoming the Ancient of Days. Rabbi Friedman’s more compelling account shows God evolving from an omnipotent know-nothing to an omniscient do-nothing, handing the Creation over to our care.
For our present purposes, we just need to remember that the Biblical writers had different views of God. Then along came Jesus, the ultimate flesh and blood revelation of God – but that didn’t make the differences go away. The views of Jesus vary considerably in the four gospels.[iii] Bottom line: the Bible doesn’t define God for us. It gives us a wealth of stories and images to use as we imagine our way into the infinite mystery.
Psychanalysts say that we all have an image of God in our heads. We are neurologically wired that way.[iv] We may believe in that image or not. But it’s there. As for what that image is, Freud said our God always looks like our father. But based on clinical research, contemporary psychoanalyst, Ana-Maria Rizzuto, says it’s more complicated. We compile God images from many sources, including parents but also other people we’ve met, people we wished for, things we’ve read or heard. We each form our own personal image of God.[v] When I talk with atheists, I find I generally do not believe in the God they don’t believe in either. The God in their head is just a different character from the one in my head.
Those individually constructed God images can be a source of solace, strength, and wisdom. If so, they are blessings to be treasured. But they can also be threatening, shaming, restrictive, and destructive. That’s why we need to measure them up against the teachings of a world religion. Those teachings can support our helpful positive God images. They can heal and liberate us from not-so-helpful God images. Jesuit psychoanalyst W. W. Meissner says that the dialogue between our individual sense of God and the Church’s teachings is a holy thing and grows our souls through a lifetime.[vi] It helps us to connect our God to somebody else’s God. It gives us a common language. And it is possible for our personal God image, even if it is already helpful, to grow or be enriched by a faith tradition.
But what difference does a God image make? Theologian Nicholas Lasch said, “There is no word that is more difficult to use appropriately than ‘God’.”[vii] When Christians say “God,” we do not mean the big guy in the sky, a being like other beings, only bigger and stronger – a being that might or might not exist. We mean the Source, Destiny, and Meaning of Reality. We mean the greatest Beauty, which is the ground of all beauties, the truest Truth which is the ground of all truths, and the greatest Good which is the ground of all goods – that which ultimately matters.
Theologian Karl Rahner said that the word “God” is so basic to meaning that there could be no language without it. Elsewhere I said,
“’God’ is a rich word, the richest word . . . .
God is our moral azimuth – the North Star
that orients all our values – and our values
orient our actions, indeed our whole life.”[viii]
What depends on what we mean by “God”? Everything. It is basic to our relationship with God. In his classic, Your God Is Too Small, J. B. Philips said most people’s main sense of God is their nagging conscience, and that does not make for a good relationship with our Savior.[ix]
Also, over time, we become more like the God we believe in. I once summarized the views of a wide array of theologians:
“What makes God ‘God’ in our eyes defines what we
believe life is about. If God is God by virtue of
absolute power, we worship power. If God is God by
virtue of knowing everything, we worship knowledge.
If God is God by virtue of being the judge of all, we
worship judgment. We become like the God we
believe in. Our image of God determines what we
esteem, what we do, and ultimately who we
Finally, a positive God image can help us through hard times, while an inadequate God image lurking in our minds is not helpful and can even make us feel worse.
So what do Christians mean by “God”? Most modern people assume the first and most defining quality of God is power. But the Church Father (one of the shapers of the Nicene Creed), St. Gregory of Nyssa, American Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, contemporary leading Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, Episcopal theologian, John Westerhoff, and history of ancient theology scholar, Natalie Carnes, agree that the chief attribute of God is Beauty.[xi] God is the ultimate Beauty and all that is beautiful derives its beauty from God. Whenever we see something beautiful, we are catching a glimpse of God. Encountering God’s beauty in the world can give us a much needed jolt of joy especially in hard times. The best, as in most beautiful, expression of this I know is Jack Gilbert’s poem, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oAERfd4Y7A (If you watch this video twice, I give you my blessing to skip the rest of this letter. )
“There is laughter every day
in the terrible streets of Calcutta . . . .
We must risk delight. . . .
We must admit that there will be the music
in spite of everything.”
If we savor Beauty, and look for it even in the “terrible streets of Calcutta,” if we dare “to risk delight,” we are connecting with God as our greatest theologians have understood God through the centuries. And what might it do for us, in hard times, to look for beauty?
But where does the Beauty come from? What is God’s Beauty? The Trinity is our image of God’s Beauty. It is an image of relationality. It’s our way of saying with 1st John, “God is Love.”[xii] Each person of the Trinity is constituted as God by their Love. Augustine could be fairly paraphrased as saying the Trinity is the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love flowing between them. That is the God Augustine was addressing when he said in The Confessions, “How late I came to Thee . . . . O Beauty so ancient and so fresh!” Divine Love overflows to procreate the whole Creation. A spiral nebula is a picture of Love spinning out Creation in the form of stars.
Not a bad picture of God. God’s very nature is relationality. God’s core self is Love for the Other – that which is not God. This is a serious over-simplification but on the path of truth: God has to allow the Creation – not just people, the whole creation – the freedom to stand apart, to reject God, to be ungodly so that the Creation is truly Other than God so God can love it as Other. God’s Love lures the Creation toward Beauty, toward Godself, while loving the Creation even when it is ungodly. God does not dominate, but woos.
My concern for our ideas about God is how they affect our attitude toward everything. My hope is that if we believe God is Love (as opposed to power, knowledge, judgment, etc. – God may have those attributes, but they are not what constitutes God as God – I can grow a beard or shave it off but I’m still Dan – the Godness of God is Love) we will be on the lookout for Beauty. Jack Gilbert writes,
“To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence
as a rowboat comes slowly out and goes back
is truly worth all the years of sorrow
that are to come.”
So what beauty have you seen, heard, touched, tasted, read, thought, or imagined today? When you encountered that beauty, you were brushing shoulders with God. Have you loved anyone or anything today? “Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God . . . . When we love one another,” St. John says, “God abides in us and we abide in God.”[xiii] So notice the beauty. Love the beauty wherever you find it. In times of trouble, keep on the lookout for God.
[iii] Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus?; Robin Griffiths-Jones, The Four Witnesses, or for a shorter intro, Minka Sprague, One To Watch, One To Pray: Introducing the Gospels https://www.amazon.com/One-Watch-Pray-IntroducingGospels/dp/1596280050/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=one+to+watch+one+to+pray&qid=1590091600&sr=8-3
[vii] Nicholas Lasch, The Beginning and End of Religion https://www.amazon.com/Beginning-End-Religion-Nicholas-Lash/dp/0521562325/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+beginning+and+end+of+religion&qid=1590091789&sr=8-1
[viii] Dan Edwards, God of Our Silent Tears, pp. 85-86. (Do not buy from Amazon. The price is too high.)
[ix] J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small. https://www.amazon.com/Your-God-Too-Small-Believers-ebook/dp/B006YDG196/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=jb+phillips+your+god+is+too+small&qid=1590088256&s=books&sr=1-1; For all the virtues of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, his view of God at that point was identified with the moral order. His later books take a better view of God.
[x] Edwards, p. 86. But this is by no means an original idea. Constructive theologian, Gordon Kaufman, feminist theologian, Sally Macfague, Roman Catholic transcendental theologian, Karl Rahner, and German liberation theologian, Dorothee Soelle all agree who we become is shaped by our image of God.
[xi] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite; Natalie Carnes, Beauty: A Theological Engagement With Gregory Of Nyssa, https://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Theological-Engagement-Gregory-Nyssa-ebook/dp/B00QHRBMJI/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Carnes+beauty&qid=1590011802&s=books&sr=1-1; Dykstra and Westerhoff, Sensing Beautyhttps://www.amazon.com/Sensing-Beauty-Aesthetics-Spirit-Church/dp/0829812423
[xii] I John 4: 7
[xiii] I John 4: 7, 16.