Who Is God and How Do We Know?
How do we dare say we know God? How can our knowing of God differ so much from someone else’s knowing?
The well known church leader and writer/blogger, Tony Jones, who identifies as a Christian progressive, has called for progressive “theo-bloggers” to post an article “of substance” on God. His reasons sounded valid, so I’m taking up the challenge.… Mind you, he specified an article not on Jesus, the Bible or other theological topics but on God Godself.
I suppose that clumsy “Godself” term (mine, not Tony’s), which English forces many of us into if we seek to be consistent, is a place to start! Many Christians feel ok about calling God “him,” while others, like myself, may not feel uncomfortable with that (but then, I’m male); however we believe gender-neutral pronouns more properly follow and direct our thinking, so are important to use.
It is nearly universally agreed among major Christian sects, and for a long time, that God is without gender. (What contortions we go through dealing with that agreed-upon “fact” is another topic I can’t get into now.) So this may be one of the easier aspects of speaking meaningfully about God. God as above gender is defensible either via the concept of divine revelation (including God’s self-disclosure) or the related concept of natural revelation, both held to by most Christians. I don’t want this article to focus primarily on how my (or any) concept of God can be argued for and supported, but it is important that we are clear about how we come to what we perceive and believe, realizing how others may see and believe something different.
So a moment on “ways of knowing” (a formal and important category of philosophy and theology, for the unacquainted): For I-don’t-know-how-long, Christians have been schooled to do what seems to come pretty naturally – affirm the existence of God by observation of the world around and within, and add to that specific understandings of God through what God has supposedly revealed in sacred scriptures (the Bible)… not necessarily in that order. St. Paul took this basic line of argument in Romans, though he wasn’t referring to his own writing or any of the eventual New Testament. (Such an authoritative collection didn’t exist until much later.)
How Is God Revealed?
I have a reason for starting here in making a few (hopefully substantive) comments about God and God’s actions. It is that the critical, most foundational differences in Christians’ views of God parallel pretty closely the way they view “general” revelation (nature, conscience, etc.) and “special” revelation (Scripture — note “specialness” is seen even in our capitalizations).
As is always the case in discussions like this one, it is important for speakers to state their own “location” (ala Integral theory) within the discussion. So I will, though only partially for brevity: I am a believer in a variety of ways of knowing, equally “weighty.” My perspective is as integral (or integrated) as possible. I can’t go along with the common Christian views about biblical revelation as a “special” category that is reliable about specific “doctrines” or principles. This view contends God has given us more specifics in revealed scriptures than we get through general revelation, the latter of which includes religious history or individual spiritual experiences. Special revelation also supposedly adds specificity to “moral intuition,” as agreed upon broadly in a culture or trans-culturally.
Seeing only one “category” of so-called revelation, I understandably do not feel any need to try to harmonize the many, often conflicting, perspectives of God found throughout the Bible. However, that doesn’t mean no knowledge about God is available there. But to me, the avenue to it is of the natural sort… for example, inferences from multiple personal and collective human experiences, culled and edited down over many centuries (the Bible spans at least 15 or 16 of them, though the actual writing probably several less).
How is Prophecy from God?
Incidentally, a certain view of prophecies within the Bible is critical for those of the special revelation camp. I don’t deny all elements of prediction in biblical or other prophecy…. I see prophecy as part of natural and universal human ability (or “gifting,” stronger in some than others). I agree with many Evangelicals that prophecy’s purpose is more “prescriptive” (of attitude and behavior) than “predictive,” though I take my critical analysis further than they will.
Now, the parallel I referred to is this: I’ve implied how ways of knowing are divided, by most Christians, as natural and supernatural. In this belief, “special” revelation assumes that God selected a certain group of people as God’s People, uniquely among all people groups. God then chose individuals among them, through whom to give more detailed and vital spiritual information to everyone else. This requires God to intervene in human affairs via special (that term again) acts of revelation, but just occasionally, for a period. (To nearly all Christians, this activity is believed to have ceased, at least as to authoritative information.)
This kind of intervention, along with others such as miracles, is the basic definition of supernatural – that which is beyond and distinct from the natural world and natural processes. So anything other than what is revealed in and through natural processes requires a supernatural God. On the other hand, the existence of God is not denied if processes of nature are deemed to account for all “revelation.” If we still believe in some kind of God (as I do), we merely have a God who uses subtle and universally accessible means of self-disclosure. The Bible can still be taken seriously, as I take it, on a number of levels. It is an important part of general revelation, as I implied above.
Following naturally (naturally!) on that, we have a God who can and does act in history and human affairs but does so via subtle (or “non-dual”) integrated aspects of natural processes. God’s love and intentions can (and do, in the belief of many of us) still operate in small increments over long periods, thus impacting our development – individually and collectively. Still, and more dramatically, that may be punctuated by “breakthroughs” which we may experience as conversions, seeming miracles, peak spiritual experiences, etc. These happen by the convergence of certain conditions, aided often by the role of our own intentions or decisions of heart and mind.
Knowing God by Faith?
In this system, our own intentions can spring from God’s, or may spring from baser motivations. So, in that sense we can be “inspired” (in-spirited) by God. Such a God is universally available to everyone and does not need to be accessed via any particular religion or set of beliefs. On the other hand, “faith” or trust in the broad sense is indeed crucial in the process. “Faith seeking understanding” is valid, meant within certain limits.
I will stop with this beginning of a statement about possible views of God, noting that I purposely, almost necessarily wove together views of how we gain spiritual information with our views of who God is, the core of that being the major way God stands or acts in relation to us and the unfolding of history. God is persuasive love, containing but somehow still beyond all that we can grasp, and within whom “we live and move and have our being.”
Who is God to you? How do come to your understanding of God?