What Is God?

A reader writes:

In your post this morning, "Why an atheist converts," you wrote:

But this is God. It is certainly what I understand as God. Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love. 

1. The fact is, the majority of believers believe in an "anthropocentric, grey-bearded being."  They believe in heaven, hell, angels, demons, and all the other clap-trap that goes along with these bronze-age era beliefs.  You can't simply dismiss these trappings with a wave of the verbal hand.  What you're doing here is just inventing your own religion.  "Andrew Sullivanism" if you will.  You're doing the same thing Joseph Smith did.  Hell, you're doing the same thing early Christians did when they took Judaism and made it more palatable for Jews who were perhaps a bit less orthodox-minded.  You like the idea of religion, you just don't like the choices you've been given.  And so you invent your own.

2.  Attributing complexity and beauty to a God, in whatever form you care to give it, is still simple wishful thinking.  We don't need a God to explain beauty; we have science for that.  It does a better job than God ever did.  And to me at least, that's a comforting thought.  And for those who would say that science is simply the implement that God chooses to implement creation, I would say please: show me your evidence.  There is none, it is (again) just wishful thinking.

The idea that science can explain beauty is a non-sequitur. They belong to different categories of thought. Science can no more explain the wonder of a Van Gogh masterpiece than Van Gogh could have explained the chemical composition of the paint, or need to. As for the notion that it is heresy that God is not a grey-bearded figure in the sky, I beg to differ. It is in fact heretical to conceive of God in such an anthropocentric manner. Jesus referred to God as his Father and ours. But that is obviously a metaphor – Jesus' human father was Joseph. In fact, Jesus really called God dad, an intimacy that, to me, reflects exactly the tone of voice that has at times entered my life to remind me I am loved and cared for.

I am not inventing a new religion, like Joseph Smith. I am explaining what I see as the truths of Christianity in language that is not encrusted with myth and irrational literalism, a Christianity that incorporates the unprecedented amount of knowledge that mankind has now acquired about the universe, history, science and indeed the flawed human origins of the Scriptures themselves. To say that God is everywhere, as orthodox Christians believe, is precisely to say he is not some grey-bearded man in the sky. God is neither male nor female. God is hidden. God cannot be grasped by our human minds. But God is the force behind everything, and good. What my reader expressed was this:

If the Universe is anything, it is proof that meaning can be found in the smallest of existence, from atoms to neutrinos and down beneath it.

But this is a religious move, a decision to attach meaning to the Universe, where science can find no meaning only fact and theory. For me, and those who are more mystically-inclined Christians, contemplation of this universe is contemplation of God, and Jesus was one human being who glimpsed this overwhelming truth – and its boundless miracle of love – more powerfully than anyone else in the West. That gave him a composure unlike any human being, a composure saturated with Godness. This is Incarnation.

Another reader:

This dodge is not worthy of you.  As I understand it, you believe in a God who was incarnated as a man, who died, and who miraculously rose from the dead in order to purge mankind of its tragic flaw.  That's not really the same thing as recognizing that there's such a thing as awe, or wonder, or love.

Not a God, God. And, yes, incarnated in the manner I describe above. My heresy – and I concede it – is in rejecting the traditional view of the atonement issue. For me, Jesus's death was not the downpayment on our salvation. He was the way, the truth and the life. His horrifying crucifixion was not some unique necessary sacrifice. It was a commonplace punishment in his time. What singled him out was the manner of his death, his refusal to stop it, his calm in embracing it, his forgiveness even of those who nailed him there, with that astonishing sentence, "Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do."

I don't read that as an affronted "they don't know they are executing the Godhead himself". I read it as "they are so consumed with fear and the world and violence and power that they require forgiveness and mercy, not condemnation". It is this very composure, this sadness born of indescribable empathy, this inner calm and stillness, that convinces me of Jesus' saturation with the Godhead. He was not the human equivalent of an animal sacrifice; he was the light of the world, showing us by his example how we can be happy and at peace and in love with one another and God itself. Another:

If that is your god, why does such a god need a Church? And why does your Church say something quite different about the nature of its god? It's not atheists who describe a god that creates the universe, and heaven and hell, and sends his son to die and descend to hell and be resurrected, to then judge all men after their deaths. That's your Church. And its creed. And that story has nothing to do with the "this" you deify above. Atheists didn't invent the god who parted the seas for Moses, who saved Daniel from the furnace, who commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, who incarnated himself into Jesus, who raised Lazarus from the dead, and who was himself resurrected. Do you hold it all is just metaphor? ALL? If so, what makes you more Christian than pagan? Odin coming down as a blind beggar is pretty good metaphor, also.

There's a conflation here between the often mythical stories told in the Old Testament and the parables and journeys and Passion of the New. I believe that everything I have said is in the Gospels and in the Creed. But what "heaven" and "hell" actually are; what the resurrection truly was (was Jesus physically restored as in life? disguised in others, as at Emaeus? a phantasm? all these versions are in the Gospels and the Acts); what miracles were … these are mysteries. If you want to call that a dodge, go ahead. But if you believe, as I do, that the human mind is inherently incapable of grasping the reality of the highest consciousness except through acceptance of mystery, then it is not a dodge. Yet another:

First, when you say “this is God,” that's fine as a personal statement of belief, but not fine for Roman Catholic like yourself. Catholics recite the Nicene Creed at each mass. There is simply no way to reconcile the words of that ancient statement of belief with your essentially pantheist/panentheist understanding of some Great Organizing Principle (God, if you prefer).

Really? Go read the Nicene Creed. Then try to understand it. You can do so with a nineteenth century literalism; or you can do so in manifold ways that have varied throughout the centuries. They are flawed human words trying to express the inexpressible; language to convey the ineffable. And I have no pantheism here. I believe in one God, in three forms. As a modern person, I also have available truths and insights that others before me did not. It is my duty as a Christian not to parrot old cliches or fear-ridden orthodoxies but to try and make it all make spiritual sense and not violate logic or what my eyes and mind and soul experience. And it is not an argument to say that most Christians don't think this way, therefore it is wrong. Throughout the ages, Christians have challenged their own hierarchy in trying to understand mysteries that are subject to various interpretations. The argument against my position must be: what is there in these texts and these traditions that contradicts Tillich's God as the "ground of all being"?  A final reader is less harsh:

So, in asking us to get over the "anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky", you seem to postulate that we can all agree that the wonders of the cosmos, the miracles of humanity and of love, and the fundamental connection of all living things is "God". Presumably, then, this God can be accessed in any number of ways — either through the revelations/stories/belief structures of organized religion of every kind, or through a fundamental appreciation for the revelations of science in the secular mindset.  You seem to further imply that regardless of how we access it, we are speaking about the same fundamental thing, a shared experience of the mystery at the center of existence.

If so, then the primary argument is not over spirituality or "whether there is a God", but between religions of various flavors and between religion in general vs. science.  In other words, we are squabbling over details (the filters through which each individual uniquely chooses to access and interpret the central mystery) and missing the central point that we are all really after the same fundamental truths.

This is wonderful — I couldn't agree more.  With that said, I can't help but comment that the "spiritual relativism" described above is basically the atheistic worldview.

No it isn't. Because what Christians believe is that this force is caritas. That the universe loves us. That move is Jesus'. That move requires revelation in the face of all the arguments of theodicy. And that is my faith: Deus Caritas Est. And that is so heretical for a Catholic that it was the title of this Pope's first encyclical.