Before sharing with you my understanding of the word “God”, let me state three things in introduction. It may help you to understand why I believe what I believe – notwithstanding the fact that in the end each one of us has to make our own journey.
(1) My philosophy of life leans towards existentialism in so far as I do not look at life in terms of sitting in a box in a theatre watching a performance. Our place is on the stage participating in the drama of life. There is nothing fixed and final about my understanding. It may drastically change tomorrow. It certainly has in the past.
(2) When I candidated for the Ministry of the Methodist Church, I was directed to the University of Queensland which had the cheapest post graduate degree. Unbeknown to myself and the Church Elders, my arrival in Brisbane coincided with the return of the theology professor from two years studying under Paul Tillich who described God in terms of “The Ground of our Being” and wrote books with intriguing titles such as “The Courage to Be”, “The New Being” , “Ultimate Concern” and “The Shaking of the Foundations”. They were to me like milk to a mother’s child. And it all occurred by chance!
(3) The other event of significance for me at that time was the publishing of John Robinson’s “Honest to God” in which he boldly said that our image of God needed to be reconstructed. As might be expected, the conservative church reacted negatively with J. I. Packer saying it was “just a plateful of mashed Tillich, fried in Bultmann and garnished with Bonhoeffer”. Robinson said the idea of God as a person in the heavens pulling the levers of life and intervening on request had to go. He maintained that it would take about a hundred years for this to be recognized. He published in 1963 which puts us right in the middle of the process!
(4) Keith Rowe maintains that “we need today to rethink Christian belief in the light of understanding not available to people of the first century.” Notwithstanding the valiant efforts of Domenic Crossan, to speak today of “Our Father who art in heaven” is non sense. We no longer think in terms of a three tiered earth, nor is our society patriarchal. If we are to use metaphors to speak of God then let them be the metaphors of our day.
What then do I understand by the word “God”?
(1) I do not see God as a being but as the ground of our being. To be or not to be really is the question! God for me is the creative energy of life, with creation being in the future, and not the past. I have no problems with “spontaneous” creation in the past. It is the future that is of concern. The God question for me is not about eternal life in some kind of heaven but the future of the human race, not just in terms of existence but in terms of fullness of life. As someone said “Mind, meaning and value is as fundamental as matter and space time in an account of what is.” The Christian faith is about fullness of life, and God is the potential creative catalyst inviting us to fullness of life. Creation is in the future and we are called to bring it into being.
(2) We need then to think of God in terms of process rather than as person, as a verb rather than a noun. The story of the burning bush is instructive in this respect. Fire has a long history of symbolizing God. Moses finds himself in the presence of a fire that continues to burn and , after being challenged to free the people of Israel from slavery, asks “What is your name? Whom will I say has sent me?” Remembering that names in those days were about the nature of the person rather than a whim of the parent, the answer is striking. ”Say ‘I am’ has sent you.” The answer is the first person singular imperfect of the verb to be. God is described in terms of a verb rather than a noun, and the glory of God is everything fully alive!
How then do I speak of God today? I feel that the “Ground of our Being” is a good starting point as also is “Spirit of Life”. Both have a past, present and future connotation. At one time I favoured “the energy of life” but the word energy is a little too specific in scientific circles. The Ground of our Being, and Spirit of Life are far less corporeal.
What’s in a name? A great deal actually, and the faster we recognise it, the better it will be for all concerned. As I find myself saying a lot these days “To be or not to be really is the question”.