GOD: Three Letters and a World of Problems

At the start of this series on knowing God, we need to think about what is we mean when we think or talk about God. It’s fine — and necessary — to talk about God’s will, God’s initiative, God’s revelation, and so on, but this can easily mislead us.

Unsurprisingly, ‘God’ is a big topic and is a subject that is impossible to pin down. I am convinced that much of the popular understanding of God — including much of contemporary Christian understanding of God — falters by having too small and limited a vision of what this three-letter word means.

Despite only being three small letters long, ‘God’ is the biggest word in the English language. The word ‘God’ contains infinity within it: our greatest accomplishments, our loftiest goals, our most stirring impulses towards compassion and self-sacrifice have been inspired by it, just as have been many of our greatest terrors, basest acts, and instinctive impulses towards stinginess and self-protection. Wars have been fought over this word; peace has been made in its name. No word has been parsed, searched out, and sought to be understood as much as ‘God’, and no word has been as abused and misunderstood.

Similarly, no word has despised and refused definition as much as ‘God’. The moment we feel we’ve climbed the mountain, we see another taller peak on the horizon. If we really mean it when we say that God is infinite, this shouldn’t be surprising; in fact, we must expect or even *demand* that this be the case.

Infinite really is, after all, infinite.

Unsurprisingly, I also believe this limitation in our conception of God is at the heart of why the very notion of God is so controversial in our culture. Even today, some think of God as a (mostly) benevolent grandfather up in the sky, a kind of cosmic Santa Claus, complete with flowing white beard. It should go without saying that any understanding of God that involves facial hair is deeply inadequate. If nothing else, such an image strongly suggests that God bears a greater resemblance to men than to women, particularly if it is not balanced by other Biblical images that speak of God in feminine terms. But more importantly, such anthropomorphic images — male or female — can muddle our vision of God more than they clarify them.

On the other extreme, there are those for whom God is little more than a feeling or impression, or whatever in our life might be important at any given time. If the idea of God as Divine Santa feels naive, this idea of God as feeling is deeply insufficient, lacking in any content or power: a God who is little other than my passing whims is no God at all.

And so, it’s no wonder that God is controversial and so many people who do actually believe in God prefer to use a different word (like ‘Spirit’ or ‘Universe’), a word less loaded with centuries of baggage and misunderstanding. It’s also no wonder that’s it’s common for theists to have to say to their atheist dialog partners, “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.” The God of popular imagination, including our own, is not God.

What’s needed is a reboot of how we conceive of God, to go back to the beginning and remember the humility required of our words and concepts.

And it’s to this that the next post in this series will turn.

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