Saturday, May 19, 2018

God is Everything and God is Someone

I think I have come up with a definition of God that is incredibly simple, and yet pretty much says everything I want to say about God. Yes of course, "definition" is tricky, language is tricky, but with the caveat that we are talking about mystery here, I feel like this is a useful way to think about God.

God is Everything and God is Someone.

God is Everything - not one particular being, one particular object in the universe, but the very ground of being. Omnipresent - God is not in one particular place more than any other, not limited to one country of one sacred object or temple or religion. God is contained in none of these things. God is always bigger. God is Everything.

To me this is what Incarnation and the Christian sacraments point to - they very experience of God in the physical. God is this person in front of me. God is this morsel of bread, this sip of wine, this water of blessing. But God is Everything. Sacraments are only designed to open us to this experience in all of the world. The taste of coffee, the encounter with a stranger, the power of music, the glory of sex, all these things are divine.

The idea of God as creator has never made a huge amount of sense to me, other than as a symbol pointing to the goodness and glory of the world. I'm happy to do without it and speak of God in pantheistic terms. God is Everything.

This is the witness of the mystics. That experience of deep Oneness with All That Is. That sense of dissolving barriers between me and you and everything else. In the end All is One. God is Everything.

But there is more to say than this. God is also Someone. I have always experienced God as Someone, but I've been more afraid of making this case in the past, in case it comes across as hopelessly naive. But my spiritual journey has been leading me to a place that is really about a closer and closer walk with a God who is a Someone.

Also some of the reading I've done recently, such as Thomas Oord's The Nature of Love and Derek Guiton's A Man That Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), has helped me to grow in confidence in defending the idea of a personal God.

Religious liberals have been much more interested in describing God in impersonal terms in recent years. It's easy to see why. A personal God can easily become an idol - a tribal deity defending a narrow vision of religious or national identity, or naively literal anthropomorphic "man in the sky." God is seen as "he" which both reinforces patriarchy and gives us a hopelessly literal image (if God is a "he" we can imagine "him" as a bodied being with a penis or a beard).

It seems to make a lot more sense to describe God in impersonal terms. It seems more grown up somehow. But here's the problem - God can only love if God is Someone. Only someones can love. We can talk about a vaguely positive force, a force for love in the world - but stop to ask - what does that actually mean? Does "aligning with a force for goodness and love in the world" actually mean anything? Does it actually work? Does it comfort us in sorrow and make us grow in our commitment to one another? I'm not convinced it does. I'm not convinced it makes any sense to speak of love without speaking of a Lover.

An impersonal God, a pantheistic "it" can easily drop into a general monism and then to a religious naturalism/atheism. We may still use a theistic language, but we will act like in reality, no one listens to our prayers, no one actually cares, we can only change the world with our own grit and determination, but there is no reason to suppose we will (or that we can) succeed. There is no grace and there is no power of love behind us.

Again my foundation for saying this is the witness of mystics as well as my own spiritual experience. In the moments of deep connection with prayer there is an apprehension not just that we are a being deeply connected to the universe but that there is an actual Someone who reaches out to us in love. We are seeking but we discover there is a One who has been seeking us for longer. There is a One who genuinely reaches out to us with an embrace of love. We discover that God is wildly, passionately in love with us.

This is increasingly my experience. The best words I've found to describe this companionable relationship are the words of Hafiz (interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky): "God and I are like two giant fat people in a boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing."

The experience is not like a rational contemplation of the universe. It is like being taken hold off in passion and made love to. It is personal, and it can be no other.

God is Someone. Now of course if we leave it there we can drop into all the idolatry I've already mentioned. We can too easily associate the Someone with a particular language, religion, name, experience. Which is why we need to keep the idea of "Someone" balanced by the idea of "Everything" because although we encounter God as Someone, there is more to God than that.

God is Everything and God is Someone.

I know that in some ways this really doesn't make sense. How can Everything love us like it is a Someone? And yet this is what the inner experience of prayer has led many to know experientially. It is increasingly the very foundation of my life.

It feels important to me to embrace this understanding. I think it may explain a lot. It may explain in fact why evangelical charismatic churches are generally growing and liberal and mainstream churches are generally in decline. Is it as simple as that? Have we considered that it might be as simple as the fact that Evangelical charismatic churches believe in God? That they actual act as if God is actually real and expect to find a real experience of the Living God in their worship? Meanwhile mainstream and liberal churches offer intellectual ideas, and a discussion about social issues, but are really embarrassed to actually get into the intimacy of a personal relationship with God.

The fact is clever nuanced theology is never going to attract a mass movement as much as "here is God, God loves you." That's always going to be a more powerful message than your page long mission statement that talks about "individual freedom, equality for all, and rational thought."

That is, perhaps, a separate discussion. But for now it feels important for me personally to live into the simple theology that God is Everything and God is Someone.


Anonymous Kate said...

I get this. I honestly don't think the two ideas are incompatible. In my mind and my experience both these ideas of God are true. It makes sense.

9:32 pm  
Blogger jkh said...

Is the 'Someone' Jesus, for you? If not, where does he fit in?

11:32 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

@jkh No, it's not Jesus. When I visit evangelical churches are see people having a real experience of encounter "with Jesus" and although it's not for me, I think it's genuine and a real experience of Someone. But the problem for me with naming it "Jesus" is it narrows it down to one name, history, person. For me this narrows God down to much and stops us thinking of God as Everything.

Jesus, for me, is one who had a real experience of Someone (for Jesus it was "abba") and made that the basis of his life. He is a model to follow.

11:44 am  
Blogger jkh said...

I think what you have just described is the original 'Unitarianism'. If we were living in the 19th century, I would even call it (approvingly) 'Primitive Unitarianism', and I wish there were more of it about.

3:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen and all

As well as the important distinction between God as everything vs someone (impersonal / personal), I'm seeing another distinction here of theory vs practice. You have an active prayer life which is leading to real spiritual experience. Rather than talking about God in an abstract theoretical or intellectual way, which is important too, but not enough on its own. Perhaps another reason why charismatic churches, as well as eastern and pagan religions are flourishing.

Blessings, Nick.

5:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"God is Everything and God is Someone"

Crosses are symbols used in various religious traditions. The horizontal span can represent the Everything, the horizon. The vertical represents I, Someone. The cross is where these two perspectives meet and join. Where the individual finds their place in the whole. And without individuals there'd be no relationships.


9:38 pm  
Blogger New Transcendentalist said...

As a UU panentheist, I see Spirit as both the transcendent, transpersonal ground of being, and as the immanent, omnipresent loving luring presence. I also see spirit as the light within. These are the 3rd, 2nd, and 1st person faces of spirit, which are ultimately one.

3:55 pm  

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