John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
I understand God primarily through the categories of Being: God is Being in itself, the source, the ground and the purpose of all being. But God is also the Wholly Other and the Beyond in the Midst who relates in personal ways with beings. No doubt I am indebted to John Macquarrie, Paul Tillich and the existentialist-influenced theologians of my youth for this. And though this may not be a fashionable view these days (something I cannot judge), this offers a series of conceptions and categories to which I find myself returning again and again. They express both immanence and transcendence, closeness and otherness. The concept of God as Presence,which process theologians are keen to emphasise, goes alongside this. Not that it is a discovery of theirs, merely a giving of new meaning within a particular philosophical/theological framework to a very old understanding of God which goes all the way back to that disclosure to Moses that we know as the Burning Bush experience. As the Catholic priest Henri le Saux, better known perhaps as Abishiktananda, wrote many years ago:
‘God is always present to us. There is no time and no place in our daily life or occupation in which God is not present to us; there are not even certain times or occupations in which God is more present to us or less present to us… Man (sic), alone among creatures, has the privilege of being aware of this presence and of being called to reciprocate it; that is … called to be present to God as God is present to him.1.
St Anselm once famously wrote that God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. This is a phrase which I have always liked, even though until quite recently I thought it went 'God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived’. Perhaps, like many others, I can slightly diverge from Anselm, with whom I would take issue over the word or concept 'a’ being, since I have long since moved away from a belief in God as a being. God is not a bigger, better, perfect version of me; the matter is the other way round. In all my imperfection, I nevertheless have my being because of God’s Being, and try to reflect that beneficent Being in my being. For God is Being, not a supernatural being. That we have over centuries used anthropomorphisms in our God-talk may have been – indeed may still be - necessary; but this does not mean that God is a being, like us only sort of bigger and supernatural.
Part of the problem lies in the mythological, metaphorical, analogical language that we necessarily have to use. But fundamentally, God is Being, God is Source of Being, God is Presence, and so on. The author of John’s Gospel has Jesus reflect this in chapter 4, ‘God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth’.
This God we encounter and respond to in the processes of our own and others’ being; we see this God modelled (incarnated or instantiated) in the person of Jesus the Christ whom we try to follow both in faithful recall and in imitation or making real in our own lives. And it has been humanity’s growing conviction that this wholly other, who is closer to me than I am to myself, this Ground of all Being and of my Being, is not simply being; Being is also purposeful and loving.
But this Ground of Being also has a contradistinctive reality over against beings and creation. It will not do to identify everything with God and as God. For as well as underpinning it all – God in everything, an appropriate panentheism – God as Ground of Being is wholly other. The relationship is not just subject to subject, but also in a tensive sense subject to object. So when I use the word God I have all this – but not some supernatural being – in my basket of hope and understanding.
As I have said, the language we use about God is always metaphorical. If we allow the metaphor to become too set in stone it becomes an idol; this has happened with the maleness imagery and language. But how can God who is the Ground of all Being be anything other than inclusive and genderful? 2. Sadly we have no pronoun that is appropriate in English.
I also believe that God is a God of appeal and possibility, not of demand or control. In this is to be found the beginnings of an understanding of the origins of our flawed and compromised world, humanity and church; it is also the key to why the Jesus process has not wholly overcome or been completed. Theologically we are straying into the territory of ‘original sin’ and ‘free will’ as well as ‘salvation’ here. But I am increasingly convinced free will is not so much about how we respond in the minutiae of everyday life as about our willingness to try to live in total relation (my preferred word is alignment; I have heard Rowan Williams use a similar word and concept: atunement) with the Ground of all Being, the personal beyond in the midst, the wholly other who meets us in others and in ourselves. If so, original sin (if we must use that phrase) is not some state imparted to us by the givenness of being human, but is much more a foundational alienation, for whatever reason or circumstance, of not finding meaning in living in an aligned relationship with God.
As human beings we have the potential to use love abusively; so too there is the potential for us to use God abusively. Abuse of God hinders my knowing of God, particularly that abuse which hijacks God to reinforce our pre-existing prejudices or to sanctify our violence. For some people this abuse calls the whole concept of God into question. As does the charge, that we are mere automata. But it will be clear that a liberal’s belief in God does not mean that we are puppets whose strings God is manipulating. Nor does it mean that God has a detailed plan, and that everything which happens is in accord with that plan. God does have a purpose, an aim, a lure (as Marjorie Suchocki and other process theologians put it), for me, for everyone and for everything; this purpose or lure is about flourishing, and particularly human flourishing, towards the divine as revealed in Jesus Christ.
We discover God, and God’s possibilities for us and the whole of creation, in the processes of life and discipleship. And we discover that ‘God’s hands are muddy’. In the situations of this life – whether of our own making or of others’ making – God ‘walks’ with us but does not control us. God yearns for us and co-operates with us when we reach our for the good, and continually gives us in all these situations markers, indicators, signs, sighs, cries, that are clues for our reaching out to find God there or here, and so to turn into the path of God, good and flourishing. This is truly an Emmanuel (God-with-us) theology – and as with The Emmanuel so we can turn against, not listen, not reach out, reject. But if on the other hand we radically orient ourselves with Being, we begin to put meaning to that difficult word, salvation.
Often, though, it is quite easy to feel that we are living moment to moment as though we are practically atheists, unaware of God or the things of God. But if we are nourished by the sort of understanding of God I have tried to outline here, we gradually discover that something else is afoot. The artist Matisse was an avowed atheist. Yet it is reputed that when asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ he replied, ‘Yes, when I work.’ I on the other hand am more likely to say, ‘Yes, when I stop.’ For God is the ground on which I walk, the air I breathe, of which I am not conscious at every moment, but without which I cannot be. But I often do not notice till I stop.
I must admit that there is a considerable cognitive or epistemic distance between this rather abstract philosophical terminology which I have been using about God and the Christian understanding, which I hold strongly, that God is pure, unbounded, limitless Love. Wherein lies the connection? It lies in three places. First in the very fact that all that I have described as contained within the meaning of the word God is personal: the Ground of Being is the ground of my being, closer to me than I am to myself. So intimate a personal relationship can only be characterised by the categories of love. Second, the struggle of humanity to articulate its understanding and appreciation of God has consistently, at its most penetrative, come to understand God's Being as loving being. Thirdly, the meaning of love is the very heart of the message of the self-disclosing God that we encounter in Jesus.
Abishiktananda, Prayer (Delhi, ISPCK; 1967)
Macquarrie, John, Principles of Christian Theology (SCM Press, 1966)
Suchocki, Marjorie, In God’s Presence (Chalice Press, 1996)
Suchocki, Marjorie, God, Christ, Church (Independent Publishers Group, 1982)
Tillich, Paul, The Shaking of the Foundations (1948; Wipf and Stock reprint, 2012)
Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be (1952; 3rd edition Yale University Press, 2014)
1. Abishiktananda, Prayer, pp3,4
2. See the article God, gender and language – a male perspective