Who is God?

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), for example, describes the divine life as an eternal act of knowledge and love, in which the God who is infinite being is also an infinite act of consciousness, knowing himself as the infinitely good, and so is also an infinite love, at once desiring all and receiving all in himself.

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss

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There are two ways that we as humans can “see” love. One is by receiving a gift or an act of love. Somebody gives a hug, words of encouragement or acknowledgement, a gift, perhaps even something the giver had created.

The other way love can be “seen” is by one not just presenting an act of love unto another, but by being the very embodiment of love. This cannot be done by one simple gesture or act. To be the embodiment of love means to actually form oneself into a complete dedication to another. To be the home, the energy source, the peace, the servant, the friend of another.

In his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss (if you are up for a challenging but really awesome read I would highly recommend it), David Bentley Hart (an Orthodox Christian philosophical theologian and cultural commentator) tries to clear up the question of who it is we are talking about when we talk about God. For him it is both for the progressively popular New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and so on, and also many Christians who don’t really have a full understanding of who God is. To Hart, most debates regarding the existence of God are pointless because neither side understands what god is actually being talked about.

Many of us disregard theology, philosophy, and history, seeing them as harmful or unworthy of our time in the modern, technologically advanced society we live in. We have little need for exploring the depths of the divine when we have churches that are powerful and emotionally charged, and a Bible that tells us everything we need to know. We don’t need to explore philosophy and its deep and often circular questions regarding our existence. We exist. So what? And in our advanced scientific age we have no need to listen to the voices of the past. We’re doing pretty good today, and we would have little to learn from those of the pre-tech societies.

But what this has really done is made us a very shallow bunch, so inclined toward the practical and simple that all our understanding is embodied in utilitarian ideas of how the world and us as humans should function. Which makes us overly materialistic and redefines success in ways I believe are not as beneficial as they might immediately seem. Which is why the question of God is one of many important questions that needs to be addressed.

What we forget is how we see God, how we see the Bible, how we see our past, how we answer the deep questions about human existence, actually has a huge impact on the way we act, think, what we value, and our morals. It really is quite important. And so it needs to be talked about. And with regard to the question of who God is, I believe David Bentley Hart gets at something truly profound. Something worth exploring for Christians and atheists alike.

What Hart finds troubling from groups like the New Atheists, but also more and more Christians is the view of God as a sort of demiurge in the mold of Ancient Greek mythology. Demiurge, meaning a sort of divine “world-maker.”

Personally, I have to some degree viewed God as a more advanced Ancient Greek demiurge. And I believe a lot of other Christians have also done this. In awe, we examine the astonishing aspects of the world we live in and ask ourselves how this could be anything but an act of God. It certainly could not be some random act of science. And so we declare it the design of God.

This brings us to the understanding of God as the Intelligent Designer of the world. But when we see God as a creator it opens up the idea that some of what God created, over time became not so great. Thus making that thing or person expendable or able to be grouped aside. We have an understanding of God as a being outside this earth, up in the heavens. Which for humans, though we would never say it, makes the earth a little less Godly.

What Hart suggests is that God is not some divine old man up in the clouds that created earth at a particular moment in time and occasionally interrupts the natural flow of earth with his divine love. According to Hart,

To speak of “God” properly, then is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.

For some Christians, this understanding of God might strike as uncomfortable or unsettling, but as Hart explains this is not some “new-agey,” “treehugger” understanding of God but has always been the traditional understanding of God in the Church back to the original Church Fathers. However, with the rise of fundamentalism in 20th century this notion of God is being replaced by the “Intelligent Designer God” or the “demiurge God,” which has become harmful both for Christians and Atheists alike.

When we see God not as the imposer or creator of all things but the infinite source of being that gives all reality its life and meaning, it becomes challenging or perhaps impossible to praise the strongest military force in history as it commits “successful” bombardment of a foreign enemy, with or without all its “collateral damage.” It becomes difficult to see children ripped from their parents. It becomes difficult to see rivers polluted, mountaintops destroyed, and forests decimated in the name of progress and wealth.

God is the love source that equips life to each of us, regardless of the creed, group, or flag that is claimed. God is the wellspring of fresh water that provides us with life. This is what the first Americans understood so well. By “first Americans” I mean American Indians, not Pilgrims at Plymouth.

This is what the great mystics always understood, and it is what all of the great religions have always understood as God.

For Christians it is this reality of God we must learn to regather, for those that have lost it.

 

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