Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

Topics: Spirituality | Theology

What do we mean by God?

Six contemporary thinkers reveal a surprising range of non-traditional views in the United Church today


‘God is a mystical presence and evolving energy’

Two years ago, I invited members and friends of Southminster-Steinhauer United in Edmonton to describe the shape of their faith. Among other things, I was interested in knowing what we mean when we use the word “God.” Respondents were asked to describe their current understanding of God.

Of the 178 participants, 21 said they understood God to be a person-like supernatural being who intervenes in the world. Seven indicated that they don’t believe there is a God, and a further 26 said they didn’t know whether there is a God or not. The overwhelming majority (108 people) framed their understanding of God as not a person-like being, but being itself. Others understood God as mystery of creation, mystical presence and evolving energy that connects everything.

As a theologically expansive and diverse congregation, we mean many different things when we use this one small word “God.” Just two consonants and one vowel carry an enormous his- tory of human constructs. Fifty years ago, leading Protestant theologian Paul Tillich argued that we should have a moratorium on the use of the word “God” for the next century or so. I believe our failure to heed Tillich’s wisdom has limited our understandings of the mystery we have named “God.”

God was first introduced to me as a proper noun, the name given to a supernatural being who created the world, resides in heaven and presides over all things. In my post-seminary and early years in ministry, my understandings evolved into thinking of God as ultimate reality, both beyond and within us, mother- and fatherlike, source of all love but limited in power by the laws of nature. And now, I find myself reaching from those roots toward a post-theistic sense of God as the evolutionary impulse or sacred energy in all things and in which all things have being.

Currently, “God” is not a word I use very much because it seems to con- note a “who” rather than a “what.” These three letters of the alphabet seem inadequate to express the more mystical sense I have now of the divine as beingness. I speak less of God and more of the sacred, divine or holy. I speak fewer anthropomorphic metaphors and more expansive ones like “deep ocean of being” or “spirit in and beyond breath.” For me, these images are more helpful in pointing toward the wordless and deep mystery in which we, and all things, have our being.

Rev. Nancy Steeves is in ministry with Southminster-Steinhauer United in Edmonton.

‘God is Trinity – revealer, revealed and revealing’

The first few steps of Vancouver’s Grouse Grind are deceptively easy. Within minutes, however, the mountainside pilgrimage steepens considerably. With sweat trickling down my brow, I tried to remember why this workout was supposed to help me answer the question, What do I mean by “God”?

Perhaps like St. Patrick tending sheep on Ireland’s Slemish Mountain, I expected a moment of sudden revelation. Yes, that was it. Revelation. After all, God clearly has a desire to know and be known by God’s creatures. “I will walk among you and be your God and you shall be my people,” the Divine declares in Leviticus 26:12.

Grinding my way up Grouse Mountain, I soaked in the beauty of creation and heard the voice of Patrick declare, “I arise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity . . . in Sun’s brightness, in Moon’s radiance, in Fire’s glory, in Wind’s swiftness, in Sea’s depth, in Rock’s fixity.” As my hiking boot kicked up some loose stones, I reflected on the Celtic church’s ability to fuse a respect for creation with an abiding love of the Trinity. As someone always in the process of becoming Christian, this has served as both faithful guide and companion.

Passing a makeshift memorial for a hiker who suffered a fatal heart attack on the Grind, I reflected on how God also provides such meaning for life, death and life beyond death. This Trinity — revealer, revealed and revealing — transforms us in community and mends this broken world.

The Celtic tradition has taught me that our joyful response to God’s revelation requires something more than belief: trust. St. Columbanus once preached, “A road is to be walked upon and not lived in, so that they who walk upon it may dwell finally in the land that is their home.” St. Brigit walked that road by feeding the poor at personal risk. St. Brendan and friends set out on a voyage seeking the will of God “as wandering pilgrims all the days of our lives.” Trust and risk. At times, our contemporary expression of Christianity lacks both.

Reaching the apex of the Grouse Grind, I soaked in the view of soaring skyscrapers, graceful bridges and ocean grandeur. What I mean by “God” a bit clearer now, my whispered prayers joined with the Celtic Christians of old who declared:  Let us adore the Lord, Maker of marvellous works, Bright heaven with its angels, And on earth the white-waved sea.

Rev. Ross Lockhart is minister at West Vancouver (B.C.) United and co-editor of Three Ways of Grace.

‘God’s creativity is expressed through the evolving cosmos’

In the song Lord of the Starfields, Bruce Cock- burn prays to his God: “O Love that fires the sun, keep me burning.”After13.7-billion years, the love that fired the universe into being is still fir- ing through an evolutionary process infused by the radiance of the divine.
There was a time when I understood the universe to be something outside me, something to be looked upon. Today, this objective relationship to the cosmos has been supplanted by a more mystical understanding. I am also the presence of the universe in human form — the conscious face of evolution. When I choose to live as a manifestation of this fire, I feel most alive. My big self is as large as a cosmos and still expanding. This I call my soul.

The two fundamental characteristics of God are creativity and love. These can be distinguished but not separated; each is folded into the other. Divine creativity is expressed primarily in and through the evolutionary history of the universe. The evolving cosmos, including life on our planet, is the incarnation of God’s deep creative desire for love to find its fullest expression. The story of evolution, then, is itself a sacred text, revealing God’s heart and intention. I consider the evolutionary process to be a divine strategy, one that humans have become consciously aware of for the deep realization of love.

My core spiritual practice as a Christian is to situate myself in the same stream of divine/cosmic yearning that animated and took flesh in Jesus of Nazareth — and to do so until I become one with this impulse. When I am in this yearning, this blessed unrest to be the incarnational presence of God’s love and creativity, I experience the joy of deep purpose.

This is Christian discipleship, then, to be a student of this divine yearning and to consent, with Mary, to Spirit’s invitation to give birth to the Christ in the world. To be in this divine desire is to be anointed with the same “vocational arousal” (to borrow a phrase from author Barbara Marx Hubbard) that animated Jesus of Nazareth. It is to undergo a fundamental identity shift, through the realization that we are occasions of the divine creativity and love coursing through the cosmos, and we are imbued with the purpose of birthing the “new thing” God is doing. Anointed and called to be the new thing that is eternally springing forth from the heart of God, we pro- claim and enact the kingdom of God.

Rev. Bruce Sanguin is minister at Canadian Memorial United in Vancouver and the author of Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos.

‘God sets down the melody; we offer it back to God’

Believe it or not, most mainline Christians have had a mystical or religious experience. But in order to make sense of these transcendent experiences, we need a new way to understand God — one that makes sense in our world. In our quest for religious authenticity, a relational view of God gives us an understanding of divine power and compassion. This view is called “panentheism.”

Panentheists experience God as both subject and mystery — the personal and the eternal. God is in the world and the world is in God, and God is more than the world. God is the necessary and eternal source for the world; it is God’s creative act that makes nothing into something, that brings order out of chaos. God depends on the world because the nature of God’s actual experience depends on the interaction with all living reality. As author and theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki put it, “God is the supremely related one.”

God is at home in this unfinished creation. God loves to work with the independence in the created order. God offers novelty, and we use our freedom to react. The world is at play, able to mess up and to go forward. The future unfolds through God offering possibilities, aims and beauty to each moment. We, in turn, respond and add to the offering. God responds again.

God’s power is relational and persuasive, not coercive. What we say and do has an effect on how God will respond. God gives but also receives; acts but also is acted upon; has a vision but is open to change and transformation. There is a call and response built into our relational world, and the world develops through it.

Imagine a jazz group. God sets down the melody. It is passed on to the others in the group, and they get the feel for it. Each listens closely to what the others are saying. Each, in turn, adds originality, colour and difference, tweaking the piece to offer it back to God. God now has to work with what was created by the subjective experiences of the players. God has to feel the offering to give it more feeling. The piece is transformed, to arrive at some satisfaction, which then becomes the ground for the next moments of improvisation. God with us. Alive. Creating. Transforming. Visioning. Maturing. It is within our experience of the world that we vividly experience the presence of God.

Rev. George Hermanson is the director of the Madawaska Institute for Culture and Religion near Burnstown, Ont.

‘An old and immense turtle lives at the bottom of the lake’

The people on the reserve say an old and immense turtle lives at the bottom of this lake. They say no one knows how deep the lake is. Jagged rocks, steep banks, scruffy grasses, Ponderosa pines and mountains surround it. There is one place flat enough to sit or pray or rest.

I am standing at the edge of the lake for my morning prayers. The sun is up but not over the hills. I have my tobacco in my left hand, my eyes are closed and I am giving thanks to and for all of creation. When I say, “I turn my mind now to all the plant foods,” I feel a nudge at my consciousness like a tug on my sleeve. I brush it off and continue giving thanks. A few minutes later, as I give thanks “that the trees remember their original instructions and continue to do their work,”the tug comes again, gentle but more insistent. I think there must be someone around like a kingfisher or an eagle but hopefully not a rattlesnake. A little while later, I am about to turn my mind to gratitude for “all the enlightened teachers who’ve come to us” when the tug on consciousness comes again, still gentle but very insistent. I’ve had enough. I put my hands on my hips, open my eyes and say, “Okay, what?”

I’d drop to my knees if I could move. The world loves too much. The sun and the sunlight love me like their grand- daughter. So do the hills, lake, cactus and the black bear I saw two days ago. The sky and wind love me, and they love each other. The turtle in the lake loves us all. I want to say some- thing but I can’t think. This love lives in all creation and is for all creation. It is too much. I look at the ground to find some- thing solid to hold on to, but instead I feel a grain of sand radiating a love that is bigger than the mountains. It loves and feels loved. I know now that everything we call wind or people or stones are vessels for this love.

A long time later I say, “Thank you.” I tell this story to Madeline, one of the elders from the reserve. She chuckles, waves her hand and says, “Oh, that’s God.”

Susan Beaver is a student minister at Grand River United on Ontario’s Six Nations Reserve.

‘God embodies wholism and shares power’

Let me begin by sharing three basic assumptions. First, all talk about God is a metaphorical and inadequate effort to describe, using human experience and language, what is ultimately beyond description. Second, all such attempts are shaped by each explorer’s identity and social location, limited yet enriched by their spiritual history and experience. Third, this particular exploration is set in the context of the globally interconnected, ecologically conscious, postmodern world of the early 21st century.

For me, God is indeed “HolyMystery,” as described in A Song of Faith, the United Church’s most recent faith statement. God is Ultimate Reality, the Great Ultimate, the Dao/Tao. In human experience, such Reality is incarnated in the Asian triune concept of tian (sky/heaven), di (earth) and ren (humanity), and is connected by the flow of qi/ch’i (universal energy or spirit). As a member of the Christian community, I have also inherited various human-like images of God, along with a Trinitarian doctrine of Father/Maker, Son/Christ and Spirit/Advocate. From time to time, some of these ideas have to be reformulated if they are no longer true to life or life-giving. Others may have to be recovered if they have been neglected or ignored.

For our present age, the kind of God who can bring whole- ness or salvation to our conflict-prone and environmentally at- risk world and to its marginalized minorities is one who embodies wholism, and shares power as re-imagined by feminist theologians.

Ultimate Reality today can also best be experienced in plurality and diversity: a God who rejoices in difference, in just and intercultural relating, who can be imagined with non- white features. From a post-colonial perspective, this God is one of cultural and religious multiplicity rather than mono- theistic monopoly. This God is capable of admitting more than one kind of trinity, plus the “four directions” of Aboriginal spirituality. Acutely aware of past political, cultural and religious colonization of the West over “the rest,” this God recognizes as valid scriptures of “other” faith traditions, oral and written.

And what does such a God, acting creatively and redemptively in our world, require of us today? What else but to continue to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly (Micah 6:8) yet confidently, participating with many different partners in God’s mission of mending the world?

Rev. Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng is professor emerita of Christian education at Emmanuel College in Toronto.


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