This guest post is by Brian Niece.
There is a popular understanding of God that holds God as perfect. Of course, there are many definitions of “perfect.” Perfection could mean: flawless, absolute, exact, or complete. But most of these definitions give us a God that is immutable. “Immutable” is a churchy word that means “unchanging over time and unable to be changed.”
I say this is a churchy word, because the word “immutable” exists nowhere in the Bible. It is a concept gleaned from a slightly off-kilter reading of the text. An immutable God cannot move, cannot act, but can only exist as the opposite from everything else, like some divine dark matter.
The inherent problem with projecting a perfect God is that it leaves theology nowhere to go, and nothing to do. Theology that has nowhere to go is simply metaphysics. By definition, “metaphysics” are concepts that deal with abstractions and have no basis in reality. Thinking about God in a way that matters must have something to do with reality and must connect with people.
Many of us would prefer a God who connects with reality and connects with people. If God were wholly and ultimately unchanging and unable to change, what would be our connecting point? There would be none.
The contemporary predicament of God is one of misperception. The traditional theistic classification of God emphasizes the changelessness of God, the extreme independence of God, the absolute control of God, and God’s perfection.
The perfect God becomes only a God of abstraction who is disconnected from such foundational things as goodness and beauty.
There is a distance between this God and the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, who is also the God of human experience.
God Is Pure Act
Here is what the God of Scripture and human experience tells us about God: God is acting all the time, always in action, always in motion.
A perfect God would have no need for action.
God cannot be in control and still act in and with his creation. At least at one level, this is to say that God is not perfect in the metaphysical sense. To say that God acts is to say that God has potential.
Maybe God is pure act.
If God is always acting, then God is always in motion. God does not act to grow in understanding. Rather, God acts to achieve certain purposes.
God cannot have already finished. God, in fact, enjoys his ongoing redemptive, reconciling work in the world.
The God who Jesus called Father is a God we can respond to with music and dancing. If we don’t respond to this God’s actions with awe and joy, then Heidegger was right: theology’s God is not impressive.
The God Who Changes
The incongruity between the all-knowing, all-powerful God of traditional theistic thought and the active God of human experience has led to a distinct modern problem: atheism.
Atheism argues that it is not rationally sufficient to postulate God. And if the only option for understanding God is as a perfect God, then atheism is right.
“But God doesn’t change his mind,” someone might say. I humbly refer you to the scriptural story of Jonah, where God did change his mind. Whether the story is history or narrative is beside the point. The story paints this picture: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind” (Jonah 3:10).
The Jonah narrative is just one textual example out of many wherein God’s mind is changed.
We need a God who is open like that. Because if God’s mind never changes, then God is no longer relevant to society. And when God is no longer relevant to society, all kinds of weird understandings of God and reality start to make convoluted sense. And when the weird understandings of God are embraced by large chunks of “Christian” society, the only rational alternative is atheism.
The Relational God
Though God’s love is unchanging, God’s mind changes. Yes, God’s mind changes, because God is authentically pursuing relationship with creation.
The God we are presented with in scripture and in human experience is a relational God. This God is genuinely related, but not dependent. God chooses his relatedness, because God is free to do as he pleases. In somewhat of a mystery, God can re-narrate the past and make it redemptive, because God is supremely relative, not supremely perfect.
Perhaps the relational God looks just like Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus, as the physical expression of the divine nature, can be rationally postulated.
We can either affirm or deny God’s relational reality. We cannot escape the dilemma. Any attempt to deny God’s relational nature leaves us with only two options: perfect God syndrome or atheism.
About Brian Niece
Brian Niece is a former pastor, who was a former actor, now navigating the fringes of institutional religion. He writes and speaks to and for outsiders and outliers at www.brianniece.com. He hosts the Reimagining Podcast about rethinking ourselves, our culture, our faith … maybe everything.