This Is Me, Saying Something About God

This Is Me, Saying Something About God August 10, 2012

…by saying stuff about what God is not. That is, by writing some apophatic theology. (Don’t worry, I’ll write substantive stuff about God next week!)

God Is Not Male

I think this sentiment is more palatable these days than it was fifty years ago because we are now aware of the complexities of gender. The meanings of words like “masculine” and “feminine,” “manly” and “womanly,” have been pretty thoroughly deconstructed. Thus, it’s really not even accurate to say, “God has characteristics of both genders,” since that sentence is basically meaningless. God is strong, which is masculine? God is sensitive, which is feminine? The ridiculousness of these sentiments quickly becomes clear.

God Is Not on the Side of the Poor

The other problem with claiming that God is one someone’s side, over against someone else, is that it gets to sounding a bit like members of a sports team who claim, upon winning, that the victory was somehow authored or blessed by God.  Most of us scoff when one team claims that God is on their side.  But how different is it to claim that, based on our own human measurements of poverty, that God favors one group of people over another?

God Is Not Just

Although we wish God to be, God is not equitable.  The rain does, indeed, fall on the just and the unjust alike, but God’s creation is rife with creatures who are preternaturally endowed with more resources than other creatures.  Humankind’s history is a string of stories about the struggle for limited resources, not to share them equitably, but to hoard them and lord them over others.  And, like it or not, God allows this pattern to continue unabated.  Even the biblical narrative is one of unmerited favor upon some and destruction of others.

God Is Not Emergent

The emergent way of Christianity is just as humanly constructed, finite, and open to deconstruction as any other way of faith.  And this is the very thing that God is not.  God is not deconstructible.  God shows no favoritism to emergents.

God Is Not Static

The biblical narrative is clear that God changes God’s mind — in fact, it happens explicitly several times in the Hebrew Scriptures — and God indeed grieves.  But, most significantly, in Jesus, God took the initiative to change the entire dynamic in the divine-human relationship.  The Christ event was nothing less that a 180-degree change in God.

God Is Not Apophatic (Because I cannot say that “God Is Not Love”)

As I have written posts about what God is not, I’ve known that there’s one statement that would be the zenith of apophatic theology.  And I’ve also known that if I cannot write a post in defense of that statement, then I’d hit the limit of apophaticism.  That statement is:

God Is Not Love.

And I cannot affirm that.  Try as I might, I cannot figure out how to justify that sentence.  Maybe Pete can, but I cannot.

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  • Mik

    Isn’t God taking the side of the oppressed or poor when he inspires his prophets to speak up and act.
    I’d say that God takes sides even though we can’t claim him taking ours.

    • Jim Armstrong

      Advocacy is not the same as taking sides.

  • Brian P.

    God is whatever one wants.

    • Jim Armstrong

      …In a way (or two). But not necessarily dismissively if one’s starting point is an axiomatic decision/persuasion that there is creative intent somewhere “behind” the universe. Beyond that, then, we are left with trying to make some sense of that through our human lens(es). That, necessitates us – as a minimum – to resort to metaphor, using what we surmise or conceive from our human existence and experience to create a model of God that we can in some measure relate to. It is only a little further down this road to anthropomorphizing God (in some cases, virtually indiscriminately), assigning very human attributes because we can better relate to them. Some attributes are born of human needs for order and consolation. Others, are born of how we desire to interact with this Creative Impulse (e.g., love, compassion, just, etc.) But we can barely manage to describe love in human terms. How does that work between such disparate existences as man and the Ground of All Being? What is “just” from God’s perspective, whose purview is the workings and intent of ALL CREATION?! I don’t argue that beliefs are bogus. Indeed they are required for us to make sense of things. But it’s sometimes helpful to pick up our beliefs and examine them from time to time. It seems to me, though, that we really “know” little of God, other than in the Creator’s work, we are suspended somewhere between recognizing that we are infinitesimally small – bordering on insignificant – in the bigger physical picture of Creation, and being exquisitely privileged to exist as aware beings in the providence and opportunity of that same Creation. Or so it seemeth to me.

  • Great post. Thanks for keeping this discussion on the edge.

  • John McCauslin

    I love these negative affirmations.  Very challenging.  This approach highlights the human tendency to impose human virtues on God.

    God is not male.  What is the essence of maleness and femaleness?  For the life of me I cannot develop a distinction based upon anything other than culturally limited notions of power and nurture.  Is gender really nothing more than whether one is born with the biological inclination to grow ovaries and the eggs within them.

    God is not on the side of the poor.  God is the god of everyone, the powerful and the powerless.  What lesson should we take from the fact that Scriptural imperatives from God are all directed at those with the power to effectuate them, not typically the poor and powerless.  Our obedience to those commands arises from our own desire to please the God we love.

    God is not just.  Justice is most definitely a human construct.  At its best it is a desire for reciprocal fairness, but usually (and understandably) it is a desire for ‘more’ and for ‘better’, founded upon a belief in personal entitlement.  Included here is a desire to live in a world which is more fair and better for the deserving, such as me and those I care most for.  And it has a retributive side, which we hand over to God, for the reason, I suspect, that we hope God will have the character to refrain from invoking it. However, the truth of the matter is that God determines God’s own course of action, guided by God’s own agenda.

    God is not love.  On this I believe that we have only our own very best feelings to go on, and our desire that the very best in us should be the whole of the God we worship.

    God is not what we know.

  • Evelyn

    God is not Love. The very nature of love requires it to exist within duality. If God is ultimately a form of oneness, IT can’t be only love. Love is an important part of the way God interacts with the living (a form of grace) but IT is more than love.

    • Evelyn

      As a corollary to the observation that God is not love, I’m going to have to state that God is not stupid. Love is often stupid but God is not. This implies some intelligence on God’s part which is over and above raw emotion.

    • Scot Miller

      Very nice, Evelyn!

    • Ric Shewell

      When you say “If God is ultimately a form of oneness” you make a misstep in the apophatic logic. No one can say that God is a form of oneness. We don’t have that knowledge.

      • Evelyn

        By your reasoning, Tony makes a misstep in the apophatic logic when he says “God allows this pattern to continue unabated” under “God is not just.”

        We don’t necessarily have any objective knowledge about God. No one can say that God even exists or not unless something that you think is “God-like” shows itself to you and then you can label it as God.

        My comment was an argument about how to say that God is not love. I’ve arrived at this conviction after a great deal of thought and I could go into a diatribe, based on implicit assumptions about the nature of God, as to how I arrived at this conclusion and why I think it is so (this would take me a couple of weeks to properly word) or I can say a few simple things for the sake of argument (which I will do now).

        As for the concept of God being a “form of oneness”, Advaitist hindu and buddhist traditions claim to lead the adherent to a oneness (with God). This is impossible for a living being because during any sense of oneness, there is always a consciousness observing the oneness so there is an inherent duality between the observer (consciousness) and the thing that is observed (oneness). On the other hand, if you believe that you have a spirit or soul that animates the matter that makes up your body and when the material part of your body ceases to function and the animative property is reabsorbed into the life force which comprises God then you can achieve oneness but you can’t do it consciously or while you are what is normally considered to be “alive”.

        If you are going to admit to the existence of God and then attempt to discuss God, you have to decide what concepts of God you are going to allow and what concepts you aren’t. There are large populations of people who adhere to an advaitist or buddhist concept of “Spirit” so that makes it possible to argue against God being love and only love. Even if we want to claim that those who attribute “oneness” to our relationship with God are wrong, the inherent duality between us and God does not necessarily imply that God is love given that a lot of things happen to us that we wouldn’t consider “loving” but God is always with us nonetheless.

        That’s the best I can do for now.

        • Ric Shewell

          That definitely clears things up!

          For many Christians, “God is love” is the archimedean point on which all other knowledge of God is built on, so in a very real way, the proposition “God is love” cannot be questioned, since their epistemology offers no other pedestal from which to critique it.

          Would it be fair to say that your archimedean point is Advaitist or Buddhist concept of oneness? If so, then that concept for you is somewhat un-give-up-able, just as for many people the concept of “God is love” is un-give-up-able.

          So it would seem, before you can convince that “God is love” is untrue, you would have to convince folks of the “form of oneness,” which I think is a harder sell.

    • Larry Barber

      God is ultimately Trinity, at least according to Christianity. Love is possible within the Trinity, in fact some would go as far as to say that the essence of the Trinity is love.

      • Scot Miller

        I’m not sure if Evelyn would say this, but I follow Meister Eckhart’s distinction between “God” (i.e., the concept of God as dialectically related to nature and to human understanding and experience) and the “Godhead” (i.e., God beyond being and non-being, God qua God). Eckhart is a trinitarian in that God is conceived and understood by human beings dynamically as the eternal creator (Father), eternal savior/redeemer (Son), and eternal sustainer (Spirit) of being; however, that trinitarian being is necessarily dialectically related to the concept of a “creation” or of beings. While these are useful concepts for human understanding, they are ultimately incomplete and imperfect. (So Ric may be right if Evelyn is making a positive affirmation about the “form of oneness,” which is beyond knowledge.)

        This whole question raised by Tony reminds me of the presocratic philosopher Xenophanes, who is supposed to have said,

        The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
        All things to us, but in the course of time
        Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
        But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
        Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
        Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
        For even if by chance he were to utter
        The final truth, he would himself not know it:
        For all is but a woven web of guesses.

        • Evelyn

          I struggle with the trinitarian concept of God. I understand the need to split God into more than one part – i.e. when things are going well for us and everything is right with the world we are happy with God and are ok with God being one being but when things go badly with us we at once need a part of God to blame the bad thing on (choices being the inexplicable movement of the Spirit or Satan) and need a part of God to appeal to (the loving Father) to help us out of the bad situation. When you stick the son into the trinity you’re asking Jesus to take your place in the interaction with God and hence are removing God from your life. The love happens between the Father and the Son within the trinity not between you and God.

          Eckhart’s distinction between God and the Godhead seems to come from his buddhist-inspired musings about detachment leading to releasement and releasement (or letting be) being the essence of God. Therefor the human who attains complete releasement finds himself in union with God. This implies an impotence on God’s part. I’d rather say that God is potent in some way and releasement is not God’s essence. Rather, the human who attains complete releasement is able to observe God’s action in the world with non-judgmental acceptance and then can analyze the works of God to form a realistic theology however rude it may be. (This can lead a person into trying to make sense out of human actions that are normally considered evil.) The distinction between God and the Godhead is then the distinction between the God that we actively believe in (the “Good” principals by which we try to live our lives) versus the God that actually is (an intelligent, creative, and sustaining power that acts in ways that are beyond human notions of Good and Evil).

      • Efrain Zavala

        The Trinity is a symbol and it has its shortcomings. As a Christian, I believe God goes beyond any propositions. In Tillich’s words, “God is a symbol of God.” Blows my mind. Thanks for such an insightful post.

  • Wait a second…are you just trying to generate more comments on your blog? ‘Cause surely this is the way to do it!

    I buy into most of what you say here primarily because I’ve fallen away from having answers about God and fallen onto the path of having more questions about or for him(her…er…it…).

    God is not just? I think we measure him against our sense of justice. I also think we have nothing else to measure him by beyond our own understandings of that nature.

    God is not for the poor? I’m not sure about that one ’cause like Mik says, it’s hard to read the prophets without getting that feel. It also seems like it would’ve been hard to hang out with Jesus without getting that feel too. And I’m tempted to say that in general God doesn’t really play favorites at all…but the whole Israel thing seems to have ‘favorites’ written all over it. So I’m not sure that flys either.

    That’s all the random thoughts I’ve got for now. I hope it adds to your deluge of comments that you’re probably going to get for saying that God isn’t love, doesn’t like poor people, isn’t just, and isn’t a dude (I just can’t help but write ‘him’ regardless though!). Pardon my grammatical errors, I had a really poor grad school teacher that never instructed me on the proper use of a semi-colon.

  • Pax

    I’m confused. Are you saying that God is love but that apophatic theology would require the opposite? Or, are you saying that you really think God is not love, you just can’t “prove it”?

    • Ric Shewell

      In your other post, you affirmed that Christians can say things about God without necessarily saying things about Christ. As a Christian, are these apophatic statements the best we can do before we start to look to Christ to reveal God?

  • Kara Ammon

    Christ event: turn around or clarification?

    • I used to think clarification.

      Now I’m thinking course correction.

      Not quite turn around.

      • Kara Ammon

        What changed your mind?

  • I like where you are going in this post but I think that love too is deconstructible. You can look to Pete’s early work for this, or Marion, who says that every time we try to approach love with our concepts it draws away from us. Not because of its lack but its excess or surplus, overflowing all of our concepts for understanding, including our very understanding of the word “love.” Here, for Marion, God is incomprehensible but not imperceptible.

  • Jim Armstrong

    This was a great request and interim response! Sometimes – in our experience – we can get a sense of things by examining the negative space defined by the “nots”. I think it’s going to be interesting to see if there is any such definition that arises in this question. Or is it going to be that we will just revisit the meaning of “infinite”?

    As an aside, I am a bit surprised at the difficulty many folks are having in staying on point, as well as how many make no distinction between belief and fact. Both belief and fact seem to have lost definition, and in many cases even somehow merged.

  • A Medrano

    God is whatever God wants to be.

  • Ryan

    When you describe something as “just” or even “capricious”, you have to have an external reference or standard by which you are measuring that something or someone. For instance, you can say your neighbor is just, because he/she follows the laws of the land. You could even claim that he/she is just because he/she follows the ethics of the neighborhood. To say that God is just, you are making the claim that God has to “measure up” or fulfill some type of external expectation or law. Thus, God can only be just if God is accountable to something outside of God. But if God isn’t a subject to anything outside of God, then by definition God is not just. David described God as just because he saw God as fulfilling a promise to David/Israel. In a way, that promise was the law by which God was accountable, but really I think David was describing God as just because David believed God to be fulfilling David’s expectations of God. Which isn’t really justice in the normal sense of the word.

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  • “ο Θεός είναι αγάπη”

    GOD IS LOVE…. this is the most substantive and absolute thing I can say.

  • Azdobi

    Hmm. Shame you limit and downgrade an otherwise good mode of thinking by relying on a book which is still changing in all its very many transalations. The original authentic evangelical texts in their original language should be refered to but these in their totalty are not to be found.
    You are saying that God is imperfect, so he had to make an about turn. This is in fact attributing human fallable qualities to God and thereforee making God your own human concept.
    God is God because only HE can describe who or what HE is or isnt. The source of this information must be from HIM authentic and unadulterated and unchangeable from Adam to the day of judgement for all the children of Adam.
    If God is not perfect knowing everything and holding and governing the totality of his creation, then he is not the Supreme Creating original BEING, then he has no masterplan. Then maybe tomorrow he can change the concept of himself again. Such a being is than fallable and not worth worshipping.

  • A Medrano

    God isn’t hateful and evil and unfair

  • Curtis

    “God is not just” and “God does not take sides” seem to be in contradiction. Isn’t not taking sides the ultimate form of justice?

    I agree God is not just at the human scale. Humans regularly experience inequalities as part of God’s plan. God allows, even designs, injustice to happen. But at God’s scale, God shows ultimate justice by showing equal mercy to all. God may not appear just at the human scale, but at the cosmic level, God is completely just, as is illustrated by God’s ultimate lack of favoritism.

    • John McCauslin

      Curtis you have redefined justice, human or divine, out of existence as a meaningful term. Justice is a human concept, involving fairness and accountability. Justice on a human scale involves equitable distribution of power, access, resources, responsibilities and consequences. Justice on a human scale is not involve arbitrary, random or capricious distribution of power, access, resources, responsibilities and consequences. Yet that is fairly descriptive of our world.

      I reject the idea that God designed specific instances of injustice into God’s creation. The fact of the matter is: injustices abound. Innocent people are raped and gunned down, they starve in political struggles or they are swallowed up by tsunamis. Sometimes they are just left homeless when their financial support systems are ripped out from under them. And all the while less deserving people find their lives filled with material blessings.

      And, just for the record, God does not deliver mercy equally to all people. That would not be just in any event, if for no other reason than the concept of mercy is a bestowal of a benefit on one who is undeserving, in utter disregard for the constraints of a just and fair response to the circumstances.

      Nor does God deliver mercy equally to all. You can’t tell that to the starving mother and child in South Sudan, or to the child of a dead parent, killed by a drunk driver, or to the parent who has to watch his child die of cancer. You can’t tell that to the bum sleeping in the woods behind the mansion, or to the unemployed person whose home was foreclosed upon due to the decisions of a banker who took early retirement on a $10 million golden parachute from bank that has gone out of business. You can’t tell that to me as I sit her on my computer, relishing the air conditioning in my fine office. The blessing which have come my way (so far) have been incredibly out of proportion to what I deserve, to what equity suggests is appropriate, and to the apparently meager blessings received by so many.

      Look at the real world. God IS good. God did not design all of this unfairness and misery into the Creation. Some of it just happens, some of it is the product of human evil. Justice is at best a polestar, and possibly a pipedream. Meaningful mercy in this life will have to come at the hands of men and women who accept God’s call to compassion, God’s call to be forces of healing, and God’s call to be living messengers of the coming Kingdom.

      If this seems over the top, sorry. Sometimes a man’s just got to say what’s on his mind.

      • Curtis

        Thanks, John. That gives me a lot to think about, which is why I come here!

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  • Tony, I know this is an older post, but your more recent post got me interested in trying to understand better what your interpretation of “God” is. Maybe you can point me in the right direction…

    Who or what would you say God is (rather than just what God is not)? And, what would you say God has done, continues to do, and will do in the future?

    I have a lot of respect for your take on these things, and I’d love to read more along these lines of questioning.

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