One thing Christians do not believe
In 1943, the Oxford English professor, author, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis hosted a series of conversations about God on BBC radio. In a radio address titled “The Rival Conceptions of God,” he said the following:
“I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the strangest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.”
I’m sure we’ve all met people whose religion seemed to make them less tolerant and less open minded about the world they live in, but that’s not the way it worked for Lewis. When he was an atheist, Lewis said that he had to consider the vast majority of human beings as dead wrong on the most important question of their lives. But as a Christian, he was able to adopt a more “liberal” and accepting view towards his fellows. “Liberal” and “accepting” are not adjectives typically used to describe religious people, at least not in North America. There are a variety of reasons for this, which we don’t need to get into. For now, it’s enough to say that if you’ve encountered unaccepting, intolerant religious people, there is no need for you to become one of them yourself. Lewis found that his conversion to the Christian faith helped him see what he had in common with others and also encouraged him to find shared truth, even among people he disagreed with.
There’s a second aspect to the above that’s important, especially in a pluralistic society. Just as religious belief doesn’t necessarily lead to intolerance, being open and accepting of other’s beliefs ought not lead to forced agreement or minimizing differences. Though Lewis said he took a “more liberal view,” he still recognized that there are differences between Christianity and the other world religions that makes them ultimately irreconcilable. Modern secular people sometimes minimize the differences between world religions hoping to strike an irenic tone by claiming that “all religions essentially worship the same God.” It’s important to recognize when you say something like this, you’re imposing your own, modern, western view of religion (i.e. that all religions are essentially the same) on people with sincerely held religious beliefs. Rather than learning about their beliefs, what you’re really doing is asking them to adopt your own. Not only is this not respectful, but it’s not a good model for civic discourse concerning religion. Lewis offers us a good model. Religious faith allows us to see what we share in common with other people of religious faith, while at the same time showing respect to others who might disagree with us by honoring their sincerely held differences.
In what follows we focus on things that people of religious faith generally hold to be true about God, though this will be done with special reference to the Christian faith. We’ll draw out some practical conclusions for your spiritual life along the way. Our discussion on God this week prepares us to focus on specific aspects of Christian faith in God, such as the Trinity, next week.
Belief in the one living and true God
What exactly do we mean when we say the word “God”? The Anglican 39 Articles of Religion, a statement of faith written during the English Reformation, writes that “there is one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” This simple statement offers us a lot to think about as we try to answer our question: What is God?
To begin, the statement says that there is one living and true God. In the ancient world of the Bible, and in some parts of the world today, the statement would have been non-sensical. There wasn’t one living and true God, but many. The difference we’re talking about here between one living and true God and many, is the difference between monotheism (one god) and polytheism (many gods).
In polytheism, the gods were often linked to specific territories or material goods. When I lived in England, I enjoyed long bike rides down to a hill that formed part of the ridge that encircled Oxfordshire. The hill was called “The White Horse,” because a large horse hand been carved into the hill. The horse was white because if you dug under the emerald grass of the hillside you wouldn’t find brown dirt, but white chalk. The horse was enormous and older than Stonehenge. Behind the White Horse was a little cave called “Weyland’s Smithy.” According to legend, Weyland was an old Norse spirit, a master metal worker, who travelled to England during the Viking invasions of the 8th century. It was said that if a traveler’s horse lost a shoe, he could leave the horse along with a small amount of money near the cave. In the morning the horseshoe would be mended and fitted on the horse. The traveler would be ready to move on, thanks to Weyland, the spirit in the cave.
The legend of Weyland’s Smithy is a perfect example of a “local” god or spirit. If you’re inclined to believe in Weyland, then you might expect him to repair a horseshoe just outside of Oxford, but you wouldn’t expect him to do so in Mobile, Alabama. Weyland’s power doesn’t extend that far. The obvious downside to the local gods of ancient paganism is that if you travel far enough away from the temple, the power and protection of the local deity simply can’t reach you.
Belief in the one living and true God is not belief in a local God, a God whose spirit is bound to certain locations as Weyland’s spirit was. God is not a God of places, but a God of people. He is a God of relationships. He is the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our Fathers” (Acts 3.13). Moses goes a step further. He is not just a God of other, more important people, such as holy men like Abraham, but Moses says, “He is my God” (Exo 15.2). After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus does not say he is going back to the God of Heaven. He is not a God of a place, even of heaven! Jesus says, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20.17).
What benefit does this insight provide for those of us cultivating a spiritual faith in God? For many people, the place where they first began a relationship with God will always remain sacred and special. And while this is good, the danger is that the place takes on such a significance, that God cannot be felt elsewhere. The one living and true God is not like the gods of the ancient pagans. He is not bound to a holy site, a sacred building, or a special plot of land. Because he is a personal God, he can begin a relationship with you in one place and continue it in another. I’ve found this truth to be especially hard college seniors to learn. Many of them began a relationship with God in college and now must learn how to continue it out in the real world. The first couple months, away from a familiar community and a familiar place of worship can be hard. But the one living and true God will accompany you anywhere. He is not trapped in the golden years of your college faith experience!
Apart from being bound to local places, polytheistic gods were also linked to material goods. Ancient paganism had a tendency to deify the desires and longings of the human heart, which were magnified to cosmic proportions. I’m sure you’ve known people (you might be one!), who simply had to be the best at everything. They had to get the best grades. They had to be on the best team. They had to land the best internships. They had to get the highest position of authority in the organization. If they didn’t get these things, they would be deflated and grumpy. What is going on here? People like this have taken a basic human desire to do one’s best and elevated it to a personal quest of cosmic proportions, worthy of religious devotion. In the ancient world, this pursuit actually was a religious act, complete with a personal deity named Jupiter, the god of power and authority. Perhaps you don’t find power and authority so appealing. What really drives you is the quest for love and intimacy. In the ancient world, love and intimacy were also deified, this time in the goddess Venus. Wealth and financial security were deified in the Roman god Mercury. Put simply, the ancient world idolized the human quests for power, love, and money and turned them into religious cults.
The problem with deifying power, love, money, or any other material good for that matter, is that the gods always demand service and sacrifice. Such gods can be voracious. The 1996 film Shine, tells the story of pianist David Helfgott. As a child, David was taught to play the piano by his father, Peter. Peter was a harsh taskmaster, obsessed with winning, and prone to abuse David in pursuit of musical perfection. The boy complies, not merely for the sake of the music, but also in an attempt to win his father’s approval and love. As a teen, David won a series of musical competitions that eventually earned him the opportunity to study at the Royal College of Music in London where he entered a concerto competition. He chose Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto, a piece so demanding, that when it was first written many pianists refused to play it out of fear. In the film, when David attempts the concerto, the scenes cut between David’s performance and his father. David completes the concerto, achieving musical perfection. The crowd erupts in applause. The camera cuts back to David, covered in sweat, clawing for his glasses, looking increasingly stupefied. He collapses with a dull, sickening thud on the concert floor. He had a complete nervous breakdown. The Romans had a god for this too, Apollo, the Roman god of music and the arts. Apparently, even the religious quest for musical and artistic perfection eventually requires a human sacrifice. If you don’t believe it, just as David Helfgott.
What does belief in one living and true God have to say to such voracious gods? It simply says that they are no gods at all. Belief in the one living and true God calls us to renounce power, money, and love as objects of religious devotion. The god of power and achievement cannot grant us self worth, but God who created us and values us can. Tumbling stock markets have taught us that money is a false god that cannot give us the existential security we desire. But many people with small bank accounts seem to have been given such security through cultivating their faith in the one living and true God. We don’t need to obey the compulsion to pursue one romantic relationship after the other. Love is not a god that must be obeyed. A relationship with God can so satisfy us that we pursue romantic relationships freely out of want, not slavishly out of need. Faith in the one living and true God restores power, love, and money to their proper place. They are not gods to be obeyed but created things to be used and enjoyed under the freedom of God, who is Lord over all.
Belief in the God who is everlasting
The statement from the Articles of Religion continues with a series of attributes. “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions.” Theologians sometimes call these “incommunicable attributes,” derived from the Latin communicare, which means to share. To say that something is incommunicable, means that it is not shared. An incommunicable attribute is something that belongs to God alone. Human beings have no shared experience of being everlasting, and thus even imagining such an attribute can make the brain hurt.
What does it mean that God is “everlasting, without body, parts, or passions”? In the Old Testament, the patriarch Abraham called God “the everlasting God” (Gen 21.33). Sometimes, the emphasis of “everlasting” is placed on God’s eternal being. “Before the mountains were born/Or You gave birth to the earth and the world/ Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90.2). For the Psalmist, God’s “everlasting” nature means that there was never a time when God was not. He existed before the creation of the world and will continue to exist should the world as we know it ever come to an end.
In the medieval period it was common to depict God holding not merely the world, but the whole universe, with all its suns, moons, stars, and planets in the palm of his hand. In some paintings, God holds an architect’s compass, studiously measuring out the distances between the various planetary bodies. The medieval artists who painted such icons weren’t simply making a point about God’s role in creation, but they were also making a point about God’s relationship to creation. Put simply, he stands entirely outside of the created order. As the medieval philosopher Boethius observed, inasmuch as time is measured by the movement of created entities, such as the orbit of planetary bodies or the oscillation of the caesium atom, time itself must be a created thing. As God stands outside of the created universe, so too does he stand outside of the passage of time. This is at least one way that theologians have accounted for God’s ability to know the future. Standing outside of time, Boethius argued that God could see the passage of time in the palm of his hand, much the same way that one could read a sentence from beginning to end.
Why might we care that God stands outside of time? For one, if God stands outside of time then the future is no surprise to him. You and I can be surprised by illness, injury, an argument between close friends or lovers. We can be surprised by a bad economy, or unexpectedly losing our job. But God is not surprised by such things. He has already seen them and knows that they are going to happen. Because he’s foreseen such things, he’s able to make plans for them. The word provide is derived from the Latin, pro-videre, which means to “foresee.” We’re able to provide for others when we’re able to see ahead and make plans for what the future might bring. Precisely because God has seen ahead and knows what the future holds, he’s able to provide for us when we’re in need.
The other emphasis on “everlasting” is God’s endurance. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired” (Isa 40.28). Have you ever noticed when someone goes through a hard time, maybe they’re sick, or maybe they lost their job, or maybe they’re having a hard time in their marriage, or they’re struggling with addiction, that people are ready and willing to help at first. But after a while, people lose interest, or they grow impatient. Pretty soon all those people willing to help get whittled down to one or two close friends, if you’re lucky. Sometimes, people going through hard times can even project the impatience they see in others on God. They might think, “I need to get my act together. God will only be patient with me for so long.” For many people, particularly people dealing with deep, debilitating sin, it’s easy for them to foster the sneaking suspicion that God is not everlasting, but that he can be worn out by us and our shortcomings.
There’s an old story that comes to us from France called “Heart of Ice.” You can find it in Andrew Lang’s Green Book of fairy and folk stories. The story is about a beautiful princess, whose heart was stolen by a wicked fairy, who encased it in ice and hid it atop an impenetrable, snowy mountain. Though intelligent, witty, and sociable, she is incapable of love. She has no heart. The King and Queen are so grieved by this, that they offer their kingdom to anyone who can retrieve the Princess’s heart. Many Princes try, many fail, frozen to death on the slopes of the snowy mountain. Finally, a peasant boy named Mannikin offers to retrieve the heart. The quest is dangerous. He almost dies many times. Before retrieving the heart, he has to fight the fairy who stole it in the first place. After he retrieves the heart, he nearly freezes to death himself on the summit of the mountain. He only survives because two of his friends are able to warm him. On the way done the mountain, he revives every frozen prince who had tried to summit. When he returns to the King’s city, he has several hundred grateful princes, knights, and soldiers in tow, all of whom he rescued on the mountain. As he presents the heart to the princess, the King prepares to hand over the kingdom, but the peasant boy declines. He had never done it for the Kingdom, but always and only for the princess. When he returns her heart, she holds it only a moment before giving it back. The curse broken; she gives her heart to whom she chooses.
The story teaches us something important. Many people tried, and failed, to retrieve the heart from the mountain. Only one succeeded. Why was the peasant boy so different than the others? The others ascended the mountain for the sake of power and glory. The boy ascended the mountain for the sake of love. Scripture tells us that “love is as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8.6) and that “many waters cannot quench it, nor floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8.7). The boy endured because he loved.
Though God’s everlasting love is theme that runs through all the major monotheistic faiths, it is a theme that is particularly central to the Christian faith. John, a close friend and follower of Jesus, who wrote his own account of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, said that Jesus “loved his own who were in the world” and that he “loved them to the very end” (John 13.1). The end in mind is the cross, which is an act of endurance, suffering, and love. Jesus remains on the cross until “it is finished” (John 19.30). Much like the boy in “Heart of Ice,” Jesus is also on a quest. He is on a quest to rescue a world he loves. The New Testament teaches us that Jesus endured until the end. His love is everlasting (Psalm 136.1). For those worried that God might get worn out by their sin, foolishness, or just plain neediness, this is good news. You cannot wear God out. He does not grow tired or weary. He is everlasting.
Belief in the God who is everywhere
The Articles go on to say that God is without “body or parts.” This is another way of saying that God is spiritual rather than physical, and there are important implications to this. I have a body and because I have a body, I have to be some where. As it turns out, I’m writing this sitting in a hammock in the backyard of my home. If you were here, you could see me sitting in the hammock and point to me. “Rob is sitting right there!” Perhaps one of my children needs my help and calls out for me. I would want to be there right away, but I couldn’t. I would have to get up and move my body toward my child because my body limits me to one location at a time. If another child needed me, I’d be in real trouble! I can’t be in two places at once. I’d have to tend to one, then move on to the next.
Now this is not true of God. He is “without body or parts.” You can’t point to a tree, or a porch, or even a sacred site like a church or a temple and say, “God is there!” God is everywhere. “Where shall I go from your Spirit?” asked the Psalmist. He continues:
Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol (the land of the dead), you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hands shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139.7-12).
Theologians call this attribute of God omnipresence. Which means simply that he is everywhere. In the 17th century there was a strange debate about God’s presence in imaginary spaces. This might sound trivial, but it’s actually quite important. Imaginary spaces for these theologians were possible future scenarios. For example, you might be hoping to get a job. You’ve submitted your application. You had a good interview. They invited you to come back and interview again. You feel good about your prospects but you’re nervous. You imagine two scenarios. In one scenario, you get the job. You’re happy. Your parents are proud of you and your friends are excited and impressed. This is the future you want. This is the future you have prayed for. This is the future where you’ll really be able to feel God’s blessing and presence in your life. There is another possibility, however. In this other possibility, you don’t get the job. You have an awkward conversation with your parents where you sense disappointment. You are embarrassed to tell your friends. You prayed to get the job, but you didn’t. So, it feels like God has abandoned you. This sense of abandonment lets you know that you don’t believe God is omnipresent. You don’t believe he is everywhere. You believe he is only present in times of blessing and that he disappears in times of hardship.
Here again, Christianity has a particularly important contribution to faith in God’s omnipresence. Jesus’s followers had a very specific vision for what God’s presence and blessing would look like in their lives and as a result, they had envisioned a particular kind of future that corresponded to this vision. Jesus and his followers were a conquered people, living under the rule of a foreign government. Jesus’s followers believed God would help them to overthrow their rulers and establish a new Kingdom where they would be free to follow God and worship him as they please. But that’s not what happened. Jesus didn’t even attempt to lead a rebellion. He was arrested and killed for treason. As Jesus died on the cross, his followers concluded God had packed up and left town. But God remained present, perhaps more so than at any other time in human history. The Christian contribution to this notion of God’s omnipresence frees us to see God’s presence even in times of suffering and hardship. The cross gives us permission to imagine and search for God’s presence and work in even the very worst of times.
Belief in God who doesn’t change
God is “without passions.” When we use the word “passion,” we might mean strong emotions for something or an unbridled enthusiasm. If you play sports, your coach will want you to be passionate for the team. We’re told we need to “find our passion” and dedicate ourselves to it. In love and friendship, we’re meant to be passionate for one another. Does God lack this kind of passion? The scriptures of the Old and New Testament teach that God does indeed have this kind of passionate life. The Prophet Amos tells us of God’s passionate disdain for false religion and his hatred of those who oppress the poor (Amos 5.21-24). The Psalmist tells us that God passionately loves justice and righteousness (Psalm 33.5). And John tells us that God so passionately loved the world that he gave his only Son to it (John 3.16). God is clearly not without passion, at least not in this sense.
So, what are the articles driving at here? Theologians typically have two things in mind that they want to guard against when they say that God is without passions.. First, they want to guard against the notion of God being subjected to something outside of himself and against his will. Passion is derived from the Latin passio, which means to suffer. When you and I suffer, our suffering is typically caused by something else. Disease, betrayal, or a change can all cause us suffering against our will. In times like this, we’re reminded just how small and powerless we actually are. A tiny germ, invisible to the human eye, can exert power over the whole world. When theologians say that God is impassible, or without passions, they are saying that there is nothing that can inflict itself on God in this way. There is no disease, act of betrayal, no down economy, or global pandemic that can make God feel small. He does not suffer, and thus does not have passion, in this sense.
There is a second thing that theologians are conscious of when they say that God is impassible. Prolonged suffering, or particularly poignant suffering, can change us. A person who has suffered rejection might lose confidence. A person who has been taken advantage of might lose good will towards others. A person who has suffered severe sporting injury, might quit playing sports for fear of more suffering. Suffering can lead to change. When theologians say that God is impassible, they’re also saying that no suffering can be imposed upon God that can make him change either for the worse, or for the better.
How might we think about God’s passions in relation to something like homelessness, genocide, or a global pandemic? The scriptures teach that God argues the case for the poor (Proverbs 22.22-23), that he is a God of love and peace (2 Cor 13.11), and that he sustains the sick on their sickbeds (Psalms 41.3). So we know God is passionately involved in the plight of the above. However, even if there was never any poverty, war, or sickness, God would always be a God who argues the case of the poor, who is a God of love and peace, and who would sustain the sick. Their suffering does not introduce anything new into his life. One way to think of it is that these new “passions” or sufferings do not burden God with burdens that were not already part of his eternal life and interests. Thus he is passionately for those who suffer, but it is their suffering which is new, not God’s passion for them.
Belief in the God who is infinitely powerful, wise, and good
Finally, the Articles tell us that God is of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness. Whereas what we have discussed so far are incommunicable attributes, meaning that human beings do not share these aspects of God’s life, these new attributes of power, wisdom and goodness are communicable. Human beings can share in these aspects of God’s life, though in a very different way than God. The chief difference here is that our power, wisdom, and goodness is limited. The Psalmist says, “though mother and father forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Psalm 27.10). Tragically, I have seen circumstances where a father and mother’s goodness towards their own children just ran out. I knew a young man who struggled with a serious addiction to opioids. He parents simply got tired of picking up the pieces. Even our goodness has limits. But God’s does not.
What does this mean? It means that God can infinitely apply his power, wisdom, and goodness in circumstances that might seem hopeless where they are depending on our power, wisdom and goodness to come through. The 17th century Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote:
If God’s omnipotence (infinite power) says “See you blind, hear you deaf!” Grace is king over sin, and omnipotency a mighty Conqueror; Rebellion cannot stand before the grace of God, could we resign rebellious and dead hearts to God, he should change them, even if we are most unable to master them.
The hopeless circumstances of the blind and the deaf are reversed by God’s infinite power and goodness. But so too is the hopeless circumstance of the unruly heart. Anyone with an unruly heart knows that it is nearly impossible to change yourself when you are actually your own worst problem! But God’s infinite power, wisdom, and goodness can be applied even to change the heart. I had a friend, whose daughter had a serious problem with drug addiction. He was at a point where his own goodness was about to run out. He brought her to church one Sunday morning. In the middle of the service she turned to her dad and said, “I’m sober now.” She felt that God, with his infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, had done something deep in her heart. It would be fair to say her dad was skeptical. But she has been sober now for ten years. Having worked with many people who suffered from drug addiction, I can tell you this is not something that I have seen happen more than a handful of times. But I have seen it happen. God’s power, wisdom, and goodness is infinite. He can do far more “than we are able to ask or imagine” (Eph 3.20).
Questions for further reflection:
- Ancient polytheism turned the human quests for money, love, and power into religious pursuits. Where are you tempted to turn a material good into a religious quest? How might belief in the one, true and living God free you from this quest?
- Which attribute (everlasting, everywhere, without passion) was the greatest comfort to you? Why?
- Why is an infinitely powerful, wise, God not good news? Why must he also be good? Have you ever seen God’s power, wisdom, and goodness in your life? Where? When?