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What Is God?

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Jun 22 2014


What is God? This is a question almost preposterous to pose, especially in a church where, my goodness, for all the speaking of it, the praying and the singing to it we do, one would hope we’d have some clue. We’ve lived with God for a good, long while, you and I. Many of us grew up kneeling, bedside, before it – talking to it as honestly then as maybe we ever have, trusting it with our secrets. And we will grow old with it, weeping to it in terror or in thanksgiving, until at the last, we will trust it with our souls, eternally. So God is broken-in; it’s familiar, if not always fleshed out fully. When we beg better fortunes from it, when we flatter it with splendid chorales and cantatas, when we sacrifice for the sake of it, when we address it, when we apologize to it, when we refer or relate to God, we do so comfortably enough, confidently even. Because, mainly, we understand what we mean by God. God is… God! God is… the Supreme Being. (And that might do, even if it does makes God sound like a hamburger.) God is… a Higher Power. And if along should come an infuriatingly intelligent child who asks, Higher in relation to what? Higher, like, spatially? God is up there? But isn’t the world round, so that if, from where I’m standing, God is ‘up there’, then what about in China? Their ‘up there’ is our ‘down there’. Does that mean God is a ‘Lower Power’ for Chinese people? If along should come such a child, you can be sure, the conversation is either going to end with a spanking or with an Oh, I don’t know!, or an Ask your mother!, or a Just Because! from the baffled, boggled adult.

It’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it: at one and the same time, we know full well and know not in the slightest what we mean when we say God. And isn’t it unsettling or (gulp!) naïve or foolish to entrust so very much to a great unknown? What if we’re wrong? … Luckily, we have Sunday School and Bible Study to help us. They get us a little further along, like: we learn that God is love. That’s nice, you know? God is love. It’s deep, it’s sophisticated sounding, but still simple and straightforward. It’s a fuzzy, sweet sentiment that everybody can feel good about. Kids can color pictures of hearts. Grown-ups can write poems about love’s believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. The whole church goes home happy. Only – don’t get me wrong, I love love and all – but, at least in my mind, God is a personality of some sort, not a principles or abstract power. God is a personality, now perhaps not necessarily like Zeus (who was quite a personality and whom you should never let date your daughter!), but a personality in the sense that it is sentient. Things make it happy and sad. It can be aggrieved and appeased. It has wills and intentions. Whatever God is, we assume, when calling on it or crying out to it, that it would have the capacity to receive our petitions and to respond.

So, I’m not certain what sense it makes to pray to something like love, love off in itself, for daily bread, or that I be forgiven my debts. Can love off in itself heal my Nana? The upshot to saying that God is love, full stop, is that we are spared the embarrassment of a Deity who does things, who does things we wish it didn’t (as when, in the Bible, it burns villages) and who doesn’t do things we wish it did (like curing the cancer). So long as God stays a high ideal only or an energy or a force or a gorgeous nebula – God is love, God is light, God is truth, God is goodness, on and on – we need never fear it or face it. Our faiths remain uncomplicated by all the perplexities and the paradoxes of God’s action or inaction. But the downside to this, I think, is that when you give up on a personal God, really, a personal spirituality has got to go, too. The comforts that beckon us to cross the church doors in the first place seem like so much silliness when it is not God but some ultimate vagueness we worship – which, by definition, cannot delight in our hymns or bless our contrition. Lofty abstractions have no listening ears. Probably, God does not have a big, grey beard, because probably God does not have cheeks or a chin on which it could grow, but any God worth its salt surely has some variation on what is underneath all that – a brain or nerve center or kind of consciousness. Because, What is God? God is the One who hears us, who just has to hear us, who assuredly hears us.

If that all feels horribly heady, thank heavens for the psalmist, whose own notions of God arise while out on a nature-walk. Stop noodling off in never-never-land, he might suggest. You want to know what God is? Take a hike. Hug a tree. Stargaze. Swim. It’s God whistling in the wind. It’s God, blushing red in the sunrise. It’s God, wild and blooming. The beasts, the creeping, crawling things, the sea monsters, the myriad, sundry creatures of earth – all this, all this is the shadow God casts over us, the glory of the Lord round about us ... Except, I’m not sure that the outdoorsy and that those who play in the dirt necessarily have a clearer sense of God than we who would not dare to venture out without our gloves and parasols. You know, when people talk about finding God in nature, they don’t actually mean in nature; mostly, they mean they find God at the beach, or in the mountains, or on a trek through the woods. No one ever exclaims, O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all! when a rabbit has gobbled up the flower garden or after watching footage on the Discovery Channel of Mrs. Praying Mantis eating her mate. We tend to see God in the natural world selectively, in the pretty parts of it. And as special to us as that is, and significant in its own right, I think the psalmist is driving at something deeper.

What is God? I imagine, for the psalmist, God is not just the green-thumbed genius busy in the rosebushes and begonias, but God is the whatever-or-whoever-it-was that gave existence to existence, that donated being to being. If you were to wind the mantel clock of the cosmos back and back and back, at some point, you would be to the very beginning, with God spreading out the heavens like a tent cloth and founding the earth so that it shall never falter. Only, poetry aside, ‘the very beginning’ does not mean a moment just before the basic-most building blocks of the universe were about to go bang, but back before even these, before even gravity and quantum foam had come to be. ‘The very beginning’ takes us back to that instant which physics can’t help us with, logically, because there was yet nothing physical, there was just nothing at all. The creative work that the psalmist praises is not God’s taking stuff, simple stuff, and fashioning it into other, more elegant stuff; the psalmist sings the miracle, the miracle!, of God’s getting from one-minute-there-was-no-stuff to the-next-thing-you-know-there-is-stuff. Between nothingness and somethingness is a staggering, fathomless, almost unthinkable abyss. And it’s the most marvelous thing that we should find ourselves on this side of it. It is the most marvelous thing – that all this gets to be here, that we get to be here, with front-row seats to existence, that we would open our eyes upon such a world. It’s not only that we are swaddled in beauty (just as soon as you squash the mosquitos anyway), but that there is anything to be beautiful at all. And we are alive but to behold it. I don’t think one could ever make too much of this. What is God? God is the difference between you and me and everything on the one hand, and there being but barrenness and nothing on the other.

What is God? This is a question almost preposterous to pose, as I guess I’ve got nothing. It’s enough for me (and maybe it won’t be enough for you, so I hope sometime you’ll let me see God through your eyes) to start from two powerful experiences: of feeling heard when I say Help me! to the sky, and of finding myself in the company of billions of suns and protozoa and you fine people, and believing this to be so splendid and extraordinary, being here with you, that there should be something beyond it all to thank. I am plumb wonderstruck, I am, and so whatever it is, with the psalmist, I will sing to the Lord as long as I love; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. Amen.