Is God a being or a thing like all other things, only bigger and smarter? A related question: is God a person? There’s a lot of confusion about this in the United Church. Many of our liturgies have us praying to a God, as though God were a thing, an energy or a person somewhere out there — separate from us.
We’re not the only generation to struggle with the question. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas had a go at it almost 800 years ago. He concluded that while other things have existence, God alone is existence. Every thing — mineral, plant, animal and human — is a combination of what it is along with the fact that it is. But God alone enjoys absolute “simplicity” — for God, the what and that of existence are one and the same. In other words, God alone is self-subsistent, the uncreated creator. So God can’t be a thing, because things get created.
Another medieval theologian, Meister Eckhart, liked to call God “Isness.” Same point, fewer words. God couldn’t not “be” while all other “beings” exist by virtue of the fact that they participate in the primordial Isness that is God.
In my own theology, God bursts into the realm of form “in the beginning” — let’s call it the Big Bang or Great Radiance. Things emerge out of Un-thingness. This emergence is Isness incarnating in all the diversity we know as our universe. Evolution is Be-ing involved in the adventure of becoming. This happens for biology and social systems as well as for consciousness. You and I participate directly in this adventure by surrendering to the prime directive to consciously evolve — or, better yet, to simply get out of the way of the evolution of Isness becoming.
Okay, but “Isness” is pretty darned impersonal. You can’t really love “Isness.” Christians will rightly protest that Jesus wasn’t in relationship with “Isness,” but rather his “Father.” In other words, Jesus experienced God as personal. Again, confusion reigns. No, God is not a person. However, God is deeply personal. Huh?
In evolutionary theology, the image of God is not static. The always-in-motion universe is itself the image of God in the process of continuous emergence. It took 13.8 billion years of this movement to arrive at those qualities that we associate with personhood: love, volition, conscious self-awareness and the capacity to determine the future, to name a few. If this ever-emerging world is growing in the divine image and likeness, then we may conclude that our personhood is a pale reflection of the personhood that is rolled into the nature of God, or Isness, from the get-go. To realize our own personhood is simultaneously to realize divinity in the process of becoming.
Conclusion? We’re all mystics to the degree that we consciously engage in becoming more deeply human. And by the way, the doctrine affirming Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity was astute. The next stage of Christianity is to apply this to each one of us. As we submit to the process of personalization, we are growing into our divine nature — just like Jesus (along with other mystics of every lineage).
Mystics are those who have awakened to the truth that they are not separate from the creativity of this personal Isness. That’s why oftentimes we don’t understand their writings — because we are still functioning from the level of the contracted personality, which makes us feel alienated and separate.
But God is not a separate being. Rather, as we learned in Sunday school, God is Love, and when we are transformed by Love into Love, we become personalized manifestations of the divine love that is the universe’s driving force. So, no, God is not a thing and God is not a person, but rather the One out of which all things emerge, and the deeply personal Originating Mystery being realized in this evolving universe.
Rev. Bruce Sanguin is a minister and author in Vancouver.
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