Someone asked me recently whether I saw God as a personal “being.” It reminded me of the time when I was a Presbyterian and learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Question–and–Answer 4 goes like this: “What is God? God is a spirit; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
Wow! By asking “What is God?” the Catechism seeks to describe the god of the philosophers rather than the God of the Christian story. If we think of God’s core identity as infinite or eternal or unchangeable, then we are describing a god who can’t really be in a meaningful relationship with humanity.
This way of thinking about God has been shaped by philosophical abstractions. Can you even imagine “omniscience?” Or one who is “omnipresent?” Or “omnipotent?”
That’s not the way of the Bible. In that library of books, we find stories about a God who relates to humanity. God doesn’t sit in heaven, distributing doctrine for us to believe and rules for us to follow. God comes among us to be in relationship with us.
Walter Brueggemann, perhaps the foremost Old Testament scholar of this generation, talks about “the strange God of fidelity.” He reminds us that God is a real character in the story of the Bible, a God who acts, sends, delivers. We meet this “strange” God on every page of scripture.
This God chooses to be known not as an abstraction, but as One who is embedded with a particular people. God chooses to be vulnerable and even open to change for the sake of the world. God is intimately involved with this world.
Furthermore, God is not some impassible force, but One who is capable of a range of emotions. God is filled with love and compassion. God knows anger and hate and even violence. God enters into the pain of God’s people.
Once we recognize this, we can begin to see why it’s so important that God be a God of fidelity. This is a God whose affection can be truly life–giving. When God makes covenant to be with us. God is creating a relationship that God will fight for. God is creating a people who will interact with God, rather than cursing an immovable universal force.
Just as importantly, God establishes a relationship that is real. There is no predetermined outcome in which we have no say. There is no simple “given” about the way this relationship will develop. Real relationships don’t work that way. Real relationships change both partners involved in it.
Brueggemann uses the story of the Exodus as an example. Israel cries out to God. God hears. God remembers. God feels. God comes down. The story begins with the people, who initiate a relationship with the God who has promised to be with them.
There is a dignity to human participation in this story. Humanity is honoured with a real relationship to God. At the same time, there is danger in this story, for the God who is faithful to the people demands a responding fidelity on the side of the human partners.
We find that story over and over again in the Old Testament. It continues in the story of Jesus, who lived as someone who was completely loyal to God. We would expect that God’s response would be one of unwavering fidelity and loyalty in turn. Yet on the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” It is a cry ripped from the guts of someone who feels himself to be set adrift. God has not been loyal. God has not played God’s part. God has left him.
The story of Easter is a dramatic battle between God’s promise of fidelity and the appearance of apparent infidelity. Jesus is a faithful human. Where is the faithful God? It is a “strange fidelity” indeed. But at the end of the story, human faithfulness is met with divine faithfulness. God hears once again. God bursts into death and brings life.
The one thing we must always remember in all of this is that it is story. It is not “news and video at 11.” This story is not a documentary. It is a story, with all the rich nuances, imagery, symbolism and ambiguity of all great stories.
When we tell stories about the interaction between God and human beings, we must of necessity use personal language. God can never be known in abstractions. This God can only be known in particulars.
These stories expose the limits of human language to talk about what is beyond us. But stories also give us a point of entry into such mythic realities. Is God a personal being? Maybe. Maybe not. But the language of personal relationship is the only language we have.
To ask “What is God?” is absolutely the wrong question. I’m sorry, Westminster Shorter Catechism. The right question is “Who is God?”
And the answer is that God comes into relationship with us. God’s story becomes part of our stories. Our stories become part of God’s story.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook