In the Christian tradition God is conceived as invisible Spirit (Colossians 1:15; John 4:24) and not as matter—that is to say, God is not material or substantial, but rather is—in a way that cannot be apprehended by the physical senses—that is, by seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, smelling, which makes any description of God completely subjective. Hence God is invisible, intangible, tasteless, inaudible, odorless. A God, comprised in any way of substance, would be subject to the change, dissolution, and decay of the cosmos, as all cosmic stuff is.
God's immateriality makes it rather difficult for one to describe God with any degree of reliability. Hence a responsible description of God is simply impossible, a logical fact which renders all descriptions of God inadequate. Therefore in the community of faith believers in God are only describing inherited concepts of God's character and activities (i.e., describing what they have been taught); and they do so as if God were a human being (i.e., using anthropomorphic language). With direct knowledge of God lacking, the Church is driven to use analogical language.
The word spirit as used in English generally describes a force or energy that is not directly accessible but only accessible as we observe what we take to be animating forces in the world about us. So, for example, some describe people possessed by evil spirits, because of their behavior, or a person's mood is described as exhilarated or depressed (high spirits, low spirits) for the same reason. The only uses of the term spirit in the physical sciences of which I am aware are in Chemistry and Pharmacology, where spirit is used to describe the essence of an active principle in a solution. The language is not a scientific description from what I can tell but analogical, since the active principle is not a separate identifiable entity. The Gods are only able to be identified as active in human reality by the visible manifestations of communities of faith. Yet a faith community is not direct evidence for God, but only evidence of the community's belief that God acts in the world. Spirit does not appear in the periodic table as one of the basic elements of the universe—as of 2013 the periodic table has only 114 confirmed elements, 84 of these existed before the origins of the earth. Of course Spirit would not appear in the periodic table since it is not elemental matter. The foregoing brief discussion raises this question: if Spirit is part of our common material reality in some way, how is it related to matter, if at all?
Does Spirit simply permeate matter--like leaven, for example? A little leaven mixed into flour and water and kneaded becomes dough, which rises in the oven (Matt 13:33). There is one theological explanation for the relationship between Spirit and matter called "panentheism"—God as Spirit permeates all matter in the universe but is not to be identified with it, that is to say God maintains a Spirit identity without mingling with matter. But if that is the case why is not everything "enhanced" or "raised" to a higher level, like leaven in flour; and why are we still bothered with the problems of an imperfect universe: disease, floods, drought, famine, etc.? Our natural world does not seem "enhanced" but flawed, as Paul clearly recognized (Romans 8:19-21). Does God as Spirit interface with matter, perhaps only periodically here and there? The general regularity of the universe seems to eliminate this possibility. On the other hand some assume the regularity of the universe is God as Spirit enabling the universe. But if that is the case why is the universe flawed? Perhaps God as Spirit simply hovers over the universe similar to Genesis 1:2 and is not involved in the universe at all. There were religious groups in the early years of the Christian period who argued that there was a sharp divide between the cosmos and God. Thus the highest God had nothing to do with the creation of the cosmos; some attributed it to the work of a lesser God in the divine realm. In such systems of thought the matter of the cosmos was seen as flawed and evil.
My colleagues would describe my question as a fool's errand. My evangelical friends would say accept on faith that God as Spirit is involved with matter, even if how Spirit and matter are related cannot be quantified. My critically inclined friends would also counsel me to abandon the question for the same reason, on the basis that Spirit itself falls outside any kind of objective proof. Perhaps they are correct, but if there is no way logically to explain how Spirit and matter are related, Christianity is left open to the charge of superstition and self delusion on a grand scale—human beings through time have simply convinced themselves of a parallel "spiritual" universe of Gods; and Christianity is merely one more in a long line of inadequate religious views of reality, convincing to the masses perhaps, but whose description of reality is ultimately found to be seriously flawed.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
This is the topic of my sermon on Sunday which is to be the draft form of the second chapter of my book on Progressive Faith. What do we mean when we say "God"? Panentheism gives us some room in which to meaningfully operate without setting aside mystery entirely but it is still a bit like trying to nail smoke to the wall.
This post was made by the Rev. Dr. Roger Ray. He is the founding pastor of the Community Christian Church in Springfield, MO, and arguably the most engaging and interesting preacher in the greater Springfield area—but, fair warning, he is neither traditional nor conventional. You can check out his most recent sermon at http://www.spfccc.org
Another excellent discussion on the spirit of God.
Thinking of God as a spirit is challenging. Thinking of God as "Mother Nature" is not so difficult. Mother Nature consist of both the matter of the universe and it's physical laws that operate/governing the universe. Think of one small part of Mother Nature as gravity. Like a spirit, one does not see, taste, hear, or smell gravity even though it is in full force all around you. Gravity may be perceived as both good and bad as it both holds you fast to the earth but can hurt or even kill you in an instant. Yet gravity makes no judgment of human activity, nor is it even concerned about humans. It is the same every minutes of the day and seemingly though out the universe. Humans can observe the effect of gravity and even measure it's force and other characteristics using precise measurements, e.g. it is directed toward to center of mass in which it operates. No amount of human desire, appeal, or other activity can induce Mother Nature to alter gravity, even for a second.
Mother Nature has the characteristics of a spirit and is what humans perceive as God though humans are inclined to give God human characteristics that Mother Nature does not have, e.g. anger, judgment, retribution, love, forgiveness, etc. Few would argue Mother Nature or even one of it's components, gravity have these human characteristics.
Personally I find it very difficult to think of God as "Mother Nature," and trying to reduce the lady to gravity is even more difficult. When you describe gravity it sounds more Newtonian--gravity is a (mysterious) force in the universe. But Einsteins' theory (i.e., gravity is the result of the curvature of the space-time continuum), on the other hand, demystifies and renders gravity as simply a natural part of our universe, which for me makes a comparison between God and Mother Nature impossible. Besides Mother Nature is "red in tooth and claw" in spite of her regularity.
It's interesting that you "find it very difficult to think of God as Mother Nature", and I find it the only reasonable explanation. Our perspectives are surely very different, though I can recall having one likely similar to yours. To me the belief in God (at least the one portrayed in traditional Christian churches today) is similar to believing in Santa Claus: when I was a child it seemed very reasonable, but now it seems inconceivable that I could continue to think so.
Human thinking is certainly very diverse.
Good Morning Jim,
I agree with what you say about the traditional view of God, and shared that view with the majority of the Western world until fairly recently. My views changed in working out some of those issues on this blog. Today I have no view of God--I only know what people tell me; meaning that I cannot convince myself of any personal experience of that force that initiated the cosmos. And I have now added your view that God is akin to Mother Nature to the list--although conceiving of a "godly character" akin to twigs, thorns, and spiders (among other things) is still perplexing to me. Of course what you may be describing is something like the "green fuse" that enables the cycles of life and death that we know as Mother Nature. In that case your view would be something like "panentheism"--God is in nature but is not to be identified with nature. Therefore we can see the presence of God in a beautiful sunset or the changing patterns of cloud formations casting shadows on a New Mexico landscape. People who enjoy" God this way never think of God's "image" in lions killing wildebeests and squabbling over their bloody remains There do exist the less beautiful aspects to nature.
Charlie, of your many excellent blog entries, I believe this one is my favorite---which may not be a surprise to you. Your comments and questions are well put. Perhaps what I really like best is the opening sentence in your last paragraph, "My colleagues would describe my question as a fool's errand."
I couldn't help but think how the classical fool, Parzival, at the end of his "fool's errand," finally asked the right question. The very brief essay that opens my second book, David's Question, "What Is Man", is indeed entitled "The Question." It can be quickly referenced by the following URL:
I agree with your conclusion that "a responsible description of God is simply impossible." What I do think is that while asking for a description of God is futile, we come closest to an understanding of God by seriously asking and pursuing an answer to the question "What Is Man?", a question often posed in scripture, probably the most demanding question we humans can address. What we call "science" is not such in this search insofar as it deals only with the realm of matter.
It is better to be engaged in this "fool's errand" than to turn away from it.
When I look in the mirror, I often ask myself, "Who Am I?" Science cannot give me an answer, but I do believe that an answer is within the cognitive powers of the human being, to the extent they reach beyond the realm of matter.
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