CHAPTER NINE. THE GOD WHO EXPERIENCES US?
The aim of this book is expressed through its title and that of this chapter. If the concept-reality of God as Spirit is accepted, then the logical conclusion is that we can accept and sense, in a warranted faith-stance, that God\Spirit does know us, and is in us, and in a very real sense, experiences us!
What this book has tried to provide is not a systematic theological treatise. It is a non-academic's new and simple approach to spirituality and life. It presents a rebuttal of substantive thinking, and an acceptance of God as personal Spirit of Love. The mystery, wonder, and questioning about life and the ultimate is recognised, but this book seeks some clarification of besetting problems about God, by the acceptance that all of life is ultimately Spirit-determined, and God\Spirit controlled, and experienced!
However, this small book is necessarily fragmentary and suggestive only. For an exhaustive treatment I suggest an examination in depth of the work which has been the cause of my theological and experiential conversion! This inspirational book is "The Universal Word." by Nels F. S. Ferré, already referred to. Ferré subtitles it: ra Theology for a Universal Faith." There is so much in his book that is untouched here, but which would enrich the interested reader.
I have tried to show how in prayers, sermons, and treatises on matters of faith and belief, that the language used is usually based upon substantive ideas. Granted that we have to use words, images and ideas to communicate at all, there remains a tendency to let creep into our spiritual language a "literal" interpretation of events surrounding the central figures in the biblical records - God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
For instance, when we speak of "Jesus coming from the Father", and later that "He ascended into heaven, and was seated at the right hand of the Father in glory", can we believe this literally? Where then is the Holy Spirit? And though theologians may now speak of the above as imagery, there remains the problem of spatial images and the problem of the three-in-one. What really is their relationship if we continue to think of them in substantive ways? If God IS Spirit, how can we maintain a substantive concept of a THREE PERSON Godhead?
John Macquarie in his book; "The Humility of God", on page 61,(?) writes: "...it is convenient to think of the persons of the Trinity in the reverse of the usual order, that is to say, we begin with God the Holy Spirit. We do this, because the Holy Spirit is God in his nearness to us." This is a needed cautionary approach. Later, in the same book, he writes: "....because of the difficulty of saying what "spirit" means, together with the fact that it is often misunderstood, I thought it desirable to leave the word alone."(?)
He then goes on to say: "The first step towards understanding the meaning of 'spirit' is to recognise that this word is more of a verb than a noun. It is not some subtle substance, but a way of acting and behaving."(?)
In that last quotation let us note the sentence: "Spirit - the word is more of a verb than a noun." To a large extent the Church has focused attention upon the Holy Spirit, or Spirit of God, as a NOUN, namely, in a substantive fashion. In the main, our theological thinking has been to treat the Christian figures of God, Jesus, and Spirit, in this "noun" sense rather than in a verbal, active sense. To use this "verbal" sense we are emphasising SPIRIT. We begin with God AS Spirit, not as a Being! There is a great difference between accepting God as a "Being-acting", and God as "Spirit-acting"! And it is not merely a matter of using different words for the same identity!
The Incarnational idea emphasises that God/Spirit is in all life, all creation, everything and everyone, perhaps not equally in all, but as needed. Ferrés thought that God/Spirit is both present and absent at the same time is both provocative and enlightening. In a multi-dimensional and universal sense, God/Spirit is present as needed, and present as recognised, and present as rejected, but in each case according to the freedom of humanity and the non-self-volition of nature.
The way in which we are accustomed to think of God as Spirit, often as ra" spirit, places him as an objective reality or entity apart from us, that is, different to us, in much the same way as we think of other human persons as being different from us. Thus, in relation to God as a Person of Holy Love, the human person has a sense of the need of reconciliation and forgiveness through a mediator, Jesus Christ. However, while we may have a sense of our difference from God, in the sense that He is Transcendent, that does not mean that God as Spirit is separated from us! It means rather that God/Spirit as Personal Love freely chooses to be totally FOR us, experiencing us! Thus the meaning of current "Salvation" and all its theological terms needs to be re-interpreted.
This is not a matter of identifying God as humanity, but a matter of God experiencing humanity! The sheer, unbounded, limitless quality of God\Spirit means that in some way, some sense, some level, Spirit is present in all, and all is in Spirit!
The historical and theological heritage of substantive thinking bedevils us and prevents us from understanding what has been implicit in the message of Jesus, and to some degree, in the religious seeking and thought in the world. If we begin to think in terms of Spirit/God, then we have to surrender thinking of "OUR" experience of God, and concentrate on the real issue: "GOD's experience of us - as Spirit penetrating ALL - IN, OF, ABOUT, yet BEYOND, ALL!"
Dr. A. C. Bouquet ends his remarkable book, "Comparative Religions"(?) on page 308, with a quotation from Dr. Van der Leeuw, thus: "No religious experience is a mere tendency. On the contrary, it is not man himself who is the active agent in the situation but, in one mode or another, God. Divine activity sustains all phenomena alike, from their more primitive types to their culmination in Christianity, as well as those religious movements which are now concealed by our largely secular civilization."
This "Divine Activity" is surely Spirit/God, the understanding, effect, and impact of whom, we have disguised and hidden in our dogmas. Dr. Bouquet in chapter one of the same book, quotes the Indian sage, Sankara (8th century A.D.) who prayed:
"O Lord, pardon my three sins.
I have in contemplation clothed in form Thee who art formless;
I have in praise described thee who art ineffable;
And in visiting temples I have ignored Thine omnipresence."
The religious world in its substantive mode of thinking and practice has created divisions in God. Above, the poet Sankara cries for pardon for clothing in form, God, who is formless; for describing God who is beyond description; and for visiting temples, whereas God/Spirit is nowhere and nothing. In particular, the Christian religion has been guilty of speaking of God as though He were another Being, albeit, a Divine Being, or a spiritually-superior being.
It has been guilty of trying to express God, who is beyond description, albeit with cries for forgiveness for such presumption, but still tries to place God into doctrines and into categories that often appear to be boxes or tombs! The "God (who) is Dead!" is certainly that God! But if the myth of Resurrection means anything it means that God/Spirit cannot be pinned down anywhere and anyhow!
Again, the Christian Church has committed the error of thinking God to be specially committed to so-called "holy" places like churches, cathedrals, temples, or chapels. And, though offering penitential prayers for excluding God from His world, still persists in the idea that only the institutional church is somehow God's special place of activity!
Then, of course, there are the other religions or sects, with their particular claims of God's "presence" with, and in, their special kind of spiritual activity. So, viewed from an objective or substantive stance, we are making of God an assortment of deities, by this diversity of beliefs and practices. And all claiming attention, by novelty, by tradition, by biblical accuracy, or by a claim of deputed authority from Christ Himself!
Christianity often holds itself as the Truth, and that all the other religions, and none, find their fulfilment in it. Therefore there is laid upon the Christian Church the task of evangelizing the rest of the world. The consequences of this spiritual triumphalism is left for history to judge.
However, the present situation could be clarified if the question of how we identified God was examined. If we go on identifying God as Being, that is, in some form, we are committing the sin of idolatry, the outcry against which was part of the genius of Jewish Religion. Because, behind this outcry against making forms of God from substances, was a basic belief in a God in control of all, and also a subtle recognition of God as Spirit. What else can Psalm 139 be but an incredible insight into the nature of God as Spirit couched in personal language? This Psalm leads to the further insight of God/Spirit who "experiences" each and everyone, penetrating to the very core of each and all.
Read again a few paraphrases of part of Psalm 139 (quoted in full earlier):
"Lord, You know every detail of my conduct!
You know all the words of my mouth, even before they are
I cannot escape your Spirit - You are everywhere in your
Things, which to me, are opposites, like light and
darkness, are the same to You!
You have been in my birth and being!
You have known me absolutely in every detail!
Even if I exhaust all your thoughts (and mine!) You are
still with me!"
It is through this identifying of God as all-inclusive Spirit, that there will begin a new era of understanding and insight in the Christian Church and the other spiritual groups in the world. From that insight there then can occur a new appraisal of the place of all humanity in the world and eternity. The key to it all is to begin viewing God not as A spirit, even some kind of ultimate spirit, but as SPIRIT. Spirit IS, and IS God, and IS Love!
In "The Christian Understanding of God", page 10, Nels Ferré writes: "We begin at the centre, with what God himself means in the light of the Christian Faith. As rall writes: `God is not one of our religious beliefs; He is the belief. He is not one doctrine; He is the heart of all doctrine."(?) ALL emanates from God/Spirit; that is the clue we must follow. We have been diverted by the red herrings of substantive thinking in theological and doctrinal statements. We have "objectified" God into "Someone" apart from us, unapproachable even, in His isolation from us in holiness, might, and ineffableness. He is THERE; we are here! Despite his love for us, He is not close!
That may appear a harsh and simplistic appraisal of the situation, but is made to stress the need for a new and radical look at our spirituality and how God really fits into our lives. The simple line about it is: God as Spirit simply IS, and in, through, of, and about, all existence, not equally, but as needed.
Ponder Teilhard de Chardin's words in Pensee 9, from "Hymn of the Universe" thus:
"God, at his most vitally active and most incarnate, is not remote from us, wholly apart from the sphere of the tangible; on the contrary, at every moment he awaits us in the activity, the work to be done, which every moment brings. He is, in a sense, at the point of my pen, my pick, my paint-brush, my needle - and my heart and my thought."(?)
Shades of Psalm 139! Surely this is God as Spirit! One cannot exclude God as Spirit from the deepest intimacies of our lives. One cannot exclude God as Spirit from the deliberations of people as nations or groups, or from the history of the world. He/It cannot be excluded from the sufferings and tragedies of the world (which are the hardest of all things for humanity to accept!)
As Spirit, God can be in everything, but not BE everything. God, as Spirit, can be everywhere, but not as everywhere. As Spirit, God is not a fatherly figure in a spiritual heaven, but as Spirit he is Father, comforter redeemer in our "hells"! The incarnation of God in Jesus is not only the human expression of Spirit in a spirit-surrendered person, but is the expression of the truth of God incarnate in all humanity, as Love, and in existence, as the field of learning Love.
Spirituality is, and has been, through the ages of human knowledge, regarded as the greatest aspect and activity of humans. That spirituality has been expressed in many different ways and degrees, from earliest man to modern saints - from mythical Adam to St. Francis of Assisi, to Mother Theresa. And that spirituality is part of God as Spirit! It is God/Spirit breaking through into understanding, and even in as diverse ways as there are diverse peoples! God/Spirit is not only "spirituality" but "earthiness". God/Spirit is not only Agape, but Eros. Spirit is not only God, but of and in man's Spirit. (A term like "Spirit of God" is avoided, because it suggests a difference, or separation between Spirit AND God.)
The Doctrine of the Trinity falls into the fundamental error of separating the modes, or aspects, or diversities of God/Spirit into "Persons". No doubt, in the Providence of God/Spirit, there were reasons good enough for the doctrine's development, and to its developers. But its development and encrustation upon the thinking of the Church was perhaps due to the substantive way in which our Church Fathers thought of God. In that development, and up to today, there appears to be no appreciation of God as One Spirit, but only an attempt to explain the "Persons" of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They begin with God as three persons instead of ONE Spirit/God.
When this inclusive God/Spirit concept is accepted, it challenges and changes the concept of a Triune God with Persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, by the concept of One Spirit/God acting in a personal sense (Father) and as Love (Son). If we think in terms of One Spirit/God, then Jesus was the expression of what Spirit/God can be in an obedient son. To follow Jesus is to try to be obedient to Spirit/God, for Spirit/God that worked in him is the same Spirit/God who works in us. The Incarnation expresses the truth that God/Spirit is in each and every person in every part of their lives, but patiently respecting the freedom of each, and awaits receptive awareness of His Presence in their lives.
God/Spirit works in diverse ways, and in the religions and spirituality of humanity. Indeed God/Spirit works in some sense in the non-awareness of him, and even is in his rejection. It could be said that there is one area where the Spirit cannot act, and that is the area of human free-will. And yet, even here, will not the "Hound of Heaven" finally break through? The myths of purgatory and hell are not the alternatives of temporary or eternal punishment of the damned, but the reminder that God/Spirit must finally achieve his will.
If God is Spirit, then he does "descend INTO HELL"! He is experiencing the pains of hell which is the mythical image of all the pangs and pains of humanity! The whole of existence is, in a sense, God/Spirit creating, experiencing, living, and being there, but not simply being, and identified as, existence. Spatial and mathematical terms cannot really be fitted into God/Spirit. Jesus is not different to us in degree. He did not have more of the Spirit. It is in quality, not quantity, that he is different, and came to be God's Son, the "firstborn of many brethren", so that we can learn our son-ship, and relationship of love to the Father/Spirit.
Was Jesus God? Was he actually and really God-man? If we begin with God/Spirit instead of the Trinity, then our Christology must be reviewed, and the probability is that we shall arrive at different answers, and find some solutions to the problems that substance thinking presents. We will certainly have to meet the problems associated with trying to present a revised Christology and God/Spirit!
There will be heartache and resentment at the loss of cherished beliefs, and a reluctance to grapple with the supposed loss of a Saviour-Friend. But if these challenges are met, then any felt loss will be overcome by a deepened knowledge about, and awareness of, God as Spirit.
Every cherished ideological, theological, substantive God that humanity has created, or inherited, in its search for fulfilment, will have its day, then that "God" begins to show its feet of clay. Such "gods", while still evidences of the image of God/Spirit within, fail as true ultimates, because they are substance-orientated.
God/Spirit cannot be encapsulated in any one form. God/Spirit is uncontainable, yet that undimensionable, uncapturable Spirit is IN humanity! We cannot speak of each human having a "part" or "portion" of God/Spirit, for that would be a relapse into substantive thinking!
When Jesus spoke of "the Kingdom of God being within or among you", was He referring to the image of God as Spirit of personal Love within us all? Will the kingdoms of the world only become Kingdoms of Love when they accept the reality of God/Spirit within us each?
Spirituality is experienced by many people in many ways and with varying explanations. Christians explain their spiritual experience in many ways, though probably never delving into any other explanation than that which fits their experience, and which they have been taught. It is through the merciful compassion of God/Spirit that He may, and does, act in response to every sincere, and perhaps inadequately-phrased, approach made in the jargon of the Church.
A lawyer friend once spoke to me about the use of "lawyer language" in his profession, and of the average person's inability to understand that "jargon". Has the Christian Church developed a "theological jargon" which not only confuses the outsider, but even the "faithful"? What then, must the task of the Church be, if it turns from "substance thinking" to penetrate, with as little confusion possible, the truth of God as Spirit?
And, how will humanity react if it realises that its former option of disregarding rall that religious stuff" has disappeared, and that God/Spirit is inescapable, and experiencing humanity. Humanity is now faced with its greatest faith option in life, either awareness or non-awareness of God/Spirit in them!
That rawareness" will be a growth in unconditional Love, for God/Spirit is Personal unconditional Love, and His Spirit/Image in humanity, as expressed in Jesus, is the basis of what humanity is meant to be!
is but The Beginning!