372. the best way to talk about God?
[PREFACE] (feel free to skip)
This post is an attempt to take up a challenge posed by Tony Jones (author, theologian, professor, blogger at Patheos). In his post, he declared, “…progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”
And so, he posed this summons:
Now I don’t know if I qualify as a “progressive theo-blogger,” but I do know that I’ve been moving pretty consistently towards the liberal, progressive end of the theological pool, so I’m going to declare myself eligible.
I haven’t read what any of the other contributors have put up yet so I have no idea what I’m up against, but the challenge sounded way too fun to not take up. And it seemed to fit right in with my whole …about God series.
And so I bring you…
I want to begin with Matthew 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
I want to suggest that in this verse, Jesus is not the antecedent of “my name” and “I am.” Based on the verse that comes immediately before, Jesus is not referring to himself, but to God.
In the more conservative, mostly pentecostal-leaning churches I attended in my formative years as a Christian, Matthew 18:20 was always cited as a verse about prayer. It was taught as a way to encourage people to pray in groups since, for them, the takeaway message was that when people prayed together, God was there in a special, unique way.
I want to go further than that and suggest that perhaps what Jesus was really saying about God is that God only exists in relationship – that God is only made manifest in relationship, so apart from relationship God doesn’t exist (or if we want to maintain a metaphysic of God apart from relationship, all we can say is that God is inaccessible apart from relationship).
And here I want to borrow a bit of Peter Rollins who expands on 1 John 4:8 (which says that God is love) by asking the next question, “what is love?” Love does not exist. Love is not a thing in and of itself. Love is something that only appears in relationship, because there is no love apart from an other.
So in this challenge to “write one post about God,” I find myself in a strange position. If God, like love, is not a thing in and of itself then I can’t say anything about God with mere words on paper. However, I can say that God is there in the midst of your reading of this post. As I write these words in love, my hope is that they will be taken up again in love, and as they are read, there God is.
I can no more say anything about God than what anyone can say about love. We say things like “love is patient, kind, does not envy, etc.” but in doing so, we’re not saying anything about love because you can’t be patient or kind or not envy except in relation to an other. And so you’re not really saying anything about love with those words – they’re mere abstractions that can only be made concrete in relationship.
In the same way, I can’t say anything about God (who is love) apart from relationship. That’s why the relational image of the perichoretic trinity is one that most Christians hold so dear – because God (even as one tries to speak of God in/as God’s self) is still relational by definition. There is no God apart from relationship. Or to put it positively, God is love in relationship.
Now what does that mean? That sounds like an abstraction of an abstraction, and I agree. But forcing God into words and definitions and declarative statements forces God into abstraction. So let me try again to make this more concrete – and the only way to do that is to talk, again, about relationships.
If relationships always require at least two differentiated parties (and I would include the intra-relational realm here as well) then I want to suggest that any attempt to say anything about God requires us to not stop at just coming up with our own declarative statements about God. We need to take the next step and bring our differing understandings of God to one another and in so doing, we manifest God – “God is there among us.” So in a way, this whole project – having people write about God, collating the posts, and placing them alongside one another – is itself a beautiful statement/portrait of who God is.
But a word of caution is in order. If this project is about looking for the one right, true, definitive post describing God, we miss the point entirely – we miss God altogether.
But if we can hold these different posts/statements/poems/images about God together in loving relationship, God shows up. In the resonance and dissonance, in the coherence and contractions, God is there. That is God.
Indeed, it may be the best way to talk about God.