Who is God? What is God's nature? That is the question that Bruce Epperly takes up in response to his reading of Diana Butler Bass's Christianity after Religion. The stern, angry, distant God, seems to be going by the wayside. The question is -- how do we envision this God we seek to encounter? Take a read, offer your thoughts.
Dancing with Diana – 3
A Multifaceted God? Part One
My dance partner Diana Butler Bass notes perceptively “God as Stern Father is going away and is being replaced by a multifaceted divinity open to invention and interpretation.” (Christianity after Religion, 50) While there are a lot of Stern Father God’s still out there, many of them in the most conservative sectors of the religious and political worlds, a more fluid and accessible God is emerging not only among seekers but among mainstream, progressive, and evangelical Christians. As Thomas Jay Oord argues from an evangelical perspective, our best images of God place love rather than power and relationship rather than domination at the heart of God’s nature.
I want to explore in a few paragraphs the possibility of imaging God at all, and then in subsequent pieces, describe one vision – a process-relational vision – of a multi-faceted god.
Historically, theologians have used the terms kataphatic and apophatic as ways of describing the delicate balance between accessibility and idolatry in imaging God. The kataphatic way focuses on words and images. If we speak about God at all – including God’s revealing itself in mystical experiences – what we say or experience comes to us as humans, using our language, cultural symbols and biases, and imaginative hymns and poetry. Accordingly, almost any positive words – and sometimes negative words – have been used to describe God from the stories of Zeus and Krishna and their dalliances with mortals to the Plague Sending Yahweh and Plato’s artistic world-creating reason and Jesus’ dear and intimate parent. Our poetry, hymnody, and theology speak of God in words such as: dove, rock, wind, spirit, love, power, energy, fortress, light, shepherd, Sophia/wisdom, father, mother, lover, and child.
The kataphatic way is grounded in the sacramental nature of life, reflective of divine omnipresence. If God is active everywhere and in all things, then all things are, as Meister Eckhardt says, words of God. “Cleave the wood and I am there,” the Gospel of Thomas proclaims. Matthew 25 asserts that “as you have done unto to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done unto me.” Of course, the incarnation of Jesus is the most compelling image of divine omnipresence: fully human, fully divine, fully reflecting God’s vision for human life.
We need images and hymns and intimacy with God. Yet the kataphatic becomes idolatrous when we claim that God’s nature is exhausted by our symbols, rituals, and images, or holy books. While we need to respect the holy books of every tradition, they are always fingers pointing at the moon and not the moon itself, as the Zen Buddhist maintains. Clinging too tightly to our images and words – and to our holy books – leads to parochialism, excommunication, intolerance, and inability to grow in relationship to an evolving world.
It leads to fighting any changes in the cultural and scientific worlds that threaten our literalist interpretations.
In contrast, the apophatic way asserts that no image fully describes the divine. God is always more than we can imagine. The finite can never fathom the infinite. All words, images, and symbols are provisional, limited, and conceal while they reveal. The God of 100+ billion galaxies always remains mysterious, sharing divinity with humankind in ways we can understand and interpret, yet always leaving much in reserve simply because we cannot fathom it.
Historically, the silence of the apophatic has been the greatest source of humility in the spiritual journey. It encourages doubt, questioning, and confession of limitation. Sadly, some proponents of the apophatic way have not taken their own theology to heart. The God you cannot fathom, they assert, is best described as impersonal and unchanging. Yet, impersonal and unchanging are also words and represent a bias against the personal and changing. Perhaps, divinity includes some sort of multiplicity that embraces both personality and impersonality, and intimacy and universality.
While my personal spiritual bias is toward kataphatic way, it is clear to me that these are essential aspects of theological reflection. We need both the yin and the yang; sacraments and iconoclasm; words and silence, to understand who we are and the Reality in whom we live and move and have our being. Truly theology is an adventure of the spirit (Whitehead’s description of worship) that lures us to frontiers and worlds beyond our imagining. Let’s dance!
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and Patheos.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.