Defining God

In a lovely note from someone in a recent audience of mine, two questions were raised. I thought you might like to read how I responded–and perhaps suggest improvements on my answer!

Question 1
Who is God or What is God?
Question 2
Is God the same God that Christians, Jews and Muslims pray to?

I replied:

Defining God is done in two ways: (1) God is the most excellent being there is + (2) God is who God reveals Godself to be in the Bible. We need to be careful always to include (2), or else “God” becomes simply a projection of our own values, simply an amalgam or collage of what we happen to think is “best.” But when God reveals God’s name to Moses, God says, “I AM WHAT I AM”: which means, “Pay attention to what I’m saying and doing and learn exactly what kind of deity I am, relative to those Egyptian alternatives.”

Going to a good church is the best way to find out who and what God is. Another good thing to do is to sit down with a pastor for coffee and conversation.

As for who prays to what, I’d say that prayers can be properly or improperly “aimed” in any of the three religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim to pray to the one true God, and many converts from Judaism or Islam to Christianity make it clear that they did not “switch Gods,” but simply came to know the one true God better in the light of knowing Jesus Christ better–since Jesus is the human face of God. Having said that, it is also evident that some Jews, some Christians, and some Muslims are praying to Money, or Power, or Themselves, and not praying to the one true God at all.

Again, knowing your pastor as I do, I’m sure he will be a fine conversation partner for you both on these matters.

Thanks for writing,

John Stackhouse

0 Responses to “Defining God”

  1. contrararian

    Interesting post.

    I’ve seen a Youtube video of Professor Stackhouse saying that while he believes the Bible to be inerrant, this cannot be proven.

    Surely, hypothetically speaking, God could exist but not be the God of the Bible?

    • John Stackhouse

      This is an interesting question. The easy answer seems to be, “Sure, hypothetically some other God could exist than the God of the Bible.” Lots and lots of people have believed that there is such a God, of course.

      The more intriguing answer is, “No, the only understanding of God that is consistent with all the relevant evidence we have is the God of the Bible.”

      Now, if indeed the God of the Bible is the true God, then all the evidence there is would point to that God, since it’s all part of the same state of affairs. G. K. Chesterton argues this way in his book, “Orthodoxy,” namely, that everything in our experience, properly viewed, points to the existence of God.

      But the question is one that has haunted thinkers throughout history: Is the evidence sufficient in both quantity and quality to justify belief in only the one true God, or is there not enough evidence to select belief in that God from other plausible alternatives?

      (The situation is complicated further on our side by the effects of sin on our ability to see the truth, etc. But let’s leave that aside for now.)

      Pascal, for one, seems to have believed that the evidence for belief in (the one true) God was not itself enough to decide the issue: further revelation from God in one’s own experience was necessary. But not everyone agrees with this interpretation of Pascal, and certainly not everyone agrees with this construal of the situation we’re in.

      So there’s a long answer to a short question!

      • contrararian

        Thanks for your reply.

        If I understand your position correctly, you are asking whether non-Christian attempts to understand “God” might have the positive effect of leading people to the one true religion (Christianity) – rather than being worthless or even the work of satan.

        I’ve seen you say on Youtube that for Grace to be meaningful, God must have absolute discretion on how it is conferred.

        Surely that would mean that all our attempts to reach God are futile? God chooses who is saved and who is damned. Or are you saying that we can use our free will to attempt to reach God? Is so, surely, you still leave it open for God to choose as He wishes to send us to heaven or hell?

        One more question. I’ve seen you describe hell as “godless eternity”. Is this a conscious state? Are the damned aware for all eternity that they are damned?

        • John Stackhouse

          I’m not sure what you thought you heard me say on YouTube about grace. What you mention doesn’t sound like something I’d say: It sounds like something a strong predestinarian would say–someone like John Piper, for example.

          As for the doctrine of hell, I might blog on that soon….

  2. Mark

    Good thoughts. I have a simple question that I feel I need to set up with a massive preface…

    There’s a real desire amongst people to experience God in deeper ways than simply thinking all the right things about God. As helpful as it can be for our spiritual lives for us to sing hymns, vocalize liturgies, personalize phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, and pursue other relatively “uncontroversial” modes of Christian worship, none of those things seems to offer an ultimately satisfying experience of God’s presence. So naturally, some people are curious about particular spiritual disciplines that show up more prominently in eastern religions (i.e. transcendental meditation in Buddhism). Meditation in particular (at least in theistic religions) seems to represent a spiritual pursuit based more upon experiencing the being of God in and of itself in a kind of transcendence of the mind and the senses, rather than pursuing God through the usually modes of language and exuberant expression. There is a tension between feeling that the answer to the “God question” is found in Christ, and yet acknowledging the mystery of God’s being that nevertheless remains (and probably will forever remain, although our experiences will certainly be continually enriched, especially in the fulfillment of the new creational promises).

    So, basically, do you think there is validity to the apophatic modes of worship present in certain Christian traditions? If so, in what kind of context might apophatic worship be valid, and with what kind of underlying theological premises (i.e. is there a special experience of God’s being available to us through the silencing of the mind in meditation, etc.)? Or, would you argue that such pursuits are fanciful, and that we would be better off sticking to the usual Christian modes of worship while waiting for a fuller experience of God’s presence in the New Jerusalem?

    (ok, three questions…)

    • John Stackhouse

      Christian apprehension of God is always apprehension by way of Christ: the revelation of God in Christ’s career, the revelation of God in the Bible that features Christ centrally, and the revelation of God in the Holy Spirit who delights in showing us Christ.

      So sheer apophaticism seems to be a needlessly extreme step, deliberately “un-knowing” what God has taken pains to teach us.

      Still, there is much about God, even Christ (in some respects ESPECIALLY Christ!), that we cannot understand. But we can enjoy God’s transcending our understanding, as saints in both Testaments clearly do.

      Practically, then, Christian meditation doesn’t abandon content–doesn’t abandon the Bible, or Christian tradition, or one’s previous experiences of God, etc. But it sometimes intuits reality beyond what one has heretofore experienced and articulated. And for that we can be grateful.

      So inasmuch as other religious traditions can teach us good things about meditation–such as physical techniques like posture and breathing, or modes of concentration like repeating phrases, or images of truth like water, light, space, etc.–we can profit from them. But we properly bring them into the Christian ambit the way we bring liturgical elements (like Christmas celebrations), music (such as popular tunes or lyrics), or concepts (such as Greek philosophical terms): making sure they submit to the Lordship of Christ and then are put to their proper use.

      Does this help?

      • Mark

        Yes, very helpfully framed, thanks! There is a lot within Christian spiritual traditions to sort through (and I’ll be leading a group through a study of this sort shortly). I appreciate the openness of your perspective blended with insistence that all spiritual discipline submit to the Lordship of Christ. Thanks again..

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