Who or What is God?

Sep 2, 2020 by

Who or What is God?

This is such a difficult, contentious, yet simple question. Every religion and spirituality has its perspective, yet most of them coincide at the deepest level, which is that whatever name we give to God, it represents the ultimate reality of Being. Within Christianity, we have the concept of the Godhead, the Ground of Being, neither male or female but containing both, and from which everything has been created and formed. St Paul described God to the men of Athens as the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.28). This ultimate Being is shown to us in Christian theology in three forms, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The One becomes the Three. There are many others ways of expressing this. We tend to see everything from our human perspective and personalise the Trinity, but the concept goes well beyond this, which we shall come to later.

The early theologian responsible for the development of the Trinitarian terminology is Tertullian. He invented many new Latin words in his writing, one of which was Trinitas, the Trinity, formed of three persona, which has invariably been translated into English as ‘person’. In the Latin, it literally means ‘sounding through’ (per sona) and was a term used for the masks that were worn by actors in a Roman drama. Each actor could wear different masks so that the audience knew which character they were playing, as one actor may have played more than one character. They sounded through the mask. So the term persona came to mean ‘the role that someone is playing’.

Tertullian was trying to convey the idea that the Godhead is expressed different roles, or is seen in different ways. The parent God is the one who holds us. God the Son is what a human being filled with God looks like, and God as Spirit is the presence or energy of God in the world. Different roles of the one God.

Later refinements came to the conclusion that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all of the substance or essence of God. But God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is really a metaphor to help us in our understanding of God. Unfortunately, metaphors are often taken as literal truth. We do not take other metaphors as literal. For instance, ‘The Lord is my rock’ is a common metaphor in the Bible. It says that God is solid, unmoveable, a solid base for life. It does not say that God is grey, hard and rough, maybe with white streaks or sparkly bits, and can often be found sticking out of the ground. We know which parts are true, what qualities of rock are being referred to. God as the Holy Trinity is also a metaphor that has been very helpful as Christianity has evolved and grown in its theology. We should know which bits of the metaphor are true, but the church has had a tendency to become more and more literal in its interpretation of this metaphor, to the extent that it has become a stumbling stone for many, with God literally seen as a father, existing in that human form in a place called heaven, even sitting on a white cloud with his flowing beard. The Holy Spirit becomes a dove, or a ghost, floating about ethereally. Jesus sits there at the Father’s right hand. Metaphors easily become concretised, and in doing so, they lose meaning.

About a century after Tertullian, in 325, the Council of Nicea set out to officially define the relationship of the Son to the Father, in response to the teachings of Arius, who said that the Son was subordinate to the Father, not equal. This caused a right old stir, and the Council of Nicea was called with all the bishops. Led by bishop Athanasius, the council established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy – and then condemned everything else as heresy. Before that, there were various versions of Christianity, none of which were seen as being the ‘correct’ version – people just favoured one or other. It was with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire at this time that it began to be closely defined and tied up in doctrine. The creed adopted by the Nicene council described Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”  And that has been with us since, as the Christian definition of Jesus the Christ.

But how are we to understand it in this day and age? We now know the size of the universe, and the complexity of the sub-atomic particles and forces. We know that mass is energy, E=mc2. Scientists tell us that we are comprised of interacting, communicating vibrational energies that make up our very being. We are vibrational beings of energy.

One way that modern theologians think about it is to see God as ‘Being’. Remember the words that God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked, ‘Who shall I say sent me?’

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”  – Exodus 3:14 

I AM means God is the ultimate ‘Being’. God is Life itself. So another way some theologians have of expressing the Trinity is the Father is understood to be primordial Being, the source of all that is and all that has the potential to be. TheSon is expressive Being, the Word spoken out into the world. The primordial Being pours itself out, sounds through, expressive Being, in the same way that words are an expression of the thoughts in our minds. The Son as expressive Being is the thoughts of God spoken out , even in a human being. The Holy Spirit is the creative energy of Being, the holy breath that forms the words, the builder of form.

We struggle greatly with words and language to describe the divine, and no words can really do justice to the Source of all. A more down-to-earth and helpful analogy is water. Water is one substance, H2O, – each molecule made of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen.  That’s what defines what water is.  Nothing else is like it.  But water can exist in three states – when it’s really cold it is a hard solid – ice. Warm it up a bit to get liquid water, or apply more heat to turn it into a gas – water vapour.

Now ice is nothing like liquid water – its hard, its strong, it floats. But it’s still made of the same chemicals, two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. It’s still the same stuff. When its really hot, water turns to vapour – and that you can’t even see. There’s water vapour in the air all around us. Every time you breathe out, you’re breathing out water vapour. It’s still H2O in each case, the same substance, but has very different appearance and properties, depending on which state it is in gas, liquid or solid, – but it is still one substance. Likewise, God exists as Father, Son & Holy Spirit – but all are still the One God, still the same substance or essence. So it is with the three faces, or masks, or persons of God. One God, expressed in three ways.  God is one essence, One Being, but appears to us in different forms, as does like water. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That can be a helpful analogy for some, but like any analogy, it is limited

To take this to a deeper level, there are other more inner ways of expressing this One in Three.

  • God the Father we could see as the masculine aspect, the Will of Being, the driving Power of the Divine that holds the potential for everything to Be
  • God the Holy Spirit we could see as the feminine aspect, the Creative Being, the maker of form, the Creator of matter – the Mother aspect of the Divine, a concept which has sadly been lost from Christian tradition
  • God the Son is then the result of the interplay of the Father and Mother aspects, giving birth to the Love/Wisdom/Consciousness, the Christ, the only-begotten Son. In human form, the man Jesus of Nazareth had such a level of evolved consciousness that he embodied the Christ consciousness, as much as that is possible for any human being, and became known as Jesus Christ (which should really be expressed as Jesus the Christ). But when referring to the only-begotten Son, as in the Nicene Creed, it is the Christ aspect of the Godhead that is being spoken of, not the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, but his evolved consciousness. Jesus is the union of human and divine in space and time, and the Christ is the eternal union of matter and Spirit from the beginning of time.

These more inner meanings for the Trinity can be summarised thus:

Father Aspect        Son Aspect Christ    Mother Aspect
Divine Will            Divine Love             Divine Intelligence
Light                      Love                         Life
Spirit                      Consciousness          Matter
Purpose                  Evolution                 Activity
Cause                     Meaning                   Effect
I Will To Be           I Am                         I Create

So we begin to see other levels of meaning for God that are about the One Life that permeates and holds all in existence, working through created form, energising and inspiring that form in myriads of different ways and paths. This is the Big Picture, the Divine matrix of Being that is big enough to hold the whole universe in Being, with all the billions of stars in each galaxy and the billions of galaxies of unimaginable size to our small human brains. And yet, we are still One with the Divine Being, the One Life which sustains us, that we call God. This is sometimes expressed as panentheism, which moves away from the idea that God is “up there” and we are “down here”. God is both immanent and transcendent: God is immanent, within all of creation, but also transcendent, which does not mean “up there”! It means “other”, lying beyond the ordinary range of human perception. God is both within us and all creation and other than us as well. This is the meaning of panentheism – God is within all, holding it all in existence, yet God is still other than the All. The ‘other’ is beyond our comprehension, beyond the limits of our most evolved consciousness.

In answer to the title question, ‘Who or What is God?’, ultimately all we can say is God is Being, God is All, God is the One Life – and that the human race is evolving to higher, deeper levels of consciousness within that One Life.

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