Wednesday 13 July 2005

What does the word “God” mean?

I suggested in an earlier post that theology has a hermeneutical function: theology interprets the gospel. And we could focus this more sharply by saying: theology interprets the word “God”.

The gospel is, quite simply, an explication of the word “God”. The gospel narrates the story of Jesus as the story of God’s act. It narrates the history of Jesus as the history of God’s own being. To put it rather bluntly, we might say that the gospel defines God—it defines God as the event that happened in the history of Jesus. A certain Jewish man named Jesus lived for others, was executed, and was raised to life: this is the Christian definition of God.

It has always been the responsibility of Christian faith to explain the word “God” in this way. And this is a particularly urgent task in our present situation of religious pluralism, where the word “God” has come to mean so many different things to so many people that it has become virtually meaningless.

But the fact that the word “God” has become meaningless is not a curse but a blessing. For the meaninglessness of this word demands that we take great care in explaining exactly what we mean when we talk about “God”. In other words, it demands that we use the word “God” only as a kind of shorthand for “the event that took place in the history of Jesus of Nazareth”.

When we speak of God’s “love”, for instance, we are speaking not of some abstract power of benevolence, but of the love with which Jesus freely lived and died for others. When we speak of God’s “eternity”, we are speaking not of some dark realm beyond human history, but of the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth as the past, present and future existence of us all. When we speak of God’s “glory”, we are speaking not of some general divine grandeur, but of the glorification-in-humility of the crucified Jesus. When we speak of God as the “living God”, we are speaking not of some divine imperishability, but of the act in which the crucified Jesus moves through death to new life.

In short, to say “God” we must tell the gospel; and when we tell the gospel, we are explaining the word “God”.


Abdul-Halim V. said...

So does that mean God isn't present or manifested in history before or after Jesus?

Fred in Brussels said...

Hello Ben,

In case you want my (although open-minded, but still) atheist view on this, I would say the following.

First of all, as an atheist, I can still agree with a non-literal interpretation of the Holy Trinity (hope not to shock you here).

For me, Jesus was a man with great compassion and understanding that people shoudl live better lives. I suppose we would identify this Insight with the "Holy Spirit". Jesus having been the creator of his own insight, he is himself the "Father", and while consequently living according to his Insight, he has become the "Son".

But that is my interpretation of the Christian Story.

There's other Godbeliefs too, which see it differently I'm sure.

But in general it seems to me that the notion of "God" expresses the need of Mankind to have faith in finding a "good" end to his struggle, an existential goal, in a seemingly indifferent universe, with no other clear roadsigns.

Fred in Brussels said...

At the risk of pushing it a bit on the side of being "extremely liberal", my universalised notion of "God" would then go more in the following direction :

In life, every being has to struggle for survival.
Now that we as humans have developed (in my opinion through evolution) a mind capable of complex thought and reason, we can no longer deny the hardship of our struggle; we have lost the naive ignorance of other beasts - "our souls have been expelled from paradise" so to speak.

Our tormented souls now only see one way to get out of the hardship : the struggle should aim away from barbarism and savagery, from the beast in nature, towards a more developed version of himself, becoming more learned and sophisticated; constructing rather than devouring.
The ultimate state of the struggle would be the ultimate "good" - symbolised as "God".

This way it is kind of true that people that do not try to make themselves and the world around them a better place, kick themselves and all of mankind back into hardship and misery; those who do good, advance themselves and their fellow humans closer toward that ultimate goal.

(voilà, a very very liberal interpretation, but a universal human feeling, I think)

Fred in Brussels said...

I think I want to amend to my previous entry a little bit.

First of all, I would like to say that in my opinion, no texts about "Faith" or "God" can ever be interpreted literally. When we talk about these things, they are more intuitive, I believe, and a "Words" are reflections in our minds of things we know, and therefore hard to use on things we don't really know - which is the zone where most of the "God" related topics linger.

I want to refine what I stated above

"The ultimate state of the struggle would be the ultimate "good" - symbolised as "God"."

would probably be better phrased as

"The ultimate state of the struggle would be the ultimate "good" - symbolised as "Heaven" or "Salvation"."

The universal intuitive notion of God has in my opinion more to do with 3 things :

1. our observation of cause and effect in nature, and from that, using our rational mind, the question what caused the first effect. The Ancient Greek notion of "First Mover".

2. our intuitive reflex to seek shelter with our parents in case of danger or stress. Even later in life, we keep this comfortable memory from childhood, that a parent is the one to turn to when things go bad. I believe this is why we intuitively refer to "God the Father".

3. the feeling we sometimes have - stemming again from our intuitive observation - of cause and effect in nature, and our sometimes insignificance as an individual in the way that we (do not) control our environment and future. We feel that "life is happening to us" and that the "universe is steering us towards our fate"

I think these three things combined are the basis of our feeling of the concept "God".

Fred in Brussels said...

Furthermore, with regard to Islam (of which I have limited knowledge), what I find interesting is the notion of "Jihad", which I always understood as the prophet Mohammed's request to followers to "struggle" - but not in the violent way that is mistakenly used today, but quite on the contrary, a struggle as I explained above : one that aims away from barbarism and savagery, towards a more developed version of oneself. I believe that Mohammed also told his followers to "read" - again in my opinion, this means, to develop and cultivate themselves. The irony again baing that nowadays muslims in Qur'an schoold learn the book by heart without knowing Arabic!

Note too, that if you follow my understanding of the Human fate and struggle, it is clearly a difficult path, with every once in a while a prophet or saint or messiah to help us find the way.

Now the path of development could probably still lead in two directions :

downhill, straight into chaos and misery (and it looks we're pretty much moving in that direction right now); result mostly referred to as "apocalypse".

Or humanity could find the way out of the misery, a - balanced - path upwards, to "salvation".

The funny thing is, if you look at it this way, going to Heaven or Hell is a COLLECTIVE thing, not an individual one.
We're all stuck on the same little Blue Planet, and either we're going to help each other and all get there, or we're all going to damnation.

... time to set disputes aside, I think, and constructively and collectively strive for a better world.

Fred in Brussels said...

About the COLLECTIVE aspect of Damnation or Salvation, I want to ask you the following question, as a Christian : when you pray to God, or "work for Christ", do you think of your own Salvation?

If the answer is "yes", ask yourself what a world must become, if every individual is essentially preoccupied with his own Salvation.

I would dare to suggest that you give up praying for your own Salvation, and only pray for that of your Brothers and Sisters.

Fill your mind, not with pitty for their misery, or with contempt for their way of life or different explanation to existence, but with Compassion for their Struggle.

Then, when your mind is full of this, ACT accordingly.

(if you're uncomfortable, at least try this for a week)

Fred in Brussels said...

For me, "Faith" is the unwavering belief and optimism that humanity will - of both possible paths - in the end find its way up the path towards the "ideal good", rather than be lost in chaos and misery.

"Faith" therefore is the belief in Humanty's Good Fate.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all your comments, John. I really appreciate your point of view, even though I haven't had time to respond in any detail.

Anonymous said...

You migh proclaim to be an atheist but any human being that finds himself in a time of peril and danger, for some reason finds himself crying out to that God that they professed not to believe in. Hmm, I wonder if its that part of their soul that know there is a God, that is does the crying out.

debbie said...

I go to church and I believe in GOD because he heals and delivers people so you all should be thankful for him so don't treat him wrong for nothing and don't blame him for everything or your problems thank him for healing you instead because he breathes life in us everyday and he watches us at night he is our provider he is our care giver and he loves us so much he sent his son Jesus so get to know him for who he is so GODBLESS everyone Happy Holidays and Happy Birthday GOD and JESUS

daniel said...

Thanks debbie, it is worth waiting 5 years for someone to share this insight. blessings and obliged, daniel.

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