One of the most popular search terms on Google is the question, “What is God?” This question shocks most Christians, who would have expected the question, “Who is God?” But Christians assume a personal God. Let’s back up for a moment to the very beginning and consider the
Great Question from its inception.
*(hitchhiker: a human being who awoke one day on a planet hurtling through space at mind blowing speed and who wonders if there is a Driver! And if He (or She or both) can be trusted!)
The Great Question implies many lesser questions. If we identify their sequence logically, we will search out the question with much better clarity. What is God? (if God is impersonal). Who is God? (If He [or She or both] is personal). If God is Good, by the same logic isn’t Evil also a God? Can God be known? What are our capacities to know God? Can we know God by reason? Are there limits to our reason? Can we know God by revelation (divine poetry)? Are there limits to revelation? Who is God described by reason alone? by revelation alone? Who is God by reason and revelation together?
How do we approach these questions? It is best to think about what they imply, what are the limits to our understanding. Hopefully we can do so before our planet crashes somewhere at the limits of space!
What is God?
Anthropologists tell us that humans are universally “worshipping” beings. Idol images of Gods are found everywhere. For some more isolated tribes, God is a frightening force of nature like lightning and thunder. “What is God?” is then a reasonable question. God is material, but not spiritual. God is impersonal. “It” (no personal pronouns, please) is an unknowable construction. We are at the mercy of blind forces that are deaf to our suffering. Not much else to see or do here!
Who is God?
Archeologists have discovered an ancient (2000 BC) bronze idol of Baal Hadad, the storm God of the Canaanites. Baal is represented as a man holding a jagged spear and a club — the spear is the lightning bolt and the club is the thunderclap. The Baal worshippers imagined a personal God who ruled over the destructive forces of nature. The idol has the face of a man. We can now ask, “Who is God?” But behind the shift to a personal God is the issue of whether we have simply made God in our own image. How do we explain the natural forces, many of which are destructive. Is it true (or merely consoling) to imagine a personal God controlling these destructive forces? a relatable God whose wrath we could perhaps placate with sacrifices or prayer?
Moses said that we were made in the “image of God.” Ludwig Feuerbach turned Moses on his head and said that we “make” the God(s) in our own image. But the psalmist of Israel warned us that idol making was futile: “Idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths but they do not speak; eyes they have, but they do not see…those who make them are like them” (Yikes! We are made into their image!) (Psalm 115:4-6,8).
An idol God, like the bronze Baal, is deaf and blind. With this kind of personal God, there is no one to hear our cries, no one to help us in our suffering. Not a comforting answer to our question, although admittedly comfort is not a standard of truth. Still, not a good candidate for the Driver of our planetary vehicle!
If God is Good, by the same logic isn’t Evil also a God?
Comparative religionists develop the question still further. If a personal God controls random destructive forces, like lightning and earthquake, how can such a God be good? Here we face a stark truth. If we can make a case for a good God, we can just as easily make a case for an Evil One. All of life seems to be a battle between good and evil or life and death. Must we conclude that good and evil are locked in an eternal combat, equally powerful forces unable to prevail over each other? This answer leads to a Persian (Zoroastrian) pessimism. This explains other Eastern speculative theology, like Yin and Yang. We must acknowledge that such an eternal struggle has echoes in nature’s cycles. Perennial seasons suggest the vanity of life, where “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
We note in passing that it is the question of evil that accounts for atheism. Atheism is an expression of anger against God. It is logically self-contradictory. Anyone who denies the existence of God boasts himself to have omniscient knowledge that God exists nowhere in the universe. Therefore the atheist must be omniscient; he must become God to deny God. Oops!
If our Cosmic planetary Driver is Evil as much as Good, we should strap on our seat belts. We are in for one hell of a drive!
Can God be known? What are our capacities to know God?
Can a finite creature know an infinite Creator? Immanuel Kant explored the limits of our capacity to reason. He noted that we are not capable of thinking outside of time and space. What was before the beginning? What lies beyond the limits of space? If there are limits to our capacity to know and God exists in another realm — beyond space and time, God cannot be known like we know one another. God is in the realm of transcendence while we can know only the imminent. If this is so, we can only know God through metaphors — images! We will think of God as a Father, a Shepherd, a Judge, a King. All theology becomes poetry. Poetry is “image making.” We create images of God when we attempt to understand him. But false poetry, then, is idolatry. False theology makes idolatrous images of God.
Can we know God by reason? Are there limits to reason?
The Milesian philosophers attempted to apply reason to the poetry (mythology) of Hesiod and Homer. The poets said that Zeus, the King of the Gods, had the power of the lightning bolt. Zeus also had a sacred tree, the Oak. Thales noticed that Zeus frequently struck his own tree with his lightning bolt. At this point, philosophy rejected poetry. Philosophers committed to reason denied the “inspiration” of the poets’ “muses.” Philosophy affirmed agnosticism because it was thought that the claims the poets made about the Gods were beyond the validation of reason. The poets remained theists, composing “images” of the Gods. There emerged the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, two camps divided over the possibility of knowing God. Philosophers said we can only know truth by reason. Poets offered the rival claim that we can know truth by contemplating images of the beautiful.
Reason, however, has limits. Our senses can deceive us. A stick in water refracts the image of brokenness. A mirage in the desert gives the thirsty an image of false hope. Further, Xenophanes taught that our time on earth is too short and our experiences are too limited to have reasonable knowledge of anything. In modernity, Baconian scientific method has yielded much to improve the conditions of life. But it too has recognizable limits. It cannot address anything not repeatable or testable, like creation, the eternality of matter, or the beginnings of life — that is, anything in the realm of the divine.
Can we know God by revelation (poetry)? Are there limits to revelation?
There are limits to revelation (poetry) as well as limits to reason. One obvious limit is the multiplicity of poetic images of God. How can we falsify them? There is also transcendence and imminence. This leads to “mystery” in Christian theology, the realm where logic ceases to be knowable. How can God, who made man in his image, become man himself in the incarnation of Christ?
Who is God described by reason alone? By revelation alone?
The pre-Socratic philosophers were looking for the “first principle.” The “indivisible.” The “atomic” (Gk. “that which cannot be subdivided”). Philosophers, like the poets, offered different elemental theories. Thales suggested water. Anaximenes set forth air. Others examined fire and earth. They called the quest for the beginning the search for the “Arche,” or the beginning of the cosmos. Yet no consensus emerged.
But there is no consensus among the poets either. The ancients imagined the God(s) to be projections of human families. Creating the Gods in the image of mankind, they worshipped Gods who warred against each other, were jealous, unfaithful, and vengeful.
The Hebrews, on the contrary, claimed that the true God revealed himself to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel through his Word, the “Logos.” This God made man in his image, but forbade man from making any image of God in turn. Aristotle reasoned that when we see a house, we imagine a house builder. When we see a palace, we imagine many builders. When we see the world, we imagine many Gods creating it. Monotheism, in this sense, is contrary to reason. It can only have come from revelation.
Who is God by reason and revelation together?
The Gospel of John opens by claiming that the Word (Logos) was in the beginning (Arche) (John 1:1). The divine Word is thus the synthesis of reason and revelation, the One identified with God and yet, as in the Genesis account of the beginning, differentiated from God (John 1:1).
In the Hebrew Bible, the word for thunder (Qol) is also the word for voice. The voice of God, which reveals truth, was heard in the thunder of Sinai. Perhaps the most beautiful and reasonable revelation of God was given to Moses, “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Here is a God who is transcendent (eternally existent) yet who hears the cries of his people suffering in bondage (Exodus 3:7). Here is a God who loves liberty and who saves the downtrodden.
We can trust this God to drive our planetary vehicle to safety and to bring his hitchhikers home!
Next month: What is Religion?
Dr. Warren A. Gage, Th.M., J.D., Ph.D. is president of The Alexandrian Forum, which provides life-changing Biblical teaching. To learn more, visit alexandrianforum.org