What we mean when we think about God

As far as I understand it, the idea of God being an old man with a beard who smites people either because of his own capriciousness or at the request of others, is held by two belief extremes; the atheists who think that all Christian see the Bible as being literally true, and the fundamentalists who actually do see the Bible as being literally true (please see note below). Both of these conceptions are damagingly limited. I know that when I was an atheist, I certainly assumed that any belief in God involved a ‘him’ to start with, with human characteristics. Because of course we would have to label something as transcendent and ephemeral as the life force of the Universe in those terms. We humans are not very good at getting our head around things unless we can label them and put them in a box, are we?

I think that how we each define God probably says a lot about how we see our faith, too. My own view of God has changed hugely over the last decade or so. And now I’m probably most comfortable than I’ve ever been with my conception of God; that of, ‘I don’t really know exactly…’.

There’s a quote which I can’t remember exactly (please let me know if you do) which says something along the line of the people of the old days were smart enough to understand that the Old Testament was allegory and myth and story, but today we seem to have gone backwards and we have groups who believe that it is literally true. Sounds like is could be Spong. Or Rohr. But it’s not how the OT was intended to be read.

I think the reality of God, the he/she/it is too tricky for us to get our head around, so we have to tell stories and invent out own parameters to understand it truly. So using a female pronoun is just as valid as a male pronoun, because it’s all a construction anyway. ‘A force that emits love’ probably isn’t catchy enough to get converts. My favourite phrase is Ruach Elohim which is more the spirit, or the breath, of God. I think it’s beautiful.

But there are probably as many conceptions of the universal life force that is ‘God’ as there are minds on the planet.

What do you think of when you think about God?

Note; In the comment section, Ruth asked an important clarifying question that brought to light a problem with how that sentence could be interpreted. My usage of the word THE (the atheists, the fundamentalists) was meant to imply that not ALL people within those groups think that way. If I’d meant ‘all’, I would have said ‘atheists’ without the qualifying ‘the’. But I can completely see how it could be read in the other way, and thank Ruth for bringing it to my attention.

26 thoughts on “What we mean when we think about God

  1. Yahweh started out life as the co-head (in partnership with his wife, Asherah) at the top of an entire pantheon of gods, with second tier of powerful but more flawed deities (including, for example, Baal), a third tier of divine craftsmen, and a final tier of simple messengers, the Malakim, who became the messenger angels in the bible. The anthropomorphic god of the old testament is a remnant of the Elohim.
    I personally tend to the pantheistic view of Paul and John, the “I am” of Moses: God is all, god is love. To quote Jesus: “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” – The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 77

    • We just like to anthropomorphise things, dont we? I know that when I view things pantheistically I tend to need to get a focus on Jesus again, just to ground myself. I once heard him described as ‘God in a form that we can get our heads around’ and I can see the sense in that.

  2. My wife often says that God is a great big alien being, so we are struggling to really comprehend much about him, as you say. But I do think we can know him a little better by revelation. As a christian, I believe Jesus is that revelation, a person not a proposition. That doesn’t answer all the philosophical questions, but it answers the more important personal questions of how does God treat me.

    That isn’t always comforting, for he was very critical of the religious leaders of his day, so if he was here now I might be in that category. But it IS comforting when I have stuffed up in some way, and I know he treated the losers and alienated, the powerless and those who knew they had stuffed up, very sensitively and gently.

    • Yes, I dont think that we are the alienated and the powerless here in Australia, are we? I wonder what Jesus would think of how we are doing at the moment…

  3. “My point… is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
    John Dominic Crossan

  4. “As far as I understand it, the idea of God being an old man with a beard who smites people either because of his own capriciousness or at the request of others, is held by two belief extremes; the atheists who think that all Christian see the Bible as being literally true, and the fundamentalists who actually do see the Bible as being literally true.”

    Do you think all atheists believe that all Christians see the Bible as being literally true?

    • No, that’s why I said ‘the atheists who see the Bible as being literally true’, meaning that it is a subset of atheists. If I had intended to say that all atheists believed it, I would have written ‘Atheists, who believe that the Bible is literally true’.

      Please tell me this isn’t happening again, lol.

      • Please tell you what isn’t happening again? I was asking for clarification. As far as I know no atheist believes the Bible is literally true. Of course, there are atheists who point out the absurdity of believing the Bible is literally true, even if they don’t believe that all Christians think it is. You and I both know there are Christians who do believe that and I think we agree that this is a misguided, if not dangerous, belief.

        • Sorry Ruth, I misquoted myself by omitting ellipses! I meant ‘The atheists who believe that Christians see the Bible as being literally true’. Paraphrasing fail, sorry 😊

    • Hi Ruth, just letting you know that I updated the post to clarify what I meant more clearly. Thanks for drawing my attention to it; I can see how my sentence could have easily been seen as meaning ‘all’.

  5. I think of the idea of God as a personification of the unexplained forces of existence. At least, that’s when the idea of God is being used responsibly.

  6. Great post, Eva. And personally I do think the ancients were less literal about their understanding of these things than some are today. I think perhaps they understood the value of myth better than many today.

  7. I’m one of those people who does believe everything in the Bible is true. But I also believe God gives us all the freedom to interpret the Bible the way we want to. If we just reach out to him or her he runs to us. He then leads us in the way.

    Someone said that God is male and female combined because God said he made male and female in his own image. I think this is true. There is so much to learn about God; none of us really understand him.

    But, I am curious. Do you believe Jesus was the son of God? Do you read the writings of Peter etc. Or, do you never read the Bible?

  8. Love how this got my great cells going! I have always been uncomfortable with the manifestation of God in human form – either father or son. It seems all too simplistic and story like.
    Spirit or Source on the other hand resonates as does the Tao and being one with nature.

    • ‘Source’ is good, isn’t it? Even ‘Universe’ is more nuanced than our common fallback of ‘God’, I think.

Comments are closed.