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Ask Dr. Cobb

January 2009 Question

Must everyone always call God “God”?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Of course, the answer is “No.” It is obvious that those who speak German will say “Gott,” and those who speak French will say “Dieu.” In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word is “El.” In the Greek New Testament, it is “Theos.” It is equally obvious that in Arabic, the word is “Allah,” although there are those who seem to dispute that.

The problem is more difficult when the language is one that has not been influenced by the Bible. In those languages there is often no idea that corresponds closely with the biblical notion of God. Sometimes Christians do not agree as to what word in those languages comes closest to “God.” Whatever word is chosen has to be given new meaning by adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is an interesting and revealing discussion.

However, I am concerned in this essay with the variety of words that we English-speaking Christians use to name God. Some of them are biblical. God is the Holy One. Jesus taught us to address God as “Abba,” which we usually translate as “Father,” although “Papa” would be closer to the Aramaic. The New Testament also tells us that God is Spirit, and certainly this Spirit is Holy. So we know that when we speak of the Spirit or the Holy Spirit, we are speaking of God. This is all unproblematic.

The questions emerge when we substitute other words. Perhaps the most debated in recent times has been “Mother.” As feminists have pointed out, the Bible provides a basis for this in the images and analogies it offers us for God, although God is never directly spoken of as “Mother.” We cannot doubt that the Jews imaged God as masculine, even though they did not generally think of God as “a male.” If they had made statues of God, they would no doubt have been of a male, but just because they did not want to reduce God to human categories they eschewed such images. In some Jewish contexts, and certainly with Jesus, the characteristics of God that are highlighted are easily associated with the feminine. Today, as we try to break out of the overwhelmingly patriarchal culture with which our heritage has been associated, there are good reasons for giving equal play to “Mother” and to “Father.”

Unfortunately the tradition has gone in other directions. It has emphasized God’s controlling power rather than God’s tender concern, highlighted by Jesus’ use of “Abba.” The Hebrew Bible images God in terms of rule and control, and this royal language has been emphasized and universalized. God came to be spoken of as “King of Kings” and “Master of the Universe.”

From a process perspective, these images are already a distortion of Jesus’ message. However, worse was to follow. As time passed, the most common substitute for “God” came to be “the Almighty.” Previously I have explained that this terminology and idea have only the most tenuous basis in scripture. From the process perspective, the rise of such language to dominance in the church has been an unmitigated disaster. This disaster is so embedded in the church’s liturgy that even when its teachers carefully explain that God’s omnipotence does not mean that human beings have no power, freedom, or responsibility, the occurrence of personal or historical disasters regularly evokes questions about why God acted in so cruel a way.

Partly to avoid problems of this sort, others have moved in quite a different direction. Some have contrasted God as absolute with creatures as relative. No doubt there are meanings of “absolute” that are acceptable and relevant to God. But Charles Hartshorne has been particularly clear about the damage that has been done by this contrasting of God with all that is relative. It has too often denied to God any kind of relativity and, with it, any real relationship to the world including its human inhabitants. It has thereby separated God very far indeed from the God of the Bible.

Others have contrasted God as “transcendent” with all other things as “immanent.” Some of them have affirmed that God is purely transcendent, not discoverable in the affairs of the world. God is the Wholly Other, that which is known only in its contrast with the things of this world. This can support some types of mystical practice, but hardly a biblical faith.

Others have built on the unquestioned fact that God’s reality is far different from ours and remains to us always mysterious. God, then, can be identified as the “ultimate mystery.” This is not objectionable in itself. It reminds us not to take our human opinions dogmatically, especially our opinions about God. But too often the language of mystery is used to block further thinking about God. Mystery can be an invitation to explore, and in that role process theologians affirm it. But identifying God as the ultimate mystery can also lead to a kind of mystification that process theologians deplore.

Still others have taken off from the sense that when we think of creaturely things, we can always ask questions about how they came into being, whereas when we think of God, that sort of question cannot arise. God is the answer to such questions and must be such that they cannot in turn be asked about God. He seems to be “ultimate.” Accordingly, many now substitute a name like “Ultimate Reality” for “God.” Philosophically inclined theologians often suppose that whatever they learn about what is truly ultimate, they are learning about God.

Now there can be little doubt that we would not use the name “God” for something that was not ultimate in some respects. If we were speaking of something that had come into existence in the process of evolution or history, however important and excellent we judged it to be, we would not be inclined to call it “God.” We assume that to be God anything must be everlasting and that its existence cannot be a matter of chance. Also we would not speak of God, if there were something more worthy of our devotion. Hence describing God as “Ultimate Reality” has some justification.

Nevertheless, from the process perspective, or at least the Whiteheadian one, this substitution of “Ultimate Reality” for “God” has been seriously misleading. The quest for ultimate reality has generally directed attention to that of which everything is ultimately constituted. The most common answer, made famous in the twentieth century by Martin Heidegger and Paul Tillich is “being” or “being itself.” Sometimes these terms are capitalized so as to indicate their identity with deity.

Metaphysically, this concept is very important and fruitful. It points to the depth of every being, its participation in being. This being is not a being, but it is also not an abstraction. It is that by virtue of which everything that is, is. In otherwise, nothing can exist apart from being itself. Heidegger pointed out how in the modern period in the West, philosophy had lost sight of being. However, Heidegger did not think that being itself could be identified with God, whereas this identification has been made in the medieval period and was renewed by Tillich.

From the perspective of Whitehead, there are two reasons for not identifying God with being itself. First, the term is misleading as an account of that in which all things participate in order to exist. When we think of every existent as a “being” that is an instantiation of “being itself,” we are led to viewing reality in a static way. This may not be inevitable. “Being” can be understood quite dynamically. But historically speaking this has been rare, and it cuts against many of the connotations of the term. Whitehead proposes that instead we use the terms “events” and “creativity.” All “events” are instantiations of “creativity.”

Second, although “creativity” thus plays the role in his thought that “being” played for Tillich, and for Whitehead it could be considered “ultimate reality,” it is not God. Tillich himself recognized the Being Itself is the God beyond the God of the Bible. Whitehead thought that the meaning of “God” is religious and should not be separated from its use in the Abrahamic traditions. There it is bound up with a distinction between better and worse and right and wrong. Creativity, like Being Itself, is completely neutral on such matters. It is instantiated as much in an atomic holocaust instantiates as in the gift of water to a thirsty child. It is metaphysically ultimate but not ethically or religiously so.

I am suggesting that in general the replacement of “God” with other terminology in the history of the West reflects moves away from the revelation of God in Jesus. Process theology does not affirm the inerrancy of scripture or its absolute authority and so is open to new thinking about God and the language we use in reference to God. For example, we regard the use of feminine language about God as an important gain. Process theologians recognize that the language of the Bible in general, including Jesus, is anthropomorphic in ways that must be checked and changed if God is to be taken seriously in a thoughtful way. Nevertheless, we deplore most of the moves that have been made in the church away from the New Testament revelation.

What language can process theologians recommend? The ideas we would lift up with respect to God are grace and love. God is the all-gracious one and the all-loving one. God is also the life-giver, the inspirer, the one who calls, and the ground of meaning. God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. God is the one who knows us better than we know ourselves and who forgives us even when we cannot forgive ourselves. God is the hope of the world.

Surely process thinkers are not bereft of religiously significant rhetoric that is richly supported by our serious and reflected beliefs!     

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