God is not Odin All-Father.
God does not wield thunderbolts like Zeus.
God does not make the world by slaying Tiamat
and dividing her carcass to form heaven and earth.
God is not god.
We Christians, of course, did not invent the one “God.” We inherited the notion from the Jews, who struggled for centuries to understand how YHWH was different from the gods whom she was commanded never to worship and obey: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). N. T. Wright describes the 2nd Temple Jewish belief in God as creational monotheism: “It spoke of a god who had made the world, and who thus was to be distinguished from four other conceptions of the divinity which might claim to be ‘monotheistic,’ and at least one which would not” (The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 248-250):
- Creational monotheism excludes henotheism, i.e., the belief that YHWH is but one of many gods, though superior to the other gods and thus the only one deserving of Israel’s worship and obedience. Think of the period of the Judges when Israelites took the daughters of the heathen in marriage and served their gods, presumably in addition to YHWH. Think of Elijah’s conflict with the Baals.
- Creational monotheism excludes pantheism, i.e., the belief that divinity is fundamentally identified with the whole of reality. Think Stoicism.
- Creational monotheism excludes deism, i.e., the belief that the gods are detached from the history of the world and never intervene in its workings. Think Epicureanism.
- Creational monotheism excludes dualism, i.e.., the belief that the physical world was made by a supernatural being distinct from the one true god. Think Gnosticism.
- Creational monotheism excludes paganism, i.e., the belief that the universe is populated by many kinds of divine beings. Think … well … think polytheism.
Note that the excluded belief systems share one thing in common—divinity exists in a necessary relationship with the world (see “The Christian Distinction“).
Christianity received the unique Jewish understanding of divinity and radicalized it through theological, spiritual, and philosophical reflection. We see this expressed in two patristic assertions:
- God made the world, not from pre-existent matter, but from nothing (creatio ex nihilo).
- The divine ousia is incomprehensible.
These two assertions are inextricably woven together. In the words of St Gregory the Theologian: “No one has yet discovered or ever shall discover what God is in his nature and essence” (Or. 28.17).
I concluded my previous post with the question, How do we stop thinking of God as god? The contemporary theologian I have found most helpful on this question is Herbert McCabe. The key, suggests McCabe, is to stop thinking of God as in any way an inhabitant of the universe.
God must be incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and, as Aquinas puts it, outside the order of all beings. God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars. God is not an inhabitant of the universe; he is the reason why there is a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space. When you have finished classifying and counting all the things in the universe you cannot add: ‘And also there is God.’ When you have finished classifying and counting everything in the universe you have finished, period. There is no God in the world. (God Still Matters, p. 37)
If God is not a being but the ultimate source and cause of all that he has freely brought into existence, then he cannot be understood as a god. Deities are but “bits of the universe”; but the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the transcendent creator of the universe. He is the reason why there is a universe, whether it contains gods, fairies, sprites, centaurs or whatnot.
But if God is not a god, then what is he? McCabe is direct: we do not know. We do not know what God is. We cannot provide a definition of his nature. We cannot comprehend his essence. Hence we really do not know what we are talking about when we use the word “God.” All we know is that whatever God is, he is the transcendent Mystery of our existence:
The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (p. 59)
Perhaps now we can understand why Christians were sometimes accused by pagans of being atheists. A God as envisioned by the Church is not a god at all.
God is God—the transcendent, infinite, ineffable, unsurpassable, almighty Creator of the cosmos and immanent ground of all being. To him we give all glory, laud, and honor, blessing and praise, unto the ages of ages. Amen.
(20 November 2013; rev.)