Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 27th July 2014
27 July 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
What might God be like? What sort of reality is God: a person, spirit, substance? I'm trying to face up to this question in these July sermons at Matins because many of our residual images of God we've received from the hymns and songs and teachings of our childhood are incredible and inadequate: they are anthropomorphic pictures of God as something like a big man or spirit hovering over our world, occasionally intervening by strange supernatural means. Do we really think of God like that? Probably not! So, how do we imagine or think of God credibly?
In the first sermon about this I suggested that scripture itself is actually wary of trying to imagine God at all. God, the mysterious transcendent origin of all things, is beyond any direct description. But I also suggested there is nonetheless one inescapable image we can consistently take from the narratives of scripture. For all God's mystery, He or She is always experienced as a personal reality, a personal mind and will. Whether through conscience, intuition, striking experiences in the natural world, through great religious traditions, above all through Christ, God communicates Himself as a personal pull on us. Now, this week, I also want to add something else. This personal, communicating, presence of the biblical narratives also makes things happen. God is not just a personal presence but also a personal agent; a reality with causal power; not just the ultimate ground of things but also a mover of things. God brings people from one place to another: from the garden to the desert, to Gethsemane; God actually acts, heals, changes things.
But then how can we imagine this? How can we credibly conceive God as an agent when we cannot see God's causality in any scientifically observable way? One way is simply by the power of communication. When God makes the pull of His mind and will known, in all those different ways of conscience, intuition, Christ Himself, this itself makes things happen. A simple analogy shows how this can be imagined. Even when you or I communicate our mind and will this is adds new information into the world which has an effect, it changes things. Share your thoughts (perhaps just an opinion about a friend) with someone else, and they will react in some way, however imperceptibly; and so reality is changed, something has been made to happen.
You can see this even more clearly in the wider field of history. For better or worse, when powerful human minds and wills make themselves known this always has an effect. One twentieth-century historian, commenting on Hitler's Germany, offers a fascinating if chilling example. He points out that much of the collective action of the third Reich came about simply because Hitler made his mind and will known. He didn't actually do much directly: he didn't even give many specific orders; he mostly made his mind known only in general ways. But that was enough. Because he was such a powerful personality, any input of information from his mind was enough to move his henchman to pursue their policies. In the historian's sinister phrase they found themselves 'working towards the Führer's mind', and in doing that they changed the world. Now, replace a malign human dictator's mind with a transcendent moral divine mind and you have one picture of how God makes things happen. Whenever, in those many and varied ways, God has made His mind known, His followers, from Abraham and Moses to Jesus's disciples and all since who have experienced God addressing them, we all find ourselves 'working towards God's mind', and so the kingdom of God unfolds, and divine causal power is exercised.
We can imagine God making things happen in other ways too. Not just through influencing our minds and actions, but even more directly in the very structures of material reality. The language of scripture and experience often implies this too. The God shown to us in Christ has showed he does not just influence our minds but also interacts with our bodies and the wider natural order. This doesn't have to be understood only as some sort of supernatural intervention overriding natural causation. It can be imagined as a different kind of causation altogether. Not the kind of causation which replaces the fabric of natural reality (if God characteristically did that then we would rightly cry out why doesn't he then replace the causes of cancer and earthquakes); rather, the kind of divine causation which works patiently and invisibly through the natural web of things, rather than replacing them. Analogous, perhaps, to the sort of invisible causation that science itself now tells us is constantly happening at, the sub-atomic level, where there is constantly an input of new information which is steering things in new directions. None of this means, of course, that we can penetrate the exact causal means God uses to act. But this overall picture is surely enough. By communicating his mind, and by adding new information in the very structures of reality, God really can be imagined as a personal actor with us in this world, not just an inert principle lying behind it.
What sort of reality is God, then? Not a crude supernatural being, hovering over us, occasionally intervening. Instead, this much more mysterious and much more credible reality: a transcendent mind and will, a communicating presence, who constantly makes things happen through our own minds, and even within the very fabric of reality. Like a poet communicating through her poem, and like a poet performing his poem, so is God in our world.
And what difference does that make? Surely all the difference in the world! To know that we are not alone, not the only agents in this world, is transformative at a very deep level. It doesn't relieve us of responsibility—how could it when much of God's action is through us not instead of us? But to know that it is not all down to us does surely keep us saner when we face our own limits, more humble, and always more hopeful.