Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 13th July 2014
13 July 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
God is the origin of all things—but what might God be like? What sort of reality is God: a person, spirit, substance? What do we mean by 'God'? You might think this was a central question for churchgoers, but in fact we rarely face it. Yes, we may have residual, anthropomorphic images of God left over from the songs and prayers of our childhood: God as something like an old man or spirit hovering over our world, and occasionally intervening by strange supernatural means. But do we really think of God like that? Probably not. So what then is God like? How do we imagine or think of God credibly? Perhaps we don't face up to this question much because the dominating discourse in church tends to be more pragmatic: questions like 'What kind of person does God wants us be?', or 'What should the church do to make the world a better place?'. And perhaps those are the most important questions. But if we never think at all about what we really mean by 'God', the danger is that we are left only with those childhood images—and because they are so easily dismissible, then God is too easily dismissed altogether. So perhaps we should, at least sometimes, face this other more difficult question too: what do we really mean by God?
It's not easy to answer. One of the most fatuous myths and misunderstandings about faith, and about the bible in particular, is that it presents us with clear, definite pictures of God. But that is precisely what the Hebrew Bible refuses to do. In the seminal self-revelation of God to Moses in the story of a burning bush, God is intrinsically mysteriously, formless, just a nameless name: 'I am who I am', or 'I will be who I will be'. And when Moses later twice asks God to show what He's like all that happens is that he is put in cleft of a rock, his face is covered with God's own hand, and all he is allowed as the glory of God passes by is a glimpse of the passing 'backside' of God. A wonderfully suggestive picture of how the full mystery of the being of God is, by its own intrinsic nature, by his own hand, hidden from our full grasp. It is a revelation of God—but it's a revelation of a mystery, not of a clear defined object we could ever easily imagine.
Jewish philosopher and critic Eric Auerbach points this out in his celebrated book Mimesis. And he reminds us how this biblical depiction of God as mystery contrasts with pictures of the gods in fictional story-telling. So in the clearly fictional narratives of Homer, he says, 'when gods appear … to help one of their favourites or destroy some mortal whom they hate … their bodily forms, and … the manner of their coming and going, are given in detail'. Whereas in the Hebrew Bible 'God appears without form … we hear only a voice that utters only an [unknown] name'. Even in the New Testament when God appears uniquely in the bodily form of Christ, that body changes and disappears as the dramas of Resurrection, Pentecost, Ascension unfold, re-appearing only metaphorically in the collective body of his followers. Again, a deliberately oblique picture.
So perhaps the first obvious thing to say is simply that we cannot really describe God. It's not just that God is not an old man the sky: he's not really like any reality within this universe we can describe—whether the sea, the sun, sodium chloride, or a symphony. God is so mysteriously 'other' that all our images, as TS Eliot put it, just 'slip slide perish' when we try to describe God.
However, for Auerbach it is also this very difficulty that makes these biblical accounts convincing, which suggests they are more likely to be about real, not fictional, experiences. Moreover, there is also something else, something more definite we can say. For whatever God is, and for all his mystery, these biblical narratives do consistently convey God as the experience of a personal presence—a personal reality who communicates with us. Again and again in the biblical dramas what is conveyed is the sort of pull of communication we feel when we are in the presence of another person. Remember the story of Adam, representing us all, as he walked in the cool of the Garden. His encounter with God there is described as the experience of someone calling him. Remember Saul's sense of a presence when he fell to the ground on the road to Damascus. He asked not 'What is this?', but 'Who are you Lord?'
This doesn't mean we revert to a crude picture of God after all, as if God is indeed just like another person whose voice we can literally hear. God is an entirely unique transcendent reality. Yet he (or she) is, inescapably, a personal and communicating mystery: one who calls us personally, even though we've seen no specific person and heard no specific words. Is that impossible to imagine? Surely not! Former Bishop of Winchester (John Taylor) describes such a moment, for example, in quite an ordinary setting: on a railway journey, seeing a flaming English sunset through the carriage windows, and feeling personally addressed through the experience. It can happen with any striking experience: a birth, or death, an act of compassion, music, a burning bush, or just a flowering bush. We sense in them a personal pull on us which doesn't come exactly from them but through them, as if from some transcendent reality who is communicating with us through them—a transcendent mind, will, desire, experienced through these things.
So, isn't that just what God is like? Not a formless spirit, super-sized object, or impersonal cause, but rather the mysterious origin of all things who is experienced through things as a personal communicating mind and will.
Of course God is also more than this. The testimonies of tradition also describe God as dynamic—that is, a reality who doesn't just communicate but who also acts, who makes things happen. And I shall say more in two weeks' time about how that too can be thought and imagined (without reverting to crude pictures). There is also more to be said about how we can identify what God is communicating and doing. That is the pivotal role of Christ—and more of that later too. But for now, it's just this I want to leave you with: this core meaning of God as a mystery beyond description, yet also a personal and communicating mystery. One who calls us through the experiences of this world, as poetry calls us through a poem; as a poet calls us through a poem. And one who then invites us to follow where that call leads.