God: Who Not What


Human life and human being are relational. The individual matters greatly as an individual can matter only within relationships. The great worth of a person comes from love, and only love (in all its variety that includes friendship and true neighborliness) makes the individual irreplaceable. No talent, skill, or accomplishment can make a person irreplaceable. Even the best in the world at something is soon replaced by another who is better. Aging takes away such greatness, and it is soon forgotten. Only love values the person as the person. Love holds dear the particular person, who that person is rather than what that person has or can do.

Fine. That all sounds beautiful, but what of the person who is unloved? And what of the one who was loved by people who have died and now is left alone? What of the person who has been hurt, perhaps shamed, too deeply to be able to accept love or the need for it? Are the lonely, the lost, and the embittered no longer human? There is love that does not go away, and we’ll hear more about that love later.

Biblically, God is who not what. Philosophically, God may be regarded as “that than which no greater can be conceived” or “the Unmoved Mover” or the absolutely all-perfect One with those various attributes that define perfection as utter detachment from all else: immutable, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Biblical thought allows no space for conceiving of God as a thing, a what, or even Being outside relatedness. The Bible presents God only as God relates to the covenant people, the world of people, and the entire creation. God alone, by God’s self, detached from us and from the created world is an unknown for the Bible. Even where God’s power and splendor are emphasized (as, for example, in the second part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55) such emphasis comes in response to the people’s powerlessness in their exile and to their hopelessness. Yahweh God, the God of Israel, is presented as powerful in contrast to the seemingly unmatched power of Babylon. To this incomparable God, the mighty nations are nothing, less significant than a drop of water on the rim of a bucket; but the powerless, hopeless covenant people in exile are to this God everything, and so God’s power is mentioned to awaken hope and strengthen trust.

But now thus says the LORD [Yahweh], he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.   (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)

Throughout the Bible, the power of God is not known as the philosophical attribute of omnipotence but as the relational attribute of power to redeem, to deliver from harm, to protect, and to restore hope.  God’s power is power for the sake of the powerless.

Calling God “impassible” is even more unbiblical; indeed, I cannot think of an attribute ascribed to divine perfection more unbiblical than this one, because impassible means, not only immune to suffering, but also beyond passion. This terrible attribute conceives of God as incapable of compassion, feeling, or empathy, and so incapable of anything recognizable as love. The idea is that anything which can be moved or affected in any way is, therefore, imperfect.  So conceived, the perfect must stand above and apart from all else.

How does such a notion of God deal with the passionate God of the Bible, particularly of the Hebrew scriptures (called by Christians the Old Testament)? The answer has often been to dismiss that God as a concept corrupted by anthropomorphisms – human attributes wrongly ascribed to God who should be infinitely above all things human. This ploy for dismissing the God to whom the Bible bears witness became part of the anti-Jewish movement within Christianity and of attempts to discredit the Old Testament as childish and obsolete, perhaps even contrary to Jesus Christ and to real faith. The church rejected that movement, but not so strongly as I could wish. The “Old Testament” books were allowed to remain in the Christian Bible, but the false notion that they were superseded and replaced by the New Testament persisted (as did the antisemitism).

An anthropomorphism is a “human form,” meaning a characteristic or trait of humans that, according to the Old Testament’s detractors, cannot properly be attributed to God. The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (in The Prophets) corrects this misunderstanding of the Bible by arguing that such things as compassion and a passion of justice are not human forms at all but God forms (theomorphisms) sometimes appearing in human beings, especially under the influence of the Spirit of God. The great prophets were people who were put by that Spirit into sympathetic vibration with the pathos of God so that they had to feel and express the relational turbulence of God in relation to the deeply loved but sometimes infuriating people of Israel and of the world. A prophet had to be in harmony with God but, also and at the same time, in harmony with the people.  There was nothing dispassionate about the job.

It is this understanding of the pathos of God that can lead us forward between the unscalable rock cliff of God conceived as the all-everything Being who towers infinitely above us and, on the other hand, the flowery bog of the popular notion of a syrupy, almost senile, grandpa God who smiles benignly, almost stupidly, at everything we do and whose only negative emotion seems to be a pitiful sadness at our cruelties and even our atrocities. “Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live, He’ll always say, ‘I forgive, I forgive, I forgive.’” (From the song, “He”)

Biblically, our knowledge of God is relational, always and only relational. Biblically, the one thing God is not is indifferent toward us and this world. Angry, sometimes. Grief-stricken, often. Understanding and compassionate, yes. Disgusted, yes. Indifferent, no, not ever.

The committed passion of God for the covenant people, for all earth’s people, and for the entire created order is not a minor theme in the Bible.  Rather, it is the theme of the Bible, Old Testament and New.

If the implications of knowing human life as relational are huge, the implications of coming to understand that we know God only relationally are at least as great. Biblically, the two are inseparable. Biblically, being human means being responsive to God’s love and responsible for representing that love in and for the world.

More to come.