Who is God?


Credit Ng30950 via Unsplash
Credit Ng30950 via Unsplash

Who or what is God is a question that is perhaps implicitly as old as humanity itself, and is in one sense as unanswerable as the question ‘what is the real meaning of infinity?’ We are dealing with subjects that are objectively beyond human comprehension. However well we may be able to argue with another, arguments to prove the existence of God will not by themselves ever convince anybody sufficiently to seek God, because arguments are ultimately merely competitions. The only victory for God is a victory of love.

Our love for others, in all the forms of help, compassion, and forgiveness we can manage, create the only convincing argument for others to seek the God who so loves us that we are able by his grace to respond to them in these ways.

‘How can we know God?’ is however a different question, but its various answers have inevitably to be subjective and personal, depending on our own interpretations of what we ourselves have been able to experience in our lives even if such subjective answers are shared among whole human cultures. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel can be seen as a kind of parable of the human impossibility of reaching God, as opposed to the subjective and personal experience of God being able to reach us, sometimes alone, sometimes through others.

Moses was said to have stood fearfully before the burning bush and asked, “Who are you? Who shall I say you are?” The answer we are told he was given was ‘I am who I am,’ an answer whose Hebrew meaning to us is so astonishingly profound in the form in which it has been passed down to us, that anthropologists do not believe a primitive tribal culture could possibly have comprehended or meant it in the way the original Hebrew appears to mean. Some have said that it was just a name, and that we should read no more into it than that. But it is significant that Hebrew names had deliberate meanings, and that God goes on to command Moses simply to tell his people that ‘I am’ sent him to them. Moreover this name was regarded as particularly holy in itself and their Jewish descendants have traditionally regarded this name of God as too holy to be spoken.

This is of course not a definition, because the concept of God is self evidently beyond our conceptual definition, but it may be as near to a definition as we can reasonably get.  Thomas Aquinas is said to have experienced a mystical revelation of his own helpless inadequacy in his theologically objective attempt to write of the ‘mystery’ of God (‘mystery’ meaning something that cannot be comprehended). The biblical ‘cloud’ which accompanies the presence of God on Mt Sinai and in the transfiguration of Christ are literal biblical manifestations of the ‘cloud of unknowing’ that envelops what is seen as the ‘mystery’ of God.

We cannot ourselves see God. Our human limitations are like the limitations of someone who may see the colour blue everywhere, and therefore is unable to conceive of the colour blue even though he sees it everywhere around him. We can only enable God to find us, and we have to be able to recognise ‘his footprints’ in the intelligibility and sheer beauty and wonder of his creation and ‘hear his voice’ in the totality of our human experience.
This is only possible if first we open ourselves to this kind of approach. But we live in a world of constant rush and trivial anxiety.  How are we to hear the voice of God in the profusion of communication that fills our minds and hearts? Obviously we need to find the time and space to separate ourselves to devote the time to learn how to listen and reflect on what God is saying to us. It is surely the role of the Church to provide us with the means to do this.

But this may be where the Prologue about the ‘Word of God’ in St John’s Gospel may be of particular help. It tells the story of various ways and times in which God has gradually revealed himself to his people’s understanding through history, culminating in the coming of Christ as God to his people.  We can only see God in the ways he chooses to reveal himself to us.

The John wrote in Greek, the normal lingua franca of the Roman Empire. In Greek the ‘Word’ of God was translated as ‘Logos’ from which we derive ‘logic’ and logical’,  because unlike modern languages in which ‘the word’ is only the utterance of something, ‘the Logos’ in biblical Greek also means ‘the Reason’ and ‘the Meaning,’ and therefore includes the biblical concept of ‘wisdom’. This is of special importance in understanding how we are to hear ‘the word of God’ both individually and collectively, because as well as listening to the Gospel we are to understand its meaning for ourselves in the Person of Christ.

John’s Prologue goes on to describe Christ as ‘the Word made flesh’ and the true light of the world that ‘enlightens everyone coming into the world.’ This implies that the encounter with Christ as the Word of God offers meaning and purpose to our human lives and is open to anyone and everyone, irrespective of origin, culture, or education.

What are we to say to those whose religious prejudices have been formed in cultural surroundings that are not only different but antithetical and even hostile to Christian concepts of God? How does ‘the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’ speak to them? We  first ought to consider how we ourselves may have been prejudiced by our favoured translations, so anxious  to enable the Gospels to ‘speak to us’ in a more contemporary way.

This should surely be resisted wherever translations plainly change the original spiritual meaning of the text. A fairly obvious example may be found in recent translations of the beatitudes, which were correctly translated in the past as ‘Blessed are the poor…” etc. To be ‘blessed’ means to receive the favour of God in the Gospel’s context – a meaning of particular significance for the poor in our contemporary world. To be ‘happy’ plainly means nothing of the sort. This is unfortunate English that trivialises the original meaning in order to try to accommodate modern secular readership, but in so doing seriously misleads. Many other examples of missing the real point may be found in modern translations. The Gospels vitally need to be treated as the Word of God.

Our liturgical worship is also a form of language in itself, and Catholic worship is itself provides a vital sacramental pedagogy, expressed in a ritual language to enable and inspire the genuinely lively participation of us all. But this needs to be language and ritual which have poetry, beauty and, above all, real meaning, not only for the millions of different people of different cultures throughout the world, but also for the stranger who has to be welcomed in our midst.
Its practices, as well as setting patterns for our prayer, are intended to convey the meaning of our faith. We all, especially clergy, need to be thoroughly familiar with the whole spiritual significance that originally inspired and enabled our traditional liturgies to develop into the forms they now take.

Our liturgies need to be able to satisfy the real spiritual hunger that we know exists among a vast variety of people in every country in the world – especially the young.  But they must translate and truly communicate the full Word of God.