Word Magazine October, 1973 Page 8-10


Alexander Turner, SSB

First published in the Basillian V:6, Winter, 1951

A THOUGHTFUL PRIEST used to remark that every divine attribute was represented in the dedication of churches but one. There were churches of grace, of wisdom, God with us, and so on. But the spectrum emitted one color, and since so many churches looked like it anyway, at least some should be named the Wrath of God!

That so many have been allowed to lapse from church simply because they know no better than to be shocked by allusions to a God who hears and sees and gets mad is a sorry mark against religious education: another instance of how illiterate men can remain in a world of vast secular knowledge.

It would seem almost unnecessary to point out that the attribution to God of physical faculties and motives is but a figure of speech, and that only the simplest believer would actually think that God has passions. In the 4th century an obscure sect of Anthropomorphites existed in the Egyptian desert, a short-lived group of pathetic souls who wept when told that God could have no hands or feet. From their time until ours, very few, either in or out of the churches have seriously believed, or accused Christians of believing, in an anthropomorphic deity. To assume that Biblical language in reference to God’s activities is physical is, of course, to conclude that it is a supreme insult to human intelligence or to the divine majesty or to both, and to regard as outrageous, a religion which was understood to take it literally. How anyone can think that it was so intended, or that Christians so take it, must remain an unsolved mystery. But, along with the other wonders of the age, such people now exist, who will think nothing of saying ‘lend me an ear’ but who rebel at ‘give ear to my words, O Lord.’ Yet no one lends his ears and God presumably needs none, although it would be silly to assume that he is deaf.

That being the case, one might ask why figures of speech should be applied to sacred things instead of language which is precise. Why don’t we say what we mean? Because we are no more theocentric in our religion than we are heliocentric in our lives. Think of our everyday talk about other things. We speak of ourselves as standing still when we are actually moving through space at a very high speed. A cone looks like a circle or a triangle. New York rises and sets but we insist upon saying that the sun rises and sets. There are thousands of examples in which meanings would not be conveyed by literal speech and yet are served very well by metaphor.

Would it be appropriate to apply trite scientific standards to religious language when we freely take poetic liberties in discussing everyday events? God is not a scientific subject and our knowledge of him can never be scientific knowledge. If we are speaking of a person we would not describe him by his metabolism but by his character or personality. If we said his blood pressure was 100/50 no one would know what we were talking about. But if we said he was a quiet, self-contained person with light complexion, it would be more to the point. We might note that these are items of appearance and that they could be very misleading descriptions. For all his light coloring and bland manner, the subject might be a nervous wreck or a secret hatchet murderer. But the description gives the hearer an idea of appearances, which is what we usually expect.

Our sense of the divine presence may be assisted by art or drama or literature. Certainly it is by music. But science is no help at all. That is why our conventional Christian language is both metaphorical and colloquial. It is metaphorical because a picture is often easier to understand than a group of data. Man doesn’t think in abstractions. He has his own dialect of thought and speech which best expresses and is understood by him. That is why it is colloquial. Those who rebel at what they believe to be the crudity of Biblical language about God are likely to find themselves in either of two futilities. One is what someone has called ‘paying God ill-considered complements’: saying that he is the quintessence of this or that, or some good quality carried to the Nth degree. The other course proceeds in the opposite direction and arrives at the same place, describing him by subtraction. God is not like me. He does not do this or that. One cannot work up from the finite to the infinite, from the particular to the abstract. Eternity is more than all time. It may be more like no time. God is more than all goodness, beauty and truth. He is antecedent to them in that he has made the conditions under which they exist and so far as our understanding of him goes, such qualities may be illustrative within limits, but they must not be understood as descriptive. Even our virtues are liabilities in one way and cannot appropriately be ascribed to the creator. And for this reason the course of negation is but an endless series of minus signs which leaves nothing.

It is more to the point to ask ourselves a critical question: whether or not we believe in God as a creator. If we do not believe in a creator we must assume that the world resulted from a chain of coincidences as long as eternity occurring in a matter which had no good reason to exist in the first place.

Belief in a creator is the only alternative, although there are several collateral theories. We can believe in pantheism, but carried out to its logical conclusion we will find the same question arises. If God is merely the sum total of things, he ceases to be God and becomes a sort of cosmic warehouse. If he is the sum of natural things plus, we must define the plus. Is creation something taking place within his being? If so, is it because he wills it? If we answer yes to that he remains the creator. But to say that the cosmic process is something invol­untary on his part is to deny that he is a creator — a sovereign power — and hence, to disclaim belief in God in any Christian sense.

The defects of speculation notwithstanding, there are some things of which a Christian can be sure. If we wish to believe in a real God, we must accept him on some terms of his making, for the mind by which we believe was made by him. We can be certain that he is a person with all the powers of personality. To believe otherwise would be to make him less than man whom he has created — a logical impossibility. God must transcend virtue, beauty and truth as we know them. But they must be the first signposts which point in his direction — attributes which we can accept as significant rather than substantial if we carefully detach them from the limitations and conditions under which they appear to us, remembering that they are illustrative and not descriptive. David, who was no metaphysician, and uninhibited by philosophical provisos, was able to say three thousand years ago, ‘He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see?’

God has identity. He is himself and not you. We did not create ourselves. Therefore our relationship with him must be objective and personal, not mechanical or unconscious. If he lacks our passions, he still must have the power of determination. He must intend one thing and not another, e.g., that man be recalled to him and not eternally separated from him.

It is a paradox which can be neither explained nor understood that God who is himself good and wills ultimate good, has created a world which we know to be in rebellion against him. The world being what it is, we have evidently made a bad job of finding our way home — part of the price of free will which makes us almost gods in our own right. Apparently the vision of our own destiny by our own spiritual insights, unaided by mind or science, is a reason for our being in this closed universe where no final proofs are granted to us.

The world about us is something quite definite. We know much of it from observation and can see that it operates on its own to a large extent, without God’s visible interference. His purposes in creation are not disclosed in tiny things or even very clearly in human lives. Here are dimensions which far over-reach personal comfort and indulgence. The world is full of tribulations and God apparently means that it should be, at least in view of our perverse will.

But if God has determination at all, and if there is a relation between God and man, what opposes his will must meet opposition at some point between ourselves and him. Otherwise God would be impotent and less able even than man to achieve his ends. Storm and pestilence which appear to have no penal function are phenomena of a universe made possible by God and carrying out his will, however anonymously, distantly and secretly. Only on the most obvious and personal plane do we find immediate moral consequences — as of a life which is undisciplined, irresponsible and purposeless. Elsewhere moral cause and effect are not visibly related, though we may be sure they are in the divine consciousness.

One finds it difficult to think of crime as unpunished. But in the economy of salvation, penitence transcends punishment. Conversely, the sufferings of good people are not to be explained on any ground of simple transactionalism. The vicissitudes of human life would seem to be intended for instruction rather than penalty. God chastens those he loves. In the same way that God has made the conditions within which virtue can exist, his purposes are served by a complex of forces in which man’s struggle is the chief moral or spiritual element. Is it not natural, then, that we should instinctively speak of God’s anger, however well we know that such a thing is unthinkable of God?

Those who were reared in the harsh atmosphere of Puritanism will remember the spirit of self-abasement and fear with which God was regarded. Every moment one escaped nameless horrors at the hands of a bloodthirsty Jehovah called for fervent thanksgiving. Today it all seems very naive and childish. But was it? Perhaps the symbolism was garbled, but the faithful got the point. In learning that God does not usually make dramatic entrances we have concluded that he is incapable of doing so. We have a God who is only nominally a supreme power, a creator; for he certainly seems unable to do anything about the world now. Can we believe that this is a God in any real sense? If he had no power over the world how could he have made it?

There is one strike against the Christian God which the contemporary world cannot forgive. He is too real. He can take you by the back of the neck and thrash the living daylights out of you. He can kill or resurrect, maim or heal. If you knew him at first hand you couldn’t find yourself for your own insignificance. It isn’t a congenial thought to a world drunk with its own importance, nor to those who feel that God should be decent enough not to pull his rank, but meet man on equal terms in some sort of a democratic fellowship! It must be obvious that such a being would fail our logical expectations. For the time being he is a perfect gentleman. But he will be frightfully personal sometime. That is what many pseudo-Christians would like to forget.

This distaste for reality in religion has led to the substitute god of modern man. He is a God who cannot create; a father who cannot govern, acting as a force without control, a law without intelligence, and subject to emotions which are inescapable. This is the spiritual pinnacle of contemporary man’s thinking: a distilled essence of ‘pure’ spirit, indulgent affection, ‘infinite’ mind and such vapid generalities, a mass of mutually exclusive, philosophically absurd and practically untenable notions: God of the Ineffable Vacuum!

The road back to sanity in religion must begin at this point. In asking for a democratic God, a polite deity who will keep his hands off his children, the humanist is asking for no God at all. It is true enough that God is not going to slaughter us in our beds. But unless we are able to believe that he could do so for good reason as implicitly as we believe that he will not, we are unprepared for the first step in Christian faith: the acknowledgment that all things owe their being to one supreme, omnipotent intelligence.

We may pride ourselves upon knowing more about the matter than our country cousins — that God does not get angry, for example. But do we, really? Do we know him better for that? All the theology and philosophy in the world confer no real knowledge of God, which is given to, not earned by, a submissive, loving and contrite heart. We can look very profitably to the apostles and prophets and even to the evangelicals of our own day. To them, God is nothing vague or theoretical. He is as real as one’s friends. That is much more to the point than busily stocking our theological cabinets with bits of approved knowledge of the divine proprieties. For once again, Christianity exists to unite man with God, not to provide intellectual diversions or comfortable misinformation about our condition and prospects. The ignorant peasant who knows there is a God of justice and mercy and wrath is getting the point. His urban cousin is usually missing it.

As we look up into the vault of heaven we see a sky which appears to be gray or rose. A red sun is said to precede a hot tomorrow. When it is white, rain or snow may come. If we are to be precise about the matter we must stop referring to a red or blue sky. Meteorologists assure us that such things do not exist. The sky is colorless and only a thin layer of atmosphere gives it seeming color. But men will go on talking about the blue sky and it is just as well that they do. We should know that heaven is not a ball of fire or an azure dome, but we should remember at the same time that the sun is the light of the world and that without it we could see no red or blue or anything else. God is not chasing us around with a cleaver, but his will brought the world into existence with all the potentialities which man has betrayed into its present dismal state.

So long as we walk the earth its atmosphere will modify the pure light of the sun. And so long will we know God by the effects of his power in a universe which we have distorted through our own improper behaviour. It will be early enough to fuss about our terms when we stop talking about the sunrise or when we have replaced the present state of affairs with one in which God’s will is the sole motive of our conduct and end of our efforts. Only then will there be no more natural phenomena which are so conveniently described as God’s retribution.