Monday, December 22, 2014

Academic Essay: Is God a Who or a What?

Is God a Who or a What?
The Value of Mystery in Contemplating the Divine

Wil Darcangelo, Master of Divinity Program
Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts
December 17, 2014

  1. Ask and It Will Be Given to You
  2. The Plurality of God: a Gap in Understanding
  3. Santa Clause, Adam and Eve: The Dangers of Collapsing Wavefunction
  4. Entanglement, Dark Matter and Dark Energy: the Quantum Trinity?
  5. Wait.  What is God Again?  Father, Mother, Other?
  6. The Old God and the New God Duke It Out
  7. To Categorize or Not to Categorize

Ask and It Will Be Given to You
Among my preparations to begin this essay, I decided to do what many people do these days when they have a question.  I asked my smartphone.  When I asked the question: Who is God? I was offered an online article explaining that God is the Supreme Being and the principal object of faith in monotheism and henotheism.1  Not a big surprise.  When I ask my smartphone: What is God? I get the general definition for deity, outlining many variations for how Supreme Being(s) are envisioned and described around the world; some have one God, some have multiple.2  Again, not a surprise.  But allow me to call a spoiler alert here: the mystery of God will not solved by this paper.
And yet, upon further reflection, perhaps my smartphone is a better objective theologian than I give it credit for.  The answer to the question Who? is: One.  The answer to the question What? is: Many.  Smartphone’s conclusion: God is One and Many.  The overarching identity that emerges from these two questions of who and what is one that confesses God to be so complex and beyond our linear human comprehension that both answers are likely the best one, but only when perceived in tandem.  Even the first sentence of the Bible would support that conclusion.  The very first Biblical mention of God appears quickly.  God is literally the fourth word of the entire book.  Genesis 1:1 refers to God as Elohim (אֱלֹהִ֑ים), which in Hebrew is a masculine, plural noun.  
Clearly Gen 1:1 is an argument in favor of the counterintuitive notion of a plurality existing within in a singularity.  Augustine of Hippo’s essay, On the Trinity, actually gives a bit of contradiction to itself that hints at a pluralism even while he is discussing God’s singularity.  “Indeed, we seek a trinity, yet not any one, but that trinity which is God, the true, greatest, and only God.”3  How can God be the greatest among a category in which God is the only one present?   Even Augustine hiccups when trying to discuss God within the limitations of cataphatic terminology, a form of describing God that uses our understanding of what God is to describe It rather than what God isn’t.4  Given the limitations of speech and our finite ability to cognize something even remotely outside of our linear Newtonian understanding of the Universe, “All-in-One” is likely the best possible descriptor we will ever compose when considering the Creator.  

The Plurality of God: a Gap in Understanding
What might this complex, multiple-in-one image of God be hinting at?  Beyond arguments in favor of the Trinity or polytheism, to me the contradictory nomenclature of the “Plural God” identifies the linguistic dimensional disparity between our linear, earthly view and God’s non-linear, conceptual existence.  From the earthly perspective, we exist moment after moment, step after step, in linear fashion, tick, tock, tick.  Time exists for humanity and we are inextricably bound to it.  God, on the other hand is imagined to be outside of space and time; far above the earthly clock and existing in what might be thought of as an everlasting present moment.  Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 both suggest that to God “a day is like a thousand years.”  But even these lines of scripture are still only linear descriptions of something that is quite likely completely distinct from the linear.  This highlights our frustrating inability to cognize something to be both singular and multiple at the same time.  
We have these same challenges when it comes to conceptualizing any concept that boggles our earthly minds.  We struggle not only with the three-in-one paradigm of the Christian Trinity, but other paradigms like the quantum entanglement of subatomic particles (discussed briefly below), theories of the multi-dimensional universe, and the notion of something or someone that has no beginning and no end as the Alpha and the Omega.  All of these are conundrums of our linear understanding of the world.  

Santa Clause, Adam and Eve: The Dangers of Collapsing Wavefunction
In similar fashion as above, it is beyond our comprehension to explain to children how Santa Claus delivers every present in just one night.  Yet quantum physics can offer a mathematical solution to this riddle.  “Following the logic of the two-slit experiment,5 it is perfectly possible for [Santa] to visit all the good children of the world simultaneously, provided that he does so unseen. If he is spotted, his wavefunction will collapse and he will be revealed as your Dad with a comedy beard after all.”6  Interesting that it is the act observation which collapses the Santa’s wave-form into only one place and time.  Provided children do as they’re told and go to sleep, Santa can do his job unrestrained by space and time.  Does God hide from us in order that we not see It clearly enough to collapse Its function?  Would that be an act similar to Adam and Eve consuming the fruit?  Did they wreck it for themselves by peeking?

Entanglement, Dark Matter and Dark Energy: the Quantum Trinity?
This is not a scientific paper, nor will it contribute to the furthering of any scientific development, but since we have already touched on the subject, a few concepts of quantum physics in particular cannot be ignored entirely when discussing the multi-dimensional observation of God and the places in the physical realm which might hold equal mystery and parallel.  Quantum Entanglement—the quantum physics description of the same theological paradox we have been discussing but this time in subatomic form—illustrates a relationship between what appear at first sight to be separate particles yet are in actuality, the exact same particle in two places at once.7  Much like the theological assertions about the nature of God and Jesus in early church doctrines such as the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 AD, God and Jesus occupy the exact same godhead, in essence they are the exact same being, yet also remain completely distinct.  Perhaps they are distinct in that we may think we see God in one place and Jesus in another, but according to the Quantum Entanglement metaphor we are actually perceiving the exact same entity in two different places at once.
Quantum Entanglement is a metaphor for, or perhaps a divine fractal8 of, the Father and Son of the Trinity.  And at the risk of appearing to remove Love from the equation (which I am most decidedly not), it also could be hypothesized that two prominent mysteries of physics, called Dark Energy and Dark Matter, are either indicators of, or are perhaps even the physical aspects of what Christianity has collectively termed the “Holy Spirit.”  These partnered quantum mysteries, which I am using to represent the Holy Spirit, infuse and surround the entangled single particle of God/Christ and envelop it in the tension of expanding energy and gravitational substance.  In the field of physics, Dark Matter and Dark Energy are two prominent substances that are invisible, but whose effects can be empirically observed.  Combined, they make up over 95% of the content of the universe.9  Psalm 18:11 might even agree with the conclusion of Dark Matter and Dark Energy as being representative of the Holy Spirit. It states: “He made darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.”  It reads like a rhetorical description of quantum understanding.
In the observation of physical matter in space, the influence Dark Matter and Dark Energy are as significant to observe as the influence water on fish.  We cannot actually see water.  We can only see the effect water has on light and physical matter (i.e. fish, particulate, plants, etc.), yet it is everywhere around us, in not only bodies of water, but also in rains and mists and vapors, invisible but for how it impacts the visible matter with which it is in direct relationship.  Even the varying blue color of water, as we perceive it, is actually not the color of water at all but the color of light on the blue end of the spectrum which is not absorbed by the water and bounces back to the eye.  The red end of the spectrum is absorbed by the water, arguably returning to itself for lack of rejection as a foreign wave form.  Blue is rejected by the water.  Blue is literally the only color on the spectrum that water is not.10  This remains an observational point which helps us to discern other things which we cannot see, but of which can observe the physical effects quite effectively.  And just like our views on God, in the absence of seeing clearly that which is making an impact on the temporal, we draw conclusions and make inferences, which may or may not be correct, regarding the spiritual.

Wait.  What is God Again?  Father, Mother, Other?
I guess it didn’t surprise me that deity would show up as the answer to the question: What is God? when asking an inanimate device like my smartphone for its theological viewpoint.  Perhaps in an objective sense, God, as the Old Testament describes Him, is just another deity.  Here I, of course, use the capitalized pronoun Him with purpose.  The patriarchal God of the Old Testament is a father deity with the overwhelmingly masculine attributes of power, obedience, domination, punishment... occasionally mixed with love, yet always without losing face.   
The masculine godhead identity was not likely the original template, nor was it apparent in the early hunter-gatherer societal structures which tended toward matriarchal social systems and religion.  These focused less on domination of resources and more on respectful nurturing of the land and its people.  Feminine-based cultures, and their feminine godheads, existed until the invention of agriculture and domestication in the millennia following the Pleistocene era, though there is some disagreement as to whether or not it was a result of a particular event.11   Male domination of women is culturally visible beginning around 3100 BCE.  Not only were women’s bodily rights curtailed (reproduction, right to self-ownership, etc.), they were regularly disbarred from participating in “the process of representing or the construction of history."12   
Its easily surmised from a sociological standpoint that a profound shift from the feminine to the masculine in societal structures, regardless of how they occurred, would create a equally parallel shift in its religious expression.  A possible global historical event that might be responsible for a widespread shift from the matriarchal to the patriarchal world view in culture and religion is evident around the same time we witness the rise of God being viewed as a masculine figure.   A climate change in the geographical record around 4000-3500 BCE does show a devastating famine that spread throughout the Sahara, Arabian peninsula and Central Asia which spurred civilization to adopt a different stance on the feminine values of Care and Nurture versus the masculine values of Protect and Control.  In other words, dwindling resources created the need for a different mechanism of survival.13  One that would protect resources from invaders as a male animal protects his female from being inseminated by genetic usurpers.  Over generations of adversity, a new culture is slowly born where strength and domination become the preferable characteristics in mating, politics, as well as views on God.  You cannot nurture an invader to drop his weapon and step away from your children any more than a compassionate God is likely to smite your enemies for you.  The people needed a God that would stand up for them and kick some butt.  Reflecting a culture of scarcity with limited supply and increasing demand, "Famine, starvation and mass-migrations related to land-abandonment severely traumatised the originally peaceful and sex-positive inhabitants of those lands, inducing a distinct turning away from original matrism towards patristic forms of behaviour."14  

The Old God and the New God Duke It Out
In the sense that the description of the newly patricized versions of the Divine led to expressions of God as a male celestial being of thunder and vengeance (with an occasional dash of mercy), the Old Testament God could be viewed as one of many and varying incarnations of God, having a distinct personality from the salvific, loving God of the New Testament.  One could entertain the view that the OT God is an entirely separate literary incarnation altogether from the NT God.  Thus both could be viewed as separate and distinct deities from one another, unless one constructs a carefully crafted theological argument in favor of continuity, something that’s difficult to do without being overly cataphatic.  Even if it is the same God, each version exhibits very different approaches to guiding humanity in the intended direction.  The New Testament God is typically viewed as one who brings an opportunity for salvation and displays Love and Mercy at the forefront of Its teachings.  It is a God of nurturing and empowerment.  Attributes which could be said to derive from commonly-accepted feminine stereotypes and yet the patriarchal society remains even as society begins its return to softer, more compassionate actions.  However, the masculine influence could be said to be decreasing over time as we become a more compassionate, peaceful, knowledgeable people.  Statistics do show that we are an increasingly peaceful race over time.  In fact, statistically, we are in the most peaceful time in our planet’s recorded history.15  It may seem hard to believe but experimental psychologist Steven Pinker has revealed some surprising and hopeful conclusions of his statistical work on humanity.
First century theologian, Marcion of Sinope (c. 85 – c. 160) brought much of this before-and-after view of God into early Christianity.  Marcion, one of the principal early influences on the New Testament canon,16 held that the God of the Hebrew scriptures was false and that only the Father of Christ was the true God, indicating a belief that the Old Testament God was of a different substance altogether, perhaps a different being altogether. “The New Testament, Marcion insisted, revealed the true God in the coming of Christ from heaven. Unlike the Demiurge, this God was a God of love.”17  Here the “true God” is viewed from the perspective of some of the earliest Christian adherents to be an entirely new and different deity than the one worshiped by the Jews preceding Jesus.  One could infer from this view that the God of the New Testament is a different divine being who existed, unrevealed, until Jesus came and taught us about his Father; the true God, according to Marcian.
A modalist18 view would suggest that polytheism and trinitarianism are essentially the same thing: a way of looking at God’s different aspects or personalities so that we can glean little snips of the Single Great Un-Knowable.  Trinitarians would balk at the notion of being glommed up with polytheists.  They see God as being three separate beings in one single Godhead, not various personalities that show up according to either God’s or Humanity’s whim or request.  Modalists claim that the Bible does not refer to God as being of three separate entities, only one, ergo it is a Scriptural fallacy to claim the Bible as the messenger of the concept.  The Trinity is a philosophical concept of man used to translate an understanding of God that is beyond understanding.  Modalists might have a look at the first word in the Bible for God, Elohim, which, as we have discussed, is a plural term.  It does not specifically state plural to mean three, of course, but it’s definitely more than one.

To Categorize or Not to Categorize
Part of the problem is that much of Christianity insists on putting God into a category to be understood, comprehended, and ultimately, apprehended.  Daniel Migliore contends, “Christian faith and theology do not speak of God in a general and indefinite way; they speak of God concretely and specifically.”19  He goes on to say that, “God is the majestic creator of the heavens and the earth, the servant redeemer of a world gone astray, and the transforming Spirit who empowers new beginnings of human life and anticipatory realizations of a new heaven and a new earth.”20  But this description almost sounds like the lyrics of a hymn or of poetry, pretty, but not remotely like a concrete view.  How can one have a solid understanding of something that supersedes solidification?  And when the attempts at a concrete understanding fall short, say when trying to get our head around acts of evil, we either dismiss God as an element of the imagination—for how could a loving God allow such things to happen?—or we invent a doctrine to explain it.  In either case, we fall short and are left feeling unfulfilled by the attempt to get in the mind of God.  
Further, Migliore rails into those who dare to dismantle the Trinity to potentially “dangerous” results, though he does not claim what those results might be.  To separate the Trinity in an effort to favor either God, Jesus or the Spirit individually is to court division and destruction, in his view.  As a Christian Unitarian Universalist, I take a degree of umbrage to his terminology of the “unitarianism of the Creator,” “unitarianism of the Redeemer,” and “unitarianism of the Spirit” to mean that we abandon our concerns of sin and the need for forgiveness, we instigate the disavowal of Jesus as Savior, or take on the mantle of the Holy Spirit as something that can be put on or taken off at will.21  In my own faith practice, I see no disparity in viewing God according to the sacred three, I embrace Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness, compassion, and the meaning of sin, and the Holy Spirit is something which I view to be the mayonnaise that holds this whole universal tunafish sandwich together with Love as the primary ingredient, perhaps the only ingredient.  Of course these are highly over-simplified descriptions of my theology when left to these words alone, but I don’t see how someone can make such an assertion about something with which they only have speculative contact.  I certainly would never presume to tell someone that their theology is flawed to the point of their own peril.  
Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, in my opinion, allows an appropriate amount of mystery and ‘unknowningness’ to her theology of God.  She apophatically embraces all that she does not know in order to avoid placing limitations on God’s gifts for her.  She posits, “Theology literally means “God-talk” and derives from theos (God) and logos (word).  But talk of God is tricky business.  God may be sighted by a sideways glance, sensed in a dream, felt in a struggle, heard in the calm at the heart of a storm, or unveiled in a luminous epiphany.  But the moment human beings think they know who God is and carve their conclusions in stone, images of God can become dangerous idols. In Jewish tradition, God is ultimately un-nameable, and some never pronounce the letters that spell out God’s unspeakable name.”22  What is dangerous in my opinion, is to attempt to pigeon-hole God into a definition that makes sense to a human mind.  As soon as we begin to think we are making some sense of God, we should already know we are off base.  
It brings into the conversation the differences between apophatic and cataphatic theologies and what they have to say about the identification of God.  Apophatic is thought of as a negative theology regarding the categorization of God.  Not to say it is negative in the sense that it says negative things about God.   Rather, it makes decisions more about what God isn’t than what It is.  “Apophaticism is...above all, and attitude of mind which refuses to form concepts about God.”  This view holds that to define God by what God isn’t avoids the pitfalls of adapting God to fit human understanding and comprehension.  And because we cannot know God, “all true theology is fundamentally apophatic,” according to Vladimir Lossky.  Cataphatic views of God, by contrast, attempt to explain God in positivist terms; what God is.23  But since we cannot know what God is, and to claim so is a pathway of limitations if not arrogance, cataphatic philosophy about God merely invites a stunted view of the Divine and turns the spigot of divinity all but off. 
Allowing God to remain a mystery solves two problems.  One, that in allowing the mind of God to be indiscernible we relieve ourselves of the feedback loop of comprehension that asks to spend our days contemplating our navel rather than going out and serving the people.  And two, giving God space to work allows God some room to maneuver in our lives.  When we overly categorize God and make emphatic declarations about what God is thinking about, speaking of, or doing in the world, we cut ourselves off from the better possibilities that remain hidden from our view.  Essentially, because God has been “asked” to simplify Its contacts and workings in us through our limited definition of It, our “prayers” are answered.  It is part of the complexity of Ask and it shall be given to you.  When we limit God by defining It, we only get from God what is allowed us through the filters of that limiting definition.  We cut off our nose to spite our face when we decide that God needs to do this thing or that thing when a third unknown thing might be what’s best for us.  We petition God for help instead of asking God what It would have us know.  Praying for wisdom and clarity, rather than giving God a to-do list, are better pathways for allowing the presence of God to act unfettered.  To ask for help is to pigeon-hole God’s ability to assist, for our view of what constitutes “help” may be very specific.  Help me pay my bills.  Help my mother not to die.  Help me know who You are.  These are petitions that cut us off from receiving the kind of help we might never have thought to ask for and the unknown form of help which may best serve us in the long run.  Only God knows what’s best for us.  God can see the full view of the labyrinth we are, as mice, wandering.  To ask for the cheese is no prayer.  To ask for the best way through the maze is how to acknowledge the mystery of God with praise and honor while avoiding the act of telling God specifically how to do it. 

Bibliography and Footnotes

  1. Wikipedia, “God,”, accessed December 2014
  2. Wikipedia, “Deity,”, accessed December 2014
  3. Rusch, William, “Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity,” The Trinitarian Controversies, Forest Press, 1980. Ch 13, page 163
  4. Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976, 38-39
  5. The “two-slit” experiment, also know as the “double-slit” experiment or “Young’s Experiment” is a demonstration that particles can exhibit the functions of either a wave or a particle depending on the expectation of the observer. (source: Lederman, Leon M.; Christopher T. Hill, Quantum Physics for Poets. US: Prometheus Books, 2011. pp. 102–111)
  6. Sparks, Robert, Science Education Specialist at National Optical Astronomy Observatory in a blog post entitled, “Santa as Seen through a Quantum Fizzicist’s Eyes,”, accessed December 2014
  7. Asher Peres, Quantum Theory, Concepts and Methods, Kluwer, 1993; page 115.
  8. fractal: n. An object whose parts, at infinitely many levels of magnification, appear geometrically similar to the whole. Fractals are used in the design of compact antennas and for computer modeling of natural-looking structures like clouds and trees. In my view, the theory of fractals can also be applied to more esoteric subjects like integrity or compassion, and give insight to the mind of God when reverse engineering nature itself to intuit divine fractals that might be present in the God layer as well as the earthly one.
  9. "Planck captures portrait of the young Universe, revealing earliest light". University of Cambridge. 21 March 2013. Accessed December 2014
  10. Braun, Charles L., and Sergei N. Smirnov, “Why is Water Blue?” Journal of Chemical Education, 1993, 70 (8), page 612
  11. Hughes, Sarah Shaver & Brady Hughes, "Women in Ancient Civilizations," Agricultural and Pastoral Societies in Ancient and Classical History.  Adas, Michael, editor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. pp. 118–119
  12. Strozier, Robert M., Foucault, Subjectivity, and Identity: Historical Constructions of Subject and Self, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. p.46
  13. DeMeo, James, Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World, Ashland, OR: Natural Energy Works, 1998
  14. DeMeo, James, Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World, Ashland, OR: Natural Energy Works, 1998
  15. Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking, 2011
  16. Blackman, E.C. Marcion and His Influence 2004, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004
  17. Wilson, Marvin, R., Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989
  18. Modalism is an anti-trinitarian belief that God is not three separate persons in one, but rather three separate aspects of the same being.
  19. Migliore, Daniel, Faith Seeking Understanding, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991, 66
  20. Migliore, 67
  21. Migliore 73-74
  22. Parker, Rebecca, A House for Hope, Boston: Beacon Press, 2010, 93-94
  23. Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976, 38-39

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