Musings about God
An Ethical Musings’ reader has asked me to elucidate my understanding / definition of God. She cited a statement in a recent Ethical Musings post as an example of how I understand or define God: “God (the energy, light, love, etc., which permeates all existence).” In her email she also quoted another cleric’s definition of God as “Ultimate Reality,” a phrasing that I sometimes use.
She finds those definitions overly vague. She’s also troubled by frequently hearing sermons that suggest God is someone who "loves us", "cares", etc. She wonders how energy, light, or ultimate reality can "love" or "care"? She’s also concerned that characterizing God's actions as loving or caring anthropomorphize God, i.e., attribute human traits or characteristics to God, perhaps most infamously imagining God as a big old man perched on a cloud.
Answering her questions requires disentangling several theological issues.
First, Christian theologians have generally insisted that God is a person. Obviously, that idea is rife with potential for anthropomorphism. Since the Enlightenment, wider exposure to eastern religions and broad disenchantment with Greek philosophy, the idea of God as a person has lost traction. Ideas of God as light, ultimate reality, etc., have gained prominence because these ideas more easily avoid the peril of anthropomorphism.
Second, Christian theologians have generally insisted that God cares or loves humans individually. That is, God cares or loves persons, often in a special or greater way than God loves or cares for other elements of creation. This issue entails potential conflicts with science, e.g., no evidence exists for positing God's special concern for humans. The stronger claim is that God is equally engaged with all elements of creation, individually and collectively.
Third, how does God care for all elements of creation, individually and collectively? Christian theologians historically answered that question by describing God's actions in supernatural terms, that is, God suspends natural law(s) to intervene on behalf of someone or something. That answer results in God appearing capricious (sometimes acting and sometimes not). That answer represents a basic conflict with science, lacking any evidence or framework for justifying or supporting the claim. That answer also suggests God is at least partially responsible for evil in the world because God failed to act to prevent the evil such as the Holocaust or a pandemic from occurring.
I find process theology offers a more credible answer to the question of how God interacts with elements of creation, individually and collectively. Process thought argues that God has the same relationship to every element of creation, i.e., God does not play favorites. God acts, according to process theology, by nudging or luring entities in the direction of God's choosing. Thus, God's actions may give an entity strength or wisdom to move in that direction. These actions, more loosely, may be referred to as God “caring” or “loving” the entity. The latter terms are perhaps less accurate because they invite anthropomorphism; the latter terms may also be more powerful for some people because the terms may offer a more literal, less metaphorical description of God's actions. Furthermore, process theology contends that God is not omnipotent, but adapts God's nudging/luring to each set of changed circumstances.