Skeptical conversations, part I: Who is God? (full post)

I owe my wife another debt of gratitude, which is no surprise to any of you who know us. I’ve been trying for a while now to figure out how to make expandable post summaries work on this blog, but Blogger’s FAQ didn’t seem to work. Turns out it’s a consequence of the switch to New Blogger, and they haven’t caught up with the change. So, my wife went hunting and found Hackosphere, a blog which (among other things) provides the necessary instructions and code—and we’re in business. I’ve already tested the code on the longest post I’ve written to date, and it worked perfectly.

In celebration, I’m going to repost my credo posts, this time with the credo actually in the post, below the jump. As I noted earlier, this is something I wrote as part of my ordination process; I wound up writing it as a conversation between myself and a friend of mine who was an avowed agnostic. This conversation is of course my own creation, but a lot of it comes out of discussions we actually had. (Again, these chunks are quite long—in MS Word, around seven double-spaced pages of 12-point Times New Roman, somewhere shy of 2,000 words.)

A: I’ve been meaning to ask you something for a while now. As we’ve discussed baseball and life and other minor issues, your Christianity has come up now and again, but we’ve never pursued that issue very far for its own sake; and it has always puzzled me why intelligent, educated people believe in God. That just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’ve always wanted to ask why that should be. The problem is, you have to be careful who you ask that sort of question, since it’s a very personal matter; but you seem to me to be someone who wouldn’t mind. So tell me, why do you believe in God?

R: What do you mean?

A: For one thing, your belief seems so unnecessary. Since Darwin, we have no need of that hypothesis, as someone said. More importantly, though, if you don’t need him to prop the system up, how can you believe in him? The Christian God, so far as I can tell, wants to restrict your freedom to think and your freedom to act; he wants to rule certain lines of thought and opportunities for self-expression and self-fulfillment out of court before you ever get the chance to consider them. It seems to me that all believing in God does is narrow your life and your mind. Why on earth would you? Is what you get in return really worth it?

R: Do you really want answers to your questions, or are they just rhetorical?

A: If you have good answers to offer, I’m interested to hear them, if that’s what you mean.

R: Have a couple hours you aren’t using? Because I think the most basic thing underlying your question is that you don’t really know what I believe; if you want an answer with any depth, you need to understand where I’m coming from before you understand why.

A: Well, I have the time, and I’ll admit I have more to learn about Christianity; but I don’t have a great deal of patience with theology, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” and that sort of thing.

R: Theology gets a bad rap, unfortunately, from people who associate it with those kind of abstracted discussions. But really, theology is a pretty practical thing. It’s just whatever you believe about God; a friend of mine calls theology the science of God, and I think that’s a good way to put it. If you don’t believe there is a God, that’s the center of your theology—or atheology, I suppose—and then whatever your belief that there is no God does to your view of the world would be part of your theology as well. If you say that because there is no God, we human beings need to work our hardest to take care of each other and the world because we’re on our own, we’re all there is––

A: I do believe that, you know that.

R: Yes, I do—well, that’s a theological statement. That’s your theology, or part of it.

A: I hadn’t thought of my beliefs in those terms before.

R: And mine begins at a very different place, with the belief that there is a God, and a very particular God at that, and that God stands in relation to us and to the world in a very particular way. Specifically, it begins with the belief that God created all of everything, and that as a result he is God over all of everything.

A: Interesting. You say he’s God because he created everything, not just because he wants to play God.

R: Right. Think of a novel for a minute. The person who wrote the novel created those characters––

A: Even if they only cut them out of cardboard.

R: True. But the author created those characters, wrote every word that comes out of their mouths, set every decision they make, and determined how the book would end. You might say that the author was God to those characters. But does that make that author any more Godlike anywhere else? No. His authority, or hers, comes from the fact of authorship. In the same way, only in a much bigger way, God has authority over everything and is in control of everything that happens because he is the author of everything.

A: I’d never noticed that word linkage before. But are you suggesting that God might be just a member of a race of gods?

R: Umm, no. In fact, that’s an important point. God is not one of a race of anything; he is unique. One of the names for him in the Bible is “I Am”—as it’s rendered in Greek, “The One Who Is.” He is the one who was not created by any other, and he is the source of everything else that exists. He didn’t come from anywhere; he has always been.

A: So the universe started out with God, surrounded by nothing. How can that be? That doesn’t make any sense. God must have come from somewhere, and he must have been someplace.

R: But then where did that place come from? Who made it? Who came before God, and where did they come from? No, if you stop and think about where everything came from, you only have two possible answers: either the universe has always existed, in some form or another, in which case it has no beginning or end, or there was a point in time when the universe did not exist and there was nothing—in which case there must have been someone there to create it out of nothing, and that someone must have always existed, without beginning or end; and we can argue back and forth, but we can’t wrap our minds around either possibility. Either way, our minds aren’t that big.

The point I’m trying to make is that our relationship to God begins with the fact that he created us, and the whole world in which we live. Wait, I can see you wanting to argue that point, but if we head off on the whole Darwin-evolutionism-creationism argument, we’ll never come back to your question. That’s an argument for another hour. I believe, for reasons both biblical and, yes, scientific, that God created all that is and as such has both complete authority and complete power over all that is. Having said that, you hit the question: who is this God?

First and foremost, he is triune—three in one.

A: Ahh, the Trinity. I never have understood that.

R: Well, that’s partly because it isn’t all that understandable by our limited minds. We do the best we can to explain the Trinity and understand how God can be both three and one, but in the end it’s a mystery.

A: Isn’t that just like a Christian. You get hit with a question you can’t answer, you just say, “It’s a mystery.”

R: It makes sense, though. We are limited creatures, after all; if God is big enough to be God over the whole universe, wouldn’t you expect him to be too big for us to completely understand? And if he were small enough for us to wrap our minds around, would he still be big enough to be God?

A: I’ll have to think about that.

R: Anyway, the doctrine of the Trinity is central to our understanding of God, for a lot of reasons, so it’s essential to come to some understanding of it. I like the way Stan Grenz, one of my professors, explains this doctrine in one of his books. He says that the doctrine of the Trinity can be summarized in four statements: “God is one,” “God is three,” “God is a diversity,” and “God is a unity.”

First and most basic, God is one. We worship only one God, not many, and we assert that there are no others. But second, God is three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This isn’t just how we perceive him, it’s how he is; the one being of God exists in three distinct persons.

A: That doesn’t make any sense.

R: Like I said, our minds aren’t big enough to understand it. But then, you’re an educated man, you have a solid understanding of science for a non-scientist, right?

A: Yes, but I don’t see your point.

R: You know what physicists have determined about the nature of light, that light is both a wave and a particle? Can you explain how that can be, since the two seem to be mutually exclusive?

A: No, I can’t, but that’s what the evidence says. And yes, I see where you’re going; I’ll grant that the nature of light presents similar problems to the doctrine of the Trinity.

R: Reality is bigger than we are; someday we may be able collectively to understand how everything in the world fits together, but even then no one person will be able to grasp more than a small part of that understanding. And it’s entirely possible that we will never fully understand the nature of light, or quantum mechanics, or other such ques­tions. But whether we do or not, God will still remain orders of magnitude greater than his creation in which we live, too great for us to control.

A: Control?

R: Knowledge is power, right? I think the reason we aren’t content with a God we can’t fully understand, analyze, and describe in comprehensible terms is that any such God is beyond our ability to predict and control. That’s much of the drive behind the hard sciences, after all—the desire to reduce all the mysteries of the universe to things we can identify, label, explain, and control. I’d say it’s most of the drive behind psychology, the desire to extend our control over ourselves and others so that we can fix whatever we decide is broken. But if God remains beyond our understanding, he’s a threat, because we can’t control him—we can’t predict what he’ll do next.

A: Fine; point taken. Back to the subject, please?

R: Sorry for the digression. God is one; God is three. He is one being; he is three persons. It’s important to keep those in balance. Sometimes those of us in the Western church—Catholics and Protestants—tend to talk as if “God” is a single person, the “real” person above the three members of the Trinity. I knew a man in my denomination, a candidate for ordination like me, who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity for just this reason: he asked, “If there is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then who is ‘God’?” The answer is that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, but he couldn’t find that balance; he concluded that “God” must be a fourth person and rejected the doctrine of the Trinity as a result.

Anyway, God is a diversity, and he is also a unity; you might say that God is unity in diversity. The Father, Son and Spirit are three different, distinct persons, and they fulfill different roles, but at the same time they are a unity. They have different functions, but every act involves all three, and they are one in being; they are utterly united in love. This is why John can say in 1 John 4 that “God is love,” because in the very being of God, the Father, Son and Spirit are and have always been in relationship, loving each other, dedicated to each other. It is that love between them which is the central element of God’s nature and character, and it is that love which drives everything he does.

Posted in Credo, Religion and theology, Scripture.


  1. Rob,
    I’m reading this set of posts with great interest. I’ve always struggled with issues of faith and doubt, even as a Christian (for about thirty years).

    You say “But if God remains beyond our understanding, he’s a threat, because we can’t control him—we can’t predict what he’ll do next.” I can’t say that doesn’t play a role in our doubts sometimes.

    But there’s also wanting to understand because experience tells us that false beliefs often rest on false premises, and understanding how a premise is false shows us the belief is false. We don’t want to be fooled into believing something that is false because it sounds good or because we like the person who teaches it. So we try to understand in order to find if there is a good reason to believe it or not.

  2. The kicker is, I think, that this is fundamentally a matter of personal knowledge, rather than propositional knowledge; ultimately, we don’t believe in premises, we believe in a person. We know a person–three persons in one being–that’s the core of the matter. Of course, knowing a person involves knowing things about that person, and believing in a person involves believing certain things about them, but the foundation isn’t propositional, and so doesn’t ultimately rest on rational understanding; instead, it rests on personal knowledge and trust.

    I’ve known my wife for fifteen years and been married to her for almost eleven, and she’s still beyond my complete understanding; how much more God, who is so far beyond us mere humans? But just as my knowledge of my wife is real, though incomplete, and is sufficient for me to commit to trust her, even though I know she’s sinful as I am, so my knowledge of God is real, though incomplete, and is sufficient for me to commit to trust him, especially as I know he isn’t sinful as I am. (Basil Mitchell’s parable of the resistance fighter applies to this, though he himself used it a bit differently; you can find it referenced here.)

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