The Impossible Dance – Chapter 2 – The Impossible God
The Impossible God
In Genesis 1:2, most translations will read that the Spirit “hovered” over the face of the waters, but that word can also mean “brooded,” as in a bird sitting on her eggs to keep the eggs warm until they hatch. So here we can read that the Spirit hovered and brooded, over the earth ready to bring forth life of all sorts, but particularly creatures that would be like God, creatures that would reflect the character of God: transcendent, loving, wise, fruitful, etc. This is how the story begins, full of anticipation and hope for what must be a grand and wonderful future.
But even before the story begins, we may contemplate another mystery, the mystery of the one person God also being the three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The early church struggled with this concept and eventually, in the second century, a Christian apologist, Tertullian, coined the term “Trinity” to describe this 3-persons in 1-person concept.
However, that tidy little term can mask over the impossible to understand idea of God being one person and three persons at the same time. There is Greek word available to us that addresses the complexity of this three-in-oneness, “perichoresis” which comes from two Greek words which mean “interpenetrate” or “mutually indwell.” This is meant to describe the interpenetration or mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
While this term may be partly helpful in understanding this impossible to understand concept, there is another word that is very similar to perichoresis which means “to dance around,” which gives us a word picture of our living and complex God in which the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not only interpenetrate but interact with one another, in a freewheeling, synchronized dance. There is no way for us to fully understand this one-person who is a community. So as we try to understand God, there will naturally be some paradoxes and mysteries.
When we look at a work of art, what can we tell about the artist? What can we find from the skill in using materials, the subject matter, the emotional content, the values? We may be able to figure out a few things, but all-in-all we can discern very little. To learn much more we need the artist to reveal not just more about the artwork but also about him or herself.
So, as we begin to explore what we can know about the Creator, we also begin by looking at his artwork (that is, the creation) but then we need to hear what the Creator has revealed about himself to us (that is, through the Holy Bible).
So, let us begin by looking at the living things God created. Sometimes, we think we can look around us and figure out what is living and what is not; but when look at the spectrum of living things, especially through the eyes of the scientists who specialize in it, it becomes more difficult to try to come up with a definition for life. In fact, one organization catalogued over 100 definitions … and none of those definitions satisfy everybody. What does that say about the one who created those living things?
If we get so confused about what was created, it is likely that we will get confused about the Creator. When Job challenged God, Yahweh responded, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In Isaiah, God explicitly says, “My ways are higher than your ways.” There simply are things about God that are beyond our comprehension, mysteries, which should give us a spirit of humility.
Because much about God is mysterious and beyond understanding, we naturally find that the Creator is full of paradoxes: with characteristics that seem to oppose each other. When we do encounter apparently conflicting statements about God, we must hold those qualities in tension with each other. Sometimes we might not totally understand how these characteristics can all be true together, but that is what we should expect. If we cannot fully comprehend the creation, why should we think that we can fully comprehend the Creator. We should also consider that if we ever think that we totally understand the Creator of the universe then we probably are not understanding things correctly – we are probably creating a god in our own image rather than the other way around.
This inability to totally understand God forces us to make speculations as we try to find a way to reason things about God. We do have to be careful though, for we will create all sorts of arguments with each other if we insist on certain speculations as the defined truth of God. It might be that if we study those revelations of God that we can draw some conclusions, but we need to be careful about making dogma out of something that we don’t fully understand. Unfortunately, we will see in future chapters that various theologians and congregations have sometimes split up over some of those very issues which no one can fully understand.
A Person and a Community
It is sometimes said that a picture is worth a thousand words, as it would take many words to describe the colors, shapes and expressions detailed in a picture. But sometimes, it can also be said that a word is worth a thousand pictures, as it is possible that one word in one document can be linked to many other documents where that same word is used with the meaning in each instance add to the meanings in the other instances. For example, the first sentence in the Bible says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Let’s consider the word “God.” In the Hebrew language that was used in the original writing of the first part of the Bible, that word is “Elohim.” The curious thing is that “Elohim” is a plural noun which could be, and often is, translated as “gods” while the verb “created” (“bara” in Hebrew) is singular. This combination of “Elohim” with a singular verb happens throughout the Old Testament part of the Bible and in all those cases, “Elohim” is translated as the singular noun, “God”. So, what’s the story with this?
On the one hand, the Bible is very strident in insisting that there is only one God. One of the central doctrines taught to the Jews is, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In the time frame that the Bible was written, this statement strongly contrasted with all the other cultures which had multiple gods. On the other hand, the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments, talks about God as Father and also God as Son and also God as Holy Spirit. This phenomenon shows up even as we look at Genesis 1, where we can see that God created and that the Spirit was hovering over the water. We continue to see this concept of one God, but three persons referred to as God develop throughout scripture, both in the Old Testament as the New Testament.
So how do we make sense out of the insistence on there being one God while also revealing that there are multiple personalities associated with “God.” This is certainly a tough question that has created problems in the church and is but one thing among many that God seems to have revealed to us without explaining it. The church has referred to this complexity as the “Trinity.” It is from the outflowing of love between the members of the Trinity that God created us, desiring us to join each other in community and together join the community of love that is present in the Trinity.
Transcendent and Immanent
Genesis tells us there was a time when the universe, the heavens and the earth, began to exist. Before that moment of time, they did not exist – but before that beginning there was God and then God created the universe. From that starting point, we can see the transcendent nature of God. He was not part of the universe but apart from the universe. No matter what happens in the universe or to the universe, those things do not affect God who is separate from all that. Fortunately, we are not simply left with a God who is unreachably “out there” leaving us to fend for ourselves. In some incomprehensible fashion, while God is “out there” existing outside of Creation, He is simultaneously inside Creation … everywhere at once.
This paradox of God’s transcendence (existing outside of Creation) and imminence (existing everywhere within Creation) has sometimes bewildered many who try to examine it through sheer logic. As we unwrap the significance of this paradox, we discover many interesting attributes of God. Here are a few:
- Regarding God’s Transcendence
- God’s existence apart from creation, and apart from the brokenness of the world is described as his holiness. This holiness is so profound that mortal, sinful people (as we all are) could not stand to be his presence.
- God’s omnipotence is seen in his ability to not only create the universe, but in his ability to sustain it.
- God’s omniscience is seen in his knowledge about the hairs on our head, our everyday actions and even in our destiny
- God is omnipresent
- Regarding God’s Immanence
- Although God is apart from the universe, He is the one who holds the universe together
- God is present throughout the earth and available to all who call for him and even to those who are not calling for him
Timeless and in Time
Closely related to the paradox of how God is both transcendent and immanent is how God is both timeless and in time. Many scholars in philosophy and science have trouble trying to resolve questions such as: How can God even have both attributes? Did God create time or is God himself confined by time? Is time static such that the past, present and future all exist simultaneously and God sees them all at once, or is time dynamic such that the future does not yet exist – and therefore God does not yet know it?
It is not practical to try to summarize all the arguments with all their nuances here. For our purposes, we will not try to resolve the many difficult theological/philosophical issues but, as Psalm 102 does, accept the finite mortality of our life on earth and the fact that God is both with us in the midst of our distress yet also exists outside of that.
Sovereign and Servant
There is a contemporary name for this juxtaposition of attributes: servant leadership. The one who is the creator and sustainer of all things does not wield that power in a self-centered way but uses that power to serve the needs of the very beings he created – even though they defied his authority and it cost him much anguish.
When the Creator decided to make creatures in his image, creatures that had the ability to love (and therefore the ability to choose whom to love or whom to not love), he imbued these creatures with the ability to make independent decisions. Doing that required releasing some control and then providing enough space be given so that those creatures would be free to make choices.
However, those creatures violated that love and incurred an awful penalty. Fortunately, the Creator did not just mete out the penalty, but with compassion, and at great cost to himself, put in place a plan that would restore his relationship with his image-bearers. This costly plan would highlight an attribute that already had been revealed, the attribute of servanthood in which the Creator acts on behalf of his creatures.
The ability to create and sustain the universe needs tremendous knowledge and wisdom as does the ability to create creatures in his image and then to guide them amid their missteps and varied circumstances. Were God to simply control each and every action in the universe, that would be difficult enough, but although God can control things directly through his sovereign will, there are actions which he desires but he gives us the option to obey or not. We cannot even begin to understand the vast knowledge and wisdom that God needs. In fact, wisdom is so pervasive, not only in creation but as part of the many ways God interacts with us, that Wisdom is metaphorically portrayed to us in Proverbs as a person.
Gracious, Merciful and Just
There is a common misunderstanding of how God is seen in the Old Testament vs. how God is seen in the New Testament. The perceived contrast has caused reactions such as thinking that there are two different gods or ignoring the Old Testament while focusing exclusively on the New Testament. It is easy to see how these misperceptions happen while looking cursorily at the Bible, but this misperception can be resolved by looking more carefully into the text. We can see that God’s love, mercy and grace is found not just in the New but also the Old Testament. We can also see that God’s wrath and justice is found not just in the Old but also in the New Testament.
God’s love, mercy and grace can be seen in the Old Testament right near the beginning. There is grace in the placing the image of God on creatures that did nothing to earn it. There is mercy in the judgements meted onto Adam and Eve after their sin and grace in the provision of covering for their nakedness. While we could look at more other instances of mercy and grace in the Old Testament, let’s just consider the meanings of the Hebrew words that have been translated as “mercy.” One Hebrew word could be translated as compassion and another word as steadfast loyalty. These characteristics can be seen in God’s steadfast compassion and loyalty to Israel even after repeated rejections from his image-bearers.
But even beyond mercy and grace, God’s compares his love with his chosen people with the love of a husband to a wife. This Hebrew word often used for love refers to a giving type of love, which indeed was the way God showed his love to his chosen ones; even though time after time his people rejected him, God patiently worked through it all giving us a chance to see ourselves as we really are and the chance to put our trust in his unfailing love.
Wrath and justice in the New Testament can be seen in God’s strong desire expressed as zeal or jealousy concerning the welfare of his image bearers. In both the Old and New Testaments, God is clear about his desire for justice and righteousness. God expresses his anger very clearly when we try to cover-up our lack of justice with religious exercises or pretentiousness.
God’s response to injustice is his wrath. Although God’s wrath has been long covered by his patience and his desire that all people would come to him, his wrath will eventually be revealed when he comes back to earth to fully restore his kingdom on earth. While he cautions us to allow him to carry out vengeance, that does not mean we should not be concerned by the injustice that we see. The Greek term which is usually translated as “righteousness” can also be translated as “justice.” Jesus exemplified justice throughout his ministry, and he encourages us to practice justice as well.
That concern for justice and desire to eliminate sin is explicitly expressed in Jesus’ statements in Matthew 10:34 (“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”) and Luke 12:49 (“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”). Then later in Revelation 19:11-21, however real or metaphoric this passage may seem to be, the passage clearly expresses in very warlike terms, Jesus’ concern to eliminate evil.
God’s often responds to the injustice in the world with love, patience, and mercy – even passionately pleading with us to turn back to him in repentance and receive His forgiveness. But when we don’t respond with repentance, God will ultimately invoke His righteousness, justice and wrath.
Playful and Orderly
Many experts disagree on how to define play, we may think of play as activity which is typically not productive and is done only because one wants to do it and is usually a fun activity involving other people and will typically help people bond together. When it comes to the Creation, God did not have to create anything. God did not need the universe or anything in it – not the planets, nor the stars, nor the creatures. God created the heavens and the earth for the delight of it, and He did it because He wanted to share heaven and earth with his image-bearers. This spirit of playfulness is reflected in many of God’s creatures including Leviathan and humans. God’s playfulness also shows up in other interesting places in the Bible.
When Job complains about the difficulties he is going through, God seems to admonish him by “putting Job in his place” and citing all the ways in which God’s ways are higher than Job’s ways. But God does not follow through with any discipline of Job but rather begins the process of restoring Job’s fortunes. In response, Job confesses, “I spoke of things I did not understand … I retract my words and I repent in dust and ashes.” … And yet, Job changes an interesting behavior – he no longer rose early in the morning to offer burnt offerings for all of his children, worrying that “perhaps they have sinned.” Shams-ud-din Muhammed in his work “Tripping Over Joy” may have captured what Job was thinking when he wrote “the difference between our life and a saint’s is that the saint knows that the spiritual path is like a chess game with God and that God has made such a fantastic move that the saint trips over joy in surrender whereas we think we have a thousand serious moves.”
Another instance of playing occurs in Mark 6, when Jesus takes a late-night walk on a very windy lake, walking as if to go by his disciples. Of course, they were initially terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost. But he got in the boat and the waters calmed down. He could have calmed the waters down before the disciples started to go on the lake. He could have chosen another way to make his point … but he decided to do it that way.
God’s creativity can be seen within the created world in the extremely diverse types of plants and animals: differences in colors and shapes; different ways of digesting food; different ways of moving and observing the environment to name a few. The creativity we see is awesome. From out of nothingness, from no previous model, God created a whole system of particles and energy fields that interact with each other to form the building blocks of subatomic particles which are used to form atoms, which are used to form molecules of all sorts of complexity, which are then used to form planets and stars (actually, the fusion reaction in stars is used to create larger molecules from smaller ones). And at least one planet was used to create living things like plants and animals in all their complexity and then those living things were used to create communities (ecosystems) that allowed living things to thrive and flourish.
Yet, within the overwhelming creativity displayed within all the diversity of living things there is an order that is controlled by a set of ordered processes, some of which we call scientific (natural) laws. Christians, like Francis Bacon, pursued these laws as an extension of God’s moral laws in the universe, which then led to the development of modern science. It is within science that we examine orderly processes at work that we call the natural laws which describe how all physical things behave: like the forces of gravity, electrical forces, etc.
There is no disobeying these natural laws. If you think that you can try to violate them, you’d be wrong. For instance, if you are on earth and stand on the top of a table and then jump off with the assumption that you will not be subject to gravity but rather float around without falling to the floor, you’d be wrong. You can’t violate gravity. You can try to set up circumstances that will cause other forces to come into play – such as airplanes do when they use aerodynamic forces that counteract gravity – but you simply can’t violate gravity, and there will be consequences if you try.
By observing the laws of the created order, we can ascertain some aspects of the character of God. The natural laws that govern how things are supposed to behave reveals a God who expects things to behave, and that violations are not tolerated. But when image-bearers were brought into the world there was a new level of complexity added to this physical model constrained by natural, physical laws.
On the one hand, we image-bearers are physical creatures and are therefore subject to the natural laws, but on the other hand we image-bearers were created to reflect God’s transcendence and were even given dominion over the creation into which God had placed us. Within that capacity, we image-bearers were given a moral freedom, the freedom to choose between good and evil. This freedom could not be given without some risk, because in order for image-bearers to be able to reflect God’s character of being good and choosing to do good there must be the possibility for the image-bearers to be able to choose to not be good.
And just as there are natural, physical laws that govern how physical things behave with consequences for trying to violate those laws, God has also imposed spiritual, moral laws to govern how the image-bearers ought to behave in the good universe He created with consequences for violating those moral laws. Sometimes the sin of one generation is passed down to the next. But regardless of whether a particular sin is passed to from one generation to another, the penalty for sin is physical and spiritual death.