[EN] What Do We Mean By the Word “God”?
Chapter from my video series “From Below to Above”
The question of God’s existence is considered quite problematic by people today. One problem is that absolute truth is not available to us humans as something we can possess—our own human finiteness, our human limitations, come in the way. Another problem is that there are so many religions, each coming up with their own version of God, that one can’t see the forest for the trees. A third problem is that God is seen as something unnecessary.
We also saw, however, that not asking the question of God’s existence, or God’s address to us, leads to tremendous problems in relation to meaning and morality. After all, if we are merely aggregates of molecules and atoms, perhaps with some kind of consciousness arising out of and transcending it that cannot be reduced to the sum of its components, there remains no story to be told about what life is really all about. The quest for meaning and morality continue to put the God-question on the agenda.
There remains a problem, however, as soon as we attempt to address this God-question: What do we mean with the word “God”? We use the word, but immediately make use of a concept or a definition of the word God. The concept of God precedes, so to speak, the question of God. But the people with whom we enter into dialogue apply to this word “God,” as we use it, their own concept. People who discuss the God-question together all bring their own concept of God to the table. These concepts may or may have nothing to do with the Christian use of the word “God.” Maybe they talk about Zeus, may about an impersonal primordial force, may about an imaginary old man with a long white beard, etc.
When Christians say “God,” they refer to the One who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as the people of Israel. This God encounters and addresses us in Jesus Christ as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Christian testimony about God begins and ends with the history of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. End yet it doesn’t begin and end there, for Jesus beginning is without beginning and Jesus’s end is open-ended. This God is not a God of universal characteristics or abstract concepts, but the God who entounters us in Jesus and addresses us in love. It is a God who comes close.
When we talk about God, we need to keep four things in mind:
1. The word “God” does not necessarily mean the same for our discussion partners, as I said above. There is no universal concept about God on the basis of which we can start our discussion. We often will have to begin from the beginning.
2. Our speaking about God can and may not start with a universal concept. It has to start with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Our own speech can easily become influenced by our own ideas about God. It is our task, however, to testify to what God does in and through Jesus, then and now, as faithfully as possible.
3. Our arguments for God, based on what we know in this world and about this world, i.e. here below, will never fully do justice to this specific God, the triune Father, Son, and Spirit. Our arguments can merely be signs that point from here below in spite of their failure and finitude to above.
4. Christians therefore speak specifically about the Christian God and not about some vague notion of God, philosophical or otherwise, in general. At the same time, however, such speaking begins as a speaking from below to above. As such the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians has to begin with things that both parties know and can agree on. Only in this way may we hope that our contribution to the dialogue will be of more value than just being an extra voice that adds to the cacaphony of voices.
Thus when we address the question of God’s existence, we should always mindful of the fact that there is no neutral concept of God the existence of which we can verify. Such a god can never be God. Such objectivity is not possible either. Rather, we will depart from the notion of God as it presents itself in Christ. We can only talk about a revealed God not an imagined one, no matter how ingeniously devised.