by George Stuart (see bio details at the end of this article.)
Note: Following posting of Rodney Eiver’s article Our Father Who Art Up There, George has kindly given us this chapter from a book he is currently drafting. George Stuart has crafted the popular series of songs and music entitled Singing a New Song .
I am in the process of writing my theological autobiography entitled, ‘Rekindling Christianity by Journeying with Jesus, Starting all over again’. One of the sections has to do with my concept of God, my version of the Trinity. It is rather long but you may be interested.
I begin by saying that my present beliefs are panentheistic. I understand panentheism as the belief that God is ‘in’ everything and everything is ‘in’ God. This sets a completely new path for me, from which to view reality, the cosmos, humanity and the meaning of everything, including Jesus and his cross. This supersedes any anthropomorphic (human like) image of God. It replaces what I understand to be, the misleading idea about the separation of God from humanity – God, a separate entity, being away and distinct. It also precludes any violence in God. God being in control also becomes irrelevant. These are all built on anthropomorphic images and ideas.
This is so, so different to what I have believed previously, however, I still have connections with the Bible, with church teachings and some of what I experience in the current church services I attend.
I replace the anthropomorphic images of God with more complicated, mystical images of spirit and energy. These are somewhat abstract, and thus maybe more difficult to embrace. I am reminded of teaching in a gospel conversation that Jesus has with the woman of Samaria.
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24.)
Certainly not the easiest to comprehend. In this quotation, God is not ‘a spirit’, but ‘spirit’. For me, the two are different and the quote points beyond the dominant biblical images of God.
The quote includes, ‘those who worship him…’ (John 4:24.)
This falls back into anthropomorphic talk which, for me, is a pity. God again, becomes a ‘him’
I do not find the word ‘energy’ in my biblical concordance, so I’m not sure that this concept is present in the biblical way of thinking. Energy is not a first century concept but it is central to modern thinking, particularly with the explosion of scientific information and the current way of understanding the cosmos.
I also find it significant that God is referred to as ‘love’, see 1 John 4:16a, and not ‘a loving person’. Again, the two are very different for me. The first is mystically abstract but the second sounds very anthropomorphic.
With this constant use of anthropomorphic language when speaking of God in the Bible and in current church services I attend, God is person-ised, spoken of as a person. In the teachings I have received from the church, there are three persons in the Godhead. This teaching was contained in the idea of the Trinity. There is God the Father, the first person, worshipped as the almighty Creator and in control of everything at all times. There is God the Son, the second person, worshipped as God revealed in human flesh. There is God the Holy Spirit, the third person, worshipped as God who gives gifts to humans, and who can dwell with and in us. Three persons in the one Trinity. This, in a nutshell, is what I have been taught by the church. This orthodox Trinity is built on the person-ising of God. I often hear the phrase, ‘God in three persons’.
For me, the orthodox Trinity seems to emphasize the separateness, distinctiveness of God and this begins biblically, in the Genesis stories. God, the Creator, is distinct from the creation. God is separate. This separation continues biblically because God ‘sent’ the Son, Jesus, to Earth. God, the Holy Spirit, has to ‘come and abide’. If there is no separation, such language is inappropriate. I no longer believe God is separate and distinct from human beings or the universe.
It was suggested to me that God had to be a community of persons if God is love. It is not possible to conceive of love unless it is given and received. Hence there needed to be more than one person in the Godhead. Love is a shared experience. If God is Love, God needs to give as well as receive love.
God, thought of as a person, can help when trying to answer such questions as, “Who can I praise and adore? To whom do I pray? To whom can I give thanks? To whom do I confess my sins? Who forgives me?” These can all be answered fairly easily if God is thought of as a person. If God is not thought of as a person these questions can pose difficulties. I have been taught that I can have a personal relationship with God, but if God is not a person, how can this happen? As a follower of Jesus I am told to love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, but if God is not a person, how can I do this? Not unreasonable questions.
Persons, by definition, are separate from one another. They can have relationships with one another but they are separate, individual and distinct. This person-ised God is presented as separate from all creation, including human beings. This God is certainly not in creation and the creation is not in God. God and human beings can have relationships but they are separate and distinct.
The biblical narrative also localises this person-ised God, living somewhere. Another anthropomorphism. Early in the biblical story there is the mountain of the Lord, Mt. Sinai/Mt Horeb, see Exodus 4:27 and many other references. This is where Moses was given the Law, and where he, his brother Aaron and sometimes others were summoned to go to meet with God. Later in the biblical story, the tabernacle/tent, see Deuteronomy 31:13-14 and many other references, was where God had an earthy abode. Later again in the church teachings I received, I was introduced to the Holy of Holies, see Hebrews 9:3, in the temple in Jerusalem where God could be approached once a year by the high priest. I think it is interesting that we still call churches, ‘Houses of God’. I believe that these ideas are not taken literally by many ordinary church-goers, however, I believe this localising of God leads to the concept of transcendence; that of God being holy and separated from sinful human beings but having special local places on Earth where this God could be approached. Marcus Borg says that, ..the god of theism images God as a being separate from the world – that is, as a primary transcendent reality.
I think there are different ways of presenting the concept of transcendence that are more helpful. I address this issue later.
In the early creeds of the church, which were given to me to memorise, God is localised in Heaven, away and separate. I am reminded of this separation every time I say the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father which art in Heaven…. Thy will be done one Earth as it is in Heaven.
I am continuously reminded that God ‘lives’ in Heaven. I am also confronted with this separation in many of the hymns I am requested to sing in present and past church services I have attended.
Matthew Fox in his book, Original Blessing, at the beginning of his chapter entitled Panentheism, discusses the subject, stating, Experiencing the diaphanous and transcendent God: – ‘C.G.Jung has written that there are two ways to lose your soul. One of these is to worship a god outside you.’ If he is correct, then a lot of churchgoers in the West have been losing their souls for generations to the extent that they have attended religious events where prayer is addressed to a god outside. The idea that God is ‘out there’ is probably the ultimate dualism, divorcing as it does God and humanity and reducing religion to a childish state of pleasing or pleading with a God ‘out there’. All theism sets up a model paradigm of people here and God out there. All theisms are about subject/object relationships to God.
So what for me now?
Referring to some of my past church teachings, I think the writer of the Psalms may have been at least moving slightly towards the idea of panentheism when stating a conviction about the omni-presence of God – God being everywhere.
Wither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or wither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there! If I make my bed is Sheol, Thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall hold me.
The psalmist speaks of God as present everywhere in the world in which we live. God is present absolutely everywhere. With this, God is being de-localised and thus de-person-ised to some extent. The sayings Gospel of Thomas, an early written gospel not found in the Canon of Scripture – the Bible as we now have it – has Jesus saying: … Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me there. (Saying 30:2 and 77.) This saying of Jesus goes a bit further and in a slightly different direction than the Psalm, but I suggest it is along much the same lines.
I ‘faithfully affirm’ all this but wish to go a lot further. I do not believe that God is present everywhere in the world as a separate Being, as the above quotes suggests, in a side-by-side association. I believe God is ‘in’ the world/universe, inherent, united to it; ‘in’ it as its divine dimension. This is pointed to in the New Testament.
One God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all… (Ephesians 4:6.)
This suggests to me that God is more than omni-present. God is omni-inherent. The first suggests a side-by-side association whereas the second points towards a unity embraced by panentheism. But even more please.
For me, it is not only that God is ‘in’ the universe, but also that the universe is ‘in’ God. So I go further with panentheism, believing that I am ‘in’ God. You are ‘in’ God. Everybody and everything is ‘in’ God. I find biblical statements to this effect. In him we live and move and have our being … (Acts17:28.) This quotation is stated by some commentators as being a quotation from Greek poetry, probably from a stoic philosopher, but the writer of the book of Acts uses it to affirm the theological emphasis that human life and experience is ‘in’ God.
From my lyrics
In God we live and move and be
In God we live and move and be,
In God we have our place;
If we accept this for ourselves
Then love shines from our face.
In God we live and move and be,
In God have harmony;
We praise and celebrate with joy
This mystic unity.
The author of John’s Gospel has Jesus saying to Phillip, ‘Have I been so long with you and yet you do not know me, Phillip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? ‘(John 14:9-10.)
‘I am in the Father and the Father in me’ is for me, a statement of unity, not a side-by-side relationship. The Father is not ‘with’ Jesus but ‘in’ Jesus.
The author of the epistles of John goes even further, stating, ‘God is love; and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him.’ (1John 4:16b.) For me, this quote is saying much the same thing about humanity, whereas the previous quote from the gospel speaks only of Jesus. I suggest that the two above quotations are by no means unique in the New Testament. For me, they address my problem of the God/Humanity separation. Many times this ‘in-ness’ is mentioned by the writers of the New Testament.
When discussing matters with the Pharisees, Jesus says,
“The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21.)
There are many times when the New Testament writers speak of God being in all, us being in Christ and Christ being in us; etc.
• For in him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28.)
• So we, though many, are one body in Christ. (Romans 12:5.)
• Therefore if anyone is in Christ .. (2 Corinthians 5:17.)
• I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20.)
• There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28.)
• And that Christ may dwell in your hearts… (Ephesians 3:17.)
• One God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:6.)
• He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17.)
These texts invite me to embrace a different approach when asking the question, “How can I understand my experience of God?” I quote the above texts as examples of what I think is an emerging theme in the New Testament.
It’s also important to note that we would have this theme embraced a lot more if we had a different Canon of the New testament which included some of the early Christian writings which were not included in what we now have. The Gospel of Truth has this ‘in-ness’ as a major theme of that Gospel. It states, as a teaching of Jesus, ‘and the Father is within them and they are in the Father. They are full and undivided from the one who is truly good.’ (Gospel of Truth 6:6-7.)
Mystical, like some of the sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel, however, I find it helpful.
The Gospel of Mary, another Gospel originally excluded from the New Testament, also has this ‘in-ness’ as one of its main themes. I mention these ancient documents, together with others, a bit later.
It is interesting to me that the concept of God’s ‘in-ness’ in us and our ‘in-ness’ in God does not surface in the Old Testament, not remotely. This Jeremiah passage moves towards it, but there is still the side-by-side relationship and no unity, not for me anyway. The law or covenant is given an ‘in-ness’ but not the Lord.
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall each teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the lord,’ for they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34.)
Early in the Bible story, even to say the name of God could incur the death penalty. This does not indicate to me, a unity of God with humanity.
As always, analogies are deficient in some aspect of their use, but I go there to hopefully add a bit of meaning. When I swim in the ocean I am totally surrounded by it, I am buoyed up by it, it is beneath me and above me. My movement is in the ocean. The ocean is far bigger than that which is close to me. My experience of the ocean is very limited but that doesn’t mean the ocean is limited to my experience of it. Most of the ocean is distant from me but that does not mean the ocean is distant. It is totally present. While I am in the ocean, many other things are also in the ocean; ships, other people, fish, etc., etc. Their ‘in-ness’ doesn’t alter nor lessen my ‘in-ness’ and mine doesn’t diminish theirs. So I am ‘in’ God but God is not limited to that experience. The limitation of this analogy is obvious, in that it does not address God’s ‘in-ness’ in me. The ocean is not ‘in’ me.
Quoting again from Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, in his chapter entitled Panentheism, What is the solution to the killing of God and the losing of human soul? It is our moving from theism to panentheism. Now panentheism is not pantheism. Pantheism, which is a declared heresy because it robs God of transcendence, states that everything is God and God is everything.
Fox continues, Panentheism, on the other hand, is altogether orthodox and very fit for orthopraxis as well, for it slips in the little Greek word ‘en’ and thus means, ‘God is in everything and everything is in God.’ This experience of the presence of God in our depth and Dabhar (the creative energy ‘Word’ of God) in all the blessings and suffering of life is a mystical understanding of God.
God Beyond, God Within and God Between.
God, for me, is the spirit dimension, inherent in everything and everyone, including me and you. It is a way of understanding which goes in the opposite direction to the away God who is separate and distinct. To try to unpack this belief, I speak of ‘God Beyond’, ‘God Within’, and ‘God Between’.
When I speak of ‘God Beyond’, ‘God Within’ and ‘God Between’ I am not talking about the nature, the substance or the essence of a Being I might call God. I am trying to indicate how I experience and how I respond to the Mystery, the Divine, the Sacred, the More – God. The experiences I include are experiences of the world beyond me, the internal experiences of personal decision making, self-examination and self-talk, as well as the experiences I have with other people. So the phrases ‘God beyond me’, ‘God within me’ and ‘God between me and others’ make sense to me.
I need to emphasise that, for me, these are not three Gods. I have little connection with the orthodox Trinity because, for me, God Beyond is not God the Father; God Within in not the Holy Spirit and God Between is not Jesus. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I have been taught, are all persons in the orthodox Trinity whereas God Beyond, God Within and God Between are phrases by which I point to the different ways I experience God.
If what follows makes me an atheist or heretic, so be it. Strictly speaking I would class myself an a-theist, i.e. one who is not a theist. However, I believe in God; the ultimate Mystery. I am a panentheist, so in one sense of that word, I suppose I am a theist.
What follows includes statements of my beliefs, as clear as I can make them, but which may not be easily understood. My beliefs are all so filled with Mystery that I am not sure I understand them myself. Maybe that is because I don’t always understand all my experiences but I still have them.
I don’t think I am very different to some other ordinary church-goers when I say that my beliefs begin and end in Mystery, with a capital M. Mystery is everywhere; in the minute, micro universe to the gigantic, limitless universe, in my very complex personal life and all life beyond me. What wonders have we yet to discover about the atom and molecules on which all our physical universe is partly built? What secrets are hidden in the millions of out-there galaxies which may never be understood? How can I understand myself and my behaviour? What is time? What prompts me to forgive? Why do I relish eating a banana every morning but my eldest daughter hates them? Why is there gravity? Why am I here? Who or what is God? Mystery everywhere. I am bewildered. Are there no answers? Is there no certainty to which I can cling?
I have to try to respond to this all-pervading Mystery as best I can with beliefs that help me to make some sense of it all and help me to live life abundantly.
From my lyrics
God is mystery
God in all galaxies beyond,
Yet in our hearts and we respond;
God of mystery shares our history;
God in the gentle breeze that blows;
In every creature as it grows;
God gives glory to our story;
God of mystery shares our history;
In God we live and move and be;
In God we find our destiny;
God of mystery shares our history;
God is the love that fills our soul:
God is the love that makes us whole;
God gives glory to our story;
God of mystery shares our history;
So I try to limit my comments to my personal experience of life. I ask “Where and how does God fit into my life?”, or as importantly with my present beliefs, I ask “Where and how do I fit into God?”
If I build my beliefs on my experience of life, I realise my experiences are extremely limited. It is our brain and mind that interprets all of our experiences and it does so in the context of our personal history, our prejudices, our environment, our reading and thinking, our knowledge and intellect, our world view as well as our specific predispositions at the time of our experience. All this is very subjective but that is the only way I think we can approach this subject. To speak of a revelation or some objective knowledge we may think we have been given, is still to understand this in the way our brain and mind filters, appraises and interprets it. It can be no other way.
If I take ‘living and moving and having my being in God’, very seriously, then I am never separate from God. If I take God being ‘over all and through all and in all’, very seriously, then God is never separate from me. All my human experience is ‘in’ God and God is ‘in’ it all. I am never separate from God and God is never separate from me.
When standing in awe of nature and looking at the stars of the universe, I experience God’s awesomeness. When receiving forgiveness and love from others, I experience God’s loving. When feeling I need to visit someone, in knowing that I need to apologise, in setting the priorities of my life, I experience God’s challenging. When visiting people in nursing homes I am confronted with the God’s vulnerability. In my fearful reactions to the stormy fury of nature and the speed of comets and meteorites, I experience God in nature’s power. In my peaceful reactions to the growth of trees and the twinkling of the sun on the surface of rippling water, I experience God’s quietness. In acknowledging the never ceasing movement of unnumbered electrons around an immeasurable number of nuclei of atoms, I am present to God’s energy. When I am with people who are sick or suffering, I am confronted with God’s pain. When trying to lift heavy weights, when walking slowly up a steep hill and when trying to swim against the tide, I am present to God’s force on our planet Earth. In the evil deeds humans do to each other, I become aware of God’s sadness. When I act in a hurtful, irresponsible way, my experience is that I am the cause of God’s sadness. In contemplation of the magic of my computer, I experience God’s minuteness and intricacy. When looking at a sunset, I am bewildered by God’s beauty. When enjoying other people’s company I experience the joy of God’s company.
Most of this is very anthropomorphic talk but I am not speaking of God as a human or super-human. I am trying to express how I accept the experiences I have in life, as experiences of God, and my experiences are anthropomorphic. They must be because I am human.
For me, God is known, identified in all these experiences and more, and they are all my experiences. These experiences and the recognition of them are my involvement in the Mystery, so when I have these and all other experiences I am experiencing God. This announces panentheism for me.
Because of the immense amount of baggage that comes with the word ‘God’, I am somewhat reluctant to use it at all, however with the prepositions ‘Beyond’, ‘Within’ and ‘Between’ following it, I think it is nearly permissible.
To unpack my beliefs in more detail, I begin with God Beyond. For me, God is ‘in’ all. God Beyond is ‘in’ all that exists. God Beyond is the divine dimension of all that is, including all that which is beyond me. God Beyond is that which is not restricted to me but not distant from me. Most of the universe is distant from me and in so far as that is the case, God Beyond is beyond, but ‘in’ all of it.
So the phrase ‘God Beyond’ is appropriate for me because nearly everything is beyond me. Other people, trees, ants, rocks, moon, stars, galaxies and most atoms, molecules, microbes and bacteria are outside, beyond me. Life is not limited to my life. There is much more. Existence is not limited to my existence. There is much, much more. Together with all that is, I too have God in my life, my moving and my being, but that does not limit God. There is much more. God Beyond is my experience of God in everything that is beyond me.
My experience of God Beyond includes my observations of and encounters with all that which is beyond me. God being in all, is the divine dimension of all I observe and encounter in that which is beyond me. Whenever and whatever I observe, I am observing God Beyond. Whenever and whatever I encounter, I am encountering God Beyond.
God Beyond is my experience of the all-pervading creative energy sustaining all that is, whether there be only one or multiple universes. God Beyond is not limited to me, others and everything else that exists. I, others, and everything else have limitations but, for me, God Beyond has none. God is the divine inherent dimension of all that is and more. I experience God Beyond when I experience that life force, that inherent everlasting life-spirit-force, Ground of Being of everything that happens, has happened and will happen. In my observations I experience God Beyond when I experience this life-energy-force, Ground of Being beyond me, and it is evident everywhere in nature on Earth here and the cosmos out there. When I walk around my suburb I see numerous examples of it. One of the very small but common ones is weeds and grass pushing up into light and air from beneath concrete footpaths. They are probably looking for cracks through which they can emerge. That’s just what they do. My experience of God Beyond, is that this life-force-energy-spirit is inherent. Bees swarming, rocks enduring, stars exploding, atoms in continuous internal energetic motion, animals and bugs and insects surviving and multiplying, clouds coming and going, the universe expanding at an ever increasing rate, all happening, all enduring, all living, all evolving, all moving, all in God and God in it all. Not necessarily good or bad. Moral categories are irrelevant for a great deal of what I experience in God Beyond. It’s just how things are! Everything has evolved the way it has. It is all ‘in’ God and God is ‘in’ all; God Beyond.
As I have intimated, much of what I experience in God Beyond has nothing to do with morality. It is rather senseless for me to say, “The Moon loves the Earth.” That is a nonsensical statement. Love has nothing to do with it. The moon and the Earth are what they are and that’s it. They have evolved that way. Apparently they are both essential for each other’s existence and continued survival. They have a gravitational relationship, not a love relationship. It is like saying, “Orange likes going quickly.” That also is an absurd sentence. It is combining separate and different categories of thinking/speaking. Orange has nothing to do with likes or dislikes. It also doesn’t move. We just don’t talk that way. So it is, for me, with a lot of God Beyond. Much of what is beyond me, just is, and has nothing to do with morality, what is good or bad, loving or not. Morality, for me, has to do with God Within and God Between. Morality comes into play when humanity is involved. More of that a little later.
Numerous processes needed to have happened in sequence and now be in place, for human life to come into existence. It took thousands of millions of years for little me to emerge from the combination of atoms and molecules all of which are thousands of millions of years old and products of the Big Bang and/or exploding stars. They form me. What an evolutionary marvel! If all these thousands of processes did not happen in the sequence they did and how they did, I would not be here! For me, this is a benevolent Mystery ‘par excellence’. Not that it all happened because I was the end result being sought or the purpose for it all happening. I think that might be a bit arrogant. Rather it is that I happen to be part of the end result, maybe the inevitable result of evolutionary processes.
I experience God Beyond is that Mystery which keeps everything together. I experience being connected to everything, to everything which is other than me, beyond me. Amongst other things, evolution teaches me this. When referring to God’s dear Son, a New Testament writer states, ‘And he exists before all things, and all things are held together in him.’ (Colossians 1:17.)
Giving this verse a free and expansive interpretation, God Beyond is my experience of this; connected and holding together. Everything in the universe is interdependent. Everything is connected and holds together because God is ‘in’ all and all is ‘in’ God; God Beyond. I am and you are in the thick of it all. My understanding of evolution points to all this connectedness and interdependence.
Why do I feel guilty when there is so much inequality in the world? Why do I feel happy, even tearful, when I hear of someone, a complete stranger, being revived and has ‘come back to life’ after an accident? Because I am connected to all. Why do I shrink from pictures on the TV, of millions of refugees trying to survive, none of whom I know? Why am I delighted when I see dogs happily playing together? Because I am connected to all. Why do I feel angry when I know some rich companies rip the system off by paying no tax? Why do I sit in awe of a sunset? Why do I get motivated when I know I can do something to make the world a better place? Because I am connected; because I am part of the whole; because I am in the thick of it all! God is ‘in’ me and God is ‘in’ all, holding everything together, me included.
The other day I had read to me a newspaper story of how some people smugglers, in order to escape being prosecuted, pushed people, even babies, off their boat into the Mediterranean Sea, to drown. As the story continued the person reading to me was in tears. Why? Because she was connected. We all are.
In God Beyond.
My wife and I enjoy watching Australian Rules football on TV. We are both somewhat addicted. When the team we support wins a match we happily exclaim, “We won!” Strictly speaking we probably had nothing to do with it. But we say “We”. Why? Because we are connected.
For me, it can be no other way. Being human is being connected to all other humans in God; God Beyond.
The above may be regarded as trivial examples and maybe they are but I think they point to something far deeper; that we really are connected to all the universe. I am in the universe and the universe is in me. Psychological explanations can and are given for the feelings we have and I don’t wish to ignore these but I am still comfortable with bringing God Beyond into the picture. I/We can escape and not care about that which is beyond me/us, but I believe that is to deny my/our human-ness. My belief is that God Beyond is the Mystery in which all things hold together. God Beyond is in all and I am there, experiencing it. I experience God Beyond as Source of the glue, the energy that keeps neutrons, electrons, positrons, protons, etc. together in the atom; as the Source of the glue, the energy that keeps atoms together in molecules, molecules in compounds, compounds in materials, materials in structures, structures in planetary, solar and galaxy systems, etc., etc. All together. This is my experience of the world, the universe; God Beyond.
For me, God Beyond can never be thought of as a person. That is far too limiting, far too parochial, far too anthropomorphic. A person-ised God who is separate from humanity and ‘away’, makes no sense to me anymore.
A major statement of my belief now is, ‘My experience of God Beyond is of a totally limitless inherent Mystery in all.’
From my lyrics
Time and space are both a mystery;
God is beyond.
Limitless yet with a history;
God is beyond.
When we think of human millions,
Study galaxies in billions,
When we ponder stars in trillions,
God is beyond.
In nonillions*, yet are living;
God is beyond;
Tiny cells are unforgiving;
God is beyond;
Genes bequeath to us our hist’ry,
Germs attack and give no mercy,
Microscopic – all is mystery;
God is beyond.
*A nonillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
There are at least 5 nonillion bacteria on the earth’s crust!
I have the human experience of God Within, the experience of God within me. This is where I experience that God is love, all-encompassing and all-challenging, costly, surrounding, accepting love.
As soon as I think of God Within I am into the realms of ethics and human relationships. If I ‘live and move and have my being’ in God and God lives and moves and has being in me, this announces God Within. There is a divine dimension to all humanity, my and your humanity included. This is universal and not the possession of just a few.
In a way, God Within is a paradox to what has gone before about God Beyond, yet for me, it is not inconsistent with it. This paradox, even maybe a contradiction exists, in that while I have no control whatsoever over God Beyond, I certainly do have some control over God Within or at least my response to God Within. I have little control/influence over my immediate environment, less over the environment further away from me and minuscule, if any control over the larger environment. I liken this to the life of a house fly and the control/influence it has on the whole Earth. Not a great deal, I suspect. The same can be said of my life and the control/influence I have beyond my immediate environment even though I am connected to all of it. Such is my lack of control/influence regarding my experience of God Beyond.
However, because of my ability to participate in decision making and thus have some control over my behaviour, I do have at least some control over my response to God Within. My experience of God Within does not obliterate my free will. I can, through my behaviour return to the universe the benevolence the universe has shown me or I can refuse to do so. In other words, if I decide to, I can do or not do unto others what is good and appropriate. I can nurture life just as my life has been nurtured or refuse to do so. I can, as part of an interdependent system, contribute or refuse to contribute. I can act responsibly with regard to all else or I can manipulate, abuse and destroy because it suits me or amuses me. I can regard all else as being there for me without any thought that I also have a responsibility to be there for all else.
Even though God Within is within, maybe supported in the New Testament by
‘All that came to be was alive with his life.’ (John 1:3)
God Beyond intrudes in my life as God Within. I don’t mean that the intrusion is from outside. I mean intrusion in terms of making a presence, which is already present, felt. Because I can involve myself in decision making, I can co-operate with this intrusion/influence or work against it. I can uncover it, let it be exposed or I can keep it suppressed, hidden and even inoperative. This is my experience.
God Within is expressed in many different ways in my living experiences.
When I pray, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me praying.
When I am thankful, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me being thankful.
When I love others, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me loving.
When I ask, seek, knock, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me doing these things.
When I do bad things, hurting others, I take responsibility for these and God Within is my experience of God in me being sad and wanting me to change, wanting me to listen to God Within and take heed.
With some ‘faithful reappraisal’, the Jesus Christ phenomenon gives me a picture of continuous human cooperation with God Within. Jesus is the story of what God Within is all about, what God Within looks like when continuously exposed, uncovered from within humanity, by conscious human decision.
From my lyrics
My God is in Jesus
My God is in Jesus; the gospel is telling
The story of one who was servant of all;
Whose love and compassion, so rich and so compelling,
Restores the broken-hearted, supports those who fall.
My God is in Jesus, who shares all our living;
From inside our being we know he is kind.
Compassion displayed in the power of his giving;
My God is in Jesus. Real love is defined.
God Within has free reign in Jesus. This is why Jesus is still so central to my beliefs. When I think of God Within I immediately think of what Jesus said and did, of how he lived, loved and died and how he continues to be alive for me and many others. I think this might be what some of the passages in John’s gospel are about. The gospel writer relates Jesus having a conversation with his disciples. As I have said previously, the writer has Jesus saying, ‘Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me.’ (John 14:11a.) This, I think, is the gospel writer saying for Jesus what I am trying to say for me and all humanity. The Father is ‘in’ us or God is ‘in’ us; God Within.
Jesus is the historical person around whom many faith statements have been uttered and thankfully many have been preserved in the four biblical gospels; there for all of us to read. Some of these memories were embellished and some were eventually set in concrete, in church dogma and doctrine. This complex of the historical person together with the faith statements about him has evolved into what many ordinary church-goers understand as Jesus Christ. The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are so entwined now that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. As Greg Jenks, in his book Jesus Then and Jesus Now says,
No critical research will ever succeed in capturing the historical Jesus.
That no longer concerns me. Together they form the complex that calls me to follow. I try to. I have more to say about this in a later section about Jesus.
When the gospel writer in has Jesus saying, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’ (John 14:9b.) I believe he is saying that Jesus’ life is to be seen as the picture of a continuous and total co-operation with God Within. Jesus totally exposes, uncovers God Within, so we are able to see the Father when looking at him. This belief about Jesus makes him very available.
As the Second Person of the orthodox Trinity, who is seated at God’s right hand making continuous intercession for humanity, even metaphorically, is quite unhelpful to me now. It emphasizes separation, the away-ness of God. This is why I dislike the lyrics of traditional Christmas carols so much. They speak of this separated God making a fleeting visit to Earth from who knows where, in the human form of Jesus. I wish to speak of the welling up from within humanity of God Within. This presents a different perspective than that which is presented in the traditional Christmas carols.
From my lyrics
God lives within humanity
God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Quietly born amongst the hay;
We recall good news today.
Jesus, Mary’s little child,
So precious and so undefiled;
Jesus’ special day;
God amongst the hay.
God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Kings and shepherds come sincere;
Some with wisdom, some in fear;
Grace and peace and love and joy
Are welcomed in a baby boy;
Jesus greeted here;
God, incarnate, here.
In Melbourne, Australia, at one of the meetings at which I led a discussion on my hymn lyrics, someone said that it was sad that I could not enjoy the poetry and imagery of the meeting of the realms, a coming together of God and humanity, which they said is championed by the Christmas carols. I replied that I couldn’t enjoy the traditional lyrics because, for me, most of them tell of a fundamentally non-existent movement. The movement, for me, is not a meeting but an exposure: not a coming together but a coming out.
For me, there is another aspect of God Within that has little to do with ethics or behaviour but has to do with connectedness, as I have mentioned. God Within is the personal, individual aspect of God Beyond. I experience God Within as the Source of the glue that keeps me together. God Beyond is God Within keeping me connected within and connected to all else. Scientists may call this glue gravity, magnetism, forces of attraction, etc. For me, it is God Beyond, active and inherent in everything and as regards me, this is God Within. In this connectedness, I experience God Within.
A major statement of my belief now is, ‘My experience of God Within is of a totally personally present and continuously inherent Mystery in me.’ Gretta Vosper in her book With or Without God says, (page 230) :- ‘Sit for just a moment. When you think about it, you may find that you haven’t been thinking about god theistically – as a distinct, other being separate and definable – for a while. You may think of god as a remote being for some of the time, but you also may have often thought of god as a feeling that makes you want to be the best person you can be.
You get that feeling when you plunk a quarter into a stranger’s parking meter. You get that feeling when you talk to your kids about trying to make this world a better place, and they tell you some pretty good ideas they’ve come up with, all on their own. You get that feeling when you stop and talk to that other person who has been sitting all alone the whole time you have been visiting your mum in rehab. All he does is smile at you and nod but that feeling is almost tangible. You get that feeling when you pick up the package you were expecting, and in it you find that perfect gift you ordered for your child, your lover or yourself. I invite you to think of that feeling as god’.
From my lyrics
When we strive to be much better
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this urgent feeling
And its forcefulness is God.
Love ….. ….. ….. and challenge
Can be life reforming;
Love ….. ….. ….. and challenge
Are so life transforming.
When we share a tragic moment
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this tender feeling
And its sentiment is God.
Love ….. ….. ….. and kindness
Are, in life, enfolding;
Love ….. ….. ….. and kindness
Are, for us, upholding.
I have the human experience of God Between, the experience of God Between me and others.
God Between is very much a spirit concept for me. I go straight to such concepts as the spirit of Christmas; abstract but very real, understood and experienced.We speak quite easily about the spirit of Christmas or the spirit of generosity, etc. I believe we can think about the spirit of God in this way. What can be more ‘Holy’ than the spirit of reconciliation, the spirit of generosity, the spirit of forgiveness, the spirit of inclusiveness?
God Between also has something to do with the statement, “A group is more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it.” Something more is present than just the sum of all the individuals.
When God Within is uncovered, expressed by one person and interacts with another person, then a relationship of love, concern, compassion is created. Love is given and received. There is more at play than just the existence of the two separate individuals. There is a connection, an interplay, a movement back and forth. There is an action, a reaction, a re-reaction, a re-re-reaction and so on. Something is going on between these two people. When this occurs, it is what I mean by God Between.
God is inherent ‘in’ this movement back and forth, and this movement is ‘in’ God. So in the wider community, when justice is done, when reconciliation is achieved, when good laws are passed, when diplomacy triumphs over hostility, when the hungry are fed, when the handicapped are noticed, when corruption is replaced with honesty, etc., I believe God Between is evident and experienced. When joy is shared, when affirmation is voiced and heard, when forgiveness is given and accepted, when encouragement is volunteered and received, when a smile is seen and returned, when lovers are both fulfilled,…. then something significant happens between people. When this happens between people, it is, for me, an expression of God Between.
Whenever I visit anyone who is sick and in hospital, I just about always become extremely frustrated at not being able to find a convenient parking spot. So many cars! However, on some patient reflection, I realise this situation is brought about by so many people who must be visiting sick friends or relatives. This is evidence of God Within uncovered by those who are doing the visiting and I hope that both patients and visitors are experiencing God Between as the visit continues, when a love is given and received.
In some ways the relationship between God Within and God Between is, for me, akin to the traditional relationship between the Second and Third persons of the orthodox Trinity. John’s Gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of this Trinity, would bring to mind all that Jesus, the Second Person of this Trinity said. See John 14:26. In somewhat like manner, God Between is that which is experienced when God Within is remembered and expressed between people and this, for me, is what Jesus points to.
A major statement of my belief now is, ‘My experience of God Between is of a totally and continuously involved inherent Mystery between people.’
Jesus, as I have said, is the prime example of God Within being uncovered, exposed and lived out. God Between, on the other hand, has to do with God being inherent in what happens between humans as they relate to each other in a loving way.
From my lyrics
In community with others
God is between.
Prizing them like sisters, brothers,
God is between.
God involved in human action,
Spark of life in each reaction,
Core of every interaction
God is between.
When we learn to live together
God is between;
Harmonizing with each other,
God is between.
When corruption is deemed loathsome,
When our diff’rences are welcome,
When community is wholesome
God is between.
My beliefs in or about God have to do with a God-dynamic. By that I mean God Beyond, God Within and God Between is my experience of continuous movement in my life. God Beyond, inherent in all being, gluing together, encompassing; God Within, inherent in me prompting, influencing, guiding, sustaining; God Between, inherent in relationships, initiating, responding, connecting. All are dynamic, on the move. This is the way I experience God. Experience is always on the move. My experience of God is always on the move.
This is very anthropomorphic talk and maybe all of what has gone before also is. As such, it demonstrates the inadequacy of language and maybe my inadequacy in using it. I suppose this could suggest that I am excusing my anthropomorphic talk while still criticising the anthropomorphic image of God presented in the Bible and in current church services I attend. I defend what I am saying because I submit that I am talking about my experiences of God and they must be anthropomorphic because I am human. I am not trying to define God. Maybe the biblical writers were also trying to communicate their human experiences of God and not define God. Not sure? I am not trying to define God; God’s nature or essence. Like Dr Val Webb’s book title Catching water in a net or like trying to be noisy by clapping with one hand, whenever we talk of God, we may be talking nonsense. But we continue to talk.
With beliefs that I now have, God is so much ‘in’ everything, every time and every place that intervention is something that just doesn’t fit in the picture. Intervention presupposes separateness, as in the Genesis stories and in, what is for me, the strong emphasis of the whole biblical story. ‘Involvement’ and ‘inherent’ are words that make more sense to me. God is totally involved and inherent so to talk of intervention makes no sense to me at all.
If all this makes me to be not a Christian, so be it. It certainly does not put me outside the group who would call themselves the followers of Jesus. Not for me anyway! Not that it worries me much what other people or I call myself. The quality of my life is what is important. Gretta Vosper’s book With or without God has a subtitle that encapsulates it beautifully;
…the way we live is more important than what we believe.
However, these beliefs engender in me a reverence for all life, a wonderment at the cosmos, a positive attitude to my fellow humans, a challenge to love and live life the way it was meant to be loved and lived (like Jesus) and importantly, it compels a ‘faithful replacement’ of the away, distinct, separate, outside God, with the ever present, surrounding, inherent, indwelling and involved God.
This means I have made a ‘faithful rejection’ of many of my previous belief emphases and a joyful acceptance of new belief emphases. I wish in no way to suggest that, in order to have a reverence for all life, a wonderment at the cosmos, a positive attitude to one’s fellow humans and a challenge to love and live life the way it was meant to be loved and lived, one needs to have the same beliefs about God. All I am saying is, “This works for me at present.” So my present Trinitarian faith statement goes something like this:-
- I experience God Beyond as a totally limitless inherent Mystery in all.
- I experience God Within as a totally personally present and continuously inherent Mystery in me.
- I experience God Between as a totally and continuously involved inherent Mystery between people.
If these comments/ideas/beliefs are more acceptable to you when you omit the word God, that’s fine. I would still want to hold onto the three ideas of Mystery as being Beyond, Within and Between as what I experience and what I think permeates all my existence. We might substitute the words ‘goodness’, ‘love’ or ‘creativity’ for God. You may wish to substitute other words.
From my lyrics
God Beyond, Between, Within
God is beyond, within, between – not absent;
Not far away, not on some lofty throne;
God is beyond, within, between so constant;
No gulf to bridge to some angelic zone.
This is Good News; we know that we belong;
For God is love; for God is love.
This is Good News, the everlasting song;
For God is love. Yes! God is love.
In this part of my journey, in Rekindling Christianity by Journeying with Jesus, I think I have had to ‘start all over again’. Sad in a way, but for me, necessary.
The away, anthropomorphic, theistic, almighty, Creator/God has been replaced with an awesome inherent presence, a divine dimension to and ‘in’ everything; God Beyond. The godly spirit within every person, that which prompts love and compassion ‘in’ humanity, is the God dimension of every human being; God Within. Jesus is the total expression of the uncovering of God Within. The godly spirit being active ‘in’ human relationships gives my relationships with others an added sacredness because God is inherent ‘in’ all of them; God Between. And love is my experience of this fabulous Mystery. I now have a set of beliefs that I can joyfully embrace, that make sense to me and challenge me to live abundantly.
George Stuart, October 2018
[George was born in Hopetoun, Victoria in 1935 and I has been associated with the church since then. His formal education includes degrees in Analytical Chemistry ,BA (Political Science and Philosophy) and BD with honours in Theology, graduating from Ormond College, Melbourne. After working as an analytical chemist for a few years he changed course and became an ordained Presbyterian clergyman. He worked as a ‘worker priest’ for about 10 years being in paid employment at BHP in Whyalla and then Newcastle. He was required by the church to resign from the ‘full time’ ministry because of his secular employment and completed paid employment as a Rehabilitation Counsellor working for the GIO in NSW. His latest contribution to the church has been writing over 500 new lyrics, set to well known traditional hymn tunes, which are posted on my website http://sites.google.com/site/george007site .
Really appreciate George Stuart’s explanation. I have been getting to that point myself but have not been able to express. The difficulty of discussing such beliefs with @traditional” believers. I wonder about “prayer” . I feel more involved with a prayer group than with church services – preparing prersonally for the prayer group is a more meaningful experience – but how then does one pray with those one loves and respects but who think differently from me- or perhaps since their beliefs are the established ones I should say I think differently from them.
The author does go on as bit and a good editor would sharpen up the writing and get rid of repetition. Many thanks I look forward to the completed work
Haven’t read all of George’s chapter, but enough I think to find much in common with him. I offer the following 3 statements which I devised for myself when reading Greta Vosper’s book which listed 100 ways to describe GOD. My words are:
GOD is the fabric of the Universe
GOD is the Glue that binds All things
GOD is Unconditional Love.
The last statement I added some years later actually and of course is not original but it seemed to satisfy my needs for understanding. Also Re the last statement I do prefer to swap the words around and state Unconditional Love is GOD. I do this in the understanding that people to a large extent often create their own GOD, one that suits their needs and life experience. Perhaps I do the same, that is create my own GOD, but if that be so it is because the concept of GOD taught to me throughout my growing years was very deficient and did not match the experiences of my inner life. Those readers familiar with Greta Vosper’s work will know she prefers to speak of god with a small g. I find the more I think of GOD and seek to spend time with GOD and be open to GOD’s influence the G just keeps getting bigger and bigger, so I always write GOD. This understanding is reflected in the 3 statements that are shared with you at the start of this piece.
i am trying to print this article – reading it at the computer is not easy. Printing it off is not proving successful. Do you have any suggestions? I love it and would like to have it to hold and read.
thank you and bless you for all you are doing . . . I resonate with your teachings and am inspired and encouraged by all you say. thank you.
I will see if I can send you a word copy Betty. Just have to be in a good spot for Internet. Best regards, Paul