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Is God a Noun or a Verb

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In the tumultuous sea of change we are living in today, many things are up in the air – our theology of God included.  For example, is God verb or noun, being or doing, fixed point or energy wave?

The Biblical record does not actually fall on one side or the other of this question.  We read about God as building covenants with the people (Noah and his family, Sarah and Abraham etc) or as speaking directly with the people – this tends toward an image of God as noun, as Being or as Fixed Point.  We also read about God through imagery of wind and flame, silence and storm – this tends toward an image of God as verb, as Doing or as Energy.

The sense of God as a Being has dominated Western Christian thought.  There is a tremendous gift in this approach – God as Being provides us with a clear sense of a Holy Other with whom we are invited into covenantal relationship.  We encounter God as one with whom we can speak, with whom we have a genuine and profound relationship, where we are held, embraced, cared for and loved.  The problem with staying only with this approach, however, is that as people we do not have a good history with respect to how we relate to other “beings” – human or otherwise.  We tend toward control, in this case, seeking to master the definition of who God as Being is to the degree that we place God in our self-made box, limiting our ability to even recognise the God that is not of our own making.

But what about the sense of God as Doing, as verb or as energy?  What is the gift or risk in this approach?   God as Energy is an ineffable and holy Mystery.  This God is always moving, always becoming, always like the wind blowing where it wills.  As God sweeps over the world, all of creation is invited and drawn into God’s beauty and goodness.  God as Energy cannot be placed in human made boxes or be controlled.  This is always good news for those on the underside of history and those on the fringes of organized belief systems.  For Western Christians this sense of God as verb is new and often very exciting.  Can there be a downside?  Absolutely.  As human beings, it is difficult to enter into relationship with that which is not also Being, to hold fast to a wind that keeps blowing where it wills.  In this case we risk seeing God as a spiritless idea rather than a living force.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to have a relationship with an idea.

In our theological imaginations, God as Being tends towards transcendence.  God as Doing tends towards immanence.  In our liturgy, when we cry out in sorrow and grief, we appeal to the God of transcendence.  When we sit in contemplative silence, we appeal to the God of immanence allowing the energy of God to form us and re-form us like the clay being turned on a potter’s wheel.

Why is this conversation regarding the character of God important?  My experience in the church is that we sometimes talk past each other with respect to who we believe God is.  Those who tend toward God as Being can see those who believe in God as Doing as esoteric at best and at worst, as heretical.  Those who tend toward God as Doing can see those who believe in God as Being as old school believers who are deeply out of touch with a God not of their own making.  To some degree there are generational and ecclesial divides in this regard.  Many will also see this same divide between various sectors within their congregations.

The problems that emerge from these divides are not solved when we simply choose one image of God over another.  Most obviously, choosing God as Being over God as Doing (or vice versa) creates a win/lose dynamic among the people seeking truth in this regard.  Of even more significance, however, is that choosing one image of God over the other causes the seeker to not only miss the wisdom of the alternate image, eventually it also causes the seeker to fall into the negatives of his/her favoured approach.  In other words, if one only believes in God as Being, one is more likely to fall into the trap of believing in a self-constructed (and controllable!) image of God.  And if one only believes in God as Doing, one is more likely to fall into the trap of reducing God to an idea with whom no transforming relationship can be made.  Like so many things that are true, wisdom lies not in one extreme or the other but in drawing from the gifts of both of these understandings of God.  Wisdom is found in holding the images of God as Being and Doing together at the same time, recognising that each without the other is an incomplete image of who God is.

To be sure, learning to hold these two images of God together is not easy.  Nonetheless, the promises for the church are profound.  Take for example, the impact of these two images on the virtue of humility.  A church that believes only in a God as Being tends to produce people whose humility is more akin to self-denigration.  Or, for those who see themselves as God’s chosen, it can produce a dangerous absence of humility.  A church that believes only in God as Doing tends to produce people who struggle with humility because humility does not actually make sense in the absence of relationship.  By way of contrast, a church that holds together God as Being and as Doing produces people whose humility emerges from a sense of mystery (God as Doing) but is formed in an ongoing and covenantal relationship (God as Being).  One could follow this line of thought with respect to many other virtues.  With respect to humility we observe significant implications: Humility formed by a sense of mystery and covenantal relationship produces a people who hold their truth gently enough (mystery) to make space for the truth of the other (relationship).  These people are buoyed during times of transition or conflict by a sense of humility-infused courage and grace.  As they listen for the “still small” voice of God, they learn to set their sails according to the winds of God’s Spirit while at the same time falling into the arms of God’s loving embrace.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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