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God & Human Friendship

It is nearly August and it is holiday time so I am copying a section from a paper which I wrote recently on prayer for the 21st century.

I feel sure that some of the difficulties of prayer for us today start with our ideas of what God is like. It can be very off-putting if, when you are faced with a person who is full of her/his own importance, you try to enter into some sort of communication based on what you have experienced of friendship. Friendship is a dynamic, multi-faceted relationship relying not only on words but on mutual acceptance of the other and the intimate experience which we have of her/his whole being. Its a sort of 'chemistry' of trust between people. So we need to ask seriously today what ideas we have of God. If our ideas of God don't even measure up to our experience of human friendship then perhaps we have to revise those ideas before 'prayer' can begin to be seen to be possible. The author of Genesis gave us a clue when he wrote, 'So God created adam in his image.' God must, at least, be like the best of humankind.

God as Omnipotent?

c There is certainly a case to be made for God to be described as omnipotent if he is to be regarded as the creator of the universe and the sustainer of all that is. He is necessarily distinct from the whole of creation and from the point of view of comparison he is, as Anselm said, 'that than which a greater cannot be thought.' Augustine in the Confessions made this point more poetically, and without controversy:

'But what is my God? I put my question to the earth. It answered, "I am not God", and all things on earth declared the same. I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them, but they answered, "We are not your God. Seek what is above us." I spoke to the winds that blow, and the whole air and all that lives in it replied, "Anaximenes is wrong. I am not God." I asked the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars, but they told me, "Neither are we the God whom you seek." I spoke to all things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the doors of the senses, and I said, "Since you are not my God, tell me about him. Tell me something of my God ..." Clear and loud they answered, "God is he who made us."'

Creation, regarded today as the continually sustaining and cherishing of all the multifarious ways of biological mutations, is however, not the straightforward idea of modern 'creationists' that only God is the originator of ongoing creation. Nevertheless the boundless creative power to set and sustain the whole amazing process is beyond our imagining. But today the word omnipotent (meaning that God can do anything) does imply a sort of continuing unilateral action on the part of the creator which is not true to the insights of modern thought. Much of the background evidence for God as the almighty one came from the Old Testament stories. The exploits of God in producing the plagues of Egypt by the hand of Moses in Egypt and the flight of the Israelites through the Red Sea, the punishments meted out among the rebellious people in their wilderness wanderings, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai all reflect a deity who was awesome and to be greatly feared. As the writer of Hebrews says, 'It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.' (Hebrews:10,31) This fear of a God of great authority and power is further advanced later on in Hebrews,

'For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all ...'(Hebrews 12:18ff)

This typical manifestation of the holy which is present in much of the Old Testament narratives and in other religions, was reinstated by Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) in his reaction to ideas of God as involved only in matters of morality, in his phrase, 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans' - God is a holy, overwhelming, mysterious and fascinating power. But however much religious experience may be acceptable evidence to the reality of God the resulting echoes of the explosive power of deity is today queried by many who seek to understand what God is like in relation to our experience of life in modern times. It has often been maintained that to be God, he needs to be seen as quite other than the creation and so to be outside all the internal activity of the world and outside time. This idea is perhaps more like the Greek Olympian gods of old who ruled from their rarified fastnesses in the mountain of Olympus, and needs to be steadfastly rejected.

Is it possible then that the continual processes of creation and the sustaining of life in the world could point to the immanence of God, present in the human and natural life of the world while yet remaining the origin of all that is? We shall see, in the next section on the personalness of God, how necessary this idea is for a reasonable elucidation of God in our world. The biblical stories certainly express that understanding. This may be one way of softening, and making more realistic, the harsher idea of the god who, as powerful originator, sits back and looks on from outside. But there is the larger question as to whether God, as both transcendent and immanent, does intervene in affairs of humanity (as the biblical texts say he did). We would need to look at problems of an interventionist god.

© Aelred Arnesen

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