Tell me your image of God, and I will tell you your theology.Marcus Borg, The God We Never Knew
How much does our concept of God matter? According to my theology celeb crush Marcus Borg, it matters a lot:
“[O]ur concept of God can make God seem credible or incredible, plausible or highly improbable. It can also make God seem distant or near, absent or present. How we conceptualize God also affects our sense of what the Christian life is about. Is the Christian life centrally about believing, or is it about a relationship? Is it about believing in God as a supernatural being separate from the universe or about a relationship to the Spirit who is right here and all around us? Is it about believing in a God ‘out there’ or about a relationship with a God who is right here?”
As the quote suggests, Borg’s book The God We Never Knew focuses on two distinct concepts of God–both of which are supported in scripture and theology, but one of which has come to dominate (to the detriment of Christianity, in Borg’s view).
The first view conceptualizes God as “a supernatural being ‘out there,’ separate from the world, who created the world a long time ago and who may from time to time intervene within it.” He calls this view “supernatural theism” and it is what a majority of both believers and non-believers think of when they think about God.
The second view, by contrast, conceptualizes God as “the encompassing spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us.” This means that God is not “somewhere else” but is “right here,” and Borg labels this concept “panentheism” (which is not the same as pantheism).
Borg spends the rest of the book describing the theological basis of (and problems resulting from) “supernatural theism” and the theological basis of (and benefits of) “panentheism.” He highlights a general problem with supernatural theism (and corresponding advantage of panentheism) as well as a specific problem in the way we conceptualize God as “King.”
Out-There vs. Right-Here God
First, when it comes to God as “out there” versus “in here” more generally, Borg argues that panentheism “offers the most adequate way of thinking about the sacred; in this concept, the sacred is ‘right here’ as well as ‘the beyond’ that encompasses everything. This way of thinking about God … is not only faithful to the biblical and Christian tradition but also makes the most sense of our experience. For there is much in our experience—of nature, human love, mystery, wonder, amazement–that conveys the reality of the sacred, a surpassingly great ‘more’ that we know in exceptional moments. Many of us experience life as permeated and surrounded by a gracious mystery, a surplus of being that transcends understanding, and when we come to know that mystery as God, our faith becomes full of meaning and vitality.”
By contrast, supernatural theism “has become an obstacle for many. It can make the reality of God seem doubtful, and it can make God seem very far away.” For Borg, at least, panentheism “resolved the central religious and intellectual problem of [his early Christian experience]” and “made it possible for [him] to be Christian again.”
Monarchical vs. Relational God
Second, Borg addresses a more concrete problem with the way that we imagine the supernatural out-there God. While there are many metaphors used for God in scripture and theology, many “cluster together images of God as king, lord, and father.” When an out-there God is analogized to earthly kings, lords, and fathers, this imposes several potentially-problematic characteristics onto God:
- Because an earthly king is male, God is male. This inhibits our ability to see the divinity in women (and nonbinary folks), tends to associate maculine qualities with godliness and feminine qualities with not-godliness, and reinforces a patriarchy that has been harmful to many throughout history.
- Because an earthly king is powerful, God is also power–and actually, all-powerful or omnipotent. This raises the question of why an omnipotent God would decline to intervene to prevent human suffering, and it suggests that God has given us the right to dominate the environment in unhealthy ways.
- Because an earthly king is a lawgiver and a judge, so too is God. This sets up a God who makes demands for us and punishes us if we cannot meet those demands. Our well-being in the world and eternal destiny depends on our observance of God’s law. This leads to a view of the atonement as punitive and substitionary rather than as reconciliatory and healing.
- Because an earthly king is distant, the image of God as king suggests distance. We, in relationship to God, are peasants–not much. It also suggests and reinforces the validity of earthly hierarchies and even oppression.
Borg identifies three overarching problems with this monarchical model, with its emphasis on “legal metaphors and legal logic to image the relationship between humans and the divine” poses for the Christian life.
First, it makes sin and guilt central–because the model focuses on our need to, and falling short of, obeying God’s laws. This distorts and impoverishes other key Christian teachings.
Second, it “easily confuses God with the superego and the Christ life with life under the superego.” The superego is “the storehouse of oughts and shoulds within us, the cumulative product of messages received in our socialization about what we should do and how we ought to live.” While these messages are often cultural and have nothing to do with God, we easily convince the voice of the superego for the voice of God.
And third, the monarchical model creates a dynamic where the Christian life is about “meeting requirements” or “measuring up.” Our eternal destiny depends on how well we perform–either by obeying God’s laws to begin with, or by believing the correct things and repenting when we don’t. We are perpetually on trial. This also suggests exclusivism, which in an increasingly pluralistic religious society simply does not make sense to many people anymore.
For many, this isn’t a pleasant view of God or Christianity. It is this model that so many who leave religion and God are leaving.
The alternative to the monarchical model of God is one that clusters images of God “that point to intimate relationship and belonging.” These images are not all anthropomorphic or gendered, so they tend to get sidelined when we adhere to a primarily monarchical model. They include God as the following metaphors:
- God as wind or breath (“ruach”), which suggests a oneness with God: our breath is God breathing us, and God is as near to us as our own breath.
- God as rock, fire, and light: something that gives us refuge, something that warms or protects us.
- God as mother, compassionate, womb-like: God is often compared to a hen gathering her chicks, or a nursing mother.
- God as intimate father (abba).
- God as wisdom (Sophia).
- God as lover, with marriage and sometimes even sexual imagery.
- God as journey companion, like the pillar of fire by day or the disciple on the road to Emmaus.
This model leads to a very different understanding of the Christian life than the monarchical model. It emphasizes the nearness of God rather than distance: “closeness, relationship, and connection.” The model also has an “affective dimension”–they do not simply “lead to a set of intellectual conclusions about God’s nearness and concern but also affect the feeling level of the psyche. Image God as lover, or as wind and breath, or as nurturing mother … How does this feel as an image of God, compared to imaging God as a distant king, lawgiver, and judge?”
Many Christian concepts look different under this model. Creation is not about something that happened in the past but something that is always happening. Our central problem as humans isn’t sin and guilty, but estrangement, “our blindness to the presence of God, our separation from the Spirit who is all around us and to which we belong.”
Sin is no longer about disloyalty to the king but about unfaithfulness to God (a lover metaphor) or a failure in compassion (a mother metaphor). Sin remains, but it is focused “not on sin as a violation of God’s laws but … as a betrayal of relationship and the absence of compassion.”
Judgment remains, but it is not primarily about eternal consequences and is instead focused on the way that we live our lives.
Salvation remains, but it is not about something that happens after we die–it is something that happens in the present in our relationship with God.
And even God as King and Lord remains, but look very different: God is splendid like a king and God is lord over life and death, but God is not a legitimator of dominance and oppression systems. Rather, God subverts systems of domination (because God and only God is the true king).
Borg summarizes the contrast beautifully:
“The images of God associated with the Spirit model are rich, and they dramatically affect how we think of the Christian life. Rather than God being a distant being with whom we might spend eternity, Spirit–the sacred–is right here. Rather than God being the lawgiver and judge whose requirements must be met and whose justice must be satisfied, God is the lover who yearns to be in relationship to us. Rather than sin and guilt being the central dynamic of the Christian life, the central dynamic becomes relationship–with God, the world, and each other. The Christian life is about turning toward and entering into relationship with the one who is already in relationship with us–with the one who gave us life, who has loved us from the beginning, and who loves us whether we know that or not, who journeys with us whether we know that or not.”
So, with that context, some questions for discussion:
- What is the primary image of God you grew up with? Is that what you still believe (if you believe in God)?
- If you don’t believe in God, would you consider yourself to have rejected the supernatural theism version of God? Would you likewise reject panentheism or would that be more appealing to you?
- What are some of the consequences, theological and practical, of believing in a supernatural “out there” God or monarchical God? What would be different about primarily imaging God as a “right here” God or relational God? How might either view impact one’s religious practices?
- Where do you see the out-there monarchical God imaged in LDS theology? Where do you see the right-here relationship God imaged in LDS theology? If you see both (personally I think both are there), which is primary? Or are there specific Church leaders that you think posit one over the other as primary? (Ok; I can’t even write that question without noting the rather obvious point that Nelson and Oaks are 100% monarchical God. Reading some of what Borg said about the monarchical God was basically like reading a Nelson talk. But still, answer as you please! If you have a counterpoint from Oaks or Nelson, change my mind!)