St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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What We Mean By God: Different Definitions

I am confident that some people, if they honestly thought about it, would see that they work with a definition of God like this: God is a cosmic entity of vague content.  The idea of God is often amplified by prejudice, or suspiciously aligned with the believer’s favorite ideas. Sometimes God is a cover for nationalism confused with patriotism, and right- or left-wing political beliefs.

OK so here’s a different approach to God, one that reverses the process. That is to say, instead of making up your definitions of God in advance, you become open to experiencing God as God is.

Say you are in a supermarket and you walk past lots of other people. Suddenly you see someone you know from another place. You stop, you say hello, and you pass comments about the children or the grandchildren or the latest movie seen or book read. You have established a relationship with that person. She is not simply yet one more being in an endless sea of beings. You recognize her as personal and she has a story that intertwines with yours.

It’s the same with God. Experience and relationship and personhood are the important stuff. You don’t relate to an abstract concept in the sky. You relate to a person, like that acquaintance in the grocery.  Like my acquaintance, then, God is not a thing to be defined in a universe of things. God is not a thing. God is the Lover of mankind, the philanthropist, as we say repeatedly in prayers in our Church. We recognize God out of a sea of abstract possibilities not because we come up with a concept, but because God has come down to us.

As with people to whom I’m related, God and I are connected through love. My oldest living brother is a World War II Navy veteran who served on aircraft carriers; he has lived for the last fifty years in Reading PA; he has been married to his wife Gene for sixty-two years; he has two grown children, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. These stories make him real and personal and describe, at least partially, his relationship to me. I know whom I love when I speak about my brother. It’s the same way with God.

Biblical understandings stem from people who report their relationship with God that grew out of an experienced encounter. If you ask who God is, you will hear that God is “the One who saved Israel out of Egypt” for Jews, and “the One who is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death” for Christians. God became real in such acts of love. That’s why we celebrate Pascha (Easter) and Passover. These festivals relate us, through story, in life together with God.

So that’s why we rehearse these stories every year. They center on the astounding story of the Cross and Resurrection. Orthodox Christians call Pascha (Easter) the Feast of Feasts. All our other feasts relate to this central one. It is the hub around which the wheel of the year turns. It is the heart of the faith. It is the main story we know about God.  We don’t try to make up other stories for the sake of pleasing our own speculations. We stick with the main story line.

The question of what we make of God’s existence is totally beside the point, from this angle of vision. So are all the little definitions that we can make up. What matters is, do you know and love God? Because the most remarkable story is that God knows and loves you.

published 15 April 2011