Lent Talk 27 Feb 2007

All in God and God in All


A talk given by the Revd Canon Hugh Wybrew


The title of this Lenten series of talks is “Contact with God”.  That takes us to the heart of Christianity, which is our relationship with God. But who is the God with whom we relate? How should we conceive God? In one sense we can’t conceive God at all: God is mystery beyond comprehension, as a well-known hymn puts it: ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’.


Yet the unknowable God has made himself known, and has done so in a human person, Jesus. One of the favourites sayings of my tutor at The Queen’s College, David Jenkins, is, ‘God is as he is in Jesus’. That conviction is central to Christianity, and central to our relationship with God. We are daughters and sons of God in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In Jesus God makes known his character; and what he reveals of his character is succinctly summed up in1 John 4.7 ‘God is love’. That too is  central to our Christian image of God.


The fact that God makes himself known in a human person also demonstrates another basic Christian conviction, that God is personal. That too is fundamental to the biblical and Christian tradition. We as persons, created in image and likeness of God, relate to God who is personal.


But it’s no less fundamental that God is not a person, even a superhuman one.


That needs stressing because most of us, I suspect, do usually and instinctively think of God as a person, even if as a superhuman person. The  Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of God is, ‘A superhuman person regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes; a deity.’ With regard to Jewish and Christian theology, it goes on to say that this supreme being is regarded as the creator and ruler of the universe. Is that how most Christians think of God? Is that how we instinctively think of God? It’s certainly the image the bible generally paints of God: a superhuman person, outside the world he has created, infinitely greater than the world. That’s the image, too, depicted by the language we use in liturgical worship. So do we relate to God simply as one person to another, even if the other is a supremely holy and superhuman person?


The Christian tradition has a rather different understanding of God. It seems to me supremely important that we measure the image of God we instinctively operate with against the Christian tradition, to see if we, like most people, are operating with a misleading image of God. It’s important because our image of God shapes the way we envisage our relationship with God.


This evening I want to concentrate on two aspects of the Christian understanding of God.


1.  All things in God


When he was in Athens, Paul found in the Areopagus an altar with the inscription ‘To an unknown god’ (Acts 17.27). He used it as an opportunity to proclaim the one true God. This God, he said, had allotted to the nations their times of existence and boundaries, ‘so that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him, and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’.


We and all creation exist in God. Paul calls God creator. But we shouldn’t think of creation here, and God there, as though in different parts of space, as I suspect most Christians do. God doesn’t exist in space: space exists in God. All creation has its being in God.


That means it’s misleading to imagine God as a person, standing over against all created persons and things. God is personal, but not a person – just like other persons, only greater.


That basic truth has to shape the way we think of our relationship with God. We often compare that relationship with our relationship with other people, particularly with our friends. There’s a good biblical basis for that: in John’s gospel Jesus calls his disciples friends. When we’re trying to help people to understand their relationship with God, it can be helpful to use the analogy of friendship. We talk to our friends, we listen to them, we spend time with them: that’s what we do with God in prayer. Our friendship with others grows as we pursue common interests: that’s what happens with us and God when we do when we try to do God’s will and put into practice the commandments of love.


But we do that within an existing relationship without which we shouldn’t be at all: we live, move and have our being in God. We are ‘en theo’; all things are ‘en theo’. Panentheism is not a word we normally use, or are used to. But Arthur Peacocke once asked me if it was an Orthodox concept. I didn’t know. So he asked Bishop Kallistos Ware, who said he thought it expressed what Orthodoxy does believe about the relationship of creation to God. I came across the word again in a recent book about Orthodox spirituality. It’s called ‘Light through Darkness’, by a Greek American theologian, John Chryssavgis. He wrote, ‘God is – and is within – the very constitution of our world. This is the distinctive teaching of panentheism, which neither classic theism or pantheism are able to appreciate.’


I think it’s a concept we need to assimilate if we are to work with a less misleading image of God, and if we are to put across to others a fuller Christian understanding of God. It’s not without roots in the New Testament. Colossians 1.17 describes Christ as the image of the invisible God, and says ‘He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ If all things hold together in Christ, then they do so in God: for Christ is one with the Father, one of the Trinity. At the same time, all things are destined to grow into God.  Ephesians 1.10 speaks about God’s plan for the fullness of time, revealed in Christ, ‘to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’


So we are to come to know, and grow into, the God in whom we already exist, in whom we live and move and have our being.




2. God in all things.


If it’s true that all things are in God, there’s an equal and complementary truth.  John Chryssavgis’ statement has a parenthesis: ‘God is – and is within – the very constitution of our world.’ He’s concerned to emphasise the concept of panentheism. But that needs to be complemented by the fact that in the Christian perspective God is also in all things.


There’s a biblical basis for this affirmation too. The Book of Wisdom  says: ‘Because the spirit of the Lord has filled the world, and that which hold all things together knows what is said’ (Wisdom 1.7). The spirit, like the figure of Wisdom, is a personification standing for the presence of God himself.  The presence of God in all things and in all human beings is what enables them to exist. John Chryssavgis goes on to say, ‘If God were withdrawn from the world, the world would collapse.’  All things exist in God, and God is present in all things.


This perhaps goes rather further than the New Testament and Christian tradition are generally understood to go. They’re clear about the presence of the Spirit in those who believe. In 1 Corinthians Paul asks the rhetorical question, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (3.16). They’re also clear about the presence of Christ in believers. Colossians 1.27 speaks of the mystery of God revealed now to his people, which is ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’.  But the New Testament, and a good deal of traditional Christian language, distinguishes both the Spirit and Christ from God. Western liturgical language does it constantly: we pray to God through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. Even when we add the doxology, ‘who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever’,  the impression is left that the Spirit and Christ are not quite the same as God – by whom we ought to mean God the Father.


So there’s another question we need to ask about our image of God. How seriously do we take and apply the doctrine of God as Trinity? Fully developed Trinitarian theology is clear that whenever we speak of the Spirit’s presence and activity, we must think the Son and the Father to be present and active too. Whenever we speak of the Son’s presence and activity, we must think the Father and the Spirit to be present and active too. And whenever we speak of the Father’s presence and activity, we must think the Son and the Spirit to be present and active too. The recent revival of Trinitarian theology in the West notwithstanding, this basic Christian understanding of God is more deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Orthodox East and its liturgical prayer than in the Christian West. But it’s fundamental to our image of God, and to our relationship with God. It lies behind something Metropolitan Anthony Bloom said in one of his books on prayer:


The Gospel tells us that the Kingdom of God is within us first of all. If we cannot find the Kingdom of God within us, if we cannot meet God within, in the depth of ourselves, our chances of meeting him outside ourselves are very remote. When Gagarin [the first Soviet cosmonaut] came back from space and made his remarkable statement that he never saw God in heaven, one of our priests in Moscow remarked, “If you have not seen him on earth, you will never see him in heaven.”


This is also true of what I am speaking about. If we cannot find a contact with God under our own skin, as it were, then the chances are very slight that even if I meet him face to face, I will recognise him.


St John Chrysostom said, ‘Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door of the Kingdom of God.’ So it is inward that we must turn, and not outward – but inward in a very special way. I am not saying that we must become introspective. I don’t mean that we must go inward in the way one does in psychoanalysis or psychology. It is not a journey into my own inwardness, it is a journey through my own self, in order to emerge from the deepest level of self into the place where he is, the point at which God and I meet.”


The God with whom we are to grow in friendship, as adopted daughters and sons, sharing in the divine nature, is the God who lives in us. This fundamental truth should shape the way we understand our relationship with God.


So when we pray, we should be clear that our prayer is the prayer of the Spirit within us, and so the prayer of the Son and of the Father within us too. It’s the prayer of the holy and undivided Trinity. When we try to obey the commandments of love, we should be clear that our attempts to co-operation with God the God who is love is co-operation with the God who is working within us. We don’t have to reach out to a distant God, whom we might or might not find: we relate to a God who is in the depth of our being – to use biblical terminology, in our heart. God, in whom we live and move and have our being, lives and moves and has his being in us.


All in God and God in all. One possible title I suggested for this evening’s talk was ‘Three in One and All in Three’. Ian quite rightly thought that would be too skittish – though he didn’t use that word. But it does point to another fundamental aspect of our relationship with God. God is personal, but not a person. Strictly speaking, the Christian tradition believes that God is three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Three are a single communion of Persons united by love in mutual self-giving. That divine life and love is what the Christian community, the Church, is meant to mirror. The Church is called to become and to be a communion of persons united by love in mutual self-giving, and so to be what the whole human race is meant to become in God. We can’t grow in our relationship with God without growing in a relationship of love with others. That’s implicit in the Christian belief that God is Trinity; and to believe that God is Trinity is to believe that God is Love.

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