I live in a strange, interstitial space between atheism and theism. While I no longer consider myself a Christian, I refuse to cut ties with the Christian world and my progressive Christian community. At the same time, I feel a great deal of kinship with the pagan and witchcraft communities, as well as the atheist and skeptical communities. My own religious home is The Satanic Temple, and I consider myself a practicing Satanist. I call myself a nontheist and reject unverified claims of the supernatural.
To many people, the question of God’s existence is simple: either there is a magical sky daddy or there isn’t. For me, however, this question is getting increasingly complicated. God is about more than just existence or nonexistence: it is also about definitions, worldview, and culture.
In my conversations with theists and atheists alike, I’m realizing that simply saying, “I don’t believe in God” without further clarification might be unhelpful. “It sounds to me like you don’t disbelieve in God,” my Christian cohost Timothy told me, “but only certain aspects of God.” From his perspective, with his specific definitions of God, he’s right. “God” is defined in so many disparate ways, often by the same person, that I’m finding it more helpful to ask people what they mean by God, and then break down their definitions into component parts.
Many atheists get frustrated when theists define God as “the universe” or “everything” or “the ground of being” instead of simply, “a conscious being who created the universe and cares about me.” I think this is a silly complaint. Humanity has been defining and redefining God forever. As I write these very words, there are theists across the United States who hold sincere, complicated, and seemingly contradictory notions of God that include pantheism, panentheism, materialism, and more. To get annoyed that people define God as anything other than a skydaddy is to not grasp the rules of the game. In this article, I’m not concerned with whether or not certain definitions “should” be applied to God. Instead, I want to have a discussion about God on theist’s own terms.
Last night on twitter I asked my audience: “Dear Theists: what is your definition of God?” I’ve grouped the answers into various categories:
God is that which is beyond understanding and definition
The first objection that came up for theists, of course, is that God is ultimately undefinable. Many people balked at the wording of my question. Betsy, who is a Quaker, responded,
“I can no more define “God” than I could define my mother, or my child. The efforts to define God (or list attributes, same project) are intellectual constructs that don’t capture believers’ lived experience. As one wise Quaker told me, “All I know about God is that I’m not it.””
Ryan added his understanding of God: “Something to do with/undergirding the mystery of existence. Something tied to the phenomenon of consciousness, somehow. The rest is apophatic.”
Liam responded, “Cop out answer but God is ultimately undefinable 😉 I really like what St. Augustine’s said that “if you can understand it, it’s not God”. I’m cool with the idea that God is love (even is this answer is overused), but I think theres more to the divine than sentimentality.”
Bill had this to add: “It’s a sort of funny question isn’t it? It sort of presumes the possibility of defining a subject which transcends our categories. Somewhat analogous to asking for a definition of C.S. Lewis. Is a Person define-able?”
Do I believe in unknowable mystery? Do I believe that there are mysteries simply too big for the human mind? Yes, I do. Do I stand in apophatic awe of the unknowability of the cosmos? Yes I do. Do I believe that there are aspects of the universe that simply defy description or human understanding? Yes, I do. Does this make me a theist? With this definition alone: God as the undefinable and unknowable, then sure, I believe in God. For a theist who has a definition of God that includes “God is that which is undefinable” saying, “I don’t believe in God” probably won’t make much sense to them.
God is a Person/Being/Creator
Some of the answers above go a bit further than just “mystery” and “undefinable,” however. They also express God as a person, or a being. Other answers lean a bit more heavily into this concept:
“This is still in flux, but most days, I define God as the Creator of all things who works through us to bring about Their Dream of a holistic, sustainable creation into being on earth. In short, I see God as a Creator who continues to create.” – Lindsey
“God is the being who is in relationship to the universe.” – Free Spirit Christian Church
“The Creator of all things, available for intimate relationship.” – AnnaZ
“Designer, creater, sustainer, redeemer” – Jason
“Transcendent, benevolent creator and sustainer of the world, with a special care for human beings.” – Zena
“I mean, for me, he’s someone there who cares. Someone who loves me when everyone else has failed me. And if this concept is just something I’m holding on to from my past to cope or for reassurance, then so be it I guess. Life’s hard enough as it is.” – Amelia
I relate much less to these definitions of God. Even when I was still a Christian, I progressively found it more and more difficult to identify with God as a person capable of creativity, will, consciousness, and relationship. When I look into the universe, I see no evidence of design, and no evidence of cosmic being, or will. I simply see mystery.
I therefore reject these definitions of God for lack of sufficient evidence, even as I accept that there is profound and unknowable mystery in the universe. I don’t see any good reason (yet) to believe in God as a person, a consciousness, or a being. I have plenty of evidence of cosmic mystery, but none of a creator. I have no more reason to believe in that sort of God than I do in Pennywise the Clown. Based on this definition alone, I am not a theist.
God is Love
Another answer that came was a bit too vague for me to wrap my head around:
“Love” – Scott
“Infinite compassion” – Meister Earnhardt Jr.
And then not quite the same, but similar:
“Truth, Beauty, & Goodness” – Nicholas
I struggle with these definitions. They are obviously a direct reference to 1 John 4:7-10 (“whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” NIV). I do, of course, believe in love. But I also believe that love and compassion are human emotions and experiences, and I have no reason to believe that they transcend the human condition.
I must, of course, acknowledge the long history of mystics experiencing ultimate reality as love. This is an experience I’ve had myself. In prayer, in worship, in meditation, I had experiences that I could only describe as cosmic, overpowering love, so mighty that I felt completely overwhelmed and even annihilated by it.
But does this mystical experience point to anything beyond my own brain? I don’t know, so I must withhold belief on this particular point. I cannot trust everything I think or feel. Therefore, with this definition of God alone – God as love – I am not a theist.
God is the Ground of Being
This is my personal favorite definition of God – God as the source and foundation of the universe itself. Several people on twitter expressed this:
“God is that from which being comes. The Ground of Being.” – Adam
“The closest thing that doesn’t elicit a follow-up “yeah but” from me is “Source”.” – Steve
Do I believe that reality is contingent upon something? I think so. Do I think that the universe was started by something? Yes I do. Do I assume that there must be Some Foundational Thing at the very bottom of existence? Some Theory of Everything? I think so. This, then, would mean that I believe in a Ground of Being. With this definition alone, I believe in God. To a theist who includes “ground of being” in their definition of God, saying “I don’t believe in God” wouldn’t make much sense.
These were just a few of the answers given. Some were more exotic (God is a society of superhumans) that would require quite a bit more discussion than I have the time and energy for now. The point of this exorcise is to explore how conversations about God can become complicated. In my experience, many theists hold multiple concepts of God at once – as I myself once did. They may see God as Trinitarian, panentheistic, incarnate in the person of Christ, that which is undefinable, and the Ground of Being. With so many different definitions of God, I find it more helpful to dig deep into the various components of God, and discuss them individually.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Please write me an email or leave a comment below. If your comment particularly excellent, I will feature it in my Best Comments series.
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