The Creed begins with an affirmation of faith in God, a God who is both personal (a Father), sovereign (Almighty) and who is the origin of everything that is (Maker of heaven and earth).
The very existence of God continues to be the focus of lively debate in a world where reality and visibility are often equated. The Miracle of Existence invites us to ponder some of the big questions beginning with why there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ and raises the fundamental query about the relationship between ‘what is’ and the existence of God. A further column Faith’s Darkness acknowledges that ‘in a world where the physical defines everything, it can be difficult to believe in anything else’ and goes on to speak of the mystery of God. God is not an ‘idol’, an object or a thing existing over against the world, that we put our faith in. If there is one characteristic Christians, Jews, Muslims AND atheists have in common it is the fact that they do not believe in a class of being called ‘gods’. God is more different than we can imagine, beyond category, kind and definition.
How then is it possible to know God?
Twelve ways to know God sets out very briefly aspects of our religious tradition, life and everyday experience that can alert us to the mystery. While God’s existence cannot be proved scientifically, (if it could God would be subject to science and merely another examinable phenomenon) belief in God is by no means either irrational or infantile. Read some summaries of the classic arguments for the existence of God to get a grasp of the reasonableness of faith despite the fact that God is infinitely beyond human concepts, descriptions or definitions.
The article Revelation offers a good primer on this topic.
Language to express the Mystery
Yet human beings need to have some categories and language in which to speak of God and must employ human terms and images. The scriptures themselves use a kind of picture language to express what we know of God. Even though we know that God is neither masculine or feminine, an especially privileged metaphor used in the Bible and in the first article of the Creed in relation to God is that of the Father.
God as Father
Jesus especially in the gospel of John, refers constantly to God as Father and he taught his disciples to pray using this title. We can only call God ‘Father’ because of Jesus. ‘Father’ is a relational word. The word implies the existence of children, and pre-eminently of the Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. It shows that for Christians, God is not only a holy, righteous and just Being distinct from and above the world to be worshipped and adored but from the very beginning a community of persons whose love embraces and gives life to everything that is.
However to speak of God as Father is definitely not to say that God is a kind of glorified male human being. The name ‘Father’ used in relation to God tells us that the God revealed by Jesus is knowing, willing, holy, just and loving: One who gives life, provides and protects. However because ‘Father’ is a male word it has caused some anxiety about patriarchal images of God. This article clarifies some of the difficulties and suggests a way forward.
Other images of God in Scripture
The Bible also uses feminine imagery when it speaks of God as conceiving and giving birth, as the womb of the world, as a mother with a child at the breast, as a woman in labour, as a mother teaching and guidingsmall children, as mistress of a household. These kinds of metaphors reveal God, the giver of all good gifts, possessing all the qualities that we appreciate in both men and women.
God is also imagined in scripture in other ways: as a shepherd, an eagle, a potter, as fire, as wind, as water, as a rock, a warrior, a lover, a betrayed husband, as owner of a vineyard as well as the more conventional images as king and judge. It is valuable to explore what these images can tell us about God who is both infinitely beyond us, yet who lives at the heart of our hearts. It is also valuable to explore the images of God we have internalised and allow them to grow and develop and not remain infantile. A response to Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion makes the point that his book, while it is an attack on religious faith, nevertheless does Christians a favour if it makes us reflect on how much of the time we shrink God to proportions we can manage and how human definitions inevitably confine God. Dogma and doctrine are best understood as torches shone into the Mystery of God rather than the Mystery itself.
The unique mystery of the Trinity
The belief which distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and Islam, the other monotheistic faiths is the Christian belief in God who is one yet three. The Catechism speaks thus on the Trinity.
The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith”. #234
If God is One, who is Jesus?
Faith in the Trinity: God, Father, Son and Spirit emerged from the struggle to understand who Jesus really was and the nature of his relationship to the God of Israel. Christians inherited the Jewish conviction that God is one, holy and transcendent and yet they experienced Jesus doing for them what only God could do:
- forgiving sin,
- casting out evil,
- healing the sick,
- bringing the dead to life
- speaking with authority
- conquering death
The gospels and the letters of the New Testament speak of the ‘Father’, the ‘Son’ and the ‘Spirit’ yet we cannot separate the persons of the Trinity as if they were individuals. Words are inadequate to explain the mystery of the One God who is Three but what the mystery of the Trinity is trying to express is the truth that God’s very life is a relationship of self-giving love and joy. In the Spirit the Father gives all to the Son who in turn returns all to the Father. This Spirit is breathed into his followers by Jesus and poured out on the Church at Pentecost. It is the Spirit which enables us to recognise Jesus and to call God Father and be drawn into relationship with them. If it were not for the Trinity, humanity would be forever excluded from the life of God.
Simon Barrow, an English theologian, expresses it like this (quoted from Three Ways to make sense of One God):
“The life of God is the origin and destiny of the whole universe. But that alone is not enough. (God is too remote and untouchable.)
So God is also the transforming life we see in Jesus. But that is not enough. (Jesus’ life and death can only touch those who know of him.)
So God is also given as the Holy Spirit, as the transformative possibility of God between human beings, between us and creation, and between us and the God who comes to us in Jesus.”
Maker of Heaven and Earth
As well as Father, God is also confessed as the Maker of heaven and earth; in fact the one idea flows from the other. This Maker is not remote and detached but acts toward creation as a parent. This is a statement about God as the loving origin and end of all that exists. It is a theological statement not a scientific one. Lots of ink has been spilled over the creation v. evolution controversy. Some Christians espouse an understanding of God as ‘Maker of heaven and Earth’ that requires them to believe literally and scientifically in the Genesis account but this is to misunderstand the meaning of Genesis.
The Creation stories set out to define the ultimate shape and meaning of our world. Firstly, they establish essential ideas about the nature of God and the nature of God’s relationship to the created order, especially to human beings. Secondly, they explain some fundamental principles about the purpose and meaning of human life and relationships. They are not scientific explanations about the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of creation but theological reflections on the ‘who’ and ‘why’.
In the creation accounts, God makes the world and pronounces it ‘very good’. The created world reflects the beauty and complexity of its maker. Man and woman, the pinnacle of creation are made in the image of God. God is the life giver whose plan unfolds in history in whom every created thing finds its end. The understanding of Genesis as allegorical rather than literal history goes back to St Augustine if not even earlier.
The theory of evolution is a scientific explanation of how God’s ‘making’ actually happens. As early as 1868, not long after Darwin published ‘The Origin of the Species’, John Henry Newman commenting on the new thinking said “The theory of Darwin, true or not, is not necessarily atheistic; on the contrary, it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine providence and skill.”
In 1996 Pope John Paul II spoke about how theology and science were both in pursuit of the truth and thus ought not to be in conflict. If they seem to be, it is up to us human beings to work harder in clarifying our understanding of the insights of the two disciplines.
Nicholas Lash’s fine short work Believing Three Ways in One God gives a good taste of what Lash has to say about the Creed. Here is a quotation:
“the Creed, rather than a catalogue of diverse items, is the faith-filled recital of a single story, a drama, which did not occur once upon a time, but is actual and ongoing. Today God is creating, redeeming, and transfiguring the world and humankind. And in this same ‘today’ of faith we are called to covenant, to assent, whereby revelation is actualized in us through Christ and in the Holy Spirit.”
- Express, in your own words, what Lash is getting at in this quotation.
Quests And Questions
The Interview with God could provide a stimulus for talking about God with your class. Be critical when viewing it. What is it saying about who God is? Is it helpful in its imagining of God? What attributes of the divine are emphasised? What are missing? What stereotypes is it reinforcing? What attitudes is it critiquing?
While there is no way of ‘proving’ the existence of God, there is real worth in looking at some of the arguments which support faith. Choose one or two to look at in detail. What are the strengths of the arguments you have chosen? What are its limitations.
Produce a collage to represent one of the alternative images of God from the Old Testament mentioned above.
Discuss both the value and the limitations of the various scriptural images of God? For instance, How is God both like a potter but different from a potter? Small groups might reflect on one or two images each and present to the whole class. What are the richest images of God for members of your class?
Invite a father to speak to the group about his experience of fatherhood. Encourage questions and interaction. Use his comments and reflections as a basis for exploring the image of God as Father. While the image of God as ‘father’ is a privileged one since Jesus himself used it so frequently, the Church (following on from the Old Testament) has used maternal imagery to cast light on the mystery of God so a mother’s experience and reflection would also be of value.
Use the following pieces of art to reflect on human understanding and insight into the mystery of God and creation.
- The Creation of the World
- God the Creator
- Creation in and through Christ
- The Ancient of Days God the Architect
- The Hand of God nebula (photograph)
- In the beginning
Some of these questions might help thinking about this art: How is God depicted in this image? Is it concrete or abstract? What thoughts surface as you look at it? What does it suggest about how the artist imagined God? What are the possibilities and limitations of this picture? What truth does it suggest?
Search the Art Index at Textweek to explore further art based on other images of God in scripture.
Invite class members to bring to class one object that speaks to them of God. Divide into groups of five or six and have each explain the significance of what they have brought. If appropriate use the objects in class prayer together.
Alternatively collect a bag full of random items (not explicitly religious) from round the house, classroom and garden. Distribute them to class members and invite them to connect the object in some way to God. This could be a spoken or written exercise. Someone who receives, for example, a cup might say ‘This cup has a handle. Humans can’t quite get a handle on God but the circle of its rim reminds me that God has no beginning and no end. It’s emptiness could be me waiting to be filled with God’s life.’
Prepare three or four ‘thick’ questions together in class and have students use them to interview someone they know, either a believer or a non-believer, about faith in God. Be sure to follow up by discussing in class the insights they have gained.