“Who is this God person anyway?” was the final book of Oolon Colluphid’s trilogy of philosophical blockbusters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It can serve here as a reminder that the way one person uses the word “God” may not be the same as the use of the person they’re talking to. Conversations and (especially) arguments about God frequently consist of people talking past each other.
One of the ways in which the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion differ from some more or less contemporary statements of faith like the Westminster Confession is that they begin with an article on God. The Westminster Confession, like many since, begins with trying to lay a foundation, a methodology and an evidence base for talking about God. The articles jump straight in and begin talking about God.
There is but one living and true God, ever-lasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (Article 1)
Another difference is that they aren’t providing anything like the same attempt at comprehensive and consistent logic in their exposition. They are more like a series of boundary markers. After the initial five which begin with a restatement of Nicene orthodoxy. they turn largely to varied matters where doctrine and practice are disputed among their contemporaries.
If you want to know more about what “God” means you need the Prayer Book in which they are bound up, the Scriptures whose reading they provide for, and root themselves in, and the practices they commend. You discover the meaning words like “God” have by joining a community which inherits a tradition of faith, even while it is reforming many of its inherited practices and beliefs.
There is nowhere to stand that doesn’t have a set of commitments and presuppositions. Bible – the collection of books and how they are read, interpreted and valued – is not a foundation, but a skill set and a knowledge base, a narrative world and language acquired in company with other readers.
Now they certainly had a clear view of God, and they expected everyone to join their community and accept their definition, and passed laws to enforce it. There was no intentional suck-it-and-see about the approach. Yet even if by accident, the way they begin by jumping straight in, the way they bind their doctrinal boundary markers up with the texts of a praying and listening community, makes their text very congenial to this approach.
The only way for someone to (begin to) discover what “God” means, is to join in with a community of practice, a community of discourse which uses this God-talk to make sense of their experience and reality, to seek transformation of their life and their world. There is no neutral place to stand where you can explore such a question “objectively”. (You can also belong to a community of practice which is busy explaining in its own life and discourse that this word “God” doesn’t mean anything, of course.)
In one of the older foundation stories of Jewish and Christian faith, God “names” himself to Moses in a phrase that can be translated either “I am who I am” (the majority view) or “I will be who I will be” (Ex 3:14). This is faith as inviting or demanding trust, a voyage of discovery and (dis)obedience on which Moses has to embark and not a list of six impossible things to believe before breakfast like the Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.
Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) sings:
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Heh – Vampires of the Modern City, Track 10)
There are a lot of people who’ve found themselves asking the same question. There are many who’ve found that they can live that way, and many who’ve found they can’t, and all sorts of compromisers in-between, as well as those who just deny the validity of the question in the first place. But it’s a reminder that the invitation to faith is an invitation to live, question and discover in a particular way, not a knock-down argument that settles things before the journey can begin. And along the way, in this God-story-telling community, faith explores what “God” means.
(This post is part of a series on the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, on article 1)