Saturday, July 22, 2006

Why I believe I am not God

A long and thoughtful amount of comment has been generated in the last week or so about Rich's objection to his meeting citing the concept of "that of God in every one" as the principal basis for the Friends' Peace Testimony.

Pam, in her own posting on the topic at Reaching for the Light, asks why it makes any difference what George Fox meant by the phrase; if our modern understanding of the words rings true for us today, why shouldn't we use it in our own way?

I commented on her post and concluded:

I confess I used to hold to the modern, proto-pantheist understanding of "that of God" until I read the Benson pamphlet, and the references to Fox he cites. I'm now convinced that Fox's use of the phrase is more meaningful and more powerful not because he said it or because it is more "authentically Quaker", but because it rings more true.
Pam replied, identified herself as a "pantheist" and asked:
What I am yearning to know is that - why and how is that interpretation more true for you???

I have to admit that for me it's disturbing because I hear overtones of a statement that leaves me cold -- that people are inherently separate from god, that they may be infused with god, inspired by god, but that left to themselves, they are utterly god-less.
So, here's my attempt to reply to Pam's question and tell why (or, perhaps "how") I believe that God is God and I am not. That is, I understand God as having a distinct identity and existence from myself or any other part of Creation. Creation is the Creator's work, and reflects much about the Creator's nature, but is nevertheless distinct, just as an author of a book or painter of a painting is distinct from the book or painting.

I therefore recognized as true Lewis Benson's explication of what George Fox meant by "that of God" in every person, referring not to some piece or spark of God's "essence" that is innate to a human being, but refers rather to that part of every human being that reflects and is aware of God and which, if answered, will increase and deepen the person's awareness of God.

Fundamentally, I can't "explain" why I believe as I do; I just do. I got here by a long spiral of spiritual and religious study and growth that is peculiarly my own, (and who knows, I may someday leave it by the same route). I certainly didn't get here by a strictly logical analysis, though I do think it makes the more sense than any alternatives I know of. And I don't believe it solely because it is the way God describes himself and is described in the Bible, though it would be difficult for me to accept a concept of God that cannot be squared with the biblical account. And I don't believe it solely because it is the way Quakers have understood God, though knowing that this has been Friends' understanding confirms that my understanding is correct.

I can't date exactly when I first tilted towards this view, but I think it might have been when I took a class on "Holocaust Theology." The rabbi who taught it explained that, to Jews, the relationship of God to human beings is analogous to that of a parent to a child. By that, he meant that the Living God created and loves humankind in the same way as a mother gives birth to and loves her child. The two beings are distinct, but in a relationship that is intimate, loving, eternal, and evolving; the child is made in the image of the mother and father, but is not identical to either of them. This explains in part why so many of the characters in the Hebrew Bible are depicted as conversing with God, or arguing or bargaining with him as a child might with a parent. (Ever have a teenager?)

I can't vouch that the rabbi's statement is an accurate representation of Judaism, but in the context of what we were studying, it began to make a lot more sense than my previous I-am-God-and-God-is-me-and-we-are-all-together understanding. That is, we learned that the Holocaust happened in large part because of human beings' idolatrous deification of themselves as the ultimate source of moral authority. When freed from the belief in a transcendent God, distinct from themselves and in relationship to them, they goose-stepped into the void and commited horrific crimes without as much as a blush. The 20th century should be Exhibit 1 in the argument refuting the proposition that human beings possess anything "divine" as part of their natures.

But the fact that God is God and I am not is only half of the story; the other half makes us Quakers instead of Calvinists.

Being human and not divine does not imply an unbridgable gulf of separation any more than the fact that two human beings are distinct from each other eternally prevents them from becoming lovers. Rather, it means that we -- God and humanity -- exist in relationship to each other, despite our ontological differences. To cite another rabbi's analogy, God says "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit. For without me you can do nothing." The vine is not the branch, but they exist only in relationship to each other; they are inseparable, but not identical. There can be no branches without the vine, of course, and the vine may exist without branches, but it won't bear fruit. Each is needed.

As long as I understand God to be distinct from myself -- but accessible to me -- I have someone to talk with, to guide me, to be accountable to, to bind me to my fellow human beings. I am not separated from God but in an intimate relationship.

So, apprehending God as a parent -- or as a lover, to use another commonly held Christian analogy for the relationship -- to whom I relate feels much more real and congruent with reality than the apprehension of God as an impersonal force of which I am a temporary manifestation. It gives meaning to my own existence as a human being while simultaneously ordering my relationship with all other human beings and the rest of Creation with which I'm irrevocably connected.

As firmly as I believe all this, I also realize that it is difficult to grasp. It's hard for me, and I believe it; I can only imagine how hard it must be for one who doesn't understand or accept the basic vocabulary of the argument. That's why I am so grateful at having been told the good news of the gospel by the Quakers. For me, Quakerism (or, more properly, God as preached by Quakers) has saved me from a life of isolation, fear, uncertainty, and impotence, terminated by death. Because of this, I fervently want others who are mired in such a life to understand that they have already been saved from such a fate and to live free from it. (If you're already free, then good for you; you don't need the gospel.)

I also realize, with my apostolic namesake, that no matter how logical, eloquent, or clever my explanation might be, if I can't say it with Love, it's as useless as a tinkling cymbal. For me, the hard work isn't in explaining what I believe, and why, it's in demonstrating it in my day-to-day life.


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Paul,
What a wonderful narrative apologetic about finding one's place in a religious tradition! I'd just add that one piece of my coming into Quakerism two decades ago was a sense that while the Friends I had met shared some of my basic values (esp around peace issues), there was something else girding that. I came wanting to see if there was something to learn and was open to change. The process continues. Thanks for sharing your story and your understandings. Your Friend, Martin Kelley

Paul L said...

". . . something else girding that."

Yes, absolutely so. For me, it wasn't Friends' social testimonies and witness that first drew me in as it was the way in which they expressed it. What I heard them say and saw them do always sounded grounded, wise, generous of spirit, unrancorous, inviting, hopeful, etc. I knew they were right on the social stuff, but I wanted to learn how to right in the same way; I wanted them to change me, not me change them. As I've said and heard said elsewhere, "I wanted some of what they had."

But perhaps that perspective was due to my Lutheran-Protestant genetic wiring that was profoundly skeptical of "human nature" in its unredeemed state. One who is taught from birth a more optimistic view of that nature (Lovely Wife, as an example) will feel less a need for Quakerism to lead them to fundamental repentance and change and see it more as a nurturing environment for spiritual growth. And maybe there isn't any difference . . . .

Joanna Hoyt said...


Thank you for bringing up a troubling and deepening question, and for giving your answer so clearly.
I have thought of the understanding that we are of God, that we are in some degree of the same substance as God, as being incarnational, not pantheistic. Since God has become man, become flesh, God is born in us, struggles, grows, loves, sees, suffers and dies in us. Each of us. All beings. Always. Not only our souls but our bodies, all that is mortal and passing in us, is of God’s substance; the immortal has become mortal, the whole has become partial.
And yet God remains whole; I am convinced that if we all ceased to be, God would remain, and light and fullness of life would remain. I end up coming back to the idea of the Trinity, as an analogy which is not wholly satisfactory, but better than anything else I can think of; God is, and ever was, and ever shall be, beyond all creation; and God is and suffers in all creation; and God calls us creatures to turn to God and let go of our attempts to claim substance, power, or anything else in our own right, and when we do this the Spirit enters the world, the infinite God works through our finitude.
I think this was the wrong choice we made in the Garden (whether you want to treat that story as literal truth or metaphor) and that we make over and over again. We don’t want to accept the humility of the God who is incarnate and broken in us, or to lose ourselves in God who is beyond us. We want to be whole, perfect, powerful, safe, in our own separate selves; to ‘be as God”, not to be part of God. And so we lose unity with the Spirit, and with the Creation, and with ourselves; and we spread evil and division; and God suffers, and we creatures suffer.
Why do we do that? Where do the parts of our nature that set themselves up in opposition to God come from, in the beginning? I wish I knew.
You wrote: “ The 20th century should be Exhibit 1 in the argument refuting the proposition that human beings possess anything "divine" as part of their natures.” I agree there—we do not *possess* anything divine; at our best, maybe, we are wholly possessed by it. When we try to take possession, we become possessed by evil.
At any rate, this is what I see in the light I now have. If I were more faithful to what I already see, perhaps I’d see the next part more clearly.


Chris M. said...


Thanks for the link to Luke. I have been listening a lot to Doc Watson's "On Praying Ground" a lot this week, and I have been starting on his version of "The Ninety and Nine." It's not Sacred Harp, but it's beautiful.

When we're trying to explain our beliefs ("narrative apologetics" Martin called it - wow), it's helpful to hear stories such as the one you told about taking the class. For myself, it's not like I've sat and pondered these questions in a philosophical way. Rather, I can identify what "rings true" for me in the Bible or in Quaker biography and history and example. I can identify turning points where something clicked into focus or a new understanding of mind and heart. And I can't necessarily turn it into "my thesis" to nail up on my blog and say, "here is what I believe." That may be intellectually muddy. And I'm okay with that.

It does leave us vulnerable to one another, to share openly what we "know" without having formulated "the answer." Thanks for that openness, Paul.

Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

Dave Carl said...

Paul, you said:

"That is, we learned that the Holocaust happened in large part because of human beings' idolatrous deification of themselves as the ultimate source of moral authority. When freed from the belief in a transcendent God, distinct from themselves and in relationship to them, they goose-stepped into the void and commited horrific crimes without as much as a blush. "

Paul, I have a monistic view of my relationship to God. I do not mean by that that I worship myself. There is nothing about my spiritual orientation that leads me to devalue human life or to believe that certain populations deserve to be wiped out. Ten of my Jewish forebears perished in the holocaust. I grew up hearing about this, have suffered a great deal of anxiety about it, and have given a great deal of thought and reflection on what could have caused people to behave that way. I do not believe it was because they failed to see God as distinct from themselves. I think the causes were much more complex than that, but certainly the centuries of demonization and oppression of the Jews in Europe laid the groundwork.

I view the branch and vine analogy differently than you, but what that scripture points to for me is that, if all people are branches of that same vine, then we share an identify and source that is sacred to each of us, and to harm another so intimately connected to me is to harm myself. I see the branch of a vine as an extension of the vine itself, not a separate entity. The effect of this for me is both humbling and liberating. I am a part of something much greater than "myself." Nor does it feel "impersonal" in any sense.

You, of course, are entitled to see it differently -- but hopefully may you also see that one need not be a self-worshipping Nazi in order to view humankind as one with our creator.

In Friendship,


earthfreak said...

Paul -

Thank you so much for this post. This is just what I was asking for - not some legalistic "proof" that you're right, but a sharing of your experience.

I hope someday to be able to articulate mine as well, but I find it quite challenging, as you allude to, it's not so much a logical process (and I find that words are highly inadequate vehicles for expressing it - though I'm not sure what better vehicles we have at our diposal)

Dave - I find that what you say resonates with me. I see the vine and branch metaphor differently too. To be honest, I would use a different metaphor - something along the lines of we are the cells of wood and god is the tree - we are still pretty useless when isolated, but there doesn't need to be something beyond nature (though certainly nature is beyond - or "transcends" me) in order for me to function with awareness that I am not God (anymore than my 57,896th liver cell is me)


Dave Carl said...


I believe you are God. Jesus said we are all gods and that we are the light of the world. He prayed for our "oneness" with him and God just as he was one with God. He said, "as I am, so shall you be."

If we take this as ego-enhancing, we miss the point. Understood properly, its ego-annihilating. The cell of your tree will not "do its own thing." But it may come to know that it is nothing but tree.


Paul L said...

Dave Carl -- Lawyer to lawyer, could you provide me the cite for: "Jesus said we are all gods and that we are the light of the world"? I know Jesus called himself the Light of the World, but I can't recall his using that to describe other human beings.

Are you basing "we are all gods" on "As I am, so shall you be"? This saying sounds like it's from John, but I can't find it (the words are too common and my search engine won't use them) and I'd like to read it in context.

I'm asking for understanding, not to be argumentative.

Dave Carl said...


Thought I left an answer to this but now see it didn't take. I'm out of town without a Bible so I won't be able to give precise cites at the moment. The light of the world passage is from Matthew (NRSV) in the "salt of the earth -- don't hide your light under a bushel" area. "All gods: from John when the crowd wants to stone Jesus for blasphemy for claiming to be God he replies, "but scripture says all men are gods" (or words to that effect." This is from the King James ver. - my NRSV is not that clear.

I forget where "as I am" comes from at the moment but the full quote I believe is to the effect, "I and my father are one, and as I am so shall you be."

This is all from memory at the moment, so I apologize for any quite possible errors.


Anonymous said...

What if there is no god? You are then narcissist. The Nazies were wrong because they broke the golden rule, do unto others, that's all we need. No god playing with his train set or fairy spirits needed.