I can pretty confidently say that I believe in God.
“Great!” my Hindu friend says. “I believe in god too. He may be in everything we see. Namaste – I greet the god in you.”
“No – wait,” you say, as all that stuff you heard once in that seminar on ‘other religions’ goes out of your head. “That’s not what I mean. I believe in God.”
What do you mean, then? Or, rather, who do you mean? When you call this being ‘God’, do you mean a vague deity who grants wishes if you’re good, and who conveniently hates the same people you do? What is ‘God’ like? How do you know? Don’t some of the things you say contradict each other? You keep saying ‘Him’ – if God doesn’t have a gender, can’t I say ‘Her’? And how can this ‘God’ be both ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’?
These types of questions are given the unhelpfully broad-sounding title of ‘the doctrine of God’ in academic theology. We use lots of words (attributes) to describe God to build a picture of the being we say deserves worship. These attributes are given in scripture as ‘names of God’, or seem to be implied. Let’s begin with what we mean by ‘God’.
Our capitalised word ‘God’ is a translation of the Greek words ho theos in the New Testament, meaning ‘the god’ – a way of distinguishing the One, true God from the multiple deities jostling for elbow room in the Roman Empire. ‘God’ implies supremity, exclusivity. The word theos may have connections with theoreo – “to look, to see, to observe” – God, the supreme overseer. God, the omniscient one.
We don’t actually have an absolute way of referring to God. As finite humans, all our words can only be limited descriptions of the Infinite. The name God gives Himself in the Old Testament – YHWH – (which appears about 7,000 times) is so sacred that it cannot be spoken. YHWH (known as the Tetragrammaton – the four letters) is translated as: “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be”.
Imagine Moses’s frustration when, after he’s just been told (by a burning bush, no less) that he has to go back to Egypt, where he’s wanted for murder, and have a little chat with the Pharaoh, who is holding everyone else from his race as a slave – and he makes the (not unreasonable) request of asking who exactly he should say sent him. Maybe he thought that saying ‘Hey, Pharaoh, a burning bush told me to tell you…’ might not go down so well and he hears the response: “…say to the Israelites ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.” Helpful.
Actually, it is. Helpful, I mean. Here is the revelation that God is ‘being-itself’, the life-giver, who causes all else to exist, has always existed, and will always exist. God is existence itself. Nothing is outside of Him. Everything is bound up in Him. God, the all-encompassing source.
Another piece added to the puzzle.