God is unknowable and indescribable - but is it really impossible to profile him, or her, or them? Here, Paul Handley investigates - while over the following pages we examine the spiritual state of the nation
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
God calls himself Joe and drives a Harley Davidson. Well, given his advantages, wouldn't you? This revelation comes from Christine, the heroine of a Californian romance, published last May: "I tried to digest it all as I looked down at his motorcycle and at the worn, white, high-top sneakers. `Why did you come to me on a Harley?' I had to know. `I had to get your attention,' he answered simply. `Why the T-shirt, the leather jacket, and the great body?' He smiled easily. `I needed a new image. People don't relate to the sandals and long hair anymore. They haven't since the Sixties.' "

If one is trying to pin God down in order, say, to type up his CV, it is worth noting at the outset that it is just as helpful to read a trashy American novel as the Holy Bible; or to gaze fleetingly at a second-rate 16th-century nativity ("That one will have to be released straight to Christmas card, Marcello") as study the Qur'an. Each attempt at defining God is like placing a pebble on Brighton beach: some are a few feet nearer the water than others, but that doesn't mean much when the place one is trying to approach is North Africa.

Another preliminary difficulty is this, and any philosopher attached to one of the mainstream religions will agree: God is not an object - not a lump of matter which will conform to any of our linguistic definitions. One of the more annoying attributes of God is that he is unknowable and indescribable. This means that the most sublime language can be used to describe God, and it will still be wrong.

Not being an object, the normal rules of grammar cease to apply. We run short of nouns pretty quickly. The definition in John Bowker's Dictionary of World Religions (OUP, 1997) ends thus: "The logic of God, therefore, remains, that if God does indeed turn out to be God, it is God that God will turn out to be." There is a limit to the number of times you can repeat phrases like this and still keep your congregation, so worshippers have taken to making nouns out of adjectives: hence the Divinity, the Almighty, the Merciful, the Immortal, and so on. This immediately falls into the trap of making God an object, albeit one of veneration, but it's the best we can do.

God, rather strikingly, prefers to be a verb. At the beginning of the Exodus story, Moses asks for God's credentials: "Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM; and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you ... This is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations."

This choice of name, translated from the Hebrew as Yahweh, introduces the concept of the dynamic nature of God's personhood, of which more later.

There is just one more linguistic difficulty to tackle before getting on to the substance of God: the personal-pronoun problem. God has traditionally been described as "He", though all the mainstream religions recognise, supposedly, that God is spirit and neither male nor female. It is too early to see what influence PC will have. (Just before Christmas it was announced that a version of the Bible has been changed back from "God created human beings" to "God created man".) For the time being, it is like having a friend who is half-way through a sex-change operation. I shall continue to call her "he", though "them" might be more accurate (again, see later).

This deals with the first two items on the CV, name and sex, if not exhaustively. Next comes age. Dating the Big Bang helps here; but, in order to have created it, God must have been around before - except that, since time itself began in the Big Bang, the concept of "before" has no meaning. We don't really understand what "eternal" means, so it's probably the word to use. Next, marital status. As is clear from the discussion of gender, there is no place in the cosmos for a Mrs God.

This is a good moment, though, to investigate whether God is single. Yes, say all the mainstream religions, even Hinduism: all-powerfulness presupposes uniqueness. But Hinduism teaches that God has three manifestations: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Christianity goes further: the Godhead consists of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is distinct, but this does not contradict the belief that there is only one God.

Trinitarianism has been wildly popular among theologians in recent years, but few congregations would be able to describe it, despite reciting the creed every week: "God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father" and so on. What excites the professionals is that the Trinity is a way to convey the dynamic nature of God. God is not a person but a relationship between three persons. This leads on to ...

Family: Christianity is uniquely complicated, or simplified, by its teaching that God became a human being in the shape of Jesus Christ. Even though hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have been singing about it unquestioningly over the past month, the idea still seems absurd. It is this that keeps theologians in work.

To clear things up, it might help to look at the photograph clipped to the CV. Most early artists shied away from depicting God, at least as the Father, scared off by injunctions against making graven images. Painting Jesus was all right; the Holy Spirit was difficult but a dove did very nicely; but of the Father we usually only got a hand in a cloud, or perhaps an eye in one of those Masonic triangles. But the picture to catch is from a 15th-century Book of Hours by Jean Fouquet, which shows the Virgin Mary being crowned by three identical men on identical thrones. As an image it never caught on, but as a theological rebuttal of the usual heresy of an uneven God - big daddy, smaller son, tiny spirit - it works well. Shame they are all men, though.

Career: creator, sustainer and redeemer, not just of this world but of the universe. With so much to do, it is surprising how the Jewish idea of a day of rest came into being. The old image of God as a clockmaker, winding up the world then going off to do something else, is pretty much discredited. The work of creation is caught up in time but goes on eternally.

It is the way that God set about this creation which has led on to these two other jobs. What this means is that, though we have God's CV in our hand, he is too busy to apply for a new job. Indeed, considering his approach to the existing one, it is questionable whether we would take him on anyway. The problem is that God appears not to be a perfectionist. Being perfect in himself, he could easily have created a perfect world; but he didn't. He is a chancer. According to the physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne, "God chose a world in which chance has a role to play, thereby both being responsible for the consequences accruing and also accepting limitation of his power to control."

This begins to explain the problems about God's character. God is good. Everybody says so. They might interpret it in different ways - the Muslims stressing his unreachable holiness, the Jews his merciful wisdom, and the Christians his all-embracing love - but the goodness is a given among those who ought to know best. So either they're wrong, which is possible; or they're right, but God somehow botched the job of making this world; or we're missing something.

The clue is the word "relationship". (I'm sorry, but it is, though "partnership" will do nearly as well.) God voted Labour long before Tony Blair was even thought of (except by God, of course), and he set out to create a people's world. We can't know why he didn't choose to hover eternally in nothingness, but he didn't, maybe because bridge is more fun than patience, and to create a world which did what he told it would be like playing endless games of patience which all came out. So he made a world of risk, and peopled it with risk-takers.

It helps to acknowledge that we've slipped back into thinking of God as male, ie rigid and logical in a linear way. So here, for a change, is God as mother. A mother gives birth to a child. She does so to create a bond of dependence and independence, the first because she wants its love, the second because enforced love is worthless. She knows that the child will go to the bad sometimes and go to the good at others, and will suffer whichever way it goes; but she also knows - or, as a mortal, hopes - that she will be there to rescue and support the child when it needs it.

This is why our conception of evil as a problem stems, in part, from shortsightedness. The jobs of sustaining and redeeming are more than just a bit of dusting and packing things away afterwards. They have to be thought of as integral parts of the business of creation, which will go on until the end of the world. What is this sentimental anthropomorphism doing on God's CV? It is legitimised by the teaching that God made humanity in his/her/ their own image. Those critics who say that God is merely a projection stemming from human fears, neuroses and abject needs (Freud) are not far wrong (and may, of course, be completely right). The incarnation of Jesus allows us to argue back towards God. If there is a mismatch between our deductions from the human character and all those adjectival nouns beginning with capital letters, we perhaps need to add a few more: God the Vulnerable, God the Self-Sacrificing, God the Permissive, God the Forgiving. Then we need to mix them up a bit: it's no good a group of Sunday-school children singing, "He gives me jelly to fill my belly, God is good to me," while in another continent an Islamic court is preparing to chop a thief's hand off. God has many more attributes than 99, and they ought to be more widely appreciated. Jealous, wrathful, indifferent, loving: all have been ascribed to God at various times by various religions, and they ought constantly to be recalled.

Other items on the CV? There's the address, of course: Heaven, c/o Earth. Everybody needs a bolthole, and we are told that we have an invitation to God's place, though the timing is uncertain.

Present salary: more than you get, buster.

Referees: archbishops, popes, mullahs, gurus, rabbis, children, dolphins and stick insects - just take your pick. And there's the clean driver's licence. Otherwise, how could we explain the Harley?

Paul Handley is Editor of the `Church Times'.