Profile: God Beyond understanding

From angry old man to explanation of last resort. Andrew Brown on the Almighty
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GOD may last week have chosen to be played by a woman in the York mystery plays, but for the first few thousand years of his relationship with the human race, there is no denying that he displayed a preference for the male pronoun. The modern explorations of his feminine side are the cause of much disgust among those who ought to know him best, such as the Archdeacon of York, the Ven George Austin. Declaring last week that it was paganism to have a woman representing God, the archdeacon explained, perplexingly: "We are made in God's image, not the other way round."

That God, and the discussion of God, can provoke intelligent people into such remarks demonstrates if nothing else that, for all our long acquaintance with him, he remains dazzlingly obscure. He is eternal, infinite, unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ... beyond description. Nothing can be said of God that cannot also be denied about him. "He is absolutely ineffable," said St Augustine. "He is absolutely good; but we can also say that he is not good, for he is not good in the way that we are."

Evidence of God's lack of merely human goodness is apparent from every page of the newspaper - in the air crashes, the bombs, the diseases, the famines and the injustices of the world he made. Augustine believed that God was both absolutely good and absolutely just, and that his absolute justice required the consignment of millions of his creatures to eternal torment, though in some manner that did not reflect on his absolute goodness. Later theologians have found it impossible to reconcile justice and goodness in this context, and the idea of eternal damnation has now been largely abandoned for all but the most deserving cases.

There are fewer problems about God's role and powers. He is the founder, creator and, finally, sole shareholder in the universe. Job wrote in the 6th century BC: "He shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; [he] commands the sun, and it does not rise; [he] seals up the stars; [he] alone stretched out the heavens ... [he] does great things beyond understanding, and marvellous things without number."

Job finds that ultimately God is a mystery: "Lo, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him." Yet in the beginning, God seems to have been less elusive, indeed he was content to walk around his creation and talk with his creatures. Genesis tells us: "And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden."

When he expelled Adam and Eve from the garden, he went so far as to make them garments. But since then he has progressively receded from human understanding. Soon, even his name fell into disuse, and he became known only by his titles, which multiplied enormously: "Lord of Hosts", "King of Kings" and so forth. Though he let it be known that the Israelites were his chosen people at an early stage, he also allowed it to appear that he was then only one god among many, distinguished from the others principally by his invisibility. Just as other, more prosaic gods watched over their peoples, he would look after the Israelites.

This understanding of him was strengthened by his very active partisanship, and the apparent ruthlessness that accompanied it. The Old Testament God, having declared himself the protector of the Israelites, proceeded to clear them a space around the Jordan river. The book of Joshua tells us: "When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness ... all Israel returned to Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took as their booty, according to the word of the Lord which he commanded Joshua."

And so it went with all the other cities of the region, carefully enumerated in the book of Joshua. At one stage, God himself fights alongside the children of Israel, first throwing hailstones to beat the enemy down and then, when the day proves too short to slaughter them all, stopping the sun in its tracks so that the Israelites can finish the job.

These stories have troubled many believers down the centuries (although they have brought satisfaction to others). Their modern sequel is still more troubling, for archaeology has completely failed to find evidence for the destruction or even the existence of so many cities, or for the wholesale slaughter of their inhabitants. An omnipotent being could, of course, have erased the evidence of his past actions - devout Victorians argued that he had done something similar when creating fossils, geological strata and other evidence of an evolutionary earth even though, they insisted, evolution did not happen. Yet such a God would be incomprehensible in ways rather different from those to which we have become accustomed.

The other explanation is also upsetting: if God did not encourage or even allow the genocide celebrated in the book of Joshua, then he becomes kinder, and thus easier to love and venerate, but at the same time he becomes harder to know.

If the Bible is not a record of what God did, but of how he has been understood by mankind, it seems that he has become less comprehensible as he has seemed more perfect. There is a steady movement through the Old and New Testaments as God moves further from our theoretical understanding and closer to our hearts.

His command that thou shalt have no other gods before him implies that such gods, and indeed goddesses, exist. The fact that he had created the other gods, as well as the people they looked after, did not become apparent until the 5th century BC, after military defeat and exile in Babylon had almost destroyed his chosen people. There seems to be a general rule that God becomes more powerful as his followers get weaker; accordingly, the Bible closes with the book of Revelation, a vision of God destroying the whole world and almost everyone who lives on it, written after the second and final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

But by that time, God had in the understanding of men undergone an irreversible change. The overwhelming creative (and destructive) power of the Old Testament had become a Father. Soon he would acquire a family; and in the Christian world, three persons, two natures, and untold complications.

Many of the distinctions within his new character were so subtle as to be expressible only in Greek. Others came to seem paintable. In the Old Testament, God had forbidden all images of himself; but Christians painted everything. Michelangelo gave him a beard and Blake an all-seeing eye. In the European imagination he could see everything and punish everyone. His power extended far beyond the grave (an idea hardly found in the Old Testament). In fact, this life was only a preparation for meeting him face to face, if only for a moment, after.

Yet at the same time as he acquired these awesome attributes and majesty, the question of what he actually did became harder to answer. The scientific discoveries of such devoutly religious men as Isaac Newton seemed to show that he had created a clockwork universe, which would run for ever according to eternal rules. God, so far from being absolute, became a monarch bound by the constitution he had given the Universe. And the more scientists discovered of this constitution, the more God in all his splendour came to seem a rather unnecessary figure, like the Queen after the state opening of Parliament.

FOR MANY, the omnipotent and omniscient God is one of the millions and millions of casualties of the 20th century. Both sides in the First World War claimed his support, but after all the carnage neither winners nor losers found it easy to forgive him for what they had done to each other. An increasing number of people decided they could do without him altogether, while others allowed or encouraged him to retreat even further into incomprehensibility. And then even more terrible things happened to his creatures in the Second World War.

Among the poor and miserable, his popularity, and a sense of his presence, never waned. Both Christianity and Islam now have more adherents than ever before in history. But in the developed world, he was more and more pushed to the margins by the success of liberal capitalism in granting almost everything that people had ever prayed for.

God the Father has dwindled into God the explanation of last resort, the being who acts outside the competence even of insurance companies. God the Son, meanwhile, made a huge comeback as a sort of best friend, available in every circumstance of American life, while God the Holy Spirit led his followers into some very strange places: Christian nudists gathered in Longwood, North Carolina, to sing last week: "Here we are sitting together in the nude/ Some folks in society would exclaim to us How rude/ But we know we're all good people; we came to praise the Lord./ So let's all shout to Jesus and clap our hands of one accord." The being who had once dwelt beyond the celestial spheres is becoming a magnet to eccentricity.

It is not wholly surprising in this atmosphere that "theological", a term which had described the knowledge of God, and thus dealt with ultimate meaning and the ground of all being, has shifted to mean something like "meaningless and non-existent". God has become so perfectly incomprehensible that any representation of him in art or drama now seems pointlessly contrived - York's mystery plays, after all, come from another age. Little wonder that modern theologians have redefined him as the being who combines in himself every gender and excellence conceivable, except, perhaps, existence.