Terrible Texts: Be Fruitful and Multiply and Subdue the World - Part IV

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 17 September 2003 0 Comments
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Is God a person?


Human language is so limiting but that is all we have to use even when we talk about God. This means we envision God in terms of human experience and we talk of God in terms of human words. Your question, "Is God a person?" illustrates that very well.

If I answered your question, "Yes, God is a person," I would distort God by trying to drain the concept of the holy into a receptacle that we can understand. Since we are persons and personhood is the highest concept we can imagine, then surely we must say that it is after the analogy of personhood that we must speak of God. If horses had gods they would look like horses. So the Gods of human beings will always look like human beings.

Of course, if I answered your question with a no - no, God is not a person, I would be no closer to the truth and I would sow seeds of anxiety among those who cannot imagine that God is less than the highest thing that they have experienced. So your question, like most God talk leads us into more difficulties than it solves.

Again and again, when I talk about God I come back to what has almost become my mantra. I cannot tell anyone who God is or what God is. That is not within the capacity of any human being, no matter how pretentious a title that person may have. All any human being can ultimately do is to tell another human being how that person believes that he or she has experienced the Holy, the Transcendent, the limitless Other, or to use our more common word, God. Even when we seek to relate only our experience of God and not God, there is still the possibility we are delusional. God seem to be experienced by many people in very destructive manners. So I would not respond to your question with either a yes or a no! I do not want to bind the holy inside the framework of human vocabulary.

One final note. If you define God as a person, you tend to attribute personal qualities to the God you presume to say you know. Does this God answer prayers? All prayers? Whose prayers? Does this God intervene in human history constantly? Once in a while? Never? What determines which prayers God answers or what situations will secure divine intervention? Is it human deserving? Or human importance? If George Bush and Saddam Hussein pray to the same God (since there is but one God) what happens when their prayers are diametrically opposed?

Before a divine definition is offered for God, we need to determine first whether the God we speak about is the one we have created in our image, to meet our needs and who is, therefore, a captive to our values. Or whether the God experience we wish to communicate is a power beyond our ability to put into words that calls us to be something we have never before been. For ultimately, the sense of the Divine, the Transcendent, is that which calls us into a deeper vision of life, a greater experience of love that gives us that rare courage to be all that we can be. That is, I submit, a long way from saying yes or no to the human inquiry about whether God is a person, but that is where I come out.

John S. Spong

Bishop John Shelby Spong





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