By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
25 April 2020
Father Sebastian Athappilly
Q: There are so many different understandings of God, and one can get so confused! Some people say something about God, and some others might say quite the opposite. For instance, take the issue of where God is.
If you ask people where God is, they may give very different answers. Someone might point upwards and say that God lives in Heaven. Someone else may point to their heart and say that God resides there. Others might say that God is everywhere—and that includes every single particle in the universe. In contrast, yet others might say that God is completely beyond the universe. Some may believe that God is immanent in the universe, while others insist that God is utterly transcendent.
How do you see this issue? Where do you think is God? Do you think God is in this universe, pervading it entirely, or do you think God is utterly beyond? Or both, if that is possible? If God is utterly different from His creatures—totally transcendent—as some people might believe, then is it that He is not located in the universe and that He exists in some realm outside and beyond the universe? If so, what proof is there that there is indeed such a realm? If God is utterly transcendent, how is it also possible for Him to be omnipresent, because omnipresence might seem negate utter transcendence? Doesn’t the belief that God is not at all present in the universe present an image of a limited God? But we think of God as Unlimited, and the Unlimited God must be present everywhere, including throughout the universe.How do you see all these issues?
A: First of all, the question “where” God is presupposes the anthropomorphic notion of God as a bodily being that is located in a place. There is nothing surprising about this, since we as bodily beings cannot imagine and think otherwise. At the same time, however, we should be aware of the limitations of our imagination as we are dealing with purely spiritual and immaterial reality. Given this, how can we answer the question, once it is posed and asked?
We cannot rule out God’s presence in this universe, as He is the Creator of this universe. At the same time, we have to add that God is not only in this universe; He is also beyond it. We cannot say that God is only beyond this universe, as if God has nothing to do with this universe. Hence, if at all we would answer the question of His so-called place, one answer would be: God is in this universe and beyond it.
I remember in this connection the answer of a boy, the son of a medical doctor, that God has His home in the heavens and His praxis in this universe!
One answer of faith is that God is omnipresent. This means that God is present everywhere, at every time. Since everything is God’s creation or creature, God is present everywhere and in everything. To hold that God is nowhere would amount to saying that there is no God. One way of affirming God’s existence and at the same time avoiding an anthropomorphic way of speaking would be to say that God is everywhere. God cannot be limited locally to a certain fixed place. Another way might be to say God is there where you pray!
Our attempt to localise and delimit or define God is in itself against the very nature of God. If we understand God as the Ground of all reality, the question of God’s place gets a different connotation. God is not in this universe as one of its many beings, but, rather, at the very basis of this universe as its sustaining Foundation and the Horizon of our scope! Just as the horizon is not in this universe and the Ground of this universe is not an entity within this universe, so, too, God is not a being among the many other beings, but Being as such, from whom all beings have their being or existence. In this way, God is immanent as well as transcendent at the same time! It is precisely in this way that God is utterly different from the creatures of this universe.
This leads us to the next question: if God is utterly different from His creatures, utterly transcendent, as some people might believe, then is it that He is not located in the universe and that He exists in some realm outside and beyond the universe? If so, what proof is there that there is indeed such a realm?
We should understand properly what is meant by saying that God is utterly different from the creatures. It does not mean that there is no point of contact at all between God and creation or creatures. The Creator cannot but leave the marks of His handwriting upon His creatures. There is a certain resemblance between the Creator and His creatures in various degrees. This similarity is the strongest among the creatures of spiritual nature, humans as well as angels. In the Bible, this is expressed in the statement about the creation of humankind, when it is related that God created humans in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1: 27). This divine image in the rational creatures is manifested in the faculties of knowing (the truth) and loving (the good). This is the ability of a spiritual being, which enables it to relate itself to and with another being of the same nature.
The ability to relate oneself with other beings of the same nature is called relationality or personality. Persons enter into relationship. The whole history of revelation and salvation is the story of this relationship between God and His creatures. The first commandment that we should love God has its basis precisely on this truth.
Powers cannot love mutually; they can only interact. Let us take the example of magnets. They can attract or repel, but that is not in itself loving or hating. God and creatures are not separated by an unbridgeable gap. Rather, there is an affinity between both of them. The whole question of the covenant or partnership between God and His people is based on this (Genesis 15:18; 17:9-11; Exodus 6:7; Sirach 44 :17-29). A somewhat equivalent secular term is ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’.
According to the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, God enters into a covenant partnership with human beings, with Abraham, with the people of Israel, with the whole humanity. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant as well (Jer 31:31). According to Christian belief, Jesus takes this up and makes the new covenant with his blood (Mark 14:23).
The main message is that God accepts humankind and each one of us as His partner in love. The symbolism of marriage is hence often used to express this relationship. God as the Bridegroom and the people as the bride. Prophet Hosea is a good example in this regard. The wonder of God's love is that such a great God accepts human being(s) as His loving partner or spouse! This is the wonder of love! Only a personal God can do this. An impersonal or a-personal God cannot enter into a contract. This presupposes also some affinity of relationship between God and the spiritual creature, a transcendence that does not destroy intimacy!
The very concept of revelation as God‘s loving self-disclosure tells of a personal God addressing a personal addressee. From the Christian perspective, it is precisely because there is an inner affinity between God and human creatures that God could become human. From the Christian point of view, in God’s incarnation as a human being, it is demonstrated that God is not utterly different from the creatures.
By using the wise method of analogy, we may hence say that God “sees”, “hears”, “loves”, etc. So, we speak of God’s “hands” and God’s “voice”. Whatever God is and has related to our perfections, God is and has to their ultimate degree. God’s essence is to exist, while the creatures have participatory existence, beauty, goodness, etc. We do not say that the creatures do not exist or that they do not have beauty. All what the creatures have is received from God, the Source.
Now, about the issue of a realm beyond the universe: The proof that there is a realm outside and beyond the universe is precisely the dependent existence of this universe. The present crisis owing to the novel Corona virus (Covid 19) is evidence of the inability of humankind to have full control of the global situation and also of the dependency of this universe on a higher Reality. If this universe would have been the only realm, this universe itself would have been self-explanatory and autonomous. In that case, it should not have had a beginning or have an end. But science has proved just the opposite. A reality that had a temporal beginning and that will definitely have a temporal end cannot be its own source. A realm outside and beyond it is the only conclusion!
You mention that some people who have a certain understanding of God’s transcendence might believe that God is not at all present in the universe. Does this belief, you want to know, not present an image of a limited God, because the Unlimited God must be present everywhere, including throughout the universe?
I would respond by saying that a ‘God’ who is not at all present in the universe is a purely transcendent ‘God’, who has nothing to do with this universe. Such a ‘God’ is, in fact, not God, for this ‘God’ is, according to the above erroneous imagination of a few believers, only beyond the universe but not active in the universe. But if God is not active in the universe, the universe cannot exist at all; otherwise you make the universe into God! The contradiction exists not merely owing to the wrong idea of a limited God but also because of the misconception of an unlimited universe! Both are wrong. There is neither a limited or finite God nor an infinite or unlimited universe! If one believes in God, then it should be a belief in God who is transcendent and at the same time present everywhere, that is, also in the universe.
To be present in the universe does not, however, mean that God is present there as an entity or a being among many other beings. It rather means that God is active throughout the universe; without God sustaining the universe, the universe would cease to exist! God’s transcendence does not allow us to conceive of Him as merely as a being in this universe adjacent to many other beings. If this is what is intended by those who might believe that God is not at all present in the universe, then we may agree with them. But if they think God is not at all present in the universe in the sense of being active there, then they are wrong, even though they want to safeguard God’s transcendence so. God’s transcendence is not diminished or negated by His immanence in the universe!
As to your question about how I see the issue of God’s immanence and transcendence, according to me God’s transcendence is so unique that it can allow God’s immanence! God is immanent in this universe precisely as its transcendent Ground, loving Mover and ultimate End (Absolute Future)!
Fr. Sebastian Athappilly is a Catholic priest from Kerala belonging to the CMI (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate) religious congregation. He has been teaching Systematic Theology from 1985 at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, a leading centre for higher Catholic learning, located in Bangalore. He served there as the President, Dean (Faculty of Theology) and Registrar. Since 2009 he has also been serving as hospital chaplain at the University Clinic, Graz, Austria, besides being a visiting professor at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram.