God is not “everywhere”.

I was at a gathering of church folks recently most of whom, I would guess, were more liberal in persuasion than myself. At times this was rather boring and at other times it was maddening! At one point a gentleman who was in a position of authority within this group (he was on the board or whatever) began to blabber on about a pet-peeve of his (news flash: no one asked!). He didn’t like the presumption of some Christians, who might be visiting sick and shut-in people, that they were in some fashion the presence of Christ to said sick/shut-in. At this point he let us all know of his mantra, “we are always in the presence of God” and that the task of the person ministering is to point towards this (which sort of begs the question, what is said person ministering?).

This is a fairly common presupposition amongst many people, I think: God is everywhere. But if God is everywhere, then God is no where. But for the orthodox Christian God is somewhere, somewhere in particular. Namely, God is in Christ. What does God look like? Jesus. Where is God? In Jesus.

It is precisely this loss of particularity that seems to characterize (generally speaking, of course) liberal fashions of Christianity. Oliver O’Donovan elaborates:

“The inner shrine of the liberal gospel was its attitude of respectful attentiveness to the world as it is. The term “incarnation”, used without an article, speaks of this embrace of the world. This is something different from the incarnation, the historical birth of Jesus the Son of God from Mary, which is now reconstructed as a paradigm or model for a conjunction of the human and divine to be effected in all times and places. The incarnation of the Word takes place continually,” (O’Donovan, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, 8).

We see evident here a loss of particularity. To speak of God’s self-revelation is not necessarily to speak of the Virgin Birth or the person of Jesus of Nazareth but it is rather to speak of an ongoing process of embracing and knowing the world as it is. It is to make a positive conjunction of God and the world. However, there are two reasons why the orthodox Christian must reject this claim one eschatological and one ontological. For the orthodox Christian there is an eschatological frontier between this world and the next as well as an ontological frontier between the Creator and the creature. In the liberal paradigm, these frontiers are collapsed so that the world as it is is the world as it ought to be and so that the distinction between Creator and creature all but evaporates. O’Donovan continues:

“This world being the sanctuary of God’s full self-disclosure, talk of a reign of God can only be talk of this world projected to its logical term. The present harbors no ultimate antithesis; it faces no final judgment. God’s worldly self-disclosure may be seen as the dynamic of world history, as in the confident progressivism of an earlier liberalism…But one way or the other the theological liberal looks to “see the hand of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13), and knows that when seen it will be stretched out in blessing, not in judgment,” (O’Donovan, 8-9).

If God is everywhere then God is no where and the world is going no where for it has already arrived.

God is not everywhere.

God is in Christ Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

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11 comments
  1. jmw said:

    I agree with you here, Jonathan. Eschatology cannot be collapsed into the “eternal present.” We have not arrived. We await the coming Christ and this particularity matters greatly. Agree. But also I worry about the statement “God is not everywhere.” Seems to me a dangerous statement because the sayer of this claim will no doubt always happen to know where, in fact, God truly is to be found. In this sense, I worry that it can become myopic. More significant is that it leaves me wondering what God the Holy Spirit is up to with Her creation. What do you think? Is there a way to affirm the Spirit of Life who is everywhere and in all things while also maintaining the particularity of Christ and His promise of fulfillment?

    • jt* said:

      Joshua, you’re right to note the danger here. This post is obviously meant to be a bit polemical but I think the point is worth contending despite the fact that it could be pushed further than I would take it myself. What is the Holy Spirit up to in creation? Well, I would think we have to talk about the church here at some point which perhaps I’ll do in another post if I’m able. There is a distinction between the world and the church, albeit a soft distinction much of the time and a distinction which those members *of* the church often forget and/or lose sight of. Also, the particularity of Christ isn’t in spite of the universality of God’s redemptive action, but there *is* a particularity. I’m also not sure we’d want to separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the risen and living Jesus. OK, sorry if that was somewhat jumbled. Thoughts?

      Also, what do you mean by “the Spirit of Life who is everywhere and in all things”? I think I know what you’re getting at but I don’t want to assume.

  2. JT – isn’t God’s omnipresence a fairly common conservative theological stance? What is your take on how (if) that is different?

    • Between the time I opened this tab and got around to commenting, the convo got started! Two passages that come to mind as related are Psalm 139 (“Where can I go from your Spirit?” etc) and Colossians 1:7 – what does it mean that “all things hold together” in Christ – does that not imply that he is somehow present, holding all things together?

      I also wonder if there is perhaps a dual meaning/level of God’s presence… This is interesting to think on.

      • jt* said:

        Great questions folks, seriously. And I should say that my goal isn’t to give a “satisfactory” answer. There is a mystery to much of the Christian faith. OK, so that being said…

        Beth, the problem with categories like omnipresence (and the other omni’s) is that they aren’t particularly Christian nor are they particularly Scriptural. Any good deist could assert that God is omnipresent. In the Hebrew Scriptures, however, God at times dwells in a particular place – the tabernacle, later the Temple. This is important spiritually and theologically because later in the New Testament writings Jesus is often seen as the fulfillment of the promises regarding the Temple (i.e. Gospel of John, Hebrews). Israel always spoke about a particular God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenanting God, the God who led them out of Egypt, the God who gave them the law etc. “Omni” language endangers this particularity. For the Christian, this particular God, the God of Israel, has revealed Himself fully in Christ Jesus. When the Christian speaks about God, abstract metaphysical categories lose their helpfulness, we must rather speak of Jesus in particular. A little bit later in Colossians Paul says of Jesus that he is, “the image of the invisible God” (1:15). Paul’s concern is that the attention of the Colossians is directed towards Jesus. This is of course a doxological concern. Paul isn’t concerned that the Colossians “know” God in some abstract metaphysical sense, but rather know God in Christ SO THAT they can rightly worship and glorify God. See further comments to Joshua below relating to God’s Spirit.

  3. jmw said:

    Yeah, I think that the Spirit is intimately connected to the work of Christ. I would say that the Spirit gives witness to the work of Christ. But, I would not say that this is confined to the church. I think the Church is confined to the Spirit, but the Spirit is not confined to the Church. Know what I mean? As for the distinction between church/world, I love what Bonhoeffer says re: this. He explains that the Church is not separate in the sense of a religious society, but *more* worldly than the world in the sense that it belongs precisely to the world that is loved by God. I mention this because I think this makes room for a transition into the work of the Spirit. The Spirit who is at work in creation is calling the Church into being by calling into the world saved by Christ. Argh, I rambled. sorry. But yeah, I like what you’re saying and I agree that your post is addressing the particular opinion of some “liberal” guy 😉

    When I say the Spirit of Life who is everywhere and in all things I mean the God in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) as well as the citations provided by Beth. I am more panentheistic in my theology so that’s where I am coming from. I think that the spirit of life is, in fact, omnipresent. As per usual we’re forced to hold God’s immanence and transcendence in tension, right? My fear is that demoting immanence leads to Deism.

    • jt* said:

      I agree that we don’t want to confine the work of God to the church. Yes, Bonhoeffer is bang on (of course!), the church is a creature of the world so the distinction cannot be pressed too hard, but there is a distinction none the less. The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The church is in the world, a part of the world, but has somehow been set apart from the world. There is a particularity about the church and this particularity is sacramental in nature, I think. You said that “The Spirit who is at work in creation is calling the Church into being by calling into the world save by Christ”. What do you think of it being put a different way, perhaps: “The Spirit who is at work in the Church is calling creation into being”. This way we can make sense of the church as the community where the first-fruits of the new creation are present. Of course, the Spirit is at work in the world as well, but Christ did not give the bread and the wine to the world, nor are people baptised into the world, nor are the scriptures opened in the world. People are baptised into the death of Christ, and thus into the Body of Christ which is sustained and nourished by the Eucharist and which submits to the opening of the Scriptures. The tension here is that Christ is no longer with us. He left so that the Spirit could be sent forth. Now God is with us by His Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ. But there is still a separation. This union is not fully realized, it would seem. I like what O’Donovan said in one of the quotes above. When the eschatological and ontological frontiers are collapsed, “The present harbors no ultimate antithesis [to God]; it faces no final judgment.” But indeed, the present does harbor an antithesis, and there is a final judgment. OK, now I’m the one rambling. I could go on, but that’s good for now. Thoughts?

  4. Laur said:

    I have further questions on unrelated topics – way to communicate these to you?

    • jt* said:

      How unrelated? What makes you think I could be of any help? Sorry, I’m not the best at this Internet stuff, just trying to make sure this isn’t some sort of spam bit or something.

      Grace and peace.

  5. Laur said:

    Your concerns are valid for sure. My apologies for the vagueness.
    Revirginizing actually. I enjoy reading your views and wondered what they are on the aforementioned topic. Don’t know if its really appropriate to “request” opinions from you so please don’t feel you have to acquiesce.

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