“For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 1Corinthians 8:6

“From God and through God and into God are all things.” Romans 11:36

“Monotheism without contemplation is dangerous … Monotheism is a terrible idea, but a wonderful discovery.” James Alison, Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (New York: Continuum, 2006) p. 17

Popular theism: God is a person like you and me, except (!) for being invisible and infinite, who made everything, controls everything, communicates mostly through books written centuries ago, and demands total, unquestioning obedience.

Modern philosophical theism: God is “a person without a body … who is eternal, is perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things” (Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979], p. 8). God is known by direct intuition, logical inference, special revelation, or simply believed in without any conclusive reasons.

Pre-modern and post-modern Christian theism: God is the all-encompassing and all-indwelling, interpersonal reality, incipiently known, but never comprehended, by reflective participation in God’s embodied presence.

Modern popular and philosophical theists tend to think of faith as believing without conclusive reasons. Knowledge is “justified true belief.” Faith is unjustified belief.

Pre-modern and post-modern Christian theists tend to think of faith as trustfully beginning to know the all-inclusive reality in which we participate most intimately, but which we can never comprehend. Far from being opposed to reason or justification, it is the most reasonable way to respond to the inescapable reality that is forever beyond our control. God is not known directly, not known inferentially, but known “sacramentally” (i.e., through finite realities participating in the infinite, and vice versa). The knowledge is inconclusive, not because reasons are lacking, but because the best reasons participate in the same reality which forever eludes our control. The knowledge can be intense, but it is always incipient.

In modern English speaking philosophy of religion, and in much popular theism, the concept of God being analyzed and debated—by both theists and atheists—is for the most part one that emerged around the time of Descartes and Leibniz and what is sometimes called “Protestant scholasticism.” It differs significantly from pre-modern concepts of God, although its defenders and opponents often quote pre-modern Christian writers (like Aquinas or Anselm) out of context or through later interpreters (like Cajetan and Suarez on Aquinas). (On this see William C. Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996].) Non-English-speaking philosophers are often more in touch with premodern thought.

Contrast this with Augustine’s pre-modern, open-ended approach to knowing and describing God in On Christian Doctrine.* God, says Augustine, is not an object or a thing or even a person, but the interpersonal source, medium and dwelling of all things (1.5.5, quoting Romans 11:36). In fact, he admits, everything we say about God is paradoxical at best, and all God expects of us is that we give our best prayerful effort in speaking of God (1.6.6). We can start by observing how people use terms like “God” in every culture to mean “a nature, than which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists” (1.7.7). But people in different cultures and contexts will differ about what they consider “excellent” or “exalted,” and Augustine recognizes this. So he tries to lead us, in a sort of guided meditation, to recognize, first, that surely it is better to think of God as living, indeed as life itself. Likewise, he goes on, we would surely regard sentient life as superior to insentient life, and intelligent life as superior to merely sentient life, and above all, an unchangeably wise life as superior to one which could fluctuate in wisdom (1.8.8-1.9.9). Here Augustine begins to speak of God, not just as life itself, but as Wisdom herself, or alternately, as the truth that lives unchangeably (1.9.9-1.10.10). (By the way, even a “process theist” like me could agree with Augustine so far—God’s character is indeed unchangeable; what changes constantly is how God’s character is exemplified in each moment. But Augustine is definitely not a process theist.) He apparently regards all of these phrases as different, interchangeable ways to point to the same reality (in fact he argues for the interchangeability of all sorts of descriptions in his later work, On the Trinity, 15.2.6-15.2.9).

Now, how do we know that we’re not just making all this up? We are beginning to know this, Augustine claims, only because Wisdom herself (who is already present) has come to us on our own frail terms and has begun to transform us, becoming not just our home but our way home, “for she came to a place where she had always been” (1.11.11-1.12.12). (Yes, he’s talking about Jesus, and also messing with Jesus’ gender identity.) Our God-talk cannot comprehend God, but it participates in God, because God already inhabits our efforts to praise and worship God, and through them God is moving us into full communion.

So instead of offering a fixed definition, Augustine offers us a pattern of thinking about God designed to make us more aware of how God may already be more involved with us than we may have realized. That might not be enough to prove that there is “a person without a body,” but it may be enough to open us to the interpersonal “truth that lives unchangeably,” in whom we live and move and have our being.

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*For a contemporary restatement of Augustine’s argument, see James K. A. Smith, Speech and Theology: The Language and Logic of Incarnation (London: Routledge, 2002). Caveat: This is Augustine at his most likable—insisting that all Christian teaching promote the love of God and neighbor (1.35.39), asking us to appreciate cultural differences before judging others’ behavior (3.12.19). What could be more appealing? But this is also the Augustine who believed that heretics should be tortured (in order to “save” them) and that God has decided to redeem only some people, not all. As with just about anybody else from the distant past, we cannot simply point to him as some kind of hero, or as some kind of villain. He often did not follow what we might consider his best insights.