“God” isn’t exactly a pronoun, but like pronouns, the word has often functioned, at least partly, as an “indexical” term: “Indexicals are linguistic expressions whose reference shifts from context to context: some paradigm examples are ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘now’, ‘today’, ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘that’” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/indexicals/).
“All agree,” says St. Augustine, “that God is whatever they put above all other things” (On Christian Doctrine, 1.7.7). “God,” says St. Anselm, “you are that than which no greater can be thought” (Proslogion, 2). Martin Luther develops this in a different way in his Large Catechism: “That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” Friedrich Schleiermacher, “the father of modern theology,” held that “what all expressions of piety have in common … is this: that we are conscious of ourselves as absolutely dependent or, which intends the same meaning, as being in relation with God” (Christian Faith, #4). Paul Tillich, perhaps most famously, said that “‘God’ … is the name for that which concerns man ultimately” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 211).
Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Tillich all imply that “God” is a linguistic expression “whose reference shifts from context to context,” like that of indexicals, including pronouns. The reference depends partly on how you or I are now imagining and responding to everything else, including even you or me. Whoever or whatever else is here, God is supposed to be more wonderfully here.
To sum up, “God” names, at the very least, whatever (or whoever) is more wonderfully here than anything else I or you can even imagine. You and I and others like us are also more wonderfully here than anything that isn’t a “you” or an “I.” But “God” names whatever is even more wonderfully here, not less so, than you or I or others like us.
That’s not all that “God” names. “God” also names a complex, often conflicted character who appears in sacred stories and even in jokes and cartoons. Many people conclude that God must be a person pretty much like you and me only much more powerful and invisible. They assume that’s the God of the Bible. But that’s a very selective reading of the Bible. The Bible actually gives us several ways of picturing God. For example: “God said to Moshe: Eyeh Asher Eyeh/I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And he said: Thus you will say to the children of Israel: Eyeh/I-Will Be-There sends me to you … This is my name for the ages, that is my title (from) generation to generation” (Exodus 3:14-15).
Thus some of the most prized biblical portrayals point us toward a deeper, most elusive presence still more wonderfully here than anything else we can even imagine: one from whom, through whom, and in whom all other things exist (Romans 11:36). This is not a trendy way to speak of God. It’s as ancient as some of our most prized sacred writings.
Why use personal pronouns like “whom” here? Well, like Martin Buber, we may also find the interpersonal matrix of our very being to be just as wonderful—full of wonder—as anything else we can even imagine. What makes you a living organism is fascinating enough, but what makes this organism a “you” and an “I” is much more elusive, and more wonderful.
People who don’t prize these stories the way Christians and Jews do, or who downplay the interpersonal, might have other terms for whatever is more wonderfully here than anything else they can even imagine, like the Tao or Brahman or Sunyata or Spinoza’s and Einstein’s Natura Naturans (Nature Naturing). Okay, but why downplay the interpersonal? Isn’t the interpersonal more wonderfully here than the impersonal?
What’s prompting me to think about this in connection with indexicals is what I’ve noticed about indexicals in general. Our interpersonal matrix obviously requires indexicals like “I” and “you.” But there are other indexicals like “here” and “now” that are not confined to the interpersonal.
Yet like “God” and the interpersonal, they may point us to something more wonderful—full of wonder—than our everyday pictures of things.
They all seem to point us to the unique. There’s something about being you (or I) or being here or being now that’s unique. It’s unrepeatable, singular. (People have said much the same about God, of course.)
There’s something paradoxical about uniqueness, just as there is something paradoxical about God. To give it a word like “uniqueness” is to acknowledge that, grammatical objections aside, uniqueness is relative, not absolute. If we say two things are unique, it looks as though we’ve said that they’re not that unique: they have something in common after all, i.e., uniqueness.
If I try to say what’s unique about you, I’ll wind up saying things about you that could be said of others. The uniqueness shows up, not in the fact that these things are true of you, but in how they are true of you and nobody else, unrepeatably true. But if I try to spell out how they are true of you I simply repeat the same pattern. I never get to a description of uniqueness.
I run into the same problem if I try to say what makes the present moment unrepeatable. I can only talk about it in terms of its repeatable aspects. Its uniqueness eludes whatever I say. Yet that in part is how I know it’s unique.
Uniqueness, like divinity, seems to function indexically. We have indexicals in our language (and all human languages have them), because we need a way to speak of the unique, unrepeatable aspects of life that elude description even as they engage us constantly.
Indexicals all seem to point us to what I’ll call being right here. (Being right here, as I am using it, includes being right now. It also involves being there and being then. It is from being right here/now that we know anything at all about being there or being then. It seems boundless. It seems sort of like nothing and sort of like everything—both at once.)
I want to focus especially on how being right here can point us to transcendence, to the sacramental, to what Bonhoeffer called the “beyond in the midst of our life.” It’s an everyday sort of transcendence: transcendence is right here, not somewhere else, because being right here is already transcendent, already more than we can ever describe, much less predict or control. It doesn’t require anybody to say “God,” but it definitely permits that.
Being right here may embrace and confirm any number of generalizations—set theory, physics, neuroscience, metaphysics—but it never holds still for any of them. Generalizations like physics arise from being right here, not the other way around. When we test or judge them, we can’t do that from nowhere in particular; if it’s not done from right here, it’s just not done.
Being right here may sound like just a subjective state. That’s an assumption, though. It involves you, but it also involves every object you can ever observe or imagine. Being right here involves objects’ being right there, and there’s no clear boundary between here and there. For want of a familiar term, we could play with calling being right here “transjective.”
Or instead of asking whether being right here is subjective or objective or transjective, we could just say that being right here is, well, being right here. And let’s admit that being right here, though beyond full description or measurement, is just as real as anything else we take to be real. It’s difficult to imagine how, say, physics or neurology could explain it away. Without it there would be no physics or neurology. To be is to be indexical, to be intrinsically dependent on being right here.
As Anselm and at least one Psalmist might put it, only a fool doubts that being right here is being right here. From where do these doubts arise, if not from being right here?
Being right here is a fruitful way to evoke the “beyond in the midst of our life.” Whatever else is here or there, being right here is more wonderfully here. This is both an ancient and current way to begin talking about and with God. People who get that could have some very instructive conversations. People who don’t probably won’t.