“All things are from God, through God, and in God.”—Romans 11:36
For me, to believe in God is to awaken to reality as such as intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, enlivening not just me but all things, sustaining not just me but all things for as long as they continue, and embracing not just me but all things for as long as they continue and after they pass. This is the God to whom I awaken trustfully and in whom I thus believe. (Where’s the evidence?, you might ask. This awakening is the evidence. But I do say more about evidence, in more technical terms, here and here.)
This is not a new idea: This is how the earliest New Testament writer, St. Paul, thought of God, along with his early followers: “All things are from God, through God, and in God” (Romans 11:36). “God is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And Paul and his followers were simply repeating an idea that they and other Jews around that time had inherited from interpreting their own most sacred writings. Most church “fathers” and major theologians cited these passages at the very beginning of their discussions on God. For example, St. Augustine: “I would not exist, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you existed in me. Or is it rather that I would not exist unless I existed in you, ‘from whom, through whom, in whom, everything exists’?”—Confessions 1.2.2. For centuries God has thus been regarded as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, and whatever was experienced in this way was called God by the forerunners of my faith.
But this is a new idea: While I view God as all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, I most emphatically do not view God as all-controlling. This is where I differ, importantly, from many theists in centuries past. It makes me some sort of “process” theist (more here). That is because to be all-enlivening is nearly the opposite of being all-controlling. To enliven others is to prompt new ways of being beyond one’s own control. There is nothing lively about being utterly subject to control from someone or something else. (So we should either drop words like “omnipotence” altogether or else radically reinterpret them.) I cannot love an all-controlling power. I cannot help but love the uniquely all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing power—in St. Anselm’s terminology, this non-controlling power is nevertheless unsurpassable power, the power “than which a greater cannot be thought.”
(I am obviously not an evangelical, but there is also an evangelical version of God’s power as necessarily non-controlling.)
Awakening to God in this way is, furthermore, fully in keeping with acknowledging the degree and intensity of suffering around and within us, what is often called the problem of evil. There is no special treatment promised by awakening to God in this way. I and those I love might still suffer immeasurably as a result of unforeseeable happenings or of others’ deluded hate. With all things enlivened beyond anyone’s control, beyond even God’s control, there are simply no guarantees about exactly how my life or any other life (including God’s life!) will go. That would presume an all-controlling power, the very antithesis of all-enlivening power. There is of course one guarantee: however my life or your life goes, it has been intimately enlivened, it is being intimately sustained, and it is now and will always be intimately embraced in all its significance by reality as such, God. No preliminary or final moment of my life or your life or others’ lives, however abrupt or devastating, can rob it of the full significance it already has in the ultimate reality that enlivens, sustains and embraces all things (Romans 8:38-39). Is that guarantee enough? I can’t speak for everybody, but for me and many others it is. Yes, we are right to grieve over suffering natural disasters and to feel moral outrage at the suffering caused by others’ shortsighted selfishness. But grief and outrage are not reasons for despair, because these reactions are shared by the ultimate reality that enlivens, sustains and embraces all things, and because awakening to this impels us to join in what the rabbinic Mishnah calls the common task of “mending the world” (tikkun olam).
We can also say that to be at once intimately enlivened, sustained and embraced by reality as such is, in a way, the same as to be loved by reality as such. Lovers, after all, enliven each other, sustain each other and embrace each other to the fullest extent possible, don’t they? And yet, in a way, the common reality in which lovers do this is even more intimately related to both of them. When we love others and are loved in return, we most intensely reflect the intimately common reality that enlivens, sustains and embraces all of us and everything else.
So I awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love, because what happens in and through and around me is no exception to what happens everywhere. Every moment of experience, rightly noted, supports this. Reality as such is ultimately Love. This, too, is not a new idea: “God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (1 John 4:16).
I’m suggesting that anybody, anywhere, can awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. They may or may not call this God, but I do, with ample precedents from past usage in many traditions, as I’ve already explained. I also do this as one kind of Christian, and that’s no accident. Here’s why:
The first Christians placed all their trust in Jesus of Nazareth, because their shared experience of his life, death, and risen life among them became for them the unsurpassably enlivening, sustaining, and embracing embodiment of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. There they discovered that such an embodiment of all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing life cannot be undone by utter rejection or even death. Jesus’ post-execution, enlivening presence became for them the unsurpassably unifying embodiment (sacrament) of all other sacramental embodiments of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. That shared experience was what made Christianity Christian, and it is still what makes Christianity Christian today.
It’s what makes me Christian. For me, as for my ancestors, participating communally in the presently embodied life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth remains the unsurpassably unifying embodiment—the sacrament of all sacraments—of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love.
Others tell me that they do not view Jesus in this way, and while that always surprises me, at least slightly, I have no reason to say anything disparaging in response to this. I can’t explain why this unifying embodiment in and around my life is not everybody’s unifying embodiment. I can’t explain why others find something else to be what I would call their unifying embodiment. I can only confess that this is where I am. And it would be unfaithful of me to feel threatened by the fact that others are not where I am. Rejecting Love is threatening; embodying Love on other terms is not.
Regardless of what we think or say about Jesus’ life or some other unifying embodiment, regardless of what we think or say about the word “God,” I cannot help trusting that we are all at once intimately enlivened, sustained and embraced by reality as such. That is what I fundamentally mean by awakening, as one kind of Christian, to the one God Jesus’ life unsurpassably embodies.