Place of Faith in God or Place of God?
One of the most puzzling questions which pop Christianity throws up is the question, “What is the place of God in your life? Is God the center of your life?” Now, I can never understand this question outside of an academic context. The simple reason being that God has literally no place in the world, God is ground and foundation of all places. The entire universe exists and is upheld by the free, creative action of God, you, me, and all mankind. So, if I am asked what is the place of God in my life, I will simply answer, “Well, He establishes and sustains mine existence, and everyone else.” Since God grounds all places, then he cannot also be “in competition” with other places, by virtue of the fact that it is he who gives the meaning and being of all places. As St. Paul puts it when preaching to the pagan and Greek philosophers at Athens,
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
So the simple fact is that God is already close to us, and that God is already acting in us, giving us our being, movement and life, even before we have acknowledged Him. So God’s place in our lives is not a matter of human will, as if we can decide whether to let God be in the center of our lives. By definition of being our Creator and Sustainer, He already is acting in and for us and is right smack at the core of our existence!
Of course I know very well what the evangelical means when he or she asks this question. To phrase the question more accurately, the evangelical means something like, “What is the place of faith in your life?” Now, that is a very different question.
Creation as Generosity
Faith has always been partially a question of interests. To give a recent example, our faith in NKF was shattered when we discovered that instead of acting the interests of kidney patients, they were instead acting for the interests of its CEO, to fatten their wallets and gold-plate their taps. Our confidence in institutions and persons are partially dependent on what they say their agenda is, whose and what interests do we think they are serving.
Now, when it comes to God, there is something very puzzling about this question. Surely, if there is any Being whose agenda is concealed, whose interests are not known, God is surely such a Being. After all, his “mysterious ways” are often invoked when shocking and tragic things happen. But the Bible suggests that such infantile religion is to be outgrown.
The Nicene Creed begins with, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth”. This suggests that we can trust in God precisely because He is the “Maker of Heaven and Earth”. God is the unique source of everything, he is completely full and self-sufficient, containing all reality and is the source of all being, so thus, He can’t need anything, and has no “self-interest”. As the Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it,
…this means that God can’t have a selfish agenda, because he can’t want anything for himself except to be the way he is. So if the world exists because of his action, the only motivation for this that we can even begin to think of is sheer unselfish love. He wants to give what he is to what isn’t him; he wants difference to appear, he wants an Other to receive his joy and delight. He isn’t bored and in need of company… we have to bend our minds around the admittedly tough notion that we exist because of an utterly unconditional generosity. The love that God shows in making the world, like the love he shows towards the world once it is created, has no shadow or shred of self-directed purpose in it; it is entirely and unreservedly given for our sake. It is not concealed way for God to get something out of it for himself, because that would make nonsense of what we believe is God’s eternal nature.
Thus, the importance of the doctrine of Creation ex nihilo is that it tells us that God act towards the world is entirely generous, that He acts entirely in our interests, because God doesn’t have any self-interests, no needs or “identity” or ego of his own to protect, being completely self-sufficient.
How God explains Everything but not Anything
Now this doctrine has some rather surprising implications as to what faith in such a God entails. As Rowan Williams put it elsewhere,
“Jacques Pohier’s remarkable and haunting book, God in Fragments, brilliantly sets this out under the rubric, ‘God does not want to be Everything’. Pohier recalls Aquinas’ startling denial that we ought to love things or persons as means of loving God or as leading us to God: we should love them for their ‘autonomy and consistency’, for what the free love of God has made them. ‘God is the reason for loving, he is not the sole object of love’. it is God who makes it possible to love things and persons for what they are (because to believe in a free creator is to believe that nothing in the world can enslave us by being ‘God’ for us). But what is more, to treat God as ‘Everything’, as the immediate totality of meaning for each and every subject in the world, is to misunderstand the nature of our unconditional dependence on God. God establishes the worth, the legitimacy, the right to be there, of what is in the world, and in that sense gives meaning; but precisely what God does not do is to intrude into the integrity of this or that aspect of being in the world as a justification or explanation for specific events. If the explanation of every event, every determination of being, every phenomenon or decision were simply and directly God, then life of creation would not be genuinely other than God. God grounds the reality and, in the theological sense, the goodness of the world’s life, but does not answer specific ‘Why?’ questions. To think otherwise, Pohier suggests, is for us actually to reduce God to ourselves, to define God as the answer, not to our ‘need’ for reality or identity, but our needs for control and for a world we can chart in relation to the centrality of ourselves… If we need God simply in order to understand and accept our very reality, then our relation to God in particular circumstance will not but one of need in the ordinary sense, [it will be] a desperate effort to make God supply this or that desired gratification, physical, intellectual and spiritual. We should instead be capable of receiving God as pure gift, unexpected good news, as the absolutely uncontainable, the irreductively different; as God“
Some of the more obvious implications is that our worth as persons, our place in the world is established by the sheer grace, or generosity of God’s creative act.
The second implication is much more surprising, that namely, the whole Christian obsessions with Christian worldviews and perspectives on many secular topics is simply a mistake! God establishes the legitimacy, the independence and the integrity of the entire world, and because of this, this implies that the world has sufficient resources for the explanation of any phenomena within the world without the need for God “muscling” or interfering in the explanation of any specific phenomena of the world because it is He who grounds it. What does God does explain is ‘everything’, or the entire universe, but what God does not explain is this or that particular feature of the world. As a friend once puts it to me, God explains everything and nothing at the same time.