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Explaining Who God Is (1): The Ultimate Person

This is part one of a three-part series. See parts two and three.


Some time ago I was trying to explain my faith to a Tibetan Buddhist monk. I told him about the creator God who made the world and made us. To my surprise he replied, “We also have a God like that in our religion. This confused me. As I understood it, Buddhism believed in many gods caught in ignorance and bound to the wheel of reincarnation but no ultimate God. It took some discussion and some reading before I worked out what he was talking about. He was from one of the two schools of Tibetan Buddhism that believe in an Adi Buddha—a pre-existent Buddha believed to be involved in the creation of the universe. However, although he exists in conscious bliss he is not a person. There is no real “self” in this being.

How do we explain who our God is across cultures and religions in a way that is clear and understandable both for those we are trying to reach and for ourselves?

How many times have you heard the comment that we all worship the same God in different ways? How do we explain who our God is across cultures and religions in a way that is clear and understandable both for those we are trying to reach and for ourselves?

Different Kinds of Life

In our world we experience three levels of life: Plant life, Animal life and Human life. These three levels can also be categorised as:

  • Non-conscious Programmed Machinery,
  • Impersonal Consciousness and
  • Personal Consciousness.

Let us think a little about what is involved in each level of life.

Plants

Plant life is not conscious, it has no mind. The structure and function of the plant as a whole is coded for in the DNA of each cell. The cellular DNA acts like a more sophisticated computer than we have ever built and produces factories of intracellular machinery to keep each cell alive and functioning. There is also coding and signalling between cells to produce specialised types of cells to perform various functions in the plant and produce the overall three dimensional structure of the plant. All this shows evidence of design more intelligent than humans have ever demonstrated. However there is no conscious mind directing everything in the plant itself. It runs on impersonal programming something like our automated, computer run factories except it’s occurring at the nano level, and far more sophisticated.

Animals

When we get to conscious animals we also have sophisticated programming and machinery, which builds and maintains the animal as a whole, like a plant. However there is something extra. There is a conscious mind. Materialistic science struggles with the concept of consciousness. It is not something you can measure in a laboratory. It is more than information processing and feedback loops involved in biochemical machinery. Nevertheless it is something we experience and something we can see animals have. We also know from experience that it is something working at a higher level than non-conscious machinery. When we study the animal mind we find that it can know things, feel things and choose things, like we can. Knowing, feeling and choosing are also concepts that only make sense in the context of a conscious mind. A plant or a machine does not do these things. But what directs its mind in these activities? How does it choose goals and pathways to its goals? We generally describe the director of an animal’s mind with the concept of ‘instinct’. It has preset goals for things like survival, obtaining food and water, reproduction and caring for its young. Some animals also have instincts for group interaction. In group interactions we see various types of communication operating as well as hierarchies and group cooperation for mutual goals. This type of behavior appears to be the closest to human behavior that we observe in animals.

Humans

What about humans? Are we just sophisticated animals running on instinct? We also experience ourselves having conscious minds. We know, feel and choose, like the animals. We also experience the influence of instinct on our minds. We do get hungry and thirsty and search for food and drink as the animals do. We instinctively struggle for survival. However we also experience something else. We experience a self. This is more than being able to tell our own bodies from other things, as some animals can. We have the conscious experience of our own selves existing. When we say, “I did such and such.” The “I” we are talking of is our own personal self. This self is the thing that defines me as being me. It is the essence of the person. The self is also the director of our minds. This is what sets us apart from the animals. While the animal mind is driven by instinct, humans have the personal self at another level above this.  The self chooses things like meaning, morality, beauty and truth. It is not just that the human mind can take abstraction to another level and evaluate what truth and beauty are. The fundamental thing that marks a person as a person is the “self” which directs the human mind in these evaluations. It is intimately connected with the mind but it is also above the mind. It is why we know intuitively that humans are responsible for their actions in a way that animals are not. We do not put animals on trial for murder but from an early age we expect humans to be morally accountable. It is not just a matter of intelligence. As we are often told, some animals can be more intelligent than young humans in certain respects. The crucial difference is whether or not there is a personal self in charge of the mind.

This self is the thing that defines me as being me. It is the essence of the person. It is why we know intuitively that humans are responsible for their actions in a way that animals are not.

How does this fit with the Bible? It is interesting that in Genesis 1 there are two Hebrew words used for create: bara and asa. The first one is used exclusively of God’s creating acts and the second can be used of God’s or man’s. The word bara is used first of the creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing in verse 1; it is then used of the creation of the animals living in the sea and birds in the sky in verse 21, and third, it is used of the creation of humans in verses 26-28. It looks as if God’s special activity in creation is being emphasised at the three levels we have been looking at. The creation of the material universe (leading up to plants on Day 3), the creation of animals with impersonal consciousness and the creation of humans with personal consciousness. It is also notable that the word used for creatures in verse 21 is nephesh, the Hebrew word for soul, which seems to point to the conscious minds of animals. However it is only mankind that is described as being in the image of God. We alone are personal like God. We alone are made deputy rulers under God. In Genesis 2:7 it talks of God breathing life into the nostrils of the man and Job 32:8 and 33:4 correlates this with God breathing spirit into man so he has understanding. This points to the idea that the personal self that makes us uniquely ourselves is something non material coming from God. It is also only for mankind that the Bible talks about both the spirit/soul continuing beyond the death of our physical bodies (e.g. Ecc 12:7, Matt 20:28).

So we have mindless mechanisms in plants, impersonal minds in animals and personal minds in humans. 

Why is all this important in explaining who God is?  The problem is that in our multicultural world, if you want to explain the Gospel and start talking about God the creator of this world there can be great misunderstanding. For a Moslem the word God will mean an isolated person who’s nature is radically different from the Bible’s triune God. A Hindu will probably hear the word God and understand an impersonal consciousness that also includes everything and everyone who exists. A Buddhist will think of either unenlightened lesser gods or a fully enlightened Buddha who lives in blissful impersonal consciousness.

In our multicultural world, if you want to explain the Gospel and start talking about God the creator of this world there can be great misunderstanding

So, if we want to explain who God is, it is helpful to have a framework to understand where the other person is coming from and to know what questions to ask to find out. It is also important to have a way of explaining that, while God is the ultimate reality, he is also personal and it is his nature to enter into personal relationships. So we can explain that our God is personal like a human but he is also infinite. Ultimate reality is not impersonal matter and energy. It is not impersonal consciousness, like an animal. Ultimate reality is personal like a human, but unlike a human He is also infinite.

We can also use this framework to understand a lot about other major world beliefs.

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