On the notion that God is “with us”

In the Christian tradition, the angel who visited Joseph during his betrothal to Mary said that the baby (later to be identified as Jesus the Christ) would be named “Immanuel”, which we are told means “God with us.” (See Matthew 1:21-23.) This came to my mind tonight in a group discussion where several folks mentioned a desire for God to be “with them,” suggesting that such is not always the case.

I have also been guilty of harboring this notion, but it suggests something about God that simply cannot be.

It cannot be that God is transient, moving in and out of our lives based on some personal invitation. God is either omnipresent, or it is not. God must be constant to be eternal. For anyone or anything to be “without God” at any point in time would require that God be absent and void in one moment and present (“with”) in the next. If God is truly omnipresent, fully sovereign, and complete – as the distinct majority of my Sunday school teachers always taught me is consistent with the Christian tradition – God must necessarily be everywhere and in everything at all times. Anything less than this places a limitation on God, or suggests that a condition can exist within a sovereign creation, but somehow with the absence of the sovereign.

What is clearly subject to change is humanity’s awareness at any given time of the presence of the creative, restorative, reconciling work that evidences the existence of God. It cannot be that a God that is perfect and complete is incapable of change, for to change would demand that God were not perfect and complete at a given moment in time. It must only be then that humanity changes in our awareness of the markings of God to find evidence of its existence.

Whence then comes our need to personify God with gender-specific pronouns, or to imagine dressing God in a skin like ours? (Creating God in our image?) Whence comes our need to understand and somehow be able to relate on some personal level to an “intelligent creator”? (This, of course, supposes that humanity can define “intelligence” in the natural world in which we find ourselves.) Fractal mathematics provides theory to substantiate an apparent order in the universe around us, but we constantly perceive the need to define “God” by our own terms, and fit it into a box that we can see, know, and take down or put away as we will.

God has to be truly ubiquitous in every sense. Hebrew legend tells us that the shepherd Moses encountered a bush that burned with fire but was not consumed. That oral legend, handed down in modern Biblical text in Exodus chapter 3, says that when Moses questioned the identity of God (YHWH, or “Yahweh” in Jewish tradition), the voice from the bush replied “I am who I am.” (See Exodus 3:14.) Modern commentary suggests that this translates as a statement to the eternal nature of what God is – testifying again to God’s ubiquity. God cannot be compartmentalized into any definition by any human standard.

This is why we cannot escape the presence of God and why God cannot escape ours; we can only turn our head away.

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