Very few words in the English language, and probably none, have more interpretations than God. This is a large impediment to not only theology, but to human communication in general. After all, nearly all of us, even atheists, use “God” as an ultimate or a superlative. But the problem goes much further than that: This word profoundly affects the deepest and most compelling questions we can presently conceive.
And so, the fact that we have multiple and fiercely competing definitions for this word is deeply problematic. This word reaches us, almost inevitably, in our young childhoods. And so, clarifying “Who is God?” may be one of the more important things that ours or any other civilization can do. And so we must.
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One day a boy named John took a walk through his small town. It was early and a lot of adults were getting ready to do their jobs. As he walked down one street, he saw two men opening a store and loading some boxes from the back of a truck. They noticed him and nodded politely, but their hands were full and they were having some kind of conversation. As he continued past, he heard one of them say, “Well… who is God?”
That question struck him; he had once heard his grandmother ask it to his grandfather. He wasn’t sure what they had been talking about and he barely understood the question, but he didn’t forget it. And now he had heard it again.
As he walked further, he came upon two older ladies on a morning walk.
“Good morning young man,” one of them said. “You seem deep in thought.”
“I suppose I am,” he said.
The lady seemed curious. “Do you mind me asking about what?”
I may as well ask it, he said to himself, they seem nice and they’re interested in talking to me.
“I just heard an interesting question,” he said.
“And what question was that?” the lady asked.
He turned and looked at them. “Who is God?”
Oh, that’s easy,” the lady said, “God created the world.”
The boy thought he liked that answer, but before he could think any further, the second lady said, “But that’s not all!” And this surprised the first lady.
“I think that’s all,” she said. “At least all that we can tell.”
“Oh, no,” said the second, “God is in charge of everything. He keeps the sun shining, feeds the birds, and guides us all through every step of our lives.”
After that, the two ladies began arguing and the boy felt disappointed. A moment later he walked away and they didn’t seem to notice.
This, he thought, is a very hard question.
A few minutes later he came upon Mr. Farner, who worked with his dad sometimes.
“Hello, Johnny,” he said. “And what are you doing up and about so early? Why do you look so concerned?”
“Hi, Mr. Farner. I was just taking a walk, and I…” John though Mr. Farner was a good man, and his dad was very sure of that, so he decided to tell him everything that had happened that morning: the question, starting an argument between two ladies, and that he was now afraid of the question.
Mr. Farner listened carefully, then sat down on a nearby bench, motioning for John to join him.
“That’s a very hard question you’ve been asking,” he said. “But I think it’s a very important one to ask… and I think that perhaps I haven’t asked it enough, probably because I’m a lot like you, and I don’t like to start arguments.”
John felt much better after hearing that. But then Mr. Farner went on:
“One thing to remember, Johnny, is that people often use that word just to mean the most or best of something.”
John wasn’t sure what Mr. Farner meant.
“What I mean,” Mr. Farner continued, “is that when they want to say nice things, they add ‘God’ to it, to make it sound especially nice, like when they say ‘God bless you.’
“Or, they use ‘God’ to make things sound especially good or bad. You must have heard people say things like, ‘God damn,’ about something very bad, haven’t you?”
John nodded that he had.
“So, that’s the first thing you should remember: A lot of times, probably most, people only use it to make what they say sound more dramatic. We should probably have a different word for that, but we don’t. Maybe some day you can make one.”
Mr. Farner smiled at him, and that made him feel better.
“Now, I really have to get to my business,” he said. “But try not to worry too much about your question. Almost no one you’ll ask it to will have a clear answer.”
“But who will have a clear answer?” He asked.
“Try Reverend Schultz at the church around the corner,” he said, “I just saw him sweeping his steps. I’ll bet he’s still there.”
John didn’t know Reverend Schultz, but he hurried off to find him just the same. And just as Mr. Farner had said, he found the man – and he looked very, very old – sweeping the steps in front of an old church.
John walked up to the man and stood very still, waiting.
“Good morning, young man,” he said. “Do you need something?”
The John explained about his question and told the man everything he had done that morning.
“Very well,” said Reverend Schultz, “I’ll make you a trade.”
John was surprised by that, and a little confused. And so he asked, “What kind of trade?”
“Well,” the old man went on, “I have been alive well over ninety years, and I get tired sweeping, and so our trade will be this: You sweep for me – clean all the steps from top to bottom – I’ll sit down on the side of the stairs here (there was a good place for sitting there), and I’ll give you the best answer I can. Do we have a deal?”
John nodded and took the broom; sweeping wasn’t very hard for him.
The old man sat down on the side of the stairs, very slowly, and then started talking.
“Mr. Farner was a good friend to you,” he said. “His advice was important, even if it didn’t answer the whole question. The ladies meant well, but they’ve both grown too comfortable with their answers, and are unwilling to change them.”
John nodded and kept sweeping.
“The truth, young man… and it took me many years to become clear on this… is that our universe was created by someone, and that most of us call that person God.”
The old man looked hard at John. He stopped sweeping and looked back.
“I’d like you to remember that much,” the old man said. Do you think you can do that?”
John replayed the man’s words in his mind: Our universe was created by someone, and most of us call that person God. “Yes,” he said, “I will remember that.”
“Good, good,” the old man replied. “That’s really all you need.”
“But what about all the other things people say?”
The old man smiled. “Their answers will mainly tell you what they’d like to be true.”
John heard the words well enough, but wasn’t sure he really understood, and the old man must have noticed.
“If I had my way,” he said, “we’d just say ‘creator’ and be done with it. That would make things a lot easier. But, people are attached to their other ideas. And, thinking that those ideas are very, very important, they like to attach them to ‘God,’ since, as your friend Mr. Farner says, that makes their ideas seem especially strong.”
Again, John stood still, trying to make sure he’d remember this.
“The creator, young man, if he created our universe, must exist beyond it.” Then he paused for a moment to let John’s mind catch up with the words.
“If he created the universe, he could not be dependent upon it, could he? And he wouldn’t need to spend time in it, would he?”
John felt like it took a few more moments for this idea to settle in his mind, but eventually it did.
“No!” he said. “The creator might or might not spend time inside our universe. For all we know he has other things to do!”
“Quite so,” said the old man, as he very slowly got himself back to his feet.
John handed him the broom and then wandered back toward home, replaying the old man’s words to himself, so he’d never forget them.
* * * * *