God is Community

by Hal Miller

"No one has ever seen God," or so insisted one of Jesus' closest friends. Yet on the basis of God's own revelation, we presume to talk as if we have done so. This is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that we can speak truly of God on the basis of faith, a curse in that we are constantly tempted to go beyond faith and claim to have seen. If John, who saw God incarnate, was unwilling to give in to the temptation of claiming to have seen God, we who are at best once removed from even that sight had better imitate his example.

Yet we do speak of God whom we have not seen. We call God "father" and "comforter" and "judge." These are not the names of sight but of faith; they are visions of God couched in metaphors. We do not use analogy, saying God is like a father or a judge, as if God shared some characteristic in common with other fathers and judges we might know. Rather, we use metaphors, creative acts which transform the meanings our words have in common speech to point out a relationship which is normally invisible. Let me explain.

John Donne wrote:

Not no man is like an island; no man is an island. The effect is electric and the vision it produces is profound. Part of the reason metaphors create new understandings in us is that they transform our normal sense of reality. If you actually think about Donne's "no man is an island," your first response should be, "Of course. Who would ever be so silly as to confuse people with pieces of land." But Donne doesn't mean to point to a common characteristic which people and land masses share; he intends to evoke a relationship which is all but invisible to us until we are startled to it by the force of metaphor.

We use metaphors like this to envision God whom we have not seen. And the visions of God these metaphors produce have profound effects on our lives. They tell us what is meaningful, what is right, what is just, and what is loving. They give us ways of understanding how to live our lives, knowing what things count and what things don't. For example, many people see God as a moralistic tyrant: stern, implacable, and so concerned with moral rectitude that he (the disciplinarian father) punishes, in unpredictable and painful ways, those who err. The psychology of guilt which this produces is obvious to its sufferers. And the spiritual paralysis it creates is directly rooted in a defective vision of God.

EVERY VISION WE have of God, whether defective or liberating, deeply conditions our lives. Each changes us in ways we seldom notice; indeed, this is their power. Go back to Donne's metaphor for a moment. No man is an island. We Americans obviously know otherwise. We pride ourselves on self-reliance, on setting our own goals and achieving them, on creating personal webs of meaning by which we insulate ourselves from the hard, heartless world in which we exist.

Part of the reason that we think that a person is an island is because we think God is an island. We often envision God as a self-satisfied, eternally existing being who has no need of any other. We are quite confident that this unspoken vision of God is an accurate one-so confident, in fact that we think it is a literal description of what God is like. One way to describe this confidence is to say that our unspoken metaphor "God is an island" is dead.

A dead metaphor is one that no longer has any tension within it. A common example: time flies. We say this without any sense of the oddity that it creates. Time is not a bird or an insect which flits through the air. Yet we say, "time flies" without any sense of its strangeness. And yet the metaphor is much more powerful when we step back and say, "No, it doesn't. Time can't really fly."

Most of our metaphors of God are dead, too. We have lost any feeling for the tension they create. The most obvious example is the metaphor "God is father." We have on our hands here a dead metaphor; we think God is literally a father, and so is literally both male and old. Ask yourself, when you pray, do you picture a gray-bearded male deity? Or is God still father in a metaphorical sense, so that you say, "No, she's not."

Dead metaphors for God need first of all to be confronted by the tension which they themselves wish to produce. We can legitimately say that God is father only so long as we maintain in our minds the unspoken "no she's not." With the tension maintained, our father God can breathe compassion and vigor into our lives. Without it, he will be a sexist, dominating, hierarchical tyrant.

A SECOND WAY to bring greater health into our visions of God requires that we turn our attention to ignored metaphors for God and revive them. Precisely because they have been long ignored, and have a layer of dust on them, they have more of an ability to shock us into healthier visions of God than do some of our more common metaphors.

It is time to revive a metaphor which has been long dead for us: God is community. Sounds odd, doesn't it. The reason it sounds so odd is that we don't usually say it quite that way; so I picked this expression for its metaphoric shock value. Our usual way of saying that God is community-namely, God is trinity-has become for us a literal description, a dead metaphor. Yet the meaning at the root of the trinitarian vision of God is remarkably biblical. It is a vision that God is community.

Christians in the early church struggled with a double problem. On the one hand, they inherited Israel's insistence on the incomparability of God: "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh your God is one." In the midst of the confusion of gods their neighbors envisioned, Israel saw that Yahweh was one God and the only God. Yahweh was not merely their god to be placed alongside others. There were no others.

But, on the other hand, the early Christians were confronted with the reality of Jesus. He claimed an intimate relationship with God and took God's prerogatives as his own. Jesus spoke of being one with the Father and even said that anyone who had seen him had seen the Father-a very disturbing thought for monotheists.

Jesus' followers tried to make sense of this as best they could. John, for instance, just after he says that no one has ever seen God, is forced to add the qualifier, "but the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known" (John 1:18). I find it interesting that later copyists of John's Gospel could not deal with the tension of that sentence and replaced "only begotten God" with "only begotten son" to make John's original vision less jarring.

As the church grew, more and more people tried to describe how God could be one and yet Jesus could be God. And the debates which surrounded them were sometimes violent. In our more enlightened (or more anesthetized) age, where we have little passion for ideas, it is difficult for us to understand fist-fights, riots, and exile for the sake of an idea about God. Yet the early Christians knew that a vision of God was at stake, and that failing to envision God adequately would mean failure to thrive in Christian life.

All this came to a head in the fourth century, when they reached a consensus we call the doctrine of the trinity. God is one, and yet God is three. God is community. Jesus, from one perspective is a member of the community God; from another perspective he is the divine community itself.

The trinitarian vision that God is community had a profound impact on all of Christian thought and life. We can see this most easily by contrasting it with a purely monotheistic vision. In contrast to the Christians' vision of God as community, Mohammed arose to insist that Allah was one, and the Christians were plainly wrong. Jesus was indeed a great prophet, but God's unity could not be violated by saying anything like "Jesus is God." The result, for Islam, was a vision of God in which justice was the central theme, in contrast to the Christians, for whom love was the central theme.

A moment's reflection shows why this is so. How can love be central to God if God is One, literally, pure and simple? Whom did God love before the creation of the world? If God is one, the answer must be, "Nobody." But that means love is contingent and peripheral, not essential, to who God is. What is essential is God's holiness, and as a result, God's primary relation to the creation is one of justice and dominion rather than love.

Because Christianity asserted that God is community, it can insist that, fundamentally, God is love (1Jn. 4:8). Eternally, God was a community of love and labor, so it comes as no surprise that God deals with the creation lovingly, even to the point of dying on its behalf.

GOD IS COMMUNITY. Though the metaphor is shocking, it is thoroughly Christian and can have a profound effect on the shape of our lives. To see how, consider some texts of scripture.

Consider first the creation story of Genesis 1. God creates the world and all its inhabitants simply by command. Everything springs into existence because of a mere "let there be" from God. And yet when the time comes to create us, the rhythm of the passage breaks-God stops commanding and begins to take counsel.

"God said, `Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves..."' (Gen. 1:26). God is no longer a lone monarch commanding, but a heavenly council discussing. God, somehow, is community. And when the next sentence goes on to describe what it means that we are created in God's image, it says,

What is it to bear God's image? It is to be male and female, two and yet one, plural and yet single, to be individual in community.

God created humans as community. And as community, we bear God's image because God is community. We are not isolated and merely extrinsically related; we are communal and intrinsically related. "No man is an island" because God is not an island. God is community and we bear God's image.

CONSIDER ANOTHER TEXT which connects our vision that God is community and the shape of our lives.

We love because God is love, and knowing God impels us to love each other. More than that, loving each other is the substance of our vision that God is community. In John's Gospel, we were told that "no one has ever seen God" and yet the only-begotten God had made him known. Here too, "no one has ever seen God." But now our knowledge of God comes from loving each other. In our community, we know God's presence and the reality of God's love because God is community.

Christians have as part of their task in life to portray God to the world, to bear God's image. And this is done by being community. Loving one another shows the God whom no one has ever seen to be community. This is why loving each other is the commandment Jesus gave his followers (John 15:12) and the commandment we heard from the beginning (1Jn. 2:7).

This is the vision which molds the direction of our lives, the choices we make, and the values we embrace. We Christians say, "God is community," and because of this vision are being transformed out of the alienation and fragmentation of this fallen world into a community, a new society of God's making in God's image. Our lives are directed to community, not isolation. Our choices are choices for community, not alienation. And our values move us toward community, not toward mere self-reliance and independence.

Because God is community.