What and where is God?

In his introduction to the Summa Theologiae (see previous post), Timothy McDermott points out that one of the things which separates us from Thomas Aquinas are that our questions about God are different from those of Thomas’s time.

For Thomas and his contemporaries, as they rediscovered Greek philosophy, the great question was “What is God?” For us, the question is “Where is God?”; “what (if anything) in our world betrays his presence?” And Christians today give a very different answer from that of our medieval forebears, seeing God as showing himself “not in the prudence and power of the rulers of this world, but in the powerlessness and foolishness of the poor” (p.xlvi).

McDermott argues, however, that while Thomas was “a man of his time”, he was also “a giant of his time”, who “laid the foundations for the questions to come”. So while Thomas shared the medieval view of God as being at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of power, he recognised that our picture of power contains elements which “must disappear from from our assertions about God’s power”. God is not a “powerful manipulator”, imposing his choices on his world from outside:

He is neither a God from above, nor yet a God from below led by the events, but he is a God in the events as we and the world determine them, because he is a God within our and the world’s determining of them. … The fundamental insight as always is that every natural doing and every chance doing in the world, and every free doing of man, is a tool of the doing of God. (pp.xlvi f.)

This leads Thomas to his understanding of God’s grace as “not simply the external favour in God, but something residing in us and empowering us”. Grace is:

the loving favour of God operating and cooperating with man’s doing, so that the intent of man and the intent of God become one. For Thomas this is the true place where God’s power shows itself, this is where God is. (p.xlix)

This grace is seen most fully in “the great act and symbol of Calvary”, whose meaning Thomas describes as follows:

Christ’s sufferings, considered as something done by God, can be said to effect our salvation, but as willed by Christ with his human soul are said to earn it; and as something undergone in the flesh are variously said to be amends made for us if thought of as freeing us from liability to punishment, our ransom if thought of as freeing us from slavery to sin, and our sacrificial offering if thought of as reconciling us to God. (ch.14 p.529, quoted on p.li)

God’s love calls to us from the cross of Christ, and this call (and the opportunity to respond to it) are spread throughout the world in the sacraments (above all the eucharist), where “we make present to ourselves the presence of God through Calvary; and God uses our celebrations as his tools to introduce himself and his intent into our lives, and continually reinforce that presence” (p.lii)

And so we have our answer both to Thomas’s question, “What is God?”, and to our question, “Where is God?”:

What then is God? The love revealed on Calvary calling to men. Where then is God? In the acts of love by which men respond to the call, and so keep God’s love alive and calling today: actions which are themselves kept alive by God’s eternal love. (p.lii)


2 thoughts on “What and where is God?”

  1. This explanation of what and where God is relies too much on vicarious atonement theology for my taste.
    I liked the initial use of liberation theology, emphasizing the poor and the powerless.
    The Incarnation is not an exclusive event; and vicarious atonement is one among several different interpretations of the death of Jesus.
    The Divine is immanent in everything.

    1. Thanks for this, too.

      I think this follows on from my reply to your other comment: we’re each making truth-claims that are basically incompatible. “The incarnation of Christ was a unique event, however prefigured/echoed it may be elsewhere, and his death has salvific significance for us” is a different set of assertions from “the incarnation of Christ is just one example among many of divine immanence in the human”.

      Where we can agree is on the immanence of the Divine in all things. However, I would say that the doctrines of creation (in particular its description of a universe upheld at every point by a God who is nevertheless distinct from it) and incarnation give a picture of what that immanence involves that is very different from (say) a more “pantheistic” view.

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