Have you ever noticed how God created the universe in chapter one of Genesis and then did it all over again a different way in chapter two? Do you recall that God visited the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation in chapter twenty of Exodus, then repealed it in chapter eighteen of Ezekiel? And what about all the times that the Bible records God as relenting from having come down hard on somebody, often as a result of the pleas of the faithful? Yet we are told in Malachi 3:6, "I the Lord do not change." What's going on here? What is God really like?
The Unchanging Principle
Human beings care whether or not God changes His mind or changes His nature because we want a God we can rely on, a God who is dependable. Throughout much of the Old Testament, God is depicted as behaving like a capricious potentate from whom one never knows what to expect from one day to the next. We cannot rely on much from a god who keeps changing the rules of the game, nor can we truly be said to have free will in such a game, or such a universe. Christian apologist C. S. Lewis has made the point that for humankind to have free will, the environment must be neutral. If you can make it rain on me but not on you, I haven't got much in the way of free will. The rain has to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous, as Jesus reminds us (Mt. 5:45).
So God, having given us free will, has also provided a universe that operates by a set of impartial laws that are, for all practical purposes, changeless over vast periods of time. We can rely on them. This is sometimes described as an aspect of God: God as Principle, which for all practical purposes is unchanging.
But what about God's capriciousness that the Old Testament authors regale us with? Does prayer change God's mind? Can God be manipulated by, say, flattery, or contrition, or great amounts of pleading by numerous or important individuals? In short, does God behave like a powerful, giant human being of dubious character?
The Bible was written "in many and various ways" (Heb. 1:1) by a number of individuals. Not surprisingly, their views differed and continued to evolve over time. Realizing that the anthropomorphic God-as-bad-tempered-potentate view was limited, many modern thinkers have turned to an impersonal view of God as something like the Force in the Star Wars films. This solves some problems but creates others. A Force can be impartial, true, but it can have none of the qualities of personality, such as love, mercy, and understanding. This leads to a situation in which at least some of God's creatures could surpass God. How can we relate to such a God? Whose views can we trust?
Here we happily turn to the New Testament. Jesus repeatedly tells us to view God as a wise and loving father, who "knows what you need before you ask him" (Mt. 6:8). "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Lk. 6:36). When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he had them begin with "Our Father" (Mt. 6:9). This view is also found in the Old Testament, for example, in Psalm 103.13, "As a father has compassion for this children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him" or "I will lead them ... for I am a father to Israel" (Jer. 31:9 RSV). Such a view of God as personal yet impartial, having the qualities but not the limitations of human personality, is known as personalism.
Peter told us "I truly understand that God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34), which means that God cannot be swayed by pleadings the way a child might wear down a parent by wheedling. God cannot be influenced by the prayers of the mighty: God will not suspend the law of gravity simply because someone important just fell out of the window of a skyscraper. Instead, God is way ahead of us: "Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear" (Is. 65:24). and Jesus said, "Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things" (Mt. 6:32).
The Relationship: A Living Presence
But we still have the view of a God, albeit a good God, who is separate from us. Loving and evenhanded though that God may be, if God is "out there" somewhere (what theologians call transcendent) and we are "down here," God seems remote, distant. When we lose our job, or the baby is sick, or we don't get along with our mother, how can we contact God? How can God help us?
In his addenda to the Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, Charles Fillmore writes:
"There is also another sense in which we think of God as Father. Jesus would not have chosen the word father to describe God had He wished simply to describe a cause or principle.
"There is a relationship with God into which we can enter where He seems 'closer ... than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.' When we enter into this relationship, we become acutely aware of God as a living presence and we are lifted up by His love. In this consciousness we are able to say as Jesus did, 'Father.'"
Then how are we to get from a view of God as transcendent to this view of God as immanent, "closer than breathing"? Some Eastern religions teach that God is everywhere (immanent), and many in the West have picked up that notion as appealing. But this view, known as pantheism, raises other problems. First, we lose the loving Father, replaced by a formless, impersonal Ground of All Being into which we all ultimately melt, or get ground! And what is our role in this scenario? We are illusion, without individuality, smothered by a God that New Thought philosopher Alan Anderson calls the "universal wet blanket."
Everywhere is in God
But don't lose heart; there is a way out of this morass. We find it in Acts 17:28: "In him we live and move and have our being." It's not that God is everywhere (pantheism), but rather that everywhere is in God (panentheism). As Unity minister Eric Butterworth puts it in The Concentric Perspective:
"God is not in you like a raisin is in a bun, but like the ocean is in a wave. The wave is never more nor less than god expressing as you."
Now we're getting somewhere! All the love and power and order of God is fully available at the point called you and at the point called me. Psalm 82:6 reads, "You are gods, children of the Most High, all or you." Now we begin to see why Jesus said, "If you have faith ... nothing will be impossible for you" (Mt. 17:20). The great French mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, had as his favorite Bible text 1 Corinthians 15:28, "En pasi panta Theos" (that God may be all in all). From the original Greek in this passage, we can see the source of the word panentheism.
As We Grow, God Grows
Well, then, if we are one with a loving, reliable God who does not change his mind, of what use is prayer? And, if we are one with God and we change, doesn't God change at least to that extent? Prayer changes things, all right. It changes us when we have gotten out of alignment with God and are not open channels for God's good to flow to us. I've heard author Wayne Dyer describe this in terms of the drift on an FM radio station. The station is always there, but we must be properly tuned into it. I have also heard televangelist Robert Schuller describe prayer as standing in the prow of a rowboat, throwing your anchor firmly into the wet sand of the beach, and hauling on the rope. You are not pulling the shore to the boat, despite appearances. You are drawing the boat to the shore, just as you draw yourself to God.
As to the question of God's changing to the extent that we do, it gets better and better. God is taking in all that we become, growing as we grow. In this process, we enrich God. We are cocreators with God. The utterly dependable, loving, wise character of God does not change, but we have the joy and privilege of adding to God. This is how we glorify God, our gift to God. And God, of course, is glorifying us any time that we are fully aligned with God so that we can accept the good that God has in store for us.
Choosing God's Perfect Possibilities
Now contemporary science gets into the act, for we learn from quantum physics that the universe is not static, but dynamic, not substance to be shaped, but bursts of energy, called quanta. In such a universe, the idea that God changes as we do becomes even more meaningful, for we exist only for a fraction of a second, to be succeeded by a nearly identical self in a series of selves like the frames of a movie. We are literally new every moment, and at each moment, God is there ahead of us, holding out perfect possibilities for the next moment. We have to choose how many of those possibilities we will accept and how many we will simply cling to as in the past, blending past and possibility in each moment. It is interesting to see how H. Emilie Cady foreshadowed this process view of cocreation in Lessons in Truth:
"Desire in the heart is always God tapping at the door of your consciousness with His infinite supply--a supply that is forever useless unless there be demand for it. 'Before they call, I will answer' (Is. 65:24) ... the thing you desire is not only for you but has already been started toward you out of the heart of God."
And if you mess up your moment, God is there in the next moment with tailor-made perfect possibilities for the situation that exists then, for in this sense God suffers as you suffer, loves as you love. Process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead refers to God as "the great companion--the fellow sufferer who understands," and each moment enriches the background out of which the next moment arises, so you are constantly shaping the future. Your bit may seem insignificant at the moment, but the bits add up to a magnificent whole. This is how healing takes place.
Personalism, panentheism, process--what a wonderful view of God we have today! God is eternally the same in character, but growing as we grow in the space age, as new as tomorrow. And made in the image and likeness of God, we, too, are new every moment.
Entered August 14, 1996, by Alan Anderson
Updated (not text) June 21, 1998
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