God as ‘Love’ or God as ‘Life’? (Rodney Eivers)

  (02 January 09)

God as ‘Life’ or God as ‘Love’?

By Rodney Eivers


It is clearly an ongoing struggle for many of us to redefine what we mean by God, given that we have to use that term at all.  Some indeed would have us do away with the term God altogether and I have some sympathy for that road. On the other hand, at a practical level, e.g. in conducting services of worship, it is very difficult to get a handle on the metaphorical terms which have been suggested from time to time. Even Paul Tillich’s famous: “ground of our being” has failed to grab me with any significance. Indeed I still don’t really know what it means.  It is very difficult to be more succinct when seeking to encapsulate our highest values, our loftiest ideals, our peak experiences and our areas of ultimate concern.


So I am tending to fall back on retaining the use of the term God and letting people define for themselves what they might mean by it. There is one area, however, where one can in a highly practical way equate a single common word with the word God. This is the one that Don Cupitt makes much of, “Life”. I think it is true that a great number of people in both the religious and secular world do equate these two words. Life is what is. An abstraction, sure, yet we can sometimes almost feel its effects as palpable.


Thus we can say, “God willing” and mean that it will happen if the breaks in life come our way.  A child can ask, “Why do monkeys have tails and humans do not?  We can quite logically answer, “Because God made us that way”. In other words, “that is the way life has developed, how it has happened”. This is very simple and honest.


Where I do have a problem in using God this way comes back to the issue that Hugh Mackay and David refer to.  If God is “life”, God is not necessarily loving or just.  As Jesus is reputed have said, “ God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust”


But to regard God as “love” or a “human spirit of goodness” is very much a part of my own worldview. I find it difficult to reconcile the two and have just about given up. It is a reason, for example, why I have not been convinced of Don Cupitt’s Solar Ethics as being the answer.


God as “life” and as  “love” are incompatible. I have no satisfying answer so far and the best I can come up with is of two different gods. Or if we want to stick to monotheism we have a biune rather than a triune God – two persons in one.


Mind you I find this dualism fits in well with my day-to-day expression of Christian faith and living.  The great commandment of Jesus thus becomes,  "To love God (celebrate life) and to love one’s neighbour. (display the spirit of goodness in all our human dealings)".








David Miller comments, 6 January 2009.

Don Cupitt is pulling a number of sleights of hand with his Solar Ethics.
His starting point is that the sun will eventually burn itself out. However, it seems to me that In the meantime the sun has both pros and cons as far as we are concerned. It causes both growth and withering. It is a creator and a destroyer. If we treat it as a moral agent, we could say it is both good and evil. In other words: amoral. More politely, we say the sun is ethically neutral. We could say the same thing about nature and evolution.

Don first stunt is to attempt to resurrect the sun as a moral agent by ignoring its negative aspects. It gives light, warmth, growth, and happiness, says Don. It is expressive and it puts on a ‘good show’. We should emulate it, Don declares.

When accused of being too individualistic and bohemian, Don’s next stunt was to take the sun’s negative aspects and turn them back on the sun itself. He does this by personifying the sun in order to obscure its role in the scheme of things by making it a creature amongst other creatures. Says Don: This creature is not only burning itself up for our benefit, it will eventually destroy itself. How’s that for altruism. What a role model.

The accusations did not abate. So Don’s next move was to attempt to cobble Humanitarianism onto his Solar Ethics. But they remain disjointed. Not that Humanitarian Ethics are not valid. They are. It is just that there seems to be no reason why Don’s Solar Ethics should lead to Humanitarianism. Other than the fact that Don has added them together for the sake of his scheme.

It would have been a different matter if Don had proposed Solar Ethical Neutrality. Then Don could have said some such thing as: Under the glare of the sun, to survive a nature red in tooth and claw, all that we have is each other, our companionship and our co-operation.

Posted by David Miller

I'm struggling to relate at all to 'Solar Ethics' - doesn't do anything for me G-wise.

But 'Life' is much more to my liking. That's what we've got; that's what gives worth to the Universe; as Rodney says that's the explanation, the answer to the 'why' questions: That's Life! I'm even coming round to the notion that I can with authenticity personify Life (and talk to Life as if I was talking to something real).

But the notion of 'Love' in place of the G-word leaves me cold and confused. For me it's a category mistake. Love is the noblest of our ideals - a different category to Life. Rodney demonstrates the consequences by showing that while Life is both good and bad for us, we can't talk that way about Love.

So let's not use this God is Love quote, since 'love' is intended to be a descriptor or attribute, and hence cannot be the 'Being' in itself.

For me the solution is clear: quit using the G-word or attributes that the G-person might have, and find an abstraction that encompasses in some way our destiny. For me: LIFE.

And if it's helpful then personify Life to facilitate I-Thou talk. (More about this at another time.)

Posted by Scott McKenzie

David Miller comments:

Rodney’s article (above) was originally posted on ‘Sofiatalk’ as a response to a post of mine. It may clear the air if I include it on this blog:-

Hugh Mackay, in his recently aired interview with John Cleary (ABC ‘Religion Report’, 24 December 2008), can be heard plaintively calling for God to be seen as love, as well as vice versa: Love to be seen as God.
I quite agree with this. Love certainly is one of our loftiest ideals. And why not have God as the symbol for love? In that case, ‘God’ is simply a metaphorical personification of love.
What’s more, there need be nothing supernatural in this usage. Does that surprise you? Let us take a more mundane example: Both theists and atheists occasionally refer to ‘Mother Nature’. Mother Nature is a symbol for nature. She is a metaphorical personification of nature. There is no supernaturalism implied in this. She is not treated as a god. Personification is not deification.
How would we go about turning Mother Nature into a god? We would have to give her supernatural powers. For example, we could say that she created nature. That would be sufficient to deify her.
However, that would immediately be seen as somewhat erroneous. Mother Nature is merely a symbol for nature. Nature is the reality; Mother Nature is the symbol. How can the symbol create the very reality that the symbol symbolizes? It is a category mistake. Yet when we use the generalized symbol ‘God’, our cultural conditioning blinds us to such errors as are contained in the commonly heard claim that, “God created everything”.
Yes, remove His supernatural powers and God might be an adequate symbol for love. (However, His behaviour in the Biblical stories often raises problems.)

God, I would claim, usually symbolizes far more than mere love. He usually symbolizes what I choose to call our Greatest Principles. To date I have teased out four categories, but they often overlap and sometimes conflict.
1. Our highest values - e.g. Goodness, truth, beauty.
2. Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, justice, freedom, creativity, etc.
3. Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, oneness, uniqueness, interconnectedness, etc.
4. Our Areas of Ultimate Concern – e.g. Family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc.
As you can see, all completely natural. Nothing supernatural about any of them.

You could, if you wish, re-label my Greatest Principles as ‘Spirituality’ or the ‘Spiritual Realm’. That would be a reference to the human spirit. But then that would bring in the negative aspects of the human spirit. Perhaps that’s where Satan comes in?

Posted by David Miller

David Miller comments, 8 January 2009:

Rodney has dared to broach one of the taboos of our culture – Polytheism. Rather than have a monotheistic God symbolizing conflicting principles, Rodney has opted to have separate gods. Or, at least, he has toyed with the idea. Yes, I agree, there is a problem. It is that our principles actually do conflict. Not only do individuals choose particular principles and reject others, religions do the same.

However, it is the principles themselves that are often in conflict with each other. Take justice and mercy, two of our lofty ideals. For many people they are incompatible. If mercy is offered, then it may be the case that no justice is achieved for the victim. How can one God symbolize both these ideals? Perhaps we need them to be symbolized by a god each? One for mercy and one for justice. (We already have a personification of justice. She stands blindfolded, holding up a set of scales).

Between many of the principles that comprise our areas of ultimate concern we also have a series of conflicts. Is there a nation that does not believe that its god is its protector? “God is on our side.” Yet nationalism often conflicts with the needs of the nation’s citizens and families. To take a wider view, nationalism can conflict with the needs of humanity as a whole, as well as the future of the planet.

There is a further problem. Most of our principles have a plus side and a minus side. Pro and con. Positive and negative. Rodney has already highlighted that particular problem in one of our areas of ultimate concern – Life. “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”

This, unfortunately, also applies to one of our lofty ideals – Love. Yes, love too has its negatives. Just think of that ever-present expression of love – Mothering. Often it becomes smothering. The desire to over-protect and control. It is not for nothing that we use the term, ‘nanny state’. Love is sometimes no more than emotional blackmail – “If you really love me, you’ll do as I ask.” Or, at an extreme, “If you don’t do as I want, I’ll kill myself.”

To reiterate: Each one of us has dozens of principles. We not only have high values, lofty ideals, peak experiences, areas of ultimate concern, but also low values, mundane ideals, devastating experiences, base concerns, as well as crass desires and vile impulses, etc. They range from the positive to the negative.

In the monotheistic religions God symbolizes the positive - our greatest principles. Whilst Satan symbolizes the negative. If we were capable of translating our principles into a polytheistic conception, we could have a god symbolizing each positive principle, as well as demons galore for the multitude of negatives.

Why do we believe that monotheism is so vastly superior to polytheism? In what way is monotheism superior? Is it merely because we believe it to be so? Our beliefs are superior because we are superior. Our monotheistic civilisations vanquished the ‘barbarian’ polytheists. We were the victors. We won the battles. We were the conquerors. And as such we wrote the history. Is that the basis of our belief in monotheism’s superiority? Does this sound sick? I agree. It is sick.

Why do we expect one poor monotheistic God to symbolize all these conflicting principles? Surely polytheism would be a better way to go.

Posted by David Miller

I'm getting a bit puzzled by all this talk of a god for this and one for that.

I'm puzzled because I thought we (mostly) agreed that this god isn't real - it's an invention of ours to deal with a (slight) weakness we have i.e. the need to have something/someone outside ourselves against whose qualities we assess our own, or even a Being to talk to for I-Thou interactions.

An invention! That we need because we are a bit weak as humans!

So for me the only difficulty is a name and a human-constructed concept of this "Being".

That's why LIFE works for me: a concept that suggests the contingency of our lives, but also brings to mind the best that we can be and the awesomeness of our Universe.

Posted by Scott McKenzie

David Miller comments, 12 January 2009:

My apologies, Scott. I got carried away with god-talk. I was discussing the rivalry between two forms of theism – monotheism and polytheism. If we look at this rivalry from a non-theist (non-supernaturalist) vista, then the real point at issue is the actual principles (concepts) symbolized by the God or gods of those theistic systems. Then it wouldn’t be a case of, “…a god for this and a god for that.”, but of, ‘this principle and that principle’. Yes, a number of principles. Not just one.

We have, in my opinion, been ‘brainwashed’ by our monotheistic cultural conditioning into mono-ideism (single idea). That is, there is one god, one truth, one principle, etc: ‘It is self-evident that there can only be one correct principle’.
In distinction to this, polytheism gives rise to poly-ideism (multiple ideas): many gods, many truths, many principles, etc: ‘Everything changes and is in constant flux’.

Our monotheistic cultural conditioning gives us the mono-ideistic propensity to believe that all principles ought to be subsumed within one Great Principle (i.e. God, Life.)
Within his concept of LIFE Scott has a number of principles:
1. “…the contingency of our lives”. (Devastating experiences).
In conflict with:
2. “…the best that we can be”. (Lofty ideals).
3. “…the awesomeness of our universe”. (Peak experiences regarding an area of ultimate concern).

Posted by David Miller

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