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God is a Verb

October 2010

Did you ever think that God might best be imagined not by a noun but as a verb? This is something that has struck me in the last several years, and I have been fascinated by the discovery. While all the qualities of personhood are in God, rather than thinking about God as just some kind of “person” “up there” or “out there,” I’ve begun to think about God as a Movement, an Embrace, a Flow—moving through the cosmos and history, embracing wounded and suffering creation, flowing through the smallest subatomic particle as well as the most complex organisms. There is no place in this vast universe or in the hearts of women and men that God, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, is not “drawing near and passing by.”

Imagining God as a verb might sound very new and maybe even radical, but I don’t think it is. Think of Thomas Aquinas’s description of God as “pure act.” Or think of Bonaventure’s idea that God is “self-diffusive love” (paraphrased by CTU professor Tony Gittins as “love hitting the cosmic fan”!). The great medieval woman mystic Mechtilde of Magdeburg spoke about the “restless Godhead,” an “overflow . . . which never stands still and always flows effortlessly and without ceasing . . .” And, of course, most fundamental of all, the First Letter of John says that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Not a person who loves, but love itself.

Movement, embrace, flow, love . . . Another way I like to imagine God is as a kind of dance. Do you know the dance called the conga? It was popular in the 1940s and is sometimes danced even today at weddings. It is a dance in which one person leads, usually moving to a vibrant Latin rhythm, and people hold on the leader’s, and then each others’ waist and weave around the dance floor and through the whole room, gathering more and more people as it moves, becoming more and more fun and exciting as more and more people join. That’s the kind of dance through creation I imagine God doing. God moves through the world to the rhythm of creation, calling it to fullness of life, to joy, and—especially because of human sin and the violence to people and the cosmos that inevitably follows—to healing and reconciliation. All of creation is invited into the dance, but especially women and men, who by God’s amazing grace are called into special partnership to help lead the dance. As God’s images in creation, women and men are called to work with God in inviting creation into the dance, and working with God for fullness, wholeness, joy, and healing.

All this is to say that God is Mission. From the first nanosecond of creation God has been moving, dancing through the world and through history by the power of the Holy Spirit. Imaged in the Bible as uncontrollable wind, gentle breath, raging fire, flowing cool water, oozing oil, we read about how the Spirit gives life, stirs up prophecy, brings healing, offers comfort, works for liberation, re-vivifies what has been dead. From the Christian understanding, “In the fullness of time,” (Gal 4:4) this elusive, pervasive, mysterious presence is made concrete in one human being, Jesus of Nazareth. It is through his actions—how he spoke, how he healed and wrestled with evil, how he included everyone without exception in his invitation to discipleship, how he loved us “unto the end” (Jn 13:1)—that we can put a face on God’s Movement, Embrace and Flow. “God is like Jesus,” wrote Latin American theologian Juan Luis Segundo. Not “Jesus is like God,” as if we knew who God was and Jesus somehow “fits the bill.” Rather, who this person was and what he did show us clearly than anybody or anything before or since what God is really like.

The powers that be, no doubt threatened by Jesus and his message, had him put to death. But you can’t stop the Movement, the Embrace, the Flow, the Dance, the Mission. God continues to move through the world, inviting women and men to the dance.

Changing the image of God from noun to verb can change everything. If we would begin to take it seriously we might be astounded at how different the Catholic church would be. Perhaps more collaborative. Perhaps more prophetic. Perhaps more credible in the world.

 

Steve Bevans, S.V.D. is the Louis J. Luzbetak, S.V.D., Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union

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