[God far or near]
…. Can you help me with this problem? I'm doing a part-time theology course, just for the interest, and I think I've read myself into a theological swamp. I don’t seem to be able to get myself out, and I don’t even know how to put the question clearly. I tried to have a conversation with the lecturer one evening, but he was obviously in a hurry, and I wasn’t able to explain myself very well.
This is my problem. Theology seems to keep stressing that God is infinite, beyond our capacity for understanding, and so on. And yet it keeps repeating that God is near us – nearer to us than we are to ourselves, as you yourself often say in your answers. I can't figure out how those two things can be true. Is it that God is sometimes very remote and sometimes very near? It’s clearer now that I've written it here. When I try to say it, I'm trying to say everything together and I get it knotted up. I'm sure you've answered questions very like this one, but I'd be glad of a few words from you…. Thanks, Donagh. Eamon
Thanks for your question. Even if we go into this question a hundred times, there’s always a further aspect to it. Yes, someone did ask this question on this page, under the heading ‘Transcendence and Immanence’, You might take a look at that before you read any additional lines here.
No, theologians are not saying that God is sometimes remote and sometimes near (though of course we feel that way at different times); they are saying that God is both remote and near at one and the same time. This of course is much harder to understand. In the reply to the 2008 question I suggested some images that might help us here.
Clearly, there’s no question of God being physically distant from us. Physical distance and physical proximity are a consideration only for physical objects. We hear tell of astronomical distances between galaxies, and even between stars of the same galaxy. A light-year is quite beyond our imagination, let alone millions of them. This can leave a certain taste in our mouth: an impression that God must be even further away than all of these. No, that would be wrong. There’s no physical distance between God and any creature. God is right here – in your very being. But this can then leave us with the opposite impression: that if God is in me, God must be somehow smaller than me! This too would be wrong. God is neither bigger nor smaller than you, because big and small can be said only of material objects, and God is not a material object.
It would be better to say ‘other’. God is ‘wholly other’ (transcendent). But the moment we say this, we have to hurry and repeat to ourselves: “this does not mean distant.” Well, what does it mean, then? It means that God is not identified with anything in creation. (I mean ‘identified’ in the strict sense, not in the loose modern sense of ‘associated with’. God is not the same thing as anything in creation.) While not being identified with our being, God is intimate with it. (This is called ‘immanence’, as I mentioned in replying to the earlier question.) In your very being, you are inhabited by God.
I want to bring in a favourite topic here. God is intimate to our being, but not to our ego. The ego is a superficial identity – hardly much more than a classification – which is alright for practical purposes, but it has no reality. It is not our real identity; if we imagine that it is, it deserves the description: ‘the fundamental lie’. As something unreal, it has no relationship to God. To the ego, God is non-existent, except as a projection of itself. The ego puts God out in the cold – remote and ‘cosmic’, vestigial, everywhere except here. This is the kind of God that most atheists have rejected – and rightly so. The Algerian Sufi, Ahmed Al-‘Alawi (1869–1934) had a penetrating insight here. “If someone says that God is far away,” he said, “it is because he himself is far away from God.” He is as far away from God as you can be: trapped in a false self, his ego. He is out of the pull of reality, like a stray planet, wandering forever in a dark universe. By putting God out in the cold, he ends by putting himself there.
I hope these few thoughts, along with the earlier answer, may be of some help, Eamon.