Parts of Speech, Parts of God

When it comes to God-talk, there are a lot of different conceptions. It’s a common reply, when someone says they don’t believe in God, to answer: “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in, because I probably don’t believe in that one either.” However many conceptions of God you don’t believe in, there are further conceptions available – and maybe some of them, you do believe in.

Imagine a survey that presented respondents with a list of various sentences about God and asked them to mark each one “true” or “false” (in their opinion). If we make the survey long enough and finely worded enough, we can well imagine that no two people would have matching answers all the way down. Even people the same age, raised in the same church, sitting next to each other in the pew every Sunday for their whole lives will have some different conceptions of God. In fact, the same person’s conception of God varies over time, depending on her recent experiences, what book he’s just read, what movie she’s just seen, or what sermon he’s just heard.

Flimer Dirthus Schleckentay

There are so many ways that people have and do think about God. Of course, we all have slightly different associations with any word. Yet, by and large, we more or less manage to communicate with most of our terms. “God,” however, is so variable – a term used to assert so many divergent and incompatible things – that to simply assert God’s existence or nonexistence doesn’t say anything. Such assertions serve only to affirm the speaker’s group identification: “I’m in the group that says God exists,” or, “I’m in the group that says God doesn’t exist.”

Both “God exists,” and “God doesn’t exist,” are like the foreign-language motto of a club in which every member recites the motto, but the last member who knew what the phrase meant died a century ago. Every time they get together, they say, “Flimer Dirthus Schleckentay,” and the words have no meaning at all except for re-affirming to each other their shared group identity and loyalty.

Some people put a little silver plastic fish symbol on their car. What does that mean? It means: “I’m in the tribe that puts little fish symbols on their cars.” Some people put a little fish with legs, and the word “Darwin” or “evolve” inside the fish. What does that mean? It means: “I’m in the tribe that takes umbrage at the tribal assertions of that fish tribe.” Myself, I have a silver plastic big fat fish with the word “Buddha” in it. Rather than put it on my car, I decided to put it on my filing cabinet at home. I do have a silver plastic chalice symbol on my car. What does that mean? Most people who see that have no more idea of what it means than “flimer dirthus schleckentay,” but we know what the chalice symbol means, don’t we? It means: “We’re in the tribe that would like all this tribal stuff to just be done with, but in the meantime, we do have our tribe, too.”

"Ladybug" by Joan Mitchell.
Possible product of theological debate?
When I interact with varying conceptions, I find that appropriation works better than opposition. I try to find a way to keep the baby when throwing out the bathwater – even if my idea of what’s baby and what’s bathwater may itself be a matter of difference. Speaking of babies, for example: Instead of saying Jesus isn’t our redeemer, instead of rejecting the concept of a redeemer born in flesh among us, we say every child born is one more redeemer. Our strategy is to slip in, take the stone arrowheads off their weapons, and replace them with rubber suction-cups. Or, maybe, replace the tips with paint brushes, and dip them into different colors, so that when they are fired, instead of harming each other, we create beautiful bright-colored abstract art on one another. Wouldn’t that be more fun?

So when it comes to differing conceptions of God, if we’re going to be a tribe, instead of being a tribe that puts its energy into refuting and defeating “false” conceptions, let’s be the tribe that delights in proliferating conceptions of God. After all, if God is the creator, then our divinity is in our creativity, so let us be playful and joyful in finding new, creative, poetic insightful ways to invoke “God.”

Billy Jonas
Billy Jonas’ song, “God Is In” (the lyrics of which we used as a reading earlier in the service) is one example of such delightful playfulness. (For both the lyrics and audio of this song: click here.)

There are infinite variations on the noun, “God,” but let us not restrict ourselves to the realm of nouns. God can be thought of as any part of speech. Do you remember your grammar – the “parts of speech”? There are eight of them, right? Let’s see . . . Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen . . . No, not those eight. The eight parts of speech are: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, interjections.

God the Noun

God the noun is the most common, of course, but, here, too, there’s still new territory to explore. A noun is a person, place, or thing. Person, or person-like, is the usual idea. Suppose God were a place, and the other name of that place is “here.” Suppose God were a thing, and the other name of that thing is “this.” What does that do – regarding every “here” and every “this” as God?

God the Pronoun

Goddess In
Then there’s God the pronoun. What pronoun refers to God? “He” and “him” are the traditional ones in the Western monotheism. For polytheism, the pronoun is “they.” Using “she” and “her” remind us of the feminine aspect of the divine, and that’s important. There are still times when referring to God as “she” can be a radical subversion of conceptions of God that reinforce patriarchy.

Let’s go further. Rather than merely looking at what pronoun to use to refer to God, what if “God” were itself the pronoun? Pronouns refer to a noun antecedent. If God were a pronoun, what would the antecedent be? God as a pronoun would have everything as its antecedent, wouldn’t it? We would say, “The universe unfolds in God’s own way” not to imply a separate intentionality – but as an alternative way of saying “The universe unfolds in its own way.”

Instead of saying, “Billy forgot his pencil,” we would replace the possessive pronoun “his” and say, “Billy forgot God’s pencil.”

“Maybe he’ll remember it tomorrow,” becomes “Maybe God’ll remember God tomorrow.”

Here are some sentences from this morning’s newspaper (Sunday December 18), replacing the pronouns with “God”:
“Flash floods devastated a region of the southern Philippines unaccustomed to serious storms, killing at least 450 people while God slept, rousting hundreds of others to God’s rooftops.”
“Egypt’s military rulers escalated a bloody crackdown on street protesters on Saturday, beating God and setting God’s tents ablaze.”
We would also get:
“The Denver quarterback, now dubbed the Mile High Messiah after leading God’s Broncos to seven wins in eight games . . .”
God the pronoun provides some interesting perspectives, doesn’t it?

God the Verb

Buckminster Fuller
Then there’s God the verb. There’s been considerable work on this one. Buckminster Fuller in 1940 wrote:
“God to me, it seems,
is a verb
is the articulation
not the art, objective or subjective;
is loving,
not the abstraction "love" commanded or entreated;
is knowledge dynamic,
not legislative code,
Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.”
In the last century a many scholars have written of ways of thinking about God as a verb. Process theologians and Naturalist theologians have produced such an extensive body of work that they’ve shifted the English language meaning of the word “God.”

Jean-Claude Koven
A tenet of process theology is that “reality is not made up of material substances that endure through time, but serially-ordered events.” Author Jean-Claude Koven writing a few years ago (2005) expounded:
“God is . . . the ongoing unfoldment of creation itself. . . . Once I viewed God as a verb instead of a noun, my perception of life shifted. Everything around me, manifest or no, became God. There was only God. When someone spoke to me, it was with God's voice; when I listened, it was with God's heart. As you begin to view God not as the creator but as the constantly changing dance of creation itself, you'll discover God in everything you see – including yourself.”
Nice. Thinking of God as an active verb emphasizes the time during which the actions take place. It puts God in time, rather than removed from time. It invites us to perceive the holy in change, rather than imagining it in changelessness. My colleague Unitarian Universalist minister Stephen Phinney writes,
Rev. Stephen Phinney
“I believe that the holy is in the process of giving and taking of the love we have.  In other words, the holy or God is the process of interchanging love.”
Calling God a verb is a way of alluding to its active doing. A reality of events rather than substances suggests a more dynamic quality, but you may have noticed that “event,” “process,” and “creativity,” and “unfoldment” are still nouns. Suppose we take “God is a verb” strictly. How would that go? If God is the verb, what’s the subject of the sentence? The universe, perhaps. So we would say:
“The universe Gods.”
“There’s the vast cosmos, quietly, grandly Godding along through the ages.”
“Reality Gods.”
Anything and everything is the subject. I God, you God, he she it Gods, we God, you God, they God. All God’s children God.

And what sort of activity is it to “to God”? Following the lead of the process and the creativity theologians, to God is to unfold, like an infinite flower opening its petals; to develop through a process of interaction with all the rest of the Godding universe. To God is to become transparent to the creativity of the universe shining through you. To God is to fandango across the ballroom of oneness, to trip the light fantastic, not with, but as, the mountains and rivers and great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars. To God is to “laugh at the word two” (Hafiz). It is to swim in the sea of mystery, and quaff from the cup of abundance. To God is to lose all sense of yourself as a separate being in a creative project, or the creative encounter, in total freedom, with each moment.

Call that Godding to help you remember that everything we do and are is a part of the whole, a part of the dance, the mystery of creativity, the unpredictable unfolding of new things under the sun.

We have been exploring God as an intransitive verb. Suppose God were a transitive verb -- the abiding transit between subject and direct object, doer and done-unto. If reality Gods, then what does it God? The universe Gods you, and me. Reality Gods the Republicans and the Democrats alike. It Gods Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad as well as Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Henry Nelson Wieman
There is, in other words, an activity of relationship between all things, an active connection of each thing with all things. Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman says that the “universe becomes spiritual” as
“more events become signs, as these signs take on richer content of qualitative meanings, as these meanings form a network of interconnective events comprehending all that is happening in the world.” (Wieman 23)
It would seem, to carry Wieman to his logical conclusion, that the universe will have attained full spirituality when everything signifies everything else. This is also where God-as-transitive-verb takes us. Everything Gods everything else. The butterfly in China Gods the rain in Omaha. You God the stars, and the stars God you.

God the Conjunction

Conjunctions, you’ll remember, hook up words and phrases and clauses. That makes sense: God connects things.

The two main conjunctions are “and” and “or.” Sometimes God is an “and”; sometimes God is an “or”; which is to say, God is the inclusive embrace, and God is the fact of choice.

God the Preposition

Prepositions describe a relationship: on, under, with, for. It might be helpful to think of relationship itself as Godly.

God the Adjective (My Favorite!)

Might not the word “God” be used, not to make a controversial empirical claim about what is, but to draw our attention, as a good poet does, to certain qualities of existence – qualities which are not subjects about which to dispute, but are a felt reality momentarily overlooked? This present moment – if we truly show up for it – is so sweet and so delicious that we need words like “holy” and “divine” and “God” to help us notice it.

Let God be the name for the quality that existence has when we are so fully present to it that we perceive divinity there. An experience has God quality, religious quality, when it re-orients us to a greater sense of wholeness and peace. It might be brought about by devotion to a cause, by a passage of poetry, by meditation. The religious quality is felt as a sense of abundance and gratitude toward things beyond our personality, that structure of ego-defense strategies with which we identify through most of our day.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and outspoken critic of Hitler, imprisoned and eventually executed by Nazis, wrote about a religionless Christianity. In a letter from prison, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The New Testament must be interpreted in such a way as not to make religion a precondition of faith” (329).
Religion, he said,
“is only a garment of Christianity – and even this garment has looked very different at different times.”
I think Bonhoeffer had in mind that religion denotes some set of doctrines and practices, but no one such set is necessary for giving experience God quality. Rather, a wide variety of sets of doctrines and practices can be helpful in cultivating the God quality of experience. Very different doctrines and practices – say pagan ones, or Buddhist ones – can facilitate our awareness of that which goes by many names: the oneness of reality, the divine, the ground of being, the transcendent, the awesome quality of the universe, the interbeing of everything, the interconnected web of existence -- God. Christians discarding this religion garment, said Bonhoeffer, will cease to regard themselves “as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world” (280-81).

While no particular religion is necessary for bringing that quality to experience, all of them have proven sufficient, at least some of the time for some people in opening them up to experiencing the God quality in events and things.

If God is a noun, then we have to face the question of whether God is the sort of noun that the Catholics describe, or the sort that the primitive Baptists describe, or the sort that the Eastern orthodox describe, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Hindu. But if God is an adjective, then it’s easy to say that quality can be found anywhere, in any faith tradition, in any activity or practice, any work and any recreation (except bungee jumping, as Billy Jonas says).

I believe in the adjectives. I believe in green and growing, dark and peaceful, loving and kind, amazing and wonderful. I believe in the beautiful and tragic quality of life. I believe in awesome, in grateful, in hopeful, in joyful. I believe in full.

I believe in earthy. I believe in wise, and compassionate. I believe in a God world: a world not of our own making that supports us and sustains us, which grounds us for the meaningful pursuit of ideals. I believe in the God life, which can be experienced by people of any religion, even those that say there is no noun, God – a life of awareness, a life of attention to the interplay of forces, a life of deep sympathy with all of them even when it does come time to take a stand against some of them.

I believe in holy, for each breath is holy. I believe in sacred, for each step is sacred: we have but to be mindful and know it.

God the noun is an ultimate cause of things. God the adjective is a quality we can perceive of the flow of all the causal forces, none of them ultimate, interacting continuously.

John Steinbeck wrote that
"Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the [human] mind...it is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, or the forearms. The skin tastes like air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn."
We have experienced moments with those qualities.

God the Adverb

God the adverb expands on the idea of God the adjective. While adjectives modify nouns, adverbs modify verbs or adjectives or other adverbs. So things, events, experiences can have the God quality – and so can activities, and qualities themselves.

God the Interjection

Oh, God!

This is the most popular of all uses of God, isn’t it?

Interjections don’t assert, don’t make a claim, nor are they any part of the content of an assertion or claim. They just express. They are the speech of the speechless. Interjections are what we use when we are filled with something, and it wants to come out, but we don’t know what to say. They are a moan, or a yelp, or cry, beyond what we can articulate.

God is wow. God is ouch. God is yippee! God is arrgh! God is hmm. God is "yum!" and God is "ew, yuck." And certainly God is "Oh, God!"

“Oh, God!” may be the most honest -- and ultimately the most accurate -- God-talk there is. To that, I have just one further interjection:



  1. " It's a common reply, when someone says they don’t believe in God, to answer: 'Tell me about this God you don't believe in, because I probably don't believe in that one either.'"

    This dismissive quip towards atheists comes from the late Rev. Forrest Church. A dismissive quip deserves a dismissive reply which already exists in the blogosphere -- "I don't believe in a god that exists."

  2. Steve, Thanks for reading, and thanks for filling in the attribution to Forrest Church. Hope things are going well for you out in Bossier City, LA.

    Don't know if you made it past my first paragraph. It seems to me that "God doesn't exist" (or "I don't believe in a God that exists") is as vacuous a thing to say as "God exists" is. Both assertions are without ontological content and serve only to affirm one's tribal identification.

    That said, we humans are, after all, made to be tribal beings. Our tribe can't help but matter to us (though it need not matter a lot). I'm gathering that you identify with the tribe that names itself "atheists" -- and regardless of whether the name has any more content to it than "Bears" has as the name of the Chicago football team, you'd like your tribe to be treated more respectfully -- is that right?

  3. Don't know if you made it past my first paragraph. It seems to me that "God doesn't exist" (or "I don't believe in a God that exists") is as vacuous a thing to say as "God exists" is. Both assertions are without ontological content and serve only to affirm one's tribal identification.


    I did read your entire article. It's amazing the linguistic gymnastics and contortions that are needed to keep the word "god" in discussions beyond being a character in ancient texts.

    The "I don't believe in a God that exists" is intended as a dismissive reply to those who use the Forrest Church quip. Nothing more, nothing less.

    In terms of serious ontological discussion, all I can say is that evidence for the existence of any god or gods is lacking at this time. Of course, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

    But any burden of proof is the responsibility of a person making the positive claim.

    1. Hullo, Steve,

      Of course, if "god" is the name we give to "all the evidence that there is," then there isn't any evidence of anything that isn't also evidence of god. You see?