God is where God acts: on divine omnipresence

May 10th, 2016 by

One thing we thought might be helpful on our blog posts is to offer a little synopsis of recent work we have published. My article, “God is where God acts: reconceiving divine omnipresence” has recently appeared in the journal Topoi (it is just online here now). Here is a bit of what I do there.

Many in classical theist traditions, like those in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, tend to hold that God is everywhere. It isn’t hard to see why one might think this about God if you just mixed a little Anselm with Dr. Seuss. St. Anselm of Canterbury taught that God had every attribute it would be better to have than not to have, and God had that attribute to the greatest amount. So (here’s the Dr. Seuss part), would it be better for God to be here or there? Would it be better for God to be both here and there? If it would be better for God to be both here and there, it would seem it would be best for God to be every “where”.

But, if God is everywhere, this might seem to run into trouble with two other aspects of classical theist traditions. For typically classical theists think of God as being immaterial, God is not a material object, rather God is a spirit. But it might seem impossible for an immaterial entity like God to be located any “where” if these “wheres” are physical places. I call this the immateriality puzzle.

Secondly, the faithful in these religious traditions, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, often report that there are places where God “shows up,” so to speak. Maybe a music leader in an Evangelical service says, “God is in this place!” By which the leader means something like God is here now in a way God isn’t in other places. Or take the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I visited this site at the end of December and noticed a sign that read, “The Divine Presence never moves from the Western Wall.” It seemed to me that this sign, and the actions of the practitioners of Judaism, seemed to indicate an intensity of God’s presence at that location that was different from God’s presence in other locations. But, it might seem that if God is every “where,” God can’t be more in some places than others. I call this the intensity puzzle.

In my paper I argue that a recent treatment of the divine attribute of omnipresence is unable to solve these puzzles. Rather than get into that argument (check out my interlocutor here), I’ll just sketch a bit of how I try to solve the problems.

What I thought was a helpful way to describe God’s omnipresence while solving the twin puzzles, was to attend to instances in the Hebrew scriptures where the narratives show God “showing up.” I specifically looked at such phenomena as God’s appearance to Elijah in the “low whisper” in the wilderness, God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush, and God’s instructions regarding his presence related to the Ark of the Covenant. I argue that these instances of God’s “showing up” indicate that God is present in a location because God is acting in a location. Thus, from here, we can extrapolate out to hold that God is present in all locations because God is acting in all locations.

Now the Scriptures do not seem to give a systematic account of how an immaterial being like God can interact with the material world, they just presuppose that God does. So, if we want to align our thinking with these narratives, we are just going to have to embrace this possibility. But, with respect to the intensity puzzle, these narratives do offer a description of the radiating or reverberating nature of God’s presence. So, take the burning bush narrative, for example. God is speaking from the middle of the bush, but then God tells Moses to take off his sandals because the ground around the bush had become holy. I argue that it has become holy because of the proximity to God’s action in the middle of the bush. This action, or the reverberations of this action, radiates out to effect the ground around the bush as well. Another example is the Mercy Seat above the Ark of the Covenant. The narrative actually says that God will meet with and speak to his people from there. So the divine presence is concentrated at that location, but it is not only at that location, but rather radiates out to include the Holy of Holies and the surrounding area as well.

So, basically, God is where God acts. God acts everywhere (minimally, sustaining every “where” in existence), but also God’s activity can be more or less intense in certain locations … those locations where God “shows up” in specific ways.

At least that’s what I think for now!

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James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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