“I don’t know if God, or whatever you want to say, changes.” A woman at a morning prayer group frowned, thinking. “But,” she continued, “I hate change. I need to change, but I hate it.”
I twitched, struggling with silence.
I am fortunate to be a part of this little prayer group, which meets in the mornings. It is a ragged band of the irreligious and religious, most not at all Christian – if not vehemently not Christian. Every age and background seems to have found its way into the collection of chairs. We read little snippets of items together, and for the most part share about our own lives. Half prayer group, half support group. None of us is less than severely troubled, which is how we found ourselves together in the first place.
“I don’t know about God, you know,” a gruff male voice offered, “but I needed to change, you know. I really did. And there’s something out there. You know.”
This is how it goes, raw and simple. Mostly we trade little of substance – no thesis, no world-tilting idea – but the hearts underneath the roughened, repetitious words make their way through. Often the word God is replaced by Higher Power as a somehow less invasive phrase. This makes profoundly little sense to me, though I never say anything about it. They could insist on using the word strawberry and I’d find a way not to care so long as we granted the possibility of strawberry. Human words are rough and repetitious, especially as they gesture toward and bear divinity.
Most know what I do, professionally. Theologian. Well-trained in all those words. I keep a studied silence when God comes up in conversation, quietly attending to what they say. There are places to be a professor, and there are places not to be. There are places where silence gives me enough space to learn.
God is a hard topic for us, though we all walk in knowing we will pray together. I don’t think God is an easy topic for anyone, but offer the matter to a group of people whose single common trait is their shared brokenness, and they’ll all wear the struggle on their faces. It has nowhere else to go. And we are too worn down to put it someplace else anyway.
I’m not sure how the topic of God and change came up that morning. We continued on as we always do: avoiding God as best we could and dogged by God anyway.
I leaned forward in my seat, elbows on my knees. Silence grated against my ribs, and I clenched my teeth. That God does not change is very important to me. I don’t think I’d believe in God without it. In theology, we call it God’s immutability (un-change-ability), and it grounds the further claim of God’s impassibility (un-suffer-ability). God is Pure Act: pure existence that is absolutely complete, eternal, and splendid. To suggest that God changes is to suggest that God has room to improve.
Not that theologians can resist suggesting as much about God. And here I grin softly at the insult I’ve offered them.
Some want God to suffer so that we might explain our own suffering. Some want God to change so that we might explain the Bible. There are many other reasons. Mostly to give reason to things that concern us. I don’t think that’s what God’s existence is for: for helping me explain what I’m worried about, what interests me, what I need to be true. If that is what God is for, then Feuerbach was right: God is a projection of ourselves.
It is all perhaps much too obtuse and obscure to care for, I know. These questions.
I made it through forty minutes of the hour before I smoothed a hand over my face and stepped in with a thought. “Change matters to me,” I explained. “It matters because I think forgiveness is the acceptance of change. Forgiveness accepts the possibility of change. If I’ve hurt somebody, or myself… And if they forgive me, if I forgive myself – I accept the possibility of change.” I sighed, not quite happy with how I’d put it, struggling to lean on small words. “God does not change. I do – and I need to. But God doesn’t. This means that whatever God is, He is always. And so, whatever I’m doing, however I am, if God has been with me, God still is with me. Wherever I turn around, God is there.” I swallowed back Augustine and Thomistic relations, felt the scowl on my face. “So if God forgives, God is always forgiveness. God accepts the possibility of change in me. And even if I don’t, God does. With or without me, God is. Always.” I coughed. “Thank you.”
The room was quiet, which it often is after I say something. I tried not to feel miserable about my lesson in metaphysics and mercy. Dammit, professor.
“I grew up abandoned,” a woman offered into the quiet. I could hear the tears in her voice. “I even abandon myself. It means so much to me that God never… Never, ever will.”
There it was. And much better said.