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christianity ethics philosophy science theology

beyond hocus pocus – understanding god’s presence

I just was listening to a worship song a few hours ago that talks about “the power of your presence” and asking God to “move upon our praise”. Some will also be familiar with the liturgical language around Communion or the Eucharist where a priest will pray the epiclesis, where the elements of bread and wine are consecrated. Different traditions have different ways of understanding and describing what happens during the Eucharist, but a widely shared understanding is that of “real presence”.

What do Christians mean when they talk about God being ‘present’? Often it is in worship settings, both public or personal, that God’s presence is spoken of. It can also be in mission settings, where people describe God being with and empowering them.

Modern people who can sometimes feel that scientific knowledge is the ultimate form or standard for knowing anything, can struggle to understand this. At times they can even mock it. Indeed, a mockery of the Latin that priests would use during Eucharist is thought to be how the phrase “hocus pocus” originated.

This post will outline how many Christians understand the presence of God. The Christian understanding of God’s presence lies between two philosophical extremes – dualism and pantheism. We’ll start with Dualism.

Dualism

This view separates reality into a sharply divided duality between physical and spiritual. It is a very old way of looking at the world, distinguishing between “everyday reality” and “primary reality”. In this view, God is normally quite distant and detached from our worlds; so in order for God to be present, God would have to have a reason important enough. If we are operating with this framework, then God’s presence is something like magic, and a religious leader praying is something like an incantation or spell. Perhaps a sacrifice, or some other act that ‘gets God’s attention’, provides the necessary impetus for God to come close.

There are ethical and religious implications here. In this view, it’s a supernational and special thing to understand God’s will and be in God’s group. Only a small number can claim to have the secret knowledge.

The problem with this view is that it is hard to get access to God, and it breeds the most harmful forms of fundamentalism, arrogance and disassociation with reality. The rules are ours and the rules are clear, and there is no room for discussion. It sees and rejects evil with total certainty.

Pantheism

This view is the total opposite of dualism. It collapses the distinction between physical and spiritual entirely. God is not only present everywhere, God is everything, and Everything is god. In this view, it takes no effort to cause God’s presence, and more than that, God is always present in the same way at all times.

There are also ethical and religious implications here . In this view, all actions are equally meaningful (or indeed meaningless) and thus equally full (or empty) of ethical meaning. Childbirth and murder are equally significant (or insignificant). Everything has equal value (or worthlessness).

This is the main problem with this view. It cannot distinguish between good and evil, and thus it necessarily leads to nihilism and apathy. Because this view cannot discern good from evil, it ends up permitting evil in the name of acceptance.

Creational Ethical Monotheism

This view is reflected in Judeo-Christian tradition. It sees God as both ‘transcendent’ above reality and ‘present’ within it. It’s not that you have a soul trapped in your body (dualism), or that your body is divine (pantheism), but rather that you are an embodied soul, whose being is simultaneously spiritual and physical. It’s not that God is normally far off (dualism) or that God is everything (pantheism), but that God is always present, and sometimes powerfully present in unique ways for unique purposes.

God is present with a mother giving birth in a way that God is not present with a murderer. God is present in a community of believers gladly celebrating Eucharist in a way that God is not present in a human trafficking ring.

This difference in God’s mode of presence is not due to a change in God’s nature, but due to a difference in alignment and relation to God. Only in this ‘both/and’ view of God’s presence can we understand freedom and purpose, action and responsibility. God is always ‘in control’ as the transcendent Father who is by nature constantly undergirding and carrying reality forward in all of its breathtaking cosmic breadth, evolutionary development and subatomic vitality. At this ‘omni-present’ level God is indeed present alongside evil, whilst abhorring it at the same time. But as the immanent Spirit, God always refuses to control or micromanage creation, most of all the image-bearing humans created to reflect God’s wisdom, will and purposes. At this immanent level, God is only present where God is welcome, and only empowers actions that align to God’s desire.

This is the meaning of God’s presence. It’s why we can ‘welcome’ God when we pray for God to be with us in our day, or in a worship service. And it’s why God can say in Scripture that he will not delight in worship if our lives are not also aligned to his will and we are doing harm to others (see Isaiah 58 and Amos 5).

Mercifully, God is patient with our imperfections and continually invites us to progress forward and live in greater and growing alignment with his presence in our lives.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.