N is for Nothing
I know this is going to sound odd, but bear with me. God is nothing.
As I was coming to the end of my time at Saint Thomas in New York City, a friend identified a few themes that run through my teaching. One of them, he reminded me, I had set forth in my very first class there: God is nothing. Years had passed, but nonetheless, he said, he was still finding new ways to see that truth.
So, okay, here goes nothing.
First, God is no-thing. Any thing there is, is some thing. Things are made—ultimately, they are made by God. God is not made. God is the reason there are things.
I’m writing this at a wooden table in one of my favorite neighborhood hangouts. The table is attractive to me, because I can see the seams of the boards that someone spliced together to make it. I can see signs of its maker. There’s another table touching it, but its wood is spliced at different places.
So there are signs of the maker of this table, right here in the table. But the maker didn’t make the wood: it was there. And the maker didn’t make herself (or himself, but for simplicity let’s assume the maker is feminine). So both she and her materials are themselves made. Who made them? Ultimately, we have to say, God made them.
Parents have many times told me about teaching their children about God. They teach them that God made everything. The child then asks—quite predictably—Then who made God? Parents have asked me how to answer.
“Shut up and eat your spinach” does not seem satisfactory. Nor does “That’s not a well-formed question,” although actually that is a good answer. There are lots of badly formed questions, like “How much does Thursday weigh?” and “How much money does 2 o’clock have in the bank?” They look like good questions, but if you know the meaning of the words you know that a day of the week doesn’t have mass and a moment in time is not a being that can have money.
So it is true. Because God is the maker of all things, God is not himself made. God is not a noun that we could put in the question “Who made ...?”
A problem with saying “God is nothing” is that it sounds like we’re saying “God is unreal” or “God is nonexistent.” But those statements don’t follow. God is more real, more existing, than any thing.
Maybe it helps to come at “nothing” from the other side. Think of gifts you can give to another person. Gifts are nice, but they always come with a certain weight. I know grown people who give other grown people gifts that they think will “improve” them. Someone gives you a bicycle, for instance, knowing you don’t ride a bike, but with the subtext that you really ought to exercise more. A bicycle even under those conditions can be a nice gift, but it has a weight to it, no?
We can see that gifts can be burdens. Do they have to be? The best gifts are those that help us be ourselves. A really great gift comes from someone who knows you well and knows you will like what she has to give you.
God’s gift to us is the gift of existence: God is the reason we exist at all. But existence is, in a certain sense, nothing. Herbert McCabe says that “God gives us the priceless gift of nothing.”
Another way of looking at that: when God made you (the gift of nothing), he gave you himself (nothing). And that mysterious giver and that mysterious gift is the most important thing about you.
The gift of “nothing”—the gift that lets us be ourselves, the gift of existence—is the most important gift of all.
Out & About. I preached at Incarnation in Dallas on Leviticus 19 (the reading ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”). I’m not ready to write it, but I think there could be a book: “Up with Leviticus.” (Surely it would be a best-seller!) The sermon is here: https://incarnation.org/sermon/up-with-leviticus/
Martin Thornton influenced me several decades ago to desire Eucharist on Sundays and major feasts. Our cathedral is livestreaming a Eucharist on major feasts, the next weekday one being Saint Michael and All Angels, on Tuesday, September 29, at 5:30 p.m., at which I will deliver a ferverino (a brief homily). On F*book @StMatthewsCathedralDallas.
Thornton also underlines the Anglican standard of daily Morning and Evening Prayer. Incarnation in Dallas (like many other congregations) has these services online on most weekdays. Generally on Fridays at 8 a.m., I lead Morning Prayer. Whether you join in with an online service or say it on your own, I commend highly the keeping of daily Morning Prayer (and Evening Prayer, if you can), particularly the reading of the assigned Scripture lessons. I have an article on this shortly to appear in The Living Church.
I will be teaching a three-Sunday online class at Incarnation in Dallas starting October 11 at 10:15 a.m. The class is “Three Things God Didn’t Want but He Got Used To: cities, politics, and sacrifice.” Details to come.
The fall theology lecture will be Sunday, October 25: “What’s Special about Anglicanism?” This also will be livestreamed.