What even is God?

I recently discovered audiobooks. Never thought I’d enjoy them, but it allows me up to six hours of professional reading a week if I listen during my workouts and cleaning/ironing.

So, I’ve been ticking off some books on my ‘to read’ list. One is David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’. It’s a little dated now (2013) as it spends quite a bit of time in conversation with the New Atheists, whose influence I believe is significantly declining. Despite this, it is an extraordinary book.

One of its chief applications for me in school chaplaincy is to realise that the concept many of our students have of ‘god’ is starkly different from a traditional Christian conception of that idea. Our students often conceive of God in finite terms. God is a kind ethereal man with a beard in the sky who made the world, sets up a game of life, experiences moods and his existence in much the way we do, and in subject to and dependent upon the laws of reality in the same way we are.

I was always a fan of Monkey Magic as a kid. It was oddly addictive. In that story, the gods were simply more powerful version of humans. Monkey was annoyingly childish, petty, and stupid. And his divine friends had similar faults. It’s what made it so entertaining.

But what of the Christian God? Well actually Christians can’t claim complete originality here. Hart points out that the God of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and even Hinduism (Brahman), share a common conviction – that God is the ground by which all things exist. God is the One by which all things live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28). God is the non-contingent reality that makes all contingent reality possible. God, he says, does not even exist in the sense that we do, he is instead the wellspring of all things. He points out the necessity of this idea in rational thought for without this conception of God, we must assume all things ‘just are’ for no reason whatsoever. Similarly, our very consciousness and sense of self are not organic accidents but are the product of our existence in the mind and ground of being which is God.

It gets very Platonist at times, but I’ve always had a big pillowy soft spot for Plato. In the end the book has caused me to wonder at the vastness of God and the mystery of the incarnation of Christ.

I’m not a big fan of heavy apologetics in the classroom. Much of the time it becomes confrontational and can push students into more atheistic positions than they actually held to begin with. In many cases it doesn’t help students move along in their faith journey either. But this book hasn’t given me a new apologetic as such, but a greater awareness of how we as chaplains may well be speaking a different language to the students we are trying to communicate to. When we speak of ‘God’ – what are our students hearing? Are they picturing a monkey god flying on a pink cloud, or something not so far from that? Or maybe, we too often speak and think of God in far to finite terms.

As we seek to move forward in our mission, I wonder whether a recentering of our thoughts and hearts on what the Church has conceived of as the meaning of ‘God’ could help us to better communicate the outrageous story of the ground of all Being becoming flesh, joining humanity to the divine forever and so dying our death, and rising to our new life.  

God bless you in your ministries.

Nicholas Russell Written by:

Nicholas came to know the beauty of Christ during high school. Several years later, he trained as and worked as a History and English teacher. Shortly after he studied Theology and was ordained. Nicholas spent a few years in parish ministry and then returned to school life as Chaplain at Tara Anglican School for Girls in North Parramatta, NSW. He then moved to Western Australia and is now Chaplain at Christ Church Grammar School, a large and historic Anglican boys’ school in the Western Suburbs or Perth. Nicholas is married to Penelope and has three boys. They love going camping and exploring WA. Nicholas plays guitar and harmonica and loves folk, country, and blues music, as well as brewing beer.


  1. Justine Richmond
    February 12, 2024

    So true Nick. The closest I could ever get students to understanding my experience of God was to point them to an experience of awe and wonder. Like standing on the beach when there’s a storm coming in. Or reflecting on Psalm 8 and the majesty of the stars. Giving the little ones a magnifying glass and asking them to look for wonder in creation.

  2. Andrew Mintern
    February 13, 2024

    Thanks Nick, Great reflection. I love Monkey as well, particularly the first season, and the archetypal flaws of the characters. i have actually read the Chinese legend, by Wu Cheng En a couple times and its wonderful. God as the ground of being has always been my go to description but its amazing how persistent the image of the old man on the cloud is, even when in thirty years of preaching and teaching I have never used that image. blessings.

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