How to Catch God in a Butterfly Net: Lesson #6, Turn God Into An Object or Being

"Many confusions in the doctrine of God and many apologetic weaknesses could be avoided if God were understood first of all as being-itself or as the ground of being.” -Paul Tillich The sixth thing to do if you want to catch God in a butterfly net is turn God into an object or being, meaning God is a something, somewhere; which is not to say God cannot be an object, or that this perception or metaphor is not at all beneficial, but is to say that if God is nothing more than an object, it is theologically problematic. I say “problematic” because when I turned God into an object in my own life, it led to separation. Separation between me and God. Separation between the secular and the sacred. Separation between this world and heaven. Separation between humanity and holiness. Objects exist in space and time and relate to one another according to their proximity to each other or energy they give toward each other. There was a slew of things I had to do just to get close to this Object God, whether it was nailing my devotionals or regularly attending church or praying with fidelity and fervor. God was out there, somewhere, just as objects are, and I was here, separated from him, until I cracked the code to lessen the proximity. “Be holy, as I am holy,” the Scriptures say, and so I proverbially hung the veil that was torn right back up because I knew this kind of holiness was unattainable. Separation made more sense anyway. With the separation of objects, I could conjure up formulas and rely on my performance and application of those formulas. This kind of performing fit perfectly into my western disposition. It was up to me to work hard and to prove my worth to God, just as I had to do in the world. There is something comfortable to the western mind about working and proving; for even if it is maddening, it is all we really know. Most problematic of all theologically about this “object God” were the explanations I conjured up to try to make sense of a world with a sovereign, omnipotent cosmic being overlooking us, a being that sometimes mysteriously interfered with our reality and other times confusingly did nothing at all. God became something of a cosmic chess-player, sometimes allowing a piece to be taken on the chessboard of our world, other times planning for a brilliant move that would move us to wonder and worship. I believed he would win in the end but never could wrap my mind around why he would allow or, even worse, plan for certain horrors to unfold. In this spiritual confusion about this kind of God, I was given a trite explanation: everything which unfolded in life was ultimately for God’s honor and glory, pointing us back to him, and growing us closer to him—back to proximity! What a narcissistic, psychopathic God! When I began to learn about mystical union or union with Christ (Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” 164 times in his writings), it freed me to kill my cosmic chess-playing Object God and to move deeper into the mystery and wonder of a God that is united with all of creation. Perhaps God was less of a being that was “out there” and more of an ever-present reality of love that was “in here,” in the deepest parts of everything, the very breath and foundation of life; or, as Paul Tillich calls it, “the ground of being,” a much more expansive and wondrous view of the divine! Similarly, Richard Rohr writes that the first incarnation was creation itself. The beautiful imagery in the Genesis poem backs up this notion: all of creation flowed out of God’s love and creativity, all of it was good, and it was God’s breath that brought humanity to life and was at the very core of the human existence (Genesis 2:7). Jesus simply revealed and re-emphasized what was already true: God was one with us and we were one with God and that, connected by this divine thread, we are therefore one with each other (John 17). Maybe God’s movement in the world was less of a planning or allowing and more of a with-ness and in-ness and is-ness. Jesus, after all, did not at all attempt to explain the mystery of suffering but instead entered into the very depths of human suffering, most profoundly through a humiliating death on the cross, proving that there are no boundaries to God’s love. There is no separation between God and humanity, and there never was. There are only gaps in our understanding of what is true. This “second” incarnation does prove that God is fully capable of taking on the face of a person (Jesus) in a place (the Middle East) in time (the first century)—the very definition of a noun—and yet we tend to forget that God became a noun, an object, to relate to our reality of objects, not because God is an object at the core. We’ve forgotten that verbs, in fact, animate objects. It is the verb of love that put both incarnations into motion. Love can be a noun, but is most profound as an endlessly-multiplying verb, because then nouns become agents of love. While editing this essay, my editor, Sylvia Denice, included this quote from Mr. Rogers in her comments: “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” In a committed relationship, there are two people who are indeed objects, yet the bond they form creates something that is much more: the verb of love. If I turn my lover into an object, then I box up our love into the restrictions of space-time. This kind of perspective sets our relationship up for failure because the health of our relationship will then hinge upon the presence and proximity of that object, not the truth of our love. If love hinges upon objects, then in her presence and proximity I will cling to the object in order to convince myself that our love is real, attempting to trap her in space-time, afraid of what lack of presence or proximity might look like, afraid of what we will be worth when we are not together, and feeling highly insecure whenever there is inevitable separation. Objects must exist in space and time, but true love transcends the fundamental rules of objects. As true lovers know, it is actually possible for love to be even more real and true when there is no presence or proximity. The most faithful lovers, after all, endure desert phases and trials and the great absence of presence and proximity. As Peter Rollins says, one discovers the depth of his/her love, not in the presence of a lover, but rather in the absence. In the absence of the object of one’s affection, one discovers the very depth and profundity of his or her love. There’s a reason why we use the word “objectification” to explain the most immature form of relationship. Turning people into objects doesn’t allow the potential of genuine relationship to exist. It always falls short and is always highly dissatisfying. It is not love. Whereas “object language” as it pertains to God can sometimes be helpful, as all language is in describing a “God experience,” investing too much in an Object God, as I did, will inevitably bring you to a dead end, where there is no other choice but to kill your idol that is an Object God. And yet, we must not beat ourselves up for getting God wrong again, as this is the entire point of theology anyway: to keep getting things wrong so that our perception of God keeps expanding. Dead ends humble us, remind us of our smallness, and propel us into a new level of learning. We must, however, remember that the very definition of a verb implies action; and when we overly identify God as an object, we trap our perception of God in space-time. There is really no sense trying to dam up a rushing river that is threading its way through everything. This essay was first published on

By Stephen Copeland