Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar: “God can encompass the whole range of human communication”

10.06.2022 | The Maxwell Institute

This post was written by Benjamin Keogh, a participant in the 2022 Latter-day Saint Theology Seminar.

Throughout the history of Christian theology theologians have repeatedly turned to a conception of God as conversation.  Cashed out with Christoph Schwöbel one understands “the Father is the Speaker, the Son the spoken Word, and the Holy Spirit the Listener who communicates what [is] heard in the divine conversation to God’s created conversation partners.”[i] On this reading creation is rooted in and springs from the conversation that God is. Because all created things are the creations of the God who is conversation, God’s creation of each creature is the creation of a conversation partner. In this way God’s creation of each creature is also an extension of the conversation that God is. For humans who are created in the image of God this has at least three implications.

The first is that humans are created to be in conversation with God. Created by God, humans are always already related to God. In a Christian understanding of reality because relation with God is the ground of human existence the entirety of human life becomes an expression of that relation. In this way relation with God can be accepted and embraced or rejected and denied, but it cannot be escaped. The same is true of God’s conversation. Because God is the ground of existence God’s address is heard in sunsets and seasons as well as in Jesus, Spirit, and scripture. Consequently, the whole of human living becomes the human expression of human participation in God’s conversation. Similarly, because God is the ground of human existence, God can encompass the whole range of human communication, from rage, wrath, lament, and sorrow, to disinterest and passionate decrying, to praise and petition and questions of all kinds. God is big enough to hold it all and yet through it all to continually invite humanity into renewed and loving relation.

A second implication is that humans are created to be in conversation with each other. Because humans are created by God the always already relatedness of humans to God extends in toto to relations amongst humans. This is especially evident when the image of God that humans possess is understood as applying to humanity generally. Understood this way it is clear that the image humans are created to embody is a relational image. It is here that the difference between God — who exists eternally in an infinite state of unbroken relational communion between the Father, Son, and Spirit which spills out into everlasting loving relations with all that is not God — and humans whose finite existence is characterised by relations that continually break — is revealed. Said differently, there is no margin in God. Because humans are created in the image of the margin-less God who is conversation, to remain true to that image humans must engage and embrace the conversation of those who have been marginalised. Because Jesus is Lord of the disinherited and the dispossessed, a properly Christian theology must begin with and return — over and over — to those who have been disinherited and dispossessed.

The third implication is humanity’s creation to be in conversation with the rest of God’s creation. Because humans are created by God the always already relatedness of humans to God and of humans amongst themselves extends to relations between humans and the rest of creation. In this way humanity’s relational disposition towards God’s creation is a reflection of humanity’s relational disposition towards God. Because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), humans should cultivate a God-like love for the world. At this point in human history such cultivation would necessarily entail a relational shift from exploiting, plundering, and commandeering the resources of the world for humanity’s benefit into one that sees humanity work for the flourishing of the non-human creation in all its variety.

Together these three suggest that because each creation is created by the word of God, each creature in its created existence is a word of God. Said differently, as a theo-logos each creature is a theology and therefore every creaturely meeting is theological that, for better or worse, expresses the creaturely relation to God. Because theology is ubiquitous, however, the need for its training and practice is heightened, not lessened. This is perhaps counter-intuitive but it is an implication of the description of theology as “an attempt to express [the] experience [of the infinite] in as adequate a language as possible.”[ii] To suggest there is adequate language in which to express the experience of the divine is already to suggest there is an inadequate language. Similarly, to describe adequate expression as attempted is to admit its difficulty. Both point towards the need for cultivation.

If there is a genius to the Letter-day Saint Theology Seminar it is, for my money, in the pursuance of an environment where inadequate expressions can be expressed freely and are received with grace by a community who together, in conversation, work to cultivate an adequate expression. Not only is the flourishing of all primary, but the seminar itself is designed to centre every voice and in this way to approach the conversational God with conversation about God. Framed this way one can see that conversation cascades from the conversation that God is, to the conversation that God has with God’s creation, to the conversation that creation has with God which characterises Christian faith, to the conversation about God that characterises Christian theology. And this conversation can be carried on and carried out anytime, anywhere, by anyone. So jump in. The water is continually refreshing.

[i] Christoph Schwöbel, ‘The Eternity of the Triune God – Preliminary Considerations on the Relationship between the Trinity and the Time of Creation,’ Modern Theology, 34:3, (2108), 335.

[ii] Theodore Vial, Schleiermacher: A Guide for the Perplexed, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 83.