"God Is...": Part 1, God is Spirit

There are three "God is..." statements in the Johannine corpus, the Gospel of John and the epistles 1, 2, and 3 John.

God is spirit.

God is light.

God is love.

Spirit, light, and love. These are some pretty deep and mystical confessions. And it's not surprising these statements are found in the Johannine texts, given their distinctive spirituality. 

The claim that God is spirit, pneuma, comes from the Gospel of John, in Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman. The woman asks Jesus, "Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” In response, Jesus says that a time is coming where "you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" because "God is spirit." Consequently, the true worshippers of God will worship God "in spirit and truth." 

The mystical notion here is that God can't be physically located, neither found here or there, on this mountain or that mountain. This seems rudimentary to us, but it would have been quite the revelation for peoples whose worship of the gods was tied to physical locations. A transcending of paganism is taking place here. We take it as a truism that God is omnipresent, at large in the world. But this would have been a big paradigm shift for peoples whose cultic practices associated the worship of God or the gods with temples and shrines.

Even more, there is a wildness, unpredictability, and uncontrollability about this new reality. Just a chapter earlier in John, in describing those who have been "born of the spirit," Jesus says, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the spirit." This mystical birth--being "born again" in the spirit--extracts the spiritual life from institutional and cultic control. Nicodemus, who represents the ruling Jewish elites, has difficulty imagining how the spirit moves--like the invisible force of the wind--beyond the known and established boundaries demarcating the activity of God.

To be sure, all this is catnip for our "spiritual but not religious" world. And yet, as Bible scholars all know, and will tell you, the Johannine texts are among the most mystical and spiritual texts in the New Testament, even proto-Gnostic. I think this mystical aspect remains important to remember as the institutional forces that seek to tame, corral, control, delimit, capture, and localize God remain at work in the world. One is put in mind of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor. Yes, there are temptations to a "spiritual but not religious" posture. But religion itself has its own temptations, abuses, and lusts for control. 

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