If you would have asked a Christian in medieval times “Where is God?”, they would have said “In Heaven, of course. You know, ‘Our Father who art in Heaven …'”. To the pre-reformation Christian, God was somewhat remote in His Heaven, and accessible only through the Church. The answer to such a fundamental question was simple. But since that time Christians have wrestled more extensively with questions about the nature of God and how He relates to our daily lives. The “Where is God?” question is illustrative of the ongoing quest for understanding.
I am still working my way through A People’s History of Christianity by Diana Butler Bass. I am up to the point in history where “modern” or “post-modern” Christian thought has come into play. There has been a great deal of intellectual, political and social upheaval in the past few hundred years. Christians have had to grapple with how modern science, philosophy, and social changes relate to their faith. The science of evolution is one primary example of a debate topic that the medieval Christians could not have imagined.
Chapter 11 of the book parses some of the different branches of Christian “modernist” thought according to how they would answer a most basic question: Where is God? For example, to the Quakers, we need only look within ourselves to find God. This concept goes back to George Fox, who founded the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 17th century England. Fox said “I directed the people to their Inward Teacher, Christ Jesus, who would turn them from darkness to the light.” The Quakers held that God dwells within, and salvation is a matter of seeing that light.
John Wesley was an 18th century minister in the Church of England. He founded what we know today as the Methodist church. The Methodists did not see mankind as having any inner divine light, but rather as being innately sinful and in need of accessing God’s light through an experiential encounter with Christ. One might say that Wesley was one of the first Evangelicals, who would say that God is to be found in the transformed heart of those who are born again.
We sometimes say that the United States is a Christian nation, based on the religious principles of our founders. Most of our 18th century founders were indeed godly men of faith, but not in the sense of today’s evangelical Christianity. It would be more accurate to describe most of them as “deists”. I have read extensively about one of the most famous of these men, Thomas Jefferson. It is clear that his faith was one based primarily on intellectual pursuit and a guiding sense of morale uprightness. To him and other deists, God is found in a life of reason and good works.
A less well-known school of modern thought sprang up in the early 19th century. These believers were called Transcendentalists. In direct contrast to the deists, they believed that sentiment, intuition and mysticism were more important than reason and science. They would have said that God is found in a subjective encounter between the self and nature.
Other schools of thought over the years may have answered “Where is God?” with “Who knows?” or “Everywhere”. The point of this whole discussion is that the answers to some of the most fundamental questions of the Christian faith are not simple or static. They have continued to evolve as human society and knowledge have changed and as various strong influences have risen up and then faded away. The book chapter that I referenced above is entitled “Devotion: The Quest for Light”. While there is certainly a sense in which Christians have found the Light, there is also a sense in which Christian discipleship is an ongoing quest for light. Our understanding of Christ and what He means in our lives changes as we grow and change. It’s a good thing.