The Dread God Roberts

Recently in my religion and science fiction class we discussed the attributes of God or a god, and what makes a being worthy of worship, using Star Trek and the Twilight Zone as points of reference, as well as traditional theology.

I made a reference to The Princess Bride, asking whether we could ever know that a God is not the “Dread God Roberts.” In that movie, the role of the Dread Pirate Roberts became a franchise, passed from one person to another. How could we know that the God currently running our universe did not inherit it from a previous God, who inherited it from someone before him, and so on? How can we know that a deity has attributes such as being eternal without ourselves being eternal?

David Hume’s character Philo makes a similar point in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Even if it is possible to reason to a first cause, and there are some hints to be gleaned from the reasonableness of cosmos, it is impossible to demonstrate the things people have sometimes claimed to by reasoning from the evidence.

I was delighted that not only Hume and lots of science fiction came up, but also Tillich. A major theme for the class was the question of worship, and whether a being  of natural origins who created our cosmos, and actually performed the miracles mentioned in the Bible (or some other sacred text of your choice) by advanced technological means, would be worthy of worship.

Tillich’s emphasis is that God is not a being, one among others but really advanced. If that term means anything less than Being itself, encompassing all of Reality, then the term denotes a god and not God, and our worship is idolatrous.

I love the way that science fiction allows one to explore serious theological questions!

  • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

    I’m unclear on what makes a being “worthy of worship” anyway. I can imagine extraordinary admiration, but worship? I don’t get it. Might you give me an idea of the criteria you have in mind?

    • James F. McGrath

      What distinguishes worship from extraordinary admiration in your understanding? In ancient Greek, the word that we usually translate as worship literally meant prostration, which was an action acknowledging another’s greatness and superiority.

  • Keika

    Recently I watched a “Gilligan’s Island” rerun on Me-TV, and Gilligan rescued a native girl from drowning in the lagoon. She is grateful and obliged by her people’s laws, to now worship and become the slave of her savior. Gilligan’s sole power is in his Swiss Army Knife with its corkscrew, spoon and fork utensil, but she doesn’t know it. Had she seen its futuristic technology, Gilligan would suddenly become a God. Only if I had written the script.

  • John David Walters

    “How could we know that the God currently running our universe did not inherit it from a previous God, who inherited it from someone before him, and so on? How can we know that a deity has attributes such as being eternal without ourselves being eternal?”

    I think we can infer many of the traditional divine attributes by reflecting on what other attributes a First Cause would have to have in order to qualify as a First Cause, or as I prefer to describe it the one unconditioned Reality that fulfills the conditions of all other things in existence, but is conditioned by nothing outside itself. First of all, we can safely rule out the possibility that the First Cause is material or temporal in any way, because It brought those conditions into existence. We can also straightforwardly infer that there is only one, because if there was more than one unconditioned reality they would have to differ in some respect in order to be distinguished from one another. But that would mean that they would be partly defined by something outside themselves. But then neither of them would qualify as the true First Cause that fulfills the conditions of all other things in existence, but is conditioned by nothing outside itself. Furthermore, because there are no constraints on Its existence it must be absolutely simple (where simplicity is defined as the absence of boundaries, constraints and exclusions; for example, an electromagnetic field is simpler than either a proton or electron because it can interact with both of them in different ways, whereas a proton can only interact with an electron by attracting it, and the presence of an electromagnetic field does not exclude the presence of a proton or electron), and all-powerful. Finally, the intelligibility of the world points to the intelligence of its Source.

    For much more detail and rigor, see Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God, pp. 110-143

    • James F. McGrath

      But how does one determine that that First Cause directly created our universe, as opposed to having made a universe which gave rise to a being which created our universe, for instance?

      • John David Walters

        The argument from contingency applies however far back you have to trace the hierarchy of conditioned realities. Regardless of whatever intermediate agencies were involved in creating our universe, at the ‘top’ of the hierarchy we would still have to find a single, unconditioned Reality that fulfills the conditions of all other things, with the properties traditionally attributed to the God of classical theism.

        • James F. McGrath

          Indeed, as long as one keeps one’s focus on the First Cause and is open to revision of the intervening processes, then there is a sense in which a discovery of this sort would not be in any sense decisive. Keeping the focus on the truly ultimate, as Tillich and many others have emphasized.

          I love it when we find something we can agree on! :-)

          • John David Walters

            Indeed. I am curious though to what extent we would both agree with C.S. Lewis’ description of the First Cause, as a being that has self-awareness, purposes and prefers one state of affairs over another.

            • James F. McGrath

              And I wonder how human beings could ever hope to know such things, other than in a vague sort of way by extrapolating (as Hans Küng does) that the reality which is the source of and yet encompasses all reality including human beings presumably cannot be less than we are, and thus should be thought of as “at least personal.”

              • John David Walters

                Here is how I would explain it:In addition to the fact that material things are contingent, we also observe that they are highly ordered, in such a way as to produce things of presumptive value, such as stunning galaxies, solar systems, planets with vast ecosystems, animals and sentient creatures with the ability to think and admire and love. Some of this order arises spontaneously when certain conditions are met, through the application of mechanical processes, but already that description implies an ordering that was already in place as a precondition of spontaneous order evolving. What then is the source of that prior ordering? It must be the same unconditioned, immaterial, eternal and simple Reality that fulfills the existence conditions of material things. And since by definition it does not depend on anything external to itself, if it is able to give order to material things it must be self-ordering, and the closest we can come to a truly self-ordering system in our experience is our own minds. The unconditioned Reality must be, then, as C.S. Lewis put it, “more like a mind than it is like anything else we know.” (Mere Christianity, p. 22) The force of this inference is such that even David Hume, who mounted perhaps the most formidable attack on theistic belief in the history of philosophy, could not avoid the conclusion that “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.” (Natural History of Religion, p. 134)”

                • nick.gotts

                  The only noncontingent things we actually know of are wholly abstract: logical and mathematical structures. These are what allow spontaneous order to evolve; they are not personal, do not have minds, and do not need a mind, or anything else, to create them. There may or may not have been a first event, but in either case, time was not “brought into being”, because that phrase already implies a time in which an event occurred. The argument from contingency is as unsound as all the other alleged proofs of God.

  • Dale Tuggy

    “Being itself” being, an It, and not a He, is not the God of the Bible, right? I call this worldview Ultimism, and consider it a perennial competitor with monotheism (and other views). In fact, it is a kind of atheism – though incompatible with naturalism.

    • James F. McGrath

      The Reality that encompasses every he, she, and it does not necessarily need to be thought of as “it” as opposed to transcending even the appropriateness of such pronouns. Mystics are often accused of being atheists, and even more frequently of being pantheists – and one famous atheist says that the latter is just a sexed-up version of the former. So a lot depends on whom you ask.

      • Dale Tuggy

        Indeed, a lot depends on whom you ask. But that just means that “God” has many meanings. My point is that belief in an Ultimate which is not, e.g. omniscient (or anything else implying selfhood) is a perennial competitor to anything resembling NT Christianity. About mystics being atheists, if we’re clear that monotheism is belief in exactly one perfect self, and atheism is the denial of that, then one can be a atheist and believe in many gods, or in an impersonal Ultimate which lies beyond, as it were, the natural world.

        • James F. McGrath

          But why posit that the Ultimate is either personal – which quickly gets one into inappropriate anthropomorphism – or impersonal – which suggests that the Ultimate is in fact less than we are? Why not accept that the reality of God must be so far beyond what either of those terms could refer to that we simply cannot grasp the nature of God?

          • Dale Tuggy

            Decided this one deserved a post. Can continue, if you want, here or there.


            • James F. McGrath

              Thanks – I’ll respond in a post dedicated to the topic!

              • Dale Tuggy


              • GuestC

                Do you believe that God existed before humans?

                • James F. McGrath

                  Yes – but the question itself seems quite an odd one. Could you explain what is behind it?

                  • Guest

                    I ask this, and not to come off offensive because some liberal Christians, like John Dominick Crossan, only believe that God is metaphorical, and not so much literal or that he can’t intervene in human history(Crossan is a metaphysical nautralist, a view that contradicts theism). Crossan was asked this in a debate and he said “no”. This leads me to believe that Crossan is really some kind of atheist because he thinks that God’s existence is contingent upon human beings.

                    I understand that you adopt a form of panentheism. I don’t think I would consider myself a panentheist, but I at least agree with some things about panentheism. I would consider myself theist – in particular, a Christian monotheist. I hold that God is personal and has intervened through Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that God’s presence can be known through his interaction to believers, via the holy spirit.