#progGOD: Why an incarnation?

Tony Jones has introduced another round of his progressive God-blogger challenge. His topic this time: Why an incarnation?

That’s a terrific topic, and I want to write something new in response. But first let me re-post a piece from almost two years ago. This was originally published just before Epiphany in 2011, and it’s my best attempt at directly addressing Tony’s question.

“Why an incarnation?” Here, I think, is why:

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

For an illustration of what we Christians celebrate on Epiphany, think of the movie Freaky Friday. Either one will do — the original with Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris or the remake with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Neither is really a great movie, but they’re both memorable and entertaining. The story is one we seem to like a lot, since we retell it with slight variations every couple of years in movie after movie. In Freaky Friday, a mother and daughter switch places — switch bodies, actually. How this happens isn’t really the point. The story isn’t about the dynamics of body-switching, it’s about the empathy and understanding that come from inhabiting another person’s life. That understanding is a kind of epiphany, but it doesn’t come instantaneously. Barbara Harris’ first thought is not “Ah, so now at last I understand my teenage daughter,” but rather, “Good grief, what am I doing here?”

Gradually, though, that understanding is revealed. It takes time to unfold, just as the Epiphany we Christians celebrate around January 6 took time to fully reveal itself, not just in a single night but over the course of 33 years or so. The incomprehensible was made into something we could grasp, something like us that we could understand.

That’s what’s going on in the Christmas story, in all those creches and mangers on the mantle. It’s a response, a resolution, to the impasse at the end of the book of Job.

If you’ve ever read Job, you’re familiar with the frustrating ending of that story. Not the tacked-on happy ending spelled out by the Greek-chorus narrator in the epilogue, but the actual ending to the story’s central argument.

“Life seems pretty unfair and bewildering to us humans,” Job says.

“Well,” God replies, “you’re just going to have to trust me.”

“But you don’t understand what it’s like to be us,” Job says. “You don’t understand how all this looks from our point of view.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t understand how it looks from my point of view, either,” God says. “One of us loosed the cords of Orion and laid the foundation of the earth and the last time I checked, it wasn’t you. So just trust me, OK? I’ve got this.”

And that’s the end of the conversation. Nobody wins the argument and nobody loses. It just kind of stops. An impasse.

Epiphany breaks through that impasse. The mutual incomprehension gets resolved through incarnation. In the words of the Hooters, “What if God was one of us?”

God’s point back in Job is well-taken. The creator of ostriches and sea monsters and the horsehead nebula is simply beyond us, beyond our ability to grasp or apprehend. But a person — a human being just like us — that we can understand and relate to and comprehend. Maybe we’ll never be able to understand everything there is to know about God, but maybe we could be shown everything we need to know.

But also — and here’s a wonderful part of the story we too often forget — the epiphany that unfolds from this freaky incarnation works both ways. If the person and the life of Jesus Christ taught us humans everything we need to know about God, that life also taught God what it is like to be one of us.

Some Christians balk at this notion of God learning. An almighty and omniscient being, they say, doesn’t need to learn. But this is part of the story. The story tells us this happened too.

“Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house,” the messenger tells Job. “And suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

When Job learned that his children had died, he wept. But God did not weep.

Jesus wept.

That’s famously the shortest verse in the Bible, but there’s an awful lot packed into those two words. Jesus loved to visit his dear friends Mary and Martha in the house of the poor, where he’d play with their kid brother, delighting him by doing something Jesus almost never did. As a rule, Jesus didn’t give names to the characters in his stories. His parables told of “a certain shepherd,” or “a Samaritan,” or “two brothers,” but they didn’t have names. Yet in one story, Jesus decided to give one character — the hero of the story — a name.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man,” Jesus said, beginning another story for another huge crowd. Then he looked over at the kid brother with a twinkle in his eye, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus.”

How cool would that be for a kid?

But then Lazarus got sick and then, like Job’s children, Lazarus died. And when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sisters weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And then God Almighty — God who laid the foundation of the earth, who determined its measurements when the morning stars sang together, God who commands the morning and causes the dawn to know its place, God who bound the chains of the Pleiades and loosed the cords of Orion — wept.

That’s an epiphany.

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  • Tricksterson

    Except that, thanks to the prologue, we know why.  It’s all just a bet between Yahweh and his minion and since Yahweh is supposedly all-knowing it all amounts to a cruel prank.

  • vsm

    If you want to pick that hermeneutic, sure.

  • Seiber

    I can’t say I’m immensely comforted by the idea that until very recently the universe was run by something with no emotional comprehension of humanity and its suffering.

    Or the fact that after this lesson absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of human misery seems to have changed. There’s no point to a lesson if nothing’s done about the learning.

  • Magic_Cracker

    There’s a scene in James McClure’s “The Song Dog” where D.S. Zondi rides in a helicopter for the first time. After he gets out, he comments to Lt. Kramer that it makes him worry about God because “man is such a small thing from up there.”

  • Twig

    It’s not God’s fault if I keep trying to go for the electrified cupcake.

  • EllieMurasaki

    But surely it’s God’s fault that the cupcake is electrified to begin with.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Electric Cupcake is my new Strawberry Alarm Clock cover band’s name.

  • Mark Z.

    This “electrified cupcake” metaphor is stupid. Our ability to do serious harm to ourselves and each other is an inherent feature of our existence, not some elaborate contrivance that’s been put in our cage to mess with us.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I have a much easier time believing that when talking about a universe with no deities or with multiple deities that have conflicting goals or with one deity that’s limited somehow. Usually when the deity under discussion is named ‘God’, we’re supposed to assume that the universe under discussion contains precisely one deity which is all-knowing and all-powerful and all-benevolent and interventionist. Which means knowing how to ensure that nobody suffers needlessly, capable of ensuring that nobody suffers needlessly, and wanting to ensure that nobody suffers needlessly–and yet people suffer needlessly.

  • Mark Z.

    Which means knowing how to ensure that nobody suffers needlessly, capable of ensuring that nobody suffers needlessly, and wanting to ensure that nobody suffers needlessly–and yet people suffer needlessly.

    And the most certain way to ensure that nobody suffers needlessly, for omni-everything strawman god, is to not create people in the first place. Yet here we are. So the god that knows everything and can do anything and whose highest priority is to prevent human suffering clearly doesn’t exist. Are we done with this?

    This post is about the incarnation of Christ, so I thought it would be clear that we’re not talking about Generic Philosophical God, but apparently not.

  • EllieMurasaki

    This post is about the incarnation of Christ, so I thought it would be clear that we’re not talking about Generic Philosophical God, but apparently not.
    ‘Generic Philosophical God’, as you put it, is invariably Christian.

  • Anton_Mates

    And the most certain way to ensure that nobody suffers needlessly, for omni-everything strawman god, is to not create people in the first place.

    Bzzzzt, no, if god is omnipotent, then they don’t have to care about “most certain” ways.  They can create people, protect them from needless suffering however they wish–tiny angels swooping in to capture AIDS viruses and relocate them to a giant blood reservoir in Dimension Z!–and their method will always be absolutely certain.

    Talk about strawmen.  The problem is not that the world is suboptimal under some atheist philosopher’s abstruse anti-human value system; the problem is that the world is suboptimal under pretty much every ethical system ever.

  • Tricksterson

    We’re not the ones who decided to use Job as an example.

  • stardreamer42

     To riff on a well-known aphorism: “Omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent — pick two.”

  • Anton_Mates

    Our ability to do serious harm to ourselves and each other is an inherent feature of our existence, not some elaborate contrivance that’s been put in our cage to mess with us.

    It’s only an inherent feature of our existence because we can’t do anything about it–and we’re still very grateful to anyone who manages to reduce it slightly, whether by law, education or development of safer technologies.

    Assuming the existence of an omni-god who could have made us all invulnerable, depression-proof teleporters if they felt like it, it certainly is a contrivance that’s been put in our cage.  (Whether or not you feel that it’s a morally justified contrivance.)

  • Ben English

    Have you ever listened to someone, a grandmother or preacher, talk of heaven and bsically make it sound like the dullest gathering of sticks-in-the-mud ever? I’m not going to pretend I know what God, if God exists, was thinking: The world you describe certainly sounds quantifiable  better than this one. At the same time, though, a world like that wouldn’t be populated by humans as we know them.  Physically, emotionally, psychologically: everything would be different. From here, that sounds like eternal childhood for the entire human race.

    I can’t answer whether or not it’s a morally justified ‘contrivance’, but it doesn’t hold much weight as an argument for or against the existence of God. Nor do I see it a mark for or against the idea of God being ‘good’, because the reasons that God may or may not have done things differently are above and beyond us by definition.

    The universe itself doesn’t discriminate in human affairs, anymore than it does in the affairs of animals and plants. Most suffering in the world today is caused by the actions of other humans, and to blame God for the actions of other people would to blame God for not taking away our moral agency.

  • Wingedwyrm

    Can we honestly make a ratio of human-caused suffering to not-human-caused-suffering?  Because, disease, natural disasters (to the extent that they are not impacted by climate change), age, and sometimes just plain bad luck all play in.

    Every time we say that all human suffering, or even the majority thereof, is human caused, when in the context of discussing theology, we’re handwaving away people starving because of an actual famine, people being trapped under rocks or under rubble, real, actual suffering.  So, I’m going to call BS on that and say “No, if you’re going to assume that God exists for the sake of the discussion, and assume that it has anything near the power, knowledge, and scope that the deity described in the bible does, the excuses do not hold water.”

  • Anton_Mates

    Have you ever listened to someone, a grandmother or preacher, talk of heaven and bsically make it sound like the dullest gathering of sticks-in-the-mud ever?

    Yep.  (I’ve also listened to people like Grant Morrison and C.S. Lewis who make it sound pretty cool.)  But most Christians who believe in heaven don’t think it’s going to be incredibly dull, so if it sounds that way, the fault is with the storyteller or the listener, not the concept.  The problem remains: if there is no suffering in heaven, and heaven is a good thing, then why is it good for there to be suffering on earth?

    Physically, emotionally, psychologically: everything would be different. From here, that sounds like eternal childhood for the entire human race.

    Physically and emotionally, everything would be different if we had glorified bodies and minds less prone to suffering.  Psychologically?  That’s up to God.  There may be important aspects of our psyches which are shaped by our experience of severe suffering, but an omni-god could arrange for them to develop anyway if s/he felt like it.  (And no, free will isn’t a defense here. Hypothetical-god has already installed all sorts of limitations, drives, preferences and learning mechanisms in our heads without asking us for permission first.  We didn’t choose to love our mothers, to disapprove of cheaters, to enjoy the taste of sugar or to be baffled by category theory.)

    As for “eternal childhood…”  oh man, I wish.  Actual children are forced to suffer just as much as the rest of us.  And we generally consider it morally necessary to spare them as much suffering as possible.  When people develop bike helmets, vitamins and polio vaccines, we say “yay, thank you,” not “oh no, children will stay irresponsible infants forever in this new and Nerf-coated world!!”  It’s only when God‘s conduct is under scrutiny that people start to talk about how Suffering Makes Us Fully Human.

    To put it more simply, my life is pretty good.  I’ve never had cancer, never been raped, never starved, never seen my parents butchered in front of me, never been depressed to the point that I chose suicide.  And yet I’m pretty sure I’ve ended up fully adult and fully human, despite being deprived of these lovely experiences.   So it seems unlikely that Currently-Aflame Colombian Toddler #68,347 needed to experience all that horrible suffering so that they or humanity could achieve mental maturity.

    I can’t answer whether or not it’s a morally justified ‘contrivance’, but it doesn’t hold much weight as an argument for or against the existence of God.

    Sure, but moral justification was the question posed earlier in this thread.  Not “could there be a God who makes electrified cupcakes,” but “if there was, would they be a dick?”

    Nor do I see it a mark for or against the idea of God being ‘good’, because the reasons that God may or may not have done things differently are above and beyond us by definition.

    Which is to say, God might be “good,” for some value of “good” which is totally incomprehensible to mortal minds.  That’s the Cthulhu Defense.

    Most suffering in the world today is caused by the actions of other humans

    Oh, hardly.  Even when other humans are indirectly involved, there’s a whole chain of causal mechanisms en route to suffering that they neither control nor approve.  Humans usually hurt each other to get something that they want, but they’d be perfectly happy to get it without the hurt.  I might shoot someone in the face so I can steal his wallet and buy videogames, but if God sees fit to shield him from pain and resurrect him unhurt five minutes later, that’s fine with me.  I just want the videogames.

    If there is no god, then yeah, the buck stops at humans, because there’s nobody else who can improve the world through their actions.  But if there’s a god, they can change everything.

  • Ross Thompson

     

    This “electrified cupcake” metaphor is stupid. Our ability to do serious
    harm to ourselves and each other is an inherent feature of our
    existence, not some elaborate contrivance that’s been put in our cage to
    mess with us.

    Our existence that was created by God, in God’s image? And therefore God has no responsibility for our inherent features?

  • Ross Thompson

    It’s not God’s fault if I keep trying to go for the electrified cupcake.

    Trust me, “It’s not my fault they ate the poison pie I baked and served to them” doesn’t work in a court of law, and I don’t see why it should work in a court of theology either.

  • Michael Albright

    Learn that the hard way, did ya? ;)

  • Tricksterson

    No but it’s his fault for setting up the cruel and pointless experiment in the first place.

  • phranckeaufile

    Fred had a post not long ago about the point of suffering being to alleviate it. If that’s so, it would seem God is missing the point.

  • olsonam

     I didn’t see this posted elsewhere but according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was present at the beginning of the universe.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    …now I’m wondering about the religious leanings of Vathara on fanfiction.net. Vathara’s Avatar: the Last Airbender epic Embers has a bit in which a character points out that the Avatar Spirit is the spirit of the whole world and the Avatar cycle is that spirit’s ongoing attempt to understand the world’s people. (Also the Avatar Spirit is life and the Face-Stealer spirit is death, and the latter is effectively the former’s kid.)

  • Wingedwyrm

    I’ve heard this notion before and I find it, on moral terms (and, admittedly, by my own subjective measure) incomplete.  Sure, God gains some empathy for the struggles of just being alive, but he does not gain empathy with the struggle, with or without a divine judge thereof, with guilt.

    Throughout the story of Jesus, the rest of mankind isn’t released from guilt or sin, but mired deeper into it.  Now, no longer is it a sin to kill a man, but it is just as much a sin to have a moment of hatred for a man, regardless of what motivates that moment of hatred.  Now, no longer is it infidelity to engage in sexual congress outside your marriage bed, but it’s infidelity even to have a momentary fantasy.

    Meanwhile, cursing all mankind, and cursing all women a second time over, out of anger for the actions of two?  Still good.  Arbitrarily favoring the one who went off and made his own rules over the one who did exactly what you wanted?  Still good.  Killing Job’s children, destroying his livelihood, taking his health, all in breech of a contract to which you knowingly and willingly agreed?  Still good.  But, me, thinking that this kind of deity would not, if he actually existed, have the moral standing to be my lord?  Unforgiveable sin.

  • Fusina

     Being a fairly sarcastic person, I occasionally find myself wondering if Jesus was being sarcastic when he said this.

    As in… oh for the love of me… ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.”
    But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And to go completely overboard with this analogy, here is what you should do about this… If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it
    is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body
    to be thrown into hell.
    And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away;
    it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole
    body to go into hell.

    So if you are lusting after someone, which part should you cut off…  Or how about this. We are all guilty of fucking up our lives, instead of wallowing in our guilt, how about we cut our guilty feelings right off and start over again fresh?

    Course, I am one who believes that while there is a hell of sorts, all that it takes to get out is to stop being ashamed of ourselves. We are. We mess up. Then God says, “No one condemns you now, so go and sin no more.” Repeat ad infinitum.

    Yes, I do believe in God, but I think I may have taken a turn into Unitarianism somewhere along the way. Also, probably, Universalism. But that was from a dream I had–which you can take for whatever value dreams may have.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Gandhi famously said, “‘An eye for an eye’ only ends up making the whole world blind.”

    I say, “‘If your hand offend thee, cut it off,’ makes for a world of teen-aged amputees.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/marchantshapiro Andrew Abrams Marchant-Shapiro

    I sometimes wonder what life would be like if we could trade places with mosquitoes.  Not that we created them, but we certainly find them annoying enough.  What if God were one of us, indeed?  Ever watch Joan of Arcadia?

    Related to this, and to your broader topic, I recently realized something interesting.  When somebody asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, he doesn’t just say what *it* is, but he also says, “and the second is like unto it” (depending on the translation) and then gives it.  And we all know what they are.  He’s equating, in a radical fashion, god and man. 

  • SisterCoyote

    There was a video game, way back in the ur-days of the Playstation, called… Mosquito Run, I think? Vastly entertaining game in which you played a mosquito trapped in a house with a small family, and preyed on all of them by the end of the game. Interesting for perspective, at any rate.

  • Michele Cox

    The bet bit and then “and God gave him a new family even better than the old one!” are both, iirc, parts of the framing story that was added on to Job to make the whole thing make more sense; I find the central story much more interesting and useful.

    And if you have the idea of the Godhead existing outside of time, then the experience of being fully human would be present to the Godhead at all times, even though it took place at one particular time.

    (But then, my own personal take is that God is present immediately in all creation, and therefore necessarily experiencing it all directly in any case.  Nobody accuses me of being precisely orthodox… ;) )

  • Leum

    I’ve always disliked the idea that we can or should reject the parts of the Bible that are either interpolations or additions. From a scholarly perspective it makes sense to want to break the book down into its sources and theologies, but as a reader, I’m not sure it’s an appropriate hermeneutic.

    Sure, it can be interesting to speculate that Isaac was killed in the earliest versions of the Binding of Isaac, but it’s even more interesting to say, “Okay, but then why was that changed?” Likewise with Job, we can read the poetic narrative as separate from the prose narrative, but I also want to look at the prose portions and ask “Why were they added?”

    In the case of Job, I don’t think the epilogue is all that important, it’s a thematic break from the rest of the story, and its purpose is fairly obvious.

    But the prologue is different, the prologue does several important things. First, it establishes what Job is complaining of, second it establishes Job’s blamelessness (I hate hate hate people who try to escape that), and it establishes that God is not acting in accordance with justice. This last is important because it returns in God’s speech at the end of Job, where he essentially states “I do what I do because I can.” That is, I don’t think it’s different in substance from the poetic narrative.

    The God of Job is not a positive figure, not a good figure, not a just figure. He’s not supposed to be. Job is a challenge to the idea of a distant, removed, inscrutable, ineffable god. Which is why Job rejects him. This article by Curtis is behind a paywall, unfortunately, but Curtis says that Job’s final words should not be translated as “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes,” but as “Therefore I reject you, O God, and weep for frail man.” My OT professor preferred “Therefore I despise you because I am only human.”

  • vsm

    I think you’re being inconsistent there. If you’ve decided to accept later interpolations, shouldn’t you also consider the epilogue, which makes no sense if you read Job’s last words as a rejection of God*?

    The reason I dislike the prologue and think it’s inconsistent with the poem is that it gives God a motive for allowing Job to suffer, and thus makes Him smaller. I much prefer the idea of an unknowable God beyond humanity, one who will not explain Himself to mere mortals. “Why do the righteous suffer?” the poem asks, and does not answer. The prologue suggests it might be because Satan is really good at goading God. What’s the fun in that?

    *As delightful as it would be to read the epilogue as God nodding happily when Job calls Him a rank bastard and then threatening to kick his friends’ asses for trying to argue for His righteousness, I don’t think the references to Job being His servant and obeying Him about the offering allow that.

  • Leum

     I don’t consider the epilogue because I think it’s inconsistent with the rest of the narrative. I don’t find the prologue inconsistent as I think God does explain why he torments Job, and that his answer is “because I can.”

  • Anton_Mates

    As delightful as it would be to read the epilogue as God nodding happily when Job calls Him a rank bastard and then threatening to kick his friends’ asses for trying to argue for His righteousness, I don’t think the references to Job being His servant and obeying Him about the offering allow that.

    I think they do.  Job remains God’s servant because, well, God is all-powerful and the creator of everything and the author of all blessings, when He feels like handing them out.  There’s nothing else to be but His servant; it’s the only game in town.  But Job is still free to judge that God was wrong to treat him as He did, and in the epilogue Job’s friends agree that God did bring evil upon him, and God makes restitution to Job as if He was in fact guilty of everything Job accused him of.

  • VMink

    “The cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan

  • MaryKaye

    Is there anything in the Bible that actually requires its God to be all-knowing or all-powerful?  More knowing and more powerful than us, yes.  But actually all-knowing?  It seems to me that he doesn’t behave that way in a lot of the stories.  He loses arguments with created things.  He changes his mind.  These aren’t in character for an omniscient, omnipotent God.  I’m inclined to think philosophers added that aspect later on–they wanted their God to be perfect.

    Pagans, generally speaking, don’t think their gods are perfect.  A lot of logical problems go away if you don’t.  Also there’s the excitement of thinking you possibly might win an argument with a god, as several Old Testament figures did–something modern Christianity doesn’t seem to leave any room for.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m pretty sure it’s a philosophers’ invention, yes. I could ask my brother, he’s getting his degree in this shit, but I think Church-is-always-right Catholics are morally obligated to say the philosophers got it all from the Bible regardless of whether that’s true.

  • vsm

    I think Church-is-always-right Catholics are morally obligated to say
    the philosophers got it all from the Bible regardless of whether that’s
    true.

    Nope, sola scriptura is strictly a Protestant thing. Here’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church on “The Relationship Between Tradition and Sacred Scripture”:

    [T]he Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of
    Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed
    truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be
    accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and
    reverence.”

    It continues:

    The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they
    received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy
    Spirit. the first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New
    Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living
    Tradition.

    Sorry for the double post, and here’s hoping I didn’t muck up the HTML.

  • arcseconds

    I’m pretty sure it’s a philosophers’ invention, yes. I could ask my
    brother, he’s getting his degree in this shit, but I think
    Church-is-always-right Catholics are morally obligated to say the
    philosophers got it all from the Bible regardless of whether that’s
    true.

    No, not at all.  

    I mean, yes,  the first bit’s right, it’s a philosophers’ invention (or discovery!) and has scant biblical support.   But Catholics are not morally obligated to say the philosophers got it all from the Bible.  In fact, quite the reverse (although they doubtless think the biblical support is stronger than i think it is).

    A lot of the traditional notions of God were actually bought over from pagan philosophy, and the Catholic church (to their credit) is aware of this and admits it.  The official position is that reason actually gets you quite some way into theology, up to the existence of God and some of the attributes of God, and this distance was actually covered by pagan philosophers, including pre-Christian figures like Plato and Aristotle.

    Beyond that, faith has to take you the rest of the way.

    Catholics have always stressed the importance of tradition and the activities of reason in theology and religion more generally.   They never claim to get it all from the Bible.  That’s something only protestants do, and it’s something that catholics look down their noses at protestants for.

    The shape of traditional Catholic theology (which influenced protestant theology far more than they often like to admit), which went on to influence  was mostly cast by Aquinas, who sythesized Aristotle (newly rediscovered in the west) with the theology of his day.   Again, this is something that the RC Church admits to and is even proud of.

  • Anton_Mates

     

    Is there anything in the Bible that actually requires its God to be all-knowing or all-powerful?

    There are various passages indicating this, yeah.  Re: Omnipotence, Jesus says that “with God all things are possible,” and Job tells God that “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”  Re: Omniscience, there are passages about how nothing is hidden from God, and for instance Psalm 139:

    O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
    2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
    3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
    4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
    5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
    6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it…..

    As you say, this is inconsistent with various Biblical stories wherein God displays weakness or ignorance.  Apparently the various contributors to the Bible did not sit down and hammer out a unified theological approach before they spent 2600-odd years writing and translating the thing, a fact which is obvious to everyone except literalists.

  • We Must Dissent

    Just like the first time Fred posted the article, the very first sentence seems to indicate that if you don’t celebrate Epiphany (which was never mentioned in the traditions I was raised in), you must not be a Christian. That’s odd, as I was raised in a northern Baptist denomination, which I believe is what Fred is.

    But then Fred has freaked out about what sort of furniture different churches have in them.

  • Amaryllis

    From the link:
    Of course poetry is an entirely appropriate way to express the theological truth of God’s incarnation in Christ.

    Well, with that encouragement:

    “The Coming”

    And God held in his hand
    A small globe.  Look, he said.
    The son looked.  Far off,
    As through water, he saw
    A scorched land of fierce
    Colour.  The light burned
    There; crusted buildings
    Cast their shadows: a bright
    Serpent, a river
    Uncoiled itself, radiant
    With slime.
                 
    On a bare
    Hill a bare tree saddened
    The sky.  Many people
    Held out their thin arms
    To it, as though waiting
    For a vanished April
    To return to its crossed
    Boughs.  The son watched
    Them.  Let me go there, he said.

    -R. S. Thomas (who turns out to be the Poet of the Month for November, I guess.)

    ETA: I truly hate Disqus sometimes.

  • Don Gisselbeck

    What if God is radically, incomprehensably (for humans) not a control freak? What if God’s reaction to suffering is not to fix it but share in it? For me, only then does the Incarnation make sense.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The problem with that is, my reaction to suffering is ‘that sucks, how can I help?’

    I am not omnibenevolent. I find it very difficult to believe that I am a better person than an omnibenevolent being is.

  • arcseconds

    One says “how can I help?”, yes, but (normally) that’s said between two people who are (more or less) equals.  It’s also an invitation to assistance.  Except maybe in the case of very close friends or immediate family, offering help doesn’t mean that the problem becomes your problem just as much as it is theirs, and it doesn’t mean that you’re going to just make the problem go away.

    What you’re actually offering in most cases is a limited amount of help.

    There are a lot of cases where we don’t do everything we could to alleviate suffering, even when the cost of helping itself isn’t really an object.  

    Once instance is when there’s a great wealth disparity.  Let’s say Fred’s very rich and I’m struggling financially.  I’ve got a lot of debt and I’m struggling to make rent and my payments while keeping food on the table.   Fred might help me out with the odd rent payment, or give me an interest-free loan, or even give me a higher-paying job or pay for my relocation to somewhere I can afford more readily. 

    If others found out about this, they’d say “ah, yes, that Fred.  Generous to a fault, that man is.  Helped out arcseconds when he was down on his luck”.

    What Fred probably isn’t going to do, no matter how rich he is, is make my financial problems go away completely.  He’s not going to, for example, buy me a house. 

    Now, let’s say Invisible Neutrino is also amazingly rich, and he does buy me a house.  I think most of us would *not* think this is a good thing for him to be doing (even me – but I get a house out of it, so perhaps I won’t be too critical).  We’re not going to be saying “Ah, that Invisible Neutrino: a better person even than Fred.”  We’d be shaking our head and saying “it’s one thing to give arcseconds a bit of a hand up when he’s down, but he’s got to learn to stand on his own feet.”

    There’s lots of other examples.  We’d help a grieving friend, but we wouldn’t (I think) seek to make the grief disappear completely (there are circumstances where we might, but in normal cases we think it’s a healthy and necessary reaction).  We’d discourage someone from getting involved with someone whom we think will only cause them suffering in the long run, but we don’t undertake to sabotage the relationship. 

    So, sure, we offer help to each other.  But there are limits to this, and not just cost.   Some people don’t respect these limits,  but we don’t necessarily think of them as being good or better people because of it.  We might be sceptical as to whether the beneficiary is really being treated well, and we’d think of the benefactor as being at the very least a bit odd, and quite possibly meddlesome, molly-coddling, or even egocentric in some way.

  • EllieMurasaki

    My paycheck doesn’t have an infinity sign on it and the length of a day remains stubbornly fixed at twenty-four hours. What I’m offering is limited because what I have to offer is limited. An all-the-omnis deity by definition has no limits.

  • arcseconds

    My paycheck doesn’t have an infinity sign on it and the length of a day
    remains stubbornly fixed at twenty-four hours. What I’m offering is
    limited because what I have to offer is limited. An all-the-omnis deity by definition has no limits.

    Yes, that’s part of my point.   You can say “I’d help in any way I can”, and you can mean it, because ‘any way you can’ isn’t likely to end up, say, controlling someone’s life.

    Here’s another example.  I don’t have any superpowers, but I am good enough at basic formal logic for that to seem like a superpower to people trying to get though a first-year course in the topic.

    This has resulted in people essentially asking me to do their homework for them.

    There’s nothing too romantic about this example.  No-one’s going to die.  I can’t make or break their life.

    But people who are in over their head and are failing a course at university often are suffering.  Not lifetime-of-pain kind of suffering, but it’s still suffering.    Some don’t give a damn, of course, but other people get extremely stressed out and upset in these situations.  And it can end up impacting on their life in somewhat significant ways.  A failure or a low grade might mean they don’t get into medical school, or don’t get a scholarship, or even get kicked out of the institution.

    I can alleviate much of their suffering today by doing their homework assignment for them.   They’d struggle for hours and maybe fail, I’d spend 10 minutes on it and get them 100%.   Not only does that make them happy right now,  it would go a long way to helping them pass the course.

    But I won’t do this.   I won’t, in fact, do everything I can to alleviate their suffering.

    (Would you? )

    This problem goes away completely for someone who knows no logic at all.  They can say “I will do whatever I can to help you through this assignment” and mean it, and follow through, and no-one will have a problem with this at all.  Because their ‘everything I can do’ means making cups of tea, doing their shifts at work, making sure they turn up to class, paying someone like me to tutor them — but not doing the assignment for them, as they’re not capable of that.

    (I want to leave the problem of what an omnipotent deity can or should do to alleviate suffering, because I don’t think we’re clear on the much simpler and much more relevant for us problem of what human beings can or should do to alleviate suffering, particularly when they’re unequal in skill or power. )

  • Anton_Mates

    There are a lot of cases where we don’t do everything we could to alleviate suffering, even when the cost of helping itself isn’t really an object.  

    That’s certainly true.  I’m not a pure utilitarian, and even if I were, I’m not a good enough person that I always lament the suffering of another.  That said, I don’t think most of your examples are inconsistent with a utilitarian mindset.

    Now, let’s say Invisible Neutrino is also amazingly rich, and he does buy me a house.  I think most of us would *not* think this is a good thing for him to be doing (even me – but I get a house out of it, so perhaps I won’t be too critical).  We’re not going to be saying “Ah, that Invisible Neutrino: a better person even than Fred.”  We’d be shaking our head and saying “it’s one thing to give arcseconds a bit of a hand up when he’s down, but he’s got to learn to stand on his own feet.”

     I wouldn’t.  By and large I’d be like, “Wow, that was really really nice.”  I don’t actually care if you learn to stand on your own feet, provided you’re no longer in a situation where failing to do so causes you or anyone else to suffer.  When I do want people to learn to stand on their own feet, it’s usually because I will not have the power to alleviate most of their suffering in the future, and they’re going to have to do it themselves. 

    We’d help a grieving friend, but we wouldn’t (I think) seek to make the grief disappear completely (there are circumstances where we might, but in normal cases we think it’s a healthy and necessary reaction).

     

    “Healthy and necessary”generally means that, if it doesn’t happen, something worse will happen down the line.  I don’t know how to completely eliminate a friend’s severe grief except with some electrodes and an ice pick, which is unlikely to make the world a happier place in the long run.

    We might be sceptical as to whether the beneficiary is really being treated well, and we’d think of the benefactor as being at the very least a bit odd, and quite possibly meddlesome, molly-coddling, or even egocentric in some way.

    I’d mostly be worried that the benefactor would make a mistake or be unable to sustain their support, being a mere mortal and all.  And yeah, I might not trust the benefactor’s ultimate aims.  But those worries are still utilitarianish ones.

    Yes, that’s part of my point.   You can say “I’d help in any way I can”, and you can mean it, because ‘any way you can’ isn’t likely to end up, say, controlling someone’s life.

    I don’t mean that I’ll help in any way I can, because I’m not good enough at controlling people’s lives to manage the fallout from risky and intrusive attempts at help.  Given more power and wisdom, I could go farther.  As parents do with their children, for instance.

    I can alleviate much of their suffering today by doing their homework assignment for them…..
    But I won’t do this.   I won’t, in fact, do everything I can to alleviate their suffering.
    (Would you? )

    Again, I wouldn’t do this because I think it’d lead to worse suffering.  If they don’t get better at logic, if they get accustomed to cheating, if we get caught, if more deserving students get kicked down the grade curve, then life gets worse.

    I’ve totally done people’s work for them when I felt that these pitfalls didn’t apply.

    (I want to leave the problem of what an omnipotent deity can or should do to alleviate suffering, because I don’t think we’re clear on the much simpler and much more relevant for us problem of what human beings can or should do to alleviate suffering, particularly when they’re unequal in skill or power. )

    Quite the opposite, in my opinion.  Figuring out what mere mortals should do is complicated, because there are so many constraints on our behavior and our ability to forecast its consequences.  An omnipotent deity, by definition, can perform any possible intervention more safely, productively and reliably than we can.  It’s probably impossible to figure out the absolute best course of action such a deity could take, but pretty much anything we’d call a good course of action for a person to take would be at least as good if a deity did it.

  • arcseconds

    I wouldn’t.  By and large I’d be like, “Wow, that was really really nice.”  I don’t actually care
    if you learn to stand on your own feet, provided you’re no longer in a
    situation where failing to do so causes you or anyone else to suffer. 
    When I do want people to learn to stand on their own feet, it’s
    usually because I will not have the power to alleviate most of their
    suffering in the future, and they’re going to have to do it themselves.  

    So, you’re quite prepared to carry the can for healthy adults who would prefer to take a life-long holiday? 

    wow.  Look me up if you ever happen to win a lottery or something.

    Most people don’t seem to be very happy with indolent free-loaders, especially if they have to carry the can for them.

    “Healthy and necessary”generally means that, if it doesn’t happen, something worse will happen down the line.  I
    don’t know how to completely eliminate a friend’s severe grief except
    with some electrodes and an ice pick, which is unlikely to make the
    world a happier place in the long run.

    I didn’t say ‘severe grief’.  I’m not talking about grief that means that their life is ruined for years and they can never have an intimate relationship or hold a position of responsibility ever again.  In those cases I agree we’d want to alleviate it.

    I’m talking about the ordinary kind of grief that most people suffer when a loved one dies.  In all of the cases I’ve ever encountered, including my own, people expect to and want to feel grief and sadness.  If, for some reason, they don’t, it’s often troublesome to them.

    Now, I’m sure you’re going to say that this is caused by social expectation.  I agree that’s part of the story, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.  I think there’s a pretty obvious connection between “don’t feel anything about this loss” to “turns out I didn’t care about this person all that much after all”.  But even if it is just the whole story, and feeling troubled by the lack of grief is just like feeling troubled by non-representational art, then, well, if they want to conform to these norms, that’s their business.

    So if you do ever find a grief-erasement wand, please don’t use it on me or anyone else without checking first.  In other words, please do not do everything you can to alleviate our suffering.

    Again, I wouldn’t do this because I think it’d lead to worse
    suffering.  If they don’t get better at logic, if they get accustomed to
    cheating, if we get caught, if more deserving students get kicked down
    the grade curve, then life gets worse.

    I’ve totally done people’s work for them when I felt that these pitfalls didn’t apply.

    So, there’s nothing wrong with cheating so long as you don’t make a habit of it, and you don’t get caught.     You say “deserving”, but it doesn’t sound like you really care that someone deserves a grade.  If the beneficiary of your cheating gets the place in the elite programme over someone who did it all themselves, that’s fine so long as on balance more people are happier.  Maybe your protégé experiences intense highs and lows, so they’ll be really upset if they don’t get in, and really happy if they do, and they happen to be a generous spirit who will help others as a result of having a successful life.   And the person who would otherwise be at the bottom of the acceptance list has ahedonia so won’t really experience much emotion either way.   And perhaps they’re a bit on the selfish side.

    Again, I suspect you’ll find most people would be horrified by this attitude.  Hopefully either you don’t really make judgements like this and you just say you do, or otherwise you’re not ever put in a position of authority where you’re expected to make decisions on the base of desert.

    I can’t argue against this, except to say *shut the hell up*.

    I’m serious.  You appear to agree that instrumentally, widespread cheating would result in bad stuff in society.  There’s quite a lot of evidence that suggests that people are more inclined to cheat the more rationales they have available to cheat (e.g. they’re more inclined to cheat if they think their peers are cheating, and they’re more inclined to cheat if they’ve taken a 1st year ethics paper).   So by making this argument on a public webforum, you’ve just done your bit to make cheating that little bit more likely. 

    All someone has to do who agrees with you is to make the kind of weighting mistakes that most people are subject to  (e.g. privilege the immediate short-term outcome for themselves over the long-term impact of society) and they can justify all sorts of cheating.

    You’d  (i.e. we’d) be best off, by your own lights, to keep this opinion to yourself, and make exceptions as you see fit. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    So, you’re quite prepared to carry the can for healthy adults who would prefer to take a life-long holiday?

    This smells a bit like the kind of stuff of welfare-bashing rhetoric.

    Let’s be honest: Western nations are at the point now where if we got serious about this, we could all be working 3 or 4 hour workdays at the most and still enjoy a standard of living unmatched in human history.

    There is ample room to improve the quality of life and even tolerate “life-long holiday” freeloaders in the process.

    Doing nothing is actually kind of BORING.

    People LIKE feeling useful.

    Give people the chance to be useful where they find their niche and the notion of loafers and slackers will solve itself.

  • arcseconds

    Witchfinder-Captain Neutrino, detecting whiffs of rightist heresy since tumpty-tumpty nine!
    Do I need to make a full confession, including those of my libertarian collaborators, to save my worthless hide?

    (Have you never had to live in close quarters with someone who refuses to pull their weight? )

    But sure, I agree.

    And I expect in such a society, there too will people be irked at people who aren’t doing their 3-4 days a week without a very good excuse.   I don’t really see the necessity for some unpleasant jobs to evaporate, either, so there may very well be an expectation that everyone, no matter how gifted a blogger, will have to pitch in some time vacuuming the streets and taking out the sewage.

    And I hope that this is done in part out of concern for the loafer themselves.  Someone who habitually thinks only of their own immediate satisfaction is missing something great about life.

    (and just in case you’re still smelling things, remember that it’s ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’)

  • Anton_Mates

    So, you’re quite prepared to carry the can for healthy adults who would prefer to take a life-long holiday? 

    Of course not, for the reasons given in the exact passage you quoted.  I have limited resources with which to help people, and it will alleviate more suffering if I direct them toward people who can’t fend for themselves, rather than than toward people who simply don’t want to.  “Indolent free-loaders” are likely to stop being indolent and take care of survival if they’re forced to do so, whereas the genuinely needy can’t just stop needing things.

    Plus, I’m not infinitely benevolent, so if anyone’s going to be getting more than their fair share of my stuff, it’ll be me and my loved ones.

    Note that all this is premised on limited resources.  Winning the lottery wouldn’t make that problem go away.

    I didn’t say ‘severe grief’….I’m talking about the ordinary kind of grief that most people suffer when a loved one dies. 

    So am I, and personally I’m happy to call that grief “severe.”

    Now, I’m sure you’re going to say that this is caused by social expectation.

    Why would it be?  Society expects people to grieve because it’s what people usually do.  In fact, I think people usually grieve more than society has patience with.

    But even if it is just the whole story, and feeling troubled by the lack of grief is just like feeling troubled by non-representational art, then, well, if they want to conform to these norms, that’s their business.

    Sure, and there’s no utilitarian reason to force them to trade the suffering of grief for the suffering of thinking themselves heartless.

    So if you do ever find a grief-erasement wand, please don’t use it on me or anyone else without checking first. 

    Yes…

    In other words, please do not do everything you can to alleviate our suffering.

    …and no.  Again, if I brainwash your grief away without checking first, I risk making you and those around you troubled (likely for much longer) about your lack of a proper reaction.  I also risk damaging you psychologically, because grief probably is healthy.  This makes it not a very good idea, suffering-alleviation-wise.

    Should I ever receive a grief-alleviation wand and a godlike understanding of human psychology so I can make sure it’s safe to use, then I’m sorry, but I may start de-grieving you without your consent.  That doesn’t seem terribly likely, though.  If it’s any comfort, I’m sure I would be equally horrified by various things you’d do if you gained godlike powers.  Power tends to magnify philosophical differences.

    So, there’s nothing wrong with cheating so long as you don’t make a habit of it, and you don’t get caught.  

    Well, that and the other half of the problems I listed.

    If the beneficiary of your cheating gets the place in the elite programme over someone who did it all themselves, that’s fine so long as on balance more people are happier. 

    Well, yes, generally speaking everything is fine so long as more people are happier.  That what utilitarianism is (for various values of “happier,” insert millennia of philosophical argument here).  

    Of course, there’s also the possibility that the cheating will not affect anyone’s placement at all.  As when two students are both getting doing well in their classes and switch assignments because it’s more interesting that way, or because they want to see if the teacher notices.  Which is what I’ve done.  Twice, if I recall correctly.  I wouldn’t recommend it as a particularly productive activity, but I’m not guilty about it either.

    Maybe your protégé experiences intense highs and lows, so they’ll be really upset if they don’t get in, and really happy if they do, and they happen to be a generous spirit who will help others as a result of having a successful life.

    Sure, or they’re Hitler, and a lot of trouble will be avoided if they can cheat their way into art school.  Causation is weird that way.

    Look, of course cheating is sometimes the right thing to do, just like speeding and littering and stealing and shooting people in the head are sometimes the right things to do.  They’re just not the right things to do very often, which is why we have laws against them.

    Hopefully either you don’t really make judgements like this and you just say you do, or otherwise you’re not ever put in a position of authority where you’re expected to make decisions on the base of desert.

    Bad time to say I’ve done a fair bit of teaching, then?  

    And, in fact, I don’t know whether some of the students who aced their exams and class presentations were swapping around their take-home assignments just to mess with me.  They might have been.  Since it didn’t seem to affect their comprehension of the material, I’m not too worried about it.  It may be a temple of learning, but obeying every rule handed down from above is not actually a holy duty.  On the other hand, a couple of students cheated on their exams, and of course there were consequences for that.

    If you talk to some teachers, you’ll find that they’re not usually that worried about whether their students are morally worthy of the grades they get.  Our priorities are making sure they learn the material and evaluating their comprehension of same, not making sure that everyone suffers exactly as much as they deserve to en route.  And I don’t think you’d want it otherwise.

    Again, I suspect you’ll find most people would be horrified by this attitude. 

    Given the statistics on self-reported cheating, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be.

    So by making this argument on a public webforum, you’ve just done your bit to make cheating that little bit more likely. 

    Right, and by admitting that I’ve broken the speed limit on the interstate, I’ve done my bit to make people more likely to do 90 mph in a school zone.  I can live with that.

    But here, if it makes you feel better:  DON’T CHEAT IN SCHOOL UNLESS YOUR MOTHER’S LIFE IS AT STAKE, KIDS!!!

    There, now they’ll learn the value of hypocrisy instead of the value of cheating.

  • EllieMurasaki

    And if you were to inherit a house, no one would be saying the decedent should be letting you…I don’t like the phrase ‘stand on your own two feet’ because some people can’t and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I can’t think of a substitute at the moment. ‘Fend for yourself’ has the wrong connotations.

  • Wingedwyrm

    So, what you’re suggesting is that God doesn’t have a natural sense of empathy but, instead, a natural sense of massochism, so that he’d rather experience the suffering himself than help those already suffering?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    So, what you’re suggesting is that God doesn’t have a natural sense of
    empathy but, instead, a natural sense of massochism, so that he’d rather
    experience the suffering himself than help those already suffering?

    Then God is pretty fucking useless.

    Seriously.

    Who wouldn’t help someone in suffering if it were within their power to share it or even better, alleviate it in a material sense rather than only being able to acknowledge the suffering?

  • Anton_Mates

     

    What if God is radically, incomprehensably (for humans) not a control freak?

    That’s certainly possible.  Of course, then we’re not talking about the sort of God who’s the creator and maintainer of all natural law, who shaped us all in the womb and signs off on the fall of every sparrow.  That job description implies a fair amount of controllingness.

    But there’s no rule saying Christians have to believe in that sort of God, and obviously a lot of them don’t.

    What if God’s reaction to suffering is not to fix it but share in it? For me, only then does the Incarnation make sense.

    Fair enough.  But as Seiber says upthread, if that’s still God’s reaction to suffering, then ze didn’t learn much from being incarnated.  Humans may be spiteful bastards a lot of the time, but if they have to choose between fixing suffering and sharing in it, they usually do pick the first option.

    (I’m not arguing against there existing a God who feels that way and did such a thing, mind.  I don’t believe in gods, but they’re not any less likely to exist if they have weird personalities.)

  • Mark Z.

    Of course, then we’re not talking about the sort of God who’s the creator and maintainer of all natural law, who shaped us all in the womb and signs off on the fall of every sparrow. That job description implies a fair amount of controllingness.
    What it doesn’t imply is taking sides. God signs off on the fall of every sparrow, but it’s not like the sparrows did anything to incur his wrath. He’s just not particularly on their side.

    This is a major theme in God’s speech in Job: the stuff in the world that threatens our survival, or that we just find ugly and savage, is, to God, kind of awesome. Leviathan is fucking metal. And God is free to think that because Leviathan’s not going to eat him. Hell, he probably appreciates the elegance of the AIDS virus.

    Now this could reasonably be called an “anti-human” value system, and the rest of Job is largely about how it can really suck to be a human in that world. But taking that section on its own, I find God’s perspective very understandable. This is what it’s like to be perfectly safe.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    This is what it’s like to be perfectly safe.

    Yes.
    More broadly, this is what it’s like to consider an issue without concern for my own survival/benefit.
    One way to achieve this is perfect safety, such that my survival is not at risk.
    It’s not the only way.

  • Anton_Mates

     

    What it doesn’t imply is taking sides. God signs off on the fall of every sparrow, but it’s not like the sparrows did anything to incur his wrath. He’s just not particularly on their side.

    That’s a different conception of God than Don was advancing, I think, but it certainly provides a theodicy as well.  Twain often presented a God like that.

    This is a major theme in God’s speech in Job: the stuff in the world that threatens our survival, or that we just find ugly and savage, is, to God, kind of awesome. Leviathan is fucking metal.

    That works, though personally I personally prefer the interpretation where Leviathan is a primordial cosmic chaos-force and God’s saying, “What, you don’t like how I do my job?  Then you try wrestling this bastard down for 5,000 years at a time.”

  • ohiolibrarian

    Jesus didn’t go for the full human experience though, did he? No sex (at least many people get upset at the thought), no marriage/romance, no children, (unless you believe Dan Brown), no aging. Kind of like leaving the movie half way through.

  • Mira

    Wow, I’m a little nervous to enter the comments section without a full fledged answer to theodicy. I don’t have one, so I’m not going to be able to answer “why does God allow suffering?”

    That said, in response to the original post, I don’t think “God learning” is a very helpful or compelling interpretation of the incarnation. Our physical existence limits our empathy – we can only ever truly think or feel from within our own bodies. We don’t know what not having a body is like, or what “knowing” or “feeling” could possibly mean – should we even think of God in terms of being a mind without a brain, or is that really inappropriately anthropomorphic? “God learning” is so ill-defined as to be meaningless to me.

    I agree with Don that “God participating” is a better way of thinking about it. What that means to me is that we still don’t understand why the world is the way it is, with its needless suffering, but we do understand that God chose to join us and that, through the works of Jesus, he is with us, on our side, at our level, and has shared in that suffering.

    It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t solve the problem of pain, but the important thing is that Jesus is a tangible, imaginable mystery in a way that God the Almighty is not. I couldn’t believe in that abstract God – in some ways I still don’t because I can’t imagine – but I can put my faith in the mystery of incarnation.

  • Mark Z.

    Also, at times like this I miss hapax.

  • Wingedwyrm

    The “God participating” also has its problems, namely that God, in the form of Jesus, does not participate in the entirety of the experience of humanity.  Let’s leave sex and romance asside.  Let’s go into something that, for the vast majority of Christian Theodicies, is inherant to being human, sin.

    Let’s also leave the concept of original sin or having a sinful nature out of this.  Let’s go, instead, to the point where anybody else saying unto their mother “what am I to do with you, woman?” in anything but an obviously joking and obviously kind manner is rightfully called upon as someone who has done something wrong, even if the situation has lead that to be the least-wrong of available options.

    Similarly, if one of us mere mortals were to liken a woman, whilst she begs for the life of her child, to a dog, in relative stature and moral value to us humans, the very best we could manage, is the least bad of a bad set of options.

    Even for being a story where these things become the least bad of a bad set of options, they are still bad things to do and, for those not lucky enough to be God in whatever form, that counts as a sin.  Jesus, by most Christian belief systems that I’m aware of, is without sin.  For us, the lesser of two, least of three, least of a billion evils is stil evil, but he gets off without any of the guilt that the rest of us feel.

    The flip side is that it’s very human to be sinned against.  Meaning, if someone robs you, they’re robbing *you*, they’re making *you* feel weak, they’re threatening *you*.  And, because it really is about *you* in some way, forgiveness is not, and indeed should not be, easy.  But, for Jesus, whatever happens to him, whatever’s done to him, he, in the stories, knows that it’s not really about little old him except in the sense that, systematically, its an insult to God.  “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Except that, in a sense, they did know that they were driving nails into a human being that would suffer.

    Both of these are, I would argue, among the more essential aspects of what it means to live as a conscious human being, feeling guilt over what we have done and injury over what has been done to us.  To my knowledge, Jesus never does either in full.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Captain Kirk once argued that humanity would, in essentials, get totally bored if we had everything handed to us on a silver platter.

    That may be true, but there are kinds and types of suffering and deprivation that are totally needless and unnecessary.

    We don’t need to die of horrible diseases.

    We don’t need to die of horrific accidents.

    We don’t need to live in financial distress while a lucky sliver of a few can all but reach out a hand for anything and have it at their fingertips instantly.

    The list goes on.

    And a God that can’t help repurpose human society to avoid that?

    Is pretty damn useless.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Yeah, I dunno.

    When I disengage emotionally from theodicy enough that I’m looking at it, not as a suffering member of a class of sufferers, but rather as a reasonable approximation of a detached and analytical observer, I can usually think of ways in which the world might contain both the sorts of needless and unnecessary suffering and deprivation you describe here and a being capable of unilaterally eliminating all of that who chooses not to, for good and sufficient reasons.

    But the rest of the time, which is most of the time, that kind of detached analytical stance feels intolerably sick and evil and cruel and heartless, and my reaction to imagining myself espousing it is mostly to want to stamp my own face in with a boot until I just SHUT THE FUCK UP.

    And, basically, the same goes for other people espousing it.

    Of course, my anger and frustration in response to theodicy doesn’t make it false. But it does mean I need to approach the subject with a lot of compassion and the awareness that I’m not entirely sane about it.

    So, I try to do that. Which mostly means I avoid discussing theodicy.

    It’s more difficult some times than others.

  • Rick M.

    Fred,
    It’s one of my favorite posts. Sometimes I wish you were my pastor. Still, it is a Joam Osbourne song. The Hooters were the ones who danced, like a wave on the ocean, I think.
    Thanks,
    Rick

  • renniejoy

     Joan Osbourne sang it, but it was written by one of the Hooters. :)

  • arcseconds

    Fred’s post is a nice story. 

    But, on reflection, I’m not sure how much sense I can make of it.

    What kind of a god can undergo an incarnation like what Fred describes?  Specifically, an incarnation where one purpose is to get a handle on mortal suffering.

    I’m thinking – not the God of the philosophers (and traditional Christian theology).   Not understanding that humans suffer, and what that means to humans, is a pretty significant area of ignorance of an omniscient being.  Really, I would think being omniscient would involve being aware of every single moment of suffering.

    Also, this god is supposed to be unchangable, so it’s not as if they can learn anything anyways, let alone undergoing a life-changing experience.

    A pantheistic or panenthiestic God, where the universe is understood to constitute some or all of God, here again God’s aware of every moment of suffering already, and that awareness is identical with the sufferer’s being aware of their suffering.  So again I can’t make any sense of such a God being ignorant of suffering and need to learn something.

    This God can change, because the universe can change, so they could potentially learn something about suffering, but they’re already experiencing it first hand, so that’s not something they need to learn.

    I’m also having a lot of difficulty working out what incarnation means for such a God.  Not that I have any great ease working out what it means for the omni-God either, but there at least they’re distinct from the universe, so there’s some hope to be made of the notion of them becoming part of the universe for a time.   But for a God that’s constituted by the universe, incarnation means becoming part of themselves.  What does it mean for Jesus to be the whole universe?  Are we supposed to picture an ourubus or a klein bottle here or something?  Or maybe Eternity from the marvel comics?

    (I’m distinct from my laundry hamper, so I can kind of see my way to making sense of ‘I shall now become my sock to learn what it’s like to be laundry’, but I can’t really make sense of ‘I shall now become my taste for bizarre thought-experiments to see what it’s like to be a part of myself’

    I’m also picturing jesus’s blood on a slide somewhere, with someone staring down a microscope saying “funny, these platelets really look a lot like galaxies…” )

    The only way I can make any real sense of Fred’s story is if God is more like how he’s described in the old testament, or drawn on the Sistine Chapel ceiling or in Far Side cartoons: a super-alien with a  huge beard, who has a lot to learn about human beings.   If he’s omniscient in any way at all, it’s more like he’s got everything noted in a huge book somewhere.  He notes every sparrow’s fall, but doesn’t really have any idea what it means to suffer and die.

    Also, I thought liberal theology types like Fred were supposed to be gettng us away from this kind of picture?

    Also, also, no matter which conception of God we’re using, I can’t make much sense of ‘God is love’ if God needed to incarnate before understanding what weeping is all about.

    If God’s really like this, I’m not sure why we’re worshipping him, although he certainly seems more approachable: a super-alien, in our terms maybe ‘autistic’ or ‘sociopathic’, who creates the universe, doesn’t know why everyone’s complaining all the time and isn’t getting with the programme, despite making friends with that Moses guy,  until one day decides “well, if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself” and decides to incarnate, and then…. oh.

    I know, I know, it’s all supposed to be a huge mystery.  And maybe Fred’s perspective is really that this whole incarnation thing is just another story about God – his story, the stories in the Gospels, the story of Job, these are all just our attempts to understand a being beyond our comprehension, and we shouldn’t be theorising… but if so, again what sense can be made of this story?  does Fred read “OK, so why did God become flesh?” as “tell me a nice story about God becoming flesh?”

    so confused…

  • Anton_Mates

    If God’s really like this, I’m not sure why we’re worshipping him, although he certainly seems more approachable: a super-alien, in our terms maybe ‘autistic’ or ‘sociopathic’, who creates the universe, doesn’t know why everyone’s complaining all the time and isn’t getting with the programme, despite making friends with that Moses guy,  until one day decides “well, if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself” and decides to incarnate, and then….oh.

    Not necessarily sociopathic.  He could be a perfectly warm and caring person toward other Gods, he’s just never really grokked the feelings of the little characters inside the copy of SimUniverse he’s playing.  In that case, though, I’m not sure that copying a tiny fraction of himself into the game and watching it go through various horrible experiences would give him much more insight….

  • Lydy Nickerson

    I’m very much an ex-Fundamentalist. Lots of history, abusive family, stuff, bother. I stopped believing in God a really long time ago. But I’ve been reading your blog for a while. I am suddenly struck by the fact that you have empathy and compassion for God. I have, quite honestly, never ever seen a Christian express this before. It does interesting things to my brain, and I must think about it. Thank you.


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