#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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. )

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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

    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. 

  • 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.

  • 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’)

  • 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…

  • stardreamer42

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

  • 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.

  • 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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