God Doesn’t Know What You Think God Knows [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week, Sam asked us a question about God’s omniscience (you can find Sam at her blog and on Twitter). She asks,

I recognize this sounds cheeky to Christians now that I no longer am a Christian but I’ve never had a good answer to it and even when I put on my old Fundamentalist hat I can’t come up with an answer. God seems surprised to learn mankind became so wicked in the time of Noah, so he decides to start again. THIS God does not seem omniscient.

By the time we get to Jesus, Christian theology develops enough that we now claim God IS omniscient SO after God wiped away humanity the first time, did he know he would have to send his son to redeem us? (since he couldn’t just wipe us out, having promised to not do that again)? If yes, was Jesus with God during the time of Noah? Why didn’t God (who was/is omniscient knowing this wouldn’t work the first time) send Jesus to sacrifice his life for us then?

Thanks again, Sam, both for your question and for your comments.

Two things I attempt to avoid when actively theologizing are 1) anthropomorphizing God, and 2) analogizing God with human behavior. Readers may consider these arbitrary rules that I place on myself, but they are well-grounded in the history of theological discourse.

God is not human. Indeed, in my theology, the non-humanness of God is what makes the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth so utterly astounding. Although I can’t say I never do it, I am highly skeptical of imputing human characteristics onto God.

Now the tricky part is that pretty much all we know are human characteristics. It doesn’t really help anyone for me to say, “God’s love is not like our love,” when all we know is our love.

Regarding number two, I’m really against analogies, especially bad ones. The Trinity is not like the pitcher, catcher, and manager of a baseball team. And prayer is not like you talking to your spouse.

So that’s why I’m left in something of a conundrum regarding Sam’s question of God’s omniscience. To ask about how much God knows seems akin to asking how much God can store in God’s brain. I only understand knowledge as a human can. I have no way to even conceive of what knowledge would be were I not trapped within time. And God doesn’t have a brain, at least not in the sense of gray matter and synapses that I do.

So let’s look at this a couple ways: biblically and philosophically.

Sam is troubled by the biblical narrative, especially the God’s interactions with humanity leading up to the incarnation of Jesus. The obvious choice is this: If God knew that the incarnation was ultimately going to be necessary, then all of the activity prior to that (expulsion from Eden, Tower of Babel, Flood, Exodus) was just a game. God was either making all that stuff happen to teach us a lesson, or because God is sadistic.

The other option is that God did not know how all this would progress, and it’s in this camp that I place myself. Part of God’s pattern of humility and self-limitation is that God gave up timelessness. That is, God allowed Godself to be bound to time, I suppose because it would be impossible to have true relationship with time-bound creatures if God was outside of time.

There is, of course, a third option, and that is to write off the accounts of the Hebrew Bible as primitive, mythical, and therefore irrelevant. As troubling as the biblical texts are, I will not default to this option, because it’s a cop-out. All we’ve got is the biblical accounts, so we’ve got to deal with them. Dismissing them as irrelevant guts Christianity of its complexity.

But options number two and three can actually be reconciled somewhat. The biblical accounts must be contextualized and relativized. The episodes that Sam refers to — Garden of Eden, the Flood — are considered by biblical scholars to be pre-history, akin to mythologies of other ancient peoples. The real history of Israel begins with Sarai and Abram, and accounts prior to that are too clouded in the mists of time to be understood as history with any basis in actual events. Nevertheless, both the prehistoric accounts, and the post-Abrahamic accounts, tell a story about who God is and how God interacts with us.

In spite of the occasional verse that says that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day to the Lord, the clear story of the Bible is that God is intimately involved in time with us. God grows frustrated with the Israelites, for example, which is something you wouldn’t expect from a Being who is omniscient.

Now, let’s look at it philosophically. Augustine wrote probably the most famous meditation on time in the final four books of the Confessions, summarized here:

Time, he argues, does not really exist—it is more of an illusion we generate for ourselves for unclear reasons (fundamentally, we fall into time because of our distance from God’s perfection). Past and future exist only in our present constructions of them. From God’s point of view, all of time exists at once–nothing comes ‘before’ or ‘after’ anything else temporally. God created the universe not ‘at’ a specific time, but rather creates it constantly and always, in one eternal act.

Of course, Augustine’s reasoning falls short in light of modern science. Time is not an illusion, but a dimension in which we’re bound. The plethora of “time travel” novels and stories highlight the fact that we’re both fascinated and inherently limited by time. (See this article for a discussion of time as the fourth dimension of creation.)

To me, it does not seem reasonable to think that we are so completely subsumed by time — it is an inescapable aspect of our existence — yet God is completely unbound by time.

So, Sam, my answer is this: If there is a God, then God is experiencing time in some way. I’m not comfortable saying that God is “bound” by time or “limited” by time, since that means that God experiences time like we do, as a march toward mortality. God’s experience of time is unique, but nevertheless real. Thus, God’s omniscience is relative to God’s experience of time.

A Better Atonement: Moral Exemplar

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

In another version of the atonement that was quite popular during the first millennium of Christianity, but virtually snuffed out in the West by penal substitution, Jesus Christ is seen as a moral exemplar, who calls us toward a better life, both individually and corporately.

In this view, the Hebrew scriptures record effort after effort by God to get people on the right track. Through personal interaction, the Law, the prophets, and the sacrificial system, God tried to get the people to live morally upright lives. But each of those attempts failed.

So God sent his son, Jesus, as the perfect example of a moral life. Jesus’ teachings and his healing miracles form the core of this message, and his death is as a martyr for this cause: the crucifixion both calls attention to Jesus’ life and message, and it is an act of self-sacrifice, one of the highest virtues of the moral life.

We see Jesus’ death, and we are inspired to a better life ourselves. But there’s more to it than this.

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David Carr and St. Augustine – Separated at Birth?

St. Augustine and David Carr - Separated at Birth?

On our 900-mile drive home from Texas yesterday, Courtney and I listened to the better part of David Carr’s riveting memoir, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of his Life–His Own.  Carr, now a famous reporter and columnist for the New York Times, spent the 1980s as a reporter in the Twin Cities.  And as a junkie, a hardcore junkie.

Carr is a great writer, entertaining and honest in the style of David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers.  Added to the sheer strength of his prose and the shocking nature of his story is the fact that, as a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities, there are a whole lot of references to places that I know and have been, as well as others (e.g., Moby Dick’s and the Skyway Lounge) that are gone-but-not-forgotten spots from when Minneapolis was a seedier place.

But most interesting to me is how Carr continually plays with and muses on the subject of memory.  His own memory is admittedly poor to begin with.  Add to that a combustible mix of booze and hard drugs, and he came to realize that he remembered very little from the 1980s, and what he did remember, he misremembered.

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