Thinking about God

Thinking about God March 4, 2008

Questions Unlimited (a campus organization I am involved in) hosted a lunchtime discussion entitled “More Than One Way to Look at God?: Why the God Who’s Not There Might Not Be God”. I was one of the panelists; another was Rev. Charles Allen, who has a website with interesting pieces he has written on various topics. It would be hard to summarize, but there is much I agree with in the piece by John Hick that I quoted in my last post, and our discussion touched on those points and many others. It was particularly nice to have students and faculty from Christian Theological Seminary join with those of us from Butler for this event.

One point that I made I will share here. In the Bible, studied critically, we can see some steps in the process of the shift from a polytheistic view, which personified the forces of nature, to a monotheistic (or proto-monotheistic) one that explained these various forces of nature in terms of a single personified agent behind them. We see the results of this as the Biblical authors rewrote the traditional flood story in light of their revised thinking about God, and the result is perplexing yet represents progress in perceiving an underlying unity to all things and helping to get us to the scientific approach that built upon this foundation. They had no other way of making sense of such stories than to assume the flood happened and assume God had a moral reason for inflicting it on humans.

Today we have more information and to stop our thinking about God at the stage of the Biblical authors would represent a really bizarre decision on our part. Thanks to our better (although far from perfect) understanding of the universe we inhabit, we do not need either to personify forces of nature, or blame “acts of God” on God. Unless we seriously rethink our concept of God in light of such new data, we end up with a very troubling view, as one blogger I read insightfully points out. It makes little sense to argue that God wants us to not seek our own glory, to not repay those who dishonor and harm us in kind, and yet to depict God as the ultimate glory-seeker who beats up (or one day in the future will torture) those who refuse to respect him. If we realize that the Biblical literature indicates points on a trajectory rather than a static God-concept, then we are free to avoid such troubling inconsistencies and think of God in ways that are in accordance with our highest moral standards.

Charles Allen pointed out that we can pay metaphysical compliments to God without thinking about what they really mean. For instance, if we say that God is omniscient, are we willing to maximize that at the expense of God’s freedom? If God foreknows everything, we end up with what I call the ‘bored view of God’, where God spends eternity doing what God knew that God would do, powerless to change anything since that would cause God’s foreknowledge to be in error.

If we unthinkingly attribute to God the maximal attributes in all areas, we just end up with a God who is omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent and omnivorous

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  • Carlos

    “a God who is omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent and omnivorous…” sounds more like Cthulu than anything else. Part of the problem, I can’t help but wonder, is that we moderns try too hard to make sure that our language about God is logical, airtight, and literal. What gets lost is how talking about God, or about transcendence, or about reverence, can be an attempt to break out of ossified categories of speaking and doing. It’s attempt to get out where one can breathe some open air, and when we return to everyday life, bring the sunlight with us back down to the cave. Here’s a slogan: “the difference between science and religion is that science doesn’t explain everything, and religion doesn’t explain anything” — because explanation is not what religion is for. And that’s a very good reason to be suspicious of turning religion into metaphysics, esp. modern scientific metaphysics.

  • Bad

    “I can’t help but wonder, is that we moderns try too hard to make sure that our language about God is logical, airtight, and literal.”As opposed to language that is irrational, incoherent, and contradictory? :)I like a little clarity in my descriptions of things. Transcendence is never an excuse for confusion or linguistic ambiguity.

  • I love the term “bored view of God” to describe divine foreknowledge. I may just have to use it.

  • James, I agree 100%, but perhaps you underestimate how subersive this idea is for the faithful.If one accepts that the Bible books reflect developing views of God by human authors (which is painfully obvious to rational people), then that saps their value as authoritative books. If the books aren’t handed down from God’s hands like the 10 Commandments, then it gives people license to question.If we can’t denounce gays because it says so in Leviticus, what are we left with? We all have to decide on our own? Ponder the nuance? How can we be sure that we are right under those circumstances? It takes too much damned thought, and we are left with too much uncertainty. Most people prefer to be told what to believe and clear-cut answers.