God Is Neither Warlike Nor Peaceful [Questions That Haunt]

God Is Neither Warlike Nor Peaceful [Questions That Haunt] November 19, 2012

Last week’s Questions That Haunt Christianity came from Shira, who asked a question that provoked an unprecedented number of comments for the series:

My question is this: How do Christian theologians deal with the fact that God is portrayed sometimes as a “man of war” who approves genocide and taking of women as war prizes, among other atrocities and sometimes as the “righteous judge” standing up for widows, orphans, and the strangers among us? I consider this a vital question because it seems to me that many people gravitate to one or the other of these ideas of God, and the actions in the world of these different groups are very distinct! I don’t know if you require a background, but I’m a Buddhist of Jewish background.

Thanks to all who commented. Here’s my response:

Shira, yours is an excellent question that has provoked intense discussion, and I am profoundly grateful for your involvement in that conversation. I am particularly motivated to give the best answer that I can due to your participation in the commentary, which is why my answer is a few days late. My apologies.

I think there are three questions to be addressed. I will take each in turn, from what I consider to be the least important to the most important.

First, you are interested in the behavior of theists. Particularly, I assume, you are interested in the behavior of Christians, since you’ve posed this question to a Christian theologian. Based on the behavior of Christians, is God a God of peace or a God of war?

Honestly, I don’t think this is a very important angle in answering your question. As a Buddhist, you’re surely aware of something that most Christians are not: there are numerous examples of violence that Buddhists have perpetrated on persons of other religions, and all in the name of Buddhism.

Earlier this year I visited Sri Lanka, a country in which the Buddhist government recently quashed a long-standing rebellion by the Tamil Tigers. Those Buddhists—adherents of what many uninformed persons consider to be the world’s most peaceful religion—used extraordinary violence to defeat the Tigers. And that same government is now bent on impeaching the chief justice of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in order to further galvanize their power and repress dissent. When I was in Sri Lanka, I was asked by my (Christian) hosts to not blog or even speak in public about the (Buddhist) government, for fear of reprisals.

I say this not to criticize your religion, but to claim that it is never fair to judge a religion based on the often odious behavior of that religion’s adherents. I’m not proud of many aspects of Christian history, just as you surely repudiate some of your fellow Buddhists. While the followers of a religion do sometimes exemplify the root strangeness a religion (viz, Tom Cruise), the histories of both your religion and mine are deeply ambivalent, full of both saints and sinners.

Second, and more important, is what to do with the Christian sacred text, the Bible. Therein, we seem to find both a God of War and a God of Peace.

I was recently on the phone with a friend of mine—another Christian leader/author/pastor. He said to me, “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m basically a supersessionist.” Supersessionism is the theological name for Christians who for all intents and purposes ignore the Hebrew Scriptures (aka, the “Old” Testament). The reasoning goes that Jesus—who said, “I came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it”—basically did abolish the Law. It’s a common view among Anabaptists and some Lutherans.

I am not a supersessionist, and here’s why: the Hebrew Scripture was very significant to Jesus and Paul, each of whom quoted it a lot, and to the early church. If they unanimously considered it important, who am I to throw it out?

That being said, I can relativize the texts of the Hebrew Scripture, just as I do the Christian Scripture. Jesus found a man who was chained up in cemetery, foaming at the mouth and screaming obscenities. Jesus looked at that man and saw demons. I see schizophrenia. Tomato, tomato. Jesus understood and spoke in the idioms of his time, and I do in mine. I think it’s quite like that in another millennium, our descendants will think that schizophrenia is a very naïve and archaic understanding of that condition.

The Israelites who first told and ultimately wrote down the stories and genealogies and laws that we know as the Hebrew Scriptures lived a long time ago. Thousands of years ago. They were a primitive, tribal, warring people, and it’s no surprise to me that their depiction of God reflects primitive, tribal, warlike characteristics. In other words, I have no trouble relativizing their written claims about who Yahweh is and how Yahweh acts.

The ancient Israelites’ depictions of God are no more (or less) normative to me than Jesus’ conversation with the 10,000(!) demons who plagued the man in the cemetery.

However, that does not release me from taking those biblical accounts seriously—indeed, I think I am required to take them even more seriously: since I cannot take them at face value, I must do hard hermeneutical work to discover their value for me today. The normativity of those texts of a warlike God lies at a deeper level than the surface.

I will also say that my rabbi, Joseph Edelheit, and other Jews I know love the Hebrew Scriptures more than anyone I know, and they seem completely untroubled by the warlike God. I’m still trying to figure out how they get there.

Finally, third and most important, is the heart of your question: Is the very nature of God warlike, or peaceful?

Questioners asked Jesus questions like this all the time—multiple choice questions with only two, bipolar options as answers. For example, the Pharisees and Herodians teamed up on Jesus to ask whether or not Jews should pay taxes. Jesus responded not by answering “Yes, we should,” or “No, we shouldn’t.” Instead, he deconstructed their question, asking for a coin, pointing to it, and asking, “Whose ikon is on this coin?” (He presumably asked in Aramaic, not Greek, but you get the point.) His questioners responded, “Caesar’s,” but they knew they’d been one-upped, because every Torah-believing Jew knows that every human being is created in the ikon of God.

I take Jesus’ answer to be basically this, “You’re asking the wrong question.”

Now it would seem supremely arrogant of me to respond to your earnest and sincere question like this. But I will say this much, at least: as a Christian theologian, if there is one tenet to which I am committed, it’s this: God is never one thing or the other. A while back, I did a series of posts on What God Is Not. I came to the unorthodox conclusion that God Is Not on the Side of the Poor, for example. Because when I hear my colleagues say that God has a preference for the poor, or that God is more evidently at work in the lives of the marginalized, I don’t buy it.

To a fault, I continue to hold to a semi-platonic view that God is all. Not in a pantheistic sense, but in a panentheistic sense — God embraces all of creation, and all dichotomies under the weight of that embrace.

Therefore, God is not either war or peace. 

God is war, and God is peace.

Or God is neither war nor peace.

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  • Frank

    Do you really think God (Jesus) couldn’t recognize and distinguish between mental illness and demon possession? We may have been ignorant of mental illnesses back then but Jesus?

    • Yes, Frank, even Jesus. That’s what we mean by the humanity of Christ. It’s the whole point of the incarnation.

      • Frank

        You have so jumped the shark. Now wonder theology is so off. You simply make up your own jesus who frankly is not worth worshiping or following. May as well worship a golden calf.

        • Paul

          It seems to me that digging deeper in theology does often lead to more questions and less concrete answers. However, for me, that’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t “shake” my belief, but actually tends to strengthen my resolve to continue searching for more clarity. Personally, I think there are many questions about God that we simply will never completely understand. I do think, however, that these discussions are an integral part of gaining a better perspective (notice I didn’t say “integral part of finding answers”).

          • Frank

            I agree but to suggest that Jesus mistook mental illness as demon possession is so off the deep end I would laugh hysterically if I didn’t think about the damage that deception causes.

        • Paul

          Ok. I accept that you disagree with his point. Personally, I’m not sure I’d choose “worship of the golden calf” over it, however.

          • Frank

            Well if we redefine Jesus we may as well worship a tree.

        • NateW

          Frank – I think that to say that Jesus “mistook” mental illness for demon possession isnt quite the same as saying that Jesus lived in and related to the world via the cultural idioms and knowledge available to people in his day. It’s not a mistake to say “demon possession” rather than “schizophrenia”, but rather two ways of saying the exact same thing in very different times. The word “Schitzophrenia” would have been less meaningless to the people Jesus spoke to. To those people all that they could understand is that this man was acting in strange and terrifying ways. What options did they have to understand this within their culture? Either the man was evil and personally accountable for his “demonic” actions, or something terrifying was controlling him. Would it be more LOVING for Jesus to say “it’s not a demon, this mans actions come from his own mind” or “this man is influenced by a darkness from outside himself”? Which is more True–the technically accurate description or the description which would help people observing understand the proper way to relate to someone suffering from mental illness?

          Whether Jesus was cognitively aware of the effects of chemical imbalances or not does not matter. His response was one of love and compassion and would help to lead those around him into love and compassion. This is the truth that Christ was concerned to communicate.

          • NateW

            Should have been “less than meaningless” not “less meaningless”

    • Curtis

      Do you really think Jesus both could diagnose every possible medical condition, both known and unknown at his time on Earth? And if he did, which prescription would he recommend? The prescription common at that time? The prescription that we know today as the most effective? Some perfect cure that we are not currently aware of but will be discovered some time in the future?

      Jesus was fully God and fully human on earth. But he was not a time traveler sent to bring future medical technology, and other advances in science and engineering, to the people of his time. If he was, why didn’t he hand out some iPads while he was on Earth? Or why didn’t he divulge the perfect cure for cancer, that may be discovered 200 years from now, while he was here? As God, wasn’t he all-knowing and capable of doing anything?

      • Taylor

        Some of those premises aren’t entirely true. Jesus did indeed heal a few people of all their illnesses. Being God he did not need to rely upon man’s technology to cure illnesses, nor was his purpose at that time to heal the whole world. That is promised in the 2nd coming.

  • Paul

    So God is a god of both war and peace. As Christians, should we also strive to be a people of war and peace?

    • Paul, we are not called to be God. Not even to be little gods.

      • Tony, in the Greek Orthodox tradition (and of course in the broader Eastern Orthodox tradition) there is a highly revered phrase by Athanasius which goes, “For He [God] was made man that we might be made God.” (from On the Incarnation of the Word, Section 54)

        It speaks to the deeply held Orthodox belief in theosis, also known as deification, which I’m quite sure you’ve heard of. Father Thomas Fitzgerald of the Hellenic College-Holy Cross School of Theology (Greek Orthodox) describes theosis as “a union with the energies of God and not with the essence of God.” (see here)

        So in a manner of speaking, old Christian tradition and teaching does say people are “called to be God.”

        While I personally reject the old Christian theological/Christological definition of theosis, I do subscribe to theosis — Oneness with “God” — as the preeminent human objective in life.

  • jason

    hmm, interesting. So god can be good and bad, love and evil? How can we say anything about god for sure? How can you trust a god that is violent and on the other hand love?

    This does’t work for human beings: If a father says “I love you” and in the next moment he starts to kill, rape,…what kind of love is this?

  • Craig

    We can carry this further, just to satisfy everyone: God is love, and God is also a genocidal, skull-f-ing pedophile.

  • Whether it’s theology, psychology, Buddhism or monotheism, what is important is to reflect the human experience, to express that which is difficult to express with the vocabulary we inherit. Demon possession vs schizophrenia is a good example of that and the response is the same no matter the narrative; recognize there is a loving human being there and treat them with compassion.

    But that’s the good stuff in the Bible. You can’t address the war and peace question without addressing the Biblical accounts of genocide, directed by God, all the way up to Revelations, the use of those stories to justify war throughout history, including the rhetoric that is used to this very day by people at all levels, leaders and followers. Those are not expressions of humanity that help us to understand how to live better lives or bring about any sort of heaven on earth.

    By saying “God is all”, you say nothing. You’re saying god is whatever we want it to be. And that’s dangerous. It seems like a nice idea to nice people because we say that God is good, and there is plenty in the Bible and in experience to back it up. But if we leave open the idea that God could be on the side of war, we can’t argue with someone who says God told them to kill.

    • Paul

      Nice post. Agreed

    • NateW

      Great thoughts Lausten. I love what you said in the first paragraph. Truth is not ultimately in knowing facts about amino acid imbalances, but in relating to people in love.

      I agree that to say “God is All” can be very misleading. I think that maybe the idea that Tony is trying to get across could be more clearly stated as “All that ‘IS’ is God”. This takes into account the idea that we are prone to seeing nothingness as a thing that exists, and labeling examples of God’s absence as part of God himself.

      To say that God is “war” is to ascribe a to God a category of experience that is better understood as evidence of the absence of God. War is the absence of peace. Hate is the absence of Love, etc. God is not both, but both exist in relation to God. Where God is absent, there is no love, no peace, no joy, no rest, no freedom. Where he is present there is no hate, war, anxiety, anger, or slavery. So, in a sense, yes, “God is All”, but this requires the follow up “Love is All there is.” All else is simply the experience of Love’s absence.

      In romantic relationships, love demanded cannot be returned. Love cannot be coerced from the beloved. If the beloved refuses the offer of her suitors love, she must be allowed to leave, yet mere permission will not display the suitors love for her. Permission to leave is condescending, it is guilt inducing. “I don’t want you to go, but if you want to its ok” is a statement of weakness. What love says to the one who wants to go is “Go, seek your other lovers.” The command gives freedom and freedom breeds love by the ensuing experience of its absence.

      The violence In the Old Testament is horrific and I’ve struggled with it for such a long time. Rationally I can see that love can only be known by experience of it’s opposite, but this is very small consolation to those experiencing the absence of Love who feel unable to find it no matter how sorely they are aware that they do not have it. My only consolation is that God, who IS love, has, in creating a world often devoid of love, crucified himself, as demonstrated before us in the life and death of Christ. God suffers the absence of Love in an even more and essential way than we do and, in a very literal way, waits for us to taste the freedom of his death for us and, in the active pursuit of love, to resurrect Him in the midst of others.

      God commanded israel to go to War, (and perhaps we could even say the same for every other people that has taken up arms against an other) and we are still reaping from the violence sewed at their hands and at our hands throughout christian history. I choose to see this violence not as a part of God’s eternal character but as the fruit of man’s sinful desires which God sovereignly made use of (by commanding what Men’s sinful hearts already desired) to display the utter banality of violence. The ancient nation of Israel was chosen to self-sacrificially reveal the inability of violence to bring about the kingdom of God. Christ was given then to proclaim and embody the Truth of forgiveness for all and to reveal the true heart of God and the Way of His Kingdom.

    • Lausten, very well-stated. To me, one of the structural problems with monotheism is that, when people inevitably project their character onto God (so that God turns out, as someone observed, to hate the same things they hate), they have then managed to project their own ideas onto the universe itself, because God is the root or source of the entire universe. This, frankly, is the psychology of both saints and terrorists. A person of strong will who believes he or she is doing the will of God becomes a psychological strange attractor and often a force in history. This, in my view, is why the texts of terror in the monotheistic religions are particularly problematic.

      I note that the mystic traditions (in Christianity, Judaism and Islam alike) have had ways of breaking down the process of projection by breaking down the idea of the self. Buddhism also is engaged in this kind of religious training. But while breaking down the self is a central concern of Buddhism, it has generally been pushed to the periphery in the Abrahamic traditions. At least, that is my reading of the evidence of history.

  • Jim Armstrong

    It seems simpler to just start with a recognition that we lack the capacity to conceptualize, let alone describe with any accuracy or certainty the Author of Creation. I don’t buy that the men of old knew God better than we. It seems simpler to recognize that men have, over time, understood and described God in terms of their experience and culture, both shaped by their own time and place and stories. Add to that our tribal inclination to see our particular people group as “favorites” of God, hence wrapping that into our folklorical histories, and you have God (as we understand “him”) doing all sorts of inconsistent things.

    Beyond that, love and war are our human experiences, without certainty there even exists a divine counterpart(?). Indeed, they seem rather to be natural artifacts of the territorial, competitive and collaborative beings we are in this Creation. While I understand the desire to make connections of these things to divinity, I’m not so sure that they are anything other than simple diverse manifestations of this unfolding Creation, and part of what we have to just deal with in our “dominion” [Bible language] of this Creation. [I take that to be stewardship in the virtually total sense, …in our hands, …with who and what we are, …and with autonomy beyond what is commonly expressed in church life.]

    In all, I think this is a much simpler way to appreciate why there are these different characterizations in our scripture. They are the differences in how we CHOOSE to characterize and describe (and remember!) divinity. And that surely is intrinsically limited and flawed in the human domain. In Hindu tradition, questions like this war/love one has ultimately led to an understanding of three gods, a creator, a sustainer, and a destroyer, again mirroring human experience, yet seeking some comprehensible (in human terms) way of finding rapport with the Divine. Or so it seemeth to me.

  • Daniel

    Craig –
    “We can carry this further, just to satisfy everyone: God is love, and God is also a genocidal, skull-f-ing pedophile.”

    It seems to me that this statement says more about you and your view of God than it does about the divine. I personally reject Tony’s panentheistic view point, but I still do not believe his intent was for anyone to conclude that God is a “skull-f-ing pedophile”. I would also point out that Tony’s argument does not consider the moral weight of being a “God of War” or a “God of Peace”, but simply acknowledges it as reality.

    • Craig

      Daniel, you don’t know the half of it. Tony claims that God is war and that it is not the case that God is war. This is a contradiction. Logicians tell us that everything follows from a contradiction, including this very quotable proposition: The summation of Tony Jones’s theology is this: God is merely a genocidal, skull-f-ing pedaphile.

      • “That escalated quickly. I mean that really got out of hand fast.”

      • Craig, here’s the thing, though. You cannot encapsulate human experience in logically-impeccable propositions. We contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves. (To paraphrase Whitman.) We contradict ourselves because our brains contain multitudes of special-purpose modules that often contradict each other, and that’s a feature, not a bug, because the universe is only imperfectly modeled by human understanding (especially including human reason.) So I, personally, do not have a problem with the theological portion of Tony’s response. Any God who could possibly be responsible for the universe must be at least as contradictory as the universe, and the universe is very contradictory indeed.

  • Luke Allison

    Come now, folks…..this is Tony Jones’ answer to the question. The rest of us had 5 million tries in the comment section. Even if his answer is inadequate for some, he gave it. That’s the point, I think, rather than the unassailability of the argument.

    I can’t help but think that many of us on here are still hoping for a perfect answer that can erase all doubts and settle all arguments. Certainty is a myth….becoming aware of this fact makes us more human.

    Everyone should watch and discuss this 60 Minutes segment: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57551557/babies-help-unlock-the-origins-of-morality/

    Some ridiculously fascinating stuff.

    • Craig

      Come now, Luke…giving our religious leaders a pass is what we do every Sunday morning, answering their B.S. sermons with at most a reverential “amen”. Not here!

      • Craig — It is, in my view, wrong to give religious leaders (or any other leaders) a pass for causing suffering to human beings. But expecting their thoughts to be both consistent and correct by our lights is futile.

  • Luke Allison

    Ha ha.

    “Not here!” on HIS blog!

    I don’t think Tony would think of himself as a “religious leader,” either. You sound kind of severe.

    • Craig

      Look, this is what I love about Tony Jones. Don’t take away that.

  • Luke Allison

    Oh, you’re saying that you love giving him a hard time?

    Fair enough. Hard to tell tone on comments.

  • Scot Miller

    I don’t think Tony needs me to defend him, but I think a lot of people are misunderstanding his final point. His point is that the binary/either-or form of the question (“Is God warlike or peaceful?”) may be mistaken. As Wittgenstein says in the Philosophical Investigations, a philosophical problem isn’t as much a logical dilemma as it is a question with the form, “I don’t know my way about.” Hence, the aim of philosophy is to “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (PI 309). I think Tony is suggesting that we can get out of the fly-bottle of the nature of God if we can deconstruct the question.

    I would further suggest that Tony isn’t making a logical mistake at all when he concludes, “God is not either war or peace. / God is war, and God is peace. / Or God is neither war nor peace.” Are the war and peace really logically contradictory? Is “War” the same thing as “not -peace,” and is “Peace” identical to “not-War”? Is it possible that a state of peace (e.g., the peace achieved in a totalitarian police state) is contrary to God’s nature and aims of justice and freedom? Is it possible that a state of war (e.g., the struggle to liberate people enslaved in a totalitarian regime) a better expression of the divine nature than peaceful acceptance of enslavement? Of course, all of these terms are rather slippery and need some careful explication, but I hope my point is clear. And thus it might actually make theological sense (and logical sense) to say that God is not either war [in some senses of the term] nor peace [in some senses of that term].

    • You are not clear. You don’t come close to addressing passages like 1 Samuel 15:2-3

      • Curtis

        1 Samuel 15:2-3 reminds me of Leviticus 20:13. There seems to be something in the Old Testament about solving problems through merciless murder. All I can do is step back and view that style as a type of literary device. And also recognize and condemn the many instances in history, even to this day, when these verses are taken, and acted upon, literally.

        Interpreting these verses literally seems clearly the wrong thing to do. What is the right thing to do with them is a little more vague.

      • Scot Miller

        Let me try again to be clear.

        1. My comments only address the third point raised by Tony (i.e., the issue of whether the nature of God is warlike or peaceful), not his second point (i.e., the question of whether the Bible depicts God as warlike or peaceful).

        2. Tony’s conclusion (i.e., “God is not either war or peace. / God is war, and God is peace. / Or God is neither war nor peace”) does not violate the law of non-contradiction. The concepts “war” and “peace” are not logically contradictory (i.e., Tony is not claiming that “God is war and not-war” or “God is peace and not-peace,” etc.) Rather, the nature of God is compatible with some expressions of war and some expressions of peace, but not all expressions of war and/or peace. Hence, the accusation that Tony is somehow being illogical or self-contradictory are mistaken.

        3. If you are interested in how I understand passages like 1 Sam 15:2-3 (or Deut 3:3-6 or Ps. 137:8-9), I take the same approach that Tony does. The biblical text is a historical document and each passage needs to be interpreted according to (a) its unique historical context, (b) its place in the larger biblical witness, and (c) its historical and evolving interpretations in the community of believers.

        1 Sam 3 clearly reflects a period of Hebrew henotheism, when YHWH was the tribal God of the Israelites but not necessarily the only god, nor genuinely the one universal God (which is a much later development… just as polygamy was a normative family model in the earliest parts of the OT, but was gradually replaced by monogamy as normative by New Testament times… even though 1 Tim 3:12 suggests that some Christians may have had multiple wives… but I digress….) So 1 Sam 3 suggests that God is on the side of Israel in its conflicts with competing gods and peoples. But is that really the final meaning of this story? When placed in the larger context of the biblical witness, we find competing passages in the OT where God is on the side of the stranger, the oppressed, the widows, the orphans, and we find the message that God suffers with us in the story of Jesus of Nazareth who dies a humiliating death on the cross. So was it really “God” who told the Israelites to commit genocide in His (sic) name, or did the Israelites project a justification for their genocide on their “God.” How many times do we justify our violence in the name of God? So where is God in the genocide, in the war? Was God on the side of the conqueror, or of the victims? The text can lead us to justify contradictory conclusions. We have the choice of how to interpret the conflicting message. I don’t think 1 Sam 15 teaches us as much about God as it does about the tendency of human beings to do horrible things in the name of God. While it may have originally been a triumphant expression of power, the larger biblical witness and the community of believers who read this text can now find a warning against religious hubris, thinking that “God” would sanction behavior that dishonors God.

        • Craig

          I think you may be a bit off track on point 2. If a contradiction is suggested, it’s not because of any assumption that a God of war and a God of peace are mutually excluding possibilities. I like your approach in point 3; it’s compatible with taking the Bible as a non-inspired text without any special connection to the divine.

        • Scot, your point of view is one that used to drive me a little crazy, namely the idea that there is a narrative of progress from the “primitive” Jews of the Old Testament to the “civilized” Christians of the New Testament. You might wish to examine your assumptions about that in the light of subsequent relations between Christians and Jews. The brutality of Christian efforts to eradicate Judaism would be bad enough, but it was much worse that it was carried out because Jews were primitive and “deserved it” and because it was “for the good of their souls.”


          • Scot Miller


            I didn’t say that Jews were “primitive” and the Christians were “civilized,” but that certain biblical texts (i.e, where “God” “commands” the genocide of God’s enemies) need to be placed in historical and literary context, just as the violent NT passages (in, say the Book of Revelation) need to be placed in their historical and literary context.

            Like I said, the OT also contains very impressive passages where God is identified with the Stranger, and where God is said to be on the side of the widows, the orphans, the oppressed (which I find very sophisticated… and challenging). I was trying to argue that human beings — whether Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. — have a tendency to project their own violence on the divine to justify their own behavior. I think we read those holy war/genocide passages to judge ourselves more than anyone else.

          • Scot, my apologies for misinterpreting your argument. I was misled by the sequencing in your final paragraph above, from monolatry to monotheism, from polygamy to monogamy and from God “n the side of Israel in its conflicts ” through God “on the side of the stranger, the oppressed, the widows, the orphans” to the sacrificial God of the Christian scriptures. Those three narrative arcs can certainly be read as “progress”, but I accept that that was not your intention.

            I tend to agree with the final thought in your response, though it is not only violence that we project on the divine, but rather our sense of self in all its complexity, and not only the divine on which we project our sense of self, but on other humans and animals, on events, even onto our scientific understanding of the universe. I also think that while projecting our sense of self outward is a thoroughly human tendency, religions work with this tendency in different ways.

    • Scot,



  • Nathan

    Two words:

    Scot. Miller.

  • Frank McManus

    I’m new here, but I found your answer to the question both fascinating and irritating, and I think that’s what you intended. Though I don’t know from Wittgenstein, what Scot Miller said seems to make sense. But maybe you intend more than that: basically you’re trying to take down our oh-so-precious idea that we can figure out The Truth and use God to validate it — and you’re showing that even our claims to subordinate ourselves to transcendent Truth, truth we didn’t make but were given, are always (or maybe just usually?) just another instance of this attempt to project our favorite god-image into the heavens. And you’re pointing out, yeah, Scripture manifestly participates in that making-a-god-in-our-own-image. I agree and I don’t think that necessarily undercuts Scripture as revelation (though it surely undercuts a hell of a lot of what we THINK “revelation” means) … I wonder how you would deal with that issue.

    You mention you know Jews who have no problem with the biblical contradictions about God — I’ll just say I know a lot of Jews who most certainly do have that problem, including my wife. In fact there are several folks in her Torah study group who just can’t shut up about it! (But then, some of them are atheists … so yeah.)

    This post also seems to have big implications for what we think about ethics and God — how they’re related, how they’re not related, how humans habitually screw up the relationship. For years I’ve thought the saints are pointing in the same direction when they try to “relativize” sin — that is, when they point out how our failings are part of God’s intention for us; when they say things like Julian’s “All shall be well,” then hammer it home in a million ways that our failings have no effect on this, or indeed are part of it. It’s a claim that, when you think about it, deeply challenges human moralism.

  • kalimsaki

    “He is the dominion”

    That is to say, ownership is altogether His. As for you, you are both His property, you are owned by Him, and you work in His property. This phrase announces the following joyful and healing news:
    O man! Do not suppose that you own yourself, for you have no control over any of the things that concern you; such a load would be heavy. Also, you are unable to protect yourself, to avoid disasters, or to do the things that you must. In which case, do not suffer pain and torment without reason, the ownership is another’s. The Owner is both All-Powerful and All-Merciful; rely on His power and do not cast aspersions on His mercy! Put grief behind you, be joyful! Discard your troubles and find serenity!
    It also says: You love and are connected to the universe, which is the property of the All-Powerful and Merciful One, yet although it grieves you by its wretchedness, you are unable to put it right. So hand over the property to its Owner, leave it to Him. Attract His pleasure, not His harshness. He is both All-Wise and All-Merciful. He has free disposal over His property and administers it as He wishes. Whenever you take fright, say like İbrahim Hakkı: “Let’s see what the Master does; whatever He does, it is best;” understand this thoroughly and do not interfere!

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi.

    • Frank McManus

      This. Is. Amazing.

  • Craig

    So, in saying “God is all,” Tony must not mean that God is all without exception. Rather, in saying “God is all” Tony must at most mean that God is all except those things which God is not, where those exceptions include those most disturbingly evil things in the creation. In saying that God “embraces” all, Tony presumably intends the same sorts of exceptions?

    Likewise, in urging the idea that “God is war, and God is peace,” Tony is perhaps not wishing that we infer that God is war. Either that, or, in urging that “God is neither war nor peace,” Tony perhaps isn’t wishing us to infer that God is not war.

  • Donald Buck

    Tony, it seems the attributes we historically know of God are antithetical to war/genocide. For those who believe otherwise, does God continue to be a God of war/genocide (if God ever was), or are men/women of genocide attributing it to God? Did not Jesus teach the end of a God of war/genocide (if God ever was) and the advent of peace/non-violence? I’m going with “God is peace.”

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  • Thank you for your thoughtful answer, Tony! I’m sorry for the delay in getting back here, but we had thanksgiving for 20, my last guests left today, and I took a nap before checking this out, lol. I am now going to read your answer closely and digest it, along with the comments, and respond I hope tomorrow!

    • OK, I have at least read your reply several times. The first thing to strike me is that I rank your three questions in the opposite order you do. To me, your third question is of merely academic interest. Somewhere many years ago I lost what Craig identified as the conviction that there is a god worthy of worship. This, I think, is the real nature of atheism, for all the armor of reason that famous atheists don.

      The second question is of personal interest to me, since this is MY text we’re talking about, or at least the text of my youth. (Nowadays, I am wading into the Pali Canon, just learning to delight in its rich vastness.) I could wish that nearly all Christians were supersessionists, since most of them seem to be under the impression that their “Old Testament” is somehow equivalent to Judaism, or the Jewish revelation. Even at the time of Jesus that wasn’t true. But those who were in the multi-millenial process of guiding Jewish life were the despised Pharisees, which is why Christians generally misunderstand Jews rather badly.

      I have no issues with your interpretation of the (Hebrew) Bible, except that scholarship of the kind you describe seems like a minority position within Christianity. This makes your very sensible views of limited value as a “trigger guard”.

      Finally we get to what is, for me, the most urgent issue, the issue of religiously based violence. If you are familiar with the parable of the poisoned arrow (MN 63), I prioritize questions by the practical effects of addressing them. Even if, for purposes of argument, I agree with your view that Christianity is no more violent than other religions, you must admit that Christianity and Islam have the greatest scope to work violence. Even the horrible record of Israeli violence is impossible without the support of warlike Christians in the US (just as Palestinian violence is impossible without the support of warlike groups within the great Islamic states.)

      That said, I take your point about repressive governments in Buddhist countries, but I would like to ask you, in all seriousness, in what regard the government of Sri Lanka is a Buddhist government. I’m not asking simply to argue that “my folks are better than your folks”, but rather because it relates to an issue I am deeply interested in, which is that Buddhism doesn’t really seem to have a theory or theories of government that I can discover. In many countries (even majority-Buddhist countries like Japan), Buddhism has coexisted with other traditions that provided the traditions of governing (such as Shintou in pre-modern Japan). In some former colonies (such as Burma and Sri Lanka), I have the impression that the governments were formed on various Western models. Traditionally, the monastic leaders of Buddhist sanghas have renounced a role in secular institutions of power, as the Buddha himself did, and required the monks of his own time to do. So I am very interested in the Buddhist aspects of the government of Sri Lanka.

      I will also try to find a way to bring it up to the bhantes who lead my own sangha who (as it happens) are from Sri Lanka. However, as you may have experienced, there is a certain circumspection of speech that slows the exchange of opinion with the bhantes (along with a small command of English in some cases.) So I would love to discuss your question 1 in more detail, perhaps with Sri Lankan government as a laboratory, if you have time for such a conversation.

      Please allow me to wish that you may be well, happy and peaceful always!


      Oh, yeah, PS. I’m not trying to pick on you because you are a Christian. I follow and sometimes comment on blogs from a variety of religions. (Yours, as it happens, was quoted by a political blogger on tumblr and I was interested enough to subscribe.) But because you offered the chance to ask “questions that haunt”, I felt it was an opportunity to speak frankly about an issue that is, in my estimation, of real importance.

  • Bob

    Surely you recognise that we have to accept that there are contradictions between the Old Testament accounts of God and the God we see in Jesus?

    For example the story where God commands Moses to stone a man to death for collecting sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)

    In Jesus we see that

    – He collected and ate food on the Sabbath in defiance of the rules and encouraged his disciples to do likewise.

    – He healed on the Sabbath in front of law keepers in open defiance to infuriate the law keepers.

    – He strongly opposed the use of violence to enforce the law by telling people that he without sin should cast the first stone.

    Surely we should be looking to the Character of Jesus as being the highest revelation of God’s character?

    If we were to do this, it would seem clear to me that the character of God stands in direct contradiction with the war-like nature attributed to him in parts of the Old Testament. How can we not read the Old Testament as a story of man struggling to come to grips with what God is really like?

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