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This post is part of a new feature from Patheos called Head to Head where our best minds debate the big questions of the day. This week, I am debating the Evangelical Channel’s Jeremy Neill of “Everyday Ethics”. The question: does emphasizing the incomprehensible nature of god become an expression of atheism? Or put simply does religious faith require a personal God? This topic was brought to us by James F. McGrath. You can see James’ thoughts at his blog, Exploring our Matrix.
It’s tempting to get off topic from the very beginning here. The title of Jeremy Neill’s opening post, “A God Who Love and Cares,” begs for a great deal of explanation, but let me stick to the subject of ultimism for the moment and see what time we have left over after that. I suspected when this Head to Head was set up that Jeremy and I might actually agree in the broadest sense about ultimism. Neither of us find it a compelling way of thinking about God. Jeremy writes,
to hold a view of God that emphasizes God’s incomprehensibleness to the neglect of God’s relational nature is to depict God in a way that as a Christian I consider to be disturbing and incorrect.
So Jeremy and I agree that ultimism is an unsatisfying approach to the question of God. He, because it denies much that is essential and basic to the evangelical notion of God (“that God is a person – three persons, in fact”) and I because it tries to hold on to something that in practical terms is devoid of meaning or utility. Jeremy’s Christianity does, indeed, require a personal God. When I was a Christian mine did, too. I gradually moved from an simple theology of how God answers prayers to a much more human-focused approach to how God interacts in the world, but still, a God who is completely unengaged in human affairs was profoundly unlike the God of the Bible in my view.As an atheist, I admit that God may very well exist as Being itself—the ground of Being, as Tillich said. Who knows? There is no way to know. But even if there is a God that (not)exists in that way, so what? Jeremy’s position is a “greatest of all beings” theology. His God—indeed, the God of the Bible, as far as I’m concerned, is a “dynamic Lord, a faithful friend, and a loving Father.” Yet he offers no explanation for how this might be true, which, in fairness, was not his task. Still, we are left with an assertion that it indefensible.
I could bring any number of challenges like the silence of God in the face of our earnest appeals or the inaction of God in the face of evil and suffering. Or, at a more basic level, the origins of God? If God is a being like other beings, only more “vast, magnificent, and grand in comparison to our own” existence, who created God? If he has always existed, how can this be and how is this any different than the claim that the universe has always existed. This simple claim that God is faithful and loving doesn’t make it so. If Jeremy rejects the notion that God is incomprehensible, then his real work is yet ahead of him. Can he justify his claim that God is a being like other beings only greater in every way?