Last week we began to look at how God can be understood in our ‘secular’ approach, which finds God as the critical agent in the unfolding of the universe. This week we will address some of the traditional characteristics ascribed to God as Christianity unfolded under the influence of Greek philosophy.
These characteristics, of course, include examples of the ‘dualism’ which was discussed last week. As Oliver Sacks observes, they don’t exist in Jewish thinking, which doesn’t speculate on the nature of God but rather treats God as present in the affairs of men. This understanding is one of the clearest threads in the ‘Old Testament’, but represents one of the many dualities (God ‘as he is in himself’ vs ‘God as he is to us’) that arose as Christian theology evolved under the shadow of Greek thinking. This example of duality was addressed in “The Evolution of Religion, Part 7, The issue of Concepts” (http://www.lloydmattlandry.com/?m=20151). Sacks sees such ‘other-worldliness’ as a factor in the failure to experience God in the here and now, and hence contributing to an increasing sense of irrelevance of religious teaching. That said, let’s move on to looking at them in the light of the reinterpretation principles which we have developed.
Immutability and Divinity
The traditional Christian understanding is that God is “Being itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal”. Augustine goes on to interpret the statement ontologically, seeing God as “that which does not and cannot change”. Aquinas, in his metaphysics, sees God as “true being, that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient and the cause and principal of every creature”. These teachings, although not in themselves antithetical to our concept, have nonetheless led to the understanding of God as ‘supernatural’ in contrast to reality being merely ‘natural’.
Sacks see these interpretations as the “God of Aristotle, not Abraham and the prophets”. The Greek translation of God’s self-identification to Moses is, “I am who am”.
The Jewish translation of God’s identification to Moses is, “I will be where or how I will be”, adding a ‘future tense’ omitted in the Greek translation.
As Sacks points out, the concept of the ‘purely spiritual’ does not exist in Judiasm, which rarely speculates on the nature of God. This teaching surfaces another dichotomy which crept into Christianity with the Greek perspective: that of form vs matter, and body vs soul.
Our secular point of view goes a little further, and is more in line with the essential thinking of Augustine and Aquinas. As God can be found in the sum total of forces that, as Dawkins claims, “..eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence”, God is not only not supernatural, as the ‘ground of being’, is supremely natural and therefore so intimately involved in evolving reality as to be virtually inseparable from it.
This traditional teaching asserts that God is ‘all-powerful’, and can do anything that he desires. It forms the basis for the conundrum: if God can do anything he desires, and if he is ‘good’, he should be able to correct all the bad things that are so obvious in reality. This points to all the suffering that can be seen, both human-caused and ‘acts of nature’ such as droughts, sickness and genetic evils. It asserts that the only conclusion possible is that either God causes evil (in which case he is not ‘good’) or that he is powerless to stop it (in which case he is not ‘all-powerful).
Both Sacks and scriptural scholar Bart Ehrman (‘God’s Problem’) acknowledge that traditional Christianity does not offer a solution to this dichotomy. In the story of Job, for example, all the traditional treatments of evil are addressed, but in the end none are held up as ‘the answer’.
Sacks goes on to address further the contradiction in the assertion of ‘God’s power’. If we assume that God does not create evil, then we must assume that it comes from somewhere (or someone) else. Assuming a second source, of course, moves belief from monotheism to polytheism. Sacks points out that both threads of thought can be found in scripture, and that a tendency toward seeing an independent source for evil is one of the bases for dualism. He sees the danger of such a dualism very strong in human history, with our ever-present tendency to demonize our opponents, which so often has led to victimization in the name of moral superiority. The Nazi “Final Solution” is one of the most striking examples of this thinking, and such trends are troublingly present in contemporary American politics.
Our secular approach, which sees the action of God in the thread of increasing complexity, approaches the issue of power quite differently. As God is not perceived as a ‘person’, much less an incredibly powerful potentate, God’s ‘power’ lies in the inexorable lifting of the universe to Dawkins’ “present complex existence”. In order to become what it is possible for us to become, it is necessary for us to recognize and learn to cooperate with this very real universal force that lies at our core.
The Next Post
Next week we will continue our look at traditional descriptions of God, by addressing Omniscience, Chance, Transcendence and Immanence.