Monday 21 March 2016

What is the point of God? What does God explain? A personal view

When I was an atheist, I thought of God as a God-of-the-gaps, and a philosopher's God - an explanatory hypothesis - and indeed a grossly over-explanatory hypothesis: a cop-out.

I got the idea tha Christians (and others) saw God as so totally powerful that he could do anything; therefore, anything you wanted explained at any time, you could just say 'God did it' - which was so generally applicable that it left you pretty much where you started-out.

I didn't understand the concept of revelation - that what is known about God is a product not just of reason, of philosophical argument - but mainly of God revealing himself to Men. But if I had grasped the importance of revelation, I would have dismissed it as purely subjective, because there are so many different claims about what God has revealed. I would have wondered why this all powerful God could not do a better job of communicating unambiguously and clearly with Men - or better still, why he had not built-in all the knowledge that Man needed, so communication by revelation was not required.

Also, although I knew that the Christian God was a God-of-Love, I didn't realize that this contrasted with other concepts of God - or that this business of Love actually placed constraints upon what God could or would do (and the reason for his doing it).

The problem was, perhaps, teleology - purpose and goal - what was the purpose of 'reality' and how did that purpose relate to Man? I had never heard that there was anything in Christianity about each Man becoming a (small g) god as his ultimate goal beyond death - I knew nothing about divinization, theosis, sanctification, spiritual progression (except in non-Christian sources which assumed that this was supposed to happen on earth, during mortal life).

My only understanding of what was supposed to be going on in the Christian scheme of things was that God made Man the way he is, then Man fell into original sin, and then God set things back the way they had started out - which seemed a pretty pointless exercise, overall.

If I had known about the theme of divinization or theosis (eg from Eastern Orthodoxy or Mormonism) I would probably have wondered why this all powerful God didn't just make things as he wanted them to be from the very beginning - why bother with a process of incremental progress? And why would this totally powerful and autonomous 'omni' God bother with creating Men - what could he possibly gain from the exercise - given that he had everything and needed nothing?

Therefore, for me personally, the constraints of a limited God - the idea of God conceptualized in very concrete and personal terms as an actual being - spatio-temporally bounded - with a body, parts and passions God wrestling with the stuff of reality to create order, Goodness and raise Men to gods - a limited God who starts with chaos and must create step-by-step what he aims for - a God whose nature of Love also sets limits on what he can do... all these limitations and constraints are vital to me making sense of God, and of Christianity generally: including the need for Jesus Christ.

And this God is not a God of the philosophers, not a God created to explain - he is a God who is a person above all; a person who must become known by ourselves as Men who - as potential and partial gods ourselves, but true embryonic gods - are also very constrained and also liberated (for ill and good) by our own natures. The key concept is God as heavenly Father - with (in an ideal and complete way) relates to us a Father to beloved children; and I see no limt to this understanding - God as loving Father is not just a metaphor to be dropped at some point in the analysis by sophisticated thinkers, but an understanding which goes all the way through.

Strangely, it s the constraints on God which enable me to recognize him as true; whereas the abstract God described as being everywhere all the time and outside of time, the God of infinite power and knowledge... well, such a God makes no deep sense to me: not just because the concepts are beyond human comprehension, but mainly because he is such a total explanation for everything, that in practice he explains nothing.


David Balfour said...

I entirely agree that concepts like Divinization and theosis, teleology and a God of constraints as opposed to omnipotence are key insights that allow a radically incomplete and dangerously flawed vision of Christianity to be restored to a sense of wholeness and also for it to reflect what we know in our hearts to be the true reflection of love.

As an atheist at University I experienced a profound desire to find a religion and a feeling that there was a truth to be found and a transcendent meaning and purpose to my life and to humanity per se. I began to explore Christianity again and found it repugnant in the extreme. This was because whenever I was stopped by someone in the street or I attended a church open evening I found people proclaiming on the one hand that they believed in a God of Love and on the other informing me with a lucid, direct eye contact certainty that my Hindu or Sikh friends or any other friend of a non-Christian sort will go to hell unless they convert to Christianity and an eternal hell of torment and sadness of the sort that wicked self - righteous 'Christians' have been frightening people with for thousands of years. To say that I was upset about this would be an understatement. I spent some time afterwards cursing the hypocrisy of a supposed order of people who invoke love as the highest ideal and then condemning other equally good people (we are all flawed after all but I can think of some far better moral atheists, far more loving and caring and ironically capable of greater forgiveness and charity than the brimstone and hell fire brigade that are still gleefully awaiting judgement day). These experiences were very difficult to understand. Was I going to hell? Was I wrong about my deepest convictions about the beauty and power of love? What kind of God had created the world? A totalitarian monster? How was I to make sense of this. After a period of some serious contemplation I concluded that my intuitive understanding of what love is, is not the same thing as what these 'Christians' seemed to be quite happy (some were almost gleeful) to believe in a God that allows vast swaths of humanity to be condemned permanently because of a misunderstanding of the nature of divinity. Our earthly confusion about the nature of divinity is deeply understandable. This kind of 'Christianity' is an abomination of the message of love and it is largely responsible for permanently alienating countless numbers of decent spiritual seekers. I remember with sadness at one such evening many young men and women walking away from a 'talk to a Christian' evening as they realised in their hearts the thinly veiled hatred for others that was implicit in these peoples doctrine. I stayed because I felt a longing to understand why my strong conception of the value and nature of love was at odds to theirs and to see how this abyss might lovingly be crossed towards mutual understanding. I attended this church for a few more months and learned a lot about the basic story of Christ and his ministry. I could see the love there and in many of the people attending but not in the videos we watched of a man who spoke with again a thinly veiled gleefulness explaining the horrific consequences awaiting those sinners who do not or will not repent. Gleeful self-righteousness is an ugly thing to see in a human beings face and I could not imagine Christ behaving like this therefore I concluded there was something deeply wrong going on here...I decided that my integrity would compel me to support and defend the friendship and value of my non-Christian friends. I would not sell out and abandon them to supporting a God that was supposedly going to throw them into hell and damnation even if I started towing the company line to save my own skin. I continued to remain a non-Christian deist seeker for some time.

David Balfour said...

Fortunately these initially quite distressing experiences of witnessing people claiming the supremity of a kind of tribalistic Despot God who was going to force his version of love on us no matter what, was followed by some more positive experiences that would go some way to help me to get away from what I would still regard as a healthy (healthy based on the evil misundstandings ironically created by self-identified Christians themselves) morally based 'anything-but-Christianity' knee jerk reaction that many decent people respond with when they see the wide eyed Zealots of certain 'Christian' groups standing on many a high street or church pulpit throughout the world screaming gleefully about the sorrows that will befall the unrepentant sinners. *That* is not the correct attitude a Christian should have towards his brothers or sisters. It just isn't. Even non-Christians and atheists can perceive that.

My 'breath of life' came when I began meeting with Mormon missionaries. There was no gleeful threatening with daddy's violent retribution for bad behaviour to be found there. I found kindness, strength, honesty (they still called a spade a spade and a sin is a sin but they didn't Lord it over me - they just educated me about their understanding of reality) and compassion. I found that the restoration of the gospel by Joseph Smith made Christianity into a much more beautiful and appealing thing than I had ever encountered before. The plan of salvation, pre-mortal existence, the positive and radical reinterpretation of the fall, and the possibilities that God did not condemn in anger so much as educate individual spirits (with the dearly held aspirations of loving friendship and family units) and provide a post - mortal existence (there are many rooms in our fathers house) that we would be most comfortable with and yes, if sadly a soul preferred evil then perdition might sadly be the best place for them rather like in a just society we imprison a rapist or murderer to prevent them harming society at large. I could go on but suffice it to say that if I had known this was what Mormons represent a long time ago I would have been a Christian far sooner. Love is the key. When I read William Arkle's words or watch an LDS video I feel a warm love and kindness in my heart that would make me follow it anywhere with tears of joy. I can feel God calling for me and his other Children through the unmistakable vocabulary of love. Wanting your other brothers and sisters to be punished mercilessly for eternity is not a loving attitude and therefore I reject that brand of 'Christianity' as pernicious and ultimately very severely responsible for the destruction of Christianity' true beautiful message. There will be many lapsed - Christians out there who lapsed because the integrity of that great love was corrupted by other groups professing to love as the highest value but then savagely betraying that ideal within their own hearts and souls. The integrity and vastness of God's love is boundless. It is a personal litmus test I use to do my best to discern the truth. If I see even a glimmer of hatred or malice in an interpretation of doctrine I assume that something is probably amiss and that deeper reflection and prayer is required to clarify what heavenly father is *lovingly* showing me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - My interpretation is that mainstream Christians are more-or-less forced into this doctrine by the demand for logical consistency in combination with their conceptualization of God as omnipotent, omniscient, creating from nothing, and the absolute gulf between creator and created etc - they must say this kind of thing to make sense of what happened in the context of their philosophical assumptions.

But real Christians are, in practice, better than their theological doctrines; because doctrines, theology, philosophy are second order and human-made explanations for what is primary about being a Christian: which is very clear, simple, positive and wholly loving.

So I don't worry too much about what denominations are (more or less) forced to say when subjected to hostile cross-examination in defence of their core beliefs.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - But I agree with you in the second comment. It would be better if people held to the lovingness of God and their doctrines, but just shrugged and said 'I don't know' or 'I can't explain' when subjected to hostile cross-examination - rather than being led into saying un-loving (hence unChristian) things.

Another part of it that I did not mention was the belief that 'salvation' (ie a resurrected afterlife in a good place, paradise at least - if not Heaven - but not hell) needs to be understood as normal, usual, the 'default' state - except when specifically rejected.

I think I would be happy if any person was to say YES to the proposition that: 'If, when you die, you discover all the Christian claims to be true, would you *then* accept salvation at the cost of repenting your sins?'

David Balfour said...

I would be delighted to say YES and look forward to hopefully becoming worthy of the gift that I am being offered. I really wish to share these discoveries with others. It really is a Gospel of 'good news.' From this perspective, I still can't quite believe just how wonderful this situation is that we are being offered this awesome gift. It is mind blowing. It's a bit like looking at one of those 'magic eye' books: when you look at it in a certain way and can see the face of God smiling back, it is undeniably real even though someone looking from another angle cannot see it and the holder of the book proclaims "Look, can't you see how beautiful and loving his smile is?" and then you pass the book and others still can't see it - some can and some can't. You take the book back and suddenly you can't see it either and doubt yourself. I have lived through some time like this and used to despair when no matter how I held the book the haunting memory of the smile would not appear from the page. As time goes by though,God moved from my eyes to my heart and now I can close my eyes to see the smile or just know he's still there when I cannot see him directly. The seed of faith that the Mormons suggested I plant in prayer has grown and still grows. They were telling the truth :-)

AureliusMoner said...

Finally, this is why I was a bit disappointed to see the usual relegation of "theosis" to the Orthodox. The Orthodox doctrine on this is actually a devolution from the ancient model, which was greeted by very many of the Greeks themselves as a radical diminution of the older view. Palamas could not admit that man comes into contact with the divine essence, and so he proposed a third category of existence, the "enhypostaton" ("existing in"), rather than the authypostaon ("self-existing") or the anhypostaton ("not self-existing," i.e., needing to participate in existence in order to exist), saying that the divine energies, in which man participated, were "enhypostatic," an half-way house between uncreated Essence and created existence, by which man was elevated to touch as much divinity as he could. He and his followers, such as Kokkinos, themselves had a vague notion of what this might entail, asserting that the distinction was "nominal" and "in the mind only."

Assuming that their distinction was nominal only, they were grasping at the truth stated very clearly by Aquinas, that deification is a participation directly in the divine nature, through the divine operations (the Latin translation of "energies"), although according to our mode as creatures uplifted and enabled by grace. Since there is no distinction between God's existence and essence, as pure reason again forces us to conclude, the participation in God's essence is direct, enabled by the divine light or lumen gloriae, though obviously our finite nature cannot comprehend the Infinite in which it participates.

Part of the reason I left Orthodoxy, was the realization that the Scholastic approach marvelously synthesized all the Patristic teaching on this topic with precision, and avoided the erroneous and weaker doctrine of divinization that came to prevail in the East - a doctrine now transformed into a gimmick by former Evangelicals and Buddhists (and panderers thereto) as a "distinctive" of Eastern Christendom, making it so much hipper and trendier than the West. But in fact, no author teaches the doctrine more correctly and explicitly than St. Thomas, the man most often maligned as the leader of the "great deniers" of Theosis (those Latin Scholastics!), who states it flatly in the Summa, his commentaries and other writings.

Really, I found this doctrine taught far more explicitly in the prayer and liturgy of the Latin Rite, than the Eastern. Every Mass, for example, has the prayer at the mixture of the chalice, which prays that God "grant to us by the Mystery of this water and wine that we be sharers in His divinity, who deigned to be a partaker of our humanity, even Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord." Similar themes abound around the Christmas liturgy (such as the antiphon "O Admirabile Commercium"). Many of the old sequences and prefaces, still used in some religious orders' rites, teach the doctrine explicitly, as well; St. Nokter's Christmas sequence ends with a cry to Christ that "Thou wouldst receive the prayers of those whose form Thou didst deign to take, so as to make them partakers themselves of Thy Divinity, o only Son of God." I could go on.

My experience, now that I am in the Catholic Church, is that these concepts and the ascetical disciplines and doctrines on virtue related thereto are much stronger in Catholicism than in the East but, due to the grave crisis in the Church at present, this has all gone "underground." At your nearest "catholic" parish you would be lucky to learn that Jesus loves you even more than He loves felt banners and leotard-clad ribbon dancing!

Nathaniel said...

Apologetics are really difficult, and the point you've raised again and again is so important - in that the dependence on logic is flawed. We need a metaphysical shift, and that indoctrination in an anti-Christian world is so comprehensive and starts so early makes this almost impossible short of a miracle and the grace of God. Even personal revelation can be doubted, mistrusted, tossed aside - and it seems if we chose to do so it's more harmful for us that having no revelation at all. I've decided the best I can do is pray for people.

I'm glad the CJCLDS answered these questions that were most difficult for you. I think it may also be important that you are following a revealed tradition, personal revelation, and not relying wholly on intellect to work these things out - as it seems we may easily be lead astray in this.

Your explanations have helped me search and find that many of the teachings have been revealed within the Catholic tradition (e.g. the primacy of love, God as Father, Christ as Brother, spiritual development), but for whatever reason they can seem rather hidden or obscured. The teachings have often been made imprecise, or the reverse and the legalism can hurt our sense of love "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

Joseph A. said...

As a follower of the "philosophers' God," being a convinced Platonist and longtime student of philosophy, I would not say that the God of the philosophers is a useful placeholder for gaps in our knowledge. Rather, God is the depth beneath every profundity, the source of all being, the unity behind every examined thing. God is the background and principle of everything finite. I am also a Christian (Orthodox with a Roman education), and I don't prioritize one "God" over another "God." The Lord our God is one, and truth is truth. God reveals himself to prophets and to philosophers in different ways, manifesting himself to the pure of heart and the loving searchers of truth.