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Getting God Wrong

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Some time back, I was trying to explain something about the relationship between Puritanism, the Enlightenment, and what we now think of as “countercultural” or “progressive” social thought, and I made a mess of it and seemed to be saying that the Enlightenment bred the Puritans.

A number of people jumped in with comments that were mostly puzzled–hey! you know better than that!–and then I never got back around to straightening it out.

At the time, what I was actually trying to get at was that the Enlightenment bred one particular Puritan, Jonothan Edwards–and it did, and I want to get back to that in a post or two.

For those of you who care, if you go to my home page and click on the link to “Reading and Writing,” you’ll find a long essay (of mine) about Edwards, who has fascinated me since I was a teenager.

I’m willing to bet anything that I was the only person who ever read Freedom of the Will on the New Haven to Danbury bus.

All that said, I want to swing around now for a couple of reasons, the first of which has to do with the nature of God.

And no, I haven’t changed my mind.  I’m still an atheist.  But ideas on the nature of God have consequences for human behavior, so let me start with this and then get to God and Government later.

As some of you probably noted from the post yesterday, I’m in the middle of reading the first volume of Perry Miller’s The New England Mind.  This volume is subtitled The Seventeenth Century, which means it is concerned with Puritan thought rather than the history of ideas in New England in general.  I assume that Miller will get to the “in general” part, complete with Deists and New England Transcendentalists, in the second volume.

And I’ve learned one side fact in the process–it’s virtually impossible to read Puritan divines to a background of Baroque music.  Especially when the quotes from the Divines are in the original spelling.

That aside, however, the first chapter of this book brought up something interesting to me.

This has to do with how the Puritans defined God–how they defined what God is.

And the interesting thing about that is that they defined God in the same way Augustine did, and the Church fathers did, and most of Medieval theology did. 

And that’s fine as far as it goes, except for this.

That definition says:  God is Being.  God is Existence Itself. 

God is not a being. 

He can’t be talked about properly the way we talk about persons.  None of the categories that apply to persons actually applies to Him. 

When we talk about God’s will, or God’s law, or God’s wrath, we are using metaphors for a reality that is completely incomprehensible to the human mind. 

This definition of God is almost as old as Christianity itself.  You can find it in the second century writings of the Church Fathers.  You can find it in Augustine.  It is at the heart of Medieval theology and of most high-end intellectual Catholic theology today.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with a definition like this, except that it’s much more like Buddhism or the Greek “God of the philosophers” than like anything you’re ever going to find in the New Testament.

Or the Old, for that matter. 

If you read the Bible, King James version or otherwise, what  you get is something very different from a definition like this. 

You get God not only as a Being, but as a Being thoroughly engaged in acting  in much the same sense as human beings act.  He gets angry.  He gets jealous.  He does things on the spur of the moment. 

And, of course, he speaks.

In a way, I’m not really surprised that the early Church Fathers came to their abstractionist definition of God. 

For one thing, Christians at this period did not take the Bible as literally true. 

With the New Testament especially, they tended to take the position that the Church wrote the thing, so you shouldn’t try telling the Church what it meant.

That is, largely, the same position taken by the Roman Catholic Church today.

And the Church Fathers were, to a significant extent, intellectually Greeks.  They were learned in Greek philosophy.  They came to the Church via attempts to find peace in secular learning.

And that was doubly true of Augustine, who was one of the greatest philosophical scholars of the end of the Empire.

I’m willing to accept Miller’s position that Puritanism, both inside and out of New England, represented the second intellectualization of Christian faith in the West–that the Puritans were, like the Church fathers before them, people who approached religion as an intellectual exercise first and foremost.

What I don’t understand is how, starting with sola scriptura–which they were definitely committed to–they got to this place.

It’s one thing to start with Plato and end up deciding that God is Being Itself.  It’s another thing to start with the Gospel of Luke and get to the same place.

Even the Gospel of John, which is the most Greek in its approach–in the beginning, there was the Word–won’t get you there in anything like a straight line. 

So the question becomes–where, exactly, did the idea of God as Being Itself, and not A being but To Be–where did this come from in one of the most rigorous strains of Protestantism, sola scriptura, sola fidei, sola gracia?

And, while we’re at it–why did it?

The God of Plato and of Buddhism is an intellectual construct meant to make belief in any God at all logically coherent for people who do pursue reason to its inevitable conclusions. 

It is a definition that is untouchable by the kind of analysis produced by people like Dawkins and Dennett.  It makes arguments about things like “how could a good God allow tsunamis” completely irrelevant, because they rely on the assumption that what we call God does things like allow and will in much the same way we do.

At the same time, it is not a definition that can survive for even a few seconds in any religion that people are expected to live day by day. 

Even the philosophers–and the Puritans–ended up talking about God just the way we do now, when they ended up talking about anything else except His “essential nature.”

Once they got to morality, or Providence, or even politics, God became again (at least in speech) the everyday willing, thinking, acting, mostly like a person as we define it that we’re used to.

That was inevitable, for the same reason there are two paths to God in Buddhism, one for the ordinary mortals who can’t quite get into the esoteric abstractions of the “higher” path.

But that leaves me with my question intact–how do you get to this place from the New Testament, or from the New and the Old?

In the book I’m reading, there is an awful lot about the definition and the ways in which New England theologians expressed it, but nothing about where in the Bible they thought they found support for it.

And I keep thinking that you can’t get there from here.

Written by janeh

June 23rd, 2012 at 9:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Getting God Wrong'

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  1. A suggestion. If you think of God as creating the universe and the laws of nature and then letting things evolve under those laws, then you have no problem of evil. Tsunami’s are just a consequence of the laws of nature. I have heard philosophers call this idea “the clockwork God”. But then their is no point in worshiping a clockwork God.

    If you think that God constantly interferes, then you do have a problem of evil and a reason to worship.


    23 Jun 12 at 5:25 pm

  2. How the Puritans got from A to B, I don’t know, but it sounds like they were in good company at the end. A watered-down view – the idea that God is beyond our understanding, but that is also appears that for some reason He ‘interferes’ from time to time and provides instruction etc – is quite common. I support a version of this – it never made sense to me if on the one hand, God was omnipotent, omniscient and so on, and on the other, He was someone who could be convicted of wrongdoing because he let the wrong person die too young or a tsunami to hit. And yet, I have to recognize that both themes – God as, if not in the Greek sense ‘being’ itself, but holy, beyond humankind and also a being you could argue with – exist in Christianity. I don’t think a double path like you describe for buddism (I never know how to spell that) exists in Christianity, although in some churches, they come close with the ‘modern’, ‘right’ theology espoused by the clergy and the ‘simple’ ‘naive’ theology the congregation has an unaccountable attachment to.

    I’ve been re-reading Job, who considers God holy and yet argues against various ideas about him. I really need a good commentary, something more than the footnotes in th more modern of my Bibles.

    Anyway, John, you can worship a God who is beyond humanity in the sense of being an abstraction. Worship consists of more than asking for things, which I admit would be a waste of time if God is a mere creator of clockwork. Worship includes adoration. It includes the attempt to understand and reach God through study or meditation or contemplation as well.

    And in the end, once you’ve decided that a fair definition of God includes the ideas of Something or Someone beyond humanity, beyond space and time — any further descriptions, right down to the old man in the sky with the long beard and nightshirt, is a narrowing and limitation of our concept of God.

    The New Atheists, from what little I’ve read by them, just don’t get it at all. They persist in trying to attack ideas that aren’t really held by most religous people at all, and which have been attacked in far more reasonable style hundreds of years ago.


    23 Jun 12 at 7:13 pm

  3. Two things going on here. Defining God in the easiest way to prove, then going on to discuss God in a way not compatible with that definition–or at least only applicable to a refinement of it–is your usual non sequitur. (Or bait and switch, depending on whether or not it was done on purpose.) Watch a Marxist discuss class, workers or value or Obama discuss spending, debts and deficits and you get pretty much the same thing.

    But in discussing where the easier definition of God comes from, I think we have a classic case of False Footnote Syndrome. In cases of FFNS, there is a source given, but it’s not the source used–or at least not the only source used. If a Boomer discusses Norse mythology and tells me that Thor was Gof of Thunder, had a hammer called Mjolnit with a short haft, and was sent to Midgard because he was too quarrelsome and restless for Asgard, I don’t care how often the Boomer cites the Poetic Edda, he must have actually read JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY or THE MIGHTY THOR because the Poetic Edda doesn’t have that third item and Marvel Comics does. There’s a lot of FFNS around, since pretty much everyone reads low-prestige sources. I first ran across it in Mommsen, but I’m sure the source Herodotus gives isn’t always the one he most relied on.

    In this case, the early Calvinists may have been a little shakey on Buddhist doctrine, but, being defecting Catholic divines, certainly had read the Early Fathers and Plato. Having loudly denounced the corruptions of pure Biblical Christianity, they could hardly be expected to cite either one for their authority, but I think it’s reasonable to conclude they carried the definition with them as they left the Mother Church.

    That said, I think any Christian would concede that a being capable of establishing the laws of the universe and of knowing when every sparrow falls is further beyond us than we are beyond ants, and inherently unknowable. We can use the words we use of people to describe what’s going on, the way we talk about information wanting to be free, nature abhoring a vacuum, or of market prices searching for something, but the words don’t mean the same thing. We’re describing as best we can a thing incomprehensible to us.

    Which is why there is Christ, to be God in a form we can know.

    And that in turn is why we have theologians. As JD says, if we have a God who does things, then we need to give the matter some thought.


    23 Jun 12 at 7:25 pm

  4. Well, much as I find the whole thing fascinating, we pretty much limit our discussions to the Judeo-Christian perspective which is a minority perspective in world terms – and barely a majority if we include Islam as a part of a broader Abrahamic religious perspective. How anyone can conclude that the truth about such an essentially unknowable thing as the existence of God lies on our side of the argument, Christ or no Christ, Muhammad or no Muhammad is beyond me. Which tends to render the whole argument futile.


    24 Jun 12 at 9:47 pm

  5. That’s no reason to stop trying to understand God, Mique – and any such efforts must necessarily be from the side or perspective of the searcher. Some searchers eventually conclude that all paths lead to God; others, only one (not necessarily the one they started out with). And some get fed up with the lack of certain answers with universal agreement, and give up the search as pointless.


    25 Jun 12 at 5:47 am

  6. Sorry, Cheryl, “futile” was a poor choice of word. “Academic” is probably closer to what I really meant.


    25 Jun 12 at 7:34 pm

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