God’s Love, Bliss, and Goodness – Introduction

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In this series I will spend a number of posts explaining why I think God is primarily loving, good, and blissful. I will argue that this is the dominant view of the Ultimate in most religions. I will argue that miracles and religious experience show the divine to be primarily benevolent. I will argue that our moral intuitions about ethical living imply that God is good. And I will also foward a number of pragmatic arguments for assuming that God is fundamentally loving and good.

I view this as a cumulative case. Some pieces of evidence are more important than others (for example, miracles and religious experience). Some pieces might not convince all on their own. But together I believe these arguments provide a strong basis for believing that God is predominately good.

God’s love and and goodness and the various ways this flows out to others and then back again is the heart and soul of my theology. While I have sought to make this entire series on “Essential Theology” balanced and wide-ranging; it started with God’s love in mind and has been building up from the beginning toward this the center, the crown, the capstone of my theology.

The task that lays before me is to prove that this isn’t merely my own opinion or wishful thinking, There are number of reasons to believe that the Ultimate is primarily loving, good, or blissful.

Since this series is mostly meant to cover core or essential aspects of the divine that are well evidenced and widely agreed upon, I willl not give a fully fleshed out exposition of what such a benevolent face to the divine means. Such an exposition would require going beyond the core, inclusive, interfaith format of the series and I suppose, in the fullest sense, would not even be possible. This series is meant to be an exercise in “mere theology.”

Nevertheless, I think evidence I present and the various angles I use to approach divine goodness will help flesh that out some. It is also impossible to completely avoid specific judgments or debatable claims. In the end, various religious paths do contradict each other – at least in their self-understandings. So I will occassionally foward my own view on a matter and seek to justify it.

I do not think that God is only loving, good, or blissfull. I think he is also just and will judge evil. I believe he might have additional goals and plans other than loving us humans. It isn’t all about us. There are also troubling questions concerning his relationship to suffering/evil and his apparent distance, hiddenness, or indifference to some who would know him. As well, we could register here the (somewhat) conflicting and ambiguous nature of his revelation to various cultures and individuals. There is a “dark” side to God. A harsh or indiffernt side to him. A side that can be disconforting (to say the least), even inspiring fear.

But is this “darker” side to God a fully true understanding; or is it in some cases a missunderstanding based on faulty dogma or ignorance about God’s intentions and relationship to the world? I believe that in some cases it is the latter. As I said, I believe God is also just and will judge. But is his justice and wrath equal or even superior to his love? Or is love at the center of who he is? What is God’s character like? What kind of being is he?

I was raised in a tradition that tended to see God as bi-polar. He was loving but also wrathful. And these attributes were more-or-less equal within him. Balanced. In Calvinism I was taught that God had to predestine some people to eternal conscious torment in hell to exhibit this wrathful side. It wasn’t that God started out loving everyone and desiring that they follow his way, only judging them when they willingly chose to stray from this path. There are theologies that teach this. In fact, as I will show, something like it is probably the dominate view.

But I was taught that God foreordained most people to inevitable chose evil, with the specific intention of punishing them so as to bring glory to himself by exhibiting his justice and (so they said) accentuating how amazing his grace really was to those he had chosen to be saved. In effect, this and other analogous theologies makes God’s love secondary. Other attributes predominate and even in discussions of God’s moral character, love is just one aspect there. It is not God’s primary impulse. Indeed, in Calvinism it would seem that wrath is actually more central to God’s character, since he only chose a “remnant” to save and the vast majority of his creatures to suffer eternally.

I note in passing that this isn’t just academic. What people believe about God has implications toward their quality of life and how they treat others.

While I believe in God’s justice (as I have said). I adamantly disagree that it is on par with God’s love. I wholeheartedly reject a scenario like the above where God is pictured as delighting in tormenting his creatures.

While I do not deny God’s justice or the troubling “darker” elements to how he has set up the world and chooses to interact with it; in my view this side to him is secondary and temporary. God is loving, good, and blissful and he desires good things for his creatures. Where those do not (yet) obtain, this is due to our own rejection of his way and/or have to do with evils he allows for an eventual greater good that will be realized. By turning to him, we too can enter into this life of love that will enrich and transform our lives.

In the following posts, I hope to defend this conception of God, starting by looking at the surprising consensus about it in the world’s religions.

 

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It’s About Love

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I’ve been thinking a lot about love recently. The love of God. The love of Jesus. The love of people one for another. The more I live, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it’s about love. What do I mean by love? Is this just some mushy, sentimental, hippy dream? It was Larry Norman who cracked, “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.” We all know that the feeling of love is ephemeral and often fails us. We know that there are deep-set problems in our lives and in our world that see of no simple solution. So when I speak of love, I’m referencing more than mere sentiment and I’m not saying it’s easy. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? Not so much. We need a love that looks reality in the face and kisses it.

What do I mean by love? I am writing (more or less) about what Christians call agape love. As J. I.  Packer says, agape is a decision to do good to others with the purpose of in some sense making those others great. Right out of the gate we see that this love is more than sentimentality. I will argue shortly that love is not at its most healthy without empathy and warmth; but even when we don’t FEEL like it, we can choose to act lovingly toward others. How else could we make sense of such commands as, “love your enemies”?

Packer goes on to say that agape makes others great by serving not their professed wants but their observed real needs. We all know that sometimes indulging others’ whims is not genuinely loving. A parent does not give-in every time her child “must” have something.

On the other hand, we also know that sometimes others think they know what’s best for us and are unflinching in their assurance that we conform to their unrealistic template for who we must be. That is why the OBSERVED part is so important. Agage doesn’t just give in to others’ whims; but it also doesn’t try to force an untrue or unrealistic archetype onto them. It takes seriously what we learn about the world through all forms of knowledge. It factors in what we know about humans generally. But it pays especially close attention to the person or persons in front of us whom we are trying to love and it sympathetically asks, “what would I want, what would I need, if I were in his shoes, with his set of gifts, flaws, desires, and beliefs…?”

Sometimes “love must be tough.” That is, sometimes love means confronting someone else or denying them something they want that is not good for them. If in our current milieu the non-religious might tend more toward an overly indulgent love, it is safe to say that the religious tend toward the other extreme. As the saying goes, “only Christians shoot their wounded.” We all know the kind of “love” that “confronts” with a sheen of pious “concern” but with no real warmth, no true empathy, no heart. We also know of the spittle-flying rage and judgment that sometimes comes out of religious communities. Such words and behaviors don’t even make a pretense of love.

While love must sometimes be tough, I suspect it usually does not. Even where it does, this must always be done with humility, tentativeness, warmth, and after doing our own soul-searching—taking the beam out of our own eye first, so to speak. It must be undertaken with true empathy for “the other” and with real effort to spend time with them and learn about them. Love at its best spends time with others and really gets to know them.

This ties into my next point. Love is anything but cold, calculated, utilitarian action based on what is in our or others’ best interest. While love is more than a feeling, love is most definitely a “warm” word. And make no mistake; the warmth of real fellowship is one of our greatest needs (if not our greatest one). While love is a choice and an action, I fear sometimes the Christian community underplays the warmth of love in their reactions against sentimentality. When we reflect on love at its best; thoughts of laughter, joy, grins, and ecstasy come to mind. Part of the power of full-fledged love is precisely the joy it exudes.

Agape love also has a trustworthy and persevering quality to it. I see a lot of this in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind. It keeps no record of wrongs, it forgives. It’s this graciousness, warmth, and extraordinary ability to see the best in others (even when they are at their worst) that draws people in and can change the world. I think here of Bishop Myriel’s decision to forgive Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

I also think of the safety and encouragement spoken of in The Choir’s song “A Friend So Kind.” In one of the best summaries of love I’ve heard, they sing, “When you feel ashamed and ugly inside. You need someone who cares, with whom you dare confide. To stare into your dark soul to see hope and light. And tell you, ‘You’re glorious, I know you’ll be all right. You’re beautiful, I love you I know you’ll be all right.’ There is no mountain of virtue higher to ascend. No quality more divine. Than to be a friend, ah to be a friend so kind.” This, THIS is what most of us crave.

If all of this sounds a little too perfect, it is. We are flawed and often act in an unloving manner. We hurt each other and we’ll do it again. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a worthy ideal to shot for. Many of us have had the chance to see people who exemplify such love, however imperfectly. We can all chose to daily and hourly treat others in the way we would like to be treated. Where we fail, we can apologize, get back up, and try again.

And there is good news! The gospel is that God loves us like this! He loves YOU like this! He came down as a man in the person of Jesus to learn to sympathize with us in our suffering; to teach and exemplify how to love God and others; to call us to turn from our selfishness and malice and instead love others in this way in the new order he was establishing; to die for us to save us from our self-centeredness and shame; to rise again giving us hope that we too can one day fully experience this new order manifest in the flesh. The gospel promises that God’s goodness is big enough to forgive us the worst of offenses, granted we repent. Resting in God’s love we have sanctuary. And our experience of this extraordinary love and forgiveness can and should be a powerful compeller to so love and forgive others.

Essential Theology: God is One

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I believe that God is in some essential way One, a unity, united in being or at least in goodness, fellowship, and purpose. Although the overall spiritual realm may be diverse and inhabited by beings of different sorts and characteristics (more on that shortly); God as the highest Reality is united, stable, and in consistent harmony in his character, intention, and oversight.

I believe in an Ultimate Being of ontological oneness. In particular, I believe in a monotheistic God. As a Christian, I believe monotheism allows for a Trinity of persons within the one God; though expounding on such a view is largely outside the scope of an  interfaith, “consensus” series such as this.

I think many of the arguments in this post will help support this notion of God being ontologically one in his being. But I am also arguing that minimally, even if there were more than one being in the Highest Ultimate, they must at least be united in goodness, fellowship, and intention.

I believe God is one because this is widely affirmed about him or the Ultimate. There is belief in one God in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism.

Most Hindus see one monistic Reality as the Supreme Being behind our illusionary world and the numerous deities worshipped herein. Some see this Reality as God; others as a less personal Being.

In Buddhism, there is one state of Nirvana which is sought. In Lakota religion, Wakan Tanka seems to be conceived of as a unified conglomerate of spiritual powers. Greco-Roman philosophers reflected on “the One.” The Tao of Taoism is considered One. Many religions gravitate toward talk of a singular highest God.

Many sources of sacred authority also teach or assume that the Ultimate is one.

For example,  in the Tanakh’s Shema, the central confession of Judaism, God is declared to be one. This is why Israel was to worship no other gods but him alone. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).

While Christianity holds to the controversial and paradoxical belief that this one God is made up of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit); it and the New Testament also affirm that there is only one God. “There is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

The Qur’an presents a particularly strict vision of God’s singularity called Tawhid. According to it, the one God’s divinity cannot be shared or divided. This is why orthodox Muslims reject the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

“There is no god save Allah” (Surah 47.19). “Allah does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, but He forgives anything other than this to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever associates anything with Allah, he devises indeed a great sin” (Surah 4.48).

In the Vedas, Brahman is conceived of as the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe. “That [Brahman] is one, without a second” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1). “They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān. To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan” (Rig Veda 1.164.46).

In the Tao Te Ching, the Tao is called “the One without differentiation” (10). The Sikh Adi Granth affirms that God is one: “There is one God, Eternal Truth is his name…” (1:1). In Zoroastrianism, one of the names of God is “A-dui,” which means “One without a second.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/101_Names_of_God

This broad consensus is also backed up by (mystical) experience and rational and pragmatic reasoning. Many people have vivid religious experiences that are consonant with and interpreted by them as an encounter with the One true God.

Perhaps these experiences are structured and pre-disposed towards by the participant’s monotheistic faith. It’s true that people from various religions tend to have religious experiences in line with categories and figures of their religion. But the experience of an (apparently) singular, unitive, all-encompassing spiritual Reality is widespread and encompasses a number of religions and even people of no religion or ones from religions that are not taught to expect this.

Such experiences include perceptions of becoming united with God, united with all of nature or the universe, united with Brahman, or experiencing  a comprehensive self-emptying in realization of Nirvana. Although different in many respects (e.g. is the Real personal or impersonal), these experiences tend to be of singular unitive Being.

Experiences of other types of spiritual entities do not necessarily challenge this. God is understood to have created many lesser types of spiritual creatures. Also, some finite entities encountered in religious experience claim to be messengers of the one God.

That God is one or of a united nature also seems to fit with the “big” conception of him that I’m trying to defend in these posts. David Bentley Hart makes a wonderful contrast in his book The Experience of God between gods and God.

Gods are finite objects within the universe. They can be added or subtracted without any fundamental change to the world. They are anthropomorphic and limited. God, on the other hand, as understood by classical theism, is Ultimate Being itself, the personal Power that “donates” existence to everything else and who bears necessary existence within himself. He is not simply another object in the universe. He is the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, unchanging, and fundamentally good Reality that is more real, more fundamental, than anything else. Because he is good, Ultimate Reality is fundamentally on the side of the good. Love and justice aren’t merely incidental or based on a finite and arbitrary god’s whim.

The connection here to God’s singular unity is this: could there really be more than one Entity  like that? How could there be more than one “that which no greater can be thought?” How could there be more than one Supreme Being? The notion, although perhaps not strictly impossible, certainly seems less intuitive and perhaps less parsominous than there being only one such God.

I suppose since God does not occupy “space” in the way we do, it could be that there are any number of infinite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. Beings. One wonders why in religious experience people tend to perceive the Ultimate as One rather than many? There is the issue of parsimony. No major theistic tradition would accept such a notion of God – even definitionally.

If there are more than one “Being,” one wonders about their relation to one another. Since (in this scenario) there is differentiation between them – they are not the same singular Being – can differences of opinion arise between them? How would they be settled? Since each “God” is the same in excellence and might, how could any one prevail? Would humans simply be caught up as pawns in an eternal unwinnable struggle? If they disagreed or were even in contention with one another, how could any one of them or their combined community serve as our perfect moral exemplar? Perfect source of beauty, harmony, etc.? How could they offer us hope of peace and salvation?

As I will get into in my next point, even if there were more than one divine being in the Godhead (whether this be multiple theistic “Gods” or polytheistic ones), both religious experience and pragmatic reasoning imply that they exist and act in harmonious union with one another.

That gets to my next point, and that is that even if there were a diversity of some sort in the highest Divine, there are pragmatic reasons for thinking they are united in some essential way. Let’s consider some of the possible configurations of spiritual beings to illustrate what I mean by this.

Virtually all worldviews that believe in a spiritual realm acknowledge diversity in it. There are good and evil spirits and maybe some that seem neutral or in-between. There are beings of different types and degrees of power. Christians and Jews acknowledge angels and demons. Muslims believe in Jinn. Hindus and Buddhists acknowledge a range of gods and demons at this lower level of insight (they both think the Highest Reality is ultimately unified). Obviously polytheists believe in more than one god. Most traditional religions believe in many powers, spirits, or gods.

So in arguing that the Highest Ultimate is unified, I am not saying that it did not also create or emanate a multiplicity of lesser beings. There is room in monotheism for many spiritual (and other) entities. The question is what is this highest Reality like? Is it unified or diverse, and in what ways?

Let’s consider the options: It could be that atheists are right and that there are no actual spirits, gods, or God. It could be that there are a diversity of powerful but finite gods who make up this upper echelon. Although paradoxical, I’ve mentioned that at least in theory, it is not impossible that there is more than one theistic God. It could be that there is only one polytheistic god. Or it could be that there is only one monotheistic God.

I think one monotheistic God sits better with the attributes I’m defending in this series and (many) people’s spiritual experiences of the Ultimate than the other views. I also think there is room in this Divine Oneness for a Trinity of persons. Having said that, I don’t know that any of these things can be proved absolutely.

I said earlier that minimally, the Highest Ultimate must at least be united in goodness, fellowship, and intention. Why do I say that?

Think what would follow if there were a diversity in the highest Divine and these diverse beings lacked a common character, harmony with one another, and/or common goals for the world. What would that do to our ability to know what path to take in life (following which Guide?) or to be able to trust the divine (which one, or which faction?). How could we confidently hope for eventual peace and salvation (from which being? How not undermined by the others in contention?). How can bickering deities serve as perfect moral exemplars of love or unity to humans?

When I look at Greco-Roman polytheism or other comparable varieties of it, it doesn’t seem like it can adequately ground morality or transcendent hope. When one reads the Iliad, one can’t help but see how divided and petty the Greek gods were. They scheme against each other and draw humans into it. When a character placates one, he often crosses another. There’s no way to win and there’s no real hope of escape from the arbitrariness of it all. In the same way, none of the gods can truly be said to be a perfect moral exemplar.

Monotheism, including Trinitarian monotheism, would certainly give us the unity and moral grounding we need for transcendent hope. Arguably though, other types of polytheism might also give us this. If we conceived of the gods as a harmonious tribe or family made up of good individuals who had a common aim, potentially they could serve to fulfill this hope. Presumably, in this case, they would not be feuding with one another or resentful over humanity’s imperfect worship of them, granted it was sincere. I don’t believe in polytheism, of course. But I see this kind of vision as a minimal threshold of sorts.

One side-note that is relevant to my Trinitarian faith: Arguably, there might also need to be some kind of diversity in the divine unity, whether it is through a unified polytheism of this sort or through a Trinitarian monotheism comprised of several loving, intra-communal persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This might best explain God or the gods’ being good in an essentially personal or loving way, analogous to what goodness typically means to us. I’ve written on this elsewhere, but won’t pursue it more here.

So I love and trust the One who has no second. The Oneness of God is widely agreed upon, taught in many sources of sacred authority, suggested by our religious experiences, and is rationally and pragmatically necessary for wholehearted worship, trust, hope, and emulation. God is united, stable, and in consistent harmony in his being, character, intentions, and oversight.

 

Essential Theology: God’s Omniscience

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I believe that God is all-knowing, omniscient, surpassing all creatures in his wisdom and  purposeful plans. His knowledge is not merely abstract, but practical and relational. He knows us intimately and comprehensively. This informs his love for us and his ability to hold us accountable for how we live.

I believe that God’s omnipresent and powerful upholding of creation gives him intimate and comprehension knowledge of the present. I believe that his eternal nature and freedom from creaturely defect imply that he retains perfect knowledge of the past. What about the future?

Classically, most theists have thought that God also had perfect foreknowledge of the future. Recently this has become more controversial, at least in Christian circles. That for a few reasons: 1) Many biblical descriptions seem to show a God who learns fresh things and/or  does not comprehensively know the future. 2) Divine foreknowledge arguably leads to philosophical problems related to free will, evil, and God’s relationality.

Both open theists and process theologians contend that God does not know the future free decisions his creatures will make. Classical theists push back against this and insist that God has comprehensive, omniscient foreknowledge of the future.

Some argue that God is outside of time, so he does not see it in the linear way that we do. He sees all of history at once as some kind of “eternal now.” This is a common view available to both free will theists and compatibilists. Some free will theists argue that God has something called “middle knowledge.” Calvinists and other compatibilists have no problem with foreknowledge because they believe that  free will and moral culpability are consistent with determinism.

A lot of ink has been spilled arguing over these various possibilities. I cannot delve into them in more depth here. I find some of the considerations rather esoteric and I have trouble knowing how to decide my position. But in any case, this series is primarily meant to look for minimal core agreements anyway.

I think there is a middle ground most can affirm while (at least for myself) remaining undecided about whether God has comprehensive foreknowledge of the future free decisions of free creatures.

If God is omniscient about the past and present, surely he must be very savvy about the various ways things are headed. He knows climate patterns, economic trends, human psychology and sociology, and many other things better than any human expert. Infinitely better. So he can foresee what is very likely to occur, with or without foreknowledge.

He is able to calculate and anticipate every conceivable possibility and know how he would react to each one to further his overall ends.

Whether or not he controls everything or foreknows all things, he can definitively and unalterably choose in advance to bring about select things. For example, if he wanted a certain event to occur, he could act with efficacious force to ensure is happens.

He may even occasionally overwhelm free will to bring about certain outcomes. Even as someone who thinks this is non-normative for God, I can choose to accept he retains the sovereign ability to do that, on occasion, granted that humans are not held responsible for the things they do when and if controlled in this total way.

I think virtually all theists see God as having some kind of plan for humans and for the future. He can certainly foreordain the direction and timing that he moves things.

Depending on one’s view of God’s power, someone who believes that God lacks comprehensive foreknowledge might believe that he could have chosen to control everything minutely, and thus perfectly know what was going to happen beforehand – because he would see exactly where the chain of causes he was controlling was leading and he would foreknow what he was planning on doing next.

People here might just say that God sovereignly chose to give people free will and chose to (generally) respect that. Thus, he couldn’t comprehensively foreknow future freely chosen decisions. In a sense, then, God is still omniscient. He knows everything he can possibly know (future free decisions being unknowable in advance). God chooses to, in effect, limit his power and knowledge because this is necessary for the world and plan he wants. At least if this view is true.

Obviously these are open-theist talking points. As I said, I’m not sure if I agree with that overall perspective (though I do agree that love is God’s defining attribute). But surely classical theists would also agree with this, as far as it goes. They just don’t think it goes far enough.

Whatever one believes about God’s foreknowledge or relationship to time, I think we need to find a balance where we affirm that God engages humans and the world dynamically. Thus, in whatever degree he foreknew human decisions, we should want to say that there was something fresh and impactful about those moment-by-moment decisions to God. And yet, we also need to affirm that God is never, in his essense, overwhelmed by “new” developments vis a vis humans. God can be surprised, grieved, pleased, or angered in some real way, in some part of his being. But in another part, he remains stable, self-collected, serene, and in overall control.

I believe that  God has full knowledge of the past, full knowledge of the present, and broad wisdom about the future in the way I specified (at the least). I think classical theologians and open theists can at least agree on this minimal core. This is enough for us to trust God’s leading and that he can accomplish the good things he intends for us. It is enough for trust, worship, and hope.

Why believe that God has such infinite knowledge? This is a widely held belief. It is held about the Ultimate by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Neoplatonists, followers of the Baha’i faith, and some others. Many others believe that the Supreme Being is very wise and/or sees all about human affairs. Many traditional societies, including some of the most “primitive” ones believe that the Creator is moral and knows enough to hold humans accountable for their actions. Buddhists, advaitic Hindus, and Jains also believe that Reality is in some sense an omniscient state.

That the Ultimate is omniscient is taught by most sources of sacred authority. For example:

Although the Tanakh sometimes presents God as being surprised or testing individuals to see what they will do; it also presents him as thoroughly knowing his creation, human hearts, and even the future.

“He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure (Psalm 147:4-5).

“O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, And are intimately acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:1-4).

Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42:9) .

The New Testament teaches much the same thing about God.

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34).

“And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

“In whom [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

The Qur’an presents God as determining and knowing all things.

“He it is who has created for you all that is on earth, and has applied His design to the heavens and fashioned them into seven heavens; and He alone has full knowledge of all things” (Surah 2:29).

But God saved [you from this]; verily, He has knowledge of what is in the hearts [of men]” (Surah 8:43).

“Verily with God alone rests the knowledge of when the Last Hour will come: and He [it is who] sends down the rain; and He [alone] knows what is in the wombs: whereas no one knows what he will reap tomorrow, and no one knows in what land he will die. Verily, God [alone] is all-knowing, all-aware” (Surah 31:34).

According to the Vedas, Brahman is omniscient, the Supreme One who is infinite Being, Consciousness, and Bliss.

“From Him who, omniscient, knows all, whose ascetic fervor consists in wisdom, this Brahman comes to birth – name, form, and food” (Mundaka Upanishad 1.1:9).

According to Zoroastrian scriptures the Wise Lord (Ahura Mazda) is an “omniscient and caretaking Lord” who has revealed his wisdom through Zarathustra “for the purpose of rendering people friendly toward Him” (Khorde Avesta, The Nam Setayyashne 4).

Although the phenomena is perplexing and sometimes contradictory, there are experiential reasons to think that the spiritual realm contains surpluses of wisdom and knowledge.

Shamans who believe they can travel in the spirit world can obtain supramundane knowledge about the world and about the future there. Mystics in general report that union with the Ultimate can lead to a surplus of esoteric knowledge (although when they return to a normal state they are often unable to remember it or communicate it).

It should be noted that both theistic and impersonal Ultimates (e.g. Brahman or Nirvana) are claimed to bring this heightened state of awareness or enlightenment.

People sometimes claim to receive special words or insights from God or heavenly messengers. Sometimes this ends up being a false idea or prediction. Supposedly true revelation often isn’t. Or at best it is provisional – suitable for furthering a culture’s ethic or theology, but not the final, unalterable truth.

Sometimes it is hard to know if a particular revelation is universal, unalterable truth or not. To me, claims that have broad agreement, show the Divine’s goodness and bring good fruit, or make rational or empirical sense are more plausibly to be believed (at least tentatively).

While some supposed revelations end up being disconfirmed and many others are not open to confirmation, one way or the other; others do seem to show special insight that seems extramundane, beyond normal human abilities of knowing.

For example, whether this stems from God or is just part of a natural innate human ability, there are well evidenced reports of people “knowing” that someone else died before they are told – even at long distances away. Or of someone else knowing of another’s need for prayer or specific tangible needs without being told so. Likewise, sometimes people are given very specific prophesies about the future that end up coming true. If these or similar experiences are based in God (sometimes they very much seem to, at other times it seems just paranormal), it shows that he has heightened knowledge along the relational web of life.

So God’s omniscience is widely believed and claimed in many sources of sacred authority. It is based partly in mystical experience and in more tangible supramundane revelations that end up being confirmed true. As I hinted at in referencing traditional societies, it is partly accepted to give God the basis for judging human conduct in full wisdom and justice. It is an inference necessary for him to be trusted to do that. Arguably it follows from God being the omnipresent Ground of all Being. He must know all to design and continuously uphold the universe.

I must say that although full omniscience seems like a good, reasonable inference; the evidence dies not fully or always consistently demonstrate that. It allows for it, but doesn’t (necessarily) go that far. And supposed evelations that end up being flawed or simply wrong are perplexing and sobering. God in himself may be omniscient. But our access to the spiritual realm, including God, often seems very partial and filtered through our own ignorance and preconceptions.

We need to test what knowledge we can. We need to hold all somewhat provisionally. Presumptively, apart from strong evidence to the contrary, we should not accept supposed revelations from or about God that harm humans or decreases flourishing.

Our omniscient God is worthy of worship, trust, and knowing. Knowing our very hearts, he still  loves us and wills to purify us. In wisdom he will judge us. He knows the past and present to the fullest and has wise plans for the future. The discerning soul who longs for wisdom will drink from his fount, in natural and spiritual revelation (however imperfectly ingested).

Essential Theology: God’s Unchanging Nature

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Before delving into the subject of today’s post, I want to make a few prefatory comments.

This series is meant to highlight those aspects of the divine I see as most commonly agreed on and most reasonable. It has intentionally been ecumenical, seeking to identify essence, core, and interfaith agreement where possible. Hence the title “Essential Theology.”

However, although some beliefs about the divine are widespread,  few if any garner universal assent. And some beliefs are even more controversial than others. Today’s post touches on one that is more controversial. That being so, I will try to lay out what is agreed on and why; but I will also of necessity be giving my own take on it. I will try to distinguish between my view and the consensus as we go along.

In a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons, God’s love and relational nature are at the heart of my theology. This series has been building up to a discussion of those topics. But I have intentionally decided to begin by focusing on the more “transcendent,” “incommunicable,” exalted aspects of the Divine before doing so. I do that for a few reasons:

1) These kinds of traits are in many cases more widely agreed upon than others. Divine traits such as transcendence, eternality, purity, unchangeability, and so on find wide agreement  between Classical philosophy, the Abrahamic faiths, and Eastern religions (as well as some others).

2) I want to broach God’s love and relationality in the context of a “big” view of God. That fosters humility and worshipful wonder. I fear that a lot of progressive theology looses this to easy anthropomorphic projection.

With that in mind, I turn now to God’s unchanging nature.

I believe that in some way, in his central core of being, God is unchanging. God is unchanging in his existence, in his core ontological make-up, in his moral character, in his self-composure (even if/when passionate), and in his trustworthiness. On these things most theists would agree.

I won’t say that he is completely unchanging. I am sympathetic to recent critiques of classical theism as making God into a remote, undynamic, non-relational deity. I believe that God is a perfect mixture of unchanging impregnability and dynamic flexibility. In fact, contra the Greeks and others, in my view part of God’s unchanging perfection is precisely the genuine vulnerability and give-and-take relationality that he consistently exercises toward his creation. God is unchanging, but unchanging in his love and creativity too.

Why do I believe that God is essentially unchanging? This has been a common view of him in many religions and philosophies. It is held of the Ultimate in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, much Greek and Roman philosophy, and many other viewpoints. It is also taught in most sources of sacred revelation.

Although the Hebrew Tanakh seems to picture God as learning and changing his mind in places; it also teaches that in his fundamental being and moral character, God cannot change. “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6).

The Christian New Testament says much the same thing about God’s changeless character: “And like a mantle you will roll them up; like a garment they will also be changed but you are the same, and your years will not come to an end” (Hebrews 1:12). “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17).

Hindu texts affirm the same thing about Brahman; which in a mysterious way, all things participate in as their truest Self. “Those in whose hearts OM reverberates unceasingly are indeed blessed and deeply loved as one who is the Self. The all knowing Self was never born, nor will die. Beyond cause and effect, this self is eternal and immutable. When the body dies, the Self does not die” (Katha Unpanishad).

Buddhism affirms that, in contrast to this world of suffering, upsets, and decay; Nirvana is stable, blissful, and unchanging.”This [conditioned things] is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is Nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_marks_of_existence#cite_note-DavidsStede1921p355-10

Islam teaches that God is transcendently perfect and all controlling, thus he cannot be changed. “But forever will abide thy Sustainer’s Self, full of majesty and glory” (Quran 55:27). In this text one of Allah’s 99 names, “Al-Baqiy,” is used. The name means “The Immutable, The Infinite, The Everlasting.”

Of course, not all peoples have believed that the divine is unchanging. In some conceptions – for example, Greco-Roman myth – the gods were limited, changeable, and even subject to death. However, there is widespread consensus, as demonstrated above, that the highest Ultimate is in some way unchanging. Why might that be? I think for a few reasons. These include intuitive, experiential, rational, pragmatic, and doxological reasons.

Humans have long felt ill at ease in this chaotic and fleeting world. Those who suffer long for liberation from their agony. The more well to do can also find contentment elusive. They too see the suffering all around them and are reminded of how tenuous their position is. At any moment, illness, accident, or death could strike them or someone they love. Rivals could attack and destroy them. Famine or storm could ruin their crops and livelihoods – leading to destitution or even starvation. And in a best case scenario, they will still grow old, enfeebled, and eventually die. No one escapes their finitude. To the ancients especially, in a more violence milieu and  without modern medicine, knowledge, or social safety nets,  the world could be a perilous place.

In the face of this, people long for something better, higher, more stable. At a most basic level, people seek means of obtaining dependable food, health for themselves and their children, success against rivals, and peace and prosperity. These are universal tangible needs that all religions seek to meet in one way or another; through prayer, sacrifice, or ritual. People long for enduring meaning beyond their momentary whims. They long for a law, principle, or guiding force that is incorruptibly on the side of the good; which rewards right living and/or punishes evil actions. They long for a mode of existence that transcends impurity and suffering and which grants them a deep and enduring sense of love, joy, peace, harmony, bliss, and/or equanimity. People long for a Truth that is faithfully trustworthy. People desire to extend their lives and even dream of immortality. They long for a messianic age of peace and abundance.

All of that to say, in many ways people fear change and long for a more stable existence. Given their needs and desires, it is natural that they would intuit that any higher realm worth their while must provide an avenue into such a life. As they became more drawn toward idealized spiritual Ultimates, it was natural for them to infer that such a perfect Reality must in some way be unchanging for it to be the greatest or highest Reality.

So God’s unchanging nature fits with human longings and intuitions. It also fits with their religious experiences. People have spiritual experiences of a Reality that seems perfect and ultimate. Beyond bare assumptions about perfection implying immutability, some religious experiences specifically involve perceived traits like timelessness, unspeakable power, or unlimited benevolence and trustworthiness, that have implications toward God’s unchanging nature.

That God is unchanging in his core being partially fits with the broad and enduring commonalities in peoples’ religious experiences across time and space that I mentioned in my earlier post on God’s eternality. Although the perplexing variety of some of these experiences and conceptions weaken how much we can empirically infer (from the phenomena itself) about God’s unchanging quality.

God’s unchanging character makes sense pragmatically and logically in relation to other attributes of God. As with God’s eternality, it is necessary to fully trust God or grant him our undivided devotion. It is necessary toward his ultimacy, trustworthiness, and hope for our salvation.

It is not just that God eternally exists in a minimum sense but can morph into radically different, contradictory directions, capacities, abilities, and personalities over that eternal span. How could we trust him if he was sometimes honest, other times deceitful; sometimes all-powerful, at other times (permanently) losing that ability; sometimes primarily loving and standing behind human caring, and at other times primarily hateful and endorsing wanton cruelty? God has to have not just a stable existence, but also a stable good and trustworthy character too, and the attributes to inspire awe, hope, and trust. At least all things being equal, this is a better way to conceive of God. He fails to function as God in our minds without it.

Because of all this, and in addition to it, it is not surprising that many philosophers have also reasoned that God must be unchanging. Let me illustrate this consensus and the type of logic used to arrive at it with two examples. I will then explain why some of it’s inferences are controversial.

John Sanders summarizes how Hellenistic philosophy influenced the Christian tradition in the following way:

“Plato and Aristle were among the first to develop these notions of God. Using the method of natural theology, they began with the human notion of perfection and simply deduced the implications. Because God is perfect (without lack), he cannot change, as that would be a change for the worse. Therefore God is immutable. God’s immutability applies to every aspect of his being: knowledge, power, will, etc. Since emotions fluctuate and adversely effect the reason, God must be impassible [i.e. without emotions]. God is timeless (experiencing no duration) pure mind totally unaffected by all other forms of being. Most of these ideas were transmitted by to the early [church] Fathers through Philo. Early apologists like Athenagoras set the course we still follow today when he defined God as ‘one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable'” (Sanders “God as Personal” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man.” 170).

Caspar Wistar Hodge reasoned about divine immutability in the following way:

“As the One infinitely perfect and absolute or self-existent Being, God is exalted far above the possibility of change, because He is independent, self-existent and unlimited by all the causes of change. As uncaused and self-existent, God cannot be changed from without; as infinitely perfect, He cannot suffer change from within; and as eternal and independent of time, which is the ‘form’ of change and mutability, He cannot be subject to any change at all. God’s unchangeableness, therefore, follows from His self-existence and eternity.” http://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/unchangeable-unchangeableness.html

At a certain level, this makes sense. Even most theologians who are critical of classical notions of impassibility, immutability, etc. agree that God is unchanging in his existence, consistent in his character, and never overwhelmed by his emotions. As I said before, I think most theists would agree with the list of ways God is unchanging I gave in my opening paragraph.

the problem is that, taken to an extreme, ratiocinations about God’s immutability seem to make him into an aloof, static entity, unable to engage the world in a dynamic way. It implies determinism and fatalism. That in turn undermines the possibility of genuine human freedom or moral responsibility. It would  seem to make God the author of evil. It has to conceive of God’s relationship to people and prayer in very counterintuitive ways. There is no genuine give-and-take between God and his creatures. He is not really affected by them in any way. He feels no emotions toward them. Such a picture does not fully fit the God of the Tanakh, New Testament, Qur’an, or (presumably) many other holy books.

In the end, this kind of classical reasoning depends on a particular notion of what a perfect Being must be like that is actually quite debatable. This notion emphasizes power, control, and invulnerability as most desirable. But why must one agree with that? Why not see a love and compassion that is willing to feel and risk and submit itself to dynamic interaction with its creatures as being more fitting of the perfect One than the static classical conception?

This gets to a major disagreement in theology between more conservative minded believers, who tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty and transcendent invulnerability, and more liberal minded ones who tend to emphasize God’s love and relatability. This is a rift that touches many areas of theology and leads to a spectrum of views.

In Protestant Christian theology – the theology I am most acquainted with – there is disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians over free will, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of predestination. There is disagreement between classical theologians, open theists, and process theologians about whether God can know the future free decisions of his creatures, about if he changes and to what degree, and about his power in relation to evil.

To varying degrees, these same tensions and debates come up in other religious traditions too. We will see them and our spectrum of options resurface in future posts as well.

In regard to today’s post, some (though not all) process theologians contend that God is always learning and evolving and that he relates to his creation in a dynamic and synergistic way. You have, of course, classical theologians who see this notion as anathema and not even a God at all. And you have others more in the middle who want to affirm both that God is stable and trustworthy, on the one hand, and also that he feels and relates to his creatures in a genuinely personal way, on the other.

While I have mainly wanted to focus on essence and agreement, the reader is bound to wonder where I stand.  I will say briefly that I also find myself closer to the middle. Like other liberals, I emphasize God’s love as his primary attribute, although I also think he is just. I believe he is unchanging in the ways I listed but that because he is loving he has sovereignly chosen to engage the world dynamically and relationally. He feels genuine emotions for his creatures – emotions such as compassion and anger. And yet he is never overcome by these feelings and he has a plan to bring about good in the world.

In the end I want to base my beliefs on the evidence. But in some ways the relevant phenomena seems ambiguous, mysterious. God often seems remote and hidden from our experience. This suggests that his love and relationality, to the extent they exist, are different than our own. As does the fact that he is not a creature like us with evolved emotional capacities based in physiology. How does a pure Spirit feel? None of this fits easily with human analogy or anthropocentric understandings of God’s personality or emotional life.

And yet, people do have very vivid emotional  experiences that seem to be of God and sometimes includes messages conveying feelings such as compassion, care, or displeasure. Is this truly God? Does it cut to the deepest heart of what the Ultimate is like? Intelligent people have long debated this, and they will continue to do so. I choose to believe that God is both unchanging in some ways and also deeply loving and relational.

A final culminating reason that I believe God is unchanging in this way is that such an understanding of the Divine inspires worship. I think the Lost Dog’s capture this and the balance I’m seeking to strike between immutability and love in their song “No Shadow of Turning.” I end today’s post with their uplifting words:

“You do not sleep and forever keep
what you have begun
The songs have been played and the promise made
will not be undone

No shadow of a turning.
You’re the same today as yesterday
No shadow of a turning
‘cos love won’t let you turn away

You see it all and not a sparrow falls
out beyond your hand
in the deep and dark I will rest my heart
in your perfect plan

Faith and hope will abide,
mercy will turn the tide
Alive in the One who has died,
love never failing

Until the end, every doubt weighs in
and it clouds your face
but you won’t let go ’till I’ve come to know
your unchanging grace.”

 

 

A Conversation on Love vs. Power As At The Heart of One’s Theology and Ethics

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Image by culturaljetlag.wordpress.com

[This post is based on a Facebook conversation I had with friends. It includes the original post and my responses to two questions. I’m pleased with it because it helped me tie together some disparate thoughts I had on a range of issues such as Calvinism, colonialism, inequality, how we become like what we worship, and how solidarity with others is just as important as a sense of duty.]

People deify power. It makes them feel safe and in control. We all crave this, especially in times of crisis.

Much harder, I’m finding, is consistent and utter devotion to Love. That takes risk and sacrifice.

But Love, when perfected, casts out fear. In a roundabout way–a narrower, more arduous way–it leads to a deeper kind of power and assurance.

Love and power can co-mingle, of course. But one or the other of them will always take the lead. Always.

I will have a lot more to say about this in the coming days, because it is absolutely the crux to everything I am about. But I’ll close for now by asking you this:

Do you worship a god whose power and entitlement limit how and to whom his love is expressed? Or do you worship a God whose power is definitively – even essentially – guided by his bottomless wellspring of love?

Choose carefully. We tend to become like what we worship.

Do you treat others as means to getting what you want? Or do you treat them as precious ends in and of themselves?

Do you create hierarchies in your mind of what kinds of people are really important–what kinds of people are worth humanizing; empathizing with; actually engaging in fellowship; and allowed to be the full range of things you might want to be yourself? Or do you treat others – ALL others – as perfect equals?

Stated this way, it sounds like an impossible ideal. Foolishness. Which of us does not miss that mark or need God’s grace?

But there is a movement, friends; a direction and goal you and I are headed. A habit of the heart and hands. One way or the other.

God’s grace is not a cheap grace. It urges change. Because it loves Itself, it loves us, and it loves those around us.

Choose wisely, my friends. As for me and my house, we will choose Love.

QUESTION 1): “I wonder how you are defining power.”

ANSWER: I have a few things in mind.

Perhaps its easier to describe than define in any absolute sense. I guess power in general has to do with the ability to do something. We talk about power a lot in the social sciences. That’s because it has such potential to either benefit (e.g. “empowerment”) or harm (e.g. “oppression”) others.

I guess I’m referring to a negative way that power is often understood and/or used. Often power is viewd as “aversarial, limited, coercive, and potentially exploitive.” I have power over you if I am the winner and you are the loser. I have power over you if I can dominate you and you serve me. I have more power if I can engineer the social system such that I am more likely to start ahead or get ahead based on something like my gender, race, class, or what not. I have more power if I can horde more resources or better control the social network and environment than you.

I think you can see the problem with that way of conceiving power vis a vis humans. Instead, as Jesus said, those who would be leaders are suppose to be servants (Matthew 20:26) who work for the common good – perhaps especially in regard to those on the margins who are most vulnerable. I think that actually fits in pretty well with social science notions of “shared power” and “empowerment.”

The idea here is that humanity is like a connected web. We are all in this together. We all have dignity and worth and unique things to contribute. We should all have our basic rights respected and our basic needs met. If we can focus on our shared identity and keep expanding the web of who we consider as “in” our group or family, so to speak; we begin to see that helping others is like helping ourselves. And helping others really can be empowering, both to them and us. There is a generative synergy and dynamic to love that is real and powerful.

But love can also take risk and what feels like a “humbling” loss of power or privilege. It can feel very “weak” at times. Perhaps in an absolute sense and from a human perspective, it really does sometimes involve a loss of power. That’s why I said that love should be the guiding force. Our power should be guided by love; not our love meted out on the basis of what is convenient or expedient to us. But that is in many ways unnatural and so it takes intentionality and work. All the more so in that social science shows us that people with power or privilege have a hell of a time giving it up or even recognizing it for what it is. Those of us who have various types of privilege tend to see actual inequalities as a “fair” status quo and any increase in the equality of a historically oppressed people group as an “unfair” threat to our power.

This interplay and contrast between power and love is also important in terms of our theology about God. So much of what I see as wrong and harmful in theology has to do with emphasizing God’s power over his love. Let me give you a few examples.

Classical theism tends to emphasize God’s transcendence and invulnerability. God is unchanging, unmoved by emotion, and meticulously controlling and forseeing of every action. A lot of contemporary theology (for example, process theology or open theism) emphasizes a more dynamic and relational view of God. They tend to see classical theism as too beholden to Greek philosophical categories rather than the covenantal Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures or the incarnate God in Christ of the New Testament. Their resistance to much of classical theism is also because they tend to prioritize God’s love over his power. For me, I probably have more respect for classical theism than some; but I agree with their insight that God’s relationality and love should be emphasized more centrally.

In the middle ages there was a dispute that continues between those who thought that God’s will was the final determiner of what is morally right or whether his will is essentially constrained by a specific kind of moral nature. For those who sided with will; God could literally command that murder, rape, or lying was right and these would be morally binding simply because of God’s sovereign choice and authority. God’s power/will is not constrained by anything inside or outside him. This view is known as philosophical “volunteerism.” It has been rejected by most theologians because it is Biblically, morally, and practically disasterous.

But I believe that Jerry Walls and David Baggett are right that Calvinists (and I think others) fall into a sort of practical volunteerism in trying to justify morally abhorant actions or commands by God as his sovereign right. I agree that God has the authority to command human action, but what is plausibly taken as his commands needs to fit with his good nature, and preiminantly with his love. So many of the harmful norms blindly promoted or accepted in some religious contexts recur because God’s will is emphasized over his love.

I think Calvinism itself shows this dynamic of power over love. Calvinism tends to see God’s sovereignty as his primary attribute, with his main goal as to bring glory to himself. He controls everything toward that end. He forordains and controls people such that they would fall. Some he determines to remain in sin so he can punish them eternally and exemplify his justice, all to his glory. He determines some to be eternally saved, all to his glory. All of this happens unconditionally and irresistably. There are numerous problems with this related to justive and culpability for evil. But perhaps the biggest problem is the eclipse of God’s love by his power. As Austin Fischer puts it, love becomes just another cog in the glory wheel. How different this is from the Triune God who IS love (1 John 4:8) and who humbled himself enough to become incarnate and be crucified because of his love for the world and for their salvation (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16; etc.).

I’m going to quote philosopher Jerry Walls and New Testament scholar Joseph Dongell at length here because I think that they capture well this difference of love vs. power as at the center.

“In a fascinating historical study, British theologian Colin Gunton identifies key points at which he believes some central Christian doctrines got of track. One particularly interesting development is that in Western theology since Augustine ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ Gunton sees this manifested in the way the doctrine of double predestination is understood in some traditions. Part of the fundamental problem, Gunton believes, is a deficient understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity above all shows that God necessarily exists in an eternal relationship of perfect love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s will must always be understood as an expression of his essential nature of perfect love (Mk 1:11; Jn 3:34-35; 5:19-20; 17:20-26). Because he has such a nature, he genuinely loves all persons and genuinely invites them to share his love (Jn 3:16; 14:19-21; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:7-12).

As we saw in chapter five, Calvinist John Piper recognizes the possibility that God may not choose his son for salvation, but he insists that he would adore God in that case…Does Piper’s attitude reflect piety at its best, or is it deeply at odds with God’s character revealed in Scripture? Interestingly, the title of the article in which Piper insists on adoring a God who might consign his son to hell is “How Does a Sovereign God Love?” We believe Piper has the question backward and that that his article reflects the unfortunate subordination of love to will that Gunton identifies. Given the full revelation of God in Scripture, the question we should be asking is, how would a God of perfect love express his sovereignty?

When love is subordinated to will, then the fatherhood of God, which is emphasized in the Trinity (Mk 1:11; Jn 1:18; 5:19-20; 17:20-26; 20:17; 1 Cor 15:20-28), takes back seat to the image of God as King or Ruler. God’s essential relational nature as a being who consists in three persons becomes secondary to the notion that God is a sovereign monarch whose will cannot be thwarted.

Without the benefit of the New Testament, such a perspective is perhaps understandable. This is not to deny that God’s love is revealed in the Old Testament (Lam 3:22; Hos 11:1). However, the full meaning that God is love was revealed in its clearest light only with the incarnation (Rom 5:8; Gal 2:20; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:9). In the brilliant light of the incarnation, we learn that from all eternity there was love between the Father and the Son (Jn 17:24, 26). Moreover, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost revealed that God’s eternal dance of love included the third person of the Trinity as well (Rom 5:5; Gal 4:6; 5:16, 22; Eph 3:16-19). That is why love is not merely an activity of God – it is his very essence.

In a nutshell, our case against Calvinism is that it doesn’t do justice to the character of the God revealed in Scripture. It does not accurately portray the holy One who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Ps 103:8), the God for whom love is not merely an option or a sovereign choice, but who is such that his eternal nature IS love (1 Jn 4:8)…

By subordinating love to will, Calvinism fails to glorify God as he has revealed himself in history and ultimately in the incarnation of his Son. The love of God as revealed in the incarnation is not a matter of mere words but the Word made flesh who actively seeks the well-being of his fallen children. A love that truly and passionately promotes the well-being of the beloved, even when it is costly, is the sort of love that has existed from all eternity in the Trinity and was revealed in the life of Jesus. This is the kind of love, moreover, that God commands his children to demonstrate by following his example (1 Jn 3:16-18). Because God loves all sinners in this fashion and actively works to promote their eternal well-being, there is rejoicing in heaven when one of them repents (Lk 15:7, 10). A God who commmands this sort of love and who positively delights in the repentance of sinners surely has no need or desire to show his sovereign power by passing over some fallen humans, nor would he truly glorify himself by doing so.” (“Why I Am Not A Calvinist” 218-21).

I hope that this illustrates more what I mean. I think there is an intimate and important connection between the emphasis in theology and in ethics – between who we worship and who we become. If we view God as good in a way that is primarily loving and only secondarily judgmental, there is an organic link between God with his character and what we are seeking to become, how we are to live.

But many view God as a tough judge who sees us as scum, who could explode in anger and judgment, who is furiously wrathful with us, who loads burdons on our backs, who demands right doctrines/beliefs, a micro-manager, a bully, authoritarian to the core, etc. But he wants US to be loving. His justice is different than our own. His love is different from our own, self-serving. This either creates a yawning gap between the God we are suppose to love and the commands he gives us or, I think more often, it creates leaders and people who become like this idol they have made God into. Is it any wonder that this view often creates nitpicky, authoritarian, egotistical, rigid, narrow minded Christians? And it is no coincidence that it is Calvinists who emphasize God’s authority who are most likely to be obsessed with the authority of males over females and with Christian privilege in American government.

In the anthology “Global God,” theologian William David Spencer has an interesting chapter entitled “God of Power versus God of Love: United States of America.” The book charts various global perspectives on God, comparing them with how the authors see God as revealed in Scripture. Spencer’s chapter is one of two on God in America. Spencer argues that throughout American history, Christians have tended to emphasize an “imperial” view of God that has propped up their colonial greed and sense of “manifest destiny” granted by “Providence:” “Those who saw themselves called by such a God also saw themselves as invested with a portion of that absolute power to subdue the land and its inhabitants as ‘Providence’ so willed.” He argues that if they would have seen God’s power as essentially guided by love and as calling us to mimic that love, especially as exemplified in the person and teachings of Jesus, the history of the Americas might have been very different.

I could give other examples or find other connections, but I think you can see what I mean.

QUESTION 2): “…By whose measurement should we make everyone perfectly equal? I mean, I agree that we should all be granted the same rights and have the same access and opportunities to succeed (and fail) in life. But…I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a state where you could treat every person the exact same way, and I can see how bad things would get trying to accomplish that.”

ANSWER: I don’t mean exactly the same. I just meant that we would treat everyone the way we would want to be treated; that we would (ideally) see everyone as family. This implies the equal rights and equal access to opportunities that you mentioned. It implies the end of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, extreme class and wealth differences (I recognize that there will always be some differences there, that people need incentives to work hard) and all other socially constructed forms of discriminatory difference or oppression. It involves a spiritual sense of brotherly and sisterly love that I believe transcends even this and (I believe) can only divinely given.

Allan Johnson captures some of what I mean in his book “Privilege, Power, and Difference.” He writes about how what he calls the do-a-good-deed approach of moral principle has a limited ability to motivate dominate groups to give up their privilege in seeking a truly fair world. What is truly needed is a sense of collective ownership and family. He writes,

“It [the do-a-good-deed approach] depends on an impulse of generosity toward others, and this impulse tends to rise and fall depending one how secure the privileged feel in their own situation…

The do-a-good-deed approach also rests on a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’–the ‘us’ who help and the less fortunate ‘them’ who get helped. The problem is that the former feel very little reason to identify with the latter. When ‘we’ who are not poor or with disabilities, for example, help out ‘those people’ who are poor or with disabilities, there can be a real seperation and distance even at the momen of reaching out to help. In fact, the act of helping – of being able to help – can reaffirm the social distance between the two groups and heighten everyone’s awareness of it. Thus every such act of giving to others is always a statement, intended or not, of one group’s ability to give and the other’s inability to get along without it. And in a society that counts independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency among its highest cultural values, it’s impossible to avoid the negative judgments attached to those on the receiving end and the status-enhancing judgments conferred on those who give.

Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more than to people, which can lead to disconnection rather than connection. I take care of my children for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection with them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their welfare. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsible I’ll feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor. It’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience then as ‘others’ whom I decide to help because I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and can’t be part of without paying attention to what goes on in it.

Another problem with acting merely from a sense of principle is that part of the appeal is the good feeling it gives people about themselves when they do it, which can motivate them only in the short run. Confronting issues such as sexism and racism is hard and sometimes painful and even frightening work, and feeling good about being virtuous isn’t likely to sustain people over the rugged course of it.

What can sustain them is a sense of OWNSHIP, that the trouble is truly THEIR trouble and not someone else’s, because this means their responsibility to do something no longer feels like an option. It isn’t something they can choose to do if they’re feeling in a generous mood or can “afford” to at the moment. It is, quite simply, one of the terms of their participation in the world they live in, however large or small they define it. Without that sense of ownership, serious work on issues of privilege will always be what Roosevelt Thomas calls a ‘fair weather’ item on the agenda” (p. 72-73).

I know that this sense of humanity as one connected family or “in-group” is not natural to humans. We have evolved to value our children and biological family over others and our immediate in-groups vs. other out-groups. That’s why I say it is an ideal to be progressively sought. That’s also why I suspect it can’t be fully obtained without becoming connected with God.

In saying it is an ideal, I acknowledge that there can sometimes be ethical dilemmas. For example, in a life-and-death situation were we have to choose between our family living and some strangers living, we’ll likely choose our family. And I think if that’s truly the case, we should! But more often the choice is between great privilege and wealth for our families and a little less of that to help others who desperately need it. Between giving those in our family or in-group an extra leg up over others and sacrificing to give that unfair advantage up so that everyone can have an equal opportunity.

This article contrasting Donald Trump and Pope Francis’ contrasting visions might also help show you the vision I have of the world I’d like as well as the difference between the ideals of “vulnerable” connected power and personal “invulnerable” power. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/09/28/4320668.htm

Essential Theology: the Everywhere God

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I believe that God is omnipresent, that he in some way exists everywhere. This follows from him being the Ground of all Being. If everything everywhere continues to depend on his upholding for its existence, then he must inhabit and infuse everything with his sustaining power and presence.

I suppose one could see God as a proximally distant, deistic first cause who wound the universe up like a machine and who now lets it run independently, free from direct contact with him. I guess this is a possiblity. But it is not the classical view of God. Nor is it the typical one of many traditional peoples – who tend to see everything infused with the divine.

In my view, the omnipresence of the divine is one of the most widely agreed upon and (I think) best evidenced aspects of God. It is held by Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians,  Neoplatonists, Chinese philosophers, many Native Americans, and others as well. Buddhism and Islam have, in different ways, a view of the divine that is effectively analogous to omnipresence (see below). It is also taught by most sources of sacred revelation of which I am aware.

While some texts in the Hebrew Tanakh might seem to limit God’s knowledge and locale, others emphasize his unsurpassed knowledge and his presence everywhere. That God is omnipresent is also the view of modern Judaism. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord?” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Christianity affirms God’s unique revelation in the incarnation of Jesus, but it also teaches that God is omnipresent. “[there is] One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6).

Hinduism sees all things as manifestations of Brahman, though our ignorance masks this reality.  “All that we see in the world is Brahman” (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1).

One source describes it in this way: “Thus, Brahman is conceived of as the very essence of existence and knowledge, which pervades the entire universe, including every living being. The goal of Hinduism is to somehow “wake up,” and realize one’s own connection to the divine reality that may be called Brahman or God. Because God is everywhere, God is also present within each living being.” http://veda.wikidot.com/brahman

In ancient Chinese religion, Tian (“Heaven”) was the Supreme Being. Although conceived of as personal, at other times it was seen as an almost pantheistic force. Tsu-Kung Chuang writes, “Tian ultimately became a symbol for the universal and inherently good principle of creativity constantly functioning in the background as the source and origin of all things, permeating all things and unifying all things into a harmonious whole” (Spencer “The Global God” 191-92).

Many Native Americans also believe that the divine is omnipresent. Algonquin tribes see Manitou as the personal spiritual life force that manifests in everything. I remember watching a documentary on the American West. In one episode the narrator chronicaled a treaty the Cheyanne agreed to with white settlers. Sensing deception, they warned the settlers that “the everywhere God” would see if the treaty was broken and judge them if they were unfaithful to their word (as they in fact were).

In some Buddhist understandings, Nirvana is an enlarged and transformed state that envelopes perception of all things.

Keith Ward characterizes one Mahayana Buddhist viewpoint in this way: “Mind includes in itself all states of being of the phenomenal world and the transcendental world…That means that the attainment of nirvana is not a transfer from the empirical world to the realm beyond; since there is no realm beyond; there is only the one world, seen either as empirical or as transcendental. Thus it is that ‘All sentient beings intrinsically abide in eternity and are entered into nirvana’ (46). All that is needed is to realize this, and the unsatisfying nature of impermanent nature (which was always in a sense illusion) will be overcome in the experience of absolute bliss (which is only seeing the same reality in its true nature)” (Ward, “Concepts of God.” 64-65).

Because Islam so emphasizes God’s transcendent uniqueness, it is hesitant to associate God with anything in the world. Some Muslims deny that God is literally omnipresent. They say he only resides on his throne in heaven. To say he is everywhere or in everything is idolatrous. However, this view would also say that God’s knowledge is omnipresent. They would say he sees all things, controls all things, and can be confessed, worshipped, and vitally encountered anywhere. In effect, this is not wholly different than what others mean by God’s omnipresence.

Other Muslims, while being careful to reject identity between the Creator and his creation, do affirm that God is omnipresent. Sufis particularly seek a mystical, loving union with God. And in my view something very like divine omnipresence seems implicit in Quranic texts: “And indeed We have created man and We know what his own-self whispers to him. And we are nearer to him then his jugular vein” (Quran 50:16).

In spite of this broad agreement I should note that not everyone sees it this way. Many Mesopotamian, Greco-Roman, and African deities are spacially limited. Many traditional societies have a pantheon with a Supreme God who is distant from the world, and then lesser deities and ancestors-spirits who are more connected to everyday life. Even here though, the spiritual realm touches everything.

These commonalities might in some cases be based on philosophical or pragmatic reasoning (on which more shortly). But I believe they are more widely grounded in religious experience. People can experience God or the transcendent in a wide range of contexts – in nature, at a fiery religious service, in tender moments of human affection, in meditation, prayer, or reflection, and in other places too. Virtually any place or object can become a locus or channel of the divine. This might be more concentrated at specific holy sites, rituals, or objects (whether due to God’s will or simply human convention, I can’t say).

However, to many traditional peoples and mystics, it is not coincidental that almost anything can become a place of divine encounter. Rather, from a mature spiritual viewpoint God is in and behind all. Either (as some would have it) God is the only most Real entity and everything else is an illusion of which we must free ourselves. In this view, the goal is to be completely (re)unified to God or the Ultimate by disciplined shedding of the ego and attachment to the ephemeral world.

Or, in what I see as a more balanced approach, the world and individual personhood are real and of great worth, but they are thus precisely because God has so endowed them and purposed them and inhabited what is best in them. The goal of the spiritual life here is to simultaneously enjoy and value our physical life and embodied individuated relationships with others (in balance and in seeking to redeem them in line with moral ends) while also more and more seeing and adoring God in and behind them. This is a both/and enterprise. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

So anything that is good and beautiful can be enjoyed in itself, but with the deeper additional significance of seeing it as a manifestation of the overflow the transcendent goodness and beauty of its eternal Source in God. Any moment of suffering becomes a chance to perceive our merciful, compassionate God suffering with those who suffer.

I believe a mature view of God sees him as most identifying with the suffering and vulnerable. Thus, as we are more and more connected to God and able to see him in and behind the world, we begin to grow more and more in compassion and in a thirst for the liberation of others (liberation in any and every way, from any and everything that inhibits them from flourishing and from being connected to God).

This commitment to others and to God – this commitment to all (including a balanced self-regard) naturally begins to wean us of unhealthy ego and immoderate attachment to physical things, comforts, or pleasures. It’s not that those things are illusions or bad in and of themselves; it is rather that an enlarged view sees them in light of the vision of God and his coming kingdom of love and justice, where eveyone is able to flourish and so simultaneously enjoy God and the world.

So a moderate form of discipline and loss of self-focus unfolds. But it is not legalistically forced or artificially and inflexibly dictated by wooden rules. Rather, it grows organically. Spiritually. The law kills, but the Spirit brings life. And although a death to an outer self is called for – and this is scary and hard; one discovers that there is a deeper and fuller self underneath that is able to enjoy and relate to others, the world, and God. But precisely BECAUSE of its deeper connection to our unshakable and good God, it is more loving, joyous, and stable; less attached to any specific, transient thing.

The more extreme view that relativizes the world is not completely wrong. God can use that; though there are real dangers and abuses there too – particularly when it is not just self-chosen but forced on others.

In my view, there are extremes on both sides. It is wrongheaded to denigrate the physical. One can become so “spiritually” minded that they are no earthly good, and thus are not all that healthily spiritual after all. But I also know some people deeply involved in physically helping others and in striving for justice who get overwhelmed at the scope of the need and the obstacles and setbacks in reaching it. Some of them tend toward harsh anger, discouragement, bitterness, and disillusionment. This is completely understandable. But in my view they could use a spiritual infusion of love, hope, and vitality.

Perhaps God uses both types of extremes to balance us out. Or at least people drawn more towards one or the other without denying its counterpoint. I feel that one of the strengths of my perspective is that it accounts for both a real physical world and a real transcendent realm. And it doesn’t hold these in opposition to one another, but sees them as united in God’s purposes.

But I digress. The point in all of that was to say that the spiritual life, people’s encounters with God, often suggest God’s omnipresence and arguably are predicated on it.

Let me expound on that a little more, because I believe that God’s immanent omnipresence helps explain and synthesize a range of spiritual experiences that are sometimes interpreted as contradictory.

People sometimes experience what feels like elevated states of union with a personal God where their individuality is swallowed up in an ocean of divinity (as it were). Obviously the Being encountered seems enormous, infinite, absolute. Some experience an emptying of self and a unified state of being that feels non-personal or at least different than personalistic conceptions of God. Some people have transcendent experiences of what seem like becoming one with nature or the universe.

If God can choose to come in different forms and is united to everything by virtue of his omnipresent upholding; could it be that people are experiencing heightened connections to him or to the natural (or spiritual) world through him? Could this doctrine be potentially applied flexibly and inclusively to synthesize a larger array of ultimate-seeming spiritual experiences? I think so. I will write on that more when I discuss God’s immanence and also when I write on God’s inclusivity.

As I’ve said before, I believe that God is transcendently distinct from his creation (however intimately connected they may be). And to be clear, I don’t believe that God is the only spiritual entity. I believe in angelic beings and also evil demonic ones. As well, human physical and spiritual capacities can sometimes delude us. So it could be that some experiences are simply delusions on the level of hallucination and that some are of other spiritual beings that are greater than us, but are not Ultimate Reality. Experiences have to be evaluated as they come. But I’m not satisfied with current dogmatic/exclusivistic criteria. I think God is bigger than that and that there are more rational ways to judge seeming religious experiences based on the ultimacy, weightiness, and (especially) goodness of the object or person encountered.

There are pragmatic reasons to assume that God is omnipresent. Most theists believe that God is just and will judge the world in perfect wisdom. But how can he do that without being everywhere present to see and understand people’s words and actions in their context? Belief in God’s justice as the upholder of the moral order is a major reason various peoples have inferred that God must be omnipresent (or something very like it).

Finally, I embrace God’s omnipresence because of the good spiritual and moral fruit it brings. As I expounded on above, it is plays a central role in mysticism and in connecting all of life to worship and centered love for God and others.

It plays into what theists call “the fear of the Lord.” As Morgan Guyton writes, “Honor is called ‘fearing God’ in the Bible, not because honorable people are walking through life in constant terror, but simply because they live as though the most important and powerful being of the universe is right next to them at every moment” (Guyton “How Jesus Saves the World from Us” 63).

This can involve a healthy soberness in light of God’s justice and a future accounting for how we live. It can involve a sense of his ever-present love, sympathy, graciousness, and empowering. Seeing God’s spark, image, or Self in others can foster compassion and a sense of co-identity with them.

It is because of this broad agreement grounded in religious experience, rational and pragmatic inference, moral and spiritual fruit, and possibly even divine revelation that I believe that God is omnipresent.