Tag Archives: Christianity

“Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord” – A Decision for All Times

In the previous post, I addressed the subject of truth and power and lamented the ascendency of the post-modern philosophy that asserts “politics is everything.” Today I want to address the subject of politics and religious truth. We should not be surprised that for states, with their kings, emperors, senators, and governors, “politics is everything.” States view religion and every other aspect of social life as subordinate to their ends of survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. There has never been and their never will be a state that is wholly subordinate to a religion and its end. But there have been many religions whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. All warrior, ethnic, and state religions either deify the state or make the king the voice of god on earth. Worship of the state gods looks to one end, the welfare of the state as understood by the state. From the state’s perspective, religious truth must be subordinated to political power.

Jesus Christ demanded that people direct their highest loyalty to God and subordinate all other ends to that end. He proclaimed God’s judgment on the powers and authorities that claimed divine status or in any way refused to submit themselves to God. And the “powers” and “rulers of this world” killed him for preaching such political heresy. Some theologians have argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary. This thesis is largely false because Jesus was not attempting to establish a worldly rival to Rome, but it contains an element of truth, that is, that Jesus challenged the religious foundation of any state’s claim to possess divine authority. Hence Christianity was born not as a warrior, ethnic, or state religion, and it is ill suited to serve these purposes. It refuses to serve the interests of any power other than God. It proclaims the same “truth” to any and all, no matter where or under what conditions. A “Christianity” that on principle or merely in fact serves the ends of state is a heresy.

Modern western states differ in many respects from ancient tribal and ethnic states and empires. Because of 2000 years of Christian influence they allow more individual freedom and are more humane in punishment for crimes than ancient nations were. But modern western states, the United States of American included, pursue ends that states have always pursued: survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. And Christianity can no more allow itself to be subservient to the ends of modern western states that it could to the ends of the Roman Empire. And modern western states are no more at peace with a defiant Christianity than ancient Rome was. Today I see two areas where the interests of the modern western state and the interests of true Christianity are at odds: (1) Christianity’s moral teachings, and (2) Christianity’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12) and that he is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

I have addressed many times on this blog society’s (and increasingly the state’s) demand that the church tone down and compromise its strict moral teachings. The state has concluded that it must tolerate—and even celebrate—behaviors that it once suppressed. Society, so the reasoning goes, has come to a consensus that attempting to suppress these behaviors would cause more social unrest than allowing them to be practiced. Hence when Christians continue to preach against these now accepted behaviors, they are viewed by society and the state as disturbers of the peace and sowers of division. The state wants a compliant religion to cooperate with its goals of unity, peace, and stability. And some denominations have changed their moral teachings so that they fall into line with the state’s ends. But we must ask them a hard question: Are you not as faithless as a church in the Roman Empire would have been had it replaced the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” with political creed “Caesar is Lord”?

A second way the state wants Christianity to conform to its ends concerns the need to maintain peace among different religious communities. States have always viewed religion as a powerful force that is potentially subversive, and that force has to be dealt with by cooptation, suppression, or neutralization.  Modern western societies find themselves in an increasingly global community in which nation states have become highly interdependent. In relating to states with majority Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and other religious populations, the historically majority Christian states of the west wish to play down religious differences. Hence they have developed a diplomatic language designed to highlight only common interests and values. Sometimes western diplomatic talk implies or explicitly states that all religions have at their core the same truth, that is, such humanistic values as peace, respect for human dignity, reverence for life, and freedom. By whatever name(s) they call God(s) and however they understand God(s) otherwise, God’s only relevant function is to support politically useful humanistic values. States don’t seek the truth about God or God’s will. They never have. They never will. All rhetoric about the wholly positive nature of the religions of other nations is crafted solely to serve the national interests of the state as it relates to those nations.

But pluralism is not merely a global phenomenon. Modern western states, mainly through immigration policies designed to promote their economic interests or foreign policy goals, have allowed themselves to become religiously diverse within their nations. These nations want these different religious communities within their borders to get along, not for religious reasons but for political ones. And they employ the same rhetoric at home that they use in international relations, that is, that all religions worship the same God and share the same humanistic values. Proselyting and debating adherents of other religions is discouraged and often condemned as hateful. The underlying assumption of calls to conversion and debate is that one religion might be true and others false, one good and the others bad, one a way to salvation and the others not. This assumption is criticized not so much for being false as for its “arrogance.” Christianity, as the traditional and majority religion in the United States and other western countries, has been for many decades under great pressure to withdraw, or at least suppress, its exclusivist claims. And the same denominations that changed their moral teachings to fall in line with the state’s goals also changed their confessional statements so that they renounce proselytism and the exclusive claims about Jesus Christ found in Scripture. In doing this, have they not allowed themselves to be coopted to serve the state rather than Jesus Christ? The church has always been and always will be faced with a choice between two confessions: “Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord.”

Ron Highfield

Amazon Author Page:

https://www.amazon.com/author/ron.highfield

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The Mormon Missionaries I Met Today—What I Said and What I Wish I’d Said

After two weeks of much needed rain, the Sun is shining brightly in Southern California today. I spent much of the morning finalizing my class roster for the three classes I am teaching this semester. And I cleaned out my sock drawer. It’s amazing how many mate-less socks and other useless things you can find in the back and underneath the top layer of a sock drawer! Just before noon I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. I ran 4 and ½ miles yesterday, so I planned to take it easy today.

After about a mile I looked ahead and saw two young women walking and a man walking his dogs on the other side of the street. The women greeted the man and engaged in a brief conversation, which I could not hear. I surmised that the two either knew the man or they were Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon missionaries. Since I was walking at a faster pace than they I soon caught up with the women. They greeted me and asked how I was enjoying my walk. What are your plans for the rest of the day, they asked further. I noticed the badge attached to their blouses, which identified them as associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

What I Said

After the pleasantries, I said something like, “I admire your faith, but you are very misguided in your theology.” At some point I had already told them that I had studied Christianity for 40 years and had been a professor of theology for 30 years. Mormons teach that the God of the Bible was once like us and that we can become like God is now, reigning over a world of our own. I asked them whether or not they agreed with Anselm of Canterbury who said that God is “that than which a greater cannot be conceived”? Or, paraphrasing Anselm, Do you believe God is the greatest possible being? They both said, “Yes!” I replied, “How then can you say that God was once like us? How can a being that was at one time not greater than any conceivable being become that great? Wouldn’t a God who is eternally great be greater than a being that merely becomes great after not being great?”

In reply, they urged me to read the Book of Mormon and pray to God to reveal whether or not it is true. I said something like this: You are asking people to make a decision based on a subjective feeling. Shouldn’t such an important decision be supported by facts and reasonable arguments? After all, Mormonism cannot be true unless certain historical claims are really factual. And you can’t substantiate historical facts by subjective feelings. Continuing along this line, I asked, “Don’t Mormons believe the New Testament is true? What if the theology of Mormonism is incompatible with the New Testament? Wouldn’t that count as evidence against Mormonism?” The two again urged me to pray.

What I Wish I had Said

After about 10 minutes I could tell that the two young women had given up on me and were ready to search for more open-minded subjects. As I continued my walk it came to me what I wish I had said. They wanted me to pray for enlightenment, and they said they too continually pray for divine guidance. I wish I had said this in response: “Well, I am the answer to your prayer. You asked God for guidance, and here I am. I may not know everything about Mormonism, and I may not be able to refute every Mormon claim. But I know what Christianity is, and I know Mormonism is not Christianity.”

Mormonism claims to be the original and restored Christianity, and it accepts the New Testament as the uncorrupted word of God. They claim that the teaching in the Book of Mormon is contemporary with the NT. But of course there is no trace of the Book of Mormon in the NT era. I wish I had asked this: “Can one be a good Christian without access to the Book of Mormon, with just the truth contained in the NT? If not, then we have no record of any good Christians before the Book of Mormon was discovered and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 19th. If so, then why try to convert people to Mormonism who believe and live according the NT presentation of the faith?”

There are some lessons here for Christians. But I will save those thoughts for another occasion.

 

The Mystery of the Incarnation: How Can the Word Become Flesh?

The Christian church confesses that the eternal Son of God became a human being in Jesus Christ, lived a human life, and died a human death for our salvation. The prologue to the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (1:1). In verse 14, we hear that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The man Jesus is the eternal Word of God. Paul speaks about the one who dwelt in the “form of God” emptying himself and humbling himself to take on the “form of a slave” and to die on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). And in Colossians, he speaks of Christ as the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” The writer of Hebrews speaks of one who secured purification from sins as the one “through whom also God made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Hence the New Testament certainly teaches that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed with the Father before he was made flesh. But how did his disciples arrive at this knowledge, and what does it mean to say that the Word became flesh or that the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily? These questions are not easily answered. It seems clear, however, that the doctrine of incarnation was not understood during Jesus’ earthly life. Only after the resurrection did this become clear. What changed?

It seems to me evident from  the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, his post-resurrection appearances, and his close connection to the sending of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples experienced the risen Jesus as one whom God had designated from all eternity as Lord, Savior, Revealer, Creator, and Judge. These functions cannot be carried out by a mere human or even an angel. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). But Jesus Christ could not be thought of as a mere instrument God used or a space in which God dwelt while doing this work. The risen Jesus is one with God in will and action. God acts “through” and “in” Jesus. But Jesus is not the Father. Nevertheless, in calling Jesus Christ the Word of God or the Son of God the apostles view Jesus Christ as some sort of “extension” of God.

The disciples did not realize fully the identity of Jesus as the Son/Word of God incarnate before the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. However, once they knew his true identity they concluded that from the very beginning of his human life he had been the incarnate Son of God. The resurrection revealed the identity of Jesus in glory, but it did not constitute it. The question I raised earlier becomes relevant at this point. What does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? We can readily see that the resurrected and glorified Jesus has been united to God, filled to overflowing with divine life, one in will and action with God. His body was transformed and spiritualized and his consciousness united with the divine mind. But how shall we understand his divinity during his earthly life before his glorification?

The first thing to keep in mind in answering this question is the truth I stated above: the actuality of the incarnation before the resurrection is a deduction concluded from Jesus’ resurrection and his status after that glorious event. It cannot be known from experience of his humanity or from pure speculation. And it could not have been established merely by a claim by Jesus or his followers. However, once that conclusion has been secured by the resurrection we can retrospectively see signs of Jesus’ identity in his earthly life: his miracles, the authority of his teaching, and his claims.

But accepting the resurrection-grounded truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate from conception onward does not grant us understanding of how this is possible or complete insight into the nature of the union between the Son of God and the human life of Jesus. Our expectations of what an incarnate God would be like create difficulties in thinking of Jesus as the Word made flesh. We tend to think that a divine presence in Jesus would necessarily manifest itself in a special divine-like consciousness and action through the agency of the body. But we cannot imagine a human consciousness that includes all knowledge or a human agency that exercises omnipotence. In the same way, we cannot imagine a divine consciousness that is limited to a human mind and bodily senses or a divine power bound by the limits of the body. Hence we get hopelessly entangled in contradictions. Some theologians develop theories of divine self-limitation, wherein the Word gives up or refuses to use some divine attributes and others think up theories that lessen the humanity by replacing the human mind with the divine mind or making the entire humanity a mere appearance.

The Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds assert that Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man” and that he is “one and the same Christ…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” These statements do not attempt to explain how this is possible or speculate about the psychological experience of the God-Man. Perhaps it is enough simply to confess the biblical and orthodox Christology and refuse to speculate further. I believe this stance is sufficient for the life of faith, and it is the foundation on which I base my thinking about the Incarnation. But we are curious to know the answers to these questions, and we cannot help imagining some sort of answer. And this curiosity can lead us to propose heretical or fanciful theories.

As I hinted above, I do not find it helpful to think about the Incarnation primarily in psychological categories, speculating about the union of divine and human consciousness and self-consciousness. I find it more helpful to think in ontological categories, that is, the being or existence of a thing rather than the self-consciousness of that thing. No right thinking person identifies their humanity fully with their consciousness. We are human even when we are not aware of the fullness of our human nature. Our humanity does not rise and fall with our self-consciousness. Human life is a life-long quest to understand and experience our full humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of all human existence is to become spirit, that is, to achieve identity between what we are in existence and in our self-consciousness.

Clearly, here and now there is a difference between my existing humanity and my ego or any other medium in which I am aware of my existence. Nevertheless, I can truly affirm that my existence is me and mine, even if I am not yet aware of all of it. I do not think or feel this way about the existence of other things, rocks, mice, planets or light beams. Why not? They are within my sphere of possible experiences. Indeed they are, but when I experience for the first time aspects of my existence, I experience them as me and mine, as having been me and mine all along. I do not experience other objects this way. I experience all dimensions of my existence as constituents of myself, and I realize that they were aspects of my constitution even before I knew of them.

Jesus Christ was fully human from conception onward. But like all human beings he grew in consciousness of his human existence and nature. It was not his consciousness and self-consciousness of his humanity that made him human. Jesus shared with other human beings the drive to know the fullness of his human nature and existence. But Jesus was also fully God from conception onward; that is to say, for Jesus the divine nature was a constituent of his existence. (For us, the divine nature is the cause of our existence but not a constituent of our persons.) In the same way that Jesus was not fully conscious of every aspect of his human nature from conception onward, he was not fully conscious of his divine nature always. And just as his lack of complete consciousness of his humanity did not make him less human, lack of full consciousness of his divine nature did not make him less divine. I think we can safely say that Jesus grew both in his awareness of his humanity and his divinity during his earthly life. And even if Jesus did not become fully conscious of the full depths of his humanity or his divinity until his glorification in the resurrection, this in no way diminishes the completeness of his pre-glorification divinity or his humanity!

Note: this is the 151st essay I’ve written and posted on this blog since August 2013.

 

The Holy Spirit and Salvation

Last week we examined the nature of faith in Jesus, which is on the human side of our salvation. Faith’s goal is access to the power for salvation that resides in Jesus Christ. It is knowledge, acknowledgment, affirmation, trust, certainty, and union with Christ. Our appropriation of salvation also possesses a divine side, and that is our topic for this essay.

God is the primary actor in every aspect of our salvation. Apart from God’s initiative in creating, preserving, and empowering the world we would not exist and could do nothing. Likewise, apart from God’s action for our salvation we could do nothing to participate in that salvation. God’s action is the objective side of our being united to Christ; faith is the subjective side.

The New Testament speaks about God’s work of uniting us to Christ as the action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works internally with our individual spirit or inner person or heart—whatever term you prefer to use—giving us a new kind of life. Just as God’s Spirit gives life and being to all creatures at the very root of their being, the Spirit joins us to Christ in an action as mysterious as creation from nothing. The Spirit through whom Christ is present is able to indwell, encompass, and contain things without displacing or distorting them in any way. Hence the Spirit can change us, revive us, strengthen us or recreate us from within according to the will of God. And through the Spirit, Christ can dwell in us and transform us into his image without violence to our wills or minds.

Can we say more about the nature of our union with Christ? What kind of union is this? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Is it a union of wills? Considered in this way, our union with Christ would be constituted by our always and fully willing everything he wills. Perhaps this is the simplest way to conceive it. We experience this type of union with friends and fellow believers when we discover that we share love for Jesus Christ and desire his glory in all things. We understand each other and feel the bond created by the One we love. The one Holy Spirit indwells the many members of the body and the many find themselves made one in mind, heart, and will by the unifying power of one and the same Spirit. We meet each other in the sphere of the Spirit.

(2) Or could our union with Christ be even more intimate? Our union with the wills of other members of Christ is a union in something else, the Spirit. It is not a direct union. But our union with Christ can be direct and intimate because Christ can be directly present to our spirits whereas another human being cannot. How can we describe such intimacy of union? Perhaps we can call it a union of being and action. Christ comes so close to us that his life-giving Spirit constantly imparts spiritual life to us so that we are empowered for actions like his.

According to the New Testament, Christ is the one through whom God created all things. He gives all things being and form. In this sense Christ is already and always connected to every creature as its cause and its Lord. All creatures are already touched by Christ and connected to him. But our being united with Christ through faith, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit is a new creation and brings to perfection the work begun in the first creation. The final perfection of our being united with Christ is to become like him in body and soul, mind and heart, and being and action.

Paul places special emphasis on being united with Christ:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Corinthians 3: 17-18)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Next week: Paul speaks of baptism as the act by which we become united with Christ. What part does baptism play in our appropriation of salvation?

Is God Merely the Mind and Conscience of Nature?

For the past three weeks we’ve been considering the second decision point on the road toward Christian faith, that is, the choice between an impersonal and a personal God. As with all the decision points on this journey, here, too, we cannot be compelled to choose the option that moves us closer to Christianity. Nor can I claim to have proved the existence of a personal God beyond any doubt. As I have insisted all along, our judgments in these areas are fallible and we cannot exclude all risk from our decisions. Nevertheless, I argue that this judgment is reasonable and the decision responsible.

Before we move into the third decision point, I’d like to clear up a possible misunderstanding. I am not arguing that this path and these exact decision points must be followed in the order I outline before one can legitimately accept Christianity as true. This path treats the background beliefs that must be true if Christianity is true. It follows an order in which philosophers often treat these questions, an order of priority in being that moves from things that seem basic and necessary to those that appear derivative and contingent. One need not examine these beliefs or even become aware of them to come to Christian faith. People have moved from atheism to belief in God by encountering the beauty and wonder of the universe or the depths of human love. One can be moved from atheism to Christian faith simply by listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to work your way out of materialism by reason alone or get beyond the idea of an impersonal god solely by intellectual means. But if you do come to believe in God and Jesus Christ by hearing the gospel or experiencing love, it still remains true that you implicitly accept all the background beliefs that cohere with this decision. You cannot believe in a personal God and believe that matter is the ultimate explanation for all reality. Nor can you believe in gospel of Jesus Christ and believe in an impersonal god.

My hope is that thinking through this series in order will help non-believers by showing that the background beliefs that make atheism plausible are questionable, if not simply false. If I can show that materialism is flawed or false, atheism is undermined even if the immediate motive for denying God’s existence is the presence of evil in the world. Showing that the idea of an impersonal god is incoherent may motivate the “spiritual but not religious” group to seek a relationship with the personal God and, hence, be open to full Christian faith. Believers can also benefit from following the path I’m tracing. Making explicit and seeing the truth of Christianity’s background beliefs may strengthen the believer’s conviction that judgments in favor of Christianity’s truth can be reasonable and decisions to follow the Christian way can be responsible.

The Third Decision Point

The third decision point confronts us with the choice between thinking of God as the highest aspect of nature or as transcending nature. Is God supernatural or natural? Is the world God’s creation or God’s body? The issue can also be framed as a decision between theism or panentheism. (Panentheism is the theory that God and the world of our experience are two aspects the one ultimate reality.). Before we go into this discussion, perhaps I ought to say that we are getting close the limits of what we can achieve by reasoning from our experience of the natural world and our own minds. If God really transcends the world and our minds as their Creator, there can be no natural continuity between us and God. Our reasoning can at best take us to the limits of nature and to the limits of what is given with our minds. It cannot take us beyond them. Reason can follow natural law to its limits, but if there is a reality not subject to natural law, we cannot find it in this way.

Nevertheless, there is work for reason to do even at this point. If we begin with the presumption that God is intelligent, personal, and free—a conclusion we reached in the first two decision points—we can examine the reasonableness of thinking of God as a part of nature, subject to basic natural law. If we find this view of God incoherent or inadequate to experience or intuitively unsatisfying, we may find the alternative of a transcendent Creator attractive. And even though we cannot reason directly from our experience of nature and our minds to a transcendent God, we may be willing to consider other ways in which we can achieve such knowledge. If we cannot ascend to God on the ladder of reason, perhaps God can descend to us. If God transcends the laws of the natural world God has created, why should we think the limits nature places on us apply also to God?

Next week we will examine the idea that God is the higher aspect of nature. Does it make sense to think of God as only partially transcending nature, as finite and limited in power, presence, and knowledge, and as developing and growing? Or does it make more sense to remove from our thinking about God all limits and presume that God is infinite and perfect?

One-Year Anniversary

This week marks the end of the first year of ifaqtheology. This blog is dedicated to “thoughtfulness in religion.” My hope at the beginning of August 2013 was that there were some people out there who would appreciate a more thoughtful approach to religious and theological questions than is generally available. I have tried to avoid oversimplifications, appeal to emotion, dramatic titles and controversy. Instead, I have taken an analytic approach designed to clarify and get to the foundational issues that must be decided. I hope that these essays have been helpful to those who read them.

I am in the process of compiling and editing the past year’s essays. 53 in all! And I am adding “questions for discussion” to each essay. In the near future I will make an announcement about how I will make these available.

The Coming Year

I plan to dedicate the coming year to the question, “Is Christianity True.” As I look back on the past year, it is apparent that the question, “Is Christianity Good” dominated my thoughts. This year I want to shift to the issue of truth. The two questions are related, because how could something false be good or something good be untrue? But I am convinced that our culture lacks the conceptual tools even to understand the question, “Is Christianity True.” Hence I believe I have to begin by talking about the concepts of reason, truth, reality, knowledge, faith, opinion, fancy, ideology, fact, and others. I also believe we live in an age that has lost the conceptual categories to conceive of anything as real that is not physical. I want to consider the question of God’s existence, the questions of different religions and theism, pantheism, deism, and other forms of belief. I will address the issue of place of the Bible in faith and the authenticity and truth of New Testament Christianity, that is, the original faith. Toward the end we must address the questions of alternative forms of Christianity and how Christians should view non Christian religions. We may even have occasion to reflect on how Christianity should be embodied in the world today.

I hope to write a weekly installment in this series. However, I may not be able to do this because I am also writing one book and editing another…as well as teaching three classes in my role of Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Thank you for your faithfulness and patience. As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback.

 

A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.