Tag Archives: God

God and Evil: Three Steps to the Wrong Answer

In my previous post I began a review of Thomas Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I focused mostly on describing the argument of the book as fairly as I can. Today I want to explain where and why I disagree. Allow me to summarize what I said last time: Oord “solves” the problem of evil by limiting divine power and freedom in favor of divine love. According to Oord, love is the dominant divine attribute, and it limits the scope of the others. God cannot refuse to love, for that would contradict his nature. Hence God must create a world of creatures and give them freedom. God has no choice. When creatures misuse their freedom by doing evil and when the randomness of physical processes produces suffering, God is not to blame. As I said in the last lines of the earlier post,

“At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.”

According to Oord, this understanding of the divine nature solves the problem of evil. (For a fuller explanation, read the previous post, which bears the title, “Must we Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?”)

I will organize my comments around several of Oord’s presuppositions and assumptions, which, if you accept, will lead you to accept the conclusions of the book. If you do not accept Oord’s assumptions you probably will not accept his conclusions.

“Tragedy Needs an Explanation”

This assertion forms the title of Oord’s first chapter. Of course everyone feels the need to ask “Why did this happen?” when tragedy strikes us or those we love. We want an explanation, and not having one intensifies the suffering of injury and loss. But what kind of “explanation” counts as a satisfactory explanation? Reading his first chapter shows that for Oord, “explanation” means a coherent harmonization of the facts of nature, human experience of evil, and the idea of God. Oord excludes any “appeal to mystery” or expressions of trust as simplistic, if not irresponsible (p. 64, p. 89). He says,

“Simplistic responses to life’s difficult questions—“I just trust God”—leave many of us unsatisfied. We need better answers. Believers want to reconcile randomness and evil with the idea that God acts providentially” (p. 27).

Apparently, for Oord adequate explanations must make all things clear.

If you accept this thesis you will need to look for rational clarity in your explanation of tragedy. And Oord’s doctrine of God makes things clear. We understand perfectly why every evil event happens. God had to create a world where evil was possible, and God bears no responsibility for any genuinely evil event. God did not cause it or permit it. Crystal clear! But will such clarity really satisfy? For some people, perhaps it will. But others may find a loving but effectively powerless God very unsatisfying. Why can’t God be both powerful and loving! And why should we shy away from divine mystery? Should we expect the ways of God to be clear to us always? Hence I reject the presupposition that we should look only for “clear” explanations and refuse to consider those that resolve the problem in the depths of the divine mystery. Could a non-mysterious God be the Creator and Lord of the Bible?

Some Evils are Gratuitous.

This assertion is central to the argument of the book. Without it the argument fails. Throughout the book, Oord refers to some evils as “genuine” or “gratuitous.” Other evils are “necessary” and may produce good results in the long run. Pain, for example, warns of physical damage and danger. But “genuine” evils never produce anything good; or not enough good to outweigh the evil suffered. Oord defines genuine or gratuitous evil as

“events that all things considered, make the world worse than it might have been…Genuine evils happen, and they have no greater overall purpose” (p. 68, 65).

In other words, some evils are so outrageous and horrendous that not even God can redeem them or turn them to the good—not in a million years, not in all eternity! Now, if you admit that there are evils so destructive that not even God can redeem them, Oord has won the argument. For a loving God would not allow such evils if he could prevent them, and if God’s allows irredeemable evil when he could prevent it, he cannot be the loving God we believe in.

In response to these assertions about “genuine” evil, we must ask Oord how he knows that some evils cause so much damage that not even God can repair or redeem them? His answer is simple. He knows it because of the way it makes him feel. He says this:

“I cannot imagine, for example, any instance of rape to be necessary to promote greater good. Genocides are genuine evils too” (p. 66).

What he “cannot imagine” cannot be true. In the book’s first chapter, Oord does what almost all of the advocates for gratuitous evil do. He recounts horror story after horror story and banks on the emotional appeal of such stories dissuading us from trying to explain them as redeemable in some way. It is what I call in my book, The Faithful Creator, the “rhetorical argument from evil.”

He does not show that a particular evil is irredeemable. How could any mortal do that? How could he know that the final resurrected, redeemed, and glorified state of rape victims or the victims of genocide will be worse than it could have been had not these evils affected them. Only God knows what God can do. So, no human being can know whether or not some evils are irredeemable unless God reveals it.  Instead of demonstrating rationally or on the basis of revealed truth the reality of irredeemable evil, Oord in effect silences us with the thought “How dare you justify this evil by making it redeemable!” Or, “What kind of person could “imagine” rape and genocide making the world a better place!”

I admit that just as he cannot show that some evils are irredeemable, I cannot show clearly that all evils are redeemable. I would not presume to try. But I can hold on to this hope because it is grounded in the resurrection of Christ.

Some Events are Truly Random.

This thesis also is crucial to Oord’s argument. Oord begins his argument for randomness by giving examples from common experience. The outcome of a coin toss, the timing and landing place of a leaf that falls from a tree, and the time and place of a lightning strike seem to common sense to be random. And Oord argues that we ought to trust our common sense to tell us the truth in this case. He explains,

“Most of us are realists, in one sense or another. And the way we act presupposes our belief in the reality of genuine randomness…If we are to make sense of life, we need to take everyday experiences of randomness seriously. We should believe our intuitions regarding randomness tell us something true about reality” (pp. 32-34).

The author then appeals to modern natural science’s incorporation of randomness into its theories. Quantum physics has discovered no way to determine the future state of certain subatomic particles from their previous states. Biology assumes randomness in the process of mutations that bring about variety in the biological world.

(Note: I would argue that one cannot prove that a particular event is truly random. To “prove” something is to show that it follows from the preceding conditions. But the very definition of true randomness or chance is that it does not follow from the preceding conditions, that those conditions do not determine the outcome. Randomness as a concrete event is unknowable.)

I agree that certain events seem to be random as far as we can determine. But this is a rather trivial conclusion. The real question is “Are some events random to God?” Only if Oord can show that the randomness we experience is also experienced by God in the same way, will his argument work. But his only arguments for this conclusion derive from extrapolation from our experience in common sense and natural science. Because we cannot know the full causes of some events, neither can God. He says it this way:

“If the dominant views of science and philosophy are correct in their affirmations of randomness and chance, theologians such as Augustine, Calvin and Sproul are wrong” (p.41) in their contention that God knows and, in a special sense, causes all things.

The validity of Oord’s extrapolation from human experience to divine experience is crucial to his case. Note that he uses the same method here he used when he argued in thesis two that our experience of evil as “gratuitous” and irredeemable shows that it is also gratuitous and irredeemable to God. This assumption was also evident in thesis one where he rejects “appeals to mystery” and seeks rational clarity. We are beginning to see a deep presupposition of Oord’s perspective come into view. Oord and thinkers like him assume that the methods of common sense, natural science, and philosophy can see reality as God sees it, at least with regard to evil and physical laws. This presupposition is well articulated by Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of Process Philosophy:

“In the first place God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929), p. 521).

For process thought, God and the world fall under one grand system of metaphysical principles. And if they are subject to the same laws they must be simply two aspects of the one eternal reality. God is a part of the world or the world is a part of God.

Traditional thinkers such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and others assume a radical difference between God and the world, Creator and creation. Hence they never extrapolated directly from human experience to divine experience. The laws and limits that define and delimit creation do not apply to God. For God created all things and determined their laws and limits.

The most fundamental reason I reject Oord’s detailed arguments and conclusions is that I reject his fundamental assumption that God and the world can be understood under the same categories and laws and concepts.

Next time, I will discuss the fourth thesis: “God’s Nature Limits God.” I am sure you have heard this idea many times. Perhaps you thought it self-evident. Nevertheless, it is false. And next time I will explain why.

 

A Truce in the Worship Wars?

Worship has become a controversial subject lately. Come to think of it, I suppose it has always been contentious. Is worship for us or for God? Should it be quiet and serious or loud and celebratory? Does worship address the mind or the heart? Before expressing an opinion on these questions, it might be wise to think as deeply as possible about the nature of worship.

Surely every Christian would agree that the object of worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t worship ourselves or other gods or money or other people. We worship God. No one will object if we distinguish between worship and the teaching/learning process. And though loving God and loving your neighbor cannot be separated, we need to distinguish between worship as a religious act and moral acts such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. And I think everyone would agree that worship is an act, not simply a belief or a feeling. Worship, then, is an act directed to God. What kind of act?

As an act directed toward God, worship needs to do something appropriate, something that truly corresponds to God. Since our most fundamental duty to God is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it stands to reason that worship must be an enactment of that duty. It is an act of love toward God. But it is an odd sort of act. An act of love toward a human being would supply some good thing to that human being that enhances their life. Since God does not lack anything, acts of worship cannot supply God’s needs or add to his knowledge, or make him feel more worthy. Worship doesn’t build temples, heal anyone, or accomplish anything in the world. Indeed from a worldly perspective, worship seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources. What appropriate act do we perform when we worship?

Worship is a symbolic act, and its symbolic nature gives to those who do not understand it the impression of waste and meaninglessness.  A symbol points beyond itself to something in the real world. It must resemble the thing it symbolizes in some way. Otherwise the symbol would be ineffective in directing our attention to the real thing. A symbolic act points beyond itself to a real act. It compresses, summarizes, and perhaps, dramatizes the real act so that its essential nature can be grasped in a flash of insight. In Christian worship, the body becomes a symbol. We bow down, kneel, eat and drink, raise our hands, and close the eyes; we light candles, sit quietly, or express words of admiration, faith, gratitude, and longing in prose, poetry, and song.  What, then, is the real act that the act of worship symbolizes?

Worship is a symbolic expression of love for God. And an act of love must give something to the one it loves. As I said above, however, God does not need anything we can give. But God deserves everything we can give. Worship symbolizes our appropriate response to what God is and what God has done for us. And what is that appropriate response? It is to accept without reservation God’s love for us and to offer our entire being to God to use according to his perfect will. More than that, the real act symbolized by worship is our actual living in this way. And I believe this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Perhaps it’s time for a truce in the worship wars. We might discover that the dichotomies mentioned in the first paragraph above do not really express mutually exclusive things. Worship should be directed to God, but we are the ones who need it. God is so rich in his attributes that it is appropriate on occasion to be quiet and serious in his presence and on others loud and celebratory. God is both Truth and Beauty, so worship should address both mind and heart. Whether worship is tilted toward the head or the heart, whether it is quiet or noisy, we should not mistake the symbol for the reality. The true test of worship is the quality of life it provokes us to live.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”

It might seem obvious, but I think it is worth our time to note that Christianity teaches that God really exists. It does not present evidence or offer proofs for God’s existence because it rarely contemplates the possibility of atheism. The existence of a supernatural realm was self-evident to most ancient people, and atheism was rare. Psalm 53:1 is a possible exception: “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” And perhaps the writer of Hebrews had atheism in mind when he said, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (11:6). Overwhelmingly, however, the issue for both the Old and New Testament is not the existence of a god but question of the true nature and identity of God. Isaiah asserts,

I look but there is no one—     no one among the gods to give counsel,     no one to give answer when I ask them. 29 See, they are all false!     Their deeds amount to nothing;     their images are but wind and confusion (Isaiah 41:28-29).

John speaks of the true God as the one we have come to know through Jesus:

20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

Paul opposes the idols and gods of Corinth to the one God who is the Father:

We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

The first affirmation of the Apostles Creed asserts, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” In the Creed, God is identified as “the Father Almighty” and as the Creator. The expression “the Father” is short for “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Interestingly, in his speech to the Athenians Paul also used this brief two-fold way of identifying the God of Christians. He asserted that “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24), and then he drew two inferences from that truth, which he assumes his audience also accepted. (1) God does not need to live in temples made by human hands or to be served by human beings because he made everything and gives “life and breath and everything else” to us (17:24-25). God is self-sufficient and needs nothing! Any concept of God that assumes or implies God’s dependence on creation or any lack in God is severely defective. (2) Since human beings are the image of God, the Creator in whose image we are made cannot and ought not to be reduced to an idol of gold or silver. If we are alive, free, aware, and active, how much more our Creator! Paul reasons here from the widely held belief that the God is the creator of our world to a concept of God worthy of God’s great work of creation.

Next he speaks of the revelation of God’s character and power in Jesus Christ and of his resurrection from the dead:

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Paul names and specifies the Creator by his connection to Jesus Christ. Christ will be the Judge and standard by which God judges the world. I will return to this way of identifying God in future posts. For now I want to extend Paul’s reasoning to other divine qualities that are implicit in the belief that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth.”

In the Bible and in Christian history, creation is the chief example of God’s power. Traditional theology speaks of God’s “omnipotence” because consistency with our confession of God as Creator demands it. The power God demonstrated in creation is not like the power of the Sun, human technology or political organization or any other power within creation. God created the world from nothing. In creating, God gives creatures their total being and existence. No creature can do that. The reason God’s power is called “omnipotence” is that all other powers owe their being and power to God; apart from God they can do nothing.

If God is the creator of “heaven and earth”, that is, of everything, then God has to be everywhere and know everything. God is the cause of all existence, and existing creatures are the effects of God’s causality. And where the effect is, the cause must also be. Hence the Creator must be omnipresent. But the Creator must also be omniscient, that is, God must know all things. God certainly knows what he is and does. And there is no creature that is not the result of God’s doing. Hence God knows all creatures in their total being and doing.

You can see why in his discussion of the Creator Paul quoted the pagan philosopher Epimenides approvingly:For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Creator is present and active everywhere. God surrounds, indwells, sustains and empowers us. God provides everything we need. Hence we ought to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27).

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” What an amazing confession! How it would revolutionize our lives if we really understood it and lived by it. We are surrounded, indwelt, enfolded, sustained and empowered by the Almighty Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

The “With Us” God: God and the Modern Self #10

When I was child the thing that troubled me most about God was that he always knew what I was thinking. As children we are not strong enough to get our way by force or knowledgeable enough to succeed through skill. But at least we can hide our thoughts from others, thereby securing a small victory over our enemies. A bully can make you cower on the outside, but in your imagination a different set of rules apply. You can enjoy humiliating your enemy without risking his wrath. You can relish knowing something she doesn’t know, which, if she knew, would make her angry.

But then there is God. It was explained to me that God knows everything and is present everywhere. Nothing can hide from God, not in heaven or on earth, and not in the secret places of the mind and heart. God cannot be deceived or mistaken.  God knows what we’ve done, what we think and what we feel. God knows the good, bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. And I felt uneasy.

Even as adults that uneasy feeling can return when we think about God’s complete knowledge of us. We don’t want just anyone to know our thoughts, and there are some secrets we do not want even our best friends to know. Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” The more people know about you the more power they have over you. But if someone knows your every secret they have complete power over you. We insist on our right to some privacy from prying eyes and attentive ears, and we identify the space inside our minds as ours alone. The constant presence of others robs us of a sense of selfhood and identity. So we can understand why some people resent the idea that God knows everything and is present to their inmost selves. They feel vulnerable and exposed and judged.

But there is another way to think about God’s knowledge and presence in our lives. Consider how much of our life’s energy is spend dealing with the problems of loneliness, inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity and worth. We desperately want to be loved by others, appreciated and valued. Unless someone else loves us we remain doubtful of our worth; yet how can others love us unless they know us? And how can they come to know us unless we let them into our minds and hearts? Here we face that other problem: how can we tell others who we are when we know so little about ourselves? Even worse, we remember that along with the good there is the bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. We are caught between loneliness that urges us to reveal ourselves and fear of rejection and injury that holds us back.

Now let’s return to the thought of God’s knowledge of us. We must keep in mind that God is not merely an anonymous all-knowing judge of good and bad, a cosmic lie detector, a heavenly mind reader. God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One whom we know by looking into the face of Jesus. And we see in Jesus’ face perfect, self-giving love. Just as in the previous essay (#9), we learned that God’s power is a loving power and his love is a powerful love, we can now say that God’s knowledge is loving knowledge and his love is a knowing love. They are one. In loving, God knows, and in knowing, God loves.

This thought places God’s complete knowledge of us in a wholly different light. God knows everything about us and, yet, still loves us. God knows every secret; yes, God knows the bad and the ugly, the sleazy, the slimy and the selfish. But he loves us anyway. The one thing we most desire, to be known perfectly and loved completely, we already have and have always had.

What about the problem of inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity? Does God’s perfect knowledge and love help us with this condition? Yes, it works a revolution in this area. God knows perfectly what and who we are. And since he loves us so graciously, so unexpectedly and so unselfishly, we are freed and, indeed, compelled to love him in return. We need not struggle to reveal ourselves to God. He already knows. We need not worry what he would do if he knew. He knows and loves us anyway. If I am loved by God who knows me perfectly, I need not be so troubled by my lack of perfect self-knowledge. Someone knows! In knowing God, I know the One who knows me better than I know myself. And since God knows (and loves) I can trust him to lead me even when I cannot see the path. In my conversation with God, who knows me, God can reveal to me things about myself I could not have learned from any other source.

What if you made God’s knowledge, presence and love the foundation of your relationship to others? Perhaps you would not experience the pain of loneliness so often. God knows and is always there. Perhaps you would find new courage to reveal yourself to others, since your worth no longer depends on acceptance by others. Since you know you are loved perfectly, you may find yourself spending less energy seeking to be loved and more in finding ways to love others. Since God knows perfectly who you are, you might spend less time looking for yourself and more time seeking God. For when you find God, you won’t need to ask about yourself any longer. You will find yourself as well, for we were created to seek, know and love God.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 10 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Awakening Presence”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Have you or people you know ever had an uneasy feeling about God’s all-knowing presence? Describe what you felt and thought in those moments.

2. Reflect on the dilemma of loneliness described in this essay. What does our need to be known by others say about our created nature?

3. Describe the relationship between clarity of self-knowledge and being known by others. Relate this issue to the dilemma of loneliness.

4. Why do we need to believe that we are loved by others in order to love ourselves or feel our self-worth confidently?

5. Discuss the ways believing that God knows everything about us and still loves us sheds new light on the problems discussed in the essay: loneliness, lack of self-knowledge, the need to be known and loved, and the need to reveal ourselves to others. Specifically, how have you experienced God’s healing knowledge in each of these areas?

6. Discuss the claim made in the last paragraph of the essay. Does believing God knows and loves us really enable us to become bolder in revealing ourselves to others or empower us to love others without needing acceptance in return or be less concerned with figuring out ourselves?

 For the next two weeks we will look to Jesus Christ for clues about the right way to be human in relation to the “for us” and “with us” God he has revealed.

The Only and Always and Fully “For Us” Power: God and the Modern Self #9

One of the most frightening and misunderstood characteristics of God is omnipotence, almighty power. Our experience with power is ambiguous, to say the least. Power is neither good nor evil, but it can be used for good or evil. We wish more power for ourselves—economic power, physical strength, intelligence and political influence. And we want to ally ourselves with people and groups that possess such power.  But we also fear getting on the wrong side of power. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, asteroid impacts, exploding suns, nuclear bombs, evil tyrants, and schoolyard or workplace bullies strike terror into our hearts.

These powers, however, are finite and we may avoid them, escape them or find a way to cope with them. But to affirm that God is omnipotent is to say that God is infinitely powerful and totally unavoidable. There is no escape! Many people find this thought disturbing. As we observed in earlier installments of this series, some people, in response to their image of Almighty God, deny God’s existence. Others feel the urge to defy God in the name of human freedom and dignity or rush to submit to God to avoid divine anger, or they simply try not to think about God.

The modern self’s image of divine omnipotence applies to God the common understanding of power as the ability to reshape or destroy things, to control by intimidation or promise of reward, or to live lavishly and evoke envy in others. As I explained above, our experience with power is morally ambiguous. So, what if you thought of God as possessing not some but all of this morally ambiguous power without being completely confident that God is perfectly good, that he uses his infinite power only for good? Your attitude toward God could rise no higher than wary ambivalence. This is the situation of those who conceive of God’s nature as pure, arbitrary will. God is an almighty Will who may or may not act in our best interest.

Meditating on the message of Scripture, the greatest Christian thinkers came to realize that the concept of power does not apply to God in the same way it applies to worldly powers. God is the Creator of the world. Hence God does not merely use power but creates it. God is beyond the power we know only as the ability to shape or destroy things. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), among a long list of others, says we ought not to say that “God has power” but that “God is power itself.” That is to say, it is God’s very nature to be alive and life-giving. Power is not a means God uses but an aspect of God’s essential being. When God wants something to exist, it exists. No exertion or process of any kind is necessary.

One more step in our thinking is necessary before we escape the terrifying image of the Almighty as pure, omnipotent will.

Indeed, God is by nature power, and that power is unlimitedly creative. But as is clearly taught in the scriptures and demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ, God is also love, pure self-giving. When we think these two truths together something wonderful comes into view. Get this clear in your mind and let it sink into your heart: God is by nature pure, infinitely powerful, self-giving love. God is not pure, arbitrary will. He eternally wills to love, to create and to bestow what he is on creatures, on you and me. Remember those two words: “for us.” God is never against us. God, who is by nature power itself, is only and always and fully for us. No matter what God assigns us or what he asks us to endure or what we must suffer from worldly powers, in life and death, God is only and always and fully for us.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 9 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Irony of Divine Weakness”)

Questions for Discussion

1. In your experience how do you and others you know understand divine power? Do you sense any ambivalence in yourself and others about divine omnipotence?

2. Explain how thinking of God as possessing and using power (as opposed to being power by nature) reinforces the modern self’s understanding of God and the human self as pure, arbitrary will.

3. Discuss the difference it makes in our attitude toward divine power when we come to understand God to be both power and love by nature. Connect this thought to the “for us” nature of God’s relationship with us.

4. Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of the cross of Christ as “the power of God” (1:18). Given this essay on divine power, speculate about how the cross, which appears to embody weakness, is really an exercise of divine power.

Next week we will consider God’s complete knowledge of us and presence with us. Is divine inescapability a blessing or a curse?

The “for us” God: God and the Modern Self #8

We’ve thought for seven weeks about how the dominant sector of modern culture views God and the human self. We’ve seen that its view of human freedom and dignity and its formula for happiness guarantee that God will be viewed as a threat to the self. Now it is time to ask another set of questions: what is the Christian view of God and the human self? How does the gospel understand human freedom and dignity and the quest for happiness? Is there a way to conceive of God and the human self that enables us to affirm both God’s full deity and our full humanity? In the next three installments we will examine the Christian view of God and contrast this view with the distorted view of the modern self.

We can consider God as a threat to human freedom and dignity only if we forget that God is our Creator. Every good and beautiful thing that was, is and ever will be receives its existence from God. God gives us being, time and space, life and all our powers. Freedom and dignity, too, are divine gifts. Gifts! Pure gifts! God’s act of creating the world is completely free and gracious. God did not need anything and gains nothing for himself by creating. Existence is a pure gift, and God expects nothing in return. Nothing. Nothing at all. Ever.

Sometimes we have a hard time letting ourselves believing this. We do not give gifts in this way. Nor does anyone else we know. Hence we have a hard time feeling unmixed gratitude and allowing God’s gifts to reveal his love for us. Surely there must be a catch! But there is no catch. According to Christianity everything God gives us and expects from us is for our good, not his. It’s all for us. Nothing we can do can enhance God’s power, goodness, greatness or glory. Quite the opposite, God creates us to share in his power, goodness, greatness and glory! C.S. Lewis voices this truth in his own inimitable way: “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them” (The Four Loves, p. 127).

If we knew nothing else about God than that he freely created us so that we could enjoy what God has, this alone would prove that God poses no threat our freedom or dignity. But Christianity points us dramatically beyond the gift of creation.  In Jesus Christ, God gave himself to us. God gave himself not for good people, grateful people, people that honor God; God gave himself for his enemies, the thoughtless and ungrateful. Undoubtedly with his own experience in mind Paul states it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). These two words, “for us”, refute the modern self’s view of God. God does nothing for himself; it’s all for us.

I will leave you with a passage in which Bernard of Clairvaux strains language to express his amazement at God’s love for us:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?” (On Loving God).

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 8 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Self-Giving God of the Gospel”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the idea that God did not need the world and created it solely for the benefit of creatures. Do you agree? Does this idea make sense?

2. Contrast the Christian concept of the generous Creator with the image of God held by the modern self. Would the God of the modern self give anything freely, with no strings attached?

3. Consider the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the self-giving God of the gospel. Does it make sense to envy the God of the gospel or want to take his place?

4. Reflect again on the two contrasting images of God, that of the modern self and that seen in Jesus Christ. The modern self’s image of God evokes envy, but the Father of Jesus Christ evokes love. Explore the reasons for these different human reactions.

5. How would you evaluate the claim that in relation to us God does nothing for himself and everything for us.

 

Note: in the next installment we will examine the idea of divine omnipotence. Is God’s universally active power a threat to our freedom? Should we wish for God to have less power so that we can have more power?

Freedom Means Freedom, Period: God and the Modern Self (Part 6)

Freedom! Liberty! Independence! This is the incessant cry of the modern self. And no concept is more central to its self-definition.  As we saw in previous parts of this series, the modern self resents all external limits placed on its efforts to make itself happy, whether those limits arise from the laws of nature, the desires of other people, or God. It acts as if its essence were pure, arbitrary will structured and limited by no unchangeable forms, subject only to its momentary desires. This view of the self is implicit in what modern people demand, in the way they act and for what they strive.

Very few people actually think about the understanding of the self and freedom their rhetoric presupposes. But bringing these presuppositions out of the background and into the light is essential to understanding our contemporary situation and evaluating it from a position of Christian faith.  And that is our aim in this series.

The concept of freedom is so central to the modern self that you would think that everyone knows what they mean when they demand it. But most people have only the vaguest idea of freedom. Mortimer Adler and his coauthors in a massive two-volume analysis of the concept of freedom (The Idea of Freedom, 1958), distinguish three main and two subordinate concepts of freedom in the history of Western thought. The three main concepts are (1) the circumstantial freedom of self-realization, (2) the natural freedom of self-determination, and (3) the acquired freedom of self-perfection.

In each of these views of freedom there are four factors, a self that wishes to enjoy good things, an other that blocks the self from such enjoyment, a power that exempts the self from limits imposed by the other, and a state of being exempt from the other. As you can see, freedom is primarily a negative concept. A self is exempt from the limits of the other through a power that can remove the other. Different views of freedom can be specified by discovering how they define these four factors: self, other, power and exemption.

The first view of freedom (self-realization) is the most common. According to this view we are free when we are exempt from circumstances that keep us from fulfilling our desires. It focuses on external limits. You are free when you can do what you want. The second view (self-determination) understands freedom as exemption from all internal, hidden limits that prevent self from determining for itself what it does and becomes. It focuses not on the power to act exempt from limits but on the power to decide for itself, exempt from limits. The third view (self-perfection) thinks of freedom as the power to will only the good. The self that wills evil is not free from all limits, for it is blind to its true good. If it were not blind it would have greater freedom. In each of these historic concepts of freedom a self is exempt by a power that removes a limit imposed by the other.

At last, by examining the modern self’s understanding of the four factors of freedom, we can understand in greater depth its view of freedom. (1) The modern self views the other as anything that blocks the self from realizing its immediate desires—God, other people, the structures of nature. The other is the enemy of freedom and dignity, a spiteful force that robs the self of fulfillment and happiness. The modern self rejects the idea that the other is a condition of the self—an inherent natural limit or sin and guilt—so intimate to the self that it cannot see the difference between itself and the other or get itself free by itself.

(2) The power that exempts the self from serfdom to the other is the power of will inherent in the self. The self frees itself. This powerful self exempts itself through internal determination, rhetorical assertion, protest and demands, technology, political action, or bold or transgressive individual action. (3) The essential self is pure, arbitrary will. The self is its own power, willpower. This conclusion is inevitable since the other is defined as any structure not subject to the self and the power for freedom is identical to the self. (4) The state of exemption or realized freedom is a state in which the self can inwardly determine itself and express itself externally as it pleases without limit.

Briefly, let me say a word about dignity. The modern self defines dignity in terms of freedom. Human dignity is rooted in the human power of self-determination or autonomy. Hence any limit on the self’s freedom is an insult to the self’s dignity. The modern view of dignity asserts that because human beings possess the power to determine themselves as they wish, they also have the right to exercise this power as they wish. Limiting the exercise of this power violates the essence of the self and insults its worth.

Now we can see clearly why the modern self envies God and wishes to become God. It defines freedom and dignity in such a way that only by becoming God can it achieve freedom and enjoy dignity; that is to say, only by becoming like the being it imagines (mistakenly) God must be can it perfect itself and achieve happiness.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 6 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Secret Ambitions of the Modern Self”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the concept of the circumstantial freedom of self-realization. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

2. Explore the concept of the natural freedom of self-determination. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

3. Explore the concept of the acquired freedom of self-perfection. What evidence is there that many people understanding their freedom in this way?

4. What core concept of freedom do these three views of freedom hold in common and are these three views compatible?

5. What are the four aspects of the concept of freedom, and do they support the idea that freedom is a basically negative concept?

6. Discuss the final conclusions about the modern self’s understanding of freedom embodied in its version of the four aspects of the concept of freedom. It is it an accurate picture of the tendency of the contemporary culture?

7. In light of this post and the previous five, revisit the idea that the modern self sees God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and happiness. What evidence do you see that this tension affects the way modern people live?

8. How knowing the modern self’s view of freedom help us understand the modern crisis of morality?

Note: next week we will assess the claims and aspirations of the modern self in view of an honest and realistic picture of the human condition.

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.

 

 

The Godless Self and The Selfless God: God and the Modern Self (Part 4)

In parts 2-3 of this series we examined two common attitudes the modern self takes toward God: defiance and subservience. Now we will consider the third, indifference. In my view indifference is the most common and most tempting of the three.

People are not indifferent to God because, having thought about it, they decide indifference toward God makes the most sense. Such a stance would not be indifference at all but a kind of hostility. If you decide to ignore someone it’s usually because you want to hurt them. True indifference is not a conscious attitude but a habit of thoughtlessness. You are indifferent to one thing because you are totally focused on something else. You don’t think about it at all. And that is what I mean by indifference to God. We become so immersed in the practical affairs of life, in the search for pleasure, success and attention that we never raise our heads to heaven and turn minds to God to ask how it stands between God and us.

Let’s consider three common forms of indifference to God. The first arises as a byproduct of the search for pleasure, the second derives from the single-minded quest for success, and the third results from the all-consuming desire for attention. We can label them the esthete, the conformist and the celebrity.

1. Esthetes seek only pleasure, excitement, and sensual stimulation. When they are not experiencing it they are planning their next adventure; or they are bored. In sensual pleasure we lose consciousness of ourselves and God and become absorbed in experiencing the object of pleasure. To get the most pleasure out of dark chocolate or great music you must shut down all thought and close off the other senses. You have to let the experience take over completely. Everyone wants to have such experiences. They can be reorienting and renewing. But the esthete wants nothing else.

Esthetes are bored with themselves and their thoughts. They have no consciousness of God and desire none. They depend on external objects to fill their consciousness through sensual stimulation. Only in this way do they feel alive. In pleasure, they achieve the momentary illusion of power, of eternity in a timeless moment, and of oneness with the All. Above all, however, they escape the boredom and emptiness of themselves, they forget about finiteness and death, and they rid themselves of their persistent anxiety about the future. And they forget God or even the question of God. It never enters their thoughts that God himself may be the good they seek. But the godless self will never find rest until it finds the selfless God.

2. Conformists seek only success—social status, material possessions and other external signs of wellbeing. Since success is relative to what other people consider success, conformists always seek to look like others. They want nothing merely because of its usefulness or its beauty. They want it because others have it or don’t have it. They spend their life’s energy working for bigger houses, fancier cars, higher degrees, and better paying jobs. They seek to impress others, excite their envy and earn their approval. Like esthetes, they are bored with their empty selves, and they have no consciousness of God. They are only what they have, and their sense of self-worth is determined by how they measure up to others’ expectations.

Conformists never enjoy peace and contentment; they are always wrenched between pride and shame, disdain and envy. In such a mind there is no room for consciousness of God or self examination in awareness of God. It never dawns on conformists that what God thinks of us is the unchanging ground of our worth. But the godless self will never feel its worth until it finds the selfless God.

3. The celebrity seeks only attention. Celebrities exist only in the minds of admiring fans and exist only as long as people are thinking about them. A celebrity works to create and maintain an exciting, glamorous, super human identity in the minds of others and to associate this imaginary identity with themselves. The financial advantages to celebrity status are obvious but not central to the celebrity view of existence. Fans love celebrities for the stimulation they give to their imaginations; the fan enjoys living vicariously in an imaginary identity projected on the celebrity.

And the celebrity also enjoys the fanatical admiration of their fans for a similar reason. The irrational adulation of others gives momentary plausibility to a feeling of superior worth. Celebrities project false images and fans treat celebrities as if these images were real. Because celebrities live by attention alone, they are tempted to forget themselves and God in their frantic and futile efforts to hold the interest of their fans.

The celebrity view of existence is very seductive. Everyone desires the approval of others, and to receive approval we need to get noticed. And, if we have no other basis to accept ourselves and feel our worth, we may spend all our waking moments concentrating on getting attention. We may work so hard to create a false image of ourselves in other people’s minds that we forget to ask who we really are. We forget that we are known by God. The godless self will never feel accepted until it finds the selfless God.

The three attitudes display two common features, one negative, the other positive. (1) None of the three possesses awareness that God alone is greatest good of human beings and that his love for us in the true measure of our worth. If God alone were the object of our seeking we would be free from the desperate search for pleasure, the futile quest for success and the vain search for attention. (2) All three attitudes assume that our immediate desires and wants are reliable guides to what is good and what will produce happiness. By nature, everyone seeks pleasure, approval and attention. But when these natural inclinations are institutionalized in a culture of consumption, social ranking and celebrity, they begin to sound like the voice of God. But reason guided by faith points us higher, to God alone. If only the godless self could find the selfless God of Jesus Christ!

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 4 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Indifference: A Study in Thoughtlessness”).

 

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the differences between indifference toward God and the previous attitudes of defiance and subservience. Are there any likenesses among the three?

2. How does the attitude of the esthete lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

3. How does the attitude of the conformist lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

4. How does the attitude of the celebrity lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

5. Consider all three forms of indifference together and reflect on the how modern culture tempts us to live in indifference toward God and thoughtlessness about our relationship to God.

6. Name and discuss some strategies to overcome the temptation to love in indifference to God.

Next time we will examine the (false) image of God toward which the attitudes of defiance, subservience and indifference are directed.

When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.