Tag Archives: Human

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.

 

 

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Who is God? (Part 1)

Who is God? (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series entitled “Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology.” Professional theologians, of course, ask “infrequently asked” questions. That is their job. But I am not writing for them. I am writing for non theologians who are interested in theology and in reflecting on faith at a deeper level than they ordinarily do.

In asking the “who” question we are inquiring about personal identity. It makes no sense to ask, “Who is that tree?” or “Who is that boulder?” Hence even asking the question “Who is God?” presupposes that we believe God possesses personal characteristics analogous to those of human persons. At minimum, to think of an existing thing as a person is to consider it rational and free by nature. Boethius (c. 480-c. 524) defined a person as a “rational, individual substance” and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) added “incommunicability”  (i.e. ineffability and uniqueness) to this definition. Others add the phrase “in relation to other persons.” Much more could be said about the concept of person, but the point I want to emphasize is that the question “Who is God?” asks about the particular personal characteristics that distinguish God from other persons, divine and human, and help us to enter understandingly and empathetically God’s personal dimension. We need to know “who” God is so we know how to relate to God: What should we say and do in relation to God and what may we expect God to say and do in relation to us?

What sort of information could satisfy our need for an answer to the “Who” question concerning a particular human being? It will not help to hear about their generic human characteristics; these they share with other individual human beings. We want to know things that distinguish them from others. First we want to know their name, which stands for their whole personal identity. Next, we want to know what forces and events shaped their characters. We also want to hear about their significant actions, choices and aims. What they’ve suffered and to whom they are related and in what ways. In sum, we learn something about who a person is by listening to their story, the story of what made them who they are. A person’s story is unique to that individual; it distinguishes and identifies them, gives us a sense of knowing them and makes their actions meaningful and to some extent predictable. In the end, however, only by entering into a relationship with someone and by becoming a character in their story and they in ours can we really know another person. I’d like to state a principle here: it is in their personal characteristics, best understood by hearing a story and by mutual participation in a common story, that one person is distinguished from another and that a person can be known in their unique personhood.

Many religions and philosophies speak about “God.” But what do they mean, and of whom are they speaking? There are two questions here: “What is God?” and “Who is God?” I will post another essay on the “what” question later, but think about this: even if two human beings possess in common every quality that makes human beings human, they are not the same person. In a similar way, even if two people speak about God as possessing the same divine attributes they are not necessarily talking about the same person. If the stories they tell are different and the personal characteristics those stories portray are different, we may not be speaking of the same one. It is as if two people were talking about “Kimberly,” whom they think may be a common friend, but tell such different stories and relate such dissimilar personal experiences that they begin to think they are speaking of different persons with the same name.

But why is having the right answer important? And what is Christianity’s answer to the question “Who is God?”

To be continued…