Tag Archives: pure will

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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God and the Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 2: Is God the Enemy?)

As Part 1 made clear, the modern way of thinking about human identity places humanity and God in a tense relationship.  If being a real person means being independent, if happiness can be achieved only by following our desires, if authentic identity must be exclusively our own creation and if freedom equals doing what we want, how does God fit into such a life? Isn’t God GOD precisely because he doesn’t “fit in” to this agenda? As the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Creator and Ruler of the world, doesn’t God demand that we fit into God’s world and play by God’s rules?  God and humanity seem to be on a collision course.

Hence for many of our contemporaries, God looms on the horizon as a threat to human freedom, dignity and happiness. In Parts 2-4, we will consider three common ways we are tempted to deal with this threat: We either (1) defy God or (2) submit to God out of fear or desire for reward or (3) attempt to put God out of our minds. These reactions can be designated, defiance, subservience and indifference. Today let’s think about defiance.

Defiance makes sense only as refusal to do the bidding of a higher authority or a greater power. You can’t defy a weaker power or a lower authority. Defiance provokes our disapproval when the defiant person refuses a just demand by a higher authority. But it evokes our admiration when it defies an unjust power or a tyrannical authority. Perhaps the two archetypical examples of defiance are Prometheus, the mythical character from Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, and the Satan character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing divine fire and giving it to human beings. Zeus punished Prometheus by fastening him to a mountain and sending an eagle to eat out his liver every day. (It grew back at night!) Prometheus continues to defy Zeus because he is convinced that Zeus is unjust even though he is all-powerful. To those who urge him to submit to Zeus, Prometheus replies:

Go thou and worship; fold thy hands in prayer

And be the dog that licks the foot of power

Prometheus excites our admiration because, though weak, he has justice on his side and Zeus, though strong, is in the wrong. Even in defeat Prometheus refuses to be broken. Hence he has become a symbol of human freedom and dignity, which asserts its rights even in the face of overwhelming power.

In Paradise Lost, Milton allows Satan to express defiance of God even though Milton does not think Satan is in the right. Nevertheless, Satan’s heroic defiance possesses power to stir our admiration…as long as we also accept his view of God:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That Glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power.

As I observed above, defiance strikes us as admirable only if the power we defy is unjust. For both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan, God is an unjust, arbitrary power. Their concept of God—their theology—views God as pure will, the will to dominate. Only one can rule all. But the modern self rests its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness in its autonomy, its power of self-determination. If God is the infinite will to determine all and our happiness depends on exercising our will for self-determination, our options are limited. In our terror we may submit, or we may try to forget God and our slighted dignity by submerging ourselves in sensuality. But we may also find it difficult to suppress the urge to defy, which is rooted in our ineradicable sense of dignity.

Surely something has gone wrong! Is the modern secular culture’s understanding human freedom, dignity and hope of happiness the only (or best) way to view them? Is God really pure, arbitrary will and power? Is God the enemy of humanity? 

Questions for Discussion

 1. Expand on the concept of defiance by discussing some examples of admirable defiance and some cases of deplorable defiance.

2. Why does Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus stir our admiration? Give examples of situations that awaken your urge to defy. What are some popular cultural images of defiance?

3. How do you think the urge to defy is related to humanity’s sense of its own dignity?

4. The essay pointed out the relationships between admirable defiance and unjust authority and between deplorable defiance and just authority. Following the previous analogy, what is the relationship between admirable defiance and our true dignity and deplorable defiance and our false dignity (i.e., pride)?

5. According the essay, Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God’s essence as pure, arbitrary will. In what ways do you think their theologies are defective?

6. To anticipate an important theme of the book and this series, given how Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God, what relationship do you see between the way we view God and the way we view ourselves?

Note: This essay can also serve as a companion to Chapter 2 of my book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity.

Next week, we will examine the attitude of subservience or “the religion of idols, hypocrites and hirelings.”