Shuck and Jive

Monday, April 12, 2010

Help My Unbelief!

Here is a little theological fun before bedtime. Otagosh picked up on the Dennett/LaScola paper and found this nugget regarding the "God" we are supposed not to stop believing in if we are Christian pastors. What does it mean to believe or not believe in God when no one seems to agree on what "God" refers to anyway?
A spectrum of available conceptions of God can be put in rough order, with frank anthropomorphism at one extreme—a God existing in time and space with eyes and hands and love and anger—through deism, a somehow still personal God who cares but is nevertheless outside time and space and does not intervene, and the still more abstract Ground of all Being, from which (almost?) all anthropomorphic features have been removed, all the way to frank atheism: nothing at all is aptly called God....

....There is no agreement at all, then, about where to draw a line across this spectrum, with belief in God on one side and non-belief on the other, and many people are quite content to ignore the question. But two of our pastors have felt the need to draw the line, and to recognize that, given where they draw the line, their own view has crossed it: they no longer deserve to be called believers, whatever others may think. The other three say that they may not believe in a supernatural god, but they believe in something. Still, they all find themselves with a secret: they don’t believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.
So which God for you? Or should we just say we "believe in God" and leave it at that happy that we believe in something even if the word has no referent upon which we can agree?


  1. "Or should we just say we "believe in God" and leave it at that happy that we believe in something even if the word has no referent upon which we can agree?"

    I have a very strong suspicion that this is exactly what most people do, for various reasons. It fits the "I'm spiritual but not religious" crowd, and I suspect, if given enough sodium pentathol, most FBTSs would go along with it, too.

  2. Dennett calls that belief in belief. Maybe that is the belief I have on occasion. The belief that humanity is more good than evil, that life is worth living, that love is powerful, and that compassionate justice happens.

    All that and more I call "God."

  3. As you have said before John - it is nothing more than that, but certainly nothing less.

  4. OK I'll get into this. I don't "believe in" a separate god-being. However, I do experience (as opposed to "belief," which is by definition not based on experience) -- I do experience "spirit" -- which occurs among the rocks, the river, the trees, the animals, and of course humans.

    Maybe it's all Jungian projection, but it's still my experience.

    We as humans need this experience, or we will be unable to survive as sentient beings. It's also called "relationship."

    My short-hand for all of the above is, of course, "God."

  5. Marcus Borg likes to say something along the lines of "tell me about the God you don't believe in and I probably don't believe in that God either."

    The word "God" has so many different meanings. Just look up the article on God in Wikipedia to get a sense of how varied theologies can be. People in our culture often assume that "God" refers to something similar to that of Christian orthodoxy--omnipotent, omniscient, and personal. The reality is that Plato's God isn't the God of Whitehead which isn't the God of Spinoza which isn't the God of Tillich which isn't the God of orthodox Christianity which isn't the God of Joseph Smith which isn't the God of--and so on.

    I think that the word "God" is almost as difficult to pin down as the word "Christian".

  6. I think that the word "God" is almost as difficult to pin down as the word "Christian".

    That God really knows the Shuck and Jive. : )

    It is true we have no idea what we mean but for some reason we still like it. I think that is OK, too.

  7. John

    I suspect your list is too short. I don't see a category that would fit me. A God who sometimes acts in time and space (and becomes human in Jesus)? Sure. A God that, (apart from Jesus) is not human at all and does not exist in time and space and is neither male or female, having no body (but, as a theological statement, caused time and space) yep. A God who gives commands on how to live? Sure. A God who loves so deeply that we can't even understand the depth of that love, a love beyond human love? Yep. A God who takes joy (whatever that means to a being who lives outside of time and space when the buds come out in the spring, the leaves turn color in the fall and the snow falls in the winter (or none of the above in the tropics) Sure.

    I suspect that all our words for God, anthropomorphic, deistic or otherwise are all insufficient.

  8. Mystical Seeker

    I think one of the problems with Christianity is that we too easily accepted the Greek categories to describe God. Omnipotent? Omnipresent? Omniscient? I would like to see more work done on separating Greek thought from Hebrew thought, both in the Old and New Testaments.

    A simple question: does God change her/his mind? The answer in the OT is sometimes. That has immense implications for Christian theology. I am afraid that the philosophical categories we inherited from the Greeks are not only insufficient for the task but lead us down the wrong path. The Bible is really an Eastern book or at least a Middle Eastern book. You can see some effects of Greek thought (or is it Zoroastrian?) in the NT but much of this is in response to the Gnostics who took on Greek categories (or Zoroastrian categories) to describe God. Or did they have another basis for rejecting the God of the Old Testament?

    We Westerners take our own ways of thinking so easily and apply them to the Bible. I take joy in the speaking and writing of my African friends whose experience of life is much closer to the village world of Jesus than the modern age.

  9. @Bob

    This isn't my list. Nor is it a list of categories. It is Dennett/LaScola's spectrum of views. It appears that the views you mentioned fit on that part of the spectrum between "frank anthropomorphism" and "deism."

  10. A simple question: does God change her/his mind?

    A simple question?

    There are a lot of variables.

    Obviously, in some cases the invented literary character "God" changes his mind.

    If you invent a philosophical concept of "God" that does not change his/her/its mind then I guess the answer is no.

    Once we realize that our forebears made "God" up, we can have this "God" do anything we want.

  11. "God" changes "God's" mind when human spirituality evolves to a point where an ethical change is necessary or coming into focus. That happens a lot in the OT.

    Maybe, to stretch a metaphor to the breaking point, "God" has changed "God's" mind about the imminent end of time in the NT (apocalyptic eschatology) because humanity is beginning to participate in the transformation into the kingdom (participatory/realized eschatology).

    That's enough of that. I have to finish my blog.

  12. It is true that Greek categories have influenced our conceptions of God, and not always for the better. Many of the objections that people have to process theology stems from an assumption, grounded in Greek philosophy, that God is timeless and cannot change, and more importantly that God is not affected by what we do. Process theology responds to this by arguing that "unchanging" as a universal divine attribute confuses two different categories.

    Process theology argues that God can both be unchanging and changeable, depending on what you are talking about. The unchanging part embodies our understanding of that which is the greatest good. God can be said to be our expression of perfect love, for example; but a perfectly loving being is not impassive in the face of injustice. Any God who can be said to be perfect cannot be unchanging, because perfect love is affected sympathetically by the suffering (and the joys) of others. Thus, process theology argues, God is both changing and unchanging.

    I think this makes sense even if you consider God to be nothing but a metaphor or some kind of Tillichian embodiment of our Ultimate Concern. If God embodies our human concept of the greatest good, then that which is the greatest good can hardly express impassive in the face of injustice, and thus it adapts and changes to the extent that justice is enacted or denied over the course of time. But the commitment to injustice is unshakable and therefore constant. Our Ultimate Concern is both changing and unchanging.

    I think, though, that when the Bible tells stories of God changing "his" mind, it is simpler than that, and has more to do with anthropomorphizing God into a being who is as fickle and capable of making mistakes as humans are. In those cases, the right thing to do was unchanged, but God changed from not realizing what was right to realizing what was right.

  13. Sea Raven

    You may be right about the anthropomorphizing but I love it when Moses gives God advice and God takes it!

  14. Bob - When I lived in Hewlett, NY, one person I knew there said that was what they (Jews) had over Christians - they got to argue with God.

    That and the fried kreplach.