Sunday, February 24, 2013

Which God is it?


....There's a kind of atheist who thinks that any sort of difficulty they can come up with invalidates all of Christianity. So if you can't quantify which view of salvation by faith is right by the percentage points of it's truth content in comparison to other views then there's no point in being a Christian at all. One favorite gambit of these "difficulty atheists," is to ask "which God is it?" The implication being that if one can't show conclusively that the true God is something they call 'the bible God' then there's no point in belief in God at all becuase it easily be any God and there's no way to know.[1] This is a "pp" argument. The reason is obvious, any red blooded fundamentalist can give a 250 reasons why "The Christian God" is the true God. The problem is, and it's a problem for both camps, the Bible never uses the phrase "Bible God." Neither Jesus, nor Paul nor Moses nor any Biblical figure ever says "believe ye the bible God and no other." Even passages where God himself indicates "i am the Lord and beside me there is no other" he he doesn't say "I am the Bible God." In all actuality there is no such thing as the Christian God, that phrase is not used either, or the Bible God. There is only God, and all people have different ideas about God.
....It's not a matter of which God as though they are all competing for existence, it's a matter of which tradition do we think actually adheres more closely to the reality behind the constructs. That is the content that is hinted at in the phrase "the bible God."  What they are trying to awkwardly to say is that this is the set of God related concepts embodied in the traditions that stem from the Biblical text. That doesn't exclude the idea that other traditions have truth too, or that God is working in other traditions. These atheists usually want to keep putting it in terms of specific figures from various traditions such as Zeus or Odin or whomever. This is treating God as a contingency, as adding a fact to the universe. He's just one more personality. These are just place holders within a tradition, when people speak of God as the creator, the basis of reality, it doesn't make any difference what contingent concept they stick on it. Like Spinoza's argument about the triangle. There is one shape that is a triangle and that one shape is represented in many ways in many places but they all refer back tot he same idea. The red triangle I use to group my billiard balls is referring to the same triangle represented by the green plastic triangular law sprinkler or the white triangle drawn on the black board in math class.
....There is one reality behind all religious traditions. This is not say that all gods are synonymous with the God who whom Jesus prayed in the Garden, but it is to say that all god images and all concepts  of God point to the reality that stands behind them all. We can see this in the Bible. Paul said:

"To those who through persistence seek glory, honor and immortality he will give eternal life.But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the good and follow evil there will be wrath and anger...first for the Jew and then for the gentile; but glory honor and peace for everyone who does good. For God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will perish apart form the law and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

Indeed when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirement of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness and their hearts now accusing, now even defending them..." (Romans 2:7-15). New American Standard and other translations say "their hearts accusing, now excusing them..."
 Most Christians are afraid of this conclusion and they down play this verse. Often Evangelicals will come back and say "he makes it clear in the next passage that no one can really follow the law on their hearts." Well, if they can't, than they can't. But if they can, and do, than God will excuse them. God knows the heart, we do not. The verse clearly opens the door to the possibility of salvation (although by Jesus) through a de facto arrangement in which one is seeking the good without knowing the object one is seeking (Jesus). In other words, it is possible that people in other cultures who follow the moral law written on the heart know Jesus de facto even if they don't know him overtly. Paul backs up this conclusion in Acts 17:22 Paul goes to Athens as is asked by the Athenian philosophers to explain his ideas to them.
....These were pagan followers of another religion. Paul stood up and said to them, "Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious for as I walked around and observed your objects of worship I even found an alter with this inscription 'TO AN UNKOWN GOD' Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."He basically says that they are worshiping God, they just don't know who he is. That's why he says "I will make it known to you." He doesn't say "you have the wrong idea completely." Most Evangelicals dismiss this as a neat rhetorical trick. But if we assume that Paul would not lie or distort his beliefs for the sake of cheap tricks, we must consider that he did not say "you are all a bunch of pagans and you are going to hell!" He essentially told them, "God is working in your culture, you do know God, but you don't know who God is. You seek him, without knowing the one you seek. He goes on,(v27)"God did this [created humanity and scattered them into different cultures] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him though he is not far form each one of us." This implies that God not only wants to work in other cultures, but that it is actually his paln to do things in this way. Perhaps through a diversity of insights we might come to know God better. Perhaps it means that through spreading the Gospel people would come to contemplate better the meaning of God's love.
....In any case, it does mean that God is working in other cultures, and that God is in the hearts of all people drawing them to himself. Of their worship of idols, Paul said "in past times God overlooked such ignorance but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (v30). Now what can this mean? God never overlooks idolatry or paganism, in the OT he's always commanding the Israelite to wipe them out and expressly forbidding idolatry. It means that on an individual basis when God judges the hearts of people, he looks at their desire to seek him, to seek the good. That their status as individuals in a pagan culture does not negate the good they have done, and their ignorance of idolatry does not discount their desire to seek the good or the truth. IT means that they are following Jesus if they live in the moral life, even though they follow him as something unknown to them. IT also means that all of us should come into the truth, we should seek to know God fully, and when we do that we find that it is Jesus all along.
....Of course this doesn't mean that I'm worshiping other gods. It doesn't mean that if I see a representation of Shiva on a Hindu temple I'll pray to it and say it's pointing to Jesus. Why? Because that's not the cultural construct with which I identify and which is most meaningful to me. Neither will I spit on it or call it names or show contempt for it. I respect the traditions of other faiths as a matter of civilized discourse and Christian love. I do recognize it as pointing to God, the God my tradition, in a certain sense. This is another path and the view of those who follow it and the way they understand the reality behind all our paths. I must show it respect, but I don't have to worship it. So it's not a matter of trying to figure out which tradition is right or which one has the right God, if it were I could give you a long string of good arguments that's its mine, there's more to it than that. It's about understanding what a tradition says to us.We find the tradition that really speaks to us as respect the others as colleagues. I still believe that anyone who gives Christianity a fair chance and hears what its saying to us has a good chance of falling in love with Jesus and following him.
....People have always sought to find their place in the cosmos, that's what all the various forms of mythos are about. It's because we recognize that the thing we feel in our inner most begin when we we behold the star filled desert sky is the answer to that quest, "why am I here?" that we seek define who this is that's calling us to journey as Abraham did. It's more than just words on paper or stories in Sunday school abut an actual encounter with a reality that stands behind all reality and transcends all paths and all traditions. The Hebraic author knew when he quoted the prophet that it was more than a set of rules or a list of laws, but a realtinship with reality when Jeremiah wrote:

Heb. 8:10-12 "...I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man say to his neighbor 'know the Lord' for they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more."
 This passage promises a "personal relationship with God."The word for "to Know" is the Greek Term Ginosko, which means personal experiential knowledge. To give one's life to Jesus means to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus said (John) "My sheep know my voice..." Personal relationship means that it is more than a set of rules, more than an ideology or a belief system, but a matter of the heart, the emotions, religious affections. IT may not be through dramatic miraculous effects (although I do believe that that is open to all Christians) but it is deeper than mere rule keeping, and does make for a satisfaction nothing else can match.God acts upon the heart. Salvation is a matter of "knowing God" not of mere intellectual assent. What does it mean to know God? It means that being a Christian is a matter of experiencing God's love in the heart and of loving God and others. It is also a matter of being "led" by God through impressions upon the heart, and not merely a set of rules or a list of beliefs that one must check off. IT is the development of "religious affections."The excitement of knowing God is unequaled by anything else in this life.

[1] this can be seen argued by atheist Blogger Christopher Hallquist on is page "7.there are no good God arguments."


Kristen said...

Well put. It has always seemed strange to me that an atheist would ask, "which god?" as if monotheists and polytheists were the same. Monotheists believe in just one God, so however well or poorly we approximate the nature of this God, there can only be one God we are talking about. Christians believe that the character of the one God is uniquely revealed in Jesus. But even those who don't believe this, if they are reaching out for God and finding God, it's the same God we're talking about.

Dave said...

As a corollary to what you are describing, if someone changed it to "your construct of God is" rather than "your God is", what real difference would that make to how you perceived or responded to criticism? I know you are discussing here as a rhetorical trick in debating, but how much mileage does it really get?

For example, I read things by people like modern Christian contemplatives and by people such as Archbishop Tutu that give a particular impression of Christianity and its depiction of God. It sounds intriguing and appealing. Then I actually get into Church history, theology, doctrine, liturgy, and close examination of holy texts within the Bible, and the picture changes. The impression previously given doesn't match up well to the enterprise itself.

In other words, it appears one way from a distance, where lots of stuff is generalized and blurry, but quite different up close. And that's even after considering cultural/historical context, seeing elements of the tradition beyond dichotomies of didactic literalism and inspirational imagery, etc. The product doesn't live up to the billing.

Ironically, I think some folks have a distaste for Christianity because of this -- because it doesn't live up to its presentation by certain groups or individuals. No one likes a bait and switch. They are disappointed in how the tradition presents itself and God.

So, maybe there are some folks who are saying "the Christian God" instead of "the Christian depiction of God" when expressing their disappointment or disbelief, but I'm not sure how much that really influences their criticism. I suspect many skeptics, cynics, and disillusioned seekers would see such semantic distinctions as trivial.

Metacrock said...

Well you know anytime you have a large diverse group and that group holds power in any sense temporally, you are going to have parts of it that are more pervasive than others. Those that hold power will always wind up serving the institution rather than the original message. You really just can't organize a group to preserve a message and not have the mission change and become about preserving the group rather than the message.

We will always have this group like lag between the message finders who discover again anew (for themselves) the meaning of the original message and try to spread that then the old guard institutionalizes who are seeking to protect the structure at the price of losing the message. Some of them them may not even know what the message was.

Sociology, rather than anthropology is needed here.

Metacrock said...

Look at the long email you sent me this morning about Buddhism and the self. That' just scratching the surface of a very complex history that i bet you most atheists who mouth appreciation for Buddhism have no idea even exists.

My brother was into Buddhism and he was a good intellectual who doesn't study half assed and he used to talk about a lot of the stuff you told me in that email. So I know how complex that is. But most westerners who think they like Buddhism would never suspect it.

Metacrock said...

Kristen said...

"Well put. It has always seemed strange to me that an atheist would ask, "which god?" as if monotheists and polytheists were the same. Monotheists believe in just one God, so however well or poorly we approximate the nature of this God, there can only be one God we are talking about. Christians believe that the character of the one God is uniquely revealed in Jesus. But even those who don't believe this, if they are reaching out for God and finding God, it's the same God we're talking about."

thanks Kristen I appreciate that.

Metacrock said...

Dave said...

"As a corollary to what you are describing, if someone changed it to "your construct of God is" rather than "your God is", what real difference would that make to how you perceived or responded to criticism? I know you are discussing here as a rhetorical trick in debating, but how much mileage does it really get?"

No I am not just talking about a trick. I really think this way. This is really how i deal with other traditions and how I keep from being ant-others in my appreciation of other faiths. I regard it as a sincere effort to find truth and not sell out faith..

It's just a beginning I don't know where one goes with it.

Dave said...

Well, we are talking about two things, my question and my example.

Regarding my question, I am saying that some people may use it as a trick, but others really mean more or the less same thing when saying "the Christian God" and "the Christian depiction of God." I appreciate your frustration at the trick, but for lots of people who use such language there is no difference intended.

So how does it really matter in the end of someone launches an objection to "the Christian God" or "Christian theology" in that case? I mean, if you say "I object to X" as presented by Christianity, then "X" is still a problem whatever phrasing one uses.

Regarding my example, the issue isn't about hijacking the message on behalf of the institution. I specifically pointed out the kinds of people who value the message and are often into interfaith dialogue with various traditions. They appreciate contemplation, meditation, poetic nuance, the divine/daily office, etc. They have a sense of history and knowledge of the deeper theology and tradition. That's what I was going off of on my appraisal, not a superficial kind of presentation.

And the fact is, they present a populist view in their speeches and books, which again, sounds good. They use their knowledge and experience to try to make Christian theology and praxis appealing and accessible.

Yet for all the the interfaith comparisons and historical excellence, and all the rest, when you get beyond some books about the tradition and actually try to get into the tradition, there is a disconnect. Gaps. Inconsistencies.

No matter which way you look at it, except as someone outside the tradition only picking and choosing a few parts loosely interpreted, that populist presentation just doesn't stack up within the tradition itself or at least it leaves a lot out that wouldn't be so popular. And you know, they never address that. Or at least they only do in passing.

I would love to resurrect Fr. Thomas Merton, Fr. Bede Griffiths, and Br. Wayne Teasdale, then summon people like Archbishop Tutu, Fr. Thomas Keating, and Fr. Richard Rohr and a few others, and have a private conference for a week putting questions to them. To get at the stuff that serious people are still going to wonder about who just don't give a pass to things on faith or just because. I think it would be very enlightening and the result could fill a best-seller and maybe start some big religious movement. But, as this isn't possible, I can only say that the disconnect remains.

Metacrock said...

maybe it doesn't matter that much in most cases. I think for the people I argue with on carm it does.