Monthly Archives: November 2014

Who Are You My God? Is There A Way to Know?

How do you decide between Christianity and some other form of theism? In the first sixteen instilments of this study we’ve limited ourselves to reasoning from what is given always and everywhere to reason. We reasoned from the appearances of the natural world given through the senses and from the mind’s knowledge of itself gained by internal reflection to the ultimate explanation for the existence and operations of these things. Using these sources, we confronted three decision points where we had to make a choice between two explanations for our experience: (1) matter or mind, (2) an impersonal or a personal God, and (3) God as a part of nature or God as wholly transcending nature. The cumulative argument of the series so far amounts to this: believing in a personal God that wholly transcends nature can be based on a reasonable judgment and a responsible decision. I do not claim to have proved this conclusion beyond all doubt. I have not presented every argument for God’s existence or attempted to refute every argument against it. But I have presented what I believe to be the reasoning mind’s own drive toward God as the only explanation that does it justice. At this point, I must let the evidence speak for itself and move on.

The Fourth Decision Point

What is the first step one must take to transition from mere theism to Christian faith? As I admitted in previous posts, I don’t think there is only one path from unbelief to Christian faith. Different people make the transition differently. The order I wish to propose here makes sense to me because it addresses some concerns of our age and considers the questions our culture asks of Christians. If you can think of a better one, by all means follow it.

How does the Christian message enter the sphere of our reason so that we can assess its meaning and make a judgment about its truth? Clearly it is not given everywhere and always with nature. Nor is Christianity built into the structure of our minds. Hence Christianity is not merely a metaphysical explanation of the workings of nature or our minds. Nor can its coherence and truth can be judged only by its conformity with these perennially present structures. From where then does the information on which we can base a rational judgment and a responsible decision about Christianity come? Is there another source for truth relevant to the question of God and the appropriate human relationship to God? Or must our knowledge of God be derived solely from structures perennially available to us in nature or mind? (Deism insists on this limit.)

Two other options come to mind: (1) divine illumination or inspiration of every individual or (2) a unique event in history, a record of which is passed on in language to those not present at the event. I do not wish to deny the possibility or even the actual event of illumination or inspiration of individuals. After all, Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) claims to have experienced the resurrected Jesus Christ in a unique vision or revelation. And others since his time right up until today have made similar claims and experienced similar conversions. But I don’t think this is the norm. Today and for centuries past, most people meet the events on which Christianity is based in the form of language, that is, reports of the founding events that claim to derive from those who actually witnessed them.

Before we look at those reports, I want us to think about history as a source of information. By “history” I do not mean history in its proper sense. The “history” of historians is a reconstructed narrative of events based on a critical assessment of the sources that claim to have access to that event. For the historian, neither events themselves nor reports of events are “history” in the technical sense. But at this point I want to use the word history loosely to mean the entire fabric of past events. Natural scientists assume that past natural events and processes—though unique in their particular time and place and order— operated by the same physical laws as natural events and processes operate today. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 was a unique natural event, but we assume that it can be explained by same physical laws that operate everywhere and at all times in the universe. In a sense, each natural event is new and unique; it cannot be repeated exactly. But these new and unique natural events do not reveal new natural laws. Only when natural events are brought into relationship with human and divine actions do they acquire the potential to reveal anything beyond natural law. (I will show how this works later.)

For the rest of this essay, I will use the term “history” to designate the complex flow of human actions and passions and interactions through time. In human history we see something we do not see in natural history, genuine novelty fueled by human freedom. I recognize that human beings’ free decisions are set in the context of certain stable features of human biology, psychology, and sociology and in relation to natural history. But I deny that human history can be explained wholly by such deterministic factors.  Writing, art, architecture, cities, poetry, and philosophy are in part products of human freedom and not merely determinations of the laws of nature. Because of the activity of human freedom, history is the realm of the new and unique. And the most significant of those new and unique things is the unique personhood of each individual human being. There never was and there never will be another Julius Caesar, Paul the Apostle, Abraham Lincoln, or you.

Why are other people are fascinating to us? Even though each person possesses a unique identity we cannot share, we can see in their stories realizations of possibilities, free actions, and sufferings which could be ours. Each person’s life history is a revelation of something humanity could be, of what you and I could be. Hence history may embody and the study of history may reveal something the study of nature and of the mind cannot get at: the possibilities of the human spirit both to create and become something that transcends the possibilities of the ordinary course of nature. Only in human history is such a revelation possible. It cannot be known abstractly because it is the product of freedom. It can be known only in its actual realization, and since the actual realization of personal identity happens in human individuals, we can come to know it only through personal revelation expressed in their acts, creations, and language. To know persons from the past we must rely on their stories recorded and passed down.

What if one individual realized the possibilities of human nature and freedom so completely and dramatically that this person’s life became the definitive revelation of human destiny and of divine identity? This is exactly what Christianity claims for Jesus Christ.

Next week we will begin our examination of the reports through which we get in contact with the story of Jesus Christ.

The Limits of Reason and Divine Revelation

Reason has limits. We can reason only from what is given to the senses or the mind. We can extend our knowledge of the empirical world by tracing the causal connections among the data given to the senses. Our knowledge of the mental world can be expanded by tracing the connections among the ideas and concepts given with the mind. But reason cannot reach beyond what is given to it except, perhaps, in its sense of not being able to grasp its own existence. When we reason about any natural object given to us, we feel in control of our power to understand it. We feel even more in control when we construct an artificial object. But when we turn our minds to the question of the origin and existence of the mind itself, we find no object given to reason that could be subjected to reason’s power. Reason confronts its limits in its experience of not being able to grasp the ground of its own existence and powers. Reason operates powerfully within the limits of natural given objects, but when confronted with the question of its own origin, it faces a mystery beyond its comprehension.

Unless this Mystery freely itself reveals itself to reason, our thinking about it will be limited to speculation based on decisions about which analogies to press into the unknown. In previous essays in this series, I labeled these decisions about analogies “decision points.” At the first decision point we had to decide whether to conceive of the unknown ground of our existence as matter or mind. We chose mind. The second decision point forced us to choose between an impersonal and a personal God. We chose a personal God. The third decision point now confronts us with the choice between a personal God who is interdependent with the natural world and a personal God who is completely independent and transcendent to the natural world.

Why would any modern western person think of God as part of the world, just as dependent on the world as the world is on God? As far as I can tell, thinkers who view God this way share the presupposition that everything that is real in any sense falls within the sphere of reason’s natural space. We can reason our way into the divine nature from what is naturally given to the mind and the senses. Hence nature’s most fundamental laws apply equally to God and nature, and the concepts, propositions, and words used to understand nature apply to God in a literal sense. Allow me to depart from my usual practice and quote two twentieth-century thinkers who express this view quite clearly. Alfred North Whitehead stated his central axiom in these words: “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: Macmillan, 1929), p. 521]. Charles Hartshorne asserts that “theology (so far as it is the theory of the essence of the deity) is the most literal of all sciences of existence…the pure theory of divinity is literal , or it is a scandal, neither poetry nor science, neither well reasoned nor honestly dispensing with reasoning” (Divine Relativity, pp. 36-37). Hence God is continuous with nature.

But when we follow the logic of those who think God must be continuous with nature, the resulting picture of God differs dramatically from the traditional Jewish and Christian view of God: God evolves, learns, and grows along with the rest of nature. God is not eternal but bound to time and space. God does not know the future and knows the past only by remembering it. Although God is infinite in potential, he is finite in actual existence. God did not create the world from nothing and is not all-powerful. God acts only by persuasion and never (ever!) gets all he wills. Miracles make no sense because the laws of nature bind God as well as us.

I think it is fair to ask whether the word God should be used of such a being. Before the rise of Christianity, in the ancient near east or Greece and Rome, the word “god” could be used of such a limited being. But most people under the influence of Christian theology would reserve the word God, to quote Augustine, for the being than “which nothing more excellent or exalted exists.” Even more definitively, Anselm of Canterbury urged, “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” How can we think of God as a being that could in reality or in thought be surpassed in excellence and perfection—even by himself?

Now we return to the thought with which we began this essay: reason has limits. Given reason’s  lack of self-comprehension and experience of its inability to comprehend the mystery of its origin and ground, it is reasonable for reason to look beyond nature and its laws for their divine origin. Though such an act cannot be deduced or predicted by natural reason, it makes sense to maintain openness for the divine mystery to reveal itself within our sphere. And Christianity claims that this revelation really happened, and its view of God is definitively determined by its understanding of this revelation.

Next Time: We are now ready to pose the fourth decision point at which we will be confronted with the decision to enter the sphere of Christian faith or remain in the realm of theism, where God is not named and identified.

Is God Merely the Mind and Conscience of Nature?

For the past three weeks we’ve been considering the second decision point on the road toward Christian faith, that is, the choice between an impersonal and a personal God. As with all the decision points on this journey, here, too, we cannot be compelled to choose the option that moves us closer to Christianity. Nor can I claim to have proved the existence of a personal God beyond any doubt. As I have insisted all along, our judgments in these areas are fallible and we cannot exclude all risk from our decisions. Nevertheless, I argue that this judgment is reasonable and the decision responsible.

Before we move into the third decision point, I’d like to clear up a possible misunderstanding. I am not arguing that this path and these exact decision points must be followed in the order I outline before one can legitimately accept Christianity as true. This path treats the background beliefs that must be true if Christianity is true. It follows an order in which philosophers often treat these questions, an order of priority in being that moves from things that seem basic and necessary to those that appear derivative and contingent. One need not examine these beliefs or even become aware of them to come to Christian faith. People have moved from atheism to belief in God by encountering the beauty and wonder of the universe or the depths of human love. One can be moved from atheism to Christian faith simply by listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to work your way out of materialism by reason alone or get beyond the idea of an impersonal god solely by intellectual means. But if you do come to believe in God and Jesus Christ by hearing the gospel or experiencing love, it still remains true that you implicitly accept all the background beliefs that cohere with this decision. You cannot believe in a personal God and believe that matter is the ultimate explanation for all reality. Nor can you believe in gospel of Jesus Christ and believe in an impersonal god.

My hope is that thinking through this series in order will help non-believers by showing that the background beliefs that make atheism plausible are questionable, if not simply false. If I can show that materialism is flawed or false, atheism is undermined even if the immediate motive for denying God’s existence is the presence of evil in the world. Showing that the idea of an impersonal god is incoherent may motivate the “spiritual but not religious” group to seek a relationship with the personal God and, hence, be open to full Christian faith. Believers can also benefit from following the path I’m tracing. Making explicit and seeing the truth of Christianity’s background beliefs may strengthen the believer’s conviction that judgments in favor of Christianity’s truth can be reasonable and decisions to follow the Christian way can be responsible.

The Third Decision Point

The third decision point confronts us with the choice between thinking of God as the highest aspect of nature or as transcending nature. Is God supernatural or natural? Is the world God’s creation or God’s body? The issue can also be framed as a decision between theism or panentheism. (Panentheism is the theory that God and the world of our experience are two aspects the one ultimate reality.). Before we go into this discussion, perhaps I ought to say that we are getting close the limits of what we can achieve by reasoning from our experience of the natural world and our own minds. If God really transcends the world and our minds as their Creator, there can be no natural continuity between us and God. Our reasoning can at best take us to the limits of nature and to the limits of what is given with our minds. It cannot take us beyond them. Reason can follow natural law to its limits, but if there is a reality not subject to natural law, we cannot find it in this way.

Nevertheless, there is work for reason to do even at this point. If we begin with the presumption that God is intelligent, personal, and free—a conclusion we reached in the first two decision points—we can examine the reasonableness of thinking of God as a part of nature, subject to basic natural law. If we find this view of God incoherent or inadequate to experience or intuitively unsatisfying, we may find the alternative of a transcendent Creator attractive. And even though we cannot reason directly from our experience of nature and our minds to a transcendent God, we may be willing to consider other ways in which we can achieve such knowledge. If we cannot ascend to God on the ladder of reason, perhaps God can descend to us. If God transcends the laws of the natural world God has created, why should we think the limits nature places on us apply also to God?

Next week we will examine the idea that God is the higher aspect of nature. Does it make sense to think of God as only partially transcending nature, as finite and limited in power, presence, and knowledge, and as developing and growing? Or does it make more sense to remove from our thinking about God all limits and presume that God is infinite and perfect?

“I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”

How often have you heard it? “I’m spiritual but not religious.” More than a few times, I suspect. And it’s hard to know what to say to this self-designation. So, let’s think about it.

We’ve been discussing the issue of an impersonal God for the past two weeks from a theoretical point of view. Today provides an opportunity to look at it from practical angle. Increasingly in recent years, more and more people claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” I’ve wanted to subject this idea to analysis for some time, and I am happy that it fits in the series at this point.

It’s not easy to specify what people mean when they affirm the importance of spirituality but deny their need for religion. In many cases I get the impression that the person making the distinction doesn’t have a clear idea either. Perhaps their negation of religion is stronger and clearer in their minds than their affirmation of spirituality. Popular culture has largely succeeded in portraying religion and highly religious people as narrow-minded, ignorant, intolerant, judgmental, exclusive, and more than a little neurotic. When people deny being religious their main concern may be to make a statement about their own character by differentiating themselves from the cultural image of the religious person. For some people, the “spiritual but not religious” claim is simply a less obviously self-commending way of saying “I am a good person, tolerant and welcoming, unlike those bad people, who are judgmental and reactionary. You will like me.” They use the self-designation “spiritual” because the culture has settled on this term to designate an open, welcoming, tolerant, inclusive, progressive, sensitive, and slightly mystical attitude. You can be spiritual even if you are somewhat agnostic or incline toward atheism, as long as you possess those soft and sensitive qualities listed above. Popular culture rejects harsh and militant atheism for the same reason it rejects judgmental religion.

Why use the term “spiritual”? Popular use of this term derives ultimately from the New Testament’s teaching about the Holy Spirit. From its beginning, Christianity has understood God’s presence and action in the world as Trinitarian in form. Father, Son, and Spirit are one in being and their action is always united, but each is especially associated with certain activities: the Father with creation, the Son with salvation and the Spirit with transformation of the inner life of the believer. Because the Spirit’s work always points to the Father and the Son, the Spirit has been called the anonymous member of the Trinity. Perhaps more importantly for the subject we are discussing, the Spirit’s work is mysterious, internal, and experiential.

In Christian history, the Spirit is identified with the inner divine presence that is often manifested in wordless mystical experience of union with the divine, euphoric feelings joy, or loss of control of the body. The writings of Christian mystics are often called “spiritual writings” and the study of these writings is called “spiritual theology.” Spiritual authors record experiences of visions of Christ, overwhelming feelings of divine presence, inspirations from the Spirit, and other intense experiences of the divine. Sometimes mystics strayed outside the bounds of orthodox Christian doctrine, but mostly they were able to thrive alongside traditional teaching. But during the modern era, especially with the help of the Romantic Movement of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, Christian spirituality and pietism were for some people de-Christianized and assimilated to pantheism or vague nature mysticism.

When contemporary people say “I’m spiritual but not religious” they are unknowingly continuing this romantic tradition and its dislike of responsibility to the personal God of Christian faith. Christian religious practice focuses on a personal God, the God whose identity is delineated in the biblical narratives and in the life of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, the character and will of God are clear and determinate. God is not “whatever you understand him to be.” God demands our loyalty, love, and obedience. The first command of the Decalogue is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters.” And one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith is “Jesus in Lord.” Not a vague spirituality!

The contemporary move into “spirituality” attempts to escape the perceived negative aspects of belief in a personal God without giving up its positive aspects. Such concepts as truth, law, responsibility, discipleship, obedience, and other restrictive concepts strike many of our contemporaries as exclusive, judgmental, and harsh. And adopting a “spiritual” philosophy allows one to root one’s life in a mysterious universe friendly to human life and values without the drawback of responsibility to a personal God. Ultimately, however, such spirituality, apart from belief in a personal God, is merely divinization of the human spirit or even of the individual self. “Spirituality” resonates perfectly with contemporary therapeutic culture, which makes not salvation and truth but the momentary feeling of wellbeing its highest aspiration.