Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practical Theology 3: God as Other

My series on theology as it relates to practice continues..

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator

3. God as Other
Since the late 100s AD, Christians and Jews have generally believed that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo. We now read this understanding into passages like Genesis 1:1-2 and Hebrews 12:3, although it is not at all clear that these passages had this connotation originally. The doctrine of creation out of nothing arguably was forged in the Christian and Jewish struggles with Gnosticism in the second century, a likelihood we will revisit when we get to the creation.

The last 100 years have brought developments in science and math with potentially fresh insights into the idea of creation out of nothing. The theory of relativity implies that space itself can expand and contract. Since the universe seems to be expanding, there is a new sense that creation was not God filling empty space with material.  Creation involved God creating empty space itself. This is not an understanding any Christian had before the twentieth century.

The idea of the empty set itself is a fairly recent idea.  The empty set is not zero.  It has nothing at all in it, not even zero.  It is not even space or emptiness, in other words.

No theologian in history could have fully appreciated what we are saying here until the twentieth century, meaning that any contemporary discussion of creation out of nothing cannot fully derive from any comment in the church fathers and mothers.  The books of the Bible were also written in the categories of its original audiences and so would not give us a literal sense of creation out of nothing--or the otherness of God--even if it clearly taught creation out of nothing.

So we start any sense of the otherness of God with the realization that there was a point when the creation did not exist. We cannot say, "there was a time when it did not exist" because time itself is part of the creation, as we discuss in the next section. We simply have no point of reference from which we might say where or when the "before" of God was. God is not literally in the top layer of the skies, a figurative image we find in the Bible.

Since God existed "before" he created anything, he clearly does not need the creation in order to exist. It might make us feel good to hear people say that God created the world because he needed us or was lonely, but these sorts of nice-sounding ideas are "anthropopathisms," portrayals of God that are projections of human feelings. God does not need the creation.  "He" is self-sufficient (called his "aseity").

Nor is God literally a "he."  He has no genitalia.  He primarily revealed himself as a "he" to the patriarchal cultures of the ancient world, but the Bible also uses feminine imagery of God as well (e.g., Numbers 11:12; Isaiah 42:14).  All gendered language of God is to help us grasp some sense of him by analogy and is not literal.

It might be worthwhile to get a clear sense of what the word "literal" means in these sorts of discussions.  In popular language, the word is sometimes used to mean the same thing as "true" or "real." That is not how theologians or philosophers of language mean the word.  If a word is used literally, then it is used in its ordinary sense.

So the ordinary sense of calling someone a "he" is to imply that such a person has male genitalia. To call someone a "he" that does not have male genitalia is to speak of them figuratively as a "he."  Since God does not have genitalia of any sort, God is not literally male, only figuratively male. And he is "man enough" to use feminine imagery of himself as well.

The otherness of God implies that almost everything we know about him--including his revelation to us about himself--is by analogy.  God can be like a father.  God can be like a judge. God can be like a woman in the pains of childbirth (Isaiah 42:14). The things we know about him literally are more often things we know are not true of him.  He is not contained by space or time (called apophatic or negative theology).

Practically speaking, we must recognize the extent to which our sense of God is limited. Christians say so many things about God that are projections of ourselves. God does not literally forget sins--he always knows everything. There is no meaningful sense in which God cannot do something. What he does not do, he does not do by choice. The biblical pictures of God are pictures too and normally less literal than the discussion on this page.

For example, what does it mean to say that God is "perfect"?  To say that God is the best anything could be in every category is still to measure him by the standards of this creation, meaning that even to call God "perfect" is an inadequate and less than literal description of him.  It is still to think of him in this-worldly terms. This insight immediately indicates the limitations of so much theological reflection throughout history.

God is not exactly the "greatest possible being" because God is not another being in this creation. This description once again tries to capture him with this universe as a reference point. What the medieval theologians meant by divine "simplicity"--the idea that God does not have parts--is itself an attempt not to make him like a this-worldly being. So God reduces to a point.  It is much easier simply to say that whatever his "essence" or "nature" might be, it is "outside" or "beyond" this universe. We put all these things in quotations because we have no real idea of what they might literally mean for God.

The Bible speaks truly of God, but it does so in the kind of analogous and anthropopathic language we have been talking about.  The fundamentalist approach to God is thus a kind of cognitive idolatry in its insistence that we take biblical language of God literally. This is not only misguided.  It undermines even an analogous sense of God's true "perfection." It inevitably reduces God.  To give God his true supremacy, biblical pictures of God must be recognized as exactly that--pictures to help our vastly finite minds grasp the ineffable and incomprehensible.

One of the best expressions of God's otherness is his holiness.  This term should not be tamed by this-worldly categories, as if to say that God's holiness basically means that he is morally pure. Indeed, even for us as humans this is a description of our general intentions and actions, not of something that inheres in us literally.

God has created what is true in this universe. God has determined what is just and good in this universe.  They are excellent descriptions of how God acts in this universe. To say a person literally is such things is not to understand the nature of these adjectives, even for a human.

To say God is holy is, most fundamentally, to say that God is God. It is not so much a statement with propositional content as a statement of awe and emotion.  God is awesome and fearful in power and magnitude.  God is "other" than this creation. If the magnitude of his existence does not cause us to tremble, we have not even caught a glimpse of his awesomeness.

The bottom line is that if we think we have truly understood God, even if we think so because we can quote a bunch of Bible verses, we are most likely making a fool of ourselves without knowing it. We know what God is like.  We know how God has chosen to act in this universe. Anything more requires poetry and quotation marks.

4. God as Timeless
5. God the All Powerful
6. God the All Knowing
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just


John C. Gardner said...

Would you elaborate somewhat more on the development of creation out of nothing? The idea of developmental meaning can be a difficult one for us as Wesleyans.

Ken Schenck said...

I hope to elaborate a little when I get to the creation. :-)

Martin LaBar said...


I'm looking forward to the elaboration.

Weekend Fisher said...

What are your thoughts on knowing God through Christ?

(I've been wondering if or when I would meet Christians who believe that God is essentially unknowable, so that I could try to figure out why they believe that. Not sure if that's exactly what you're saying though.)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Ken Schenck said...

It's a question of how we know God here. Do we know him "as he is" or do we know him "in part."