God is not Odin All-Father. God does not wield thunderbolts like Zeus. God does not make the world by slaying Tiamat and dividing her carcass to form heaven and earth. God is not god.
We Christians, of course, did not invent “God.” We inherited the notion from the Jews, who struggled for centuries to understand how YHWH was different from the gods whom she was commanded never to worship and obey: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). N. T. Wright describes the 2nd Temple Jewish belief in God as creational monotheism: “It spoke of a god who had made the world, and who thus was to be distinguished from four other conceptions of the divinity which might claim to be ‘monotheistic,’ and at least one which would not” (The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 248-250):
1) Creational monotheism excludes henotheism, i.e., the belief that YHWH is but one of many gods, though superior to the other gods and thus the only one deserving of Israel’s worship and obedience. Think of the period of the Judges when Israelites took the daughters of the heathen in marriage and served their gods, presumably in addition to YHWH. Think of Elijah’s conflict with the Baals.
2) Creational monotheism excludes pantheism, i.e., the belief that divinity is fundamentally identified with the whole of reality. Think Stoicism.
3) Creational monotheism excludes deism, i.e., the belief that the gods are detached from the history of the world and never intervene in its workings. Think Epicureanism.
4) Creational monotheism excludes dualism, i.e.., the belief that the physical world was made by a supernatural being distinct from the one true god. Think Gnosticism.
5) Creational monotheism excludes paganism, i.e., the belief that the universe is populated by many kinds of divine beings. Think … well … think polytheism.
Note that the excluded belief systems share one thing in common—divinity exists in a necessary relationship with the world (see “The Christian Distinction“).
Christianity received the unique Jewish understanding of divinity and radicalized it through theological, spiritual, and philosophical reflection. We see this expressed in two patristic assertions: (a) God made the world, not from pre-existent matter, but from nothing (creatio ex nihilo); and (b) the divine ousia is incomprehensible. These two assertions are inextricably woven together. In the words of St Gregory the Theologian: “No one has yet discovered or ever shall discover what God is in his nature and essence” (Or. 28.17).
I concluded my previous post with the question, How do we stop thinking of God as god? The contemporary theologian I have found most helpful on this question is Herbert McCabe. The key, suggests McCabe, is to stop thinking of God as in any way an inhabitant of the universe.
God must be incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and, as Aquinas puts it, outside the order of all beings. God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars. God is not an inhabitant of the universe; he is the reason why there is a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space. When you have finished classifying and counting all the things in the universe you cannot add: ‘And also there is God.’ When you have finished classifying and counting everything in the universe you have finished, period. There is no God in the world. (God Still Matters, p. 37)
If God is not a being but rather the ultimate source and cause of all that he has freely brought into existence, then he cannot be understood as a god. Deities are but “bits of the universe”; but the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the transcendent creator of the universe. He is the reason why there is a universe, whether it contains gods, fairies, sprites, centaurs or whatnot.
But if God is not a god, then what is he? McCabe is direct: we do not know. We do not know what God is. We cannot provide a definition of his nature. We cannot comprehend his essence. Hence we really do not know what we are talking about when we use the word “God.” All we know is that whatever God is, he is the transcendent Mystery of our existence:
The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (p. 59)
Perhaps now we can understand why Christians were sometimes accused by pagans of being atheists.
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Since we are created and live in a created universe, we can only hope to understand that. God, the Creator, is more than that. To understand Him fully would take uncreated faculties which we do not have. So there remains a certain mystery to the fulness of God. We can understand what God would be like as a human through Jesus. But we know that God is beyond human as Jesus is.
What McCabe proposes reminds me of Jean Luc Marion’s God Without Being, or speaking of God free from ontological categories–that’s why he crossed out the “o” when he wrote the word God. It seams as though, I could be wrong since I haven’t read McCabe, he takes it a step further than Marion by saying that we don’t know what God is, and I think he hits the nail on the head. What we do have is the revelation of the Trinity. For me personally, I try not to use the word God but use the language of the Church: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, especially since everyone speaks of God in an abstract sense and the only way for Christians (of the Trinitarian variety) to differ from the masses is to use the historical, traditional language.
I have never read Marion, but I heard him lecture at a conference at Fordham several years ago.
I understand that in his early works he was quite critical of Aquinas but that he has subsequently revised his judgment. Apparently he has come to realize that Aquinas is properly understood as an apophatic theologian.
Indeed, Marion was critical of Aquinas, he favored Pseudo-Dionysius, that the Good is God’s primary name. Being is found in God but He is not found in Being, whereas Aquinas believed that Being is the highest name of God. Unfortunately, Aquinas has gotten a bad rap but, like you said, properly understood he is an apophatic theologian, I just think he balances it with the cataphatic, which I think is necessary to have–even though I tend to favor the Areopagite over Aquinas–or one will end up having nothing at all to say or write about God. As Christians we need to have something to say about God other than what He is not.
David Bentley Hart makes a similar argument in his new book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss”.
…which I now see you’ve mentioned in the previous post. 😉
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So “God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things….” That’s a very philosophical thing to say, and very un-Biblical. The Bible has no problem whatever with such comparisons, saying:
God is like a father. (That God is father, or like a father, is said dozens of times.)
God exists in a place, heaven.
God has a son, whom he literally begat upon a mortal woman.
God has emotions, such as anger and love, even jealousy. He even “grieves,” “repents,” and “changes his mind.” (He has a mind!)
Are these all just metaphors thrown out for the benighted? The Creed, just a poem? What about all those narratives where God is an active character who speaks, slays, loves, parts waters?
Greetings, Lyle. You write: “God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things….” But I’m sure you’ll agree that we need to read this in the context of the entire passage. What McCabe says is: “God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars.”
McCabe’s essential point is that we first need to understand the radical difference between God and the world that is implied by the Christian doctrine of creation and expressed in the patristic doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo. Until we understand this radical difference we have not begun to understand the properly Christian presentation of God. This is why many of the Church Fathers insisted that our theological reflection begins with saying “God is not like ____.”
While this sounds “philosophical,” it simply represents an extension of the Hebraic understanding of the creator. “To whom have you likened the Lord, or with what likeness have you likened him” (Is 40:18). Thus Thomas Torrance, e.g., speaks of the need for us to purify our thinking about God, lest we import into the Godhead that which properly belongs to the creature.
You are quite right that the biblical authors employ all sorts of metaphors by which to speak of God; but we recognize this language as precisely metaphor, not literal speech. Now McCabe, following Aquinas, also believes that we may speak of God by way of analogy (which he considers to be a form of literal speech), specifically regarding many of his attributes; but he qualifies this apophatically: even when we say that God is wise or just or good, we do not know what this means for the transcendent God—only God knows. Even when we speak analogically of God, he remains ineffable mystery.
I especially commend to you the Five Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian. Also see my three-part series on Gregory: “Not Knowing–Yet Knowing–the Incomprehensible God.”
The last 3 sentences of the McCabe quotation suggest that God is consciousness.
Butler, can you explain further why you think that?
Consciousness consists of our awareness of self and environment, but also our awareness of our awareness. This second aspect of consciousness is mysterious in the sense of being harder to explain. In the first block of text attributed to McCabe (God Still Matters, p. 37), he says, “God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space.” With the exception that consciousness must be a material property of our central nervous system, the sentence offers a pretty decent description of the mystery of consciousness; i.e., it is not the thing, but it makes us aware of the thing’s existence.
In the second block of text, McCabe says (p. 39), “The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves.” Replace the word God in that sentence, with the word consciousness, and it makes sense, perhaps even more so to an atheist.
Not theological, but here is an interesting article about the problem of consciousness from a neuropsychological perspective:
David Bentley Hart certainly argues that in “The Experience of God”.
I admit that I am not comfortable saying “God is consciousness,” though I can’t think of a good argument against this usage. If one can say “God is Being” or “God is Life,” why can’t one say “God is consciousness”? I don’t know. But you probably won’t catch me saying it. 🙂
Your article presupposes at least one piece of knowledge about God – that the appropriate pronoun is “he” rather than “it”. McCabe’s words about the Mystery, are fine and could to some extent be subscribed to by atheists, but they only work because he uses “it”.
The problem with all of this is that virtually no Christian believes any of it. The vast majority of Christians believe that heaven is a place where they will see angels, departed loved ones, and be in the presence of God. Scripture gives every reason to believe this, as well: in the Old Testament and New, we read of God seated upon a throne, surrounded by adoring denizens of heaven. Most modern Christians believe they actually communicate with God in prayer. I understand why a philosopher or a theologian would find all of this preposterous, and I understand the emotional need to find a way to hold on to a belief in God while moving beyond mythology. But no such concept of God has ever taken hold in the lived religion of the vast majority of the faithful.
Hi, egyptsteve. I suggest you have posited a false either/or—either we read the Bible in literalistic, simplistic fashion, or we jettison the apostolic faith. I do not accept this. It is the job of preachers and pastors to properly distinguish the true God from the anthropomorphic idol that will always remain a popular temptation within the Church. It’s not a matter of building a philosophical construct to replace the God of the Bible. It’s a matter, rather, of learning to pray to God rightly, learning to think about God rightly, and learning to read the Bible rightly—which is why all theological reflection begins in the Holy Eucharist.
Orthodox Christians know God as absolute Mystery because this is the God we encounter in the Divine Liturgy. Everything about the Liturgy bespeaks the Mystery. The celebrant begins the Anaphora with these words:
The apophatic tradition is not something strange to Christianity. What is strange is the literalistic reading of the Bible that generates a deity who is a human being magnified a zillion-fold but without a body. I know this God well, as it is the God I preached for much of my active ministry. But then I began to read the Church Fathers and Thomists like Herbert McCabe and Denys Turner.
Stay tuned. In the next post or two, I intend to share some thoughts about the phenomenon of “theistic personalism,” which has become very popular in evangelical and Protestant circles.
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I would also like ask those who believe that God is not a being who does not actually “exist” anywhere, and who is qualitatively different from the “gods”: how would you explain the importance and efficacy of rituals and prayers, including things like exorcism, which the Catholic Church still embraces? These features of Christianity look suspiciously like the way in which the “gods” were worshiped and interacted with since the days of the Alta Mira cave painters. They certainly suggest that God has some need of worship, like Oden and Zeus and Amun, and that the spiritual experience of Christianity is hardly different, if at all, from the spiritual experience of any other religion.
One of the problems here is that there are many polytheisms which still acknowledge an absolutely apophatic ground of being and give it a name. In early proto-Hinduism, right around the Axial Age, mystics called that “Brahma,” and not all versions of that story were either gnostic-as-described-here or pantheistic.
Some of the more nontheist religions took on the same territory but interpreted it differently–specifically understanding it as existing beyond existence but without believing it makes sense to say “God’s will” the way Christianity does. Some late Buddhists called such an unreachable ground of being “the dharmakaya,” or the (literally) “true-Word-body,” (threads of deism or pantheism, certainly were stronger, however) while in China, some Taoists called that “The Tao.” Those same words have just as often taken the “nondual” route, which is very hard for most westerners to read as anything but pantheism or deism.
All of which is to say: the Abrahamic religions do not actually have a monopoly on this concept. What Christianity _might_ have to distinguish itself is embedding this directly in orthodoxy–you cannot be a Christian and believe anything else, but all three of the counterexamples have qualifiers like “some sects” or “at certain times in history.” The bigger difference is the idea of such a God in a universe that has a beginning, a middle, and an end: all three of those above see existence as steady-state or cyclical, which radically undercuts the idea that such an unreachable-yet-allpowerful-all-beholding ground of being has a will or a purpose for life.
I wonder how we might specify the differences between classical monotheism, as represented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the Eastern religions that you mention.
If God is not a god, then why _call_ God “God”?
I think people mean two things by “God”. There’s the people’s God, who has a name and a face and a long white beard and a back-story and a personality; then there’s the philosopher’s God, who has neither name nor face nor beard nor back-story nor personality, nor anything else appealing to the people. The people’s God offers drama, the philosopher’s God offers respectability.
I think that the people’s God is very much a small-g god, but the philosopher’s God is neither a god nor much of anything else. The people’s God is lively but mortal; for where is Marduk now? The philosopher’s God is deathless but lifeless; for who would ever pray to the ground of being?
And as for God as absolute mystery; this is indistinguishable from agnosticism. It supports no specific religion.
“And as for God as absolute mystery; this is indistinguishable from agnosticism. It supports no specific religion.”
I suspect that the line between atheism and absolute mystery is very thin indeed. See, e.g., this interview with Denys Turner: http://goo.gl/BNXXPn.
Can Mystery sustain a specific religion? Yes. Check out the Eastern Orthodox Church.
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