Weekends are always slow blog days, at least when it comes to people reading blogs. Hence I like to restrict (when possible) my more substantive pieces to Mondays through Thursdays. So how about a little Jerry Coyne filler today?
Today Coyne posted a blog continuing his attack on the personal God of the Scriptures: “Is God a Vertebrate Without Substance?” He borrows the phrase “vertebrate without substance” from one of my favorite atheist critics of Christianity, H. L. Mencken. Mencken had a cutting wit and knew how to write a pithy sentence. “But my point,” Coyne explains, “is that this is, in fact, how many Christians (and add to that Jews and Muslims) think of their god: as a person without a body. And that person has humanlike thoughts, feelings, and emotions.”
And of course he is absolutely right. This is how ordinary Christians think about the God whom they worship and serve. Our God is indeed personal, which is why we dare to pray to him, petition him, intercede with him, and seek to obey his commandments. Though this may leave us open to the ridicule of atheists like Mencken and Coyne, we sure aren’t going to apologize for our conviction nor are we going to philosophically qualify the divine personhood out of existence. We do not believe, will never believe, in an impersonal Deity.
But … and there is a crucial “but” here … we are also very much aware that God infinitely transcends all of our notions of personality and consciousness. God is God. If and when we do express ourselves incautiously about the divine nature and find ourselves speaking of God in purely anthropomorphic terms, the theologians of our respective traditions step in to correct us, typically through the catechetical teaching of our pastors.
There is a problem here, though. Sometimes pastors are not well-trained in the theology and are thus not well-acquainted with the theological and spiritual tradition they are ordained to represent and teach. And to make matters worse, many only possess a modern understanding of God, popularly identified as theistic personalism. Theistic personalists often seem to relish in anthropomorphism. I have made a couple of attempts to address this issue here on Eclectic Orthodoxy: see, for example, “God is not Odin” and “How Anthropomorphic is Your G-O-D?” In any case, what we have here is an ongoing intra-Christian debate.
The problem of the anthropomorphic rendering in Deity in the Scriptures has long been recognized in the theological tradition. How do we interpret the stories in which God gets angry or changes his mind and so on? The first thing we do, of course, is interpret them. Thus St Anthony the Great (fourth century), as quoted in the Philokalia:
God is good, and passionless and immutable. If a man accepts it as right and true that God does not change, yet is puzzled how (being such) He rejoices at the good, turns away from the wicked, is angered with sinners and shows them mercy when they repent, the answer to this is that God does not rejoice and is not angered, for joy and anger are passions. It is absurd to think that the Deity could be helped or harmed by human deeds. God is good and does only good; He harms no one and remains always the same. As to ourselves, when we are good we enter into communion with God through our likeness to Him, and when we become evil, we cut ourselves off from God, through our unlikeness to Him. When we live virtuously we are God’s own, and when we become wicked, we fall away from Him. This does not mean that He is angry with us, but that our sins do not let God shine in us, and that they link us with the tormentors-the demons. If later, through prayers and good deeds, we obtain absolution of our sins, it does not mean that we have propitiated God and changed Him, but that through such actions and our turning to God we have cured the evil in ourselves and have again become able to partake of God’s goodness. Thus, to say that God turns away from the wicked is the same as to say that the sun hides itself from those who lose their sight. (Texts on Saintly Life 150)
There’s nothing odd or unusual about Anthony’s correction of biblical anthropomorphism. One will find such corrections throughout the theological, homiletical, and ascetical tradition. This doesn’t mean that Christians do not believe in a personal Creator; but it certainly does mean that we understand the difference between God and a god—and we apparently understand this difference a lot better than does Dr Jerry Coyne.