Monday, August 22, 2011

Unorthodox musings?

So, I've been thinking... (cue collective groan ;-D) I've been thinking about self-sacrifice, the concept of the possible, and what belief in God is all about... and I think I may have come to some conclusions that are - perhaps - unorthodox.  As is the case with such things, I've written a long blog entry about it.  haha!  Comments are welcome.

First, let me give the background. It is standard Christian theology to say that God is 'Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnibenevolent, Eternal, etc'. These are commonly called the attributes of God. I know there isn't complete agreement on all the attributes or how they operate, but in general there is some kind of consensus regarding the basics. Another way it may be said is that 'God is an eternal, personal being who transcends time and space, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving'. (This is often the definition given by philosophers when debating the existence of God.) Alongside this, God is understood to be the Creator of the universe, the one who made all that exists.

Now, immediately, this raises difficult questions; questions that have been argued about for over 2,000 years: How does such a God relate to the creation? How would we, as human beings, be able to know this God? Why, if God is thus defined, did God create a world that has so many problems? In Christian theology, the answers to these three questions can be summed up, somewhat superficially, by the following three respective terms - Christology (how God relates to the creation), Revelation (how God is made known to us), and Sin (why the creation has so many flaws).

Now, I am going to bypass the first two questions for the moment, not because they aren't important, but rather because I think it is easier to see my point if I focus on the third question: Why did God create such a flawed world?

Again, the standard answer is 'sin'. Sin refers to the result of humans misusing their free will - which was either given to the original human beings, or to each human being (depending on your theology) - and this disobedience/rejection of God led to the 'Fall' of humanity and the entrance of sin into creation.

Now, someone might ask how human sin, especially with the current evidence for the age of the universe, and the way life on earth has evolved, can be responsible for things like poisonous snakes, earthquakes, viruses, radiation, and other apparent hindrances to a 'happy' life. It seems rather exaggerated to say that prior to human sin, there were no volcanoes, or deadly insects, or decay of any kind. We quickly drift into a mythical world that seems to bear no resemblance to our own. Do we really think human sin caused the universe to morph a la Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde?

Well, if that seems implausible, there is another solution: the angelic 'Fall'. Here, we learn that God's angels, like human beings, are given free wills, and they also choose to misuse their wills, and it is this cosmic 'Fall' which leads to the corruption of the universe.  Now, such a cosmic event cannot be verified in any way known to humans, and current scientific research indicates that the universe was created by a 'big bang', which would seem to work against the angelic 'Fall' since it argues the universe burst into being already containing chaotic and potentially damaging elements.  I suppose one could say that the big bang itself is the angelic 'Fall'.  Well....  no, that won't work, because that is essentially to say that the universe as we know it was created by the devil and his angels.

So, we have a big bang, commonly understood (at least by those who are not 'young earthers') as God's act of the creation of the universe, that seems to precede any 'Fall' and this leads to the logical query: If there was a 'Fall', how do we account for the negative or chaotic aspects of the creation prior to that 'Fall'?  This is, you can see, the same basic issue one has to deal with when talking about whether there were stinging wasps or tsunamis prior to Adam's sin.

Now, again, some believers might suggest that sin is analogous to the full moon - it is the event (a free decision) which transforms the person from a good man or woman into a werewolf, only it happens on a much larger scale.  Others might suggest that prior to the advent of human beings, calling things like earthquakes 'evil' or 'fallen' would have no meaning.  But all of this simply leads to another, more basic question, and that is: Why couldn't God have made it so this didn't happen?  After all, even a world where only bugs are killed would seem less hospitable than a world where nothing is killed, right?  So, why did God create a world that was bound to fall?  Now we reach the crux of my thoughts.

So, there are several responses (all of which can be defended biblically) Christians have given to the above question.  First, we can simply say that God had to make human beings (and angels) free, because God loves us, and unfree beings who are created by a loving God would be a contradiction.  But this is problematic, because now it appears that God is somehow not all-powerful (remember the attributes).  After all, if God had to make us free, then doesn't that mean we have some power vis-a-vis God?  In other words, once God made us this way, God has to accept certain limitations for Godself?  One possible answer is that God didn't have to make us free, but chose to, out of love.  Perhaps this mitigates the problem somewhat, but we are still left to ask whether this somehow limits God's ability to act in the created universe.

Those who refuse this option (like Augustine, in his later writings) say that God's ways are mysterious, and God - in His sovereignty - chose to give humanity freedom out of love, but that God also, at the same time, knew human beings would use their freedom to rebel against God.  So, God made the decision from before the creation of the universe that God would choose some humans to be saved, and some to be damned.  Thus, God 'predestined' those who will end up saved.  This is not inconsistent, because since all human beings will, if given the option, choose to rebel against God, they all deserve punishment.  So, God is actually being merciful by saving some, rather than allowing all to perish.

It must be said that this view (which is often called the 'Calvinist' view) does solve the problem of God's sovereignty and omnipotence - God retains both, since God is holy and it is completely reasonable that a holy God cannot endure sin.  Thus, human beings, like the angels who fell, deserve punishment.

However, there is a big problem with this view, and it remains unresolved.  That is, if God knew all this, and realized the outcome of creating would be so horrific and traumatic for the creation, why did God bother to create at all?  So, we come back to the same question we asked above.  After all, it seems difficult to say that God is all-loving or omnibenevolent if God decided to create a universe (let alone angels) with the knowledge that creating this universe would mean unimaginable suffering for most of its inhabitants.

Now, the Christological response is that God shows how much God loves us by becoming a human being (Jesus Christ) and taking the whole weight (metaphysically and physically) of sin upon Himself.  Jesus' death, and resurrection, show the immense love of God.  This is certainly amazing, but it doesn't really solve the problem, since - on a Calvinist reading - God only does this for certain people who have already been chosen to be saved.  So, Jesus only dies for the sins of some people.  Or, Jesus dies for the sins of all, but it only matters for some.  Some have argued that the Bible can be read as pointing to the death of Jesus as applying to all humanity, which means that somehow, someday, all human beings will be saved.  But this goes against other statements in the Bible, and thus is considered the heresy of Universalism.

But we still haven't answered the question.  What's more, it seems to have gotten worse!  We are now saying that God chose to create a world that God knew would go wrong somehow, and chose to create it anyway, deciding to save some portion of it (for reasons unknown to us) and leaving the remaining - and, it seems, majority - portion to either suffering eternal torment or be completely wiped out of existence (the 'annihilationist' position, which is considered heterodox).  So how does this exhibit omnibenevolence?  Furthermore, how does it exhibit omnipotence?

What I mean is this: apparently God, no matter how we spin it, cannot create a world where people have genuine freedom that doesn't (or won't almost certainly) go awry.  The assumption underlying all of these approaches is that God, out of love, created the universe and human beings with a kind of freedom.  But, God could not create any universe where that freedom would not be misused.  Indeed, for the Calvinist position, that has to be the case, because if there is a chance that freedom would be used properly, then there is a chance that a human being would be able to make the right choice, and thus would not need to be saved by Christ's death and resurrection.

But the point is that, in all of these cases, if we ask 'Why did God create such a universe?', then God's omnipotence seems difficult to maintain.  Either we say that God is sovereign, and all-powerful, and so what God decides is simply the way it is, end of story... or, we admit that the ways in which we are defining God's attributes have a particular context - God's love requires a free response and thus there has to be an element of freedom in the creation, etc - and thus might not be completely accurate.

If we say, 'God is sovereign, end of story,' then we have a God for whom the concept of 'all-loving' seems incoherent - how can we call God all-loving if what that means is, essentially, God knowingly creates a world with creatures in it who are bound to mess things up terribly, and then decides according to God's inscrutable will which of these fallen creatures God will save and which ones will be damned.  Or, God knowingly creates a world with creatures in it who are bound to mess up terribly, and then does it anyway, hoping that those creatures will be compelled by the loving grace of God in Jesus Christ and will find the salvation God is offering to them.  The second option sounds nicer, I think, but it suffers both from a deficient omnibenevolence and a deficient omnipotence, since God cannot assure our salvation.  This is, I suspect, why the Calvinist tradition remains strong; it is able to offer a more robust view of God's omnipotence.

Or does it?  Does the doctrine of a God who sovereignly creates a world that can't help but go wrong, to the point that God had no other option than to predestine some to be saved and some to be damned, really offer us a picture of an all-powerful God?  It seems to me that no matter how we approach the question, we end up with a God who, in creating, could only create a particular kind of universe, given the parameters God apparently set out in advance.

If - when we ask 'Why did God create this sort of universe?' - all of these approaches ultimately leave us with a picture of God that either obscures the concept of God's being all-loving or obscures the concept of God's being all-powerful, then perhaps we need to admit that the second option is more proper; that is, we need to admit our conception of God's attributes are limited and thus open to interpretation.  This is, I admit, a disconcerting idea - it threatens the very structure of our conception of God, and certainly we need to have some foundational conception of God if we are Christians - but I submit that perhaps a contextual view of God's attributes offers the possibility of a more nuanced, grace-filled, and, yes, challenging, life of faith.  This means, first of all, admitting our views of omnipotence, etc, are not propositional.

What do you think?  Am I going too far?  Is this heretical?  For some, no doubt, it is.  But I am no longer able to pretend that there is no cognitive dissonance between what is claimed of God and how those theological claims are interpreted in our lives.  If they don't match, we can certainly say it is because we don't understand God's ways.  But let's be consistent then and admit we don't understand God's attributes either.  Which means it's as likely as anything else that God's omnipotence is not precisely what Christian theology has claimed.


BenMc said...

Geoff, I've been thinking a lot about the end of Job lately, which wrestles with some of these questions. I think it runs much deeper than the facile "well, God's just justifying himself" interpretation some give to the end of Job ... there's a lot going on there. I also think we have something to learn from the Eastern Orthodox church and their view of the Fall, which I am finding much more helpful than rigid Augustinian frameworks. Both of these elements come together in John Schneider's paper here: . This paper has recently caused Schneider to leave his position at Calvin College despite tenure, which I think is an absolute chame because I think it's very very helpful -- and fundamentally orthodox. I'd like to know what you think.

Geoff said...

Hey Ben,

Thanks for the article. I enjoyed reading it, though I think I can see why CC might have been worried, because it seems to me that the direction he is going can't help but call into question the traditional conception of God's attributes, particularly omnibenevolence, as his reading of Job and Paul seems to suggest that God may just be the reason why evil happens. I know some Reformed theologians have leaned in this direction, and it troubles me.

But, there is also a wavering on omnipotence, inasmuch as the implication is that God has to work with chaos precisely because it cannot be entirely eliminated. Otherwise the idea of God using leviathan, etc, makes no sense. All else being equal, why would God use the chaotic elements of creation if God could have simply created a world without them? The answer, it seems to me, is that such a world wouldn't have been good for the creatures God loves (i.e. humans). It follows that God cannot create a world without any potential for chaos that would be suitable for free creatures. This is at least a bit problematic for traditional conceptions of omnipotence.

Also, he leans in the direction of universalism, though he never commits himself to such a view.

Personally, I think it's a good move, but I can see why some would find it troubling. He remains orthodox, I think, by not fully committing himself to any potentially heretical views, but a strict Calvinist would, I think, see those potencies regardless. Still, I find a lot of what he says to be helpful.

BenMc said...

It's also worth noting that Schneider passed his proposal past several people who didn't have a problem with it, until the university president did and that one person apparently forced his dismissal. Now there's a hubbub about it after the fact. But that's neither here nor there.

The one common element that recurs to me here is the future/eschatology. If this is in the process of being made right, of putting back together the broken, then a lot more of the evil may make sense. Very conditional "may", to be sure.

I recently heard something about why the innocent suffer that proposed that when the innocent suffer they are participating in the suffering of the innocent Christ. Not sure that's entirely orthodox either but the idea of participating in Christ's sufferings is definitely in the Bible. I have to mull that one over a little more but it's an angle I don't always think about.

I don't expect resolution with this but sometimes the best music comes from a lack of resolution -- e.g., Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Geoff said...

Yeah, good point about not expecting resolution, Ben. That's something I mention in a new post today. Thanks! Hope you and your family are all doing well, by the way!