Thinking Through the Creed, Part 1

I believe in God, the Father almighty. . . .

"Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the God they don't believe in, we quickly discover that I don't believe in that God either."--Rob Bell.

It seems logical to start any discussion of the Creed with God, and in specific that dimension of God Christians refer to as the "the Father."  For one thing, the Creed starts that way, and it makes sense to begin at the beginning of the Creed and work progressively through the text.  For another, starting with God is a way to start at the beginning, which is always a good idea when you are trying to explain something.

I think that's a mistake, one that gets us into an enormous amount of trouble.  I think that "God" is actually an enormously problematic and fraught concept.  In fact, in the initial outline of this series, I skipped over this section of the Creed and jumped right in to talking about Jesus.  But I think it is worthwhile talking first about God, if only in terms of the via negativa.  Sometimes you have to name the not right (or not quite right) answers before you get to the right one.  So, bear with me for a bit, because I am going to talk a bit about three ideas of God that are not my idea of God, before we get to what is my idea of God in later posts.

The late, truly great Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe points out in his book God Still Matters that the word "god," and all of its cognates in other languages ("theos," "deus," "dieu," "dios," "gott," etc.), is a borrowed word.  It was originally used to refer to one of the multitude of deities that formed the polytheism of our Indo-European ancestors.  Ultimately, these gods were a personification and a divinization of the elements of the world of those ancestors of ours.  Our ancestors looked up to the sky and saw lightning and storms, and so made them into gods like Zeus and Odin; our ancestors loved, and so their gods loved as well.  "God," or the gods, then, is a kind of projection, taking that which is concrete in our world and projecting it onto a transcendent screen.

It might seem to be an trivial thing to say, but God-as-projection-onto-the-transcendent doesn't "really exist."  But it's not a trivial statement, because we all have a tendency to fall into this mode.  Indeed, the people who most think they are beyond this kind of thing are the people who are most likely fall into this trap.  We all know people who love to talk about their militant atheism while passionately claiming that some cause is the source of meaning in their life.  For these people, "Environmentalism," or "Making America Great Again," or "Success," is their Zeus or Odin, and they function in precisely the same way Zeus and Odin functioned in previous days.  It is the transcendent force that provides meaning and purpose to their lives, and the one that they must appease in order to fend off the bad consequences to come.  We shouldn't be so quick to laugh off our "primitive" ancestors in their worship of the gods, as most of us at one time or another have  done the same thing under different names.

"Religious" people can do the same thing.  It's a well-known quote (which I just discovered comes from Anne Lamott), but it is true: "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."  For some self-identified "religious" folks, God is the banner under which they can justify their pre-loaded agenda.  This God is, in the true sense of the word as it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, an idol.  It is no less of a human projection than Zeus or Odin, no matter how much it is dressed up in the trappings of Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, or whatever).

In any event, this first idea of God--basically "the gods" with a different name--isn't real.  The second idea is another repurposing of the word "god," this time from the ancient Greeks.  The Greek philosophical tradition, which viewed itself as way beyond caring about ridiculous entities like Zeus, saw God as the final, missing piece of their vision of an ordered and rational universe.  Like Neo in the Matrix movies, God was the final, hidden term that balanced the equation of existence.

Over time, this notion has morphed into a variety of forms, all designed to fit into however people understand the equation of existence.  So, Aristotle had his Uncaused Cause, which fit into the empty place in his system of unbroken cause and effect.  For those versed in modern quantum mechanics, you have the Ultimate Observer, the one who collapses the probabalistic wave-functions of all things into an actual, tangible reality.  Either way, there is a "hole" in the scientific model of reality that cannot be filled (or, at least, not easily), and so God fills in that space.

Unlike "the gods," who I am convinced don't exist, I have realized that I am deeply agnostic about this "God of the gaps."  It is of enormous importance for some people--Fr. McCabe, mentioned above, spends most of his book on various permutations of this idea--because it allows them to see the universe as comprehensible and rational.  But, as time goes on, I have become less confident in the explanatory power Grand Unified Theories of whatever stripe.  I just don't need everything to fit together in a tidy little box in the way I used to, so the "gaps" that the God of the gaps fills are just less important to me than they once were.

I also find the God of the gaps to be thin gruel.  The original Greek understanding is wholly impersonal and detatched, and many of its philosophical and religious descendants are equally abstract, to the point of being utterly unrelateable.  I tried getting through, for example, some of the great 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich's ideas, only to find that his zeal to avoid personifying God left a God that might as well not exist at all, so far was it from any kind of human experience.  I'm just not sure the fact that God-as-Ultimate Concern exists really matters all that much.

This leaves us with a third idea.  I am thoroughly convinced that this God exists, if perhaps not in precisely the form described by the first authors or witnessed to in the key texts.  That God is the Living God, the God of Israel, who goes by several different names and appears to take several different forms.  The God of Israel is far more alien than the humanoid figures of polytheism and far weirder and more unpredictable than the clean, mathematical equation of the Greeks and their intellectual descendants.

At the heart of this strange reality, at least as attested in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a kind of void or negative space.  The Hebrew Scriptures say many things about the God of Israel, but don't really provide a clear picture of who this entity is or what "God's deal" is.  We never get clear answers or a clear vision, but only a fragmentary or side-ways look.  In the book of Exodus, the heart of God's self-revelation to the Jewish people, Moses asks the God of Israel "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you', and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13), Moses receives the utterly ambiguous response "ehyeh asher ehyeh."  No one really agrees on what this phrase means.  The first translation of the phrase ever made was into Greek, and, no doubt influenced by Platonic thinking, came up with "ego eimi ho on"--"I am the one who is."  Others go with "I will be who I will be" or "I am who I am."  None of which is particularly clear or super-helpful.  It's basically a Zen koan.

The appearance of this Living God (when God does appear directly, such as on Mount Sinai) is in the form of smoke or a "cloud of darkness" (see Exodus 19)--also a kind of void or negative space.  Whatever this cloud is like (or the related phenomenon of God's kavod, usually rendered in English as "glory"), Exodus suggests that it is terrifying.  In fact, everything about the Exodus story is kind of terrifying.  I think this terrifying dimension to God is a function of the alien weirdness of God.  If the God of the gaps is comforting because it makes the world understandable, the God of the Exodus is scary precisely because we cannot totally understand what it going on in the midst of God's presence.
Judaism has preserved this idea of God as an unsettling and ambiguous figure in a way that Christianity has not, and in doing so has maintained a better sense of God as beyond human comprehension and knowledge.  At the heart of the universe is the singular, divine question mark, at least from the perspective of human beings.  That's an important dimension, I think, because it keeps us from becoming too comfortable with any one particular understanding of God.  It resists our attempts to domesticate God and harness God for our own purposes and agendas, which is a perennial temptation.  We can't harness God to our own agendas because we don't really understand enough about God to fully wrap our arms around what we are talking about.

I think the basic idea of God as inscrutable and unknowable is partially true, and important for what it does, but it is incomplete if left as the only understanding.  Such a God, it seems to me, is just as easy to ignore as the God of the gaps.  This God's very inscrutability makes it no different from equally vague concepts like "fate" or "luck."  Sometimes weird things happen, and if those weird things are fundamentally unintelligible, it really doesn't matter what you call it.  All you can do is shrug and move on.

Anyway, that's a somewhat rambling discussion of why the term "God" is really problematic and often unhelpful.  I don't really think I know much about this "God," at least not directly.  I do, however, have a much better sense of this person named Jesus of Nazareth, and helpfully Jesus tells us that when we see Him, we see the Father.  Jesus shows us indirectly what we can't really figure out directly.  But before we get into that, a brief digression into that most controversial of topics--the opening chapters of Genesis and the idea of God as a Creator.


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea