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May 31, 2010

In many Eastern religions there is no god. This may seem surprising to those who would define religion as a belief in god, but neither Taoism, Confucianism, nor Theravada Buddhism seem to require divine beings (and yet all three are generally considered religions). Indeed, my knowledge of Eastern religions is a bit patchy and I’ve probably missed a few. Zen Buddhism? Probably no gods, but I wouldn’t want to make a blanket statement without checking. What these religions use in place of gods are, for lack of a better word, cosmic rules. While I’ve just said these aren’t gods I’d prefer to be able to use some standard terminology, and so I’m going to re-label them as gods. Specifically, we’ll refer to cosmic rules as impersonal gods, supernatural and moral manifestations of the universe that lack any sense of personhood. In contrast, Christianity firmly asserts the personhood of God. God is a being, having once taken on a specific human form, and as such is capable of willful action in a way that the Tao, say, is unable to.

I am, let us be clear, fully in favor of this. God’s personhood is not about to meet with challenge here. But what I do want to do is ask about a strange flip side to personhood: is God, in Christian thought, sometimes over-personalized? By this I do not mean that His personhood is taken too far. This is impossible – a being that is a person is a person, and you can’t slide that scale around. What can be done, though, is to focus on God’s personhood to the exclusion of all else. Is God, after all, just a sky-despot?

I’ve received two questions that have some bearing on this idea. The first was from an atheist who challenged my Christian beliefs. “Are things good,” he asked, “Because God says they are (in which case He is an arbitrary despot), or does God recognize good things and then call them good (thereby making Him subject to some higher law)?” The second questioner asked why Jesus had to die.

The first question has already been answered (in fact, I later discovered my questioner had stolen it from a website that actually stated the answer given by Thomas Aquinas centuries before either of us were around). To answer the question, though, we must stop, for a second, thinking of God primarily as a person. Instead, we must think of God much more like a force, or a set of cosmic rules. What is goodness? Goodness is not something extrinsic to God, the mistake made by both options my questioner presented. God does not lay down the law, dividing up arbitrary externals into good and bad, nor does He sort through those externals for signs of inherent worth. Instead, God’s very nature defines the universe and all morality. God, because He is God, is inherently good. For God to declare something good is not at all like my declaring that I like pizza more than haggis. Instead, it is more akin to my declaring that I can think. My own being is inextricably bound up in my ability to think, and I cannot change this, even though it comes from me. My thinking is intrinsic to my being a thinking being. For God, Who is unutterably more than I am, the universe itself is shaped around His nature.

The second question is really the same as the first, with the same sort of answer (although I will not fault anyone for not immediately seeing the connection). When we ask why Jesus had to die we are assuming that there are options. Could God not simply have re-written the rules? This, though, assumes that the rules are mutable, that they are products of God’s willful decision, and not God’s excellence of nature. If God defines the rules (and I speak here of the real rules, not the small manifestations of the real rules in specific cultures and times that we so often get worked up about) through His very existence as God then the rules cannot be re-written. Evil cannot be called good, because it is not. It cannot be robbed of its power to destroy because it is destruction, being that which is inherently opposed to the Lord of Life.

Having realized this the answer to the question becomes clear. God could not alter the rules, not because He was exceptionally pig-headed that day but because to do so would require Him to cease to be Himself. What God could do was to fix things, to absorb into His vastness the destructive power of evil, and to allow it to spend itself futilely against His majesty. What was always completely off the table, though, was to ignore the reality of evil, and to simply claim that it wasn’t destruction in its rawest form.

This second question touches on the greatness of this balance. God, as God, defines the very universe. Those of you who are at all familiar with my other essays have seen this theme before. God’s rules, God’s new universe, the new reality that God brings, are central to my understanding of what it means to be Christian, what it means to have faith, and what it means to be saved. But it is only the personal God Who can step beyond blind forces and act with will. Gravity cannot catch you when you fall, but a personal God can step into His own rules and take action not to nullify them but to provide counteracting force. God’s presence may establish a universe such that certain things are inevitably soul-rotting, but God, being able to act as an agent and not a force, can step in to heal as well.

As I have hopefully stated quite clearly God is a person. But I would also like to enjoin you to consider that God is also something bigger than our ideas of person, and that the impact of His (personal) existence shapes the very universe. Is this not the vast mystery that we strive for, to encounter the living God Who is all goodness, Whose transforming power will make us completely new? Is this not what faith means, to live ever striving to be God’s people, under God’s rules? Is it not here that our words should fail us, in a new reality beyond what we can express or truly fathom?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2010 4:05 pm

    Incidentally, the atheist’s question is quite an old one, even older than Aquinas. I don’t have the Greek in front of me right now, but in Plato’s /Euthyphro/ Socrates asks “Is the pious [holy/pure, etc… I don’t have a Greek dictionary with me] loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” I think you have a good way of coming to terms with the dilemma (better than Euthyphro did, Socrates might agree). Perhaps Christianity has more muscle with this issue than Greek philosophy because it has a personal God who is actually more human than us, not less.


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