Doubt and questions are part of the Christian faith. In Randal Rauser’s new book Conversations with my inner atheistThe Christian theologian and apologist examines his own doubts and questions in the context of an internal conversation with his own inner atheist Mia (ie “My inner atheist”). This article is a chapter in the book in which Randal and Mia investigate the question of how to identify the god of the philosophers with the god described in the Bible.
Mia: I feel like you just danced around that last question, but well, whatever: here’s another problem. And this goes to the heart of what Christians say about God.
Riot: Sounds good, I’m ready.
Mia: Okay, here goes. The God of the Bible is a being who has feelings (John 3:16; Psalm 5: 5), gets angry (Psalm 106: 40), learns (Genesis 18:21), changes his mind (Jonah 3:10) Regret (Genesis 6: 6), has body and face (Exodus 33: 18-20) and sits on a throne (Psalm 103: 19). This is how the Bible describes God.
But then theologians and philosophers come and say, Oh no, wait, God doesn’t indeed He doesn’t have emotions Really become angry. He doesn’t learn or change his mind; In fact, he has no regrets, no body, face or throne on which he sits. Instead, here is what God Really is: He is an impassable, eternal, non-physical, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent being. Yes that’s it!
In other words, it is completely different from what is actually described in the Bible.
Forgive me, but it looks like you are trying to stick a square pin into a round hole. When you have two completely different descriptions, the only conclusion is that they are not the same thing at all.
How can the God of the Bible be the same being as this God of the philosophers? You have to choose!
Riot: Yes, many people have felt this tension. Its framework is also well chosen: the great French philosopher Pascal ascribed a mystical experience to “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers”.
Mia: Great minds think alike.
I am going to measure myself against you here: it seems to me that the reason theologians and philosophers care about the God of philosophers is because they are embarrassed from the God of the Bible. They don’t know what to do with him. He’s not sophisticated and respectable.
He looks moody, mean and unpredictable. He is a finite being that is in space-time and he has a body and learns and regrets it. In other words, he is little more than a glorified man, no different in that respect from the gods of ancient Greece.
Riot: I understand that this may be your perception, but maybe I can help you with your disbelief. Imagine for a moment the reaction of an average man when he first learns that the heavy oak chair he is sitting on is made up of vibrating packets of energy in empty space, according to scientists. image his Disbelief. No doubt about it, he would think how can you hope unite these two completely incompatible images of reality? A heavy oak chair that somehow also vibrates energy packets in empty space? That makes no sense. Obviously these are really just two different things, aren’t they?
But of course it is does Useful if you can understand that these are both legitimate descriptions and also work on different levels of explanation. The description of a heavy oak chair captures the everyday experience, while the description of vibrating energy packets provides the physicist’s description of the same reality.
By analogy, the God who acts in history, who learns, changes his mind, gets angry and the like, can capture the perception of the everyday Christian. At the same time, the theologian describes God as God with certain properties such as eternity, impassability and omnipresence.
Mia: I have no problem with the basic idea of how a physicist came up with her description of the oak chair. But how do you justify the transition from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to this abstraction discussed by theologians and philosophers?
Riot: The first thing you need to realize is that theology is not simply the product of reading the Bible and listing the verses that support your view. Rather, it is about reading the Bible through a complex process of reflective equilibrium.
Mia: Reflective What?
Riot: You will reflect on Scripture in the light of your rational and moral intuitions and considerations, the reading traditions of your background community – such as the priority of John 3:16 in understanding salvation – and your personal and community experience. All of these sources provide information on theological considerations, and together we can see how they gradually take a theologian from the experience of the person in the bank to the technical description of God used by the professional theologian or philosopher.
Mia: This all sounds fine, but if you can’t fill in the details then you are probably just trying to justify the fact that you want to ignore all of the embarrassing details in the Bible.
Riot: Sorry, but can she Fill in all the details from the quantum description of the chair to the experience of the man sitting in it.
Mia: Who asks?
Riot: Yes, I didn’t think so. Maybe you could loosen me up a little.
Mia: I do not claim to be a physicist. But you do claim to be a theologian.
Riot: Touché. Okay, maybe I can say a little more on a particular subject of theology: metaphysics.
Mia: ‘Metaphysics’ like crystals and gurus and auras?
Riot: Gosh, no, I mean metaphysics like in the field of philosophy, which affects our basic beliefs about the structure and nature of the world. Just as everyone engages in philosophical reflection, everyone has a metaphysics, a set of beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality. A very fundamental part of philosophical reflection is aligning our pursuit of conceptual clarification with our basic metaphysical obligations. As I said, the fact is that everyone has a philosophy and metaphysics, whether we know them or not, and it is important to be aware of what our philosophical views are and how they shape our thinking. As Fergus Kerr notes,
“When theologians proceed with the conviction that they need neither scrutinize nor acknowledge their inherited metaphysical obligations, they are simply prisoners of a philosophical school that was on the rise 30 years earlier when they were freshmen.” (Wittgenstein theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 3.)
So it’s not like reading the Bible through my philosophy and metaphysics while the guy who believes that God literally experiences emotions and changes his mind is devoid of philosophy and metaphysics.
Rather, we both interpret the text and deal with theological and philosophical reflection. As Alister McGrath puts it, philosophical theology is only concerned with “clarifying ideas”. (Christian Theology: An Introduction, 6th ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 91.) And we could all use more clarity in our thinking about God. So the question is not whether we will think theologically and philosophically about these issues, but whether we will Well.
Mia: But I’m still not sure how you actually get to this philosopher’s abstraction, based on the earthy and very human representation of God in the Bible.
Riot: It might be helpful to consider how we come to a great metaphysical claim – the claim that God is perfect – because a It flows from this one claim. The great medieval philosopher Anselm argued that if you think about the concept of God, you come to a definition like this: God is the essence that cannot be thought of as greater.
Mia: Huh? What does that even mean?
Riot: Simply put, this means that God is the greatest possible being, there is no greater being. For almost twenty years now, I have surveyed seminary students by asking them, “Do you think God is the most perfect being there can be?” Again and again they agree.
In all this time, no student has ever said that God is anything but perfect. They may question our understanding of perfection, but they don’t question this God is Perfect.
I think your intuitions on this are spot on. And that means that when we come across scriptures showing how God acts in ways that are far from perfect, we have one of two options: we can either revise our understanding of perfection, or we can revise our reading Revise the passage questionable.
For example, the Bible shows how God changes his mind, regrets, learns, gets angry, hates people, beats with anger, and so on.
Do these behaviors match perfection? Christian theologians will disagree. However, I hope we can appreciate that a theologian who has an understanding of God that differs from some of the representations in the Bible did not arrive at this picture by arbitrarily tearing it out of nowhere. Rather, she thought carefully, underpinned by several factors, including a basic intuitive conception of perfection read in critical dialogue with Scripture and shaped by tradition, personal experience and reason.
From this we can conclude that the only God who necessarily exists is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Just as the heavy oak chair is the same object as this particular collection of vibrating energy packets, so the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same perfect being as described by the philosophers.
Either way, the next step is to examine different models to justify these identity claims and to even out any tension between them. And that’s what systematic theology is all about.
Granted, that was a very quick summary, but hopefully you can at least get a sense of how to unite these two seemingly incompatible ideas about God.
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