Talking About God, Part 4: Defining God

In the previous three posts in this series, I discussed fundamentalism, skeptical atheism, and liberal theology: an outline of their origins, their basic contents, and how they are affecting contemporary theology. I’d like now to turn from just describing currents of thought that either are fundamentally (hah!) flawed or, in the case of the latter 2, useful to an extent but still fall short. I’d like to talk about more current approaches to theology, and how traditional spirituality can be interpreted in modern language and thought-forms without losing its core character. That’s not an easy task, but it’s an essential one if Christianity (and other traditional faiths) are going to remain relevant in the future.

First off, though, some people might stop us right here, before we begin, and tell us we’re wasting our time. Certainly, they might say, Christianity has been disproven, discredited, and otherwise made irrelevant. The modern worldview is incompatible with Christianity, and it’s proven itself more useful and more honest. So why bother?

Fundamental to this question is a deeper and more basic set of questions. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about Christianity? Is it a totally cohesive set of ideas? Or is it a collection of ideas, some useful and some not? Can some of the traditional dogmas be ejected without compromising the faith? Are there central tenets that have to be retained for the faith to maintain any semblance of identity? These are crucial questions that we have to answer to make any progress in a modern interpretation of Christianity. At the same time, they’re also very subjective questions. There’s plenty of room for disagreement. From here on out, though, I’m going to give my two cents. But I want to make it clear that I’m not laying my opinions down as fact. I’ve thought a lot about this, and will defend my positions passionately. But I’m sure I’m wrong about at least a few of the positions I’m going to lay out here. Hopefully the process of asking and answering, over and over, will act to smelt out an answer, or at least  a set of guiding principles as we try to make progress on this impossibly complex task.

So first and foremost, we need to ask what is really central to Christianity. The Bible is massive, and there are thousands of tortuously long books outline Christian metaphysics, theology, ethics, dogma, etc. etc. It’s an old faith, and there’s been plenty of time to fill volumes upon volumes. But much of this can be boiled off, and a core essence to the faith can be distilled. This series has really been focusing on theology proper–ideas about the nature of God–so let’s focus on this issue for now.

Christian doctrine outlines a God that has three primary characteristics: God is transcendent, immanent, and redemptive. Each of these aspects are of equal importance and form a mutually-dependent and supportive structure for any reasonable understanding of God. Let’s investigate each of them in turn.

When we say God is transcendent, we are saying that God is not a thing, not an object, not even a being. God is totally other, foreign, without form or mass, not present in space and time in any particular way. In other words, God is before time, outside of space, beyond physical or intellectual grasp, invisible, incorporeal. God “speaks without sound” and “holds without hands.” When we are talking about God, we are not talking about any thing at all. God is more fundamental than any other idea–and therefore also infinitely harder to define and discuss.

Most people are probably really familiar with this sort of language about God, and it therefore might seem unnecessary to rehash such seemingly basic ideas. But as we discussed in the previous posts, the scholastic age of theology in western Europe resulted in an erosion of emphasis on God’s transcendence. God came to be seen as a Supreme Being, a Prime Mover, a First Cause, a distant watchmaker. All of these images evoke the idea of some sort of superhuman being Out There, doing things. Such an understanding of God is clearly heterodox from a traditional Christian viewpoint, but the perspective crept into Western Christianity and today is central to many believers’ understanding of their God.

It’s worth pointing out that outside of western Europe, even among our Abrahamic co-religionists (Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims), such a view of God has rightly never been entertained. Observing the extent to which the “Supreme Being” mode of theology has corrupted our thinking, the Jewish and Islamic refusal to ever represent God in any visual image makes a lot of sense. It’s not hard to imagine how one could go from drawing, painting, or sculpting the image of God to thinking that God actually had some sort of form. This way of thinking reached a crescendo in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons), who believe that God has a body, and that Jesus is God’s literal son.

Such an idea is flawed for a variety of reasons. But the most basic and important is this: if God is understood as the origin of the universe, how can a being that exists in the universe have created it? It should be immediately clear that no being within the universe could create the universe; this would be a classical cyclical arrangement. Any being existing in the universe would necessarily have been caused by the creation of the universe in the first place. So a god with a body cannot be the sort of God we are talking about when we talk about a Creator or Sustainer of the universe.

So if we understand God as whatever it is that initiated the existence of the universe, we clearly can’t be talking about any sort of being. We must be talking about something that is transcendent–without form, mass, not existing in space or time. But Christians also talk about God as immenent. Immanence refers to the idea that God is, although transcendentally distant, also present in every moment and place. No event occurs isolated from God, no place is separate from God. Such a position is necessary to any monotheistic understanding of God.

First off, even if God is seen as some distant Creator, if God initiated the first event that led to all subsequent events, then every event owes its existence, distantly but concretely, to that first event. This is why the Deistic idea of a “distant clockmaker” falls apart. A god that arranged the laws of physics and then set matter and energy into existence would essentially be pre-determining all following events. To say that such a god didn’t “intervene” in physical events would be meaningless. For one thing, there could be exceptions written into the laws of physics; there’d be no way to know until they occurred. Secondly, such a god would essentially be able to plan out the system such that the events this god desired would transpire. But here we are running back into the flaws of understanding God as a being in the first place–notice the language about God’s intentions and plans, as if God were some old guy with a beard. Let’s pause for a second to talk about how our understanding of God as transcendent and immanent compares to scientific explanations of the world.

If we replace the word “God” with “fundamental forces” in the above discussion, I imagine that most, perhaps all, physicists would agree that such a description would be accurate. It’s true that the terms transcendent and immanent are hardly common in scientific discourse, but it’s also clear that they apply well the idea of fundamental forces. Such forces are not things–they don’t exist as matter or energy. They don’t take up space or elapse over time. They cannot be touched, or seen. Yet to say that because of this they don’t exist would be ridiculous. They explain, perhaps better than anything else, how the world works. In that sense, they are more real than what we experience. They are also truly immanent, because every event is guided by these laws, despite their non-presence. Every moment, every point in space, is guided by the four fundamental forces of quantum mechanics, as far as we can understand.

So if we finished our definition of God now, by saying that God was transcendentally immanent, we would have a theology that was probably scientifically uncontroversial. We’d be deifying the fundamental forces, essentially. Physicists might find such behavior strange, but they probably wouldn’t find anything too objectionable about it. But Christian faith–in fact, all religious faith–includes one more crucial aspect. God is also redemptive. That is to say, the universe is being led to a point in the future at which suffering and separation are ended, and the universe is rejoined to God. Such a state is generally defined as “Heaven” in English Christianity. It’s obvious that without such an idea, Christianity falls apart. A religion that was just a reflection on the fact that there are forces at work which are intangible yet ever-present would have little to say to human beings. It would be, as I mentioned above, a sort of mythologized science. Religions–all religions, are redemptive or therapeutic. Whether promising salvation through Christ, or deliverance through a military messiah, or liberation through meditation, or release through karmic mediation, or peace through balanced living, or more children if you worship the fertility goddess–all religions claim to be able to deliver some positive outcome if they are practiced properly.

The crucial difference with the Axial Age religions (discussed in Part 2) was that instead of promising some sort of tangible, short-term gain (like the extra fertility mentioned above), they talked about final, ultimate redemption. Universal redemption. Salvation of all humankind, deliverance of all conscious beings. Heavy stuff. It’s this aspect of theology that will likely cause controversy and disagreement among atheists. While transcendence and immanence can be secularized with ease, the idea that the universe is, at its base, a redemptive system leading its inhabitants to peace is a whole different ballgame.

This basic understanding of God as transcendent, immanent, and redemptive is crucial to Christianity, and is crucial to restoring Christianity as a worthwhile set of ideas. In crucial ways, all three of the strands of thought mentioned in the previous posts in this series abandoned one or more of these aspects. Fundamentalism developed well after the scholastic age of theology and, though not explicitly rejecting transcendence, tends to understand God as a Supreme Being. It also tends to downplay God’s redemptiveness and instead portray God as primarily judgmental. Skeptical Atheism worked from the post-transcendental view of God as well, largely arguing against an ersatz Supreme-Being-style deity. This of course is hardly their fault, since it was just such a God that most Christians were promoting in the 19th century and continue to promote today. Liberal Theology tends to refrain from any explicit theological metaphysics whatsoever, and is generally dismissive of the eschatological nature of Christianity’s redemptive aspects.

So I’ve spent more than 8000 words talking about how we talk about God. What’s the point? I’ve tried to show how fundamentalism, atheism, and liberal theology all fall short of describing reality as I see it. And I’ve tried to show in this last post how focusing on exactly what we think God is and isn’t can help us to figure out what religious belief is about, what it can do for us–it’s purpose. Hopefully by talking about God and transcendent, immanent, and redemptive, I’ve set up a vision of God that I can expand on in later posts–this post was really just laying the barest of foundations. It’s only with this foundation, though, that I think we can clear away a lot of the ideas that have shackled Christians over the least few centuries, at least in the West. In subsequent posts, I’ll try to dig deeper and talk more about specifics. This is the last post in the “Talking About God” series though. Hopefully it’s provided a sketch of my interests and concerns when it comes to talking about God.

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One thought on “Talking About God, Part 4: Defining God

  1. Pingback: Talking About God, Part 5: Translating Faith | Life's a Lap

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