Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A bit of an epiphany

Reading your comments on my "Evolution" post gave me a lot to think about: Connor's move toward panentheism, Shane's suggestion of a new creation myth, Jeff's version of intelligent design, and quite a few other things. As I drove home from the Texas hill country this weekend, I was rolling all these things around in my head, hoping to wear away the incidental ideas and pluck out a few smooth, polished insights.

First, I decided that my problem begins with my experience of the world. So far as I can tell, we live in a world full of meaningless destruction and suffering. People are buried alive in earthquakes. They die of various diseases They starve to death. Children are abused by parents who were also abused. Towers fall on people. The strong exploit the weak.

But there's also a lot of beauty and goodness in the world, and it's not restricted to rich people in western nations. The sun sets in spectacular style. Rain falls and makes the world green. Friends and family lighten our hearts. Our appetites are sated by good food and good sex.

The problem that I encounter is that joy and pain are apparently distributed at random. There does not seem to be a divine intentionality about any of it; all of the beauty and all of the suffering simply seem to be the ticking of a mechanistic universe. Tsunamis are triggered by a set of causes and effects that, on the small scale, are trivial to predict and understand. Birds evolve from reptiles, and there's no need for a guiding intelligence to complete the picture. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And so based on my experience, what can I say about how God acts in the world?

It seems that the only thing to say is that God does not act. That if God is present, God simply allows the world to continue ticking away, and doesn't interfere.

But there's a problem with this conclusion: faith traditions all over the world contradict it. The Bible paints a picture of a God who is intimately involved with the world, and who frequently acts on it. The good guys get rescued from fiery funaces and lion's dens ... the bad guys get zapped with plagues or swallowed up by the earth.

So how do we reconcile the Biblical narrative with our own experience?

I think the secret, for me, lies in how we interpret passages like these, which I have unabashedly yanked from their contexts in Matthew 5 and John 3.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The first passage says: the wind blows where it pleases. And if we stop to think too long, we may run into some real difficulties here. We know that the wind doesn't blow where it pleases. The wind blows based on variations in temperature and pressure on and above the surface of the earth. It has no preference as to whether it blows east or west.

Generally, though, we don't worry about this passage. "It's a figure of speech used by people with a premodern worldview," we say. "This passage, after all, was written by premodern people for premodern people."

We do the same thing with the second passage, although we have to be a bit more explicit. There's really no good reason to suppose God fiddles with gravitational fields and hauls the sun up over the horizon every day, or to think that God causes the rain to fall by pushing around some molecules. This is just the language used by people who didn't have any more functional explanation for what caused the rain and the sunrise.

But these aren't the only passages in the Bible that were written by premodern people. In fact, the entire Bible was written by people, and for people, who had no recourse but to explain natural phenomena using supernatural language. Consequently, the lens that we use to read "God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous" is the same lens we should use to read about God killing Aninias and Sapphira. The lens that we use to read "the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well" is the same lens we should use to read "the wind blows where it pleases".

Does this mean that we have to dismiss all the miracle stories in the Bible as fables written for a premodern audience? Not necessarily. Premodern people would be perfectly justified in using supernatural language to describe supernatural events, and any good empiricist will admit that it's notoriously hard to prove that something never happens.

But it does mean that we should be reluctant to accept at face value passages that attribute action to God. Although they may be theologically helpful for a premodern reader, they may be theologically destructive for a modern reader. Some of us are simply incapable of believing in a God who heals the illnesses of middle-class Americans, but fails to prevent earthquakes that slaughter thousands of Kashmiris.

I'm fairly excited about exploring the implications of this premodern/modern distinction, because I think it will allow me to affirm my experience of the world, affirm the theological value of the scriptures, accept my own modern (or post-modern) worldview, solve some really hairy theodicy problems, and take a step toward panentheism. But that should probably wait for another post.


Samuel said...

I loved this post!

It is true that the Bible says that God watches over us, and I think we should put these expressions back into their context, like you invite us to.

I see God as watching over us from the distance. Like a parent on the other inside of the room keeps an eye on you, but who won't stop you from playing with the matches you hid, or just trip over some toy and hurt yourself really badly.

Despite all the contemplative poetry-scripture, we read about a God who did not, or could not, prevent the first man born on this earth to murder his own brother! What let this happen?

Maybe God wants us to rule ourselves, and be as independent and autonomous as we can, so we may develop our faith, but also and especially, gain knowledge and wisdom, and get to understand our purpose on earth and the plan of our Creator.

Yes, people start wars, people rob and kill their neighbours, and tsunamis and earthquakes ravage the earth. This is how it goes, because of our free agency and because the earth is not perfect (anymore?)

I think we can say God is responsible for all this, if we imagine him being overlooking all that from the distance, not willing to prevent anything, for it would break the rules.

On the other hand, people may have a faith so strong that they can get through it all. When Jesus gave vision to the blind and performed all his miracles, he never said: "I healed you", or "God healed you". He asked: "Have you got enough faith?" And if they said "yes", he would perform a quick ritual and tell them it was their own faith that healed them. It was not God intervening through Jesus, it was the person's own ability to touch the divine.

Growing up in total independence and autonomy is what we're here for I believe.

Stu said...

Its easy for us to say "its God's Will" or "it's sad when bad things happen to good people" when its not us. Its easy to sit back and let those kind of answers insulate us from the big things, the big questions and what really happens outside of suburban middle class america.

Sometimes, I think to myself; when I am writing a small program, "What if we're like this with God?" he programs us with a basic set of instructions (instincts, culture, religion, etc) and hits "Build and run" and sees what we do. He loves us; he loves us for our Bugs and glitches and mistakes, so Much that he doesn't want to shut us down, just occasionally tweak us, insert new variables, hoping that His faith in *us* will be proven.

I think that Faith runs both ways. or maybe belief, I'm not sure. God gave us free will, and gave us choices to make. My grandmother gave me the thought "People will rise to your expectations of them," so maybe God is looking to us to rise to the expectations he has set for us. He may leave the matches out where we can get to them, expecting that the fact that he's taught us well enough about fire safety to keep us alive, if not singed a little. I agree with Samuel, Autonomy is what we're here for. It may very well be our greatest gift and our greatest curse in the same breath.


crystal said...

As I read what you posted, I was thinking how much my line of thought has been like yours.

My mind spins, trying to reconcile a personal God, who is intimarely involved with us, with a God who lets bad things happen.

Panentheism is one way to get around the incongruity. For me, though, that God isn't woth the effort of being a christian.

Matthew said...

samuel, stu:

I appreciate your positive comments, and I think it's interesting that you both lean toward justifying the apparent inaction of God with an appeal to free will. My only problem with that argument is, I'm not so sure that we really have free will. A lot of our behavior seems pretty determined, and it's pretty challenging to justify the tragedy of Auschwitz with an appeal to universal free will. All that to say: personally, I don't have a good idea about *why* God might choose to refrain from acting in the world. In fact, I suspect that God does act in the world, just not in the way that premodern people might suppose.


What about panentheism do you have a problem with? I suspect that you might actually be a panentheist and just not know it. =)

crystal said...

My only problem with panentheism is that, though God is transcendant and immediate, he doesn't seem to be so much a person you can have a relationsship with, mush less someone you can call on the carpet if he's letting you down.

Connor said...

My experience seems to go right along with what you have proposed. The bible seems to make it clear that a prayer offered in faith will heal you or someone else. I can either assume that most people who pray do not have faith or maybe this just ain't right. Maybe when Jesus spoke of God feeding the birds we should remember that often birds starve to death, but I don't think that was his point.

"I'm not so sure that we really have free will."

I get this feeling sometimes to, but I still retain some sense of free will in my actions. I don't however see free will in our beliefs which is quite a weird thought. Reading this discussion between an atheist and a bunch of Christians has cemented this idea in my mind.

Matthew said...


Hm. Maybe panentheism does discourage us from personifying God, but I don't see how that's different from any other understanding of God as trancendent. I mean, I don't know of any other theology that does a better job of explaining where a trancendent God's personality might reside. Do you?


I feel the same way about beliefs, particularly axiomatic or properly basic beliefs such as "God exists". So I hopped on over there and put in my two cents.

scoots said...

I'm open (in principle) to Matthew's suggestion about reading things in light of a premodern world, but that doesn't have to be the mechanism behind the passages under discussion.

I'd say it's because (the evangelist) Matthew's readers were believers –– not because they were premodern –– that the language of the (gospel) Matthew passage worked. In other words, someone at that time could have said, "the sun shines on the wicked just like the righteous" without worrying about why it does so; and they could refer to God being responsible for the sun without thinking he was constantly moving it by divine will.

Ancient thinkers didn't always depend on God to explain things. In fact, Epicureans believed that the gods had no influence over the universe and that humans had come about by atoms bumping into one another randomly. The underlying philosophical worldview, actually, is virtually the same as that which many Darwinists espouse –– the ancients just didn't have the scientific evidence to back it up.

(Interestingly, looking back at Epicureanism could give credibility to Darwinism, since it was conceived so long ago, or it could actually call Darwinism into question by suggesting that modern data may have been crammed into a worldview that would-be atheists have wished they could support for millenia.)

Admittedly, the significance of such philosophical writings for NT texts is difficult to assess, because Palestinian Jewish peasants living in the first century A.D. probably didn't think the same way as an Athenian philosopher living in the third century B.C.

However, it seems to me that if a person believed God had created the sun and set it in a standard course that was no respecter of persons, they could describe God as "making his sun shine on both the wicked and the righteous" without thinking he nudged it each step of the way.

Matthew said...

scoots said...
However, it seems to me that if a person believed God had created the sun and set it in a standard course that was no respecter of persons, they could describe God as "making his sun shine on both the wicked and the righteous" without thinking he nudged it each step of the way.

Sure, but in that case, the person would really have a modern conception of the solar system, and his premodern language would just be icing.

Randy said...

Since I’m just entering the conversation I may not be totally up to speed and then again I may just be a little slow but I think the questions you raise need a broader context for discussion. What do we do with the powers and principalities language of the New Testament? Is evil at work in the spiritual realm or does Satan just sit and watch? If God has wound up the world like a watch and walked away where does the Holy Spirit come into play? Is it possible the language of the pre-modern world and explanations used by those pre-modern individuals better suited to explain how God works rather then modern or post modern language. Because you can explain why the wind blows where it does scientifically does remove the very real possibility that God still controls it with his will.

crystal said...

Is evil at work in the spiritual realm or does Satan just sit and watch? If God has wound up the world like a watch and walked away where does the Holy Spirit come into play?

In the Ignatian (Jesuit) tradition of spirituality, people are seen as influenced by the good and bad spirit ... nowdays most see the good and bad spiriit as aspects of one's personality but there are others who take them literally.

I'm not sure where I stand on this.

X-Ray said...

The first thought that comes to mind is that basic fact that Christians believe that God is the creator of time and the universe and all that inhabit the universe. God is also the God of the past, present, and future therefore He is outside of time and cannot be measured by finite principals, such as seconds and minutes or inches or feet.

When you ask the question as to whether or not God has control of nature you have to ask what Gods desired will for the created inhabitants of his creation is, rather than asking what his will for the actual creation (world/universe) is. His will would be that all of his creation be saved by coming to Christ, realizing that they are imperfect sinners and repenting.

When you look at it this way you see that yes God has in fact given you free will, and that is the freedom to make one of two choices. Either you choose Him or the world. So when you say that it seems like we don't have free will you are relating it to when and how a person dies, not when and how a person lives.

If you live constantly seeking after Gods will for your life I am sure that God will come through, but not one of us can choose how we die (leaving out the action of committing suicide). One man may die of cancer and another may get struck by lightning and die, none the less they both die, but at that point it matters not how you die it matters how you lived.

In regards to the verse in Matthew 5 this really supposed to be a metaphor to show how the Humans that inhabit his creation should act. Furthermore it could be argued that since the sun was put into place by God, and made to rise by God the first time, that he is still causing it to rise and set. Because it is still that first time, the sun has never stopped what it has been doing for however long it has been in the universe.

Matthew said...

Hi, X-Ray. This is a pretty old post. I have to admit that most of what you just said either seems to be a sweeping generalization, or simply makes no sense to me. Of course, you may be right, and I just don't get it, but the things that you are saying seem to be almost entirely void of meaning, or to put it another way, I don't think the things that you are saying refer to real things or even mostly-real ideas. Sorry about that.