DBH on the God of Nothing-but-will

A passage for the ages from DBH.

If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else.

Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous—some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might.

Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism.

David Bentley Hart

God’s plan is not simply the total sum of everything that happens, no matter what it is — the “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind. There’s a very clear point at which this explanation becomes meaningless. Indeed, it ceases to explain anything at all.

To say that everything is part of God’s plan, without any deeper mystery of created freedom, is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is. That there is no distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of the universe.

On Process Theology

I’ve been reading a good bit about Process Theology lately. Lots of essays online, and John Cobb’s Process Theology.

I like Process Theology (and Process Philosophy) because I find it to be honest about our actual, real-world experiences, and to not depart from that honesty when hypothesizing about God and the nature of ultimate reality.

I was talking to friend about this last night. It’s hard to explain—I’m not sure he was following, though he’s one of the most intelligent and open-minded people I know.

In that light, I’m writing some points below. I haven’t had time to synthesize all of this yet—at least, not in writing. But there’s no harm in laying out pieces of the whole before I’m able to explain it all concisely and coherently.

  1. Our thinking about religion depends on our prereflective beliefs about ultimate reality. No one can honestly reference Scripture alone as the foundation for their entire metaphysical outlook. Our interpretations of Scripture (and other religious artifacts) depend, necessarily, on our prereflective beliefs about ultimate reality. In my view, process theology takes this more seriously than other theologies I’ve encountered. It unifies metaphysical speculations with theological speculations—for many process philosophers and process theologians, those two things are in perfect harmony and, some may even say, one in the same thing.
  2. We really have no mental apparatus for comprehending the claims we make about God’s omnipotence. We say He is “all-powerful,” but I think we often fall into the trap of anthropomorphizing that power and envisioning his omnipotence as what it might look like if a human being had omnipotence—that is, unemcumbered coercive power to enact anything that pops into our mind. This would be human omnipotence, maybe, but what is “power” in the context of infinity? What does “power” mean when one (God), supposedly, has no inhibitions whatsoever on the enacting of his will? God’s omnipotence is not just the pole of some power spectrum. It’s an entirely different sort of power—one that, in my view, invites a host of alternative interpretations of God’s power over the universe. Specifically, interpretations (like process theology) that don’t involve implicating Him in evil.
  3. God isn’t a male. God is not a human. God is not embodied. But we speak about “Him” (male) taking human-like actions (speaking) to influence our dimension (embodied). We aren’t mistaken in doing so—the fact is, we simply can’t talk about God without making drastic simplifications. Sometimes, I think, we end up drawing inferences from oversimplifications, forgetting that our claims about God are imperfect. Inferring new ideas from imperfect descriptors, and then inferring new ideas on top of those, causes confusion. It’s a form of imagination, not reasoning. In my view, process theology doesn’t make this error. It acknowledges that omnipotence plus omnipresence are attributes (or even the definition) of God, but acknowledges also our inability to comprehend the gravity of those ideas, or really to have any useful conception of them at all (ones that advance our understanding, rather than just confuse us).

More to come on this subject.

Another Marcus Borg selection

I’m on a Marcus Borg kick.

Here’s another quote from a superb interview. He’s answering the question:

How do you respond to the criticism that many contemporary scholars are taking away so much. We’ve lost the divinity of Jesus, the inspiration of the Scriptures, no virgin birth, our understanding of the resurrection has been modified. People feel like we don’t believe anything any longer. It’s all gone.

First, if believing in the virgin birth, believing that the tomb was really empty, that Jesus walked on the water — if that has not become a problem for you, there’s no reason for you to change your beliefs. If the Spirit of God is working through that belief system to lead you into a deeper relationship with God and growth and compassion in your life, there’s no reason to change your beliefs about that.

The second thing I want to say is, what do you say to the millions of people who can’t take the Bible literally, who can’t believe that the earth is young as a literal reading of Genesis suggests, who are skeptical that God relates to the world in the interventionist way presupposed by the plagues of the Exodus story and the splitting of the seas, who are skeptical that anyone is ever born without a human father? Do you simply say to those folks, “Sorry, you can’t be Christians, because the right way to believe is to believe all this literally.”

Now I am not suggesting that we ought to water down the Christian story to what a modern reductionistic skeptic could accept. I think a robust affirmation of the reality of God is utterly foundational to Christianity. But I think a kind of humility about whether our stories of the spectacular are factual or metaphorical is very much in order.

For Christians to say, for example, “Our stories of the spectacular are factual. The stories of the spectacular in other religions are myth or metaphorical” — to me, that makes no sense.

There’s a story of the Buddha walking on water. If someone wants to say, “I believe the Buddha could walk on water,” then I have no problem with that person saying, “And I believe Jesus walked on water.” What I think has become an intellectual obstacle for many people, including people whom we would very much like to attract into the life of the church, is the privileging of the Christian stories, so that our stories are factual, but the stories of all other traditions are not. I don’t know of many thoughtful people who can accept that claim. So insisting on the literal, factual meanings of these stories has become one of the intellectual stumbling blocks that’s also an artificial burden that’s hard to bear in our time.

Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg: What is God?

I only just discovered Marcus Borg.

He’s a “progressive Christian,” I suppose. A liberal theologian, though that meant something different 30 years ago (when he was most active) than it does today.

But I’m not drawn to his teaching because of that label. I didn’t know who he was until I saw this video. What attracts me is his honest—with himself, his audience, fellow believers.

What is God? How does our conception of God affect the way we live? What about our conception of God is rooted in Scripture vs. products of our own imaginations? And how much does that matter?

Here’s a good quote:

The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it — as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word “Jesus”. Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.

Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection — the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. To use the language of incarnation that is so central to John, Jesus incarnates the way. Incarnation means embodiment. Jesus is what the way embodied in a human life looks like.

Marcus Borg

Thoughts on the Meaning of Belief in God

I’m a Jordan Peterson fan.

Here’s a quote from a recent chat between him and Dennis Prager.

To be able to accept the structure of existence, the suffering that goes along with it and the disappointment and the betrayal, and to nonetheless act properly; to aim at the good with all your heart; to dispense with the malevolence and your desire for destruction and revenge and all of that; and to face things courageously and to tell the truth to speak the truth and to act it out, that’s what it means to believe—that’s what it means—it doesn’t mean to state it, it means to act it out. And, unless you act it out you should be very careful about claiming it. And so, I’ve never been comfortable saying anything other than I try to act as if God exists because God only knows what you’d be if you truly believed.

Jordan Peterson

I like this quote because it’s honest. I strive for honesty with myself about what I actually believe, and I think Jordan Peterson does, too.

The past few years of my spiritual life have been an exercise in stripping away the extraneous. Specifically, I don’t like claiming to believe in doctrines or ideas I just don’t understand—especially in ideas that don’t sit well with my conscience.

This means my questions these days regard more about the nature and definition of God than about the details of substitutionary atonement or the meaning of the Trinity. I have a hard time professing belief in anything these days (because I can’t find the right words to express what it is I do believe in), though I’m more confident in the faith I do have.

In this vein, I find it more fulfilling to meditate on what God is not than on what God is. Because I can’t really understand what God is. We have words—omniscient, omnipotent, infinite—but we can’t grasp their full meaning in the context of what we’re trying to express. We conjure up imaginations about divine omnipotence, but (I think) these typically fail to de-anthropomorphize our conceptions of things like power and knowledge, and thus cause us to imagine God as something like a super-powerful human mind. But God, of course, is not a human and has no “mind” like ours. These words and definitions point us in some direction, but I’m trying to be deliberate about leaving them there—as general guides, and not precise or all-encompassing definitions.

In that light, then: Do I believe in God? Yes. Who is that God? I really don’t know, but He’s not what we describe Him to be. He’s much bigger than that.

What is God?

There’s enough here to ponder for a lifetime, if you take what he’s saying seriously. From the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Best to begin, following Thomas Aquinas, by saying what God is not. God is not the biggest being in the universe, or outside of the universe. God is not a discrete entity, like you or me, or a cloud or an atom or a quark, or (if one can put it this way) the universe itself as a whole. Nor is God the clockmaker, winding up time and matter and letting them run their course on their own.

God is the eternal and immaterial fullness of being and life that is the condition of there being anything at all. Infinitely rich and inexhaustibly beautiful, God is being itself, and as such, goodness and truth. Singular and simple, God lacks nothing yet, out of boundless and inexplicable love, creates what is other than himself, that which is not God. Distinct from God, what is not God — which is to say, everything: creation — is nevertheless bound to God, dependent at every moment and in every respect. Yet this dependence is not debilitating but enabling. It is the source of power and identity and, for living creatures, agency and, for rational creatures, freedom. To be is to depend on God for everything, and to acknowledge and celebrate this dependence is to be alive, fully alive, transparent to the source and end and empowering life that fills and moves all living things.

Brad East (channeling David Bentley Hart)

Einstein on God

I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call my self a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

Albert Einstein