We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, February 23, 2015

God: the Problem

It is often claimed that the great doctrinal issue among Christians today is the nature and authority of the Bible.  It is a divide between literalists and non-literalists on the one hand.  Or, again, it a division that pits those hold a high regard for the scriptures versus those who have a less lofty view of the Bible.  It may well be true that the Bible is the great doctrinal issue of our time.  If so, however, the problem of God is not far behind—and probably linked.

In fact, God has always been a problem for the followers of Christ.  Almost from the beginning, we inherited two distinct traditions concerning the nature of God, one from Jewish theology and the other from Greek philosophy.  From Judaism we learned that God is intimately involved in the affairs of humanity, hears and sometimes answers prayers, appears in various guises, and speaks to us.  Yes, God is also the creator of all that is and thus far beyond us—yet the psalmist affirms that God has made us "little lower" than the messengers of heaven (Psalm 8:5).  And we Christians are convinced that Jesus in preeminently God With Us.  Our Greek heritage, however, throws all of this into doubt.  It affirms that God is Beyond all beyonds, unnamable, unimaginable, and even non-existent in the way the created universe exists.  We are warned that the moment we call anything by the name "God," that thing is not God.  We are warned that we cannot even say that, "God is love," because such a statement reduces God to human terms, puts God on a human scale.

If the Bible is the great doctrinal divide of our time, then the nature of God is the great theological divide—and long, long has been.  Stated most directly, the divide is between those who understand God to be in some sense an independent entity that is real as the universe is real and those who believe that God is not an entity in any way that we can call an entity and does not exist as we understand existence.

Like the various doctrines of scripture, so too the various theological positions on the nature of God cannot actually be so easily divided into two neat camps.  But they do represent two tendencies, one seeing God primarily as Present with us and the other understanding God to be Beyond all possible beyonds.