Thursday, April 30, 2009

How to Make a Western OmeletGod (in Three Easy Steps)

Hello again, everyone! Before we start cooking' up our Western omeletGod, I want to call your attention to a new article of mine that was just published in The Plain Truth magazine. I'm really excited about the article because it's the feature article in the current edition. It's a tongue-in-cheek critique of the really bad question sometimes heard from more than a few pulpits: "If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" Check it out. You'll find it in the right-hand column of this blog under "Articles."

Now then, ya'll. Let's put on our tall chef's hats, sprinkle a little flour on our noses, adding a smidgen of bacon grease under our arms to make us smell pretty, and stir up a Western omeletGod. Here we go!

Today we are going to discuss what my friend, theologian Baxter Kruger, calls the "omniGod." For this post, I decided to change the terminology a bit and call it the "omeletGod." The recipe is the same so it won't hurt to play around a little. If you have grown up under the influence of the Western (Latin) Church, as have most readers of this blog, you will be familiar with the omeletGod: the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and generally unpleasant God of Western theology. This God is infinite, ineffable, immutable, impassible and inscrutable. This God is to be approached with extreme caution because this God is unfriendly. This God does not readily invite us to the kitchen table for cookies and milk. In fact, we can never be certain that this God even likes us. (Some extremists would even say this God hated most of us even before we were born! I'm serious. I was taught this kind of gar-bage in a seminary class not that long ago.)

Have you ever wondered where the nasty, distasteful omeletGod comes from? How did the Western Christian church develop a recipe for God that features something so unsavory as its chief ingredient? If you've read this blog for a while, you won't be surprised to discover that the omeletGod was first cooked up in the olive-oiled skillets of ancient Greece. Isn't it strange that every time we start talking about the God of Western Christianity, we soon find ourselves in the tangled web of Greek metaphysics? Go figure!

Let's set the stage for further discussion of the omeletGod with a great quote from Colin Gunton, one of my favorite theologians: My boy Colin (2002:3) writes:

It is one of the tragedies - one could almost say crimes - of Christian theological history that the Old Testament was effectively displaced by Greek philosophy as the theological basis of the doctrine of God, certainly so far as the doctrine of the divine attributes is concerned.

I think that quote speaks pretty clearly, don't you? Notice that Gunton mentions the attributes of God. "Attributes" are those characteristics that philosophers have ascribed or "attributed" to God based upon human ideas of what is "proper" for God to be like (dignum deo). Infinity, immutability, impassibility and omnipotence are some of the standard "attributes" of God, according to Western theology. Gunton, like many others, is arguing that the attributes of the Western "Christian" God are derived more from Greek (pagan) philosophy than from the Bible. That is a sad but highly accurate commentary on the version of God with which most of us have been burdened.

As we have discussed before, the Greeks posited a great cosmic dualism: the divine is way up there―aloof, alone, isolated and uninvolved; we are way down here in this world of dirt, separated from the divine by a great ontological chasm. The divine is good, the material world is evil; thus, there can be no interaction between the two, for relation with the world would "taint" the divine. As Gunton (2002:6) argues, herein lays the key to the entire problem of the so-called "attributes" of God. The Greeks have located the divine in a realm that stands in opposition to, or is a negation of, the world.

The Greeks thought of God as unknowable and ineffable, so far beyond the capabilities of human thought and language and so far removed from earthly concerns that we could say nothing positive about God. All that remained was to say what God is not, a method known as the "way of negation" (via negationis). Proclus, a student of Plotinus, the Neoplatonist who heavily influenced Augustine, argued that we cannot predicate anything positively of the "ultimate Principle"; we can only say what it is not, because "it stands above all discursive thought and positive predication ineffable and incomprehensible" (Gunton, 2002:14). In short, the idea underlying the "way of negation" (via negationis) is that in describing the divine, we can only say that God is essentially what the world is not.

So how do we use "negative" theology to formulate a list of the "attributes" of God? It works like this: I look around and see a world that stands in opposition to the divine (according to Greek thought). I see that this world of evil is finite; therefore, God, who is perfect and totally removed from this world of dirt, must be not finite, in other words, in-finite. I see that the world is mutable (changeable); therefore, God must be not mutable, that is, im-mutable (unchangeable). I see that there is suffering (passibility) in the world; therefore, God must be im-passible. It's really quite simple: I look at the world around me, with all its flaws and imperfections, and assert that God is "not this."

Pseudo-Dionysius (5th C) introduced the "negative way" (via negationis) into Christian theology. Other theologians followed suit, including the great Medieval Latin scholar, Thomas Aquinas, known in this blog as Tommy A. Here's what our boy Tommy did: he added some ingredients to the Western omeletGod that he picked up from the renowned Greek chef, Aristotle. As we saw in the last post ("Tommy A. and the Western Split") Aquinas sought to "prove" the existence of God, as well as describe the general characteristics of the divine nature (ousia), via the "five ways," a series of cosmological proofs for the existence and nature of God. By way of review, here's how it works: Tommy A. looks at the world around him and the first thing he notices is objects in motion (effects). So he puts on his thinking cap and commences to cogitate. Tommy reasons that 1) objects in motion ultimately require a Prime Mover to initiate the first move; 2) the existence of cause and effect requires a First Cause; 3) the existence of contingent beings (effects) requires a Necessary Being; 4) degrees of perfection (effects) require that which is ultimately Perfect, and 5) the design in nature (effects) can be explained only by a Designer (McGrath, 2001:245-247). You'll note that the "five ways" are all variations on a common theme, sort of like Fernando Sor's "Variations on a Theme of Mozart." (Any classical guitarists out there?) The principle behind this method is that a cause can be known by its effects. In other words, knowledge of God (cause) can be derived from observation of the created order or cosmos (effects). In short, these cosmological "proofs" are developed using the "way of causality" (via causalitatis): a cause can be known by its effects. When it's all said and done, Tommy's version of God is a re-hash of the "prime Mover" of Aristotelian metaphysics. God is basically the first cause, the necessary being, the perfect being, the cosmic designer, yada, yada, yada.

In addition to the "negative way" imported into Christian theology by Pseudo-Dionysius and the "way of causality" just described, Tommy added another set of ingredients to his Western omeletGod: the "way of eminence" (via eminentiae). The principle behind the way of eminence is the "denial of limits." Here's what Tommy did: Once again, he looks at the world around him and sees that people have power and knowledge, although in limited amount, as well as the limited ability to be in only one place at a time. So he simply applies all these things to God but removes the limits. In other words, Tommy cogitates that God does not have limited power as we do; so he removes the limitations of human power and says that God is all-powerful, that is, God is omnipotent. Ditto with knowledge. God is not limited in knowledge as we are; God has all-knowledge, that is, God is omniscient. Ditto again with the removal of the limitation of presence. Tommy contends that God is omnipresent.

OK, troops. Let's sum up, because this isn't rocket science. All we've done in these three methods or "ways" is look at the world around us and say God is not this, or God lacks these limitations, or God is the ultimate cause of all these effects. No big deal.

Now then, ya'll. Here's where the fun starts. Let's take all these ingredients from the Western recipe for a doctrine of God and make a Western omeletGod. Do you still have on your tall chef's hat? Good! Here we go! First we have to stoke up the wood stove till the fire's really blazing, then get out the bacon grease and slick down the heavy black cast iron skillet. While the skillet is getting hot, we'll crack open a half dozen eggs, then chop up some green peppers, onions and mushrooms and search the cabinets for the salt and pepper. With luck, we may even find some Louisiana hot sauce somewhere around the kitchen. OK. That's all done and the bacon grease is hot and starting to smell oh so fine. So let's carefully pour in the eggs and start adding the ingredients to make a good'ole Western omeletGod in three easy steps.

  • Step 1: First, we add the ingredients from the "way of negation" (via negationis). We'll throw in some infinity since God is not finite. Then we'll add some ineffability since God is not known by human comprehension. Then we'll throw in that ever-present pair of ingredients known as impassibility and immutability since God (supposedly) does not change or suffer.
  • Step 2: Now we add the ingredients from the "way of causality" (via causalitatis). We throw in a first cause, a prime mover, a cosmic designer, and a necessary being.
    Admittedly, this step is not as fun as the others.
  • Step Three: Now we add the ingredients from the "way of eminence" (via eminentiae). Like step one, this one is really easy. We grab a handful of this and that, carefully removing the imperfections, and throw it all in the skillet, adding to our omelet some hefty handfuls of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence.

Now, let's carefully fold the egg over all these ingredients and let the stove and skillet do their work. . . . . . Presto! There it is. In just three easy steps we've cooked up a Western omeletGod. Let's grab a spatula and lift this heavy baby onto one of our finest plastic plates. There we go. Now grab a fork and let's dig in! I'll bet this thing is going to be great. After all, our recipe comes from a long tradition of great Western chefs. Here we go: Aaggghhhh! This thing doesn't taste right! It's yucky and awful and I'll bet if we eat it all, it's going to make us all sick!

Yikes! What did we do wrong? We must have left something out. Let's review our ingredients and see where we went wrong. We started by adding infinity, ineffability, immutability, and impassibility. OK. That's all standard for a Western omeletGod. No problem there. Then we added some of those ingredients that Tommy A. borrowed from Aristotle. Let's see: there was a first cause, a prime mover, a designer . . . OK. That all seems pretty standard. Then we added those hefty handfuls of omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence. Maybe that's where we went wrong. Perhaps we put in too much of the heavy stuff. Still, something is missing from our Western God omelet.

Wow! Silly me! I just figured it out. No wonder this thing tastes like a fried inner tube from my grandson's bike tire. We left out the most important ingredients of all. How dumb can we be? We left out the Father, Son and Holy Spirit! No wonder this omelet tastes so bad.

And there, friends and neighbors, is the problem with the Western doctrine of God. God's triune self-revelation in salvation history has been utterly marginalized (see previous post: "Tommy A. and the Western Split") in favor of a one-sided doctrine of the One God whose characteristics (attributes) are developed solely from rational reflection on the cosmos. Western Christians have been burdened with a doctrine of God that has been developed apart from God's self-revelation in time and space as the God who saves. The Western omeletGod gives us no reason to believe that God is for us, for it is a recipe for a doctrine of God developed apart from God's redemptive activity in salvation history.

It is vital that we teachers and preachers play our part in the ongoing call to bring the Western Church back to the trinitarian vision of God shared by Irenaeus, Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians and others. Only when we understand that God's trinitarian self-revelation in time and space is a redemptive, salvific revelation of the eternal nature of God whose essential being is love will the Western Church finally be freed of its bondage to the omeletGod.

Well, folks, we made an omelet using the ingredients of the Western doctrine of God and found that it didn't taste so good. I guess that's what happens when you leave the most important ingredients out of the recipe. I don't know about the rest of you chefs out there, but I'm throwing away my recipe for a Western omeletGod and I'm going to look for a cook book that's got some Jesus in it! Amen.

(Next major post circa, June 15, 2009. See you then!)

References

Gunton. C. E. 2002. Act & Being: Toward a Theology of the Divine Attributes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 162pp.

T.F. Torrance: Union with Christ through the Communion of the Spirit

T.F. Torrance: Union with Christ through the Communion of the Spirit