Thursday, January 25, 2007


One thing I've found very interesting as I've begun to broaden my studies is just how unusual (and relatively recent) Western Christianity's emphasis on doctrine and "right" belief is in the broader picture of world history. Other monotheistic faiths (including Eastern forms of Christianity and even a few Protestant traditions) have always, to varying degrees, depicted God as being beyond human definition - which doesn't necessarily mean that God is completely unknowable, just that any terms we could come up with to describe God would be so wholly inadequate as to paint a false image of who God really is.

Western thought acknowledges that to some extent, while simultaneously advocating the importance of believing the right things about God, which in turn necessitates defining him. Thus we have entire libraries discussing and debating the various attributes we believe God to possess, and churches that routinely split over the finest points of doctrine. The end result of all of that effort seems to almost inevitably be a God that looks remarkably like us, whose priorities match whatever happens to be important to us, and who hates (in a loving way, presumably) whoever we happen to hate.

Not many Christians would admit as much, of course, and few are actively trying to make God in their image, but issues of control do lie at the heart of the problem. Once we have defined something, after all, we are well on our way to being able to harness it toward our own ends. If we can create a box that encompasses what God is like and what he can and cannot do according to his nature, then we can learn how to push God's buttons, as it were, to get what we want from him. Hence the many believers who live as though God is their personal Santa Claus, or the ultimate weapon in their crusade against the heathens of the world.

At some point we do need to be able to talk about God in human terms. To merely say that God is beyond our ability to describe is to make him completely inaccessible, at which point he becomes effectively irrelevant to our daily lives. Somewhere in between the mystic and the intellectual there needs to be a balance, a point at which we can simultaneously talk about God while acknowledging the inadequacy of our words.

One possible solution might be a return to the practice of describing God through paradoxical language. The Bible contains a starting point for such an endeavor: most Christians have traditionally agreed that God is simultaneously three and one, to name the one paradox that everyone is familiar with. Some theologians have advocated speaking about God exclusively in paradoxes, as a way of reminding both speaker and hearer that God is more than just another person or thing.

Such an approach has its pitfalls, too. Most Christians (including myself) would instinctively recoil at referring to God as both "good" and "not good," even though the intent of that formulation is to remind us that our concept of "good" is flawed and finite and therefore a wholly inadequate label for God. The same would apply to any attribute we might ascribe to God.

At the very least, we need a way of reminding ourselves that God's goodness is good beyond our ability to comprehend goodness, and that therefore we should be careful about placing expectations on God based on our limited perspective. That's a point that theologians are quick enough to remind their audience of when arguing against an opposing viewpoint, yet largely blind to when it comes to their own assertions.

Some gay Christians make the error of assuming that what seems good to them must seem equally good to God, but their critics are no less at fault for assuming that God is somehow obligated to give us direct and universal commands through the Bible regarding what they consider to be an issue of vital importance. To leave such matters entirely to conscience is to risk creating a church that doesn't have much to say about anything, but to place believers back under a system of dos and don'ts is to return them to slavery.

And so we come to a paradox of our own: we cannot be absolutely certain of anything, but practically speaking we cannot know nothing, either. We could go in circles indefinitely without ever decisively resolving that dilemma, so the solution is clearly not to try to come up with a final, "right" answer.

An examination of church history will reveal that people of faith have been trying to answer these same questions for millennia, and that each generation has reached a different set of conclusions concerning them. And perhaps that's the best answer we can come up with: to set aside being "right" in favor of ongoing dialogue, and to give the seekers of truth in each time and culture the space they need to view the paradoxes of God and existence from their own unique perspectives.

Humility isn't a term I'd associate with many of the theologians whose ideas I've encountered over the course of my life, but few virtues strike me as being comparable in importance when it comes to the study of God. There are certain things I believe with great conviction, but no amount of study or prayer or earnestness can immunize me from the possibility that I could be wrong.

Of course, I could be wrong about that, too, but let's not get started again.


Shawn Pendergrass said...

some great thoughts on the issue of "defining" god. it's unfortunate that it's late and i've already done an excessive amount of writing and thinking today, otherwise, i would love to share w/ you some of my own ideas on the matter. nonetheless, excellent synopsis.

KJ said...

I have decided that if paradox is not present, it's likely not Christian. I think that paradox introduces a bit too much ambiguity for some believers and they shy away from it, but I find it intriguing and faith building.

Our attempt to get a glimmer of the nature of God would be completely futile without paradox. CS Lewis, of course, was brilliant at that, creating simple creatures of Narnia who know Aslan is in no way safe, but completely good.