Friday, May 4, 2018

Hate Mail - "Blah, blah . . your sky fairy . . . blah, blah, blah"

I don't and never believed in the god you opportunistically imagine is the only one people believe in.  I'm tired of this discussion and have answered it a jillion times.   You know damn well you don't really want to hear what anyone has to say about it so why should I write it again?  Here's what the theologian I'm currently concentrating on reading, Elizabeth A. Johnsonm in her book,  Quest For The Living God, said about your god:

Point of Departure:  Modern Theism 

There is a settled country from which the quest for the living God sets out in our day.  Inherited from recent centuries this view envisions God on the model of a monarch at the very peak of the pyramid  of being.  Without regard for Christ or the Spirit, it focuses on what trinitarian theology would call the “first person,” a single powerful individual who dwells on high, ruling the cosmos and judging human conduct.  Even when this Supreme Being is portrayed with a benevolent attitude, which the best of theology does, “He,” for it is always the ruling male who stands for this idea, is essentially remote.  At times he intervenes to affect the laws of nature and work miracles, at times not.  Although he love the world, he is uncontaminated by its messiness.  And always this distant lordly lawgiver stands at the summit of hierarchical power, reinforcing structures of authority in society, church and family. 

Without undue stereotyping, it is fair to say that this is the picture that prevails in common public discourse and in the media in western culture.  It provides the foil of modern atheism which denies that such a Supreme Being exists.   In a review of Richard Dawkin's book The God Delusion (2006), which sets out the case for atheism based on scientific materialism,  the critic Terry Eagleton perceptively noted that one of the main problems with Dawkin's thesis is that he envisions God “if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap,  however supersized.”  In truth, Dawkins did not spin this view out of thin air.  Such a superficial idea is taken for granted also by many believers, who see God as one particular individual in the whole of reality, even if the highest and most powerful.  That this invisible, greatly powerful, grand old man in the sky might not really be God at all is never seriously considered.  

The history of theology makes clear that this construct as we know it today came into being at the time of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European movement known as the Enlightenment.  This movement rejected the dogmatic authority of religion and tradition in favor of “enlightened” investigations of human reason to figure out how the world works.   In response, Christian theologians of the era also used rational arguments to defend the existence of God.  Before this time, theologians drew the idea of God from scripture, sacramental worship, and theological tradition, using philosophy to interpret and clarify certain points.  This kept them focused on divine incarnation in Jesus Christ and on the Spirit’s gift of indwelling grace as essential components of the Christian idea of God, which is trinitarian.  Now, however, to counter the Enlightenment's criticisms, they switched to the same playing field as their opponents.  Leaving behind Christian sources and adopting philosophical methods of thinking that sought objective knowledge about the universe on a rational basis,  they set out to shape “clear and distinctive ideas” about the divine.  Starting with the natural world,  they reasoned to the existence of God using a process of inference, thereby constructing a theology where God appears as the highest component in an intellectual system.  This all but assured that while God is a powerful individual above other powers in the world, he remains a member of the larger household of reality.  His attributes are deduced by a reasoning process that contrasts what is infinite with the limitations of the finite.  Thus, God is immutable (only creatures change),  incorporeal (bodies are the site of change), impassible (only creatures suffer), omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, in contrast to creatures who are limited in power, knowledge, and presence.  

The resulting construct is known today by the shorthand term “modern theism.”  In a fascinating way it comprises both the transcendence and immanence of God as honed in classical Christian theology.  Transcendence, or the otherness of God beyond all imagination, is cut short by bringing the divine within the system of coordinates of the world as we know it;  making all claims about the divine answerable to rational argument assures that in the end there is no lasting surprise or mystery.  Immanence, or the nearness of God beyond all imagination, gets lost in the univocal stress on divine difference; emphasizing the high position of the divine in the hierarchy of the world allows little room for indwelling presence.  The Enlightenment God worked for with good apologetic intent, led theology to miss the mark. 

As it trickled into preaching and personal piety, this construct became ever more simplistic, leading to contemporary Western society's characteristically trivial image of God.  In the 1960s a small ecumenical book entitled "Your God Is Too Small " laid out some of the popular images that carried modern theism into churches and into hearts.  People viewed God as a grand old man' or a resident policeman; or a tape of parental hang-ups; or a consummate churchman; or a managing director; or a dictator; or a disappointing protector; or a spoilsport.  Clearing the ground of these unworthy notions, the author J. B Phillips writs that if people “could see beyond their little inadequate god, and glimpse the reality of God, they might even laugh a little and perhaps weep a little.”  The result would be a liberation from the worship of what in effect amounts to an idol, something less than the living God masquerading as ultimate.  Flinging wide the doors and minds and hearts, people could set out to discover a God truly worthy of their lives.  

None of this is especially shocking to anyone who has looked at the literature.  Which is why she can cite a book from the 1960s to make her point.   Much in her book is a variation on that theme though much in her work is original so far as I can know.

Part of seeing the fraud the "enlightenment" is also includes seeing through the foolishness of ever trying to define God in terms that might work, to a limited extent, to describe some aspects of the physical world, though hardly all of those and not very well if at all things which don't easily fit into that methodology honestly applied and reported, but which could not work in looking for God.  That might make materialists and those with an unrealistic emotional need for scientific permission to believe in things that scientists have no proper right to claim falls within their professional realm angry or furious or scared that people will think you believe in unacceptable things and so suffer the slings and arrows of an insistence you conform or have cooties, but it changes nothing about the impossibility of science or rational discourse to evaluate it.   I look at those who cling to such a God so they can knock it over and I see a bunch of scared little jr. high schoolers eager to be in with the in crowd and eager to mock those outside as an emblem of their inclusion in it and I smile at their foolishness.  Your god is the god of fundamentalists and pious sentimentalists who are afraid of the God of life and prefer one they can put on a shelf under a bell jar to look at once in a while.


  1. I was going to turn this into a blog post (and I may yet), but it seems more like a comment, and how fortuitous to find this to post it at. Synchronicity? The trail of the wild goose? Eh, who knows? I'll take it.

    I subscribed to a magazine recently, and act I kind of regret now, I usually do. Mostly I regret it because now I'm on the mailing list of magazines that imagine I'd like to be their subscriber, too. Today's entry was "Free Thinker" (I think; I've already tossed it), which featured covers of recent issues on the envelope as an enticement. The most prominent issue promised all I'd need to know about "The Myth of the Afterlife." Free thought being an anti-religious humbug of the 19th century, I wondered if that was all they were up to.

    Sure enough, a further enticement to get me to subscribe was a slip of paper promising my subscription would secure a copy of a special series on free thinking, this one about "The Mistakes of Religion," or the harm of religion, or something (again, I threw it away). Yeah, not good marketing for me.

    I wanted to write them back and tell them we covered all that in seminary, and probably did a better job with it. But, as I say, I threw it all away.

    These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand....

  2. Responding separately to Johnson, without criticizing just adding a bit: her thesis doesn't include room for this, nor should it, but arguments for the reality ("existence") of God began with Anselm and even Augustine. Aquinas concludes it is not possible, but only after exhausting, as was his way, the reasons and their failures.

    She rightly characterizes that discussion in the Enlightenment and after, and there I would add the critiques of such arguments Kierkegaard presented in his philosophical (v. religious) works. It's funny to read about J.B. Phillips in this context. I'm more familiar with Annie Dillard's ideas about the transcendence of God, ideas one critic compared to Judaic thought and considered almost too radical to be Christian.

    How little we know of our own traditions and histories.

    By the way, I'm glad you posted this, but presenting it to people who speak of "sky fairies" really is pearls before swine.

    1. I should add, the arguments of Anselm and Aquinas (and to some extent Augustine) were what we would today classify as arguments of inquiry, not arguments to convince or persuade. A limitation more in line with the critiques Kierkegaard leveled against post-enlightenment endeavors at theogony and "proof of God."

    2. In defense of the passage, it was an aside in the first chapter of the book, it goes on quite a bit from there.

      I haven't read much of Annie Dillard, I think I'll add some to my reading program.

      Pearls before swine is about right.

    3. Didn't mean she was deficient. I can see from what's there she is not. Rather she limits herself here and rightly so. So I was adding a footnote.

      "Holy the Firm" & "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" are excellent Dillard.