God: God in Postbiblical Christianity
GOD: GOD IN POSTBIBLICAL CHRISTIANITY
Both New Testament writers and postbiblical Christians sharply opposed the God of their faith to the many gods of popular religion. In doing so they joined not only Jews but also most thoughtful pagans, who believed in one God beyond the many. Because the reality of the one God was not in doubt, arguments for God's existence in that era were unimportant.
There was, however, during the early centuries of the Christian era a great divide. On one side were those classical religious thinkers who continued to reflect on God in strictly philosophical ways, trusting their reason to suffice. This tradition reached its apex in Neoplatonism. On the other side were those who accepted the authority of Jewish (supplemented later by Christian or Islamic) scriptures, correlating the ideas found there with the fruits of reason. The great Alexandrian Jew Philo, a contemporary of the apostle Paul, gave classical expression to this second approach, which gradually won out in the Mediterranean world.
Justin Martyr provides an early picture of how Christians understood the relation of their doctrine of God to the wider culture. He reports that he sought knowledge of God from philosophy with little success. A Christian then persuaded him that the human mind lacks the power to grasp the truth of God and that one must begin with what God has revealed. Accordingly, Justin turned to the Hebrew scriptures, read now through Christian eyes, and found there what he wanted. His success did not lead him to a total rejection of Greek philosophy, however; he continued to admire Plato, but to avoid attributing Plato's wisdom to human reason, he claimed that Plato had learned from Moses.
The authority of scripture ensured that for Christians as for Jews, the God who sometimes appears as an impersonal deity in the philosophical writings would be understood as personal. On the other hand, under the influence of existing philosophical concepts, biblical ideas came to be set in a new key. For example, God's changelessness, which in the Bible means God's faithfulness and dependability, was generally understood to be God's freedom from transiency and perishing. Subsequently this concept was transformed by some into metaphysical immutability. Likewise, God's everlastingness (beginningless and endless life) was sometimes transformed into a nontemporal eternality.
The matter primarily in dispute was the content of divine activity in relation to humankind, what God had done, was doing, and would do. To be a Christian was to affirm that the God of whom the Hebrew scriptures speak had acted in Jesus for the redemption of the world. This conviction expressed itself in the doctrine of incarnation, and it was this doctrine that most distinguished Christian thought from Jewish and philosophical ideas. Yet even incarnation could find various points of contact in the wider religious context, and these analogies were used by some commentators to understand and interpret it. On the one hand, God was known to have spoken through prophets and sibylline oracles; the theologians of Antioch taught that the Word of God was present to and in Jesus even more fully than in the prophets and oracles. On the other hand, the idea that God sent heavenly messengers, or angels, was widespread; Arius taught that he who was sent to earth as Jesus was not just one angel among others but the one supreme creature through whom all other creatures, including the angels, were made. But the Christian conviction that in Jesus it was God who was incarnate opposed the latter theory, and the former still left God too separate from Jesus to be truly incarnational. Under the leadership of Athanasius the church determined at the Council of Nicaea (325) that what was incarnate in Jesus was truly God, and at the Council of Chalcedon (451) it maintained that while Jesus was fully God, his divinity left his humanity unimpaired.
While the church insisted that what was incarnate was truly God, it did not simply identify what was incarnate with the one whom Jesus called "Father." Instead, following the prologue in the Gospel of John, the Word (or Son) who was with God and who was God was the incarnated one. This required a distinction within the one God. Even so, the church lacked a conceptuality that could show how the Word could both be one with God and become incarnate in Jesus without diminution of Jesus' humanity; and so the assertion, unsupported by intelligible conceptuality, became a "mystery." Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity, which grew out of these debates with the addition of the Holy Spirit, could not be conceptually clarified. Thus faith became assent to mysteries on the basis of the authority of the church.
Although the doctrines of incarnation and Trinity are inescapable and central to Christian theology, their character as mystery reduced their role in shaping early Christian thinking about God. For example, whereas one would expect thinking about God's attributes to be deeply influenced by the gospel accounts of Jesus, such an influence has in fact been uncommon. On the whole, God's attributes were understood much as they were affirmed in Jewish and philosophical thought of the time: God is incorruptible, unsusceptible of harm or decay; God is incorporeal and invisible, a purely spiritual being. An early Christian statement about God's attributes is to be found in the apocryphal Preaching of Peter, which describes God as
the invisible, who sees all things,
uncontained, who contains all things,
without needs, of whom all are in need and because of whom they exist,
incomprehensible, eternal, imperishable,
unmade, who made all by the word of his power.
In the Middle Platonism of the second century there was a strong tendency to emphasize the radical difference of God from the world, and so the incomprehensibility of God, just mentioned in the Preaching of Peter, was accented. This note was strong among the Gnostics, but it became prominent also among Christian writers who were increasingly willing to draw consistent consequences from the idea that God was incomprehensible. For example, Clement of Alexandria wrote that God cannot properly be called "one or the good or the one itself or Father or God or Demiurge or Lord" (Stromateis 5.82.1).
The patristic writer Origen made still more explicit the tension between the increasingly negative theology, which the church assimilated largely from the surrounding culture, and the positive language of scripture. Earlier, in arguing against anthropomorphic myths of the gods, Christians had denied that God feels fear or anger or sexual passion and had sometimes generalized this to speak of the divine apatheia; Origen systematized this doctrine and drew the conclusion that all passages describing divine emotions such as joy or grief must be read allegorically.
In a late homily on Ezekiel, Origen seems to have reversed his position on this point, explicitly denying that the Father is impassible. But the weight of his influence, along with the general logic of the idea of metaphysical immutability, carried the day. The idea that God the Father could have feelings such as pity was called "patripassianism," and it has been generally regarded as unacceptable at least until the late twentieth century, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jürgen Moltmann, Kazoh Kitamori, and many others, including process theologians generally, began to emphasize God's suffering.
Although there was broad consensus that all things derive from God, there were alternative images of the relationship between God and the world. One image emphasized creation as an external act of will. The world is envisaged as coming into being by divine fiat out of nothing. Another image, which envisioned the world as the outworking of the dynamism of the divine life, found its clearest expression in Plotinus's doctrine of emanation. Insofar as this image implied that the world was made of divine substance, it was rejected by the church, but some of its language remained influential. A third image was that of participation, wherein God is seen as perfect being, and creatures are thought to exist as they participate in this being in a creaturely way. This image was supported especially by God's self-revelation to Moses. God is understood to have said: "I am who I am.… Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He Who Is, hath sent me to you." A fourth image was that of inclusion, according to which God is the "uncontained, who contains all things" (Preaching of Peter). This follows from the words attributed to Paul in Acts: "In God we live and move and have our being" (17:28).
The Platonic influence on developing Christian beliefs encouraged a correlation between the human intellect and God. Thus Gnosticism held that knowledge of God is superior to faith, and this idea was taken over also by some of the more orthodox Christians. A related concept held that the human soul or mind possessed a kinship with God that was lacking to the body. Such ideas encouraged intellectualistic mysticism and bodily asceticism. The Christian struggle to overcome this dualism can be traced from the fourth-century Cappadocians through the fourteenth-century Greek-speaking church. It required both the denial that God is of the order of thought or idea and the rejection of a further development in the thought of Plotinus, which located God as the One beyond thought who could be reached only through thought. At the same time it required the clarification of how human beings could have real communion with God by grace.
Basil of Caesarea made a distinction between the essence or substance of God, which is radically and eternally inaccessible, and the divine energies. These energies, he taught, are God's actual working in the world and are, therefore, fully God and wholly uncreated. Basil associated these energies especially with the Holy Spirit. "Through him the ascent of the emotions, the deification of the weak, the fulfillment of that which is in progress is accomplished. It is he who, shining brightly in those who are being purified of all uncleanness, makes them spiritual persons through communion with himself" (On the Holy Spirit 9.23).
The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius (Dionysius the Areopagite) shared much with the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. They served later in the West to encourage a Plotinian form of mysticism. But in the East, where their influence has been pervasive and their orthodoxy unquestioned, they have provided the basis for a Christian spirituality that overcomes a Platonic dualism.
These writings reaffirm the total inaccessibility of the divine essence while stressing the divine energies, powers, or processions. Created beings participate in the divine energy in the way proper to each. Thus the movement of God into the world of creatures enables the creatures to rise toward God. In this process both positive and negative theology are needed. Positive theology finds symbols for God everywhere in the created world. Negative theology points out that these are indeed symbols and that there is no name for God's essence. In neither process is there any priority of the intellectual over the physical.
In the eighth century, John of Damascus, the most authoritative theologian of the Eastern church, included these elements in his exposition The Orthodox Faith, thus ensuring their continued role. This role was most important in monastic practice, which sought to realize the presence of the Holy Spirit. Symeon, called the New Theologian, gave expression to this practice in the early part of the eleventh century. He wrote of the experience of the uncreated light that is neither sensory nor intellectual. This light illumines the human heart, judging, purifying, and forgiving. It is the foretaste of the Parousia.
This current of Eastern spirituality came to its fullest expression in Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century. He wrote: "Illumination or divine and deifying grace is not the essence but the energy of God" (Theophanes, in Patrologia Graeca 150.932d). Essence and energy are the two modes of the one divine existence.
This basic structure of Eastern thought of God was the context also for the defense of icons. The Iconoclasts held that the use of icons in worship was idolatrous because it assumed that the icons shared the substance of God. The victorious defenders thought of divine energies as imparted to the icons without any loss of their creatureliness, while the divine substance remained radically transcendent and unknowable.
The impact of Platonic philosophy in Western thought of God took a different turn chiefly because of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine made fully explicit the theological issues raised for the Christian by dominant philosophical ideas. For example, the church taught the doctrine of creation of the world out of nothing. This seemed to imply that God first was alone and then, subsequently, created the world. But this notion of a temporal sequence of events in the divine life seemed in conflict with the perfection of God. If there was good reason to create a world, why would God delay? In any case, would this sequence not necessarily imply a change in God from precreating to creating? And would not the existence of the world introduce something new into the divine omniscience?
Augustine undertook to reconcile the doctrines of creation and immutability by radical reflection on time. Time, he held, is a function of the mutable, created order. It has, therefore, no reality for God. For humans there is past, present, and future; but from the perspective of eternity, the contents of time exist timelessly. This became standard theological teaching, often ignored in the rhetoric of the church, but rarely directly denied before the twentieth century.
Unlike the author of the pseudo-Dionysian writings, Augustine understood the essence of God to be all that which is common to the persons of the Trinity. God is truth itself, which is at once goodness itself. As the sun is the source of light by which one's eyes see the visible world, so God is the source of illumination of the mind by which it sees eternal truths. And just as it is possible, though difficult, to see the sun itself, so also it is possible, though difficult, to contemplate God.
Truth, according to Augustine, draws the mind to itself, but the mind is distracted by the sinful will, which directs itself toward inferior things. What is known is not different, therefore, from natural knowledge, but because of sin natural knowledge is always distorted. Hence the mind cannot attain to truth apart from the healing of the will. This is the work of grace through Jesus Christ, in whom God accepted humiliation in order to overcome human pride.
This basic pattern, reflective of Plato's influence, dominated early medieval thought of God. It came into conflict with thinking affected by a new, firsthand encounter with the writings of Aristotle, which were mediated to Christian theologians in the West chiefly through Islamic Spain. The Aristotelian influence in theology was long viewed with suspicion, but eventually it gained a strong foothold in Western Christianity through the acceptance of Thomas Aquinas, who, as the most authoritative teacher of the Roman Catholic Church, synthesized aspects of Aristotle with much of the Augustinian tradition.
Thomas found in Aristotle an achievement of natural reason that moved from sense experience to the demonstration of the existence of God. This he called natural theology. He recognized that reason based on sense experience cannot arrive at all the truths taught by the church; so he affirmed also that there are truths attainable only by revelation. In addition he saw that much that the philosopher can attain by reason is also revealed so that all may know.
The Augustinian tradition argues that knowledge of God's existence is already implicitly given in thought. Anselm's formulation of the ontological argument is the most thoroughgoing expression of this tendency. Thomas, on the other hand, seeks to lead the mind by inference from what is known through the senses to the affirmation of God as the supreme cause of the world. The emphasis in Thomas's idea of God shifts, accordingly, from that of the illuminator of the mind to the cause of the existence and motion of all creaturely things.
The Thomistic argument that has best stood the test of time is the argument that proceeds from the contingency of all creaturely things to a necessary existent. By itself, an infinite series of contingent causes cannot explain the actual existence of anything. This dependence of contingent being on necessary being is closely related to Thomas's most original metaphysical work, his analysis of esse, or the act of being in its distinction from essence. The broad outlines of this argument already existed in the patristic consideration of God's self-revelation to Moses interpreted as "He Who Is." But whereas Augustine understood it to mean that God is he who never changes, Thomas taught that God is ipsum esse, being itself, that is, the act of being. This is pure act, free from all potency, apart from which there can be nothing at all. As pure act it is necessary existence, that on which all contingent existence wholly depends. French neo-Thomists in the twentieth century, such as Étienne Gilson, highlighted these features of Thomas's thought, which had been partly obscured in the interim.
Being itself is radically different from any creaturely being, and because one's ideas are formed in the creaturely world, one cannot speak of God univocally. Nevertheless, the language about God is not merely equivocal. There is justification in using analogies that move from creaturely effect to divine cause, attributing to the supreme cause the perfect form of the excellences found in the effects.
Thomas thought of God not simply as ipsum esse but as ipsum esse subsistens, that is, as the one who is being itself. The unity of the idea of being itself with the idea of the supreme being has been characteristic of the Thomistic tradition. However, Meister Eckhart, the great fourteenth-century mystic, distinguished God as supreme being from godhead as being itself, and he sought the latter in the depths of his own being. Through this distinction and his experiential realization of being, Eckhart provided a Western Christian analog for the thought and practice of Hindus and Buddhists, who had long distinguished the transpersonal ultimate from the personal God.
Thomas subordinated the divine will to the divine wisdom. That is, God wills what is good. In this doctrine, his thought followed that of the church fathers, including Augustine. God remains for Thomas, as for them, the One, the True, and the Good. But there were others for whom this Platonic way of thinking ceased to be convincing, for whom there were no truth and goodness existing in themselves and attracting the human mind and will; they asserted that God is much more the efficient cause of natural motion, that God is free agent, bound to nothing, and, in short, that God is almighty will, determining thereby what is true and good. This voluntaristic emphasis is associated with the rise of medieval nominalism, influenced especially by William of Ockham. Nominalism is the doctrine that universals are names given to certain things. These universals have no existence in themselves. Furthermore, because there is an element of arbitrariness in how things are named, human choice and decision are accented instead of discernment of what is objectively there for the mind to discover. This doctrine entails the theory that God alone chooses what to require of human beings and what to do for them. What God has chosen cannot be learned by human reason; it can only be revealed by God.
This voluntaristic theology prepared a context for the Protestant Reformation. With the reformers the emphasis was not on philosophical limitations to human knowledge of God but on the radical corruption of the human mind by sin. This impairment does not eradicate all knowledge of God, but it does lead to distortion of every human effort to say who God is. For knowledge of God one is totally dependent on God's gracious and redeeming act in Jesus Christ.
In Calvin's systematic formulation, for example, God's reality is fully manifest objectively in the order of nature; but because of sin those who have tried to interpret nature by reason have been led astray. The truth of God's objective manifestation in nature is properly grasped only through scripture. But, once again, although the truth about God is perfectly clear in scripture, the sinful mind distorts that as well. Hence scripture is properly understood only through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, bestowed by God as God pleases and not according to human merit.
The problem of theodicy is present wherever God is affirmed to be both omnipotent and good, because to deny sin and evil would contradict both scripture and experience. The problem is heightened when, as among Calvinists, God's election is emphasized to be independent of human desert. For the voluntaristic tradition, however, the answer is also given: What is good is finally determined by the divine will. The human mind has no independent access to criteria by which to judge the goodness of God.
Most theologians, however, have attempted to mitigate the starkness of this answer. Calvin himself attempted to demonstrate that the reprobate fully deserves damnation, and he attempted also to display the justice and mercy of what God has chosen to do as humanly intelligible. Others have argued more systematically that any alternative ordering of things would reduce the goodness of the world; usually the necessity or inevitability of evil in a world where there are free creatures has been emphasized. Although the phrase has not been popular, because it seems to minimize sin and evil, most theodicy has undertaken finally to show, in Leibniz's words, that this is "the best of all possible worlds."
During the Renaissance a new wave of Platonic influence gave rise to the Hermetic tradition, which emphasized the mathematical character of the world, the power of movement immanent in things, and the interrelatedness of human thought with these things. The divine was perceived as indwelling power rather than as transcendent will. The voluntaristic tradition had earlier separated revelation from the support of reason and encouraged an authoritarian spirit; the Hermetic tradition, too, separated reason from revelation, but encouraged instead a critique of hierarchical structures in church and society. Together they paved the way for modern philosophy in the seventeenth century, whereupon there ended definitively the unity of theology and philosophy that had dominated Western thought for more than a thousand years.
The early development of modern science was chiefly in the Hermetic context. But partly for theological reasons, René Descartes and Robert Boyle argued for a mechanical nature of passive objects to which the human mind is essentially alien. This left the sovereign will of God as the source of all order. Newton vacillated between these two worldviews, but eventually he gave his great prestige to the mechanical alternative, and this came to be known as the Newtonian worldview.
The church meanwhile kept alive older modes of thinking of God. Many of the theological debates, such as the Socinian, Arminian, Wesleyan, Universalist, and Unitarian objections to strict Calvinism, paid little attention to the issues raised by modern science. Their concern was to recover the emphasis on human freedom and to make more intelligible the idea of God's love for all people.
Nevertheless, the Newtonian, or mechanical, worldview came to be accepted as the only legitimate one in a scientific age. When the church expressed its faith in ways that were not consistent with this worldview, it became increasingly ghettoized in relation to the intellectual community. Among the intelligentsia thought of God accommodated itself rapidly to the new vision, and popular thought gradually followed. God was conceived, accordingly, as sovereign will, the omnipotent creator and lawgiver. As lawgiver God imposed laws on nature whose mathematical character physicists were disclosing. Parallel to physical laws were moral laws imposed upon human beings. Because human beings are free, these laws functioned more like those of the state, except for the omniscience and omnipotence of the lawgiver. Thus, it was held, people can disobey, but their disobedience is punished—in part in this life, but fully and appropriately in the next.
This developing idea of God was fully personal in the sense that God was conceived to be a supreme mind and will. But human relations to God were mediated through impersonal laws. The term deist was applied to this position; originally synonymous with theist, it came later to imply the lack of any immediacy of inwardness of relationship. Deism pictured God as the maker of the machine, which then runs according to the principles built into it.
In the eighteenth century the chief issue was whether God, having established natural laws, ever acted contrary to them. All agreed that God was supernatural. The issue was whether God caused supernatural events in the created world, that is, whether miracles occurred. Orthodox Christians held that the biblical accounts of miracles were true, whereas the Deists held that natural law was perfect and that therefore God did not violate it.
The eighteenth century witnessed also the rise of religious skepticism. There had been skeptics all along, but their numbers and prestige were greatly increased during the Renaissance, as well as by the multiple divisions of Christianity and accompanying religious wars following the Reformation. Also, the increasing autonomy and success of natural science suggested that scientific explanation is sufficient by itself and does not require metaphysical and theological grounding. By the end of the eighteenth century belief in God had become radically problematic. The philosophy of David Hume brought the skeptical spirit to expression in ways that continue to influence contemporary thought. By insisting that causality must be an empirically observable relationship, Hume undercut every argument that begins with the world or with aspects of the world and reasons that there must be a cause that transcends the world.
Reflection about God on the European continent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was shaped by the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Influenced by Hume, Kant saw that empirical evidence alone could not ultimately serve as a sufficient ground for the Newtonian worldview. This perception led him to ground that worldview in necessary structures of thought wherein Newtonian space and time, as well as causality, are ways in which the mind necessarily orders phenomena.
Kant's conclusion was by no means atheistic. Even in relation to the exercise of theoretical reason, the idea of God has a beneficial effect, though it must not be introduced as an explanatory principle. More important, Kant points out that in addition to the sphere of theoretical reason there is another sphere of practical reason, which deals with how people should act. In this sphere, too, the fundamental moral principle is independent of theology. People should act always according to maxims that they can will to be universal principles. For example, if one cannot will that people in general lie, cheat, or steal whenever it is to their personal advantage to do so, then one ought not to lie, cheat, or steal for one's own advantage. This principle—the "categorical imperative"—holds whether or not God exists.
But Kant also affirmed that it would be fitting if the will that conforms to this imperative were happy. Indeed, the summum bonum, that whose realization all must desire, is the union of virtue and happiness. Such a state is not attained in this life, but one has the right to posit that it is not an illusion, that is, that this life is not the whole, and that in the larger sphere the summum bonum may be realized. This argument assumes that God exists as the guarantor of ultimate fittingness.
Although few have followed the exact way in which Kant correlated God with ethics, many have agreed that belief in God belongs with ethics rather than with science. Later in the nineteenth century Albrecht Ritschl was to found a neo-Kantian school, which interpreted theology as statements about values rather than about facts. God is that which is supremely valuable, not a being about whose existence it is suitable to argue.
Kant's philosophy opened up a particular idea of God of which he did not approve. Kant had given an elaborate account of the a priori structures of experience and thought, specifying that these structures apply to thought or mind as such; they are not accounts of contingent features of particular minds, but rather "transcendentals," and individual minds exist by participation in them. Mind as such—in German, Geist —has a reality of its own, transcending that of individuals. In developments subsequent to Kant much nineteenth-century German theology associated Geist with God.
The most influential thinker who made this association was Hegel, who believed that the structure of Geist was not static, as Kant thought, but dynamic. Hegel studied this dynamism in the process of thinking as such and also traced it through the great cultures of universal history. He saw it as directed toward a final completion or realization, which he called absolute Geist. This Hegelian effort to discern the working of Geist in the whole of human cultural and intellectual history has since been characteristic of such theologians as Ernst Troeltsch and Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Kant's philosophy can also be used to support the idea of a religious a priori. Theologians can argue that just as space, time, and causality are a priori structures of experience, so also is the sense of the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher held that in all people there is to be found a "feeling of absolute dependence," and he built his theology around this feeling. Later, Nathan Söderblom and Rudolf Otto identified the feeling of the holy or the numinous as the essentially religious element in experience. Paul Tillich subsequently spoke of "ultimate concern."
This approach to the divine leaves somewhat ambiguous the reality of God as such. Its normal rhetoric implies that there is One on whom all are absolutely dependent, that there is One who is numinous, or that everyone's ultimate concern is correlated with that which in truth concerns them ultimately. In this way it crosses beyond the boundaries of strict Kantian thought. Even within the Kantian framework, it follows that because one cannot but experience the world in this way, the question of truth or falsity is irrelevant. In some such way as this there has been a widespread tendency in twentieth-century theology to avoid the need for arguments for the objective reality of God, without relapsing into subjectivism or giving up realistic language about God.
In the twentieth century an important segment of Roman Catholic Thomistic thought followed Kant in still another way by taking the "transcendental turn." Transcendental Thomists, such as Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, probe with Kant within the human mind for the conditions of all thought and knowledge. But unlike Kant they discover not the categorical requirements for the Newtonian worldview but the horizon of being as such, which is God.
In the English-speaking world, in spite of Hume's skepticism on the matter, William Paley's arguments from the order of nature to a transcendent creator were convincing to many, and for many, therefore, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution generated a major crisis of faith. If one thinks of the world as having come into being with something like its present order, it is indeed difficult not to posit a supremely intelligent and powerful creator. But if one supposes that the complex forms of life now to be observed were produced by chance and necessity out of much simpler forms, the role of such a creator declines, eventually to the vanishing point. Hence Darwinism appeared to be a profound threat to theism, and out of the controversy was born fundamentalism as a self-conscious movement, holding to the literal accuracy of biblical teaching against dominant scientific and historical study. Its teaching, of course, had roots in the whole of conservative Protestant history, especially Calvinist, but its defensive stance against science was new.
Those who wished to accept the evolutionary perspective while remaining theists were compelled to reconceive the way God works in the world. Such thinkers, instead of conceiving of God deistically as one who produced the world, gave it its laws, and left it to run its course, found it possible to imagine God as working with creatures in the development of new patterns of order. To do so, however, required the introduction of the notion of purpose into evolution. Debate continues as to whether this modification is justifiable. Thus Teilhard de Chardin argued that the whole evolutionary process moves toward a final destiny, an Omega Point. Jacques Monod replied that science has now established that chance and necessity reign supreme. Yet Monod seems to attribute intelligent purpose to human beings and even to other animals. There is in fact considerable evidence that purposive behavior is an important factor in the evolutionary process, and defenders of theism can argue from it that God is the source of this purposiveness.
The most influential theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, was shaped in much of his thought by Kant's critical philosophy, but he rejected all adaptations of the doctrine of God to philosophical requirements. He denied, more radically than the Protestant reformers, that God can be known by human reason. Humankind is entirely dependent, Barth maintained, on God's self-revelation, who is Jesus Christ. This revelation is known only in the scriptural witness to him. Central to what is revealed of God is radical, sovereign, dynamic freedom. Humans can lay no claims on God and make no judgments about how God will act except as they lay hold on the divine promises and the divine self-disclosure. In Germany this radically Christocentric theology provided a rallying point against compromise with the quasi-religious claims of Nazism.
Barth strove mightily to let his thought of God be shaped by scripture through and through. He wished to avoid dependence on the philosophical ideas that had been so influential throughout Christian history. He also wanted to avoid reaction against uncongenial or hostile modes of thought in contemporary society. His intellectual honesty and openness commanded the respect of many modernists, despite their discomfort with his conclusions; his radical faithfulness to scripture commanded the respect of many fundamentalists, despite his refusal to endorse their teachings about biblical inerrancy and despite his rejection of their quarrel with modern science and philosophy. In the English-speaking world, aided by the popularity of the supportive writings of Emil Brunner, Barth provided an alternative to modernism and fundamentalism, thus making possible an ecumenical center for theological discussion from the 1930s into the 1960s.
The dominance of a positivistically inclined linguistic analysis in English-language philosophy raised problems for the English-speaking Barthian consensus, as illustrated by the work of a North American student of Barth, Paul Van Buren, who called for a nontheistic interpretation of Barth's theology. Meanwhile opposition to Christian teaching about God continued, inherited from nineteenth-century skeptics and also from those who had found belief in God oppressive: Ludwig Feuerbach, who complained that humanity treated its own goodness as something alien, and projected this as "God"; Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that human beings could not assert their own freedom until they "killed" God. Barth's reassertion of God as free and sovereign will did little to respond to these challenges, and the work of Thomas Altizer renewed this challenge in the mid-1960s. The "death-of-God" theology contributed further to weakening Barth's influence.
The appearance soon after World War II of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a Nazi jail struck a responsive chord in those already uncomfortable with Barth's theology. The ideas sketched in these writings indicate a quite different way of thinking of God. "Only a powerless God," Bonhoeffer wrote, "can help." It is the Crucified One rather than the all-determining Lord who can speak to suffering humanity "come of age." Bonhoeffer thus helped gain a hearing for a current of thought that directly challenged God's impassibility and affirmed patripassianism. This position had been formulated philosophically in the United States by Alfred North Whitehead and was systematically developed by Charles Hartshorne; it was forcefully expressed theologically in Germany by Jürgen Moltmann.
Although few have followed Bonhoeffer's rhetoric of divine powerlessness, there has been considerable new reflection on the nature of God's power. Whitehead held that God's power is persuasive rather than coercive. That this was true with respect to human beings had long been taught—for example, by Augustine. But in Whitehead's view, to exist at all is to have some measure of self-determination. Hence God's relation to all creatures is persuasive. Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that God is to be thought of as the Power of the Future. God is not now extant as one being alongside others making up the given reality, but rather that which will be all in all. Pannenberg argues that all creative realization in the present comes into being from this divine future. Hence God remains all-determinative, but the mode of this determination is quite different from that against which people have protested for the sake of human freedom. Instead it is God's determination of the present that makes humanity free.
The association of God with the future, building on the eschatological language of the New Testament, has had other supporters. Whereas for Pannenberg it has ontological meaning, for J.-B. Metz and Jürgen Moltmann it is associated with a "political theology," which locates salvation primarily in the public historical realm. It is also central to the "liberation theology" of Rubem Alves, Gustavo Gutierrez, Juan Segundo, and other Latin Americans. These German and Latin American theologians argue that God's will is not expressed in the present structures of society or in some romanticized past, but rather in the promise of something quite different. Hence, the overwhelming tendency of religion to justify and even sanctify existing patterns, or to encourage nostalgia for a lost paradise, is opposed by the prophetic challenge in view of the hoped-for future.
Among these theologians, the image of God has been more important than the concept. Indeed, recognition of the difference between image and concept and of the great importance of image has played a large role in recent thought about God. Blacks in the United States, led by James H. Cone, have pointed out that God has been imaged as white. The fact that theological concepts about God make the notion of skin color absurd has not reduced the power of this image. Blacks then need to image God as black to claim their human and religious identity. They can go on to say that the biblical witness to God's self-identification with the poor and oppressed gives special justification to this image. Black theology has also provided stimulus for fuller indigenization of images of God in many non-Western cultures.
Similarly, although theologians have insisted that God is beyond gender, feminists have had no difficulty showing that the Christian image of God is overwhelmingly male: Whereas God's whiteness is clearly not biblical and is rightly rejected in the name of the Bible, God's maleness is biblical. Hence the denial of maleness to God requires a radical approach to scripture. Furthermore, the characteristics attributed to God by even those theologians who have rejected anthropomorphism have usually been stereotypically masculine ideals: omnipotence, impassibility, self-sufficiency. Feminists challenge this whole theological tradition. They divide between those, such as Mary Daly, who believe that the Christian God is inherently and necessarily patriarchal, and hence incompatible with women's liberation, and those, such as Rosemary Ruether and Letty Russell, who believe that the Christian deity is a liberator who can free humankind also from patriarchalism.
For a century now there has been a slow decline of the mechanistic worldview. Because the rise of that worldview had so marked an impact on Christian thinking about God, its decline would seem to be important as well. However, the change in theology has not been dramatic. Because of Kant's influence, theology in central Europe has been largely separated from questions of worldview. The effect of Barth's theology has been to reinforce this separation. Ironically, the separation has led to the continued acceptance of the mechanistic worldview by some theologians despite its loss of prestige among physicists. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, accepted this worldview unquestioningly and argued from it with respect to what is credible to modern people.
Nevertheless, others, such as Karl Heim, worked to adapt Christian theology to new developments in science; this approach was especially common in the French- and English-language worlds. Scientific developments abounded. After the controversy over evolution, more fundamental challenges to mechanism came from physics with the rise of quantum theory. Newtonian laws gave way to statistical probabilities, and self-contained atoms were replaced by fields. Substances gave way to events. But the lack of a fully articulated, generally accepted new worldview, correlated with the whole range of the sciences, has reduced the impact on theology of the decay of the older worldview. Meanwhile there has emerged largely outside the churches a popular religious culture that correlates religious beliefs with what it takes to be the new science.
The most impressive effort to propose a conceptually rigorous worldview or cosmology appropriate to postmechanistic science is that of Whitehead. Whitehead also spelled out what he saw as the implications of this new cosmology for belief in God. Because the new cosmology replaces atomism with a field of interrelated events, it calls for understanding God as also fully interrelated with the world. God is not a cosmic lawgiver but an intimate participant in every event. Similarly, every event enters forever into the inner life of God.
Whitehead's ideas have been systematically modified, developed, and defended by Charles Hartshorne. In light of the new ways of thinking of God Hartshorne reformulated classical arguments for God's existence, including the ontological argument, and he called his theism neoclassical. This neoclassical theism is a pan-entheism based on a doctrine of God as dipolar, absolute in essence but relational in actuality. Hartshorne's thought has played a central role in the emergence of "process theology."
Another context for Christian reflection on God in recent times is dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions. These dialogues intensify the question whether the Christian God is also worshiped in other traditions. In relation to Jews and Muslims, who share much scripture with Christians, there has rarely been serious doubt. It has also been usual missional strategy in countries previously unacquainted with these scriptures to use terms already present in their languages to speak of the Christian God. It has been widely assumed that, whatever the misunderstanding or distortion, every people has some notion of the one true God who is revealed in the Bible.
Such dialogue also usually leads to greater appreciation of the faith of the dialogue partner and increases the sense that the one true God is known also by the partner. This perception results in an effort to distinguish God from Christian ideas and images of God, so that Christians may respect ideas and images quite different from those to which they have been accustomed. H. Richard Niebuhr has provided a confessional model for dialogue in which the partners tell their story to one another in ways that celebrate the understanding to which their own story has brought them, without disparaging or closing themselves off from what others have learned from their own very different histories.
Reflection on the deep differences between dialogue partners can also lead to the conclusion that the reality of which the partner speaks is different from the biblical God. Meister Eckhart's distinction of godhead from God, Paul Tillich's language about being itself as the God beyond the God of theism, and Whitehead's distinction of creativity from God offer bases for fresh reflection on the relation of the mystical ultimate in Indian and Chinese religions to the Christian God.
The diversity of interests that lead to reflection on God witnesses to the continuing importance of the topic. It also produces great confusion. It is not clear that different statements using the word God have, any longer, a common topic. In the Christian context, however, one can almost always understand that, despite all the diversity of concepts and imagery, God refers to what Christians worship and trust. Further—with a few exceptions, such as Edgar S. Brightman and William James—God is associated with perfection. Part of the confusion lies in the changing ideal. Whereas for many centuries it seemed self-evident to most Christians that the perfect must be all-determining, affected by nothing external to itself, timeless, and completely self-sufficient, that supposition is no longer so evident today. Much of the debate about God is a debate about what people most admire and most desire to emulate.
Androcentrism; Anthropomorphism; Apologetics; Councils, article on Christian Councils; Deism; Enlightenment, The; Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity; Gender Roles; Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; Hermetism; Iconoclasm; Icons; Incarnation; Modernism, article on Christian Modernism; Naturalism; Neoorthodoxy; Nominalism; Philosophy; Political Theology; Skeptics and Skepticism; Theodicy; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Trinity.
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John B. Cobb, Jr. (1987)