Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Emerging God of Emergent Theology (with Intro)

"People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived,
reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone." - Anon

Today's article reflects a good portion of what we've been working through at Relevancy22.  Hence, I would like to submit some emergent statements eliciting our previous body of thoughts these past 18 months. Please do not deem this list as in any way complete, but as a cursory reading to an evolving topic daily challenging us towards a newer, more relevant perspective than is presently being found in today's church dogmas and practices.

By way of introduction, I do often think of God through the eyes of the Reformed author AW Tozer in his classical expressions of God's Greatness, as an All-Powerful Being, All-Knowing, Everywhere Present, and so forth.... But even as I do, I do also realize that these are classic expressions of God not fully connected to the God of the Bible, but more historically entrenched in early  Aristotelian (Greek) thought of the early church (cf. Wikipedia re Aristotle) that proceeded into the ensuing Middle Ages till modified in the cultural enlightenment of the Renaissance Age. Which then gave birth to the Reformation Age and the Reformed Theology of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, from which AW Tozer emerged to speak warm insights of God's transcendency into our (existential) mortal lives.

As such, I wish to temper those cherished, classic Christian expressions of God, our faith, and worship, by relating them to the postmodern experiences of today's faith expectations and beliefs. By speaking to the frailty of our mortal life as caught between the traces of life and death; its unknowing and uncertainty, its despairs and laments; its awfulness and tragedy; its beauty and grace; its mysteries and elegance. Though these experiences have not changed from biblical times till now, it seems that our perception of God has changed, making Him less relevant, less real, less involved in our lives... even removed from our lives and societies.

Backing up a bit, you find this type of reality when casually reading the Bible through the ancient's eyes - that of a people and a God in relational juxtaposition with one another - each asking of the other the deeper questions of existence, meaning, survival, and legacy. What we don't find are doctrinal expressions of God particularly laid out in logistic arguments and dunning syllogisms, that would reframe God's work and grace between us and Him, like we do now.... Enacting a wall of dogmatism and church folklore that would prevent us from beholding the fullness and the reality of God. Even so, what we do find in the biblical story are running narratives of peoples lives before an ever-present God who intercedes vigorously into our desperate lives by works of grace and judgment, helps and assists, and sundry other matters. Similarly, the ancients had their own philosophical walls of beliefs and practices as evidenced to their strong reaction against the proclamations of the OT Prophets. And later, during the Gospel Era, as also evidenced by the rejection of God's NT prophets from John the Baptist, to Jesus, to the Apostles.

Albeit, even in these postmodernistic times God does vigorously intercede through the Holy Spirit into the daily lives of mankind, however mundane we think His efforts may be. For the truths of our mortal experiences are all too well known to those seeking help, or release, from the trials and dilemmas portending life's thin veil of promises too easily ripped away from our world-weary hands and doubting hearts. Who, like trusting aspirants,  would brave life's many vagaries as despairing disciples, or as faith-filled seekers, to God's promised keeps and eternal watch, despite all harm and waste  and moiling struggles. This can only be done by revisualizing the God of the Bible, and not the God of our Aristotelian dreams and stricter transcendent Reformed doctrines. By remembering that God is in an everyday relationship with humanity, and especially with His children of faith, with whom He provides helps, assists, enlightenment, empowerment, daily wisdom, grace, mercy and forgiveness (to mention a few).

And when we see Him not, nor feel God's presence, we do not despair in the harm and defeat that life can often bring. But remember that God's presence and advocacy is a moment-by-moment applied reality to our lives to which our trust and faith so proclaims through the words of the Bible. That this God is not the product of our hands, like some idol or idolized idea, who may instantly gratify or miraculously deliver when deep trouble comes. But to remember that even still, He is present with us in the valleys of shadows and death, as much as at the feast-laden tables spread before us. He is an emerging God to our life's daily complexities merging His promises of renewal and redemption where He can by our allowance and insistence in obedience and faith.

In the meantime, we are to work through the challenges of today's church doctrines too-easily conflicted by our human expectations and idolized dreams of what God must do and be, so as to present to our hearts a more realistic idea of God's promises within the post-modernistic demands of humanity's cynicisms, defeats, hopelessness, and denials. Yes, I do want a strong God who can defeat sin and temptations, the devil and injustice, selfishness and greed. But this process is as much a "within" problem as it is a "without" problem. That God's love and peace begins with us first before it can affect others beyond ourselves.

While also realizing that with our submission reconciliation and goodwill are not guaranteed but does put into action outlying eddies of gathering strength and will through the Holy Spirit. Who takes what we give Him and blesses it as He can in this world of sin and woe. Even so, it is to God's heart that we daily practice forgiveness and mercy - despite failures and defeats, lack of progress or certainties. To defeat sin is to share God's love. There are no further magic formulas than this.

As such, what may we expect from an Emergent Theology for the postmodern church today as it recasts a transcendent God into the vernacular comportment of our lives so that we behold this same God as our Incarnational Present and Future. Who no longer inhabits the heavens above (according to ancient cosmologies) but the earth below in His incarnational presence (begun with the birth of Jesus who was the very essence God not only in reflection but in substance of being). And upon Jesus' physical ascendance empowered His divine Godhead to be lived out through the embodiment of His living church and indwelling Holy Spirit within the everyday presence of mankind?

Whose Spirit courses through the veins of humanity and speaks to our lives words of grace and truth, justice and wisdom, forgiveness and mercy, to all men everywhere. This is the God that the Bible speaks of. Who comes and makes His dwelling among men. Who, in the distant past, envisioned His creational presence into relational relevancy. Who understood the need for restoring, redeeming, renewing, reclaiming, reviving His wayward creation unto Himself by His Incarnational presence and ministry. No, we are not left alone. God is a very present help to all who cry out or yearn for His presence. Though God may feel far away during times of great trial He is the nearest to us in presence and fellowship, comfort and peace, hope and resurrection.

So then, what do we mean by "The Emerging God of Emergent Theology?" Just who is this God?

The Emergent God of Emergent Theology

FirstEmergent Theology requires that we think of God in (i) non-classical terms; (ii) in non-dualistic categories (the past era of modernistic Enlightenment majored in these themes); and (iii) in open and relational terms of growth and evolvement as a Spiritual Being who is in an open and evolving relationship to the cosmos, the environment, mankind, and even Himself (this is known as relational theism as versus classical theism).

Second - we are evolving (or, becoming) within our being, our senses, our knowledge, our understanding, and our fulfillment or destiny. Even so is the Creator of the universe evolving (or becoming) within these same faculties. We know this upon the basis of God's relationship with us. And vice versa upon our relationship to Him. Because God is relational (sic, the Trinity), so we are relational. Hence, God's image is reflected in us as much as our image is reflected in Him (though in a limiting, more finite sense). And it is through His image we may commune each with the other relationally.

Accordingly, we each are evolving. And evolving together. In becoming. And becoming together. Both God and humanity (and His creation by extension) are emerging towards some greater resolution of completeness. And until that time of restoration is complete, God is incomplete. Despite classical theism's assertion that He is complete in Himself. Relational theism says that this cannot be so, so long as the cosmos is incomplete to which the Creator-God is infinitely bound.
Third - God's knowledge of the future is incomplete because of the indeterminacy that He has placed within the heart of the cosmos... and, within that of humanity itself by free will. The opposite of this (in dualistic terms!) is Determinism which would annul the idea of free will. If we lived in a mechanistic creation being automatons ourselves than there is no idea of completeness, or hope of renewal, or teleology of redemption. For all is complete within a deterministic environment to which we may only live out our mean parts as puppet to the universe's meticulous rule (some agnostic evolutionists and cosmologists like to posit this strategem; an evolutionary creationist/theist will not).

However, if all is indetermined than we have another type of future - an unknown future. Both to us and to God. Making the enterprise of the operation of creation unpredictable and surprising to God each and every day (this is known as Open Theology compounded by the problem of sin). To which God may hold within Himself such emotions as dismay, disappointment, hatred, anger, joy, delight, satisfaction, hope, love and forgiveness. Even as these same emotions may be present within our breast to each day's trials and turmoils, beauty and grace.

This position does not make God less Sovereign, but it does make God more open to possibilities and probable outcomes based upon a studied wisdom applied to situational events and social intricacies. Since creating-granting-instilling free will to creation and mankind, God's applied Sovereignty must work in-and-around this creational blessing both terrible and glorious (this dilemma sounds almost Shakespearean doesn't it?). Hence, not only do we live with the complexity of open futures, so does God - but on a much, much larger cosmic/human scale.

Fourth - our classical statements of God give to us not the God of the Bible, but a God of our classical systems. Against this temptation comes the aide of postmodernism to help us become accountable to all previous church statements of God that are un-God-like (known as bounded-set categories of thought and doctrine as versus open-set categories). Consequently, any would-be postmodern theologian must re-adjust classical theologies of God so that they may become more biblically described and backfilled with theological potentiality than the static, closed frameworks that do now exist (whether admitted or not).

As example, these boundaries may apply to ourselves as much as to the church. For God is not dead, nor irrelevant, unless we make of Him that idea. If God is dead it is we ourselves who have made God dead. To declare an ignorance of God, or a disbelief in God, does not remove God's existence. Only the application of His existence to the one who declares such beliefs. However, an evolving, emerging theology of God will allow doubters, disbelievers and even the faithful as one people to whom God embraces. I speak in the sense of the corporate, human solidarity of mankind, where doubt and disbelief is commonly found, even amongst God's faithful.

More often this phrase "one people" is understood to apply to the church itself when telling of a biblically covenanted remnant of obedient souls who are redeemed by faith. Here, I wish to use it to describe the solidarity of God to mankind. To a humanity whom God blesses with His presence; Who tarries before man's questions and doubts, disbeliefs and sarcasms; Who will not leave us to ourselves however much we would wish it. Though assuredly there are consequences to our actions and speech, even still, God can, and will, redeem by faith's acceptance. Even the irredeemable, the unreachable, the deep skeptic and cynic. Emergent theology says that God is a God to all men and women, not just to the faithful, or the religious believer, but to all men and women of whatever color or stripe, shape or condition (speaking metaphorically). This is the solidarity of God with humanity. This is the promise of God as man's Creator who has placed upon Himself the further burden, or responsibility, to redeem, reclaim, revive, renew, rebirth, restore.

As such, God's work of salvation is unbounded by man's sinful heart, whom He would commune with in grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, until the disbelieving heart doubts no longer. Though no arguments can prevent a disbelieving heart, even still, at the heart's end will be the God disbelieved. A God who will never abandon us to ourselves. Who will be present with us even when refused. Lo, Jesus promises that He will never leave us nor forsake those that seek after Him. But that He will redeem as He can, if allowed to do so. It is that simple, regardless of the restrictions many churches seem to place upon the liberating gospel of Christ. It is God Himself who will stand as man's ultimate Advocate and Mediator. Not the church. Nor its dogmas. Nor its faith practices. Faith is the only one requirement to redemption's release into the lives of the penitent, the seeker, the broken. God is everywhere found regardless of our Christian formulas of election and judgment. Let then the gospel of Jesus be as unbounded. And let us see the value of humanity from the heart of the Savior and not from the heart of the religious, the legalist, the perfectionist, or the circumspect. These are unnecessary barriers before the God of all souls.

Fifth - a more literary reading is required for searching and studying Scriptures than the normative literal reading that is now occurring to the obscurity of Scriptural understanding. To refuse recognizing the meaningful categories of literary genre within the Bible will only continue the fiction of believing a historical-grammatical hermeneutic is being utilized when in fact it is neither historical, nor grammatical, when reduced (or omitted) before the larger dogma of reading the Bible "literally." Consequently, God remains unrevealed to such a readership. Hence, God becomes static and closed. As is the Bible. As is worship and faith. However, a literary reading of the Bible will produce a dynamic, open theology of God, the Bible, worship and faith (this is known as an Open Hermeneutic).

Sixth - sin, death, destruction, evil, harm and injustice do continue against the will and very pleasure of God. And yet, God is no less Sovereign, as He threads His plans for renewal, recreation, restoration, reclamation, rebirth, and redemption for both the cosmos and for humanity. This in incomprehensible to us but nonetheless true. We might classify this as an open problem to the dilemma of living but the category of Incarnational Revelation and Redemption may sufficiently speak to this area. Or put another way, God's Incarnational presence gives to us our Incarnational future.

Seventh - An open theology will work towards reducing our conception of God in dualistic categories. God is neither strong nor weak, perfect nor imperfect (which is one of my complaints per the accompanying article below), passive nor impassive, decisive nor indecisive. When we do this it limits our perception of God while also imperfectly describing God. We would do better to obtain an open description of God than a closed, classic description of God.

The article I've included below shows how a contemporary Jewish theologian uses biblical grammar, context, and linguistics, to arrive at a more appropriate contextual theology of God as versus later arising classical statements of God based upon presumptive logic. Which in this case seems attributable to the earlier Greek paradigms of thought and logic, cosmology and nature, gods and men, from which derived the Early Church's Hellenistic doctrines of God as Judaism dimmed in its backview mirror.

As such, efforts are underway in revisioning the New Testament in Jewish (non-Hellenistic) terminology, and is known as the "New Perspective of Paul" by which classical theism derived from Pauline doctrine is re-expressed into the Jewish terms that Paul once preached. The gospel of Jesus should be as integral to Paul's teachings as Paul's thoughts were to Jesus' day of ministry. Together, both Jesus and Paul were revisioning Judaism's theology of God to a theology more appropriately pertinent to the God that the Jewish priests and organized temple professed to worship. We would do well to do the same today with our church systems and dogmas in reflective light lest we ignore God's postmodern day prophets burdened to preach God's revelation of light, light, grace and glory.

Eighth - in all of this, Emergent Theology can be said to be evolving. Or, emerging. That it is willing to critique past theological judgments, and in the presiding, perhaps deliver a fuller, more comprehensive concept to those same judgments using the helps of more up-to-date tools found in today's evolutionary sciences and advanced studies of philosophy, linguistics, behavioralism, archaeology, and anthropology, to mention a few. Especially as set within the framework of a reconstructive postmodernism that provides both ground-and-base to attempt these formidable tasks.

To realize that each age of the Bible had its own perspectives and spiritual needs is to understand that no one "-ology" can cover all these differences. Emergent theology will allow for the application of postmodern studies into each historical social application without prejudicing the outcome to a set standard of expectations. The Bible is not so simple a book as to be comprehensively read or understood by any one individual or view. In the preponderance of submitted studies will arise a currency of theological thought that cannot be reflective of any one view but a reconstruction of all applicable views into that of our own philosophic needs and wants. As such, emergent theology is an evolving, emerging theology.

Ninth - Our concept of God must be open. To grasp the concept that God "Will Be what He Will Be" is exciting because it gives to us hope that we "may be what we may be" by God's help. And by the Holy Spirit's guidance, as we are borne along on the wings of each new-day to the dusks of the setting sun in reconstructive vision and amplitude within God's rectifying sovereignty. Simply said, we have an open future underlain by the promises of the God who restores and renews.
Like ourselves, God is not a static being either. In the popular orthodox understanding of the biblical description of God as the One who Is ("I Am that I Am") we sometimes complete this statement by telling of a God who "Completes what He has started." Which is true enough, but a closer reading of the imperfect tense of the biblical expression tells us that God "Will Be what He Will Be." Which I take to infer that even God Himself is being challenged in His grace and glory to provide the promise of His salvation regardless of the corruption of sin and causality of free will divinely imparted in both nature and humanity.

Significantly, the one is a result of the latter - that is, sin is a result of free will as given and exercised. As such, each have been seeded into the fabric of the universe - one purposefully (free will). The other affectively (sin). And within this complex tapestry God will redeem what He has set in motion without hindering the very operation of free will that created the problem of sin in the first place. To this God tells us that "He will Be what He will Be." It is an ontological expression with functional (or teleological) import.
Tenth - regardless, of how we understand sin's origin, God will be what He will be,  which humbly tells us that even God Himself is emerging (like ourselves) towards a completeness we may only find by God's grace and mercy as foundationally secured through Jesus. Consequently, God's redemption of mankind will provide even His own "redemption" towards completeness and order (as found in the Jewish concept of Shalom).

Finally - the application of the metaphysical categories of perfection do not overlay well with the ontological categories of being. This is a human foible of misunderstanding as illustrated below by Hazony's argument which is more in line with Jewish hermeneutical interpretation than it is with Emergent theology (though it does exhibit Emergent-like rhetoric as noted in our list above). Even so, God is God, and His Being does overwhelm our senses and our knowing. It is enough to know that God is our Redeemer. And that we are His through Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord. Rest in this therefore, and be at peace.
R.E. Slater
December 15, 2012
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
An Imperfect God
A God who is perfectly powerful can not also be perfectly good
Is God perfect? You often hear philosophers describe “theism” as the belief in a perfect being — a being whose attributes are said to include being all-powerful, all-knowing, immutable, perfectly good, perfectly simple, and necessarily existent (among others). And today, something like this view is common among lay people as well.
There are two famous problems with this view of God. The first is that it appears to be impossible to make it coherent. For example, it seems unlikely that God can be both perfectly powerful and perfectly good if the world is filled (as it obviously is) with instances of terrible injustice. Similarly, it’s hard to see how God can wield his infinite power to instigate alteration and change in all things if he is flat-out immutable. And there are more such contradictions where these came from.
The second problem is that while this “theist” view of God is supposed to be a description of the God of the Bible, it’s hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) thought of God in this way at all. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he’s repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants. And so on.
Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done. In fact, part of the reason God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so influential (apart from the fact they write so well) is their insistence that the doctrine of God’s perfections makes no sense, and that the idealized “being” it tells us about doesn’t resemble the biblical God at all.
So is that it, then? Have the atheists won? I don’t think so. But it does look like the time has come for some rethinking in the theist camp.
I’d start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a “perfect being,” or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason. Normally, when we say that something is “perfect,” we mean it has attained the best possible balance among the principles involved in making it the kind of thing it is. For example, if we say that a bottle is perfect, we mean it can contain a significant quantity of liquid in its body; that its neck is long enough to be grasped comfortably and firmly; that the bore is wide enough to permit a rapid flow of liquid; and so on. Of course, you can always manufacture a bottle that will hold more liquid, but only by making the body too broad (so the bottle doesn’t handle well) or the neck too short (so it’s hard to hold). There’s an inevitable trade-off among the principles, and perfection lies in the balance among them. And this is so whether what’s being judged is a bottle or a horse, a wine or a gymnastics routine or natural human beauty.
What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.
The attempt to think of God as a perfect being is misguided for another reason as well. We can speak of the perfection of a bottle or a horse because these are things that can be encompassed (at least in some sense) by our senses and understanding. Having the whole bottle before us, we feel we can judge how close it is to being a perfect instance of its type. But if asked to judge the perfection of a bottle poking out of a paper bag, or of a horse that’s partly hidden in the stable, we’d surely protest: How am I supposed to know? I can only see part of it.
Yet the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary in just this way. Even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, is told that he can’t see God’s face, but can only catch a glimpse of God’s back as he passes by. At another point, God responds to Moses’ request to know his name (that is, his nature) by telling him “ehi’eh asher ehi’eh” —“I will be what I will be.” In most English-language Bibles this is translated “I am that I am,” following the Septuagint, which sought to bring the biblical text into line with the Greek tradition (descended from Xenophanes, Parmenides and Plato’s “Timaeus”) of identifying God with perfect being. But in the Hebrew original, the text says almost exactly the opposite of this: The Hebrew “I will be what I will be” is in the imperfect tense, suggesting to us a God who is incomplete and changing. In their run-ins with God, human beings can glimpse a corner or an edge of something too immense to be encompassed, a “coming-into-being” as God approaches, and no more. The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit.
So if it’s not a bundle of “perfections” that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible referred to in speaking of God, what was it they were talking about? As Donald Harman Akenson writes, the God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an “embodiment of what is, of reality” as we experience it. God’s abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind’s deeds and misdeeds — all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings. To be sure, the biblical God can appear with sudden and stunning generosity as well, as he did to Israel at the Red Sea. And he is portrayed, ultimately, as faithful and just. But these are not the “perfections” of a God known to be a perfect being. They don’t exist in his character “necessarily,” or anything remotely similar to this. On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: We hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.
The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realistic God than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind’s allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations — idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.

Yoram HazonyYoram Hazony is president of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of, most recently, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.” He will be giving a lecture at The New York Public Library author series on Monday.

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