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Friday, June 25, 2010

Theology is useful but ...

I wrote this quickly after reading a theological essay and discussion on facebook written by someone whose love for Jesus I respect but whose theology I differ with. He used various scriptures to demonstrate how it is that God knows all, infinitely and perfectly. He knows the beginning and the end and everything in between.

His view is definitely the majority view. There are fewer who would agree with me. But since I see this differently, even using the same scriptures, I decided to focus on these ideas and the concept of theology itself for this blog entry.

Perfection in scripture has to do with maturity not flawlessness. The fact that the domains of meaning in European languages for words like “perfect” include multiple concepts for maturity, completion and pristine flawlessness does not give Western Christianity the liberty to insert our semiotic functions back into the text written from a Hebrew culture.

Infinity is a radically misunderstood and thereby abused theological concept that typically gets applied with an exclusively Greek concept upon God. Western thinkers who are not stellar mathematicians usually confuse the application of “infinity” with the application of “universal”.

Here is an example using set logic. You could have a barrel filled with an infinite number of cats and another barrel filled with an infinite number of dogs. For the sake of argument let us say we could find an angel that knows the name of every cat but not the name of any dog. Do you realize that such an angel would have both infinite knowledge and infinite ignorance and still might not even know enough to function? Infinite does not mean universal; it never has and never will. When we apply universal concepts to the word “infinite” as translated from scripture when the original word does not necessarily mean “infinite” to begin with, we start concluding things the biblical text never meant to say. The infinity of God was always a common concept in Europe even before Christianity or Judaism became common in the West. But this paradigm rose to become the majority opinion in Christian thought through the heretic Augustine who embraced it as part of his admitted love of Greek philosophy and, I believe, the influence of his Manichean past.

“All” in scripture does not always mean literally all. There are few verses in the bible where the word is used where we can always assume its extreme meaning. In fact a serious study of ancient Hebrew linguistics reveals interesting constructs like expressing certainty of the future by placing it in the past tense AND using the absurdity of extreme language as a way of temporarily isolating a facet of wisdom through hyperbole that later ought to be returned to a position of balance. Reading biblical texts as if they carried the same linguistic principles of implication as their translated counterparts in our linguistic structures will insert our linguistic culture into the text.

Just because God knows the beginning and the end does not mean He also knows everything about the middle. By what right do we judge verses that speak of God's surprise (Jeremiah 19:5) as merely anthropomorphic but insist that platonic philosophy as applied to God is not anthropomorphic? I would argue all concepts of God are incapable of escaping anthropomorphism.

God is clever enough to start a process contained by physics so that without regard to random anomalies all options reduce to one outcome. Take, for example, shaking a sand sifter. One starts with all the sand in the sifter and ends with all the sand below the sifter. Even a human can know the beginning and the end without the need to know exactly which hole in the sifter each grain of sand will fall through.

An all knowing God is experienced by most people as impersonal. He knows what He knows for no better reason than that is what Omni-capable gods do.

How perfect and infinite and extreme are the qualities of God? No one knows, words cannot express, scripture was never trying to be that precise. God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. All theology is man made, even mine! Do we worship God because thoughts about Him boggle our mind? Is He worthy of worship just because he is considerably more impressive than we are? God has a lot going for Him and I for one find it totally unimpressive that He can rise to the occasion of His own abilities. Indeed He would be worthy of condemnation if He failed to do so. Comparing Him to us is an unfair contest and it lacks the integrity authentic worship requires but certainly inspires an insecurity that works against the trust that Christ in us makes us fully sufficient for all things. God's capabilities whatever they may be are certainly sufficient to the task, which is fortunate but unworthy of worship unless you focus on ability more than character and beauty more than substance. What makes God worthy of worship is that in spite of all the advantages He possesses in being a far superior being, He has nonetheless chosen to make love the primary purpose of His existence. Love is His character and the primary power by which He will rule and reconcile the universe.

He remains perfectly mature because His love demands it of Himself. It is generated out of His integrity not simply because He is intrinsically flawless. His knowledge is past finding out, but not because He simply exists that way, but because His love compels Him to pay attention to His beloved so as to take it all in. His knowledge is generated out of His attentiveness, not simply His essence. He knows when the sparrow falls not just because He has the cheat sheet implanted in His intrinsic attributes, rather He knows because He sees it coming and watches empathetically as it happens and fully observes the aftermath. God is actively present in the process.

Scripture discusses a God who is the equivalent of love. We are the ones more focused on how we interpret it to describe Him as Omni-capable. And we license that focus by abusing the text. When theology is more of an academic autopsy of God that blocks our way to an inarticulate encounter of His presence, it has become no longer useful. Theology is necessary but can never be more than useful because any coherent concept, even at the level of mystery, remains nonetheless only a human concept. Let God be true and every man a liar, even the theologians, even theological thinkers such as myself.

True Christianity is not found in theology or biblical interpretations. Any interpretation or way of thinking that encourages you to embrace the Christ who dwells within the believer is a useful theology. Common fundamentalism and evangelicalism are, in my opinion, woefully undereducated in the languages, concepts and ideas relevant to what they so confidently talk about. Their theology ultimately leads to nowhere. My faith is not in my concept of God. It is in the mysterious inexplicable dynamic growth derived by grace through the indwelling presence of Christ that operates in ways I cannot possibly understand, describe or search out.

If I find a way of talking about it that encourages others to embrace and abide in Christ too, then it is a useful concept. But the moment I or anyone teaches an insight from scripture that encourages anyone to sustain loyalty to that concept, then that is the moment we have abandoned the inexpressible God and have swapped Him for a concept and have become preachers of a false gospel. Our life is not in scripture, it is hidden with God in Christ. There is good and bad theology. But the mastery of theology is an illusion that seduces us toward division based on differences in human capacity to appreciate the realities too wonderful to be contained in any human mind.

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