Note on Believing in God

What kind of thing is belief in God (not to be confused with faith)? Is it the same kind of thing as any other belief? I don’t think so. Believing in God can’t be the same as belief in, say, a 10th planet beyond Pluto. They are different kinds of belief – one concerns an object in space and time, one concerns the uncreated. That is, to me, what makes it so different. If God is uncreated, then things like experience, belief, and knowledge that we have of Him are going to of a different order altogether.

Advertisements

Note on Strengthening Faith

When someone says something in regards to, say, a fact of science, that ‘it strengthened their faith’, what exactly does that mean? That acquiring this particular piece of empirical knowledge somehow increased either the quality or quantity of their faith? How would this work? I see statements like that often, but I’m not sure what is really meant by them. One believes in God – does learning X mean that now they really believe in God? Or that if there was any doubt, now there isn’t? But suppose X hadn’t been found out. Would said faith be weaker than if X had? I doubt that very much – I have a hard time imagining a devout Christian would have their faith shaken by not coming across a certain fact – if they did, then that would serve simply to show the folly of basing one’s faith in God upon a particular empirical fact.

Or suppose that the opposite of X, Y, had been found out. Would that have weakened said faith? I doubt that, because I don’t think what is meant by ‘strengthening faith’ is that X actually increases the quality of one’s spiritual confidence in God, or corrects a deficiency or weakness in said faith, but rather that X simply affirms what is already believed. I know my wife is a lovely person, but when she makes a nice dinner or cleans up the kitchen, I don’t say, ‘wow, that really strengthened my belief that she’s a nice person.’ I already know she’s a nice person – dinner simply serves to confirm what I already know. A poor analogy that’s best not pressed too far, but it serves the point.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think most folks who say that X strengthens their faith actually mean that. From a theological perspective, God strengthens my faith – not any particular empirical or metaphysical fact. I think it was Newman who said, ‘I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I believe in design.

Divine Simplicity: East, West, and Barth

Divine simplicity is the idea that God is not composed of any metaphysical parts – He is one. This is based on the Shema – ‘hear, or Israel, the Lord our God is one.’ There are two main ways of thinking about this that have dominated: the Latin tradition and the Eastern tradition – Barth’s is different from both of these.

The Latin tradition holds that God is absolutely simple in His essence – His existence is His essence, which is His power, which is His goodness, etc. God is utterly one. While we may distinguish between God’s attributes, there is no real distinction in God Himself. God is one in His simplicity.

The Eastern tradition takes a different route. God’s essence is supremely unknowable – we know God through his energies, or workings in creation. The energy/essence distinction avoids simplicity because the energies are distinct from the essence, but don’t think of this as a kind of kantian mediator, or thing-in-the-middle; God’s energies are really God, so in knowing God’s energies (such as His grace, love, mercy), we really do know God. Nothing can be said about the essence, since it is the absolute ontological chasm between God and humanity

Barth takes a decidedly different approach, known as actualism. Instead of taking the Eastern way, which he regarded as a product of subjective apophatic mysticism (he was quite wrong about the apophatic tradition, but that’s for another time), and the Western way, which he saw as abstract metaphysics, he begins with God. God as He is. As He reveals Himself. Barth refuses any kind of speculation and begins his discussion by asserting that God is the Living god, to be known on His own terms.

For Barth, the issue isn’t so much of existence and essence (though he uses that language) so much as act and being. God’s being, who He is, is what He is in His works. God’s being is in His act. His act is revelation – His self-revealing. God is who He is in His act of revelation. So, instead of God’s existence being His essence, His being is His act, and His act is revelation. God’s being is revelation, ergo, God is revelation.

So, in a nutshell, Barth basically affirms the medieval and Latin tradition of existence being essence – he simply gets in a very different way. Whereas the Latins arrive by means of metaphysics (what Barth would call speculation) Barth arrives by means of the self-revealing of the Living God. This shouldn’t be new territory for those familiar with Barth – he was famous for his rejection of metaphysics, natural theology, and speculative metaphysics about God and the nature of God. Torrance would do a good job of mellowing out Barth’s thought and giving a place to natural theology and metaphyics.

These are more or less the two dominant positions, as well as Barth’s – questions, comments, criticisms welcome.

Note on Apologetics II

I’ve been thinking about apologetics and its role in theology for a little while now. It has a long and distinguished history – from the early church onwards. But what exactly is it?

The basic definition is ‘a reasoned defense’ of something. The word ‘apologia’ was more of a legal term in New Testament times, used to denote the defense one would give of oneself at court. In more modern terms, specifically in Christian terms, it basically means giving the reasons for your Christian belief. This typically involves evidence from history, philosophy, science, etc etc. There are lots of different approaches, though, some which eschew the use of evidence.

NT examples of apologetics: most famously, Paul’s address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Early church example: Justin Martyr and his use of the concept of ‘logos’ (which was used in the Gospel of John, but really fleshed out by Justin). Modern examples: William Lane Craig.

So why apologetics? To give a reason, or a reasoned defense, for the hope within. Often, however, (at least this is what I’ve noticed) apologetics means defending, in an almost military fashion, the Christian faith or aspects of it. It’s seen as necessary to establish the rationality (whatever that may mean) of the faith.

Things that come to mind: I don’t really see the Christian faith some something that needs to be defended in this manner. The Gospel is a proclamation – how does one defend a proclamation? Does one need to? Does, for example, the resurrection of Jesus need to be established as ‘rational’? (It should be noted that I do in fact think that the Gospel is rational, but in the classical metaphysical sense of the word – like how David Bentley Hart argues in ‘The Experience of God’). The Gospel is a proclamation of the ruler-ship of Jesus. When a king conquers another king, he doesn’t send out messengers to establish the rationality of his kingship to his new subjects, though his kingship is no doubt ‘rational’.

Now this isn’t to say that the Christian picture of the world doesn’t have things like good argument in its favour – it certainly does. But these arguments can’t function as foundational-istic data upon which one bases their belief in the Christian message. The truth of the Christian message isn’t a matter of the discovery of data by infallible method.

What this does mean, though, is that a lot of pop-apologetics isn’t really doing anything helpful. One thinks of the many books in which the Resurrection is ‘proved’ – things like the trustworthiness of the documents, eyewitness accounts, etc, typically come into play. This does little good. Apologetics which seek to ‘prove’ the ‘rationality’ of various tenets of Christianity (resurrection, ascension, etc) are misguided not because these events aren’t ‘rational’ (in a very deep sense, they are) but because it seeks to establish the rationality of faith based on these events conforming to a certain kind of ‘rationality’ so as to serve reasons to believe – the reason for the hope within. The reason for the hope within the Christian is not the demonstration of the ‘rationality’ of particular events in the narrative of Scripture but the crucified and risen Messiah.

Barth on God’s Love

‘God’s loving is an end in itself. All the purposes that are willed and achieved in Him are contained and explained in this end, and therefore in this loving itself and as such. For this loving is itself the blessing that it communicates to the loved, and it is its own ground as against the loved. Certainly in loving us God wills His own glory and our salvation. But He does not love us because He wills this. He wills it for the sake of His love. God loves in realising these purposes. But God loves because He loves; because this act is His being, His essence, and His nature. He loves without and before realising these purposes. He loves to eternity. Even in realising them, He loves because He loves. And the point of this realisation is not grounded in itself, but in His love as such, in the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And as we believe in God, and return to His love, it is not be understood from itself, but only from His loving as such.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’ 2.1, p. 279)

Barth Rant

A post in a Facebook group:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.

This, to me, is a huge problem. The idea that orthodox theology is purely about retrieval, purely about going back to the past. I find it quite ludicrous, honestly. I just got back from a run so maybe it’s the adrenaline, but this is just ridiculous to suppose that anything new or modern, or anyone who takes something new and modern seriously, is a prisoner of modernity.

God always has something new to teach us – and just as often as not, this involves not a retrieval but a move forward, often into the unknown. To suppose that the faith once and for all delivered means that there is never anything new to learn or never a new way of saying an old truth or (God forbid) a whole new truth to learn seems to me to be a bad case of head-in-sand syndrome.

This does not mean that the church sacrifices old truth for the sake of relevance – but the church must be prepared to receive new things from God, and to not freeze what God has given into all that God will ever give.