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The Explorer’s Guide To Christianity by Marcus Braybrooke


Marcus Braybrooke is an Anglican Priest, a Peace Councillor and President of the World Congress of Faiths. Published by Hodder & Staughton, London, Sydney Aucland, 1998. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: God


William Temple (1861-1944), a great Archbishop of Canterbury, said once that he was never aware of not having believed in God. Looking back, I feel the same is true in my case. This, however, is perhaps the experience of only a minority in secular Western society, although opinion surveys suggest that even there the majority of people believe in the existence of God. Rather fewer perhaps consciously try to shape the way they live in the light of that belief.

Questions about whether or not there is a God are commonplace today. There was a strong case for beginning this book with a discussion about this before thinking about Jesus Christ. Yet for many Christians it is an experience of Jesus Christ that makes belief in God real.

In large parts of the pre-modern world perhaps most people, like Archbishop Temple, never seriously questioned the existence of God. Admittedly the Psalmist talks about ‘the fool [who] says in his heart, "there is no God"’ (Ps. 14:1), and the Buddha dismissed speculation about a creator god as unimportant. Even so, the world of the Bible was one of many gods, in which the people of Israel were called to witness to the Oneness of God.

God in the Hebrew Scriptures

The ancient Middle Eastern world believed in God, and indeed in gods. Arguments were about who was the true god and about the nature or character of God. Christianity, like Islam, has been shaped by its inheritance from Judaism. The belief in One God, the creator of the world, the Lord of history and the upholder of moral values is the witness of the Hebrew Bible and the gift of the Jewish people to the church (Rom. 9:4).

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, begins with the creation of the world by God.1 Stories from pre-history follow: about the fall of Main and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden; Cain’s murder of his brother Abel; the flood and Noah’s ark; and the building of the tower of Babel. Biblical history begins with God saying to Abram, as Abraham was then called, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you’ (Gen. 12:1- 2).

Abraham

Abraham’s father, Terah, originally lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. Ur in Mesopotamia is near the mouth of the river Euphrates at the top of the Persian Gulf. It was at the centre of Mesopotamian civilization, which was established by the end of the fourth millennium BCE and which saw the development of agriculture, of city states and the discovery of the wheel, of pottery and of writing. About 1950 BCE, the Third Dynasty of Ur came to an end and the city was sacked and destroyed. About this time, Abraham’s father set out from Ur and traveled along the Euphrates to Haran. The religion in Mesopotamia was a developed polytheism, with gods ranged in a complex pantheon. The Bible admits that the Israelites’ ancestors worshipped ‘other gods’ in Mesopotamia (Josh. 24: 2).

Abraham was told by God to leave Haran and to go to Canaan. His obedience to God was tested by the demand that he should offer his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice -- although at the last moment a voice from heaven called out, ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy . . . Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son’ (Gen. 22:12). It is not clear whether Abraham should be described as a monotheist, that is to say, someone who believes there is only one God. Sometimes he is described as ‘henotheist’, who is a person who does not reject polytheism but who himself only worships one god -- the god of his tribe.

Moses

The decisive moment of revelation was to Moses at Mount Sinai. The God who revealed himself to Moses affirmed his identity with the God of Moses’ forefathers. ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (Exod. 3:6). God went on to say that he had seen the suffering of the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants, who at the time of Joseph had come to Egypt to escape a widespread famine and had become slaves to the Egyptians and their rulers, known as Pharaohs. Now, God said he was going to rescue the Israelites from slavery and Moses was to be their leader.

Moses was reluctant to accept the call and asked God what he should say when people asked him the name of God. God replied, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: "I am has sent me to you"’ (Exod. 3:14). An alternative translation is ‘I will be what I will be’. Most commentators agree that there is a future reference, meaning that God said, ‘I will be what tomorrow demands.’ God is known in relationship and is capable of responding to human need. God is not an object to be known. The French thinker, mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal (1623-62) wrote on a paper, dated 23 November 1654, which was stitched into the lining of his coat and found after his death, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace.’ The great reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) paraphrased God’s answer as ‘I am God on whom you must fully rely and not trust in other creatures.’ The God who revealed himself to Moses was a God who invited humans into a personal relationship of trust and obedience. It was to be an exclusive relationship, like that of lovers. There was to be no worship of other gods and no idolatry. Much of the early history of Israel is the struggle to maintain the pure worship of God and to resist the polytheism and idolatry of neighboring peoples.

After a prolonged struggle with Pharaoh, God indeed rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Then, at Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with the people. They were to be a holy people, a model community and for their guidance God gave them the Law or Torah. The Torah includes many detailed rules and it was elaborated over the centuries in what is known as the oral Torah. The underlying principles of the Law are proclaimed in the Ten Commandments, which make clear men and women’s duty to God and to other people.

Jesus affirmed the importance of the Law (Matt. 5:17) and at the Reformation, several churches included a reading of the Ten Commandments at the Communion service.

Under Moses, who led the Israelites to the edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, the people had been taught to recognize God as the one who had saved them from the Egyptians and who had protected them through the wilderness and who required holiness and moral behavior. God was the protector, Lord of history and guardian of morality.

In Canaan

In Canaan, the Israelites were surrounded by the nature and fertility worship of Baal and other gods. It was a long struggle to maintain the pure worship of One God. At the same time, God was now seen to be the Creator and the one who provided food and harvest. As the Psalmist wrote:

You care for the land and water it,
You enrich it abundantly.
The strew of God are filed with water
to provide the people with corn . . .
The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with corn.
they shout for joy and sing. (Ps. 65:9, 13)

It was probably at this time that the cult of animal sacrifice, which centered on the Temple in Jerusalem, was fully developed. The sacrificial offerings came to an end with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Even, so sacrificial language has remained part of Jewish and Christian devotion, and often Jesus’ death has been explained by images of sacrifice.

Exile

Despite the efforts of the prophets, the people were often unfaithful to God. According to the biblical writers, they were punished for this by the destruction of the northern state of Israel in 722 BCE and by the destruction of Jerusalem in 593 BCE, which was followed by the exile in Babylon of the leading citizens of Judah. There, the Jews may have come in contact with Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster,2 who proclaimed an ethical monotheism, taught that there are two opposing forces in creation: the Bounteous Spirit of Mazda and the destructive power of Angra Mainyu. Each person’s eternal fate would be determined by the choice he or she made between them. ‘There are two primal Spirits, twins renowned to be in conflict . . . the better and the bad. And those who act well have chosen rightly between these two, not so the evil doers’ (Ys. 30:3). It may be from Zoroastrian influence that some Jews developed the picture of a cosmic struggle, which is to be found in apocalyptic literature. The world is seen as a battleground between the angels of God and Satan and his army. For the virtuous there is reward in the next life and for the wicked eternal punishment

After the return from the exile in Babylon, when the state of Judah was re-established, Jews came increasingly under the political and cultural influence of the Hellenistic world. This offered both a threat and a challenge. Jewish thought, particularly in the writings of the philosopher Philo, was influenced by Plato and other Greek philosophers. Jews also had the opportunity to make their beliefs known to a wider world. On the other hand, various Hellenistic practices, such as gymnastic sports which involved nudity were a danger to traditional behavior. Some Hellenistic rulers, such as Antiochus Epiphanes, also tried to subvert Jewish religious life and this caused revolts, such as those led by the Maccabees.

God in Ancient Greek Thought

Greek thinking about God, as Pascal indicated, was different from that of the Bible. Yet it has been influential in the development of Christian thought, because it was in the terms of Greek philosophy that the creeds of the Church were formulated.

Plato

The Greek consciousness of God was dominated by the philosophical impulse. The emphasis was upon reason, often in isolation from other human faculties. Plato (c.428-348 BcE), for example, regarded the ‘inspired utterances of poets and prophets as, at best, symbolical adumbrations or shadows of truth and, at worse, the source of degrading superstitions’.3 Fundamental to Plato’s thought is the conviction that truth cannot be found in everyday life and sensible reality, but in a more real or ideal realm of unchangeable or eternal forms, which are the blueprint and pattern of the world. The everyday world is transitory and perishable and most people take this as the real world. In fact, they are trapped in a cave and see only the shadows of reality. The soul, which is immortal, struggles to rejoin the eternal realm. Plato makes a sharp contrast between the physical everyday world and the eternal world. This is reflected in a world-weariness to be found in some expressions of Christianity.

Aristotle

Aristotle (384-322BCE), Plato’s most brilliant pupil, thought there was a great chain of being from pure matter, which is unknowable, at the bottom, to pure form, which is God, at the top. God is engaged in unending self-contemplation. He is not involved with the world. He moves it as the beloved moves the lover, without needing to stir; he is the Unmoved Mover. As John Ferguson (b.1921) a great classical scholar, wrote, ‘one of the paradoxes of history is that the profound and subtle medieval scholastics succeeded in identifying this Unmoved Mover with the ever-working Father of Jesus’.4 Certainly Greek influence encouraged them to seek for rational proofs of God’s existence. It also lay behind the traditional doctrine that God is impassible and immutable. This is the claim that God is not subject to action from without, changing emotions from within or feelings of pain or pleasure caused by another being. God does not change. These doctrines, however, seem to some Christians to be in tension with the belief that God is love and a number of modern theologians, as we shall see, speak about the ‘Suffering God’.

Plotinus

Despite modern objections, the classical Christian doctrine of God has been shaped by Greek thought and particularly by the Hellenistic philosopher, Plotinus (c.205-270cE). His thought centered on the One, beyond personality, beyond reality, beyond thought, beyond definition, beyond comprehension. All things aspire to It, from It the whole universe is derived by a process of flux or emanation. Beneath the undifferentiated One or the Good, which is at the summit or chain of beings, is the intelligible world of ideas, and beneath it is the world soul, which is the creator or orderer of the material world. The highest life is the ascent of the soul to mystical and ecstatic union with the One -- the flight of the alone to the Alone. This is achieved by ascetic practices, whereby the soul turns progressively from the sensuous and intellectual realm. Plotinus spoke of God as Love, but he used the Greek word eros in contrast to agape, which was another Greek word for love used by Christians. Plotinus decisively influenced the development of Jewish, Christian and Islamic mysticism and his influence can also be seen in the development of Christian monasticism.

W. R. Matthews, who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, once suggested that somebody should write an imaginary conversation between Plato and Jeremiah, whom he regarded as the greatest person of the Hebrew Bible.5 They represent the two strands of thought about and experience of God, which Christianity tries to hold together in its thinking about the character of God.

Is God Real?

To those who today think about God, the first question may not be about the character of God, but about whether God exists and whether God made the world.

A child who is told that God made the world and everything that is in it often asks, ‘But who made God?’ This question, which is natural enough, is in fact a misunderstanding of what is meant by God. God, to the believer, is not an object amongst objects or a cause in a series of causes. God is, whether or not this or any other universe exists. God, the absolute and real, is the unproduced Producer of all that is. God is Being.

To the unbeliever, on the other hand, language about God is a surrogate language about humanity or human persons. Theology is in fact anthropology. Thus, to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a founder of psychoanalysis, God is the projection into supposed reality of human fears, neuroses and abject needs. To Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72), a German philosopher, God is the projection of human ideals which can never be realized. To Karl Marx (1818-83), a political theorist, God is a projection caused by the requirement to perpetuate conditions of alienation in the interest of one class or party.

The division between the theist who believes in the reality of God and the atheist who denies this reality and regards talk about God as in reality talk about humanity, is not entirely clear cut. In addition to those people who call themselves ‘agnostic’, because they say that they do not know, there are some Christians, such as Don Cupitt (b.1934) who adopt a ‘nonrealist’ position. They claim that all our knowledge is a human creation. Talk about God, which may be beneficial for human life and society is mythological. It is a way of making sense of our experience, but does not have an objective referent.

Believers will admit that God cannot be known in the fullness of the Divine being, because God is transcendent, beyond human experience. What is called apophatic theology says that we can only say what God is not -- ‘Neti, Neti’, ‘not this, not that’, as the famous Hindu text puts it God, as mystical theology insists, cannot be spoken of, but must be experienced. Classical Christian theology, however, has accepted that it is possible to speak of God by the use of analogy. For example, Christians speak of God as ‘our Father’. God is not exactly like a human father. He does not engage in biological reproduction. Yet in being the origin of life and providing for the possibility of life, God behaves in a way which is not dissimilar to that of a human father. God, Jesus suggested, in being willing to forgive those who do wrong, acted as we would expect a human father to behave. When, in speaking of God, we use language which derives from human experience, it is not univocal. It never applies exactly to God, but to the believer it is not without meaning. Yet, the critic might ask, ‘If God is like a father, why did he allow millions of people to die in the Holocaust?’ The believer then probably says God is not exactly like a human father. Some critics have gone on to suggest that the believer makes so many qualifications that his or her use of words loses all meaning. Indeed, the philosopher A. N. Flew (b.1923) spoke of the death of God by a thousand cuts. Any word used of God, he said, was so qualified by the believer, that it had lost all meaning.

A major preoccupation of some Western theologians in the twentieth century has been the question of what language can be used of God. Indeed, when as a student I went from Cambridge to Madras, I found it refreshing to escape from debate about whether it was possible to speak of God, if there is a God, to discussions which presupposed mystical knowledge of God as a valid source of our knowledge of reality. To the mystic, it is the experience of Divine Reality, which is convincing. This is why I began this book with Venkayya’s prayer, ‘O great God, who art thou? Where are thou? Show thyself to me.’6

My study of Hindu philosophy also raised the question of whether the Eternal should be spoken of in personal or impersonal terms. Sankara (c.788-820) who was the most influential proponent of Advaita Vedanta, held that Brahman or the Absolute is the underlying reality of all appearance. Reality is non-dual. Theism, in his view, was a lesser stage of knowledge, but this position was rejected by Ramanuja (11th or 12 th century), who developed a school known as Visistadvaita. Is God in very essence best thought of in personal terms or is that a human projection on to the Eternal? I doubt whether that is a question that can be answered, despite the discussions of Idealist philosophers such as Josiah Royce (1855-1916) and Bernard Bosanquet (1848-1923). Yet most Christians because of their experience of a personal relationship with God will think of God in personal terms.

Arguments for God’s Existence

Even if the chief Christian evidence for the reality of God is an invitation to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’, some Christians have offered intellectual arguments for the existence of God. Some people still find these persuasive, whereas others find this approach arid.

There are three main arguments for the existence of God, known as the Cosmological, the Ontological and the Teleological. These Proofs, including additional variants, are sometimes known as the Quinque Viae, which is Latin for ‘five ways’, because this is how Thomas Aquinas (c.1227- 74), the Angelic Doctor whose writing has exercised a profound and lasting influence on Catholic philosophy and theology, summarized them at the opening of his Summa Theologiae.

There are various forms of the Cosmological argument. It may start from the existence of the world which requires an explanation, or it may start from the fact that everything in the world has a cause, therefore the world itself must have a cause. So God is the First Cause. Critics suggest it is improper to leap from what happens in the world to the origins of the universe itself. Others suggest that certain kinds of infinite regress are possible, so that because everything has a cause it does not follow that there is a first cause. Such a view has echoes of the Buddhist rejection of belief in a creator god. Modern defenders of the cosmological argument see it as an expression of the human mind’s search for intelligibility in the world.

The Ontological argument was first formulated by Anselm (1033-1109), who was Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm claimed that since anyone can think of ‘a being than which no greater can be conceived’, such a being must exist at least in the understanding. But we could not think of such a being if that being were not a reality, which is to say we would not have the idea of God if there were no God. Such a concept is not a creation of the human mind. This argument was criticized by Thomas Aquinas but put forward in different forms by the great philosophers Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646- 1716) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), although it was criticized by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The argument still has both critics and defenders.

The Teleological argument, sometimes called the argument from Design, starts from the signs of order and purpose in the world. Thomas Aquinas noted that natural bodies act to obtain the best result An animal, for example, avoids danger and does not hurt itself on purpose. Knowledge, he said, cannot move towards an end or purpose unless directed by some being with knowledge and intelligence. For example, an arrow has to be directed by an archer.

The argument was severely criticized by David Hume (1711- 76) in his Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779). It was, however, restated by William Paley (1743-1805), who in a famous comparison suggested that if the existence of a watch requires a watchmaker, so the existence of the world requires the existence of God. His Natural Theology (1802) was required reading for British students of theology into the twentieth century and the book had a considerable influence on Charles Darwin. In the twentieth century the argument has been restated by F. R. Tennant in his Philosophical Theology (1928), and by R. Swinburne in The Existence of God (1979).

Many Christians, who would not be able to name any of these arguments, probably use them in unsophisticated forms. Some would stress the sense of purpose in life and their conviction that there is a moral order. Belief in God, they might say, gives meaning to life. Others might, as the Psalmist did (e.g. Ps. 104), point to the beauty of the world and the intricate interdependence of all life as evidence of a Creator. Others, however, like the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), who was influenced by the writings of the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82), see the apparent cruelty of the natural world as alien to the idea of a God of Love. Tennyson wrote:

[Man]. . . trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
-
Though Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrieked against his creed.
7

Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection

Many people today have a considerable awareness of the natural world thanks to the films of David Attenborough and others. These show one species hunting and feeding on another. None the less, the contemporary Oxford theologian, Keith Ward (b.1938), points out that although Charles Darwin spoke mostly of life on earth as a ‘war of nature’, he occasionally struck a different note, as when he wrote, ‘I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and infinite complexity of the co-adaptations between all organic beings.’8 ‘The metaphor of a war of nature’, Keith Ward writes, ‘here gives way to a different metaphor: that of a developing emergent whole, with increasingly complex and beautiful co-adaptedness among organic life-forms, and which pictures nature as expressing a continuous growth in harmonious complexity.’ Keith Ward, referring to the Gaia hypothesis of the inter-relatedness of all life, continues:

On the newer, more holistic, picture, suffering and death are inevitable parts of a development through conflict and generation of the new.. .What God wills, and consequently what the process will eventually produce, is not the triumph of the strong, but the triumph of virtue, of beneficence, compassion and love. The ultimate evolutionary victory, on the theistic hypothesis, does not go to the most ruthless exterminators and most fecund replicators. It will go to beings who learn to co-operate in creating and contemplating values of many different sorts, to care for their environment and shape it to greater perfection. It will go to creatures who can found cultures in which scientific understanding, artistic achievement and religious celebration of being can flourish.9

The Creation

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection questioned the benevolence of God, but more immediately it questioned the biblical account of creation and the authority of the Bible itself.

The Bible starts with an account of the creation of the world, which God accomplished in six days (Gen. 2:2). In 1830, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), the leading geologist of Victorian England, published his Principles of Geology, which showed from the study of rocks that ‘creation’ was a much slower process than would appear from the Bible. He suggested that it took not six days but many millions of years. Nearly thirty years later, Charles Darwin argued for abandoning the biblical view that God created separate species ‘each according to its kind’ (Gen. 1:24). Instead, he argued from a mass of evidence collected in different parts of the world, that ‘species’ had originated by natural selection, by adaptation to the environment and by gradual evolution.

Then in 1871, in his The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that human beings, far from being made ‘in the image of God’ (Gen. 1:27), were only a highly developed species of anthropoid apes. Not only could the Bible account not be taken literally, the process of evolution left little room for the miraculous. As Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) observed, new scientific thought ‘increased vastly the territory of the natural at the expense of the supernatural’.10 The world did not seem under the control of God. Others felt humanity had been degraded. The Tory politician Disraeli (1804-81) said, ‘The question is this -- Is man an ape or an angel? I am on the side of the angels.’ Others suggested that the biblical ‘days’ were in fact aeons.

Although there are some Christians, such as the Creationists in the USA, who insist on the literal accuracy of the biblical account of creation, the majority of Christians would now see the stories as mythological. They assert that the universe is dependent on God and that men and women have a relation- ship with God or are made in God’s image. The myths go on to illuminate the human experience of sin and evil.

The Bible suggests that the world had a beginning. Admittedly, the early church father, Origen (c.185-254) held that creation is an eternal process, but this view was rejected by the early church, although some theologians in the twentieth-century have subscribed to it. Many Christians have held that the world had a beginning in time, although Augustine took over from Plato’s Timaeus the suggestion that the world and time originated together in a single creative act.

The idea of a beginning may fit the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the origin of the universe, but the primary purpose of the Christian doctrine of creation is to affirm that the world is not self-existent but dependent on a purposive being. It is more about meaning than about the process whereby life came into existence. As Oliver Quick, who was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford from 1939 to 1943, wrote, ‘It is because the Christian believes himself to have been made for God, that he believes also that God made him. And the belief so grounded cannot be upset by anything that natural science may discover about the temporal origin of mankind.’11

Is the World Made by a Loving Creator?

To many people it is not perhaps the question of how the world was made which is the difficulty, but whether it gives evidence of a loving Creator. We have already seen that people draw different conclusions from their observation of the natural world. Some see beauty and the amazing intricacy and interconnectedness of life, others see the cruelty of one animal preying on another. Perhaps an even greater difficulty is the experience of sin and evil, reinforced in our own times by cruel wars and horrible genocide.

The Holocaust, in which some eleven million people, more than half of them Jews, were killed by the Nazis, destroyed many people’s faith in God and has led other believers to question traditional pictures of God. The Nobel Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, wrote:

Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity of the desire to live, Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself Never.12

Whilst the tragedy of the Holocaust is especially poignant for Jewish people, who believe themselves to be the chosen people of God, it is an agonizing concern for all believers in God. Indeed, some Christian theologians have said that all theology now has to start after the Holocaust, because ‘there is no God to whom I could pray with my back turned toward Auschwitz’.13

The Problem of Evil

The problem of suffering and evil is that if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does God allow evil? Part of the answer is in terms of human freedom. If love is of supreme value, love cannot be compelled, it can only be given. If God who is Love seeks a relationship of love with human beings, they have to be free to respond or to reject divine love. Human freedom is not only moral, but is part of human creativity, which in part is what Christians understand by saying that men and women are made in the image of God. Indeed, in giving birth to children, they share in God’s work of creation. Human freedom implies the freedom to disobey God’s will and to hurt others. Much of the evil in the world can be attributed to human wrongdoing. This does not seem to explain the unfairness of life, and much traditional teaching has suggested that in the next world those who are virtuous and those who suffer will be rewarded in heaven and wrongdoers will be punished in hell. Some Christians feel that such teaching has been used by the unscrupulous to exploit others and that it has made some Christians reluctant to battle for social justice in this world. It is not sufficient to regard this world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ nor to assume that a heavenly reward can compensate for the appalling suffering some people have endured. How can there ever be compensation for those children who were murdered in the Holocaust?

This is a complex issue and the theological arguments may seem unhelpful and detached to a person in the midst of acute suffering. Even so, they are important to the Christian understanding of the nature of God.

God is said to be all-powerful or omnipotent. If, then, God is able to do anything, can God do the logically impossible, such as making a square circle? The answer of most theologians is no, although Thomas Aquinas notes that scripture says that God has ‘made foolish the wisdom of the world’ (1 Cor. 1:20). Equally, it is said that God cannot create a free being who is unable to do wrong. This issue was most sharply focused in Islam, which especially stresses the power of God. Nothing happens unless God wills it. How then, it was asked could human beings be held accountable on the Day of Judgment? At one extreme, the Jabriya taught absolute predestination, which really makes a mockery of human freedom. This view was eventually rejected by orthodox Islam. Other Muslims, known as the Qadriya, held that as God’s agents on earth, humans have delegated power. The mediating position of the Maturidites was that all possibilities are created by God, but that human beings have the responsibility to ‘acquire’ actions out of the possibilities and thus become accountable.

Christians have had similar debates, with views ranging between those who advocated ‘Double Predestination’, which is the view that God determines those who will be saved and those who will be damned, and Pelagians who hold that human beings have freedom to choose or deny God. Probably a general view would be that God may allow what God does not actively will. A parent will give a growing child considerable freedom and will allow him or her to ride a bicycle. The parent does not want or will the child to fall off and be hurt.

Like the Qur’an, the Bible, and especially the Hebrew Bible, assumes that all that happens is the direct will of God. Many Christians, besides recognizing a measure of human freedom, also acknowledge that the world operates according to certain God-given laws of nature. Thus fire can be used to provide warmth and heat for cooking, but it can be misused to destroy buildings and human life. Yet without the constancy of natural laws, no scientific advance or medical discoveries would be possible.

I recall hearing a sermon in which the preacher told how ‘miraculously’ he missed his aeroplane and thus God saved his life -- because otherwise he would have been the victim of an air disaster. Yet does this imply that just as God willed to save the one man, God also willed to destroy the other two hundred passengers?

There are those who argue not only that God cannot do the logically impossible, but that God chooses to withdraw to encourage human freedom. Does this mean that the future is genuinely open? Traditionally God has been spoken of as omniscient, knowing all things, including the future. Some contemporary writers suggest that the future is not predetermined but dependent on human beings who are free to respond to God’s will or to bring upon themselves self-destruction. As the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas has written, ‘We literally hold in our faltering hands the future of the divine adventure and must not fail Him, even if we would fail ourselves.’14 Another Jewish thinker, Arthur A. Cohen, has used what has become a well-known analogy. ‘It is man’, he writes, ‘not God who renders the filament of the divine incandescent or burns it out.15

The Suffering God

To say the future is in human hands is not to imply that God is indifferent. Rather the reverse. Whilst God does not control, God appeals to the conscience of the world through the victims of its agony. God identifies with their suffering, which, it is hoped, will change the way people behave. As the Asian Christian Choan-Seng Song wrote of the victims of Indochina, ‘In the refugees’ faces distorted with agony, someone must have perceived the face of God distorted with pain. In the disfigured bodies of the children fallen victim to hunger and bullets, someone must have seen God disfigured with horror.’16 ‘On the cross’, writes Philip Berryman in his summary of Latin American Liberation Theology, ‘God takes on human suffering, becomes himself "a crucified God." ’17

Christ on the cross is the representative of all who suffer, and in Christ, God identifies with them. Like the parent who comforts the child who falls off a bicycle, God cannot undo the injury, but God can share the pain. The German theologian Dorothee Sölle has written, ‘God consoles us as a mother does. She cannot magic away the pain (although that occasionally happens!), but she holds us on her lap, renewed, sometimes in darkness without light.’18 Another female theologian from Korea, Dr Chung Hyun Kyung, told the World Council of Churches Canberra Assembly, ‘I rely on the compassionate God who weeps with us for life in the midst of the cruel destruction of life.’19

In her book Struggle to be the Sun Again, Chung Hyun Kyung vividly describes the suffering of many Asian women, ‘whose bodies are beaten, torn, choked, burnt and dismembered’. In their brokenness, they long for a full humanity and see this vision in the biblical teaching that men and women are created equally in God’s image.20

Although it is quite common for Christians today to speak of God as ‘The Suffering God’, for many Christians it is not enough to see God as only the voice of the victim and as the one who identifies with those who suffer. They would wish to emphasize the power of love and that it is in the end stronger than force. Oliver Quick wrote that even by the light of reason, love can be seen to have an inherent omnipotence. A love that is not destroyed by hatred is invincible. The power of love ‘converts even suffering itself into something active and creative and makes the very forces of evil, even through the apparent completeness of their triumph over it, nevertheless subserve its own purpose of good’.21 The Anglican theologian W H. Vanstone (b. 1923) puts this poetically in a now well-known hymn:

Love that gives, gives ever more,
gives with zeal, with eager hands,
spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
ventures all, its all expends.

Drained is love in making full,
bound in setting others flee,
poor in making many rich,
weak in giving power to be

Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.

Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love
aching, spent, the world sustain.22

The Cross as Victory

If some modern writers, and especially feminist and Asian theologians stress the power of suffering love, much of classical Christianity, as we have seen, speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus in terms of victory over or deliverance from evil.

This image has a long history in Christian art. Richard Harries (b.1936), the Bishop of Oxford, has written:

The first scene of Christ on the cross does not appear until the fifth century. Before that time the main images were ones of deliverance. Sometimes the motifs were those of late antiquity, but they were predominantly drawn from the Hebrew scriptures and include such scenes as Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being delivered from the burning fiery furnace; and the story of Jonah, which ends in triumph and which the early church took as a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ. From the gospel it was above all the scenes of the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the paralytic that appeared. When Christ is first depicted on the cross, as in a series of four ivory panels dating from about 420 CE in the British Museum, he is strong and triumphant. Christ as a suffering, battered figure did not emerge for a further 400 years. What spoke to the condition of Christians in the first 900 years was the strong Christ who saves us from fate, evil, all forms of malevolent power and death.23

Yet the language of victory may suggest that the believer has to conquer his or her shadow nature rather than integrate it. This has led at times to an unhealthy repression of the Christian’s full humanity. It has equally encouraged Christians to conquer and destroy those perceived to be the enemies of faith. My hope is not so much for the ultimate destruction of evil as its redemption. Other contemporary Christian voices warn that by over-much emphasizing the triumph of Christ, Christians diverted their attention from the need to tackle the evil and exploitation in the world. An emphasis on deliverance, especially if it is focused on the next world, may lessen concern for those who suffer in this life.

Hope of Another Life

None the less, many Christians through the centuries have set their hearts and their hopes on the heavenly Jerusalem. Because the subject is inherently speculative, there is some imprecision in Christian teaching. All souls will be judged, but there is talk both of a Last Judgment at the end of time and of souls being judged after they die. They are judged both in terms of their faith in Christ or lack of it and by their behavior. The righteous are rewarded by the beatific vision -- the joy of seeing God. The wicked are condemned to the punishment of hell. According to catholic teaching, those who have not committed unforgivable sin go to the state of purgatory, from which after due punishment they ascend to the beatific vision. Limbo is an intermediate state for those, such as unbaptized infants or the righteous who lived before Christ, who deserve neither the reward of heaven nor the punishment of hell.

In company with a number of contemporary Christians I am uneasy with this scheme. First, the picture of God who judges and punishes is incompatible with the character of God as revealed by Jesus Christ. God wills all people to be saved. The miseries of hell are the suffering people bring upon themselves by their wrongdoing, rather than penalties inflicted by an offended Deity. Further, such punishment or suffering should be remedial -- a way by which souls come to a true knowledge of themselves and are opened to divine love. Universalists, of which I am one, hope that in the end all souls will recognize and accept the gracious love of God and that God’s love by its nature is never withdrawn. Others think that a soul may be so shut in on itself that it may cease to be. Freedom, it is said, must include the freedom for ever to reject divine love.

Another difficulty with the traditional scheme is that if virtue is rewarded and vice punished, virtue is hardly disinterested. Yet the essence of love is that it is freely given without expectation of reward. This is expressed in the words of a famous hymn, which is said to have been written in Spanish by St Francis Xavier (1506-52). who was the ‘Apostle of the Indies and of Japan’ and which was translated by the English Catholic E. Caswall (1814-78):

My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby
Nor yet because who love thee not
Are lost eternally . . .

Then why, O blessed Jesu Christ,
Should I not love thee well,
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;

Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.24

The sentiment is similar to that of the Muslim mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiyya (c213-801) of Basra, who had a lasting influence on Sufism. She said: ‘O my Lord, if I worship you from fear of hell, burn me in it; if I worship you in hope of paradise, exclude me from it. But if I worship you for your own sake, then do not hold me back from your eternal beauty.’25

For some Christians, their pictures of heaven and hell have helped them cope with the sufferings and injustices of life. But does the final end, however perfect, make sense of life’s honors and tragedy? Even if the evil will in the end get their deserts and the innocent their reward, does this compensate for the agony of the victims? Can any reward compensate for the honors of Auschwitz or the genocide in Rwanda?

In a famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81), the story is told of a general who deliberately sets a pack of hounds on a boy who had accidentally injured one of them. Ivan draws two conclusions from this story. First, it would be wrong under any circumstances for the mother to forgive the general for what he did. Second, Ivan says that no heaven, however blissful, could make up for what had happened. ‘Too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket . . . It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.’26

Those who reject Ivan’s arguments say that only at the end of the creative process, when it can be seen as a whole, will we be in a position to judge God. On the other hand, if the future is not predetermined and the creative process is not a playback of a pre-recorded programme with a happy ending, we may need to accept that there are real tragedies, such as the Holocaust, for which there is no compensation.

In my view, Christians rightly affirm their belief that death is not the end and that the God who gives life gives also new life. The quality of human love and divine love have an inherently deathless quality. Yet I am not persuaded that the hope of another life answers the problem of life’s unfairness and suffering, and if it diverts us from addressing those injustices, it offers us comfort at the expense of the agony of other people. The way of self-giving love, the way of the cross, is right whether or not it ushers in a utopian reign of God. I doubt whether the human Jesus on his way to the cross knew that resurrection awaited him. It was enough for him to be obedient to the Father and the disciple should pray for a similar obedience, hopeful that no act of goodness nor any expression of love is ever wasted.

The Holy Spirit

Although the Holy Spirit has already been mentioned several times, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, who has often been neglected in Western theology, deserves at least a paragraph to himself.

In his last discourse to his disciples, according to St John’s gospel, Jesus promised that after his death, he would send them the Paraclete, a word variously translated a ‘counsellor’, or in older English a ‘comforter’ or ‘strengthener’ or ‘advocate’ to be with them. The Holy Spirit, whose coming is celebrated at Pentecost or Whitsun, would stand by the disciples, Jesus said, especially when they were persecuted, like a defense counsel; he would make the world aware of its sin, and would bring the disciples together in a loving community. The distinction between the presence of the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit is not always clear, either in John or Paul (see 2 Cor. 3:17). Jesus said that the Spirit ‘will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you’ (John 16:15). One could perhaps say that the Holy Spirit transforms knowledge about Jesus into awareness of a living presence.

The Spirit is known in the Christian community, but those who recognize the Spirit see his activity in the whole of life, present everywhere, filling all things. The Pentecostal churches and the charismatic movement emphasize both baptism in the Spirit and the Spirit’s continuing post-conversion work, which may be seen in external signs such as speaking with tongues, healing and exorcism, which is the casting out of evil spirits. Pentecostalists have shown a mixed reaction to the Toronto Blessing, a recent phenomenon in which a concentrated outpouring of the Holy Spirit is shown by falling or resting in the Spirit, laughter, shaking and crying. Paul insisted that the greatest spiritual gift is love (I Cor. 13:13).

Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World (Phoenix, 1995), is a readable introduction to the history of Western philosophy.

W R. Matthews, God in Christian Thought and Experience (Nisbet, 1930), covers many of the issues, as does the recent book by B. Studer, Trinity and Incarnation (T. & T. Clark, 1993).

Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (SCM Press, 1981), is an important book.

Keith Ward, God, Change and Necessity (Oneworld, 1996), is a careful refutation of scientific atheism.

W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977), and Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Fontana, 1966), give rather different responses to questions about God and suffering.

On the Holy Spirit, see John V. Taylor’s The Go Between God (SCM Press, 1972), and G. W. H. Lampe’s The Seal of the Spirit (Longman Green and Co., 1951).

 

Notes

1. The traditional date of the creation in Jewish tradition is 5753 BCE. Older annotated editions of the Authorized Version of the Bible had the date 4004 BCE, which was a result of calculations by Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656), a seventeenth-century bishop of Armagh.

2. Zoroastrians often date Zoroaster, who is sometimes known as Zarathustra, to about 6000 BCE. Until recently critical scholars dated him to the sixth century BCE, but some scholars now put his date earlier to around 1200 BCE.

3. W. R. Matthews, God in Christian Thought and Experience (Nisbet, 1930), p. 41 referring to Republic 378 BCE; Timaeus, 28a.

4. John Ferguson in Man and his Gods, ed. Geoffrey Parrinder (Hamlyn, 1971), p. 132.

5. Matthews, God in Christian Thought and Experience, p. 41

6. See. p.1.

7. In Memoriam A H H, 1850, canto 56.

8. Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859; Penguin edn., 1985), p. 153.

9. Keith Ward, God, Change and Necessity (Oneworld Publications, 1996), pp. 87- 88.

10. J. H. Newman, Apologia (1864; 1892 edn.), p. 335.

11. Oliver Quick, Doctrines of the Creed (Fontana /Collins, 1963), p.46.

12. Elie Wiesel, Night (Orbis, 1987; SCM Press, 1988).

13. Johann-Baptist Metz, Christen und Juden nach Auschwitz, 1980).

14. Hans Jonas, ‘The Concept of God’, in Out of the Whirlwind, ed. A. H. Friedlander (Schocken, 1976), p. 475.

15. Arthur A. Cohen, The Tremedum (Crossroad Publishing, 1988), pp. 6-7.

16. Choan-Seng Song, The Compassionate God (SCM Press, 1982), p. 249.

17. Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology (I. B. Tauris, 1987), p. 156.

18. Dorothee Sölle, ‘God’s Pain and Our Pain: How Theology has to Change after Auschwitz’, in Remembering the Future (Pergamon Press, 1988).

19. Chung Hyun Kyung, ‘Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Whole Creation’ (WCC Seventh Assembly, document PL 3.3).

20. Chung Hyun Kyung, Struggle to be the Sun Again (Orbis 1990; SCM Press, 1991), pp. 39, 47.

21. Quick, Doctrines of the Creed, p. 75.

22. W. H. Vanstone, Low’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977), pp. 119-20.

23. Richard Harries in Dialogue With A Difference, eds. Bayfield and Braybrooke, pp. 107-8.

24. English Hymnal (Oxford University Press, 1906), 80.

25. Rabi’a. Quoted by Margaret Smith in An Introduction to Mysticism (Sheldon Press, 1977), p. 66.

26. F. M. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Penguin, 1976), bk. 5, ch. 4 pp. 284ff.

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