Today, I wanted to take a moment to differentiate between two conceptions of God which have merged together in Christianity: God as a person and God as an ontological idea. Sometimes I think we forget the paradoxical nature of our claims that the Christian God is both – no less confusing than the idea of Jesus as human and divine. This can lead to several common errors (at least in my perspective) when talking about God.
A) The Personal God
Ancient Israelites and Greeks thought about personal gods. For them, a god was a very powerful entity that ruled over the events of the world. A god might control the sea or a volcano, but also had the personality of any human you might know. These gods had emotions, preferences, and wills. They made choices and struggled with the limitations of reality much as we do. They were much as we are, only bigger. Zeus and Aphrodite were gods in this sense, as were Odin and Thor, Raven and Coyote, Shiva and Parvati… By some accounts, the Israelites saw YHWH as one of these gods. He had a location (on the mountain, in the ark, …), had emotions (jealousy, wrath, …), and played favorites. Their conceptions evolved, however, over the years from henotheism (many gods exist, but we worship just this one) to
monotheism (only one god exists).
B) The Philosophical God
And now for something completely different. I say that, because the idea I’m introducing here was suggested as a correction to “god” based thinking. Plato and others said that morality cannot come from gods because the gods don’t share a single preference for a right course of action (see Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro). There must be some reference point for truth, justice, and goodness higher than the gods. In Greek philosophy, this ultimate ideal, transcending personality and subjectivity was called the Good. The capital letter (a modern usage) indicates that it is a perfect idea, existing in eternity and only poorly approximated in the physical world. The Good could not change, for it was considered simple and perfect; any change could only lessen it’s perfection. Aristotle leaned toward the Good when he spoke of an unmoved mover. Something, he said, must be fundamentally unlike the kinds of things we experience. He was less enamored of the whole “world of ideas” concept than Plato, but he thought the Unmoved Mover must exist. By late antiquity (say 200-500 AD), many Romans and Greeks were familiar with “the One” of Neoplatonism, occasionally identified with the Sun, and standing above all the gods. (This doesn’t mean they believed, just that they knew the idea.)
Christians identified YHWH, the Lord, the god of Israel (Adonai, Elohim Yisrael) with the Neoplatonic One to form what we think of as God today. Mind you, our conceptions have changed over the years as we sorted out and re-sorted and occasionally re-conceived what relation the Father, Son, and Spirit had to each other and to the man Jesus. Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism in the United States have led to a very personal notion of God, in all three persons: “Sinners in the hands of an angry god,” “I’ve got a friend in Jesus,” “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” At the other end of the spectrum, Medieval Christians (including many “scholastic” thinkers) had very philosophical pictures of God. They could speak of God the Father as the “Unknowable,” Christ the “Universal Creator” (Pantokrator) and “Word” (Logos) and “Wisdom” (Sophia), and the Holy Spirit as a wind or cloud or sea (particular, but not personal).
One of the benefits of trinitarian theology is that it forces us to hold several different images of God at once. In general, we have trouble seeing Jesus as impersonal, when we know he was a person. Likewise we have trouble speaking of the Spirit as localized, when we know she brooded over the face of the deep and permeates the church. God the Father seems more flexible.
Unfortunately, Christians and non-Christians alike become confused when we switch to readily from one to another. In my opinion, Pentecostals and Liberation Christians alike can over-personalize God. In order to feel a personal relationship, or deal with the problem of suffering, or just to simplify matters, they neglect classical concepts of transcendence (extending throughout and beyond the world), omniscience (being all-seeing), and omnipotence (being all-powerful). On the other hand, both Calvinist and Process Theology Christians run the risk of de-personalizing God – making the idea so abstract that there is no comfort, no providence and protection, no emotional connection with the divine. It has less to do with being liberal or conservative than being personal or philosophical.
The issue arose for me recently when talking with a student about morality and proofs of God. Evidently it’s popular in some circles to use ontological proofs of the One as grounds for Christian morality. For me, this seems a bit of a reach. I think Aristotle and Anselm make great cases for the Unmoved Mover with the Ontological and Cosmological arguments. They support my belief that the universe transcends the physical and transcends human reason. They do not support my belief in a personal god nor justify my morality; that requires a relationship. For me, they can make a compelling argument against physicalism (so we should keep them around) but not for Theism or morality (to which they don’t apply).
Christians need to be honest with ourselves about our dual heritage (Greek and Hebrew) and our joint and paradoxical notions of God as both a personal friend and a transcendent reality. It would be a shame (read heresy, grin) to deny the truths behind both personal and philosophical conditions. It would also be a shame if we failed to recognize the richness and complexity of a tradition that holds on to both.