A Changing God

This blog post was originally intended to address my views on Process Theology, but I found that I am not quite equipped to write that blog post yet.  These posts are not works of erudition, and will generally come from the top of my head.  Thus, while much of what appears here is the result of research and study, this work is not intended to be the equivalent of a journal article.  Thus, I need to spend more time considering the arguments of Process Theology before I give my thoughts on them.  However, there is an idea that seems to be common to both Process Theology and Open Theism, that of the ever growing and changing God.  As I understand this theory, it is used to explain how God appears to change God’s mind in scripture, explains how God might not know the future perfectly, and allows us to have a closer more intimate sense of this God who, like us, is learning as God goes along.

In this post I am going to address these three elements, a God who learns, the Scriptural witness, and the intimacy of God.

First, the concept of God “learning” is an especially difficult one.  When we say that someone learns something, we find that what we mean is that a person or animal, or even a computer, collects a bit of data or makes a connection between existing data, that the person, animal, or computer did not have before.  In matters of humans and animals, this is accomplished through the rearrangement of chemistry in the physical brain.  In computers, it is the storage of information on some kind of physical medium.  In fact, what we mean by learning is the rearranging of physical matter for a controlling mind, whether conscious or not, to access at a later date.  There is a change in the biochemistry of creatures, and the magnetic orientation on a disk for computers.

But can we say this about God?  Does God have a physical makeup that can change, rearrange, and store new information about the universe in the way that we do?  Do we suppose that God is a composite being that must, based on God’s different parts, access information, new and old, with perfect ability?  Do we suggest that God knows the way we know, but rearranging atoms and molecules for data recovery?  Is the epistemology of God such that it is comparable to our own?

Let us look closer at what we mean by “learning.”  When I learn a thing, those biochemical processes in my brain arrange to create information.  That information has the quality of either being true for false; or depending on the complexity of the idea, varying shades of these two qualities.  Some aspect of my own knowledge is now conformed, however imperfectly, to the state of reality, physical, logical, and spiritual.  The whole field of Epistemology is concerned with how this whole process happens, and how far it can go.

But, surely God knows in the way that we do not, knows intimately every thing and event in a way that is not simply “knowledge about” but true “knowledge of.”  There is not something in God that merely conforms to the external realities around God, creating some kind of knowledge in God like our own. This God knows creation in something like the way that scripture means when it said VeAdam Yada et-Chavah ishto.  The knowledge of God is closer and more personal than our limited “knowledge about” creation.  For God to “know about” creation as we do, God must be distant from it as we are.  Instead, God knows in an ineffable way every subatomic particle, and every nebula as they are eternally.

Now that does not mean that there are not beings that stand between God and ourselves who may have modes of knowledge comparable to ours; but God, if simple, not-composite, and eternal, cannot be made up of…well…things.  For if God is composite, one must as the simple question:  Where did these parts of God come from?  If they are before God, who/what put them together to make God?  If such a being exists, then we are dealing, not with the supreme God, but merely a lower being, a deity like the gods of the Greeks or Norse who, part of the natural universe, may be subject to the rigors of learning, changing one’s mind, and making mistakes.  If such a being is who we call God, then that may be well and good, but we must realize that there is a higher, more perfect being, one who really represents what all of the theologians actually call God.  Such a thing has been tried before, one is familiar with the Metatron of Jewish history.  The Little YHWH who comes close when GOD cannot.

This brings us to the Biblical issues.  In scripture there are numerous situations where it seems that God changes God’s mind, repents of God’s deeds, and even makes mistakes about the future through prophecy.  If one requires that scripture be literally perfect, then these are great difficulties that require appropriate response.  However, such a literal view is not held even by scripture.  As we see in the New Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures are interpreted in multivalent ways, of which very few are literal.  Nowhere in the Bible itself does the book say “Please read all texts as literal history.”  Good Biblical Scholarship has addressed several of the questions of God’s apparent repenting, as well as the extremely simple option of interpreting scripture as the chorus of imperfect voices all testifying to a perfect God in their own halting ways, complimenting and contradicting each other at turns.

The alternative is a very difficult one.  Instead of imperfect voices attesting to a perfect God, demanding that the Bible is literally true and therefore shows us God’s learning process, suggests that we have perfect voices attesting to an imperfect God.  Now we know that human voices are not in fact perfect, so how is it that we make the leap to say that they who speak about God are infallible, while the God who they speak about, and who ostensibly is inspiring them, is fallible.  If God is learning, growing, and perfecting as time passes, how do we trust the power of this god, three thousand years ago, to get the story telling quite right?

Now I turn to the third point, that of a God who is close, who is changeable, who I can Identify with.  How am I to relate to a God who stands immutably outside, above, or beyond time?  How can I, composite being that I am, relate to the One whose aseity is identical with His will?  And how can I, who loves through the expression of physical media, voice, touch, and action, appreciate this supposed love that God has for me in this infinite, matterless state that God seems to be in.  This seems a hopeless situation.

I mentioned the Metatron earlier, the mediator betwen Moses and the true I AM.  You see this Metatron popping up around the same time as other mediator figures appearing on the scene of philosophy, the early centuries of the Christian Era.  Philo of Alexandria proposed one, the outer rim of God, still God, but not properly said to be God at the same time; the effects of God that are still God.  This mediator between God and Not God was called by a certain name: The Logos.

Now, in Christianity, we believe that this Logos, this second person in God, has come close, taken on human flesh, mind, will, and spirit.  The Logos has come so close as not just take them on, but to become so united with them, that they cannot be extracted from Him.  The Logos IS human, and at the same time IS God.  We have a word for this in Christianity, a name given to this God-Man in our tradition.  It comes from three Hebrew words, El, which means “God,” Anu which means “us” and Im, which is the Hebrew word for “with.”  Immanuel, God with us.

If the God of the philosophers is too distant, I suggest that this Jesus of Nazareth who is Immanuel, is very near.  Far too near at times for our own comfort.  This Jesus who is said to be the same today, tomorrow, and forever, and yet human.  The second person of God grows in knowledge about things, and yet knows all eternally.

The question of God’s distance is not a new one, not one that we have just recently discovered through reflection on the excellent work of those great theological minds who have come before us and wrestled with the ways that are higher than ours.  It is an ancient problem, one rooted in the first “Yehi Or!” Yet the answer is not merely to scrap what we have, not to pull God down from God’s heights, for if God falls down, who will pick the Divine up?  Instead, we must allow God to come down as God will, kicking and crying in His blood at the breast of a young Jewish girl, circumcised on His eighth day, sharing His Passach with his companions, and nailed to a tree, swimming the deepest darkness of human despair.  This is what we are offered, nothing more, for there can be no more, and nothing less, for God loves us too much to give us less than Himself.
(There are other problems, of course with a changing God.  Such a God demands explanation from the most simple Aristotelian/Thomistic proofs of first mover and first cause.  There is also the issue of time, as any indication of a growing or learning God indicates a poor understanding of Augustinian/Boethean/Thomistic Eternity, one which seems to be supported, not just by logic, but by modern physics as well.  These issues are not dealt with directly here for reasons of space and, dare I say it, time).

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On the Fall

I recently had a very brief interaction with a person who describes herself as part of liberal religion who praised Eve for “giv[ing] up blissful ignorance and look[ing] for truth, knowledge, and understanding.”   When I suggested that this was equating the fall which caused the death of God as a good thing, she responded that “Not all see a “fall” in Genesis. Not all believe that humanity is fundamentally and intractably flawed from the outset.”  I then asked if she could explain Paul’s statement that “all sin in Adam” and Christ’s redeeming death.  So far I have received no response.

My view on this is that there are three things going on, each of them regrettable.  First is the equation of that which as brought about every terrible and horrible thing, including the horrific treatment of women, with something good, the engaged desire for knowledge.  Second is a firm understanding of biblical scholarship on the text involved.  Third is a demonstrable lack of familiarity with Christian teaching from the earliest centuries of the church.

The first is easily shown when we consider that every evil caused by human beings is traced to the fall, including human death.  Poverty, starvation, enmity between the sexes, and the sufferings of child-birth are all directly related to the act of Adam and Eve in eating the fruit of the Etz HaDaat Tov VaRa.  As well, the suffering and death of Jesus are directly linked with the fall in the garden in the Protoevangelion and by Paul, and the work of Christ is identified as undoing the death that has come from this “look[ing] for truth, knowledge, and understanding.”

The fundamental problem with all of this is that if in fact God has our best interests at heart, and God’s desire is that we should strive for knowledge, truth, and understanding by directly disobeying God’s command in the garden, then how is it that such evil has come from this “act of liberation?’  How is it that the one who desires our good, has set up a world where the only way to achieve that good is to disobey and then suffer the horrors of famine, plague, rape, torture, blind malice, and death?  What can we say about the Character of God if this is the case?

What we must conclude is then that the one who has set things up is not our friend, for if doing good brings about evil, then we are in an evil world from top to bottom.  We must look to the one who in fact helped us out of our ignorance, the serpent.  Surely he, then is our friend.  He who led us into this new world where we can, as this person has said, “take knowledge,power 2 discern, cocreation w/ God” must be our true companion in this journey.

Now those who know their church history will know that there was another group who thought this way, a branch of the gnostics who saw the creator God as evil and the serpent as a freer of humanity.  This is, of course, very dangerous company to keep, as they denied the real suffering of Christ, and the physical incarnation.  Oddly enough, Jesus is identified directly with the creation of the world.  He insists on obeying God no matter the cost.  How do we reconcile these things?  The Valentinians created a vast complex array of emanations to deal with these problems.  Perhaps those holding to the goodness of the Eve’s decision should take the time to read Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons to understand the complicated work ahead of them if they follow their statements to their logical conclusions.

The second problem here is the lack of Biblical Scholarship that comes into such an understanding.  There has been a recent move to understand the Garden Story in the context of the Babylonian exile, and perhaps even as a critique of the Solomnic wisdom tradition (as per Sparks and Stavrakopoulou).  When the sin in the garden takes place, where does God send them?  To the east.  And when Cain kills Abel, where is he sent?  To the east.  When the Jews sinned, leading to the deportation to Babylon, one need only look at a map to realized that the direction from Jerusalem to Babylon is that of the eastward orientation.  If the Babylonian Exile is the context for the writing of the garden story, it is very hard to say that the intent of that passage is merely one of a people who “look for truth, knowledge, and understanding.”

Even without this particular interpretation, if the same banishment is given to Adam and Eve for their “good deeds” as Cain for killing his brother, what does that say about Fratricide?  Is Cain merely, “exercising his freedom against the tyranny of pastoral theocracy?”  Should we all head out and kill shepherds?  How is it that banishment east is somehow the result of both a liberating act and the murder of one’s brother?

Third, there is a real lack of understanding of the Patristic teaching of humanity’s destiny if we had not fallen.  The Greek fathers suppose, from their understanding of the doctrine of the deification of humanity, that had we not fallen, we would have grown into wisdom over time, and eventually, after growing in knowledge, wisdom and truth, by power of the incarnation, joined faultlessly with God through the deification of humanity (for a simple introduction to this theme, please see Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis by Norman Russell).  Such a view supposes that the creation of humanity was not complete in the garden, but only the first phase.  The second phase, the training up of humanity to be able to bear the image of God in a new and fuller way, was always to be completed when God came close in the incarnation.  The difference that sin made was that the incarnation alone was now not sufficient to bring us up to this new relationship with God, but instead the passion, death, and resurrection of the God-Man Jesus was required to undo the work of Adam and Eve.  For some of these ancient theologians, the words “It is finished” on the cross are a statement that completes the process begun in Genesis 1:27, “Let us create Adam in our image.”  If one wishes to see this played out in a fantastical setting, one need only read C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra.

Thus we find that such a view, ignoring the real ramifications of the fall, ignoring the historical context of the text, and ignoring the theological history of the text is in need of simply more education.  It may be well and good to look for good in evil, but we must remember that it is the unique property of God to bring good out of evil, but even God cannot make an evil thing good unless it dies and rises in God’s own self.

(It should be noted here that Adam and Eve are the Biblical representation of the first humans who lived in innocent communion with God, and I am not wedded to a historical reading of the text.  This does not mean, however, that I am not insistent on reading the text as truth revealed about the origin of humanity (created by God in God’s image), humanity’s role in the world (as proper lord of the world and tiller of the earth), the relation of man and woman (equals, coworkers), and the disobedience of those first people that led to sin and death.)

Introduction

Hi all.

I will be posting here instead of over at http://www.TheCrossAndTheController.com as this is an easier forum for my blog posts.  This blog is specifically about Theology, and I’m leaving video games out of this discussion.  So if you’re interested in what I have to say about theology in general, it will be found here.

Much of the impetus for this blog will be from Twitter and other internet sources.  My hope is that some discussion will take place in the comments below my posts.

It will also be my policy to leave the objects of my objection anonymous unless they wish to identify themselves.  I do not wish to pillory any well meaning person who happens to say something that stirs my ire.  Thus my intent is to simply refer to people anonymously until they identify themselves here.  I also pledge to inform people when they are mentioned here.

Well then…let’s get started.

Joshua Wise