Section 4 – An Active God (Full Text)
- The notion of a God who acts raises its own difficulties. Why does He act here and not there, reveal Himself then and not now, intervene in his way and not that? It may seem easier to assume that concepts of providence, revelation, intervention, miracle and so on, are all human constructs expressing the beliefs and attitudes of varying groups of people. Yet, as Feuerbach's position demonstrates, such an attitude soon leads to atheism. A God who cannot act soon becomes indistinguishable from no God at all A God who does act, however, is also the answer to the question as to how humans can gain at least partial knowledge of Him. Such has been the import of the Christian faith, not to mention the Judaic and Islamic traditions. God, it is thought, has actively revealed Himself in ways in which we can understand something about Him.
- Ontological transcendence need not imply absolute otherness, since God, despite His distinct existence, can actively make Himself known in ways that can be grasped by us. Otherwise it does certainly become mysterious how we can refer to God. The concept of mystery, as we have seen, is often appealed to, particularly by those who are influenced by Kant's dichotomy of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. Again and again, we have noted how our judgements about God become a fact about us, and the reality we are allegedly in contact with recedes behind a veil. Feuerbach himself makes this transition, and takes it to its logical conclusion. He first points out that 'in the scheme of his revelation God must have reference not to himself but to man's power of comprehension'. This could be a profound insight, if the concept of a God with intentions and purposes is retained. Once, however, we shift our attention from the alleged reality of God to the manner of our understanding, it can be a short step to claiming that how we understand is a fact of human nature and nothing to do with what is apparently understood. In fact, Feuerbach, immediately after the passage just quoted, goes on to say that ‘the contents of the divine revelation are of human origin, for they have proceeded not from God as God, but from God as determined by human reason, human wants'.
- There will still be difficulties even if we retain a strong conception of a God acting and modifying His revelation so that it is intelligible to human beings. The idea that God shapes His revelation to fit our minds can invite the retort that it is itself the product of our minds. More fundamentally, we may wonder how we can start from the view of an active God as a means of justifying and validating revelation. Where does such an assumption come from? Our knowledge of God is being invoked in an effort to show how we can gain an understanding of what is ontologically transcendent. In other words ontological transcendence does not imply conceptual transcendence, if we assume the impossibility of the latter in the first place.
- All apparent instances of revelation face this kind of difficulty. We cannot, without begging the question, appeal to revelation by God, whether of a special or general kind, in order to show how knowledge of God is possible. A favourite challenge by sceptics will be to accept whatever empirical facts are brought forward and then refuse to go beyond them. This is one reason why in the struggle between ‘faith' and ‘reason' many would feel that faith is the starting-point, since it would seem that revelation cannot be used to justify revelation. Something has to be taken on trust. Yet what is at issue is not just revelation but also the power of human reason. Why should it be assumed that human rationality cannot move outside the confines of everyday experience? That is clearly an empiricist dogma, and is the denial of the possibility of conceptual transcendence. As such, it puts much of contemporary physics at risk. Yet this is not the same problem as the possible existence of a distinct, non-physical reality. It is again an epistemological, rather than a metaphysical issue.
- It is not just sceptics who refuse to allow any notion of transcendence. The influence of naturalism as a philosophical position has had the result that even some theologians have felt impelled to give an account of Christianity which rejects any notion of the supernatural, let alone the specific activity of a personal God within the world. The idea of a naturalist theology might appear a contradiction in terms, but there are attempts to make religion and naturalism compatible. For example, one writer, Charley Hardwick, refers to the problems arising in talking about eschatology in a Christian context. He points out that it 'transcends any possible experience or knowledge and conflicts with a scientific picture of the world'. His solution is to accept the apparent strictures of science, and to accommodate religion as best he can within the assumptions, as he sees them, of science. He therefore turns to an existentialist understanding of religion which reinterprets all religious claims in terms of their meaning for us now. Indeed, he wishes to make an even more sweeping claim. He says:
There is a general consensus among theologians today that no change in all of Christian history is more significant than the relatively recent one in which the traditional otherworldly bias in Christianity has been overcome by an orientation toward life as presently lived in the world.... On the other hand, the traditional eschatological symbols of faith were mainly articulated from within the otherworldly bias. That is one reason why they have become so unbelievable today.
- Thus for largely sociological reasons about what people happen at the present time to find acceptable, given the influence of science, he considers it essential to revise all the traditional claims of Christianity. Hardwick is quite open about this. He comments that ‘a naturalist theology amounts to a revision of what "God" means in human life'. It is apparent that he is not just changing the subject from the reality of God to the meaning God has for us. He is actually prescribing the kind of meaning that is now acceptable. He sees a naturalist theology as ‘defined ontologically by physicalism and concludes from this that God cannot be a personal being, that there can be no ultimate purpose in the world, and no way in which this life can be a part of some wider whole. By definition the whole supernatural underpinning of religion is swept aside, presumably in the name of an unquestioning trust in contemporary science. There can be no Creation, no Resurrection and no personal survival of death1. Theology must instead make itself 'comprehensible within the present importance of human life'. This leaves unanswered the pressing issue of why human life has any importance. The removal of any metaphysical basis for religion does not just make the supernatural claims of religion suspect. It removes all reason for taking any religion seriously, except as a cultural phenomenon. It is certainly not possible to undermine the basis of religion and simultaneously to retain its characteristic ethical claims about humanity. In the end it seems difficult to distinguish theological naturalism from an honest scepticism.
- Outside naturalism, there should be no bar to reasoning to the possible existence of something beyond our normal sense-experience, and indeed of something beyond the physical world. Reason does not have to collapse into blind faith merely because of the character of what we are discussing. If reason cannot create a space in which the possibility of divine revelation can be allowed, the ability of humans to recognize any revelation as divine even through ‘faith' is put into question. Faith itself must involve a conception of what it is we have faith in. The sceptic will always demand that whatever strange happenings are encountered or strange experiences undergone, they must always be accepted as deviant. A natural explanation, rather than a supernatural one, will always be demanded. Reason must establish the rationality of being willing to go beyond this and allow for the possibility of a revelation of something that is ontologically transcendent.
- Within the context of faith in God, our human capacity for reasoning may be seen as rooted in the way that we have been created. It stems from Him, it will be said. However that may be, we certainly have an independent ability to recognize truth and to reason accordingly. The circumstances in which we learn concepts do not tie down their meaning. We can transcend them and reach out to new and even apparently inaccessible realities. Very often, in fact, it is not so much the issue of the limits of our understanding that is in question as the point of reasoning about a God who is totally removed from human concerns and experience. He seems, to adopt an engineering simile, to be like a wheel that is turning without turning any other wheels. An utterly transcendent God, with no contact with us, is not just beyond the horizon of our understanding. He does not seem in any way relevant to our concerns.
- A metaphysical ‘inertness' is a recipe for the dismissal of metaphysics. The ontological distinctiveness of God must not become transmuted into a view of total unrelatedness between the world and the divine. An inability of God to make any difference means that He will eventually drop out of any reckoning. If God is Creator, He certainly sustains and holds in being that which He has created. Yet if He is simply to be the ultimate ground of everything, it might be very hard to see what more is being claimed than mere acknowledgement of and wonder at the existence of everything. It may be claimed that the character of the physical universe, its order and regularity, can be explained in terms of creation by God. The mere fact of its contingent existence may itself be referred back to the originating power of God. All these claims can begin to flesh out the claim that God is Creator. It could be suggested that any further meddling and tinkering would of itself go against His purposes.
- The point in all this is that the character of the physical universe is being traced back to the creative power of God. It is not merely being claimed that He is sustainer of all that happens to exist. That could slide into a form of pantheism. Something more is being asserted, namely that the universe is as it is because of what God has done. A sense is being given to the notion of His ontological separateness in that the explanation depends on that. Yet this may still only produce the God of deism, the originator of the universe who is not subsequently involved in it. Such a God is by definition so distinct that ontological transcendence leads to conceptual transcendence.
- It is a recurring temptation to invoke the concept of mystery. It may seem as if the distinction between ontology and epistemology is being retained here, in that it is recognized that there could be a mysterious something beyond our knowledge. For many proponents of negative theology, God becomes the reified Unknown. Yet in fact limitations on our understanding are very often being projected on to the nature of reality. It is too easily assumed that because we apparently do not know the nature of ultimate reality, then it is in its nature mysterious and indeterminate. Once, however, it is conceded that such a reality might have a very definite character, and that our agnosticism need not reflect the intrinsic nature of reality, we must face the possibility that such a reality could be active and not passive. It could approach us on a personal level rather than be totally inert. Such, anyway, is what much religion claims. Revelation of a particular as well as of a general kind, would then become not just possible but even likely. The question returns as to how we can know of an active, even a personal God, except through revelation. The answer must be that we cannot know very much. The existence of human rationality, however, is crucial here. All faith needs a rational basis. Without an ability to reason, we could never even prepare ourselves for the possibility of a God who is revealed. Atheism, itself, as a rational position, allows for the possibility of a God. Otherwise it could not deny what it denies. It is that rational possibility which religion claims is confirmed in revelation.
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