God and the IRS (part II)

April 13, 2008 at 12:13 am 39 comments

I wrote this essay a few months ago and have been waiting for a sign (or wonder) that it was time to post it. Given that in recent days we have been discussing this very issue, “divine hiddenness”, and in honor of upcoming April 15th, it seems like this would be a good time. In order to avoid excess length this article has been split into two parts.  Part I: Why doesn’t God make things clearer?

I begin by saying: if there is a God of evangelical Christianity, he would appear to be less capable than the IRS(*).

No one wants, in particular, to pay their taxes. Almost everyone would rather keep their money. Most people, however, do pay their taxes, and presumably there are a variety of reasons why. For most, it is simply the law and they are in a habit of obeying the law. For many, perhaps, there is also a conscious fear of the consequences of not doing so. A few noble souls may perhaps see that government, for all its flaws, nonetheless does some good, and requires money to run, and thus they pay taxes out of a sense of civil duty. Some attempt to cheat, a few succeed. But most everyone is highly motivated to minimize or avoid paying taxes, if possible. Most everyone would love it – love it – if the IRS just flat did not exist.

But equally, no one – and I mean no one – actually denies the existence of the IRS.

No one claims the US Tax Code is an outmoded, superstitious document, written by long-dead pre-modern farmers, which has no relevance for us. No one says IRS auditors are a myth, with no evidence to support their existence, and can be ignored. No one claims letters and phone calls to the IRS will always be unanswered “because there is no IRS”. To my knowledge, the IRS has never refused to pursue money owed it because “nothing would convince them anyway.” And no US citizen says, why yes I pay my taxes – to the One True Government, and then cheerfully sends his money to Mother India.

In short, the US government (for God’s sake) is apparently able to successfully, and rather effortlessly, convince the entire world that (a) it exists, (b) it has authority over its citizens, and (c) broadly speaking, what the rules are.

And it is noteworthy that a universal awareness of its existence does not in any way compel obedience. Many people, regularly, attempt to cheat, despite knowing the potential consequences. Moreover, there is no obvious virtue to be had in the IRS hiding its existence, making belief in it a matter of faith (or of a “sensus bureaucraticus”), and then punishing people for failure to obey the rules anyway. There is no distinction to be drawn between its past convincing people of its existence and its present convincing, because convincing people of its existence is not something it has to try to do in the first place. There is no IRS “Department of Existence-Awareness Maintenance”, so far as I know.

So for me, though I present this slightly flippantly, in the end this was an unanswerable question. There can simply be no compelling reason why the Christian God (or, at least, one who teaches damnation in Hell) would not set us all straight. He loses nothing by making the facts clear. We still would have a choice to follow him, or not to follow him. It might, perhaps, compel obedience from fear more than love, but that seems inescapable if he wishes to torture us in Hell forever for making the wrong decision. And surely, given Hell, it is more fair to be clear. And while there are no end of ways an omnipotent God could accomplish this – he could have each of us born with an organic copy of the New Testament attached to our umbilical cords (this is God we’re talking about) – in the end, how much effort would it really take? Ask yourself: how much time and energy do you spend trying to convince those around you that you exist, and what it is you want them to do? Don’t you just stand in front of them and talk?

What I have appreciated most about this question is it has formed an integral part of my ability to disengage from apologetics, even if I can’t answer their argument. I haven’t been willing to become an expert of ancient Near Eastern literature in order to refute every explanation of the Bible harmonizers, but with this argument, I don’t have to. For, in a sense, the more complex and involved an apologist’s argument is, the more it requires detailed knowledge of ancient languages, modal logic, or other highly technical disciplines, the more glaring my question becomes: why is it so complicated? Every starting burger-flipper at Dairy Queen, on his first day, very quickly gains a crystal clear and unambiguous awareness of the existence of his boss and a general understanding of the rules. He doesn’t have to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and Aramaic in order to know what happens if he’s late.

Can’t God do at least as well as that?

- Richard

*[Note: for any non-American readers, who might be unfamiliar with this term, “IRS” stands for “Internal Revenue Service” and is the federal agency responsible for tax collection. April 15th of every year is the day person income taxes from the preceding year are due.]

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Why doesn’t God make things clearer? Why I still study the Bible

39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ned  |  April 13, 2008 at 12:23 am

    Richard: Thank you for the article. Brilliant.

  • 2. LeoPardus  |  April 13, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Ask yourself: how much time and energy do you spend trying to convince those around you that you exist, and what it is you want them to do? Don’t you just stand in front of them and talk?

    The above statement struck my funny bone when I read it.

    It’s so simple, “God if ya wants me to know ya and know yer rules, fer cryin’ out loud, just show up an’ make it flamin’ clear! Don’t use an old, strange book, and DON”T send apologists ta apologize fer yer not showin’ up.”

  • 3. Richard R  |  April 13, 2008 at 1:09 am

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

  • 4. Quester  |  April 13, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Well thought. Well written. You make a lot of sense with this (pair of) article(s), Richard.

  • 5. karen  |  April 13, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Wonderful series, Richard. I’m with you on how unappealing and unnecessary it is to research ancient Aramaic and debate miniscule apologetic points when this much larger issue is so compelling.

  • 6. the chaplain  |  April 13, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    I’ve enjoyed both articles. Thanks for writing them.

  • 7. God  |  April 13, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Hmmm. I can’t say I like your tone. Sounds like sedition!

    http://stuffgodhates.wordpress.com/

  • 8. Paul S  |  April 14, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    God said:

    Hmmm. I can’t say I like your tone. Sounds like sedition!

    Finally, God shows up!

  • 9. northpointcc  |  April 14, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Interesting article. He came once, in the flesh and even then people didn’t believe Him. I wonder what it would take.

  • 10. Gregg  |  April 14, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    Hi Richard,

    I’m wondering if I could pick up on (what I think is) a meta-theme in your article: the theme of story. You’ve discussed two stories here—the story of human relationship to government and human relationship to God. Yet it seems to me though that there is a third story going on that needs to come into play, which is one’s own story (one’s relationship to oneself). Let me clarify what I’m getting at.

    In a sense, I am always trying to write (or at least narrate) my own story. As the principal actor, I try to bring about situations that I want to realize (e.g., getting a job, repairing my car, reconciling with someone I love, etc.). And when I tell my story, I am always a part of the audience (and sometimes the only part—when I get confused I work out [sometimes out loud, sometimes in my journal] what I’m trying to do).

    So how well I read my world and how well I read texts (i.e., the Bible) is closely tied to how good a reader I am of my past (of what I’ve experienced, of what others have told me, and of what documents there are for me to consider) and of how well I balance truth (what is) and imagination (what I wish would be) in telling my own story. I’m not suggesting that it should be this way: I’m saying that, as far as I can see, it is this way. And this relationship between self, world, and text is something that most readers of the Bible (or most I’ve encountered) don’t recognize or consider.

    And here’s the rub: the problem is that God doesn’t “show up,” right? Yet my expectations of me and of my world (for God must “show up” to me and in my world) are conditioned by the way in which I “read” the events and situations of my world and the way in which I both read the events of my own life and “write” (or at least narrate) my the events of my own (hi)story.

    So now, back to the IRS. I agree that the IRS is a significantly perceivable entity within the lives of (nearly) all Americans. Yet the impact of this perceivability remains on the level of its authority, not of relationality. In other words, the comparison between God and the IRS still leaves us, to my mind, with a comparison of authorities—the sovereignty of the IRS is evident, God’s sovereignty is not.

    I don’t disagree with this point, but neither do I think that it represents the true problem (and thus where we should look for the true solution, if such is to be found). (I’ve written a fair bit more on this in comment #68, http://de-conversion.com/2008/04/09/go-ahead-blow-away-my-free-will/#comment-18501).

    For my money (pardon the pun), we need a God who will relate to us, not lord over us. To put it another way, if following God means being summoned as a servant, then it also (and more so) means being beloved as a child . And so how God shows up makes all the difference. I do NOT want God to show up like the IRS. I want God to show up to me in the intimacy of a (loving, right, psychologically functional [insert your own best descriptor]) relationship wherein I am both known and know, loved and love.

    At the end of the day, what I want is for God to show up in a way that both makes sense given my own story and that makes more sense of my story. I want God to both affirm the true things that I know and have learned (which the god of my old Christianity can’t do) and to be God in a way that brings more truth in the context of a relationship of love, not sovereignty. I’m not saying that such a God can’t be sovereign, but that sovereignty is not the way that God will meaningfully “show up” to me .

    I suppose I think there’s been enough emphasis on sovereignty, both by those who want to make us bow and by those who see no reason to. It seems, rather, that we need authentic experiences of love—a love that meets us intimately where we are (i.e., given our past and our story) because this God knows and loves us for who we are.

  • 11. Richard  |  April 14, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    nortpointcc- Interesting. Lets think about how the IRS would handle it.

    Imagine you are a tax auditor. You are investigating someone who owes money. You happen to know that he does not believe you (personally), or your agency, exist. You know, of course, that the creation of the IRS in 1862 under Lincoln is available in any history text (or Wikipedia), and he can personally read all those documents if he wishes. Nonetheless, he disbelieves you exist. What do you do? Do you write it all off, saying “Oh well, theres nothing I can do to change his mind.”

    Or do you just knock on his door, shake his hand, and show him some ID?

    Gregg – Very interesting questions! I dont have time to do justice to a fully reply now, so Ill write more later today. Again, thanks for your thoughts–

  • 12. LeoPardus  |  April 14, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    northpointcc:

    He came once, in the flesh

    How do you know? There is one documentary source from antiquity that say this. That same source way that Jesus’ followers would do greater things even than he did. So, let’s see you walk on water, calm a storm, heal a cripple, and turn a whole lake into wine, all at the same time.

    I wonder what it would take.

    Tell you what. I’ll ease up on the requirements. If you, or someone you know, will pray for a very small miracle, and it happens, that is all it will take. OK? Here it is. My wife is missing just the tip of her left little finger (childhood accident). Have just that tip grow back.

    Admittedly it’s not greater than what Jesus supposedly did, but I want to make it easy.

  • 13. karen  |  April 14, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Gregg:

    And so how God shows up makes all the difference. I do NOT want God to show up like the IRS. I want God to show up to me in the intimacy of a (loving, right, psychologically functional [insert your own best descriptor]) relationship wherein I am both known and know, loved and love.

    For me, I don’t care all that much how god shows up, only that he shows up in some way that is unmistakable and unambiguous to me.

    If he “shows up” as a voice whispering in my head, that could (and has been) my subconscious mind performing “self-talk.” If he shows up as a transcendent feeling during an inspirational church service, that could be (and has been) my own emotional reaction, that appears not only in church but also at poetry readings and secular concerts.

    Relationship with an imaginary friend – no matter how “real” it may seem to one who is willingly suspending disbelief – does not make for a clear “showing up” on god’s part, at least not to my skeptic mind.

  • 14. Gregg  |  April 14, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for your reply—that’s helpful. Yes, I want to make sure that what I believe reconciles with reality—I don’t want to have imaginary friends (or Gods). And this is actually what I’m getting at regarding reading and writing one’s own story. Let me give it another shot.

    First, the problem of the unconscious is significant: we need a disposition (some call it a hermeneutics or interpretive practice) of suspicion. As Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche point out, people (and for them, particularly religious people) are not who they claim to be . So we need to be wary of voices in our heads, groovy feelings in a church hall, or dreams.

    But, second, my point is that the very ability to be wary is first of all predicated on how (and how well) I know my self. Thus when I rejected Christianity I came to understand what role these beliefs played: how they legitimated certain practices, allowed me to feel certain ways about myself, etc. In short, they allowed me to write a particular “story” about myself, though (many?) parts of that story were false: like soft whispers and groovy feelings, they weren’t substantiated by reality when I looked more closely.

    So evaluating and ultimately rejecting these lies (i.e., reading my past and my history better) has resulted in an increase in knowledge (and self-esteem, self-love, etc.), out of which I seek to write my own story better (i.e., both containing more truth and open to more possibilities). But writing a better story informed by a truer account of my past means that I won’t re-embrace those old lies in my present or future! And that particularly applies to how I view God.

    So knowing that the “God” that I had was the sovereign God, this God will not do—it is not about power. Rather, the possibilities for relationship with God lie in the God who can both “live up” to my truth (as “truth-for-me”) and renew me in all things (a God who is True, and truly God). (I made comment #55 on Truth vs. truth-for-me in http://de-conversion.com/2008/04/07/inconvenient-categories-the-really-real-reasons-de-cons-left-the-faith/#comment-18513).

    The connection that I am seeking is between truth and love. This does not ignore justice (that’s a big one), but it shows justice to be in the service of love. It does not ignore feelings and intuitions (they’re essential), but grounds them in truth. What do think?

  • 15. Bex  |  April 14, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Ahhh…like minded people. How refreshing! I live in the deep South of the USA and have uber religious people climbing all over me. I enjoyed the article and thought it was very well written and thought out. Thanks!

  • 16. Frances  |  April 15, 2008 at 1:06 am

    There are two problems with arguing the existance of God or Jesus with christians. (I know cause i was one!) First, christians are extremely uneducated about the origins of their own religion and sacred (or perhaps not so sacred) texts. Second, they do not allow the answer to come out to “Jesus never existed.” Their minds don’t go there. They have cute little answers (like the free will crap) that lay all doubts to rest.

  • 17. Quester  |  April 15, 2008 at 2:53 am

    Gregg,

    I have one friend I can always count on to catch me in unwitting hypocrisy. I’ll say, “I always do this” or “I believe that” and he’ll look at me and say, “No you don’t.” I’ll stop and think, and realize he’s right. Again. And once again, I have to look again at my story and how I understand it.

    In my blog, many of my posts are my attempts to look at my story again. As I lived out my story, I saw God there. As I re-tell it, I have doubts that I was understanding my own story correctly. So, I think I understand what you are saying. But it does me little good to try to re-tell my story, God’s story, or the various Biblical narratives to find a God that matches what I want to believe in. Wrestling with submitting to God as sovereign or relating to God as loving parent isn’t the difficulty I’m facing. What I’m wrestling with is whether God is non-existent, indifferent, impotent, or malevolent.

    I view myself as a storyteller. I consider myself skilled at reading and narrating. I can use scripture and personal experience to re-tell the story of God as loving and desiring a mutual intimacy in a loving relationship to us, so long as I squint at the right times and ignore more than I include. Telling our stories is important, so that we can learn who we think we are. Re-telling our stories with a particular slant can be useful, to help us become who we want us to be. Re-telling God’s story, I see as much less useful. Who God is, if God is, does not change according to who we want God to be.

  • 18. Gregg  |  April 15, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Hi Quester,

    Thanks for replying. You raise a number of good points, and this pushes me to formulate what I am thinking better.

    I hear your “quest,” I think: to determine if God exists. But let me ask you two questions. First, if God exists but is a tyrant (or just as bad, is aloof and distant), will this satisfy you—if God is there but is fickle or capricious, will you be at peace with such a God? Second (and for some this is a more difficult pill to swallow), if the Christian God exists, then there must be some relationship between this God’s character and the biblical portrayal of such a God.

    For me these two–the personal and the more objective–must combine not only into a cohesive unity (or better, into a living harmony) but I must be in a position to perceive such if it is to be found. Thus my emphasis on story: by reading “me” better (my past and present), I can better understand the story that I tell of myself (who “I was” in past, “am” in present, and “seek to be” in future). And, importantly, I can better read the Bible.

    Because if the Christian God exists, then I have to come to terms with this God’s biblical portrait. Yes, I can throw the Bible out, but then not only will this NOT leave me with a Christian God, but more importantly it will leave me with nothing beyond myself. And because I come from a highly dysfunctional family where I often “parented my parents,” I won’t stand for that with God. I’m not having a “God” that is no bigger than me—there’s no point. In fact, this is exactly the same thing that exists in some of the worst examples within evangelical Christianity. And I wouldn’t do that again.

    So that leaves me needing to make sense of my (hi)story and and the biblical (hi)story together . Regarding my (hi)story, new information (from rejecting my old Christianity, from much time in counseling, etc.) has combined with new tools (many here talk of doubt, but I prefer suspicion) to allow for new readings (and “tellings”) of who I am. (I really liked your comment on “Re-telling our stories with a particular slant,” but I don’t want re-telling to be fabrication and illusion—I assume you’d agree that we always need more truth, not less).

    Regarding the biblical (hi)story, I’ve been pleased to run across a number of excellent books that have cut back against my former, Christian perspective (philosophically, Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith; A.. C. Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self; theologically, N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said). The perspectives validate much of what I view to be essential in life (and thus in considering how I may relate to God). Further, N. T. Wright offers one of the first exegetical perspectives that cuts back against Calvinism (or against Augustine, from whom Calvin borrowed and enhanced) in the direction of God’s love.

  • 19. Quester  |  April 15, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    First, if God exists but is a tyrant (or just as bad, is aloof and distant), will this satisfy you—if God is there but is fickle or capricious, will you be at peace with such a God?

    What does that have to do with anything? My car is silver. This does not satisfy me. I want it to be purple. I am at peace with it, however, because of how much it would cost to repaint it. My lack of satisfaction does not change the colour of my car, nor does it make the price of a new paint-job cheaper. No re-telling of any story will change matters, here.

    If God is tyrannical, aloof or fickle, my satisfaction or lack thereof will not change a thing. If God is a tyrant, I need to find ways to stand against God. If God is capricious, I need to find ways to defend myself from God. If God is merely apathetic, I will make my peace with that.

    Second (and for some this is a more difficult pill to swallow), if the Christian God exists, then there must be some relationship between this God’s character and the biblical portrayal of such a God.

    By which you mean tyrannical and capricious? That seems to be how the bible portrays God.

    If any God, including “the Christian God”, exists, it would have a relationship with the biblical portrayal of God. That relationship might be a negative relationship (as in, they have nothing in common at any point), but I suppose that still counts as a relationship- in a manner of speaking.

  • 20. karen  |  April 15, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Gregg:

    Thus when I rejected Christianity I came to understand what role these beliefs played: how they legitimated certain practices, allowed me to feel certain ways about myself, etc. In short, they allowed me to write a particular “story” about myself, though (many?) parts of that story were false: like soft whispers and groovy feelings, they weren’t substantiated by reality when I looked more closely.

    Hmmm … I agree, but only to a certain extent. Rather than call various experiences in my past “false,” I would say they were all real, but the origins and explanations I pinned on them were false.

    For instance, there really were soft whisperings in my head at certain times when I prayed. I heard a “still, small voice,” and sometimes it provided novel answers (things I hadn’t consciously thought of before) to my dilemmas. That much I remember distinctly.

    I made the very “logical” conclusion that this still, small voice that had been preached about and predicted in church from my earliest childhood was the voice of the holy spirit, i.e. god living inside me, or Jesus in my heart, etc.

    Ditto for the groovy feelings (heh!) in church. They were really there, they were memorable and moving – surely this was the holy spirit acting in my life! I reached an immediate conclusion without examining the situation, but by relying on what I’d been indoctrinated with beforehand.

    In the final weeks or months of my deconversion, very little was left of my former fundamentalist faith beyond these small moments, one or two “miracles” and that quiet voice in my head. When I added them all up, they really weren’t very impressive. But they were all the “proof” I had accumulated that what I believed in wasn’t made up of whole cloth, but True (with a capital T).

    In revisiting these moments, these miracles, I substituted alternate explanations for them and found that they “fit” better (or at least as well) as the supernatural ones. This is truly the moment of terrible sadness and disillusionment in the deconversion journey – when one begins to realize that treasured personal experiences were not what they seemed.

    So knowing that the “God” that I had was the sovereign God, this God will not do—it is not about power. Rather, the possibilities for relationship with God lie in the God who can both “live up” to my truth (as “truth-for-me”) and renew me in all things (a God who is True, and truly God). (I made comment #55 on Truth vs. truth-for-me in http://de-conversion.com/2008/04/07/inconvenient-categories-the-really-real-reasons-de-cons-left-the-faith/#comment-18513).

    The connection that I am seeking is between truth and love. This does not ignore justice (that’s a big one), but it shows justice to be in the service of love. It does not ignore feelings and intuitions (they’re essential), but grounds them in truth. What do think?

    I think it sounds like, although you rejected a certain form of Christianity, you still start from the general premise that god exists. I understand that many people are unwilling (for whatever reason) to abandon that premise of theism or deism; however I am not and I don’t think I’m the worse off for it. Indeed, I am happier, freer and more personally fulfilled now than when I was a Christian.

    I admire your efforts to rewrite your story to include a god who is more loving and more just than you had believed in previously. However, I don’t have that need in my life, at least at this time.

    I remain open to new proofs of god’s existence, if he’s out there – and I certainly don’t rule that out in the sense of a larger, supernatural being who cannot be detected by our technology and chooses to remain hidden for his own divine purposes. I just don’t know if it’s out there, and until I know or have a better idea of its existence, I will not worship it “just in case.” That makes no sense to me and would fail because it would be false.

    I have all but rejected a theistic god who intervenes in human affairs. I don’t see how a good god can be omnipresent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. Not with the world in the state it is in.

  • 21. karen  |  April 15, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Sorry, Gregg, I didn’t read your comment to Quester until after I’d commented above. To Quester you said:

    Because if the Christian God exists, then I have to come to terms with this God’s biblical portrait. Yes, I can throw the Bible out, but then not only will this NOT leave me with a Christian God, but more importantly it will leave me with nothing beyond myself.

    I think you are spot on here. If there’s no god (or at least we suspect that there’s no god and act accordingly, although we cannot prove it), there’s no one but ourselves – and our fellow human beings – to answer to. This is a frightening thought, isn’t it? And yet, once one comes to terms with it, it’s also liberating and even joyous.

    If there is no ultimate authority, no deity looking down from heaven to reward or punish us, or tally up our names in his book of life (dividing the sheep and the goats in the process), than we are only responsible to and for ourselves and our fellow men and women. Think About It. What an awesome thing! Scary, yes, for a while. But ultimately something that makes life doubly precious and wonderful for the understanding.

    And because I come from a highly dysfunctional family where I often “parented my parents,” I won’t stand for that with God. I’m not having a “God” that is no bigger than me—there’s no point.

    I agree with you there, too. And I also parented my parents (particularly my mother, who turned to me as her oldest child after she divorced my dad). Turning to a “father god” who would nurture and protect me was a powerful reason I recommitted my life to Christ and started going to much more fundamentalist churches shortly after my parents’ divorce. Perhaps for me it took 30 years to re-evaluate all that because I needed to reach a point where I was old enough not to need that all-powerful parent in my life anymore. I dunno.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting conversation. :-)

  • 22. Gregg  |  April 15, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Hi Quester,

    I’m not sure that I follow. If you seek to find out if God exists (and judging by your comments in # 17 and your mini-bio in “Hello, my name is…,” that appears to be your goal), then the character of this God is crucial. On the one hand, God’s character sets the context for interpretation of the Bible and God’s actions—if present—in the world (but I won’t deal with this point here). On the other hand, once established with as much certainty as I can marshal, God’s character is the determining factor in how I choose to respond to God (this is the point I was making in #18). And apparently, for you too!

    By your own words, if I understand you, you show how much God’s character does matter to your project. So, as you say in #19: “If God is a tyrant, I need to find ways to stand against God. If God is capricious, I need to find ways to defend myself from God.”

    Nor, taking this a step further, does it seem to me that anyone here is dealing with a subject matter that s/he finds to be trivial—most people on this blog (unless I’m utterly off-base) have had their lives changed in enormous ways through their encounter(s) with religion and with subsequent choices to abandon some beliefs in favour of others. So the question of God, and of what kind of God it is, matters deeply.

    Which leads back to my first sentence. I don’t follow you: just what are you saying here if it is NOT that you would not be “at peace” (or accepting, or willing to bow to, or able to consider relationship, or [enter your favourite synonyms here]) with such a God, which was my first question (in #18)?

    If I’ve misunderstood and you’re rather saying that we have no power to change or affect God’s character, then on this point I fully agree. Yet I think that determining God’s character requires both reading myself and the Bible well. And as most of us know only too well, our starting point (or presuppositions) effect what we read—if we are Christian, God is usually cast in a fine light. If not, then usually not. My point in the above (#’s 10, 14, and 18) was to suggest how we might get around this problem: if the answer is pre-loaded before the question is asked, it’s not worth much, and we need the best answers we can get.

    And so, how we read and tell both our and God’s s stories, as far as I can see, becomes critical.

  • 23. Gregg  |  April 15, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    Hi Karen,

    On your first point in #20, yes, it is the story that is false (or my reading of the experience). However, I do think that my memory and the information of others (testimony, if you like) can be false—I can forget things that happen, and mis-remember (and so falsely present) things that did happen.

    On your point in #21, I’m glad that you resonate with my comments about needing a God who is “more” and “bigger” than me. I think who God is matters as much as (and maybe more than, depending) that God is. So for my money, this is a topic that I’d like to see more conversation on.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  • 24. Gregg  |  April 15, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Hi Karen,

    You wrote, at the end of #20

    “I have all but rejected a theistic god who intervenes in human affairs. I don’t see how a good god can be omnipresent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. Not with the world in the state it is in.

    Yes, I think that the problem of evil is the problem. It is this we must resolve (though likely not solve) if God is to have any value and potential benefit for human existence.

  • 25. Quester  |  April 15, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    Gregg,

    And as most of us know only too well, our starting point (or presuppositions) effect what we read—if we are Christian, God is usually cast in a fine light. If not, then usually not. My point in the above (#’s 10, 14, and 18 ) was to suggest how we might get around this problem: if the answer is pre-loaded before the question is asked, it’s not worth much, and we need the best answers we can get.

    Interesting. I’d been reading you as saying the exact opposite. It seemed to me that you were laying out what sort of God would satisfy you- what sort you could be at peace with and worship- pre-loading the answer of what sort of God you want before asking what sort of God there is (or may be). You say that “sovereignty is not the way that God will meaningfully ‘show up’ to me.” I can hardly make sense of such a statement. God’s character is important to how we would decide to respond to God, if we could figure out what that character is. I consider it unimportant, however, to think of what sort of God would satisfy me or I would be at peace with when it comes to the question of whether God exists. As far as I’m concerned, God can show up as monarch, tyrant or sovereign if God so chooses, so long as God shows up in some manner that can be clearly perceived and understood.

    I am indeed saying that we have no power to change God’s character, and further that how hard we have to work to see God in our stories may reflect that there is no God there, unless we write one in.

  • 26. Gregg  |  April 16, 2008 at 1:50 am

    Hi Quester,

    Your point is good. I suppose that I am saying both things. But I think I (and anyone) can do so consistently—let me give this a shot.

    First, I’ve had my share of the God of sovereignty and might, the God of theodicy and providence. This God could not live up to the evil that I experienced in my life. So either I doubt my experience of evil, or I doubt the validity of this God. My scars tell me to do the latter. My point is that we must understand (and endorse) the hermeneutical role of our experience, not just our theology (or a-theology, as the case may be). In short, we must place our lived, experience truth (I call it truth-for-me) above detached, disembodied notions of (absolute) Truth.

    Yet, second, I do not consider the preceding to be “pre-loading.” If anything, it is “post-loading:” it is narrowing the field of possible, acceptable responses given what I have experienced in my life (and I weight these experiences in keeping with how skilled a reader I am of myself and my world [i.e., my #10, above]).

    So I am not advocating that we interpret from a modernist, Cartesian, perspective-from-nowhere: I don’t think this exists. Nor am I advocating a post-modern, anything-goes perspective. I am advocating experience as an important factor in determining what one should believe: experience in contrast to dogma, Christian and otherwise. Because where (a)theology has no roots in life it becomes dangerous because it forces us to choose against our senses, against reality as we know it.

    And third, we never enter any arena without expectations: understanding/interpreting is not something that we choose to do (or not do), it is something that we are constantly doing (consciously or no), almost something that we are. And so it is not a question of having no expectations (i.e., the perspective-from-nowhere, above), but of knowing what our expectations are and why they are so. Because, back to my original point, what we expect conditions (and limits) what we will find.

    So while I’ve already had a good look at (and am done with) the God of sovereignty, but this doesn’t mean that everything is “pre-loaded” about the God of love—just the opposite. Because this God still has to “show up.”

  • 27. Gregg  |  April 16, 2008 at 1:53 am

    And how this God “shows up,” I believe, makes all the difference.

  • 28. Quester  |  April 16, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Hey, Gregg,

    I had wondered if that’s where you were going. For a while, I thought it made sense. After all, if I want to look out my window and identify what is and what is not a car, I have to have some idea of what a car is, and what distinguishes it from all things that are not cars.

    Then I thought some more. I get my concept of what a car is, from my experience with actual cars. I could also learn from books about cars and photos of cars, but even these secondary sources start with an actual car.

    I do not sit in my house and start with rumours and legends that tell me a car is something that lets me get from one place to another, decide for myself what form of transportation would satisfy me or give me peace, then look out the window only to note that what I see sitting in my driveway would require fuel and cause air pollution and determine that there is no car, or that the car there is not a car-for-me, simply because it does not fulfil my expectations.

    I am not saying you should start with nothing, not even expectations. I am saying you should start with God, as God reveals God’s self. In other words, we can only know God’s character (and existence) if God “shows up”, within or without our conditions, in ways we can not do other than “find” God.

  • 29. Richard  |  April 16, 2008 at 10:44 am

    Gregg-
    I’ve had some time now to sit down and give some thought to your comments. Here’s what I cam up with. I apologize in advance for the length here, but then you have an annoying habit of asking questions that are both interesting and thoughtful ;), and I don’t think I could do justice to them any more briefly. So: you asked for it.

    Your thoughts make me think of Buber’s distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationships: that there is something irreducibly experiential about that which is dearest to us. That no theory *about* love, no matter how accurate or true, substitutes for actually loving and, in a sense, trying to make such relationship the object of thought necessarily distorts it. (I would critique this view only by saying it doesn’t (and can’t) stop there; that any I-Thou experience I have is necessarily nestled with an I-It. We are not disembodied spirits, we have bodies and senses , so even our deepest relationships are not either I-Thou or I-It, they are both/and – but this is a minor criticism.)

    But his point is well taken, and is echoed in other disciplines, as well, such as Buddhism, existentialism, many forms of mysticism, and even psychoanalysis, in the concept of the “experiencing ego.” These ideas direct us back to our primary, pre-cognitive, unmediated experience, and indeed, if the existentialists are right, this is the only place in human psychic life in which meaning can be found or made at all– in living life, not thinking *about* it or understanding it. There is no sub speciae eternitatis; in telling our stories, we must never forget we act in them.

    Liberal theologians have taken up this idea and applied it to God, suggesting that our experience of God (if there is one) is all we might really know about him, and in any event forms our necessary starting point. (And, of course, 2000 years of Christian apologetics primarily using *reason* has left most of the world unconvinced, anyway).

    I follow this line of thinking, and Bubers and the existentialists – any view of human life which leaves out human experience as we find it can never truly be human. I further agree with you that too many atheists and fundamentalists focus much too much on the alleged facts, rather than on questions of experience and meaning and the lived life.

    .So in beginning to address your connection between story and religion, I start with this dilemma: how do you communicate an experience when any discussion of it, in words (and hence symbols) necessarily distorts that primary, unmediated, I-Thou experience you want to refer to? Only this: by the use of images, symbols, and metaphors – in a word, by story. Stories uniquely are out there”, in the world, for us all to hear as a community, yet we all know we each “take them in”, make them our own, and they are inexhaustible in the individual meanings they can acquire. Stories do not communicate propositional truth – Moby Dick is not a textbook about whales – they evoke, they move, they communicate experience by replicating it in another. And religions are our most elaborated symbol systems. So the question, for me, becomes, does a given symbol system move you?

    For me, I found that Christianity does not. In all probability, it is just too tainted by my long experience in fundamentalism, such that concepts such as atonement (however understood) or the value of suffering have become nothing but aversive to me.

    I share with you your sense that there is something good in the world, something holy, that must be experienced and that we want our stories to tell about, and to bring us closer to. Our difference is our response. You pursue the God you feel in your soul underlies all such experience. I content myself with its particular instantiations – in my family, for example – and simply celebrate the local experience itself. So, if your experience of goodness and holiness in the world and in your life feels like a relationship to you, then nurture it. I have no objection in the world to that. But to me, it just doesn’t. Why not? Probably, for two reasons:

    One, it just doesnt feel like a relationship to me because God, to me, has always been silent. The beauty I see in my children, or the majesty I see in the stars at night are both breathtaking – but they point to nothing beyond their own holiness, in my experience. In being an atheist I have come to simply be true to my own experience as I found it.

    Two, I cannot easily set aside issues of theodicy. I would rather God not talk to me at all, and instead correct the evils in the world, but he doesn’t do either. Now, my IRS argument works much better against a punitive God who damns (and hence, who cannot be good is he doesn’t make the rules clear), than it does against a liberal God, who can take more refuge in “mystery.” I well admit a liberal God might perhaps have his reasons for hiding his face, but to maintain that would take more faith than I am willing to work for. In fact, I would be angry at such a God who allowed so much evil in the world., and I could not love him, no matter how much *I* was loved *by* him.

    So, my story is not too different from yours. I, too, want to celebrate and nourish the goodness I find in the world, and to write my story around it. I think, in the end, we just have different actors.

  • 30. Gregg  |  April 16, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Hi Quester,

    Yes, this is good. Your points again helpfully push me to say better what I’m thinking.

    On the one hand I agree with you—we know this God only as this God “shows up.” This is why I’ve been hammering on the hermeneutical value of experience (i.e., the essential role of our lived existence in any act of understanding).

    But, on the other hand, we need to have some information about God in order to know how this God is to be expected to show up. What kind of God is this? Several things inform this. One is my expectations (and closely related to this, what type of God [or interaction with God] I’m willing to live with). The other would be sources of information about God. This includes the Bible (this is a big topic that I won’t go into here) but also my own experience of things related to God. Let me give you a few examples.

    I am married and have 2 kids. The Bible talks about forgiveness, yet the Bible alone cannot make me believe in the value of forgiveness. That is because forgiveness is not a concept, but an action. And as an action it is fully known and understood in its practice. So I personally understand the value of forgiveness through my interactions with my spouse—forgiving and being forgiven. Same with love, and with other attributes of God’s character.

    In other words, God is related to and distinct from my existence. And understanding how God is related and how distinct is essential to my ability to perceive God in human existence, should God “show up.”

    So my earlier point: understanding God and understanding self/ world are intimately linked. For if I am not self-aware enough to know that my abusive childhood distorted the value of the word “love” (i.e., my parents said they “loved” me but this love often came in the form of abuse and deceit), then I will be unaware that my expectations of love are necessarily mis-aligned. How can I thus understand (or better, even recognize) God’s love (especially, if as it is claimed, it is true love [and not the false stuff I received])? Clearly, there is more involved in the question, but I think that there is at least this.

  • 31. karen  |  April 16, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Adam over at Ebon Musings (an excellent atheist blog) weighs in on this same topic with a good post.

  • 32. Gregg  |  April 17, 2008 at 1:56 am

    Hi Richard,

    Your response is great, and in light of it I’d like to raise a few more (correspondingly lengthy) points & questions.

    You write in #29 that “no theory *about* love, no matter how accurate or true, substitutes for actually loving and, in a sense, trying to make such relationship the object of thought necessarily distorts it.” And later, “how do you communicate an experience when any discussion of it, in words (and hence symbols) necessarily distorts that primary, unmediated, I-Thou experience you want to refer to?”

    From my perspective, stories don’t necessarily distort (whether love or the I-Thou relationship), but are simply incapable of being that relationship: they are related to what they recount, yet distinct from it. Having a different ontology, stories rather open worlds wherein I may find possibilities for existing better, worlds that I may, in a certain sense, “inhabit.”

    Viewed from the perspective of relationship-and-distinction, I think that puts your experiences of being “moved” (e.g., by the “beauty of [your] children” and the “majesty . . . in the stars”) in a different light. For if “they point to nothing beyond their own holiness,” they remain events that evoke the essential (as you say, the “holy”). So, while we created our children, their wonder far surpasses our procreative acts: I do not feel I earned them but feelgifted with them (giver aside). And central to this “essence” is that they bring in a different economy: in their presence we are no longer in the quid-pro-quo of reciprocity, but in the “more” of superabundance.

    In other words, while they may not point to (in the specific sense of “point out”) God, their very “uncontainability”—their propensity to move us, to encompass us, to draw us into their orbit—is an informer that speaks of other, further possibilities that could be actualized.

    Taken from this perspective, I’m not sure if the best question is “does a given symbol system [i.e., the Bible’s] move you?” Rather, it seems to me that the question is “given that certain of my lived experiences do move me, a) how do I construe these experience, and b) how does/ might what moves me or what I desire relate to and inform the rest of my existence?” Clearly, dangers lurk nearby—our experiences (and the stories we tell about them) can give way to illusion. So I am not suggesting that we make God (or the Bible, or our children, etc.) into anything that want them to be.

    Yet I believe that we can mediate the desire vs. illusion dilemma by understanding “reality” as meaning both the true (versus false) and the actual (as the current state-of-affairs, versus the possible [as what may be]).

    By doing so, I think that we can legitimately require that God show up (you write “God, to me, has always been silent”) and respond to evil in reality (not by “theodicy”) and authentically desire a God who could be “more” than what we have known, and who could be manifest in ways beyond our past experience. In other words, in this sense we may legitimately value the possible over the actual, the unreal over reality (as “what is”). There’s more argumentation needed to substantiate this, but this gestures at what I’m thinking.

    What do you think?

  • 33. Richard  |  April 17, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    Gregg- What and interesting topic! It wonderful to find someone as interested in the nature and purpose of story as I am.

    You wrote:
    “From my perspective, stories don’t necessarily distort (whether love or the I-Thou relationship), but are simply incapable of being that relationship: they are related to what they recount, yet distinct from it. Having a different ontology, stories rather open worlds wherein I may find possibilities for existing better, worlds that I may, in a certain sense, “inhabit.””

    This is pretty much what I was trying to relate. There is an old Zen koan in which the student asks the master, What is Zen? The master says nothing but points at the moon. This is the answer to this puzzle, IMHO: the word is not the thing itself; the finger is not the moon, though it points to the moon. So I agree with you that the main issue is basically that stories (words, symbols) are not the thing itself — but for me, that is a crucial difference. So I would suggest that it *does* distort, at least somewhat, simply and merely by not being the Ding an Sich. To go back to my example: a theory of love, no matter how complete, no matter how empirically based, and no matter how useful in other contexts, is necessarily insufficient for *human* understanding of love. That is only had through loving and being loved. Thus, talking *about* love, in propositional/declarative sentences, even if what is said is true, is necessarily a distance remove from love itself. And this, then, becomes the function of stories – that move, evoke, inspire, induce sym-pathy – by getting the audience to *feel*, not just *think*. That is, of course, half the reason why we like them. But in the end a word is a symbol and, hence, an abstraction, which is a move away form the thing itself. Yes, I agree that stories point us to new possibilities — but, like the finger pointed to the moon, they themselves are not those possibilities. It is up to us to live them, to actualize them, to create them.

    “In other words, while they may not point to (in the specific sense of “point out”) God, their very “uncontainability”—their propensity to move us, to encompass us, to draw us into their orbit—is an informer that speaks of other, further possibilities that could be actualized.”

    I entirely agree. Eugene Borowitz, a reform Jewish theologian, calls these experiences “transcendence.” He, of course, understands them to point to, or perhaps manifest, God. I respect this view and have no real objection to it except to say that it is not my experience. I find nothing added, for me, by positing a underlying ontology, and find doing so opens up many new problems, for me. Another Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan, also addresses this idea, in ways more congenial to me and very reminisncent of what you seem to be saying. He is a religious naturalist, which means he does not believe in a literal supreme being but still finds religious language uniquely suited to expressed his own experience of holiness. He speaks of God as “the power that makes for salvation” – which requires a lot of unpacking, but basically means those aspects of the universe and of life that serve to promote human flourishing. This would include creativity, possibility, the awareness of tikkun olam – in Jewish thought, the duty to repair the world. I.,e., it is precisely those moments of sublimity that make us aware of how far short of our ideals and values much of the world routinely falls, and thus those moments inspire us to make the world better. Thus, God can, in this sense, be said to “command” ethical action, righteousness, and the pursuit of Goodness.

    “Taken from this perspective, I’m not sure if the best question is “does a given symbol system [i.e., the Bible’s] move you?” Rather, it seems to me that the question is “given that certain of my lived experiences do move me, a) how do I construe these experience, and b) how does/ might what moves me or what I desire relate to and inform the rest of my existence?” ”

    Again, I agree, and I did not flesh out my thoughts fully enough. I think the experiences we have, that we want to talk about, and that we must use imperfect symbols to do so, engages in a reciprocal relationship to the symbol systems we use. Thus, for many Christians, the symbols of Christ, the Resurrection, atonement, and the like serve both to express and relate them, creatively, back to their own experience. Thus, those symbols both give voice to, and shape, ones live-life and life-experience in a way that, hopefully, makes that life deeper and more abundant.

    Thus, in the stories we tell about ourselves and about God, we may understand those stories (as I think you agree) to be pointing to something beyond themselves and beyond reality as we find it, to something better and more life-giving and life-affirming. This is the only “theodicy” that can make sense to me: God, as the bearer of human ideals, “responds” to evil by commanding ethical action, and by demanding, in us, ethical maturity.

  • 34. paulmct  |  April 18, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Interesting and, for me, very timely analogy. As a matter of fact, the Canada Revenue Agency has decided I owe them money from a year ago, but can’t or won’t tell me why. They don’t seem to like that I question them and require proof. They haven’t responded to my letter of inquiry demonstrating their error. I guess I’m supposed to take it on faith. Right. Them and the church, both.

  • 35. Gregg  |  April 19, 2008 at 2:04 am

    Hi Richard. Thanks for this. You’ve (again) prompted more thoughts and questions–I’ll try to get back shortly.

  • 36. exevangel  |  April 21, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Richard,

    loved this, and appreciate the spirit in with it was written although I have a tiny bone to pick. We actually PAY taxes all year round, and in fact the IRS nearly always takes too much. On 15 April we file a RETURN to get back the excess. We are loyal because there is a reward for us, and we have tangible proof of it both in the filing of the return and the check (or direct deposit, these days) that comes with it. But really the IRS-God is enforcing our “belief” in him (her? it?) in the most brutal manner, by taking away our money and then requiring us to spend hours and many pieces of paper to get it back. If God on High would do that I’m sure more people would listen!

  • 37. The place to be  |  June 30, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Hey hey…

    Be sure to see mine……

  • 38. LeoPardus  |  June 30, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Oh damn. It’s spam.

  • 39. paleale  |  June 30, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    It seems to come in waves, does it not?

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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