Blaise Pascal, an influential philosopher and mathematician in the 1600’s, famously said that the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” was not the same as the God “of philosophers and scholars.” I think he was on to something.
Last week, while off on a long drive for work, I listened to the audiobook version of Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy. It was surprisingly readable (listenable?), and it gave special attention to what different Western philosophers throughout history had to say about God.
Different philosophers have had different views on God, but one thing most them share is the way they talk about God. Who (or what) is God? Ask a philosopher, and he or she might answer, “an omnipresent Being,” “the Ground of Being,” “pure transcendence,” or something like that. Philosophers (as well as most theologians) identify God by listing off key abstract characteristics.
When philosophers talk about God, they get anxious when attributes of God contradict each other or our experience of the world. The classic example is “the problem of evil,” which asks why an all-powerful, perfectly-loving God would allow suffering to exist. That’s the kind of abstract question that keep philosophers up at night.
But how does the Bible tackle a question like Who (or what) is God? Moses asks that sort of question in Exodus 3, having just heard God speak to him from a burning bush. Moses wants to know God’s identity.
It’s a famous scene. Amidst the crackling brush, God answers back “I am who I am.” The NRSV titles this passage “The Divine Name Revealed.” Who is God? God is I am. Sounds like a philosopher’s abstract answer, doesn’t it?
But recently, I tried reading that story a bit differently: maybe God’s name is revealed a few verses later, when God claims to be “The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. In that verse (and all throughout the Bible), God is identified not through abstract attributes, but through a story.
Biblical authors get anxious when it seems like God’s story has come to a disappointing dead-end. Deuteronomy (as I’ve written before) can be read as an attempt to keep Israel’s story alive after the plot twist created by the Babylonian exile. Romans is another good example. In that letter, Paul works hard to answer thorny story-questions like these: If God gave Israel the law back then, why don’t Jesus-followers need to follow it now? If the law is no longer binding now, why was it given back then? What is God’s relationship to Israel at this stage of the story?
Of course, none of this makes my philosophical questions go away, so I still must grapple with philosophy. But at the end of the day, for me it’s my story with God that makes those philosophical questions worth asking.