As I wrap up my (brief) exploration of classical theism and move into the process theology of John Cobb, I’m having trouble keeping track of the many different concepts of God floating around in my head. To add a little structure to this mess, I’ve constructed two basic categories for notions of God. Although these don’t by any means capture all of the nuance of different perspectives, they help identify a fault line that divides many believers.
One version of God looks a lot like an invisible Superman: God is essentially an invisible human with superb moral character (or not), boosted intelligence, and a few handy superpowers. This God is the God described by much of the Bible: Like an ordinary person, he has emotions, changes his mind, is surprised by events (and therefore lives within time), and acts in our physical world. This God has a shifting presence in time and space, jumping to and fro like superman, chatting with us like any other person, and dramatically intervening in the world from time to time.
The other version of God looks something like The Force from Star Wars. As with the Force, it doesn’t make much sense to call this God a “person.” This is the God of classical metaphysics: utterly transcendent, fundamentally different from every finite thing (including humans), the fountain of all Truth and Beauty, “acting” by giving Being to everything that exists. He (or better, “it”) stands outside space and time. Human emotions, physical presence, and contingent action could only be ascribed to the Force as a kind of metaphorical or mythical objectification (at best).
These two Gods are miles apart: Invisible Superman is merely the most powerful being among beings; the Force is Being Itself. Invisible Superman “creates” by combining and forming already-existing stuff; the Force creates ex nihilo (out of nothing).
Both views are widespread across different religions and cultures because they both draw on fairly straightforward intuitions, yet they differ radically in the kinds of intuitions they invoke.
One hand, Force-God takes certain building blocks of human experience (especially, it seems, Being, Consciousness, Truth, and Beauty) and reasons out from them to an infinite, metaphysical Source. I have already written not one, but two posts about the God of classical theism, which I am here loosely comparing to the Force.
On the other hand, invisible Superman-God depends on unrefined, standard human intuitions. Recently, off on a long drive for work, I listened to the audiobook version of Justin L. Barrett’s Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology. As it turns out, research shows that from a very young age and across cultures, humans develop a range of common assumptions and intuitions. For example, children tend to assume that every object was made by somebody for some purpose, and this may explain why the notion of a Creator God makes so much sense to so many people. These baseline intuitions prime us to think of objective morality, mind-matter duality, and unseen agents, leading us easily to one or more personal, invisible deities of the Superman variety.
In recent history, amidst the growth and popularization of atheism, both Gods have taken a beating, but Superman-God has taken the most flack. He is, after all, an easy target. Critical questions abound: If this God intervenes in nature like a person, why doesn’t science notice his unique effects? If he’s so good, why didn’t he intervene to stop the Holocaust? If he’s immaterial, how does he make contact with our physical world? If his power works like that of a human, wouldn’t it compete with our own free will?
The Force-God, however, is harder to pin down and thus harder to critique. Besides, it’s hard (though certainly not impossible) to consistently deny the transcendent existence of Truth, Beauty, and Consciousness – yet that stuff must all be denied in order to effectively disbelieve in Force-God. Much of the failure of typical apologist vs. atheist debates, I think, boils down to the fact that atheists critique Superman while educated believers believe in Force-God, so each side’s arguments fail to make real contact.
Faced with two alternatives, what should we do? From Eric Hall’s Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God, I get the impression that Catholics try to have their cake and eat it too. They call Force-God “the God of reason” and Superman-God “the God of revelation” and claim that both are, in fact, the same God. Metaphysics gives us God-material, and revelation tells us what this God does.
But at the end of the day, it seems to me that one side must win out. Either God is straightforwardly personal, going through life with us, acting in ways similar to human action, or God is strictly im- or beyond-personal, an inaccessible mystery known only by self-transcending mystics like Yoda and speculative metaphysicians.
Instinctively, I tend to prefer Superman-God, since this concept jives best with the kind of spirituality that I grew up with; I’m not sure how one would “talk to” a glassy essence floating off in the ether. Unfortunately I think that atheists bring up great points. Superman-God, as he is typically understood, borders on nonsense.
In a few weeks, I’ll read Volume 1 of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, in which Tillich develops a modernized version of the old-school Force-God. But in the meantime, I will be reading John Cobb’s Jesus’ Abba and God and the World, as well as diving into a few Religion & Science resources. I’ll give Superman another chance.
To learn more about my God Project, click here. To receive an email update with each new post (usually one or two per week), find “Follow Via Email” at the bottom of this page and enter your email address.