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. Continue reading “Two kinds of Gods (Superman vs. The Force)”
This blog is about the big questions that keep me up at night, especially the ones that have to do with God. Here, I write about the books I read, the questions I ask, the podcasts I listen to. Most of the time, it’s pretty heady stuff.
But who cares? Why spend so much time thinking about faith? To many Christians, my project will likely seem unnecessary, overly intellectual, an exercise in missing the point. Continue reading “Why I think about God”
The U.S. elections are big news recently – too big to ignore. Many of my vocal Christian friends have taken to social media to remind believers that our new leadership (including Donald Trump) was selected by God, as indeed each political leader has been specifically put in power by God. I don’t buy that story – I could never believe that God picked Hitler and Stalin. But all their talk has me thinking about the relationship of God to politics.
Creation and Politics
In Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, God is said to be the Creator of the world. If God is Creator, then the natural order of the world is, at least to some extent, sanctioned by God. Power and leadership are inescapable aspects of the world that God made. In Genesis 1, God consistently declares that creation is good. Consequently, a “creational” view of politics emphasizes that our governments are divinely intended and inherently good.
From a creational perspective, “the way things are” is stamped with divine approval. Those of us who aren’t in charge must therefore do what we are told. God made it to be this way. Paul sums it up best in Romans 13:1:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God
When God is thought to divinely ordain the powers that be, believers often use political analogies to think of God: God is an Absolute King, ruler, and judge.
It is worth noting that my friends – the ones who think that election results are divinely dictated – have taken this perspective to an extreme. Even if general systems of authority and obedience are divinely intended, this need not mean that each individual politician, from Hitler to Stalin, is hand-picked by God. In any case, Christians can think about God and politics from an entirely different angle.
Eschatology and Politics
“Eschatology” is a tricky and technical word that Christian theologians often use to talk about the future. Eschatology has to do with “the end” – the final redemption of Creation, when all wounds are healed and all pain dissolves. Christians typically believe that the current state of affairs will eventually be toppled and made right by God, transformed into a perfect future. Against the backdrop of a grand future, our present governments look a lot less grand.
Unsurprisingly, an eschatological take on politics often gets pretty Jesus-y. The Gospels (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell the story of Jesus, a homeless wanderer who criticized the rich and powerful and was executed through the collusion of the rich Temple authorities with a powerful Roman governor. Yet their verdict was reversed by God, who raised Jesus from the dead and thereby “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15). An eschatological God is a God who refuses to let those in charge have the last word.
An eschatological perspective is always a bit suspicious of the people at the top. The Jesus story of God puts “the way things are” in a bad light. Sustained by hope for a perfected future in God, eschatologically-informed Christians roll up their sleeves and work with God to interrupt the present with the in-breaking kingdom of God, if only for fleeting moments here and there.
God and Donald Trump
My theory is that believers who find conservative politics most appealing will tend to think of politics in terms of Creation, whereas political liberals will feel a stronger tug towards eschatology. After all, conservatives by definition resist change, whereas liberals embrace it. As someone who tends to lean leftwards (sometimes very leftwards) when it comes to politics, I tend to bet on eschatology.
The news that Trump will become president is very concerning to me. I am disgusted by Trump’s nostalgia for the past (“Make America Great Again“), unfathomable wealth, authoritarian bent, and consistent insensitivity towards women as well as racial and religious minorities. (To be fair, Clinton was no homeless wanderer herself.) In the same way, I find little to worship in a God obsessed with re-enacting the past, a God who brings wealth to some and poverty to many others, who accepts the pain of the “little people” as collateral damage, who exercises unilateral power to trump (pun intended) the decisions of people. In short, I am not attracted to tyrannical politicians or divinities.
But a God who is revealed in a homeless Jew who criticized the rich and powerful, a divinity who raises the weak people who the empire crucifies, a God who spells trouble for “the way things are” – I could probably love that kind of God – in fact, I believe that I do. Perhaps God isn’t pulling Trump up to the top – maybe God is bracing for the pain that Trump has promised to unleash on those at the bottom.
Below is a pretty exhaustive annotated list of the intellectual resources (mostly books with a few audio recordings) that I’ll be learning from over the course of my year-long “God project.” For more on what exactly this God project is, check out this post.
If this list seems interesting to you, but not quite interesting enough to tackle yourself, then you are in luck! Each week, I’ll share bite-sized reflections on what I learn. The best ways for you to join in is to share your thoughts in the comments and follow this blog via email (scroll down to the bottom of this page to sign up).
My own thoughts on God don’t emerge ex nihilo; I grew up in a particular tradition (American Evangelicalism) which is itself a part of the wider Christian tradition.
- On the Incarnation by Athanasius: Athanasius, a 4th Century Christian theologian and bishop, is venerated as a saint and Church Father in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and even some Protestant denominations.
- The Reason for God by Timothy Keller: Most of my deepest experiences of God and community came to me within the context of Evangelical theology. Although I no longer have much interest in fitting inside the Evangelical world, my history requires me to consider the theology I grew up with, whether I like it or not.
Any contemporary American exploration of “God” with even minimal self-awareness must take seriously the many good reasons to not believe in God at all.
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins: Judging by this book’s enormous popularity, Dawkins seems to be writing down what so many people are thinking about God and why they don’t believe in “Him”.
- Atheism for Lent by Peter Rollins: This nine-hour-long recorded lecture series sympathetically discusses critiques of religion (especially belief in God), touching on intellectual giants like David Hume, Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
- Reasonable Doubts: Throughout this year-long adventure, I will be regularly listening to this fairly popular and long-running “skeptical guide to religion” that aired its 139th and final episode in September of 2015. It is conversational as well as informative. I expect to find food for thought, but also positive examples of what life can be like as an atheist.
My own “God-experiences” are enduring and central components of my faith, my theology, and my identity. God isn’t just a matter of communal identity or abstracted reflection; God also has to do with lived experience.
- When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann: This is a functionally agnostic (but sympathetic) anthropologist’s take on contemporary Evangelical religious experience.
- The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart: In this book, an Eastern Orthodox philosopher and theologian seeks to clarify an understanding of “God”/”the divine”/”transcendence” that emerges from the experiences of being, consciousness, and bliss, and is roughly shared by Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and some forms of paganism.
- Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross: In this classic text, a 16th Century Catholic mystic reflects on his intense experiences of the presence and absence of God.
- Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue: “Science Mike” is a relatively popular podcaster, blogger, and author. This memoir-style book tells the story of how Science Mike grew up in fundamentalist Christianity, became an atheist in adulthood, and eventually returned to a new understanding of God.
To help me reflect on the mixed messages of tradition, skepticism, and religious experience, I will read books from Christian theologians of many different stripes, each of whom offers a unique take on God that differs from the others on this list.
- Quest for the Living God by Elizabeth Johnson: In this book, the incredible Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson surveys recent insights in contemporary theology across the globe.
- The Humanity of God by Karl Barth: This is a short series of essays by one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.
- Religion and Science by Phillip Clayton: This is another lengthy recorded lecture series. In these lectures, Clayton addresses critical topics of the atheist vs. theist debate, from divine action to “the problem of evil” to science to postmodernity to materialism to determinism.
- Systematic Theology, Volume One by Paul Tillich: Tillich is sometimes cast as a “liberal” and/or “radical” 20th Century theologian. This book develops Tillich’s conception of “God beyond God.”
- God and the World by John Cobb: Cobb is a process theologian. Word on the street is that process theologians are the best at taking science and human tragedy seriously without losing the ability to speak meaningfully about God.
- The Weakness of God by John Caputo: Caputo is a lover of postmodern philosophy, deconstruction, and Jacques Derrida. In this book, Caputo develops his theology of “God as event”.
- God of the Oppressed by James Cone: James Cone is an influential black liberation theologian. As a member of an oppressed community, Cone has access to questions and insights that I (and most authors on this list) cannot existentially encounter.
- God as the Mystery of the World by Eberhard Jungel: I love now-deceased German theologians, so I’m looking forward to reading Jungel. The subtitle of this book is “the dispute between Theism and Atheism”.
- Philosophy of Religion: Second Edition edited by George Abernethy and Thomas Langford: This one includes snippets form the work of diverse philosophers and theologians ranging from Kierkegaard to Schleiermacher, from Anselm to Kant, from Tillich to Barth, from Aquinas to Hartshorne, and so on. I will periodically read essays from this book throughout the year.
Within the past two years, I’ve read Frank Tupper’s A Scandalous Providence and Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, and odds are good that I will be returning to and referencing those books throughout this process.
For more on my “God project,” click here. To follow my journey as it unfolds, scroll down to “follow blog via email” near the bottom of this page.