As a part of my year-long God Project, I’ve spent the past month reading Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. I read Keller’s The Reason for God and Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in order to give ample attention to my Tradition. Having grown up as an Evangelical Christian like Keller, The Reason for God allowed me to critically reflect on the beliefs that I inherited.
Today, I finished the first book in my twelve-month “God project” (check out the full reading list here). Reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has been fun, surprising, and fascinating. Written almost 1,700 years ago, On the Incarnation isn’t meant to explain the meaning of God, let alone address a 21st Century American’s problems with the idea of God. Even so, an interesting and even relevant concept of God emerges implicitly in Athanasius’ description of the Incarnation of God in Jesus.
So who is God to Athanasius?
A God Beyond Pain
The death of Jesus is very important to Athanasius, yet it’s hard to escape the impression that Athanasius’ Jesus doesn’t exactly die. According to Athanasius, Jesus’ particular human body, through its union with the indwelling Word of God, was freed from typical human mortality. At the cross, Jesus willingly chose to die our deaths for us so that our souls no longer need to die.
But strictly speaking, the embodied Word of God could not die. Jesus died our deaths in order to thereby free us from the necessity of death. After Jesus’ death, the same body that hung on the cross was raised from the dead. Unsurprisingly, Athanasius’ death-proof Jesus corresponds to a pain-proof God.
One of Athanasius’ favorite categories seems to be “corruption”. “Corruption” evidently includes death, dying, pain, and decay. God does not – cannot – experience corruption, and neither can the Incarnate Son of God. Normal human beings, on the other hand, are always threatened by corruption and the finality of death. Luckily, through the teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God applies divinity to humanity like a spray-on fire retardant. By infusing us with divinity, God protects otherwise vulnerable humans from the threat of final death and non-being apart from God, who is the source of being.
Most Christian theologians throughout history assumed, like Athanasius, that God could not suffer. Yet throughout the past century, and especially after Jurgen Moltmann wrote his groundbreaking book The Crucified God, Christian theologians have frequently questioned God’s immunity to suffering. After all, as these theologians point out, how can God really love us if God isn’t able to hurt for us and with us? What is love without risk, and what is risk without pain? If God doesn’t share in the suffering of humanity, then doesn’t that make God detached, cold, and distant? Further, if God became a man who died on a cross, how can divinity be separated from suffering?
It’s important, though, to notice what exactly is going on when Athanasius says that God can’t experience “corruption.” Through the Incarnation, God solves the problem of pain and death, and God does this by extending God’s immunity to pain and death to us. God must be pain-free for Athanasius because God must eventually make us pain-free.
Athanasius or Moltmann?
So who is right? Was Moltmann right to criticize the long-standing Christian belief that God cannot suffer? Or was Athanasius right assume that God is immune from suffering and that God became embodied in Jesus in order to share this very immunity with us?
At the end of the day, I have to side with Moltmann on this one. A God who sets things up, creates us, and then watches us suffer from a distance, unmoved, seems more to me like a demon than a God of love, even if this immunity to pain is eventually extended to humanity in the afterlife. Although God’s empathetic suffering doesn’t fully address the contradiction of a loving God with a hurting world, I think it’s a good start.
Yet I still think that Athanasius was on to something. Athanasius, faced with the problem of a world that is not as it should be, looked to the Incarnation to make sense of it all. In Jesus, Athanasius found God’s answer to problem of human suffering. In Jesus, we see God working to reverse the pain and death of creation. That line of thinking certainly has some potential!
In a few weeks, I will start really exploring the reasons to not believe in God. I’ll read Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion and listen to a five-hour-long lecture series about influential atheist thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx. I am looking forward to reflecting on the Incarnation (both the event and Athanasius’ book about it) through the lens of atheist critiques.
Before I get to the atheists, I will first read a book by Timothy Keller, a popular American Evangelical pastor and writer. Although I no longer have much interest in thinking within the confines of Evangelical Christianity, I have deep roots in the Evangelical tradition. What can I learn by reflecting on the theology that I grew up with, and can it make sense of the problems that atheists point out? That will be my question over the coming weeks as I read Keller’s book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.
For more on my “God Project,” click here. If this project seems interesting to you, the best way to follow along is to find “Follow blog via email” at the bottom of this page. If you enter your email address into that box, you will receive an email update with each blog post (roughly one or two per week).
If God is Creator of the world, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all traditionally profess, then hypothetically we might come to know something about God by considering creation. So what is creation?
Creation according to Genesis
A few days ago, I read Genesis chapters 1 & 2, which tell the story of God (or gods?) creating the world. I remember writing a seven-page essay in seventh grade about why evolution was “wrong” according to the Bible. Within five years, I was telling people in my youth group that evolution and Genesis were compatible. Strangely, I have no memory of how or when or even why I changed my mind.
However I got here, I don’t take Genesis “literally”. I use pretentious quotation marks around that word because there are actually two very different accounts of Creation in Genesis (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 and Genesis 2:5-25), making a consistently simplistic reading of Genesis as history virtually impossible.
If Genesis isn’t here to answer my curiosities about the history of the cosmos, what does it have to say? My take-away from reading Genesis was that the world is ordered, created by God, and good. The whole process is very neat and organized, from the sequential creation by category (light, then stars, then dry land and plants, then birds and fish, then land animals, and then humans) to the naming of the animals.
Creation according to Athanasius
So far (I’m 46 pages in), Athanasius has twice brought up creation as a whole. First, he listed popular accounts of creation and gave brief, paragraph-long arguments against each of them. Interestingly, one of his targets were the Epicureans, who evidently did not believe there to be a Mind behind the universe. Athanasius pointed to the complexity and diversity of creation as evidence of a creator. Some theists continue to make this case today.
A few chapters later, Athanasius argued that God has given humanity many avenues for knowing the divine. Athanasius points to the sheer scale and harmony of Creation as undeniable evidence of God’s guiding providence. (A similar line of thinking can be found in Romans 1.)
Is Creation good?
Is the world neat and orderly, as Genesis seems to suggest? Will a survey of the natural world necessarily lead us to contemplate the guidance of providence, as Athanasius evidently believed? Is the love and providence of God self-evident in Creation?
I honestly don’t think so. At the very least, it’s not that simple. To me, both Genesis 1 – 2 and those Athanasius snippets are terribly one-sided.
Of course, the world’s ecosystems and the human body often are incredibly complicated and harmonious (as far as I can tell). Creation includes the “circle of life,” resilient bodies, and fine-tuned relationships between innumerable life forms living together.
But not all ecosystems and bodies are healthy all of the time – far from it! Judging by the fossil record, our Earth has seen numerous mass extinction events long before humans arrived on the scene. According to the theory of evolution, human life emerged amidst brutal self-preservation, through killing and taking. Today, people continue to suffer from catastrophic natural disasters. Diseases and famines spread suffering across the Earth.
Any understanding of God as Creator, let along as loving Creator, has to answer for the chaotic and self-destructive streak that continues to run throughout creation. Creation may be good, and it may even point to a benevolent, brilliant Mind – but that can’t be the whole story.
Athanasius is regarded as a Church Father by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestants. Basically, that means that Athanasius is generally seen as a theologian who maintained and clarified the tradition passed down from the apostles, over against the innovation and distortion of heretics. Athanasius is especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Of course, you could probably just as easily shift your perspective and see Athanasius and other Church Fathers as merely members of the faction of early Christians that happened to secure enough ecclesial power to call themselves “the Church” and condemn everyone who disagreed with them as “heretics”. (For more on that perspective, check out this book about the Gospel of Judas.) Tomato, tomahto, right?
In any case, the vast majority of Christians after Athanasius have considered his work to be an authentic, even authoritative statement of Christian belief. I’m reading his very short (72 pages) book On The Incarnation, which is mostly about (you guessed it) the Incarnation.
How to save naughty iPhones
This book opens with a reference to another book in which Athanasius evidently argued that Jesus is divine. Having already established the fact of the Incarnation, here Athanasius explains the rationale for the Incarnation. What did God achieve by becoming an embodied person?
Athanasius’ answer to that question is, unsurprisingly, kind of complicated. It’s also weird; a lot has changed since the fourth century. Luckily for you, I have done my best to translate Athanasius’ take on humanity, God, sin, and salvation into more relatable terms.
Imagine that we humans are all iPhones. According to Athanasius, God is the one and only Ultimate Battery that never loses its charge. Luckily, God gave us little iPhone-sized batteries that, so long as they are protected and plugged into God, will keep us running indefinitely – even forever! Unfortunately, we iPhones get so preoccupied with doing naughty things to each other that we eventually wander away from God. Our internal batteries get damaged, they don’t get hooked back up to the Big Battery, and eventually, they run out. Broken and disconnected from the divine charge, we run out of battery and die.
Luckily, God loves us iPhones – or, at the very least, it would look bad if all of God’s fancy gadgets died and stayed dead. So God becomes a God-Phone (what else am I supposed to call it?) with an infinite battery. The God-Phone gets banged up like the rest of us, but its Ultimate Battery within jolts it back to life. Like a pool noodle pushed under water, that iPhone eventually pops back to the surface. Now my metaphors are all mixed up.
The point is, this iPhone has survived the standard wear and tear without staying dead. Afterwards, God issues an iOS update so that we can all get this new God-Phone software and live forever – as long as we accept the new “Terms and Agreement” and become Christians. (In other words, Jewish and pagan phones are still screwed.)
God as Source of Being
I’ll explore some relevant details of Athanasius’ implicit understanding of God in later posts. But just from Athanasius’ account of creation, sin, and salvation, an interesting view of God emerges. Kind of like a battery that never runs out, Athanasius’ God is the infinite source of being.
If that sounds meta, it’s because it is meta. In Athanasius’ metaphysics, nothing can exist apart from connection to the divine life. To live on after our bodies die, we need to be plugged in to the source of being. Mortality is the problem and God is the solution.
To a Protestant like me with a thoroughly modern education, this is foreign territory. Growing up in church, I was basically taught that people are intrinsically immortal souls, either ending up in eternal bliss or suffering God’s punishment in hell. For Athanasius, immortality is something humans only get through union with God. Death isn’t a separate act of divine punishment; it is simply the logical consequence of being unplugged from the divine source of life.
Why would anyone think of God, let alone reality, in that way? In a few months, I’ll find out when I get to David Bentley Hart’s Experiences of God, in which he explains how the experience of being has driven people in many religions (including Christianity) to think of God as the source of being.
A little while after that, I’ll read Volume One of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, in which Tillich insists that God is not a being, but Being itself. Tillich says that it’s technically incorrect to say that “God exists”, since God is existence itself, not one participant in existence. Tillich’s thought, as we’ll see, remains virtually immune from popular atheist arguments against a divine “being”.
Perhaps Hart or Tillich will help me appropriate Athanasius’ salvation/God theory in a way that makes persuasive sense to me. Until then, I’ll file it away in my mind as an unfamiliar but fascinating way of thinking of God that makes sense of Jesus, salvation, and judgment without needing God to be nasty and vengeful.