Tag Archives: theology

Monotheism or monopolytheism?


Today we’ll talk about the funny word in the title. ‘Mono-polytDBH experienceheism’ is a word used by David Bentley Hart in his rather heavy philosophical tome ‘the experience of God’, a book that tries to explain what the word ‘God’ God means in the monotheistic traditions . The word mono-polytheosm describes the idea that God is a being more like the gods of polytheism, but still the only one in his species. That’s the way in which I will use it anyway.  (Hart also uses it more or less as a synonym for ‘theistic personalism’, but that’s a term and discussion that I feel no connection with at all and will leave for others. Philosophy, theoretical theology and a multitude of deep words can be very important one one hand to really say something meaningful about Reality, but on the other hand one can easily drift off to get lost in conceptual words too that have not much relevance, or even reality behind them in any way at all…)

To start I offer a quote from Hart for a definition of the term:

“a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far as I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggest that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings.” (DBH, the experience of God, p 127-128):

To be honest, Hart might always require slow reading and re-reading. One of my FB friends recently assured me that she needs a dictionary too when reading him, and unlike me she has English as her first language and is quite intelligent.

Back to Mono/polytheism. The main question is what I am talking about when I as a Christian and Monotheist use the word ‘God’. In a classical monotheist definition as used in Abrahamic faiths, and according to Hart also in other tradition like certain forms of philosophical Hinduism, this is something completely different from what is meant with the ‘gods’ in a polytheist fashion. Really ‘God’ has no plural and can’t have one either. God is the Creator, the Source and Ground of Being. The One, both transcendent an immanent in all of the multiverse. If the creation story is true in any way, as well as the rest of the bible, God is Universal (quite probably multiversal even, I’d add). Surely while I believe that Christians have special revelation of God in the person of Christ, other people have concepts of Him too. Not only the Abrahamic names of Yahweh, Allah but also the Manitou or Great Spirit of the original Americans, or the Hinduist Brahman or Ọlọ́run in Yoruba are ways to describe this Multiversal Creator. Yes, some things will differ, some pictures will be better than others, but there is One God behind all of existence. And all our talk of this Ultimate Reality is just primitive babytalk anyway, even in the most refined theological schools.

Some philosophers or theologians, for example in Christian Orthodoxy,  go as far as saying that God does not ‘exist’ because His mode of being is completely different, as he is the Source of Being, and maybe even Existence and Being itself. But all of these words are just mere fingerscratches on the surface of something bigger than the sun…

The problem is that not all people define God in this way. In certain views, which are those I would see as ‘monopolytheism’ we do have a “God” that is not completely the source of all Being, and depending on other things, and subject to certain natural laws (or ‘higher magic’?) that maybe even preceded it and that it can’t go against. Which means that our “God” still has a Higher Reality to depend on and answer too somehow…

This certainly seems to be an existing picture of God that I sometimes encounter in several schools of theology, especially in certain schools of modernist ‘liberal’ theology, probably including process theology, but similar sentiments can be uttered by ‘conservative’ Christians too sometimes. It also seems related to -though probably incompatible with- a form of deism in which God made the laws of nature and afterwards isn’t able to break them even if He wanted. (The lengths some people go to combine abstract philosophic notions of God with cramped modernist assertions against miracles can be quite amusing…) demiurgeThe problem is that we end up with something that is more like a demiurge than the Creator. (And if there’s a demiurge, maybe there’s a Higher God in the background that’s more important…)

It’s also often the picture atheists paint of the “God” they reject. Well, no disagreement with them, since I reject it too, but that seems very hard to explain sometimes… It is this “God” too that is rejected in the simplistic ‘only atheists of one god more’ argument that sound not very logical if you really think about what God is and what Gods are.
(Sorry Brian McLaren,I once again go with David Bentley Hart here )

Let me also be clear here that I do not per se have to reject polytheism here, even if being a more than convinced monotheist. I actually happen to have no problem at all with the existence of the gods, but just want the clear that whatever they are, they are not God and not in the same league at all. If they exist they are powers of nature or higher beings inside the word, or maybe entities on (fallen) archangel-level, or in some cases even thoughtform-entities (Hey Fotamecus, did you beat old Chronos already?) or just anthropomorphic personifications of actually rather impersonal forces inside this world. (WATCH OUT WITH WHAT YOU SAY HERE, I KEEP MY EYES ON YOU!)

It might even be that in a soft polytheistic vein what is called ‘gods’ are only personifications of the One, the Divine, which is thus just a way to describe aspects of God. Certain schools of Hinduism and some African religions seem to think that way. If I understand Yoruba well the orishas might function in such a way for example.

Still I as a Christian believe that I have access to a much clearer view on and path to the Multiversal Creator, wich is found in Christ as the most fully revelation of God. Yes, the most scandalous claim of Christianity is not the trinity which mostly leads to more philosophical discussions, long words and misunderstanding of these words, but rather the Incarnation, the idea that in the person of a human Jesus the Creator stepped into His Creation and even shared in our suffering -well, got tortured to death eventually even-, and in partaking in death conquered death, sin and evil, But that’s another thing. Let’s note also that the Living Word (Logos) is something completely different from all our human formulations.

So like the title says, I don’t care for thing mono-polytheism (and even less for any form of monopoly-theism, in that matter). If God is not the Absolute, the One, the Creator it makes no sense being a monotheist at all. We end up with a conceptual demiurge at best, and a self-created illusion or even God-replacing egregore at worst… Conceptual idolatry is always a danger for those who want to define God instead of just letting God be God while acknowledging that no theology will hqdefaultever fully describe the One. (Except for the Living Word, Christ, but here we have the same problem that we need Christ to just be Christ, and not try to trap him in our formulations and description like a dried butterfly in a museum collection.)

So for anyone who wants to discuss God and theology with me, please accept that the classical monotheist definition of God as the Creator of the universe (from which everything originates, including the regularities that we call ‘laws of nature’), not some being inside the universe bound by the ‘laws of nature’ is crucial for me. You can deny the existence of this God, but arguing about the existence of merely a one-of-its-kind god in this world is not something I want to defend and something I’m completely not interested in at all.

What do you think?

Peace

Bram

Knowledge about God or knowledge of God? (Sadhu Sundar Singh)


I will post thiSundars quote from the Indian Christian mystic Sadhu Sundar Singh without much comment. I speaks for itself.

It surely makes one think about ‘it’s a relationship, not a religion’… (if we have a very narrow modern definition of ‘religion that is) Our goal as Christians is not just to have knowledge about God, or like the apostle says, ’You believe that God is one, and that’s good, but the demons do that too, and they tremble’… Unlike what some fundamentalists (and maybe gnostics if I interpret their name rightly) seem to believe, right head knowledge alone has never saved anyone… Acting upon it might actually be interesting…

(Assuming that the ‘head knowledge’ is always right, which isn’t always the case either, neither among fundies nor among liberal modernists…)

I studied theology in a theological seminary. I learned many useful and interesting things no doubt, but they were not of much spiritual profit. There were discussions about sects, about Yesu Christ and many other interesting things, but I found the reality, the spirit of all these things, only at the Master’s feet.

When I spent hours at his feet in prayer, then I found enlightenment, and God taught me so many things that I cannot express them even in my own language. Sit at the Master’s feet in prayer; it is the greatest theological college in this world. We know about theology, but he is the source of theology itself. He explains in a few seconds a truth that has taken years to understand. Whatever I have learned has been learned only at his feet. Not only learning, but life, I have found at his feet in prayer.

I do not condemn theologians wholesale, but it is unfortunately the fashion in Western thinking to doubt and deny everything. I protest this tendency. I never advise anyone to consult theologians, because all too often they have completely lost all sense of spiritual reality. They can explain Greek words and all that, but they spend too much time among their books and not enough time with the Master in prayer. It is not that I oppose all education, but education without life is certainly dangerous. You must stop examining spiritual truths like dry bones! You must break open the bones and take in the life-giving marrow.

Isn’t it ironic how easily we look at the finger pointing to the moon and even forget the moon?

Shalom

Bram

fallible language II: How (not) to speak of God, Orthodox style


“He [God] cannot be numbered among ‘beings,’ not because hè does not exist, but because He transcends all beings and even being itself.” – St. John the Damascene

People who have been following this blog for a while will have noticed earlier that I’m flirting sometimes with Orthodox theology and the ideas of the Church fathers. It’s very interesting sometimes to look at Christianity from a perspective that’s really different from yours I guess… And I must say, sometimes it even feels more natural and logical what those old saints (literally!) say than some of the stuff I’ve grown up with or that I’ve encountered online from more protestant traditions. I have noticed that I especially have nothing at all with Calvinism, dispensationalism and modern-pragmatic evangelicalism (think purpose driven stuff)… The more people try to convince me they are the real Christian faith, the less I am interested in Christianity I’m afraid.

So this week I was rereading some chapters  of a book about Orthodoxy (Light from the Christian East, by James R. Payton Jr., which I recommend!) written about the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity, and something reminded me of the words of Chesterton that I quoted last weekend:

Whenever a man says to another, “Prove your case; defend your faith,” he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell.

One of things where this becomes a real problem is in our speaking about the Ultimate Reality, which we call God. God is by definition a difficult subject to speak of as a human, because He is the whole Other, the Creator of All we know, and what words derived from what we know in creation can be used to describe the Eternal Creator? But still some people seem to be able to explain and map out everything there is to say about God… What a small and impotent God it is, that can exist completely in someone’s theology!

So I’ve always tried to had a more humble approach in speaking and thinking about God, something which I appreciate enormous in some parts of the emergent conversation, but it’s not at all like the postmoderns have invented this. It is probably as old as Christianity itself, and I actually quite liked the Orthodox perspective, as described here by James Payton:

These Orthodox distinctives invite us to deepen our recognition of the chasm that separates all of creation—even human beings—from God. Too often in Western Christian thinking, God has be-come another member in some category of thought—although the most exalted member, to be sure. Whether it is in a chain of being or as one bound by some laws (of logic, morality or whatever), we too often subsume God into a category with creatures. He is not bound by what binds us. Were we to keep that constantly in mind, we would unquestionably speak more humbly about him and avoid many problems provoked by our own careless thought. This would not result in an unpredictable tyrant being unleashed in the realm of our discussions: Orthodoxy re-minds us that the one who is absolutely distinct from us is ever near us in an immanence we cannot begin to fathom. We live and move and have our being in him—the one who sustains us in every moment because of his love for his creation. Rather than another member to include in sophisticated discussion and subject to our theodicies, God is our Creator who loves us and calls us unto himself.

What we can know about God has a direct influence on what we can say about God. In orthodoxy there is a distinction between positive theology (what we can say about God), also called cathophatic theology, and negative or apophatic theology. The second one is much more important in Orthodoxy, because what we can say about God is actually quite limited.

I think we as Western Christians can and should learn a lot about this humbleness… Even the enlightenment project will fail, and it might have given us mighty works of science and technology, it doesn’t give us much advantage in approaching God. Quite the opposite even: we though we could understand, describe and tame everything, and we’ve lost God in that. We went from realism/nominalism in scholasticism over the protestant form of scholasticism to liberal Christianity, which led to deism and finally atheism…

Now if we could get back to where we took the wrong turn, accept that God is bigger than what we can think of or explain in human terms derived from all things created (which is all we can know as humans) and develop a more humble way of doing theology.

Sometimes the only thing possible is be still, and know that He Is!

shalom

Bram

Jesus didn’t write a thing… (George MacDonald)


This is a short piece I’ve been meditating on, and wrestling with:

Our Lord had no design of constructing a system of truth in intellectual forms. The truth of the moment in its relation to him, The Truth, was what he spoke. He spoke out of a region of realities which he knew could only be suggested—not represented—in the forms of intellect and speech. With vivid flashes of life and truth his words invade our darkness, rousing us with sharp stings of light to will our awaking, to arise from the dead and cry for the light which he can give, not in the lightning of words only, but in indwelling presence and power.

How, then, must the truth fare with those who, having neither glow nor insight, will build intellectual systems upon the words of our Lord, or of his disciples? A little child would better understand Plato than they St Paul. The meaning in those great hearts who knew our Lord is too great to enter theirs. The sense they find in the words must be a sense small enough to pass through their narrow doors. And if mere words, without the interpreting sympathy, may mean, as they may, almost anything the receiver will or can attribute to them, how shall the man, bent at best on the salvation of his own soul, understand, for instance, the meaning of that apostle who was ready to encounter banishment itself from the presence of Christ, that the beloved brethren of his nation might enter in? To men who are not simple, simple words are the most inexplicable of riddles.

[George MacDonald, unwritten sermons I: “I shall not be forgiven”, p 24 of this link]

Truth, with a capital T, is not mere information. Salvation is not some mystical change in some ‘book of life’ where a box is unchecked that says ‘send to hell’. Those views never made much sense to me, but more and more I start to realise that if salvation is not a real change in our lives, a real healing of our relationship with God, our fellow humans and all of creation, it does not mean a thing at all. It would make no sense to spend an eternity with a God if we don’t care to know Him… He is the ultimate reality, and it’s about knowing Him, not knowing information about Him… which may also end up in something that can be considered ‘mystical’, but not in the pejorative way I used the world earlier in this paragraph…

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and more real than we can realise. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Why would God then ever be impressed with our theology systems and our ‘cathedrals of thought’? If it does not draw us towards knowing the real living God, (no knowing about Him) it’s all useless, less than nothings…

peace

Bram

 

dry inside after being soaked for centuries…


Once when I was in the Himalayas, I was sitting upon the bank of a river. I drew out of the water a beautiful, hard, round stone and smashed it. The inside was quite dry. The stone had been lying a long time in the water, but the water had not penetrated the stone. It is just like that with the “Christian” people of the West. They have for centuries been surrounded by Christianity, entirely steeped in its blessings, but the Master’s truth has not penetrated them. Christianity is not at fault; the reason lies rather in the hardness of their hearts. Materialism and intellectualism have made their hearts hard. So I am not surprised that many people in the West do not understand what Christianity really is.

These words come from Sadhu Sundar Singh, a unique person in the rich history of Christianity. He lived around the year 1900 and was a indian Christian holy man, who possessed nothing but a new testament, and led a rea christlike life. And how true and relevant his word still are if I look to my de-christianised country, or to my own heart and life.

I am not really a man of prayer. I don’t exactly follow Jesus with all my life, and most of the time I don’t even know how I could follow. How can I say that I do love God with all my heart, mind and strength, and my neigbor as myself? Do I even love myself? I can read all the books by the church fathers, the contemporary evangelicals, the emerging  church, the medieval mystics, whatever. It wil not necessarily bring me closer to Jesus.

He is Truth, and Light, and Life. And all those books, even the bible, can be a distraction. The truths of man are incomplete, only very dim we see, an vague is our knowledge… They are a finger pointing to the moon, and I’ll never see the moon if I don’t stop staring at the freaking finger. And I loose my way when staring at all those fingers, and listening to all those people who tell me where the fingers point to.

Oh God open my eyes to see Thee…

More from the Sadhu:

I never advise anyone to consult theologians, because all too often they have completely lost all sense of spiritual reality. They can explain Greek words and all that, but they spend too much time among their books and not enough time with the Master in prayer. … You must stop examining spiritual truths like dry bones! You must break open the bones and take in the life-giving marrow.

Auch!!

Let me see with the eyes of the Spirit, Lord; and open my eyes.

My heart is restless, it needs to find rest in You…

God have mercy upon me, sinner

shalom

Bram