Friday, September 18, 2009

The God of Aristotle, Hume, and Christianity

Greek mythology used to be called Greek religion. We forget oftentimes, but the characters of lore that we love so much, mighty Zeus, evil Hera, regal Apollo, beautiful Aphrodite, at one point they were gods. These gods were anthropomorphic, which means that they were modeled after humans. They ate and drank heavenly nectar, they slept, they fought each other, they bled when they were cut, they felt fear and jealousy, they exercised deceit. In short, they did all things humans did. And yet the humans, the real humans venerated them, prayed to them for prosperity, and offered sacrifices to them in fear.

The Greek gods were not all-powerful. They were not all-knowing. They were certainly not ever-present. They did not create the world. They all had weaknesses, they all suffered just like the people who invented their image. They lied to each other, kept secrets from each other, forgot things about the world and themselves. They left Mt. Olympus to visit earth. They utilized the absence of one god in order to set a trap for that god. In short, aside from a few supernatural powers, these Greek gods were human.

And then there came a point in Greek history when the people became skeptical of their deities. They started noticing that the correlation between rich sacrifices and abundance in crops was of little statistical significance. They started realizing that their prayers went unheard, that no one they knew had ever actually seen one of these gods in person (of course, there were reasons for that. “A friend of a friend of a friend once told me that they saw the goddess Artemis in the woods, but he can’t really tell you because he got turned into a deer), and that those “Oracles” at Delphi were often wrong (my brother Andrew says to watch the end of this

Also around this time, a man named Socrates wandered the streets of Athens, questioning everything from Greek religion to the nature of knowledge. His student, Plato publishes an alleged dialogue of him questioning the moral character of the Greek gods (Euthyphro), and his grand-student, Aristotle, develops the ground-breaking concept of the “unmoved mover”, which forever changed Western thought.

The “unmoved mover” is a speculation necessitated by Aristotle’s metaphysical structure. Briefly explained, one of the varieties of arguments (the cosmological argument) goes as such:

Every finite being has a cause
Nothing finite can cause itself
There cannot be an infinite regress of causes

Therefore, “There must have been an uncaused causer that began everything else in the universe”

Whether we use ‘move’ or ‘cause’ is insignificant. What is significant is that there arose in the foundations of Western thought hints and a foreshadowing of a different kind of god. This god isn’t human and finite. It was all-powerful and responsible for the creation of the universe. If the original Greek gods arose out of a cosmic loneliness felt by humankind, this new god arose out of a reasoned, philosophical necessity. There needs to be something that explains why there isn’t just nothing. And therefore, a god must exist. If the original Greek gods were born out of deep, reflective wonderment of the stars above, this new god was constructed out of pen and paper, in the study-room of philosophical writers.

The founding fathers of Modernism picked up on these ideas and elaborated on them. They were concerned with rationally proving that God exists. “These are truths which we can agree upon. I will demonstrate that out of these truths arises the existence of God as a necessary conclusion.” Out of these were born the traditional arguments for God* (cosmological, ontological, teleological, etc).

Sounds all well and good, right? The problem is that, instead of reviving religion in their time, which is one of the aims of at least a few of these philosophers, what it did was create a god that was cold and absent, and very much NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The god that they imagined was simply some being who got the whole world started and then sat back and relaxed. It wasn’t a god involved in the affairs of everyday humanity. If all the philosophers needed for their arguments to work is someone to wind the toy up and let it run, then that was all they got. Why not have a God that was sustaining the universe every second with his mighty hand? Because we don’t need one! We have science, causality, and the principles of natural law to explain that!

These two conceptions of god/gods dominated Western philosophy from its inception and to some extent, even now. You had to choose between either a god that was human, all too human, or a god that was absent, all too absent.

What of the God of Christianity?

Somewhere in between Aristotle and David Hume, a man was born in a small town in the backwater region of Europe. A few hundred miles East of Athens, a baby sleeps in a trough. The baby grows up to be a boy indistinguishable from any other human on the planet. runs around and plays with the other kids in his town. He loses his temper, skins his knee when he stumbles, and cries when he bleeds. He eats and drinks, he defecates. He blows his nose, he sneezes and occasionally feels under the weather.

When this young man turned thirty, he does something that was surprisingly popular back then in that region of the world. He claims he is the Messiah of Jewish prophecy. But he goes one step further and explains that he will not just save the Jews, but all of mankind.

A few months into his ministry, he acquires for himself twelve disciples. He continues to preach about the kingdom of God. One late evening, after a long day of preaching and performing miraculous wonders this man finishes gets on a boat with his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. A furious squall comes up and threatens to overturn the tiny boat and everyone in it. The disciples stumble their way to the back of the boat, where their leader was sleeping soundly. Rousing him awake, they cry in terror, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Shaking off a yawn, and casually taking a moment to stretch, he gets up and speaks to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” Immediately, the wind dies down sheepishly and the waves disappear, leaving the lake completely calm.

In the original text of this story, Mark 4.41, it says that the disciples “were terrified and asked each other, ‘who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” It is at this moment in which the God of Christianity and his true nature is revealed. It is a revelation more powerful and more telling than countless hours of reflecting upon the wonders of the skies or frantic writing in one’s study. It is at the moment when the disciples realize exactly who Jesus is. Jesus is the God of heaven and earth. He is the creator of the universe. He is the ruler of every drop of water, every slight breeze, and every inch of metaphysical reality.

And yet was this not the same man who was napping in the bow not a minute before? Was this not the same man who preached earlier today with a nasally voice because he was battling a cold? Was this not the same man… who was a man?

This is who our God is. He is the unmoved mover; the Bible says he is the originator of the world. By exercising his infinite power and authority, he speaks a beautiful world into creation. And yet, he was a human! The Bible also says that he came down, was found in appearance as a man, humbled himself to death, even death on a cross! Our God is not just a manifestation of a human being like the Greek gods. He is wholly good, wholly perfect, and wholly competent. Our God is not impersonal, unconcerned, an absentee Father. He is wholly involved in the workings of his creation and the affairs of his dearly chosen people.

This is the God we worship.

*Necessary footnote: To be fair, the Enlightenment thinkers, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and so forth didn’t create these. They had their origin in Aquinas and scholastic philosophy. But they did make them into the monster that I described.

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