Tag Archives: God

God and Jesus and a question of gender

Intro

I am sitting down to write this on the evening of Monday the 24th of February. Earlier today, @helen_a13 posed a question on Twitter.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I am here only going to respond with a few thoughts. As @richardclarkson sagely pointed out, “I suspect it’s the kind of thing that either needs 140 characters or 1400 pages to do it justice.” So here I cannot pretend to give a satisfactory answer. Where I hope to shed a little light, I acknowledge that additional shadows may be formed. Others may choose different emphases and scriptures to look at. Much more of this may be dealt with as I continue my ‘A Personal Catechism‘ which is going far slower than I had hoped for, even though my initial plan was to spend 3 years on it.

Attempting to answer an ancient question

From the outset, it has to be said it’s a fantastic question and one that has been asked in various forms for centuries. It’s of particular interest to me as it sort of coincides with some reading I’ve been doing recently (in Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God) and it also taps into something I have been meaning to make explicit on this blog for some time.

Another form the question has been asked in is, “Was Jesus divine?” or “What does it mean for God to be referred to as ‘Son of God’ or ‘Son of Man’?” It is the differing answers to these questions that gave rise to, for example, the term in the Nicene Creed, “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” – here I would remind readers of my view of the creeds as products of the disputes of their time, not as normative statements which define christianity. That is not to denigrate the creed or falsify it.

Indeed, referring to Jesus as ‘Son’ may be found in several scriptures, but I would choose to highlight the narratives of his baptism (“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased“, Matt 3:17, NRSV – see also Luke 3:21) and transfiguration (“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!'”, Mark 9:7, NRSV). In these cases, we note the word translated as ‘Beloved’ is the Greek agapetos, which my concordance fleshes out as: dearly loved one, the object of special affection and of special relationship. A footnote in the Luke passage reads: “Other ancient authorities read You are my Son, today I have begotten you. This latter note makes explicit an allusion that could have been read in the other passages: Psalm 2.

Here, we have a poem which states “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me and I will make the nations you heritage…” – just prior to this is a statement about setting a king on Zion. So when we read these declarations of Jesus as a begotten Son, this is not meant to say that he is the offspring of God. The term begotten is not meant to denote a genealogical relationship; it is a metaphor for being specially designated. But designated as what? As the king who sits on Zion. This identifies Jesus firmly within the royal line of David.

We might also note Peter’s confession whereby he says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:16, NRSV). And who revealed this to Peter? Jesus answers, “…flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

So we cannot escape the notion of a father-son relationship. It’s then a question of how we interpret this.

Yet none of this in and of itself points to Jesus actually being God. As mentioned above, a form of Helen’s question that has been posed before is, “Was Jesus divine?” Yet, and with further apologies to Wright for following his line of thought, this seems to be slightly the wrong question. It’s not that it’s a bad question, but it’s not the question that pressed the early church. Rather, what they were asking was, “Who was Jesus?” The shocking answer that Jesus was one and the same as God that was developed in the decades after Jesus’ resurrection.

This can be seen in, for example, Paul’s poem in Philippians 2:1-11. At the end of this, we see the attribution “Jesus Christ is Lord”. The word translated as ‘Lord’ here is the Greek kyrios. This is also used as a euphemism to translate YHWH, or the name of God, in Greek translations of the Old Testament. So to label Jesus as ‘Lord’ is to declare that he is God.

This is made most explicit in in 1 Corinthians 8:6 where Paul writes: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” This is not a statement which says, “[there is God, and now in addition to this we have a new figure.]” This is a reworking of the Jewish Shema, a statement of monotheism, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”. It is putting Jesus at the heart of this new form of modified/fulfilled Judaism which eventually became known as christianity.

This gets us as far as binitarianism: the idea that Jesus is God. For a full-blown trinitarianism, we’d need to look at the person of the Holy Spirit, but I haven’t the time or space here for that. Of course, as soon as you answer in a way such as this, lots more questions spring up. For example, one could take the lead from Jürgen Moltmann and ask, “If Jesus is God, then doesn’t that mean that God died?” as asked in The Crucified God.

Returning to the question

With that rather lengthy preamble, we return to the original question Helen asked earlier.

“I get ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ confused sometimes. Totally get Jesus was male. But often ‘father’ is used so is that referring to Jesus or God?”

I would refer to God as being the whole of the trinity, which are referred to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some would use the term God to denote the “personality” of God the Father. Though each of these terms represent failures in our language. I wouldn’t take “God the Father” to mean that he is Jesus’ daddy. It is an honorific, meant to denote a kind of relationship. The title Son is also an honorific, but in this case denoting kingship.

Where we get into difficulty is using the term ‘father’ where such a word may, due to bad experience, carry negative connotations. I discovered this in my late teens when I worked with younger teens and I remember one of them asking me, “How can God be a good father? Father is the person who hits mum and makes her cry.” In such circumstances, I am in favour of adapting our language to suit the sensibilities (and sensitivities) of those we are talking to.

Addendum: A note on the style of this blog

As referred to above, there was an aspect of this blog which has thus far been demonstrated, but not stated explicitly. Regular readers may have noticed that I will often refer to God as ‘It’. Why use an impersonal pronoun? Again, our language is somewhat deficient. While I would like to be able to use a gender-neutral pronoun that is not impersonal, the English language simply doesn’t have one. Using ‘It’ for God tries to avoid designating a gender role. The stereotype (as aided by some of the language in the bible) is to refer to God generally via male pronouns. While there may be some uses for this, not least in thinking of God as a “person” (if not human) then some kind of gender specification may enforce this. After all, one may tend to think of something as having a personality if it has a gender. One might think in terms of the animal kingdom or even of the tendency to refer to ships using female pronouns (“all who sail in her”). Using “It” may offend some, but my aim is not to offend, merely to ask you think afresh. If we grow too accustomed to reading about God in anthropomorphic terms, then we risk entrenching ourselves in a wrong view.

Book Review: Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I have started reading a few “theological autobiographies”. My aim was to do 3 this year, starting with Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, moving on to Jürgen Moltmann’s A Broad Place before finally ending up at one of the most famous of them all, Augustine’s Confessions.

There are quite a lot of translations around, so it’s worth pointing out to you that I read the Henry Chadwick translation. I can’t comment on whether or not it is a particularly faithful translation as I haven’t attempted to compare it to the original. What I can say, however, is that it rendered Augustine eminently readable. There were a few instances where I suspected some inference on Chadwick’s part; one that comes to mind was the phrase “hodge-podge” which was rather unexpected. That said, for a relative newcomer to Augustine, I had no major issues with it and would not hesitate to recommend it.

What, then, of Augustine himself and what he wrote? The whole book is written as a poem addressed to God. Thankfully, Chadwick hasn’t tried to give it rhyme or rhythm in English, though I am assured that this existed in the original Latin. As the title suggests, it largely consists of Augustine confessing what he sees as his past sins.

But to imagine that it is simply a list of wrongdoing would grossly mislead you. It is, however, very difficult to summarise. That is because the book is no one thing; it is many. But those multiple aspects are not sequential items; they are layers and threads that are intertwined and overlaid in a majestic tapestry. The autobiography aspects include his very frank and rather modern view of sexuality, some close friendships and what they meant to him, especially moving when the friendship as terminated by mortality.

There is some theological disputation here, particularly against the Manichees, a group that Augustine first joined and later rejected. Mixed in with this then are Augustine meditations on the nature of good and evil, God, mankind, the universe and the like. It is not, however, a systematic work of philosophy. Though writing centuries after the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the stylisation is totally different. I read it mostly whilst commuting, with some excerpts whilst sat in a local park (yes, there has been a gap between finishing reading it and getting round to publishing the review – I didn’t sit in the park in November). As such, I was sort of swept away by it and can offer little by way of detailed critique. It is a book to return to and dissect at some point in the future, possibly with the aid of further writings of someone who is more familiar than I with the full depth and breadth of Augustine’s thoughts.

Being swept away however does not imply drowning. The text was not so obfuscating but provided some fascinating insights into Augustine’s mind. For me, one of the more intriguing aspects was his musings on space and time. Though, with the hindsight of the discoveries of modern physics, some of it looks a little wide of the mark, it would be anachronistic to dismiss his ideas as irrational. Instead, it is quite a remarkable feat considering when it was written, and one could easily think him a thousand years ahead of his time.

The end of the book trails off somewhat with a look at the early chapters of Genesis. Again, here the modern reader may be tempted to look at him out of his time, though it is really not clear, given the modern polarisation between good science and creationism/ID, what box he might seem to fit in. I have for some time failed in my efforts to get my hands on his The Literal Meaning of Genesis, but this seems to cover similar ground. It is a thoughtful consideration of what Genesis means, but though Augustine doesn’t explicitly refer to the creation story in modern terminology as a myth, he focuses on the meaning of it. Again, though it is hard to summarise and would hope you may do a better job than I did of getting your head around it.

There can be little doubt that this was the product of a great thinker of his time. The early emphasis on his struggles as a young man had strong resonances with me, making me wish I had read it in my late teens or early twenties. If you are reading this and you are in that age bracket then I would recommend this to you with some urgency. To anyone else, it is still a majestic piece of writing. Even if you are predisposed to disagree with Augustine, I would recommend it to you as an insight into the mind of one of the most influential figures from that time whose legacy has endured. If nothing else, the topics covered will almost certainly prompt you to think for yourself.

Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

One of the frustrations I have in discussing matters of faith and ‘religion’ with atheists, which I don’t get when discussing with people of other faiths, is the insistence that the primary issue is whether or not God exists. But, as I said in part 1, to critique someone’s point of view, it helps if you try to see things from that point of view, even if you don’t hold to it yourself.

So in looking at atheism, which is not merely a rejection of christianity, but of any ‘religion’ that may be described as theistic, I do have a great deal of sympathy. After all, if the existence of God had been proved there would be no need for much further discussion and we could all agree. But the fact remains that God’s existence has not been proved. There is still doubt and disbelief, and that is not entirely irrational.

Where my frustration lies is with those who I would describe as more fundamentalist to whom this is seen as a blocking problem. i.e. one which must be resolved fully and finally before any other progress can be made. When I try to speak of the good work of many a philosopher and theologian over the centuries, who have wrestled with a great many of these ideas and those related to them, I often get a response back that theology is “nothing more than weasel words” or a play on semantics or some other similar kind of put-down.

That point of view I have little sympathy for. Imagine for a moment that I am a sceptic about chemistry. Having read a little chemistry, I know that the whole science is dependent upon the interaction of electrons and their “orbits” or quantum shells. But this imaginary sceptic doubts whether there is such a thing as an electron. “Show me one,” I demand. “Let me hold it in my hand and turn it over so that I may examine it.” The chemist friend, who is extremely patient, explains that one cannot hold an electron in the hand as one might hold a coin. He pulls up a blackboard and does some illustrative diagrams, though he explains that these are models which represent the behaviour of electrons, but which are not necessarily 100% accurate depictions thereof. He does some fancy demonstrations by throwing group 1 metals into water, putting nails into acid and setting fire to the resulting gas. He does everything he can with the means available to his disposal to show me that chemistry is real. I turn to him and say, “That’s just trying to weasel your way with coloured flames and powders. You haven’t shown me a single electron.”

The frustration that the chemist would feel at my imaginary dunce is the frustration that I do feel for those who would ask for a proof of God before looking at any other aspect of christianity. For me, and also for many other christians, the route to belief leaves a big clue in the name – Christ. Though my understanding is that Christ is a title, the same as Messiah, which is attributed to Jesus. So when referring to the person I will tend to refer to Jesus rather than to Christ.

Going after the historical Jesus

Given that this christian’s faith is grounded in the person of Jesus, if any wish to dissuade me from my belief (as you are perfectly entitled to do) then this must be the starting point, rather than an attempt to start with the question of God.

Logically, there’s nothing wrong the latter approach. If the idea of God could be disproved then not only would christianity fall but so would most religions. In this respect, it’s a prize that any atheist should desire, if being right is their aim. Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.

There certainly have been efforts made to try to discredit Jesus, though some of these fall prey to the same kind of bad apologetics I alluded to before. Here, I think specifically of adherents to the Christ Myth hypothesis, who believe, contrary to evidence, that Jesus never existed. Even Richard Dawkins has backed away from such extreme irrational revisionism!

To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity. To try to discredit all other religions would require more effort. This would put to the test those who not only do not believe in a god, but who also claim that not believing in a god is an insignificant part of their lives. I see whole twitter feeds, comment profiles and blogs dedicated to telling us how much of a non-issue it is for them. Yet such an effort would be needed to allay the suspicion that atheism is a lazy cop-out, a non-thought process. I’m sure there a number of things we don’t believe in, but the truth is we either don’t give them much attention or we have a glib answer to hand.

To those who do not think much about the matter, I can understand that. There are a great many things in this world to worry about, competing for our attention. So why should you pay attention to the guy on the street corner yelling out random things interjected with the word ‘Jesus’ every now and then. I don’t expect you to know the difference between a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness, let alone why neither of them are typically regarded as christians, in spite of seemingly having so much in common with your friend who says she goes a pentecostal church, or your uncle, the lifelong anglican. It’s absolutely to fine for you to have your (non-)belief and I don’t find there anything wrong with that. I might disagree with you, but if so, let us sit down and reason together.

To those who have thought about the matter, and admit as much, I commend you. It takes guts to be willing to take a serious look at something you disagree with. I would have some questions to ask you, though maybe I’ll save those for another time.

Conclusion

I suppose my point is this: atheists and christians often talk at cross-purposes. For a christian to speak of God, we do not all speak with the same understanding or viewpoint. I speak from my own perspective, many aspects of which will be familiar and shared with a wide range of christians from a number of denominations and those of none. There are ideas of God which I reject, such as the depictions of an old man with a large beard in the clouds, a sky fairy or kind of invisible puppeteer. I know of no christian whose beliefs are expressed as such, or which could be fairly described likewise.

Theology is not so much a study of God, as a searching of God. It cannot be contained in a cage to have Its behaviour studied, to see how it reacts to certain stimuli. In part 1, I mentioned an ordo fides that the christian has. In this respect, God is best seen as a sort of tentative ‘conclusion’, but not a ‘conclusion’ that is ever finalised, if you get what I mean. I know I’m playing loosely words there, but I admit I struggle to find the perfect expression. But one person’s ‘conclusion’ should not be another person’s starting point. To do so misses out on a wealth of reasoning and nuance which may not be readily apparent from a concise statement of conclusion – such as a creed or other statement of faith.

To be an atheist can be to be wholly independent of any religion. That is, a viewpoint of non-belief that is purely a vaccum, not referencing any other viewpoint, whether “religious” or not. It need not be though, and of those that I ‘meet’ on the internet, in particular their atheism is formulated with specific reference to a number of religions, in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism (where I am careful to distinguish the latter two, though many conflate them  – incorrectly in my view).

It is almost inevitable that any prolonged discussion between a christian and an atheist will involve some level of disagreement. What I would hope need not be necessary is any form of insult, ridicule or hectoring. Because there is a great risk of talking past one another, or of possibly making assumptions about what another person does and doesn’t believe, why not listen to one another? Don’t assume you know what another person thinks, but hear them out before interjecting with any clarifications. Be aware that another may be approaching a subject from a completely different angle, couching their reasoning in different terms and with different emphases.

By all means, we should challenge one another and permit ourselves to be challenged. Only, if you do, don’t demand everything on your own terms. An atheist might want to discuss the question of God’s existence, but if that’s not the way a christian naturally approaches the issue, don’t be surprised if the response seems oblique. Likewise, to any christian that might wish to challenge an atheist, listen to what they have to say first; don’t project onto them the views of others who may hold similar views. If we can base discussions on these foundations, then I would hope that there may be a lot less unnecessary disagreement and that any disagreements remain solely on the things which matter to each of us in our shared humanity.

Sympathy for atheists (part 1 of 2)

It’s probably fair to say that I spend a reasonable amount of my spare time questioning and investigating my faith. This involves not only my own critical thinking, but also reading both proponents and opponents of my faith. I won’t agree with all, but I think it’s better to be well-informed of as many relevant viewpoints as one can reasonably manage without being confuddled by the noise. Indeed, if you look through my fairly eclectic reading, I hope you’ll see a fair array of views present. The idea behind this is somewhat akin to “iron sharpens iron.” i.e. the better quality the opposition I engage with, the more refined my understanding will become. Of course, if anything is revealed to me which falsifies any idea I’ve had, and it stands up when scrutinised, tested, etc. then the most logical course of action is to change my mind.

It would be my hope that any other person who regards themselves as a rationalist would recognise this as being a fair description of their worldview. You might choose to word it slightly differently, but I think the essence of the idea is there.

So when it comes to christianity, there are two different sorts of opposition. One would be someone who at claims to be a christian (see here for a longer discussion on this) but who holds a very different viewpoint. An example of this would be Marcus Borg, who would say he is a christian, but who thinks that the history is less relevant than the “more than literal” meaning of the christian message. The other kind of opposition would be atheistic, whereby the claims of christianity are thought to be false.

This is where I come to the slightly provocative title of this post. I have lot of sympathy for atheists who, very rightly, would wish to counter a christian viewpoint. The reason I have this sympathy is the great variety of beliefs that are held by different christians. Not only that, but to those who don’t live and breathe christianity, it’s not always clear what is an essential belief held by christians and what might be incidental.

If one is to provide an incisive critique into christianity, then it helps to try to view things from a christian’s perspective. One of the attacks I read and hear most frequently is the attack on the idea of a God.  Yet I do not know of many christians for whom this is their starting point. Though it is true that without God, christianity would be a nonsense, it is not the start and end of christian belief. To say that God is the Alpha and Omega does not mean to say that a belief in God is all there is, it is a more poetic statement about the cosmos. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by a number of christian/atheist discussions, there is little agreement about what one might mean by ‘god’ – at one end you might come up with such a pithy definition that it lacks any depth or understanding; it is barely an outline, bearing little resemblance to the portrayals made of God in scripture, art, belief and apologetics throughout history. At the other end of the scale, one might try to come up with a highly detailed and nuanced view of God. One of the many dangers here, though, is that few other christians would wholly agree with the description given. In this case, one must go through every understanding of God and attempt to refute each in turn; a task which is surely too great for any one person to attempt.

There is a wider question of whether or not any description of God could ever be said to be accurate. I would argue, somewhat apophatically, that the answer to this must be ‘no’. However, before I lunge down the route of mysticism, I would give a kataphatic response that we can get a glimpse, a beginning of understanding. To me, that beginning is found in the person of Jesus.

Of course, and this may have occurred to you, that the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed is a statement expressing belief in the existence of God. This, I will admit, is a personal bugbear of mine as the authors of the creed seem to be trying to work somewhat chronologically through the bible rather than express what I would refer to as an ‘order of belief’ – an ordo fides, if you will. To my way of thinking, I go by Jesus’ sayings that “no one can come to the father except through me.” and “he who has seen me has seen the father” [John 14:5-14].

In practice, I don’t know of many people at all who are christians because they first believed in the existence of God and then somehow progressed on from there to christianity. So even though I am happy to describe myself as a theist, and have no issue with anyone describing me as such, it is secondary to my being a christian.

The bible and apologetics don’t always help

Another area of sympathy for atheists comes from the area of christian apologetics. Though there is some that I like and find quite stimulating, there is, quite frankly, a load of old guff out there. But why is apologetics needed? Surely the key source material for christian belief, the bible, has the answers?

Sadly, not. The question of the existence of God is barely addressed in the bible. Aside from a particularly unhelpful little quip in Psalm 14 and a less than convincing appeal to the argument from design at the start of Romans, there is very little in the 66 books which set out a case. Instead, God is very much a factor which is assumed. It was only much later that the question began to be posed and the idea of God doubted and disbelieved. Only then was there a need for apologetics.

However, the field is cursed by a problem. That is, those who are christians already (in most cases) accept the conclusions before they hear the argument. This creates a predisposition to agreeing with the argument, regardless of its validity. Thus, many a well-meaning christian has parroted a line of bad reasoning. Though before my fellow christians accuse me of being an infidel, I would point out that the same is true of many an atheist. If you read the Amazon reviews of something like God is not Great or The God Delusion, you will find a great many reviews there are from atheists who have read those books to reinforce their confirmation bias. So no one group is entirely free from what I think is a very natural tendency to seek out the like-minded.

That’s it, for now

I do have a few more points to make, but I shall leave for those for later, as this is getting quite long. In case those points address concerns you may have now, I’ve not opened comments on this piece; you’ll have to wait until the 2nd part next week.