Is God ultimately incomprehensible? (No): 7-22/23-17
July 22, 2017
In matters of faith, there is much to be said for being comfortable with mystery, with paradox, with ambiguity. After all, we humans are finite while what religion calls God is infinite. Any god we could comprehend exhaustively would not be god but a projection of ourselves.
So maybe we should just stop trying to understand why bad things happen to good people, how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen, why Jesus felt obliged to surrender meekly to death on a cross, why evil seems to triumph so often.
In God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, one of the best books on theology I've read in years, Sigve K. Tonstad (pictured below) argues that if we read the Bible carefully, thoughtfully and with discernment we will reject the widespread idea that God is utterly inscrutable and that humanity is incapable of grasping any essential truth about the divine.
"The Bible," concludes Tonstad, who teaches biblical interpretation at Loma Linda University, "presents a God of sense, even a God who succeeds in revealing the divine sense persuasively to beings in heaven and on earth."
But, he argues, God's priority of granting almost limitless freedom to humanity is "a hard sell" because of "the prioritizing of conformity over freedom in the history of Christianity and of security over freedom in the modern state. . ." Humans, in other words, seem loathe to accept the freedom God grants them. They'd rather have the security of rules, rules, rules.
In many ways, this is a book about theodicy, that ancient question of why, if God is good and all-powerful, there is suffering and evil in the world. Doesn't God care? As I've said more than once, the question of theodicy is the open wound of religion. There simply is no exhaustive answer that will satisfy everyone, though the guesses -- from human free will to satanic activities to crazy chance -- are numerous.
But before Tonstad would try to answer that question -- and he would always answer in light of the Holocaust -- he would want to challenge at least one of its assumptions. He would ask what you mean by "all-powerful." If you mean power in the sense of coercion, military force, smiting from the heavens, then that's not how God exercises power.
How, in fact, does God show divine power? Surprisingly -- and at times, perhaps, frustratingly -- enough, God's power is displayed in weakness, Christianity says. The Christian idea of incarnation, for instance, proposes that God became flesh as a baby, in weakness. The Christian account of Jesus' death on the cross shows that this weak baby grew to be a man and submitted willingly to death in weakness, despite calls from the crowd at Calvary to come down from the cross and save himself if he really is God's son.
It's a startling -- seemingly preposterous -- idea, this notion of God exercising power through weakness, and it makes Christianity different from other faith traditions merely by proposing a perhaps self-handicapped God whose cosmic power is revealed in that very weakness.
And yet Tonstad asserts this: "Seeing Jesus on the cross is not to see a loser or a victim. . .The dying Jesus is a winner in the war against 'the ruler of this world,' (which is what the Bible often calls Satan) and his cry at the very end is the cry of a winner, 'It is finished.'"
One of the things that makes this book so engaging and useful for people who want to have a better understanding of the foundations of Christianity is that Tonstad digs right into the most difficult stories in the Bible, often with the reality of the Holocaust in the background. One reason for this is that many of Tonstad's students are on their way to being physicians, and, as he told me in an e-mail exchange, "It is part of their professional ethos to relieve suffering." But to alleviate suffering and to understand both it and evil in a world that God created and called good can be two different things.
Right from the start of the book, Tonstad seeks to unpack the profound mysteries of the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and their encounter with the demonic serpent who tempted them. Then it's on to the sometimes-baffling story of how one of their sons, Cain, murdered his brother, Abel. On nearly every page I found ah-ha moments -- and these stories are far from new to me or to most Christians and Jews.
Before long readers are confronted with the shattering story of God asking Abraham to offer his son Isaac (or, as the Qur'an tells the story, Ishmael) as a sacrifice. In the traditional (shallow) telling of the story, Tonstad notes, "Divine inscrutability has. . .found a perfect match in human incomprehension." Even in this shocking story, however, there is sense to find, and Tonstad shows us the way, eventually concluding this: "Instead of conceding that the notion of understanding has been abandoned, we are nudged toward the opposite conclusion: God's revealing purpose is brought to completion in the story of the binding of Isaac." Really. And Tonstad is persuasive on this point, too.
Not to be missed is Tonstad's treatment of the famous story of Job, who suffered mightily and yet maintained even before God that there was no good reason for it. (Job's patience? A myth.)
Well, there is much more packed into these 404 pages, but this is not sixth-grade Sunday school material, though neither is it couched in impenetrable academic language. In fact, the deeper you've already delved into scripture the more you will get out of what's here.
The thing that raised questions for me as I read this, however -- and the reason I contacted Tonstad before writing this -- is that he comes out of the Adventist tradition. I'm only somewhat familiar with this branch of Christianity, not deeply so. Thus, as I was reading, I found I could not discern much that somehow looked obviously Adventist. I wondered what I might be missing.
He replied, first, that "my project does not have a denominational agenda." But he added this: "I can think of two things that have motivated me and one thing that may have something to do my faith background. For the first two, I am in earnest about the post-Holocaust perspective. I see the Holocaust (evil on that scale) as a theological obligation. The second item (of the first two) has to do with the setting in which I am teaching. Most of my students are preparing to become physicians. It is part of their professional ethos to relieve suffering. Many, if not all, come from backgrounds that do not promise an end to suffering. This is where the theological tradition comes in -- no end to suffering, and no explanation. But these are hardly exclusive Adventist concerns. For the item that may have something to do with my faith background, the cosmic perspective might be it ('cosmic conflict'). As my book shows, however, this perspective was a key element in the theological narrative of the early Church. . .In that sense, even the 'Adventist' tendency in my project is rooted in the tradition."
When Tonstad speaks of the "cosmic conflict," he references the battle between good and evil in the world, which in the Adventist tradition, as in much of the Bible, is cast as a struggle between Satan and God. For more on that from the Adventist perspective, click here. By contrast, in many Protestant churches today -- especially Mainline churches -- the emphasis is much less on Satan as evil personified and more on the pervasive presence of evil itself, whatever its cause, and of the call to humans to stand against it in various ways.
My point about this Adventist matter is that even if you know little about the Seventh Day Adventist Church or its theology, you need not worry that in this book you will be wandering into a sly effort to convince you of its particular view. This is just excellent biblical examination work, period.
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WIDESPREAD IGNORANCE ABOUT WHAT CHURCHES OFFER
A new survey shows that lots of people have no idea about many of the helpful programs that churches run. Part of the reason is that churches have been among the poorest communicators. Some are doing better at that these days. In fact, my own congregation added a communications director several years ago, and he does a terrific job. But others are terrible at telling their own story -- not to brag but to let people know of various services they provide.