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Beating around the bush about God--or not

What does God have to be if we can worship him?
What does God have to be if we can worship him?

After much reference to the nature of God, it is time to ask: what, then do we expect? My mother was raised Roman Catholic, and she used a lot of their terminology even after she and my father became Episcopalians together (he was brought up in the Methodist Church) and he was ordained to the priesthood.

For instance, when there was a bad church situation at one parish we attended, my mother didn't go to services there, saying half-humorously that it was, for her, an occasion of sin, as the Catholics say. So to use another Church term, if we want to postulate God as an object of worship, we need to consider what we as human beings would be willing to worship.

One of the reasons that polytheism has fallen from popularity in the Western World is that we no longer excuse "gods" for being all too human. We fail to see any rhyme or reason for stories of male gods molesting human women, or female gods going around behind their husbands and punishing the offenders who attracted their attention. We do not excuse gods who send droughts and storms, or in the case of the Old Testament, a God who decides that he shouldn't have created life on earth and wipes it out in the Great Flood (sparing one, count it, one family and letting everyone else die).

With the recent uproar over the cold-hearted killing of a baby giraffe in Denmark, we can see that the gratuitous slaughter of innocent animals is wrong--so why is it okay for God? I must say that the situation in Denmark has simplified my bucket list, though--I have no longer any desire to see the Tivoli Gardens because forever after, now, I will see it splattered with blood.

So we must seek another standard for God. I once read a saying that goes, "God never does anything but good; God never undoes anything but evil; God never does good to undo it again." Unpacking this, we see an implication that if God were to do something that had unintended side-effects that would hurt anyone, God must not do it even for the limited good it might do for some.

This may sound very abstract, but in reality it reminds me of when I was living on Guam and we had a typhoon approaching. The Marianas Islands endure a few typhoons every single season (November through May) and this one was heading towards Guam. Immediately the community rushed to their prayer groups and implored that the typhoon not hit us.

As it turned out, it did turn slightly to the north, and ended up striking our neighbors in Saipan, doing damage. That made some people stop and think--should we thank God for taking the typhoon from Guam but giving it to Saipan? I think not--in fact, it is a good argument for the school of thought that says that things like this are random events, and that "God is in charge" is simply not true.

So my first proposition is: God never does anything but good, and the corollary to that is: God will "stay his hand" completely rather than do something that would effect a third party negatively. Thus God may heal an illness, but he does not strike people dead. There are people who attempt the psychological impossibility of trying to feel reverent towards a God that they think might torture them forever after they die--something of an overkill, don't you think? An eternity of agony for perhaps sixty years of adult life once you reach the age of consent.

My second proposition about the nature of God is: God never interferes with human freedom. If he did, we would have guns that always miss or knife blades that turn into rubber if you try to hurt someone. We would be unable to attack another person because we would trip up or always miss when we throw a punch. The painful reality of human freedom is that if we are free, we must be free to do wrong as well as free to do as we please.

Further thought requires us to admit that the qualities of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence must be adapted by God's free will not to overwhelm fallible human beings. In this respect we must consider a Greek myth about a young woman whose name was Semele. She was having an affair with Zeus, and he foolishly offered her anything she wanted. This is the familiar "blind promise" type of story that is used to teach us not to do things like make stupid promises.

Semele, however, had something novel in mind. She said that she wanted to see Zeus in his true form, as we would say in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. He tried to explain to her that flesh and blood could not stand such a thing, but she insisted, and the subsequent appearance of Zeus in his true form of the King of Olympus consumed her human body and reduced her to ashes.

Those who insist that God confirm his existence by showing up on earth do not understand that such an event would remove any possibility of faith. How could you not believe, if you had seen God? So we must understand that God does not ravish; he only woos, as C. S. Lewis once wrote.

And the Christian faith keeps saying that God did appear on earth to reveal himself. Unfortunately for many people's credibility, he appeared in the form of a newborn baby, and grew up into an unassuming young man who preached for a short time and then was eliminated from the theological scene in the Jerusalem of Late Antiquity.

Interestingly, the Jewish people of the day were expecting a stereotype: the warrior-king, like King David of old, who would sweep the Romans from the Holy Land. What they ended up getting was a Zealot movement that provoked the Romans to teach them a lesson, overwhelming them with sheer military might and destroying the Second Temple. But how many perfectly decent Roman soldiers--husbands and fathers--would have lost their lives if God had appeared over Jerusalem, hurling lightning bolts like Zeus and ignoring the collateral damage of death to innocent bystanders?

Omnipotence, if we are to believe that God has it, must be exercised in the most minute and subtle ways. If it exists, we ought not to know for sure if it does, and we ought never to see God exercising a partisan or sectarian "omnipotence" to make people suffer, even if, naively, we don't like them. Thus God does not send a hurricane to New Orleans because they are too tolerant of LGBT people who live there.

God may be present, seeing us do what we do, but if he made his omnipresence known, what effect would that have on our freedom? Not good--we are better off believing that we are free even if we are not. God may know everything, but he can only impart the kind of knowledge to us that our brains can internalize. Are there some kinds of knowledge that human brains can't take in? And how would we know? Well, we do know that some kinds of understanding are best accomplished with the use of complicated machinery that we have devised. Perhaps someday we will devise new machines in order to learn new things. We do believe--that is, we have faith--that such a thing is possible.

The three qualities, omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, are all attributes of divine beings, not human beings. We do assume that gods are super-human, and the One God that the Jewish people came to believe in is not a god. Theists of all denominations believe that the Creator God is above gods the way we are above animals, but to an infinite degree. And again in the parlance of D&D, God is considered to be absolute lawful good. There is no compromise in the nature of God as being perfectly moral and above human reproach. For this reason the Church teaches that God is "a spirit without body, parts or passions." This rules out any idea that God experiences anger, vengefulness or hate. It simply is out of the question. Any extrapolation of "passions" from the Old Testament to Christianity is ruled out at the level of the Catechism.

If we are to worship God, he must be worthy of worship, not a glorified human being who chases women and gets his revenge on anybody who ticks him off. He cannot be a proper object of worship, and if the teachings of popular religion present us with a creature that we must fear, then we must remember the most important thing that contemporary Christianity has to keep in mind: there is no such thing as Old-Testament Christianity.

Now our task is to bring New-Testament Christianity up to speed, and in that endeavor I am happy to say that I am overwhelmed with the amazing thought that is pouring out of our theologians every day. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity in the postwar period, and it has been getting better and better right up to the books that Bishop John Shelby Spong and Dr. Bart Ehrman are working on right now. Read up!

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