God and Creation, Part 1: Transcendence

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May 11, 2011 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

Today's entry was written by David Opderbeck. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

God and Creation, Part 1: Transcendence

This series is drawn from David’s podcasts, which are available on his website.

If we want to talk about God, creation, and science, where should we start? It’s easy to begin with conflict. We can claim that the rise of modern science is the root of cultural decline. We can dive right into some of the contentious questions about how the Bible and science relate to each other. We can adopt a posture of defensiveness about what Christians believe and the ways in which some people think science threatens our beliefs.

But this is not a good place to start. The place to start is the place where all good Christian theology must start: with God.

“In the beginning, God….” These are the first words of the Bible. “I believe in God….” These are the first words of the Apostle’s Creed. If we want to develop wisdom and understanding about the relation between God and creation, then we need to start with the source of everything: God.

But how do we know anything about God? And how can we say anything about God? As we go about our daily lives, we can’t converse with God in exactly the same way that we might talk with our families, friends or neighbors. We can’t touch or smell God like a patch of green grass or taste Him like an apple. We can’t see him like an image on our TV screens. In theological terms, there is a sense in which God is “hidden” to our human senses. Many great Christian thinkers, such as Martin Luther, spent a good part of their lives reflecting on the “hiddenness” of God.

It may surprise you to hear God described as “hidden.” Those of us who have been in the Church for a while often are much more familiar with talk of how God has revealed Himself to us. We seem to gravitate towards detailed and systematic explanations of what we think we can know about God. God has, of course, revealed Himself to us – or else there would be very little point in trying to speak about Him. In scripture, in the proclamation of the Church, in the created world, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ, God has made Himself known. So why start with how God is “hidden?”

The very fact that God cannot be directly perceived by our ordinary human senses tells us something important about God and creation. God is “hidden” because He is “other.” God is not a patch of grass, and a patch of grass is not God. God is not an apple, and an apple is not God. God is not a television image or painting or statute, and a television image, painting or statute is not God. God is not a human being, and human beings are not God. God is not matter, the stuff of the created world, and matter is not God.

In theological terms, God is transcendent. “God” and “creation” are not the same thing. This is a basic idea that distinguishes Christian understandings of God from many other philosophies and religions. In fact, this emphasis on God’s transcendence is one important difference between the Hebrew and Christian theologies of creation and the prevailing ideas in the ancient near eastern world of the Biblical writers. It also distinguishes Christian thinking about God and creation from some of the important ideas that are common today.

In many ancient near eastern creation myths, the material creation was derived from the body of a god. In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, for example, the female god Tiamat is killed by another god, Marduk, and the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse become the earth and the skies. In Egyptian mythology, many of the gods were related to material entities. Ra, for example, was the god of the Sun, Nut was god of the sky, and Geb was god of the earth. These stories reflect an ontology in which there is no sharp distinction between the gods and the material world. The Biblical literature, in contrast, separates the nature and being of the creator-God from the nature and being of His creation.

In contemporary popular Western culture, two of the most common ideas about God and creation really are very old notions dressed up in new clothes.

One is a thought you might hearon TV talk shows, in self-help books, or in popular music or movies: that “everything is one” or that “God is in everything and everyone.” This usually sounds like “pantheism” — the notion that God and the world around us really are essentially the same thing. In American popular culture, this often boils down to God becoming the same thing as our own individual selves. How often have you heard a line like this in a song or TV show or movie: “what you’ve been looking for has been right inside yourself all along” or “the most important thing is to find out who you are?

The truth of God’s transcendence means that the real basis for a meaningful and good life lies outside of our selves. We are part of creation, and therefore we are not God. We must look outside ourselves to find the source of life. Before we become too critical here, we need to preview for a moment another important theme in Christian theology: that God is also immanent. It is true that creation is an interconnected system and that God is always present throughout all of creation. It is also true that in our created humanity we are made for an intimate connection with God. It is right to look into ourselves as we seek God. As Augustine described in his Confessions, an honest search of the self should reveal a nature that is not self-sufficient, that is not meant to be alone, that longs for relationship with a beauty and harmony and love that the individual self cannot sustain. Augustine called this a “God-shaped void” at the heart of every person.

Yet we also need to be clear that, while the search may begin within our selves, it must not stop there. God is “other,” so we must continue beyond ourselves, in fact beyond everything we think we see, in order to find Him. And the paradox here is that we can only find the true meaning and purpose of our own selves by going beyond ourselves and finding the God who is other than us and who made us.

The other idea often expressed in our popular culture is that “matter is all there is.” Unfortunately, for some people this idea has become the standard for supposedly “scientific” thinking about the world. But this is not a “scientific” idea at all – it is a metaphysical statement (“metaphysical” just means “beyond the physical”) with roots going back to the ancient Greek Stoics. For many educated people in Western culture, if something cannot be verified with the human senses, it is not “real,” or at least it is not worthy of consideration as a matter of “fact” or “reason.”

There are many reasons why this way of thinking about what counts as truth or knowledge has become so influential. Our modern intellectual, political and social systems were shaped by the period from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries known as the “Enlightenment.” Even modern Christianity has been tinged in significant ways by Enlightenment thought.

The Enlightenment, of course, was not all bad. It gave us some great gifts, including the contemporary scientific method and the political frameworks, such as the U.S. Constitution, that support the freedoms we now take for granted.

But like many exciting moments in history, the Enlightenment produced some unbalanced perspectives. The ways in which human beings can know things in addition to observation of the tangible world around us were lost. The sorts of intuitions and experiences that human beings throughout history had understood to reach beyond reason were discredited. The thought that a transcendent God might have broken into history to reveal anything about Himself was mostly set aside.

Christian theology has always asserted that because God is transcendent, human observation and human reason are neither the starting point nor the ending point for true knowledge, wisdom and understanding. If matter is not all there is, then our search for truth cannot be limited to the material world alone. In fact, the beginning of knowledge and wisdom is the realization that God is beyond and other than the created world. Again, a word of balance is in order. Human observation and reason do matter, precisely because God created us as part of a world that is in important ways orderly and knowable. The great Christian thinker Anselm said that knowledge is the act of “faith seeking understanding.” “Understanding” – the sometimes difficult process of bringing all our resources, including reason, to bear on the search for truth – depends on and follows “faith.”

God’s transcendence means that the physical world does not represent the limits of what is true and real. Indeed, the physical world is not the beginning or end of what is true and real. The “beginning and end,” the “alpha and omega,” is the God who is beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.


David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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Steve Ruble - #61024

May 11th 2011

The “beginning and end,” the “alpha and omega,” is the God who is beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.

Obviously you don’t believe that. If you did, you would stop writing about your god, because you would realize that when a thing is beyond your thoughts and imaginings, your thoughts and imaginings can’t stand in any real relationship to that thing. Anything you might think you know about that thing could quite possibly be exactly wrong in a way that you can’t think of or imagine, so there’s really no point in even bothering.


To put it another way, if your god is really so transcendent and incomprehensible, there’s no way to determine that it is not in fact performing a rather cruel and sadistic experiment on you by providing you with the sorts of experiences you take to be evidence for the existence of a good and loving god. You may find in impossible to comprehend how such a god could exist, but, like, that’s what incomprehensibility means.

Steve Ruble - #61025

May 11th 2011

The ways in which human beings can know things in addition to observation of the tangible world around us were lost. The sorts of intuitions and experiences that human beings throughout history had understood to reach beyond reason were discredited. 

I agree with the second sentence: those sorts of intuitions and experiences were discredited. I’m sure you agree, unless you think that the intuitions and experiences of Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus constitute “ways in which human beings can know things” about things “beyond reason”. Or did you forget that Christians are not the only people who claim to have revelations about some  transcendent reality? It’s not enough to claim that you and yours have access to such a world - if you want to maintain anything like intellectual credibility you must be able to give some reason for thinking your claims are more credible than others… but since you’ve already stated that your claims are beyond reason, I’m very curious about how you’re going to go about doing that.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61034

May 12th 2011

Prof Opderbeck,

In a real sense I agree with Steve.  Much systematic theology is based on Greek philosophy which holds that God is Absolute.  Karl Barth is an excellent example of this kind of theology.  For Barth God the Father is Absolute, while God the Son is the relational Word. The problem with this tradition is that “absolute” means independent in that Absolute Being is without relationships.  The Greeks saw relationships as limits on freedom and God is free of all limits.

In the Bible however YHWH reveals Godself as I AM WHO I AM.  This means that God is Who God Chooses to Be, God does whatever God chooses to do.  At the time YHWH says this God is speaking to Moses through the flamimg bush telling him that YHWH hears the moans of the Hebrews and is sending Moses to liberate them from slavery.  YHWH chooses to care about oppressed people.  This is the opposite of the Greek vision of the Unmoved Mover.  YHWH is moved by human injustice.

Now science has put to rest the idea that absolutes exist in nature.  If nature is a reflection of God, but is not God, then that means that the Greek concept of God as Absolute is wrong, as Dawkins and other non-believers have pointed out.  The proper response to this is YHWH is not absolute in the philosophical sense.  YHWH is Love.  God cares.  YHWH is relational, but not relative. 

However this requires a whole new understanding of philosophy, which most people are not willing to undertake.  YHWH is calling the Western tradition of philosophy, theology, and science to change, to evolve.  We fail to do so at our own peril.      


penman - #61040

May 12th 2011

The “beginning and end,” the “alpha and omega,” is the God who is beyond all our thoughts and imaginings.

David - otherwise known as Prof.Opderbeck - can clarify this in his own words. But I don’t think he’s saying that God contradicts all our thoughts & imaginings, or that all our thoughts & imaginings - whatever their source - tell us nothing about any aspect of God.

I think he’s probably saying much the same as C.S.Lewis in his “Beyond Personality”. If God isn’t a person as we understand the term, with an understanding grounded in our knowledge of our own finite, contingent, temporal human personhood, then does this mean that God is non-personal? Lewis argues that there’s another option: God is more than personal. There is something in God analogous to human personhood, but transcending it by being greater & better. That’s the sense in which God is “beyond” personality. We can discern the horizon of this beyond, but not get across it.

An analogy might be “mind” in a dog & in a human. If dogs could speculate about human minds, they’d be wrong to think our minds were precisely the same as theirs. But on realizing this, they’d be equally wrong to conclude, “Then humans have no minds”. We have something greater & better than a canine mind: something “beyond” that can’t be captured in mere canine thoughts & imaginings.

However, I await the author’s clarification…


dopderbeck - #61061

May 12th 2011

Penman—you’re basically capturing what I’m trying to say.  “Beyond” doesn’t mean we can’t say anything at all. It does mean that whatever we say is not fully adequate.

Roger S. hits on a big issue in theology that this post admittedly glosses over:  the relationship between nature and grace.  In some important streams of Christian theology, “nature”—our natural human reasons—can’t say anything at all about God.  The best we can do is say what God is not like—e.g., “God is not a creature.”  This is the apophatic tradition.  Other important streams of Christian theology suggest that since God has endowed us with reason and made us in His image, we are able to say quite a bit about God in positive terms—e.g., “God is just, and justice entails a certain set of relations between God and man.”  Even most of these cataphatic theologians, however, make clear that what we can say about God through natural reason, though important, is limited.  We still, always, need grace to begin to understand who God is.  (Thomas Aquinas’ theology is a great example of this).  And as Roger suggests, where you fall on this spectrum will impact how you understand the relation between “philosophy” and “theology.”

I’m not intending to stake out a hard position on the nature-grace relation in this post.  I do stand in the broadly Protestant tradition, and I do appreciate Barth, so I probably lean a bit more to the side of caution when it comes to what natural reason can assert about God.  But, I don’t think Barth was correct in dismissing all natural theology or all notions of the analogia entis.  Perhaps you’ll see a bit more of that peeking through in my next post, on God’s immanence.

Steve R.—I’d like to respond to your comments, but I’m not sure you have a sense of this historic tension in Christian theology concerning the relation between nature and grace.  Perhaps my next post on God’s “immanence” will help clarify.  Importantly, that post will touch on why the incarnation of Christ must be central to this discussion.


Steve Ruble - #61078

May 12th 2011

“Beyond” doesn’t mean we can’t say anything at all. It does mean that whatever we say is not fully adequate.

But you intend to be describing a personality here, don’t you? Something which has desires and intentions?  The scope and nature of those desires and intentions must inevitably be included in the set of things which are not adequately described by the things we say… and what those desires and intentions actually are is therefore not something about which you can have any robust idea.


Cal - #61101

May 13th 2011

Steve:

I’d figure what we receive in Scripture about how God “feels” or “wants” in a certain situation is a shadow of the real deal.

When God came as Jesus, this was the fullest picture, en-captured as a Human, of what God is. It’s the closest we can fathom, I think this quote captures the idea:

“Jesus is God spelling Himself out in language that men can understand”


liberale - #61096

May 13th 2011

Enjoy the article.  It brings me deep thoughts.  Thank you.  I’ve a few questions, though.

The remark “God is ‘hidden’ because He is ‘other’” caught my eyes.  An equally legitimate explanation, however, might be that God is “hidden” because He is non-existent.  How to choose between the two options?  If the answer is “faith,” what is the difference between “faith” and throwing a coin (“I’ve faith in the face/God”; “I’ve faith in the tail/atheism”)?  

If we guess that there is some mysterious entity that is “trascendent” to the physical universe, is it better to directly name it Transcendence?  Transcendence is a much clearer (and hence better) term than “God.” 

liberale - #61099

May 13th 2011

Concerning Transcendence, a Newsweek article with this eye-catching title came to my mind: “Sam Harris Believes in God” http://www.newsweek.com/2010/10/18/atheist-sam-harris-steps-into-the-light.html

It seems that Harris prefers the word “transcendence” over “God.” At the end of the report: “‘There’s a real problem with the word [God],’ he says, ‘because it shields the genuinely divisive doctrines and believers from criticism.’...Believing in transcendence is not the same thing as believing that you’ll get virgins in paradise if you blow yourself up—and Sam Harris wants to be clear about that.”

dopderbeck - #61118

May 13th 2011

Steve R.—I think you’re making too big a leap when you say that something we can’t “adequately” describe is something about which we can’t have any “robust idea”—or at least a term like “robust” is too vague.  Even in the natural sciences, we have lots of “robust” ideas but that aren’t really fully “adequate.”  Human evolution is a good example—we know it happened and we have some robust models concerning how, where and when it happened.  But, our knowledge of human evolution is hardly “adequate.”  It’s indeed quite incomplete and fragmentary, which is precisely what makes it such a fascinating field of research.  Another good example would be cosmology.  Our models of the inflationary universe are robust, but hardly adequate—there are lots of lacunae that are not yet understood. 

So, one response is that even “inadequate” knowledge can count as knowledge.  If this weren’t so, then human beings could never claim to have “knowledge” of anything at all.

A further, and maybe more important response, is that theology is always <em>analogical</em>.  You suggest, for example, that theology seeks to describe “a personality.”  Well—yes and no.  We apply terms like “person” to God, and this term indeed is important in the Christian theological tradition with respect to the nature of the Trinity.  But the term “person” with respect to God is only an analogy.  It’s a term we’re familiar with because we possess certain characteristics associated with “persons”—intentionality, agency, consciousness, creativity, emotions, and so on.  When we use such a term of God, we’re trying to say that God is characterized <em>like</em> this—but we’re also always acknowledging that because He is <em>God,</em> any such description can never fully explain or capture who God is.

We use language this way all the time.  I can’t really describe what it was like when I saw Aida at the Metropolitan Opera House. I might say that hearing and watching that performance was like slowly drinking a luscious, plummy Burgundy.  It’s not a perfect description, but hopefully it’s good enough to communicate something robust about the performance.


Steve Ruble - #61205

May 14th 2011

I agree that “robust” can be pretty vague - as may have be apparent from the unusual brevity of that comment, I was in a hurry, and I haven’t had time to come back and explain until this morning.  I think the sense in which I meant it is captured well in this sentence you wrote:
Our models of the inflationary universe are robust, but hardly adequate—there are lots of lacunae that are not yet understood.  
I take this to mean that our models are composed of rules which generate many accurate predictions and provide explanations for many observations, but there are  also observations which are not predicted by our current models, so our models will eventually need to be updated with new rules.  But there are two underlying assumptions behind this idea: A) that the universe is the sort of thing which can be modeled by a set of rules; B) that our observations are representative of the way the universe really is.

Given the idea of a transcendent, personal god, I don’t think either of those assumptions can hold. With regard to the first: A personality with the kind of free will most people assume gods have can’t be modeled by a set of rules, in that there is no reason to expect that even a model which has been historically correct will continue to be correct in the future; indeed, given the violence the Christian god has done to the expectations and models of his followers in the past, I think the expectation might actually go the other way. With regard to the second: The word “transcendent” seems to imply that our observations are not representative of the way the “transcendent” entity actually is, so almost by definition there isn’t any way for us to determine if our models of the entity’s behavior are accurate or not.

dopderbeck - #61272

May 16th 2011

Steve R., you said:  “A personality with the kind of free will most people assume gods have can’t be modeled by a set of rules,”

I respond:  I don’t really follow this argument.  “Free will” doesn’t imply the absence of any constraints at all.  We can “model” human behavior through psychology and neurobiology, for example, in part because all human “free will” is constrained by the reality in which we live.  God is not constrained by any external environment, but He is constrained by His character—or better put, He acts as He is, in accordance with His character.  Therefore we can talk meaningfully about expectations, hopes and beliefs concerning God’s actions.  I’d certainly agree, however, that the notion of a scientific “model” is not a fully adequate way of speaking about what theology tries to do. 

You also said:  “The word “transcendent” seems to imply that our observations are not
representative of the way the “transcendent” entity actually is”

I respond:  As I suggested in an earlier comment, theological reasoning is always analogical.  A good analogy is “representative” of things as they actually are, though perhaps dimly—that is what analogies do.  It is fair to say that human beings cannot describe God as He “actually is” in the same way in which we can describe, say, what water “actually is” (though even that can prove tricky if we want to avoid mechanistic reductionism, e.g., “water simply = H20”).  But we can use analogies to move towards what God is “like”.  And, Transcendence is only one part of it; God is also Immanent, and in Christ, Incarnate—which is crucial to any Christian epistemology.


Steve Ruble - #61206

May 14th 2011

I might say that hearing and watching that performance was like slowly drinking a luscious, plummy Burgundy.  It’s not a perfect description, but hopefully it’s good enough to communicate something robust about the performance.

Sounds delicious, but I have to make one small but significant correction: your analogy communicates something robust about the experience of hearing and watching the performance, but the analogy wasn’t to the performance itself.  You ask us to infer something about the performance from your experience (which you convey by way of analogy) and given a reasonable amount of knowledge about opera, opera-goers, and oenophiles, we can make certain inferences about the performance, bringing into play our own experiences with operas and wine to perhaps imagine what it would have been like to be there. It’s truly amazing what can be conveyed and appreciated given a shared set of words and experiences.

However, the question when it comes to analogies to transcendent beings is whether we have the requisite shared words and experiences to generate and share meaningful analogies with any assurance that they are truly capturing something about the thing we’re trying to describe. Everyone can see an opera and drink wine, but no man has seen the Father… so how can we tell whether the analogies have any accurate reference to a real thing?

dopderbeck - #61273

May 16th 2011

Steve R., you said:  “your analogy communicates something robust about the experience of
hearing and watching the performance, but the analogy wasn’t to the
performance itself.”

I respond:  Fair point, I guess, but I think the analogy still says something about the performance itself.  I could just as well say “the performance was like a luscious, plummy Burgundy.”  If you never saw an opera but you know something about Burgundy, you could know something meaningful about the performance.  Of course, “the map is not the territory”—but that is always the case.

You also said:  “Everyone can see an opera and drink wine, but no man has seen the
Father… so how can we tell whether the analogies have any accurate
reference to a real thing?”

I respond:  This is one reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamental to Christian theology (I will explore this also in a later post).  No one has seen the Father, but we have seen the incarnate Son, who proceeds from the Father, and we have experienced the testimony of the Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Christian epistemology, robust Christian doctrines of creation, revelation, soteriology and ecclesiology, and indeed all of Christian theology, has a Trinitarian shape precisely because the economy of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is essential to anything we can try to say about God.

The analogy of “wine” is particularly interesting here because of its connection to the Eucharist.  In the communion of the Eucharistic celebration we not only see, but touch, smell and taste, who God is and what He is like.


dopderbeck - #61121

May 13th 2011

liberale—on the “how to choose” question, from the perspective of Christian theology, the answer is revealtion and the incarnation. As I note in the body of the post,  
“God has, of course, revealed Himself to us – or else there would be very little point in trying to speak about Him. In scripture, in the proclamation of the Church, in the created world, and most importantly, in Jesus Christ, God has made Himself known.”

I’ll explore this further in my next post.


liberale - #61133

May 13th 2011

Thank you!  Anticipating.


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