Marduk, god of Babylon

How much do we know about God? How much should we expect to know?

This post is about the tension between admitting what we don’t know, and affirming whatever is important to us. At one extreme we cannot know anything about God. At the other extreme, God gets reduced to what our minds can conceive of.

In the Reformation debates Protestants and Catholics alike stressed that the human mind isn’t up to knowing about the transcendent, so God has given us the Bible to provide doctrine and ethics. Later critics would ask how, in that case, we could know the Bible had been given by God. So if it is all beyond us, should we just accept that we don’t know anything at all, and shut up? Or assume there is no such thing as God?

Today it is quite common, for believers and unbelievers alike, to to to the other extreme and define God with such precision that they reduce God to what their minds can conceive of. We become the creators of God rather than the other way round. Gavin Hyman complains that Richard Swinburne does this when he argues that

God is a personal being – that is, in some sense a person. By a person I mean an individual with basic powers (to act intentionally), purposes and beliefs (Hyman, A Short History of Atheism, 2010, p. 57; Swinburne, Is there a God? 1996).

On this account it seems that the human mind is competent to judge whether and how such a being exists. Modern arguments for and against the existence of God tend to be along these lines.

The most common way of resolving the tension is with Thomas Aquinas’ theory of analogy. According to Aquinas God is beyond our understanding. There is nothing we can say about God which is literally accurate, because God transcends our understanding. But we can speak of God analogically. For example, to say God is love is to say there is something about God which is a bit like us when we love people. A bit like, and we can’t say how like. There is a huge literature on this topic, but for me at least Aquinas was along the right lines.

The same issues arise outside Christianity. Anthropologists tell us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew they depended on the forces of nature that surrounded them, but unlike modern science they attributed minds to these forces. They thought the sun, sky, rain, and perhaps hundreds of other processes had personalities. To some extent this is a bit like Aquinas’ view: they thought they had some understanding of the divine, but it was only limited.

By the time of the earliest written records, these divine forces had been well and truly domesticated, at least in some traditions. Jean Bottéro’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (2001) gives some examples.

The gods were moved around, in the form of their images, transported by cart or by boat, intra muros or beyond, to visit other divinities or even, lying side by side in their closed “bedroom,” to spend their honeymoon night together.

The beginning of the poem How Erra Wrecked the World makes the point well. Erra tries to persuade Marduk

to “leave” his cult statue (a core of rare wood, covered with sheets of stamped precious metal), so that, Erra suggested, it might be conveniently “cleaned” and restored to all its former brilliance, tarnished over time. When, in the end, Marduk allowed himself to be convinced, “he arose from his dwelling,” both his statue and the sanctuary that sheltered it, thus opening the way for the misdeeds of the violent Erra, whom his presence would have deterred.

It is easy to see how people might suspect that gods like that did not exist. Aquinas’ account, like the typical hunter-gatherer account, cannot be dismissed in the same way. We know there are forces maintaining us and the universe. We know the forces far exceed what we can understand of them. What we are unsure about is which characteristics to attribute to them.

Postmodern writers like William Placher, Gavin Hyman and Louis Dupré argue that the process of domesticating God – reducing God to fit our mental concepts – has happened again in modern Christianity. Once again by defining God so precisely that there is nothing left over to transcend human understanding, we turn God into a self-contained entity, one being among many. It then seems appropriate to judge God’s existence according to the evidence, just as we do with unicorns and the next door neighbour’s dog.

Whether God gets denied or domesticated, refusing to accept what transcends our understanding is arrogant. We would do better to accept that we are sustained by powers far beyond our understanding. This, though, demands a humility uncharacteristic of our age.

The question should be not how anything can exist beyond our mental constructs, but how much understanding is granted to us by the forces through which our minds have evolved. And what makes us think we can trust them.