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Is God a person?
This is a question that many people have asked throughout the ages, and one that I've heard a lot myself. And as a Christian Scientist, it's sometimes been a point of contention with some of my Christian brothers and sisters, whether I mention anything or not. Recently, after an otherwise-excellent first date ended with the unprompted comment, "I'm sorry Gordon, your views on the Trinity are just too different," it's been something on my mind.
For those of you unfamiliar, the Trinity, or Godhead, is the popular Christian concept that God consists of three-persons-in-one: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This same concept is represented more succinctly by the slogan, "Jesus is God." This is a commonly accepted belief in many Christian churches, now considered orthodox, but it was not always as widespread as it is today.
I've been reading a fascinating history book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein. The book covers the history of the "Arian Controversy," which includes the famous Council of Nicaea, at the end of the 4th century. This was the point in history when various Christian Bishops came together to flesh out official church doctrine, and this was when they formally consented to the idea that God and Jesus are homoousios, a Greek word borrowed from pagan philosophy, which means "the same stuff." I find it fascinating that any meaningful sense of consensus was largely absent from this council. The Christian community was essentially split down the middle on this idea, and quite a lot of politics, human posturing, and personal amibition went into it. History also shows that this one simple decision quickly reverberated with a lot of unnecessary and ironically un-Christian violence.
Now I don't mean to reignite a centuries-old turf war. But regardless of what church councils "decided," or what's considered popular today, I'd like to examine the question of who God is, and how Jesus fits into that picture, from the perspective of what the Bible actually says and what the teachings of Christian Science reveal. As Isaiah says, Come now, and let us reason together.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.
The First Commandment of Judaism and Christianity states that there is one God. What does this mean? Clearly this is opposed to atheism, which says there is no God. And it's similarly opposed to pantheism, which says there are many gods. It's generally accepted, also, that God has the following four properties:
- God is omnipotent, meaning He's all powerful / there's nothing He can't do
- God is omniscient, meaning He knows everything
- God is omnipresent, meaning He fills all space
- God is omnibenevolent, which means He is all good
Those "omni-" words don't appear directly in the Bible, but are they supported by it? Does the Bible imply that God is omnipotent? Well, I can tell you that no less than four times, Jesus said, "all things are possible to God." Check! How about omniscient? In 1st John it says that "God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things." Check! Omnipresent? Look no further than the poetry of the Psalms: #139 essentially says yes. Lastly, is God good? Well, if he wasn't, it'd be pretty scary praying to Him! But if you're looking for Biblical support, Jesus said, "Why do you call me 'good'? There is none good except God alone."
Now any freshman philosophy major can explain to you that there's no being who could possibly exist in our physical universe that truly has all four of those properties at the same time (and they'd be right), because of something called the problem of evil. But today's post is not to try and dissect that paradox -- that's a whole other can of worms! So for the sake of argument, we'll just take it on faith that God is indeed all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent good. Question: can an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent being be a person?
Again, let me reiterate that lots and lots of people -- many of them smarter than me -- have already thought through this same question over the ages. In fact, one example of someone else who's thought about this question a little bit is Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist. Here's a quote from him:
The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying. It does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.
We seem to be at a crossroads.
On the one hand, the orthodox Christian belief of Jesus as God provides a lot of comfort. To think that there's an infinitely powerful personal friend, ready to help you out of trouble and save you from despair in this physical life, is understandably appealing. But under the microscope of rational thought, inconsistencies start to appear. And if there's some additional qualifications that come with this (i.e. do/say the right thing or you're damned), one starts to question the "omnibenevolent" part. Dig deep enough and things might even seem "ludicrous," as Mr. Sagan put it.
On the other hand, what if God is simply the name for all the principles and laws governing the physical universe? Well then we can see that these are ever-present, and all-powerful by definition, but it just seems like such a cop-out. Those laws don't seem very intelligent, and certainly not very good. Instead it all seems chaotic, unknowable, and feels so cold. It certainly doesn't meet our criteria of the four "omni"s.
But what if I told you that there was a simple mistake with both of these approaches, and indeed, there's a third answer? On the one hand, if you start by saying, "I see, feel, hear, etc. with my material senses, and my material body is who I am," and then you remember reading in the Bible that "God created mankind in His image and likeness," you might naturally think, "well that means God must be just like me -- a material body. And hey, Jesus had one of those! Therefore Jesus must be God." Or on the other hand, if you start by saying, "I see, feel, hear, etc. with my material senses, and my material body is who I am," and then you study the scientific method, you might say, "everything is made out of matter just like me, and there certainly seem to be patterns to what I can observe in the physical world, maybe these patterns are God."
Both of these approaches reason out from the evidence of the material senses. Both start with the idea that I am material, therefore practically everything is material. You try to make God in the image and likeness of yourself. Matter is what we observe with our senses, but the Bible says God is Spirit, and so I think we need to start there. But that's hard, because spiritual things are un-quantifiable. What's the average mass of a mother's love? What's the velocity of it? Its existence is obvious, yet it extends far beyond chemicals and neurons. It can be difficult for people, at first, to reason about things spiritually, because we're not always used to it. But if you don't immediately accept the idea that you are made out of matter, and consider for a moment that instead you are spiritual, then the reasoning goes a little differently. Here's what Mary Baker Eddy, the Founder of Christian Science, had to say:
Human philosophy has made God manlike. Christian Science makes man Godlike. The first is error; the latter is truth. Metaphysics is above physics, and matter does not into metaphysical premises or conclusions.
Christian Science strongly emphasizes the thought that God is not corporeal, but incorporeal -- that is, bodiless. Mortals are corporeal, but God is incorporeal.
As the words person and personal are commonly and ignorantly employed, they often lead, when applied to Deity, to confused and erroneous conceptions of divinity and its dinstinctions from humanity. If the term personality, as applied to God, means infinite personality, then God is infinite Person, -- in the sense of inifinite personality, but not in the lower sense. An infinite Mind in a finite form is an absolute impossibility.
These are just some of the ideas that I'm going to be sharing during a short church meeting this Wednesday, August 24th, here in Madison. I'll be presenting further readings from the Bible as well as more of Eddy's exposition on it, on this same topic, "Is God a person?" If you're interested in finding out a little more, please join me at 7:30 this Wednesday evening.