On placing God inside and outside of boxes

A Bible study I’ve been attending recently decided to go through Focus on the Family’s The Truth [sic] Project, for which I will gladly accept your condolescences, sympathy, intercessory prayer, donations, etc. This is especially awkward in that I am still altogether “in the closet” regarding the ways in which my beliefs differ from the conservative Presbyterian beliefs of the others in the Bible study (unless one of them reads this, in which case: Hi there!), but sitting through this nonsense is enough to ensure that I’ll bang my head against the wall hard enough to tumble out at some point.

Anyway, I started to blog through it, but having a flagging interest in chronicling every misguided and/or stupid statement made by Del Tackett (the host), I am foregoing that effort and directing you to my friend Mike Beidler’s review of The Truth Project series over at Rethinking the αlpha and Ωmega. But in the last episode he discussed something I hadn’t spent too much time thinking about before, and in the few days since watching it I have come across two independent rebuttals (coincidentally? hmm…) that I thought I’d share with you.

Tackett targets “assumptive language” in the educational miniseries Cosmos hosted by Carl Sagan, who begins his narration with the statement, “The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” Notice, says Tackett, that Sagan is subtly and craftily painting God right out of the picture, because God is not part of the physical universe. I was tracking with Tackett here. Pretty slick, Carl.

Then Tackett drew a box signifying the entire material universe and called it the “cosmic cube” to illustrate that Sagan’s statement negated the possibility that anything existed outside the cube. Now, I don’t want to try to make too much of what was probably just a poorly chosen diagram, but there are certain factors that make it worthy of a serious critique. I became uncomfortable as he took great pains to elucidate how Sagan was contradicting the Real and True Bona Fide Christian Fact that God exists outside of our universe. This isn’t to say that God doesn’t intervene in our universe, but that He exists fundamentally independently of it. Atheists simply deny that anything outside the box exists; deists deny that God ever steps into the box; “supernatural naturalists” (who?) believe that some force or forces exist, but only within and as a feature of the physical universe. Tackett’s diagram looked something like this:

I do hope that you, dear Christian, don’t have a problem with this diagram. After all, it is the Christian view, whereas everything else is a deceptive, godless lie.

This is my chief problem with The Truth Project: it is everywhere assumed that there is a single, authoritative “biblical worldview” that is somehow obvious and will be universally recognized just by reading our Bibles, the interpretation of which we all agree upon. Points of divergence among different Christian traditions are ignored except where said to be indicative of an “atheistic worldview” that is opposed to God — or worse, the Bible Himself.

Is the only proper Christian view that God is external to the universe, a “wholly other” who steps in to influence and settle our affairs but remains totally separate in every meaningful sense? One thing’s for sure: this diagram does a particularly bad job of upholding the concept of omnipresence that I’m sure Tackett affirms. Moreover, it also implies that if God were to cease to exist, the universe could keep trucking along. What happened to “by him all things consist”? I ask again, is this the Christian antidote to Sagan’s reductive materialism?

The next evening while still pondering this, I ran across a quote that I ended up using for my most recent “Mondays with George MacDonald” feature. Allow me to reproduce part of it here:

I repent me of the ignorance wherein I ever said that God made man out of nothing: there is no nothing out of which to make anything; God is all in all, and he made us out of himself.

Even if, as Sagan and Moby agree, we are indeed made of stars, MacDonald would probably contend that the stars themselves are made of godstuff, at least infosfar that they, like God, exist. Coming from a man whose theology I appreciate so much, that was a weighty counterpoint for me. Considering Tackett’s view as contrasted by MacDonald’s, it’s obvious why humans are considered by certain theologies to be wholly fallen, by nature at enmity with God, and utterly incapable of anything good. (The incongruity is that this depravity seems more like a flaw in the design of the “cube” than the result of the two human progenitors’ failure. But I digress.)

Later in the same lesson, Tackett began a short discussion of the Euthyphro Dilemma: “Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Tackett answers it by denying both horns, asserting that God is by nature what we recognize as good; His own immutable character, which apparently just happens to be what most humans recognize as good and ideal despite our residence in the cube and our innate sinfulness, is the standard by which He judges the universe He created. Tackett contends that the laws of ethics/morality are neither based in God’s arbitrary will nor in some external code, but flow from God’s unchanging nature. I think Tackett handled this tolerably well, if only for the fact that he explicitly rejected divine command theory; still, I was not satisfied with his implication of morality being rules imposed from outside the cosmic cube upon those within the cosmic box. Couldn’t put my finger on it, but it sounded fishy.

Then, the day after I found the MacDonald quote, I stumbled upon David Withun’s recent video, Euthyphro Dilemma Redux. I was once again fascinated by the coincidence of my own theological meanderings with the ancient beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox. Please take the time to view this short (18 min.) video.

[7/28/2015: Apologies! The video I reference was taken down with no replacement when David revised his YouTube channel.]

 

It amazed me the relevance that this video had to that lesson of The Truth Project. The Orthodox version of panentheism (N.B. not pantheism) as explained by Withun is, to my mind, a highly preferable way of viewing God’s relation to the universe, and makes better sense of Tackett’s own rejection of the Euthyphro Dilemma: God pervades and animates the universe, and so the extent to which we grasp morality is the extent to which we are in touch with a very real ought built into the fabric of our universe — not something alien to us or our “cube”, but something that essentially composes our entire reality, including God. Anyone who lives apart from God and in opposition to His nature is what MacDonald called “a live discord, an anti-truth…an abyss of positive negation.” Or as Epimenides put it, “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

Agree or not, the views that MacDonald and Withun describe – and I do not mean to imply they are identical – have very interesting and profoundly Christian (even biblical!) things to say about the nature of God, the definitions of good and evil, and the condition of man (i.e. our default disposition toward God and His toward us). But most of those unquestioningly drinking in whatever Focus on the Family and/or Del Tackett tell them in Tackett’s Christian re-education program presumptuously titled The Truth Project are unlikely to ever hear that such views exist.

The irony of the thousands of Christians who sit and listen uncritically to someone warning them of the dangers of sitting and listening uncritically to everyone else is painfully striking. So is the irony of seeing someone placing God in a box precisely by ejecting Him from the one box He willingly fills with Himself.

And don’t get me started on Tackett’s anti-evolution, anti-postmodernism diatribes. Holy walking Jesus fish!

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  • Anonymous

    As an outsider, I just don’t see panentheism or any of the other -isms as all that useful.  I always think of angels dancing on the head of a pin.  One particular -ism might make sense of a pet theory about God’s nature but in the end it is mere metaphysics, satisfying in its way but completely irrelevant to the world as it exists outside the neat categories inhabiting own minds. 

    I suppose the BIG questions are what ways does God influence the universe we inhabit and why are we here at all?  Each theory of God’s eminence puts a different spin on this but they engage a “reality” that is so far beyond human perception or knowledge that they risk being reduced to curiosities.  I approach metaphysics much as experimental physicists seem to treat multi-verses: very clever but call me when you produce something useful.

    [fuller comment]

    • Anonymous

      Yea!  My links worked!

    • I see your point (although I could argue it), but I was really not making as much of a point about the preferability of panentheism as I was the Truth Project’s cocksure, lockstep mentality.

  • Waylon

    I was visiting my uncle in Colorado Springs back in 2000 and saw a bumper sticker that read “Focus On Your Own Damn Family.”

    Spot on 🙂

  • Steve, I suffered through the Truth Project at our church last year, so you have my deepest condolences. You are spot on to criticize their tunnel-vision view of “the Christian worldview”. As an aside, have you noticed that almost every time they quote someone they disagree with, the citation is not from the actual source but rather from some apologetics book? I think David Noble’s “Understanding the Times” gets frequent use. It’s remarkable that they can spend so much on the production value, but not even bother to properly source their quotations. No wonder they misrepresent virtually every viewpoint they attack. Ugh.
    Tonight my church starts a DVD series by Mark Driscoll! I’m not holding my breath for a thoughtful exploration of divergent Christian viewpoints.

    • Oh, man… You have no business sympathizing with me when greater sympathies are no doubt due to yourself!

  • Steve I especially like the last 5 minutes of David’s clip, and most of all his point that the discovery by the Hebrews that God speaks (saying ‘I am’ etc.) takes theology to a new level, where God is revealed in a manner no longer limited to the ancient ‘rationalist’ methods of reasoning-from-nature. Culminating in the Incarnation.

    Reasoning from nature without help from revelation tends I think to lead to either Pantheism or to the views of Sagan – which simply overlook God in favor of unexplained Beauty and the ironic smile of the infinitely small Stoic hero.

    David’s brief explanation of panentheism helped me see its actual difference from pantheism for the first time.

  • Paige

    Enjoyed his take, but at the end felt very confused…

    My impression is that due to Israel’s “take” on what the rest of the world was already experiencing (as Tao, Ma’at, Logos, etc.), we experienced the very thing that he argues classical Christianity denies (separation). Yet, the plea to become a partaker of the Divine nature implicitly affirms that one is NOT ALREADY a partaker. Therefore, one exists separate from the Source, the Ground of all Being, until a point in history. So, I guess what I’m saying is that though I affirm the reality and truthfulness of Panentheism, I don’t see that to be the case with classical Christianity, OR the understanding of the Hebrew God concept. I also think that to affirm the Hebrew concept as true, one is then set up to in fact, affirm Divine Command Theory. So, how does a classical Christian get around the book of Hebrews where it affirms God’s unchanging nature, with the revealed “command giver god” of the OT. Especially so, when most of those commands have now been discarded by adherents of Christianity (and even Judaism) today?

    • Hi Paige,

      I can’t speak for either of them, but really quick, I think this is where MacDonald and Withun’s (Orthodoxy’s) panentheism part ways a bit. MacDonald’s panentheism  (although not systematically developed, as was MacDonald’s wont) seems to hold that there is no point at which we are not more or less partakers of the divine nature, especially as infants and children, and that our life in Christ is the acknowledgement and embrace of the divine nature whence we sprang; it seems the Orthodox would be likelier to say that our theosis requires initiation through conversion or the like, but again, I can’t put words in their mouths (and they might not all agree anyway!). I wish an Orthodox Christian would step in and answer your very good questions!

  • Paige

    Thanks Steve, it seems I’m more inclined to agree with ol’ MacDonald, too 🙂

  • AMW

    Years back my Sunday School class was going to do a series on Christian Worldview and a member of the leadership asked me to preview the Truth Project for the class.  I only had to sit through one episode, but that was enough.  I managed to convince him not to use the series (though not for the reasons that were boiling up inside of me as I watched it).

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