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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