Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Possibilities of God

“In the beginning God created heaven and earth.... And God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him....” (Gen. 1:1, 27)
In these verses are contained two most profound mysteries which are appropriately the only applications (with one exception, 1:21f) of the Hebrew word behind “created” in the first chapter of Genesis : the origin of the universe as a whole, and the origin of man within the universe. "Heaven and earth" are together another way of saying "the universe." Science speaks of the age of the universe, its expansion and its structure in terms of space and time, but ultimately how the matter and energy which drives the universe came to exist remains a mystery, the Big Bang notwithstanding.[1] Then there is man, the lonely creature who, like God, creates! Man's creative intelligence and spirit, his ability to reason and his propensity to worship, his science, his art, and his religion, remains without parallel or explanation. "Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution."[2]

In the beginning...
On the translation “in the beginning,” see Jer. 26:1, 27:1, 28:1, 49:34, all of which use the same term for the beginning of a king’s reign, to wit, “in the beginning of the reign of ….” As with the references from Jeremiah, the intent is not to describe the order in which things happened (e.g., what was created first), but simply to establish a time frame for the series of events to be described (e.g., when everything was created). The translation “in the beginning” does not, however, presuppose that time existed before the creation: the beginning is the beginning of time, when time began.
If time was created with the creation of the universe, if the event of creation did not take place within time as we understand and measure it, then in what state of being did the event take place? The traditional answer is eternity.
The relation of time to eternity may be expressed in at least three ways: (1) Linear: eternity is simply time stretched to infinity, i.e., time without limit, time without beginning or end. By this view, time itself could not have a beginning, and the unqualified statement "when time began" would be nonsensical. (2) Oppositional: eternity is a state of timelessness, without attachment in any way to time. By this view, time and eternity are opposites: an eternal entity exists without relation to time, while time is by definition limited, i.e., temporal.[3] This view allows the statement, "when time began," but the complete detachment of time from eternity leaves the latter unreal and unknowable. (3) Emanational: eternity is the whole fabric while time is (by analogy) one thread of the fabric, i.e., time is attached to eternity as one dimension[4] or emanation. A similar view is expressed by A.J. Heschel: "Time is the border of eternity. Time is eternity formed into tassels... Every instant is like a thread raveling out of eternity to form a delicate tassel."[5] The eternal may be sensed within the bounds of time, experienced as real and (in a very limited way) known. Each moment is both an instant in time and a connection to the eternal. "When time began" would be such a moment. In the words of Ecclesiastes, "[God] made everything beautiful in his[6] time, he also set eternity in their heart, yet man cannot discover what God has made from the beginning to the end." (Eccl. 3:11) The notion of eternity is thus as attractive to the human mind as it is difficult to imagine within our time-bound experience of reality.
In the beginning God...
What can you know about God? This question was asked by one of Job's companions: "Can[7] you discover the mystery of God? Can you discover the boundary of the Almighty?.... What can you know?" (Job 11:7-8) God is unsearchable (Job 5:9, Psa. 145:3). God is the ultimate mystery in relation to the universe and man. More than a touch of humility is necessary when you are expounding on the subject of God.
The fundamentalist and the atheist share something in common: both are certain they know everything they need to know about God! The fundamentalist is certain that God is fully revealed in the Bible and that doubt concerning God is a sin. The atheist, or more precisely the naturalist,[8] is certain that God does not exist and that the concept of God adds nothing to our understanding of the universe or man. Somewhere in the middle is the person who searches to know God more fully while admitting that God, if such an entity exists, remains unproven and essentially undefined.[9]
Alleged proofs of God's existence abound. Unfortunately, they are dubious at best, most often fallacious, and always unsatisfactory in terms of the "God" they purport to prove. For example, the argument from design gets everything backwards: A creative intelligence presupposes an intelligible external world (i.e., something to observe, define, measure, test, and evaluate), not vice versa. Even man's mere existence presupposes natural forms and patterns since there is some form to man. Thus you cannot go from man's intelligence to a grand designer via a Swiss watch, since man's designing ability is based on the existence of a intelligible world which this grand designer was to have created. On what perceptions did the grand designer draw? What is the meaning of an intelligence without something which is intelligible? In any case, the argument from design fails because order does not presuppose design or purpose.[10]
Then there are the books of theology which establish the existence of an absolute, self-existent, necessary being--or so they claim--and then proceed to add all sorts of moral and personal attributes to that being while leaving behind their rational proofs. A more honest approach is needed: if your belief in God is derived from revelation, e.g., the Bible, then begin there and critically evaluate the concept of God found. What does the Bible (and its interpreters) say about the nature of God?
Whatever else the Bible may say about God, you cannot avoid the fact that the God of the Bible is supernatural: God is not bounded by the natural world of space and time. So of course for the naturalist any thought of belief in such a God is excluded: nature is all there is. C.S. Lewis presented a philosophical critique of naturalism.[11] Part of his critique held that reason must precede nature, that our capacity to infer truths about nature cannot stem from nature itself.[12] Here I think he was mistaken, for while not all our thoughts and truths are in themselves valid--they may very well stem from natural impulses and stimuli which are subjective--we may still test their validity and objectivity by their accuracy in explaining observations. The data of nature may in this way establish truths, without appeal to the supernatural.
However, I do find another part of his argument compelling. In response to the naturalist's disdain for religious and metaphysical speculations, he wrote: "Naturalism is a prime specimen of that towering speculation, discovered from practice and going far beyond experience, which is now being condemned. Nature [with a capital N] is not an object that can be presented either to the senses or the imagination. It can be reached only by the most remote inferences. Or not reached, merely approached. It is the hoped for, the assumed, unification in a single interlocked system of all the things inferred from our scientific experiments. More than that, the Naturalist, not content to assert this, goes on to the sweeping negative assertion "There is nothing except this"--an assertion surely, as remote from practice, experience, and any conceivable verification as was ever made since men began to use their reason speculatively."[13] The naturalist thus trips on his own certainty.
While the God of the Bible is supernatural, the Bible does not limit God to the transcendent realm, i.e., outside of and having nothing to do with the natural world. Actually the relation of God to the universe has been understood in a variety of ways by both ancient and modern students of the Bible. For example, Maimonides and Spinoza offer very different views of the God they both held to be revealed by the Bible.
Maimonides taught that God is essentially One, and that from the unity of God follow certain implications (not to be confused with attributes), such as God is Eternal and God is Incorporeal (Immaterial). That God is One is based on the Shema, the central declaration of Judaism, taken from Deuteronomy 6:4. Isaiah 45-46 also identifies God as the one and only God. To the mind of Maimonides this meant that no attributes could be added to God's essence. "Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts.... God is One in every respect, containing no plurality or any element superadded to His essence... [The] many attributes of different significations applied in Scripture to God, originate in the multitude of His actions, not in a plurality existing in His essence, and are partly employed with the object of conveying to us some notion of His perfection, in accordance with what we consider perfection"[14] Even the notion that God is perfect does not capture the essence of God, which is unity.
By no accident the prefix of universe is associated with unity. The idea of a universe is that of a whole, the whole of existence to the naturalist, tied together by natural law. Spinoza has been misunderstood to endorse a simplistic relation between the one God and the one universe known as pantheism: God and Nature are one and the same. Yes, but not quite. Spinoza distinguishes between (A) Nature as active and creative, i.e., the processes and "laws" of nature, and (B) Nature as passive and created, i.e., the material and contents of nature.[15] He only identifies God with the former, or as he argues, "That God's nature and existence, and consequently His providence cannot be known from miracles, but... from the fixed and immutable order of nature."[16] His primary opposition is not to the notion that God is immaterial but that God is supernatural.[17] Again: "Our knowledge of God and of God's will increases in proportion to our knowledge and clear understanding of nature [i.e.] how she works to eternal law."[18] God's will cannot be seen in supposed miracles but in the observed regularities of nature.
In his own lifetime Spinoza was misunderstood, such that he thought it necessary to clarify his teaching. "God is the immanent, and not the extraneous, cause of all things. I say, All is in God; all lives and moves[19] in God.... It is however a complete mistake on the part of those who say that my purpose... is to show that God and Nature, under which the last term they understand a certain mass of corporeal matter, are one and the same. I had no such intention."[20] Spinoza thus stresses the immanence of God without reducing God to materiality.[21]
Even so, Spinoza unnecessarily limits the sphere of God's influence to the natural, and equates deity with natural law. Heschel responds: "God is one, but one is not God. Some of us are inclined to deify the one supreme force or law that regulates all phenomena of nature.... Yet, to refer to the supreme law of nature as God or to say that the world came into being by virtue of its own energy is to beg the question. For the cardinal question is not what is the law that would explain the interaction of phenomena in the universe, but why there is a law, a universe at all."[22] The answer to that question does not necessarily lead to a supernatural realm or God, but neither is it satisfied by assuming the universe has always been and that natural law is eternal law.
In the beginning God created...
"Awesome in praises, Master of wonders, who renews in his goodness every day continually the work of creation (lit., in the beginning)."[23]
The opening verse of the Bible declares that God created the universe, "heaven and earth." This means more than that God is the cause of the universe, for God could be the immanent cause without beginning, as Spinoza taught, an eternal God equated with the immutable laws that govern an eternal uncreated universe. The same verse implies that the universe had a beginning, when time began. Further, the Bible dismisses the idea that God could be contained within the universe: "Heaven, even the highest heaven, cannot contain (or sustain) you...." (I Kings 8:27)
On the other hand, to say that God created the universe does not necessarily mean that it was created out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), and in fact the Bible does not specify this to have been the case. After all, if God is real then God is something, perhaps not of the same material as the physical universe, but still something. And if we equate the universe with "heaven and earth" then the universe may be grounded on more than the matter and energy known to astrophysics. Thus to say that the universe had a beginning does not exclude the possibility that something exists apart from the known universe which God used to create the same "in the beginning." The only question is whether the something came from within God or without.
To think of the creation as an event of the past may be misleading. The Creator as well as the creation are not bounded by time; they are eternal phenomena, not temporal. If this is so, the possibility of continuous creation is not excluded, as the possibility of some form of engagement between the eternal and our time-bound universe remains open.[24]
Continuous creation does not mean that God continually disrupts the natural course of events in the universe. It does mean that God has not withdrawn from the universe after "the beginning" but continues to fill the elements with his energy. Continuous creation means continuously unfolding creation: the creation is not finished.[25] Continuous creation also may be understood in the sense of the providence of God. Translated into temporal terms we observe intra-natural cycles of renewal--days and seasons--that are a continual reminder of God's creative activity in the universe and help define his providence.
Psalm 104 presents this continuous aspect of creation in vivid (albeit unscientific) terms. God is ultimately the one who causes springs to flow and rain to fall, vegetation to grow and animals to seek their prey, the sun and moon to mark days and seasons. (vv. 10-23) The psalm concludes its description of God's providence by saying of living things, "When you gather their energy they expire and return to their [original form as] dust. When you release your energy[26] they are created and you renew the surface of the earth." (vv. 29-30) God is the God of new beginnings.
Again, the providence of God does not imply continually miraculous intervention, the supernatural overturning the natural. Maimonides argued for a more sophisticated view of providence: "I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment; it is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance...."[27] Instead, Maimonides restricts providence (except in the case of human beings) to the level of whole species, not the individual creature. A somewhat artificial distinction, to be sure. However, it points toward an understanding of providence that acknowledges the language of Biblical passages such as Psalm 104 but also supports the science of the day[28] in interpretation of these passages.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth.
The phrase "heaven and earth" can be understood in two different ways. First, heaven and earth are taken together to represent all that is, the limits of existence, the universe. This is almost certainly the primary meaning intended by the author of Genesis 1. God created everything, both heaven above and earth below. "Heaven is my throne, and earth my footstool." (Isa. 66:1) "Do I not fill heaven and earth?" (Jer. 23:24) Second, heaven and earth are considered separately, as two levels of existence, each the subject of creation. This secondary meaning should not be ignored, for the Bible is not particularly concerned with understanding the nature of universe, not as we are today. Instead, the focus of Biblical revelation is the relationship between God and man,[29] between the singular realm of heaven and the fractured government of earth.
So what is the nature of heaven? Psalms 113 and 115 offer a particular view of the relationship between God and heaven: he is the One who made heaven and earth (115:15), who oversees what he made, both heaven and earth (113:6), whose glory is above heaven (113:4). God dwells and reigns not in heaven as such, but at "the heights" (113:5), a level of being both above heaven and encompassing heaven (cf. 115:3, God is in heaven, and 115:16, heaven belongs to God alone).
Heaven is sometimes a euphemism for:
God's realm, "for God is in heaven, and you are on earth" (Eccl. 5:1);
what is beyond the normal existence of man who has been given earth (Psa. 115:16), i.e., what is not part of man's realm and what is not part of the known universe (in Biblical terms, the known universe is "earth");
what is eternal (Psa. 89:30 MT) as opposed to earth's temporality;[30] and
what is invisible, contrast Psa. 115:3, "Our God is in heaven," with vv. 4-8. When the Psalm declares "God is in heaven" this is another way of saying that God, in contrast to the idols, is invisible, incorporeal, the real thing!
But is this the heaven of Genesis 1? Not so much. In Genesis 1 heaven is not a euphemism for God's realm, or the eternal, for heaven is created and therefore a part of the temporal universe experienced by man. At some level this heaven is also visible and material, though at another level it may represent a part of the universe which remains mysterious, unmeasured and unexplored (Jer. 31:36 MT), not known in the degree to which the earth's surface is known.[31]
Gen. 1:8 identifies heaven with the "expanse" and several other verses refer to the "expanse of heaven" (1:14, 15, 17, 20). This expanse becomes the home for the sun, moon, and stars (1:16-17), as well as birds (1:20).
"Heaven" translates a Hebrew word which is not a open-ended plural, but a dual noun, i.e., something that occurs in pairs. Thus "the heavens" is just as misleading a translation as "heaven." If we take the word in a literal sense, it would suggest that there are two parts to heaven. A possible interpretation: the day sky and the night sky. Once again, this heaven is material in nature.
But what if the apparent dualism of “heaven and earth” is only a convenient way to observe the whole of existence, as what is above and below, while in fact existence is a unity: even as God is One, so the universe is one. If that were so, then our category heaven would be an artificial construct, a very human way to comprehend what cannot be touched. Whether heaven is material or spiritual, temporal or eternal, misses the point of view, the human perspective, which loves to categorize, and prefers dual categories.
...and earth.
As just noted, the phrase “heaven and earth” may not be intended to divide, but to sum up, all that exists. Still, the creation narrative moves back and forth between heaven and earth, from the expanse above to the waters and dry land below. Ultimately the focus of creation comes to rest on earth, and then man. Here is the sometimes awkward encounter of creation and evolution.
The evolution of life on earth, whether by natural selection or symbiosis or other processes, is a factual description of observed phenomena (e.g., fossils embedded in measured stratum). That the Bible does not “agree” with evolution hardly casts doubt on the latter. Genesis 1 identifies a cast of characters and outlines a plot in the story of origins; character development and interpretation of the plot is a task for scientific discovery.
Is the God of creation also the God of evolution? Obviously, for God to be God, for God to be truth and not fiction, this must be so. Just as believing in something doesn’t make it true, so denying the results of scientific discovery or scoffing at well-reasoned scientific theories doesn’t honor God or faith.
In any case, God is present in the formation of earth and present in the evolution of life on earth. In the process, God does not cease to be God nor does evolution cease to be evolution: we hold the former as true and the latter as factual. God’s presence does not overwhelm natural processes: he does not mark them with his signature. Rather, God’s presence fills those processes with his anonymous glory. “God is present on every occasion and active in every event. From the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, there is no getting beyond the presence of God.”[32]
God’s presence does not necessarily extend to design. Just as the argument from design models God after man, for man is a designer of things, so to equate creation with design is to view God’s relationship to his creation through human eyes. In what sense can God create and not design? God could be the source of energy behind creation and evolution without designing or determining any specific outcomes. “When you send your breath, they are created, and you renew the surface of the earth.” (Psalm 104:30) But we can not know with any certainty the way that God relates to his creation.[33] God remains the ultimate mystery of the universe in spite of our best efforts to limit him to our way of relating to things.
If God is not held to be the Grand Designer, the architect of the earth’s forms, then why invoke God as Creator? In addition to what has just been said, that God may be the source without being the designer, we may also say:
The development of life forms on earth may well be a rare, possibly even a singular, event in the universe. It has become commonplace to say the opposite, that in the “billions and billions” of planetary systems surely life must be present elsewhere, given the necessary materials and conditions of life are present. Really? Life as we know it on earth depends on the coincidence of so many factors, even the size and position of the earth’s moon, that repetition in other parts of the universe seems not impossible but unlikely, a rarity instead of a plurality. There is a reason why aliens of higher intelligence and more sophisticated technology have not contacted us: they probably don’t exist. Until proven otherwise, we humans are the highest known form of intelligent life in the universe. The probable singularity of advanced life forms on earth may, with justification, suggest something more than coincidence, perhaps something we choose to call God.
And God created man...
Man is here presented as the culmination of the creative acts of God, which of course he is! Human evolution is a subject studied by... humans. God is a concept conceived by... humans. Neither the dolphin nor the daffodil is the least bit concerned with such matters as their own origin or the source of the world in which they live. Science and religion are uniquely human interests.
Man is unique, but not uniquely created. Human evolution has taken place alongside the development of other life forms, just as in the text man is created on the same day as other land animals. The miracle which is man came out of evolutionary processes such as natural selection, by random mutation of the DNA shared with all life forms. And yet, in the end result we may catch a glimpse of God, “who does great and unsearchable things, wonders without number.” (Job 5:9)
... in his image
The unavoidable tendency of religious thought reverses this act: God is described in human terms, and imagined as fulfilling human aspirations and values. Not only are such all-too-human passions as anger and vengeance ascribed to God, the divine may equally be made to fit into human categories when goodness and love are identified with God. While man is created in the image of God, it does not follow that God may be uncritically fashioned in the image of man.
Isaiah asks, “To whom will you liken God? What likeness will you compare him to?” (40:18) Isaiah is ridiculing idolatry: comparing God to a man-made image. But in Genesis 1 the opposite is presented: man is likened to God, he is compared to the likeness of God. In other words, God is the original, man is the copy, God is the reality, man is the shadow[34], God is the subject, man is the object.
The question remains: In what manner is man created in the image of God? In what sense is man compared to God?
A significant clue: Adam birthed Seth “in his likeness, according to his image.” (Gen. 5:3) This suggests that the relation of God to man is in some way comparable to the relation of a man to his son. Just as a man and his son are not the same but uniquely share a physical resemblance and certain character traits, so God and man uniquely share the image of the Creator. In addition, the son acknowledges the man as his father. So we read, “Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?” (Deut. 32:6b) And, “You are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” (Isa. 64:7 MT) In the words of Solomon Dubnow, man is “capable of an intelligent acknowledgment of his creator.”[35]
Given the assumption that God is without material form, the shared image must be immaterial. So Maimonides identifies man’s intellect with the image of God: “As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses..., this perception has been compared--though only apparently, not in truth--to the Divine perception.... On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty...”[36]
Another clue: the creation account in Genesis, chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, is part of the “priestly” source. A major theme of this source, holiness, may be what is intended by the image of God. Three times the precept is repeated to Israel, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44,45; 19:2) Again, we read, “Be holy to your God.” (Num. 15:40) The design of the tabernacle and the services of the priests are a display of holiness. Any thing or person dedicated to God’s exclusive use is holy. God’s name is holy, i.e., set apart from common use. Likewise, in the order of creation man is distinguished from other creatures and placed in a special relationship with God. The human creature is uniquely endowed with an intellectual capacity to make distinctions, and specifically to distinguish between the sacred (what belongs to God) and the profane (what is for common use). This is holiness.

[1] As of 2011, with the observations of satellite-based telescopes and probes providing further confirmation, the Big Bang theory remains the answer of mainstream science to the origin and expansion of the universe: it all began 13.7 billion years ago in a hot and dense substance the size of a pinhead, then expanded and cooled into the structures we observe today. Even if we assume the theory to be correct (and I do until a better theory comes along), the source of the pinhead remains a mystery and a matter of pure speculation. One popular idea has the universe originating within a multiverse; unfortunately for science this multiverse theory cannot be tested or verified, sort of like... God. For a review of the current state of knowledge, see Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
[2] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1955 edition), p. 27.
[3] Maimonides seems to hold this view when he defines eternity as "the necessity of existence," argues that God alone is eternal, and says that time, as a measurement of the motion of material objects, has no relation to God, who is immaterial. See Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed (trans. Friedlander, 1904 edition), Part I, chs. 52, 63; Part II, ch. 13. However, that time is measured does not mean that time is limited to its measurement; surely time exists whether it is measured (or used as a measurement) or not. For example, we can experience the passage of time without calculating (or even wondering) how much time has passed.
[4] I hesitate to use the word dimension as that might imply that eternity is measurable. After all, a dimension is a measurement. I am not sure the time-eternity relation is dimensional in this literal sense. On the other hand, if eternity is not measurable then is this view different from the oppositional? A possible answer: Not everything real and knowable is directly measurable. Examples might include qualitative relationships such as tonality in music, or pararhymes in poetry. That these examples are both artificial constructs of the human intellect and not "real" phenomena given by nature, that they are mental and not physical, does not negate their very real existence in a universe that includes the human intellect and its mental processes. Other examples: aesthetic properties such as beauty, linguistic forms such as names, ordinal (as opposed to cardinal) numerical relationships.
[5] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: The Noonday Press, 1951), p. 205. He also writes: "Eternity is another word for unity.... The opposite of eternity is diffusion not time.... Time is eternity broken in space, like a ray of light refracted in the water." (Ibid., p. 112.)
[6] Or, its
[7] Or, would
[8] As any well-versed atheist will say, atheism is the absence of belief in God, not an assertion that God does not exist. However, the naturalist does deny even the possibility of the supernatural, hence also what is usually meant by God.
[9] Undefined? "God cannot be distilled to a well-defined idea. All concepts fade when applied to His essence." And: "Definitions take the name of God in vain. We have neither an image nor a definition of God." (Heschel, op. cit., pp. 108, 97.) Of course Heschel does not leave our understanding of God here. His main point is that the reality of God cannot be limited by our definitions of him, as if God were an object of our study. Rather, if God is God, then God is the subject (the Creator), we are the object of his concern (the creature). Our possible knowledge of God is limited, but his knowledge of us is what matters after all. "To think of God is to expose ourselves to Him, to conceive of ourselves as a reflection of His reality." (Ibid., p. 128).
[10] Even the assumption of a natural "order" is suspect. Friedrich Nietzsche writes, "Let us even beware of believing that the universe is a machine: it is certainly not constructed for one purpose.... The total character of the world... is in all eternity chaos--in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms.... Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities.... Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word 'accident' has meaning." (From “The Gay Science,” Book 3, section 109, as quoted in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson and Duncan Large, Blackwell Publishing, 2006. p. 219.)
[11] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1947), 1978 edition.
[12] Ibid., pp. 12-24 (chapter entitled, "The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism").
[13] Ibid., p. 22.
[14] Maimonides, op. cit., Part I, chs. 50, 52.
[15] Cf. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Time, 1933), p. 162.
[16] Benedict de Spinoza, "A Theological-Political Treatise," ch. 4, in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza (New York: Dover, 1951), p. 82.
[17] Or that God acts supernaturally through miracles.
[18] Ibid., p. 86.
[19] Cf. the words attributed to Paul in Acts 17:28.
[20] Benedict de Spinoza, "Epistle 21," quoted in Will Durant, op. cit., pp. 162-163.
[21] In fact, Spinoza distinguishes between reason and faith, between the philosophical and the religious understanding of God. The latter is guided solely by Scripture and intended for obedience. It is unclear whether Spinoza would place the unity of God under reason or faith.
[22] Heschel, op. cit., p. 107.
[23] Excerpt from the blessing before the Shema, weekday morning service.
[24] It does not seem necessary to require a condition of simultaneity between the eternal and the temporal. While the phenomena (or set of phenomena) we call creation may originate in the eternal with God the Creator, the transference (or emanation) of the phenomena into our temporal universe does not imply a simple one-to-one relationship. For a contrary view, which begins with a very different and more restricted concept of eternity, cf. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, "Eternity," in Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions (Blackwell Publishing, 1999), pp. 42-53.
[25] In two possible ways this continuous creation might manifest itself, i.e., be observable and verifiable: (1) The sum of the matter and energy of the universe would continue to expand even as the universe itself expands; and/or (2) the complexity of structures within the universe would continue to increase, e.g., the formation of galaxies, the formation (and increasing complexity) of life. About the latter there is no question: continuous creation within the universe does take place, with or without God. About the former, at best it may be possible: the question is not whether it is consistent with current understanding (it is not) but whether it is consistent with current knowledge, though not proven. The current assumption is that the universe is a closed system, and as a result the sum of the matter and energy of the universe is constant. This assumption may be confused with the law of conservation, which says that within the universe energy is not created or lost, just transformed, when energy is turned into mass or mass into energy.
[26] The Hebrew behind the translation energy has several specific meanings. In Psalm 104 it can mean wind (v. 4), breath (v. 29), or spirit (v. 30), all of which are represented by the (intended as more general) term energy.
[27] Maimonides, op. cit., Part 3, ch. 16, p. 422.
[28] For Maimonides the science of the day was Aristotle.
[29] And in particular Israel.
[30] Although it must be admitted that permanence is often ascribed to both heaven and earth, as in Psa. 78:69 and 119:89-90. But according to Psa. 102:26-28 MT even heaven and earth will perish; only God truly remains unchanged forever.
[31] But in this respect heaven is not unique, for the same is said of the foundations of the earth (cf. Jer. 31:36).
[32] Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 23.
[33] “There are only two things I hold certain. Being is a miracle, and the true nature of the miracle is beyond our knowing. The terms and categories we employ when talking about ultimate things... are crude signifiers, markers made of clay. To speak of mind or matter or design or desire or chance or necessity is to peer through a lens that distorts other regions of the truth as it brings a particular region into focus.” (John Daniel, “The Untellable Story,” Oregon Quarterly, Summer 2002, p. 19.)
[34] Compare the literal meaning of the root צלם, to be obscure, as in a shadow, translated here as image.
[35] Solomon Dubnow, from the Biur, a Hebrew commentary on the Torah he co-authored with Moses Mendelssohn; quoted in a shiur by Nechama Leibowitz.
[36] Maimonides, op. cit., Part 1, ch. 1 (italics mine).

Job and the God of good and evil

Job 2:3

Then ‘God’ said to the Adversary, Have you considered my servant Job, for there is no one on earth like him, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil, and still he maintains his integrity (cf. blameless), although you incited me against him to ruin him undeservedly.

Job 2:9-10

Then his wife said to him, Do you still maintain your integrity? Curse God and die! But he said to her, ... Shall we accept the good from God and not accept the evil?...


considered (lit., set your heart to)

maintains (lit., adheres to) ruin (lit., swallow)

undeservedly (the Hebrew word is often rendered graciously, but here used in a negative sense, without reason, capriciously)

curse (the Hebrew word often means to bless, but here again used in a negative sense)

Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, chapter 10, comment on Exod. 20:23 (translation adapted from Jacob Lauterbach)

You shall not behave towards me in the manner in which others behave toward their deities. When good comes to them they honor their gods, as it is said, “Then they will offer a sacrifice to their fishing nets and burn incense in front of them. These have made us prosper, they will claim.” (Habakkuk 1:16) But when evil comes to them they curse their gods, as it is said, “And it will come about that when they are hungry they will be enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God.” (Isa. 8:21) But you, if I bring good to you, give thanks, and when I bring suffering to you, give thanks. And thus David says, “[How can I repay the Lord for all his bountiful dealings toward me?] I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:12-13) “I found trouble and sorrow, but I called on the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:3-4) And so also Job says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21): for the measure of goodness and also for the measure of trouble.... “Shall we receive good at the hand of God but not receive evil?” (Job 2:9b)

As a general and unqualified statement, it simply is not true to say “God is good.”

Nevertheless, the goodness of God has been widely accepted as axiomatic in both Christianity and Judaism, despite Scriptural testimony to the contrary. There is, of course, the often repeated refrain in the Psalms, "The Lord is good, his kindness is everlasting." These are fitting words of praise and thanksgiving, offered up to God by his faithful worshippers. We should not, however, ignore the equally heartfelt words of distress and complaint, also found frequently in Scripture. Psalm 44 is perhaps the clearest antidote to a naive view of God's goodness.

God is good? To whom, under what conditions, and in what manner? For example, when the phrase "God is good" appears at the beginning of Psalm 73, the context both limits its scope and casts doubt on its validity: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me....” (Psalm 73:1-2a) To Israel, to the pure in heart. Do I mean to suggest that God is good only to Israel? No, that is not the point. What is the point? That the goodness of God is not universal in scope, that goodness and God should not be equated in the same way as, say, omnipotence and God. A limitation is given here. God is good? To whom? To the wicked? To the righteous? Actually the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no, as a reading of the remainder of Psalm 73 makes clear. Under certain conditons and in certain ways God may indeed be good to the wicked, or not good to the righteous.

“Surely” is parallel to “But as for me....” In other words, the author first states the teaching, what he has been told is true, then introduces reasons to doubt its absolute truth. His own observations of the real world almost led him to reject the teaching and abandon the path of purity: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure....” (v. 13) Why serve God, why seek holiness, why bother? As another witness to cruel and senseless destruction proclaimed, “There is no justice and there is no Judge.” (Attributed to Elisha b. Abuyah) That will get you excommunicated!

Another common but simplistic view suggests a trade off or balance between God’s power and his goodness, as two universal and seemingly contradictory attributes of God. What I question is the assumption that goodness is universal. To say, “God is good,” is no more a universal than to say, “God is love”: goodness, like love, is something that God does according to his own purposes, when and where and to whom he chooses. This is not a very appealing view of God, but what are we after? Do we want an imaginary God who appeals to our human sentiments, or do we want to speak the truth about God, i.e., the God we encounter in the Bible?

Sadly, the tendency is to not care about such issues until the undeserved comes to us personally, and then objectivity is thrown aside. When a matter becomes personal we seek someone to blame, and, of course, God is the first target. For example, my father was defeated by diabetes and my mother was cruelly destroyed by dementia. Why God? Why indeed, for what do we expect, that God should intervene and stop all physical conditions and their natural consequences? Where is the blame then? Not with God, but also not with my father or mother, for they were subject to the same physical limitations as the rest of us. Did they contribute to the onset of their illness? Who can say, and what does it matter: why must we find someone to blame? They went “the way of all the earth” (I Kings 2:2), all human beings will meet their end, some sooner, perhaps only a few days after birth as with my only sister, some later, as with my two grandmothers who lived on into their 90s. My sister was just as blameless as my grandmothers.

On the other hand, don’t fall for the line that suffering has beneficial results, that we learn from our experience of suffering, that suffering improves us. Tell me, what did my mother learn from dementia? How was her life improved? Please tell me! She was devoted to God, she loved to praise the Lord, and that too was taken from her. So when I said, cruelly destroyed, I meant just that, without casting blame toward heaven.

A more balanced view is called for: God as Sovereign is ultimately responsible for both the good and the evil in the world, ultimately responsible but not directly culpable, just as the owner of property is ultimately responsible (or liable) for any harm that comes as a result of how the property is used. The owner may have no direct involvement in wrongdoing yet bear responsibility anyway. So we read: “The earth and its fullness belongs to the Lord, the inhabited world and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1) However, if we say that God is omniscient and omnipotent, then the analogy falls short of explaining the extent of God’s responsibility. The property owner may be unaware of and/or powerless to prevent harmful consequences, but can God use that excuse?

Job doesn’t think so. When the innocent are destroyed while the wicked gain unjustly, Job lays responsibility with God: “If it is not he, then who is it?” (9:24b) God is fully aware and fully capable of protecting the innocent and bringing the wicked to justice, so if events point in the opposite direction, who but God can bear responsibility?

Job was correct to complain to God, even bitterly, and when his friends made excuses for God, to counter their claims: “Will you speak falsely (i.e., lie) on God’s behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him? Will you show him partiality? Will you argue the case for God?” (13:7-8) Job spoke bluntly, “God has wronged me!” (19:6) He wanted his day in court to challenge the Almighty.

He was, however, wrong to repent “in dust and ashes” (42:6), as if God had clarified anything with the verbose exposition (chapters 38-41) of his great power and wisdom! Job was right the first time. When Job questioned God’s justice (cf. 40:8) he did so with wonder and awe, with reverence for God’s greatness, not with insolence or unbelief. “With [God] are wisdom and power; to him belong counsel and understanding.” (12:13) “He stands alone, who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases.” (23:13) Job simply asked for an explanation, to be shown how the evil he suffered could be reconciled with God’s justice. In the end he didn’t get a fair hearing! God’s response was to intimidate and overwhelm Job, to win the argument through terror and bluster, not truth.

Do I then condemn God as unjust, capricious, a cosmic bully who confuses power with truth? Not at all. I just reject the words attributed to the Almighty by the author of Job. God’s response to Job evades the responsibility of God for both the good and the evil in his universe, and brushes off Job’s specific concern with justice.

The problem of evil has two sides. On the one hand, God cannot escape responsibility with excuses or bluster volunteered by those who, well intentioned, seek to vindicate the One they love and serve. On the other hand, the problem of evil is also manmade: it is the problem of religion that all too easily turns into superstition. Especially for those who hope for a personal relationship with a good God, disappointment turns praising into cursing, and suffering turns faith into bitterness.