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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Understanding God as an imperfect being of doubts and regrets

by John MacBeath Watkins

Theodicy is the branch of theology that attempts to prove that God is omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. It is an Enlightenment term coined by Gottfried Liebniz in 1710, in an essay in French the title of which translates to Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil.

Theodicy was needed because the Enlightenment was a time when religious authority was loosing its prominent place in Western thought and being replaced by logic as our dominant mode of thought. The picture of God that it painted was one of logical perfection, but in practice, also one of logical paradox. If God is benevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, why is there evil in the world?

It reminds me of the early attempts to understand the solar system, in which it was supposed that the heavens must be perfect ('cause it's heaven, right?) therefore the planets must orbit in perfect circles, and by the way, the Bible says the sun goes around the earth, so you've got to have that, too.

Thus, Ptolemaic astronomy and extremely complex amilary spheres that attempted to model the solar system, like the one at right:

But suppose we did not require God to be perfect. Suppose we assumed that he simply existed, and all the efforts of religion have simply been efforts by his creations to understand him (here I will ask that atheists among my readers suspend their disbelief.)

We know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln existed, and was powerful, and touched many lives. Yet we do not assume that biographies of the man are infallible, or that he was.

Suppose, then, that not only is the Pope not infallible, neither is God. Suppose the Bible was written by human scribes, who while they may have been divinely inspired, remained human and therefore recorded things in a fallible manner (here I will ask that Believers among my readers suspend their belief.)

What picture, then, do we get of God?

He likes bald men, even sending she-bears to maul the children who mocked his prophet Elisha for his baldness. He lets the devil goad him into putting Job through really horrible times just to test whether Job really loves him. He destroys the world with a great flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah with fire, both times because he sees the people he has created have gone wrong.

Are these the acts of a logical, benevolent god who knows all and can do anything? Perhaps the character of God becomes easier to reconcile if we see him as a personality. One that requires constant praise, loses his temper, makes mistakes and has regrets. And why would such a god create the devil? I know, I know, Lucifer started out as a promising young angel and rebelled. But would an omniscient god create an angel he couldn't get along with?

In this short story, I explored the idea that god's isolation, as a consciousness that had no world to perceive, would have caused him to begin to hallucinate, which I believe is basically compatible with Bishop Berkeley's theology. In If I Stop Dreaming, a man realizes that he is God, and everything is his fault, wars, for example, being conflicts within himself. And in this story, God is full of doubts, so what's he going to do, pray? Who is he to turn to?

In God of Doubt, Satan is God's companion, in fact, he might be called God's doubt, a part of himself that questions his motives and his certainties, that part of him, in fact, that forces him to justify his actions and sets moral limits. Without Satan, there is no evil, and without evil, there is no limit on what one might do.

This approaches the central mystery of God, why he would create evil. Remember that the categories we think with are embedded in language. Words describe the meanings we use as categories with which we think. Subtract the concept of evil, and the meaning subsides into the remaining categories of thought, which makes our thought a little more vague.

Jung thought that human archetypes are physically inherited, a part of the human brain. I believe that there are archetypes, but they become part of the structure of thought as we learn language and its uses. Archetypes are bigger than words, just as modules are bigger than commands in object-oriented programming.

To understand the archetype of God, then, is to understand ourselves a little better. And that archetype exists, whether or not a real God exists. That abstract creature of theodicy that is perfect in its benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience, tells us nothing about the God humanity either met or invented in the writing of the Bible. That imperfect creature of rages and mercy has a personality, and therefore a relationship with mankind.


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