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Monday, December 08, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 3--Creation

Boyd's "warfare theology" rests on a doctrine of creation as an act whereby God gives radical freedom to His creatures. This means that, for Boyd, the ultimate explanation of the acts of free beings is to be found in their own choice, not in some further cause such as the providential purpose of God. The world is what it is not solely because of God's will, but because of the interplay of many wills, which may be acting against God. This doesn't undermine God's sovereignty, which is shown precisely in the fact that God can bring about His ultimate purposes through interacting with many free created wills. But it does mean that in the short run many things happen that God does not want. Hence, the creation of free beings involves the possibility of warfare, and this warfare is real, consisting of real opposition to God which God (within the limits He has set Himself) can only overcome through a lengthy struggle.

Boyd uses this "warfare theodicy" to explain not only moral evil but also natural evil. ("Theodicy"=a defense of the wisdom and justice of God's actions in the world in the face of the problem of evil; "moral evil"=the actions of free creatures that go against the moral law; "natural evil"=things that cause harm and suffering but are not in themselves moral actions, such as diseases, earthquakes, etc.) The standard Christian "free will defense" (evil exists because God creates free beings, which means that these beings may choose to act in evil ways) does not do much to explain natural evil. Why, for instance, is there an Ebola virus? Christians traditionally tend to say that natural evil results from the Fall. We get sick and die, natural disasters happen, etc., because the sin of Adam and Eve caused something to go awry in our relationship with the natural world, and indeed in the natural world's relationship to itself. The "groaning of creation" mentioned in Romans 8 would then be one of the consequences of the sin of Adam. Conservative Protestants generally hold this view in a more thoroughgoing way than do Catholics. Most of us who grew up in conservative evangelical contexts were taught that all animals were vegetarians before the Fall, for instance. Catholics, particularly those following the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas ("Thomists") are more likely to say that nature is "red in tooth and claw" because that's the way God made it. Without sentient beings, this isn't in itself an evil thing.  A triceratops being eaten by a tyrannosaur is experiencing some degree of suffering, but this is not, in the Thomistic view, incompatible with the goodness of creation. The Fall, in this view, is seen as the explanation for human evil and the suffering that flows from our evil choices. This would include human sickness and death, but not animal suffering. The most defensible version of this view would hold, as I understand it, that human beings were created in order to bring order to creation, which would include reducing animal suffering, the potential for natural disasters, etc. In other words, the evolutionary process, guided by God, produced human beings, whose task it was to rule creation with justice and mercy. But because humans messed up, creation has continued to be racked by natural evils, to which "moral evil" has been added.

Boyd, in contrast, believes that natural evils and moral evils have a single source: the activity of created wills which choose to rebel against God. This involves giving Satan and evil spirits generally a much more important role in salvation history than Western theology for the past millennium or so has given them. But Boyd's argument goes beyond simply suggesting that Satan is behind particular disasters. Creation itself, as we know it, is full of suffering and conflict. Boyd argues that this was not God's original plan. Thus, the world as we know it does not reflect God's purposes entirely, but is the result of a conflict between God and rebellious "gods," principally Satan. Animals may be carnivorous, he suggests, because of Satan's influence. Extremes of hot and cold may result from the same source.

A case can be made that this is perilously close to the ancient heresy of Manicheanism, which taught that certain kinds of animals and other aspects of the physical world were created by Satan and not by God. Of course, Boyd does not believe that Satan is an independent source of anything. I'm not sure that his view is heretical, but I'd like to see more discussion of it. To what extent does Boyd's theology allow us to say that a tiger, say, is good? If the tiger is only carnivorous because Satan has messed with creation, then how can we see the tiger as a reflection of God's glory? Isn't carnivorousness kind of essential to the nature of a tiger?

Another difficulty Boyd faces is that Genesis 1 seems to portray a "conflict-free" creation. God creates solely through speech, and finds creation "very good." This in contrast to other Near Eastern creation stories in which Marduk or some other god creates through defeating a monster of chaos. As Boyd notes, there are other passages in the OT that seem to refer to such a cosmic battle--but Genesis 1 doesn't appear to be one of them. Boyd deals with this difficulty by tentatively embracing a form of the "gap theory"--the view that v. 1 of Genesis describes an initial act of creation, followed by some kind of cosmic catastrophe resulting in "tohu vabohu" chaos. The rest of Gen. 1 would then describe the re-creation of the world following this catastrophe. The cosmic battle referred to cryptically in passages such as Isaiah 51:9 and Psalm 74:13-14 would then have taken place between v. 1 and v. 2. Boyd draws support from the work of Arthur Custance, a creationist author and probably the best-known proponent of the Gap Theory. This, I have to admit, was one of Boyd's most surprising moves for me, underlining how fundamentally conservative Boyd's approach to Scripture is (or was when these books were written). He has certainly made me take the gap theory seriously again for the first time in quite a while. At the same time, I'm not sure it does all the work Boyd wants it to do. Boyd seems to think (as other advocates do) that it reconciles a literal reading of Genesis 1 with the scientific record, whether one accepts evolution or not. But I don't see this. A literal 7-day "re-creation" is no more compatible with the scientific evidence as we have it than a literal 7-day creation. Boyd also suggests that the extinction of carnivorous dinosaurs was part of God's correction of a creation that had become hopelessly corrupted by satanic forces. Well, maybe. . . I'm still chewing on that one!

The bigger problem, I think, is that God's "very good" would apply neither to the original creation (corrupted by satanic forces before the seven-day narrative begins) nor to creation as we know it, but to something that only existed briefly. Perhaps I'm trying to take Boyd too literally here. Perhaps his point is simply that creation is a constant struggle between God and the forces seeking to corrupt creation. But he seems to think that his ideas constitute some kind of olive branch to conservative Christians who want a more literal reading of Gen. 1, and I don't really see it.

That being said, the fundamental issue with regard to Boyd's doctrine of creation is whether it is too "Manichean." And I think this feeds into the larger question of whether Boyd's theology as a whole does justice to the complex interplay between God's good purposes in creation and the rebellious wills of fallen beings. Boyd speaks of God bringing good out of evil, but because his main concern is to "rescue" God from being involved in responsibility for evil (including "natural evil"), he does not use this theme in as thorough-going a manner as I think he needs to do in order to have a coherent and orthodox position. With regard to the specific issue of "natural evil," any position that does not allow us to look at a tiger or an earthquake and see it as a reflection of God's glory is a flawed position. (OK, I grant that Ebola and tapeworms fit Boyd's theories better!) In the next post, I'll address this bigger question: how do Boyd's understanding of "God at war" and his doctrine of creation function to address questions of theodicy, and how does this theodicy compare to what Boyd calls the "blueprint model"?

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Immanentizing the eschaton

Conservatives are fond of saying that one shouldn't "immanentize the eschaton." What else, I ask, is one to do with an eschaton?

What they mean by this, of course, is that we should not use violent means to bring about a utopian society. Of course we shouldn't. But the violent means used by Marxists and other secular seekers of the Eschaton are themselves decidedly means of "this age." Marxists justify totalitarianism precisely because the perfect classless society isn't here yet. When it is, coercion will be unnecessary. People will work joyfully and painlessly for a few hours every day and then sit around and make art, or whatever. But the road to this utopia is a winding one and leads through a grim and joyless land where party apparatchiks drive around in fancy cars while everyone else goes without. In the utopia, people will happily care for each other and everyone will be equal. But on the road to it, concentration camps and firing squads are a constant presence.

This is not, actually, treating the eschaton as immanent. It is trying to make it immanent. Of course the phrase "immanentizing the eschaton" can mean either of these things. But those who use the term scornfully don't make that distinction. They argue, in fact, for something that looks much more like the Marxist approach (we can't live, right now, by the values that will prevail when the utopia comes) in the name of rejecting Marxism and similar ideologies. They argue for supporting corrupt dictatorships, for waging ruthless war when necessary, for accepting inequality and social deprivation, in the name of a proper respect for the transcendence of the Eschaton. And if anyone suggests that may be we ought to be living more like citizens of the kingdom, they cry "Immanentizing the eschaton," and conjure up images of concentration camps. This is bogus.

To try to bring about by force the state of affairs we imagine to be characteristic of the Kingdom is indeed a demonic delusion. But that's precisely because force isn't a characteristic of the Kingdom in the first place. The Kingdom should be immanent in our practices. Se should strive to do the kinds of things that make the Kingdom present, while knowing that the Kingdom will never come in its fullness through our efforts.






Thursday, November 13, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology part 2--God at war in Scripture

The first of Boyd's two books on "warfare theology,"  God at War, focuses primarily on the Scriptural evidence for a God who fights evil. Boyd places this picture of God over against what he calls "blueprint theology" in which God stands above the fray, having ordained in detail everything that happens. Boyd argues that the "blueprint" view is both un-Scriptural and practically harmful, because it leads Christians to accept evil as part of God's plan rather than fighting against it. i'll say more about that in later posts. Hence, I am omitting consideration of chapter 1 of God at War, "Hearing Zosia," not because it is unimportant, but because it is so powerful and so important that it needs to be discussed separately, along with similar material in the second book.

Much of God at War outlines the Biblical evidence for "warfare theology," from Genesis to Revelation, with the first part of the book naturally dealing with the OT and the second with the NT.  Chapter 2, "Locking up the Raging Sea," draws a broad picture of the ancient Near Eastern world as one dominated by a consciousness of hostile, demonic forces. Chapter 3 speaks more specifically of the primordial monsters of chaos and their role in the creation story, chap. 4 deals with the "gods" and their relationship to YHWH, the God of Israel, and chap. 5 addresses Satan in particular.

Boyd argues that the Old Testament posits the existence of a number of superhuman beings, many of whom (the "gods") have genuine authority over human beings, particularly over individual nations and cities. The evidence, for this, is of course plentiful--there are a number of OT passages that speak of YHWH addressing a council of gods, or imply that other nations have their own gods which have given them territory, etc., or command Israelites not to worship other gods, with the implication that these gods are real. For many modern Christians, these passages are somewhat of an embarrassment. Many scholars have spoken of a development within the OT from "henotheism," the view that there are many gods but that YHWH is the one Israel worships, to true "monotheism," which holds that only one God is real. The former view is often spoken of as more primitive or obviously erroneous, and some conservative scholars are reluctant to admit that any of the canonical writers actually held it. Boyd bites the bullet: of course the OT speaks of other gods as real. Furthermore, Boyd does not argue--as many Christians do--that if real these "gods" are simply "demons" who are enemies of God and have no legitimate authority. Rather, picking up on Jewish and early Christian hints, Boyd argues that the "gods" were given genuine authority over creation by God, which they then misused.

This allows Boyd to portray Satan, in chap. 5, as the most powerful and malevolent of these "gods." Here he is in line with early Christian theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa, who believed that Satan was originally the angel in charge of our planet (a view picked up by Lewis in the Space Trilogy). However, there's a certain jarring shift between the earlier chapters, which draw richly on ancient Near Eastern mythology and take it seriously as a picture of the world, and chapter 5. After all, there is no "Satan" in ANE mythology. Nor is Satan mentioned in most of the OT. One can certainly think of explanations as to why both Israel's pagan neighbors and Israelites for most of their history would be unaware of this particularly powerful and evil "god." (Perhaps Satan works through minions, and the Israelites were aware only of the minions until late in their history, while their polytheistic neighbors had even less reason to look behind the "gods" they worshiped to see who was really pulling the strings.) But as Boyd treats the subject, it feels too much as if he is suddenly bringing in Satan because Scripture and Christian doctrine require him to.

A similar problem is that, as Boyd admits, the OT does not in fact have anywhere near as much to say about demons and evil spirits as other ANE sources do. The absence of such language, with a few exceptions, is a striking difference between Israel and its neighbors. Similarly, the Israelite creation story is free from the conflict that marks many other creation narratives from surrounding cultures. Whereas Babylonian and Canaanite myths involve a god battling a chaos monster to create the world, Genesis 1 describes a single almighty God speaking the universe into existence. Boyd mines the text for hints that in fact a cosmic battle does lie in the background of the Genesis 1 creation story. Also, following scholars such as Frank Moore Cross, Boyd points to other passages in the OT that speak of God "smiting the heads of the dragons in the waters" or "wounding Leviathan" as part of the work of creation. Cross and other historical-critical scholars see these passages as pointing to an earlier, "mythological" layer of Hebrew tradition, which has been heavily edited in the version we now have. Boyd's position is a bit more complex than this. He argues that the OT downplays the role of evil spirits as well as the "warfare" aspect of creation because the primary need in OT times was to stress God's sovereignty over creation and the qualitative difference between God and other superhuman beings. Thus, rather than a mythological layer that was buried by more monotheistic developments, Boyd sees a subtle, understated theme of conflict between God and the forces of chaos and evil, becoming more explicit in Daniel and in the NT.

Another common scholarly approach to the Old Testament which Boyd rejects is the "demonic-in-YHWH theory." In this view, the earlier texts of the OT portray God as in some sense morally ambiguous. Evil spirits, such as the one who afflicted Saul  or the one who deceived Ahab, are sent by YHWH and seem to act at his bidding. In 2 Samuel, YHWH tempts David to conduct a census, thus bringing YHWH's wrath on him (whereas the presumably later 1 Chronicles account ascribes the temptation to Satan). Even in Job, Satan is seen as a member of the heavenly court rather than an enemy of God. Boyd rejects this interpretation at every point. He argues that while God may use Satan and evil spirits to accomplish just judgment, and while God always seeks to bring good out of the evil they do, these spirits should always be seen as acting in conscious opposition to God's good purposes. 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel describe two different agents behind the "tempting of David," because both God and Satan wanted it to happen, for very different reasons. Ironically, this sounds a lot like Calvin's view that Job's calamities were caused by God, Satan, and evil human beings at the same time, but that each agent was acting with a different motivation. The difference is that Calvin thinks this is _always_ the case, while Boyd thinks it just happened to be the case in specific instances. In his own comments on Job, Boyd argues that Satan is portrayed as God's antagonist, not God's servant. Boyd takes God's question "where have you come from" to mean something like "what are you doing here?" Supporters of the "Satan as member of the heavenly court" theory would take it to mean something more like "which of my subjects have you been spying on for me today?" But even if it doesn't mean that Satan was acting on God's orders, I don't see that it necessarily indicates surprise.

This is, to my mind, one of Boyd's less successful arguments in God at War. Nothing whatever in 1 Kings 22 indicates that the "lying spirit" was an enemy of YHWH. Boyd brings that assumption to the text. 1 Samuel 16:14 poses even more difficulties for Boyd, saying that "an evil spirit from YHWH" afflicted Saul. that sounds, on the face of it, as if evil spirits come from YHWH. Now the word "ra'," usually translated as "evil," doesn't have to mean moral evil. So "evil spirit" could be interpreted as "spirit causing harm." But that won't yield the "warfare" view of even natural evil that Boyd is after. Therefore, Boyd interprets all such passages as referring to occasional instances in which God and evil spirits are after the same thing.

I don't think the best way to describe these difficult passages is to speak of YHWH as "demonic." But it does seem that authors in the earlier strata of the OT thought about "evil" primarily in terms of harmful, destructive things, and they had no problem saying that God sent these evils in judgment, using "destructive spirits" to do so. After all, the surrounding pagan cultures did not (as far as I know) think of evil spirits in primarily moral terms either. An evil spirit was a destructive spirit. For the authors of passages such as 1 Samuel 16 and 2 Kings 22, what mattered was that YHWH was ultimately in control of events that appeared evil. Of course, this works against Boyd's overall theological argument, but it is quite possible to argue that with fuller revelation, it became clear that God was not directly causing or ordaining these harmful actions so much as using them for his own purposes. Still, these passages in themselves do seem to point toward a somewhat more complex view of divine causality in evil than Boyd wants to allow. Similarly, I think there's a strong case that Satan was first seen as an official in the heavenly court and came to be seen more as an adversary over time. Boyd's basic point that much of the OT rightly emphasizes God's sovereignty, with more emphasis on the demonic in the later parts of the OT and in the NT, would then still be correct. But Boyd's attempt to make all of the OT support this paradigm is not wholly convincing. In part, this is because of Boyd's very conservative reading of Scripture--he doesn't want to ascribe an imperfect understanding to the human authors, but rather sees each passage, in its historical context, as direct divine revelation. (More on this in the next post, on Boyd's understanding of creation.)

The NT poses fewer problems for Boyd's argument. The NT clearly does portray Jesus as being at war with the kingdom of Satan, and the casting out of demons is an important part of Jesus' ministry. I skip over this part of the book not because it is lacking in interest or value, but just because this post has already become very long and there aren't (in my view) a lot of complications or difficulties in this section. The NT clearly supports Boyd's "warfare worldview." (Whether it also supports his open theism is much more dubious--but more on that later.) That being the case, in a Christian paradigm in which the NT fulfills the OT, I don't think the difficulties posed by the OT "evil spirit from YHWH" passages are fatal to Boyd's thesis at all. They do, perhaps, point toward the value of a more paradoxical approach to the question. But overall, Boyd makes a thoroughly compelling argument that the Bible presents God as being genuinely "at war" with rebellious evil forces, and that the overcoming of that rebellion is a central part of Christ's work of redemption and of the Church's mission. Whatever qualifications we may want to make to his criticisms of the "blueprint model," any adequate understanding of God's purposes in the world must take the "warfare" theme seriously.

Thoughts on Isaiah, ISIS, and the Peaceable Kingdom

A few things that jump out at me from reading Isaiah in Hebrew (I'm on chap. 11 now):

1. The word that the NRSV translates as "argue it out" in 1:18 (Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow) is the same word that the NRSV translates as "arbitrate for" in 2:4 (He shall judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, etc.). In other words, the process of divine judgment and "disputation" applies to Israel and the nations. In Israel's case it results in forgiveness; in the nations' case it results in peace. I think this really strengthens N. T. Wright's point that forgiveness is a condition for Israel to be the blessing for the nations that God intends it to be.

2. Similarly, the word translated as "stream" in 2:2 ("all nations shall stream to it") is a verb with the same root as the noun for "river," almost always used of either the Euphrates or the Nile. As far as I know, it is never used of the Jordan. In other words, the apocalyptic event described here involves Jerusalem taking center stage and replacing the classical imperial centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In the present situation, Israel doesn't have its own "river." It is dependent politically on Mesopotamia and Egypt. But in the day that is coming, the nations will "stream" as a great river to Jerusalem.

3. The famous passage in chap. 11 about the shoot from the stump of Jesse follows on language in chap. 10 about God's judgment felling great forests. This is, in other words, the same metaphor as Daniel 4: God will cut down the great tree of imperial/national power, but out of the stump that is left will flower a branch, and that branch will bring in the Peaceable Kingdom.

4. The word for "wolf" (as in "the wolf shall live with the lamb") in 11:6 is "ze'eb." Oreb and Ze'eb ("Raven" and "Wolf") were Midianite bandit chiefs killed by Gideon in the book of Judges. That's interesting because Oreb has just been mentioned in 10:26 ("The LORD of hosts will wield a whip against them [the Assyrians], as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb"). Judgment against the nations is followed by a kingdom in which bandit chiefs like Ze'eb live peaceably with their prey. Which leads me to the final point:

5. The word translated "live with" in 11:6 is "gur," which so far (as I've worked through the narrative and legal parts of the OT) pretty much always has meant "sojourn as a resident alien." The "ger," or "sojourner," or "stranger," is one of the basic categories of helpless people entitled to protection in the Torah. The word always seems to imply a state of powerlessness. The stranger is cut loose from his normal support networks, cast on the mercy of those among whom she lives (like Ruth). But here the wolf is pictured as a stranger, begging the lamb to take him in. It's a complete reversal of the normal power relationship.

It was helpful to read this passage this morning, right after being part of a live online discussion yesterday on the Patheos website discussing a new book about the rise of ISIS and the proper U.S. response to it. My discussion partners, David French (co-author of the book) and Keith Pavlischek, both argued for a strong military response to ISIS, and both admitted that their approach would require the U.S. to be committed to a long conflict with Islamic radicalism. (Dr. Pavlischek commented at one point, "our sons will be having this conversation in a generation about whatever the radical Islamic group is in their day.") I don't have good answers to the question of what should be done right now. (The book argues for giving the Kurds heavy weapons, for a start, and while I have misgivings about such an approach it may be the least bad option at this point.) But in the long term, the use of military power to protect Western interests (and even to protect innocent victims, which is a much more legitimate use of force) will only contribute to the cycle of violence.

Isaiah is no stranger to that cycle. The dominant theme in the early chapters of Isaiah is that God uses the Assyrians to punish Judah, and will in turn judge the Assyrians. But out of this comes the promise that God will raise up a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and that the sevenfold spirit of God will rest on this fragile branch, leading to a kingdom of justice and peace. As Christians, we must, above everything else, bear witness to the in-breaking of that kingdom.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology, part 1

One of the major theological controversies in the evangelical world in the past couple of decades has centered on the theological position known as "open theism." The controversy seems to have died down in recent years, largely because open theists have been expelled from positions of influence in evangelical intellectual culture, not because their arguments have been effectively answered. For anyone reading with this not familiar with the controversy, I should define "open theism" before going further.

Open theism is the view that God does not know future free actions with certainty. God knows everything that exists, but the future does not exist yet, so God only knows the future insofar as it follows necessarily from what exists already. Free created agents, such as angels and human beings, make choices that do not necessarily follow from anything in the past. Hence, those choices are not yet real things that can be known. To say that God knows the unknowable is logically contradictory. Hence, open theists claim that they aren't denying God's omniscience. Open theism rests on the premise that time is a reality for God as well as for us, so that the future really is future for God. In other words, open theism denies the traditional view that God is timeless. Calvinists have naturally been the most active in opposing open theism, but they are not the only ones who see it as a denial of basic Christian orthodoxy.

When I applied for an open position in the Bible and Religion department at Huntington University in the fall of 2005, I was only vaguely aware of this controversy. I had read the exchange between John Sanders and Chris Hall in Christianity Today, and had had a couple of conversations with friends about the issue. But it was not really on my radar screen. As a church historian, I took the premodern Christian tradition as my theological starting point. I was aware of the work of theologians who challenged "classical theist" premises such as divine impassibility, and one of those theologians (Robert Jenson) had made an impression on me. But during the application process at Huntington, and after being offered and accepting a position as assistant professor of Bible and religion, I became acquainted with an entire world of evangelical theology that rested on presuppositions I found distinctly alien. The position I had applied for was open largely because of Sanders' dismissal. (I say "largely" because many of Sanders' theology classes were already being taught by another newly hired faculty member, so that both she and I could claim to be Sanders' "replacement.") Therefore, I realized that I needed to understand the controversy both in order to decide whether I would accept the position and in order to handle the very sensitive situation into which I would be stepping if I did accept it.

What struck me from the beginning was that Sanders' theology began from fundamentally evangelical premises. Ironically, this was precisely what I found unconvincing about it. I was arguably more orthodox than Sanders, but certainly not more evangelical. Sanders' starting point was his deep conviction that God is personal and relates to us as one person to another. For me, this was an aspect of classical Christian theology with which I struggled. I found (and still find) concepts of God as a fountain of life, a deep and dazzling darkness, a consuming fire of holiness easier to relate to than more anthropomorphic concepts. This isn't to deny the centrality of the Incarnation, but to underline it. Sanders seemed to think that the Incarnation is simply the fullest manifestation of something that was the case (and was in some sense knowable) all along. In my understanding, the Incarnation radically changes our relationship to God. This is, of course, not an adequate response to Sanders' thoughtful and well-argued work, but an indication of why I didn't, on the whole, find his approach convincing. During my years at HU, I had some interaction with William Hasker, perhaps the most notable philosopher of the open theist movement. (Hasker was retired, but he had an office across the corridor from me and we had a number of conversations.) Hasker challenged me on some of the logical difficulties with classical theism, particularly having to do with divine timelessness. But again, his fundamental assumptions seemed too limiting to me. His God, like Sanders', seemed extremely anthropomorphic, and neither of them seemed to have any place for mystery and paradox in their theology. Therefore, during my years at HU I found myself in the position of a friendly adversary of open theism. I was appalled by the way Sanders had been treated by the institution, and I felt guilty for the fact that I was occupying what had been his office (though my guilt was alleviated by the fact that he had beaten me for another of the jobs I'd applied for. . . . ). But I did not (and still do not) find open theism as taught by Sanders and Hasker a congenial form of theology. I respect their work, but their starting points are not mine.

Greg Boyd's version of open theism starts in a somewhat different place from Sanders and Hasker. While Sanders is primarily concerned with God's relationality, and Hasker with logical coherence, Boyd starts with what he regards as the Biblical picture of God as genuinely at war with evil. (Of course, all three theologians care about all three of these things. In particular, all three of them are deeply concerned with the issue of theodicy--how we can explain the existence of evil in the world given the goodness and power of God.) Boyd's "Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy" has been set forth in two companion volumes. The first, God at War (IVP, 1997), deals with the Biblical evidence. The second, Satan and the Problem of Evil (IVP, 2001), connects the philosophical and theological dots more fully. I've recently read both books and am going to discuss them in a series of blog posts. I find Boyd the most compelling of the three open theists I've mentioned, not because Sanders or Hasker fail to make powerful and interesting arguments, but because Boyd's starting point--that God genuinely fights against evil--is one that I find utterly convincing. I have come to believe for a long time now that many of the problems with Western theology derive from our failure to give the figure of Satan the same place in our thought that he held in the thought of early Christians. For instance, with regard to atonement theology, early Christians believed that Jesus' death rescued us from Satan, while modern "penal substitution theory," having eliminated Satan from the picture, seems to say that Jesus' death rescues us from God. (See my two posts on Aulen's Christus Victor.) Thus, I came to Boyd's work with a strong presumption in favor of his basic thesis about divine warfare, but many reservations about the open theist position to which Boyd links that thesis. In the posts that follow, I'll evaluate Boyd's arguments in more detail.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Victory of Reason--a review

Rodney Stark is one of the foremost living sociologists of religion. His 2000 book Acts of Faith, co-written with Roger Finke, expounded an extremely influential "supply-side" theory of religion as a social phenomenon, countering the "secularization" thesis and arguing that there was a pretty steady "demand" for the "goods" provided by religion. Differences in religious commitment over time or across space were due to supply rather than demand. People had different kinds of religious needs, so that in a "free religious market" a wide variety of religious "suppliers" would develop, competing with each other for "market share." Under those circumstances, most people would have a supplier that met their needs, and thus would become actively involved in a religious community. But when a religious "monopoly" was imposed (as in a traditional European state-church society), people whose needs were not met by the official religion would have little interest in religion. Stark and Finke further argued that religious groups are most successful when they make significant demands on people as well as offering significant benefits. If the benefits of community membership are available without significant commitment, then the community will attract "freeloaders" and will not seem worthy of commitment. Communities that stand in "high tension" with the surrounding society, Stark and Finke argued, are likely to grow, as long as their demands are not impossibly high and as long as they offer benefits (both this-worldly and other-worldly) that compensate people for the costs of high commitment. But as religious communities grow, they tend to relax their demands and eventually become indistinguishable from other groups, making membership less and less worthwhile. This book was a systematic exposition of ideas already developed in historical form in the 1992 study The Churching of America, which described American religious history as the story of continual challenges to the reigning "mainline" churches by upstart competitors whose success eventually turned them into the new "mainline." These two books have provided a great deal of ammunition to American religious conservatives arguing that the mainline churches are declining because of their liberalism (though it's not clear to me that "high/low tension maps neatly onto "conservative/liberal"). When Ross Douthat wrote "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved" in 2012, he was essentially repeating the Stark/Finke thesis in a more polemical form.

Meanwhile, starting with The Rise of Christianity in 1996, Stark has written a series of historical studies (without Finke's collaboration) applying his sociological theories to the history of Western Christian civilization. I've looked at a couple of these, but the only one I've read all the way through is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005). I read it several years ago, but didn't get around to writing a full review. Since I had it checked out recently for another project, I decided to remedy that deficiency.

The Victory of Reason builds on the work of Stanley Jaki on science to argue that the distinctive Western culture of technological innovation and economic enterprise was the creation of Christian faith. In contrast to Weber, Stark argues that capitalism was born in the Middle Ages and was not peculiar to Protestants, although in the last two chapters he criticizes post-Reformation Catholicism for taking an "anticapitalist" stance. His approach could be called an "ecumenical Whig" narrative. Whereas the traditional "Whig" narrative, in either its Protestant or secular forms, paints a picture of gradual emancipation from the shackles of traditional theology, Stark argues that the emancipation (from premodern, pagan ways of thinking) was a gradual process initiated and guided by Christian faith and was well underway long before the Reformation.

Many of Stark's points have considerable merit. He rightly demolishes the myth of a stagnant and anti-intellectual "Dark Ages," pointing out for instance that even the early Middle Ages were a time of great technological innovation, which of course accelerated rapidly after 1000. He is right, I think, to point out that many aspects of Christian thought have a deep affinity with many aspects of modern Western culture. For instance, the claim that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament leads naturally to the conclusion that God reveals Himself in a progressive manner (this is not actually the point that Stark made, but I'm helping him out here). The Christian doctrine of salvation may indeed be seen as the source of a certain kind of "individualism." And so on.

But even where Stark has legitimate points, he overstates them, undercutting his argument by trying to claim too much. He presents Christianity as a thoroughly progressive religion, ignoring or downplaying the copious examples of Christian theologians glorifying a perfect past and deploring current trends as part of the inevitable decline that would precede the Second Coming. He's not content to show that there are elements of Christian thought that favor science, while others might promote suspicion of science. No, Christianity in its essence must be shown to be thoroughly pro-scientific. The same is true with his discussion of slavery and of capitalism (in his view, Christianity is solidly opposed to the former and supportive of the latter).

One major issue that crops up throughout the book is the question of what it means for Christianity as a whole to be the cause of a social phenomenon. How does one distinguish between the things that happened in Christian culture in spite of Christianity (or simply in disregard for Christianity) and the things caused by Christianity? Stark's commonsense approach seems to be to argue that if some aspect of medieval culture was a break from the Roman past, then it is due to Christianity. So Christianity can't be blamed for slavery, because that was Roman. It should be credited with the withering away of slavery, because that was a change from Roman culture. But can every difference between medieval Europe and the ancient world really be credited to Christianity? Are no other factors at work? This assumption becomes even harder to sustain when we start talking about later developments in Western civilization, like religious freedom or the final abolition of slavery.

Stark's discussion of monastic capitalism founders on a failure to address this distinction. He cites scholarship showing what economic powerhouses medieval monasteries were and how they contributed to economic and technological progress. Fair enough. But he never mentions the frequent complaints about monastic "corruption" and the incessant efforts at reforming monasteries to return them to their original ideal as austere centers of study and prayer. Perhaps in fact a case can be made that the reformers didn't have a problem with monasteries being centers of economic enterprise. But I'm skeptical, and at any rate Stark doesn't even attempt to make that case. He never discusses the question of how monastic reformers (among the most important religious figures in the Middle Ages) saw monastic economic activity at all.

A further serious problem with the book is Stark's use of sources. In chapter two, on medieval progress, Stark speaks disparagingly of "most scholars" who accept the myth of the Dark Ages. What does he mean by this? Probably he is speaking of generalists like Daniel Boorstin, not actual scholars of the Middle Ages themselves. Of course, Stark is heavily dependent on such scholars, as his footnotes show. His rhetoric sometimes gives the impression that he is heroically refuting the errors of "scholars" by virtue of his own deep knowledge of the primary sources. But that obviously isn't true. When he cites primary sources, it is usually via secondary sources. On one occasion (chap. 2, n. 109), he cites the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas without any specification of which part of that voluminous work he is using. Fortunately, it wasn't hard to look up the question he was referring to, since he gave its title in the text. But this demonstrates just how vague and sloppy his acquaintance with his primary sources is.

Furthermore, his use of primary sources is not only highly selective but often just plain wrong, revealing a complete lack of understanding of the intellectual context of the patristic and medieval periods. Stark claims that he is citing the "major" figures, particularly Augustine and Aquinas, because they were the most influential and representative (p. 7). Fair enough. But he departs from this when it suits him, citing Nicole d'Oresme (hardly a household name, which he covers by calling him "great, if neglected") on p. 14 in support of the "clockmaker" image of creation, which Stark does not substantiate from either Augustine or Aquinas. More to the point are his repeated distortions and misunderstandings of both Augustine and Aquinas.

Stark tries to enlist both theologians for a doctrine of progress. He cites a passage from Augustine's City of God  (bk. 22, chap. 24) celebrating human ingenuity in developing various kinds of crafts. But Stark not only fails to discuss the passage's context, but uses ellipses to conceal from the reader the fact that in the middle of the very sentence he is citing Augustine refers to the harmful uses human beings have made of this God-given creativity. Augustine's overall point is to celebrate God's goodness and the goodness of creation, but acknowledge that human beings have made a bad use of this good creation through their sinfulness. To call this picture of the human condition "optimistic," as Stark does, reflects a lack of understanding of the overall thrust of the City of God and of Augustine's thought as a whole. As for Stark's citations supposedly showing that Augustine believed in theological progress, one of them (Stark 9) is, again, from a secondary source, but seems to be talking about the life to come, not a progress within history. The other passage, from Confessions, bk. 12, chap. 18 (cited in Stark 11), does not in fact say that the reader of Scripture may understand a passage better than the author (which is what Stark says it means), but that if the reader misinterprets the author's meaning but gets something true from the text, this doesn't really matter, because all truth comes from the mind of God and what really matters is to understand the mind of God. This isn't a modern doctrine of progress at all. Rather, it reflects Augustine's Platonic epistemology in which all knowledge comes by "divine illumination." To understand anything is to understand it in the eternal Truth. What matters in a text is not primarily the intention of the human author, but the eternal Truth reflected by the human words. Nothing further from a modern way of thinking about texts could be imagined, though perhaps there are some affinities with postmodernism.

Stark's errors in attempting to enlist Augustine for the doctrine of progress, however, pale in comparison to his interpretations of Aquinas and other medieval sources with regard to capitalism. Stark claims that Aquinas defines the "just price" purely in terms of supply and demand (65). But in the passage Stark cites (he doesn't say so, but it's ST II/II, Question 77, art. 1), Aquinas says exactly the opposite.  Stark seems not to understand that the opening section of any article of the Summa consists of objections to which Aquinas will reply later. He cites Aquinas saying (Objection 2) that everyone wants to buy low and sell high, as if Aquinas were approving of this behavior. But in fact Aquinas is quoting Augustine, who was quoting a saying of "a certain jester." And as Aquinas points out in the reply to the objection, Augustine quotes the jester only to condemn his saying as wicked. In the body of the article ("Whether it is lawful to sell a thing for more than it is worth") Aquinas makes it clear that the buyer's need for an item has no relevance to the just price of the item. A seller may charge more to compensate himself for the loss he suffers in giving up the item, but not to exploit the buyer's demand for the item:
Yet if the one derive a great advantage by becoming possessed of the other man's property, and the seller be not at a loss through being without that thing, the latter ought not to raise the price, because the advantage accruing to the buyer, is not due to the seller, but to a circumstance affecting the buyer. Now no man should sell what is not his, though he may charge for the loss he suffers.
Stark points to a passage (from the reply to Objection 1) in which Aquinas says that the just price is not fixed with "mathematical precision." Stark interprets this to mean that the just price is not "objective" but depends on supply and demand. Rather, Aquinas is saying simply that there isn't a precise sum but that the just price falls within a certain range, so that some variation is legitimate without violating justice. He is not saying that the just price is fixed purely by market laws. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the specific need of an individual buyer, of which Aquinas is speaking above, and a broader pattern of supply and demand. Perhaps Aquinas and Albert do define just price in terms of supply and demand in this broader sense. But Stark hasn't made the case with regard to Aquinas--the passage he himself cites is rejecting the view that a seller can charge more based on demand--and he has clearly misinterpreted Aquinas pretty badly by taking a passage from an objection as if it represented Aquinas' own view.

Stark's one solid point (though he doesn't give a citation--it comes from article 3 of the same question) is that Aquinas defends the legitimacy of a merchant selling wheat for a high price while not telling the buyers that other merchants would soon be arriving with more wheat. This does seem to imply that a "just price" for Aquinas relates to the laws of supply and demand. However, I still think that this is best explained by the interpretation that Aquinas thinks there is an objective just price which consists of a spectrum of possible prices rather than a single fixed sum. Within that spectrum, the laws of supply and demand apply. Outside it, a higher or lower price would be objectively unjust to buyer or seller respectively. Furthermore, even here Stark misrepresents Aquinas by saying that the situation involves a famine, which makes the price of wheat high. (Apparently Murray Rothbard also cites the passage this way--Stark doesn't cite Rothbard but one has to wonder if perhaps Rothbard is an unacknowledged source here.) Aquinas doesn't mention a famine. Given what he has to say in article 1 about exploiting the buyer's need, it seems dubious that he would justify the merchant's "price gouging" if he were taking advantage of starving people. Rather, Aquinas speaks more generally of "a place where wheat commands a high price." In support of Stark and Rothbard is the fact that the similar example in Cicero's De Officiis does involve a famine. Furthermore, Aquinas cites a different part of this passage from Cicero in Objection 2, showing that he is familiar with the discussion. But Cicero decides the question the other way--a virtuous person will not take advantage of the starving people. I would like to see some sold scholarly discussion of this passage and will look further into it, but at best Stark's characterization of Aquinas' position is extremely one-sided.

Stark may be confusing Aquinas with the Spanish "late scholastics" of the sixteenth century, who allegedly did define a just price in terms of demand. (I don't know myself that this is true, but it is commonly alleged and I am not personally familiar with these authors. If so, it would be ironic given Stark's characterization of post-Reformation Spanish "anti-capitalism.") Stark also cites Albert the Great, but again only through a secondary source.

Stark admits that Aquinas is "confusing" about usury. The confusion, I think, comes from Stark's inability to grasp that for Aquinas just profit has to do with compensating the seller for loss and for the time spent. Aquinas is very clear that a seller is not justified in simply charging whatever the market will support.

Stark further misrepresents the medieval attitude to private property (78-79), citing an author known as "Norman Anonymous" referring to private property as a "human right." Stark seems to think that this means what it would mean for someone in the Enlightenment--a basic right guaranteed by natural law. But in fact the passage as Stark cites it says the opposite: "God has made poor and rich from the one and the same clay; poor and rich are supported on one and the same earth. It is by human right that we say 'My estate, my house, my servant." (As usual, Stark is citing this via secondary sources.) The passage is clearly saying the same thing Aquinas would say later: that by natural law everything is held in common. "Human right" in this context means human law and custom, in accord with natural law but not necessarily mandated by it. Aquinas, as Stark points out, says that private property is necessary--but it is necessary for pragmatic reasons, to avoid confusion and conflict. Once again, Stark's ignorance of the basic categories of medieval thought serves him--and his readers--very poorly.

Certainly Stark should be cut some slack given that he's writing a book for a general audience, going outside his own primary area of specialization. We need more of that, and it's unfair for people with more specialist knowledge to jump on such books and nit-pick. But my objections above go beyond pointing out specific errors in detail. Stark systematically cherry-picks passages out of context to support an interpretation of the medieval Christian tradition as solidly in favor of private property, supply-and-demand economics, and technological progress.

Stark's failures in The Victory of Reason are frustrating because the secularist myths he takes on badly need to be debunked. Many of his points about the vitality of medieval culture (including science and technology) are important and badly need to be made in the face of widespread misunderstanding. But unfortunately, Stark creates an equally distorted picture of his own, so that I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to people who need to be informed on the positive achievements of medieval civilization. Christians who cite Stark as an authority are setting themselves up for embarrassment, or worse, engaging (however innocently) in a project of benevolent deception. Medieval culture did have elements that favored scientific, technological, and economic progress. It also had strong currents of nostalgic idealization of a past "golden age," suspicion of economic activity as worldly and sinful, and mistrust of any kind of secular learning as ultimately pointless in a world where the salvation of one's soul was the primary concern. Neither the first set of trends nor the other are the whole picture, and they interacted with each other in complex ways. Both of them had roots in Christianity as well as in non-Christian sources. But on the whole, the second set of attitudes were more likely to be identified with the most devout and spiritually respected members of society. Stark's thesis founders on this fact. Medieval Christianity was not in fact distinguished from other religions by its joyful embrace of progress or its enthusiasm for scientific and economic activity. If anything, at least in comparison with the other two great monotheistic religions, the opposite was the case. As a Christian, I do not think that this is something to be ashamed of. I certainly find much in the medieval "vale of tears" tradition to be dubious, and I often find the great poets and artists of the Middle Ages wiser than the single-mindedly devotional authors, precisely because of their gusto for life combined with deep piety (The Imitation of Christ is great, but the Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman are far greater.). But the fact remains that Christianity is an irreducibly ascetic tradition. It teaches us to value what the world despises and despise what the world values. It cuts across our desires for fame and power and wealth with a sword of flame. Stark doesn't get this. For much of his career he has described himself as an unbeliever, but for about the past decade he has identified as an "independent Christian." In a 2007 interview, he made the revealing comment: "I have always been a “cultural” Christian in that I have always been strongly committed to Western Civilization." It is none of my business to judge the authenticity of his present Christian faith, but it's clear that in his own self-understanding it is simply a development of his longstanding commitment to Western civilization. Christianity does not exist in order to prop up Western civilization. Christianity exists to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which stands in judgment on all civilizations. Stark's ideological biases lead him to treat the civilization-building aspects of Christianity as fundamental and the "world-denying" aspects as peripheral (when he doesn't deny or ignore them outright).Thus, throughout his career, Stark has defined Christianity and its benefits in primarily secular terms. This is understandable given where he's coming from. But people steeped in orthodox Christianity, whose starting point is the Cross and Resurrection rather than the glories of Western Civilization, ought to know better. Stark is, for Christians, like Egypt in the OT prophetic warnings: a reed that breaks when you rest on him. Better trust in the Lord of Hosts, whose power works through weakness and who laughs at civilizations and economic systems, especially when they boast of divine blessing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ten theses on gay marriage

OK, since no one (except Stephen Milliken) is excited about monism, here are some theses about gay marriage:

1. Gay marriage really is the redefinition of marriage to make it gender neutral. It is not simply the granting of "equal access" to an institution whose meaning remains the same.

2. However, given the shifts that have taken place in our cultural understanding of marriage, such a redefinition makes sense. That is to say, we have privatized the concept of marriage and defined it in terms of the desires and needs of individuals, while questioning traditional "essentialist" ideas about gender. Hence, it no longer makes sense to many people to define marriage in gendered terms.

3. The trend toward erasing gender differentiation is the root of gay marriage.

4. Gender differentiation is a natural given of the human condition and thus should not be erased, but the way it has been expressed historically is always shaped by sin, and so the recent reaction to gender norms is both a needed correction and itself the source of a new set of sinful "cultural constructions."

5. The concept of "homosexuality" as an intrinsic part of some people's identity, defining who they are, is probably best seen as a modern invention, parallel with the concept of race, and shaped by particular kinds of gender norms in the modern West. If homosexuality is to be seen as an intrinsic part of a person's identity, then it ought to be affirmed as a good part of God's creation. But it is not clear that it ought to be seen in these terms, given its culturally constructed nature.

6. Opposition to gay marriage rests on the belief that gay men ought to be treated just like straight men in terms of marriage law, and gay women like straight women.  In that sense it is radically different from opposition to racial intermarriage to which it is often compared. However, it's true that this results in gay couples being treated differently from straight couples.

7. Whatever one's position on gay marriage per se, it is abominable that same-sex couples are not able to have practical benefits such as visitation rights and joint tax returns. This really is a question of simple justice, and as long as these basic legal benefits are only extended to married couples, civil marriage for same-sex couples is indeed a basic mandate of justice.

8. Civil unions, the briefly considered and swiftly abandoned compromise, are not "separate but equal" if they are made available to everyone. Marriage, of course, already was available to every adult as an individual, but not to every couple (that is, gay people could marry, but they had to marry members of the opposite sex. While this may seem to be a "useless" right, it is nonetheless exactly the same right that straight people have.) Hence, there would be no inequality in retaining the word "marriage" for opposite-sex unions, while granting identical practical rights to any two (or possibly more) adults who wished to enter into a civil union. (Of course, this would not necessarily imply a sexual relationship, which simply isn't the business of the state one way or the other.)  However, given the present state of affairs, the best approach may be for the state to drop the word "marriage" altogether.

9. Contrary to common belief, the specifically Christian arguments for gay marriage (rooted in the overturning of gender norms in Jesus) are much stronger than the secular arguments, which are generally question-begging (inasmuch as they assume the validity of broader cultural shifts which genuine conservatives wish to contest in the first place).

10. Faithful, loving relationships between equals are always, in themselves, good. Hence, the pictures of happy couples celebrating yesterday ought to be cause of rejoicing to all decent people, whether or not we agree that "marriage" is the right word to use for those unions.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Monism part 2



Stephen Milliken, who provoked my first post on monism, pointed out that I never actually got around to defining it.

Indeed--with good reason, since it seems to me to be a term that can mean several things. I'm more interested in teasing out what those several things could be than in deciding which of them is the right definition. Insofar as I provided one, it was "that all things emanate from God." But as I pointed out, that's rather ambiguous.

Stephen then gives one possible definition:

for God to really be God, there cannot exist something which does not first find its origin in God. For if there was something that exists was not first found in God, evil perhaps, it would be said to have its own eternality and existence in some way distinct and separate from God. Thus, I do not think it probably for this to be the case for anything, including what we call bad things. That’s why, to not give them too much credit, I like Lewis’ construct of evil as a perversion or a twisting of an original good. However, if I can be nit-picky, even this perversion, to exist, must itself have an ultimate origin in this God thing.

The first sentence is, I think, totally orthodox. The problem comes when you throw evil into the mix. That's why Christians have historically said (Lewis didn't make this up) that evil is not a thing in itself--it's a privation, a lack of something that should be there. This lack has powerful effects--it distorts the nature of the created thing in question. So a human being with the "goods" of physical strength, intelligence, etc., but lacking a rightly ordered will, can do horrific evil, and the more of these goods one has the more evil one can do.

In the traditional view, the privation doesn't have to be "traced back" to a source, because it isn't a thing itself. But this is a difficult concept. William Babcock pointed out the difficulties that Augustine gets himself into in this regard in his article, "The Human and the Angelic Fall," in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian (1992). Humans fell because Satan tempted them; Satan fell because? . . . . well, because he turned away from God to himself. But why would a good being, in a state of glory and bliss, do a thing like that, unless the Creator in some way caused him to? The origin of evil is perhaps the single most difficult problem in orthodox Christian theology, and I can see why you have problems with the conventional account. But if one endorses a robust theology of free will (more robust than Augustine's mature position), then one can argue that the "perversion" doesn't find its origin in God--only the ability to choose freely does. (I've been reading Greg Boyd, and while I don't agree with him on a lot of points, I think he's right to challenge any view that says that evil is something God looks on with some kind of acquiescence because it's part of a bigger plan.)
Anyway, I think it is tricky to suggest that we are to separate Creator and creation, which, importantly, the former is supposedly pure spirit and the latter is (or is defined by the former) what is material or non-spirit. Are we not setting ourselves up to value spirit over matter?

This is certainly a tricky question. As I believe I said in the first post, the traditional position at least since the 13th century in the West has been that angels are also wholly immaterial. Aquinas, who championed this position, argues that the difference between even such immaterial beings and God is that they are a "compound of existence and essence." I'm not sure I'm convinced, but I'm also not sure it's orthodox to say that angels are in some sense material. So I'm not necessarily defending the view that all created beings are in some sense material. Using Thomist terms, what I would say is that all created beings are in part potentiality and not pure act, as God is.

I think part of the problem is that because our minds are the part of us that most consciously shares in the divine nature, and are also the most "immaterial" part of us, we tend to equate "spirit" with "idea." And the Platonic heritage pushes us in that direction. I think this is where the Platonic heritage needs to be challenged, and perhaps, ironically, why the teaching that angels are immaterial is important. The Creator/creature distinction is much more radical than the material/immaterial distinction. Whatever it means for angels to be "spirit," angels are far more unlike God than they are unlike us. In fact, due to the Incarnation, there's an important sense in which we are more like God than angels are. God isn't the highest angel. So it can be true that God is immaterial without that being the fundamental thing that makes God God.


I think we can say that both "created spirit" and "created matter" reflect something of God without saying that God is both spirit and matter. "Spirit" is a less inadequate term for God than "matter," because it doesn't affirm something that is simply false about God. Matter is, in itself, limitation. Spirit is freedom from that kind of limitation. It is, in itself, a negative term about the absence of certain kinds of limitations. Or so it seems to me. Of course, created spirits would have their own kinds of limitations. But we wouldn't necessarily know much about those. That's why idolatry (in the literal, traditional, pagan sense of the word) is such a temptation. From our perspective, angels/gods look a lot like God, because angels are free of many of the limitations that make us unlike God. We have trouble seeing the far more radical ways in which "gods" are unlike God.


The Catholic theologian Stephen Webb has written a book called Mormon Christianity which argues, apparently, that God is beyond both spirit and matter and thus can be said in some sense to be material, just as he can be said in some sense to be spirit. I am not convinced by this, but it's interesting and I have not yet read the book.

A more traditional position can be found in Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict). I find his discussion of the Christian concept of God and how it relates to Greek philosophy (in Part One of the book-actually not the first part because there is a lengthy "Introduction" on the nature of belief) very helpful. On p. 146, he sums up the orthodox understanding of God as spirit this way:



The boundless spirit who bears in himself the totality of "Being" reaches beyond the "greatest," so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit.
That is why I don't believe that saying God is "pure spirit" or "pure good" somehow limits God's ability to sustain all creation from within, as you and I agree that He does.