Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Mixing heavy and light...

First, the heavy...
Swinburne’s description of what it is that the theist understands by “God” is followed by the assertion that “Christians, Jews and Muslims are all in the above sense theists. Many theists also hold further beliefs about God, and in these Christians, Jews and Muslims differ among themselves.” I find that account unacceptable. The things which Christians, Jews and Muslims characteristically (and to some extent separately) believe about God cannot be divided, in the way that Swinburne does, into a “central core” with variable penumbra, without doing fundamental violence to Christian, Jewish and Muslim belief. The belief (for example) that God is his Word, eternally uttered and addressed to us in time; or that God is his self-gift, his life, his joy, animating, transforming, and reconciling all nature and history; these beliefs are not, as Swinburne claims, “further beliefs” which may be “added to” and, by addition, “complicate” a prior set of convictions concerning an entity with all the interesting characteristics listed by him.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the terms “theist” and “theism,” originating with Voltaire, make their first recorded appearance n English in 1662 and 1678 respectively. There they joined “deist” which had arrived, also from France a few years earlier (in 1621) and, in 1682, “deism” appeared to complete the set. At the outset, both “deism” and “theism” were used interchangeably, to denote “belief in the existence of a Supreme Being as the source of finite existence, with the rejection of revelation and the supernatural doctrines of Christianity,” and it was may years before the senses separated and “theism” came to be used without connotations intended to be pejorative of Christian doctrine. In other words, what Swinburne (and, I suspect, many English-speaking philosophers of religion today) takes to constitute a common “core” of belief originally designated a set of beliefs, and a mode of believing, alternative to what were thought to be the beliefs and procedures of traditional Christianity.
Theologians had, of course, discussed “divine attributes” for centuries. But, in an older tradition, the discussion was not descriptive but grammatical: the attributes were attributes of “divinity,” indications of what might and might not be meant by “godness”. And, because we do not know God’s nature, they served as protocols against idolatry, reminders that anything whose nature we do know, anything that we can imagine, consider, or come across as an individual object among the other objects that there are, is not God and is not to be worshipped – whether it be a statue, a persona, an institution, or an ideal, and be it ever so beautiful, impressive, attractive, or powerful. In the tradition which runs from seventeenth-century deism to contemporary philosophy of religion in the empiricist tradition, however the divine attributes are (in marked contrast) taken to be specifying characteristics, identifying properties, of an individual entity, a being called “God”.
Originally, therefore, the theist supposed that orthodox Christianity related to God improperly, by having recourse to authority rather than to the deliverances of reason. And if, nowadays, the theist more modestly supposes that he is confining his attention to the “central attributes” of Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) belief, he nevertheless lays claim to quite a lot of detailed information concerning the nature of God.
In suggesting, then, that we dispense with theism, I am suggesting that we try to offer an account of Christian experience and the he knowledge of God which owes nothing to the assumption that the divine attributes are “essential properties” of a being called God, to the list of which other “properties” may be added according to taste or tradition.
-Easter in Ordinary, Nicholas Lash

Then, the light...
The magician riposted by cutting a cord in two places with a pair of shears. He pushed the three pieces into his mouth and pulled them out restored to one cord. Walt was put in mind of the Trinity in Unity, the Unity in Trinity. If a mountebank at a city gate could perform such a trick then probably God could too.
The odd thing was someone else in the crowd took the same meaning, and hollered blasphemy. Well, perhaps not so odd. For seven hundred years the town (Nicea) had a reputation for being pernickety about theological niceties.
-The Last English King, Julian Rathbone

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