Friday, June 13, 2008

James McGrath on Thinking About God

James McGrath has a great blog--one that I read and link to often. He has returned the favor by linking back to my own blog, which really makes me a fan. Grin. He has recently answered threee interesting questions on the Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog. I found this post--on why we need to think about God differently--very interesting:

I think it is often Biblical scholars who are most aware of how much the Biblical literature (and thus Biblical views of God) is intrinsically linked to ancient cosmologies, worldviews, culture, historical setting, and assumptions of various sorts. (I suspect that is why there is such a strong side interest in science fiction among Biblical scholars). As you point out in your question, there will always be much that we do not know about the past. There will also be much that a North American such as myself can never assume when reading the Bible or thinking about God. The same is true in Western Europe and Australia. The result is that the most prominent authors, preachers, theologians, scholars and bloggers talking and writing about the Bible are particularly challenged when it comes to having any hope of reading the text in the way a first century person living on the Eastern Mediterranean would. And so the idea that one can simply “read the Bible and understand it at face value” is extremely problematic – which is not to say that it may not nonetheless be a better alternative than having an authoritarian ecclesial monopoly on interpretation that is no more scholarly or culturally-sensitive in its approach, but that is another issue.

And so, in part, my statements about thinking differently about God are merely observations about what must inevitably be the case. Even at that level, I suspect that there is bound to be resistance to this idea in some circles. But I do intend to go further and be prescriptive. I want to encourage us to actively and self-consciously think about God differently than people have in the past.

And I must confess that I am not persuaded that I have managed to follow my own advice as yet. Indeed, I’m not yet sure what it might mean to follow my own advice! For the most part, when I survey the different theological ideas that are proposed in response to our developing scientific understanding of the universe, I cannot think of a single clear instance of a genuinely new way of thinking about God that has been formulated in response to it.

In the “New Age” circles, one finds many people turning to Wicca or Eastern traditions. Among theologians interested in science and religion, there is a fondness of panentheism and process thought. But none of these are new ideas, but merely a recycling and reshuffling of older ways of thinking. Now it may indeed be the case that some of the older ideas and metaphors are more suitable to our present-day context. In most instances, however, it may simply be that because they are unfamiliar, these alternative spiritualities are attractive because they seem new.

I do not in any way object to such openness to other traditions and ideas; I simply want to point out that adopting ideas from another old tradition is not progress. Perhaps human beings have thought all the different kinds of thoughts we are capable of thinking about God, and all that remains is to reshuffle them from time to time to keep them from getting too stale and moldy. But I like to hope that genuine progress in religion is indeed possible. We’ve made ethical progress over the centuries, and science has progressed, and so why should theology be different? Whether it is Sallie McFague suggesting the image of God’s body, or Juergen Moltmann drawing on the Kabbalistic notion of zimzum, these are indeed helpful rediscoveries of neglected older ideas. But they aren’t new.

Do we not need new ways of thinking about God as so much new is discovered in other areas? Or have we exhausted all possible avenues of exploration and progress in theology? Singing “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy” is simply taking the old language of God being “higher than the heavens” and updating it, and the result is something different (since a God beyond the Milky Way seems far more distant than one residing just above the celestial dome) but not new. Or is the role of theology perhaps simply to keep us in dialogue with our past heritage, and to not forget the insights we’ve already had?

Read it all here.

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