Sunday, July 30, 2006

God of Abracadabra?

Let me give you an example of why I so often find myself at odds with contemporary evangelicalism. Today, I was in church listening to a visiting preacher. This preacher rightly stressed the daily pastoral and devotional endeavours of the church as it seeks to “come to the unity of faith” and “the stature of the fullness of Christ” – a work of creation if there ever was one, as the church moves incrementally toward the goal, metaphorically speaking, of a “full grown man”. In short we find ourselves to be agents of Divine labour inside an act of creation. Our first person experience of this work is of a process of great complexity and effort. Words like progress, process, gradualism, and change readily describe this act of social creation, a project composed of a myriad steps forward (and sometimes backward).

And yet so often when these evangelical preachers talk about the act of Genesis Creation they revert to a magical paradigm. Here God is portrayed not as a workmen but a magician whose mere words, like magic spells, bring about Creation. “God”, you will hear them say, “Speaks things into existence at a mere word”, and the example sometimes given is that of Genesis 1:16 where it says “He also made the stars”. This verse is interpreted to mean that God is so powerful that He just "spoke the stars into existence" in an offhand way. Rubbish. The Genesis 1 creation account is of a phased incremental work, of which the Bible uses an umbrella Hebrew word related to our expression “to make”. This same word is also used of created entities within the Creation account, as for example when it says, “He also made the stars”. Hence it is likely that the making of the stars was itself a phased process. In short Creation was a recursive activity that breaks down into finer and finer detail as you zoom in on it. God’s commands, like some highly complex computer algorithm, have detail and sub-detail - they are not magic

Is this just a theoretical nuance? That, I doubt. The visiting preacher may have a different take on Genesis 1 to myself - fair enough, Christains can agree to disagree. But look at how the preacher was using his view of Genesis 1. To him the God of Spells who has the power to “just talk things into existence” was evidence of “how great God is”. Presumably then, the logic of this position demands that a person such as myself who doesn’t accept this illustration has an impoverished view of God’s greatness? Is the next logical step to then use this view to sort out the spiritual elite from the goats and to thereby partition the Church?


helsalata said...

The trouble is that "time" as a concept gets in the way of our thinking about God's creation of the stars. So you are probably both right...

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks for the comment Helen. Nice of you to pop in and have a shufty!

Timothy V Reeves said...

Phew!… coast clear now! That was a bit like having royalty visit; that’s why I was so uncharacteristically polite. So, while Helen’s off sorting out the real problems of life, like the complexes of some spotty youth or commenting on recycling, fair trade and ecological catastrophe, I’ll risk a little more speculative philosophical waffle.

Time may be so bound up with the notion of Creation and the very substance of human sentience (which after all was created by God) that we can conceive little without using it. The very idea of creation suggests a before and after sequence, a sequence that looks suspiciously like time. Even if, as some Christains have implausibly suggested, the stellar universe appeared “instantaneously” at the Word of God, stars are nevertheless extremely complex objects that presumably require not only some kind of assembly in the mind of God but also activity by the Godhead which does justice to the Biblical word “make”, with all the connotations of time associated with that word. Although of course God’s time may not be our time, the concept of God making the stars cannot be so far removed from the human conception of construction that it sets up a dangerous precedent which puts into jeopardy our assumption of commonality with the Godhead on other crucial concepts such as love, justice, language, knowledge of other minds etc - basically the highly sophisticated and advanced traits that make relationship possible, not only with other humans, but with God himself. If we don’t have some commonality with the Godhead on these terms we may as well go home now, although Ps 139 suggests there is really no other place to go.

Perhaps the least one can hope for of those Christains who believe the stars to put in place instantaneously at the command of God, is that they at least allow that the sheer complexity of the cosmos effectively defines a kind of “algorithmic time” in as much as it would take many events to put the cosmos into place should it be “made” in the sense that we understand the term; for presumably God has set us up to have some inkling of His nature and some commonality in the understanding of the word “make”. This would then allow us to define a kind of “logical time” as the time taken by an idealised computer program to construct these complex objects. But this idealised mathematical time is very subversive of the “magician school of creation”. The next step is all too easy – that it is suggested that this mathematical time, as a kind of revelation, is mapped on to our time – out pops millions of years of events and, I suspect, the sort of stellar evolution that astrophysics has revealed to us.

However, I think it likely that the “Big Wizard in the Sky” concept of God is here to stay – worst still I guess that those Christains who do try to unpack the nature of cosmic time will continue to suffer fideist attacks from those who regard it as a kind of rebellious promethean exercise of the enlightenment. Frankly I’m not too fussed what Christians believe about this subject, even if it’s the crass stupidity of the great wizard in sky – what worries me is when this position is then used as the anchor point of a Christian orthodoxy which is put up as a de-facto faith test. The irony is that such fideist views do rest on a subtle ulterior philosophy that one can find embedded here and there in passionate “God is Great” sermons.