Saturday, August 9, 2014

God Would Never... (Fill in the Blank)

I  hear this phrase a lot, and interestingly enough, I hear it from liberals and conservatives, from Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Atheists. It doesn't matter.

One  variation of this phrase goes something like this: "We should not believe in a God who would be capable of doing _____." (Commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; commanding war, conquest and genocide in the Old Testament; requiring that a Savior die on the cross to forgive our sins; commanding the practice of polygamy, etc. Fill in the blank.)

Everyone (including folks who don't actually believe in God at all) has some idea about what God is about, what God has done, does, and will do, what God is capable of and what God is incapable of. I have been/am/will be guilty of this as much as anybody else.

Like all opinions, some of these opinions are better informed than others. Some are based on a better awareness of scriptural testimony regarding what God has done in the past than others. Some are based on personal experience with a living God. But those who know God best (and I'm specifically thinking of numerous scriptural witnesses of God) insist that none of us, no matter how acquainted we may feel with the ways of God, knows God well enough to predict exactly what he will and will not do. Even those prophets with the most intimate personal knowledge of God have repeatedly been surprised, amazed, and humbled by revelations of God's will that they never expected.

Those who are wise content themselves to wait patiently for God to manifest his will rather than make predictions about it.

Losing faith in God because he doesn't manifest his will on our timetable or in the way we would like is literally one of the oldest forms of impatience in the book. Cain offers God a sacrifice thinking, God will like this! God doesn't like it. Cain was wrong about what would be acceptable to God. God offers Cain a second chance. He simply says to Cain: "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him" (Genesis 4:7). In other words, if we let go of our expectations of what God asks of us, if we listen and follow, we will "do well." If not, we will fall under the "rule" of unrighteous desires.

It's such a simple, fundamental principle. And it all boils down to waiting and listening and letting go.  It also boils down to trust.

A key moment in my own journey with God was when I let go of my assumptions and misunderstandings of God's dealings with others. Just because God has asked "X" of somebody else, and just because I imagine that to be unpleasant, or painful, or distasteful, or unfair, doesn't mean that I fully understand the context, and it doesn't mean that that is what God is asking of me. Maybe God will ask it of me, but maybe not. I need to be patient. What I know of God's dealings with me is that God has never let me down. Whenever I've trusted in what he's asked me to do, I've prospered and found joy and peace and done well -- even in difficult circumstances, even in illness or loss or poverty or times of loneliness. So if those have been God's dealings with me in the past, I can trust that whatever his dealings with me are in the future, they will work out for the best.

What I see of God's dealings with others is only half (maybe less) of the story. To understand those dealings, I have to understand them from the inside out, and I have to see them through from beginning to end.

In a sense, I don't even fully understand all of God's dealings with me, because I haven't seen the end yet. I'm still in the realm of mortality, not in eternity.

What I do know is along the lines of what is described in Alma 32. I can see the good that has come so far. I  can exist in my understanding of God's dealings with me on a spectrum between total ignorance and perfect knowledge, and faith is the vehicle that allows me to move toward the knowledge end of the spectrum. Way points on that spectrum include perfect knowledge of limited principles, but the end point of perfect, ultimate knowledge exists beyond the span of our mortal existence ("for now we see through a glass darkly," 1 Corinthians 13:12).

If faith is the moving principle, patience, hope and love are principle methods for exercising faith.

We can choose (like that old American political party founded on hatred of Catholics) to "Know Nothing." We can choose not to know God. But the invitation to know God, to let go of our prejudices and our assumptions and to let God reveal himself to us, is always there, like it was to Cain.


Andrew S said...

There's a difference between saying "God would never..." And "I would/could never believe in a God who." The former is making a statement about God, which as you point out, we don't necessarily have a lot of information there.

But the latter is a statement about oneself. And while one could conceivably be wrong about something concerning themselves, that's a different question.

You talk about wisdom vs impatience. I think the question here is trustworthiness. If we bracket the question of God's existence, the question is, should one trust God?

This is the question begged by faith and skepticism.

I mean, the issue is you can't even really test it. Because faith is saying that, no matter what happens, you trust God. Even if you get an answer that you think would disconfirm, the faithful will always have a rationalization... God's ways are not man's ways... God doesn't work on our time scale. Etc. Etc.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Andrew: Actually, I think I kind of covered the "I would/could never believe in a God who..." concept in the variation I offered, "We should not believe in a God who would be capable of..."

And I agree that what we are willing to believe about God tells more about us that it tells about God.

I also agree that our willingness to trust God is colored by our willingness to trust generally... Individuals who have experienced parental or ecclesiastical abuse may be more suspicious of a god presented to them by parents or church.

But my point here is that we need to base our understanding of God on our experience with God. For me, of course, this wouldn't make much sense without the existence of a God who can reveal himself to us and communicate with us.

Andrew S said...

I noted your attempt at coverage, but my point was that it's not "a variant," and think that matters because if it's not a variant, then I don't think that mentioning it in one paragraph and then failing to actually engage the concept for the rest of the post actually does it any justice. (that is, the paragraph afterward and the rest of the post only make sense if you are focusing on the "God would never..." phrasing.)

Also, not sure with whom you agree that willingness to trust God is colored by our willingness to trust generally. I certainly don't think I offered that idea up, and to the contrary, it seems vaguely offensive.

No, a lack of willingness to trust God might not be sourced from a general lack of willingness to trust elsewhere. One reason for this is because God is in a different category than anything else. For example, you say we should base understanding of God on our experience of God, but God is different in that we can't ever be quite sure we are experiencing God. In any potential engagement with God, we have to decide whether such is an engagement with God. As you yourself note, this wouldn't make much sense without the existence of a god who can reveal himself to us and communicate with us, but that's why the whole thing looks like question begging to me. You are already committed to believing in God and trusting God, no matter anything that happens.

Here's a question... Is there anything that could happen, anything God could say or do, that would call into question God's trustworthiness for you?

Alternatively, when or if you have experienced times of doubt, have you generally found it to be better to ignore your own sense of doubt and go forward with promptings anyway, because in the long run, even if you didn't understand how or when, you thought things would work out. Could things conceivably *not* work out, if you've determined that your idea of things working out is less trustworthy than whatever God has in store for you?

I'm not trying to discount your experiences or even your interpretation of your experiences. Many days, I'm fairly comfortable with taking experiences like yours and others at relative face value to say that God probably does exist. But I would suggest that many people (at the very least, many atheist folks) can't really base our understanding of God from our experience of God, because from our vantage point, we don't have any experience of God, regardless of what we've done or how we've tried or what experiences others have had. And maybe that says more about our ability or willingness to interpret whatever things that happen as being messages from God, but still, if that's what things are about, that's still begging the question of how to get there.

If I totally by your premises (as expounded upon in your latest comment), could I say that my experiences with God don't make him seem trustworthy to me? Or would you just say that even if I perceive no experiences from God, and that primes me not to trust him, that I can't therefore not make a determination about his trustworthiness because I'm still assuming stuff about his time line, intentions, etc?

dadprimalscream said...

I don't really label myself as an atheist but I'm probably closer to that than you John.

I actually find both your question and Andrew's irrelevant from my point of view.

For me it's not, "God would never..." nor "I would/could never believe in a God who...."

For me, it is "I would/could never WORSHIP a God who..."

Whether He exists or not and whether I believe Him or not doesn't matter at all.

If he exists, we have no way of knowing that he is then the character you would like him to be.

All I know is that the God that most people and most religions do believe in is a horrible father and a complete psychopath.... totally and completely unworthy of my worship.

So, while I may even believe he exists and believe in him, I find the scant evidence pretty underwhelming. The God described in the Bible and Book of Mormon is an untrustworthy being who is totally unreliable and uses trickery, murder, half truths and a whole quiver of tactics that would be considered illegal and immoral in a human.

Nope, can't worship Him and therefore whether I believe in Him or even believe He exists doesn't really matter at all.

Andrew S said...

FWIW, I like dadprimalscream's use of worship... I think that's closer to what I'm trying to get at with talk of trustworthiness.

As DPS's comment illustrates, at some level, faith seems like a statement that I should disregard whatever my personal sentiments about morality are.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Andrew (and DPS) - My statement about ability to trust certainly wasn't meant to offend... It was actually based on the observation that some people have suffered horrible abuse at the hands of leaders and/or members of the Church and/or parents or family members who used a cloak of godliness to cover their abusive behavior, and that a very common objection that I hear to belief in God is that "if this is how believers act, I want nothing to do with belief."

But more to the point is your very good question: "Is there anything that could happen, anything God could say or do, that would call into question God's trustworthiness for you?"

That's an excellent question, but also one that's difficult (impossible?) to answer in the concrete... I can say that during a significant portion of my life (for at least a few years) I found belief in God difficult; I was particularly troubled by the theodicy problem, and I probably would have agreed with the statement, "I don't think God exists, but if he does, we shouldn't believe in/worship him." (I agree with you and DPS that that distinction between belief and worship makes sense from that point of view).

But I can also say that I had a series of experiences with God starting in August 2005 that persuaded me I was wrong and that (to answer your hermeneutical question) were of a sufficiently compelling order that I recognized this was not just stuff going on in my head, but this was a real encounter with a real being who had really saved me and was really deserving of my loyalty and worship.

I can also say looking back on my life that there is nothing God has said or done in his dealings with me that would cause me to question him. To the contrary, his dealings with me have only reassured me that he is more trustworthy than I ever could have imagined.

For me, doubt was always based on intellectual rationales or misunderstandings of God's dealings with others. For instance, I could (intellectually) look at God's commandment to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and I could judge the record we have of that encounter and say only a sadistic SOB god would do something like that to somebody.

Also, I know that lacking the perspective of some of the experiences I've had with God more lately in my life, I was angry at God and blamed God for the negative experiences I had growing up in the Church that almost led me to take my life.

For what it's worth, I think God is far more merciful than we tend to assume (God is more merciful than we generally are). And in my experience, God was less concerned about my anger or my unbelief than he was about the wounds I had suffered. And when I experienced a healing from those wounds that I can only describe as miraculous, I found myself not only able to forgive but eager to forgive. I saw (experienced firsthand) that this is the order of the Kingdom of God: Christ's pure love, healing and then forgiveness capable of breaking the cycle of hate, injury, and more hate.

Has God asked some hard things of me? Yes... And these were things that I probably would have been leery of trying if I hadn't already had experiences with God that convinced me God was worthy of my trust.

Has God asked me to do anything yet that has caused me to question God? No, not yet.

Yes, in theory, I should be able to answer your question "Yes." There should be things that, were God to do or say them, they should cause me to question God. The scriptures at the least seem to agree that there are certain things that, were God to do them, he would cease to be God.

That hasn't happened to me yet, though, so I can't answer that in the concrete, only in the hypothetical.

But part of my point about faith/patience is that we need to content ourselves to deal in the concrete.

Andrew S said...

The crux is that concrete experiences with God are ultimately dependent on God. He can of course take his sweet time, but it shouldn't be surprising then if people will use their experience (or lack thereof) to vote no confidence.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Of course.