Monthly Archives: April 2014

Was Jesus omniscient?

One attribute of an omni-God is omniscience. According to standard Christian doctrine, Jesus of Nazareth was God. If God is omniscient, then it seems to follow that Jesus was omniscient.

The problem is that this doesn’t seem to fit with various aspects of the canonical Gospels. For example, Jesus says only the Father knows something in particular, not the Son (Mark 13:32). Jesus increases in wisdom (Luke 2:40). He asks who touched his garments (Matthew 5:30). He asks where someone is (John 11:33). He doesn’t seem to know if something must happen (Matthew 26:43). More generally, if Jesus were omniscient, would he have been faking learning to speak Aramaic? Would he already have known carpentry? And so on.

This problem leads to various solutions. For examples,

1. Jesus was hiding his knowledge. (This might follow from the idea of the hidden Messiah, as seen in the Gospel of Mark, say.)

2. Jesus voluntarily gave up his omniscience upon becoming a man. (This solution has parallels to a solution to the problem of evil – that God voluntarily has given up some of his power in giving humans free will.)

3. Jesus wasn’t omniscient, but became omniscient after his ascension, say. (And perhaps was omniscient before his incarnation.)

4. The Gospel accounts are mistaken in the places that suggest Jesus wasn’t omniscient.

5. As God the Son and God the Father are different persons in the trinity, this means there might be things the Father knows that the Son doesn’t. (So, denying that an identity of essence translates into an identity of properties like omniscience.)

And so on.

What are we to say?

One point is that this is essentially a theology-led problem. That is, first assume a theological notion of the trinity and an omni-God. Only then do you really have a problem (how to reconcile these theological conceptions with what is presented in the Gospels).

Why does this matter? Because for some people, theologically created problems are an obstacle to entering into a relationship with God. That is, they say something like “This doesn’t make any sense, therefore Christianity and theism are nonsense.”

How can disputes such as the above be resolved?

I think a part of the answer is epistemic humility – Christianity is not a complete set theories about how God works, Jesus’ exact relationship to God the Father, and so on. Rather, it is a recognition that something important has happened. Now what do we make of it? In other words, it’s a process of trying to figure out things.

If one treats this basic stance as more primary, and theology, say, as secondary, then these sorts of problems (for example, how to reconcile the idea of God’s omniscience with the Gospels) become secondary (because they are essentially theology-led). They are put into context, whatever the exact theological resolution might be.

This isn’t to say the theology isn’t important. Of course the theological answers are important, and impact practice in a variety of ways. However, it is to say that these things are debated because they are debatable. It is probably not sensible to engage in internecine warfare on the basis of them. Rather, one can recognize there are a variety of responses, with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. One can build as best a case for a putative solution as one can.

(I.e., it seems many theological doctrines are probably a result of ‘theological overreach’. There is too much theory relative to evidence. There is a similar problem in various parts of science.)

A response to this might be: if dissension isn’t nipped in the bud, you’ll have fragmentation of the Church. With fragmentation, you’ll have some kind of undesirable chaos.

What is important for Christian Churches isn’t uniformity of theological doctrines, necessarily, but rather communication and innovation – one Church adopting practices, techniques, ideas, and so on, that work, from other Churches, refining them or adapting them to a different situation, and so on. At the same time this will have a tendency to resist pulling apart, just as communication and innovation leading to adopting words or pronunciations cause dialects to resist being pulled apart into different languages.

What is the basic idea of sacrifice?

The word ‘sacrifice’ comes from the Latin, meaning ‘to make sacred’. A sacrifice is an act of making something sacred. Typically, this means a transfer, a giving up of something to the divine.

Why give something to a god or Gods? The basic idea – as the current usage of the word sacrifice suggests – is that by giving up (or letting go of) something, there is some greater good that comes out of it or is returned.

So, when Nestor makes a sacrifice of a cow with gold-foiled horns to Athena, he believes that it will or may increase the chances of a propitious journey. This is an understanding of sacrifice within a pagan context. What of a Christian one?

A part of the understanding is still the same – by giving something up, the chance of some greater good is increased. Yet, the focus is different. Instead of a sacrifice that is intended to placate a potentially moody or capricious god, sacrifices are rather intended as a sign and instance of (‘sacrament’ of) trust in God.

For example, a common practice was to sacrifice a male, un-gelded sheep to God. Why? These sheep were intended to strengthen the flock (un-gelded), and giving one to God was a sacrament (i.e., sign and instance) of trust in (i.e., ‘faith in’) God that He would strengthen the flock. The relevant entity is not the sheep but something more like ‘the strength of the flock’, and this is not killed but entrusted to God in a symbolic and literal act of transfer or entrusting.

So, in the Christian context sacrifices are essentially about building a relationship with God through acts of trust, and in particular by mentally transferring ownership of something to God. Basically, this means accepting His guidance vis a vis whatever is ‘given up’. Sacrifice does not necessarily entail killing a, say, sheep – rather, with the case of a sheep, they were killed to mark the giving up of them to God.

The problem with the word sacrifice in current English usage is that its predominant sense is of losing something, instead of entrusting something. The latter is probably a more accurate sense of what the term is supposed to signify within Christian practice.

Sacrifices are tied to the Christian virtue of humility (you don’t control everything, and shouldn’t pretend you do) and the practice of aligning one’s will with God’s (I give this up to God to do as He wills).

In this sense, whenever we entrust something to God, we are in a way performing a sacrifice to God. Again, because sacrifice isn’t centrally about losing something, but about mentally transferring something (i.e., entrusting something) to God.

Why is the notion of sacrifice important in Christianity? One reason is that one basic idea in Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed himself for us, and each Mass (say) is partially a recreation (or rememberance) of this sacrifice. This sacrifice was important because it a) shows Jesus trusted God, and b) was an entrusting to God in the short term of his life and so on, in order that a greater good may come about in the longer term. It wasn’t a losing of his life, as (according to standard Christian belief) Jesus was resurrected in a glorified body after his death.

If we misunderstand what sacrifice is, we might misunderstand a basic part of Christianity. Indeed, it might seem absurd (“what was he sacrificing? he was supposedly resurrected and now reigns at the right hand of the Father!”, and so on). Central to sacrifice is not the notion of loss but of entrusting, and this is of course done because of a belief in a longer-term gain or greater good. That Jesus was (supposedly) resurrected is a sign of God’s benevolence for each of us – if we trust in Him, then in the long-term there will be a greater good not just for society in general, but also for ourselves, according to Christianity.

Again, Christianity is not about lack, but about abundance – through a trusting of (i.e., habitual sacrificing of, fundamentally, one’s ego to) God. I.e., sacrifice is fundamentally not about lack but about abundance, and therefore the symbol of the cross is not about pain and suffering but rather about what that has gained. That’s the idea, anyway.

Is materialism integral to science?

Is materialism integral to science? The naturally leads to two sub-questions. The first is what is materialism? The second is what is science?

1. What is materialism?

Materialism is the view that all there is, is material.

As can be seen in the history of science, the definition of what counts as ‘material’ (or physical) changes – for example, electromagnetism would not typically have been thought to be material or physical in the beginnings of modern science. This positive definition, then, is something of a moving target.

Materialism is probably better understood as essentially having a negative definition – in some sense, it denies the reality of mind. This in turn can be understood in two primary ways. In the first, mind is thought of as arising from non-mind. Typically, this is understood in an evolutionary context – in the beginning there was no mind, then through gradual accretion of complexity, organisms developed minds.

The second view (usually known as eliminative materialism) is that there is no mind whatsoever – what we think of as mind is actually some sort of illusion.

That what is known as science does not require the latter view is obvious – consider archaeology, anthropology, or parts of biology for that matter. These are scientific disciplines, yet they deal explicitly with minds.

This leaves the former view. What is the argument for this view? Basically, it is the evolutionary view – what we observe first is no organisms, then relatively simple organisms, finally organisms like humans or dolphins. We then combine this with the brain sciences – the mind seems to be part and parcel of the brain, and the brain developed through evolutionary forces. So, whatever the ultimate nature of mind, it depends on the brain, and the brain came about through evolution. Therefore, in the beginning there was no-mind.

What is important to note here is that this does not make materialism integral to science, but rather makes materialism a contingent conclusion of scientific inquiry.

This leads to the next question.

2. What is science?

Science in its essence is figuring out what there is and how it works. It’s not really more complicated than this.

In doing this, neither the first view of materialism (there are no minds) nor the second view (minds are not at the beginning) are required. They are both contingent outcomes of the process of inquiring into how things work.

Therefore, materialism is not integral to science. It is not good enough to say “Some scientist or science journalist says materialism is the only proper way of proceeding in science.” This view either a) describes a mistaken belief – i.e., that scientist and so on doesn’t understand what science ought to be, or b) describes some kind of probabilistic argument, such as “You will probably get more progress toward understanding how things work if you assume materialist principles of some sort.” b) might be correct, but the point is that there is nothing essential to science which says it will be. It is conflating how science ought to work in the broadest sense with a specific, contingent view of how things seem to work nowadays.

Having said that, it very well may be the case that many scientists think a), and so have unnecessarily restricted the development of science, leading to b) in what is an unwarranted kind of way. I.e., materialist conclusions about the way the universe works might come from a kind of contemporary metaphysical bias, which has accumulated over time – instead of postulates leading from where the evidences available to us naturally ought to flow.

Again, however, this accumulation of metaphysical bias does not speak to what is integral to science.

The evidential status of an invisible God

Sometimes, I hear someone say something to the effect of “God is invisible, therefore evidence for Him is different from evidence for other things.” This is often encapsulated by an argument for faith-in-the-existence-of-God, where this faith is understood to be a choice made in the absence of a certain threshold of evidence, such as the ‘hidden God’ argument.

The problem with this line of thinking is that many (most) things are invisible. Gravity is invisible, for example. There are effects on visible objects (an apple, say), and we infer a cause (gravity).

Strictly speaking, we never directly see most anything – rather, we see light that is reflecting off or emanating from objects. The objects themselves are inferred. Even light is an inference – we have various experiences, and from these we infer there is something, ‘light’, which in some way is interacting with our eyes.

Gravity is invisible in the sense of ‘being detectable only by its effects on other things’ , but it is not therefore in some unique epistemic situation vis a vis other things in the natural world, or sciences. Consider earthquakes, or magnetic fields, or sounds, and so on. Similarly, just because God is invisible doesn’t mean there is some unique evidential situation vis a vis other postulated causes.

Put briefly, God is visible through His effects.

Terryl and Fiona Givens and the Argument for a Hidden God

In The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens say:

“For most of us, at least, there is neither a choir of heavenly heralds proving God exists, nor a laboratory of science equipment proving He doesn’t. Rather, we find a persuasive body of evidence on both sides of life’s competing propositions. Only in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of disbelief. There is a heart that, in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other,” is truly free to choose belief or skepticism, faith or faithlessness. […] There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at out heads.” (p. 4-5)

This is a version of the ‘hidden God’ argument, which – as far as I can tell – comes from Pascal. If God were omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why wouldn’t he make the evidence for His existence stronger? One answer is the kind of idea given above by the Givens’. I.e., because evidence for God isn’t overwhelming, belief in His existence becomes a more real choice, and this in turn is some sort of good. Therefore, debatable evidence is compatible with omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

There are at least three problems with this argument for a hidden God. 1. The evidence for God seems to change from time to time and place to place. If it is important to have some sort of equilibrium of evidence, why does the amount of evidence seem to change? 2. The current evidence for God, upon inquiry, doesn’t seem to be 50-50, say, nor is it clear why we would think it is. There is, however, a significant and robust amount of evidence for certain aspects of the Christian God. 3. The debate in the Gospels, say, isn’t about whether God exists. Rather, it is about the specific character of God and, more specifically, whether Jesus of Nazareth is the chosen one of God. Applied to the above quotation, the question regarding ‘faith’ isn’t primarily about whether God exists, but rather about whether one chooses to enter into a loving (in the sense of agape) relationship with God.

1. The evidence for God seems to change from time to time and place to place.

The most obvious way to show this is to show that rates of belief in God, and more specifically something like the Christian God, have varied from time to time and place to place. For example, if you believe evolutionary theory makes anything like a Christian God explanatorily superfluous or unlikely, then that’s a significant mark against theism. If, however, your understanding of the evidence for evolutionary theory doesn’t preclude  – and perhaps supports – something like a Christian God, then your assessment will be different. The rise in atheism in the 20th and 21st centuries seems to obviously have something to do with things like evolutionary theory typically conceived.

2. The current evidence for God doesn’t seem to be in equilibrium, i.e., 50-50.

Evidence for aspects of something like the Christian God is fairly robust – for example, the evidence for one significant aspect is what William James termed ‘formidable’ (A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture VIII). This requires understanding just what the evidentiary bases of Christianity are – for example, there are many (probably hundreds of millions of) examples of coordination or guidance which suggest something like the Christian God. It might turn out that these cases aren’t really evidence for God, but it’s important to at least know where the evidence is. The case, upon investigation, actually may turn out to be somewhat similar to “a choir of heavenly heralds” proclaiming God exists. Perhaps all the heralds are incorrect, but it is at least prima facie evidence warranting investigation. If one hasn’t investigated the evidence, how can one conclude the case is in equilibrium?

Similarly, consider the Gospels themselves. When Thomas says he won’t believe that Jesus has been bodily resurrected until he sees Jesus himself and then puts his fingers in his wounds, Jesus then appears to Thomas and invites him to inspect the wounds. This is not symptomatic of a God who wants to keep things in doubt at least as far as Thomas and the other disciples go.

Of course, there are very few propositions where one is compelled to believe them – perhaps basic mathematics or basic logical truths (although even there, there are some who say they don’t think there is objective truth, and so on). For example, in a Gospel account when Jesus raises someone from the dead, the priests say he works by the power of the devil. So, one can reframe any event to fit some theory, but this can come at a cost – it often is ‘theoretically expensive’, where you have to make other suppositions that detract from the plausibility of the overall interpretation. So, of course one can explain away evidence, but this is not the same as saying that the evidence is in ‘equilibrium’.

One can discern which way the balance of evidence goes as far as one can tell. If the evidence is, say, 60-40 in favour of something like a Christian God, then one has warrant for believing in it. Of course one then has to move beyond the evidence and make a decision, but, as noted above, that is the case with almost every proposition.

3. The question regarding ‘faith’ isn’t primarily about whether God exists, but rather about whether one chooses to enter into a loving (in the sense of agape) relationship with God.

I think this is the more important one. Virtually nowhere in the Gospels is God’s existence in question – that is assumed. Rather, it is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth (is he the chosen one of God or not?).

Similarly, what is important when it comes to decisions vis a vis God isn’t belief that God exists, but rather aspects of our relationship with God.

Consider an analogy. I am a Father, and I love my children. What I want is for them to trust my guidance (because I love them and am wise) and love me. Would it make sense for me to hide my existence from them, so that it was debatable? The relevant question (applied to a Christian context) is whether they will love me back, and I can’t compel that by demonstrating I exist, or that I am wise, or even by demonstrating that I love them. However, I would do things that make it reasonable to trust me – not that intend to make it debatable.

So, even if God is not hidden, the relevant choice still remains, and it in turn is not compelled by His existence. In summary, the hidden God argument a) doesn’t fit the evidence (it isn’t 50-50, and most all propositions require moving beyond the evidence), and b) is superfluous – even if God is intentionally hidden, it doesn’t address the relevant question in Christianity, which is not whether God exists but rather whether one will choose to love God.

The problem of boring afternoons

Intellectually speaking, the ‘problem of evil’ involves events such as boring afternoons, or getting bitten by an ant, or becoming a little chilly for a few seconds, or indeed, any suboptimal happening – such as being joyous but not completely, ultimately joyous, say – as part of a proof against the existence of a classical omni-God.

For, if God were omnipotent in the sense of being able to ‘snap his fingers’ and have any result occur, and if he were omnibenevolent, then it seems we would instead expect to be in a state of perpetual bliss (at least, immediately after we chose to be in one).

I think the proper conclusion to draw from these sorts of considerations is that there’s something wrong with our conception of God and the universe, if that’s what we think an omni-God entails.

That is, however God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence is to be understood theologically, it works its way out as a process (see here for a tentative definition of process omnipotence, or here for more considerations on the classical philosophical conception of omnipotence), where it seems an integral part of that process is us learning and growing.

Methodically speaking, instead of starting from the supposition of a classical omni-God and therefore be instantly subject to an argument based on the ‘problem of evil’, one can rather begin with various experiences (which one can see in everyday Christian experiences, say), and then one can start to move towards various Christian conceptions of God’s attributes.

I.e., one can build-up a conception of God’s omnipotence (and so on), such that whatever it means, it is reflected in such-and-such events. If one does this, the ‘problem of evil’ has much less impact intellectually speaking – i.e., as an intellectual obstacle to Christianity. (This does not speak to the emotional component, although I think it begins to put it in a different context.)

Omni-God

An omni-God is a God who has the attributes of omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and omniscience (and perhaps omnipresence).

However, saying these words is not enough to say exactly what they mean.

(Similarly, when a translation of Genesis, say, has God being described as ‘almighty’, what exactly does this mean? It is easy for a contemporary reader, who might be acquainted with the standard classical theological understanding of omnipotence, to ascribe that classical conception to the word ‘almighty’. Yet, that could be an anachronistic understanding – projecting our Aquinas-descended theology onto the Biblical writers, perhaps.)

A classical philosophical understanding of this, or ‘classical omni-God’, can be thought of as involving God not as a being but Being itself, out of which all things share in being. It is not just that they are created at some point in time by God (i.e., whenever He wills it), but also that at any moment their existence is due to God, as God is the base of existence. That is, in this classical conception, there is no being proper except for God’s being. Similarly, God can change all being at any moment. So, this conception of God’s omnipotence involves His being able to do anything ‘in the snap of a finger’, where the only constraints are typically understood as those of basic logic. This conception owes a significant amount to Aquinas and Plato, and is essentially an abstract, philosophically-driven conception of God.

What sort of alternatives are there to this approach? One possibility is what could be called an ’empirical omni-God’. This conception treats highly abstract, philosophical conceptions of God as secondary, and instead seeks to assemble an accurate conception of God’s nature by empirically assembling evidence of various kinds, building up to or thereby inferring certain of God’s attributes (omnipotence of a certain sort, and so on). This view owes a significant amount to William James, and is essentially an empirical conception of God.

So, the classical view is more a top-down conception of omnipotence (and so on), the empirical view is more a bottom-up conception.

What is worship?

Some people disagree with the idea of a non-classical ‘omni’-God (a classical omni-God being an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent entity in the classical philosophical sense, derived significantly from Plato) because they believe this would not be worthy of worship.

My suspicion is that often this reflects a misunderstanding of what worship means. In its most basic sense, worship is reverence. In Christian terms, this is typically accompanied by a sense of awe.

Consider the key Christian metaphor for understanding the nature of our relationship with God, of Him being a Father and us being (potentially) His Children. Now consider: can one reverence one’s own (actual) Father without thinking him omnipotent, and so on, in the classical philosophical sense? Similarly, another way to describe reverence is deep respect tinged with awe. Imagine someone said they could not have deep respect for their (actual) Father because he wasn’t omnipotent in the classical philosophical sense!

Regardless of what someone might say, however, it is clear that people do have deep respect or reverence for their (actual) Father without believing he is omnipotent, and so on, in the classical sense. Furthermore, many people revere with a sense of awe God without conceptualizing Him in the classical omni-God sense.

So, it seems that God can be the classical omni-God or not, and regardless be worthy of worship, i.e., reverence and awe.