Uncharted Territory of Philosophy…

I am not a very philosophically-minded person. Studying English literature was a perfect fit because I feel I need textual evidence to lead and guide whatever ideas I may have. For almost all of my Christian walk, a certain text that has acted as the rudder to my ship has been, quite obviously, the Bible.

Yes, I disregard inerrancy as an essential lens through which to view Scripture, but I have not cast out Scripture altogether. I’ve always returned to the text for discussions about the text. Today, when I sat down for my bi-monthly Bible study with my pastor, I did not expect the indirect challenge I received.

For the past 2,000 years or so, there has been an on-going debate about whether or not God has absolute sovereignty or if free will reigns. I don’t know why, but I have never really seen the point of such a debate because no matter what I don’t ever see myself coming down conclusively on one side of the issue. So therefore, I usually never think through the issue because I believe it has no conclusion. It has nothing concrete to land on. But it was this very subject that came up in our discussion of Acts 12.

About in the middle of the chapter, Peter is freed from the prison guards. In verse 19, we see Herod punish the guards with a death sentence and, as one might be able to tell, it begged the question of why an all-knowing God would allow these prisoners to die (in fact, cause them to die!) so that Peter might escape? If God is truly all-knowing and all-powerful – as is assumed with the role of being completely sovereign – then surely there could have been another way and these prison guards didn’t have to die, did they?

An alternative outlook to passages such as this is to say that perhaps God, being all-powerful, forsook His omniscience and was therefore subject to making choices out of free will. What this says about this particular passage is that God gambled a little; He rescued Peter from the guards knowing their lives were at stake. But how could He have done so if He is truly an all-loving God? God being a gambler means He knowingly put these prison guards to death so that Peter could live on.

I have always believed there is a way where both free will and omniscience are present at the same time. I think of it kind of like the “already-not-yet” tension within the New Testament; God’s Kingdom is already here, but not yet completely here. There’s a difference between “contradiction” and “paradox”; one means two things are diametrically opposed while the other means two things merely appear to be opposed.

From our perspective as humans contemplating on the nature of the divine, I find there is a very large gap into understanding God’s full nature completely. I agree with my pastor that we should never stop trying to understand the way God works, but I find there is only so far one can go in this world – and Paul would agree:

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” – 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Philosophical questions give me headaches mostly because I cannot find much of an answer on my own. I need textual support. Drifting from certain lenses in how to interpret the Bible is one thing; drifting from the Bible altogether is entirely another. As I said to my pastor, it undermines Scripture’s authority; it suggests that it matters very little in the “real” things of life. He then suggested to me that I was being intellectually hypocritical.

I was attempting to differentiate denying inerrancy and denying Scripture; they are not the same thing to me. He pointed out that to many Christians it would be the same thing – that, in the act of denying inerrancy, you’re denying Scripture altogether, and, therefore, probably denying God! But now that I think about it, I’m wondering if I might have been a little hypocritical because I was being challenged to step outside my literary-fixed mind.

Essentially, this challenge boils down to Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” When I step away from Scripture to consider a question about God’s nature, I have a sudden feeling that I’m in danger of trusting my own opinion more than God’s Word (and by “Word” here, I’m referring to the Word which resides in our hearts and minds and is matched by proclamations and declarations in Scripture – that inner impression of God’s presence upon our hearts and souls that gets fed from when we read and study Scripture).

But what if it was the other way around? What if I was trusting in my own understanding in the act of sticking to the text of Scripture? What if God is waving me off the beaten path once more and I’m digging my heels in where I stand? And yet all the while I cannot help but notice that in considering where God is leading me, I’m using a passage from Scripture (Proverbs 3:5)!

Hopefully you see my dilemma. What do philosophical questions do for you? Questions like, “Can God create a rock He cannot lift?” or “Can God create a box He can’t look into?” Like nails scratching a chalk board, my soul cringes at the thought and compels me to say, “Who cares? God is God and you are but a man!” But some might say this is ignorance. And now I turn to my fellow bloggers: What do you think?

And please, help. These headaches do not go away very easily…

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Jeremy

Cherokee / Whovian / Sherlockian / Aspiring Auror / Lover of Jesus, Scripture, and creativity / MATS Student at George Fox Seminary.

5 thoughts on “Uncharted Territory of Philosophy…”

  1. Like you I react against people framing their views as “trusting God”. While I am confident that through philosophical inquiry alone we cannot find God there is equal assurance that God gave us our brains and minds so that we could worship him through thinking and reasoning. If one makes philosophy an idol that is one thing; if one makes philosophy a personal sacrament it is another.

    When it comes to discussing God as described in Scripture we must push back and ask, “What image of God?” God is beyond our thinking and our biblical narrative are (Spirit inspired) attempts at explaining this holy God in finite human language. You don’t need to frame this discussion in terms of ‘inerrancy’, but I do think there must be room to discuss Scripture as authoritative script. It must be the starting place of God-speech because it is where we meet the “canon” narrative of the people of God. I think we are responsible to ask what our siblings in Christ have said in the past. I think we are responsible to ask what our fellow Christians are saying now.

    If you approach this task not as an attempt to confine or control God, but as a way of worshiping and seeking God, I don’t think any question is too taboo, even those about God’s own epistemology and sovereignty.

  2. Greetings Jeremy,

    After reading your post several times, I am happy to finally post a response.

    First, to address your pastor’s answer, which I disagree with in his response to you.

    “He pointed out that to many Christians it would be the same thing – that, in the act of denying inerrancy, you’re denying Scripture altogether, and, therefore, probably denying God!”

    I took a deep pause after the first few times that I read this phrase. It is not the doctrine of inerrancy that I worry about, it is the inerrantists, my friend. The Bible is an ancient text, about a people who are who like us, sort of like us, and wholly unlike us all at the same time (if I can rip off that meme). To make the logical leap from denying inerrancy to denying God borders on biblicism, making God a part of the Trinity. I don’t want to make assumptions about your pastor’s or church’s views on the Spirit or community, as such, but the doctrine of inerrancy espoused here is rather unhelpful. To use Proverbs 3:5 in a manner to promote a questionable use of inerrancy, I think I would call into question that use. In that passage, is King Solomon talking about our understandings of the Torah in that passage? An honest reader would surely say no. Yes, the Torah is a great influence on the Wisdom literature such as Proverbs, but if we used Proverbs 3:5 to put a veil over the doctrines of the Trinity, or Predestination, or Christ’s divinity and humanity, it all works the same way. Proverbs 3:5 as a talking point to silence questioning is wrong, with Proverbs being taken out of context. Why Proverbs 3:5 must be the trump card? Why not Proverbs 31:1-5, King Lemeul’s wisdom advice to help the poor, and telling us not to consume alcohol unless we are going through oppression? It’s a very selective use of the text, something called “proof-texting.” The Bible is not just some literary piece of English literature that we can just use for universal appeal for whatever we want. It has to be studied, read, practiced, and interpreted in community over and over again (as does happen with the priests in the “Old” Testament”). ‘

    Brian LePort is right. God is a mystery and revelation. It is that mystery, as I have always believed and always will, that leads us to want to be in a personal relationship with God. Abstract questions have never been a problem for me, even when I at one point identified as a Calvinist. I have to wonder if it is not God that you are challenging, but your church’s interpretation of the Bible and its God. The question of why the evil triumph in the world for me has changed into to, “What does God require me to do to address oppression?” Does God want us to set up camp in upper-class neighborhoods to live the American Dream of consumption while safely doing charity in churches? I think not. Would God want us to keep asking, “Can God create a box that God cannot look into?” or would God require us to aid, as in live in solidarity and liberate those human beings who live in cardboard boxes?

    I would say, keep asking your questions, and at the same time, find a way to hang out with God’s people, the poor and downtrodden.

  3. Cush, I think you make some good points in this blog, especially about the danger in drifting from the textual support and trusting in our own understanding. Your fear of going off in to “uncharted territory” and thinking outside the lens of scripture is a legitimate concern.

    However, I think that you are also falling into the slippery slope mentality that says just because there is a danger we don’t even try, and that the pursuit is not important. There are many things in life that have inherent danger, but the importance of the endeavor necessitates that we push on despite the risks.

    As Christians scripture is the lens that we have to view these metaphysical questions through, but when we don’t see the answer clearly in scripture it is very dangerous to say that the answers aren’t important. To many, the meta-physical questions are very important, and a question such as ‘how can evil exist?’ can be a significant hurdle for some in even coming to faith. I feel that we have a responsibility to do our best in framing these questions in such a way that it can be seen that our faith has, while not perfect, good answers to some troubling questions.

    Another perspective that I think is important to consider is that for the past 2000 years (especially pre-enlightment) some if not most of the greatest thinkers that were passionately contemplating these metaphysical questions were devoted Christians. I like the way Brian puts it in his response above, to these men thinking about these questions and pursuing truth was a personal sacrament. Men like Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, CS Lewis, and many more have believed that it was their calling to think about these things and try to answer them in a way that most encompassed the truth. Yes, they did this while looking through the lens of faith and scripture, but they believed their task to go beyond what we see clearly to be very important. I think these great thinkers would have something if they were told that what they spent their lives thinking and writing about doesn’t really matter.

    There is no doubt that some have gone to far from the scripture in their quest for truth, but I agree with Brian that it is dangerous to discount the what the people of God have said and thought in regards to philosophical questions in the years since the formation of the scriptures. I would even add that I believe it is the task of some today to continue on with the discussion, while at the same time learning from their mistakes of arrogance and misguided authority that has often caused so much division, war, and suffering.

  4. Jeremy, you write:

    “‘Questions like, “Can God create a rock He cannot lift?’ or ‘Can God create a box He can’t look into?’ Like nails scratching a chalk board, my soul cringes at the thought and compels me to say, ‘Who cares? God is God and you are but a man!'”

    Perhaps, but perhaps the appropriate response is the recognition that the human brain is capable of conceiving of a great many things, even things which are logically contradictory. The very absurdity of the question “If God is all-powerful, could he then create a taco so large he could not eat it?” might suggest that we are unable to think the question not because the question itself is absurd, but because the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, beneficent deity is absurd in a manner which is revealed by the question.

    The historical record is relatively clear in documenting the fact that there are multiple, contradictory accounts of divinity from various cultures throughout time and space: some monotheists, some polytheists, some pantheists, and some atheists. Yes, it is conceivable that there exists, as Brian suggests, “a God that is beyond our thinking,” thereby explaining all of these paradoxes, logical impasses, absurdities, etc.–but it is equally conceivable, and (to my mind, at least) substantially more plausible that humans try and account for that which they do not understand in a number of ways, one of which historically involved recourse to divinities.

    The successive retreat of religious claims about how the world works in light of philosophical, artistic and scientific inquiry (Kant’s critique of Rationalist proofs of God; Higher Criticism and philological study of the Bible, as in Bart Ehrman; and carbon dating, respectively, to give three specific examples) seems to suggest that understandings of the divine are not grounded on the solid bedrock they were once believed to be. As such, if answers to philosophical questions about God seem abstruse, this is perhaps because Man creates God(s) in his own image: confused, conflicted, contradictory.

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