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Thursday, November 25, 2021

Does God have a body?

Over the course of the last four weeks, longtime commentator Neo has written three posts on God's transcendent nature for Banned by HWA. His central thesis was summarized in his first post (A Brief Meditation on the Transcendence of God). He wrote: "It is natural for man to seek to understand God by use of analogies.   We compare God to a created being because we are created beings and that is what we understand.  This works well, within limits, because we are in the image of God to some degree.  But it is an error to believe that God is just like us only more powerful.  Here is a vignette of issues.  God is not alive.  Nor is he dead.  Humans can be alive or dead. God cannot be either.  He is existence itself.  He transcends the categories of life and death.  God is not limited by neurology.  He does not hear or see or smell or taste or feel.  Those are properties of the created human body.  He experiences things at a level that transcends our senses.  God does not have a body or internal parts." This view is consistent with the premise of this blog that "God cannot be contained."

In his second offering on the subject (The Transcendence of God and the Ontological Nose), Neo underscored the fact that human body parts serve physiological functions which God would not need to sustain life or experience/interpret his surroundings. To illustrate his point, Neo discusses the absurdity of the existence of a Divine nose prior to the creation of atmospheric gases - before the lungs had been designed to oxygenate blood - before there were any flowers to smell. In other words, what purpose would a Divine nose have served prior to the creation of the material universe and more particularly this earth?

In the third installment in his series (The "Hand" of the Lord: A Reflection on Communication by Analogy in Scripture), Neo discusses some of the anthropomorphic references to God in Scripture. He explained: "God can use metaphorical language to communicate. He used anthropomorphism regarding himself throughout the Old Testament. That is his prerogative. That is how he decided to communicate with human beings for optimal effectiveness. Metaphors create pictures in our minds that we can understand. It’s like if someone said 'As soon as I heard the bell, I flew down here as fast as I could.' Everybody knows the person can’t fly but the image communicates, it depicts." Neo continued: "The Bible is full of literary constructs. 'The Lord is my shepherd' makes you into a sheep. But you are not really a sheep. That is only a metaphor. Otherwise, you might be just another hooved herd animal in God’s eyes."

Of course, this kind of language presents some obvious difficulties for literalists in correctly interpreting/understanding Scripture. However, for those of us who understand the use of anthropomorphisms, metaphors and literary constructs, there is no dilemma to reconcile relative to the Bible. Neo summarized this point nicely when he wrote: "A theophany or a metaphor does not make a statement about what God is in his essence. He is Spirit in his essence in the words of Jesus. The use of a theophany or metaphor does not make God a liar or the Bible a fraud. It rather makes the Bible communicate effectively to its human audience in a way that God chose."

As part of my reaction to Neo's third post, I made the point that the concept of a God who cannot be confined to a locus or corpus is completely alien to Armstrongist theology. In response, Dennis Diehl observed that most Christians think of God in anthropomorphic terms. I replied that the evidence did not support the premise that a majority of Christians shared Herbert Armstrong's notions about God. As evidence, I offered the following quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia: "Yet sometimes men are led by a natural tendency to think and speak of God as if He were a magnified creature -- more especially a magnified man -- and this is known as anthropomorphism. Thus, God is said to see or hear, as if He had physical organs, or to be angry or sorry, as if subject to human passions: and this perfectly legitimate and more or less unavoidable use of metaphor is often quite unfairly alleged to prove that the strictly Infinite is unthinkable and unknowable, and that it is really a finite anthropomorphic God that men worship. But whatever truth there may be in this charge as applied to Polytheistic religions, or even to the Theistic beliefs of rude and uncultured minds, it is untrue and unjust when directed against philosophical Theism. The same reasons that justify and recommend the use of metaphorical language in other connections justify and recommended it here, but no Theist of average intelligence ever thinks of understanding literally the metaphors he applies, or hears applied by others, to God, any more than he means to speak literally when he calls a brave man a lion, or a cunning one a fox." (https://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=5220)

I also quoted a Protestant theologian along the same lines, who likewise confirmed an earlier observation which I had made about God appearing as a burning bush, a pillar of fire/cloud and as a disembodied voice. Writing for The Gospel Coalition's article on "Theophany," Vern Poythress observed: "To some extent, we can classify theophanies into different kinds. There are thunderstorm theophanies, such as Mount Sinai. There are court theophanies, in which God appears on his throne in the midst of angelic servants (Dan. 7:9–10). There are man theophanies, where God appears in human form (for example, to Manoah and his wife). There are warrior theophanies, where God is described as resembling a human warrior (Exod. 15:3; Isa. 49:17). There are chariot theophanies, where God is described as riding on a chariot (Ps. 18:10); sometimes with mention of wheels, Ezek. 1:15–21). There are glory and cloud theophanies, when God appears in a bright “glory” cloud, or sometimes in a dark cloud. God reflects his glory in the created world, so that we can see analogy between creation and theophany (Ps. 104:1–4).
Jesus Christ, as the climactic 'theophany,' is the fulfillment of all the symbolic communications in theophanic forms."

Mr. Diehl went on to characterize these views as being characteristic of some of the religious elite within those denominations and not representative of the views of most of the laity. In response, I offered the following observation: Your view that an expansive view of the nature of God is confined to a small group of elite religious thinkers is not supported by Baylor's research into attitudes extant among the Great Unwashed of America. Indeed, their study demonstrated a wide range of beliefs out there about God's nature. Of course, we all recognize the limitations of polling and asking folks questions about their beliefs or who/what they support, but the results of this survey seem to suggest that folks aren't as wedded to anthropomorphic notions of God as your comments suggest. I'm including the links below, but notice a few of the very interesting results which apply to this conversation: If my math is correct, about 58% of folks agree/strongly agree with characterizing God as "a cosmic force in the universe." Likewise, it appears that almost as many folks are undecided/disagree/strongly disagree with the characterization of God as a "HE." (see http://www.religioustolerance.org/godnature.htm and http://www.religioustolerance.org/beliefs-about-the-nature-of-god.htm)

Hence, a large number of Christians appear to recognize the fact that an eternal, omnipotent and omnipresent God cannot be confined to a particular body. While the Bible makes clear that God has the ability to manifest a form to humans, that form obviously does not necessarily reflect the true nature of God.

The book of Genesis states that humans (male and female) were created in God's image (Hebrew "selem" - suggesting a shade, phantom, illusion, resemblance, etc.) and likeness (Hebrew "demut" - suggesting a resemblance, model, similitude, etc.) --see Genesis 1:26-27 and Strong's Concordance. Thus, while humans experience this physical realm through the five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling), we can see that God doesn't need any of those senses (or the organs and appendages which make them possible) to exist or operate in either the material or spiritual realm. As Scripture makes clear in a number of places, God is spirit and is without beginning or end. Hence, while humans may in many ways represent a pale reflection of the entity known as God, we should all be able to acknowledge that God doesn't need eyes to see, a nose to smell, ears to hear, hands to hold, or a penis to reproduce or identify gender! And, just as God cannot be contained in any human temple, the Divine entity also cannot be confined to a specific form, shape or place.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Jesus Christ's Teachings on Interpersonal Relationships

Unfortunately, although they are among some of the most often quoted scriptures within the Christian community, Christ's teachings on the way that people should treat each other are among the most ignored and misunderstood principles attributed to him! In fact, almost everyone who is even vaguely familiar with Christian theology will recognize the three most pertinent scriptures associated with this subject. They are:

"Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye." --Matthew 7:1-5, NLT here and throughout this post

“But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you." --Luke 6:27-31

"So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” --John 13:34-35

In reading over these well-known scriptures again, we see that Christ's teachings about interpersonal relationships involved four key concepts: Love, treating others the way you would like to be treated, refraining from offering judgments of others, and focusing on the improvement of one's own behavior/character. And, when we give even a cursory thought as to how we might implement these principles, we recognize that things like empathy, kindness, patience, mercy and forgiveness become essential components of putting these principles into practice in our own lives. Indeed, our musings about how to implement these principles bring other teachings of Christ and Paul to mind and give us some sense of the logical progression of Christ's thinking on the subject of interpersonal relationships.

For instance, we remember Christ's response to Peter's question about how often we should be willing to forgive each other (see Matthew 18:21). Feeling generous, Peter suggested that a willingness to forgive someone seven times might be appropriate. “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:22) One can also hear the echo of Christ's admonition to "turn the other cheek" in Paul's instruction to Roman Christians to "never pay back evil with more evil (Romans 12:17).

Likewise, in this context, Paul's definition of love, admonition to take care of each other's consciences, and his enumeration of the "fruits of the Spirit" take on new meaning. We remember that he wrote to the saints of Corinth: "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." --I Corinthians 13:4-7 And that he wrote to the saints of Rome: "Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval." --Romans 14:1-4 Finally, Paul wrote to the saints of Galatia on this wise: "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!" --Galatians 5:22-23

In similar fashion, in the first epistle of John we read: "Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining. If anyone claims, “I am living in the light,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is still living in darkness. Anyone who loves a fellow believer is living in the light and does not cause others to stumble. But anyone who hates a fellow believer is still living and walking in darkness. Such a person does not know the way to go, having been blinded by the darkness." --I John 2:7-11

Unfortunately, while we can readily see the philosophical harmony extant in the various writings of the New Testament regarding Christ's teachings on the subject of interpersonal relationships, it is also very apparent that many of those who have professed to follow in his footsteps down through the centuries have often not applied the principles which he espoused. Moreover, when this discrepancy is pointed out, all too often, the reaction of many Christians has been to excuse their behavior and/or reinterpret the plain meaning of the principles which Christ, Paul and John taught about interpersonal relationships! In other words, there is no sorrow/remorse - no repentance - no softening of the heart - and no attempt to correct the way that he/she interacts with others. Nevertheless, one could certainly make the case that these teachings are foundational - that these principles are elemental to the Christian religion!