Friday, January 09, 2015

God questions

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Yesterday I taught the first class of an undergraduate university course called Introduction to Theological Studies. Besides looking at a Van Gogh painting (beauty as the starting point of theology), listening to a Richard Dawkins interview (the limitations of closed system inquiry), and talking about theological sources, terms, and definitions, we spent some time thinking about the kind of questions we ask to find out more about a subject. One of the exercises I had the students do was to take out a piece of paper and write down two questions they could pose to someone in order to find out what kind of person they were. Then I had them turn to their neighbour and give their questions a try. 

It was not surprising that no one asked how tall someone was or how old they were (scientifically verifiable questions which would have pleased Richard Dawkins). Instead, they asked questions which required thoughtful responses. One student asked another, "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?" The responder lifted their eyes upward and began to speak of faraway places they dreamed of visiting, explaining why these particular sites were important to them. Another student informed the class that he had been asked, "How do you want to die?" He indicated that one could not answer that question with a surface response; he had to dig deep.

It was (hopefully) a practical way to illustrate that the questions we ask about God, in large part, determine what kind of answers we get. Asking for scientific evidence for the existence of God might seem important, but it tells us little about who God is or what kind of God we are trying to prove exists. Because God revealed himself through the person of Jesus, I believe that the questions we ask about God should not primarily focus on matters of science or language or historical accuracy, but matters of character. When we get to know someone, we are not particularly concerned about how they make a sandwich; we want to know if the person is good, trustworthy, kind, just, generous, wise, interesting, capable, creative, and fun to be with. No offense to sandwich-makers. 

This made me think about my own questions about God, and in particular, my prayers. What kind of questions do I ask of the Divine? Simple yes or no queries?  A litany of requests for help and a desire for things to turn out well? Or do I ask questions that search deeper into the person of God? What if we asked God the questions which my students came up with?

God, if you could go anywhere, were would you go? I believe we find the answer in the cry of a humble baby born to a young mother in Bethlehem: "I want to be close to my beloved people." Here we have a God who pursues loving relationships. 

God, how would you want to die? If we look at the crucifixion of Christ, I believe we have our answer: "I want to die by giving my life for the sake of another." This is a God who freely gives himself.

May I learn from my students and begin asking much better questions of God. 


Anonymous said...

"Asking for scientific evidence for the existence of God might seem important, but it tells us little about who God is or what kind of God we are trying to prove exists."

From a historical perspective the problem you are addressing here is two-fold. Before Newton in the West science and religion had a better understanding of their place.

The religious purpose of asking questions about the infinite is to achieve particular ways of being. We consider mythology and engage in religious practice in order to achieve particular existential states. The focal points of religious existentialism are compassion for the other and meaning making (mythology).

Science was meant to ask a completely different set of questions, none of which are mytholigical.

Dawkins is confused on several points. He does not understand the purpose of religion, he believes people can live without mythology, and he believes he can live without mythology. He's wrong on all accounts: his mythology is the teleology of the technical society (a deeply irrational mythology lacking compassion that has taken root in many religious systems post-modernity including evangelicalism). But we can't blame Dawkins & the New Aethiests for their impoverished aetheism (aethism is after all capable of being meaningful mythos). Christianity--by focusing on the one best way, by insisting on the one way to God, by claiming to channel the infinite--has exascerbated the bad infinities of Neo-Platonism. By insisting that only it channels the infinite it has crafted a world where the infinite cannot exist. The primary tool of this bad infinity? Theology (of course)!

"Who is God?" is a great question of faith, a great religious question. But faith requires that this question not be answered, except by finding new ways to live.

Matte Downey said...

I don't believe theology (at its best, anyway) insists that it alone channels the infinite, as you say. Theology is inquiry into who God is and at the same time, inquiry into who the theologian is. Any definitive claims, other than the ones Jesus made about God, are suspect, and most theologians are humble enough to recognise this. Nevertheless, the questions can lead us to discover much about the divine/human dynamic.