Models of God and the Christian life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.

As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.

Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.

The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)

As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.

But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?


12 thoughts on “Models of God and the Christian life

  1. Fortunately, Christians at least can avoid the either-or issue entirely – since we have the Incarnation. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” which means (at least to me) that we no longer have to worry or think about this issue.

    If you’ve seen Christ, you’ve seen God – and to me this means we can leave it at that! The rest is being knowing anyway….

  2. (Sorry, that should be “The rest is beyond knowing anyway.”

    Or, you can just go with Meister Eckhart, who has a pretty good response as well (after, I think, Augustine):

    God is nameless, for no man can either say or understand aught about Him. If I say, God is good, it is not true; nay more; I am good, God is not good. I may even say, I am better than God; for whatever is good, may become better, and whatever may become better, may become best. Now God is not good, for He cannot become better. And if He cannot become better, He cannot become best, for these three things, good, better, and best, are far from God, since He is above all. If I also say, God is wise, it is not true; I am wiser than He. If I also say, God is a Being, it is not true; He is transcendent Being and superessential Nothingness. Concerning this St Augustine says: the best thing that man can say about God is to be able to be silent about Him, from the wisdom of his inner judgement. Therefore be silent and prate not about God, for whenever thou dost prate about God, thou liest, and committest sin. If thou wilt be without sin, prate not about God. Thou canst understand nought about God, for He is above all understanding. A master saith: If I had a God whom I could understand, I would never hold Him to be God.

  3. As I see it, the purely “negative” theology illustrated by the quote from Eckhart is in tension with the other major Christian tradition of positive theology: that we can make meaningful statements about God resulting either from the use of our natural reason and/or God’s revelation. I’ve always been more attuned to the positive tradition, though I see the corrective value in the negative one.

    1. Russell

      I love your blogs. They are always helpful to my thinking. I am responding here because I could not find a way to write you an e-mail. I have two questions: 1) what is your current thinking on the doctrine of the Trinity and who best informs your thought on that doctrine? 2) what is your impression of Keith Ward’s approach to the doctrine? I hope you can respond. Thanks!

      1. Hi Russell,

        Thanks for reading and for the kind words. I’m not sure I have much in the way of “current thinking” on the Trinity. I guess I have always leaned more toward a more “Western,” “unitarian” view (without falling into modalism, I hope!) than an “Eastern,” “social” view. Though I could be persuaded otherwise. I’ve recently read a little Jurgen Moltmann and found much of what he had to say suggestive if not fully persuasive.

        As luck would have it, I’ve also been reading Keith Ward’s “Religion and Creation”, and while I haven’t finished it, it does appear that he outlines his view of the Trinity there. So I might try to blog about this when I’ve finished.

  4. I wish you had directed this post, which I had somehow missed, when I inquired on Twitter the other day regarding a version of this question. I am currently beginning, or finding that I am continuing, a gradual re-approach to Hermann Cohen’s framing of the matter somewhat along the lines you describe: this dualistic or disjunctive conception which is also the disjunction, I think, between “is” and “ought.” Cohen seeks through a kind of co-articulation of German idealism and the “sources of Judaism” – the prophets and learned rabbis – to derive the turning toward “the fellowman,” the mode you prefer or seem to recognize as most needed, from the human “correlation” with the divine as understood approximately in the “ground of being” mode, the mode that seems more secure for pure reason. I say approximately because “ground of being” isn’t an identity or substitute identity of the divine in his non-anthropomorphic monotheism but one way of conceiving what the concept of a “being like no other” happens to provide for, perhaps in the manner of Eckhart’s “superessential nothingness,” but not as a substantive or lack of substance, as other than substance so neither nothing nor something. In other words, Cohen seemed to believe that Hume had already been anticipated and overcome prophetically, and as a Neo-Kantian probably already believed that it had also been overcome philosophically. For him monotheism was the closing of the supposed gap between is (ground of being) and ought (morality), without or prior to reference to Jesus Christ, although I don’t believe we need to presume ourselves incapable of placing Christian belief within or in relationship to his theological and ethical framework.

  5. I don’t think this post moved the ball forward much. At most it may have articulated the question.

    Lately, I’ve been toying with the idea that personal language is a “symbol we can’t get behind,” so to speak. That, however inadequate it may be, there’s no more adequate language to substitute for it.

    I’ve been reading your posts with interest. Not sure I have anything worthwhile to say about them yet.

    1. I think you underrate how useful to someone like me even a few summary comments or an “articulation of the question” from someone as well-read as you are in Christian theology, and from your commenters, too, can be. You state the disjunction or dualism problem quite clearly, as well as its personal significance – a construction that somewhat repeats the disjunction and the ways we try to close it, even in the act of setting it aside: In other words, discussion of the disjunction seems to occur as theory or philosophy, abstractly and somewhat inaccessibly, and we wonder what possible application the theoretical has for us personally or concretely – another version of making the inaccessible accessible.

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