PART ONE : Doctrine of God (p.15)
The most important issue in religion is the nature of the ultimate or of transcendence. In any theology, the doctrine of God attempts to frame the nature of the ultimately real, which in turn inevitably affects every other concept, in particular the goal of life.
At one extreme, atheism, because it posits no god, makes attainment on earth (whether individual or corporate) the final goal. A this-worldly goal has to be the final one, because in this system humanity takes the place of God and constitutes the ultimate horizon. Theism, at the other end of the spectrum, projects God as Creator of the world, with purposes for human beings who are created in his image. In Christian theism God is a relational triune society who desires loving relationships with human persons in this life and for all eternity.
In the first two chapters we compare the various faith options in relationship to this question of ultimacy. We do not make the assumption that they are all saying the same things (because they are not) but want to ensure that since a choice has to be made among them, the choice be as intelligent as possible. After examining the major options, we turn in the two following chapters to an examination of Christian theism, which speaks of the goal in terms of bodily resurrection (chapter three) and adoption into the trinitarian family of God (chaptger four). The purpose of part one, then, is to highlight the model we are calling creative love theism in terms of its doctrine of God.
CHAPTER 1 (pp. 15-23)
RELIGION : Models of Love
Central to the vision of creative love theism are loving relationships, reconciliation instead of estrangement, and adoption into God's family. The goal is to get people back into the relationship of giving and receiving love as the Creator intended it.
In our global village it is important to discuss such issues interreligiously, and this is how we begin. This should not be surprising-the day when we could do theology in an enclave, without interacting with other options, is over. In an age of increasing awareness of one another's presence in the global setting, it will not do just to consult the issues and thinkers of Western culture and ignore the rest. Theology has been so parochial in the past, so insular. Taking on neocolonial attitudes, we tacitly assumed that only Western religious figures and intellectuals were worth consulting
But theology done in a ghetto cannot effectively address a world populated by people of many faiths. Our work must be done in dialogue with other religions, and our truth claims must be put forward in the light of what they claim. This is the way theology must be done in the modern world, and if we Christians have confidence in our faith, the process need not be fearful for us. [David A. Rausch and Carl H. Voss, World Religions: Our Quest for Meaning (Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1993). Pinnock also calls for interreligious dialogue in A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), chap. 4.]
Classifying world religions and their claims is not easy; their claims differ greatly on issues of the divine nature, as well as the problem of humanity and the character of salvation. It is not true that religions all say the same things, only in different culturally conditioned ways, as pluralists assume. There are important cognitive differences, and this is where we can begin. [See John A. DiNoia, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992).]
Religions can be conveniently compared overall with respect to their truth claims when we attend to the answers they give to four perennial questions :
The first question is the goal of life. Though there are many religions, there are not as many basic answers to the question of the goal of human existence. There are a limited number of mutually exclusive ways of viewing the whole of reality and the issue of ultimacy. In our brief account we narrow them down to three basic metaphysical systems: naturalism (there is no God that matters), monism (God is everything, or the soul of everything) and theism (there is a personal God).
The second issue concerns what is wrong with humanity and what prevents life's goal from being attained. Here each religion addresses the nature of sin or evil. For the Hindu (whose goal is identity with the Absolute), evil is ignorance of this truth. For Muslims (whose goal is obedience to the law of God), sin is disobedience to the divine laws. Sin is always defined in relation to the ultimate.
The third question asks what (if anything) the transcendent or the real has done about the human problem. What provision has been made? The answers range from nothing at all to everything. God can be viewed as the good that helps us simply by being there or may be seen to have chosen to send prophets or even to have come among us by assuming human nature. The Christian message puts a great deal of emphasis on what God has done in history to save humanity, but most religions emphasize what humans do to save themselves.
The fourth question considers the appropriation of salvation. This becomes an issue when the nature of the real, the problem of sin and the way of salvation have been defined. If God is Judge and sin is disobedience, obedience will be the requirement. If God is love and sin is repudiating that love, penitence will be called for. If sin is ignorance, enlightenment becomes the necessary thing; if sin is inauthentic living, the means is to become authentic. Different answers are thus given to the question how people attain salvation.
With this simple procedure in hand, let us put theory into practice. Initially it seems that there are three basic types of world view. First, there are varieties of naturalism - religions or quasi-religions that focus mainly on the world, whether they actually deny the existence of God or not. Second, there are varieties of monism - religions or religious philosophies that identify God with everything there is. Third, there are varieties of theism - religions that posit a personal Creator, who is distinct from his creation, and who is advancing his divine purposes in history.
Here, then, are three rival conceptions about the ultimate and the goal of life between which we have to make a choice. In this chapter we reflect on naturalism, which offers salvation in the context of this world, and on monism, which incorporates a transcendent perspective on life, though usually in an impersonal way. In the next chapter we can move on to the theistic options, including creative love theism.
Varieties of Naturalism
Naturalism takes the material world to be ultimate. It holds that there is no God of any kind, in the world or beyond it. Naturalistic spirituality operates within the all-encompassing system of nature. Because no entities exist outside the natural causal system, humans must create whatever meaning life has without bringing any God into the picture-not an easy thing to do.
Western forms of humanism look to upward evolution and the increasing well-being of humanity, and salvation comes through human effort alone. Humankind is the measure of truth and is its own only savior. One finds a natural religion of this kind in the evolutionary humanism of Julian Huxley, the existential humanism of Jean-Paul Sartre, the political humanism of Karl Marx and the egocentric humanism of Ayn Rand. [Norman L. Geisler presents the various forms of naturalism in Is Man the Measure? An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983).]
Humanism is a religion even though it does not deal with transcendence. It arose as a response to a tendency in the modern era to identify God with history, with the autonomy of humanity and with the evolution of the world. Modern consciousness seemed to demand that attention be routed away from transcendence in the direction of history and the human project. There was enormous pressure to turn transcendence into immanence and to view any God as existing within the human subject.
According to deism, a second form of religious naturalism, there is a creator who does not intervene in history. Deists like Thomas Paine and Matthew Tindal imagine that God gave the world its start and its existence a basis of meaning but then left us on our own. God created the world but now lets it operate by its own natural and self-sustaining laws. Though this system does not deny the existence of God, the natural realm remains all we can be concerned about.
Deism may not be a major option today, because it is a halfway house between atheism and theism and tends either to fall into a more radical skepticism or to be drawn back into a fuller orthodoxy. After all, if God went to the trouble of creating the world, why would he not use history as a sphere of activity and revelation? Why would a good creator leave us bereft of divine assistance? Nevertheless, practical deism is widespread among many who believe there is a God but still expect to have to work out their own salvation.
There are various religions that can be placed under the heading of naturalism. Primitive religions, for example, do not deny that a high God exists above and beyond the world, but they do not expect this high God to help people. So the problems of life, such as coping with evil spirits, are this-worldly. The problem is how to attain well-being in this life, since God keeps distant and offers no real help.
This primitive outlook is more widespread than is commonly realized. Often we forget about it and give disproportionate attention to what we call the world religions. But it is estimated that 40 percent of humanity operate in the spiritual framework of a this-worldly animism. Many people who might be classified on a census as Muslims or Hindus deal mostly with magic, divination and other spirit manifestations. They are obsessed by the belief that nature is possessed by spirits that have power over human beings. Therefore one's main challenge is to gain victory over the dark powers and control power for one's own benefit through magical charms and amulets and appeasing the spirits of ancestors that roam the earth. Even though a high God may exist, he is largely irrelevant to earth dwellers, for whom the pressing need is to placate the spirits through magic, shamanism and sacrifice. Primitive peoples today are giving up the animist faith, and the danger is that secular naturalism will fill the void. In that case it is possible that their traditional life will be destroyed without anything better being given them. [On the primitive religions, see John P. Newport, Life's Ultimate Questions (Waco, Texas.: Word, 1989), chap. 9.]
Religions of the Far East are mostly disinterested in a high God. Taoism, for example, honors the spirits of rivers, mountains and stars, together with the patron deities of the trades and occupations. It honors divine heroes, gods of health and good luck, and spirits of many kinds. Since the goal is oneness with nature and personal happiness, the hindrance is unnatural behavior and disharmony. The path to salvation is to live naturally. Since there is no high God to be concerned with, the individual pursues the goal of religion in relation to the material world and the natural Tao. Religion is largely a matter of adjusting to the teleology of the world and its laws.
Chinese Confucianism offers an ethical doctrine, a gentle humanism. Again, the goal is well-being on earth and the hindrance is anarchy in behavior. Salvation comes from living together in good relationships according to tradition. Humans become corrupt when they refuse to pursue the good of other people and of the ancestors. Of critical importance are proper relations between ruler and ruled, father and son, husband and wife. What matters is regulation and harmony, respect and courtesy, filial piety and adjustment to one's place in society. [John B. Noss, Man's Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1969), pt. 3.]
Buddhism is a world religion that in practice is largely oriented to life on earth. The Buddhist believes that our miseries arise from the desire for things. Unhappiness results from wanting this or that and being frustrated at dissatisfactions. If people could just lose their desires, they would find happiness. The state of losing desire is the goal called nirvana. It is not easy to attain, but there are disciplines available through which one can begin to lose such desire. Rather than a personal God, emptiness and the extinction of ego are central to original Buddhism. The root of misery is desire, and since there is no personal God to help us, salvation is attained through ascetic discipline, following the path laid out by the Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism tended only later to make the Buddha into a personal savior.
Zen is a Japanese variety of Buddhism whose goal is also enlightenment in this world. But the focus here is on the fact that our minds are trapped in ignorance and need to be liberated through mental discipline. Zen offers a way to experience the unitary character of reality, and since one cannot think one's way into it, what is required is a revelation that comes in a flash of insight. [See Michael Carrithers, The Buddha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).]
Varieties of naturalism, then, focus on this world. But is it really true that there is no more to existence that just this world? Love and devotion are affirmed in most religions; how can they be understood without reference to a loving, personal God? Living well on the earth is certainly important, and religions that foster that are making a real contribution, but there is still a deep need in us to know God. Naturalism has difficulty providing satisfactory answers to the perennial question, Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going?
Although varieties of naturalism are not models of God's love in their present forms, we are entitled to try and see God's love as it seeks to penetrate them. With St. Paul, we hope that all such people will feel after God and find him, since he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27).
Varieties of Monism
The second major metaphysical option is monism, which identifies God with the world or with the soul of this world. God is not thought of as distinct from the world, and transcendence is equated with the material world. The truth claim here is that reality is ultimately one. God is the world, the world emanates from God, God is in the world, and through the world God himself experiences change and evolution. The world in both its good and its evil flows from God necessarily and is not the result of any decision on God's part. Since monism is hard to reason one's way through, its truth is grasped mystically rather than by rational inferences. [On monism, see Norman L. Geisler and William D. Watkins, Perspectives: Understanding and Evaluating Today's World Views (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life, 1984), chap. 4.]
Monism too appears in different forms and subtle variations. The absolute pantheism of Parmenides recognizes only one being; the emanational pantheism of Plotinus sees everything flowing from God; the developmental pantheism of Hegel sees God unfolding historically in time. In one way or another, the finite things (including human beings) are forms of an absolute substance that is not personal. Unlike naturalism, monism is God-centered, for it posits God as the essence of all being.
In Western culture, panentheism is becoming more popular. Related to pantheism, this system preserves a greater degree of transcendence. Rather than completely identifying God and the world, it views God as being in the world as the soul is in the body. Panentheism is really an attempt to move monism closer to theism. It preserves a degree of divine independence from the world but still sees God as enmeshed in the process of worldly change, not in a voluntary way but in a relationship of necessity. Panentheism is monism modified in the direction of theism in avoiding any simple identification of God and the world. Theists should encourage panentheists to take things further in this direction and admit that God is the creator of the world and involved in it voluntarily. Without that there is no God who is really ultimate.
Philosophical Hinduism embodies monism in a classic religious form. In the thinking of Shankara (d. 820), the goal of religion is oneness with being, and humankind's problem is that we do not recognize or acknowledge this. This makes knowledge the key to salvation: we must learn to recognize our own divine identity. We need to change our way of thinking and accept the fact that we are part of the divine essence.
An influential form of Hinduism in the West has been that of Radhakrishnan (d. 1975), who posited different levels of reality and considered the Absolute to be manifested on all the levels. Our main need, he thought, is always to negate the ego, tune into the divine ground of our being and hope to overcome the cycle of rebirths. The individual is an aspect of transcendence and aims at union with God.
In monism God is impersonal and the world is a projection of the divine essence. What we call the New Age markets this monistic thinking in the West. New Agers like to say all being is one, interrelated and interdependent, and that God and the world are all part of one continuous reality without boundaries. Everything, including ourselves, partakes of this one divine essence. Whatever exists is god and is therefore perfect. Humans are divine and only need to wake up to that fact, to honor and worship themselves. People need to realize the full potential of their divinity, overcome the ignorance of this truth of their being and alter their consciousness so as to become aware of basic oneness. New Age spirituality promises to help us tap into spiritual energy within ourselves. It is a Western form of monism that places emphasis on the individual, although (paradoxically) the original idea of monism was to lose our personal distinctness.
Monism gives rise to questions in the mind of a thoughtful listener. How can we be one with Being when we sense our own personal distinctness. We feel distinct from other persons and from God. And we crave fellowship with God and other people. If God is impersonal, there can be no genuinely I-Thou relationship with God, though the need for such a relationship is fundamental to religions, including popular Hinduism. This must be why monistic religion tends to develop theistic cults such as Hare Krishna. Monism also has special difficulty handling the problem of evil because it is forced either to declare it illusory or to attribute it to God. And neither of these options is very satisfying. And it gives no real significance to human beings. It views black flies as important as we are. The goal is to escape individual personality, even though being persons is surely what we most essentially are and want to be.
In its usual forms, monism is not a model of love. It does not aim to introduce people to fellowship with a loving God. But monists do celebrate the mystical fact of our living in God and may therefore be drawn by the Spirit to refine their understanding of who exactly it is in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Paul here quotes from a monistic poet in Acts 17:28)
Understanding and Choosing
We need to be fair as we compare the basic religious options. We care about what other people believe. In natural science one can classify the mammals, for example, without having to decide whether lions are better than whales or rabbits preferable to donkeys. Such decisions are required of us in other contexts, such as when we have to settle between adopting a cat or a skunk as a pet. But there is a place for making an effort to understand the inner logic of each way of viewing life without necessarily choosing to pursue any of them. On the other hand, individuals may wish to convert or be converted. They may want to switch from one way of looking at things to another way, from one model of faith to another one.
In this chapter we have confined ourselves to classifying religions without making many value judgments. Eventually, of course, one has to make a choice whether to be a Marxist or a Jew, a Quaker or the devotee of a guru. After making comparisons, one might decide that one religion or ideology is not as appealing as another as a way for ordering life. Buddhism, for example, would be unattractive for a person who wants love and to be loved to the full. Or choosing to flow with the law of the Tao would be unappealing to someone who is seeking to be saved from hell.
In the process of comparison we find that there is room for persuasive argument. Often it is a practical argument based on the implications of being committed to one kind of goal or another. God has given us freedom to choose how we wish to order our life, and the choice is not made only by logic. Our analysis has confined logic to the inner structure of each system; which means no one can be forced by superior intellect at the point of decision. Obviously God knew that if people could be converted by logic, only the intelligent person could be saved.
Accounts of Love
Religions can be viewed as alternative accounts of love. Consider these statements, which use the word love in ways that have very different implications for life.
And as we proceed, we should remind ourselves that the love of God was not invented by Christians in the New Testament. God's love was already at the heart of the Old Testament. There are about eighty references to the steadfast love of God (RSV and NRSV) in Psalms 5-130, and Psalm 136 mentions that love in every one of its twenty-six verses (see Gen 32:10; 39:21; Ex 34:6-7).
Chapter 2 .....