THE LOGIC OF BIBLICAL ANTHROPOMORPHISM
In the Harvard Theological Review (Vol. 55, 1962)
Copyright 1962 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission.
[Titles appearing in the papers footnotes were not italicized in the Harvard Theological Review.]
E. La B. Cherbonnier
TRINITY COLLEGE, HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT
THE Bible, we are continually reminded, was written with an intent remote from that of the philosopher. To examine the Bible for its logical implications might therefore appear futile. The present inquiry, however, is undertaken in a more Socratic spirit. Socrates carried his search for truth into the most unlikely quarters. Unimpressed by pedigrees, he winnowed ideas in banquet hall and market place, rejecting none until they stood condemned by their own inner contradictions. The aim of the following pages is to apply the Socratic method to the Bible; more specifically, to examine some logical implications of biblical anthropomorphism.
By anthropomorphism I mean any theology that conceives of God in terms of those characteristics which are distinctively human: the capacity for discriminating judgment, the exercise of responsible decision and choice, the ability to carry out long-range purposes. Such a God is appropriately (and literally) described in the language of personal pronouns and transitive verbs, such as "possess," "love," "judge," "promise," "forgive," and the like.
In this sense of the term, the God of the Bible is quite as anthropomorphic as any in the Greek and Roman pantheon. Logically, He has more in common with these Olympian deities than with Plato's "Being" or Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover." The difference between Yahweh and Zeus is not logical or formal, but factual and "existential." The prophets do not charge the pagan deities with being 'anthropomorphic, but with being insufficiently anthropomorphic. At their best, they are counterfeit persons. At their worst, they are frankly impersonal.
It is sometimes held that this biblical anthropomorphism is only a manner of speaking, a mere symbol for the hidden, "wholly other" God who defies all attempts to describe him. A few standard passages are regularly adduced as evidence that the Bible "at its best" abandons anthropomorphism. Modern scholarship, how-
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ever, by restoring these passages to their context and so recovering their original meaning, reverses such an interpretation. Several examples will be considered below. For present purposes it suffices to mention Hosea 11:9 : "For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst." Here, apparently, God is contrasted with man; anthropomorphism is repudiated. The context, however, establishes the contrary. Indeed, Hosea is one of the most daringly anthropomorphic authors of the Bible. He attributes to God Himself the feelings and emotions of the husband whose wife has "played the harlot." The contrast between God and man concerns their respective ways of dealing with the situation. Instead of destroying Israel for her faithlessness, as might be expected of man, God is not vindictive. He has resources of mercy and forgiveness for the softening of Israel's heart. This difference between God and man is not a difference "in principle." It is merely de facto - a difference which God means eventually to overcome.
Besides this meaning of anthropomorphism, there is a second which, if not clearly distinguished, can make for confusion. This second meaning refers not primarily to any particular conception of God, but to the psychological process by which a person arrives at it. He projects some aspect of himself or his wishes onto the heavens, and calls it God. This psychological explanation undoubtedly does account for the beliefs of many people. Clearly, however, it can properly apply only to persons, never to propositions.
Nevertheless, anthropomorphism in this descriptive sense has often been used as an argument against anthropomorphism in the first sense. From Anaximander to Feuerbach to Freud, philosophers have charged that to conceive God as personal must, by definition, be wishful thinking. The fallacy in such a claim is two-fold. In the first place, the validity of a belief is unaffected by a given person's motives for holding it. He might employ poor reasons, or none at all, in support of a position which is, on other grounds, impregnable. To disparage the position solely on the basis of the person's motives is to argue ad hominem.
The second fallacy is the assumption that only those who believe in a personal God are liable to project themselves into their beliefs. Actually, they hold no monopoly on this tendency. The
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worshipper of tribal totems (or of philosophical abstractions) is equally susceptible. As W. H. V. Reade observes,
When fear of anthropomorphism induces men to reject the idea of a personal God, and to substitute for it some product of abstract thinking, they simply delude themselves. What they propose is just as anthropomorphic as what they reject .1
Voltaire used a sword that cuts both ways in his famous quip to the effect that God did not make man in his image, but vice versa. Any belief may be the result of wishful thinking, including Voltaire's own. Its validity can be neither established nor refuted on merely psychological grounds. A fair Socratic investigation can only begin when it is recognized that anthropomorphism in the psychological sense has no bearing upon the validity of the concept of a personal God.
A second ambiguous term is "supra-personal" (or "super-personal"). To describe God as "supra-personal" appears at first glance to retain the appeal of a personal God while avoiding the alleged difficulties. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the term poses a problem: How does the "supra-personal" differ from the personal, on the one hand, and the merely sub-personal, on the other? The attempt to answer this question leads to a dilemma. If the "supra-personal" means "personal to the nth degree," then it is simply a special instance of anthropomorphism, useful, no doubt, but subject to the same alleged objections.
If, on the other hand, every trace of anthropomorphism is eliminated, one confronts the other horn of the dilemma: how is the allegedly "supra-personal" distinguished from the merely sub-personal? Unless this question can be answered, advocates of the "supra-personal" may fairly be likened to a person crossing the north pole. He believes himself to be going farther and farther north, when in fact he has begun to go south again.2 Devotees of the "supra-personal" likewise fancy themselves to have discovered a more exalted term for God. The burden of proof rests with them,
1W. H. V. Reade, The Christian Challenge to Philosophy, London: S. P. C. K. 1951, P. 67.
2This illustration is taken from Frank B. Dilley, "The Quest for a Biblical Metaphysic," in The Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, January, 1956, pp. 55 f.
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however, to show that they have not unwittingly reverted to the sub-personal. Until they do, one may conclude that the category of the personal is the north pole of human thought.3
There is one further obstacle to a philosophical examination of the biblical God. It is the fear lest, in applying human reason to things divine, one become guilty of arrogant presumption. Despite the success of this argument in recent times, it commits an elementary error, which might, for convenience, be called the "moralistic fallacy." That is, it tries to settle a properly intellectual question by recourse to moral censure. Like all illegitimate arguments, it boomerangs. Though adopted in the name of humility, it convicts the person who uses it of the arrogance he would avoid. When he says, "My position is morally superior," he is saying, in effect, "To disagree with me is morally wrong," a sentiment not commonly associated with humility. A similar fate awaits anyone who tries to prove his virtue by subscribing to some particular doctrine.
With these verbal and moral obstacles out of the way, one may proceed to the logical implications of biblical anthropomorphism. The method will be to examine some of the terms most commonly applied to God to determine whether they are in fact logically compatible with the biblical God. The analysis will show that they are not, except in a highly specialized sense. In their plain meaning, most of the commonly accepted "divine attributes" apply to a very different God, the God of mystical4 philosophy, whether Oriental or Occidental, known variously as Brahman, the One, the "Ground of Being," the Void, the Unconditioned. The conclusion will suggest that these ambiguous terms, by obscuring the difference between mutually exclusive ideas of God, have sown confusion in both theology and philosophy.
1) In what sense is God infinite?
3The same point has been made, though with a different purpose, by Henry N. Wieman, in "God is More than We Can Think," Christendom I, Spring, 1936, p. 432: "If God has a summit that is higher than mind and personality, he cannot be a mind and personality because these must be at the summit or not at all."
4Although "mysticism" is loosely used to cover nearly anything beyond the commonplace, I use it in the sense proposed by W. T. Stace: "an apprehension of an ultimate non-sensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate." (W. T. Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics, New York, New American Library, 196o, pp. 14 f.)
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Of all the traditional attributes of God, perhaps none is more familiar than the term "infinite." Significantly, it does not occur in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and only three times in the King James Version. Of these three occurrences, one refers to the wickedness of Job (Job 22: 5) , the second to the power of Egypt (Nah. 3:9), and the third to the wisdom of God (Ps. 147: 5) . The meaning is simply that God's wisdom is inexhaustible, not that He is himself "the Infinite."
Actually, the word "infinite" is an "umbrella" word, comprehending within itself a number of different meanings. These subordinate terms must therefore be examined one by one, to determine whether they properly apply to the biblical God.
2) In what sense is God unlimited?
Etymologically, "infinite" means "unlimited." It is natural to suppose that no God worthy of the name could be limited. The issue, however, is not quite so simple. There are two distinct kinds of limitation, each of which excludes the other, and between which the theologian is obliged to choose.
The first meaning pertains to logical predication. A thing is limited the moment any characteristic is attributed to it. For example, if a house is red, it is limited to this one color. Similarly, any positive statement about God automatically restricts him. If He is great, He cannot be small. If He is personal, He cannot be impersonal. Hence the conclusion of D. T. Suzuki, who speaks at this point for the entire mystical tradition: "Everything that has a name thereby limits itself."5 In other words, God can be unlimited only if He is beyond all predication, only if He is indeterminate. The mystic therefore makes no affirmations about God at all. In the via negativa of medieval theology, no less than the neti, neti of the Upanishads, the mystic confines himself to saying what God is not. This is his homage to "the Infinite."
Is the biblical God then "limited," is the sense that He is subject to predication? The prophet asks a different question. He does not ask, "Can God be described?," but rather, "What can He do? Is He free to act, to accomplish his purposes?" If not, then He is no God at all. If so, then He must be anthropomorphic.
5The Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, ed. William Barrett, New York, Doubleday, 1956, p. 28. Suzuki is quoting the Zen mystic Nan-Ch'uan.
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The gods of Canaan and Babylon were at least good imitations. The prophets do not charge them with being anthropomorphic, but with being frauds.
As an illustration one may cite another of the passages which superficially appear to "transcend" anthropomorphism: "To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? . . . For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me" (Is. 46:5,9). Again, however, the context reverses the interpretation. It contrasts the mighty acts of Yahweh with the impotence of every false god: "They lift it upon their shoulders, they carry it; . . . it cannot move from its place, . . . it does not answer" (v. 7) . The true God, however, does move and speak; he announces his purpose and brings it to pass (v. I I).
The intent of such passages is to distinguish Yahweh from idols by precisely these anthropomorphic activities: "They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell" (Ps. II5:5, 6). Pagan gods are contemptible because of their impotence. They cannot even do the things a man can do, whereas Yahweh does these things par excellence.
The moment God acts, however, He violates the specifications of mystical theology. He becomes determinate, the subject of predication: the God who spoke to Moses and delivered Israel. By the mystic's definition, such a God is limited. As the Chinese mystic Chuang Tse expresses it, "Tao cannot be named. Because it cannot be named (predicated), therefore Tao does not do things."6
The theologian is consequently confronted with a choice between two kinds of limitation. He can have a God who, though unlimited by any predicate, is ineffectual. Or he can have a God who, at the "cost" of being describable, has the power to accomplish his will. For the Bible, the choice is academic. The ineffable "Ground of Being" is a God in chains. Zeus, Baal, or Ishtar, on the other hand, if they really existed, would be something to reckon with. Only if God is a definite, determinate per-
6Chuang Tse 7:4 (trans. Lin Yutang in The Wisdom of Lao Tse; New York: Modern Library, 1948, p. 74 (my italics; translator's parentheses).
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sonality can He take intelligible, purposive action. Only an anthropomorphic God can be omnipotent.
At this point the "moralistic fallacy" customarily rears its head: Is it not the height of arrogance to think of God in such obviously human terms? Does not the mystic's reticence show a greater humility? Without again exposing the fallacy in such a question, one may note that, even by the illegitimate standards of humility, the mystic's position is precarious. Suppose his God should one day want for himself the freedom to act and choose. By his own logic, the mystic is obliged to reserve this anthropomorphic privilege for worshippers only.
3) In what sense is God "one"?
Another axiom of religious philosophy is the unity of God. Again, however, the definition of "unity" will change as one passes from the mystical to the biblical system of thought. In both systems, the meaning of "unity" reflects their respective definitions of "unlimited." For the mystic, God can only be unlimited if He is the sole existent being. If there were two "gods," then the second would, by its very existence, "condition" the first. No account of the one would be complete without reference to the other. Carried to its conclusion, this logic forbids not only a second "god," but the existence of anything else at all. Anything "outside" God would reduce Him to one term in a relation. God must therefore be without relation; in a word, "unconditioned," or "absolute." Consequently, when the mystic speaks of the unity of God, he means "the one without a second," or "that than which there is no other."7 For the mystic, in other words, the unity of God means monism.
Its corollary is pantheism. For if God is the sole reality, then the universe has no separate existence, but is rather the insubstantial manifestation of "the divine ground." In the words of Hindu mysticism, there is "one God, hidden in all things, all-pervading, the Inner Soul of all things . . . ." 8 From this it follows that although no "finite" object can adequately represent true reality,
7See, for example, W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity; Princeton University Press, 1952, p. 47; R. E. Hume, The Thirteen Principal Upanishads; London: Oxford University Press, 1934, p. 36.
8Svetasvatara Upanishad 6:12 (trans. R. E. Hume, op. cit., p. 409).
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any object may, in the "ecstatic moment," become the medium of divine revelation: "All things come out of an abyss of mystery, and through every one of them we can have a peep into the abyss."9
It is precisely this conception of unity which the Bible opposes. When the prophet cried, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God," he was not referring to "the one without a second." He was calling attention to God's constancy of purpose, his integrity of character. Precisely because God is anthropomorphic, with an unmistakable personal identity, He could not be represented by a bull or a baal or a solar disc. To worship Him under any other name than his own is to mistake his identity. To do it deliberately is to forsake Him.
It is therefore misleading for a Christian to speak of the "scandal of particularity." "Particularity" is only a "scandal" within the mystical world-view, where God is the "Infinite All." In the biblical world-view, on the contrary, "particularity" is, if anything, an honorific term, for God himself is a "particular" a particular Person.
The Jews were not primarily interested in the question, "How many gods are there?," but rather in the question, "To whom do I owe my allegiance?" For them, the very idea of a "pantheon" would have involved a contradiction in terms, for it makes a virtue of divided loyalty. Only in later Judaism did they finally conclude that Yahweh was the sole God. But He was still the kind of God whom the mystic would regard as limited, not only by the existence of the created universe, but especially by the recalcitrance of men.
Within the biblical world of thought, however, it is the mystic who limits God. By insisting that God must be unrelated to anything else (that is, "absolute"), he puts Him in quarantine. The mystic finds himself in the embarrassing position of prescribing what God may and may not do. In fact, by denying that God is anthropomorphic, he denies Him the power to act at all.
The biblical God, on the contrary, is unlimited in the sense that He can override the mystic's veto. He can be as "absolute" or as "related" as He wants to be - no more, no less. He can, if He
9D. T. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 287.
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chooses, take the risk of endowing mankind with freedom. He can, if He chooses, create a universe distinct from himself. Whether He has actually done so can only be determined after the fact. Prima facie, He appears to have defied the mystic's interdict. By the act of creation, He has become "a Being besides other beings."
For the Bible, to say that God is unlimited is simply to say that with God, all things are possible - even creation. This is the difference between monism and monotheism.
4) In what sense is God unknowable?
Another axiom of religious philosophy is that God is unknowable. As St. Augustine said, "A God understood is no God at all."10 Once more, however, the mystical God is unknowable in a very different sense from the biblical.
The mystical God is unknowable in the sense that he shatters the ordinary canons of knowledge. Being "infinite," He is discontinuous with rational categories, the negation of human attributes. He is deus absconditus, a hidden God. To know Him, one must pierce the veil that separates the finite from the infinite. In the moment of mystic trance, one's rational faculties are left behind. This is the inner logic behind the medieval doctrine of "learned ignorance" (docta ignorantia). The intellect is a barrier between man and God. It is, says Professor Suzuki, "a most obtrusive hindrance, or rather a deadly enemy," to mystical experience.11 At first glance, it might seem that the biblical God is likewise unknowable. "Who has known the mind of the Lord . . .? How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways" (Rom. 11: 34, 33) ? Again, however, the incognito of God has an entirely different meaning in its biblical context. An anthropomorphic God is unknowable, not because he confounds human categories, but because he can refuse to disclose himself. No man by searching can find out God.
Conversely, when God chooses to make himself known, He does so in the categories of everyday experience. A good example is
10See, for example, Sermons CXVII, iii, 5, and LII, vi, 16.
11D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, Second Series; London: Rider and Company, 1950, p. 101.
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the passage usually cited in support of the mystical view: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts" (Is. 55:8, 9). It is clear from the context that this passage by no means asserts a disjunction between divine and human categories of thought. On the contrary, the prophet is in the act of proclaiming the ways and thoughts of God without recourse to paradox, mystic symbolism, or a technical vocabulary.
Likewise, when he says, "Thou art a God who hidest thyself" (Is. 45:15), the prophet by no means intends the deus absconditus of mystical theology. He is merely pausing in the midst of a series of explicit declarations of God's revealed purpose.
It may be objected that such a God is too domesticated, that the divine mystery is better protected by the deus absconditus. The Bible, however, has its own way of preserving the mystery of God. Where God is anthropomorphic, there is mystery, not because He does violence to human reason, but because He holds the initiative. Whereas inanimate objects can be known at the initiative of the inquirer, the knowledge of God is like the knowledge of another person. The initiative rests with Him. Unless He chooses to make Himself known, through word and deed, no amount of prying can succeed in making his acquaintance: "They will seek me diligently, but will not find me" (Prov. I :28) .
In the Bible, one acknowledges the mystery of God by refusing to jump to conclusions about Him. For example, one does not assume prematurely that God cannot be anthropomorphic. Rather, one inquires, without prejudging the case, whether in fact He is. In other words, knowledge of the biblical God is absolutely a posteriori. The prophet does not presume to deduce the attributes of God, de jure. He proclaims the character of God on the basis of his purposes and mighty acts.
Such knowledge is unpredictable. It may, and usually does, come as a surprise: "I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known. Before today you have never heard of them" (Is. 48:6, 7) . The mystery of an anthropomorphic God is guaranteed, not because He overturns all human categories, but because he can confound all human expectation: "Behold, ye
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despisers, and wonder, and perish; for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall no wise believe, even if one declare it unto you" (Acts 13: 41) .
This biblical way of preserving the mystery of God is more successful than the mystic's. For him, in the last analysis, the mystery turns out to be provisional only. From the perspective of ordinary rational knowledge, the mystical God is indeed inscrutable, paradoxical, ambiguous. At the higher level of mystical intuition, however, this same God is known more perfectly than any finite object. Finite knowledge can never be certain because it presupposes a gap between knowing subject and known object. In the process of being mediated across this gap, all knowledge is liable to distortion. Conversely, if knowledge is to become perfect, it must be "immediate." The gap, and with it the need for mediation, must be eliminated. And this, in turn, is possible only if the distinction between knower and known is transcended, if subject and object become one.
This requirement, of course, fits perfectly the classic description of the mystic's "moment of truth," when he becomes absorbed in God. According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, for example, "In perfect worship, there is identity of subject and object."12 In this immediate, unitive experience, there is no longer even the possibility of error. Knowledge has at last become perfect. In claiming to have such an experience of God, the mystic presumes to a knowledge far more exhaustive than mere "finite" knowledge could ever be. Professing to worship an unknowable God, he ultimately "plucks out the heart of his mystery."
Not only does anthropomorphism preserve the mystery of God, it also preserves the rationality of man. For the mystic, the divine truth always fractures and contorts the language of everyday speech. It must be expressed in esoteric enigmas and paradoxes. Hence the rubric that no finite statement applies univocally to God. Every "yes" must be accompanied by a balancing "no." As Edward Conze, speaking for Buddhist mysticism, expresses it: "If he (the Buddhist sage) once says yes, he must also say
12"Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva, Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 1948, p. 193 (footnote 17 to ch. 3).
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no. And when he says no, he must also say yes, to the same."13
It was not so in Israel. Where God is anthropomorphic, there is but a single universe of discourse, capable of conveying things divine as well as things human. Consequently, when God does choose to make himself known, he does so unambiguously. No matter how unexpected, his words are perfectly intelligible: "I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness. I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, Seek me in chaos. I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right" (Is. 45: 19). If rational intelligibility is a desideratum, the God of Israel has the better of the argument.
Biblical anthropomorphism not only preserves the mystery of God and the rationality of man; it also meets on their own ground those who would invoke "humility" as a criterion of theology and so fall into the "moralistic fallacy." Since this fallacy dies hard, however, one may note in passing that anthropomorphism is the guarantee that the individual worshipper will never confuse himself with the object of his worship. In the moment of ecstacy, on the contrary, when the mystic's separate personality is left behind, there remains nothing to distinguish him from God. Hence the esoteric teaching that in the moment of trance, "I am God."14
For the Bible, such a possibility is out of the question. Since God is a distinct person, no human being could entertain the notion of becoming one with him. Biblical humility consists of letting God be God, a determinate personality with his own integrity, not to be confused with anyone else, least of all oneself.
5) In what sense is God invisible?
On one point, at least, mystic and prophet do seem to agree. Both speak of God as invisible. Once more, however, their agreement is apparent only. It dissolves in the light of the distinction between de jure and de facto. For the mystic, God so completely transcends the spatio-temporal world that the "finite" categories of seeing, hearing, and touching simply do not apply (except, per
13Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1959, p. 132.
14See, for example, the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, 1. 4. 10 (trans. R. E. Hume, op. cit., 83) .
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haps, in some highly metaphorical sense). Such a God is invisible in principle.
The biblical God, on the contrary, is invisible simply as a matter of tactics. De facto, men seldom do see Him. Upon occasion, however, he does show himself: to Moses (Ex. 33:23), to the elders of Israel (Ex. 24: 10), to Isaiah (Is. 6: 1). St. John quite consistently refers to "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . ." (I Jn. 1 : 1 ).
That is, God retains the freedom to show himself or to withhold his face at will. As Rudolf Bultmann observes,
God is not invisible to the senses as a matter of principle. Indeed, Hebrew has no word for invisible. God is invisible because he wills to be so."15
Perhaps one reason why God chooses to remain invisible for the time being is that He cannot yet trust men not to stare at him. The tendency to dissociate, to become a voyeur, is overcome only when men are as trustworthy as God. For most men, the vision of God will be postponed until we are perfected in love. In the meantime, we may well think twice before assuming that just because He has not shown himself to us, He is invisible "by nature."
6) In what sense is God timeless or changeless?
Another meaning of "infinite" is "beyond the finite categories of space and time." The mystic's God is infinite in this sense. For him, change is a mark of imperfection, for if a thing is perfect and then undergoes change, it must lose its perfection. Conversely, if it is not yet perfect, then no matter how greatly it may improve, it can never match the perfection of an object which has been perfect always. Hence, concludes the mystic, if God is perfect, He must be altogether beyond the realm of change and becoming. He is timeless.
It is sometimes held that the Bible, too, in its "loftier passages," envisions a God beyond time. A favorite text is, "A
15Rudolf Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting, New York, Meridian Books, 1956, p. 22.
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thousand ages in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past." The plain meaning of the verse is that God outlasts all his creatures. Where a mystic would have taken this opportunity to launch into a lyric on a changeless realm beyond time, however, the psalmist conspicuously does not.
The explanation lies once again in his very different concept of perfection. For him, to be perfect means to be alive; to be alive is to be active; and to be active is to be temporal. His is a living God, best described by active verbs. When he describes God as changeless, he means something that could only characterize a living person. He means trustworthy, of steadfast character. Where men are fickle, God is faithful to his covenant. The Hebrew word chesed, often translated as "loving-kindness," means that God is "steady and sure, firm and reliable."16 When the prophet describes Him as the God of truth (Ps. 31:5, Jer. 10:10), he means that God is consistent and loyal, vindicating all who trust his promises.17
For the mystic, it is a contradiction in terms to say, "He is the living God, and steadfast forever" (Dan. 6:26), for to be alive means to change, and hence not steadfast. Within the biblical frame of reference, however, there is a far more precious kind of changelessness: the dependable loyalty of the person who, though free to betray, is always as good as his word. In this sense, God is changeless par excellence - but only because He is the living, active God.
7) In what sense is God transcendent and/or immanent?
"Transcendent," as generally used, means "beyond space and time." From what has been said about the mystical God, it is obvious that He is transcendent in this sense. If the categories of space applied to Him, He would be subject to predication, and hence "limited." If the categories of time applied to Him, He would not be "immutable." Finally, a spatio-temporal God would be "a Being besides other beings," and therefore incompatible with the mystical definition of unity.
16See the Theological Wordbook of the Bible, Alan Richardson ed., New York, Macmillan, 1951, pp. 136 f.
17See, ibid., p. 269 f.
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At the same time, however, by a curious inner logic, this transcendent deity is also immanent. Precisely because He is beyond space and time, He is not localized in any one place. Being "nowhere," He can also be everywhere at once. Since He is beyond all "finite" distinctions, it becomes impossible to differentiate Him from anything. Though never identical with any finite object, He nevertheless "somehow" underlies them all. To the person of "spiritual insight," any natural object may, in the "moment of truth," become divine, not as it is in itself, but as a manifestation of the divinity within. It is therefore to be expected that the more God's transcendence (or "otherness") is emphasized, the more immanent he also becomes. In the words of the mystic Meister Eckhart, "The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them. The more He is within, the more without."18 The most prominent contemporary illustration of this rule is the theology of Karl Barth. Having begun his career with an insistence on the absolute transcendence of God, he now begins to discern Him indiscriminately in random artifacts of human culture.
The God of the Bible is neither transcendent nor immanent in the mystical sense. Being anthropomorphic, He is quite compatible with spatio-temporal existence. If he can be called "transcendent" at all, it is only in the sense that he is sovereign over his entire creation. Having conferred existence upon all things, He can also take it away. Having granted freedom to men, He can also overrule them. He is Lord and Master.
Neither is the biblical God immanent, in the sense that He is diffused throughout the universe. To insist that He is omnipresent would be to imprison Him. The biblical God can be wherever He wants to be. If He is "immanent," it is only in the sense that He takes an active role in his creation, and particularly in human history, guiding the destiny of nations in ways they little suspect.
In the biblical context, the meaning of "immanent" is thus not very different from "transcendent." God is immanent insofar as He acts in history. He is transcendent insofar as He acts triumphantly. Terms of such similar meaning are scarcely adequate to express the relation of God to the world. It is not sur-
18Cited without reference by Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1945, p. 2
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prising, therefore, that the Bible uses a different pair. Instead of "immanent/transcendent," "absolute/relative," "infinite/finite," or "unconditioned/conditioned," the biblical God's relation to the world is that of free agent to his act; that is, of Creator to his creation.
The doctrine of creation does not, as is sometimes held, fix a great gulf between two realms of being, the divine and the human. On the contrary, the existence which God bestows upon Adam does not differ in kind from his own. It is therefore misleading to speak of "discontinuity" between the Creator and his creation. Opposition between men and God there surely is, but it is volitional, not metaphysical. In biblical terms, it occurred after creation. That is, a conflict of wills presupposes that both parties share a single logical context, a common world of thought and action. In this sense, the doctrine of creation is a doctrine of continuity, not discontinuity.
Because the Bible does apply a common language to both men and God, it knows nothing of the familiar (and mystical) contrast between "God-as-revealed" and "God-as-He-is-in-Himself." The infinite and the finite, like the absolute and the relative, are incommensurable. They belong to different worlds of discourse. The mystic therefore quite consistently erects a sharp dichotomy between "God manifest" and "God in se." For the Bible, on the contrary, there is a one-to-one correspondence between God-as-revealed and God-as-He-is. As John W. Bowman has said:
Between the God-in-history and the God-in-himself then, there is a link of continuity so strong that the burden of proof must always rest on those who claim to the last that God is the Unknowable . . . Point for point what God is in experience, that he is in fact.19
By recognizing a common frame of reference for both God and man, the Bible enjoys yet another advantage over mystical philosophy. The latter is never able to state unequivocally the difference between man and God. Despite its emphasis on the "divine transcendence," it cannot distinguish between "Being itself" and an alleged "divine spark" in every man. Ultimately, the
19John W. Bowman, Prophetic Realism and the Gospel; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955, p. 184.
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mystic is driven by the logic of his position to identify them: "Brahman and Atman are one and the same."
The Bible has no such difficulty. At two decisive points the Creator-God establishes his superiority over all creation, mankind included. First, He can do things which mere man can never do. He alone can confer existence. He can "create out of nothing." Significantly, the Old Testament restricts the word bara, "to create," to this divine prerogative. Secondly, the superiority of the Creator to his creatures consists of his "eternity." He can live forever, while they need not. They exist only at his pleasure. Whether they do in fact survive, or whether they perish, is entirely up to Him. De jure, they need never have existed at all. De facto, they might live forever, deo volente. In short, the relation of the Creator to his creation is not that of logical disjunction, but the "existential" relation of sovereignty.
If the foregoing analysis is correct, the following conclusions may be drawn: the customary attributes of God do not apply to the biblical God (at least, not in their plain meaning), but to the God of mystical theosophy. The indiscriminate use of these familiar terms therefore leads to a confusion between two mutually exclusive Gods, if not the actual assimilation of the biblical by the mystical. Since each concept of God presupposes a corresponding philosophy, each with an inner logic of its own, such confusion may be expected to issue in logical inconsistencies.
That such inconsistencies have in fact bedeviled religious thought has been conclusively established by Arthur O. Lovejoy in his remarkable book The Great Chain of Being. Professor Lovejoy traces the cause of these inconsistencies to the nearly universal confusion between the two concepts of God, which he calls "the most extraordinary triumph of self-contradiction."20 As a result, he demonstrates, "most of the religious thought of the West has thus been profoundly at variance with itself."21
The present aim is simply one of clarity: to help disentangle
20Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1948, p. 157.
21Ibid., p. vii.
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the two metaphysical systems so that the really important question can emerge; namely, "Which of the two is philosophically the more defensible?" Though this is a problem for subsequent inquiry, a few clues have turned up en route. The following are some of the points at which preliminary evidence appears to favor the biblical metaphysic.
Mystery. Anthropomorphism, frequently said to take away the mystery of God, may prove the best way to preserve it. Nothing can remain ultimately mysterious to man which lacks the freedom which he has himself. The impersonal, even when declared to be unknowable, is, in the last analysis, subject to human manipulation, even manufacture. It serves as a passive screen for the projection of Freudian fantasies. Mystery, in other words, is not guaranteed by total inscrutability. After all, the mystic ultimately finds out the mystery.
For the Bible, mystery is correlative with freedom. Though free to withhold himself, God can also make Himself known. The mystery resides in the fact that what He will say or do remains absolutely unpredictable. The still small voice that spoke to Elijah continues to confound human expectations. Conversely, the earthquake, wind, and fire, though they may awaken the mysterium tremendum, do not contain God. To them might well be added the "ground of being."
Humility. It preserves neither the mystery of God nor the humility of man to insist a priori that God must be "wholly other," or that "before God, man is always in the wrong." To prejudge these questions is not to sit in judgment upon man, as is sometimes imagined, but upon God. It makes God the captive of human preconceptions. Whether or not the particular preconceptions happen to be flattering is completely irrelevant. One does not avoid hybris by adopting preconceptions which offend human selfesteem. The only way to avoid hybris is to let God be God; that is, to test all alleged knowledge of Him by reference to fact, by reasoning a posteriori.
This a posteriori method is perfectly suited to an anthropomorphic God, who becomes known through word and deed. Knowledge of the mystical God, on the contrary, since it comes only through subjective experience, is subject to no objective test at
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all. The mystic's utterances must therefore be accepted on authority, since "the mystic . . . belongs to a higher race, a race of supermen."22
Rationality. Since the great enemy of authoritarianism is human reason, it is not surprising that the mystic ultimately spurns rational categories. Since the absolute is disjunctive with the relative, the infinite with the finite, he must always speak on two levels, the one appropriate to mundane matters, the other to divine things. Obliged by this double perspective to express himself in paradoxes, he sometimes defends obscurity by calling it profound.
For the Bible, on the contrary, human reason is a God-given instrument of self-criticism. Whoever abrogates it thereby declares himself incorrigible. As Levi Olan has pointed out:
If there is a genuine characteristic of the Hebrew spirit, which is clear and unmistakable, it is its rational nature . . . . Reason is energetically used to purify man's faith of its impurities which were found in mythology and paganism. It is employed as a corrective . . . . Reason, of itself, is never the source of truth, yet it is an integral ingredient of it.23
Anthropomorphism, by placing man and God in the same universe of discourse, may be the only conception of God which invites rational scrutiny. If so, it enters the philosophical arena with an impressive advantage.
Praise and thanksgiving. Finally, anthropomorphism provides a further advantage of a more practical nature; namely, its positive affirmation of human existence. Strictly speaking, of course, the practical consequence of a proposition has nothing to do with its truth. It is more in the nature of a bonus. In the present case, the bonus consists of an answer to the quest for the meaning of human existence.
When God's relation to the world is that of the infinite to the finite, finitude inevitably carries a stigma. One is ashamed of finitude, regarding it as a blemish, a mark of inferiority, a cause
22W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity, Princeton University Press, 1952, p. 131.
23Levi Olan, "Reinhold Niebuhr and the Hebraic Spirit," in Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1956, p. 7.
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for disgust. Though this contempt for existence has been carried to the extreme by the religions of the Orient, it does not lack spokesmen in the West. A contemporary philosopher, for example, speaks of the "disease of existence," 24 and the Spanish poet Calderon is famous for the remark that "the greatest crime of man is that he ever was born."25
This stigma of finitude consists in an "ontological deficiency." Infected with "non-being," the finite is "less real" than the infinite. To explain how one thing could be "less real" than another is the rock on which mystical philosophy founders. Undeterred by inconsistency, however, the mystic insists that he who is not ashamed of his finitude is simply ignorant. Once he experiences the "ontological shock," he too will become afflicted with anxiety, despair, Weltschmerz, and the rest of the paraphernalia which the mystic has bequeathed to the existentialist.
The biblical view is quite the reverse. The ignorant person is he who is ashamed of his finitude. If, like the mystic, he relies exclusively upon a priori deduction, he will never wake up. If, on the other hand, he can at least entertain the possibility that God is anthropomorphic, he may attend to his word and mighty acts. When he discovers, upon doing so, that he has been created, his response distinguishes once and for all the biblical Weltanschauung from the mystic's. Mystical enlightenment engenders the tragic sense of life. To be created, on the contrary, is to be the recipient of an inconceivable blessing. It is to share the same kind of existence which God himself enjoys. To learn this is like learning that one has won the sweepstakes. It made the Israelite cry, "Hallelujah!"
24W. T. Stace, op. cit., p. 5, and Aldous Huxley, Aldous Huxley's Stories, Essays, and Poems, London, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., p. 186.
25La Vida es Sueno, I, i.
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