Why I Still Believe in the God of Metaphysics

In Richard Kearney’s new book Anatheism, he says we can no longer accept belief in the “God of the Philosophers,” the Unmoved Mover. There are many reasons to call the Metaphysical God into question–that this is not the way God is presented in Scripture but rather a later appropriation of Greek philosophy, that such a God is not a personal God, not the God who became incarnate and walked among us. However, I want to hold off on rejecting the God of metaphysics entirely.

At a Bible study recently, we read Herbert McCabe’s essay on “Forgiveness” in his collection of essays entitled “Faith Within Reason.” In this essay, he argues that forgiveness is the ability to see oneself as one is–a sinner. When that moment of realization, of self-knowledge, happens, we can begin to see God for who God is, not the Divine projection of our guilt or the inscrutable judge meting out punishment or a paymaster demanding retribution, but rather as the eternal God of love. McCabe writes, somewhat
strikingly, “Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you—that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what our forgiveness is.”

It was hard for the members of the study to wrap their minds around this. After all, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as subject to God’s anger and God’s wrath when we sin; we confess in order to appease God’s anger and get back into God’s good graces. I have often heard people say that they cannot but help think of God looking down at them with anger and disappointment when they sin.

As with most images of God, these ideas of God do have some truth, and they are common ways of thinking about God throughout Christendom. But as I reflected on these images of the angry or disappointed God looking down on us, I realize that this is not an image of God that I have ever really experienced. Part of the reason is that from a very early age, I was influenced by the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas which has had the largest and most long-lasting impact on my understanding of God. The God that I learned from Aquinas is a simple God, a God who is God’s very own essence, who is pure act without potentiality. Because this God is simple and pure act, it is a God who does not change, an immutable God, a God who does not acquire any new thing and a God who does not move. Hence, when the Scriptures speak of God’s movement including the movement characteristic of emotion (anger, pity, joy), I always understood such passages as metaphorical representations, human accommodations of a God completely lacking in any emotion.

As such, it is easy for me to see where McCabe is coming from when he says that forgiveness is a human act of seeing God for what God is–pure and unconditional love. He concludes his essay, “It’s OK, you can admit the truth about yourself. It doesn’t matter: God loves you anyway. To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. Telling your sins to the church in the sacrament of confession is just a form of the reed; you are saying, “I am really like this and all the same God loves me, God doesn’t care about my sins, he cares about me.” God is just infinite,
unconditional, unalterable, eternal love–and his love is for me and for all sinful people. That is the single statement that we make in the creed.”

Humans will always have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. When we
humanize God by attaching human qualities like emotion or the ability to change one’s mind or accept a bargain, in a way, we bring God closer to us and create a more intimate relationship with God. But such a conception of God can lead us to spend an awful lot of time and effort focusing on changing God rather than changing ourselves. The guilt that we feel from sin, as McCabe points out, and the pain that we suffer as a result of sin is not coming from God directly, but from ourselves. Rising above the guilt and suffering that results from sin is not a matter of appeasing God or convincing God to change God’s mind about us, but is rather a matter of reorienting ourselves to see God for who God is and always remains to be–the unchanging God of love.

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6 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    I find most of the apparent propositions about love and about God or about guilt or misery misleading. Like everyone, I suppose I have had to discover all for myself. Nothing I was told of heaven or hell or judgment or love was apparently lived by those who told it to me. And much of it seemed less than attractive. These meanderings as I search for words have led me to think about election and anointed and engagement – rather than my choice, or Christ, or faith respectively. But it’s not as if changing glosses helps. Nor is any experience easy to communicate. Nor do I know how much my own experience is a product of others and their teaching or failure to.

    I have been without your formal background, struggling to express how my experience can be expressed in a theology. In the middle of working my way through a Dr. Seuss rendering of Qohelet from Hebrew to English, I posted a very serious response to some theology I came across elsewhere that I thought I would not agree with. My well-trained Dr of philosophy pastor was ready to disagree with me but we both refrained recognizing the difficulty. If it interests you to see such an expression, it is here.

    • everydaythomist on

      Hey Bob,
      Glad to see you back. As far as searching goes, I sympathize with both your ability to find answers and your ultimate dissatisfaction in the answers you have been given. Everything that we say about God, whether metaphysically or allegorically or morally, is in some sense limited. I think this is why we are called to worship as well as study (presuming theology can be defined as faith seeking understanding). It is in the worshiping community, that is, the body of Christ, that we are able to know God most intimately, and that knowledge is often inexpressible in the words we use later on. Moreover, worship brings us into a knowledge of God that is affective as well as intellectual, something that study often cannot accomplish.

      I love your point on your blog about judgment and love being part of the same fire, which I will post here for those who did not follow the link: “God is in the Anointing reconciling the age to himself and creating the new age where the unity in him is made effective through the judgment of the death of Jesus. Here everywhere is unity – not abandonment. And through all this there is here a true help for us who walk alone. I need the help because of sin. His work in the pressing out of the grapes covers my sin and brings me to a unity I could not have imagined if I had not agreed to run with him in his yes. His yes is the unified will of God and makes one my wind with his and my will also.”

  2. […] I mentioned in the last post and will probably repeat in later posts, I think this reflects an inadequate understanding of the […]

  3. martin on

    In Plato’s Republic is the story of the cave; humanity facing the interior wall back lit by a fire while the universe puts on a great shadow show. “But we are only shadow watchers that mistake the ethereal to be real, when truth is always behind us but we are too frightened to look.” The only real truth, light, but we are seduced by imagination and immanent manifestations of archetypal realities where the transcendent world keeps our true perceptions at a distance. The veil in the Temple that separates the Holy of Holies, torn in half the instant Christ’s spirit separated from his body. It seems significant that in all religions there is a common thread of partition with truth being on one side and us on the other. It will always be an irreducible mystery to me. If truth remains on the other side then the ontological argument becomes our eternal shadow; the notion that if we can conceive of the greatest possible being, then it must exist with no supportive premise other than qualities inherent to the unproven statement. Circular logic becomes our own hell and pain, because the premise relies on the conclusion, which in turn relies on the premise. Divine Love must pick up the slack where humanity seems so inept.If God is personal then he needs to step up to the plate right here, right now in our world of shadows and interface with a creation that longs for a face to face encounter not random interpretations of more shadows and never ending suppositions.

  4. Bob MacDonald on

    martin – you sound like Job and he gets his answer.

  5. everydaythomist on

    @ Bob: Amen!

    @ Martin. I like what Timothy Radcliffe says in his Why Go to Church? He writes, “We often do not see God because he is so close. When God seems absent, maybe it is because we have become absent from ourselves, inattentive to the core of our personhood. We have, says St. Augustine, strayed from true self-presence: ‘Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new. For behold you were within me and I was outside; and I sought you outside . . . You were with me and I was not with you. You called and cried to me and broke open my deafness. And you sent forth your beams and shone upon me and chased away my blindness.'”

    In other words, God IS personal, because God’s very essence is Love. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and if we see God as a shadow rather than a face-to-face interaction, perhaps the deficiency is not on God’s side, but our own. What I love about the metaphysical God is that the burden is never on such a God to change because such a God cannot change. Thus, when I go through my Job moments, it is not God that I need to question, but myself. The metaphysical God does not guarantee that we won’t suffer, but such a God does guarantee not to abandon us in our suffering.


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