In Proportion to Our Capacity

I am sympathetic to those who see someone who calls themself an “agnostic” as an atheist without the courage of their conviction. And I consider myself a nonsupernaturalist. But technically, there is decent measure of agnosticism we should each have about everything, not just about the existence of God, but also about almost everything else we take as facts. 

Does God Exist? 

In relation to the existence of God, I said this in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life”:

Traditional Christian theology, put into a hard science fiction straightjacket, is like the idea that we are all software programs inside a superbeing’s computer.  There is no way to know this is not true.  If it is true, miracles would just be a special case in the programming.  The normal laws of nature could be as simple and regular as they are simply because that was easier than programming more complex laws for the default case.

Mormon theology, put into a hard science fiction straightjacket, is reminiscent of the idea that we are watched over by benevolent aliens from an advanced civilization.  Not only is this plausible, it is even possible to argue that it is likely.  There are a lot of stars in the Galaxy, but even at a fraction of the speed of light, it would take only a small fraction of the time since the Big Bang to get from one end of the Galaxy to another.   If evolution often favors intelligence, why couldn’t intelligent life arise several times in our galaxy?  If any intelligent life has arisen before us, chances are it arose many, many millions of years before us, simply because it has been billions of years since the Big Bang.  So it is not a big stretch to have aliens from an advanced civilization reach Earth.  The big issue would be Fermi’s paradox:  “Where are they?”  “If they are here, why they are hiding themselves from us?”  and whether they are benevolent or not.   If they are here, they don’t seem to have destroyed us, which is something.

And in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life”, the lack of a clear definition of “God” gave me this opening:

… let me do a riff on Anselm by defining God as “the greatest of all things that can come true.”

So it is either hard to rule out the existence of God, or God almost surely exists, depending on the definition of God. 

Does the God of the Bible Exist?

In today’s post, I want to address a narrower question than the existence of God: the question of whether the God of the Bible can exist. The God of the Bible is better defined than any of the definitions of God I just addressed. My starting point on this question is to say that taken in a fully literal way, the Bible has internal contradictions in its description of God that make it impossible for the God of the Bible to exist on a fully literal reading. 

But a fully literal reading of the Bible is far from the only reasonable reading. Consider this argument from Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome, by one of my favorite authors, Rodney Stark. On pp. 105-107, he writes:

[In The Golden Bough (1890-1915), James] Frazier compiled an enormous set of examples in order to argue that tales of crucifixion and resurrection are standards of world mythology. He claimed to have established that there is nothing original whatever to the Christian tradition–or in any religious tradition, for that matter. All is generic, especially if one’s criteria are as elastic as Frazer’s. …

Of course, from the beginning Christian theologians have been fully aware of similarities between the Christ story and pagan mythology. And it did not disturb them to admit that elements of God’s final revelation had seeped into human awareness to help prepare the way. Moreover, the familiarity of the Christ story was entirely consistent with the long-standing Christian premise that God’s revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend. For example, in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom noted that even the seraphim do not see God as he is. Instead, they see “a condescension accommodated to their nature. What is this condescension? it is when God appears and makes himself known, not as he is, but in the way one incapable of beholding him is able to look upon him. In this way, God reveals himself proportionately to the weakness of those who behold him.” 

In similar fashion, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century that God is so “far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach” that he, in effect, speaks to us in baby talk, thereby giving “to our human nature, what it is capable of receiving.” St. Thomas Aquinas agreed: “The things of God should be revealed to mankind only in proportion to their capacity; otherwise, they might despite what was beyond their grasp. … It was, therefore, better for the divine mysteries to be conveyed to an uncultured people as it were veiled.” So too, John Calvin flatly asserted that God “reveals himself to us according to our rudeness and infirmity.” If scriptural comparisons–as between the two testaments, for example–seem to suggest that God is changeable or inconsistent, that is merely because “he accommodated diverse forms to different ages, as he knew would be expedient for each[;] … he has accommodated himself to men’s capacity, which is varied and changeable.” …

Hence, the similarities between Christianity and paganism can be explained in terms of human limitations–that is, as instances of divine condescension. At the very least, the claim that similarity necessitates secularity is far less convincing than has been supposed by ardent atheists or the theologically uninformed. 

So, by this quite traditional view, God uses a divine version of baby talk in talking to humans. That divine baby talk is meant to get across God’s message for that particular audience as well as possible, given their difficulties in comprehension. 

Professors in universities have been known to do something similar in introductory classes: to simplify things in a way that is not 100% accurate, but is likely to impart more total light and truth to the students in the class than the full, unvarnished technical truth would. Ethically, this approach requires giving the students some notice that one is simplifying–even if the exact nature of the simplification would itself be beyond the students’ comprehension. 

In the Mormon canon, the Book of Mormon indicates that God takes quite a bit of license in ways of explaining things to people. Think of the implications of the following:

For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true. (Alma 29:8)

Given the variety of different religions needed to make it true that all nations are instructed by God through people from within that nation, the implication is that God uses a wide variety of ways to “teach introductory courses” at least. Now one might incautiously believe that one’s own religion had left the introductory stage far behind and was much, much more accurate. But if there is a God, I suspect God’s understanding is so far beyond ours that all existing religions still represent low-level courses in the divine, and so have many innacuracies in them–inaccuracies that God is willing to put up with in an effort to get us from one level of understanding to another a few millimeters higher.