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(via Lawrence Lee Magnuson)

Depersonalizing God

America was founded, in part, by men who found the idea of an ultimate mystery offensive, and set out to rationalize this paradox away. This was the great appeal of Deism, to Thomas Jefferson and many others. Deist theology reconciled Christianity’s contradictions by depersonalizing the Christian God, making him a First Cause rather than a constant active force in history—a clockmaker who stands forever outside the universe he’s built, unmoving and unmoved.

But while Deism was reasonably satisfying as a philosophical school, it was sterile as a religion. A clockmaker God could provide no consolation, little guidance, and no grace, and Deist theology had nothing of significance to say about the kind of numinous experiences that have nourished and sustained the world’s religions. The Deist God was forever inaccessible, forever out of reach, and anyone claiming to have encountered Him was either deluded or a fraud.

Small wonder that from Emerson and the Transcendentalists onward, the Deists’ American descendants have often been more attracted to the opposite approach—to a faith rooted in mysticism, which starts with the direct experience of an ultimate Reality and then tries to reason from this unmediated experience to a coherent understanding of the Almighty.

Like Deism, this understanding inevitably depersonalizes God. He is no longer Yahweh, no longer Jesus, no longer Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; instead, He’s “Being,” “the Soul of the World,” “the Highest Thought,” or “the experience of supreme love.” But where the Deists’ depersonalization pushed God into the empyrean and out of reach, the God Within’s depersonalization makes him absolutely accessible.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics 

Servants are anonymous and often all but invisible, and the more powerful we become, the more we should seek out opportunities for anonymity and invisibility. Just as the only real antidote to the temptations of money is lavish generosity, so the only real antidote to the temptations of power is choosing to spend our power in the opposite of the way the world encourages us to spend it: not on getting closer to the sources of additional power or on securing our own round-the-clock sense of comfort and control, but spend it on getting closer to the relatively powerless.

— Culture Making, Andy Crouch

The Christian church has another narrative, but we must teach it to ourselves over and over repeatedly, or the world will run away with it altogether. For at least fifty years, the majority of clergy in the majority of congregations have allowed the church’s teaching about death and funerals to deteriorate, and have let the traditional burial service slip away in favor of any number of generic, syncretistic intrusions. Returning to the power of the Christian gospel in life and in death is not only an affirmation; as such, it is a form of resistance to the story that the secular spiritualists are telling us. My husband and I are preparing to put our funeral wishes on file with the church from which we will be buried. The list will include such things as the presence of the body in the church (covered with the church’s funeral pall), real pallbearers (not undertakers), a significant sermon about death and resurrection, strong hymns, no “eulogies,” and the conspicuous absence of the phrase “a celebration of the life of…” on the front page of the program. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service is called “The Burial of the Dead.” If that is too stark, a fine alternative is “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”

– The Rev. Fleming Rutledge

(via Alan Jacobs)

As we have seen, much of what makes a way of thinking credible is not simply the logical cogency of its explicit tenets. Also involved are one’s “tacit,” barely perceived supportive beliefs. When people are presented with the Christian faith, the actual doctrines are often given against a backdrop of other implicit beliefs, attitudes, and expectations. That often includes ideas about what nonbelievers must be like, how life ought to go for a true believer in God, and what sinning and violations of the rules should feel like. All of these background beliefs are instilled in a variety of implicit ways, and they become an important part of the supportive tissue that helps Christianity make sense. If they give way, so may faith in the explicit doctrines.

For example, a person might have a tacit belief that “if I’m a Christian, and God loves me, there’s a limit to how badly life can go for me.” Such an idea is not part of formal Christian doctrine. Indeed, the life of Jesus, the suffering servant, contradicts it. Yet it can seem to be a necessary inference from some Christian texts and teachings and it can be absorbed from the attitudes of others in a community. Then, if the believer’s life begins to go terribly wrong and this tacit belief begins to crumble, all the other teachings of the faith can seem unconvincing as well.

Also, many Christians are led to believe that all nonbelievers will be more selfish, unscrupulous, and unhappy than believers. But what if the believer falls in with a band of well-adjusted, altruistic, honest and committed secular people? When the background belief is disproven, the foreground beliefs all seem less compelling. Or what if a young person raised to believe sex outside of marriage is a sin also picks up the thought that therefore any experience of premarital sex would make him feel empty and unfulfilled? What if, instead, the experience makes him feel wonderful and alive? When the tacit belief is found to be wrong through new lived experience, it undermines the plausibility of the whole Christian sex ethic. Are any of these “preunderstanding” background beliefs actually part of the historical Christian faith? No, they aren’t, yet they are part of Polanyi’s “subsidiary awareness,” the loss of which, if it is unexamined, can lead to the loss of the whole faith.

— Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical

I didn’t, I couldn’t.

The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were. Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year-old became aware of this paradox, he’d stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he’d figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher-order paradox, which didn’t even have a form or name—I didn’t, I couldn’t.

— “Good Old Neon”, David Foster Wallace

Ross Douthat on the appeal of the “God Within” theology:

Its universalism speaks to the characteristically modern assumption that no single tradition could possibly encompass the fullness of religious truth. Its eagerness to recruit Jesus to its cause reassures Americans that they are staying true, in some sense, to their childhood faith. (And not only Jesus: The apostles of the God Within are at pains to appropriate the great Christian mystics, and many Christian philosophers as well.) The result is a faith that’s at once cosmopolitan and comforting, promising all the pleasures of exoticism—the mysteries of the Orient! the wisdom of the Maya!—without any of the pain of actually turning your back on anything you love. …

The appeal of God Within theology also rests in the way it addresses a more ancient dilemma: the problem of how to reconcile God’s immanence with His transcendence, His activity in the world with the absolute gulf separating creator and creation, His seemingly human attributes (love, compassion, mercy; justice, anger, vengeance) with His impassable Otherness. In Christian orthodoxy, characteristically, this dilemma has been left unresolved—either audaciously or illogically, depending on your point of view. The early Christians made bold to claim that the God of the Greek philosophers—omnipotent and omniscient, beyond time and space and change—was simultaneously the more personal, activist God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jehovah of the Hebrews was also the Prime Mover of the universe; Jesus of Nazareth was somehow the Alpha and Omega as well. If there was a contradiction between these two conceptions of God—between the Bible’s sometimes loving, sometimes wrathful father and philosophy’s unchanging Absolute—it was left to percolate as one of Christianity’s many mysteries.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics