“A number of blind men came to an elephant. Someone told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, “What is the elephant like?” as they began to touch its body. One of them said, “It is like a pillar.” This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, “The elephant is like a husking basket.” This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.”
This ancient Indian parable appeared in the 19th century collection The Ramakrishna Kathamrita, and its purpose was to demonstrate the pitfalls of dogmatism. How human it is to see a portion of a thing and think we understand the entire thing. Although this is a Hindu parable, its application to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God seems apparent and powerful. Even when we are reading the Bible, we can read one section and think we have come to some understanding of the entirety of the nature of God, only to have that understanding stood on its head a few chapters along.
Critics of the Bible have called this “inconsistency” and used the various particular ways in which God is viewed to claim there is no God at all, or that the parts of God we perceive are actually parts of something else. If you believe this to be true, you may find this podcast challenging. As you might expect, in a show called “A Biblical Worldview” we are going to start with the assumption that there is a God, and we’re going to look at some of the deeper problems that accompany a belief that there is no God, or that God is distant, abstract, or mythological.
A god who is primarily unknown is perforce a distant and cold God, uncaring through inaction, unloving through absenteeism. Even a god distantly revealed is suspect. It’s sort of like a relationship carried out on Facebook. I once knew a woman with a disabled child who struck up some of these virtual relationships. Her “friends” spoke caringly and lovingly about her plight, but not a single one showed up when the child needed to be driven to the hospital, or the mom needed respite care. It’s hard to say which is worse: existing falsely or not existing at all. But neither is good.
It is in this way that we arrive at the point of trying to understand God as real, far more than a Facebook friend, even when we cannot understand God in his entirety. A wag once said that a human being trying to comprehend God was like a worm trying to comprehend Einstein. This aphorism is humorous and possibly apt, but it leaves out one important point: Einstein never tried to reveal himself to the worm. And the aphorism assumes that both Einstein and the worm are real.
When psychology was developed in the 19th century, the first person on the psychiatrist’s couch was the Biblical God. It was easy to understand God as a psychological necessity for humanity, rather than as the creator of humanity. After all, the pre-scientific mind was just as curious as the modern one, but it didn’t have scientific answers for everything. So, when the winds raged and waves roiled, humanity invented a god – Neptune, for instance – as the cause of natural phenomena. But poor old Neptune was swept away by the wave of science and transformed into an entertaining symbol of how ignorant ancient humanity was. If this is true for Neptune, surely it must be true for all the other gods?
But perhaps, Neptune is simply one portion of the elephant that ancient humanity could touch and name. It’s not that we want to try and subsume all of the ancient mythological gods as attributes of the one God – what a tedious and useless task that would be – but if we are to respect the metaphor of the elephant we have every reason to believe that natural phenomenon are not random accidents any more than life itself is a random accident. Either the world is of God and not random, or it is random. There is no middle ground, and the implications are enormous. We are gong to start with the assumption that the universe is not random, that there is a transcendent “more,” and that transcendent “more” that we call God is apparent in creation.
The Bible, filled as it is with poetry, history and prophecy, is considered the revealed word of a real God. God has not hidden himself away and forced us to play a game of hide and seek to try and understand his purposes. The Bible is filled with stories of people working with God to fulfill his purposes, as well as those opposing God and experiencing the consequences. As humanity’s collective understanding of God and his purposes grow, our vision of who God is changes, not too unlike the blind men and the elephant. It should however be noted that the Bible is not a biography – or an autobiography – of God. But, in a variety of ways, it is about humanity’s growing understanding of a revealed, not hidden, God.
The Biblical God has many attributes which to some have seemed inconsistent, as if there is more than one God popping up in various places of the Bible. I suspect that Einstein seems very inconsistent to the worm. One common area where this inconsistency pops up is in the idea that the Old Testament God is not the same god as the New Testament God. After all, the God of the Hebrew scriptures often seems wrathful, seeking vengeance and supporting tribal violence and even genocide. The enemies of the Hebrews and the Israelites are the enemies of God. But in the New Testament, God is described as a merciful God, filled with grace and forgiveness and, crucially, self-sacrificing love for humanity – the same humanity that the Old Testament God tried to wipe out with a flood. What is going on here?
What the Bible reveals to us is that God’s plans for humanity progress over history. We weren’t created statically, unchanging and monolithic. Over time, God hasn’t changed, but our perception of God has changed as we have grown. One metaphor for this would be the difference between how a parent addresses a young child versus how they address a young adult. The parent has perhaps not changed all that much, but the child has.
It is not simply that the God revealed in the Bible is a God of creation, like Neptune; God is also a God of moral definition. Throughout the Biblical witness, and indeed from the very first chapters of the Bible, God is interested in the moral behavior of humanity. Mythical gods, like Neptune, or Zeus, seem to be governed by a different moral code than humanity, and often seem disinterested in whatever moral codes humanity adopts for itself. But the Biblical God is very interested in human moral behavior and produces documentation of this interest in things like the Ten Commandments.
But, returning once again to the 19th century philosophical human creation of God, if God is not real, then upon what authority should humanity adopt these, or any other, moral codes? For some, this ambiguity has been problematic, but for others, it has been a golden opportunity to transform sin into virtue. After all, if God does not exist, then God’s moral codes don’t exist, so the definitions of sin and virtue are wide open. Why not, says the enterprising modern person, make up some of my own codes and define my own sins and virtues, then live according to them as long as they work, then change them if they don’t? It’s this kind of thinking, based on the fundamental idea that God does not exist, that has led to giving hard core drug addicts free access to the drugs they are addicted to and calling it “kind,” or performing double mastectomies on healthy teenage girls and calling it “gender-affirming healthcare.” If God is not real, then nothing is real, including moral guidance of any kind.
But if God is real, real in the way God is revealed in the Bible, then all things are of God. All things have a purpose, and the best way for you to realize those purposes is to follow the path laid out by God. It is a path that has distinct moral boundaries coupled with expansive grace for those who wander off. We can disrupt or thwart those purposes with free will, but the consequences of doing that persistently are directly analogous to the consequences of wandering off and staying off a path: we’re likely to get lost or fall into a ditch.
This, of course, goes all the way back to the first episode of this podcast where we explored the collision between a God-centered worldview and a self-centered worldview. Although I say this without any personal experience, the self-centered worldview seems to have all the cold, impersonal harshness of an orgy: it’s all sex and no love. A real God, the Biblical God, wants to establish a loving relationship with you. God values you as distinctly you and wants you to follow the clearly lit path laid out for you to keep you from getting lost or falling into a ditch. God respects you enough to give you the tools to differentiate good from evil and to choose between walking a clear path or wandering around in the swamp. Having a real God, one who pre-existed you and will go on forever with or without you, gives you a lifeline from the real world to the real, transcendent other world.
That sounds like a pretty good God – a God who’s worth celebrating, worshipping, and singing hymns of praise and joy. Thinking that God is nothing more than a psychological necessity for humanity, it is difficult to imagine cynical humanity creating such a benevolent God who is so intensely interested in his own creation. Just knowing that the Biblical God is the God of all, the great “I am,” the bringer of meaning to all things, is a cause for joy regardless of the hardships of this world. But if you insist on believing that there is no God and that the universe is ruled by randomness, I think your best option is to find a quiet corner, sit down, and weep.