How modernity made God mean

For most of Christian history, the relationship between God and the universe He created was conceived completely differently than it is today. While premodern thought understood God’s relationship with the universe sacramentally, modern thought sees it voluntaristically. The voluntarism of modernity (and not the Bible itself) is what has made God into a mean tyrant in Western consciousness. Please keep reading! I will explain.

Hans Boersma’s book Heavenly Participation is a call to return to the sacramental perspective that we have lost in modern Christianity. He explains the sacramental ontology (understanding of being) in this way:

The insistence on a sacramental link between God and the world goes well beyond the mere insistence that God has created the world and by creating it has declared it to be good. It also goes beyond positing an agreed-upon (covenantal) relationship between two completely separate beings. A sacramental ontology insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and “point of reference,” but that it also subsists or participates in God… Because creation is a sharing in the being of God, our connection with God is a participatory, or real connection — not just an external, or nominal, connection. [24]

A sacrament is a symbol that not only represents something else but also participates in the reality of the object that it represents. While a symbol is more akin to a highway sign that warns about falling rocks ahead, a sacrament is more like a buoy that is anchored in the underwater hazard to which it calls attention. The sacrament reaches to us out of a mystery under its surface that is otherwise beyond our comprehension or expression. Life itself, properly understood, is a sacrament of the presence of God. Humans are sacramental creatures since we are created in God’s image. This is what is meant by Acts 17:28: “In Him we live and move and have our being.” God is not simply a person who lives in a “heaven” that is someplace else, but He is in fact the ultimate source within and beyond the reality that we touch and see and taste. In a sacramental ontology, God is the source of all being and all goodness.

When you understand God in this way, it shapes your understanding of good and evil. You are good insofar as you participate in God; you are evil insofar as you don’t. And if God is the source of both good and being, then to be good in a deeper sense is actually to exist while to be evil is to reject existence. This has implications for how we understand freedom. If participating in God is existence, then doing God’s will is not an infringement of our freedom but actually the highest expression of our freedom. True freedom rebels not against God, but against the animalistic urges that hold us down and keep us from discovering the depths of our true identity in God.

The other powerful force that keeps us from truly existing is our slavish need to be right about everything we have ever done. As long as our perception of reality is shaped by our need to defend our flawlessness and self-sufficiency, we live in a form of slavery Augustine termed homo curvatus in se (humanity curved in upon itself). Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross gives us a means out of this prison by allowing us to be open about the mistakes that have forced us into a life of denial. We go from being people “who love darkness instead of light because [our] deeds are evil” (John 3:19) to people who trust that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In a sacramental view of the world, hell describes the radically absolute isolation of choosing self-absorption over the real life that can only happen in communion with God. When people choose this isolation, God does not stop them. Instead He “gives them over to a depraved mind [in which they are] filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Romans 1:28-29). Someone with a sacramental understanding of God’s relationship to our being would not read Paul to be saying that God forces people into wickedness by “giving them over” to it. It is simply the case that the source of our being doesn’t fight us when we are sucked down into the self-destructive spiral of refusing the life that God has to offer. We cut ourselves off.

In the late Middle Ages, everything changed about how God’s relationship with reality was understood. Up until the fourteenth century, Christians understood that whenever we talked about God, we were using imperfect human analogies for divine realities that were beyond our comprehension. Thus words like wrath, love, punishment, mercy imperfectly capture the phenomenon of divine behavior according to analogies that we can observe in human interaction. Fourteenth century theologian Duns Scotus decided to reject the notion of analogous being, and Western theology since him has mostly followed his lead. This moment could be called the beginning of what philosophers call “modernity.” Boersma describes Scotus’s reasoning as follows:

Something either does have being or it does not. To say God exists and to say created objects exist is to say one and the same thing. All being is being in the same sense… While analogy of being had served to uphold the infinite difference between Creator and creature, Scotus’ univocity of being countered that obeing is an objective, neutral category and that God’s being and created being are identical in kind… Being, now, becomes a category that is unhooked from participation in God and is a more neutral or abstract qualifier that is applied to God and creatures in the same way. [74]

Here is why this completely changed everything. Whereas under a sacramental ontology, the universe exists only insofar as it participates in God, “univocity of being in effect renders the created order independent from God… No longer does created existence have being by participation only” (76). This is the moment at which creation (an order of the cosmos in which God providentially breathes life continually) becomes nature (a world with laws and structure that was wound up like a watch before time by God and left to fend for itself). Under univocity of being, God goes from being the insider at the core of every phenomenon to an outsider who intervenes periodically in an ontologically separate universe to impose His will.

The world’s real, sacramental participation in God gave way to an external relationship in which God ruled from afar, by means of the absolute freedom of the divine will: God was in heaven; human beings were on earth. Sacramental participation yielded to the extrinsicism of voluntarism. [78]

According to a sacramental worldview, God’s will for His creatures is expressed most perfectly in their deepest realization of existence (which is participation in God). Under a voluntaristic worldview, God’s will is expressed most perfectly the more that it is arbitrary. When being is participation in God whose “being” as the Source of all things is categorically unlike ours, there is no need to worry philosophically about God’s independence or self-sufficiency. If being is an umbrella that drapes over both us and God, then it becomes important to prove that God does not act according to necessity or follow a set of rules that are imposed upon Him. Thus, God’s sovereignty becomes measured by the degree to which God contradicts our expectations. The result is an obsession with issues like “predestination in which God appears to make arbitrary decisions about the eternal salvation and damnation of human beings” (79). In this understanding of the universe, we most glorify God by defending His right to be mean.

There are other consequences as well. When we no longer see God as the dynamic source of everything within creation but an absentee architect and periodic bully, we no longer treat the Earth as God’s property. Sin is no longer the unwillingness to discover our purpose and place within God’s harmonic plan for the universe, but simply our offense against the arbitrary honor of God, which is completely divorced from the well-being of God’s creation. God judges us not from a place of infinitely intimate involvement within our lives as the source of our being, but from a distant throne of infinite perfection. Thus, satisfying God’s honor becomes divorceable from loving God’s creation, and loving God is detached from loving my neighbor. I can destroy God’s creation and treat fellow creatures with cruelty as long as I agree with a set of doctrinal propositions that “honor” God’s sovereignty. I can understand why such a theology would be attractive to a certain kind of person, but I agree with Hans Boersma that we need to return to a sacramental ontology.

God isn’t mean. God is the source of all that is good and beautiful and true. If we are in love with falsehood, ugliness, and evil, then we will hate God. That’s why He gives us a cross where we can nail up our hate and enter into the perfect freedom that is communion with Him. God does not need to act arbitrarily in order to be free, because God is the only thing in the universe that purely exists since everything else exists only in Him. That’s what I believe anyway.

4 thoughts on “How modernity made God mean

  1. Pingback: Engaging the “Spiritual but not Religious” #1: God is a three-letter word | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. This is an interesting train of thought, but you’ve grounded your case very weakly in Scripture itself, besides a quote from a pagan poet that Paul used with missionary purposes in mind. The view you’re presenting is, to my mind, indistinguishable from panentheism – such a God is not the God of the Bible, who spoke the universe into being ex nihilo.

    • Every time the Bible says “in Christ,” it is speaking sacramentally. If you take the voluntarist/nominalist ontology, that phrase can only mean “in the name or idea of Christ.” It’s only read sacramentally that we can take that phrase literally because Christians are not just people who think ABOUT Christ but are actually INSIDE OF Christ in some kind of strange, mysterious way in which Christ is the head and we are the body. Most of voluntarist/nominalist Christianity has some degree of unacknowledged sacramental ontology within it because Christianity can’t exist without it, but it makes problematic assumptions about the nature of God by anthropomorphizing Him. We exist only in Christ because the Word of God is the one “in whom and through whom all things were made” (John 1:3, and other places I don’t have time to look up). That’s why the body of Christ is not just a metaphor or poetic phrase, but a literal entity. Christ is not simply another being. He is the source of our being. Those who reject Christ reject their very existence.

  3. Morgan, I think this is really important. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and interpreting the theological jargon.

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