Monday, September 1, 2014

Victoria Olsteen and the heresy hunters

Evidently something Victoria Olsteen said has got the panties of some in a bundle. She is being denounced as a heretic and perhaps much worse in various portions of the Christian web. Knowing ahead of time that hardly anyone will read what I have to say, and that my own words will be eminently inconsequential in this entire debate, I will venture to defend her words. What she says is hardly heresy; if anything, her opponents are the heretics for their deficient conception of God and worship.

Here's the video:

Here are her words, transcribed by imperfect moi:

When we obey God, we're not doing it for God. I mean, that's one way to look at it. We're doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy; that's the thing that gets him the greatest joy this morning. So I want you to know this morning: just do good for your own self, do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship him, you're not doing it for God really; you're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy.

Effectively she affirms that we obey God and worship him, not for his sake but for our own. These things make us happy, they contribute to our well-being, and to see us do well is what God wants and what God enjoys.

Now I have to admit that it is hard actually to disagree with all or most of this. For instance, Christian authors regularly talk about the intrinsically religious and spiritual nature of humanity, and how a healthy life requires a spiritual dimension. People are not living as God intended if they are not in fellowship with him; people do not live human life as it ought to be lived if they are not communing with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Human happiness is obviously connected with a life lived with God. That's a point Christians generally grant.

Granting all this, then, it is likewise easy to admit that we do not worship God or obey him for his own sake. Here I make appeal to the classical theistic doctrines of divine aseity and immutability.

Per divine aseity, God exists and has complete beatitude entirely of himself (a se, in Latin). He has need of nothing, he can be given nothing, he is dependent on nothing outside of himself for anything. The biblical authorities regularly make this point precisely in discussions of worship. Paul tells the Athenians specifically that God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (Acts 17.25). When you worship God, you are not serving him anything. He needs nothing from you, and anyway he gives you everything you have to begin with.

Likewise the doctrine of divine immutability affirms that God cannot be changed or affected by anything that happens outside of himself. He remains entirely the same from the ages. Now if he is entirely self-sufficient in himself and he is immutable, then there is no changing that fact. It was true from eternity and it always be true that God is not served by human hands, as Paul says.

Now if God is not served by our religious lives, if our spiritual worship doesn't affect him or change him or do him any good, and moreover if he literally has no need of us, then Victoria Olsteen's point seems obvious. If God is like this, and yet demands that we worship, then worship and obedience must be for our own sake. We already grant that the spiritual life is essential to human happiness, and we see that the elements of the spiritual life -- worship, obedience, prayer, etc. -- cannot and do not benefit or affect God in himself in anyway. It is not a difficult inference to make from all this, therefore, that these things are for us, for our sake, so that we may flourish.

Victoria Olsteen's point is philosophically defensible, and the heresy hunters who are up in arms about her "humanism" and "gnosticism" are embarrassing. They are philosophically and theologically illiterate, and their objection to Olsteen's words presuppose or otherwise entail an anthropomorphic conception of God that Christians throughout the ages of the history of the church would have found heretical. There is always this danger, I suppose, the danger of the well-meaning but misguided laypersons who are ready to cast others into the outer darkness because they don't know any better.

At the end of the day, it is really embarrassing that Christian brothers and sisters would object to her for telling people to worship God and obey him, adding that this will contribute to their well-being and make God happy. Yes, certainly, Lord forbid it! The heresy hunters on the web ought to find something else to do with their time -- maybe read some philosophy or theology, or better, both.