Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The apostle Paul's philosophical theology

Holy Apostle Paul
I was reading from Acts 17, where Paul explains his teaching to the philosophers of Athens at the Areopagus. I want to comment briefly on a few of his lines. Paul's primary focus seems to be the doctrine of God, since he spends more time talking about God's nature and his relation to the world than about anything else.
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (vv. 22-3).
The significance of this remark for inter-religious dialogue and a Christian theology of religions cannot be overstated. Coming into contact with the Greek pantheon and the full panoply of deities and divinities worshiped by the Athenians, Paul chooses sooner to identify his God with that which they do not know than with any of those which they do know. He doesn't accept the identification of God with any depiction of another deity, whether Zeus or whoever else. However, his position is more nuanced than this, since he later does give credit to some Greek poets who spoke about Zeus as the father of all humanity. From the start, however, Paul is skeptical of identifying the Father of Jesus Christ with any of the Greek gods. In this respect, he is in line with the Greek philosophical tradition which likewise thought much of popular religion at the time to be incompatible with a philosophically adequate understanding of the divine nature.
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (vv. 24-5).
First Paul says that God made the world (τὸν κόσμον) and everything within it. In this way, he puts God absolutely prior to the existence of everything else, including the material world. It wouldn't be true that God made the world and everything in it, after all, if the material substratum of things was itself uncreated and without ultimate causal dependence on God.

Because of this relation of absolute priority, furthermore, it becomes evident that God is totally self-sufficient. If he needed to make recourse to outside sources of power or energy or inspiration, he would not be the ultimate creator of everything whatsoever. That is why he does not need to be served or assisted in any way. The ancient worshipers of the Vedic religions, for example, thought that sacrifices fed the gods in a way that helped them preserve the order and harmony of the universe. If they failed to make the requisite sacrifices, however, then the whole order of being would be compromised and chaos would ensue. This is far from Paul's Jewish-Christian understanding of the nature of God, who is self-sufficient and only ever gives, without receiving as if he needed anything. He gives to all mortals life and breath and all things, demonstrating his absolute priority to them.

Importantly, too, when he says that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, he affirms the doctrine of divine providence. Just as a king takes care of his territory and seeks to make it prosper and do well, preserving it from evils and protecting it from harm, in the same way God also takes care of the entire universe as his own property. With this, Paul counters the atheism of the Epicureans who denied that there was any providence. In spite of all appearances to the contrary, God the Creator of everything is the ruler of the universe and he cares for it.

The fundamental goodness of God is also implicit in what Paul says at the end: he gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. He gives all things, and since evil is not a thing but rather a lack, evil is not caused by God. I'll repeat the point because it may seem a bit complicated. Evil, properly understood, is really a lack of goodness, rather than a thing in its own right. As an example, consider how darkness is really not a thing in its own right, but an absence of light in a certain area; the light has being and substance, whereas the darkness does not. Therefore, if God gives us all things, then what he gives us is good. He does not give us evil, since evil is not a thing. Rather, evil must come from the misuse of our free will: if we reject the truth, or if we let ourselves be deceived, then we will do what is wrong.
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (vv. 26-7).
Here, Paul affirms that God is not indifferent to the human race but rather is specially interested in it. And what he wants is that the human race grope for him and find him. In other words, he wishes to have a personal communion and friendship with the human race. For this it is necessary that the human person grope for him and find him, in other words, she puts forth her own effort to come to know the God who has created her. The relationship between God and the human person is not unilateral in every respect, even though Paul previously affirmed that God is absolutely prior to everything else as regards existence. At this critical point, in the relationship between the human person and God, there is now a two-way street: God approaches the human person, but it is also up to the human person to approach God.

And perhaps Paul says that the human person should grope for him and find him because it is not an easy thing to find God. Despite the fact that God is not far from each one of us, being the creator and sustaining principle of the whole of existence, yet coming to know God and entering into friendship with him (as is his intention and desire) is a difficult task. It requires a conscious effort on our own part. For this reason I am doubtful of persons who claim to be faithful or spiritual in some way, and yet their lives lack any rigor and spiritual discipline. If you are not striving against yourself to come to know God, how can you be groping for him and finding him? The same critique applies doubly to me, because I consider myself to be religious -- but how often do I pray, or read from the scriptures, or do good to others, or sacrifice from my time to draw nearer to God, groping for him?
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals (vv. 28-9).
Being God's offspring is fascinating to consider. On the one hand, human beings are clearly a part of the animal world, created by and dependent upon God same as everything else. On the other hand, human beings are distinguished from the rest of creation by their various powers as persons. Karl Rahner speaks of the infinite horizon of the human being as person: whereas a deer can't even stop to ask the question whether he should eat grass or multiply or whatever, the human person is uniquely capable of evaluating her own place in the world and making a judgment about the right way she ought to live. This is something unique to human beings because they are persons. In this way, they resemble God -- who is free -- more than they resemble the ultimately unconscious material stuff from which they are formed. There is something of God in them, in other words, which speaks (even if in a whisper) to his existence and their origins in his creative activity.
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (vv. 30-1). 
Here I want to focus on the appointment of a man by whom God wishes to judge the entire world in righteousness. What is impressive to me is the honor given to the human race. God not only wishes to enter into a friendship with human beings, provoking them to seek after him in the world, but he also wants to make use of them for accomplishing his purposes. This is what is impressive about the Christian doctrine of God: even though God has no need of absolutely anyone or anything to accomplish his will, nevertheless he incorporates human persons into his work -- not to help him, as if he needed help, but to honor them, because he is good. This is the grace of God: that he chooses to work through us rather than apart from us.

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