I Swear I’m Going to Get Back to Work

Posted: March 30, 2009 in Threat Quality

Also, I have to do my taxes!  Blech!

But Moff was talking about something in the comments the other day, and it’s been commanding my attention since then, and I’ve decided to work it out here, in a blog post.  Complicated ideas consume me, and they make it hard for me to sleep.  Hopefully, this will exercise them.

This one has to do with God, and the nature of the infinite.

Right, so, one of the biggest problems I’ve always had with the Christian Old & New Testament is God’s evolving relationship with humanity.  He starts off like an angry, weird dad in Genesis and Exodus, and then kind of becomes an generally benign though occasionally strictly malicious king by the time you get to the late Old Testament, and then this cosmic entity of love and harmony by the time you get to the New Testament.

Obviously, this doesn’t make any sense to me.  Something that is infinite, omniscient, and omnipotent doesn’t change.  The concept doesn’t even make any sense–you have to exist inside of time in order to do that.  And even if God were not infinite, but just omniscient and omnipotent, why wouldn’t he just look into the future, see the best version of himself that there is, and then be that?  Anyway, mind boggling.

There are a couple of explanations for this change.  One of them is anthropological:  God’s relationship towards human beings changes according to how human beings understand nature and the universe.  Back in the way Olde Days, when people are just exploding left and right from trichinosis and scabies, they figure God must be some insane jerk.  As they get a better hold on what things are the crazy, unpredictable elements of nature and what things are within that control–and as they begin to move more and more of the natural world into human control–God becomes less malicious, more benign.  By the time we get to Roman Days, where order seems pretty well-handled, it comes time for a new perspective on God.

That’s the explanation I think is most likely to be true, but not the one that I’m interested in right now.

One of them is the one that Moff suggested–that God changed his attitude towards human beings as he began to realize how hard it was to be human.  This is implausible, of course, because God is omniscient.  He can’t not know how hard it is to be human.  By all accounts, he made the world with humans in mind, so being difficult living for humans has got to be part of the plan.

Hell, in certain cases, when God noticed people getting along a little too well, he actually went out and made things harder for them.

So, I don’t buy that.  Exactly.  But it gives me an idea that has a peculiar resonance.

Let’s say that I’m God, and I’m omniscient and omnipotent and bored.  Because I think that if you’re omniscient and omnipotent, boredom is a pretty likely condition.  I want to experience something new, but how can I do that when I’m God?  How can I even experience a thing when time doesn’t even exist for me?

So, I do what any omnipotent being would do under those circumstances:  I create a version of myself that is not entirely omniscient, omnipotent, or infinite–a kind of Deus Minor.  I let him invent the world and try and run it, so that I can vicariously experience the uncertainty of what it’s like to try and run a world when I don’t know everything.

Infinite things are closed loops or circles; for me, as an infinite entity, everything is all one thing, and I’m just hanging out in it.  Finite things are cascades or chains–causes and effects that lead forward in time.  For the Other Me, the universe is a chain of being that starts at the top and works its way down–that’s because Other Me is not infinite.

You guys may recognize this as being what we call “Gnosticism.”  This was an accident, I didn’t mean to rethink that idea.  Anyway, the reason God is so weird in the Bible is because the God that the Bible is talking about doesn’t know what he’s doing.  He’s trying to make the best of his mandate, which is to create the universe, but he doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, and he doesn’t know how things are meant to turn out.  He’s just muddling along like the rest of us, only higher up in the chain of being.

A God that’s not omnipotent who is running the world makes much, much more sense.  It explains why he has to be incarnated and then sacrificed, why he can’t just fix the fucking problems that caused the huge mess that we’re in, &c, &c.

It also kind of explains what that Holy Ghost thing is about.

  1. Rasselas says:

    Maybe Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (which is not, from the reviews, particularly technical) would be interesting, on this and related questions.

  2. Hsiang says:

    I’m familiar with the idea of Jesus being a sort of powered down copy of JHVH sent down to the mortal coil as sort of a probe so that JHVH can better understand the monkeys He made 4004 years ago. That’s gnostic, right? Now you’re suggesting JHVH is just another similar simulant of an Even Higher Power, Infinity +1. Mebbe it’s Gods all the way up. Very cool.

    Okay, breaktime’s over. Now get back to work.

  3. Josh (Moff) says:

    Yeah, the omniscience/omnipotence bit is pretty central to my big problems with God. There’s not a good way around it, as far as I can see, without resorting to Gnosticism, which is something I don’t really understand but that has always seemed attractive to me but that many Christian theologians seem to have come out strongly against.

    The bad, or at least unsatisfying, way around it is to admit that we don’t really appreciate what “omniscient” or “omnipotent” means—we simply can’t, on a qualitative level—and to tell ourselves that if we could appreciate it somehow, everything would make more sense. I think that’s true, but it rankles, and it also concerns me because I believe that one quality of a loving God is that He hasn’t plopped us down amid a series of mysteries that are absolutely impossible to figure out.

    Now, maybe I’m just impatient—maybe things will be made clear in the fullness of time, which could mean anything from a few years to thousands of them or more. It’s hard not to look at the world as it is, especially viewed through the filter of the Internet, and to think that we have any business expecting further revelations about God when what seems like so few people take the subject seriously. One side wields their faith like a sledgehammer; the other treats the subject of religion, which has been a deep well for so many brilliant minds (believers and nonbelievers alike) throughout history, as purely contemptible; very few people approach it with anything like genuine humility.

    It really makes me angry, which I’m afraid maybe isn’t the Christian response. I’m so tired of people online treating every subject in the world (it feels like) with such nonchalant, dismissive know-it-all-ness. (Some of my irritation at the commenters on this week’s Jive Tarkin is popping up here.) Y’know how there was concern after WebMD came into being about people constantly second-guessing their doctors? I feel like as the Internet has grown, it’s just people second- and third- and fourth-guessing everyone on everything. It’s like, “If I can find a single possible flaw in what I’ve read I’ve your argument, that’s sufficient for me to declare you wrong.” There’s so little sense of intellectual community, of giving someone or an idea the benefit of the doubt.

    I’ve gotten off track here, but my point, if I have one, is that hashing out these questions about God is hard because, if religion is a practice, as I believe it is, and not a set of rules, I wonder how many of these questions we can answer without doing more of that practice. Y’know, people painted for thousands of years before they figured out how paint perspectives. It seems so obvious to us, looking back, but clearly it wasn’t. They had to do the groundwork. And I’m sure every art, craft, or practice would yield countless similar examples.

    That’s not to say we should give up on questions like the problem of omniscience for now, or that I think everyone needs to be religious to do the groundwork that will help us get closer to the answers—you, Chris, engage in these searches in a way I can’t help but think God would approve of far more than so many believers do. I’m just raising a possibility and venting at the same time.

  4. […] A long comment I left over at Braak’s (in response to a post he wrote in response to another long comment of mine): Yeah, the omniscience/omnipotence bit is pretty central to my big problems with God. There’s not a good way around it, as far as I can see, without resorting to Gnosticism, which is something I don’t really understand but that has always seemed attractive to me but that many Christian theologians seem to have come out strongly against. […]

  5. Josh (Moff) says:

    @Hsiang: “Gods all the way up” makes my day.

  6. threatqualitypress says:

    @Josh: Well, I like to think that any kind of God that I’d want to believe in would be okay with me. I’m nice to kittens and orphans, I enjoy all manner of elements of the creation, and I’m deeply in love with good-natured inquiry. I feel like, given those qualities, God is likely to go easy on the relatively minor sin of not actually believing in him.

    Your point about praxis is well-taken; it’s something I’ve noticed when I’ve talked to Jehovah’s Witnesses about this–that in order to have faith in the God of the Testaments, you have to first “allow the holy spirit to enter you.” I’ve generally interpreted this as a kind of choosing to have faith, or else as a kind of exercise of the muscles of belief. I’m not opposed to this at all, I’m just hesitant to attribute it to some kind of outside, superhuman phenomenon, and similarly hesitant to use it in order to believe in something that I, generally, considered to be kind of…well, let’s just say “tricky.” I like the Zen Buddhism, for example, because it’s all ordered around direct experience of the universe. God? Soul? Heaven, Hell? These are questions that Zen isn’t interested in–it uses the same muscles (I think) of voluntary ego-less-ness, but solely to the purpose of “Here. Now.”

    Which isn’t to say that there’s no way Christianity can do the same or a similar thing. I think the Jehovah’s Witnesses generally don’t, but Thomas Merton sure seemed to do something like it.

    Anyway, who knows? I like talking about all this stuff, anyway. I just wrote a play about John Henry which is a completely Gnostic play, and which involves him fighting the Devil. This does not disturb me at all; it’s as true within its context as anything else is.

    Also: Gnosticism isn’t so bad. It was mostly disavowed for political reasons, because a lot of early Gnostic sects also eschewed the idea of secular authority.

  7. threatqualitypress says:

    @Josh & Hsiang: “Gods all the way up.” I like that. Gods all the way up, turtles all the way down. I have a vision of a universe of Matryoshka dolls.

  8. Amanda says:

    Or the Bible could just be human beings trying to explain God’s story when there is no possible way they could ever really know what’s going on truly….This would also explain the inconsistency because humans are finite as well…The Bible is a man-made book….

  9. threatqualitypress says:

    Yes, it could be lots of things. I was discussing one of them.

    But look at it this way: human beings failing to explain something inexplicable is, practically speaking, indistinguishable from human beings failing to explain something explicable. It is a man-made book, and therefore flawed, whether or not there is an actual divine truth to which it refers–and it is necessarily impossible to prove that divine truth solely through the book itself.

    The only way to do it is to decide to believe first, as I suggested earlier.

  10. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Can you be omniscient and still fascinated by anything? It’s difficult to think of a being like that responding to emotion–or having it. If human love is read as something exquisite and worthy of divine appreciation, I’d imagine God would be compelled to allow itself to experience it (this thing it created) and respond to it by eliminating suffering…unless something superior (or, perhaps, having no heirarchical place in anything we could construct) to emotion paints the state of its existence; for many, that might be distasteful to imagine–nothingness and infinite existence are equally disturbing concepts. Some of the very “brilliant minds” that strived to define divinity concluded that distance from our mortality and humanity–absence of emotion, removal of sensual engagement and response to external stimuli–would lead to a more divine state of being. Being nothing in particular, just being.

  11. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I wonder if I’d be jealous of creatures that could die, change and be assimilated by other things, if I never could. It’s the only thing God couldn’t do if it is omni-everything; cease to exist. It/he/that could never stop being. Unless she/he/them could only cease to exist at one specific turning point—a stopping of the constant state of being and ever-present time. Maybe after a few billion years passed, by human measurement, I’d wonder what it’s like to stop being…I don’t know…

  12. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I should’ve worded that differently: If God is, has been, will be and always, God never isn’t. If God can experience “isn’t”, God still is—is in the state of being God, form/no form etc. We exist as humans, then we exist as something else. We imagine death brings a change in consciousness or existential oblivion; we stop being something that we were to be something else, pieces of things in a universe of matter and anti-matter. If God is always in its own state of consciousness, I don’t think that God would experience the existential vulnerability of shifts of consciousness. I think God’s Godlike consciousness would remain constant, even if God could manifest itself in different forms. But perhaps, that’s a property of being God–an ever changing consciousness, shifting from material to immaterial. I think different faiths would define this possiblity in different ways—maybe Catholics would apply the concept of “The Trinity” to this. I don’t pretend to know…

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