Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Evolution of God

I have been thinking this morning about the evolution of God in the Bible. Yesterday, as part of our communal gathering, we read a passage from Deutoronomy. Parts of the text really bothered me because the writer painted God as nothing more than an ethnocentric tribal God, making war on "bad" tribes on behalf of this singular "good" tribe. The passage even went as far to say that no other tribe in the world knew God.

I am hugely skeptical of some of these kinds of passages / notions of God.

Reading Wilbur's Theory of Everything has caused me to really see that most people and communities and tribes and societies move from egocentric (self-centered) to ethnocentric (community-centered) to worldcentric (globally-centered). This morning I was thinking about how that particular idea in Scripture intersects with this. Perhaps the writers' understandings of God evolve down this same path throughout the text.

I am reminded that both early Judaism and Islam (and perhaps you could make a case for Christianity as well) came out of widely polytheistic societies. When Abraham got the call from El-Shaddai (God of the Mountain), it's largely possible that he took that call as though this was one of many gods in the area...only later to realize that this was YHWH. Muhammed was called by God out of the polytheistic Arabia only to realize that this connection was a God much larger than the Arabs, it was Allah (the arabic word for GOD). Christianity, similarly was formed out of several Judaic sects and in the midst of many Roman civil gods. Perhaps a case could be made that it, too, came from a sort of polytheistic society (if you feel the need to classify these as unique religions with their own distinct beginnings).

My point is this: Most all of these began with a personal or egocentric connection...perhaps animistic (like Abraham) or exclusive (like Muhammed) or personal (like the first followers of Jesus)...and then moved to ethnocentric like the formation of Israel, Islam, or Christianity.

In ethnocentrism, my group is right and yours is wrong. Simple as that. And, unfortunately, that is where most of us stand these days.

But there must be something beyond this...something beyond mere tribal co-existence, don't you think? Worldcentric is a scary place to go. It suggests that there is something universal, but it is never contained in one tradition, tribe, person, what-have-you. That seems a scary place to many of us. But it's also a place of much greater possibility.

And, all of these traditions (despite their tribal form today) suggest that there is a single, universal most all religions. But how do we reconcile our idolatrous understandings of God in our heads with the God of the Universe?

It might be helpful to take a look at the Hindu metaphor of Atman and Brahman. When asked how many gods there are in Hinduism, you might get a response like "300 million gods" or "1 God". There is nothing but Brahman, everything else is merely a manifestation of Brahman. Each of these 300 gods is nothing more than "Brahman in our context". There is only one real Source.

I wonder how that might affect our understanding of God. Rollins, in his book HOW (NOT) TO SPEAK OF GOD, talks about taking an a/theistic approach to theology, where we attempt good theology while knowing that any construction of God we come up with is just our own (or our community's own) construction of is not REALLY God. And to think so would be idolotrous. So, we must not believe (hence the atheistic approach) in the god we construct in our heads...whether informed by sacred texts, experience, or revelation.

Interesting. I'm gonna leave it there. Thoughts?


Kim said...

Have you ever read A New Christianity For A New World by John Shelby Spong?
Kim in IN

Jon said...

these thoughts really make me want to read rollins book

Ryan Lee Sharp said...

I have heard of this book. I might have to check it out. I've been intrigued with some of his thoughts for quite some time, but always found him a little "too liberal" in the sense that he marginalized so much of Christian tradition. Perhaps I'll look into it. Thanks Kim!

Nathaniel said...

"In ethnocentrism, my group is right and yours is wrong. Simple as that."
So, in a sense, that is what you are saying about my group...that it is wrong while the view of "your group" is right. Am I correct in my assessment?

Ryan Lee Sharp said...

Nat, I wonder if there is something at the core of the Gospel that calls us to reformation. Not one from merely 500 years ago, not one from 10 years ago...but continual reformation.

And I guess this is what my post is getting at: What is beyond merely thinking that what you do over there is fine and different from what I do over here? Is there a way we can begin to really dialogue and learn how we can all enter into greater reformation, you know?

Nathaniel said...

the reformation was good because it challenged the church to return to biblical christianity. i think one problem that many reformed people have is that they want to return the church to the sixteenth century and do resist continual reformation of their thinking. however, we need to always be reforming our thinking back to what God has revealed of himself in scripture. we do not have the license to go beyond what he has revealed. but we do have the ability to build on the foundation that has been set by those who have gone before us. so, our doctrine on baptism, for instance, can grow in understanding, but it always needs to be checked by scripture.

brett said...

i am not sure, for myself, if it is solely important to rest where God has revealed God exclusively by scripture...that is not all we are given. As well, any attempt to go back to anything is a step in a more fruitless direction.
i agree we need to be careful with the things we are challenging, but i still believe they need to be challenged in light of all revelation.
i think ryan makes a good point of the dynamic nature of God as it is revealed within scripture and the tendency to hold onto that which is known in reaction to that which is unknown...or at least what we think we know.
i appreciate Rollins a/theistic point of view...that was probably the most incredible part of the book for me.

Andy Thompson said...

Ryan I think that the language that you are using is misleading. To speak of the evolution of God is to imply that somehow God develops/comes into being as his creatures ideas about him develop or come into being. This is a very anthropocentric theology.

It is true that the way God related to man in Moses' day differs in kind from the way that he now relates to the world through Jesus Christ. However, the difference is not one of evolution, but rather of the progressive revelation of God to man.

Moses did not think of God as existing in three persons. However, just because Moses did not think of God in Trinity does not mean that God has not existed eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Indeed the revelation is not complete because Jesus Christ is yet to return. However, when Christ does return every knee will bow and acknowledge that he is Lord, and one day representatives from every tribe and tongue will worship him together in heaven.

Christian belief may be exclusive, but it is in no way ethnocentric. Nowhere in the entire Bible does it ever say God prefers certain races of men above others. In fact throughout the Scripture what we find instead is a God who's passion is the salvation of all the nations.

By exclusive I mean that there are no gods beside the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And there is no other name by which men can be saved than Jesus Christ. Neither of these truths are secrets, nor are they the sole possession of a specific ethnic group. Christ died for all men so that they might live forever with him.

adam said...
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adam said...

I wonder though if God does indeed develop. We live in a dynamic world where everything is relational and entities respond to one another. There is the current moment, informed by the past which has a realm of possibilities in the future. I see God inviting us into greater wholeness but the shape and route to that wholeness is dependent upon us as we collaborate with God. In that collaboration God would indeed change. Could Moses' pleading w/ God in Duet. 9 be a manifestation of this?

Another way of looking at it could be shifting our concept of God from noun to verb. Where God is seen as movement rather than entity.

I think process theology has some good concepts for us to consider.

here's a good link:

thejesusguy said...

I appreciate your honesty in wrestling with this. I have been thinking some similar thoughts. For me the source that you allude to is the Holy Scriptures. And while they are confusing (at times even frustrating) with their pronouncements by and about God, I think they are the only authoritative place to search for Him in all of His reality. Thanks for adding to the journey!

Anonymous said...

some mystical thoughts here...much appreciated.
the idea of God "developing" is a little hard for me to wrap my mind around- i think our notion of God is always developing but i wonder about the nature of God HimHerself...constantly moving, breathing, living, creating- but is that development?
maybe, constantly changing, but always the same- much like the ocean?
it has been an interesting journey for me, from a rigid, sometimes fundamental, literal view of Christianity into a more mystical approach to the religions of mankind and our notions of God.
i believe that there is only One Divine- and in its infinite expressions of itself- could there not be MANY names? many ways and paths? many expressions of mercy and love?
is that blasphemous? maybe.

but, i like this:
"Worldcentric is a scary place to go. It suggests that there is something universal, but it is never contained in one tradition, tribe, person, what-have-you. That seems a scary place to many of us. But it's also a place of much greater possibility."

What is God if not universal? if not all-encompassing love and truth? What if we allowed God to truly be infinite?

Anonymous said...

i think it would be more helpful to let the bible (and God) speak for itself (Himself) and stop interjecting our own thoughts and ideas since our understanding is flawed and so much lower than His. Also all the hindu, islamic stuff is the wrong lens to read the bible through.

brett said...

so how do we let the bible and God speak for themselves when so many people can "hear" one section say multiple things. Who gets to decide what the bible and God is actually saying. Is there just one right answer?

Christopher said...
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