Years later, I wonder about this.
It was the first day of class. The course was, “The Doctrine of God.” Our professor, Neal Plantinga, was ill, so I thought the class would be canceled.
However, Plantinga had arranged for a guest lecturer, his brother. I had never met Alvin Plantinga before. He was known as a fine teacher and world-famous philosopher. He has since won the Templeton Prize, along with such luminaries as Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Canada’s Jean Vanier.
So, there we sat. Plantinga stepped up to the podium. And then, for what seemed like an hour but might have only been a minute, he stood there, silent, looking at us. Finally, he spoke. To the best of my recollection, he said something like this:
“Class, today we step onto holy ground. We are about to pit our small, fallible human minds to the task of knowing God. This ought to fill us with fear and awe. After all, who can know God? Who can take the measure of him?”
“Thus, I begin with a warning: to be flippant or sloppy in speaking of God is blasphemy.”
“So, let’s being this class with prayer and ask our God to give us the gift of humility as we presume to speak about the one who gave us tongues.”
I thought “Woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
I was deeply moved. Plantinga’s simple words and pious manner pierced my complacency about being in seminary, about wanting to be a minister, and all that. He invited me to a deep curiosity about God. I’ll always be thankful for that.
Years later, however, I’m wondering about that day.
I’m still happy that my complacency was pierced. I mark the beginning of my interest in theology—a spiritual playground, to be sure, but a lovely one—to that class.
But I’m not so sure, anymore, that Plantinga approached this from the right angle. He seems to me, now, to have been too focused on God’s honour and potential vindictiveness, than on really knowing God.
God’s honour. It’s a medieval concern. It imagines that human worries about rank and power must also be God’s, in a most anthropomorphic way. It used to be the case that if you dishonored someone above your station you were in deep trouble. So, you don’t speak back to your lord if you are a peasant serf—at least if you want to keep farming. You are nice to ladies if you are knight. You bow before kings, or go to prison. That sort of stuff. Human rights were not a big deal back then. Anselm (c. 1000) was so preoccupied with honor that he argued that Jesus’ death was necessary because we humans had offended God’s honour by sinning.
Sure, the Reformers backed off the honour argument some, emphasizing another strand of Anselm’s thought, namely that Jesus’ death was necessary not so much because we offended God’s honor, but because eternal damnation was a just penalty for our sins (for any single sin, in fact. One strike and you’re out). What the Supreme Court might call cruel and unusual punishment.
I wish Christians would move beyond this.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we ought to be flippant when we speak or think of God. That sort of attitude is merely impolite. It doesn’t do justice to the complexity and wonder we feel when we try to engage mysterious divine matters.
But Plantinga’s underlying, if unspoken, sense of God as a being to be feared, a being concerned about his (or her) honour, about the real possibility of tit for tat punishment, often connected to guilt we somehow bear for the sins of a mythical couple, just doesn’t seem very credible. It’s a “just so” story. Didn’t Jesus teach us about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, giving the coat off of our backs, after all? Should we suspect God of less?
I understand that there is a kind of internal coherence to Plantinga’s—and most of orthodoxy’s—theorizing about God. I get that you can parse scripture in a certain way to make it come out in this way.
But I’ve moved on. I like how John Caputo puts it: God is not a celestial toll taker who charges a fee to undertake a spiritual journey. In short, God is not a Big Deal or Big Dealer, not the Omni-being who overwhelms our finitude with a plan to reward His (sic) friends and punish His enemies (sic, even sicker), which does not sound much like the Sermon on the Mount. (Hope Against Hope, 112)
You’ll have to read Caputo’s book for the cultural, philosophic, theological reasons Caputo says such things. But ultimately, he wants a God who calls us “back into the toils and troubles of everyday life,” a God who does not so much exist as insist, not a being so much as a small quiet voice that whispers (prays!), “love, forgive, do justice, be merciful.” God depends on us to make all that come true. If we don’t, we don’t. But we can.
Even if, once upon a time, we daydreamed through a class on the doctrine of God.