Tuesday, May 15, 2007

God's Inner Life

I ran across the following remarks by Nicolas Berdyrev in the introduction to a book by the German mystic Jacob Boehme. They gave me pause for thought:

The Christian theological systems have elaborated a doctrine of God within the categories of Greek philosophical thought. Thus, the doctrine of God as pure act, containing within himself nothing that is potential, is based entirely on Aristotle. Christian theology has drawn its teachings of an immobile, satisfied, and static God not from the Bible, nor from Christian revelation, but rather from Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle. The static nature of Greek ontology has left its imprint on Christian theology. The immobile God, God as pure act, is a concept of God, it is not a living God. The predominant theological doctrine of God takes from God all inner life, denies all process, likens him to a motionless rock. The idea is idolatrous. The God of the Bible and of Apocalypse is not so. He is full of a dramatic inner life. He has movement within him.

Leaving aside for the moment the problem of lumping together three thinkers as disparate in their views as Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle, Berdyrev’s argument is clear enough. He is suggesting that Aristotle’s God is conceptual, static, and lifeless, while the God we meet up with in the Bible has personality, movement, and inner life. This distinction seems perfectly sound to me, and it might be worth adding that the Biblical God reveals himself through personal interactions with women and men, and more broadly speaking through stories, while Aristotle’s God is derived from logical categories that are based on, while standing at one remove from, day-to-day experience.

All the same, it strikes me as a little odd that Berdyrev refers to Aristotle’s God as one of “pure action,” yet goes on to describe him as an immobile, static God. Action is not immobile. Action is movement. In order to understand the Aristotelian world-view, it might be well for us, at the very least, to come to grips with the distinction Aristotle makes between action and potential.

This shouldn’t be hard. Aristotle uses these terms in much the same way we do. An acorn has the potential to become an oak tree. An Oregon lumberjack or an Alabama share-cropper has the potential to become the president of the United States. Plenty of mis-steps and accidents stand in the way of such things taking place. It’s difficult for anything to reach its full potential. But because God is perfect and eternal, he has no unrealized potential. He is pure unadulterated activity.

On the face of it, this is a beautiful image: perfection as activity, like music that always pleases and never repeats. But it seems to me that this theory has a few problems, too. It would be blasphemous to suggest that God is unadulterated mindless activity, of the sort that Aristotle admired when he saw the stars spinning around in perfect, unchanging circles. But I find it difficult to imagine what pure and perfectly mindful activity would look like. Even the most salutary acts we engage in produce unintended consequences, and leave us wondering if we might have done better, or perhaps left well enough alone. It would be uncharitable to attribute such second-thoughts, regrets, or pangs of conscience to the Supreme Being. And also uninspiring. Yet if we cannot attribute such things to God, then in what, precisely, does God’s “dramatic inner life,” of which Berdyrev speaks, actually consist?

I sometimes wonder if we, as individuals, are God’s inner life. The pain we feel when we read the newspapers, contemplate our latest faux pas, or toss and turn in our efforts to give our lives a meaningful shape, are the burning shards of that primordial supernova which was God. That’s a nice thought: a universe endowed, from the very beginning, with a conscience.

This position may sound a bit blasphemous. But perhaps its even more blasphemous to suggest that God has his own inner life. That would require that what he wills, and what he sees, do not correspond to one another.

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