An essay donated by Susan Humphreys
The nature of God
Theologians and philosophers have argued over the nature of God (his character, what he is like, what he can do, what he thinks) as well as over the very existence of God. Then the common folk (as well as religious leaders) have proceeded to place limitations on what that God can or can not do.
According to Wikipedia, Saint Anselm of Canterbury first put forth the argument for God’s existence based on his concept of perfection (the ontological proof) in 1078 CE. 1 Anselm defined God as:
"that than which nothing greater can be conceived."
Then, he argued that this being could exist in the mind. He suggested that, if the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality. If it only exists in the mind, then a greater being is possible -- one which exists in the mind and in reality.
Today Christians claim that God is perfect in every way (all wise, knowing, seeing, loving, powerful). Then, they endow him 2 with the same imperfections they see in themselves (anger, jealousy, desire for revenge, prejudice towards homosexuals, fear of the “other” (those who aren't just like him), desire for power and control over others, narcissism to name a few). I wrote an earlier three part essay on Theodicy that addresses this issue.
Christians created a Catch 22 for themselves with this argument. A perfect God would have no favorites, he would see no differences between people, he would have compassion and forgiveness for everyone, he feels no pain or joy, just a quiet equanimity. Then there is a problem with God’s silence. Silence when you have the ability to do something, when you see acts of violence, oppression, genocide, etc. is an imperfection in one’s character. If God has favorites, or sees differences between people, or if he remains silent when he could speak out against evil, then God isn’t perfect.
The argument that God is pure and absolute Will was put forth by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali who lived between 1058-1111 CE. He argues that God would have to be pure and absolute, unconstrained Will. He claimed that:
"Nature is entirely subject to God; incapable of acting by itself, it is an instrument in the hand of the Creator. The sun, moon, stars, and elements are subject to God and can produce nothing of themselves. In a word, nothing in nature can act spontaneously and apart from God." 3
Everything that we see as real, every person, every tree, every rock, every action is created because God has willed it to be the way it appears. There are no boundaries that can possibly bind God’s will. God isn’t bound by any promises, he can change his mind at any time, he isn’t bound by any “laws of nature”, by reason, or rationality, or compassion.
That puts constraints upon God’s Will by insisting that he is nothing more than a tyrant with the Will of a spoiled child. In my opinion, that is a very limited view of what God can or cannot do with his Will. I think that God -- IF there is a God -- would realize that an out of control Will is not only self-destructive but a sign of weakness.
It is easy to show compassion and forgiveness towards the young and the helpless. There is a presumption of innocence there. It takes a strong character and great Will to show compassion and forgiveness towards those that have harmed you, or harmed others, or haven’t “earned” it. or those who don’t “deserve” it.
A person that can be bribed has a weak character (an imperfection) and a weak Will. Yet people insist that God can be bribed. Some say that IF a person will accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then God will grant them everlasting life. That is bribery. Some force women to wear a Burka or cover their head with a scarf. They insist that will appease God and show him that you are obedient to his Will. Forcing someone to submit to Sharia law or religious doctrine or dogma is in essence insisting that God has a weak Will and can be bribed, or that God isn’t powerful enough to enforce his own Will and has to have humans enforce it for him, or that God isn’t very intelligent and is easily fooled. A strong character with a powerful Will can’t be bribed or fooled.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Jesus taught us that it takes a strong character and great Will to refuse to respond to an act of violence with another act of violence.
Anyone, Ayatollah or Pope, Imam or Priest, Theologian or common man that calls for others to commit acts of violence, or to cause harm to others by limiting their access to education or health care, or restricting their rights ... anyone that commits an act of violence towards another is showing they have a weak character. To claim that they are doing it for God shows that they think God has a weak character and that he is unable to act for himself. If God is all that they claim that he is, then he will do what he wants and won’t need a person to act on his behalf.
I do think that a God of Absolute Will and Power could indeed be Big enough to create all humans equal, to endow them all with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t place a limitation on Gods power or his Will. It shows how great and powerful he really is.
Every parent knows that it takes a strong character and great Will to allow their children to stumble and fall, to allow them to fail at their first attempt to accomplish something on their own. BUT they know that with encouragement their child will get up and try again and again if necessary each time gaining more skills and more confidence so that when success is finally achieved, the child has won something priceless.
Justice comes when one is able to put aside one’s own prejudices and self-interests to do what is fair, what is honest, and what is right. It takes someone with a strong character and great Will to be able to act justly.
It takes great courage, strength of character and a strong Will to speak out against intolerance, injustice, persecution, and genocide. It takes courage to say: No more, no more hate, no more violence, enough is enough. A God that is perfect in every way with an absolute Will would speak up and not remain silent otherwise he isn’t what people claim that he is.
During an online discussion one day one young man commented:
“You are so dumb you don’t even know when you are being insulted.”
I replied back you can’t insult someone who refuses to be insulted by pettiness. It takes a person with a strong character and great Will to be able to rise above the pettiness of name calling, and childish attempts to belittle and demean your character.
I think that a God with a strong/perfect character with an absolute Will would also understand all of this. I think that showing compassion and forgiveness, restraint (not responding out of anger or using violence against those that are weaker than one’s self), refusing to be insulted by mere human actions or words, acting justly and reasonably, allowing one’s children to act on their own, are signs of great intelligence, great wisdom and of a great character with a truly GREAT WILL.
In the process of developing his arguments/philosophy al-Ghazali created a double Catch22 for Islamists. (Just as Christians created a Catch22 for themselves with their claim that God is Perfect in every way.)
The dilemma is that IF God is pure WILL, that there is no other reality, how can anything that a human does not be the work of God? This is the first catch.
If I follow a different religion or call myself an Atheist, if I dress immodestly, refuse to wear a Burka or cover my head, if I read books other than the Qur'an, if I ... you can insert whatever you want here ... then that is either what God wants me to do IF he is what they say he is OR I have a Will of my own that can decide to do what God doesn’t want me to do. If I defy God, then that proves God isn’t as powerful as they claim he is.
The second catch is that the Islamist sees that an absolute Will is one that is unconstrained, the catch is that it is a weakness to not be able to control your Will.
Al-Ghazali argues that God creates everything fresh every instant, that nothing is permanent, that nothing exists that God hasn’t created with his Will. I think God would get tired of having to destroy everything he has willed into being then recreate everything fresh every instant. I’d think he’d be smart enough to realize that there has to be a better way to do this. So I surmise, he decided to create an automatic pilot program, so to speak, and created the laws that keep the planet and everything on it running smoothly. This isn’t to say that he can’t step in at any second and turn off the automatic pilot program and take full manual control again. But honestly why would he want to? He could intervene occasionally, temporarily override parts of the automatic pilot program, IF he felt something important needed to be done. A God of unlimited intelligence and wisdom could easily create the “laws of nature” and create the illusion that these are the “laws” that we must live with.
IF I think that I have Free Will, and I don’t really have it, then it is obvious that God wants me to THINK that I have it. He wants me to have the illusion that I have Free Will, because he created that illusion in me, I couldn’t possibly have come up with it on my own, IF I have no thoughts of my own.
Why one might wonder would he want me to have the illusion that I have Free Will, when I actually don’t? Perhaps he wants to see what I and we (humans) would do with Free Will IF I and we actually had it!
He is watching to see how we use it. Do we use it for personal gain, to amass wealth and power for ourselves? Do we use it to manipulate and control others? Do we use it to benefit humanity? OR do we use it to harm humanity?
On page 3 of his book, 3 Reilly said, Islamists had to choose between God’s will and power or his justice and rationality. They decided that God was one of absolute Will and power greater than but similar to that of the earthly tyrants they were familiar with, not a God that was just and rational. I think they were given a false dichotomy. Personally I think God could be both and more. IF there is a God!
IF God is as perfect as Christians claim that he is, he (as I said in my earlier essay) has no favorites. He sees no differences, no sides to choose between. He neither hears nor feels cries of pain or suffering or of joy. He sees no sinners to punish and no sins that require a blood sacrifice. He has no enemies to smite, and no desire for vengeance. He has moved beyond (risen above) all of that human pettiness.
IF God is pure and absolute Will as Islamists claim, then He must also have the perfection that Christians claim. He has full control over his Will and can choose to act rationally, justly, with reserve and patience, with compassion and forgiveness. To not have such perfection of character would be a sign of weakness.
IF there is a God, the ability to control his Will, the ability to show compassion towards all people, to not have favorites, to be reasonable, rational and just, aren’t signs of weakness they show that he is more intelligent, wiser, more powerful and greater then both groups him credit for.
If this is so then some members of both groups, Christian and Muslim are going to have to rethink other parts of their theology to accommodate what is for them an uncomfortable reality that places constraints/limitations upon their beliefs and actions not upon Gods,
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Ontological argument," Wikipedia, as on 2013-JAN-23, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
- In this essay, *he" and "him" are used in the gender neutral sense. This avoids having to constantly write "he/she" or "him/her."
- From the “Closing of the Muslim Mind, How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.” By Robert R. Reilly. This was the recommended book on this web site for 2012-APR.
Originally posted: 2012-FEB-16
Latest update: 2012-FEB-16
Author: Susan Humphreys