Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The God of Love and the God of Power

The conversation last week has had me thinking about religion. The first of the Ten Commandments essentially says that there is one and only one God in the Abrahamic faiths. But when you look at them, this is false. There are at least two. Ludwig Feuerbach wrote,

"If God were an object to the bird, he would be a winged being: the bird knows nothing higher, nothing more blissful, than the winged condition."
God is endowed with the highest possible degree of that which we see as good.

But what do we see as good? Here, I do believe that Nietzsche was right that what we prize derives from our place in the social context. (He was wrong to then move to the claim that this is the whole of what we do and should consider morality, but the idea that political power deeply shapes what we see as desirable behavior is no doubt correct.) Social and political power does make for the powerful and powerless. There are in and out groups. As a result, I think that the problem of evil/suffering is truly the key to seeing the different ways in which organized religion manifests itself.

The problem, of course, is that if you have an all loving and all powerful God, you should not have unnecessary suffering by innocents since an all loving God would desire to end it and an all powerful God could fulfill all his desires. In the end, it seems that to be a theist one must choose love or power as the essential property of God. Which to choose? This, I think, is the result generally of the distribution of power. Those in charge see their superior place as justified by the will of God and thereby worship the God of power. To them oppressing others is a holy act because they are jusr reinforcing the natural state of being created by God.

On the other hand, those who tend to be out of power usually worship the God of love, one who is merciful and understanding of the unnecessary suffering of humans. It is this God who provides strength for them in facing injustice and working against all odds to make life better for those in the world.

This division seems present in most of our religious organizations. We see it in Catholicism where the question of care for the abused and protection of the structure, its wealth, and its credibility have recently come into conflict. We see it in Protestantism where the conversation around Glenn Beck's diatribe about churches who champion "social justice" has exposed this fault line between the two approaches. In Judaism, Zionism has exposed this rift with horrible effects between treating the other as human and dehumanizing for land. We see the fight between radical and moderate Islam wrestling with the same foundational question -- which God is God?

It is here, I think, the real question lies, not, as Gwydion argued, in the fundamentalist/non-fundamentalist line, nor in the broader metaphysical question about whether God does or does not exist. Those who worship the God of love differ from me in metaphysical belief, but share with me a basic standing towards the world and being, a posture in which empathy and consideration are foremost. I feel no threat from their faith even if I do not share it and even if it is literalist or fundamentalist.

Those who worship the God of power, however, do seem to me a different group -- and their are atheists for whom power is the essential property of a successful materialist existence. It is the worship of power that threatens social stability and human well-being. It is there that we ought to be concerned and there that I think both Kerry and Gwydion are rightly and commonly deeply uncomfortable. I, too, share their discomfort and think this is the central place that we need to focus our dialogue.

Anselm argued that the theist and the atheist both agree on what the word "God" means. I don't think the theists themselves agree.