Sunday, October 01, 2017

Why it matters that God is personal

There are philosophical understandings of God as the Ground of Being, the Unmoved Mover. These are often presented in contrast with the idea of God as a Heavenly Father. Some call the personal image "primitive" or some other pejorative to bar it from serious conversation. Here I write not only to defend that it is acceptable to understand God as person, but to affirm that it is essential and irreplaceable to a full understanding of God. If the purpose of study is to gain knowledge, and the purpose of philosophy to gain wisdom, then recognizing God as personal opens doors to understanding that are simply not available with impersonal abstracts.
  • If God is not personal, then it is ultimately unimportant that we are personal. With an impersonal deity, we're left with something like Eleanor Roosevelt's questionable claim:
Great minds discuss ideas,
average minds discuss events,
small minds discuss people.
That view stems from a deeply non-Christian premise: that ideas are the things of greatest importance, events are less important than ideas, and people are the least important of all. In that aphorism, "minds" stands in as a replacement for people -- or we could say it reduces people to their minds -- in order to maintain the view that people are the least worthy of serious consideration. Contrast that with one of the more striking art forms of recent centuries: the literary novel, in which the deeper themes are incarnated in events, and their worth as wisdom is tested by how they live out in the lives of people. If the art form of the novel per se has any meaning, if the format itself has any basic premise to communicate to the world, then the existence of the novel as art says that people are important, that we matter, that it is not small-minded to care. As a reprise to Mrs Roosevelt, I might offer: "Great thinkers generate great ideas, great doers cause great events, great hearts affirm the value of people." And to affirm the value of people, we have to believe that people matter, that being personal matters. If we see God as personal, this instills in us the sense of the value of being a person. We could not imagine the same extent of value with an impersonal God. We cannot disown the personhood of God without devaluing personhood in general, and ourselves in the process.
  • If God is not personal, then there is no point in praying. After all our prayers are said, the Unmoved Mover is ... unmoved.
  • If God is personal then divine revelations make sense. But if God is not personal, the concept of revelation is in doubt. If God is not personal, is it possible for God to reach out?
  • If God is personal, only then would we turn to him, relate to him, involve him in our lives. But if God is impersonal, then there is no personal connection to God to be found in religion, no meaningful distinction between religion and philosophy. Religion is reduced to philosophy-plus-ritual (some would say "plus superstition"), or philosophy-plus-moral-code; it loses the idea of a transformative connection with a Divine Person.
  • If God is personal, then being in the "image of God" affirms our own personhood. But if God is not personal, the "image of God" portrays us as copies of an abstract ideal, and assigns no particular dignity to the human condition. Without the idea of a person as the image of God, there is little basis for redemption of the person. 
  • If God is not personal, then the foundation of morality and its true nature cannot be love. Love is the unique province of beings who are aware, who value, who connect, who care, who have a stake in the well-being of each other. If God is not personal, God is not love.
I have (for this post, anyway) set aside the questions of how we know that God is personal, and what we mean by that. These are good topics in their own right, but among Christians those conversations have generally already taken place, even if they might bear repeating.

Instead, my focus is here: The idea of personhood is necessary to a full understanding of God. Our understanding of God is incomplete or misleading if we lose sight of that. Setting aside the personhood of God is a disservice not only to "primitive religious" types, but also to true knowledge of God, and true knowledge of ourselves.


Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for that post!

Weekend Fisher said...

You're welcome. And thank you for commenting.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF