A Culture's Conception of God: Implications and Entailments
There is a fascinating essay over at Public Discourse on how a culture's view of God shapes its view of man, reason, and society. Samuel Gregg's God, Reason, and Our Civilizational Crisis is profound in its cultural analysis. Below are a few excerpts....
A particular religion’s concept of the Divine thus cannot help but profoundly influence the societies in which that faith prevails. The Greco-Roman world, for instance, generally lacked the biblical notion of God as the Creator. Consequently, it did not view humans as “co-creators” working to unfold a still-unfinished creation in human history. This is one reason why the Greeks and Romans, unlike the Jews, viewed manual work and commerce (as opposed to politics and war) as the responsibility of slaves, women, and other non-citizens.
Especially important, however, is the way a religion’s understanding of God affects its appreciation of man’s capacity for reason. This theme was central to Benedict XVI’s discussion of the relationship between violence and religion in his 2006 Regensburg address. If a religion does not regard God at some level asLogos—Divine Reason—rather than just an unmediated raw Will, then that faith’s capacity to dispute the reasonableness of those who, for instance, decapitate hostages, burn prisoners of war to death, gun down cartoonists, slaughter Jews shopping in kosher markets, and then claim religious warrants for doing so is, at best, questionable.
A World without Logos
Once, however, Logos as a prominent dimension of God’s nature starts fading from Western culture’s horizons, what is left? There appear to be three possibilities.
One is “God-As-Will,” but untethered to reason. This is a God who acts arbitrarily, one whom we must simply obey. Freedom is thus found in unquestioning submission, no matter how irrational the divine command. Another is “God-As-Love,” but without reasonableness. This is a being who, like an irresponsible parent, simply affirms his child’s choices, no matter how foolish or evil such decisions might be. A third possibility is “God-Beyond-Reason.” This produces a narrowed understanding of human reason itself: one that confines our rationality to the verifiable scientific method, and thereby declines to permit it to ponder the bigger questions opened by the intriguing possibility that Divine Reason exists.
If any of these conceptions of God prevails in a culture, we can hardly be surprised that attempts to answer why we make particular choices—moral, political, legal, and economic—become reduced to strongly felt feelings, utilitarian calculations, or, more recently, what the philosopher Tyler Burge calls “neurobabble.” Instead of seeking rational resolution of problems, we increasingly defer to reigning majority opinion, panels of experts, consequentialist rationalizations devised to legitimize all sorts of evil, or some type of force—whether expressed though democratically elected temporary majorities or outright coercion.
The Islamic world is struggling with a particularly virulent God problem. For everyone else, this matters, because while we can protect ourselves to an extent against those who want us to submit to a thoroughly voluntaristic vision of a Deity who acts unreasonably, at some point the cessation of Muslim violence is going to require many Muslims to change their minds about God’s nature. Yet anyone who cares about Western civilization should also remember that no matter how materially prosperous and technologically advanced we become or how much we celebrate concepts such as rule of law, the coherence of these achievements will be increasingly tenuous if our culture-forming institutions—ranging from families and universities to synagogues and churches—continue embracing sentimentalist conceptions of the Divine.