originally published as “I’m not sure most Christians know that

I was reading a fascinating article by Terry Eagelton where he was reviewing Dawkin’s book (the God Delusion) specifically and refuting the new atheist en mass. He took them to task for not knowing much about theology – which, in his mind, is a major problem if one is writing a book about God. He takes an interesting tone, nearly mocking at points, regarding their lack of sophistication and wherewithal in theological understanding and categorization.

Here is a sample (which, by the way, it reads MUCH better in a John Oliver delivery style):

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

I was struck by his attitude and I caught myself thinking “I’m not sure that most Christians know that.” He kind of treats these antagonists with a dismissive “duh” but I am suspicious that the atheist aren’t the only one who aren’t aware of the categorical mistake of calling God a ‘person’ just because knowledge of God can be ‘personal’.

There are two significant implications of this:

  • the new atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris & Dennet) have a stinging criticism that continues to impact those on the margin of the faith and those wrestling with seasonal Christian commitment. Neither the Atheists nor those they seduce know that we don’t mean what they say we mean.
  • Many Christians continue to repeat the Creeds and Catechisms in rote repetition without comprehending the way in which language is being utilized. This concerns me as I continue to wrestle with (and against) the work of Lindbeck, Hauerwaus and MacIntyre.

Here are 3 things that I have learned over the past 5 years that I’m not sure most Christians know. In fact, as I have transitioned from an evangelist-apologist to a theologian, I’ve had the opportunity to converse with and introduce people to these ideas and ,for almost everyone, it is the first time they are hearing the distinction.

God is a Person: When we say that God is a ‘person’ we are not saying that God is like a big you (or me) in the sky. God is not a person in the way that we are a person. You almost have to think about it as a placeholder. It’s a verbal placeholder because whatever God is not exactly a person.
This is where accusations personification and anthropomorphism come in. Folk and Pop brands of christianity are very vulnerable to this charge.

God in 3 Persons: It gets really confusing when we say that there is ONE god but 3 Persons. Gregory of Nyssa, in the 4th century, said:

We can grasp this by reference to a single instance. From him, I say, who is the source of gifts, all things that share in this grace have obtained life. When, then, we inquire whence this good gift came to us, we find through the guidance of the Scriptures that it was through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But though we take it for granted that there are three persons and names, we do not imagine that three different lives are granted us-one from each of them.

Most explanations I hear about how ‘God is One’ but can also be ‘3 persons’ reek of modalism. I was being too kind: they are modalism (one God in 3 modes). But who can blame them? Elizabeth Johnson is right when she says that it is nearly unavoidable when you start with One – then go to three (all of which are boys) … and claim that it is monotheism and not polytheism. It’s confusing as hell! She, instead, starts with a perichoretic reality and says we do the best we can to express it well.

Jesus is fully God and fully human: We don’t have space to get into  the ‘substance’ confusion about how Jesus could be fully two different things and how 98% of the explanations I have heard make it impossible that there actually was an incarnation. We still have to talk about the difference of God as a ‘being’ and God as being. Then we can deal with the nature of language and gender pronouns for God and all sorts of other stuff.

I also am not blaming people for the explanations they have been handed on these issues – they can be difficult to comprehend and even tougher to defend.I am suspicious that many of our former explanations are incomprehensible and so we simply say they are ‘mystery’ when in reality they are untenable.

What I am concerned about is that theologians not take on a ‘duh’ attitude toward those who are unfamiliar with the categorization employed within the theological endeavor. When our language is a) specific and b) different than the common use, it is we who are obligated to bridge the gap if we want others to understand what we are saying.