Saturday, July 23, 2011

What is God?

In the High Middle Ages there was a great deal of debate about the nature of God. The Great Tradition, rooted in Scripture and stretching from Athanasius to Augustine to Aquinas, said that God is Love and God is Reason (Logos). It is only possible to say this if one is a Trinitarian Christian.

Why? Because to say that God is unitarian is to say that His essence cannot be love without presupposing that God needs creation in order to have something to love; that God cannot be fully Himself (and cannot be fully actual) alone. The doctrine of the Trinity also allows us to understand that the Word (Logos) is the second person of the Trinity and thus fully God. The imprint of the Logos (through whom God made the world) is on the creation and thus the creation is both rational and rationally comprehensible. Man is made in the image of God and the image means that man's true nature is realized when he is both rational and loving.

Therefore, the Great Tradition was able to absorb Aristotle's rationalism into itself without losing its fundamental character. In fact, the Hellenization of Christianity was old hat for this tradition and it mainly involved Thomas Aquinas correcting certain Neo-Platonic aspects of Christian thought with superior Aristotelian reasoning and integrating faith and reason.

However, something different happened in the Muslim encounter with Aristotle. Islam proved incapable of integrating faith and reason and had to reject not only Aristotle, but also philosophy and science themselves in an act described by many observers as "intellectual suicide." The current fanatical Islamism that is reviving centuries old jihad against the West is rooted in theological mistakes made in this period which Islam has never, in the centuries since, been able to overcome.

The story does not end there with all the Christians wearing white hats and all the Muslims wearing black ones, however. It is much more complicated.

Christianity had no sooner achieved the fantastic heights of Thomistic philosophy and theology and integrated faith and reason in an intellectually coherent system of thought than it threw all the gains it had made away. Why? The disasters of the 14th century (the Black Plague, the 100 Years War, the Little Ice Age, etc.) created a situation of cultural decline and confusion in which the false theology inherent in nominalist philosophy was able to do what Arianism had just barely failed to do a thousand years before: become dominant in Christendom.

The dark and capricious God of nominalism was a God of pure will, an arbitrary Deity who is essentially unitarian. He is not a God of love or of reason, but of arbitrary, total will. This false deity, who bears a great deal of resemblance to the concept of God that won out in Islam, became the God against whom the Enlightenment reacted. This God is a threat to human freedom; freedom becomes a zero sum game in which the more God has, the less we have and the more we have the less God has. God is seen as a capricious tyrant against whom we must rebel if we don't want to be servile, dehumanized slaves.

Modernity is the project of rebellion against this God. Having rejected the God who is rational and loving, Modernity knows not how to relate to God except by asserting human autonomy and human will over against God. This is why Modernity must necessarily end in atheism. But Western atheism is a particular kind of atheism; it is not so much the absence of belief in God, but the refusal to bow to such a God, which is why it is seen as humanistic and humane.

The truth is that modern atheism has re-shaped man into the image of the nominalist God of will and the result is the triumph of the will described by Nietzsche and implemented by Hitler. One might call Nietzschean philosophy "Western Islamism with man in the place of God." Osama bin Laden and Adolph Hitler both put into practice the nihilistic, anarchistic, destructive, evil political practices that flow logically from a theology in which God and man are both reduced to nothing else in their essences but the will to power.

So it is a highly ironic twist of history that the rebellious liberal left of Western culture embraces Islam and rejects orthodox Christianity. The God of Islam is inevitably a violent tyrant because this God is not rational and not loving in His essence, which is another way of saying that He is not triune. Those who want to do justice to human freedom need to take another look at the Christian, Triune God and to turn away from the God of Nominalism and the God of Islamism.

God is love. God is the Logos. These two statements from the New Testament get to the heart of what makes the God of the Bible different from the idols and heretical understandings of God that have dominated the Muslim world and the Modern Western world.

The West has a choice: destroy itself in a fit of nihilistic rage, capitulate to Islam and worship pure will under Muslim rule or recover its Christian heritage. Modernity is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Its poor theology is simply inadequate to support a civilization.

Despite the proclamations of the American government, the most basic issue at stake in the contemporary world is not how to fight terrorism; it is the question of the nature of God.

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