God is our creator, not the other way around

Numerous eminent theologians continue to believe the traditional view of God as our creator has more explanatory power than any of its rivals, writes Murray Rae.

Ian Harris wrote in the Faith and Reason column last week (ODT, 12.2.16) that "trying to prove God is real in a physical sense is a waste of time''.

On that much, we agree.

The great 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner expressed the same point by saying that "God is not part of the furniture of the world''.

Throughout the Christian tradition, theologians have insisted that God is ontologically distinct from the world.

That means that God does not exist in the same order of being as everything else.

That is no new insight but the standard position of Christian theology throughout its history.

In light of this insight, it makes no sense, as Mr Harris rightly notes, to seek God as if God were a physical object available to the inquiring eye of science.

For the same reason, it makes no sense to suppose the physical sciences can either prove or disprove the existence of God.

Having thus made a good and very orthodox start to his theological musings, Mr Harris then goes on to propose that we should think of God instead as the product of human thought.

"Ideas of God'', he writes, "are generated in the world of human thought - the same world that gives rise to language and the creativity of the novelist, dramatist, composer, artist''.

He then proceeds to argue these fruits of human creativity should be regarded as "real''.

Mr Harris reveals with this claim that he is no material reductionist.

"The physical world does not encompass the whole of what we know to be real''.

Again, this makes good theological sense.

The contentious point, however, concerns Mr Harris' apparent claim that "God'' belongs in the same realm of being as a dramatist's play or a composer's concerto.

God is, in Mr Harris' view, the same kind of thing as these other products of human thought and creativity.

I confess here to being a little unclear about whether that is indeed what Mr Harris claims.

He says that "ideas of God'' are generated by human thought.

I take him to mean, and I may be mistaken, that God has no reality apart from these ideas.

If that is what Mr Harris means, then he fails, after all, to uphold the principle with which he began, the principle of God's ontological otherness.

Mr Harris' "God'' belongs to the same order of being as worldly reality, in this case the reality of human thought.

Here he parts company with the Christian tradition.

For, with remarkable consistency throughout that long tradition, Christian faith has upheld the belief that God is our creator rather than the other way around.

The confession that God is the creator of all things aligns precisely with the view God is utterly distinct from all created things, both physical things and the ideas generated by human thought.

To mistake God for something that we have fashioned for ourselves, whether that something be physical or ideological, is what the Bible calls idolatry.

Mr Harris claims that "leading edge Christian thinkers left behind long ago the idea that 'God' has to refer to a someone or something, real, active, existing, unique''.

Well, that's a claim that depends very much on who one regards as a "leading edge Christian thinker''.

As it happens, the most eminent professors of theology at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, St Andrew's, Edinburgh, London, Princeton, to name just a few, along with numerous eminent Christian philosophers and scientists, continue to uphold the view of God that Mr Harris rejects.

These people are not "hamstrung by fundamentalism'' as Mr Harris implies.

The matter of the Christian God's existence is not decided of course by popular vote, but it is important to correct the impression Mr Harris seeks to cultivate that his conception of God is widely accepted among leading theologians.

That is not the case.

The particular theologians I am thinking of at the institutions named above, along with many others, including those who teach at the University of Otago, continue to believe, in accordance with Christian tradition, that the God revealed and present with us through Jesus of Nazareth is the creator and sustainer of all things.

Manifesting an impressive spirit of open and rigorous inquiry, and deeply engaged in fruitful conversation with other disciplines and with other faiths, such theologians continue to believe the traditional view of God as our creator has more explanatory power in respect of the world we live in than any of its rivals.

Equally important, this God, revealed and present with us in Jesus, is the one in whom we can continue to place our hope and our trust.

A "God'' who is the product of our own thought, even our most noble thought, is frail in comparison.

Murray Rae is professor of theology at the University of Otago.

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