The Arbitrary God

Let’s assume we’ve all read the Judeo-Christian origins story. And, for the sake of argument, let’s temporarily accept it at face value and try to imagine how Christians can, in good faith and with full intellect, subscribe to their own religious text.

Right away, here’s an important objection:

It seems like the Christian God is arbitrary and reactive. He creates people in His image, and then punishes them when they act on the nature He gave them. This seems to go on repeatedly as the book of Genesis proceeds.

I can’t state this strongly enough: This objection is one of the most important and foundational to the Christian understanding of God. Ignoring this objection leads into serious theological error. 

So, if you know a skeptic who makes this objection, embrace them and thank them. All Christians should likewise find this concept of God ugly, petty, and not to be worshipped.

For starters, let’s make a note of what it takes to be God: Being the absolute ultimate being. That’s the brute-force, pragmatic definition. What would that mean?

  • Stands separate from the creation, entirely not dependent on it, entirely aware of it and present with it
    • God is not everything and everything is not God
    • God is not in everything, and everything is not outside of God
  • Knows everything
    • Knowing and seeing everything is different than being everything and also different than being in everything
  • Experiences everything, including love, without need for the creation to contribute it to the divine (love exists within the divine, even before and beyond created things — we don’t exist to complete God’s understanding or experience)
  • Has no beginning or ending (eternal)
  • Is everywhere (omnipresent)
    • Being everywhere is different than being in everything
  • The ultimate Personality
    • what it means to be a person is referenced from the ultimate Person
    • what it means to love is referenced from the ultimate being’s love
    • what it means to hate is referenced from the ultimate being’s hate
    • the concept of good is referenced from the ultimate being’s goodness
    • the concept of evil is therefore referenced from the ultimate being’s goodness
    • Etc.
  • The ultimate unified being — no part of an ultimate being would be in competition with any other part, such as love vs. hate or compassion vs. justice or mercy vs. vengeance.
    • Unified (perfectly together and whole) is different than harmonized (having to be fitted together though the fit may or may not be exact)
  • The ultimate non-singular being
    • If God is absolutely unitarian (both one essence and one person), then God cannot be the ultimate definition of love, because there is no equal person for God to love; the definition of love which we recognize as highest and best — freely given between equals — fails the reality test, the ideas of goodness and love can’t be harmonized, and unity is lost
    • This is addressed through the historical Christian understanding of the Trinity, or three persons in one unity of essence
    • God is not in everything, and everything is not God; God is every person of the Trinity.
  • Initiator, engineer, leader and ruler of everything — ultimate power
  • Ultimate relationship to reality
    • the most realistic being and most logically connected to the world as it really is
    • both ultimately abstract (not bounded by physical reality) and ultimately plain-sense (reality is most clearly and coherently explained by following through on the reasoning of the Ultimate Being concept)

A reactive God cannot be God

… And yet, modern Christianity is full of talk about “God is waiting for your decision to trust Him.” Or, “God can’t bless us when we’re disobedient.” Or, “God is waiting for you to listen to Him.” Or, “Well, God gives you your choices and it’s up to you to live with the consequences.”

The skeptic who wants to barf at this pecking, fretful mother hen of a God is exactly on the right track. So should the Christian be.

If God is reactive, then God has allowed the creation to dictate or control the circumstances and His actions. (This includes all concepts of an “evolving” God who “learns from the creation.”) If something other than God controls the situation and determines God’s actions, then “God” isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing… and therefore not The Supreme and Ultimate Being.

The definition of love is perhaps the key proof of this. If God’s love exists only through expressing it towards the creation and having it returned by humans, then we can in fact end up with an evil, imperfect, arbitrary God. Human love fails at every turn, and its flawed expressions cause as much harm and separation as joy and togetherness.

Arbitrary: it’s a bad word, right?

In terms of human relationships, to be arbitrary is to be whimsical, driven by emotion. It’s a key trait in dysfunctional households: Whatever the issue of the moment, it’s arbitrated by how the most powerful person feels that day. The objection is that arbitrary use of power overrides or removes the ability of others to feel and reason freely according to their own nature.

Again: In human relationships, arbitrary use of power overrides the ability of others to feel and reason freely according to their own nature. This, however, requires another basic assumption: That all humans are created equally, as the Americans would have it, under God.

That’s how the skeptic arrives at a disgusting God who crushes human freedom and human will: by way of assumptions that descend from the western heritage of Christian thought. And the skeptic is in agreement with historic Christianity on this point: An arbitrary ultimate being who’s merely reactive to how we exercise our freedom and feelings, who just reacts on whimsy to how we make our mistakes, really is a dangerous and degrading concept.

Even the moral notion that arbitrary power is wrong derives logically only from the idea of a greater moral judge (arbiter). On the surface, it might seem that “no god(s) at all” is the best argument for not holding arbitrary power over, say, our children when we’re parenting them. After all, if there’s no moral Ultimate, shouldn’t they be able to decide for themselves?

On the contrary, this is one more argument for arbitrary power, not against it. Without a higher, (and, most importantly,) objective standard of moral good, who’s to say it’s wrong for a parent to exercise arbitrary power, at least up to the bounds of the law? Or perhaps even beyond, if they don’t care about social consequences.

“I believe it’s wrong, although it works for some and they’re fine with it” is no real answer, either. What is the subject of that arbitrary power to make of how to use power, if all they learn is that it’s an arbitrary choice? What if they choose to harm others? For that matter, why should society step in? Why recognize pain as harm? Why not accept it and embrace it as the natural consequence of circumstance… also known as karma?

Thankfully, there’s more than one way to look at the problem of power.

Power isn’t the only arbiter

A narrow postmodernist focus only on power dynamics ignores the fuller reality: Certain aspects of life really are purely character-based.

We’re character-based about things like agreed-upon level of cleanliness between housemates. Or how people get along (or don’t) with various other people. And whether one will tolerate the behaviour of another towards oneself, or walk away from the relationship in order to remain as emotionally whole as possible.

So, in fact, certain arbitrary boundaries can be healthy. To ignore them would be to lose an aspect of who we are in personality and character. It would cause us to experience a kind of internal death.

Here, the Christian says, you can see what it is to bear the image of God.

If God is by definition an ultimate Person capable of the infinite expression of everything — love, justice, wrath, compassion, truth — can morality and an accurate view of right and wrong arise from outside God’s character?

To flip that coin to its other face, if they can come from somewhere outside of God, then is God really God?

The Christian definition of God and the secular definition of arbitrary power as evil both require that a personal God be the arbiter, the judge, of good and evil. That people dislike such a proclamation speaks not to a disapproval of the arbitrary, but a demand to be the arbiter — to wield a power that they themselves say isn’t right. This was the exact sin described in the tale of Adam, Eve, and the forbidden fruit.

Curiosity, harmony, and unity

This notion of what it takes to qualify for the job of being God, by the way, goes to the question of curiosity in the Bible’s origins story. Is the curiosity of Adam and Eve an attribute of God that they’re mirroring? If it is, how can it be righteous to punish them for trying out the forbidden fruit?

For humans, to lack curiosity is to lack emotion, to lack intellect, to be somehow defective or ill. It’s an inability or unwillingness to reach beyond ourselves. But by definition, can an infinite and ultimate God reach beyond in any sense?

There are necessary disconnections between the concept of the infinitely whole Creator and the finite, searching creation. This also happens with the emotional attributes Christian theists assign to God: If God’s love is in any way contradicted by His justice or wrath, then He is naysaying Himself and is not living up to the definition of The Supreme Being. He would be them, arguing like Greek idols. Christianity holds as firmly to the unity of God as the Muslim, even while reconciling three persons into it.

The same problem occurs when we finite mortals think about things like love and wrath in terms of harmonizing them. If they have to be fitted together, it suggests they’re separate things that overlap, like a Venn diagram. So, then, what happens when we tread into the part of the wrath circle that doesn’t overlap harmoniously with love? What happens when we tread into the part of the love circle that doesn’t overlap harmoniously with justice?

This view of God implies that there areas where God’s love toward sinners must reach for justice and fail, where God’s wrath against sin must reach for love and fail, and so forth. It implies that to put them together will still result in some sort of disharmony at certain points.

Instead, as A. W. Tozer writes in The Attributes of God, the conception of three persons requires a unified essence, just as surely as a unified essence requires more than one person of God, in order to be faithful to the biblical declaration that “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:5), “The Lord your God, the Lord is one,” (Deut. 6:4), etc. Wrath against sin is in unity, not merely harmony, with love and justice. Love and justice exist in unity with grief, joy, and every other personal trait assigned to the Creator. The Christian God, being all-sufficient, all-knowing, and all-present, exists in “unbounded, unextended unity” of essence. There is no mere karma, and no number of prayers can harmonize our actions with this holiness — literally, this wholeness — because harmonization is not enough of a moral standard to live up to this God.

The supernatural as an excuse for the arbitrary

We tend to treat moral and ethical principles as basic, meaning not needing justification. Yet we can’t critique religions, moral codes, ethics, or supernatural claims without questioning whether our basis for doing so corresponds to reality — generalized reality, not just one person’s experience of it.

In order to be an honest Christian, we must investigate: Would God, as described by the Bible, be justified in being arbitrary?

Is every supernatural claim just an excuse to exercise arbitrary power or avoid reality (which is simply another way to attempt control)? If not, then which ones are valid?

Are our own principles justifiable as we critique the belief systems we encounter, or are we holding those systems to standards that are arbitrary to ourselves?

Thus the divide…

Here’s the watershed between Christian and skeptic. The Christian, by her own allegation, has come to personally know and experience relationship with the God of the Bible, and to trust God’s character. As such, she evaluates the actions of God as inherently originating from good. Things which conflict with God’s good are evil, not only because of that philosophical conflict, but because in reality they cause harm, and harm to God’s creation is an unjustifiable arbitrary action.

The skeptic is perfectly happy to say they have no personal knowledge of this God, nor would they trust him/her/it if they encountered it (or are encountering it in the Bible), nor do they want him/her/it, thank you. After all, that’s the definition of skepticism, up to a point. But that limit is reached at the word want.

In conclusion, paradoxes of desire and will

The narrative of the Bible, I would argue from the Christian side of the fence, is a mirror for glimpsing our own spiritual state in this moment, now. When we look into it, we bring all kinds of assumptions to the text: Whether an entity can be reactive, curious, or a host of other traits, and still meet the definition of Supreme and Ultimate Being. Whether humanity is inherently good, inherently bad, or some combination of both. Whether an ancient text from a different culture can be arbitrated — judged — on modern morals gleaned from the sum of our own culture’s popular knowledge and how our culture lives that out.

What does the biblical mirror show me about my own finite willingness to follow curiosity, to follow the telltales of my own limitations past my basic assumptions, towards the unknown?

In a world of ongoing cultural shifts and moral inversions, what if this book is the forbidden fruit, the thing which will make me know good and evil like God does? And if so, then am I throwing off the shackles of a reactive, arbitrary mindset if I reach for it? Am I enslaved by arbitrary, reactive thinking if I don’t?

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