Why Would An ‘Imperfect’ God Be of Interest?

I find Yoram Hazony’s post at the Stone today genuinely perplexing (and a little pointless). Hazony suggests the notion of a ‘perfect God’ is problematic, that indeed, it is the insistence on such a conception of God, apparently nowhere to be found in the Bible, that is the source of much philosophical head-scratching, disputation between theists and atheists, and perhaps even the source of existential angst. But Hazony’s brief appears misplaced. Yes, theism is an incoherent doctrine, and yes, the theist God is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But how does the conception of a limited God help any of our philosophical perplexities? And, why, more importantly, is a limited God even remotely interesting? Why is the kind of limited God that Hazony attempts to describe in his piece a source of moral obligation or guidance? What qualities does this limited God have that make them morally relevant?

Hazony says:

So if it’s not a bundle of “perfections” that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible referred to in speaking of God, what was it they were talking about? As Donald Harman Akenson writes, the God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an “embodiment of what is, of reality” as we experience it. God’s abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind’s deeds and misdeeds — all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings.

Even if Akenson were to taken at face value, what is, again, morally relevant about such an embodiment? The question that Hazony should have taken on, but doesn’t seem to want to is: If the theist God is incoherent, then why bother looking for a substitute? The insistence that the term ‘God’ continue to refer seems to need some explanation. That Hazony does not want to consider. If the God of the Bible is limited, if his perfection is to be understood in metaphorical terms, then it seems the entire arsenal of persuasion that has been built upon a false conception of the central theses of theism needs to be discarded. But if all that is done, then what is left of ‘God’?

As anyone who has spent any time arguing with a theist well knows, arguments about the existence of God are only interesting if the standard theist conceptions of God are taken seriously and refutations attempted on metaphysical and epistemological grounds. Without those conceptions there is no ‘there’ there; if one were to go by the conceptions available in the Bible, as read by Hazony, we are confronted with some indeterminate entity with indeterminate attributes for as noted, ‘the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary’. But then, why base so much moral and spiritual instruction on something so poorly known? And why is Hazony so confident that these partial glimpses are partial to begin with? That presumes a totality beyond. What evidence does Hazony have for that?

Hazony concludes:

The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realisticGod than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind’s allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations — idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.

Right. But to what end? Why is the notion of a Being More Powerful Than Man, But Not All-Powerful useful or interesting?

About these ads

3 comments on “Why Would An ‘Imperfect’ God Be of Interest?

  1. […] couple of days ago, I wrote a post responding to Yoram Hazony’s article at the Stone. In response, Corey Robin sent me the […]

  2. zensci says:

    If you need proof to believe in God, then I think you are “missing the point” in regards to what it means to be religious. Belief in the irrational is one that comes from a subjective place in one’s core being. A person who believes in God because of some external “proof” is a person whose “faith” is likely to be resting on a weak, shaky foundation. Religious faith is a risk one takes for the sake of heaven (so to speak). Is this a difficult concept to grasp? Yes, but that’s the point. Faith isn’t supposed to be easy, simple and clear cut. It’s hard and a struggle and a fight and a spiritual war with one’s own ego, soul and mind. If you’re not up for this struggle, I don’t blame you because this isn’t easy “stuff.”

    I think Hazony’s point is that the nature of God (as traditional religion once thought God to be) may be wrong and we must be humble to admit that no one really knows what God is or the reason why anything really exists at all. Additionally, theodicy is an issue that suggests that we will never fully understand the nature of this reality and that God may actually not always be a “nice guy.” Thus, we will never know truly what life’s purpose is or if it has one at all. Therefore, at best what we can do it try to imitate the better things that emanate from the transcendent such as love, good deeds, intellectual pursuit, being grateful for every moment of life etc etc.

    Do you need to have faith to pursue these virtues? Absolutely not. But there are some who passionately do feel “Life” has meaning and that sense of meaning is most strongly embodied and expressed through religious and spiritual traditions, practices, ideology and through the ethical, spiritual and intellectual growth that a genuine, committed religious life should impose.

    Furthermore, no matter if you are a firm “believer” or an strident atheist, one cannot deny the impact that religion and the profound effect of the claim that is being made by the Bible that a divine experience took place. Humanity as never been the same since. Yes, evil things and wars have been fought in the name of religion but if you look a little closer religious wars and evil people hiding behind a religious title have been fundamentally driven by the lust for power, money, land and wealth. Something most religions continue to rail against. But do humans listen? Thus, in my view, it is human beings who have ruined God, religion and the lofty ideals it espouses not the other way around. On the other hand, I think it can be reasonably argued that many social movements, political philosophies and even the progress of science itself are inextricably linked to the claim the Bible is making about there actually being God. To ignore the claim is to not even consider it. And I think most would rather just ignore the claim. Because to consider it means possibly having to change one’s ways of looking at the world or possibly even how one lives one’s life and that it just to darn hard for most people.

    Religion shouldn’t be easy..I think it should be carried out for one reason only: To learn how to never take one single moment of life for granted.

    And that’s it.

  3. […] a short online exchange in response to a minor quasi-theological debate triggered by Yoram Hazony. I had written a post here responding to  a piece by Hazony in the New York Times ; so did Norm. Corey Robin sent me  […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s