Tell me about the God you don’t believe in

[W]hat all the atheists, new and old, have in common is a mistaken notion of God, for to a person they construe God as one being among many, an item within the nexus of conditioned things. The roots of this misconception are deep and tangled, stretching back to antiquity, but I would put a good deal of the blame for the present form of the problem on the transition from an analogical to a univocal conception of being, on display in Duns Scotus and especially William of Occam … [I]f, as Scotus and Occam would have it, being is a univocal term, then God and creatures can be considered under the same ontological rubric, and they do indeed belong to an identical genus. This means, in consequence, that God, though he might be described as infinite, is one being among many, an individual alongside other individuals. Occam would state the principle with admirable economy of expression: Praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est (“Outside of these absolute parts, there is nothing real”).

I realize that this might seem the very definition of medieval hairsplitting, but a great deal hinges on this point. On the analogical reading, all of finite reality participates in the fullness of the actus essendi of God, and hence God and creation cannot be construed as rivals, since they don’t compete for space, as it were, on the same ontological grid. But on the univocal reading, God and creation are competitive, and a zero-sum game does obtain. The Reformers were massively shaped by the nominalist view that came up from Occam, and they therefore inherited this competitive understanding of God’s relationship to the world, which is evident in so much of their speculation concerning justification, grace, and providence. If God is to get all of the glory, the world has to be emptied of glory; if grace is to be fully honored, nature has to be denigrated; if salvation is all God’s work, cooperation with grace has to be denied. When this notion of God became widespread in Europe after the Reformation, it provoked a powerful counter-reaction, which one can see in almost all of the major philosophical figures of early modernity. The threatening God must be explained away (as in Spinoza), fundamentally identified with human consciousness (as in Hegel), internalized as the ground of the will (as in Kant), or shunted off to the sidelines (as in most forms of Deism). In time, the God of late medieval nominalism is ushered off the stage by an impatient atheism that sees him (quite correctly) as a menace to human flourishing. Thus, Feuerbach can say, “Das Nein zu Gott ist das Ja zum Menschen,” and every atheist since has followed him. Jean-Paul Sartre, in the twentieth century, captured the exasperation with the competitive God in a syllogism: “If God exists, I cannot be free; but I am free; therefore, God does not exist.” And Christopher Hitchens has restated the Feuerbach view, observing that believing in God is like accepting permanent citizenship in a cosmic version of North Korea.

I find in my work of evangelization that the competitive God still haunts the imaginations of most people today, especially the young, and this is certainly one reason why the New Atheists have found such a receptive audience. We who would evangelize simply have to become better theologians, that is to say, articulators of the truth about who God is. I would suggest that the best biblical image for God is the burning bush—on fire, but not consumed—which appeared to Moses. The closer the true God comes to a creature, the more radiant and beautiful that creature becomes. It is not destroyed, nor is it obligated to give way; rather, it becomes the very best version of itself. This is not just fine poetry; it is accurate metaphysics. We can find this truth in the narratives concerning David, Saul, and Samuel, wherein God definitively acts, but not interruptively. Rather, he works precisely through the ordinary dynamics of psychology and politics. Nowhere is the God of the burning bush more fully on display than in the Incarnation, that event by which God becomes a creature without ceasing to be God or undermining the integrity of the creature he becomes … “Fully divine and fully human” is intelligible only within a metaphysical framework of non-competition. Feuerbach felt obligated to say no to the Occamist God, but St. Irenaeus, who had the biblical idea of God in his bones, could say, “Gloria Dei homo vivens.”

(Robert Barron, Evangelizing the Nones, emphasis added)

I had to decide what to emphasize, if anything, and this all seemed too rich not to highlight key points.

I finally decided that the most key point was the vehement and colorful push-back against the “competitive god”—the god who, if infinite, makes any shared ontological grid awfully crowded—elicited from atheists who found such a God intolerable … and the contrasting truth about God and humanity.

An apologetics conversation-starter I’ve come to appreciate since becoming Orthodox seems highly relevant: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. It’s not unlikely that I don’t believe in him either.”

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.