October 10, 2018

Cliff's Edge--The Irony of God: Part One

Among the scriptural depictions of God’s character (merciful, loving, slow to anger) ought to be: appreciates irony (Cambridge defines irony as “something that has a different or opposite result from what is expected”).

Take Haman before King Ahasuerus, who had asked him, “What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?” (Esther 6:6). Haman, thinking, Who would that lucky fellow be but yours truly? effused eloquently about the pomp and ceremony that should be bestowed upon this special guy whom “the king delights to honor.”

Ahasuerus then tells him to do all these things for (unbeknownst to the king) Haman’s mortal enemy, Mordecai the Jew, adding, “Do not neglect anything you have recommended” (verse 10). And, as if this twist wasn’t ironic enough, Haman was eventually hanged on the gallows he had erected, specifically, for Mordecai the Jew.

In 2 Samuel 12 Nathan the prophet—knowing David’s evil deeds with Bathsheba and Uriah—tells him a parable that parallels (but masks) those evil deeds. Leaping headfirst into the trap, David, righteously indignant, declares that the perp in the parable ought to die, essentially condemning himself.

Attah ha-ish! declared Nathan—“You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7).

The irony’s acidic.

Decades ago I tasted for myself, but in a good way, the ironic edge to God’s character.

The story begins in seventeenth century Amsterdam, where many conversos, Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism, had fled in order to escape the Portuguese Inquisition. A descendant of these Jews, a young man, though having had a traditional religious upbringing, had also tasted the delights of Lady Philosophy, who eventually seduced him away from his Jewish heritage.

And not just the heritage, i.e., the rituals, the law, the traditions. Baruch de Spinoza (now calling himself Benedict de Spinoza) rejected the entire metaphysical foundation upon which Judaism (and Christianity) rested. You know, things like the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God who transcended the physical world and the natural laws that moved that world and the things in it. Gone, for Spinoza, was a personal God who heard and answered prayers, who performed miracles, and who loved us. Spinoza famously (or infamously) wrote, “Whoever loves God cannot strive that God should love us back.”

Spinoza’s God wasn’t involved in human affairs, and certainly not in something like our redemption. God didn’t punish evil, reward righteousness, or offer the promise of resurrection or an afterlife. These were superstitions, just like the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus—which were, he believed, fables conjured up by primitives who simply didn’t understand natural law.

Spinoza, though, didn’t consider himself an atheist. God was nature, he wrote, the physical world and all the natural laws that governed it. God was knowable, not through special revelation (which he didn’t believe in), but only through a quasi-scientific and rationalistic study of the physical world itself. This world represented the totality of God, at least the totality that we could know and understand (he believed that this God could have attributes beyond our comprehension). Benedict de Spinoza was basically a pantheist.

Now, let’s jump ahead about 300 years, to another young Jewish man whose family had fled persecution, but came to the United States instead of Holland. I was 21 years old, sitting in a pizza parlor in Florida reading a philosophy book that, if not changing my life immediately, set me on a course that did change it radically.

Up to this moment I’d been what could loosely be called “postmodern”—you have your truth, I have my truth, that kind of thing. I had no concept of a single overarching truth, as in The Truth. For me, truth was a plural word that was locally, culturally, personally derived. Truth was mere subjective notions that somehow spilled out of the biological process within this mass of wet tissue and chemicals in our head. To pilfer a phrase from physics, there was no “theory of everything,” one single formula that explained all reality—that is, where it came from, why it’s here, and why things are as they are instead of as something else.

However, as I was sitting in the pizza parlor a concept in that book instantly wiped out that entire train of thought. I existed, the pizza existed, the ground existed, the universe existed. Something—whatever this all was—was, which means that somewhere out there something had to explain why it all was, where it came from, and how it got here. That explanation, whatever it was, had to be the Truth.

I eventually came to believe that the Truth was found in an all-knowing, all-powerful God who transcended the physical world and the natural laws that moved that world and the things in it. That is, a personal God who heard and answered prayers, who performed miracles, and who loved us so much that this God, in the person of His Son, died on the cross for us. A God who was involved in human affairs, especially our redemption. Indeed, He is a God who will punish evil, reward righteousness, and offers us the promise of the resurrection in a whole new existence. I came to believe that this God, through the biblical accounts of the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus, and especially the life and death of Jesus, has revealed Himself in ways that the study of nature never could.

For me, this young Jewish man who came to these conclusions—it all started in the pizza parlor from reading the words of this philosopher.

Who was he?

Yes, Benedict de Spinoza.

The irony, the sweet irony of it all.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.