r m p







No Man is Killing Me!


Old Testament: Ezekiel 37:1-14

New Testament: 2 Corinthians 12:1-3


Let me pursue a theme I have commented upon a few times recently. I want to expand it a bit, consider it more systematically. It is a Wittgensteinian perspective on God-language. An analytic, language-philosophy approach. In other words, what do people seem to mean, judging by context and inflection, when they speak of God in non-theoretical terms? It may turn out that when they spin out their theologies, they are barking up the wrong tree altogether, that their God language implies just what they feel and yet much less than they think. 

In the process I will be trying to follow up Karl Jaspars's suggestion that Bultmann be consistent and demythologize God, the last holy of holies that Bultmann would not defile. As Bultmann asks of every other piece of New Testament mythology: what understanding of human existence is implied in mythic God-language? "I only ask things I'd ask any superstar: What is it that you have got that puts you where you are?" 

1. To look at the mystery of the world and infer a divine Creator is essentially no different that the primitives positing a storm god or an earthquake god. Both are just personifications of the mystery of nature. As if to attribute the whole phenomenon to someone's personal plan were a solution. No explanation at all. 

2. Many ministers come into the profession from selling insurance. There is a natural progression. Insurance gives us the key to explaining God-language. Insurance language personifies (with tongue in cheek) the arbitrary: a meteorite crushing your house is classed as an "act of God." I.e., the act of no one. 

Cf. "Divine Providence"--tragedy strikes and people tearfully say, "God must have had some purpose in it." The key word is "some." In other words, the bereaved are admitting there is no evident purpose. It is an essentially purposeless act. "I can't see any purpose in it." 

Similarly, Muslims resignedly proclaim any bad luck "the will of Allah." This means two things. First, there was no reason for it we can see. No humanly meaningful significance can give value to the experience. And though there is no meaning other than human meaning, it comforts us to hypostatize the very purposelessness as the will of "God." Again, as with the insurance policy, an "act of God" was no one's act. But it is a clever, self-deceiving reversal. Taking a metaphor literally. 

We are doing with a logical fallacy (hypostatization) what Odysseus did with action: he told his captor the Cyclops that his name was No Man." Finally when he contrived to blind and kill the Cyclops, all the poor giant fool could say, calling for help, was "No Man is killing me!" His irritated neighbors just responded, "Then what's all the shouting about!? Pipe down!" "No man," or no one, was in this case a real person. We too have made No Man into a person, an invisible doer of deeds. We call that person "God." 

Here's the second meaning of the Muslim exclamation, "It is the will of Allah!" There is the element of imagined predestination. As if it were all part of some plan indiscernible to human beings. As if it had to happen, on schedule, but not one known to man. 

As in the joke, where the Calvinist falls down the stairs and breaks his leg: "I'm glad that's over!" As if he had known the schedule in advance, which no one does. 

But a plan unknown to human intelligence is no one's plan at all. "God's will" again means no one's will: it just happened. But the idea that it was inflexibly predestined? Whence this piece of myth? It is pure hindsight. It is a rueful awareness that the past cannot be changed. In retrospect, it certainly cannot be. So we confuse the timeline and suppose it couldn't have been averted. And in a way that's true: of course it couldn't have been avoided, since we had no way of knowing what was coming. You can't plan to avoid a surprise. Unless you find out about it in advance--but then it won't be a surprise anymore, will it? 

And here's where we can ask Bultmann's question. What is the view of human existence implied here? It is Stoicism. It is a grin-&-bear-it willingness to absorb the blows life deals you and to decide to learn from them what you can for your own good. What would be the point, after all, of bitching and moaning, ranting and fuming about it. Look to the future. Cut your losses. Look at the new hand of cards dealt you and see what you can do with them. That is wisdom indeed. 

And it is great poetry to use the God metaphor for that wisdom. It is a metaphor of admitted finality which we can only affirm if we want to go on instead of getting caught in the quicksand Slough of Despond. 

You know, the Bible itself poetically personifies Wisdom as a second-in-command who was with God since the beginning. Wisdom is Didymus Thomas: the Twin of God, the same as God. A metaphor for the God-metaphor. Or as Ezekiel would say, "The likeness of the image of God." 

Job is full of this poetry: "Shall we receive good at the hand of the Lord and not receive evil?" "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." The Lord is the uncertainty of the future and the giveness of the past, neither of which you can do anything about. And both of which you must come to accept, even to love. Or there will be no real existence at all, which is to say you will never be able to come to terms with life, to bless it instead of cursing it.. 

"God," I say, is a metaphor, implying will and intention but only as Murphy's Law does. As Jacques Derrida answered Bill Guenther's question about what he meant by saying "America is deconstruction": "It's a joke!"  Another metaphor with the same charade of intention is to speak of "the blows of Fate," the blessings of "Dame Fortune." We don't take these literally, and neither should we take God-language literally. But we are making a serious and important expression when we use God-language, a Stoic determination to accept our radical contingency in the universe which deals out both bane and blessing. 

I was talking with a very bright student the other day. He noted how a friend who, along with him, had narrowly escaped being killed in a car accident said it had to be the will of God who must have tasks for them to do in the future. But then, my student asked, why didn't God save all those other people, equally full of promise and potential, who do get killed in accidents every day?

Robert M. Price




Copyright©2007 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design