In our late modern society, the most basic theological question seems to us whether there is a God or gods. This is almost certainly where you would start in a traditional philosophy of religion course at university. But for all of the human history for which we have any evidence this question would have struck most people as almost trivial. Of course there was something god-ish in reality. The better question is: who or what out of the possible candidates is God or the gods? It’s helpful to keep this in mind as an aid to reading and understanding the great literature of the world. It is also a humbling mental whisper suggesting that perhaps our culture blinds us to certain aspects of reality.
The natural home of theological questions is a world in which there are many competing theories about who or what god is like. It is a world in which the answers to these questions are felt to have critical existential significance—you, your family, and your society might wither if you get the answer wrong. Christians (and other religious people) claim that this is our world.
If theological questions have this ultimate kind of significance, and if theology is, at its heart, about getting the right answers to the ‘who’ and ‘what’ questions of god, then the following incident provides some key information:
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented [Hebrew: turned] and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10 NIV)
The author of the ancient biblical Book of Jonah seems to take a poet’s delight in the responsive symmetry between God and the people of the great Assyrian city of Nineveh. God acted (sending Jonah the prophet with a warning that the city would be destroyed for its wickedness), the people responded by turning, and God responded to their response by turning himself. The Hebrew word used to describe the actions of the Ninevites and the Lord God is the same. And this turning point—this causal nexus of responses—becomes the basis for the drama of Jonah chapter 4. Jonah dares to rebuke God for his responsiveness—his propensity to turn. You should read on for one of the more fascinating encounters between God and humanity in the Bible.
A little more study of Hebrew poetry quickly shows that the turning of God in Jonah chapter 4 isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a matter for frequent celebration and petition in the book of Psalms. The greatest example of all is Psalm 80:
The psalm repeats a plea to God to ‘turn us’, deliberately playing with the semantic range of the word to include the senses ‘return us from captivity’, ‘restore us to health’, and ‘change our sinful ways’. All these things the psalmist wants God to do for his people. The central petition, however, uses the same word to ask God himself to ‘turn again’ (v14).
In each of these occurrences the word has the sense of changing behaviour and resuming a previous course/state. What is striking, though, is that the turning agency is always ascribed to God: it is God who is asked to ‘turn’ us, and God who is asked to ‘turn’ himself.
The scope of agency ascribed to God in this psalm is dramatic. It is political agency (return us from captivity). It is agency over the physical and social wellbeing of the nation (restore us to health). Most remarkably, it is agency that extends even to the moral hearts of others (change our sinful ways, i.e., make us people who desire different things and make different choices). Each of these is remarkable, but the focus is on God’s self-directed agency: his capacity to ‘turn’ himself. All the other requested turnings in the psalm depend on God turning himself.
What kind of God turns?
Strikingly, one of the most influential Western European conceptions of god is immediately ruled out. The god of Greek philosophical abstraction—Aristotle’s famous ‘unmoved mover’—does not turn. The philosopher’s god acts upon the world but only as an attractive force. It is not responsive to events. In many ways the Unmoved Mover is like a fundamental law of physics. It shapes the events in the world, but it does not respond meaningfully to events.
This is clearly not the responsive God of Jonah and the psalms. But neither does the biblical god simply act randomly. Neither law-like actions nor random actions are ultimately responsive to the situation in which the action occurs: they are not interactions.
Physical laws and apparently chance occurrences shape human actions. Growing up from children into maturity involves learning about what works in the world and what doesn’t, and so attaining greater skill in achieving our goals. It requires building mental models and adapting our actions to fit an environment that includes law-like and chance-like phenomena. An aspect of attaining wisdom is understanding how these things shape our actions and also that they do not respond to our actions. Failing to grasp the latter is what we mean by ‘superstition’.
The moral universe, however, works differently. It’s no exaggeration to say that the essential characteristic of agency is responsiveness. Even if we strip back any metaphysical description and talk purely about life and agency in terms of ‘teleonomic matter’—patterns of matter and energy in the cosmos that make use of information about their surroundings and adapt behaviour to achieve goals—we are describing responsiveness. When more than one agent exists and these agents adapt their behaviour in response to each other, things get complex very quickly, and we start to talk about morality. Morality is a feature of interactions. Interactions are things that physical laws and random chances do not have.
The fact that the God of the Bible is regularly portrayed as ‘turning’ is at the same time scandalous, undeniable, and revelatory. It’s scandalous because it seems to sit uneasily with other ways that the Bible represents God—as a God who does not change, as Malachi 3:6 famously states. (See also Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17.) It’s undeniable all the way from the granular level of words used to describe God (e.g., ‘turning’) through to the grand narrative of Scripture in which God is portrayed as responding to human action in the Fall of Adam and Eve, hearing the prayers of his people, sending his Son to die and rise, and culminating in his wiping away the tears of those he has saved. And it’s revelatory because it illuminates the question: who or what (of all the potential candidates) is god?
God is a moral agent. This is a claim of critical, withering, existential significance. He cannot be ‘taken account of’ the way that we might adapt our action to a physical law, neither can he be ‘risk managed’ the way that we might provide for a statistically improbable—apparently chance—event. He responds to our responses. He can only be properly acknowledged in our lives as an agent: a person. Any account that fails to describe god like this, fails to describe reality.
Rev Dr Dan Anderson is a regular Case Quarterly 'Theology & Philosophy' columnist, and Director of the Lachlan Macquarie Institute.
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