Theology: December 2008 Archives

Bush's Faith

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There's been some attention of late to a recent interview President Bush did with Cynthia McFadden of ABC news. Some of what he's had to say has surprised a lot of people. See links at Daniel Pulliam's GetReligion post for some of that. I have to say that most of what he had to say doesn't surprise me very much. You might be surprised and perhaps skeptical of what he says in this interview if you come with the assumption that Bush is an arrogant, self-absorbed fundamentalist with theologically conservative positions on every religious question, who thinks he can discern God's will obviously and with no hesitation, and who thinks everything he's done is God's will. You'd have to think he's lying about his views and his attitude toward his faith in this interview if you went into it with those assumptions about what he must think. But there was never much evidence to think anything of the sort about him, even though it's a pretty dominant meme on the left (and among some on the right).

Pulliam's post seems a little strange to me, because he talks about how this is true in Europe but doesn't seem to think it's quite as bad in the U.S. Maybe I'm underestimating how bad the coverage in Europe has been, but I'm pretty sure that the coverage in the U.S. has been pretty downright awful. The suggestion that Bush initiated the Iraq war because he heard God tell him to do it is pretty common, even though he never said anything remotely like that. I'm not sure I've seen it asserted in a news story, but opinion journalists trot it out as if it's verified fact, and the quickness of the mainstream media to jump to the idea that Sarah Palin thought such a thing from a sentence that didn't remotely mean that suggests that they were already thinking along such lines with Bush.

Bush all along has given moral reasons for the Iraq invasion and for his opposition to abortion and the killing of embryos for stem cells. He's given secularly-available reasons for his support of the teaching of intelligent design arguments alongside the teaching of standard evolutionary theory. He's given traditional conservative reasoning for the public expression of religious beliefs and public support for faith-based programs and hasn't based it in any claim to special revelation. His resistance to draconian measures to protect the environment and to ward off global warming has largely been because his moderately conservative economic principles oppose such draconian pressure from the government, not because he thinks the Bible says not to care about the environment due to an imminent return of Christ. Yet I've heard some pretty smart people attribute exactly those motivations to him. I do think they'd be surprised by this interview, but I'm not sure it's rational to be surprised by it given that there was never any evidence to attribute the views they attribute to him to begin with.

One genuinely new thing in this interview, as far as I know, is Bush's willingness to say that he doesn't take the Bible literally. As I've discussed before (and see the comments on Pulliam's post for others recognizing the same problem), this is a very unhelpful way to describe things, since there's no one who really takes the Bible entirely literally. When Jesus says he's a vine, he doesn't mean he's a plant rather than an animal. He's speaking metaphorically and thus not literally. When he tells a parable, on the other hand, he's not implying the existence of the characters and events in the parable just because the expressions in the parable are all used literally. I suspect most people who say they don't take the Bible literally are open to seeing some parts of it more like parables. They're not sure Adam and Eve refers to an actual couple when there were no other peopel but might see them as metaphorical for an entire generation of people who rejected God. Or they accept Adam and Eve as a real couple of the first humans, but they don't accept the six-day creation structure as referring to six 24-hour days but rather accomplishing some theological purpose to indicate that God structured creation in certain ways.

Miroslav Volf on Glory

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John Piper reduces all of God's emotions to God's desire for promoting his own glory. (See the posts linked to in this comment for earlier posts on Piper's view.) Miroslav Volf discusses this view in a new book, as discussed in Henry Imler's post. Henry raises the worry that Volf is trying to have it both ways. I'm not entirely sure that's true. Here are the two (perhaps consecutive, but I'm not sure) quotes from Volf that seem to conflict:

Some theologians claim that all God's desires culminate in a single desire: to assert and maintain God's own glory. On its own, the idea of a glory-seeking God seems to say that God, far from being only a giver, is the ultimate receiver. As the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth disapprovingly put it, such a God would "in holy self-seeking... preoccupied with Himself." In creating and redeeming, such a God would give, but only in order to get glory; the whole creation would be a means to an end. In Luther's terms, here we would have a God demonstrating human rather than divine love.
But we don't have to give up on the idea that God seeks God's own glory. We just need to say that God's glory, which is God's very being, is God's love, the creative love that wants to confer good upon the beloved. Now the problem of a self-seeking God has disappeared, and the divinity of God's love is vindicated. In seeking God's own glory, God merely insists on being toward human beings the God who gives. This is exactly how Luther thought about God. So should we.

As I was thinking through this in writing a comment, I realized it was probably worth putting up a post here about this too, since I've written about the issue so many times before. These two paragraphs aren't at odds with each other, if I understand Volf correctly. In the first paragraph, Volf argues against Piper's position by saying that God's motivations do not all reduce to God's glory. In the second paragraph, he argues that God still acts to seek his own glory, as long as we can't make the reduction of other motives to God's glory. In fact, I think the best way to understand his positive proposal in the second paragraph is that he thinks the reduction goes the other way. If you reduce God's pursuit of his glory to God's love instead of the other way around, then you've got some content to why God's glory is so worth promoting for God to care so much about it, and you've also got an other-centered motivation for God to promote his glory, thus easily sidestepping the objection that God's pursuit of his glory is too self-focused.

My thought is that one need not go as far as Volf does. You don't need to reduce God's glory to the aspect of God's goodness that involves bestowing undeserved favor and love, and you don't need to reduce it even to the broader motivation of love in general (including intra-Trinitarian love). All that's required to make the move he wants to make is that God's goodness is the ground for why his glory is so worth pursuing. Why does that goodness have to be restricted to just love, though? It does seem problematic to me to seek one's honor merely for the sake of pursuing one's honor. There must be some reason why that honor is worth seeking. Piper either doesn't see this, or he doesn't recognize that having a basis for honor to be worth seeking means God's motivation to seek his own honor isn't the most basic one after all. But you don't need to reduce God's glory to God's love to avoid the problem Piper's view generates.

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