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Battleground God (Part I) (re-dated)

I just played an online quiz called Battleground God. It is basically a test to see if you can answer true or false style questions about God without contradicting yourself. At the end it gives you a score and points out the mistakes you made. Here’s one of the contradictions it accuses me of making:

“You claimed earlier that there is no basis for morality if God does not exist. But now you say that if God does exist, she cannot make what is sinful good and vice-versa. But if this is true, it means that God cannot be the basis of morality. If God were the basis of morality, then she could decide what is good and what is bad. The fact that you think that God cannot do this shows that things must be right or wrong independently of what God decides. In other words, God chooses what is right because it is right; things are not right just because God chooses them.”

Here’s my response:

(1) First, a qualification. If we are careful, we have to say that God could make SOME of what is sinful good and vice versa. All Christians believe this, whether they realize it or not. It used to be sinful to eat pork. Now it is not. It used be sinful to worship at Bethel rather than Jerusalem. Now you can worship anywhere, in Christ. Nevertheless, it is not the case that God can make just ANYTHING sinful good and vice versa, even if he can do this for SOME things. (The quiz wasn’t built to handle these kinds of subtleties.)

(2) The quiz’s argument against me works like this:

(i) God can’t make what is sinful good and vice versa, and so he can’t decide what is good and what is bad. (Premise. My response to a question, basically.)

(ii) IF God is the basis of morality THEN God could decide what is good and what is bad. (Premise)

(iii) God is the basis of morality. (Premise. My response to a question, basically.)

(iv) Therefore [from (ii) and (iii)], God could decide what is good and what is bad.

(v) There is a contradiction between i and iv.

Given my aforementioned qualification [see (1)], I accept (i). I accept (iii), though with certain qualifications that don’t really matter for now. I also accept that from (ii) and (iii) we get (iv).

But the key question is this: what reason could I possibly have to accept (ii)? No argument is given. The assumption seems to be this: if goodness and badness have a basis, it must be someone’s will. But why think that? Now I wouldn’t want to say there are no reasons whatsoever to think that. But what matters is whether the theist committed to thinking that. If the theist, upon reflection, notices that there is a problem with it, isn’t the theist perfectly within her rights to think it isn’t the case? Sure she is.

Surely the theist will want to say that morality is rooted in God nature, not his will. {Remembering, of course, that ‘will’ is here being used to denote God’s raw arbitrary will. This isn’t what ‘God’s will’ means in the Holy Scriptures. In the Bible, ‘God’s will’ means something like ‘God’s self-expression of what is consistent with his nature’ or something close to this. So it is worth noting that there is a perfectly good and Biblical sense in which God’s will is the basis of morality. The important thing to notice here is that we are presently dealing with something very different.}

The quiz FAQ anticipates this move, and says, “This works!” OK, but then why all the fuss? Why accuse me of contradiction?

The quiz FAQ hints that this move introduces a problem with God’s omnipotence. Basically, the problem works like this: it seems that if God is really omnipotent, God will be able to change his nature. And if God can change God’s nature, then God will be able to make what is sinful good and vice versa.

But there is a rather obvious response to this, isn’t there? If God really is as good as can be, any change in God’s nature would be a change for the worse, right? God’s own commitment to his goodness means that God will never make this kind of change, for such a change would be awful. And so for this [and other reasons] God cannot simply change his nature and thereby make what is sinful good and vice versa, even if God is omnipotent.

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4 Comments so far
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I think you (and perhaps even the FAQ) are missing the issue contained in the dilemma. Saying that God’s nature is perfectly good is de facto the same thing as saying that good and bad are judgments independent of God (or God’s existence). Otherwise, by what standard are you measuring God to be good? If the standard is simply “whatever God is/commands” then there’s no standard at all, but a circular definition. Thus the problem is a lot deeper than you seem to acknowledge.

I also don’t think any argument about God and morality can proceed until someone can explain what it means that “morality” is “rooted” in something, in this case, supposedly God, or God’s nature. What does that actually, functionally, mean? What is going on when someone says that that is the case?

Because if there is no explanation there, then it’s literally no different and no sounder than saying tat morality is rooted in cream cheese. Sure, you’d find that claim absurd, but WHY is it absurd? If you can’t explain how a morality is “rooted” in the first place then how can you deny that cream cheese isn’t doing it (and heck, I could even insist that it’s doing it in a “supernatural” manner: how can you deny that it isn’t at that point?)? How can you insist that only God can do it if you can’t explain what “it” is?

The problem here is that theology is too often essentially a way to escape having to explain any of these things: to try and reach conclusions without doing any of the legwork in between. This is never more the case than with morality.

Comment by Bad

You said: “Saying that God’s nature is perfectly good is de facto the same thing as saying that good and bad are judgments independent of God (or God’s existence). Otherwise, by what standard are you measuring God to be good?”

It will take a little bit of philosophical heavy lifting to sort this stuff out.

We need to bring up the issue of analogical attribution. To say ‘good’ of a creature is one thing, and to say ‘good’ of God is another. Of course they are not completely different. Yet neither are they exactly the same. Here ‘good’ is used analogically.

God is not measured by some external standard, call it ‘goodness’ or whatever. God is that in terms of which all else is good. So, again, when we say ‘good’ of God and ‘good’ of a creature, we are saying slightly different things.

You said: “If the standard is simply “whatever God is/commands” then there’s no standard at all, but a circular definition.”

You are still looking for an external standard. What if this is a fundamentally wrong headed search? I reject both the ‘external standard view’ and the ‘it is whatever God commands view’. You might be right that ‘God’ and ‘good’ must be understood in terms of each other, and that this is circular. But not all circles are vicious. This is all difficult stuff. We could talk for days about it.

You said: “I also don’t think any argument about God and morality can proceed until someone can explain what it means that “morality” is “rooted” in something, in this case, supposedly God, or God’s nature. ”

OK, how about this. Morality is metaphysically dependent upon the existence of God. That is, unless the world is a theistic world, morality is a farce. Notice what this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that, given the world that we actually live in, we need to add God on top or else morality will have no basis. No. Given the world we live in, certain moral facts obtain, no matter what. But I’m saying that the world we live in can’t be as it is unless it is a theistic world. See the difference? It is subtle, so if you need clarification, let me know.

You said: “The problem here is that theology is too often essentially a way to escape having to explain any of these things: to try and reach conclusions without doing any of the legwork in between.”

Would it surprise you to know that I largely agree? I agree that this happens “too often”. I think this comes from basic a theological mistake. The idea is this: if something is ‘natural’ then God has nothing to do with it, and if God has something to do with it then it is not natural. I reject this. But so would a lot of philosophers/theologians, though perhaps not many moderns.

In any case, I don’t want to leave you with the imprecision that I think I’ve got this all tied up in a neat bow. To be a Christian theist, as I am, doesn’t require you to think you have all the answers to all the questions. Deep mystery shrouds all of this, and humility requires of us that we travel together in a kind of reverent wonder.

Comment by the.pilgrim

I still prefer to believe that God is not subject to reason and is not required to make sense logically. I think He exists in such a way that most logical categories that we use to evaluate something would just break down in to some sort of incoherence. He’s be the ultimate stumper for 20 questions because His characteristics aren’t really what we think of as characteristics.

Comment by craig

I see it this way: there is a difference between (1) failing to see how something is logically possible and (2) seeing that something is logically impossible.

There might be a lot of things about God of which we fail to see how they can be logically possible. From this, some will be tempted to think these are logically impossible. But given that we can’t possibly understand what it is like to be God, what it is like for God to do things, what it is like for God to think things, we should proceed with caution.

So I’d say that we can’t go ahead logically dissecting God’s thoughts and actions and attitudes (etc.) willy nilly. Usually this ends up involving thinking of God as if God were just one more creature, even if a super-strong creature.

Comment by the.pilgrim




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