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The Exalted Father (The Question of God – Alt. S.S. 4 of 11)

Freud, like Lewis, associated the spiritual worldview with the metaphor of a father. But this is always problematic. Even the best father figures are insufficient as role models. So the more expansive question is not about fathers per se, but what should we use as a model for God? It is to that question we now turn our attention.

Anselm and Perfection

St. Anselm (1033-1109) was Italian, Benedictine and the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. He wrote a book entitled Proslogian where he made an attempt to prove God’s existence (this argument is often labeled the Ontological Argument for God’s Existence). But for my purposes here I wish to point out a definition of God he wrote in Chapter 4: “God is that than which a greater cannot be conceived.”

And, for purposes of this class, I will at times use the term ‘Anselmean God’, to hang a label on this idea because I think it is so frequently envisioned but lacks a handy moniker. Don’t get too hung up with the term, but it captures, in my view, how many (most?) of us view God.

Let’s unpack Anslem’s phrase. He is saying that the proper definition of God will/should take all those attributes we would normally attribute to God – omnipotence, omniscience, omni-benevolence etc. – and extrapolate them to the limit of human comprehension. Then realize each attribute continues beyond that into transcendence, and this is how we should view God. Such a high view, of course, eliminates all those inferior god-wannabes (e.g. Zeus, Baal) who are just extrapolations of humanity with all its weaknesses. And our interaction with such deities involves avoidance and negotiation. We want to dodge those lightning-bolts on the one hand, and we seek to bribe the god to help us achieve good fortune, on the other.

I’m suggesting that Anselm’s definition resonates with most of us. And it is also somewhat indebted to Plato’s idea of the divided line. Consider this diagram– from The Republic, Book 6.

Plato’s Divided Line

Figure 6

Here Plato contrasts Belief with Knowledge, suggesting that the invisible is more perfect (and not transient) compared with the visible. For Plato, his concept of deity has real understanding while we struggle too frequently with mere opinion. And while we are in a transient world, coming into and going out of being, deity holds the actual forms in mind.

What then might be some implications of an Anselmean God? These extrapolated characteristics infer perfection – we take the virtues and extend them beyond our limited horizons.

So what about …

  1. Human free will?

    The classic theistic picture of God’s sovereignty infers that He has exhaustive knowledge, and that would seem, logically speaking, to preclude genuine human freedom. This whole subject is highly contentious and exceeds the focus and scope of this essay. The label often used for the topic is Open Theism and one of its early proponents was Adventist theologian Rick Rice. For further reading I would refer you to his book The Openness of God[1] (sadly I fear, it is presently out-of-print). Also there is a seminal philosophical paper written by Nelson Pike where he attempts to demonstrate that the classic high view of God’s foreknowledge logically precludes man having free will [2]. Several years back on the Spectrum website I wrote a paper where I defended the Pike perspective [3]. It would seem that we want our ‘cake’ and eat it too, i.e. allowing God exhaustive foreknowledge yet retaining human freedom.

  2. The Problem of Evil?

    An Anselmean definition of God leaves us grappling with the Problem of Evil. If we extrapolate God’s supposed virtues – omniscience, omnipotence, omni-benevolence – what answer can we give for what seems to be the inescapable reality of evil in this world? For now I will beg that critical question, but Session 10 will deal with it at length. Stay tuned.

  3. Perfectionism and Human Frailty?

    Adventism has long struggled theologically with the idea of a person obtaining perfection in the Last Generation – perhaps this even being the trigger for the second coming. The Bible states “You must, therefore, be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." –Matt. 5:48. And, an Anselmean God would have the capacity to provide resources toward this end. So why do we fall so short of the mark?

God as Father – Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, natural and supernatural phenomena, objects and abstractions. How does this affect how we view God? In Session 2 I discussed transcendence. Here is where the problem touches us. How can we know anything about the transcendent dimensions of God – where it exceeds our inherent limitations? It seems evident that God must take the initiative, invading our world with the best approximation of His personhood, so we might at least dimly understand. It cannot go in the other direction.

But note that a necessary consequence of this anthropomorphism is that such ‘God knowledge’ is inductive. We get glimpses ‘through a glass darkly’ and there is a real risk that our limitations will distort the picture God wishes to convey.

Let me try to amplify this problem of distortion.

Black Swans

There once was a time when we humans were more sure about how the world actually ‘was’. Back in the 19th century most of the world was unaware of the existence of black swans (only indigenous to Australia). So logic books even had the audacity to suggest syllogisms like: For all x, if x is a swan, then x is white. The discovery of black swans became the classical example of falsification and I refer you back to my discussion in Session 3 about how the scientific method is both inductive and built on the logical fallacy of Affirming the Consequent.

But a similar, more pervasive example of such hubris also existed in philosophy. People were sure the Euclidian geometry was correct. Here was one real-world certainty verifiable from mathematics. But then, again in the 19th century, came both Riemannian and Lobachevskian geometries. I’ll spare you the details (they exceed my skill level anyway) but Riemannian geometry is not applied to a flat surface, rather a sphere. It finds practical application in flying Great Circle Routes. If, for example, you worked for an airline and were responsible for planning the most direct route from New York to Hong Kong you would be wise to appreciate these implications. Still, the projection of an image in Riemannian space is pretty counter-intuitive. Consider this example – a drawing by M.C. Escher, to illustrate:

Figure 7

This image – viewed from a Euclidean perspective – looks distorted. But it is normal if you are working from a Riemannian set of assumptions.

What then does this say about God as Father – and the implicit anthropomorphism behind that idea? Be careful that you don’t find yourself thinking too much inside the box.

Lewis and Freud – Perspectives on the Father Metaphor

  Nicholi on Freud:

Freud insisted that one’s personal relationship with God depends entirely on one’s relationship with one’s father. … Freud explained that when the child grows up … [h]e is imprinted with the “image of the father whom in his childhood he so greatly overvalued. He exalts the image into a deity and makes it into something contemporary and real.” (Question of God – p. 43)

Freud wrote that the individual creates for himself the God “whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and with whom he nevertheless entrusts with his own protection.”

So Freud asserts we possess intense, deep-seated wishes that form the basis for our concept of and belief in God. God does not create us in His image; we create God in our parents’ image – or, more accurately, into the childhood image of our father. (p. 44)

Nicholi on Lewis:

C.S. Lewis countered Freud’s wish-fulfillment argument with the assertion that the biblical worldview involves a great deal of despair and pain and is certainly not anything one would wish for. He argued that understanding this view begins with the realization that one is in deep trouble, that one has transgressed the moral law and needs forgiveness and reconciliation. He wrote that this worldview begins to make sense only “after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power.” … Although this biblical faith is “a thing of unspeakable comfort … it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay”. (p. 45)

The Video Conversation [7 minutes, 28 seconds] – Transcript

Handout Material for Week 4

Some Questions to Consider:

Q: How much does our early interaction with our fathers color our concept of God?

Q: What about a mother figure? Fathers in our society are often weak and/or absent. How might our ideas of God be shaped differently when we extrapolate from the ideas of a ‘heavenly mother’?

Q: Do you agree or disagree that our concept of God is ‘Anselmean’?

Q: In what ways, if any, have you seen people misuse anthropomorphism in trying to understand God?


1 Rice, Richard, The openness of God: The relationship of divine foreknowledge and human free will. (Review and Herald Pub. Association, 1980)
2 "Divine Omniscience and Voluntary Action." [Abstract] Journal of Philosophy (November 7, 1963), 60(23): 735-736

Links to the other essays in this series:

1) Introduction

2) A Transcendent Experience

3) Science or Revelation

4) The Exalted Father

5) Why Believe?

6) Miracles

7) Moral Law – Part A

8) Moral Law – Part B

9) Love Thy Neighbor

10) The Human Condition

11) Suffering and Death

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