God as a Block of Ice

Finite Conceptions of the Infinite

I had a conversation with a couple of my good friends in Tim Horton’s once about the presence of God. Simply put, I argued that God is not omnipresent in the way that we imagine Him to be—if he is indeed omnipresent, He is present in gradations that allow Him to be more present in some places (or circumstances, actions and relations) than others.

My friends disagreed with me, and I suspect it was more than semantic. One of them characterized my portrayal as “the idea that God is like this,” where “this” involved him moving his hands about as if he was handling a blob-like alien organism, and he provided accompanying sound effects as he shifted God’s globular presence from one place to another. As I didn’t mean to characterize God as a cohesive blob, I may have smoothed that interpretation out by changing my analogy to that of a signal, which permeates the space we occupy, though only specific devices (such as TVs and radios) reveal its presence, and dance to its meaning.

At a reflective glance, I stand by the idea that God cannot simply be regarded as equally present in all times and places. People who claim to have encountered God in modern or ancient testimony speak of his distinct presence. In the Bible, God is described as one who reveals Himself—whose presence arrives—in specific time and place: on a mountain, in holy places of the temple, in the burning of a bush.

This conversation was only a facet of a greater issue: our finite conceptions of the infinite, as manifested in God.

I have noticed that most believers in God are tempted to frame this concept in the simplest way that one can frame an incomprehensible concept. They gather together the qualities and abilities that we ascribe positive value to (and experience in limited human context) and extend them to infinity.

If I may be granted a geometric analogy, we might imagine that all these qualities are graphed on perpendicular axes (Fig. 1). Of course, we can only show three dimensions on paper, but we might imagine more linearly independent directions for other qualities of interest. Thus, this conception of God fills up the entire space, maximizing his greatness—where his greatness is the area of this multi-dimensional solid. This God of Figure 1 is an infinite, boundless cube.

Figure 1– A simple infinite conception of God

At first, this may seem satisfactory. After all, we can scarcely imagine limiting God in any of these respects. But this is not a healthy way to imagine God, because in doing so we confine him to an infinite extension of our finite conception of his essential qualities. The more serious problem is that Christians tend to characterize God as defined by this concept, rather than having a character apart from such qualities.

If there were qualities unknowable to us, and if there were necessary relationships between them, we would be neglecting them in order to maximize God’s possession of the qualities visible to us. Furthermore, there are qualities known to us that have such relationships, and they cannot be treated independently as in Figure 1.

A human example of this may be (loosely defined) “fair, loving,” and “loyal.” Could a man cheat on his wife with as many women as possible in hopes of being ultimately fair to them? If fairness means only the treatment of all others as equal, perhaps he could. Ultimately loving? Certainly, if love knows no bounds. It is only because we condition these attributes with other qualities—loyalty, or even goodness—that we think differently. Basic qualities condition each other, creating dependencies, kinks and curves in the space they occupy.

Some may be tempted to wax existential here, arguing that virtue and positive qualities are created by us to suit our needs. Digression is unnecessary, as this would support the point. Rigidly ascribing infinite versions of our conceptions of virtue to God is dangerous, because these conceptions are imperfect and finite.

Christians are not the only ones who do this. Disbelief on the grounds that “God would,” or “God should” may involve this error. I must stress that I believe one may say “God would,” but in fewer cases than it is often said.

The more serious issue, as I mentioned, is the idea that God is precisely defined by this conception. That is, every thought and every actions of God is a calculated move that maximizes the “all-loving, all-knowing, omnipresent, all-powerful” dimensions of the situation. Such a god is merely an algorithm, a block of ice.

It seems strange that Christians might do this, as we believe in God as highly characterized through specific actions and words of Jesus, as well as conceptions found in Judaism. In reality, however, you need only sit through one Bible study to hear people explaining why this or that action is a direct result of him being all-everything. Jesus said such and such because, indirectly, it is the most all-everything thing to do.

This thinking casts God as having no character apart from his virtue. From where do we derive our ideas of virtue? Even if we derive them from God himself, he is not subject to the axioms that we have derived by conceiving of him. Such thinking also leads to objections like this one by Epicurus, also cited by Hume:

“Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Yes, one might say that the problem of pain is a necessary cost of existence, but we often overstate this case. We cannot truly say why, or to what end, things are the way they are.

Theologian and pastor Gregory A. Boyd posited the idea that God may not fully know the future. He almost got kicked out of an organization or two for that, and I don’t agree with it, but he may be onto something. I do not believe the correct conception of God can exist without a healthy dose of the thinking found in Isaiah 55:8-9. While we naturally expect great accordance between God’s will and intuitive virtues, his omnipotence in all known abilities, and infinite embodiment of all positive traits; Christians must realize that the greatest reverence we can have for God involves elements of mystery, and representations of him that appear to us, occasionally, as finite. [1]

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[1] I had another illustration involving the integral of 1/[abs(X)] that in fact sparked this entire entry, but I’m trying to keep the amount of analytical rhetoric down. I will include it in the compiled version. Some of you just glanced at that equation and figured out what my point was going to be.

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5 Responses to “God as a Block of Ice”

  1. My understanding of evil: God creates universe, it is good, but to be good it must have freedom, choice, etc. If you can’t choose to obey, then you can’t choose to love, and that isn’t good. Basically, if you’re going to create anything good, it’s got to have freedom to go bad, or else it’s goodness is meaningless.

    My understanding of “where God is” comes from Job. Chapter 38 and such. It’s so awesome.

  2. steve mah!

    this is fantastic blog!!! my mind feels sharper already! im going to have to re-read this later when i have time to soak some of this is and sit with some of your thoughts for a while, but i really like the processing you’re going through… and i was so intrigued by the idea of God as a block of ice…

    peace.

    -jon (formerly foster in case you are wondering… think babies of the creamy sort)

  3. More on that later Christine 😉

    Why, thank you Jon–do pass a link along if you enjoy reading it.

    To be honest, for the first 3 lines of your comment, I was sure that a militant, sarcastic critic had commented on my blog. That just goes to show you how much I’ve been reading from that end of the spectrum. Although I keep expecting to encounter them in daily life, I don’t. I think I’ve overestimated their numbers.

    I’m still not sure why your name’s changed, or what it has to do with creamy babies, but I’m sure you can explain that to me later.

  4. [God] must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking “But I never knew before, I never dreamed…” I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, “It reminds me of straw”.

  5. Stephanie Says:

    I don’t get the connection between the statement that God is “more” or “less” in some places than in others and the idea that His attributes go beyond our understanding. Hmm, perhaps you mean more or less intelligible/apparent to us? When I think of Him as being omnipresent, I just think of Him as witnessing and being in control of everything, whether I understand how or not. I think He is equally present in all times and places, but perhaps not equally involved or equally interactive.

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