## Is it possible to be good without God?

Is it possible to be good without God?  Well, it depends on what you mean...

In what follows, I will identify 11 different possible meanings to the question.  I have answered them with 5 Yeses and 6 Noes.  Of the six No answers, half apply equally to religious and nonreligious folk alike, while the other half distinguish those who believe from those who do not.

At the most basic metaphysical level, a Christian might start out with the following answers:

1. No, because God is the Creator of all things.  Apart from God, nothing would exist.  Therefore, it would be impossible for there to be any good (or bad) human beings.
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2. No, because God is the grounding of all morality.  He is Goodness itself.  All other things are good by participating in his goodness (or are bad by failing to do so in some respect).

Note, however, that although #1 and #2 are true in the real world, they are deductions from the Christian worldview.  They make sense, but are not strictly required given human existence.  Although in my view the evidence strongly supports Theism, it is not a logical contradiction to imagine that Atheism is true (in which case, the things which exist would obviously not depend on God).

Some Atheists, especially those of a scientistic bent, think it's obvious that morality is nothing more than a set of primate instinctual behaviors which have been refined by human cultures, that differences in evolution or culture could have produced quite different kinds of "ethics", and that there is no way to compare these as being better or worse in any kind of absolute way.  If so, there is no such thing as good and evil, objectively speaking.

Other Atheists may say that this doesn't do justice to our beliefs about right and wrong, and that there must exist some objectively defined notion of goodness, that Hitler must really be worse than Ghandi according to some rationally compelling measuring stick.  Such Atheists may differ in their account of what this consists of.

The first kind of Atheist might say to the second: "Wait, that's really weird!  If there's such a thing as an objective right and wrong, that's like saying that the universe cares whether you are good or bad.  But caring is the sort of thing that persons do.  So your view is suspiciously similar to Theism."  This is the Argument from Ethics, normally employed by Theists as an argument for the existence of God.  It says that if Ethics corresponds to an objectively real property in the world, then it must somehow be an aspect of the Ultimate Nature of Reality (whatever that is).  But if there is an Ultimate Reality which discriminates between good and evil, it's only a short hop-and-a-step from there to Theism.

However, this Argument from Ethics can only be a successful argument for Theism if Atheists have some valid reason to accept its premise (that ethics is objective).  So if Theists expect to deploy this argument, they are actually conceding the following point (which may superficially seem to contradict #2):

1. Yes, in that there are reasons to believe that morality is objective, which can be known to an Atheist, prior to realizing that God exists.  Therefore an Atheist can believe in objective moral standards.

This, however, leads us to a completely different question.  Before we were asking whether Ethics depends on God actually existing.  This is completely different from asking if ethical behavior depends on some person believing in God's existence.  (In my experience, when a Theist and Atheist get into an argument about whether Ethics requires God, usually the Theist is talking about something like #2, while the Atheist often means something more like #5 below.)

Let's continue on the thread of this new question:

1. Yes, in that God has placed in each human heart a conscience, which no one can completely ignore.  This is true for everyone, regardless of their philosophical beliefs about Ethics, and regardless of whether they know about the Bible, or have any other specific divine revelation.  This gives to all people an opportunity to do what is right.  As St. Paul says:

God does not show favoritism.   All who sin apart from the law [i.e. pagans, who either don't know, or don't accept the "Torah" or Jewish Bible] will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law [Jews who know about God's revelation] will be judged by the law.   For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

Indeed, when Gentiles [i.e. non-Jews], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.  (Romans 2:11-15)

In this way, every kind of person can do what is good, at least sometimes.

1. Yes, in that fear of divine punishment is not necessary to be virtuous.  Nor is it the best reason.  Many Atheists would argue that one should be ethical for its own sake, not because of fear.  And Christianity agrees.  "Perfect love casts out fear," says St. John, "because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18).  Perfect means complete, so the meaning is that the most ethically advanced person does good out of love for others, not out of fear of being judged (either by men, or by God).
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However, although obeying out of fear of divine judgment is a lower stage of moral development, I would argue that it still has some value.  "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10, Psalm 111:10).  And of course, deep reverence and awe for God and his commands is appropriate at every stage of moral development, in light of his holiness.
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Note that hoping to be rewarded by God is not in the same category as fearing punishment.  It would be, if one were looking for an arbitrary incentive which has nothing to do with being virtuous.  But there also exists a natural reward for virtue, which is due to obtaining what one was seeking.

But can a nonreligious person be a good person in the sense of actually fulfilling their most basic moral duties?

1. No, because according to Jesus, the first of the two most important commandments is "The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30).  If God exists, then there is a morally prescribed right relation to him, as well as to human beings.  Although there were monotheistic pagans, clearly it is impossible for an Atheist to obey this commandment.
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Related to this, Christians regard holiness as an essential aspect of good character, but most Atheists aren't even trying to be holy.
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2. Yes, in that Atheists can obey the second commandment singled out by Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:30).  Clearly it is possible for a nonreligious person to do particular things which are consonant with loving other people.  I'm not going to belabor this point, but only because I don't think it should be controversial.
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3. No, in that Christians regard these two commandments as a unity, so that it is impossible to fully obey the one without obeying the other.  We cannot love God and hate men, nor do we understand what real love is until we know God's love.  As St. John says,

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent his One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through him.   Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [or atonement] for our sins.  Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.  No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is perfected in us....

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.  And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother.  (1 John 4:7-12, 20)

1. No, in that all human beings are sinners, so that no one—religious or not—in fact succeeds in being ethical.  For most of us, we fall short even of the standard which we rightly expect of other people.  How much more when judged by God's perfect standard!  In Genesis, even as God promises not to wipe out the human race, he kvetches that "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Genesis 8:21).  And St. Paul, after making it clear that sin is a problem even for people who know God's law, gives us this montage of Old Testament passages about the human race:

There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

I was reminded of this passage when the scandal broke about Penn State coach Joe Paterno failing to report a child molestor.  People were amazed that such a righteous-seeming person screwed up that badly.  But if they really knew how to examine their own hearts and conduct, they shouldn't have been surprised.  He wasn't a hypocrite; his virtues were real, but they also weren't enough.   That is how God views all of us.  And apart from God's protection, each of us would be similarly unreliable in situations of power—I don't say that we would all make the exact same mistake he did (although many of us would have!) but that we are all capable of similar treachery against our own best ideals.

Fortunately, although we are all wicked, God has provided a way for us to be forgiven, cleansed, and healed through the death of Jesus.  This is the Atonement, one of the core doctrines of Christianity.  Through Jesus, God offers his grace to all of us.  His offer is to purify us from sin, not because we deserve it, but because we need it.  (And this is why, in accordance the canonization policy of this blog, I still ought to have said Saint Joe Paterno in the previous paragraph.)

However, the offer requires that we accept it, trusting him for this forgiveness.  And this is where faith comes in:

1. No, in that in order to receive this forgiveness from Jesus, you must put your trust in Jesus as the Savior sent by God.  Now obviously it's hard to do that if you don't believe in God at all.  For "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).
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Leaving aside the apparent unfairness for a moment, this is just common sense—if you don't believe in God, you don't have any incentive to hand your life over to him, and so you probably won't.  Of course, it's not enough to believe in God, since you can perfectly well think he exists without deciding to trust him.  As Jesus' brother said: " You believe that there is one God. You do well.  Even the demons believe—and tremble!" (James 2:19).  So Theism isn't enough.  No, you have to believe that it's worth your while to trust him, that he "rewards those who earnestly seek him".  That requires faith.
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This isn't something completely different from the rest of life.  If you can't enter the water without panicking about drowning, you'll never learn how to swim.  If you don't trust anyone enough to say "I do", you will never be married.  It's just how things are.
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I was just at the dentist to get my teeth cleaned.  This is essential for good hygiene, because no matter how well one might think one has brushed and flossed, there are always places that one misses.  Plus, once cavities start to develop, there's no way to fill them on your own.  If you "try to be good on your own, apart from God", then your teeth will rot away and fall out.  Metaphorically speaking, that is.
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Only a tiny fraction of our mind is accessible to our conscious inspection at any one time.  And even in that small conscious part, we find that we are frequently unable to completely control our own passions, desires, and will.  We need someone else to cleanse us, someone who knows us inside and outside, and can reach into the parts of ourselves that we can't.  The good news is that God has offered to do this for us, for free, if we will trust ourselves entirely to him.  Only a fool would decline this offer—if they know about it, that is.
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2. Yes, in that God will judge the world with perfect justice: "He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity" (Psalm 98:9).  This means actual justice, not some religious-affiliation test which has nothing to do with reality.  Therefore, if an Atheist was truly seeking what is good and true, and disbelieved in God through no fault of his own, then it must necessarily be that God will not condemn him in the Final Judgment.  If.  I do not make any judgment about how common this situation is.
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Some caveats are called for here.  First, no one really does seek truth with their whole heart, see #9.  But God knows about about human nature, "for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14), nor has he "forgotten to be merciful" (Psalm 77:9).  If religious people cannot earn their salvation through works, then neither can the nonreligious.  Everyone who is saved is saved by God's grace, given through the Spirit by the work of Jesus.
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Secondly, no one is saved apart from a relationship with Jesus.  But it may be that certain people can welcome Jesus without explicilty knowing that this is what they are doing.  The Parable of the Sheep and Goats seems to suggest this, anyway.  Alternatively, one could imagine people coming to faith after death, as suggested by St. Peter in a highly controversial passage, which is frequently mistranslated, because most theologians don't agree with what it really says!

In any case my hope is that you, Dear Reader, will come to know the inexpressible riches of God's salvation in this life, and that he will make you holy all the way through, so that you may love others sacrificially, just as he first loved us.

Posted in Theology | 6 Comments

## Natural and Supernatural II

Last time, I ended with a question: what are the Jews famous for?

The answer, of course, is Monotheism.  The Jews are famous for either bringing into the world, or else preserving, the doctrine that there is just one God.

It's important to realize that this is not just a matter of counting, as though Monotheism were the golden mean between Polytheism and Atheism.  It's not just about having the right number of gods.  It's a matter of what kind of gods you believe in.

Polytheists believe in gods which were born at particular times and places, and have limited spheres of influence.  In other words, their gods are just like you and me, except for being a lot more powerful.  In Greek or Norse mythology, most of the gods don't seem to have a moral advantage over human beings either.  They just get their way more often—except when they are quarreling with each other.

Monotheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the fundamental entity in existence, that he has no external limitations, that he is perfectly good and wise, that he is eternal, and that he created everything besides himself.  This, obviously, is a completely different kind of entity than the polytheistic divinities.  And, equally obviously, there cannot be more than one of these.  Logic says that there cannot be two rival Deities, each of which created everything else, including the other one.

Thus on the Monotheistic conception there can be only one God, and following the usual grammatical convention of capitalizing titles like "President" or "Dad" which single out a particular entity, one normally capitalizes the G.  But as a convenience, since in the rest of the post I will be talking about the Monotheistic God side by side with Polytheistic gods, in the rest of this post I will always use the captial letter to distinguish the two, so I don't have to keep using adjectives to keep them apart. (*)

A certain sort of Atheist likes to say, "What makes Jehovah any different than Zeus, Thor, Athena, or Allah?  Once you realize why you disbelieve in any of those gods, you'll know why I disbelieve in yours."  But this completely misses the point.  Thor and Athena are polytheistic gods, and they can both exist at the same time without contradiction.  Whereas "Allah" is not a different God from the God of the Jews or Christian, it's a name for the same concept of an ethical Ultimate Reality who created everything.  Monotheistic religions may disagree about how we should think about God, about what he is like, but we do not disagree about which God exists, since the basic concept is similar enough.  That's why Arabic speaking Christians also refer to God by the name Allah!

Monotheists criticize Polytheists, not because they have too many gods, but because to us they don't have any!  They are idolators, worshipping things which do not deserve to be worshipped.   Worship is an act of total submission and reverence, holding nothing back.  The polytheistic gods are not worthy of that.  They are mere creatures like us.  Polytheism is a form of Atheism.

In fact, the concepts of God and "gods" are so distinct, that one could even believe in the existence of both!  We Christians believe in the existence of many "supernatural" beings (angels and demons) who are much more powerful than we are.  But we don't worship them, because they aren't God; like us they are limited creations.  As St. Paul says:

We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.  For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.  (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

It's important not to get confused, as St. John is near the end of the Book of Revelation:

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me.  But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and with all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (Revelation 22:8-9)

The flip side of this coin is that even worshipping just one god doesn't necessary square you with the Monotheistic worldview.  To make a silly example, suppose that the Internet became a sentient being and that some former Atheists started worshipping it as the most powerful and wise being in existence.  It would still be a polytheistic-type "god", even though there was just one of it.

Zeus is a particularly interesting case.  Most people are familiar with Greek mythology, in which Zeus is simply the most powerful of the many gods.  But many educated Greeks knew full well that mythology was just lies made up by poets, and used "Zeus" as the name for the monotheistic-type God.  One Greek text, a sky altas quoted by St. Paul in his sermon to the Athenians, illustrates this confusion well.  Aratus' Phaenomena begins by invoking Zeus as though he were the Absolute Creator who dwells in all things:

From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds.  For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly. Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last.

and then in the middle inconsistently recounts the origin of Zeus as a deity who was born at a particular time and place, with the world already in existence:

If, indeed, the tale be true, from Crete they by the will of mighty Zeus entered up into heaven, for that when in olden days he played as a child in fragrant Dicton, near the hill of Ida, they set him in a cave and nurtured him for the space of a year, what time the Dictaean Curetes were deceiving Cronus.

We see here that Greek religion and Greek mythology were not the same thing.  Even more striking is the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus, written in the 3rd century B.C.  Go ahead, click on the link.  I wager you'll be a shocked at how Christian his poem sounds, if you read "God" for "Zeus".

To Monotheists, it is blasphemous to think of God as being the same as any created thing.  He is more superior to an archangel, than the archangel is to a slug.  Neither angels, nor souls, nor the heavenly realms, not even the entire universe, have any intrinsic religious significance to us at all.  We desire God alone.  As one modern Christian song says:

We are a moment, You are forever
Lord of the Ages, God before time
We are a vapor, You are eternal
Love everlasting, reigning on high

Only one is Holy, only one is Good.  He is the Supernatural.  Everything else is a limited, finite being, subject to laws set by the Almighty.  They are natural.  We don't always know their laws, but that doesn't change the fact that they part of a definite Nature, which originates from, and is circumscribed by, God's will.  God is the Unlimited, in whose bosom all of these limited things exist.

Forget heliocentrism and geocentrism!  In Christianity, everything revolves around God.

UPDATE: Edited post in response to some criticism.  The paragraph marked with a (*) used to read: "Thus there can be only one God, and following the usual grammatical convention of capitalizing unique titles, we capitalize the G."

Posted in Theology | 5 Comments

## Natural and Supernatural I

In a recent post I described a list of things and events which we Christians believe in.  For obvious reasons, I didn't belabor the existence of pandas and hurricanes, which are not in dispute for most people.  Thus, while I mentioned the existence of the physical universe (something which not all religious traditions believe in, by the way), I wanted to focus on the things that nonreligious people of a skeptical bent don't accept.  These things are normally called supernatural, because they are not a part of the world of "Nature".  That is, they are not among the "visible" things; they cannot be seen by our senses or deduced through ordinary scientific research.  They are therefore above, or additional to, the things which Naturalists believe in.  The latin word for above is super, and thus we get the word "supernatural".

Whether or not this word is useful depends on what use we want to put it to.  An apt choice of word can illuminate a subject, while the wrong word can lump things together which ought to be kept separate.  Arguably, the word "supernatural" as defined above tells us more about what Naturalists think is important, than what Christians believe.  If we want to do a compare-and-contrast of the different worldviews, then it may be a useful word.  But if you want to explain what Christians think, the word is highly misleading.

Here's why.  Everything we Christians believe in, is supported by one of these two kinds of evidence:

1. It has causally influenced the physical world at one time or another, and therefore made an observable difference to the actual sense experiences of some human beings.  If the human being is someone other than us, then we normally learn about this event, not through the scientific method but through the equally empirical historical method.  In other words, some one writes it down in a book, we decide that their testimony is credible, and decide to believe it.
2. God (who falls into the first class due to his interactions with the world) has communicated to us, directly or through intermediaries, that something is in fact the case.

In the case of God, there is also a set of philosophical arguments for Theism which people can accept without necessarily being Christians.  Some of these arguments are even supported by things we have learned from Science!

If it really is true that supernatural entities are known to exist by these means, it isn't all that different from the way we know about most other things in life.  We all rely on sense experience, history, and authority in everyday life.  You don't have a separate name for things I know because my Aunt Rose told me, as though that by itself set it apart into a different category.  Well, you might if Aunt Rose was a notorious liar, but if you think Aunt Rose is a truth-teller, then they are just facts.  For some purposes, we may want to distinguish between historical facts and scientific facts, but it isn't as though there were a clear-cut distinction between those two things.

So we shouldn't really distingush between the natural and supernatural on the basis of how we know.  Could we distinguish them on the basis of how frequently they interact with our world?

I've said that Heaven (in the theological sense) and Earth are like two separate universes.  However, they aren't watertight compartments, since things can sometimes go back and forth between them.  If we try to define the supernatural as things which seldom interact with the world we live in, it would seem that gravitons would also be a supernatural concept since, even though they are predicted by our scientific theories, they interact so weakly with everything else that it is hopeless to ever observe an individual graviton.  That clearly isn't right.

Can we distinguish them on the basis of what kinds of things they are?  Well, we know something about what ordinary matter is made out of.  If there are supernatural entities out there, and if any of them have parts, they would presumably have to be made out of something else.

Of course, even here on Earth, some things are made out of different building blocks than others.  Light is composed of photons, elephants are made of atoms.  But the two interact with each other.  Physicists like myself—er, excuse me, I guess this should actually be physicists unlike myself—have studied the interactions between different kinds of matter, and figured out how they all work.

We have succeeded to the extent that we can write down a set of general equations which describe all of the experimentally known forms of matter.  Except, uh, for dark matter, which is 5 times as abundant as ordinary matter, and which we only know about through its gravitational effects.  And perhaps dark energy (although that can be explained with a simple modification to Einstein's equation of general relativity, which Einstein originally proposed to make the universe unchanging with time, thus missing out on the chance to predict that the universe is expanding).  And several different kinds of fields which may or may not be needed to describe physics shortly after the Big Bang.  And we have no idea how to treat gravity quantum mechanically.  But besides all that, we've got a pretty good handle on a precise description of the "fundamental" laws of physics, even if they're really just an approximation to something we don't have yet.

These equations have a certain amount of mathematical beauty and coherence.  Although they don't reduce everything down to one basic principle, they do reduce it to a medium- sized number of particles / fields which interact via four forces: gravity, electromagentism, and the strong and weak forces.  Although these four forces are not the same, there is a certain similarity in the way that each of them is handled.  (They also interact via the Higgs boson, but nobody ever calls this a fifth force, because it is not really very much like the others.)

But again, it seems provincial to define supernatural simply as things we can't describe with mathematical precision.  For all we know, if we could do experiments on angels, we would find that they also conform to an elegant set of mathematical equations.  (Although, considering that it took us thousands of years to find the right equations for the physical universe, which we interact with every minute of our lives, I wouldn't advise that you hold your breath.)  Besides, would we really want to say that until the time of Galileo, a ball falling to the ground was a supernatural event?  Once again, the concept which we thought was a description of the thing, turns out to be a fact about its relation to us, like the word foreign.

However, in Christian theology, there does turn out to be a distinction which is grand enough to justify a portentious word such as supernatural.  There actually is a way to divide the universe into two classes of entities, such that one really is "super" to the other, not just with respect to the limitations of our own knowledge, but in reality.  More on this next time.  But if you can't wait for the next post, ask yourself this question: what exactly is it again that the Jews are famous for?

## Metaphors in Theology

Having identified a multitude of metaphors in the Nicene Creed, I have some concluding reflections.

First of all, I hope that it is clear that this project had nothing to do with "watering down" theology.  Most of the time, when people talk about taking theological ideas metaphorically, they mean that they don't really believe it.  If someone says that they believe "God is metaphor" (i.e. for the sacredness of the world, or compassion for the needy, or whatever), that means that they don't really believe in God; they're actually atheists cloaking themselves in religious language.

On the other hand, if there really is a Creator of infinite power and wisdom who designed the Universe, it makes sense that he would be beyond our capability to grasp.  We can say what God is not, but we cannot understand him in any positive way except by making metaphors.  Precisely because we Christians believe that God exists, we have to resort to metaphors in order to describe him.

You may have noticed that many of the metaphors I pointed out in the Creed are actually ordinary figures of speech which are used all the time by regular speakers.  While others are attempting to describe aspects of the Divine Nature, which transcends all understanding.  I make no apology for including both of these together.  Metaphors are practical as well as mystical.  The human mind is an incorrigable metaphor-machine, and we pretty much resort to metaphors all the time, even for understanding things which are closer to earth than God.  Yes, theology is metaphorical—but then again so is everything else.

Perhaps this is another way in which we humans are created in the "image of God".  Even God the Father, it seems, uses a metaphor to understand himself: his self-understanding is the Word (the rationality, intelligence, self-expresssion) of God which is coeternal with him.  It turns out though, that the Son is a quite excellent metaphor for representing the Father, since he is exactly like him in every respect.  (Hint: this paragraph contains another metaphor).

Now, let me draw out some implications for how we do Theology.  Atheists love to point out that the biblical description of God is full of contradictions.  This is, of course, quite true and a natural consequence of the fact that we understand God through metaphors.  That is, we say that God is like a Father, or like a Judge, etc.  God is unchanging, and yet he changes his mind when we intercede for others.  He cannot be contained in the highest heavens, yet he tells Jesus to sit at his right hand.  All things are possible for him, yet it is impossible for him to lie.  He dwells in impenetrable darkness, and yet in him there is no darkness at all.

If the metaphors contradict each other, that doesn't mean that the reality is self-contradictory.  It just means that the images conflict, if you take them literally.  But you aren't supposed to take them all literally.  Paradox is a way of seeing the invisible.  You can see in three dimensions precisely because the image in your left eye doesn't quite agree with the image in your right eye.

(This should be enough to show why we Christians don't have to literally believe that 1 = 3.  It's fun to express things in a paradoxical way, but here we've helped you out a little by inventing some vocabulary.  The thing that God is one of is called, in technical language his substance or essence.  The thing that he is three of is called persons or hypostases.  1 substance = 3 persons is not actually a logical contradiction.)

You might wonder what ties all of this speculation down.  How do we know our metaphors correspond to an actual objective reality?  The answer is simple.  Metaphors about the beauty of nature, or social justice, cannot turn water into wine, or raise the dead.  In the end, Theology is about selecting the most reasonable theories which explain the sense-data of certain human beings.  Just like, you know, Science.

But if we can't recognize the metaphors in Theology, then of course we will end up thinking it is superstitious and ignorant and cannot be reconciled with Science.

Rationalists like to tell a narrative something like this:  "The ancients were ignorant and made up a bunch of mythology which they took literally, but now we know that it contradicts Science®.  Sensible atheists like ourselves reject this mythology, while the more sensible among religious people manage to hold onto it, by reinterpreting most of it to be metaphors.  Yet if people had known about Science® from the beginning, they never would have believed in God or heaven or angels or any of that."  As if the culture which gave us the Song of Solomon was incapable of understanding the idea of metaphor!

Many of the images, taken literally, would indeed be silly.  For example, the Bible is full of body-language descriptions of God, yet no serious Christian theologian has ever thought that the Father has a body.  That's because the ability to use and recognize metaphors didn't come down from Heaven to Earth during the Age of Enlightenment.   It has always been with us, as long as there have been human beings.  So if we don't watch it, people might even use metaphors to descibe scientific theories!

Of course, even if people did mistakenly believe something to be literal, that doesn't necessarily mean that the core idea is eliminated by reinterpreting some of the details as being metaphorical.  (There's a good discussion about this in St. Lewis' book on Miracles.)

As a specific example, there is one example of something I think is a metaphor in the Nicene Creed, which historically at least some Christians have taken literally, although almost no one would nowadays.  I refer to Heaven being literally up, somewhere among or outside the planets or stars.  This is most famously illustrated in St. Dante's Paradiso, in which the blessed in heaven are assigned positions associated with the various planets.  Dante himself was certainly aware of the allegory in his own poem, but I assume he was illustrating a common conception.  Arguably, then, this is an exception to my statement that the metaphors in the Creed "would have been understood by educated ancient people".

So let's suppose that the Apostles, when they witnessed Jesus' Ascension, literally believed that Heaven is above the Earth.  What of it?  Either they actually saw what looked like Jesus going into the sky or they didn't.  If they didn't see it, then Christian theology is just wrong, apart from any considerations involving Science.  If they did see it, we still need to explain it somehow, even if we understand it using different imagery than the Apostles did.  Although, since our own image of going to another universe would probably be just as metaphorical as theirs, maybe we should just stick with their metaphor, once we recognize that it is a metaphor.  It was, after all, the metaphor Jesus was using, to communicate something about where he was going.

I'm not trying to say that all of the tensions between Science and Religion instantly disappear, once we recognize the existence of metaphors.  There are substantive issues to discuss.  But we won't be able to discuss them, if we can't distinguish the symbolism from the claims about reality.

## Metaphors in the Nicene Creed III

This is a continuation of a series about metaphors in the Nicene Creed.  The third article of the Creed concerns the Holy Spirit, and his role in the Church.  (Or if you want to impress people with your vocabulary, it's about "pneumatology" and "ecclesiology"!)  Interestingly, while almost all Christian denominations would agree with the words of this article, a lot of the disputes between different groups come in the details of these topics.  Several of these regrettable disputes will come up in the notes.  As before, red = metaphor, green = unsure, blue = another comment.

And in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son];
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spoke by the Prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the time to come. Amen.

Spirit: literally means "breath", but metaphorically can be used to refer to an emotional state, to the "soul" or deepest aspect of a human being, or to a bodiless intelligent being such as an angel or demon. In a second metaphor on top of the first one, the "Holy Spirit" is God's spirit, called "holy" in order to distinguish it from the other spirits. The latter meaning is capitalized in English, but not in Greek, so in the original New Testament the readers have to guess which kind of "spirit" is meant in any given passage.
Holy ... holy: see here for my attempt to convey the meaning of this term. One of these refers to an inherent attribute of God, while the other (skipping ahead to the Church) refers to something which is holy because it is consecrated or devoted to God. Whichever of these meanings you think is the primary one, the other is a metonymy.
giver: literally refers to the act of conveying an object to somebody, but "life" is not an object in the same sense that a toy is, and furthermore we did not exist before we received it.
proceeds from: "proceeds" literally means comes after in order, for example in a parade. "proceeds from" therefore means comes out of, for example if a person emerges from a house.
[and the Son]: filioque in the Latin. This word was not originally in the Creed. In the West it was added several centuries later, in order to combat Arianism. However, it was regarded as heretical in the East, and contributed to the Great Schism of 1054 when the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church excommunicated each other. Oops does not even begin to describe this one.
with ... together: suggests material proximity, but means "taken as a whole". Of course "taken" is another physical metaphor. You can't get rid of them, you can only change which one you use.
worshipped: of course the members of the Trinity are worshipped, but the text really means that they ought to be worshipped, that because they are divine they are worthy of it. This is a figure of speech, but I don't think it is a metaphor.
glorified: see "glory" above; this one is even more likely to mean God's invisible glory.
spoke: but indirectly through a human intermediary, who in turn did not necessarily "speak out loud". Means "communicated".
one ... Church: in its most basic sense "one" means that there is numerically one of some predefined type of entity, i.e. "she has just one child". But metaphorically when used as an adjective can refer to a quality of unity, e.g. "They are working hard to become one nation, but tensions remain between different factions," or "for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Here is a place where all Christians acknowledge the same Creed, but they may mean slightly different things by it. Roman Catholics say there is just one true Church, consisting of those who are in communion with the Pope, while the Eastern Orthodox agree but for the minor emendation that the Church instead refers to themselves. Protestants, on the other hand, don't believe that any one church is infallible. We say that all Christians from every denomination are a part of the Church, and that its unity comes from everyone being included in Jesus.
catholic: means universal or worldwide. When the Catholic church calls itself "Catholic", this is another way of saying that they are the Universal Church and that if you don't accept the authority of the Pope, you aren't a full member. Thus, the Orthodox also call themselves the Catholic church, and Protestants like myself believe that the Catholic church includes all Christians.
apostolic: The word "apostle" was coined by Jesus to refer to his Twelve disciples. It means a messenger or an ambassador. Metaphorically therefore, a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus' new kingdom. In the broader sense, an apostle can be any of the hundreds of people who witnessed Jesus after the Resurrection.
"Apostolic" means associated with the apsotles in some way. To add a metaphor from Scripture, the apostles are the foundation for the Church. As St. Paul wrote:

You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:20)

while the Book of Revelation develops the same metaphor in a more glimmering way:

The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.... The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. (Rev. 21:14,19-20)

All Christians agree that the Church should be based on the teaching of the apostles about Jesus. Traditionally, there is also a concept of apostolic succession, that each bishop was ordained by another bishop in a chain of trasmission going back to the original apostles.  But most Protestants do not consider this to be of importance.
Church: the Greek Ἐκκλησίαν or Latin Ecclesia means "called out" and refers to a political asssembly or a religious congregation.  Here, since the church is "one" and "universal", it is being used in a metaphorical way to refer to all of God's people as if they were already assembled together in one place.  This is appropriate because even though the Church is divided into dstinct local congregations, they are all united by sharing the same Lord and the same Spirit.  We are also "called out" from regarding ourselves in an earthly way, since our citizenship is in Heaven.  Note that the meaning of Church the community of all Christians, not just clergy or organizational structures.
one baptism: In addition to saying that just one form of Christian baptism is recognized, this indicates that baptism does not need to be repeated multiple times for each individual—yet another meaning for that pesky word "one".  This is in recognition of the fact that Jesus' died once and for all in order to save us, and that even if we are unfaithful to our promises, God is not.
baptism: the sacrament of initiation into the Christian church, it involves being literally bathed with water (via immersion, pouring or sprinkling, although Baptists think only the immersion counts).  Some denominations (Catholics, Orthodox, some Protestants) baptize infants born to Christian parents, while other Protestants wait until the child is old enough to profess faith in Jesus, and will rebaptize those who were baptized as infants.  (Despite the name attached to the Anabaptist sect, this is not because they believe in two baptisms, but because they don't recognize the first one.)
remission of sins: to remit a debt is to cancel or forgive it.  In this analogy for salvation, moral wrongdoing (sin) is conceived as if it were owing money to God.  Since God is the one who is owed, he has the right to forgive the debt.
for: this is another place where different Christian theologies will say radically different things.  Does "for" mean "in order to effect", so that God uses the water to actually make a spiritual change in the person?  Or does it just mean "symbolizing the remission of sins", and baptism is an acted-out metaphor for what God has already done?
look for: as if anticipating a future reality involves the use of eyes.
resurrection: etymologically this is the same word root as "rose again" in the previous article, so the same comments would apply.  However, one could also regard this as a technical term for resurrection in the religious sense, in which case this would be (ironically) a dead metaphor.
life: the Resurrection life might not be powered by the same cellular and metabolic biological processes currently at work in our body, but I suppose that "life" is being used here in a nontechnical way to mean an animate being, in which case this is not a metaphor.
time: some theologians might speculate that time will not work in the usual way in our future eternal state.
to come: as thought the future arrived on the scene like a person entering a room.

## Metaphors in the Nicene Creed II

This is a continuation of the previous post describing metaphors in the Nicene Creed.  Red = metaphor, green = unsure, blue = another comment.  The second article of the Creed concerns the Son, affirming his full divinity, his role in creation, and his Incarnation as a human being:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all times,
God of God, Light of Light,
true God of true God,
of the same Being with the Father;
through whom all things were made;

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate
by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sits on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

Lord: literally means an aristocratic nobleman ruling over some territory.
Christ: Greek translation of "Messiah"; both terms literally mean someone anointed by pouring oil on them, as a consecration ceremony in order to inaugurate them in some important role (such as priest or king).  Jesus is called Christ, not because he was anointed with oil, but because he is anointed by the Holy Spirit.
only begotten Son of God: literally "begotten" refers to the act by which a man or animal sires a child. But the Father did not generate the Son by having sex, so "Son" does not have the same meaning as for humans. Furthermore, earthly sires are older than their children, but this does not apply to the divine begetting of the Son, as the next line states. It means that the Son is not created ex nihilo, but rather is an offspring from the Father's being. (Although this could not have been otherwise, it was still voluntary in the sense that it was not a compulsion, but happens in accordance with the Father's will.) In a gender-mixed metaphor, St. Augustine even suggested we should think of the Son as coming from the "womb" of the Father!
times: a better translation of saecula/αιώνων than the more frequent translation "worlds"
before all times: literally if something happens before a time $t_1$, we mean that it happened at some other time $t_2$ which is earlier than $t_1$. Clearly this cannot be the case for "before all times", since by definition there was no time before time began. This must therefore be a metaphor for "eternally".
God of God: this text was in the original 325 Creed, but apparently someone tried to edit it out of the 381 version because of its redudancy. As a result it is in the Latin version but not the Greek version. Oops.
of: in "God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God", probably means something like "coming out of" which is a metaphor (the Son does not literally emerge from the Father, as if they were located in space.)
Light of Light: God is not made of photons
not made: same technical use of "made" found above for "maker": the Son is not a created being but is fully divine.
Being: also translated "substance" (from the Latin substantia) or essence (from the Greek "ούσια"). However neither word is exactly clear in English. To us, "substance" suggests a chemical or material, but to the ancient philosophers it meant the underlying being of something, its essential nature or existence.
of the same Being with: this is one word in the Latin consubstantialem or Greek ὁμοούσιον. This is the word which Arius and his followers were unable to accept. It is a metaphor to the extent that it differs from the standard philosophical usage of the word. It says that the Father and Son have the exact same Being. Since there is just one God, this does not just mean the same kind of being, as two human beings have the same basic nature. Rather, even though the Father and Son are distinguishable in certain respects, they are so closely associated that they should be regarded as a single "entity".
through: but the Son is not literally an opening. If we translate this "by means of", the Son is not literally a mechanical tool either.
for: this is actually pretty close to the literal meaning "for the sake of / in order to benefit"
men: believe it or not, this seemingly masculine English word includes women and children as well! However the Latin word homines and the Greek word ανθρώπους are even more gender-neutral than the English "men"; these languages have separate words vir and ανηρ which refer specifically to adult males.
salvation: literally means "rescue", for example if someone saves your life from a burning building. I wasn't totally sure whether to count this as a metaphor or not. Being rescued from the effects of sin and death would seem to fall under the general category of being rescued, but on the other hand the earthly examples of salvation are illustrative metaphors which help us think about the meaning of salvation in the technical theological sense.
came down from heaven: but heaven in the theological sense is not actually located vertically above the earth. Also, "before" the incarnation, the Son did not have a body, not even one "located" in a "place" called "Heaven". I think here heaven is best thought of as a metonymy for the presence of God, and so "came down from heaven" refers to the Son coming from a state of being with the Father, so as to take on a new existence on Earth. Even this is not quite right though, because the Son's existence with the Father is timeless, and in that sense the Son never stopped being in heaven. So strictly speaking, it would be better to say that the Son started being on Earth in a new way. What the language "came down" gets right is that the Son pre-existed before he was conceived in Mary's womb.
incarnate: means "became flesh", but with the caveat that his divinity was not transfomed into flesh, rather a complete human nature was added to his divinity.
made man: see above
by the Holy Spirit: that is "by means of" the Spirit, as thought the Spirit were an instrument. See notes on the next article for metaphors in "Holy Spirit".
under: refers to the jurisdiction of an earthly ruler using the metaphor of vertical elevation.
rose again: in 1st century Jewish burial customs, bodies were placed on slabs which were actually elevated from the ground. Thus, when Jesus "rose" from the dead, he actually would have moved downwards to reach the ground level. Once again the vertical axis is being used to describe a change of status (from dead to alive).  This is not what most people would mean by "taking the Resurrection metaphorically", but it is a metaphor nonetheless.
ascended into heaven: as in the case of "came down", Heaven is not literally located above the Earth. However, the ascent is not really the opposite of the descent. The descent was really the act of acquiring a human body (and mind). But the ascent did not involve discarding his body, as though Christ stopped being human. Instead he remains human forever, although in a transformed ("glorified") state. In fact, it is not even clear that "Heaven" means the same thing in both places. In the descent, I argued that Heaven just means the presence of God. In the ascent, one might suppose that there is some created "place" in which Jesus' body currently dwells. As Jesus said to his disciples:

"My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:2-3)

But see the next phrase.
sits on the right hand of the Father: but the Father has no body and therefore no literal "right hand". Instead this phrase means that Christ is elevated to a position of special favor with God. (Notice that if I translate into fancy phrases, we tend to think of it as being less crudely literal, but in fact the spatial metaphor of ascent is still implicit in the words "elevation" and "position"! The "cruder" expressions for metaphors are actually better, because you notice that you are using them.) Similarly, the verb "sits" emphasizes that he is at rest, and secure in his reign over the universe. As with the phrase "sitting monarch", it does not require him to literally be in a chair.
come again: once again a term for motion, used to describe something more subtle. Since this hasn't happened yet, we need to be careful, but we believe that Jesus' body—the same Jewish man that was crucified—will once again be visibly manifested on Earth, in a way that will be dramatic and obvious to everyone (Matthew 24:27)
glory: literally either fame or glowing. Both might literally apply to the situation of the Second Coming (if it is similar to the Transfiguration), especially if the point is to distinguish it from his first coming in humility. However, the term "glory" may also be a metaphor to describe the invisible glory that comes from being recongized by God, and being transformed into his spiritual likeness. In his letter to St. Timothy, St. Paul refers to this invisible glory as "unapproachable light":

"Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen." (1 Timothy 6:12-16)

Since no one can see it, it's clear Paul is not referring to electromagnetic radiation here.
judge: a literal judge is an earthly magistrate who settles disputes between people, but Christ refused that role: "Who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?" (Luke 12:14).  He is the judge because our response to him determines our eternal destiny.  Even there he does not judge in the usual way:

"I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.  If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.   There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day." (John 12:47-48)

kingdom: Similarly Christ's kingdom is very different from an earthly kingdom. He reigns, not with force, but in men's hearts. "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then my servants would fight, to prevent me from being delivered to the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36).

## Metaphors in the Nicene Creed I

A "fundamentalist" is someone who takes everything in the Bible literally.  A "liberal theologian" is one who takes most of it metaphorically.  Or so everyone says.

The problem with this simplistic dichotomy is that language is fundamentally metaphorical.  We seldom open our mouths without resorting to a metaphor.  I'm not talking about explicit, literary metaphors such as my love is like a red, red rose.  (PS if you tell me that this is a simile instead of a metaphor, I will do something like shooting you.  Despite what they teach in schools these days, a simile is one kind of metaphor.)  I'm talking about metaphors which are embedded in the way we talk and thing, like in these phrases: flying into a rage, upper crust manners, a fever going down, and so on.

As soon as we talk about abstractions, or real concrete entities which happen to be outside of our immediate sensory experiences, we can only think about things metaphorically.  And this means that much of our language will be metaphorical as well.

Particularly endemic are spatial metaphors.  In addition to the ubiquitous up and down, these tend to be embedded in prepositions such as in, on, above, under, between, and so on.  Even in pure math, if I talk about an element in a set (as though a set were a box), or a function from the real numbers to the complex numbers (as though it involved motion), or a group over the integers, or I say that a number is higher than another number, I'm using metaphors without even realizing it.  For more information on the way metaphors pervade our language and thinking, I recommend (the first half of) Metaphors We Live By, which is by George Lakoff (one of my parents' linguistics profs) and Mark Johnson.

Thus it is not surprising that there will also be metaphors in theology.  Of course theology is metaphorical, just like everything else. To illustrate this point, I will discuss some of the metaphors implicit in the Nicene Creed.  This is the most important statement of Christian beliefs in the world, and is accepted by almost all Christians worldwide including Catholics, Orthodox, Coptic, Assyrian, virtually all Protestants, etc.  The first draft of the Creed was written in 325 in order to clarify belief in the Trinity, especially to combat the Arian heresy, named after a theologian named Arius who taught that Jesus was a created being, and therefore was not fully divine, but was subordinate to the Father.  In 381 the Creed was expanded and edited, to say more about the Holy Spirit, and about the Church.

The Creed was simultaneously written in Latin and Greek, with slightly different texts.  Additional variations come about from translation into English.  My base text of the Creed of 381 comes from here, but I have made some changes to the translation for clarity and accuracy of meaning.  Red indicates the presence of a metaphor which I wish to discuss; blue represents other kinds of notes.  Green means I wasn't quite sure whether it should be considered a metaphor—for example, it might be regarded as a dead metaphor, an alternative literal meaning, or just an unusual application of the ordinary meaning of the word.

Note that when I say that a word is metaphorical, I mean that it is metaphorical under the traditional/conservative/orthodox interpretation as it would have been understood by educated ancient people—which is often wrongly referred to as the "literal" meaning.  I am not talking about any modern "liberal" reinterpretation of what Christian theology means.

I believe in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all times,
God of God, Light of Light,
true God of true God,
of the same Being with the Father;
through whom all things were made;

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate
by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sits on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son];
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spoke by the Prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the time to come.  Amen.

As you see there are a lot of metaphors here.  There would be even more red here if I had highlighted metaphors every time they appear, instead of just once each.  Sometimes it is ambiguous whether a word involves a metaphor or not, so I had to make some judgment calls.

What follows is my commentary for Article I of the Creed, having to do with the Father.  In order to prevent this post form becoming unduly long, I will put my commentary on Article II (the Son), and Article III (The Holy Spirit) into separate posts.

I: Greek version has "We" here instead.
believe in: a standard English metaphor used in nontheological contexts.  One does not literally "place our belief in" something, as if it were a container.
God: At least in modern English, this word is not a metaphor, even though all of our thoughts about God involve metaphorical thinking.  "God" is not any specific metaphor, but rather the name for that reality to which the metaphors refer.  In order to confuse you, in Christian theology (and the New Testament), "God" can refer to either (a) specifically the Father, or (b) the divinity of all three Persons.
one ... God: denies polytheism.  There is only one God, who is the Father.  Since the Son and Spirit are natural outflowings of the divine nature, and are share the exact same divine nature as the Father, and the exact same will, they are not regarded as additional gods.  I'm not sure I'd want to call "one" a metaphor, but arguably the word is being used in a somewhat unusual way in Trinitarian theology.
Father: God is not literally a male parent
maker: normally this word refers to a person who constructs something out of something else, but God makes in the sense of giving things existence, ex nihilo.
heaven: literally means sky, but also means Heaven in the theological sense, another universe besides ours which was created by God.
invisible: I like to think about neutrinos here, but the theologians who wrote this were probably thinking about something more like angels.  In any case, this is a catch-all term for everything that is not apparent to our senses, emphasizing that God is the creator of all things.

## What's happening?

In the last post, I made a list of entities which we Christians believe exist (I'll be referring to numbers from that list in this post, so you might want to pull it up in another tab).

However, the composition of the universe is not the same for all time.  Like modern Big Bang cosmology (and unlike many ancient cosmologies) the Christian worldview is not static.  It is a story (or, if you prefer, a process) in which things start out one way and end up quite differently.  The main character in this story is God, who not only starts the ball off by creating (1-4) out of nothing, but is guiding it to a specific future culmination.

God is always involved in his Creation, and therefore events which seem random can in fact be attributed to him (this is sometimes called "providence").  However, there are times when God interacts with us in a much more definitive way.  These interactions include the following:

(a) Prophecy, in which God's Spirit speaks to the spirit of a particular human being (2) to communicate a message which is of benefit to the whole of God's people.  Sometimes these messages are communicated via angels (4).  (In biblical languages, the word "angel" literally means messenger, and can also refer to human beings carrying messages).

(b) Miracles, in which God arranges for exceptions to the usual course of events.  Normally, things in the physical universe proceed according to certain regularities, or "laws of nature", and in a miracle God does something different from the usual pattern, which would normally be impossible or extremely unlikely.

The primary purpose of (a) and (b) is to prepare for, or else to reveal more clearly, the main event:

(c) The central miracle/message is the Incarnation, in which the divine Son (Α—Ω) came into our physical (1) and mental (2) universe as a specific complete human being, namely Jesus Christ, whose body and mind were like ours, except that he never "sinned" i.e. never did anything morally wrong.  "Jesus" means "God saves" and refers to the fact that he is the way that the Father (Α—Ω) has chosen to rescue us from our two biggest problems: sin and death.  "Christ" is a title which literally means "someone anointed with oil to consecrate him as a king or a priest", but is used here metaphorically to refer to the power of the Spirit (Α—Ω) working in him.

He was born of a virgin mother (that's a miracle), taught about the Father's love for all human beings, allowed himself to be crucified by humans in order to forgive them for their sins (the Atonement), came physically back to life again (the Resurrection, another miracle), moved his body from Earth (1) to Heaven (3) (the Ascension), where he is ruling over all Creation as God's chosen King and Priest.

The Incarnation didn't change God's divine nature (Α—Ω) in any way (remember that's eternal and can't change), instead it transformed ordinary matter (1) by taking it up into the divine life.  This was not an isolated event, rather it has continuing implications for the future:

(d) As a result of the Incarnation and Atonement, the relationship between God and human beings has changed. This is called the New Covenant (a "covenant" is a contract or an agreement).  In particular, God's Spirit now lives inside of all Christians in order to transform us into people who are more like Jesus.  The community of Christians is known as the Church, and is referred to as the "Body of Christ"; he is the Head who directs the parts of his Body to love one another and to serve the world, using whatever gifts he has given us by the pouring out of his Spirit on human flesh.

Those who are in Christ are, so to speak, anchored to him: we trust that since we are in Christ and Christ is in Heaven (3), we cannot be totally destroyed by physical death.  Our real identities are stored in him for safekeeping.  In my mind, this has more to do with what God did in (c) than it has to do with any inherent immortality of the "soul" (2).

(e) Sacraments are events which occur in the material universe (1) which God uses to express his grace towards us.  Grace refers to God's love and forgiveness, based on his mercy rather than anything which we have done to deserve it.  The most important sacrament is called Communion, the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper (depending on who you talk to).  It is based on the Passover dinner in which Jesus took bread and wine and said "This is my body, which is broken for you" and "This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins".  In accordance with Jesus' command, almost every Christian group repeats this ritual, but they do not all agree about how to interpret Jesus' words.

Note that (c), (d), and (e) all involve the repeating the same phrase "the body of Christ", but referring to three different things.  God is not invading in a haphazard way but according to a consistent pattern.  In his book on Miracles, St. Lewis compares God's activity in the world to a "fugue", which is a piece of music where the same theme is repeated by different instruments, which enter at different times.

God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see.  Either like the Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like the moderns, they attribute real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana. Every year God makes a little corn into much corn: the seed is sown and there is an increase, and men, according to the fashion of their age, say ‘It is Ceres, it is Adonis, it is the Corn-King,’ or else ‘It is the laws of Nature.’ The close-up, the translation, of this annual wonder is the feeding of the five thousand. Bread is not made there of nothing. Bread is not made of stones, as the Devil once suggested to Our Lord in vain. A little bread is made into much bread. The Son will do nothing but what He sees the Father do.  There is, so to speak, a family style.

The climax of God's composition will come when everything is taken up into Christ, not just Christians but the whole inanimate universe, so that as St. Paul says, God will then be "all in all". According to God's promise, this will occur in the future when Christ comes back to Earth (1) again from Heaven (3).  All human beings who have ever lived will come back to life again to be judged by Christ, and the universe will be recreated.  There will thus be:

(f) The New Heavens and the New Earth.  (Here the meaning of "Heavens" might be more like the sky (1γ) or outer space (1δ), but perhaps it includes (3) as well.)  The point being that the entire physical cosmos (1) will be destroyed and recreated, just as Christ died and was resurrected.  Note that this is not the same as "going to Heaven (3) when you die".  That is presumably the case (see (d)), but this is something which happens after that, to everybody at once.  Obviously we will know more about what the New Earth will be like when we get there, but we know that there will be no more dying, no more sorrow, no more tears.  The whole universe—animal, vegetable, mineral, angel (1-4)—will be in harmony with God (Α—Ω).

Those who have refused the Lord's free pardon and have built their identities around deception and immorality will be excluded from God's Kingdom.  But all who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be there.  May you, dear reader, take care to be among the blessed on that day.

## What exists?

My second pillar of Science is elegant hypotheses, that all else being equal we should prefer explanations which are (some combination of) "simple, uniform, common-sensical and aesthetically pleasing".  In a Bayesian analysis, this factors into our choice of prior probabilities, i.e. the probabilities we would assign to various theories before we consider any observational evidence.

There is no "neutral" choice of prior which assigns equal probabilities towards every conceivable hypothesis.  In other words, we are all biased in one way or another.  However, not all bias is bad.  Having a bias towards elegant explanations is a good thing, because simpler explanations are more likely to be true.

On the other hand, it very frequently turns out that the universe is more complicated than one expects.  So you don't want to overdo it.

Now, how "elegant" is Christianity as a philosophical system?  What are the different "moving parts" of theology, and how well do they explain the things they are supposed to explain?  Before asking how probable Christian theology is, we should start by asking what kinds of entities Christian theology postulates.

The question of what exists ("ontology") is one of the most basic questions of the area of Philosophy which is called Metaphysics.  Among scientists, this is a bit of a swear word: people use it in a derogatory way to refer to unmeasurable and potentially meaningless claims.  While some metaphysical questions may be unsolvable or meaningless, it is foolish to say we know absolutely nothing about the answer to this metaphysical question (i.e. we know that penguins exist, so that's a start).  And the scientistic claim, that Science is the only possible source of knowledge about important questions, is easily refuted.

I'm about to make a list of the different entities which Christians believe in.  However, there's a few caveats I have to discuss before I do so.  First of all, even atheistic, naturalistic philosophers disagree about things like whether numbers and abstractions etc. really "exist", whether objects are completely reducible to their parts, how to interpret the physical universe, and so on.  Since these arguments have little direct connection to religion, I'm going to gloss over them here.

Another thing which even atheistic philosophers disagree about is the philosophy of mind; whether it is possible to explain consciousness, the meaning of thoughts, and other psychological aspects of our minds in a purely materialistic way.  This question, however, is closely bound up with the religious question of the "soul" and so I don't think I should ignore this one.

The second issue is that Christians don't all agree on how to interpret Christian theology.  Some Christian theologies (such as Roman Catholicism) have a very long list of official doctrinal claims, some have shorter lists, others have non-traditional theologies, or "liberal" views which water everything down in order to accomodate naturalistic sentiments, modern ethical views, or cultural relativism.

However, if we exclude the liberals and few wacky outliers, there is a large set of beliefs which are common to the theologies of almost all traditional supernaturalist Catholics, Orthodox, Coptics, Protestants etc.—what St. Lewis called "Mere Christianity".  However, in a couple places (souls and sacraments) I will make note of potential disagreements amongst Christians about interpretation.

All right, then.  Christians believe that the following thing exists:

(Α—Ω) God, the One and Only, the First and the Last, the fundamental object in the universe, who is uncreated, eternal, and exists absolutely ("I am who I am"), who is absolute goodness and therefore also holy, whose identity consists of three persons related to one another as Father, Son, and Spirit.

This is the only thing that exists absolutely.  All other things exist only in relation to God, because God chose to create them and to love them.  The distinction between Creator and created is so great that it is misleading to put them in the same list together, as though they were two things existing side by side in the same universe, instead of one being completely dependent on the other.

Created things include the following:

(1) The material universe that we know and love, including (α) the land and all its animals, plants, and people, (β) the sea and everything in it, (γ) the sky with its clouds and birds, and (δ) the solar system, the galaxies, the entire observable universe, and whatever lies beyond it.

(2) The "souls" of animals and human beings, whether or not these happen to be reducible to material objects such as the brain.  (Yes, in traditional Christian thought animals have souls!  In fact our word animal is derived from the Latin anima and means thing-with-a-soul.)  Traditionally human souls are conceived of as being immaterial and—supposedly for this reason—immortal, but in my view this is not actually required by the Bible.  So, I'm listing it separately, but with the caveat that it may be best regarded as part of (1).  More on the subject of souls and immortality later.

(3) At least one other universe besides this one, which we can refer to as "Heaven".  Words generally have more than one meaning, and in the Bible the term "heavens" often refers to something more like (1γ) or (1δ).  But I take it that no scientifically educated modern person believes you can get to the religious-type Heaven by going far enough in a spaceship, so these are distinct concepts.  (Why do I not mention Hell?  Because my primary concern here is not with what happens to people when they die.  Most of the occurences of the word "heaven" in the Bible are not concerned with the afterlife.)

(4) Angels and demons.  (These are traditionally regarded as holy and unholy versions of the same type of angelic critter, just as Hitler and St. Bonhoffer are both human beings.)  I presume that angels are normally denizens of Heaven, but they sometimes interact with people in our universe, which is how we know that they exist.

That's pretty much it.  Of course, there might be additional created things, besides the ones we know about.

Sci-fi fans should notice that (3) is a kind of parallel universe and (4) is a kind of intelligent alien (4).  So if you're wondering if our faith will be shaken to its foundations if either of these things are discovered—I've got news for you: we already believe in them.  Admittedly, we don't know whether there are other life-bearing planets in our universe, but in any case we don't think we are the center of the cosmos, or that God is only interested in us.

Next time I will discuss the interactions between the different things I mentioned, particularly how things have changed, and are going to change, as a result of God coming into the world as Jesus.