||The "New" Story of God: Job, Plato, and the Open View—A Review of The God Biographers
Author: Larry Witham
Hardcover: 204 pages
Publisher: Lexington Books - 2010
Special thanks to Tom Oord for providing a review copy of this title.
The God Biographers is a fascinating book about the way God's story has been told in doctrines down through the centuries of religion and philosophy. Perhaps the grand irony is that the book itself becomes a biography of God as it attempts to tell this epic story. Larry Witham, the book's author, described as a veteran journalist on the book's jacket, sets out to, "[look] closely at the cultural and scientific context of each age and how these shaped the images of God." He argues that, "Each biographer labors under the influence of a particular cultural milieu." Therefore, the book becomes primarily a journey through historical theology dating from the Classical period in Greek thought to present day Open and Relational theisms. However, Witham's survey is not merely a general overview. The author specifically details the views of God's biographers as they relate to one of the single greatest tensions in theism: the relationship between divine providence and human volition. In the service of this very specific focus, the author employs the book, and figure, of Job as an overarching theme in which to ground the discussion. This odd yet often-cited ancient Hebrew text stands apart as one the clearest examples of this essential antinomy. Yet, for as many biographers as have attempted to tell God's story, at least as many interpretations of this book have accompanied them.
The God Biographers is also a book about two competing biographies of God that have remained enmeshed in a struggle for the hearts and minds of theists since the very beginnings of philosophical and religious thought. The first biography is that of an aloof and "unchangeable monarch," while the second tells of a God who participates in a “dynamic relationship [with] the universe." (p. 2) Astute readers will recognize these two biographies as classic summaries of the competing visions of God developed by the Greeks and the Hebrews. Early Greek philosophers warred against the oppressive myths of capricious gods, who meddled in the affairs of humanity, often for sport, and inflicted meaningless suffering upon helpless victims for their own amusement. In their place, Plato, Aristotle and the like exalted a view of the Supreme Being as an impersonal, static reality that neither felt "passions" nor "changed" in any way. By contrast, the Hebrews exalted a view of God as utterly personal: a living, dynamic presence who revealed himself to their people through the law and prophets, led them out of slavery in Egypt, and responded to their prayers. Over the millennia since humanity began to think and write about the divine, Greek, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian scholars have all had to grapple with these diametrically opposed biographies and account for the realities of daily life, advances in human understand of the world, and the sacred texts of the Bible (and Job in particular).
Job is a fitting theme since his story is one of a righteous man who is suddenly stripped of everything. He is depicted as an innocent victim of tragedy at the hands of an enemy: the satan. God's relationship to this calamity has always presented God's biographers with a primal trilemma often called the "problem of evil." And its exploration in relationship to God is called "theodicy." Attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the problem can be summarized thusly:
- "willing but unable to take away evil (impotent)"
- "able but unwilling (malevolent)"
- "both willing and able—so why is there evil at all?" (p. 27)
Theists since Lactantius have felt compelled to address this “problem,” but perhaps no century has been more filled with reminders than the twentieth. Two World Wars and the explosive advancement of science brought theism and evil into sharp contrast. Appropriately, then, Witham spends a good portion of the book in this period.