The Biblical-Christian View of Ultimate Reality: God - An Excerpt from The Essentials of Christian Thought
Christians disagree on doctrine, politics, church government, certain moral questions—just about everything under the sun, it can seem. Yet a unity remains, centered around a core outlook on God and the world that is common to all believers.
In today’s excerpt from The Essentials of Christian Thought, eminent theologian and church historian Roger Olson outlines a biblical vision of this ultimate reality—God, the sole absolute, the metaphysical source and sustainer of all that has being.
At the heart of every metaphysic, every vision of ultimate reality, lies something absolute, something believed to be the source and/or connecting center of all that is. By absolute, here is meant only “unsurpassable” in terms of explanatory power; it is whatever sustains, controls, governs, or connects everything else. To reject such an absolute, ultimate reality is to reject metaphysics entirely. Even strict pluralists—people who believe all reality is but a collection of individual things without any absolute or ultimate reality connecting them—believe in some force or principle such as “creativity” or just “energy.” The reason metaphysics is ultimately unavoidable is due to the persistent pressing questions of all inquiring minds: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “What is the meaning of existence?” Only a nihilist can answer with a firm denial of source or purpose.
A Brief Review
We saw in the previous chapter and interlude that over the centuries and across cultures people have used reason and experience to speculate about the one great answer to life’s ultimate questions. Metaphysicians have traditionally referred to this particular central issue of metaphysics as the problem of the “one and the many”—what is the “one” that underlies the “many”? Is it one eternal substance that is all that really exists such that the many are just manifestations of it, ultimately unreal in and of themselves (monism)? Is it nature, a set of mathematically describable laws controlling eternal matter and energy (naturalism)? Is it two ultimate realities, beings, principles, powers, one good and one evil, locked in eternal conflict (dualism)? Is it a finite, nonabsolute being related to everything else, giving them their aim, their purpose, but struggling to bring unity out of chaos and harmony out of conflict (panentheism)? Is it a powerful but remote deity, creator of all but uninvolved or unaffected by the world of finite things and persons (deism, Greek philosophical theism)?
Whitehead said that Christianity is a religion searching for a metaphysic; it has at times borrowed these and other metaphysical visions and attempted to synthesize them with biblical Christianity. Christians living in pluralistic cultures where these and perhaps other visions of ultimate reality swim around in popular culture or in “the universe next door”1 often confusedly borrow aspects of extrabiblical metaphysical visions and combine them with their Christian faith. Throughout Christian history Christian philosophers and theologians have frequently used Greek philosophy and metaphysics as a theoretical framework for Christianity.
The thesis of this book is that, while philosophy can be helpful for answering questions the Bible does not answer, two considerations must be made. First, the Bible is not devoid of any metaphysical vision of ultimate reality; it implies one and that is easily discernable if one does not approach the Bible with a wrong assumption (e.g., that narrative cannot imply a metaphysic). Second, discerning that biblical metaphysic is a matter of looking behind the narrative at what it assumes about ultimate reality. There a clear vision of ultimate reality is apparent to any discerning reader looking for it.
That clear biblical vision of ultimate reality is, as already expressed, the supernatural, personal (but not human) God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. Brunner rightly stated that, in biblical revelation and therefore in Christian philosophy, the “metaphysical background” of every atom is God: “In order that I may know what it is that holds the world together in its inmost being—this means no less than the knowledge of the Creator Himself.” Also, according to Scripture, ultimate reality, God, is “one personal spirit” and “the one true reality” behind all else who can be known only as he reveals himself. Finally, the same Christian thinker declared that the personal God of the Bible is revealed there as the one “principle of all things,” “both cause and reason” for everything else’s existence. Brunner also rightly emphasized that for the Christian this is no “theory of the world,” no rational, speculative hypothesis, but revealed truth of the “one word of God.” On the other hand, the biblical-Christian vision of God as ultimate reality answers life’s ultimate questions better, more satisfactorily, than all types of extrabiblical philosophy.
God-World Duality without Dualism
The concern of this chapter is to elucidate the biblical vision of this ultimate reality—God, the sole absolute, the metaphysical source and sustainer of all that has being. Every effort will be made to follow the examples of Tresmontant, Cherbonnier, Brunner, Heschel, and other Christian and Jewish thinkers who were determined to take the biblical narrative seriously and not interpret it through the lens of an extrabiblical philosophy or metaphysic. Extrabiblical, philosophical language must be used at times, but it will be filled with biblical content as opposed to content drawn from Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, or other extrabiblical philosophies that have been used to say what the Bible must really mean when it is assumed it cannot mean what it says.
At the most basic level, in contrast to some other worldviews and metaphysical visions of ultimate reality, the Bible assumes a fundamental duality in reality as opposed to dualism and nonduality. That is, the Bible everywhere presupposes an irreducible ontological interval between God, the source and sustainer of everything, and himself. And yet, both sides of the interval are real—one ultimately so and one penultimately so; one independently real and the other dependently real.
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