Review of Sontag and Bryant’s God: The Contemporary Discussion

Review of Frederick Sontag and M. Darrol Bryant (eds.), God: The Contemporary Discussion.1

by John M. Frame


I include this review2 of a book that well illustrates the confusion in contemporary theology about the doctrine of God. It is an especially clear statement of what I have described in this volume as “non-biblical views of transcendence and immanence.” The book is so confused that I often find it amusing, and I hope you will too.


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In December 1981 a group of scholars met on the island of Maui, Hawaii, to discuss the subject of God. The conference was sponsored by the New Ecumenical Research Association, a project of the Unification Theological Seminary, itself a project of the Unification Church, which follows the teachings of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. This conference was billed as the “first annual” conference of this sort; whether one was held in 1982 or later I do not know.

Evidently it was not difficult to get the scholars to come to Maui: 164 attended, 24 of whom contributed essays to this volume. Among the more well-known essayists: Heinrich Ott, John Macquarrie, John Hick, J. N. Findlay, Robert P. Scharlemann, William Johnston, S. J., Ninian Smart. Others who attended, but who are not represented by published essays here, include Colin Brown, Donald Dayton, Tom Driver, Frederick Ferré, Anthony Flew, George Mavrodes, Peter Munz, Nelson Pike, Richard Quebedeaux, James Robinson, Richard Rubinstein, James Deotis Roberts. The essayists represent all the major religious traditions and philosophical schools (except for evangelical Christianity!). They discuss a wide variety of issues. The quality of thought is generally high, although a few of the essays (Bilaniuk on Eastern Orthodoxy, Dhirasekera on Buddhism, Kwak on Unificationism) are simple expositions of well-known views.

The Unificationists themselves keep a fairly low profile in this volume. Two essays represent their viewpoint. The one by Kwak, mentioned above, is a simple, straightforward exposition of their teachings; it does not even mention the Rev. Moon. The other, by Young Oon Kim, relates Unification theology to other viewpoints with which it has some initial affinity. Kim draws some interesting parallels and distinctions between Unificationism and process theology, also with Swedenborgianism. This essay has some importance: the Unification Church has become an influential body lately because of its financial and political strength, even apart from its religious system. Yet it is a bit amusing to view the seriousness with which Kim compares Moon’s bizarre theology to the views of Whitehead, invoking names like Eliade and Moltmann. One almost expects another essay comparing Heidegger with Ernest Angeley, or Karl Rahner with the Flying Nun. Kim says nothing about Moon’s alleged messianic pretensions. The only essayist to reflect on those claims is J. N. Findlay, who expresses thanks that those coming to the conference were not required to express “the slightest acceptance” of those claims (p. 195). Findlay himself thinks that “Messiahs are necessarily many, and of varying charisma” and thus declines “to pass judgment on any genuine Messiah or to grade him favorably or unfavorably in relation to others, any more than I would do in relation to my dearest friends” (p. 196). Diplomatic of him.

An information sheet which I received with the book explains that this volume intends to respond “to the growing call for a world theology.” I missed that call; must have come while I was out of the room. Seriously, I doubt that anyone has uttered such a call, except for a group of academics unrepresentative of their religious communities. Still, within that group of academics, at least within the group that met on Maui, there are some indications of a developing consensus which transcends the differences of religious tradition. While not all of the essayists endorse every detail of this consensus, there does seem to be a substantial and surprising unity of mind on many significant issues.

1. First, there is consensus on the nature of divine transcendence. Huston Smith in his brief opening remarks to the conference announces (with the apparent assurance that he is saying nothing controversial: this is part of the “shared discernment that we have in common”) that the “sacred” is something “completely beyond us” (p. 3). To Ott, the great mystery of religion (“whether we call this mystery ‘God,’ ‘Dhamma,’ ‘Brahman,’ or whatever”) is “fundamentally inexpressible” (p. 9, cf. p. 11). It is (in Ott’s terms) “wholly-other” (p. 12). It (sometimes called “he,” sometimes “she”) should not be regarded as “a” being among others (Macquarrie on Heidegger, pp. 157f, 163; Scharlemann, pp. 266, 270ff; Kadowaki on Zen, p. 375). It is not an “object” (Murti on Hinduism, pp. 29ff; Kadowaki, p. 384). Thus this mystery cannot be known by objective means, the means by which we come to know the things around us. Its name is “mystery” (Ott, pp. 9ff). The object of religious awareness is “utterly disproportionate to the human perceivers” (Hick, p. 176). “The Truth in itself is inexpressible” (Tiwari on Hinduism, p. 248), “indefinable…indescribable” (ibid., p. 256). God is “wholly other than our thinking and other than the being of the world or of Dasein” (Scharlemann, p. 267; Dasein = human nature). According to Scharlemann, the most adequate thought about God conceives him “as other than God” (p. 270), an otherness best symbolized by the crucified Christ. Johnston reminds us of the apophatic Christian mystics who taught that “God can be loved but that he cannot be conceptually known” (p. 365). The “term of transcendence” is “nameless undefinable mystery” (Kadowaki, p. 384). Since God is transcendent, “the cosmos necessarily is a kind of veil” (Smart, pp. 397f), a veil which “here and there, so to speak, is removed so that God can be seen through it. God unveils herself [sic].”

Thus our authors have no sympathy for any rational “proofs” of God’s existence (pp. 104, 163, 249, 255, 297ff, 363ff, 391, 395ff). It is possible to speak about revelation, as long as we remember that “in his revelation, in the incarnation of the logos, he does not cease to be mystery, he does not make himself into a seizable and comprehendable object…. [Before him] silent adoration is finally the only adequate attitude…. [Language] grows out of silence and opens into silence, and even as language it still remains penetrated by silence” (Ott, p. 14). For such reasons, the Hindu Murti concludes that revelation comes only through myths (p. 26). Smart insists that any revelation in words can be interpreted in various ways and thus, by its very nature, will fail to communicate unambiguously (pp. 398ff); thus revelation cannot be said to communicate “knowledge,” though it does “stir creativity in us” by its “character of strange openness.”

2. This consensus on divine transcendence leads to a further consensus regarding trans-religious ecumenism. If God is really nameless, inexpressible, beyond all description, then all the would-be describers of God (including writers of scriptures) must admit their fallibility and inadequacy. Thus Ott warns us that “A Christian, for example, may not enter into such dialogue [with those of other religions—JF] with any prefixed judgments about the truth of the other religion” (p. 7). Dialogue, he says, is necessarily an “open situation;” it involves “risk.” It demands “rejection of presuppositions” (p. 9). We must, of course, be faithful to our own religious convictions (p. 8); but those convictions, rightly understood (as under #1 above) will not lead a Christian or anyone else into a dogmatic stance. If we properly understand the mysteriousness of God, we will not claim for our religion any exclusive truth to which we must bear witness (p. 16). Thus we can sympathize with the Hindu conviction that the different religions represent different paths to God (pp. 34f); we will not seek to convert others (p. 39). We can commend the Anlo people of Africa for their pluralism (p. 148). On such assumptions, Hick’s thesis becomes interesting: that God’s personal character (persona) is the sum-total of his interactions with human communities, so that he has one persona in Hinduism, another in Buddhism, etc. (p. 175; cf. Scharlemann, p. 270ff). (The fact that some forms of Buddhism are atheistic is irrelevant; “nothingness” can be another name for the nameless absolute.) And we are not surprised to hear from Johnston that Christian apophatic mysticism has much in common with Zen (p. 372), or from Kadowaki that Zenists may be counted among Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” (p. 383). If God is “transcendent” as in #1, then it does not seem to be important whether we call him God, Dhamma, or Brahman, nor must we require the diplomatic Findlay to give grades to his various Messiah-friends.

The ecumenical spirit of the conference was not only theoretical; it was evident also in the wide variety of views presented for serious consideration. Not only did the delegates sit still (we assume) for Kim’s learned comparison between Whitehead and the Rev. Moon; in itself that would have been mere good manners, since the Unificationists hosted the conference. But we also have in this volume a highly sympathetic account of popular Filipino religion by V. R. Gorospe, S.J. Roman Catholicism is the majority religion in the Philippines; but among the less-educated majority, this Catholicism is mingled with influences from older Eastern religions, with animistic beliefs and practices, and with thaumaturgy (faith healing, possession trances, ecstatic preaching, etc.). Gorospe generally commends this mixture, noting that such religion can teach us much about respect for the earth (pp. 104f), about the need to overcome the “separation of the sacred and the profane” in modern life (pp. 120f). Gorospe finds something good in every popular superstition. His defense of flagellation rituals is worth the price of the book (p. 124):

Penitential flagellations have been regarded in the past as signs of perversion, exhibitionism, sadomasochism, fanaticism, or anti-clericalism and are now being exploited by the tourism industry. But these penitential rites can be sacramentalized by bringing in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist and by harmonizing the reading of the Passion with these flagellation penances. They can become “signals of transcendence” for ascetic renewal and self-denying love.…The value of the flagellation rite can be defended by relating it to a primary principle of Christian asceticism, the need for self-discipline.

The Jesuit talent for syncretism is not dead in our time! Similarly, Christian R. Gaba expounds the religious beliefs and practices of the Anlo people of west Africa. They worship God through the mediation of ancestors and lesser deities. While it appears that these lesser deities crowd God out of the picture at times, Gaba reassures us that it only appears so because of the nature of the formal ritual which “leads to a permissible exaggeration of the functions of these spirit beings” (p. 133). (My guess is that if the priests of Baal had used such an argument on Elijah they would not have had great success.) Gaba tells us that to the Anlos sin is not a “state” but “life-negating” acts (p. 140) and that for them salvation is by works (p. 144). He commends them (as Gorospe commended the Filipinos) for having a good perspective on the “sacred dimension of life” (p. 146).

3. Thus the consensus moves from transcendence to ecumenism. Is there any place, though, for divine immanence in this scheme? Certainly, but again in a special sense. If God is beyond all words, then all words about him must be judged by autonomous human reason, as we have seen. But to say this is to say that in practice we are to regard our autonomous judgments as divine. Findlay uses this very argument: since God is the source of values, and since we must assume (as Kant) the right of human beings to choose their values autonomously, therefore God is the capacity for autonomous choice (p. 190). He is “in some sense the inmost nature of all persons.” Ott comes at the same conclusion in a different way: we note that unfathomable mystery is to be found, not only in God, but also in ourselves. But if mystery is as such divine, then “the essence of human being participates in the mystery of God” (p. 13). All of this ties in with the Hindu equation of Brahman (God) with Atman (the human soul; Murti, pp. 28ff). In deep meditation, “we know God or our Deepest Self not externally through representation, but by being it entirely…. We become identical with the real” (p. 27). Kadowaki (comparing Zen with Christianity) quotes Rahner’s words: “The term ‘self-communication’ is really intended to signify that God in his own most proper reality makes himself the innermost constitutive element of man…man is the event of God’s absolute self-communication” (p. 394). Macquarrie reminds us that for Heidegger the unity of essence and existence that theologians have attributed to God (and by which they have defined God) pertains also to human beings (p. 160). Love, says Tiwari, is “not the result of unity-in-diversity nor has it any outside motive; it is the experience of pure identity with the Essence which in itself is Love” (p. 256). To put it simply, “God is none other than the Self” (p. 39). From super-transcendence (God is a total mystery) we move to super-immanence (God is identical with me).

The approach of process theology is a bit different at the outset, but ends up at the same point. Process theology is mentioned a number of times in this volume, and not only as a foil to Rev. Moon. Macquarrie notes some common emphases between process thought and Heidegger (pp. 162.f), and Hick, after the manner of the Whiteheadians, tells us that God changes as the traditions about him change (p. 176). Gorospe even informs us that the popular Filipino religion “acknowledges God as Creator and His active presence without in any way denying scientific evolution and process philosophy” (p. 112). I wonder if he asked them about that. But the most extensive discussion of process thought is the article by Theodore Vitali. It is obscure, as much process theology is; and thinkers of this school are never so obscure as they are when seeking to resolve intramural disputes.

In this article, Vitali criticizes the views of fellow-Whiteheadians Norris Clarke and Robert Neville. These men (to make a very long story short) find that traditional process philosophy lacks intelligibility because it lacks a clear concept of the world’s origin. Since God and the world “create” one another in process thought, the God-world complex lacks any unequivocal cause and thus rests on chance. Clarke and Neville offer two different ways to remedy this problem, both returning to sort-of modified, amended, revised forms of creation ex nihilo. Vitali doesn’t like these expedients because they compromise what he deems essential to process thought—the notion that the universe produces changes in God. He thinks that the problem of intelligibility can be solved by more “traditional” process resources: Hartshorne’s ontological argument which establishes God’s necessary existence, which provides, in turn, a rationale for the existence of the world. (Of course, Hartshorne’s argument establishes only the “primordial” nature of God, God’s most abstract features. God’s concreteness comes through his interaction with the world; and in my view there is still a major problem of intelligibility at that level, and thus with the process-god in general.) At any rate, Vitali makes it clear that for the process-thinker, as for those mentioned in the previous paragraph, man has attributes that traditionally have been ascribed to God; and he admits that such confusion between creator and creature leads to problems in the system.

Such is the consensus which emerges from this volume. My critique can perhaps be discerned from the tone of my exposition; but some points deserve more explicit treatment. First on the concept of transcendence: The statement that God is not an “object” or “a” being among others has become a kind of litany in modern theology. Everyone treats it as perfectly obvious. I confess, however, that I really don’t find it obvious; I’m not even sure I know what it means. Someone without theological sophistication would probably take these statements to mean that God is not a material “object”—a “thing” that we can see, touch, manipulate, etc. But of course no one except cultists and Stoics would claim that God is material. Do these statements mean, then, that God is not an “object” of discourse? That he is not a “being” in the sense of object of predication, something that can be thought of or spoken about? Well, all the language about God’s “inexpressibility” suggests such a notion. But surely the writers in this volume do claim to speak about God. Even the statement that “God is not an object” is a statement about God. If God is literally inexpressible, how did these thinkers manage to produce a 419-page book about him? The Muslim theologian Gaafar Sheikh Idris, dissenting significantly from the general consensus outlined above, argues against some of his fellow Muslims who believe that only negative or metaphorical statements can be made concerning God. His arguments are good on the whole; they show that consistent “negationism” is impossible and contrary to the requirements of religious worship (pp. 279ff). From a Christian standpoint, I must point out that Scripture does not teach anything like the doctrine of transcendence presented in the consensus. There is in the Bible a doctrine of divine incomprehensibility (Isa 55:8f, Rom 11:33–36): we cannot comprehend God’s ways or thought. He has not revealed himself to us exhaustively; thus there is always more to him than we know. But Scripture never deduces from this fact that there is any defect in its own account of God. Although the word of the prophets, apostles and Scriptures is not exhaustive, it is nonetheless true. Thus God is an object of predication, and, in that sense, he is “a” being among others, an “object.”

Second, on the subject of trans-religious ecumenism: Just as it is self-refuting to publish a 419-page book about an “inexpressible” God, so it is self-refuting to promote an all-inclusive ecumenism. If dialogue must be totally open, without any presuppositions about the truth or falsity of another’s religion, then of course one must also leave open the question of the truth of one’s own convictions, including his convictions about the legitimacy of ecumenism. But in fact, the book shows very little openness to those who would deny the model of “many paths to one transcendent reality.” Tiwari, indeed, does differ somewhat from the consensus at this point, indicating certain differences between Christian and Hindu conceptions and making it clear that a choice must be made (pp. 245ff); but in general the book’s authors are exceedingly dogmatic and exclusivistic in their ecumenism. Thus it is not surprising that the one religious view which is conspicuously missing here is that of evangelical Christianity; such Christianity cannot be tolerated in the ecumenical discussion, for it must necessarily challenge the consensus at every point.

Then on the consensus view of immanence: clearly it deifies the creature and demolishes the Lordship of God over his world. In Scripture, God’s transcendence is his sovereignty—his supreme power and authority. Because of (not in spite of) that power and authority, God is the most significant, the most prominent fact of our experience. Thus he is intimately present, immanent, clearly revealed, in his world. The consensus-theology reverses this structure: therein, man or creation has supreme power, authority, divinity. God, then, if he exists, is either identical to man-creation (immanence) or totally other—absent, hidden from creation (transcendence).

Thus we do find in this book the beginnings of a “world theology”; but it is a world theology contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a world theology devised by “the prince of this world.” It has no more authority or power than any other bit of academic speculation. Interestingly, Theodore Vitali, after resisting the attempts of Clarke and Neville to reintroduce creation ex nihilo, expresses some concern with the situation created by arguments like his own. He realizes that to oppose the Christian tradition as he has done produces a real problem, for the future of process philosophy will depend upon its ability to function within the Great Tradition.

If process philosophers and theologians are unable to retain and enhance the formal elements in the Christian Creeds, it is my opinion that process philosophy will slip off into the wayside of Western thought. (p. 242)

Well, that is a problem, and not only for Vitali; it calls the whole conference into question. What do these people know about God anyway? They do not even claim the gift of prophecy, only academic credentials. But since when do academic credentials confer upon anyone a knowledge of God? Yet they feel perfectly free to reason autonomously, ignoring, patronizing, or attacking the “Great Traditions” of living religions, creating an artificial religion of their own. Indeed, for the most part, they are quite ignorant of the theology of the true God and his way of salvation in Christ. It is symbolic that this conference was convened under the auspices of the Unification Church; for this volume demonstrates graphically the extent to which modern theology has gone cultic: autonomous reasoning, rejection of biblical doctrine, phony tolerance, creation of a new, exclusive religious community in which Whiteheadians can converse amiably with Unificationists and Filipino animists, but from which disciples of Jesus Christ are excluded.

There is a true world theology.

Jesus shed his blood, not for our sins only, but for those of the whole world (1 John 2:2). And he calls us to “go into all the world and teach all nations” (Matt 28:19). The gospel of Christ is not captive to the “Western mind.” To the Hindu and Buddhist, it proclaims a way to overcome the suffering of life, not by escaping into nothingness, but by a new life of fulness and abundance. To the animist and idolater, it proclaims a direct path to the very presence of God, through Jesus whose death destroyed the veil in the temple. To the modern Jew, who (like Roth in our volume, pp. 345ff) is more preoccupied by Auschwitz than by the OT, the gospel presents a God who sent his son to suffer and die (crucified simply because of who he was) that his people might live. May God continue to rebuke the wisdom of the world with the simplicity, the foolishness of the cross.


1 Barrytown, N.Y.: Unification Theological Seminary (Rose of Sharon Press), 1982.

2 Originally published in WTJ 46:1 (Spring, 1984), 198-205. Used by permission.