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Hearts of Darkness 3 - The Nature of God

Does God care about the individual?

By Will Offensicht  |  December 19, 2008

The great military strategist Sun Tzu said, "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster."  The West has not done well in combating terrorism, in large part because we aren't following Sun Tzu's advice concerning knowing our enemies.

Our enemies in militant Islam have been crystal clear in communicating their motivations: they perpetrate all manner of horrors because in their view, Allah requires it of them.  To know how to deal with this situation, it's essential that we attempt to understand where they are coming from.

This series examines comparative religions, particularly regarding Islam.  Islam and Christianity share the same fundamental belief in the existence of one and only one God, but beyond that things start to split apart, beginning with the fundamental nature of that One God.

Assuming that you've decided to believe that God exists and that He created the universe and everything in it, you have to decide whether God cares about what He created, whether He's indifferent to how things work out, or something in between.  Over the years, there has been a wide variety of beliefs as to how involved God is with the details of what goes on in the world.

At one end of the spectrum, there's the impersonal "Force" so beloved of Star Wars fans.  People say, "May the Force be with you," which has no more spiritual value than wishing someone "Good luck."

Everybody knows that the Force doesn't care how your life turns out.  If the Force cares about people at all, it's concerned only with populations and nations, not with individuals.  Luke Skywalker's guardian angels were more George Lucas and Steven Spielberg than the Force; having the producer and the author on your side is a definite advantage when you're a character who's trying to survive a movie episode.

Though there are probably relatively few genuine adherents to the Jedi mythology, the religion depicted in the films closely resembles the ancient Persian beliefs of Zoroastrianism.  This is a dualistic religion whose impersonal and androgynous god, named Ahura-Mazda, encompasses both good and evil.  Naturally, it's preferred that you do good, but the "Dark Side" is equally powerful and equally a part of "god".

While the choices you make have an effect on what happens to you, as they did for Darth Vader and the Emperor Palpatine, it's not because the Force really cares about you as a person, it's whether what you want lines up with what the Force is trying to do.  If you and the Force are on the same page, the Force may be with you, but doesn't really care about you.

Many Enlightenment-era thinkers held to a slightly more involved view of God.  In this view, God actively created the world, establishing the natural laws that prevail, but then pretty much left it to run its course.

This belief in a creative but subsequently uninvolved God is called Deism, and was shared by many of our Founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson.  Sometimes it's referred to as the "clock-winder" God, where God was intimately involved in designing, constructing, and empowering, but then left the mechanism to run down on its own.

Not all of our Founders felt that way - and some of them seem to have changed their views over time.  Ben Franklin, in particular, clearly had Deistic leanings; and yet, during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he called for official prayers to God, saying

And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth, that God governs in the Affairs of Men. And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid?

This illustrates another position: that God is present and active in the world, that He has a plan and will intervene to further His grand purposes.  In order to accomplish them, He is aware of everything going on no matter how minor.  Not only many Christians, but most of the Islamic world, hold to this view which we've described as the All-Seeing Eye.

However, even if God is aware of everything that goes on, there's a big difference between a God who is involved at the macro level of high politics and a God who actually cares about not just the great, but also the small.

Many Muslims appear to view God somewhat like a medieval peasant might view the king.  He exists, and is supremely powerful; he cares about his subjects in a general way, and he hates their enemies.  He is involved directly in the lives of the great nobles, but normally he doesn't have any interaction at a personal level with those on the bottom.  If a few of them get run over by his caravan, well, it's no big deal.  "Inshallah" - As God wills.

As with an ambitious medieval peasant, a Muslim may bring himself to the attention of Allah by particular fervor.  A warrior who fights bravely in battle might get noticed by the king and receive a knighthood, promotion, even ennoblement and an estate.  Similarly, Osama bin Laden clearly believes that Allah will notice him and profoundly bless him because he's such a bold holy warrior.

Bin Laden hopes to get that blessing in this life, as Caliph; his explosive followers look for the fabled seventy virgins in the afterlife, but the principle is the same.

A look at the New Testament shows a very different God from the exalted and distant absolute monarch.  Jesus' disciples don't record Him as spending much time with the great and the good of ancient Judea, quite the contrary; most of His attention was directed at the lowest of the low - prostitutes, blind beggars, widows, and the like.

A hallmark of Christianity which makes it distinct from all other religions is that the God described in the New Testament knows and cares about you personally no matter how insignificant you are.  He cares just as much about the king as about the chambermaid.  He cares about the rich man, and He cares just as much about the beggar.  In Hinduism, the lame beggar has earned his sorry state because of some unknown sin he committed in a past life or a more recent sin committed by him or his relations; Jesus explicitly condemned this view of the unfortunate in the Gospel of John (9:3).

Catholic teaching places the hierarchy of the Church between the individual and God and states that individual Catholics have to pray to Jesus through His mother Mary; Protestant theology allows every man to speak directly to the Almighty and expect not only an audience but an answer.  This limits the need to do anything dramatic to get His attention - if you're a Christian, you have God's attention just the way you are, or, if Catholic, can readily get God's attention via prayers to saints or the help of your priest.

This idea is embodied in the phrase "all men are created equal" in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  In declaring "these truths to be self-evident," the writers admitted that there was no proof that men were equal before God; they regarded this concept as a self-evident axiom.

The more personal your God is and the more He cares about each individual, the more difficult it becomes to rationalize the saying "the end justifies the means."  Vanishingly few Christians murder abortionists even though they consider abortion to be murder; they believe that God cares about the soul of the abortionist even though the abortionist is a deliberate mass-murderer.

Islam is a less personal religion, so Muslims are more willing to kill other people as a favor to Allah.  Atheism is totally impersonal, and it's a historical fact that the atheistic Communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union have committed by far the most murders in the 20th century, followed by the atheistic fascist regimes in Germany and Italy.

So we see the first profound difference between the Islamist and Christian perspectives is rooted in a fundamental disagreement about the nature of God.  God is an abstract construct, especially to those who don't believe in Him, but His nature as perceived by His followers makes a significant difference in what they do.

Of even more practical importance is how religions view the nature of man, and that's the topic of the next article in this series.