Kugel on God

I am still reading and enjoying James L. Kugel’s “How to read the Bible”.

Yesterday I came across this footnote to his comment that “When most people speak about God nowadays, they mean the Supreme Being, the Master of the Universe, the one “than Whom none greater can be conceived.”

This follows the classic formulation of St Anselm (1033-1109). A later try: “A working definiton of God will help to focus both the claims of theologians and the problems of establishing the existence of this God: God is an omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal person who is pure spirit. He is both transcendant and immanent. He created the universe and human beings are his special creation. He loves them, interacts with them, and desires their love” – Diamond (1974:4). By citing this I do not mean to imply that this defintiion would meet with universal approval nowadays; many contemporary theologians would object to the use of the male pronoun, others to His being described as a “person”, interacting with or reacting to humans, still others to human beings thought of as His “special creation”. (A reasonable person might be forgiven for asking at this point, “What’s left?” But that is not our concern here.)

As my friend Fraser would say, “I like the cut of his jib”!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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5 Responses to Kugel on God

  1. Fraser Pearce says:

    It sounds like he has a certain charm.

  2. Peregrinus says:

    Not to be picky, or anything, but Kugel doesn’t suggest that many (or any) theologians would reject every element of Diamond’s definition; just that various theologians would object to various elements of it.

    But even if somebody rejected the gendered language and the personhood-language and the claim of specialness for the creation of humanity, what’s left? Well, omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, spirituality, transcendence, immanence and universal creation, which is quite a lot to be going on with, really. And even if some dangerous radical rejected the whole of Diamond’s definition, he’s still got Anselm’s definition which on the whole has the more respectable pedigree.

    I haven’t read Kugel (though, having followed your link to the Amazon page, I think I’d like to) and it would be unfair to pass any judgment based on the paragraph you quote. But if that paragraph is intended to suggest, without defending, that contemporary theologians tend to reduce the concept of God to essentially nothing, it fails pretty dismally. I hope it isn’t really illustrative of the cut of Kugel’s jib!

    • Stephen K says:

      My thoughts exactly.

    • Schütz says:

      It was a somewhat “tongue in cheek” remark, and it was in a footnote in the back of the book, afterall!

      Still, the philosophical god of the Anselmic definition really is somewhat problematic as a starting point for Christianity. Far better to start with the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. And this is what Kugel is on about in the section to which this is a footnote.

      Kugel is very keen to encourage readers of the Scriptures to recognise that the God of Israel did not always, or originally, have the qualities that Anselm suggested God should have. He was not “omnipotent” or “omniscient”, but rather more like one of Terry Pratchett’s “small gods”, encountered in the desert wilderness and finding a people to call his own and joining his lot to theirs. Kugel’s point is that the God of the Scriptures is often neither the God of the Academy nor the God of the Medieval philosophers. He recogises that this may be somewhat disturbing for modern Jews and Christians, and yet insists that we need to take stock of the source of this picture of God – it is, after all, none other than the “Word of God” itself!

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