Review and Response to “What Do We Mean by ‘God’?”

I recently read the booklet “What do we mean by ‘God’?” by Keith Ward. It’s a short booklet – 56 pages. Meaning you can sit down in one sitting and get through it. Who would have thought there could be a whole conversation about God in only 56 small pages, but Keith Ward was able to do that.

Ward deals with some age-old questions like Who or what is God?, why must God be infinite?, and how do we speak with God?. To answer these questions, he looks to theologians and philosophers of the past to give us a history of what people have said before.

In a sense, this little book, is a quick shot of theology and philosophy all wrapped up in a small package.

Here’s a sample of Ward’s dealing with who God is:

“The most that human concepts can do is to point, very inadequately, towards God. If we can remember that, it will be a great religious gain. For it will stop a lot of intolerance in our religious lives. Intolerance begins when people think they have the one absolute final truth, and that people who disagree with them must be perverse or corrupt.” (Pg. 15).

That’s music to my ears. The essence is the God is complex and unknowable, yet God has made Godself known. God is a mystery by the very essence of being God, yet God put limits on Godself to be known by us.

Another question that Ward does a good job tackling has to do with faith and science. I’ll never understand the supposed conflict between faith and science. I don’t believe there is a conflict. That very idea is relatively new actually. For centuries science and faith worked together. Some of the most important scientific discoveries were discovered by people of faith – some lay people, but also priests as well.

Ward argues that science prospered in the Christian culture because it was a Christian culture that valued and believed in rationality – God is rational, not arbitrary. Rationality leads us to search for the truth about the universe.

Ward argues that God is the ultimate explanation and the ultimate cause.

This leads to the final question – the question that people have been wrestling with for eons – purpose. Why are we here?

“One reason for thinking that there is a purpose is that, once we have said that the universe expresses a rational consciousness, it is very natural to think that the existence of this universe has some purpose, that the consciousness expresses itself for some reason.” (Pg. 41).

Ward’s ultimate answer about our purpose comes down to this – what is worthwhile?

“…happiness, knowledge, creative freedom, and love. These are the things which make human life worthwhile, which makes us really more human and fulfilled.” (Pg. 47)

Ward also talks about virtue – “the human capacity, which animals do not seem to have, to do what is right for its own sake, in the face of temptation or difficulty.” (pg. 47).

While a nice idea, I wonder if this is correct. While humanity, in general, has the capacity for virtue, what makes an individual person choose not to what is right for its own sake? Does everyone have this capacity, or is it one of those things that people choose to ignore or plainly reject? And why? These are important questions in an age of pandemic in which there are many people who willingly choose to not do actions that by all accounts are right for their own sake in the sense that they are done for the care and concern and health of others. How does virtue exist and thrive when it is confronted by toxic individualism?

The virtues that Ward focuses on are:

“morality seems to be the pursuit of happiness, knowledge and creative freedom for all who are capable of them. Justice is concerned with making such goals available to everyone, and with the impartial distribution of advantages and disadvantages. Honesty is necessary to the growth of knowledge. And loyalty is part of the pattern of love. So virtue is precisely the free pursuit of the four worthwhile goals of human life, just for their own sake, without regard to personal benefit.” (pg. 47).

And that last sentence is the key. Our purpose goes beyond our own individual desires to an increase in the virtues for more people. A type of selflessness. There doesn’t seem to be a more Christian concept than that.

Ward finally indirectly addresses the idea of the ends justifying the means. This makes sense given everything else that he has written about. And what should be no surprise, he argues against the idea.

“A value, of course, does not have to be something static, as though it has to be just the last state of a process. The process itself may be of value. For example, if we take a simple human activity like mountain climbing, the value of this activity does not lie simply in its last state, in standing on top of the mountain. If it did, we could achieve it much more easily by taking a helicopter straight to the top of the mountain. But this would seem to miss the point. It is the activity of climbing the tis valued.” (Pg. 51).

In other words, the ends don’t justify the means. The means are what give value to the ends. They are as important as the ending we seek. This is the very nature of discipleship. Jesus doesn’t focus all his efforts on the ends. It is also about the means to that end. Jesus’ entire story is all about valuing the means. His call of discipleship is about the means. His parables are about the means. The great commission is about the means. His emphasis on serving the poor, loving the outcast, welcoming the foreigner, caring for the sick – they are all about the means. Yet somehow, a portion of Christianity has been able to set all that aside to focus on the end – getting to heaven. In doing so, they miss so much of what Jesus is about. And that’s sad.

Overall, this is a good book to read if you want to get a quick shot of some deep theology and philosophy in an approachable manner. Ward deals nicely with some difficult concepts.

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