An Incomplete Theology of Divinity

Five ways to think about God

One of our oldest questions as humans appears to be: Is there a god or gods and, if so, what are they like? Entire civilizations—their innovations, triumphs, wars, and oppression—have risen and fallen over the many divergent answers to this question. I think it’s a good one to keep asking.

At Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898, Dutch theologian (and, eventually, prime minister) Abraham Kuyper delivered a lecture in which he argued that all our various attempts to understand our relationship with God fall into just five categories.

These categories are delineated by an underlying relationship, or lack of relationship, between a divine spirit and creation. Obviously, much has changed in the dozen decades since this lecture was delivered, but I have found Kuyper’s five categories to be surprisingly beneficial in contemporary conversations about Man, the Cosmos, and the Divine.

By better naming our own theories of divinity — and the suppositions that come along with them—we can be better prepared to engage others in gracious and meaningful dialogue.

Whatever labels you use for yourself, it may prove useful to ask if your lived theology — as well as the attitudes and behaviors that flow from it — fit neatly (or even not-so-neatly) into one of Kuyper’s five categories.

Since the dawn of time, humans subscribed to one of at least two ideas: A) that creation is divine and that through enlightenment we discover that we ourselves are divine too, or B) that there is a separate and distinct creator-being who is worthy of our fear and worship. These two fundamental beliefs about ourselves and our existence might also be described as natural Paganism and the Abrahamic traditions that emerge from the desert.

1. God within creation

To identify as pagan, or paganus in the Latin, seems to me to be the most natural condition of man. In ancient Rome, “pagan” would have held a variety of meanings. Originally, a pagan was just a person from a rural area or remote village. Later, the term applied to any civilian (outside the citizen-soldier-class) who hadn’t pledged allegiance to Caesar.

Eventually, the word came to describe anyone outside the Christian community—those who hadn’t pledged allegiance to Christ and his church. As Christianity became the official state religion — enforced by government and military and centered in cities — paganism took on a negative tone, mostly associated with the old superstition and strange magic found at the wild, untamed edges of the empire.

By my lights, paganism is an extremely reasonable belief structure for anyone who believes in a spiritual realm, seeing evidence of divinity within creation, but has not been persuaded by any specific means of revelation. I think a great many religions fall into this category: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Pantheism, to name a few.

Almost every ethnic group that traces its roots will discover ancient, tribal paganism in its past. These gods and their powers come from nature and humanity’s own hopes and fears—and our own deep-seated desire to escape suffering. Fertility, military triumph and good fortune in the hunt or harvest (or stock market) feature prominently in pagan theology.

Pagans sense the spark of divinity within humans and the rest of creation and call it god.

2. God through priests

One of these ancient tribes, the Israelites, came to believe that there was a single god outside creation and that they were his chosen people. They called him “holy” to name his apart-ness.

Through an ancient, given law and messengers, or prophets, they lived in relationship with this god and sought to be holy themselves — separate from their surrounding culture. They made burnt sacrifices to atone for their sins — confessing and turning from it. And, importantly, they looked to one line, one class, to serve as intermediaries. God would meet with them in designated places and times and, if they did everything correctly, their priests could approach the divine.

This category states that there is a divine creator who wants to be in a relationship with us, but we need a mediator.

Kuyper asserted that this thinking continues in orthodox Catholicism in its many expressions. The faithful entrust knowledge of the divine to the clergy and look to them for practices and interpretation of sacred texts. Like the Israelites and today’s Orthodox Jews, they confess and atone for their sins through a priestly class, trusting in their revelation and dispensation.

The end of the 6th century found the world spiraling back into darkness. The many advances in the arts, human rights, wealth and government associated with the classical period were collapsing back into oppression, ignorance, war, and disease. Then, at the beginning of the 7th, a new theory sprung from the ancient Abrahamic orthodoxy.

3. God beyond creation

A new prophet emerged, claiming that he had a new and specific revelation of this spirit god. His followers believe that Muhammed was the final prophet, affirming the monotheistic teachings of other prophets such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. He teachings are collected in a holy book.

The name of the religious variations that sprung from this view of divinity, Islam, means “submission.” One key difference between the proclamations of previous Jewish prophets and Muhammed was the orientation of the Divine toward humans. While the Israelites and early Christians believed that God desired a relationship with Man, Muslims saw submission to a holy and distant God as the path to eternal bliss.

The emphasis is on God’s mercy in revealing clear teaching and practices for living a virtuous life. The reward for this submission is eternal happiness, but not in the presence of God. The Islamic understanding of divinity places a gulf between the Creator and the creatures—inviting adherents to righteousness.

This distant, unknowable theory of divinity makes sense to many, with nearly a quarter of the world's population following these teachings.

About a thousand years later, priests and philosophers within Christendom began challenging the foundations of orthodox Christianity. Theologians such as Luther, Calvin, Knox, and eventually Kuyper himself, revisited some of the ancient texts and teachings of Jesus in an effort to reform the Church.

4. Creation within God

Chief among the reformation principles was something called the priesthood of all believers. This is the idea that we need no mediator to approach God, based on the idea that Jesus (as both man and God) has fulfilled that role.

This was a break with the Judeo-Roman understanding of divinity. In fact, reformed Christian theology goes even further, asserting that all Creation exists within God and God is actually a relational God—three persons in one—who desires for us to enter into that relationship. This radical inversion of Pagan thinking makes the holiness of God, and life with him, available to men but not because they themselves are divine.

By emphasizing the priesthood of all believers and a trinitarian view of the divine spirit and rejecting the preeminence of the mediating priestly class, this idea about God transformed political and social life. It intersected with Enlightenment philosophy and contributed to the rapid liberalization of western Europe.

Ideas as simple as translating Biblical texts into common language and tolerating practices outside of the government-sanctioned state church were truly revolutionary. Without the essential role of the priests, the preeminence of the Vatican began to wane.

The American experiment in self-government, Kuyper argued at Princeton, is largely an extension of this reformed (and in his view, specifically Calvinist) theology. If creation exists wholly within God, he reasoned, everything is God’s—every sphere of human life, every desire, and every endeavor belongs to him. For Kuyper, this conviction pushed him into politics and academics, as well as pastoring and theology.

While reformed theology was taking root in the minds of the Germans, Dutch, Scots, and Swiss, the role of Rome grew stronger in France. Within a couple of hundred years, many ordinary Frenchman had come to see any worldview that included God to be corrupt—linked to feudalism, classism, oppression, and suffering.

As much as the French Revolution was about overthrowing a noble class, it was also about overthrowing a priestly class. Radical social and economic upheaval was accompanied and supported by a modern theory of divinity.

5. There is no God

Speaking just a century later, Kuyper is remarkably prescient about the rapid rise of secular humanism. As liberal institutions sought to serve and connect an exploding citizenry in Europe and the Americas, modern humanist ethics—neither Pagan nor Catholic, Muslim nor Protestant—became ubiquitous within governments seeking to separate religious influence from shared political life.

Jacobin ideologies in France influenced revolutions in dozens of other countries, notably Russia, in ways that indelibly shaped the 20th century. Ancient social norms within universities, business, and other organizations were updated without the inherited traditions.

Critical of the ways the world’s other theories of divinity allowed for abominations like slavery, needless war, and subjugation, the atheistic worldview elevated science and reason above faith and mysticism. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, through two world wars and an Industrial Revolution, modernism expanded into ever more aspects of life.

Complementary to white-collar professions like medicine and law, and sensible in large, pluralistic cities, secular humanism is most potent in metropolitan areas.

Each of the five theories of divinity comes with implications about the world we inhabit, our lives, and our future. They overlap in significant and fascinating ways, but I find each to present a compelling narrative of its own.

Agrarian designer from Virginia.

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