The Unnecessary God

Many years ago I knew a pastor who said he did not believe in angels. I was surprised by his statement and asked him why. His response was interesting:

“I do not believe in angels because I cannot think of anything that they do that the Holy Spirit could not do instead.”

I thought his reasoning was confused at the time and still do. Essentially, he did not believe in angels because he did not think them necessary. Of course, the fault in his logic is that nothing created exists by necessity. All creation exists by the will of God and nothing can lay claim to necessity. Creation does not need to exist.

It is also correct to say that God does not need to exist – there is no necessity in God – His existence is pure freedom.

To speak of things as unnecessary or of God’s lack of necessity is very troubling. We often have an interior sense that things which do not exist by necessity may therefore not really exist at all. It is only natural for a child to have a sense of fear and insecurity when they come to an age to realize that their own existence not only had a beginning, but that they need not ever to have existed. It’s similar to the fear of death.

The lack of necessity in God is quite similar. Most arguments for the existence of God are a search for such necessity. Arguments that win and become persuasive are generally grounded in some form of necessity. The argument for God’s existence is not only that He does exist, but that He must exist. Of course if there is no necessity in God, if we cannot say, “God must,” then believers can find themselves deeply unsettled, thinking that if we cannot say “God must,” then perhaps we can say, “God isn’t.”

Such things are logical problems and the fear of them is rooted deep in the fears that haunt humanity.

At the heart of these problems is the problem of freedom. St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” 2 Corinthians 3:17. We are also taught in the Scriptures that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). These are not separate understandings – for there is no love except love exists in freedom. That which is by compulsion is not love. Believers are invited into an existence that is rooted in love and freedom not necessity. Such an existence is the very basis of what it means for us to exist as persons.

All of this sets us in a place that can feel very insecure. We frequently prefer necessity to freedom and compulsion to love.

Those who argue against the existence of God remind me of my friend who found the existence of angels unnecessary. Many people have the experience described by St. Paul in Romans 1, in which the existence of God is easily inferred from the very existence and order of creation. But St. Paul does not describe such an experience as “necessary.” In our modern world such “necessity” would not always seem obvious. Moreover, such necessity is not immune to doubt.

The movement from a necessary existence to an existence grounded in freedom and love is a difficult journey for most people. The lack of compulsion (which is also a lack of violence) seems untenable in the world. People fear that without compulsion the world becomes far too dangerous. Compulsion can restrain evil, but it cannot make evil be good.

To use the word “unnecessary” with regard to God is not to say that we can exist without Him. It is to say that to exist with Him, in the fullness of life to which we are called, is to live beyond necessity and to embrace God in freedom and love.

Forgive my clumsy expressions.

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29 Responses to “The Unnecessary God”

  1. Steven Clark Says:

    There are realms of speaking of God where words do not serve well. As you pointed out, it is not necessary for God to be spoken of in culture and languages; He is above both. Your attempt is honourable.

  2. Emily Says:

    This is beautiful.

  3. MK @ Teach Sunday School Says:

    What a thought-provoking blog post. I have to say that I agree with you—it seems as though that pastor was a bit confused; his reasoning certainly doesn’t convince me! This line of yours touched me: “His existence is pure freedom.” It touched me because of its truth and its complexity. Thank you for writing this post and for making me think.

  4. C. WIngate Says:

    Surely the course of Judaeo-Christian history (esp. as recorded in scripture) should put to rest the notion that there is anything efficient about the way God chooses to act in the world.

  5. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Father,

    This cupola says more about heaven than almost anything I can think of (and it does this with so little blue too).

    Thank you indeed!🙂

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Andrew,
    I thought the color in the dome was most interesting. We’re in the middle of renovations in my parish, thus I’m thinking a lot about colors (and church interiors) lately. This is a most striking Pantocrator!

  7. Andrew Battenti Says:

    And necessary…!
    🙂

  8. Sabrina M Messenger Says:

    That not believing in Angels thing is weird for a pastor/minister to say. Was he a Unitarian or something? As for me, I believe in Angels, and I love what you say about God not being ‘necessary’ but of being pure freedom.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Sabrina,
    He was an Anglican priest friend – he later came to accept angels think better of his theory.

  10. Your Intrepid Blogger Says:

    Beautifully said, Father.

  11. David Robles Says:

    “I thought his reasoning was confused at the time and still do. Essentially, he did not believe in angels because he did not think them necessary. Of course, the fault in his logic is that nothing created exists by necessity. All creation exists by the will of God and nothing can lay claim to necessity. Creation does not need to exist.

    It is also correct to say that God does not need to exist – there is no necessity in God – His existence is pure freedom.”

    Right on! Wow, you are sharp! I love your acute and very precise
    statements. Thank you!

  12. Philippe Says:

    I think your friend was right for the wrong reasons. I do not believe in angels because there is not a shred of evidence to support their existence.

  13. E Leutwiler Says:

    The word angel means messenger. Thus in the OT ‘The angel of the Lord’ who appeared before Moses amongst others was the pre-incarnate Christ. Since no one man see the Father, messengers
    (or angles in this case) are rather necessary to mediate in such instances of divine revelation.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Philippe,
    You illustrate my posting very well. A shred of evidence would indeed grant them the “necessity” that we fearfully seek about everything. Of course, it would seem that eye-witnesses are apparently insufficient. I know a good number of eye-witnesses, and even more ear-witnesses. But do not take that as necessarily so. I couldn’t prove it to you.

  15. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Philippe (if I may)

    In purely ontological terms there is nothing that distinguishes humans from angels. To deny one is to completely lose sight of the other.

    Father John Hainsworth’s excellent podcast series shines some interesting perspectives on this difficult subject.

    http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/paradosis/P14/

    Enjoy!

  16. Nathaniel McCallum Says:

    Fr Stephen, I think you are right on point with this thought! I’ve often had the same objection to these types of thinkers: existence is not a matter of necessity. I’m glad to see we came to the same conclusion.

  17. Philippe Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I think you are a bit confused. The necessity of angels is irrelevant.

    You do not believe that djinns or unicorns exists I guess, not because they are unnecessary for the universe to run, but because there is no good reason to believe that they exist.
    There is simply no evidence that these magical beings exist.
    The same can be said about angels.

    Your eye-witnesses and ear-witnesses testimonies would be interesting to read about, but unfortunately there are already hundreds of eye-witnesses of aliens and none of these testimonies lead to any serious evidence to support their claims about aliens.

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Phillipe,
    I do not believe in aliens, despite the descriptions of encounters. I do not know what to make of the descriptions but I do not think aliens is the explanation. I do accept some accounts of angels – though I hold them to be incomparable to the experience of aliens – it’s a very different claim. The descriptions of djinns within Muslim tradition would for me, fit the description of demons within Christian tradition, therefore I remain open-minded.

    Unicorns, leprechauns, dragons, (and some other stuff) I personally would entertain a playful openness towards – though most of the believers I know would find me “over-the-top” on that list.

    I clearly am asserting the reality of things that exist for which you would claim “not one shred of evidence.” I am also asserting that there exist some things that do not have the characteristic of evidentiary reality – but not because they do not exist – but because they do not exist in the manner or mode that is not necessarily subject to such evidence. I am also asserting that there are some things that having such evidentiary material would be superflous in the matter because such evidence would not and could not yield the mode of knowledge which would be useful.

    I am also asserting that there is a mode of existence (personhood) that is essential to proper human existence, that is a shift away from pure materialism (which you seem to be suggesting). Since materialists can accept things like “String Theory” and “Multiple Universes” with no evidence whatsoever, I don’t see how my belief in a different mode of existence should be so shocking. Nonetheless…

  19. Philippe Says:

    You simply assert things exist and bring no evidence to the table. It’s not very impressive.
    I’ll leave you and your fans alone now.

  20. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Philippe (again if I may),

    Who would have though the cross of Christ to be so neccesary and indeed, that it stands as an eternal sign of God’s generosity?

    In Orthodoxy there is a very suble interplay between the cataphatic and apophatic.

  21. Lori, Willow Creek Association Says:

    “Believers are invited into an existence that is rooted in love and freedom not necessity. Such an existence is the very basis of what it means for us to exist as persons.”

    It took me years to really believe this. What a joy to finally understand and have the peace of that freedom and love!

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Phillipe,
    Sorry for your disappointment. You asked no questions other than “where’s the evidence?” “Evidence” already asserts an understanding of the universe (for which you offered no “evidence.” I asserted an alternative view of the universe. But you had already “rigged” the game. Doesn’t work very well.

  23. Andrew Battenti Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I do not know of any other view of the universe other than the one you point to and which Pascha is its true dawn.

    The Jinn occupy a curious part because they neither partake nor profit in it. In the Islamic tradition I am told, it is because they could not bow before (a) man.

  24. Michael Bauman Says:

    Materialists such as Phillipe confound me. I don’t understand the voluntary truncation of one’s own being that such a view makes necessary.

  25. Patricia Thackston-Ganner Says:

    Praise God that he did not wait until most of our wonderful faith and world was not “necessary” as I sit here in the beautiful New Mexican desert beneath a turquise colored sky with magnificent puffs of white above me…………. So unneeded for the world but so filling to my thirsty soul.

  26. Aaron Says:

    This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a Protestant friend who was sincerely wrestling with taking some intitial steps towards the Orthodox Faith. It is not surprising that when talking about some aspects of Orthodox Worship he said he understood the “purpose” of them, but then quickly had to add that they are not “necessary” for which I assume he meant “for salvation.” It is sad that the Protestant Faith has lost so much and been so fragmented to the point that they all must look to the lowest common denominator or “mere Christianity”.

  27. Visibilium Says:

    Fr. Stephen, another excellent post. I’m fine with Phillipe’s skepticism and his demand for evidence, and paraphrasing Bp Ware, I’d imagine that God likes honest disbelief better than fake belief. We know that humans are different than rocks, and, even though human consciousness isn’t measurable, it’s obvious that it’s there somehow, somewhere. The demand for evidence presupposes the existence of consciousness and reason to apprehend the evidence.

  28. joelrva Says:

    Reading your post I was hearing a meta-thought—

    You wrote at the beginning “All creation exists by the will of God and nothing can lay claim to necessity. Creation does not need to exist.” And it hit me that for years and years now I have meditated on the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy will be done.” And of course in the Greek, “to thelema sou,” which I hear in my inner being, “may your wish come true (and then remembering your words that what is true is Christ). Even in the Vulgate it is translated voluntas, and until recently, will meant wish as in the marriage words, “I will.” Or, that is my desire. What more could one say. For as you say later in your post,

    “Believers are invited into an existence that is rooted in love and freedom not necessity.” Again, as the marriage vows and Christ’s relationship to the Church….

    And most importantly you write,

    “The lack of compulsion (which is also a lack of violence) seems untenable in the world. People fear that without compulsion the world becomes far too dangerous. Compulsion can restrain evil, but it cannot make evil be go

    The Will of God that seems to “in” today is the will of command, of compulsion, violence. But God desires our coming into and be-ing, it is God’s freedom, his own freedom, that loves us into be-ing, into beings. All beings, in our case, human beings. The god the world desires is the God of compulsion, of restraint of evil which would be a god doing violence to the freedom of his own beloved creation.

    And then back to what you said, “”Believers are invited into an existence that is rooted in love and freedom not necessity.” We are invited into the very freedom of God himslf and into the very Love in that freedom and freedom in that Love, Christ, that “moves the stars and planets.”

    Thank you. Thank you. Again…. and again.

  29. franzwa Says:

    Wow! What more can I add to this?! I’m blessed by your post. Thank God for this revelation of freedom.

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