By Edward Buckner, here, at Dale Tuggy's place. Ed's text is indented; my comments are not. I thank Ed for the stimulating discussion. He begins:
I have been telling the Maverick Philosopher here about Benjamin Sommer’s theory of divine fluidity, which is one solution to the problem of anthropomorphic language in the Hebrew Bible. The problem is not just Genesis 1:26 (‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’) but also Genesis 3:8 ‘They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze’. Can God be a man with feet who walks around the garden leaving footprints? As opposed to being a pure spirit? The anthropomorphic conception is, in Maverick’s opinion ‘a hopeless reading of Genesis’, and makes it out to be garbage. ‘You can’t possibly believe that God has feet’.
Yet Benjamin Sommer, Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary, proposes such a literal and anthropomorphic interpretation. As he argues (The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel), if the authors of the Hebrew Bible had intended their anthropomorphic language to be understood figuratively, why did they not say so? The Bible contains a wide variety of texts in different genres, but there is no hint of this, the closest being the statement ofDeuteronomy 4.15 that the people did not see any form when the Ten Commandments were revealed at Sinai.
I should first of all say that I haven't read Sommer's book; so none of this is directed against Sommer except in modo obliquo. My target is Buckner's take on the matters discussed by Sommer. I should also point out that Ed quotes from my Combox where I am known to make remarks even less guarded than in my main entries. I was a little irritated that he had hijacked my thread by using 'anthropomorphic' in a way other than the way I had defined it. My post has nothing to do with the Bible or divine revelation. You could say that my concern there is the absolute and therefore ontologically simple 'God of the philosophers' not 'the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,' to acquiesce for a moment in that dubious but provocative distinction.
My aim there was to show that (i) univocity of predicate sense across such predications as 'God is wise' and 'Socrates is wise' is incompatible with the divine simplicity, and that the friends of univocity support a conception of God that is anthropomorphic in the narrow sense of being a conception according to which the great-making properties of God are really just great-making properties of creatures even if they are the maxima of those of the great-making properties that admit of degrees. This narrow and refined sense of 'anthropomorphic' has to be distinguished from the more ordinary, crude sense according to which 'anthropomorphic' means having the form of a human animal, including its physical form and composition. So if you imagine God stomping around in a physical garden leaving footprints, then your conception is crudely anthropomorphic. But if you think of God as a pure spirit having many of the same properties as Socrates possesses, but none of his physical properties, and having all of his properties in the same way that Socrates has his -- two different but connected issues here, nota bene -- then you have an anthropomorphic conception of God, albeit a refined one.
But now onto the topic dear to Ed's heart. He asks: " if the authors of the Hebrew Bible had intended their anthropomorphic language to be understood figuratively, why did they not say so?" This rhetorical question is grammatically interrogative but logically declarative: it amounts to the declaration that the authors did intend their crudely anthropomorphic language to be taken literally because they didn't say otherwise. This declaration, in turn, is a telescoped argument:
The authors did not say that their language was to be taken figuratively;
Their language is to be taken literally.
The argument, however, is plainly a non sequitur. It therefore gives me no reason to change my view.
Besides, it is preposterous to suppose that the creator of the the physical universe, "the heavens and the earth," is a proper part of the physical universe. Since that is impossible, no intelligent reading of Genesis can take the creator of the universe to be a bit of its fauna. Presumably, God gave us the intelligence to read what is obviously figurative as figurative.
And if one takes the Bible to be divine revelation, then it is natural to assume that God is using the authors to get his message across. For that to occur, the authors needn't be terribly bright or apprised of the variety of literary tropes. What does it matter what the authors intended? Suppose they intended talk of man being made in the divine image and likeness to be construed in some crassly materialistic way. Then they failed to grasp the profound spiritual truth that they, willy nilly (nolens volens), were conveying.
‘Until Saadiah [the 10th century father of Jewish philosophy], all Jewish thinkers, biblical and post-biblical, agreed that God, like anything real in the universe, has a body’. A proper understanding of the Hebrew Bible requires not only that God has a body, but that God has many bodies ‘located in sundry places in the world that God created’. These bodies are not angels or messengers. He says in this this interview that an angel in one sense is not sent by God but actually is God, just not all of God.
>>[It] is a smaller, more approachable, more user-friendly aspect of the cosmic deity who is Hashem. That idea is very similar to what the term avatara conveys in Sanskrit. So in this respect, we can see a significant overlap between Hindu theology and one biblical theology.<<
Do hard-assed logicians such as ourselves balk at such partial identity? Not necessarily. I point to a shadow at the bottom of the door, saying ‘that is the Fuller Brush man’. Am I saying that the Fuller Brush man is a shadow? Certainly not! Nor, when I point to a beach on the island, saying ‘that island is uninhabited’, am I implying that the whole island is a beach. By the same token, when I point to the avatar, and truly say ‘that is God’, am I implying that God is identical with the avatar? Not at all. Nor am I saying that God has feet, even though the avatar has feet. The point is that the reference of ‘that’ is not the physical manifestation before me, but God himself. Scholastic objections that we cannot think of God as ‘this essence’ (ut haec essentia) notwithstanding.
I grant that if an avatar of God has feet, it doesn't follow that God has feet. My wife's avatar on Second Life has a tail, but you will be relieved to hear that my wife does not, literally, have a tail. And yet there is a sense of 'is' according to which the avatar is my wife. But how does this deal with my objection? My point was not that God cannot have feet, but that God cannot be a physical being. The creator of the physical universe cannot be a proper part thereof.
Now suppose God himself is a pure spirit who has the power to manifest himself at will in and through various physical avatars. This is an interesting and quite different notion, but apparently not the one that Sommer is floating.
The Jewish philosopher/theologian who turns my crank is the great Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) as he is known in the West. He goes to the opposite extreme rejecting both crude and refined anthropomorphism. His path is that of the via negativa, a path beset by its own perils. I hope to say something about it in a later entry.