IS ANYONE HOME?: A CRITIQUE OF THOMAS M. DICKEN’S “THE HOMELESS GOD”

Meredith Payne

’15, Covenant College

Abstract:

In this paper I seek to give an orthodox, Christian answer to Thomas M. Dicken’s “The Homeless God.” I will argue that the traditional doctrine of omnipresence is not sufficiently rejected by Dicken. I will further argue that the traditional doctrine of omnipresence is vitally important for an understanding of God as both Sovereign and Creator, and will ultimately lead the believer to worship and wonder.

Introduction

The issue of God’s omnipresence is not prevalent in philosophical or theological discussion today in the same way that omnipotence or omniscience is. In his article, “The Homeless God,” Thomas Dicken refers to omnipresence as “a weak sibling” of the three “omnis.”[1] This may be due, as Dicken notes, to the fact that God’s omnipotence and his omniscience play a key role in theodicies, and omnipresence does not necessarily have to play such a role.[2] However, omnipresence is a fascinating traditional attribute of God that I believe is still worth studying, and an attribute of God that is capable of bringing us to our knees in worship.

It is an attribute that is first alluded to in Scripture, in Psalm 139:7-8, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”footnote There is comfort and hope for those who find themselves utterly unable to escape the presence of God. Again, in Jeremiah 23:23-24, “‘Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.” Here, the presence of God is associated with power and His role as Sovereign.

The early church fathers, as well, attest to this traditional attribute of God. “Nevertheless, he is not distributed through space by size so that half of Him should be in half the world and half in the other half of it. He is wholly present in all of it… not confined in any place, but wholly in Himself everywhere.”[3] This definition serves to illustrate the role that God plays as Creator. He seems to be similar to a director, able to move about any place on a stage or set with power and authority. Aquinas also attests to the attribute of omnipresence in God when he says, “[T]o be everywhere primarily and essentially belongs to God, and is proper to Him; because whatever number of places be supposed to exist, God must be in all of them, not only by a part of Him, but by His very self.”[4] Thus the attribute of omnipresence, while it may not be at the forefront of philosophical or theological discussion today, is rooted in both Biblical foundations and traditional, orthodox foundations. As such, it serves as a revelation of God’s character and nature.

In this paper I seek to give a fair and Biblically authentic response to Dicken’s account of God’s omnipresence. Although I appreciate the awareness Dicken tries to cultivate in Christians today of the danger of blindly accepting tradition, his rejection of the doctrine of omnipresence is not sufficiently grounded, and his work is ultimately unsatisfactory. By rejecting the omnipresence of God, I believe Dicken ultimately rejects God’s roles as Creator and Sovereign. This, of course, is unacceptable for the orthodox Christian. Indeed, we should find ourselves agreeing with Mr. Beaver in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe that “He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood.”[5] The study of this attribute ultimately leads believers to their knees in worship.

Dicken’s Aim: Why a “homeless” God?

Dicken hopes to offer a way out of the purely intellectual discourse surrounding the traditional doctrine of omnipresence in his attempt to draw from both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John D. Caputo, giving a “graffiti-like” theology of God’s omnipresence, by “working outside of accepted theological themes.”[6],[7] He compares his theology to graffiti in that they are both “provocative” and “fragmentary.”[8] He argues for “unauthorized approaches [towards the study of God] that are grounded in a crucified Jesus” instead of philosophical or systematic theology.[9] In short, Dicken’s goal is to emphasize God’s presence – which he never clearly defines – rather than His omnipresence so to focus on our own experience of Him rather than what (on Dicken’s view) would be an abstract principle about God’s nature.

His main argument seems to mirror that of Schleiermacher’s and some other modern theologians, in that its focus is on the economic God rather than the immanent God. His argument is based upon the assumption that all we can know is the immanent God, which is God as He relates to the world, and we can never know the economic God, which is God as He is in Himself. Mirroring Kant’s famous noumena/phenomena distinction, Dicken argues that just as the noumena, the thing in itself, cannot be sensed, the economic God, God as He is in Himself, is unfathomable. He argues that God’s omnipresence (a doctrine related to the economic God) is either too mysterious to discuss or simply false. The question that he poses throughout his article is this: why should we discuss the doctrine of omnipresence when we could experience the presence of God?

Internal Critique: What Exactly Does He Mean?

Dicken, although he argues vehemently for it throughout his article, never clearly defines presence. He uses provocative language of a “lower case” God and a “homeless” God, and yet, it is never precisely clear what he actually means, or even what he hopes to accomplish.[10] Perhaps he only seeks to ruffle the feathers of orthodox theologians and philosophers, rather than offer a true critique of omnipresence.

Dicken seems to be singularly focused on the Christological presence of God on earth, and also emphasizes our own individual spiritual encounter of God. These are the two clearest uses of the term that I have understood from Dicken’s article. First, he uses presence to refer to Christ’s bodily presence on earth (this is why he calls God “homeless,” because of where Christ was physically to be found while on earth). Second, he uses presence to refer to spiritual communion or awareness of God.[11] However, Dicken never clearly makes this distinction, which confuses and weakens his argument. In philosophical discourse, the first thing to do is to define your terms!

Thus, Dicken’s article features significant ambiguity throughout as to what exactly he wants to count as presence which, in turn, hinders his renouncement of the traditional doctrine of omnipresence. Throughout his article, Dicken is inconsistent and ambiguous with his terms, and therefore, his argument is unclear and ultimately unsatisfactory.

External Critique: Why Can’t We Have Both?

Even if Dicken had clearly defined God’s presence in the two ways I have understood him to, it would still seem that neither of these definitions constitute sufficient reason to reject the traditional doctrine of omnipresence.

The first definition of “presence” – the particular, bodily presence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth – seems to incorporate the doctrine of omnipresence as well, if one is willing to accept both the humanity and divinity of Christ. To argue for Christ’s “homelessness” while on earth, Dicken draws from Matthew 8:20, when Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”[12] He makes it appear as though we could either affirm the traditional doctrine of omnipresence, or affirm the “homeless” Christ, but not both. Yet I believe that we can affirm this verse in Matthew and the doctrine of divine omnipresence. I would argue that the humanity of Christ in no way offers sufficient evidence to reject the divinity of Christ (or vice versa). Truly, these two natures are full and inseparable. He is fully man, and as such is particularly present on the dusty streets of Nazareth, or at a house sharing a meal with sinners and tax collectors.[13] Yet while He is fully man, He is also fully God, and as God, He is omnipresent.

So even if Dicken’s argument succeeded, we would be truly only affirming the physical placement of the particular man, Christ. We affirm with Dicken the validity of Matthew 8:20, yet despite this, we do not deny the traditional doctrine of omnipresence. To do so would pit the powerful God pictured and described in the Old Testament against the Messiah presented in the New Testament, ignoring the crucial fact that the Father is revealed by the light of the Messiah. Dicken seems to choose the New Testament Jesus over the Old Testament God in that his theology focuses solely on Christ, and does not seek to uphold Old Testament truths.[14] Ultimately, Dicken emphasizes Christ’s human nature over His divine nature. Therefore, it is not clear to me how Dicken intends to reject omnipresence in light of the “homelessness” of Christ.

The second definition of “presence” – the intimate communion between God and man – also seems to offer no sufficient reason to reject the traditional doctrine of omnipresence. In fact, because of the first definition of “presence” (the Incarnation), we are able to experience the presence of God in this second way! Christ has come to earth to be a particular man who was bodily put onto a cross and crucified. Because His body was fully and physically raised from the dead and left the particular tomb empty, Christians may rest in the intimate presence and communion of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. Christ was the bridge for those who believe by faith to be reconciled to God as sons and daughters. Indeed, we are now affirmed to be the new dwelling place of God.[15] This in no way undermines the traditional doctrine of God’s omnipresence. We as Christians affirm both the intimate presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the omnipresence of God in His creation. In short, Dicken has set up a false dilemma for his reader.

A Different Definition of Omnipresence

Dicken seeks to prove that we may do away with the doctrine of omnipresence. However, I believe that this doctrine has significant implications for our view of God, and we must therefore strive to hold onto it. Dicken argues that to him omnipresence, in contrast with presence, sounds as if God is “distracted” or “counting the house.”[16] I would contend that the traditional doctrine of God’s omnipresence is not this at all. Rather, it affirms God’s role as both Sovereign and Creator, and thus affirms God’s control of creation and His love for His creation.

God’s omnipresence can be defined as his engagement and His awareness of His creation. He is present in His creation as one would be present at a lecture. I will show only two facets of this idea of omnipresence, which have significant implications for our view of God. The first way is to see God’s omnipresence as His engagement and interaction with His creation, the work of His hands. He is engaged, not distracted. This affirms God’s role as Creator (something which Dicken openly denies).[17],[18] The second way to define omnipresence is God’s awareness or control of His creation, and here the sovereignty of God is emphasized. He is sovereignly aware of His creation because He is present in it. Indeed, God’s full awareness of His creation constitutes His omnipresence.

Although these are rudimentary and rough definitions, it is clear that they do not conflict with Dicken’s notions of God’s presence. Rather, they are united – even though it may seem paradoxical – in the person of Christ. We affirm the full humanity of Christ, and therefore, affirm His particular presence (i.e. His having a particular location in space and time). But we also affirm the full divinity of Christ, and therefore His omnipresence. These truths are held together in mystery, and they are not, as Dicken may encourage one to believe, mutually exclusive. Thus, rather than rejecting the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, we can grow in wonder at His majesty in His role as Creator and as Sovereign.

Conclusion

Dicken’s ultimate goal is worship, and he does hint at some provocative and challenging ideas that are worth thoughtful consideration. However, his argument is unclear, and ultimately, does not successfully refute the doctrine of omnipresence.

For the Christian, the tension between presence and omnipresence is something beautiful. We affirm both the full humanity and full divinity of Christ because this is our hope.[19] We say with Paul that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”[20]

The omnipresence of God can be understood as a sense of awareness, consciousness, and power. He is present. He is engaged. He hears. Yet, He chooses to redemptively unite Himself to human flesh, and in so doing He dwells among us. Thus the traditional doctrine of omnipresence, the particular, bodily presence of Christ, and the sustained presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers all lead to the wonder and worship of the triune God.


[1]Thomas M. Dicken, “The Homeless God,” Journal of Religion, 91, No. 2 (2011): p. 128.

[2]Ibid., 128-9.

[3]Augustine, Letter 187 chapter 7.

[4]Aquinas, ST. V.1, Q. 8, Art. 4.

[5]C.S. Lewis, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1970), p. 74. Emphasis added.

[6] Thicknesses, 129th

[7]Although I do not discuss it in this paper, I do not believe that Dicken reads Bonhoeffer correctly. Although Bonhoeffer’s theology is emphatically Christocentric, it is ultimately orthodox. Dicken’s, however, is not.

[8]Ibid., 129.

[9]Ibid., 129.

[10]Ibid., 130.

[11]Although the orthodox Christian would limit this communion to believers, Dicken notably avoids making any such distinction. Rather, I think that he would say that any one of us are capable of feeling the presence of God- meaning spiritual communion. As I said before, for the orthodox Christian, this kind of communion is limited to those who are saved by grace, and who thereby experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit on the road to sanctification.

[12] Matthew 8:20. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway.

[13]Mark 9:11.

[14]See Psalm 139:7-8 and Jeremiah 23:23-24.

[15]I Corinthians 6:19-20.

[16] Thicknesses, 131st

[17]Ibid.,135.

[18]This of course, should raise red flags in the mind of the orthodox Christian, since we see God clearly portrayed in both the Old and New Testament as Creator. See Genesis 1, Nehemiah 9:6, Isaiah 45:7, Isaiah 66:2, Ephesians 3:9, Revelation 4:11, Psalm 96:5, Isaiah 37:16, Jeremiah 10:11, Psalm 148:2-5, and I Timothy 4:4.

[19] John 1.

[20]Colossians 2:9.

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