Eleven Scholars, Eleven Accounts of God and the Moral Life, Part 1

Sightings summarizes five of the presentations from the “God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities?” conference.

By Myriam Renaud|May 8, 2014

It is said that God drinks coffee in the basement Coffee Shop of Swift Hall, home of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. Could there have been a more apt place, then, to convene a conference entitled, “God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities?” Did God, latte in hand, trudge up the worn, stone steps to Swift’s third-floor lecture hall to attend the conference presentations? And, if so, what did God hear about God’s Self during those inspiring three days in early April (9-11)?
The conference featured eleven scholars at various stages of their academic careers. Many started with a question or problem and then elaborated his or her understanding of God. Their accounts ranged from the “living God” in whom we place our trust and under whose guidance we pull back from over-consumption for the sake of others, to the dead, traditional “He God” concept shown to be false by reflecting on his androcentric nature (but whom we may replace with a more naturalistic, defensible understanding).
Sightings summarizes five of the presentations to give readers a taste of the conference’s rich and nuanced accounts of God. Next Thursday’s Sightings (May 15, 2014) will summarize the remaining six presentations.

Keynote-speaker, Marilyn McCord Adams (Rutgers University) has long been preoccupied with soul-destroying horrors and suffering. God seems absent when we are afflicted and we are angry that God has abandoned us. But Adams insists that the proper attributes of God are wisdom and knowledge. She is certain that God is “with us,” always trying to meet us where we are, sharing wisdom with us and drawing us into harmony with God’s Self. Often, we are not aware of God’s attempts to communicate because revelatory messages can’t be received by us and remain pure. We humans are, by nature, partial. Our motivations are distorted by Darwinian impulses. God is also “with us” in our institutions but is co-opted by them such that we associate God with their systematic evils. Even in the Bible, God experiences communication difficulties because Scriptural teachings arose out of particular social contexts with moral insights and failings. God, according to Adams, can most clearly and accurately be perceived as “with us” in the “good” and in the “subversive”—for example, in the work of civil-rights and AIDS activists.
Michael Welker (University of Heidelberg) rejects “metaphysical” ways of referring to God like "the absolute,” "the infinite,” "the ground of being,” "the ultimate point of reference,” or "the all-determining reality” because these fail to make sense of the real world in which people die of cancer, schoolgirls are kidnapped, and genocides are perpetrated. Welker prefers to speak of the “living God” in whom communities of faith place their trust. When we recognize the appalling fact that we, human beings, are frail and headed for death and decay, and that, even as vegetarians, we destroy life to sustain ourselves—we reach a place where we begin to ask for divine guidance. Then, with God’s help, we can begin what Welker calls the ascent of life. This ascent consists of two dialectical moral movements—on the one hand, we expand our circle of care beyond our families to include “others” and, on the other hand, we joyfully scale back our consumption for the sake of these "others." For Welker, God is revealed in justice, mercy, and truth-seeking communities because these values work against our tendency to sustain ourselves at the expense of other life.
John Hare (Yale Divinity School) worries that if we don’t believe in God, our morality becomes unstable. He proposes that God is sovereign and judicial. Informed by the writings of the Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, Hare argues that God makes the moral law and gives it to us. Though we are able to identify our obligations and honor them for their own sake, if we are to sustain our dedication to the moral life, we need the assurance of some eventual reward. God can grant us happiness in equal measure to our virtue (virtue matched to happiness equals our highest good). For this reason, morality leads to God and to religion. Lest we lose hope and abandon our moral efforts and willingness to make sacrifices to do the moral thing, we can place our trust in the super-sensible author of nature, God, who rewards us by creating the conditions for our happiness.
To find theological resources for war veterans suffering from moral injury from within his Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, Divinity School alum, Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham University), turns to Maximus the Confessor (b. 538 - d. 662). Maximus was preoccupied with the ontological abyss between God and not-God (creation). Papanikolaou notes that, when a veteran suffers from moral injury, his or her problem is self-hatred. Papanikolaou then asks: is self-forgiveness possible without transcendence? "No," is his answer. One cannot will forgiveness; rather, one becomes forgiveness (not a forgetting but a learning to move through violence) by learning to love. For Maximus, the “bridge” connecting God and creation is love, the highest virtue, which is also theosis, or the experience of God. Across theologies ranging from Maximus to that of the Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Maldokov, Papanikolaou finds a consensus that creation is grace and is graced. Virtue, then, being written into our nature, can be made manifest in us no matter how deep our moral injury.
For Pamela Anderson (Oxford University), God is an action-guiding concept that can help us make ethical sense of things. In order to make sense of things, we find it necessary to reflect. But reflection in contemporary times, Anderson holds, has led us to understand that gender matters and that God has no body. In other words, reflection has killed the traditional, all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, “He” God. The death of this concept is appropriate, Anderson argues. Its destruction is not necessarily bad—rejecting certain concepts can be liberating. Still, the death of the traditional concept of God is now an experience of which we must make sense. Anderson suggests that we accept God’s death, and starting anew, develop thick concepts of God for ourselves. Her recommendation? A form of rationalism or a concept grounded in nature.
These five compelling, but not entirely (and sometimes not at all) congruent accounts of God and of the moral life are reminders that the question of God remains an open one. Stay tuned for Part 2.
NOTE: Video recordings of the conference presentations are available on the website: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/multimedia. These presentations will also appear as chapters in a book to be edited by the conference’s organizers, Myriam Renaud and Dr. Joshua Daniel.


Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Welker, Michael. God the Spirit. Translated by John Hoffmeyer. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013. 

Hare, John. God's Call: Moral Realism, God's Commands, and Human Autonomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Papanikolaou, Aristotle. Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

Anderson, Pamela. A Feminist Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Image Credit: The University of Chicago Divinity School 

Image from left to right — Pamela Anderson, Kristel Clayville, and Kristine Culp during a pause in the conference, "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities"

ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor and author, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She and Dr. Joshua Daniel organized the conference, "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," held at the University of Chicago Divinity School and largely funded by the Marty Center, April 9-11, 2014




Myriam Renaud

Author, Myriam Renaud (PhD '18), is a former editor of Sightings, and has written about religion for The Atlantic, The Conversation, Religion & Politics, The Globe Post, and more. She is co-editor, with William Schweiker, of Multi-Religious Perspectives on a Global Ethic: Toward A Common Morality (Routledge, 2020). Currently, she is at work on an academic monograph, Toward a Moral God and a Humanizing Theology, and a general audience monograph, White Evangelicals in America.