Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Abigail Doukhan

Interview With Fernando Canale






Shabbat Shalom*: Dr. Canale, you just mentioned your philosophical background; as a philosopher, who is God for you?

Canale: This question is personal. I cannot answer it as a philosopher, but as a believer. For me, God is the supreme being, the Creator of heaven and earth, and He is the King of my life. As you can see, my view of God is taken from Scripture.

Shabbat Shalom: So, how does the fact that you study philosophy affect your idea of God? Is there any relationship between what you studied and what you believe?

Canale: That’s a long story. Oddly enough, philosophy influenced my idea of God more when I was ignorant of its teachings than after I spent several years studying and teaching philosophy. At the beginning of my theological studies, I did not know much about God. After reading a few books on systematic theology, I began to develop preliminary ideas about God based on those readings. The books I read gave classical definitions about God’s nature and His attributes, which were “supported” by biblical references used as proof texts. Later, I found out that the definitions the books gave did not match what the Bible said.

After I finished my four years of theological studies, I started a four-year course in philosophy and psychology. In one of my graduate classes, I came across a Heideggerian critique of the classical interpretation of Presocratic philosophers. In my undergraduate studies, my professors sided with the classical interpretation of these philosophers’ teachings, which I assumed to be correct. Yet Heidegger had a completely different interpretation that showed to what extent the traditional interpretation I had taken as true was a medieval interpretation. The issue was about being; Heidegger argued persuasively that classical philosophy understands being as timeless. But there is no such thing in the early Presocratic, who talk rather of a process in time. Being is temporal, according to Heidegger. The timeless understanding of reality decisively shaped Christianity’s understanding of God.

When I understood that Christian theology has developed its idea of God on the basis of a notion of reality that is highly debatable and that such a notion is alien to biblical thinking, I started a process of philosophical deconstruction as the necessary groundwork for a theological retrieval of the biblical idea of God. Thus, the more I became acquainted with philosophy, the less I used its teachings to develop my view of God.

Shabbat Shalom: So, can we compare this concept of being to the concept of God?

Canale: Technically speaking, the question of being is different from the question of God. Having said that, one needs to realize that the understanding of being has not been without effect on the Christian conception of God. Indeed, Christianity has shaped its idea of God on the basis of the understanding of being timeless developed by medieval scholasticism.

Shabbat Shalom: So the God of classical theology was a timeless God?

Canale: Yes, and He still is. But there is another way of looking at these things. As Heidegger went back to early Presocratic philosophy to discover a “new” understanding of being, we Christians should go back to the Bible to discover a “new” understanding of God. As Heidegger defied the status quo of the philosophical establishment, we Christians should defy the status quo of the theological establishment. To accomplish this task, we need to start by getting into a deconstructivist mode of analysis. That’s the first thing: we need to deconstruct. We cannot merely accept philosophical or theological ideas about God. The classical idea of a timeless God, which can be found as the operative center of the Catholic and Protestant traditions, must be abandoned because it is very crippling for God. As a timeless being, there are many things that God cannot do.

Shabbat Shalom: But what about the definition that God is omnipotent?

Canale: The Evangelical and Protestant traditions believe very strongly in the omnipotence of God because they are against salvation by works. As a way to affirm salvation by faith alone, they hold that God, the Creator, works out our own salvation by way of His omnipotence. Thus, it is not our doing but God’s that brings about the recreation of our beings necessary for salvation. Among other things, I find it disturbing that these theologians say that God cannot do things that go against the principles of human reason. The classic example is that God cannot make a triangle with four angles. God is therefore implicitly confined to the limits of human reason. I find that disturbing because, in the Bible, God is different from us. We cannot judge Him from our limited point of view and superimpose on Him the limits of our rational faculties. This is the same reason that arguing for a timeless God seriously limits His involvement in human history.

Shabbat Shalom: You deny that God is a timeless being. What, then, is God?

Canale: According to Scripture, God is not timeless but temporal. Yet, we should not conceive of God’s temporality as identical to human temporality, as Process Theology and the Open View of God implicitly assume. They start by defining the meaning of temporality as present in human beings and nature. Disregarding God’s revelation, this philosophical approach ends up with a limited view of God shaped after the image of man. As Christians search for answers on this topic, they should turn to the Bible and stay away from philosophical and theological speculation. The whole Bible is rich in presenting a God that is directly involved in human history. Of course, the Bible does not have any specific text saying that God is temporal. So we have to look at how the idea of divine temporality “coappears” with the notion and acts of God revealed in Scripture. The main text that I have studied in relation to God’s temporality is Exodus 3:14–15. Classical theology has used this text to prove that Scripture assumes the Greek conception of a timeless God.

Shabbat Shalom: What exactly does the text say?

Canale: We are in the context of the burning bush. Moses asks God for His name. In verses 14 and 15, God reveals His name: “I am who I am,” which clearly connects God with the idea of being. Since the only notion classical and modern theologians have to work with is Aristotle’s timeless interpretation, they assume the text implicitly refers to and agrees with the traditional idea of God as a timeless being.

Among the many exegetical interpretations of this text, the so-called “future” and “presence” views stand out. The “future” interpretation argues from the tense of the verb “to be" and translates it as future rather than present. God is hence the God of the future, and from the future He relates to history. However, as God is “placed” in the future of human beings, He cannot personally interact with our temporal-spatial continuum. Not surprisingly, a well-known proponent of this view, Jürgen Moltman, works out the compatibility between the “future” interpretation of this text and the classical timeless view of God. The eschatological God “coming” from our future still remains a timeless being. Somehow, this seems like a game where novel ideas interact with traditional concepts.

The “presence” interpretation of the texts argues that the text is speaking about the presence of God in space and time, and therefore the text cannot be speaking about being. Clearly, the definition of a timeless God is not given in Exodus 3:14–15. Exegetes, in reference to theologians and philosophers who speak of being timeless, ventures to say that this text refers to the presence of God rather than His being. The only reason to make a difference between the presence and the being of God is the assumption that God is timeless. However, when building the idea of God from a biblical foundation, there is no reason to build on philosophically defined notions. Consequently, we discover that according to Exodus 3:14–15, God reveals His being as His presence. God’s reality, then, is temporal, not in the sense of being constricted to the limits of created time but in the sense of being directly compatible with it. This view of God’s reality is consistently supported through Scripture. For instance, in the New Testament, Jesus Christ is depicted as the one who comes and lives with the people. If we assume that Jesus Christ is God ontologically, he must be compatible with space and time. The Bible presents a God that is “already there.” For instance, the Old Testament speaks of God dwelling with His people in the sanctuary (Exodus 25:8), and the New Testament presents Christ as dwelling with us (John 1:14). Our God is a God who is with us: Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23).

Shabbat Shalom: Now that we have a closer definition of God, as a God who is present and temporal, what does it mean to believe in God?

Canale: A person who believes in God must first believe that He exists and then that He is God. I think it is very important to recognize that God is God. When I started reading Karl Barth, I was very attracted to something he said, much like a slogan: “Let God be God.” That sounds very good. To believe in God means believing that God exists and that He is a being. But to believe in God also implies believing that God is, so to speak, our boss. Besides, as I study the biblical understanding of God, I see a God who has numerous characteristics: many names, many actions. The biblical notion of God has many facets. God is not a simple being, as tradition depicts Him to be. The more I study the Bible, the more complex and marvelous God and His actions toward us become to my understanding.

To believe in God is to believe in His revelation but also to make room in my life for Him to be God, which means particularly to be Lord. There are people these days who see God as merely a friend. This is correct. But He is also King and Lord. He is the one who has all power and wisdom, who, in love, tells us what to do with our lives, and whom we cannot comprehend totally and fully.

Shabbat Shalom: What duties do we have toward such a God?

Canale: The idea of duty for us humans is not very appealing because we want to be our own boss. The idea of “duty to God” sounds like something that is imposed on us. The Bible reveals our duty to God as obedience to His law. Again, many Christians have problems with obedience because they think of it as an external imposition. Yet, I don’t think that the Bible conceives keeping the commandments of God as an external duty. On the contrary, real obedience can take place only as a free action of our internal being. It is not a duty like paying taxes, something we never really want to do. It is a transformation of the entire human being, so that now this person freely wants to do the will of God without being externally forced to do it.

Shabbat Shalom: What symbols are present in the daily life of a Christian to remind him or her of God and to reveal God further?

Canale: If we understand symbols as pointers to God, I think that only God can produce such symbols. For Christians, life and death are symbols that point to God. The Bible speaks about the revelation of God in nature and history in Psalm 19 and Romans 1. Such revelations become pointers and symbols for God. We have been marvelously made, says the Bible. According to Kant, however, the weakest of the arguments for the existence of God is the argument of design. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I see in nature and history pointers to God.

Shabbat Shalom: Is it possible for an individual to know and interact with God?

Canale: Interaction is only possible if there is a being with whom to interact. Interaction with God is impossible in a postmodern frame of mind. According to postmodernity, our representations of God have just been the product of our imagination and not of reason or knowledge. People come to limit situations of life and death and begin to imagine things beyond and are fooled into believing in the existence of these imaginary things. The language about God becomes a kind of poetry, a symbolism, that we create. As we create music, we also create our ideas about God. Feuerbach, in particular, is at the root of all these conceptions. He says that the Christian idea of God is the result of human imagination projecting its desires into an eternal reality, to which we then add the category of existence. In a setting like this, an “interaction with God” would in fact be an interaction with our own ideas. According to this trend, then, it is impossible to interact with God. If there is nobody out there, there cannot be any interaction.

But the Bible tells us of a real interaction between God and His creatures. Yet, this interaction is limited in this life. I cannot interact as directly with God as I do with you. I cannot see God face-to-face. The disciples had direct interaction with God in Christ. Moses, the great prophet, had direct interaction with God. I do not have interaction with God directly, but only through these special witnesses.

Shabbat Shalom: To what degree is God involved in human history? Is He also limited in some way by human affairs, if not by our free will?

Canale: The classical tradition, which believes in a timeless God, has little or no room for interaction with God. According to this tradition, everything in the world is fixed and determined by God in advance. Because God is a timeless being, everything that happens here finds its cause in the eternal knowledge and will of God. And so God is the cause of everything that happens in our world and our lives. God, thus, does not really relate to us; He is merely the cause of everything. This tradition is rooted in Platonic thinking, which sees this world as a duplication of the mind of God.

Shabbat Shalom: But what do they do with sin and suffering? Surely these are not in the mind of God?

Canale: Of course not. Evil and suffering are very real. The question is not about their reality in our lives but about who is responsible for their existence. In this regard, classically minded theologians face a real problem. While they generally affirm that God is the cause of everything, they also reject the logical conclusion that God is the ultimate cause of sin and evil in the world. But if God is not the cause of sin, He is not the cause of everything. Either God is in control of everything or He has given real freedom to humans who are responsible for their actions. If God is in absolute control, then, in one way or another, He becomes the one ultimately responsible for sin. On the other hand, if He is not in control of everything, giving significant freedom to human beings, the responsibility for sin and evil is shared with human agencies. Yet, since the God of the Bible can influence history and be an agent in history, He remains involved and therefore accountable.

Shabbat Shalom: Do our acts affect God? Is God moved by humans, or do humans move God?

Canale: Certainly. God is moved to rage; God is moved to happiness. We find those things in the Old Testament. He feels, reacts, and interacts with human actions. God is a God that reacts. God is a God who has passion. He responds. He feels. That’s the God of the Bible. The God of tradition cannot do that. Through our actions, we do affect God and His providence toward us. God is able to feel our pain and do things because we ask Him.

Shabbat Shalom: Can we say that there is a partnership between God and us?

Canale: In history and the process of salvation, yes. Once we surrender our lives totally and constantly to Him, He gives us the privilege to be used as tools in the ongoing work of salvation. Yet, God’s interaction in history follows two distinct and constant patterns, namely, His interaction with His faithful children and His enemies. Within these patterns, the content of God’s interaction is constantly changing as He works out salvation within the concrete limitations of human history and the opposition of evil forces.

Shabbat Shalom: Does God also interact with those?

Canale: Oh, yes. Evil also plays a role in shaping human history. Partnership with God, however, is available only to those who accept Him unconditionally. This brings us to the idea of sovereignty, which has been seriously distorted by Protestant theology. Briefly put, Protestant theology defines the idea of divine sovereignty from the perspective of divine power and control over human affairs. The result is a God who decides and does everything in human history, thereby overruling human freedom. In what sense can we then speak of God as the sovereign of the universe? The Bible presents a God who has lost His sovereignty and is now fighting from behind to regain it. Sovereignty is not about His raw power but about His government of human beings. God lost His sovereignty over human affairs when humans sinned, deciding to do things according to their own wisdom and will. God is fighting back to recover His sovereignty by persuading humans to accept Him back freely and lovingly, not by forcing Himself upon them. In this sense, God is not yet the ruler of this world but is fighting back to recover His rulership in a battle against evil forces. Within this context, we should understand the biblical notions of salvation and providence.

Shabbat Shalom: You mentioned that God works to a certain extent with evil. What about the evil that occurred in Auschwitz? Can we say that God was working with this evil?

Canale: Any answer to this question assumes an interpretation of the God of Jewish-Christian tradition. With Auschwitz, the traditional idea of a God who is in absolute control of human affairs is no longer viable because such a God would be responsible for Auschwitz. It is very difficult to think that the master plan of God required such events. To think about God after Auschwitz has to lead us to a deconstruction of the timeless notion of God in classical Christian theology and a rediscovery of the biblical revelation of God’s nature and acts. If we take seriously the biblical notion of God in battle against evil forces, we have to conclude that God not only did not want Auschwitz as part of the great scheme of things peanned from eternity, but that He was actually involved in fighting against the evil forces involved. God fights not with violent means but with spiritual forces centered in love, justice, and persuasion that respect the decisions even of evil powers. Because God’s fight against evil does not destroy evil and its consequences, a thousand questions about divine wisdom, justice, and love arise in our minds. God knows that. God, however, has not said the last word or done the last act in the ongoing drama of human history.

Shabbat Shalom: So after Auschwitz, we can’t think of God as we used to?

Canale: If by “thinking about God” we mean the classical notion of God, the answer is: No, we cannot. According to this generally accepted view, Auschwitz becomes an instance of necessary evil, that is, of an evil that God planned (allowed) as a necessary step to obtain a higher good. This idea fits the notion of “meticulous providence,” which teaches that nothing evil happens without something good coming out of it.

Shabbat Shalom: Has nothing good come out of the Holocaust?

Canale: Directly in the sense of meticulous providence, I don’t think so. I think that God did not want that to happen. Indirectly and tangentially, however, we could learn not to repeat the atrocities of the past and to reconstruct the classical theology of God that controls human history, overriding human freedom.

Shabbat Shalom: How can we then understand God after Auschwitz?

Canale: My view is always tied to Scripture. How are we to reconstruct the idea of God? Are we going to invent a new notion of God that will lead us to new atrocities? Many theologians may be doing that. I think, however, that there is a better way, the way of revelation. I hope that Auschwitz has taught us the danger involved in creating our own images of God, transgressing the second commandment of the law. I hope that Auschwitz has taught us the need to surrender our reason and imagination to the revelation of God we find in Scripture. I think we should go back to the Bible and discover there the real picture of God and the way He governs history. After this is done, we should apply our findings not only to the issue of evil but to the entire range of Christian teachings. Nothing short of a new understanding of Christianity will come to light. In the final analysis, this view will be new only to us, postmoderns, because, through the acceptance of classical and modern philosophies, we have learned to hide from the true God revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

Shabbat Shalom: Do we share a part of responsibility in the Holocaust?

Canale: Certainly, but, as explained above, so does God. In the Bible, God gives life to the wicked, to the one who tortures. The question is not how God, being the one who decides everything and being all-powerful, does something evil, but rather why God, being all-powerful, has allowed for freedom to develop in a way that is self-destructive and nonsensical. The real horror of Auschwitz becomes a symbol, like a contemporary Job, claiming divine justice. That’s a new way in which we have to think about God. Again, Christians should rethink their notion of God, not from a philosophical or imaginative basis but from what the Bible has to say.

* This interview was conducted by Abigail Doukhan, a graduate student in philosophy at La Sorbonne (Paris, France).


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