God As Executive (To Whom We Can Say Nothing)

We construe transcendent God through analogies: God as a loving father, a just or cold-eyed judge, a suffering savior, as Jesus of the Gospel, as victor over Death, as jealous tribal god of the Hebrews, as (war)lord of hosts, the slayer of the Leviathan, the king or author of creation, as nurturing mother, as a drunkard, and so on. Indeed, if we take God as someone who is both comprehensible to us and radically other, it is unclear if we can construe Him in any other way. Even saying that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. means extrapolating from a human conception of power and knowledge (i.e. what it would mean for a human to have all power or know all there is to know). Just so, God cannot be merely loving or just as a human is loving or just, but He can stand in relation to us in the same way that a loving father relates to his child or a judge relates to a condemned man. God is loving and just, He is just very much more loving and just than any human can be, and we can start to grasp the degree of this difference through analogies. Without granting this much, God is merely a null term or an ineffable mystical abyss about which we can affirm nothing.

Unfortunately many analogies for God, whether Biblical or those generated by theologians or tradition, are outdated. We cannot construe God as a jealous tribal god, certainly not as 8th century BCE Hebrews did. Believers may attest that God slew the Leviathan, but few have a sufficiently mythological concept of God to know what it is they are affirming. We’ve abolished kings and warlords. Few of us have much familiarity with judges, at least not the sort of judge the Bible conceives. Even analogies that we are familiar with (God as father, mother, savior, author, Jesus, drunkard) do not furnish us with many specifics as to how we should engage with Him. The ways we engage with parents, saviors, etc. are too various. Furthermore, God is not just a father or Jesus or an author. These analogies, at best, only reveal one aspect of God. We are in want of a comprehensive theory. It behooves us to construe God in terms of a contemporary analogy, one which furnishes specific vocabulary and modes of discourse, but nevertheless remains comprehensible in long-standing theological traditions.

God as Executive

This leads us to consider God as a corporate executive, not as any CEO, but as the CEO of All. The world is His company. All of us, even CEOs, stand in relation to Him as employees stand to an executive removed from them by many degrees of middle-management. God remains a warlord in that He engages in corporate takeovers, e.g. over Canaanite religion and culture. He remains a loving father and nurturing mother in that he wishes for His company and its members to thrive (this is aptly conceived in terms of Chinese companies, which are deeply influenced by Confucian ethics). He remains author in that He also founded the company. He remains a jealous tribal god because executives score high on tests for psychopathy. He remains savior in that (we believe that He believes) the company would die without Him. He remains a judge in that He could fire us at will. He remains Jesus insofar as Jesus taught a prosperity gospel or insofar as Jesus offered salvation through establishing a corporate entity comprised of all Christians, the body of Christ.

How do we talk to executives? In the language of strategic communication, a murky term, which often involves blindly selecting buzzwords–innovate, align, revenue, increase, deliver, restructure, PR, stakeholder engagement–and arranging them into languidly flowing sentences. Many executives insist upon hard data in the form of statistics (which ironically serve to obfuscate more readily than they reveal).

Our discourse with co-workers, vendors, and our immediate supervisors may be highly technical, detailed, or bantering. But the further removed a supervisor is from oneself, the more abstract our communication to him must be. A director may be familiar with specific initiatives and policies surrounding one’s work, but VPs and executives will be unfamiliar with the particulars. They are inundated with emails, meeting requests, and phone calls. Only felicitously concise communication will be reach them. We may need to try several times or invoke the aid of intermediaries, like saints, who can intercede for us.

Consider what this means for how we should communicate with God. God is no mere human executive. He is The Executive, very much more executorial than the most executorial executive. We must admit that our communication to Him must be still more abstract and vague, even more so than the empty parlance of strategic communication. It must be maximally abstract and, paradoxically, maximally felicitous. It is as if we should exhaust our entire lives in the composition of a single perfectly-crafted prayer but inevitably fail in the attempt. To Him we can say nothing at all, or perhaps, speak only in tautologies.

All-Knowing But Ignorant of Each of Us

In that case, “God as executive” is Aristotle’s God, the Divine Mover of the celestial bodies, who has no knowledge of particular individuals and events. Rather, He contemplates all necessary truths at all times. He knows the Pythagorean theorem; He does not know whether there are in fact any real triangles to which it applies. He knows about humanity; He does not know us.

The analogy “God as executive”–which is at once both strikingly modern and ancient, both familiar and baroque–will have its detractors. They hasten to add that, unlike human executives, God is omniscient. We need not be vague with Him. God is not removed from us by hierarchies of angels, ecclesiastical strata, Neo-Platonic emanations, or middle-managers; He is in our hearts.

On one hand, I admit this is all very well. I can settle for “God as executive” being just one analogy among many, revealing of only one aspect of God’s character. But a fresh analogy, one suitable for our times, is also occasion for theological reform and this insistence that God be both all-knowing and intimate with His creations strikes this theologian as wishing to have one’s cake and eat it too. An omniscient God cannot experience life as we experience it: He cannot experience relief. He cannot experience a cancer diagnosis with a prognosis that one has only a dwindling chance to live out the year. An all-knowing God discovers nothing because, for Him, all is already discovered. He goes on no journeys, achieves nothing. An all-knowing God, like Aristotle’s God, knows what it is like to be human but fails to understand what it is like for a human to be human.

“God as Executive” Makes God Challenging

Now God of course become intimate with humans by incarnating as Jesus Christ. But that incarnation is removed from us by almost two-thousand years, Gotthold Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch.” We are modern people with a historical consciousness, so long as our intimacy with God is dependent upon a historical narrative, it is subject to the vicissitudes of historical investigation. That is all very well for scholars, many of which feel more intimate with God through their work, but most people do not find the heady dose of skepticism academia has on offer theologically satisfying. This is not to say that broad outline of the historical Jesus’s life is in doubt. It is not. But the historicity of Jesus’s specific utterances and the specific goings-on are in significant doubt, which is why the disagreements between Christian theology and New Testament studies are so enduring.

Many Christians don’t stop with ignoring the ugly ditch by assuming the perfect historicity of the Gospel. Most go further and re-imagine Jesus in a framework that is familiar to them: Jesus cared deeply about family values even though he preached that his movement supersedes respect for parents. Jesus preached peace and liberal values, even though he also brought a sword. Jesus was a white man, even though it’s unlikely he would have enjoyed the success he did had he been an albino Palestinian. Jesus preached that accumulation of wealth is fine so long as one does not become greedy. Now all of the these “re-imaginings” are theologically complex. My point is not that they are necessarily false but that many Christians have a strong inclination to insist upon a savior that is palatable to them regardless of what the text they claim to respect actually says.

The analogy “God as executive” is a reminder of the difficulty of conversing with and understanding both Gospel and the God that inspired it. We do not know executives as they really are because we are not intimate with them. Our interactions with them are professional and sterile. If they condescend to communicate with us at all, it is just so that we can better deliver value to the company. They may send rousing quarterly letters to all employees–and these are scripture of a sort, addressed specifically to us just as they are addressed to all employees in a canned email–but such reports consist only of empty thanks or congratulations, well-wishing, and vague litanies of recent successes and future challenges.

Is this vision of God theologically satisfying? If you’re a religious outsider like I am, it is. So too, if you consider God and His radical transcendence as a problem, as I think all Christians should. “God as executive” is an important counterbalance to the easy glib thinking that good theology and devotion is just believing and doing whatever you like to believe and do.