Monday, May 23, 2022

Moral Unsurpassability and Worth in Worship

In an erudite 1982 book chapter, "God, Moral Perfection, and Possible Worlds," Philip Quinn argues that if God is to be worthy of worship, then He must make a world that is morally unsurpassable. Against those who think that God could make any world, one better or worse than ours, without impugnation, Quinn posits that an agent that would make a morally inferior world would be inferior to another agent that could/would make a better one. I would like to briefly explore this idea and see what kind of traction it might have. 

The context of these arguments is the problem of evil. Leibniz and his followers would hold in some way that the world that exists is the best possible world. As I touched on in a previous post, this notion is often very misunderstood and caricatured. Quinn's argument is sympathetic to the general thrust of Leibniz. Theists should take the strong position that, if God exists, then the world He created is the best of any possible world that could have been actualized. Quinn approaches the topic not necessarily from the PSR, though he may be presupposing some version of it to a certain extent, but from the standpoint of what being would be worthy of worship. A very good or great being might be a wonder, but would we owe our allegiance and obedience to something than which a greater could be conceived (borrowing a bit from St. Anselm)? 


As I understand Quinn's argument, if there are two possible worlds, w1 and w2, and w1 is morally inferior to w2, and the agent actualizes w1, then there must be a better agent who would actualize w2. There is a deficiency in the agent actualizing w1 instead of w2. If w2 could be actualized, and the agent does not, then that agent is not one who is worthy of worship. There is, at least in principle, something higher or better than that agent. It seems to be Quinn's belief that any agent in this context would do their best in actualizing a world. An omnipotent and worship-worthy agent would not actualize something inferior. If what we have is w1 and an agent actualized that world, that agent would not be 'God' in the sense theists should understand and defend. For Quinn, theists should have a view of 'God' such that we owe the dedication of our lives to Him and owe a duty of fidelity and supreme obeisance. To say that God could have created a morally surpassable world would essentially be contrary to a proper understanding of 'God'. 

Quinn leaves an open question about what it means to speak about a morally surpassable world. We cannot quantify moral goodness or badness. Sure, we might look out the window and think the bad outweighs the good in terms of observed human conduct, or vice versa. But this is highly subjective and prone to the winds of rapid change. 

One way to think about moral unsurpassability is to think about the overall purpose of creation. If God were to create, then it seems there would be a reason for that action. There would be a goal for the creature(s) and the cosmos. All rational agents act for an end/goal. Rational creatures would therefore exist for a purpose. The purpose would be bound up in the very understanding of a rational creature (maybe a Leibnizian predicate/subject relation). That purpose might be union/harmony/relationship with the Creator. For the creature to be the most full and complete version of itself, actualizing all its potentials, it would need to be within the closest possible nexus to its source of being or existence. The closeness would pertain to the thoughts and actions of the creature, the more congruity, the better and happier the creature would be. If this is correct, it would be better for more creatures to have a relationship with the Creator than fewer. A morally unsurpassable world might therefore be one where the highest possible number of free rational creatures come into a loving relationship with the Creator. Without freedom, the creaturely potential cannot be truly and fully actualized. The intellection and volition of the creature is necessary for its achievement of happiness and harmony with the Creator.

If we follow Quinn's reasoning and the above sketch of moral unsurpassability, then theists must think God has in fact actualized such a world. For an agent to actualize a world without the highest number of creatures, or perhaps even all creatures, coming into a loving relationship with the agent, the agent would not ultimately be worthy of the totality of worship of all its rational creatures. Thus, if God exists, and if by 'God' we mean that to which we owe a duty of worship, then the world that we inhabit, actualized by God, must be morally unsurpassable. 

Of course, one might argue the world we inhabit is morally surpassable. They might offer up reasons for why this is the case. There is much more ground that could be covered on this, but for the time being, I shall leave it here. I think Quinn's argument has some traction if we accept the idea of moral unsurpassability and the principle that there is a deficiency in any agent that does not actualize (if they are able) a morally unsurpassable world. 


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Philosophical Reflection: God and the Best World

That God exists and there are instances of evil and suffering in the world are propositions many take to be contradictory. Much of the intuition driving this is the conceptualization of God. If God is all good, then He would desire to bring about a state of affairs for sentient creatures without the evil and suffering we experience. And if God were all-powerful, He could bring about such a state of affairs. 

In the early 18th-century, Leibniz argued that when God created the world, He created the best of all possible worlds. Reason demonstrates that God exists and illuminates many divine perfections. Since God is perfect in every way, to create less than the best would be a contradiction. Leibniz thinks that God and evil can be reconciled if we keep in mind the dictates of reason and avoid anthropocentrism. I think Leibniz's Theodicy is sound and should be taken more seriously as an option by theists. I believe his notion of determinism in light of his theory of action are more agreeable than commonly thought. 


Leibniz's position has been subject to severe ridicule. Voltaire famously lampooned the idea of 'best possible world' in Candide. Many thinkers from Leibniz to the present day have had a field day criticizing Leibniz for his Theodicy. I would argue the consensus is that Leibniz steps too far in asserting this is the best possible world. Surely, it is not a contradiction to think a world we inhabit could have had one less human or animal death. Most would think that such a (slightly different than ours) world would be better. And from here the reasoning proceeds that there is a possible world with no suffering and evil, or at least a world without gratuitous (inexplicable) evils, and God (if He were all good) should have actualized that one. 

In response, some theists argue that it is possible God could not have actualized a world containing morally free creatures without any evil, and this is sufficient to show no contradiction with our experience. I think Leibniz would only sympathize with this reasoning to a certain extent. He would agree with the 'no contradiction' approach to resolving the tension, but would not agree with the speculative or agnostic (skeptical) nature of the approach. 

Leibniz adopts what has been called a strong principle of sufficient reason (PSR). This means that "No fact can hold or be real, and no proposition can be true, unless there is a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise" (Monadology). This means there is no truth for which a reason does not subsist. For Leibniz, this principle helps lead us to the conclusion that God exists. Further exploring this conclusion, we affirm divine perfections such as wisdom and goodness. When we recognize that God has created the world, we must think that He technically had a choice as to which possible world to actualize, and that He brought this one into being for a reason. Being Supreme Reason itself, God could not act without a reason. It is therefore wrong in a certain sense to say God could have actualized another world because that would attribute caprice to the divine decree. There were other worlds that were logically possible, in the most strict sense prior to the divine decree to create. However, subsequent to God's decision to create, He must create the best. 

Leibniz attributes to God the same type of action theory as rational creatures. Reason requires us to affirm this. The conclusions here follow closely in the Scholastic tradition, heavily informed by Aristotle, viz. the intellect of the rational agent apprehends the good and the will moves the agent to act toward the good. Because God is all-good and perfect, the divine intellect knows the best of all the possible worlds to actualize given the overall purposes of creation. The divine will then actualizes the best world. None of this is meant to predicate time, movement, or learning/discursive reasoning to God. Rather, it is a way of partially explaining things in humanly understandable terms. Leibniz is unclear (to me) regarding the type of predication applied to God (univocal vs. analogical), but I think either side can take his general points. For Leibniz, things are determined in the sense that they happen for a reason, and the reason they happen is the rational action of an agent (God or creature). Leibniz is very careful to distinguish his view of determinism from fatalism, which holds that there are no genuine creaturely causes and everything that happens is not a result of rational choice. 

In Theodicy, Leibniz distinguishes between the antecedent and consequent will in God. Prior to creation, and in general, as an outworking of His nature, God desires the good. Part of this good entails free rational creatures. In light of the creative decree, God wills there to exist evil and suffering as the logical consequence of creaturely freedom. This would be the consequent will of God. It seems to me Leibniz sides with more of a Molinist view on foreknowledge and creaturely freedom, which holds that God knows all counterfactuals of creaturely existence and choice. Prior to creating, God knows what any free creature would do in any circumstance in which they would come to exist. In the world God actualizes, He thus knows what every free creature will do because He knows the circumstances that will be actualized. 

Given the strong PSR, which I think is defensible (although controversial), and what follows from that (leaving aside Leibniz's views on the material vs. immaterial), we can conclude that God has a reason, bound up within His own demonstrable nature of perfect goodness and wisdom, for actualizing the world we have. The world entails suffering. There is a reason for it. We may not know the reason. But all arguments to the contrary must fail because they ultimately violate reason by denying God or His attributes. We must not reduce God where His sole concern is temporal human happiness or lack of suffering. The horrendous evils we experience can be reasonably subsumed under the divine providential plan that takes into account the perpetuity of the spiritual existence of human souls as well as the totality of the cosmos, which includes other spiritual creatures, animals, plant life, and possibly extraterrestrial life in sundry forms. Indeed, God loves and has provided a means of salvation from sin and its ravages. The evil we experience is the result of sin in some way (whether moral or physical). Sin was wrought by the illicit use of creaturely freedom. 

What seems unpalatable for those opposed to Leibniz is that it seems intuitive that God could have done better. Leibniz concedes that it's not contradictory to think that there could be a world with less suffering for sentient creatures. But that world would not be the best overall world. For humans, it might be better. Or at least for some humans. A world actualized without any evil for humans might be one without any creaturely freedom or it could be a worse one for plant and animal life or life as it extends beyond the temporal. What Leibniz means by the 'best' is with regard to the totality of possibility before God as He creates. Leibniz does not mean best in terms of the best God could do for human comfort. I admit this is tough medicine, but it forces us to confront the latent anthropocentrism by which we often approach the philosophical problem of evil. To avoid Leibniz, I think one must deny his arguments for God's existence, which would entail confronting the PSR. If one agrees with Leibniz's starting points in the conversation about reconciling God and evil, then his conclusions seem to follow reasonably well. I believe Voltaire, Hume, Kant, and other interlocutors up through today fail to sufficiently address Leibnizs' underlying arguments and therefore are not able to truly defeat or undermine the Theodicy. Kant comes the closest, but I believe appropriates and rearranges before changing the conversation more than he does refute Leibniz, at least on the central points at issue. 

Christians should do more to leverage the work of Leibniz on the problem of evil. His work is fairly readable and systematic. Leibniz is not the only approach, or even necessarily the best one, to take on the problem of evil and suffering, but I believe he can be a helpful ally. 


Friday, May 13, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 14:1-6


Today's Gospel captures another intimate teaching moment in Jesus' Farewell Discourse. One thing that particularly jumps out at me is when Jesus says "I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be." 

When we read the Bible, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish what applies to the immediate audience of the speaker only, versus what applies to subsequent readers of the account. Christians believe the Gospels and other canonical writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit and have been faithfully transmitted and preserved for the next generation of believers. If this is true, then there is a reason the Holy Spirit willed these things to be passed down to us. It could simply be to increase our knowledge of the Lord Jesus and what His final moments were like with the disciples. It could be that there is contained within the words what we would consider a timeless teaching, such as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Scriptural passages often present a multi-faceted jewel by which the light of divine teaching is refracted in various ways. 

With this in mind, how should we understand John 14:3, when Jesus says "I will come back again and take you to myself..." Does the 'you' refer to just the eleven disciples? Does it refer to believers today? 


I think what Jesus says to the disciples in the Farewell Discourse fits more with teachings elsewhere, such as the famous sermons given to larger audiences. What Jesus says, He intends for us to hear just as we were there in front of Him. 

He has prepared a place for us and will, in one way or another, come back and take us to Him. Christians have always confessed eager anticipation of the Lord Jesus' return. We also eagerly await the transformation of our earthly bodies and the remaking of the cosmos. It is difficult to be particularly dogmatic about the specific 'how', and even more so the 'when', of Jesus bringing us to Him. We do know for certain that He is the way, that by following Him and the teachings of His Church we will be guided home to the Father by the gift of the Spirit. 

May these words comfort us today and each day forward until He takes us to Himself. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 10:22-30


Today's Gospel reading continues with Jesus' teaching about being our Shepherd. 

It is interesting to note that Jesus was in Jerusalem during the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), presumably to celebrate and remember the great victory God gave to the Maccabees. Although not prescribed in the Torah, the Feast of Dedication was part and parcel of the life of devout Jews, among whom Jesus was chief. The Scriptures tell us Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 2 Corinthians 5:21, et. al.). This is important because His antagonists were constantly trying to catch Jesus in direct violation of the Torah or for speaking against the Law. The opponents of Jesus continually tried to make Him in their own image. 

That Jesus is asked by the Jews if He is the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One) during the Feast of Dedication is instructive. The Maccabean revolt had successfully driven the pagan occupiers from at least the Temple area and re-claimed it (cleansing) for God's people to worship. The Maccabees used brute force and the tactics of warfare to accomplish their objectives. Given the circumstances and possibly historical precedent (i.e the conquest of Joshua), the Maccabees were blessed by God to achieve victory. Judas Maccabeus, his family, and his followers were thought to be the quintessential 'types' of the Messiah; a military conquerer boldly cleansing the Holy Land of Israel's enemies and ushering in an age of peace and prosperity for God's people to worship and live in theocratic harmony. As the Romans came to take over the land after the Seleucids, many Jews once again looked forward to another Maccabean moment. I think this is one of the reasons Jesus is asked about His identity as the Christ during the Feast of Dedication. They wanted to know whether He was building up to something 'bigger' with the signs He had done and the profound teaching He was expositing. But Jesus had a bigger mission in view: the will of the Father. 


I believe Jesus' opponents are quite frustrated by His claims because their expectations were so contrary to what was happening in front of them. It was not merely the expectation of a military conquerer. It was the latent disregard for their own inward, myopic disposition. Their ostensibly 'low' view of God and His overall purposes in the election and preservation of Israel. It was their blatant forgetting of who the true Shepherd was and becoming deaf to His voice. 

Yet the same holds true for us today. We can easily start to ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd as we get caught up in the fancies of far-flung hillsides. We can turn inward, only thinking of our next meal, and completely ignore the direction of the Shepherd. He is constantly calling us. His rod and staff guide and correct us. We get stuck and He pulls us out. Despite our best efforts to stay in one place, He beacons us forward toward Himself and the goodness of eternal life. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 6:22-29

John 6:22-29

"Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you." 

Today's Gospel reading brings us these amazing words from the Lord just after some disciples seek Him out. This was soon after the crossing of the sea, and after Jesus fed the five thousand. 

Jesus is not saying we should never labor for our next meal. Rather, we must prioritize Him - the food that provides eternal life. In giving us Himself, through the sacrificial death and now through His presence in the Eucharist and heavenly intercession, we receive eternal life. Much of what we will read in John 6 is a further exposition from Jesus about how He is the bread of life. The bread that comes down from heaven. The bread by which we partake for eternal life. 


Sometimes 'eternal' is a difficult concept to grasp. It has been conceived as an unending duration or a different type of duration. It may even be thought of as durationless, in the sense that God is said to be eternal and unchanging. Duration and the measurement of change and mobile being are intertwined with chronology or sequential passing. However, I think what the New Testament writers have in view is more than just the passing of time. Rather, the 'eternal' term is connected with aiónios (where we get the term aeon). This precisely means age or age-long. Eternal life in the New Testament more closely speaks to something like 'life of the Age'. The life of the Age, the age to come, is one that is qualitatively different than what we now inhabit. 

Jesus adjures us to nourish ourselves for the age to come, the age that God is bringing about which will be quite different from this one. It will be an elevated state. It will be a spiritual state. It will be one where our present concerns and limitations will no longer apply. This calling to a higher plane of existence is one we should take seriously. The choice is a stark one, for the god(s) of this age continually try to shackle our souls. They want us to think that what see and experience now is all there is to the story. Although they cannot ultimately succeed, the specter of their activity distracts us from the truth of the Age to come. By filling ourselves with the Word of God and the words of life, our strength is restored, our faculties are acute, and we progress onward. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 21:1-19


Toil is part of life. This word often gets a negative connotation. Like doing something useless and ultimately futile. But toil really just means hard work. Hard work is not an intrinsically bad thing. The major question is whether we are toiling in the right direction, toward a worthy goal or objective. 

In today's Gospel reading, several of Jesus' disciples toil through the night to catch fish. They are unsuccessful. The morning comes. Jesus tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. In come the fish! And not just a few. 

Sometimes we toil and see no fruit of our labor. We work hard at what seems to be a worthy objective, such as providing for our families or helping others in church ministry, and yet we come up with only an empty net. 



One thing that today's passage can help us understand is that our toil for the Lord's Kingdom will not be in vain. There could be no better goal than to 'catch men'. Jesus knew the disciples needed to catch fish for their sustenance. He knew He was going to help them. Yet, there was some value in going through the toil of the night to see the catch that God had in store. 

There can be no higher purpose than to work hard for the Lord's sake. Colossians 3:17 tells us to do all things for the glory of God. St. Paul also says that we should not grow weary in well-doing (Galatians 6:9). 

Life in the Christian faith is often filled with many thankless tasks. Much of our toil is unseen and not appreciated by our fellow laborers in the Lord and the world at large. At least, thanks are rarely given from our fellow man. But should we really be toiling principally for our fellow man? I would say that we should insofar as we express our love for God. Whatever we do, we do first and foremost for God. This helps us to not be surprised or discouraged if we only see empty nets and few fish, without the notice of onlookers. The Lord will bring the harvest on His timetable, we need only concern ourselves with the work He has given us. Leave all else to Him.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Gospel Reflection John 6:16-21


Today's Gospel reading presents St. John's account of Jesus walking on the sea. We read that after the disciples hear from Jesus "Do not be afraid," they wanted to take Him into the boat. Yet, the boat immediately arrived at the shore. The calming presence of Jesus assures the disciples a peaceful passage to any destination, wherever that may be. 


In this case, it was a trip across a stormy lake. In other cases in our life, the voice of Jesus says "Do not be afraid" and, if we are careful to listen, we will realize that He has granted the storms raging within our minds to be calmed. The storms of uncertainty. The storms of anxiety. The storms of persecution and violence. Each of these can be weathered when we realize that Christ is alongside us, having already conquered the worst. As the divine Son, Jesus' authority is over all things; visible and invisible. He has authority over the powers of nature and the powers within our own nature that cause us dread.