Saturday, November 27, 2021
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Is it plausible to say that we can know God from our experience of Him? Right off, it seems we would have to know something of God first before we could know what we were experiencing if we were experiencing Him. And if this were the case, then the belief in God would have a multi-faceted basis, experience plus something else. One might have an experience of the transcendent, but what is to say this is God? Perhaps audible voices or other means of communicating ideas or concepts; a voice saying to you “I am God.” Something like Moses and the burning bush. I think in these cases there is more to the story than just the experience.
Further, if we tell another person about our experience, and they have not experienced it, how are we able to communicate our experience to them in a coherent manner? Many interesting questions arise from this line of thinking about God. For example, if I tell someone of my experience, would the other person not be justified in allowing me this, and counting as veridical, but thinking they do not have good reasons of their own to suppose God exists? Should a person believe something based on the experience of someone else? Do we have other cases of this we could appeal to on grounds of consistency? For example, if I am a trustworthy person and tell you about a person I met, that you never met, would you have good reason to doubt the other person (whom you never met) existed? Don’t Christians take a lot of what they claim about Jesus on the same grounds? It appears so. I have never shaken the hand of Jesus or shared a meal with Him, at least in a strictly literal, physical sense. Nonetheless, I believe certain things about Him based on what reliable eyewitnesses reported and passed down. I then conduct myself accordingly. Still, believing an eye-witness account and assenting to its veracity seems different than appealing to a direct experience of the transcendent and divine. Many of these experiences are different, and by most accounts, the testimony of the gospel eyewitnesses is convergent on several key points.
It seems that we can indeed experience God, but we cannot appeal to our own experience as a demonstration or objective means of conveying truth propositions. If an unbeliever asks for a reason why they should believe God exists, why they should ground moral values and duties in a supreme ontology, and so forth, appealing to a personal experience, however amazing, would not appear to be wholly convincing. The person having the encounter with God may well be justified in their own belief, but can we borrow this same epistemic capital for our own case if we had no such experience? I think this is a tough case to make. What I believe happens in some of these appeals, dare I say ‘arguments’ from experience is something like a reduction to the proper basicality of belief in God. I’m fully granting here it is not the same thing, because the person saying God exists because of their experience is appealing to a reason or cause for their belief. But the similarities are too much to ignore. The properly basicality belief in God is one that is justified in the absence of arguments or evidence as to its foundation. Without a defeater for such a belief, the person is rational in holding it. I think a stipulation made by thinkers like Plantinga is that the person is rational in holding such a belief provided such a belief is (ultimately) true. So, a person who believes in God based on experience is possibly justified in this provided there is no defeater for the belief. A defeater might be that I was under the influence of psychedelic drugs when I had my experience. Of course, this rationale is predicated on accepting certain epistemological systems which are by no means a given. Still, it seems like advocating the claim for belief in God based on experience is in the same arena as Reformed Epistemology.
When a person claims to believe in God from experience, I believe it is difficult to maintain such a belief is based on their experience alone. Maybe there is a strongly atheistic person who experiences God and professes such belief immediately after. But prior to this experience, their mind had been prepared for such belief based on things previously claimed about God by theists. The atheist in this case had some background data to draw from and calibrate and reflect upon their experience. Perhaps their experience was the ultimate difference-maker in coming to belief, yet I think it hard to say it was the only factor. Thus, when giving reasons for why they believe in God, the new theist in this instance could not appeal solely to their experience.
God can indeed reveal Himself to us in many ways. We absolutely can experience Him directly, however that happens for any given person. I would say that any direct experience of God is one means of revelation, and it works in conjunction with other ways of knowing Him. Currently, I do not think arguments, if that is what we call them, from experience are strong from a philosophical or apologetic standpoint. I will dig into this argument more in the coming weeks, and hope to discover some of the nuances of thinkers like Swinburne and Alston on this topic.
Saturday, September 25, 2021
With the publication of William Lane Craig’s new book In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration, fresh volleys of theological cannon fire are making their way across the pitch. Discussions about the age of the earth and interpretation of Genesis 1-11 tend to create fierce battles among many Christians in the west. The fight is most intense in the Evangelical Protestant sector. That disputation should occur amongst the faithful is not particularly surprising considering church history and practical realities. However, the level of intensity and vitriol often accompanying disputations about Adam and Genesis 1-11 is something that still catches me off guard and leads to fits of despair.
Like many important issues of late, the Adam/Genesis dialogue reminds us how far charity can be subverted for the sake of dogma. Exasperating habits from the social media-fueled civic-political sphere threaten to corrupt inter-Christian dialogue on theological matters. For example, the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mindset is on full display. The idea is that any position contrary to your own is an existential threat. That ‘giving an inch will always yield a mile taken’. That the person on the other side of the argument is to be despised because their opposition to your position consists in their diminishment of your humanity. And so forth. Christians should be wary in borrowing the mudslinging, straw-manning techniques so frequently used in the secular sphere.
The standard line here is that we should not lose our public witness for the faith, the saving grace of God in Christ must be at the forefront of our words and deeds. Unbelievers and those seeking truth and looking for answers are watching how we conduct ourselves. It is not good enough to simply ask the person intrigued but not yet committed to Christ to suspend their current observations of Christians as they traverse the marketplace of ideas. Now, I certainly believe that the reason people should come into the faith is, ultimately, because it is true. The church is full of redeemed sinners who are not yet perfected. The non-Christian should not look for an artificial standard of perfection. Nonetheless, to become a Christian is to enter a new family. It is adoption. And we can make this new prospective family very unattractive to those who are not yet members.
For some very odd reason, Christians of certain theological persuasion tend to come across as being continuously threatened. There is a chip on their shoulder. As Christians, we must strive to present ourselves as a non-threatened people. After all, this is who we truly are if we are in Christ. Not even death has hold of us. If an atheist brings an argument against the existence of God, the reaction should not be anger, frustration, or annoyance. If the person down the street plants a flag supporting LGBTQ rights and if the entire news media and popular entertainment are saturated with such messaging, it is not an existential threat to us. Standing for truth and our beliefs and doing so in a way that is not threatened is both a logical and practical possibility. Reacting to disagreements from inside and outside the faith can be done in a Christ-like way. There should be no lowering of standards. Our first reaction, when confronted with disagreement, should not be denunciation as heresy. When heresies are in fact encountered, we should address them in the spirit of grace with reconciliatory goals.
We could do a great deal of psychologizing about why some Christians, even if a vocal minority, act out in such ways as to rashly condemn those in the faith with whom they disagree on certain issues. I don’t think that would be a fun or fruitful exercise. One of the most difficult apologetic tasks is trying to explain why Christianity is seemingly so scattered and suffering from disunity. One can only get so much mileage out of “mere Christianity”. Certainly, Christians are united in affirmations of the Apostles or Nicene Creed. Or perhaps even Chalcedon. But when we tear each other apart in uncharitable ways, the “mere Christianity” car starts sputtering.
I suggest that a path forward will require a deeper commitment at the local church, university, and ecclesial levels to more education and dialogue with other Christians. It will require local pastors to recognize the ultimately self-defeating nature of having a chip on our shoulder and teach this to their congregations from the pulpit and other teaching sessions. If our beliefs are so easily threatened, then how much do we know or strongly affirm them? If your local church is young-earth creationist, it will not help the cause to simply plug your ears and denounce other churches or members that hold contrary views. And vice versa for churches that do not hold young-earth creationism. It is far too easy to paint caricatures and pretends to know the strongest points from the other side. I think if we can commit to deepening our knowledge of contrary positions, we will be forced in most cases to respect them more. As someone who is not a young-earth creationist, I have benefitted greatly from professors, pastors, and friends, not to mention the voluminous literature, that argue carefully and respectfully on the exegetical principles and applications leading to such a conclusion.
It has been said, “I have seen the enemy, and he is me.” May this be the case for repentance and faith in Christ and not representative of interfaith dialogue, even on ‘hot button' issues.
Friday, September 24, 2021
Looking back at the philosophy of religion in the 20th century, I cannot help but be intrigued by the large amount of literature published on verificationism and positivism. It seems to me that the philosophy of language was a powerful and prevalent factor that permeated most of the discourse on religious epistemology and theistic proofs/demonstrations. The reasons for this are interesting, but far beyond my scope here. Presently, my attention has been channeled on the verificationist principle(s) such as elucidated by A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists. What can or cannot be spoken about and how was a major topic for decades.
From the Davies anthology, this excerpt is taken from Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic (is it a form of British humor that no Oxford comma is in the book title?):
"...there can be no way of proving that the existence of a god, such as the God of Christianity, is even probable...For if the existence of such a god were probable, then the proposition that he existed would be an empirical hypothesis."
One thing I find compelling about this claim is that it still, nearly 90 years later, captures the core basis of why many people deny the existence of God. It is a good reminder that the ideas we encounter today are, in most cases, not really new or novel. Ayer notably wrote for many years on the subject after Language, Truth and Logic, but the core of the claim seemed to remain intact.
What I believe Ayer so nicely summarizes in his verificationist ideal is the standard scientistic/reductionist view of the world. This position holds everything that exists or has meaning is, in principle, ultimately expressible or can be investigated and either proved or disproved by the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). Essentially, all that exists is matter in motion; nothing can be that is not eventually quantifiable or accessible to the senses in some way (or reduced to intelligibility by mathematical description). Certainly, there are many open questions, but the scientistic view affirms nothing in the grand scheme can be outside the purview of empirical investigation.
Scientism is the default view so often that Christian thinkers and other theists often spend a meaningful deal of time taking it apart before proceeding to arguments for the existence of God or the attending preliminary metaphysics. For example, Edward Feser's writings in Scholastic Metaphysics and Aristotle's Revenge and David Bentley Hard in The Experience of God.
It is very difficult to see how Ayer's way of framing the conversation does not beg the question against theists. The theistic argues God exists and means by 'God' that which is not a locatable object in the world. The verificationist denies the 'term' God (or 'Creator' or whatever) has any meaning because it is not a physical object. So, the verificationist effectively says "God cannot exist, therefore God does not exist." Before any theistic argument can be made it is dismissed out of hand as improper use of language or the expression of a psychological state (emotive).
Certainly, God is not the only object in the verificationist's gunsight. Any metaphysical utterance is purportedly nonsense on the same idea. Yet, I wonder why it would not be open to the theist (or other non-reductionist metaphysicians) to simply state the same thing back to the verificationist. For what the verificationist seems to be offering is a blunt assertion or presupposition. To argue in favor it would be to borrow premises from ideas or propositions outside the verificationist scope. For instance, one could say "verificationism is true because ___". And filling in the blank seems to be either circular or not verifiable.
Sometimes the verificationist will say something like "we can prove that physical things are real by simply reaching out and touching them. We cannot prove God or angels or demons are real. So, we are justified in thinking that physical things are real and the theist must show us how in some way non-physical things are real." In one sense, there is a certain very basic intuition captured here. Surely this seems straightforward to the man on the street. But a closer look shows this way of thinking is the very same problem as above dressed in different clothes. A major issue is that it oddly asks the theist to show that non-physical things are real in the same way physical things are. So, it begs the same question. This is like saying "walk with both feet in the air." The interlocutor in this case simply dismisses a priori that any non-physical thing can exist. He cannot even hear the theists (or non-metaphysical reductionist) case. And, like Ayer's claim, it imports a very dubious notion of 'proof' that is laden with reductionist assumptions. It would be incumbent on the one asserting this to demonstrate its veracity.
I sometimes wonder how far 'Ayer-esque' verificationism (along with Carnap and others), and its scientistic offspring, moved the dialogue on religion onto unfruitful ground. There is not much gameplay when the rules are constantly being changed and the goalposts moved. To my mind, this was the primary outcome of the verificationist movement. The influence of this thought is still felt in contemporary debates. Hopefully, the verificationist ideal will eventually fade into the oblivion it so vehemently denies.
Saturday, February 6, 2021
It is sometimes said that the doctrine of divine simplicity is "radical." By this, opponents typically mean that it is an extreme claim, one that really pushes the envelope of credulity. Saying God is all-powerful and all-knowing, those are apparently quite palatable. Once those bloody classical theologians start in on simplicity (or immutability and the rest), well, that just goes beyond the pale. Let's explore.
But why think simplicity any more radical than other claims about God? For example, is it not radical to claim that God exists necessarily or a se? Is it not radical or extreme to claim that God created the universe? That God spoke and 125 billion galaxies (or their predecessor states) came into existence from non-being? That the cosmos is sustained in existence by God at every moment? The Bible makes further extreme claims about God, such as that He exists as Three Persons in the Blessed Trinity or that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Are these deep theological truths mild in some way?
All claims about God are in the 'radical' or 'extreme' category.
When classical theists argue that God is simple, such a claim is more of a negation than a positive statement. We deny things of God that are impossible to say of Him based on certain metaphysical principles. The natural theological reasoning process informs us that we can know that God is but cannot know what God really is in His essence. We can affirm that God just exists; His essence is being ('to be'). He does not have an essence because He is not an instance of a kind. He does not have an essence because if He existed with an essence He would need to obtain His existence from another source. Such statements are of course completely mind-blowing! Anything said about God from the standpoint of creatures cannot possibly capture the totality of the divine essence. To demand one fully capture the divine is to demand that God be in the image of man, that He fit into man's imagination. Yet I believe this is what God has precisely said we must not do (Exodus 20:3-4).
Finite creatures cannot comprehend the divine essence; they are unable in principle to form an intellectual concept of the totality of God. The finite cannot grasp the infinite. Yet I think this is one of the main problems that some analytic theologians and philosophers have with divine simplicity. The analytic theologian demands for the sake of systematic coherence that God be situated within a fully comprehensible metaphysical taxonomy. The approach is more of trying to solve problems instead of exploring and explicating mysteries (a helpful distinction in theological discourse made by Thomas Weinandy in Does God Suffer). When the nature of God and His attributes (even leaving aside the classical attributes) is perceived as a 'problem', then we must have a "map of the highways and byways of the divine" (phrasing borrowed from Brian Davies in The Thought of Thomas Aquinas) or else risk falling into 'incoherence'. Yet, in this process, the utter transcendence of God is sacrificed to make way for what seem to be dubious methodological commitments.
Once God is conceived of as an instance of a kind, which I believe is entailed by a denial of classical divine simplicity, then the theologian has abandoned divine transcendence. He has abandoned the very (biblically mandated) otherness of God required to say that He is Creator. All claims about God are radical. In that way, divine simplicity is no different than other broadly held divine attributes.
Saturday, January 30, 2021
In a recent post, I tried to sketch out an argument that divine aseity is ultimately incompatible with the concept of divine temporality. I mentioned RT Mullins briefly within that post as a prominent contemporary critic of classical theism. Mullins is a gifted philosopher and theologian, and his arguments are always interesting. One such argument he makes in a recent paper critiquing classical impassibility is that there is a difference between divine aseity and self-sufficiency. What is intriguing about this argument is the distinction itself and how it is weaponized. In this post, I will explore the latter issue because it speaks to what I believe is a deeper problem in his recent criticism of classical attributes.
Mullins believes the classical theologian smuggles the
doctrine of divine simplicity into an identity claim that aseity and self-sufficiency
are not different. The difference in aseity and self-sufficiency carries some weight
in the conclusions Mullins draws regarding divine impassibility, so it bears
fruit to unpack. Yet, I am curious as to why Mullins thinks the classical theist
is doing the end-run. It seems he believes the classical theist has the burden
of proof in showing there is no difference between aseity and self-sufficiency.
But what compels the classical theist to yield this ground? It seems there
should at least be an equal burden on the opponent of the classical theist to
show good reasons why aseity and self-sufficiency are truly different. Perhaps toward
this end, Mullins offers the following definitions:
Aseity: A being exists a se if and
only if its existence is in no way dependent upon, nor derived from, anything
Divine Self-sufficiency: A being is
divinely self-sufficient if and only if that being’s perfect essential nature
is not dependent upon, nor derived from, anything ad extra.
He goes on to write “For the sake of clarity, it is worth
emphasizing the difference between aseity and self-sufficiency. Aseity is a
claim about the existence of God. Self-sufficiency is a claim about the nature
Here Mullins presents something fundamentally objectionable
to the classical theist, which is a difference between the existence and nature
of God. The classical theist would argue that God’s essence (nature) is His
existence, and there is no real distinction in God. I therefore cannot see how Mullins’
definitions do not effectively beg the question against the classical theistic
defense of classical impassibility.
The classical theist would, as Mullins explains, argue God
is impassible (unable to undergo suffering or be subject to passions) because
He is immutable, simple, and eternal. One who argues that way, however, only does do because God is the
pure act of existence itself, transcending all categories of being because He
is Being itself. If Mullins presupposes by his definitions of aseity and
self-sufficiency that God is a being with a nature, then it is Mullins who is
smuggling in the conclusion. He assails the classical theistic defense of impassibility
based on premises the classical theist would not in principle agree with. Mullins
argues that the systematic connection of the classical attributes do not
entail impassibility, and then suppresses the very basis and reasoning behind
these connections - connections which related immediately to the classical defenses of impassiblity at issue within the paper. This move is like saying your opponent in a hockey game can
only show up with three players then disqualifying them for not being able
to field a full team.
Mullins puts forth the notion that God’s perfect essential
nature is different from His existence. He wants to say the classical theist
will deny this in virtue of a prior commitment to simplicity and making an
illicit imputation of it into a defense of impassibility. Mullins is probably right
in how the classical theist would respond, yet wrong in thinking something is
afoul. What really seems to be going on here is that Mullins demands the
classical theist abandon core principles and tenets in order to defend analytic,
piece-meal attacks on divine names or attributes that, as Mullins himself
concedes, are taken as a package deal.
It is almost as if Mullins is asking the classical theist what
would happen to divine impassibility if, hypothetically, the classical theist
threw out the metaphysical foundations of their position and abandon attributes
that are taken together as different outcomes from the same ultimate conclusion. Then, when the argument seems to work in this per
impossible scenario, it looks like there are major problems for the classical
theist. However, the defender of classical theism is under to compulsion to make
these concessions. Mullins strongly desires to pull out individual classical attributes
and subject them to criticism apart from the overall metaphysical construct
from which they are derived. He agrees that classical theists ‘bundle’ these
attributes together as mutually entailing and reinforcing and then insists they
be defended in an isolated manner, devoid of context. Such an approach amounts
to a very sophisticated “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario. This unfortunatelyamounts
to saying the classical theistic account of God is deficient because it does
not fare well under certain, very idiosyncratic, analytical methods.
Perhaps what Mullins sees is the classical theist describing properties of God in the way analytical philosophy does, whereas the classical theist sees the attributes as 'names' or simply ways of speaking about God. For the classical theist, saying God is impassible is just another true description of Him. We say God is impassible because He is. He is immutable because He is. He is simple because He is. And so forth. It is not necessarily the case in an absolute metaphysical sense that He is impassible because He is immutable, even though our way of discursive reasoning may draw conclusions about God and make sense of them in a certain order. He is not a certain way because of how we come to know Him.
Zooming out for a minute, what appears to happen quite often in contemporary dialogues on classical attributes is that one side of the debate operates from certain methodological and metaphysical presuppositions which are fundamentally disagreeable or not acknowledged as legitimate by the other. For example, it is unlikely that a scholar like Mullins would agree with someone like Thomas Weinandy on concepts like essences/natures, existence/being, and so forth. The starting point for Mullins’ critique is from an analytic (philosophical/theological) position, one that has historically recoiled a great deal at the base metaphysics undergirding classical theism. That said, I do believe the disputation over coherence in divine attributes would bear more fruit if the focus was at the more basic metaphysical level versus the downstream conversation on specific attributes.
Wednesday, January 27, 2021
I believe there exists a strong potential to move from divine aseity to the classical attributes of God. In this post, I will focus on a tension that arises between holding to divine aseity while affirming temporality. If one affirms in principle that God exists or could exist a se, then they should also agree that God is eternal. One cannot simultaneously affirm divine aseity and divine temporality. The problems attending the conjunction of aseity and temporality open the door to careful consideration of the classical predication of eternality to God.
Divine aseity is the notion that God exists of or from Himself. He is self-existent, self-sufficient, lacks dependence upon other things. Aseity is affirmed by most theists, even those that are very critical of classical theism, such as RT Mullins.
To explore the tension I alluded to above, I will briefly look
at the views of prominent Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane
Craig. Dr. Craig is a person whom I deeply respect and admire, and he is a
strong proponent of divine aseity.
His work on God and abstract objects demonstrates this commitment. It seems to
me he is quite right in his motivations, because if abstract objects exist as
conceived in a Platonic realist sense, or otherwise outside the divine mind,
then God is not metaphysically ultimate or the sole source of all reality
outside of Himself. If both God and abstract objects are self-existent or exist
necessarily, then God cannot be said to create all things. Craig seems to
believe that aseity is an essential attribute or predication of God.
Yet, he also argues that God becomes temporal with creation.
Sans creation, God is eternal and timeless, and with the act of bringing the universe
into existence He becomes subject to time; God goes from timeless to existing
in time simultaneously with creation.
But if God becomes bound or measurable, subject to before
and after, or otherwise quantified, as He would be as a part of temporal reality,
then He would no longer exist a se. He could not be self-existent per se,
He would at best be a co-existent. And this is the same place He would occupy
on Platonic or other kinds of thick/robust abstract object realism. For God to
exist within or alongside anything or an ensemble of things undermines aseity
because it makes God determined by the creation He descends into or conjoins
himself with. He no longer can be said to transcend. Beings are in time as
existent objects within the world. A temporal God thus becomes one existent
thing among others. I think this has dire theological implications, among them
is the abandonment of aseity.
Regardless of how one works out God existing temporally with
creation, I submit the predication itself makes it impossible for God to be
metaphysically ultimate. God could not be the ultimate reality or the cause of things
outside of Himself if He existed within or alongside creation. Again, on the
temporal theistic view, God and creation come to be on the exact same plane of
reality. This is unavoidable. To predicate temporality of God, He must step
down the ontological ladder, degrading or diminishing His essence in the
process. It is difficult to think such a conception of shifting attributes in
God is in any way desirable.
Moreover, if God becomes temporal, He comes to be related to
creation in a real way, at least according to Craig.
Craig denies any Thomistic or classical theistic view of relations between the
world and God. But such a denial results in a mutual dependence between creature
and creator. A dependent God is not consistent with divine aseity.
A key aspect of aseity is that any existent thing which is
not-God is created by God. However, the temporal view of God undermines this idea.
For God to create and sustain is to give being from non-being, it is to cause
things to exist at every moment they exist. I think most Christians will agree
with this ex nihilo formulation. Yet, such an act must come from that
which is not determined or limited in being. If we say God creates and
sustains, He cannot be limited or bound in any way. Yet, if God exists within
the created order He is bound to act in certain ways, such as being subject to before
and after. Whatever He does must be done discursively and sequentially.
Temporal divine action is subject to the conditions He exists within, which
means the creative act is necessarily limited. To limit the creative,
sustaining power of God is to impugn aseity.
Further, to say God is temporal is to place constraints on His
essence that make Him less than perfect. God would need to move or change from
eternal to temporal in a more significant way than just a logical convention of
speech. To move or change betrays a need or lack that I do not believe is
escapable by appealing to self-limitation. Needing or lacking is also
incompatible with divine aseity.
Craig’s view is certainly not the only one on offer
regarding God’s relationship to time. However, I believe the same problems would
attend to any position where God is conceived of as a temporal being, regardless
of whether one holds a tense or tenseless view of time. Craig provides a sound
body of work for the considerations I have in view, given his focus on the subjects
of aseity and God & time.
I have tried to tentatively sketch out several reasons why
divine aseity and divine temporality are incompatible. The theist must take one
position and give up the other, or vice versa. A good option remaining for the
theist desiring to hold aseity is the classic eternal view of God. To believe
that only God exists in Himself, He is that in which all other things depend
for their existence, and that He exists in need of nothing should lead one to
see the consistency of these predications with the eternal view of God and the
process by which such a position is established.
Divine eternality is not always well understood or described. It is typically conceived in the modern tongue as God being “timeless,” which tends to be an unfortunate oversimplification (and sometimes, I believe, a straw man). Given time and space constraints, here we might think of eternality as God not being measured or bound by time, that there cannot be succession (before-and-after) in God, there is no beginning or end in Him. On the classic view of God, divine eternality has more to do with what must be denied as we speak about Him based on conclusions drawn from observations within the created order. We know God from creatures, but we must remove any creaturely imperfections when speaking about the divine essence itself. Thus, there is something like “timelessness” in the classical conception of divine eternality, but this concept can skew the conversation so care must be taken when comparing modern understandings of time and timelessness with classical eternality.
Thursday, January 21, 2021
When most Christians think about creation, they conceive of something like observable physical reality, the order of the universe, and the like. In other cases, they might go further and think about creation as God bringing forth the universe “in the beginning." This is to say more or less that God got things going a long time ago. This notion marks off God as somehow before matter/space/time. The main thrust here is that creation is the temporal origin of a thing or ensemble of things.
While almost inescapable to the modern mind due to a prevailing view of causation as essentially atoms banging into each other, I think the idea of creation described above is too small and not properly nuanced for Christian adoption. It is prone to substantive objections from those who contend with an absolute finite past of the universe, kalam argument appeals to Big Bang cosmology aside. What I would like to suggest in this post is returning to a deeper and more robust understanding of creation.
To some early Christian thinkers, the idea that God got
everything going a long time ago might have been true enough, but comparatively unimportant. To someone like Origen of Alexandria,
God creating things “in the beginning” had more to do with Christology than a
temporal origination of the cosmos. The One to whom, through whom, and in whom are all
things is the Son of God, which means that all things that are not-God have
their very being or existence from God. This is true at every moment they
exist. For Origen, God’s creating is not necessarily a postulated moment when that which is
not-God came into being. Rather, it is the very giving of being from God to
whatever is not Him. God is therefore always creating. Because He is eternal,
He creates “from eternity.” There is no point in asking when creation
began because that would ultimately require predicating time of God. Such
would be impossible. It is in and by the eternal Logos that God brings forth beings from non-existence, not just when a long time ago God did something. Creating is what God continually does out of pure grace.
In Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 2) and the Summa Theologiae (Prima Pars, Question 45), Aquinas makes a helpful distinction between making and creating. To make something is to work with what already exists. An artisan makes a bench out of wood and metal; he does not make the wood or metal or base elements to be what they are. He finds them in a certain state and puts them into a different state. These wooden and metal elements first exist and then are bent, cut, and manipulated by the carpenter into a final form. In more Aristotelian-Scholastic terms, making involves the actualization of potentials. The cedar tree is now actually a tree and potentially wood planks for the bench. The carpenter actualizes the potential in the tree by cutting and sawing. This type of making, the actualization of potentials, is what we might understand as taking place in the Genesis 1 story of origins. The earth is formless and void and God is then forming and shaping that to which He has given being.
Sticking with the Aristotelian terms of Aquinas for a minute, we must note that creation is not the actualization of a potential. We account for the very existence of things which are both actual and potential. For a potential to be actualized, something must first exist as actually X and potentially Y. When we consider the fact that there even is X in potency to Y, we acknowledge X could not be (or exist) in principle, save for something superadded to it. The existence of X, the very being it has, is what we should think of as creation. X is created by God insofar as it is, and Y is also created by God as it becomes actualized from X. Any movement from or to presupposes that a thing first exists, and the act of being underwrites that entire process of change, actualization, or movement. Being itself is gratuitously given by God to something finite from the very plenitude of His infinite Being.
Following Aquinas (SCG II.16), causes of actuality by moving and changing must have a cause above themselves which is the first
principle of being (God). Acting by motion or change is not compatible with the
universal cause (i.e. first principle) of being because, in the context of motion/change, being cannot come from absolute non-being. The actualization of X to Y is being-to-being, not being from non-being. But any X or potential Y must have being in order for the potential to be actualized. If X is actually X and potentially Y, X exists in virtue of something beyond itself; X is 'borrowing' its being. Thus, it is contrary to the nature of God, who is infinite Being and unlimited Actuality, to
act primarily or only by motion or change. So, if we think that creation is actualizing a potential, we limit God. And God, as almost
all Christians would agree, is infinite and without limitation in His existence.
Creation as an act can only be said of God. Owing to their finitude and other limitations, creatures cannot create. Creatures can only make. God’s creative action should not first be temporally conceived as in the getting going of things a long time ago. Rather, God is creating at every moment that which is not-God exists. I believe this can be helpful for our worship and biblical interpretation. For example, when looking at the text where Genesis tells us God “rests” on the seventh day. There must be something deeper communicated to us in the text about God. We can also derive deeper insight from the earlier verses of that book as well as the adoption of creation language in the prologue to John’s Gospel. “In the beginning” means more than “a long time ago.”
Staying with the Genesis creation account, we might think of God both creating and making. He is creating in the sense that He is giving being to that which is not-Him and by His power He is also then making what He creates to be in such and such way. From this view, we can better understand why arguments for the existence of God from the finite past were not given as much weight by classical thinkers like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas as other arguments or demonstrations.
We can also better understand why someone might reasonably reject an account of creation that merely posits the getting going of something by another thing. This criticism is particularly acute when both sides presume that God is a univocal cause, where both God and creatures are competing with each other (what God does cannot be by the creature and vice versa).
As we move past thinking about God as one who needs to “light the blue touch paper” of the universe, as Hawking
pejoratively wrote, we might see that our conceptualization, though not comprehensive, necessarily
rises to a new level. This in turn allows the Christian to step over facile
objections to God that place Him as a being among other beings. Moreover, we are then more free to reverently love God in the worship He deserves. Nuancing creating versus making has a great deal of cash value for Christians.
Saturday, January 2, 2021
Who is God? What is man?
These questions are at the root of our being; they permeate
our existence. In our time, we have tasted the bitter fruit of thoughtless and
ultimately shallow answers to questions about God and man.
Certainly, to ask who God is presumes one knows or
agrees that God is. Perhaps this is too much of a metaphysical
commitment for some. Against any pushback, on this point, I would argue that
everyone has a god or God. If we are sufficiently reflective, we find there is
something to which each person directs their lives and in which they place
their hope. Perhaps it is an abstract notion of human progress, an ideal society,
the fully actualized self (whatever one might mean by self), or something else.
One directs their life to something either within the cosmos or beyond it. One
places their hope in something finite or infinite. Hard binaries apply. To
ignore the question is to answer it.
The same is the case with man. Is man simply a random
collection of molecules in motion? Blood and dust? Soul and body? Soul in a
body? Something else? Perhaps man is a slavish animal, forever yielding to his
passions. Or maybe he is just a little lower than the angels. Given any careful
thought, each person has a notion of what they are and what other people are. If
man is just a sentient animal, then I have certain duties and obligations. If
man is more than that, then perhaps different imperatives take hold.
So far, so banal. Let me try to make a less trivial point.
One thing we can do as Christians is to provide better answers
to the questions above, viz. Who is God and What is man. I believe we live at
an opportune moment to re-inject our evangelization and theology with the
classical conceptions of God and man. We are faced with a profound natural evil
with the Covid-19 pandemic (as well as moral evil in some of the responses), and
classical theism provides a much more robust answer to evil and suffering (human
and animal) than do other approaches to God (such as theistic personalism). For
instance, classical theism does not think of God as an object in the universe.
God is not ‘in’ time nor is He moved by passions or emotions. He is not ‘a’
being, rather He is being itself. Thus, He cannot ever be thought far away, hidden,
or uncaring because, as Augustine puts it, He is interior intimo meo et
superior summo meo (“You were more inward to me than my most inward part
and higher than my highest” Confessions 3.6.11). The Doctor gratiae helps
inform us in a short sentence that an anthropomorphic god is not God. What we can
in principle picture is not the God who is and causes to be. In a time when we
need transcendence, the classic view of God provides in spades.
Further, what I think of as the classical
conception of man – as a body/soul unity with a distinct nature and specified teleology
(end-directedness) - will be especially helpful and explanatorily satisfying in
the current environment. Returning to the topic du jour, the dehumanization
that has occurred during the pandemic under the guise of health and safety is
better captured by the classical conception of man than in other ways
(materialism, substance dualism, etc.). That man is a rational and social
animal with needs beyond mere physical well-being will resonate deeply with
people both inside and outside the faith at this time. This presents a strong
anti-dote to capricious inclinations in the public and private spheres. It
helps us truly play the long game.
Medical/ethical questions are also better answered on the
classical model of man. People have real questions about whether they should
take the Covid-19 vaccine, to fight authorities for their business to stay open,
advocating for the rights of elder family members, treatment and visitation of
the sick and dying, and much more. The prevalent reductionist or quasi-eliminativist
view of man raises the specter of utilitarianism. Thinking of man as a utility or
pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding occasional actor on a stage brings up the inevitable
“who should we let live?” questions that are impossible to answer on a non-arbitrary
We are presented with major questions in life and these are
unavoidable. Such questions become acute in times of crisis, as we are
experiencing. Classical theism presents sound answers to these questions that
are especially relevant for our times. We have a great opportunity to bring new
evangelistic zeal, to take certain conversations head-on with confidence.