Saturday, January 30, 2021

Divine Aseity vs. Self-Sufficiency

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 ad extra.  

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 of God.”

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

Some Thoughts on Aseity and Temporality in God

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

Thinking About Creation

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 makeGod’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?

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 basis.

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.