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.