more thoughts on “God,” atheism, and panentheism

Q_portraitDr. James McGrath has responded to my post on belief in “God” where this amounts to an ineffable Ultimate – which, I claimed, is a variety of atheism.

He seems to think that thinking that God resembles humans to any degree or in any way counts as “anthropomorphism.” I think that’s a goofy use of the term, but why quibble about words? So, in James’s sense, most Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) have had an “anthropomorphic” conception of God. (He refers to people who seem not to know what “metaphor” means – but I digreess.) The Bible, then, is everywhere “anthropomorphic.”

In another post, he asserts that “To say “God did it” is not an explanation.”

Huh? Perhaps he means, “is never a good explanation” or “is never the best explanation,” but of course any of these claims is controversial. On the face of it, e.g. “God killed Ananias” is a perfectly intelligible explanation, and it’s hard to see why in couldn’t, in some circumstances, be the best explanation. Is he assuming some extreme form of empiricism, I wonder?

Like me, Dr. McGrath is a sci-fi geek. Yes, I have been forced by the wife to dress like Spock for Halloween, on the grounds that I closely resemble Spock (in personality). Anyway, could this, conceivably, be an explanation – “Q killed that red-shirt” ? (Yes, I know, I’m mixing series.) It seems to me, obviously yes. But just so in the case of God, even a God who is a spirit (in Stark Trek original series language, “pure energy”) and who lacks any sort of body.

Back to the point at hand. Dr. McGrath says,

…the roots of ancient Israel’s concept of God are most certainly in a being who is a part of the universe, and not Being itself

A intelligent, powerful being who created the whole cosmos, the “heavens and the earth,” need not be part of the cosmos. He could be a being who would exist whether or not there had ever been any cosmos. It’s a mistake to think that either God is Being Itself or else God is a part of the cosmos.

Another point: a god, a very powerful self, with powers to act against what seem to be nature’s normal course, is easy to conceive of. In contrast, “Being itself” is of dubious intelligibility. When I think of all the beings in space and time, to me, they do not seem to be one whole anything. Nor does there some to be some stuff of which all are made. It positively seems possible that there be no things in space and time and all. Were this to be so, would Being Itself still be there? I assume not. If not, then Being Itself would seem to be a contingent and dependent entity. If such a thing existed, it would seem that it’s existence would be explained, if it is explained, by something else.

But even if we grant that “Being Itself” is a meaningful term, it’s not clear why we should believe in such a thing. We can of course consider appeals to mystical experiences, but in the case of (an “anthropomorphic”) God, these will be intelligible reports – there will be understandable content to them. e.g. “It seemed to me that God was not pleased with my trying to practice Klingon religion.” “It seemed to me that Someone made all of this.” Seemingly not, in the case of an alleged perception of a truly ineffable Something. It’s hard then, to see that such reports would have evidential value for anyone but (maybe!) the subject. Philosopher of religion Keith Yandell, by the way, has written elequently on this theme in a couple of places.

James says,

What modern theists believe is not what the ancient Israelites prior to the exile believed.

And so the question when it comes to Christian identity is not whether our beliefs match theirs, but whether the overriding trajectory is being followed.

The first part, I think, is true but trivial. I agree that early on, the Hebrews probably thought that YHWH was their god, but one of many peers (other nations had theirs). I also agree that, probably, at an early stage, some Hebrews thought God had a body. But how is this relevant? Such beings are gods, in the sense I defined above. So is a GOD, that is, a perfect being, who is a se, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and so on. Suppose the Israelites really interacted, causally, with a supernatural being. We might interact with the same, though our background assumptions about that being may be somewhat, or even very, different. It seems that we can refer, but a chain of reference, to that same being they called “Elohim” and “Yahweh” and “El” and so on, back then.

About the second part, he seems to think that the core concept of God is a perfect being. I agree with that, and that there’s room to disagree about what this entails. But I note that he thinks we should think of God as moral – that our views about God should be guided by our moral intuitions. I agree. But then, God is a being thought of as a self – only selves can be morally good. (Unless James is speaking as a religious anti-realist…)

I really don’t understand why Dr. McGrath thinks that anything in the Christian “trajectory” points towards either Deism (or near-Deism, i.e. almost no “interventions”) or panentheism. About this latter, he says,

Panentheism typically involves not saying that God is an “it” which would then be less than we are, but that God is a reality whose nature we cannot hope to fathom, but as the ground, source, and encompasser of our existence, is not less than we are.

So, if this God isn’t less than we are, he’s at least a self. Yes? He has knowledge, will, consciousness? Must be a He, not an It (and not neither)?

If so, this is inconsistent with the view I thought we were discussing, which is that no concept of ours literally apply to God. I would not deny that this panentheism is, or can be, a species of monotheism. In fact, the difference between it an non-panentheistic-monotheism may be rather subtle. I’ve heard, e.g. Dallas Willard compare the cosmos to God’s body (he was speaking metaphorically).

I’ll leave things there for now. James – have I misunderstood you somehow here? Want to argue ’bout any of this?

Either way: live long and prosper.

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

15 Responses to more thoughts on “God,” atheism, and panentheism

  1. Walter says:

    a god, a very powerful self, with powers to act against what seem to be nature’s normal course, is easy to conceive of. In contrast, “Being itself” is of dubious intelligibility.

    Catholic philosopher Ed Feser would likely consider your conception of God as falling into the error of theistic personalism.

    What are your thoughts on the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of God as Pure Actuality?

  2. Dale says:

    Hey Walter – thanks for the comment.

    “thoughts on the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of God as Pure Actuality”

    Would it make an sense to ask such a being a question? Argue with it? Could it communicate its thoughts to us? Could such a being love humans so much, that he sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sin?

    I take it, the answer is, No. Such a being can’t be affected, can’t respond. Can’t intend to communicate, literally can’t feel compassion or intentionally do anything. I take it, then, that such a “God” is a rival ultimate being to the God of the Bible, the heavenly Father.

    (Yes, I’m aware of Aquinas’s views on analogical predication.)

    Feser’s “theistic personalism” is just what most philosophers call “theism,” i.e. monotheism.

  3. Michael says:


    I echo your assessment of the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of God, but out of curiosity, where do you see their analysis of be-ing that deductively results in the conception of God as esse ipse subsistens going wrong?

  4. Dale says:

    Sorry – too big a question. We’d have to go argument by argument, and see where the false premise, or invalid inference is.

  5. Solid on “Being itself.” Too much neoplatonish garbage involved in ontologizing the entirely abstract signifiers of genres. If there is a relevant category of ?? ????, that’s what it is: a category. A drawer big enough to stick everything that exists inside.

    The Creator may be the origin of everything in that drawer, but such a god is certainly not identifiable with the drawer. At least, not of necessity. The missing middle there is an assumption about mechanism, and a false one in most cases. In any Abrahamic sense, for example, “Being itself” is simply the creation. The drawer is what it is as a holder of its contents. The abstract is what it is as a property (even a notional one) under which all covered particulars can be grouped, because they share it in a relevant sense.

    Of course, if you’re going to keep busting McGrath on “a being who is part of the universe,” you might want to note the false dichotomy that results from assuming that everything in the universe is “part of” it … or, properly, that it all belongs to a categorical unity. Otherwise we push towards the classic and bad assumptions that by being other, God must be external to creation, and that God and creation are inimical to one another. It is most certainly true that “the roots of ancient Israel’s concept of God are most certainly in a being who is active in the universe“—but that need never imply what McGrath has assumed from it.

  6. Whoops, apparently no Greek rendering. “If there is a relevant category of “ta onta,”…”

  7. Still, I’ll bust you on saying that if God is a self, God must be a “He” rather than an “It.” The non-gendered pronoun does not of necessity connote things rather than selves. If you’re going to talk about intelligible perceptions vs. real mystical experience, dump the gendering of God in that bin right along with everything else.

  8. Michael says:


    In an article titled “Aquinas and Finite Gods,” Thomist philospoher John F.X. Knasas disputes C. Hartshorne’s criticisms of the Thomist conception of God. At the end of the article, he defies Hartshorne to deal with Aquinas’ analysis of being (esse) that leads to ipse esse subsistens as the Creator and Sustainer of all other things, that leads in other words to “what all people call God.” Knasas writes,

    “Aquinas’ understanding of the deity is not arbitrary. It unrolls from his analysis of the esse of things. If Hartshorne wants to argue with the conception, he will have to begin by arguing with the analysis. This he nowhere does.”

    As one who has wrestled with the Thomist analysis of esse quite a bit, it frustrates me too that those who disagree with Thomism never deal with the analysis of esse. Like Hartshorne, they only attack the Thomist conception of God. I am all for attacking that conception, as I agree with you and the host of other “theistic personalists” that the conception is manifestly false, contradictory not only to what God has revealed about himself in the Scriptures but logically contradictory as well (e.g. a strictly immutable being identical to his acts cannot freely create, and that would make all existants necessary beings, or rather, necessary emanations of God). Nevertheless, it is remarkable that no one deals with the analysis of esse, for this is the only way, I believe, of possibly persuading Thomists themselves. As long as they believe their analysis of esse is correct, then they will deflect all attacks on the conception of God that follows from that analysis by invoking the analogy of being and the alleged mystery that creates.

    So that is why I asked you where you see their analysis of esse going wrong.


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  10. Dale says:

    Hi Matthew,

    “the gendering of God” – I don’t think God literally has a gender. Both men and women, equally, are made in his image. It is an interesting question why the Jewish and Christian traditions use predominantly male metaphors for and male pronouns for God.

    Note, that there is a gender-neutral usage of “he” and “him.” e.g. a posted sign – “Whoever enters must first wipe his shoes.” This hang-up over our using a structurally masculine form is a very recent hang-up.

    Can a self be referred to by “It.” Sure. But the term would mislead, as we normally reserve “it” for non-selves.

  11. Dale says:

    Hi Michael,

    You are certainly correct that the best sort of refutation starts with premises all of which the opponent will agree to, and ends with a validly deduced conclusion which with which the opponent must disagree.

    Honestly, though, past experience has made me wary of diving into that particular philosophical mud pit. And time and energy are finite.

  12. Dale, masculine pronouns aren’t gender neutral at any time. Suggestions that the use of masculine pronouns should be understood as generic simply perpetuate patriarchy. The use of “one” or the third-person plural in contexts referring to a generic individual or a member of a mixed-gender class are the proper ways of going about that: “Those entering must first wipe their shoes.” But of course, the imperative would do far better: “Wipe your shoes when entering.”

    That said, there is no generic third-person singular specific pronoun. There simply is none. We have masculine, feminine, and neutral pronouns, but the neutral pronoun is “it.” And as you’ve noticed, “it” has problems of its own.

  13. dguller says:

    One problem with the Thomist account of esse is that it leads to a contradiction with the Trinity, I think.

    According to Aquinas, the divine essence is Being itself, and anything other than Being itself is a creature.

    Aquinas endorses the following principle:

    (1) If A is really distinct from B, then what A and B have in common cannot be identical to what A and B do not have in common

    (1) makes sense, because to reject (1) is to embrace the logical contradiction that what A and B have in common is identical to what A and B do not have in common, which is equivalent to endorsing that X is identical to not-X.

    Moving on, Aquinas says that the divine persons have the divine essence in common. On the basis of (1), the divine essence cannot be identical to what the divine persons do not have in common, which we can call X. In other words, X is not the divine essence. Aquinas identifies X with the different divine relations of origin and procession, but that is irrelevant. The only important point is that X cannot be identical to the divine essence, on pain of logical contradiction. Therefore, X must be other than the divine essence. Furthermore, since the divine essence is Being itself, it follows that X must be other than Being itself, which means that X must be a creature. Therefore, the differentiating factor that accounts for the real distinction between the divine persons is a creature, which means that “prior” to creation, there was no real distinction between the divine persons, which is absurd, because it would mean that the divine persons somehow depend upon creation, amongst other huge problems.

    So, if Aquinas is correct that the divine essence is Being itself, then the Trinity is false, and if the Trinity is true, then it must be false that the divine essence is Being itself.

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  15. Michael says:


    I for one agree with the reductio you have presented–and presented very simply and clearly. The Thomistic conception of God as being itself cannot be true if the dogma of the trinity is true. It is interesting that no trinitarian has issued a response yet to your post. At any rate, the truth is that both the Thomistic conception of God as being itself and the dogma of the trinity are false. God is neither being itself nor a trinity. He is one being and one person.

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