Our friend Dr. Ed Feser has got himself worked up into full drunken polemicist mode. I earn ridicule and ire normally reserved for Dawkins types. Evidently I touched a nerve by pointing out that most (analytic) philosophers now – reflecting a fairly wide consensus since early modern times – think of God as the greatest being there is or could be, and not as “Being Itself.”
As much as some of Ed’s readers would like to see an old-fashioned street fight, I’m going to charitably chalk his wrath up to the facts that I’m as opinionated as Ed is, and that my replies to his voluminous, and interesting, relevant writings, have thus far been too short. This has been due to lack of time, and to some degree interest, but as I’ve always said, I’m willing to argue through these things. Thomism is one of the great Systems of historical philosophy. It seems Ed has more or less chugged the whole bottle. In this series, I will explore why I can’t do that. I wish I could – I would like to enjoy the benefits of a large-scale philosophical system, and I admire Ed Feser’s manly, bold defenses of this tradition – done not in the patois of the Thomist or Continental ghettos, but in the clear, analytic-style prose we all like to read. I’ve been reading his Aquinas, and I recommend it.
Ed’s recent posts raise a great many issues. In this first post, I’ll explain why I think there is a strong prima facie case for the Christian tradition implying that God is a great Self, and not Being Itself.
Christianity is a revealed religion. Thus, if we’re going to consider as relevant what most Christians think, the most relevant group is: Christians – the recipients of divine revelation, specifically through Jesus and the apostles – not primarily bishops, theologians, professors, philosophers, or popes.
As best I can tell, most Christians – Catholic and Protestant, pentecostal and Orthodox, Anabaptist and nondenominational, think, and have always thought of God as a great self. The best explanation of this is that it has so been revealed to them. And this is so despite a long history of elites such as Eriugena and Davies who think this conviction is terribly naive. What about the Trinity? Yes, despite the variety of understandings of the creedal formulas, I think it is still true that most Christians, most of the time, have thought that God is a great Self, yes, (horrors!) a Being.
Why do I say this? Listen to what they say, particularly in unguarded moments which reveal what they really think. For them, God is a “He.” They think God loves and hates, does things, hears them, speaks, knows things, and can be anthropomorphically depicted, whether in art, or in Old Testament theophanies. And a good number think that the one God just is Jesus himself – and Jesus is literally a self, and so can’t be Being Itself.
Consider, for starters, Micah 4:5:
Though all the nations follow their respective gods, we will follow the LORD our god forever…
In the Old Testament, YHWH is a god, one of the elohim (which is translated, in different contexts, “God” or “gods”). This is compatible, mind you, with his being uniquely great among them. This is famously asserted in Isaiah 40-48. Also instructive is Genesis 1:26,
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…
The consensus of interpreters now is that this is God, YHWH, talking to his heavenly court, to his angels – to what in Old Testament lingo are, along with him, and sometimes various humans, termed elohim. We have in this passage one Self consulting others, about an intentional action, a thing which can only be done by a self. This action is creating the heavens and the earth – by himself, contra other cosmologies which would split the labor among a pantheon.
Worship is, as a conceptual matter, an I-Thou – that is, a self to self – action. So is love. If you come to believe that “God” is a Force, a Dao, or Nirguna Brahman, you think it is misguided to worship or love it. You will demote devotional (in an Indian context, bhakti) religion to the level of the uninformed – at best, a weigh station on the way to True Wisdom.
In any case, the one true God is to be loved, according to our greatest teacher, yes, according to one much greater than Aquinas:
…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Jesus in Mark 12:30)
This implies that God is a self.
In a number of biblical texts, God is pictured as sitting on a throne. Anthropomorphic? Yes, in the proper sense of the term. This is portraying God as human-like, humanoid, if you like. But this is OK; as we saw in Genesis 1, God made humans in his own image – and similarity is a symmetrical relation. That is, if we’re similar to God, it follows that he’s similar to us. This needn’t be a bodily similarity – but portraying God as a humanoid figure is an easy way to get us to think of him as a self. We see, or imagine, the bodily form, and immediately think of the first-person aware being which normally going along with such.
Has God now been reduced to the atheist-debater’s proverbial Man in the Sky? No – being a Spirit, and the creator of the cosmos, God is not a man at all, much less one in the sky. He thinks without a brain, sees without eyes, hears without hears, and creates without hands. But he is a self, and so, is in that respect human-like. I am not ashamed to follow Jesus in calling God and thinking of God as a our heavenly Father. Why are that metaphor and title fitting for the one God? Because he’s relevantly like an ideal human father. Let the sophisticates jeer, with Spinoza, about “anthropomorphism.” With Psalm 103, I think that
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
God gets mad. Literally? Yes. Does the hair stand up on the back of his neck? Does he get red in the face? Does his heart race? No, no, and no. None of those are required for getting mad. A spirit may get mad. We have no good reason to think that only a bodily being can be a subject of annoyance, wrath, disdain, and so on.
Is this a flat-footed literalism? No. Nothing I’ve said, and nothing I will say, implies that all biblical, or all true descriptions of God must be understood literally. The claim is rather that we can form concepts which are satisfied by both God and his creatures, and of course we have terms which express these concepts, and so those terms too – e.g. being, self, moral agent, thinking being, soul, actor, lover, real entity – apply to both. But are those concepts I just named suited only to physical beings, or to creatures, or to humans? No. We can abstract away elements of a concept, and get a more general one, which applies to more than one sort of being, and even a divine being, a god.
Back to the Psalm,
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
God takes pity on us. He is compassionate, and sympathizes with our plight. He is supremely loving. He forgives. These actions, emotions, and character traits logically presuppose that he’s a self, a being capable of consciousness, with intelligence, will, and the ability to intentionally act. An abstract object, a universal, a force, a thought, a property, or a something-somewhat-like-a-universal can’t be thought to (literally) do or have those.
There’s much, much more to be said about the portrayals of God in the Bible, but I’ll stop there for now.
Have I just made God a creature? No. Have I implied that he’s fully understandable? No. Have I implied that he’s not perfect at all, but is dependent on something else for his being and essential attributes? In my view, no. Ed seems confident that all of the above is naive, even arrogant, and that it all rather easily topples before the might of a few Classic arguments. But I’ll save those for future posts. Let me stick to the positive case here.
Jumping ahead in time, past folk like Augustine and Leibniz, let us note that this conception of God as a self is fully represented in recent philosophy. Most arguments for “God’s” existence are for some sort of being – a perfect one, a necessary one, an independent one, a perfectly moral one, a conscious and free creator, and so on.
So it is in analytic theology. There, the so-called “Latin” trinitarians are dead set on the one God turning out to be one being. And the “social” trinitarians too try hard, in various ways, to make it come out that “God” is one being – or close enough to be thought of as such. In that whole Latin-vs-social-trinitarian literature (see sections 1-2 here), the “classic” view that God is “being itself” doesn’t really make an appearance.
Is this just the arrogance of analytic philosophers, following lamentable 20th and 21st century narrow-minded trends? Hardly. Consider the two most influential recent trinitarian theologians – Barth and Rahner. Both, it seems, make moves designed to ensure that the triune God comes out as one self, as well as one being. So too many other theologians, who are anxious to clarify that their “persons” are not “persons in the full modern sense” – i.e. selves. This lets them have but one divine self – God – who essentially and eternally lives in three ways or modes – which is what the “persons” of the Trinity are, for such theologians (at least when not in a mystery-emphasizing mood).
Why all this scrambling to make it out that the Trinity is a single being? Because that’s what most Christians have always thought – that the one God, is a single being – indeed, the greatest there could be, one deserving of worship and love.
Why try to ensure that the Trinity is understood as a single divine self? Because only that seems to positively banish the threat of Trinity-as-polytheism. You may argue that this concern is wrong-headed, but my point is that it is a common concern, shared by many (but not all) trinitarian Christians.
Why not just insist that it is inconceivable that the one God should be any sort of being at all? That’s just not what most Christians think, and the aforementioned communities of scholars aim to serve their various Christian communities, to say something of relevance to them.
There is some room for the “Being itself” theology in what I call the “Negative Mysterian” camp of trinitarians. The Trinity tent is a big one. This is, I assume, where Ed’s views lie. I don’t claim, then, that “Being itself” theology is obviously inconsistent with catholic theorizing about the Trinity. It’s just that those traditions of speculation outstrip, in more than one way, the boundaries of monotheism.
But again, let us look beyond the intellectual elites. Are you a long time churchgoer? Ever heard a sermon or homily or liturgical reading or song whose theme was that “God” is “Being Itself”? Have you heard any in which God is extolled as a wonderful, trustworthy, active, mighty, wise, kind, parent-like being? What’s the percentage of the two? For me, it’d be 0% vs. 100%. Granted, I’ve never been Roman Catholic. But I would ask even my Catholic friends: discounting mere verbal gestures at or allusions to doctrines that God is Pure Act, Being Itself, and so on, have you ever heard a sermon the theme of which is such claims? As in, someone taking notes, would write those down as central points?
In sum, far be it from me to insist a priori that contrarian Thomists can’t swim against this tide, just because it is a big, wide, and old tide. Every author of the Bible, common Jews and Christians of all eras, and a great many leading Christian intellectuals past and present are, plausibly, understood as what Feser calls “theistic personalists.” Are they badly misunderstanding the central points of God’s own revelation? In principle, they could be. But why think so? I’m willing to go with extremely uncool claims, if that’s where the arguments unavoidably lead. We still need, then, to interact with the arguments which allegedly show the incoherence of God as a great self, and so show the need for “Being itself” type views, which I claim are atheistic.
I am well aware that Thomists think they can perfectly well preserve all this personalistic talk about God. We’ll get into that in another post. Here we just note that most Christians simply don’t adopt their stance about analogical predication.
In the next post in this series I’ll look at the biblical support Feser alleges for his “Being Itself” theology. Then the reader can judge whether it is the Thomists, or the massive herd of Christians discussed in this post, who are reading their theories into the texts, rather than correctly grasping the contents of those texts.