by Roman Montero
This post will engage with what I consider an extremely difficult topic, so what will follow are at best my tentative thoughts on this issue as far as I able to make them. My hope is that this might at least encourage readers to continue thinking about this issue in a way that does not reduce it to simple dichotomies (as is sometimes the temptation), and in a way that allows for the full breadth of its mystery and depth.
Gotfreid Leibniz famously declared that this world was the best of all possible worlds, a claim that seems to follow nicely from his principle of sufficient reason. A more recent use of possible world’s talk in theology is Alvin Plantinga’s ontological argument for God’s existence, which appeals to God as a necessary being and his relationship to possible worlds. There are two similarities that I want to highlight from these claims:
- They both rely on modal reasoning, reasoning around necessity and possibility in discussions of God in himself (for Leibniz, in his act of creation, for Plantinga, in his existence).
- They both seem to myself, and many others, extremely suspect.
Leibniz’s argument seems to fly in the face of our phenomenal experience, and although it is true that we are finite creatures and can never have the widest perspective necessary to see the whole context of every event, the experience and phenomenon of real suffering is so powerful that it often seems to rule out even the possibility justification from any larger context. Plantinga’s argument has the bizarre consequence of maintaining that a world in which God does not exist is not a logically possible world, even a world in which nothing at all exists; since had the existence of such a world been possible, God’s existence would be impossible.
I want to claim that this kind of modal reasoning breaks down when we get to theology proper—attempting to speak of God in himself—and especially when speaking of God sans his relation to creation. One reason for this is that God is himself the ground of any and all metaphysical possibilities and necessities. That is not to say that logical impossibility is logically posterior to God, but that any possibility for anything to be actual is grounded in God, and that God’s willing is sufficient to necessitate it. Given that there is no logical reason prior to God’s will compelling God’s will one way or the other, God’s willing cannot be said to have been able to be otherwise than what he willed, since there is no state of affairs that could have been different such that God’s will would be different outside of God’s will itself.
When we think of finite wills, such as our own, we can understand possibility in terms of the rational relations making up our reasons for choosing things, and the state of affairs that make certain things possible and certain things impossible, and what it would take to actualize those possibilities. It is possible that I will have a quesadilla for lunch next week. The reason that this is possible (not just as a logical possibility but as a true potential) is that there are criteria which would make it the case that I would likely choose to have a quesadilla for lunch, and criteria that would make it not the case. Even if I don’t know what those criteria are, I know that there is a possible state of affairs that would make my choice actual and a possible state that would make a contrary choice actual. In that sense, it is possible that I eat a quesadilla for lunch. This is the case for agential possibilities as well as non-agential possibilities. Possibilities depend on states of affairs in which a possibility could be actual. This need not mean that my choice is necessitated by a specific state of affairs. It might be that in the same state of affairs I choose not to eat a quesadilla whereas I could have chosen to; nevertheless, the possibility of the choice depends on certain states of affairs being actual, such as there being tortillas and cheese available.
When it comes to God, however, God sans creation, things get tricky. The theologian who perhaps understood this the best was Dionysus the (pseudo) Areopagite. The Areopagite in The Divine Names, chapter 5 (on being), insists that God, being the creator of all being, is itself pre-existent, pre-being, not a particular being among beings, but that by which all beings subsist. This God is not a type of being—in that he does not participate in being—but rather, being participates in him. This is not to say that God is non-being, nor to say that God is the highest being, but that all distinctions of beings and modes of being, and as such are posterior to God.1 In his Mystical Theology, the Areopagite highlights what I take to be a dialectical approach to God in himself. He lists some negations that are largely the denial of lack: God is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless; he is not material, embodied, and so on.2 He then, in a sense, negates those negations: God is not a soul or a mind, he is not speech, he is not a substance. He exists neither within the category of nonbeing nor being.3 The point here is that whatever we grasp from our position as finite creatures making sense of a finite world, God can neither be identified with anything we can grasp nor can that which we grasp be denied to him. Positive affirmations of God are analogical affirmations only, which are made by denying the univocal affirmations. The Areopagite writes:
We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.4
The reasoning here is precisely the logic of creation ex nihilo, because God is the cause of all that is, he is not bound by anything that is in and of himself, and any determinations are posterior to God and thus not of God in himself. Given this, can we speak of possibility when it comes to God in himself, prior to creation? What state of affairs could come about? What state of affairs could not come about? What state of affairs could not fail to come about? None of these questions can be really engaged in the way we engage with states of affairs in creation: states of affairs and their possibilities are determined by their finitude and their being conditioned by other states of affairs. God in and of himself is determined by nothing. His act of creation is not conditioned by anything other than his will. God’s will is not conditioned by anything but … God’s will. Any knowledge of God, any speaking of God and God’s possibilities is, as the Areopagite writes, of what is next to it; in other words, we can speak of God insofar as creation is related to him. In this sense, and this sense alone, we can speak of possible worlds, we can conceive of other states of affairs that could have been actualized, not because of any knowledge of the absolute, the ground of reality, but by our grasping of creation, the distinctions of creation and the distinctions of finite conceptual reality (such as that of mathematics). Through grasping those distinctions and abstracting from them, we can imagine virtual worlds in which the relations of the world are different. However, creation is created by God, the distinctions of finite conceptual reality are determined by their finitude, and all finitude is posterior to the infinite: any essence of a thing, including finite concepts, are what they are only because of their relations, their relations being ultimately with things whose essences are also determined by their relations, the whole picture being determined by the absolute, the infinite horizon.5
To put it in Hegelian terms, all Dasein is determined by its negation (which is contained within its determination but distinct from it), but this negation is itself determined in the very same way, it is being-for-another just as much as it is being-in-itself.6 In fact, to be something in itself (to be being-for itself), to be a particular existent, something must be being-for-another, it must be posited as negation, otherwise it would be a mere abstraction. This is to say that to be something is to be finite, and alterable, being something is being ‘being’ that is limited and in relation to the other.7 As Hegel sees it, pure being is itself indistinguishable from pure nothingness, and nothing but an abstraction, so when it is thought it collapses into becoming, of which Dasein results, as that which becomes.8
Therefore, given this model, any state of affairs by which modal reasoning can apply can only be in the realm of Hegel’s Dasein, the realm of becoming, existence determined by its negation, being-for-another. This is because all possible worlds are possible world of some conceivable alteration, some variation of relation. To say something is necessary is to say that some determinate thing, in all its determinate relations, holds in every possible world; to say something is possible is to say that the relations that determine that something, that make it something, could hold or could not, to say something is impossible is to say that the relations necessary to determine that something cannot hold in any possible world.
I submit that when speaking of God in himself, God sans-creation, modal reasoning just cannot apply, and I believe that when speaking of God sans-creation, the Dionysian method may be the most appropriate.
However, modal reasoning cannot apply to the act of creation either. This is because the act of creation is the relation between God in himself and the world of existent determinate being, the world of finite being, and the possibility and necessity distinction depends on the distinctions of finite being, conditioned being, whereas the God/word relation is the relation between the unconditioned, and the conditioned.
One may say that the possible worlds are merely virtual, merely concepts in the mind of God; so although God is not a finite being, why couldn’t he consider virtual or conceptual possible worlds and then pick one to actualize? The problem is that the exercise of picking out a possible world—and therefore picking out what is necessary, possible, and impossible—depends on these possibilities and necessities and impossibilities being independent of the exercise itself. For God, any conceptual possible world is not, in fact, possible outside of God willing it to be, the state of affairs in which anything is possible is the act of creation. Therefore, any state of affairs that God does not will is impossible, yet it would be not impossible had he created it. The only laws that one might posit as governing God will would be the fundamental laws of logic: God cannot create a square circle, yet logical impossibilities are relations between determinate concepts, squareness and circleness, and any instantiation of one or the other can only be possible insofar as God wills it. So even the laws of logic themselves depend on certain relations, conceptual relations perhaps, but determinate relations nonetheless. Given that, laws of logic can only really be applied to God’s will a posteriori; in other words, given creation one might say that God could not have made a square circle, but that is only once the conceptual distinctions on which the laws of logic depend on are, in fact, distinguished. In this sense one might imagine Dionysius the Areopagite saying that God is beyond logic but not illogical, that God is hyper-logic, and hypo-logic, that logic participates in God, but not vice-versa.
When describing the act of creation, Thomas Aquinas points out that God created something from nothing is due to his being pure actuality, not something with potency such that it could be actualized by another; therefore, God’s action of creation, for Thomas, is not one in which a prior principle, or cause, or reason actualizes a potency, but it is truly from nothing. For Thomas, it was ‘logically’ possible, in that it did not entail a contradiction, but it was not some potency in God to be actualized.9 Lack of contradiction might make something possible in a sense, but something’s ‘possibility’ is the possibility of a state of affairs being actualized, which in the case of God in his act of creation, is entirely dependent on God and cannot be actualized by something other than God himself.
So, what can we say about God in himself and his relation to creation? In my article “God as Love: In Creation,” I touch on that issue a little bit. My basic contention is the category of possibility cannot apply to God in himself and his relation to creation, but the category of love can. Does not John tell us in his first epistle that God is Love (1 John 4:8, 16)? Therefore, should we not expect a phenomenology of Love to give us something about God in himself and his relation to creation. Modern philosophical treatments of love, for example by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, have challenged the idea that love can be neatly put into a category of something which is chosen as one possibility and something which is necessitated, which is imposed, Badiou writes:
After all, love takes place in the world. It is an event that can’t be predicted or calculated in terms of the world’s laws. Nothing enables one to prearrange the encounter—not even Meetic, and all those long, preparatory chats!: in the end, the moment you see each other in the flesh, you see each other, and that’s that, and it’s out of control! However, love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction.10
To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth. The chance nature of the encounter morphs into the assumption of a beginning. And often what starts there lasts so long, is so charged with novelty and experience of the world that in retrospect it doesn’t seem at all random and contingent, as it appeared initially, but almost a necessity. That is how chance is curbed: the absolute contingency of the encounter with someone I didn’t know finally takes on the appearance of destiny. The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.11
If “I love you” is always, in most respects, the heralding of “I will always love you”, it is in effect locking chance into the framework of eternity. We shouldn’t be afraid of words. The locking in of chance is an anticipation of eternity. And to an extent, every love states that it is eternal: it is assumed within the declaration. The problem then resides in inscribing this eternity within time. Because, basically, that is what love is: a declaration of eternity to be fulfilled or unfurled as best it can be within time: eternity descended into time.12
What makes this interesting is there is a contingent encounter which retrospectively seems necessary. Slavoj Zizek makes a similar point writing:
If I am directly ordered to love a woman, it is clear that this does not work; in a way, love must be free. But on the other hand, if I proceed as if I really have a free choice, if I start to look around and say to myself ‘Let’s choose which of these women I will fall in love with’, it is clear that this also does not work, that it is not ‘real love’. The paradox of love is that it is a free choice, but a choice which never arrives in the present—it is always already made. At a certain moment, I can only state retroactively that I’ve already chosen.13
The points here that I want to highlight are that love is both experienced as a contingent encounter and a free choice (just like coming across two cups of water and picking one up over the other), yet it is also experienced as a kind of necessity, the love is locked into necessity, it is experienced as permanent and even ‘eternal,’ it in fact defines who you are such that it is experienced as something like ‘destiny.’ It also differs from any other free choice, because although it is free in the sense that no one did, or could, impose it on you, it was still never ‘chosen’ in the sense of a deliberation and conscious decision, it is a true event, one without precedence, one which could not be predicted. It is both chosen and constructed, and an unprecedented event that one encounters. Here the clean distinctions between possibility and necessity become blurred, was it possible for you not to fall in love with your beloved given the encounter? Could you have chosen otherwise? Was it not necessitated by the encounter?
Nevertheless, in this case we still have a contingent event which is prior to love, perhaps the love itself blurs the lines of necessity and possibility, but the encounter that enables it does not. God has no encounter prior to creation, God did not ‘fall’ in love, like we do. Perhaps the reality of love is not conditioned in the encounter—in other words, nothing in the encounter necessitates love, but it cannot be said to have been any way else given the encounter—but the encounter is itself conditioned, and that encounter is a condition for the event of love.
Can one have an event, a kind of event like love, that transcends possibility and necessity? freedom and determination? One source as a possible way to engage this issue is the 19th century dialectical idealist philosopher (and theologian, I would say) Friedrich Von Schelling.
Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom contains an attempt to engage with God’s freedom in creation. For Schelling, God is grounded in himself, that ground however, is pure undifferentiated and eternal will, God as actual is this will directed towards an another. Schelling puts, this directed will is ‘pure unity’ and ‘pure understanding.’ Gud thus becomes God through his willing the other. The ground precedes God but is only real insofar as God actualizes it in his actuality, the ground and God as actual presuppose one another and do not exist without each other. This other willed by God is itself grounded in the ‘ground’ of God, and actualized by God’s desire for this other, but this other, being grounded in pure will is free, free to move towards God as actual, or not. God as actual for Schelling, is therefore the very act of God relating to the other through love, that other being actualized by God out of God’s own ground as the finite objects of God’s love, through which God himself is actualized as the absolute actualization of his ground.14
In this sense, for Schelling, God becomes actual in his desire to relate to another, God as actual is God in his desire for the other, his love. This cannot be a choosing of pre-existent possibilities, but these possibilities are God himself, but they only are possibilities insofar as God actualizes the object of understanding in creation. Here we see a similar paradox as we saw earlier in the discussion of love. The ‘event’ of creation is not God choosing between possibilities, but it is what actualizes God as God. The possibilities, the pure potency of God’s ground is not a set of options for God, but God’s own ground, and these possibilities are only real possibilities retrospectively, since only God as actual, God as the lover of the other, could have realized them. Just like the lover finds himself already in love, yet that love is absolutely free chosen, just like the contingency of the event of love in the encounter become retrospectively necessary (in that the encounter could not have failed to result in love), God—given this schema—is both prior to creation yet actualized by creation. God freely brings creation out of his undifferentiated will, but this undifferentiated will is itself only real insofar as God actualizes it into a directed will.
This kind of dialectical approach allows us to talk about God as the ground of all possibility and necessity, yet also as that which actualizes possibility and necessity. This is because the act of God’s creation actualizes God himself which is the pre-condition of the ground of all possibility and necessity. This may seem like circular reasoning, and in a sense, it is. Does this mean that God does not exist without creation? Not necessarily, God may only exist as God actualized in creation, and God actualized may be grounded in God’s pure will which only exists insofar as God is actualized. One may want to say, as I do, that beyond God’s actualization in creation, one can posit—with Pseudo-Dionysius—a God which cannot be predicated or abstracted from, a God which is beyond being. If we go with this model this absolutely apophatic God beyond the actualization of creation is inaccessible to us. The God we know is that very God, but that God as creator, the dynamic relational God who is Love as both our ground and as our actualization, ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, ὁ παντοκράτωρ.
 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names, 5.
 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 4.
 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 5.
 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 5.
 See Pannenberg, Metaphysics and the Idea of God, 103–105; 160–168.
 Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, §91.
 Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, §92.
 Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, §89.
 Thomas Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Potentia, 3.1–3.
 Badiou, In Praise of Love, 31.
 Badiou, In Praise of Love, 42–43.
 Badiou, In Praise of Love, 47.
 Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 187.
 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations, 17–19; 27–32.
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Roman A. Montero is the author of All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians and Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Plain.