“God” permeates our conversation. Each year hundreds of books are published about God. I did a search on Amazon.com and found that there are 692,970 works with “God” in the title. There is no escaping the term, even if it is only invoked to deny the existence of its referent. But if one engages in theological conversation long enough, whether with Christians or with non-Christians, one begins to wonder whether everyone means the same thing by the word.
In his book The God of Faith and Reason, philosopher Robert Sokolowski directs us back to the early centuries of the Church when Christians were faced with the need to distinguish their understanding of divinity from the understanding of divinity in pagan religion and philosophy:
If we examine pagan thinking about the divine, we do not find the issue of creation raised in the way it is raised in Christianity, nor do we find the understanding of God that is maintained by Christians. In Greek and Roman religions, and in Greek and Roman philosophies, god or the gods are appreciated as the most powerful, most independent and self-sufficient, most unchanging beings in the world, but they are accepted within the context of being. … The being of pagan gods is to be a part, though the most important part, of what is; no matter how independent they are, the pagan gods must be with things that are not divine. (p. 12)
The unity of divinity and the all other beings is most clearly presented in popular pagan religion. The gods of Olympian religion clearly belong to the world. They represent the necessities and natural forces that we confront in our daily lives and which we ignore only at great risk. Agamemnon slays a pregnant hare sacred to Artemis, and as a result misfortune falls upon his navy, ultimately requiring the propitiating sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, and as a result Poseidon prevents him from reaching home for ten years.
With the emergence of Greek philosophy the gods came to be seen as projection of worldly necessities. “The necessities,” Sokolowski explains, “became simply the way things were born to be; they became that which is ‘by nature,’ as opposed to that which is because of human making or because of human choice” (p. 15). The philosophers did not deny the divine, but it was now relegated “to those forms of being that were taken to be the independent, ruling substances in the world. The divine was part, the best and governing part, of nature, but its direct involvement with human affairs was no longer acknowledged nor was it feared” (p. 15). In Aristotle divinity is located in the highest and first substances: it functions as the cause of motion and development of beings in the world. In Plato divinity becomes the “motive and the object of the exercise of reason” (p. 17). It does not function as the prime mover, as with Aristotle, but reaches beyond substance; yet even still “it is taken as ‘part’ of what is: it is the One by being a one over, for, and in many, never by being One only alone by itself” (p. 18). Divinity in Greek philosophy is monistic—it cannot be conceived apart from the non-divine beings in the world.
In the revelation of the gospel a new and distinct way of thinking divinity and cosmos is introduced. Sokolowski calls it the Christian distinction. God becomes understood as one who might have freely chosen not to create the world, without any diminishment of his goodness and greatness; the world becomes understood as radically contingent, as that which did not have to be. We do not realize, Sokolowski suggests, how unusual this apprehension is:
It is natural for human reason to find itself within the context of the world and its necessities as simply there, as the extreme margin of what can be thought. To think or to believe beyond the setting of the world and its necessities should be recognized for the unusual movement that it is. It is not the case that the Greek philosophers were somehow not sufficiently intelligent, or that they did not strain their minds enough, to reach a distinction that reason should come to at some time or other. The step into understanding beings as possibly never having been at all is not like the step from Homer to Plato, from the mythical articulation of things into the literal and philosophical exploration of them. It is not simply one more pace in the march of reason, or one more refinement in human self-understanding. It is a movement of a very different kind. (p. 19)
The distinction between transcendent deity and contingent creation, in other words, is not an expected or inevitable consequence of philosophical reflection. It breaks into the world as revelation, revelation lived out in the life of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Only thus did it become meaningful. The Christian distinction would have made no sense to Aristotle.
By patristic apprehension, God need not have created the world; and if he had not, his goodness, greatness, and glory would not have been diminished one whit. This entails the corollary: God plus the world is not greater than God alone. Sokolowski elaborates:
In the distinctions that occur normally within the setting of the world, each term distinguished is what it is precisely by not being that which it is distinguishable from. Its being is established partially by its otherness, and therefore its being depends on its distinction from others. But in the Christian distinction God is understood as “being” God entirely apart from any relation of otherness to the world or to the whole. God could and would be God even if there were no world. Thus the Christian distinction is appreciated as a distinction that did not have to be, even though it in fact is. The most fundamental thing we come to in Christianity, the distinction between the world and God, is appreciated as not being the most fundamental thing after all, because one of the terms of the distinction, God, is more fundamental than the distinction itself.
In Christian faith God is understood not only to have created the world, but to have permitted the distinction between himself and the world to occur. He is not established as God by the distinction (whereas pagan gods are established by being different from other things). No distinction made within the horizons of the world is like this, and therefore the act of creation cannot be understood in terms of any action or any relationship that exists in the world. The special sense of sameness in God “before” and “after” creation, and the special sense of otherness between God and the world, impose qualifications on whatever we are to say about God and the world, about creation out of nothing, about God’s way of being present and interior to things and yet beyond them. …
The Christian distinction between God and the world is therefore a distinction that is, in principle, both most primary and yet capable of being obliterated, because one of the terms of the distinction, the world, does not have to be. To be God, God does not need to be distinguished from the world, because there does not need to be anything other than God alone. As Aquinas has formulated it, God is not related by a real relation to the world. (pp. 32-34)
Might humanity, without any special revelation, have eventually reasoned itself to the Christian distinction? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The idea that everything might never have been is a curious thought. But even more curious is the idea that God does not need you, me, or the entire world in order to be the fullness of divinity.