Being, Beyond Being, or Oz the Great and Terrible?


Philosopher Dale Tuggy and religion professor James McGrath have been engaged in a pleasant debate on the nature of God. It began with McGrath’s invocation of Paul Tillich: God is not a being but Being. I have not read Tillich since seminary (late 70s). About the only thing I remember is Tillich speaking of God as the infinite depth of existence. We seminarians also liked to tell this joke:

And Jesus said unto his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

After a long silence, Peter stepped forward and spoke: “Thou art the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”

And Jesus replied, “What?”

Tuggy responded to McGrath by suggesting that McGrath was in fact proposing a form of atheism: “Atheistic Belief in God.” The identification of God and Being, writes Tuggy, “is not a Christian view of God, and isn’t even any sort of monotheism.”

I was surprised by this statement. Right off the top of my head, I can think of three Christian theologians of antiquity who identified divinity and Being—St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Augustine of Hippo, and St Thomas Aquinas. I can also think of three Christian theologians who preferred to speak of God as “beyond Being”—Dionysius, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Gregory Palamas. And not one had a problem identifying their God with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Tuggy must be well aware of this. Perhaps he believes that Tillich’s own understanding of divinity leans toward an impersonalism in ways that Nazianzen’s and Palamas’s do not; yet it seems to me that Tuggy may be critiquing not just Tillich but all apophatic construals of deity.

“Isn’t it obvious,” Tuggy asks, “that the Christian God is a He, not an It? ‘God’ in the Bible has human friends, loves and hates, have knowledge and plans, sent his Son, and wants to be obeyed.” The Tillichian identification of God and Being is ultimately a form of atheism, suggests Tuggy, for it excludes the Abrahamic belief in “a great and powerful self, the creator of the cosmos.” And here is the problem. I sincerely doubt that the theologians I have mentioned would have been comfortable with the description of God as a “great and powerful self,” at least not without some serious qualification.

McGrath responded to Tuggy in his article “Mystics and/or Atheists.” I find this article particularly curious and confusing. Part of my problem is that I am unacquainted with McGrath’s work and therefore lack proper context; but it sure appears to me that McGrath is making up his theology as he goes along (see, e.g., his article “Thinking about God“). There’s no sense of a faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Hence I can understand why Tuggy finds McGrath’s overall position unsatisfactory. But McGrath makes an important point: “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.” This is undoubtedly true. What I have called “the Christian Distinction” represents a theological development that only became explicit with the articulation of the creatio ex nihilo in the second and third centuries. The Church Fathers certainly believed that their doctrine of creation faithfully brought to conceptual expression that which is both explicit and implicit in the biblical testimony. I agree with McGrath that the key question is not whether we repristinate the theological beliefs of the biblical writers in every detail, “but whether the overriding trajectory is being followed.” However, I do not see how this trajectory can be properly assessed apart from the Sacred Tradition of the Church. One does not jump from the Bible to Tillich. Tillich certainly didn’t do so.

Tuggy followed-up with his article “More Thoughts on ‘God,’ Atheism, and Panentheism.” What I want to do at this point is to combine his two articles and distill Tuggy’s critique of McGrath into three points:

1) We can easily entertain conceptions of a “self,” i.e., “a being with a point of view, knowledge, and will,” that is not human—angels, aliens, ghosts, gods immediately come to mind. In other words, talk about a divine self need not be anthropomorphic. Tuggy believes that McGrath has presented a false dilemma: “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.”

Tuggy’s position can be characterized as “theistic personalism” (Brian Davies, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, chap. 1). I hope to comment on theistic personalism in a future post; but for the moment I simply want to register my qualms. Though “God as divine self” may seem to be an obvious way to speak of the Lord as narrated in Holy Scripture, perhaps it’s a tad too obvious and a tad too modern.

2) We must take seriously the Genesis claim that humanity is made in the image of God, says Tuggy. This claim implies that human beings are like God in some ways and unlike him in others. Similarity is reflexive. Because God is Spirit, “the similarities must be mental, ethical, spiritual.”

Is this what the imago Dei means in Gen 1:27? Is this what the imago Dei means in the Bible? Is this what the imago Dei means in the Church Fathers? Just asking.

I am reminded of Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous critique of Christianity:

The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective—i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes, of the human nature.

The Wizard of Oz, anyone?

3) “It is dubiously intelligible to claim that there’s an ineffable being—one such that none of our concepts applies to it. (Exercise for reader: come up with a concept that’d have to apply to such a being.) But without such a strong claim, what reason would we have to believe that neither self nor not-self apply to God, neither he nor it?”

With this third and final point, Tuggy effectively dismisses the entire apophatic tradition of Christianity—and contrary to what he may think, his dismissal does mean the rejection of huge swaths of theological and spiritual reflection. Let’s name some of the more famous practitioners of negative theology: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine of Hippo, (Pseudo-)Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas. Exclude apophaticism and one hardly has a Christian tradition at all.

Before taking the biblical narrative at uncritical face value, perhaps we first need to ask, What must we say about God if we believe he has created the world from out of nothing? Perhaps then we will understand why the God and Father of Jesus Christ can only be ineffable, incomprehensible, unknowable Mystery.

Better yet—come pray the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.

Go to “How Anthropomorphic is your G-O-D?”

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23 Responses to Being, Beyond Being, or Oz the Great and Terrible?

  1. James McGrath is a liberal theologian. Having once been a liberal theologian myself, we liberals *only* make things up as we go.

    Albeit being a liberal theologian *is* a bit of an exercise in creativity.


  2. Dale Tuggy says:

    Nice summary!

    Yes, I am criticizing negative theology. So often it seems mere rhetoric. What you think about God is revealed in what you say and do not say. One may officially, in a fit of Neoplatonic “sophistication” say that no concept applies to God, that he can’t be named, that number doesn’t apply, etc. And then one goes right on talking to God, thinking of him as having knowledge and will, as having always existed, and bearing various names, and as being one.


    I note that all your names are, more or less, Platonists. It’s downright unsettling when you view Platonism as just another school of philosophy, to think how influential it became in the ancient catholic movement, seemingly starting in the time of Justin.

    Will gladly hear your understanding of our “being made in God’s image and likeness.”

    Is it “modern” to think of God as a self? This, I firmly deny. That would mere jumping at the *word* “self.” Just look at, say, the oldest books in the OT. Or *anywhere* in the Bible.


    • How do you explain Psalm 121:3-4 and Psalm 44:23 out of curiosity.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dr Tuggy, welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy. I appreciate you stopping by. A few ill-formulated thoughts:

      “One may officially, in a fit of Neoplatonic “sophistication” say that no concept applies to God, that he can’t be named, that number doesn’t apply, etc. And then one goes right on talking to God, thinking of him as having knowledge and will, as having always existed, and bearing various names, and as being one.”

      It’s unclear to me why you think that the apophatic affirmation ostensibly excludes prayer, intercession, praise, etc.; and it’s unclear to me why prayer, intercession, praise, etc., ostensibly excludes the apophatic affirmation.

      And it’s not just a matter of rhetoric. Not only does the recognition of the absolute mystery of God impact our theological reflection, but it also impacts our spiritual and liturgical life. Indeed, the latter may be the real source of the apophatic affirmation. Consider, e.g., St Gregory Nazianzen’s discussion of the ineffability of God in Oration 28.

      “Will gladly hear your understanding of our “being made in God’s image and likeness.”

      Hey, I asked first! 🙂

      “I note that all your names are, more or less, Platonists. It’s downright unsettling when you view Platonism as just another school of philosophy, to think how influential it became in the ancient catholic movement, seemingly starting in the time of Justin.”

      Given that Platonism was the air that everyone breathed in the first millennium, is this a surprise? On the other hand, is it not also the case that these theologians altered the inherited philosophy at key points, sometimes dramatically? (The creatio ex nihilo immediately comes to mind.) Aren’t we all victims of our worldviews and philosophies? But more importantly, I do not understand why the influence of Platonism or Neo-Platonism renders a theological position suspect.

      “Is it “modern” to think of God as a self? This, I firmly deny. That would mere jumping at the *word* “self.” Just look at, say, the oldest books in the OT. Or *anywhere* in the Bible.”

      But it may be modern to make “self” or “person” the decisive philosophical category to think about God or to invoke it to argue against traditional Christian apophaticism.


  3. I personally think theistic personalism has too simple of a view about the Bible. It is true God is depicted in anthropomorphic forms, but the Bible never simply stopped there. Indeed, Solomon states: “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God” (1 Kings 8:27). God’s Name, Word, or Angel is depicted as dwelling in the Temple or in the creation as a circumlocution precisely because He is so transcendent to it. Indeed, the whole idea of the Holy of Holies is to bridge the transcendent within the immanent through proper cultic worship – like bringing nuclear slag into a waste facility. Later Jewish tradition such as evinced in the Apocalypse of Abraham or Enoch, especially the former, like in St. Justin Martyr, Philo, or even Plotinus for that matter if we wanted to include him, clearly demonstrates a key difference between the apophatic God in Himself who could not be seen, defined, or conceived but mediated through either through the Name or the figure of the “shiur qoma,” the Divine Extent.

    A great book on the topic is Jarl Fossum’s “The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord” which also proposes this concept of mediation within, particularly, Samaritanism when passed through distorted Gentile lens and Roman anti-Semitism becoming the origins of Gnosticism.

    I don’t think that the ancient Jews would conceive of God as Being Itself. However, I think they placed an ontological gulf between the creator God, the unbegotten One, on the one hand and the created gods/host/angels and the rest of the created order on the other so as to make representation impossible. Thus God is shelved into a category of incomparable ultimacy, and everything is relativized into a mere vocalization of God’s words or even His name as an instrument of and seal over creation – which is a strong strain in Jewish and subsequent Christian tradition, the latter appropriating this exalted language for Word, Jesus Christ (“all in all,” “in him we move and have our being,” “through whom all things were made,” etc.) If everything is placed as ephemeral to God who is utterly in a category by Himself, it’s only a short hop to say we would call that “Being” today to paraphrase Aquinas. The distance between the God of Abraham and the God of St. Gregory isn’t nearly so great.

    Furthermore, I’d hesitate to call it natural revelation or something along those lines, but I tend to think that religions will tend to move in monotheistic directions as philosophy becomes more articulate and reduce the many to the one by recognizing Being as Deity par excellence, “what we must say about God” if He is to remain “God” and not a creature. While we as Christians are very different than Hindus, some strains of Hinduism as opposed to its “atheistic” or “magical” forms did much later than Judaism reach similar philosophical conclusions as did Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus (and, to a lesser degree, Aristotle who albeit changed Plato’s God into a prime mover instead of a ground). Ancient Egypt also tended to deify their whole Ennead as one creator god, Amon-Re, during the Ramesside Period albeit for the political reason of unifying the nation under one king and his protector god of the whole nation.

    As you say, though, no speculation replaces experiencing the ineffable Mystery of God the One and Three like the Liturgy. I apologize about the long windedness, but I love this topic too much.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dante, I agree with you that theistic personalists may in fact be minimizing the apophaticism of both the Old Testament and inter-testamental literature. When St Gregory of Nazianzus addressed the easy literalism of the Eunomians in Or 28, he immediately invoked Moses’ encounter with YHWH on the mountain, where Moses was only given to see the backside of God, not his face.

      If the principal concern of theistic personalism is to ensure the dialogical relationship between God and humanity, then there is no disagreement. The same theologians who thought of God as “Being” or “Beyond Being” also prayed to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. But I’m beginning to suspect that something else may be at work here. One notes the various debates among theistic personalists about the divine attributes: is God eternal? does God know everything? etc.


  4. tgbelt says:

    At this point in my life I don’t think I could do faith apart from appreciating and appropriating a healthy dose of the apophatic/cataphatic, and nobody has been more helpful to me in this than Denys Turner (forgive the shameless plugs for this: [] and this []). If divine transcendence isn’t just short-hand for humanity writ large, then it points to a real failure of our language to reduce God to our categories—as a member, if even an all-inclusive member, on the inventory of things that ‘exist’. Is this unadulterated Platonism? I don’t think so, for I find it in Scripture (forgive me again: []). Gotta run.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Speaking of Denys Turner, some may find of interest his essay “Apophaticism, Idolatry and the Claims of Reason.”


      • Karen says:

        It seems to me a lot of what Turner seems to be saying in referring, for example to pseudo-Denys’ apophaticism, could serve as a commentary on the book of Job. I find the narrative of that book describes the journey and the limits of human capability to apprehend (or perhaps more accurately to comprehend) and express the truth about God and His ways. I think Job’s conclusion after his encounter with God (Job 42:1-6) says it all:

        Then Job replied to the Lord:

        2 “I know that you can do all things;
        no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
        3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
        Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
        things too wonderful for me to know.
        4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
        I will question you,
        and you shall answer me.’
        5 My ears had heard of you
        but now my eyes have seen you.
        6 Therefore I despise myself
        and repent in dust and ashes.”


  5. Dr Tuggy,

    If God “exists” yet outside of the cosmos, it would seem to me that all language to speak about him becomes non-coterminous. That is, we can say fundamentally nothing about such a God. And I think this is true in both Platonic and nominalist theories of language. I suspect your rejection of the apophatic tradition in fact renders you the ultimate apophaticist: there is no statement about God which can be said to be true or false in any sense.


  6. John says:

    Perhaps the place to begin is to thoroughly understand the nature of Consciousness with a Capital C? And the Matrix of Conscious Light or the Infinite Sea of Undifferentiated Happiness in which the body-mind-complex of human beings is floating.
    Have you noticed that Christian philosophers and “theologians” seldom, if ever talk about Consciousness either with a Capital or small c.


  7. tgbelt says:

    As I understand it, apophatic denials are not equivalent to mere contradictions of propositions. For to merely contradict is to operate within the constraints of the same categorical framework. Apophatic denials are the creature’s admission that he (and his categories and framework) is ‘transcended’, since there can be no capturing of the ‘transcending One’ by what is ‘said’ (that would be to deny transcendence). So the creature is left no propositional space by which to affirm her own transcended creatureliness except to point to it apophatically. It’s an experience of the utter failure of language to apprehend its object. It is, as Paul suggested, “to know that which passes knowledge.”


    • Jeremiah says:

      This is very interesting and helpful to me. Being trained in analytic philosophy (where most Christians do not seem to take all that seriously worries about religious language), I’ve always been a bit bothered by the stress (some) Orthodox writers place on apophaticism (as much as I’m now worried by analytic philosophers’ tendencies to speak univocally). But part of my worry is just what you say in your next comment: It seems we *have* to be committed to saying that, for example, saying that God is love, that he is a person, that he is a trinity, are, while not univocal, correct in a way that their denials are not (otherwise, it seems there’s no such thing as heresy, which is in a large part about what language is appropriate to use to describe God). Can you recommend any sources that spell out the understanding you give here in more detail?


  8. tgbelt says:

    Having said that, apophaticism does not mean all ways of speaking of God are equally accurate or valid, i.e., that there are not some propositions which are to be affirmed as ‘true’ of God and others which are to be denied of him, or that we ought to say as many ridiculously meaningless things of God as we can.

    It is true to say “God is love,” and false to deny this when functioning within the sphere of our categories (that is, cataphatically). The important apophatic point is that both affirmation and denial are qualifiedly false (when functioning apophatically). But the apophatic can only be reached or properly gotten to on the other side of the cataphatic, i.e., of saying the right things and denying the right things of God.


  9. tgbelt says:

    Lastly, for me the advantage of personalism is that it represents a better cataphatic apprehension of God than other categories. Divine transcendence doesn’t mean it doesn’t remain true that God is more like a person than a rock. ‘Person’ remains the highest category under which we can conceive of God, even if in the end God is not just another very large instance of this category. So I think theological personalism has a lot to say to us. And it’s beside the point for me that much of modern personalism reflects developments that were not explicitly known to the biblical writers.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      All preachers of the gospel, I think, are personalists. We tell the biblical story; and in that story God is portrayed as a person who speaks, listens, and acts. How could he be portrayed otherwise? Of course, there are also biblical texts that suggest that God is also radically different. This difference must be respected lest we fall into idolatrous speech.

      My principal concerns with theistic personalism are (1) it seems to suggest that God is but the highest instance of the category “person”; and (2) it seems to suggest that “person” when applied to God and when applied to human beings has a univocal meaning.


  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This passage from David Hart’s article “God, Gods, and Fairies,” is germane to our discussion:

    To speak of “God” properly … is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.

    I suppose that Hart may thus be described as a classical theist.

    To Dale and Tom: do you disagree with Hart?


  11. tgbelt says:

    I love Hart. I think his fundamental point is right on. My only disagreement would be that this fundamental insight does not require the classical doctrine of ‘actus purus’ understood as the denial of “all” conceivable potentiality in God.


  12. whitefrozen says:

    That seminarian joke made me laugh out loud. I guess that means I’m a legit theology nerd :p


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