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.