To Be or Not to Be: The Christian Distinction

“‘It ain’t obvious what’s obvious,’ at least not in philosophy,” quips Bill Vallicella, quoting Hilary Putnam. I guess I walked right into that friendly gibe. After all, I did remark that “God, as conceived by Christians, is not a being among beings is so utterly obvious to me that I honestly do not know how to argue against it.” Yet I walked into it with my eyes wide open, hoping it might elicit a thoughtful response from the Maverick Philosopher—and he has not disappointed. Vallicella has surveyed and analyzed the arguments, pro and con, and has concluded that a definitive judgment, at least for himself, is presently impossible. While he is inclined to believe that God is best identified as Being, he acknowledges that theistic personalists like Dale Tuggy and Alan Rhoda have presented a good case for their position. They could just be right … or not.

I am reminded of Bertrand Russell’s great eureka moment in 1894. He had gone out to buy a tin of pipe tobacco. While walking along Trinity Lane, he threw the tin up in the air and exclaimed, “Great God in Boots!—the ontological argument is sound!” The illumination immediately led to Russell’s conversion to … no, not God … but Hegelianism, which lasted, he says, about three or four years. Sometimes arguments are persuasive, sometimes they aren’t; but as Vallicella observes, they are rarely obvious.

And yet that God is not a being among beings remains obvious to me. Of course, I ain’t no philosopher. But I am someone who has tried to live the Christian life for forty years and has read widely in theology (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed), though often, I admit, without great comprehension (alas). At this point of my life I am convinced that a properly Christian understanding of divine transcendence implicitly, if not explicitly, denies the theistic-personalist claim. What cannot and must not be obvious to the philosopher may be appropriately obvious to the believer. Credo ut intelligam.

I begin my reflections on the question “Is God a being among beings” with Robert Sokolowski’s “the Christian distinction.” I have briefly discussed this distinction in two of my articles: “God+World≠2” and “Creatio ex Amore.” Sokolowski elaborates upon the distinction in his illuminating book The God of Faith and Reason. The Christian understanding of divinity, he argues, is best appreciated when contrasted with pagan religion and philosophy. Modernity can be a hindrance, for it is partly, if not largely, defined by its rejection “of both Christianity and antiquity, and many of the teachings we find in modernity could hardly be understood except as subsequent to Christian belief” (p. 22). The kind of theology articulated, for example, in the writings of analytic philosopher Richard Swinburne is inconceivable apart from the deism and atheism generated by the Enlightenment. The Church Fathers would no doubt have found Swinburne’s presentation of God alien, disturbing, despite the employment of traditional terminology. Consider how Swinburne defines deity:

There exists necessarily and eternally a person essentially bodiless, omnipresent, creator and sustainer of any universe there may be, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation. … An individual of the kind defined I shall call a divine individual or a God. (The Christian God, p. 125)

“Divine individual”? “A God”? Perhaps you find this way of speaking as odd as I do. Yet Swinburne is considered to be one of the premier Christian philosophers in the world. There is something strange going on here. The Christian faith is not just being translated into a modern idiom. It is being rendered in a way that theologians would have eschewed 1,000 years ago, 1,500 years ago. Preachers have always spoken of God as a divine individual—it’s virtually inevitable when one proclaims the gospel in narrative mode—but patristic and medieval theologians quickly realized that they could not remain at that level of discourse. Apophatic qualification was necessary. In the Eastern Church theologians came to speak of God as beyond Being; in the Latin Church, as Being. In speaking this way they were not subjecting their understanding of deity to the strictures of Greek philosophy but rather appropriating and adapting metaphysical conceptuality for the elaboration of the Christian distinction between deity and the world. Sokolowski formulates the distinction as follows:

Christian theology is differentiated from pagan religious and philosophical reflection primarily by the introduction of a new distinction, the distinction between the world understood as possibly not having existed and God understood as possibly being all that there is, with no diminution of goodness or greatness. (p. 23)

That God might not have created the world, without diminishment of being and glory, represented the introduction of a new vision of divinity and the cosmos. Pagan critics of the gospel recognized its novelty. In the second century, for example, the physician-philosopher Galen took Christianity to task for its rejection of demiurgic creation of the cosmos from preexistent matter. He was scandalized by the claim that God created the world freely from out of nothing, thereby portraying the Deity as arbitrary and capricious and thus undermining the rationality of the world  (see Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, chap. 4).

The Christian distinction was given its verbal formulation by theologians and philosophers; but it did not, Sokolowski reminds us, first emerge in a purely theoretical context. It was formulated in “reflective thought because it had already been achieved in the life that goes on before reflective thinking occurs” (p. 23). Before the distinction came to word in the Church’s dogmatic teaching, it was experienced and known in the sacramental, ascetical, and moral practices of the Church. The distinction flows from the depths of the Church’s existential and spiritual life. Hence we are not speaking here of metaphysical speculation but rather a fundamental apprehension of Creator and creature, as revealed in Jesus Christ and his Spirit.  We do not think our way to the Christian distinction; we receive it by faith, we live it in faith.

“In pagan religion and philosophy,” Sokolowski explains, “distinctions are made within the context of the world or the whole, the matrix of being in which one thing comes forward as differentiated from others” (p. 31). Beings within the world are identified by their differences. Each is what it is by not being what it is distinguishable from. But the Christian doctrines of God and creation confront us with a distinguishing that transcends the world:

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 horizon of the world is like this, and therefore the act of creation 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. All the names and syntax we use for such theological discourse have to be adapted from their normal use in the element of the identities and differences within the world. …

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. (pp. 32-33)

I have travelled far from the Maverick Philosopher’s analysis of God as being and Being—but perhaps not too far.

(Go to “Theistic Personalists”)

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12 Responses to To Be or Not to Be: The Christian Distinction

  1. John Stamps says:

    You’d think Richard Swinburne would know better. He’s Greek Orthodox for goodness’ sake. You’d think he’d learn something about apophatic theology if he hung around Metropolitan KALLISTOS for a day or so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I read a book review that he wrote a year or two ago. It didn’t appear to me that he has changed anything in his theology since becoming Orthodox.


  2. Jonathan says:

    I don’t know the work of Richard Swinburne, but presumably like any writer he has an idea of his target audience. If he’s writing to analytic philosophers, he’s going to sound like an analytic philosopher or else give up any hope of making his points.

    That a Christian theologian should want to practice analytical philosophy in the first place is maybe a problem of another order. Dare we hope that all discourses shall be saved?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I do wonder whether analytic theologians have sufficiently baptized and corrected their analytic philosophical training.


      • Jonathan says:

        I will say that I have sometimes profited a little from reading the mighty analytic (or supposedly ‘analytic Thomist’) philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. The woman was a genius, as you would expect from Wittgenstein’s student. She was by all accounts a very devout Catholic, and certainly gave at least some of her professional effort to expounding the faith. (She also had seven children and didn’t write all that much.) But in general the whole philosophy of mind/analytic thing is dead in the water for me. The only reason I can appreciate Anscombe at all is that going into reading her I already share her faith and am conscious of the fact. But at the end of the day (like, right now) I know that we all respond to a unique calling, and to answer my facetious question seriously, I can’t allow that there is a discursive mode which is in itself (not with respect to typical content) unredeemable or totally useless. Their are minds far unlike my own which somebody like Anscombe or Swinburne might bring to faith. I can’t imagine how it could have been like that for me, but I think it must at least be a possibility.


  3. Agnikan says:

    “Is God a being among beings”

    As energeia, yes.

    As ousia, no.


    • sunyavadi says:

      Sometimes I think that the ancient idea of the ‘uncreated’ as been forgotten. In ancient philosophy and theology reality was conceived in terms of ‘proximity to the uncreated’. So there is that which is not created but which is eternal, without beginning and end, and then at the other end of the scale there are simple objects which pass in and out of existence all the time. And of course we humans are in between, immortal souls in a mortal body.

      That ancient idea was also foreshadowed in the Parmenides, wherein ‘that which truly is, cannot not-be, whereas that which really is not, can never come to be.’ There are parallel ideas in many ancient philosophies; and I’m not priviledging them on account of the fact that they’re merely ancient, but because they perhaps had an insight into something primordial which has since become occluded by the drifts of words and arguments.

      In any case, the notion of ‘the uncreated’ subverts many of the subsequent arguments about ‘one and many’. ‘The One’, in the sense understood in ancient philosophies, is not numerically one, but the ‘one source’ in the sense of ‘the origin of all manifest things’. So any manifest thing – that includes us, of course! – ‘bears the stamp’, as it were, of the One who is its source. (Of course in the case of humans, we are able to recognize that, unlike lower beings, although few do.)

      And I think the loss of that is why the moderns have lost the sense of the transcendence of the One, and instead envisage Him as simply ‘one among others’, or perhaps a very special or sacred One. It is really a way of being that has been forgotten – not simply a concept.


  4. brian says:


    The notion of the Uncreated is a difficult concept for moderns. Uncreated implies an Other to creation. For moderns, bare existence is just a given surd. They do not generally wonder why there is something rather than nothing. They do not really think creation.

    While I can appreciate Parmenides and the Eliatic sense of the One, I think there are problems with this basic sensibility. As you probably know, Zeno’s paradoxes were meant to provide a kind of reduction ad absurdam argument against any Heraclitian notion of flux or essential change. The arrow only appears to move, common sense is caught in illusion. Without going into necessary contextual placing of this argument, there is a sense in which the “between” where we find ourselves is problematic for Parmenides. He is not unaware of this complexity, but it seems to me that it is hard to understand the whence from the fullness of the One of Parmenides to the many of becoming being. How does one understand the initial differentiation that would allow the One to be a Source? Why is the One not a static, inert eternity? If the One lacks eros, why would it “create” – which would give logical meaning to its designation as the Uncreated?

    And isn’t there a long history in philosophy of then conceiving of time and becoming as a defatigation from eternal fullness? Gnostic conceptions often treated the existence of the singular being as itself a guilty fragmentation from the prior Whole. In moderns, Simone Weil, while insightful, frequently embraces this kind of alienation from temporal being.


    • sunyavadi says:

      Thank you for your kind reply. I intended to refer to Parmenides not as a working model, but to recollect that original insight into the issue of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ as I think he represents an early and profound insight into a kind of ‘vision of the totality’ which was very elusive even for those in historical proximity to him.

      As to the question of why the One gave rise to anything whatever, one instinctive answer is ‘for the sheer joy of doing so’. (And our role is to appreciate it – which is a somewhat less formalistic expression of the idea of ‘praise’.)

      The point I wanted to make regarding ‘the One’ is that it is not a numerical ‘One’ – not ‘one as distinct from two’, but a unity which is not an entity. The very operation of thought tends to objectivize, so that it tries to understand ‘one’ as being ‘distinct from some other’ – hence the notion that it is ‘something static or inert’. But that is still falling into the trap of objectification. ‘The One’ is inherently dynamic (actually, I think that is the origin of the term.)

      I am trying to articulate how ‘the One’ can be ‘One’ whilst still not depicting the idea in terms of the mistake of individuality that is discussed in the original post. Perhaps the issue is that when a modern philosopher wishes to depict Deity as individual, he or she is still thinking in terms of ‘an individual’ or ‘a person’, which is what has been transcended in the very act of ‘theosis’, in the Orthodox understanding of the matter, as I understand it.


      • brian says:

        Thank you. I see what you mean and I would certainly agree about the motivation.
        The question is whether Parmenides’ One has the richness you understand by the One that is more than One. (I mentioned this greater understanding of One in an earlier post, but I don’t feel like backtracking to find it.) Hegel thought he could explicate a richer one with his dialectic. For Hegel, you have to think three: self — other — mediation between self and other that ends in a richer self — in order to properly think One. However, while Hegel tries to respect the other, he ends up with an absorption that subordinates the other to the origin. This would not be true creation in my understanding. As William Desmond asserts, you have to think four to get to two.

        All this, of course, is beyond the ken of nominalist, univocalist sensibilities and conceptions.

        I distinguish between the individual and the person.
        The singularity of the person has a metaphysical depth and inherent relational aspect that is not addressed by Western individualism.
        What is being called theistic personalism in this discussion is not personalist in the sense I intend.

        I would say that the Absolute is personal and that all our experiences of personhood are partial and analogous. There is certainly an apophatic aspect of personhood that defies categorial thinking. Theosis, however, does not result in a kind of absorption into a whole where personal being is diminished. I am uncertain where your own views are in this regard. Some eastern thought goes in that direction and I don’t think Christian eschatological teaching can square with that.


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