To Be or Not to Be: The A-being god of Theistic Personalists

Is God a being among beings? It seems like the kind of question that only a fussy scholastic  might worry about. Popular Christian discourse commonly speak of God as if he were a being. We tell stories about him. We proclaim his mighty works. We refer to him by personal pronouns. He is the object to whom we direct our prayers and praises. Even as metaphysical a theologian as St Thomas Aquinas refers to him as an ens, a concrete existent. Yet Aquinas also saw the need to qualify this usage: God is ens perfectissimum, the perfect Being; ens summum, the supreme Being; but also ens maxime, maximal Being, the One who most truly, fully, and complete is.  The doctors of the Church have not been content to remain at what I call the narrative level of discourse; they discerned the need to appropriate the language of metaphysics in order to formally distinguish the divine Creator from the world he has made ex nihlo.

In “Absolute Deity” I remarked that “the claim that God is a being among beings is immediately ruled out … by the classical understanding of divine transcendence.” In a recent blog, philosopher Bill Vallicella states that I have not yet demonstrated why the divine transcendence implies that God is not a being. It also appears that my argument may in fact be logically invalid.  I certainly agree that I have not come close to proving my claim, which was not my article’s intent.

“Why cannot it be like this?” asks Vallicella. “God, the self-existent One, creates beings distinct from himself. These beings ‘now’ (either temporally or logically) form with God a collection of beings. So although God has all sorts of properties that make him the supreme being such as omniscience, and the rest of the omni-attributes, he remains a being among beings.”

I suppose that there is no reason in the philosophical world why it couldn’t be like this. Why shouldn’t we think of God as a being with all sorts of nifty omni-properties? Having taught more than my share of catechism classes, I suspect this in fact is how most clergy present the Almighty to their congregations. But what does it mean to call God “a” being? What is “a” being? That little indefinite article suggests that beings are countable. “Look, there’s a being. Oh, there’s another one. Now I see a third. Golly, the universe is being overrun with beings!” And not only are there zillions of beings in the universe, but they are different from each other, different not only by spatial location but by nature. Photons are different from neutrinos, tigers are different from dogs, rocks are different from human beings. (I imagine that Aristotle has a lot to say about all of this.) But all this is commonsensical. I imagine that analytic philosophers can quickly get very technical and abstruse about a question like this. Perusing through Bill’s recent articles on God, I gather that he thinks of a being as that which possesses properties. If God is a being among beings, therefore, then not only does he possess properties, but he possesses properties common to other beings:

First of all, what could it mean to say that God is a being among beings? As I see it, to say that God is a being among beings is to say that God is no exception to the logical and ontological principles (pertaining to properties, property-possession, existence, modality, etc.) that govern anything that can be said to exist. It is to say that God fits the ontological or general-metaphysical schema that everything else fits. It is to say that God is ontologically on a par with other beings despite the attributes (omniscience, etc.) that set him apart from other beings and indeed render him unique among beings. …

God has properties in the same way that creatures do. My first point was that there are some properties that both God and creatures share; my present point is a different one about property-possession: the having of these shared properties is the same in the divine and creaturely cases.

Jumping over to Dale Tuggy’s article “God is a being, not Being itself,” we learn that Tuggy affirms that God is a being; but he’s unhappy with the way Vallicella has formulated the theistic-personalist position. Tuggy does not believe in universal properties: he’d rather speak of “brute similarities” between things. Thus God may properly be thought of as a being: God exists, creatures exist; God is a self; human beings are selves. The key difference between God and creatures is that while creatures are contingent and do not have to exist, God exists necessarily—i.e., it is impossible for God not to exist.

Regardless of how “a-being theists” (my coinage) precisely formulate their position, they all agree that the Deity is “a” being. Why not? “Why cannot it be like this?” Because, I submit, the Christian distinction excludes this way of thinking about Creator and creature. I am here unabashedly appealing to divine revelation as received and lived in the Church. Christians do not serve a philosophical construct. When theologians begin to reflect metaphysically on the nature of God, they rightly incorporate the fundamental Christian apprehension of divinity and the dogmatic teachings of the Church into their reasoning. How could they not do so? Why would they not do so? Today I took off the shelf my copy of Finite and Infinite by the formidable Anglican theologian Austin Farrer. I had never read the book and wondered if I ever would, given my suspicion that it was way above my tiny metaphysical brain. But the recent engagement with Vallicella pushed me through my reluctance. I read the first couple of chapters. Farrer seeks to provide a rational argument for the existence of God. He opens with this definition:

If God exists, He is unique, and if other beings are related to Him, that relation is also unique. By the ‘unique’ in this argument we do not mean simply that which alone exemplifies certain characteristics; we mean that which shares no identical characteristic with anything else, and so cannot be placed in a proper class with others. (p. 7)

Farrer then goes on to highlight the philosophical challenges posed by this construal of God. If God does not head or belong to a class of existents, if he is truly a unique, singular being, how can his existence be demonstrated? Every a posteriori argument in support of the existence of God assumes that which we seek to demonstrate. We cannot prove his existence by his effects, observes Farrer, “because we must first know that they are effects, and effects of a perfectly unique activity” (p. 7). But how do we identify the effects of an activity whose agent is transcendently singular? How do we distinguish them from the effects of creaturely agents? The reason I bring this up is simply to point out Farrer’s assumption of a classically Christian construal of the Deity whose existence he seeks to rationally demonstrate. Philosophy did not teach him this God; the Church did.

Vallicella has accurately identified the problem: a-being theists presuppose that “God is ontologically on a par with other beings.” The a-being position locates divinity alongside the universe, within the same metaphysical matrix. Yes, he is the Creator (I presume because that’s what the Bible says); but he is not so radically different from creation that we feel any problem about speaking of God as fulfilling our philosophical and moral concepts. Yes, he vastly surpasses the world in any number of ways, yet he shares a world with us. God satisfies our concept of necessary existence (lucky him) and we don’t (unlucky us). God fulfills our concept of selfhood (but what about porpoises?) and so do we (yay us). God fulfills our concept of love (good for him … even better for us). What is missing here is the ontological diastema that forms the traditional Christian apprehension of divinity and the world. The a-being theist sees no need to invoke analogy when speaking of God. Univocity reigns. But it reigns only because the catholic understanding of God has been methodologically denied from the outset.

(Go to “Aquinas or Pseudo-Dionysius?”)

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6 Responses to To Be or Not to Be: The A-being god of Theistic Personalists

  1. Fr. Stephen says:

    In the Baptismal service, the litany refers to God as the “hyperousial Trinity” sometimes translated, “Supersubstantial.” I prefer the British rendering, “Trinity-beyond-all-being.”


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Re-reading the article this morning, I discovered numerous typos. I think I have caught all of them now. I have also rewritten several sentences. Hopefully it’s a better piece.


  3. tgbelt says:

    Ah, those typos. Gotta love ’em.

    Is it possible to agree (as I do) that God is not just another ‘being among beings’, a discrete member of a species (‘deity’) who has his place to occupy on the inventory of ‘things that exist’ (so that created and uncreated beings alike are subsumed underneath a common notion of ‘being’) and yet still find great value personalist language (viewing God as ‘Persons’ who ‘love’, the divine being as ecstatic and relational, etc.)? I think too unqualified a rejection of personalist concerns/categories would miscommunicate that God isn’t personal, isn’t loving, etc. And that’s nothing something the Orthodox have ever said (is it?).

    But I agree, the basic divide here is between those who believe “God is ontologically on a par with other beings” (for whom divine transcendence can only mean God is the immeasurable perfection of what we are, not ‘other’ than we are) and those who take transcendence to mean God is not a species of a genus (“Being”) that embraces both God and us. The former belief is best systematized, I think, by Process folk, underneath Whitehead’s axiom: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse; he is their chief exemplification.” But it’s not the case that theological personalists make the sort of mistake Brian Davies (if I’m following him) accuses them of, namely, of creating a genus (“Being”) to which both God and Creation are subjected. That’s not what they do. What they do is to take make God himself that genus, the grounding genus, and argue that whatever exists must instantiate that sort or way of being that God is (not that God also instantiates by virtue of falling underneath the same category of “being” as we do). So it’s not that God is “a being among beings” as much as it is that God is THE necessary instance of what created beings are contingent expressions of. Or again, it’s not that both God and Creation instantiate some generally shared properties of the category “being” floating out there independent of both God and Creation. It’s that (for Process personalists at least): God IS the categories (and that’s why language of God is univocal). I agree this transforms transcendence into a quantitative immeasurable, but from their point of view it’s necessary for us to be able to speak of God at all. Hart’s ‘analogical interval’ is simply unintelligible gibberish to them. Atheism makes more sense to them than classical theism.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hey, Tom. Good to see you back.

      Since I have not addressed personalist language for God in this series, I’m not sure why you have invoked it here.

      Thank you for your second paragraph. This may prove very helpful to me, once I can wrap my brain around it.


      • tgbelt says:

        I was trying to suggest that ‘language’ probably can’t be left out of the critique. Sorry for being unclear. Let me try to clarify. I’d consider myself a ‘theological personalist’, but I don’t deny CEN or consider God just another ‘being among beings’ or reduce divine transcendence to quantitative measurement as do those you’re critiquing. So saying “theological personalists” worship “a-being god” (small g) ignores some legitimate distinctions that have to be made among those who self-identify as ‘theological personalists’. Reading Pseudo-Denys, for example, it seems to me that his own approach to God-talk is based on very ‘personalist’ convictions (but that’s another dicsussion).


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