God is Different Because of the World

Norris Clarke is clear—he does not seek a repristination of the metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas. He speaks, rather, of a “creative retrieval”; and some of his views can be pretty creative, at least by Thomist standards. Consider Clarke’s position on divine immutability and the relation between God and the world. One of the most difficult elements of Thomas’ thought for non-scholastics to grasp is his claim that God enjoys a notional or logical relationship with the world, as opposed to a real relationship. As Thomas expresses it: “Since therefore God is outside the whole order of creation, and all creatures are ordered to him, and not conversely, it is manifest that creatures are really related to God himself, whereas in God there is no real relation to creatures, but only a relation of idea, inasmuch as creatures are referred to him” (ST I.13.7). Thomas’s claim can be exposited in various ways. (I took a stab at it a couple of months back: “But is God really related to the world?“) The key is to grasp the significance of the assertion that God is the perfection and fullness of being (esse) who timelessly creates the world out of nothing. As Clarke explains:

For when God creates, bestows existence itself on creatures “out of nothing” (no preexisting subject), He is not relating himself to anything real, since there is nothing there yet. He posits in existence the whole other pole of the relation by his own creative act alone. This obviously cannot be a real relation, which requires two real poles to be already there. (The Philosophical Approach to God, p. 135)

It takes two to tango. But the world is not an “other” that stands independently alongside the transcendent Creator as dancing partner. It exists (and exists truly) only as the term of God’s eternal act of creation. In every metaphysical respect God is prior. Hence when he creates finite beings, he does not acquire anything new for himself or enrich himself; he is not a beneficiary of his creative act, as if moving from a state of relative privation into greater perfection. If he had not created the world, his infinite plenitude and glory would be undiminished. God is absolute fullness. The gain of creation, therefore, is located exclusively in the creature, which receives identity and substance. We do not possess existence; we are given existence as gift (passio essendi). Only by the eternal and continuous speaking of the Word are we kept from collapsing into the void. We take our reality for granted, yet how very close to nothing we really are (see “Creatures are nothing but Nothing“). To say that God enjoys a notional relationship with the world, whereas the world enjoys a real relationship with him, only expresses the truth of the radical contingency of creaturely being.

Many find this metaphysical distinction so abstruse and refined as to be virtually incomprehensible. We hear it as saying, “God is not truly related to us at all.” It appears to undermine the evangelical proclamation that God in Christ loves us passionately and completely, with atoning commitment. “Go read John 3:16!” we exclaim. “Look at the cross and see the eternal Word dying for the sins of humanity—you can’t get much more real and related than that!” So we toss into the bin our 61 volumes of the Summa Theologiae, muttering to ourselves, “So much for metaphysics. I’ll take Barth and Moltmann any day.”

Thomists have ready rebuttals at their fingertips, but Clarke suggests that before they wheel them out, they should first affirm the principal concern of their critics. “Of course God is really, truly, and personally related to us in absolute love. That’s the gospel! We agree with you wholeheartedly and so would St Thomas.” But how then to reconcile this concord with the scholastic understanding of divinity as actus purus? We must distinguish, Clarke proposes, between the order of God’s real being and the order of his intentional being. Whereas God remains eternally immutable in his infinite plenitude and perfection, his “consciousness is certainly different in content (in the order of both knowledge and love), corresponding to His decision to create this world rather than that, and also corresponding to what actually happens contingently in the created world, especially the free responses of rational creatures” (p. 133). How could the divine consciousness not be different as a result of his decision to make this world?

But that the intentional content of God’s loving consciousness should be contingently other because of the unfolding expression of unchanging personal love for us does not entail that God’s own intrinsic real being, the level of his own intrinsic perfection, in any way undergoes real change to acquire some new higher mode of perfection not possessed before. Even in the order of knowledge and love God already knows and loves the highest possible fullness of being and goodness, his own self. Any further knowledge of a finite being will not be a passage to a higher fullness of knowing, but only an inner determination, or limitation of its focus, to some new limited mode of participation of God’s own infinite perfection. It will be a numerically new item of knowledge, but not a passage to a higher or richer level of knowledge than that attained in knowing himself. Similarly, in loving some new created person in an unfolding sequence of ways, God is loving a numerically new object of love, but one which is only a limited participation and overflow of his own already totally loved infinite Goodness. No created object of God’s knowledge and love adds any new higher dimension to the eternal fullness of being and goodness which he already knows and loves in himself. It adds only a new determinate sharing of this eternal plenitude, determinately known and loved, in a never-ending process of new expression of God’s eternally infinite plenitude of goodness and love, but without the current’s ever rising higher, to speak, than its original source. In one word, to add a new finite content of knowledge and love to an already infinite plenitude of knowledge and love is not to pass from potency to act in the order of real being, to acquire a new higher mode of intrinsic perfection of being not possessed before. To add the finite to the infinite can only be in the mode of a sharing, an overflow, an expression of the plenitude which is already infinite. There is genuine novelty, to be sure, both in the real being God communicates to creatures and in the intentional content of the divine consciousness determinately knowing and willing them. But this is not change in God’s own intrinsic being or perfection. (Explorations in Metaphysics, pp. 187-188)

God is different … but he does not change. This only makes sense if we hold tight onto the atemporality of divine creation. There is no time before which there was no world for God to love and then—voila!—there suddenly is one. In one eternal act, rather, God freely brings all of created history into being, including our free actions and God’s responses to them. The entirety of this history is present to him in his eternal Now. “This eternal Now,” Clarke reminds us, “is itself outside the flow of our motion-dependent time, but present in its own unique time-transcending way to all points of time without internal succession in God. Difference (could have been otherwise, this rather than that) does not logically imply change (this after that)” (Philosophical Approach, pp. 133-134). Hence it seems to make sense to think of God’s consciousness as contingently different in content, “corresponding to what actually happens contingently in the created world, especially the free responses of rational creatures. Thus the world clearly makes a highly significant difference to the conscious, hence personal life of God” (p. 133)—different but still immutable.

And so we may, in Clarke’s judgment, speak of God as being positively affected by what we do, “that He receives love from us and experiences joy precisely because of our responses: in a word, that His consciousness is contingently and qualitatively different because of what we do” (p. 135). But this happens on the level of God’s relational consciousness. God is different because of the world he intends, but the difference does not “involve change, increase or decrease, in the Infinite Plenitude of God’s inner intrinsic being and perfection” (p. 136).

This Clarkian modification would appear to satisfy the concerns of personalists, as it provides the necessary metaphysical space for a dialogical relationship between God and creatures, but it also preserves the classical concern that God exists eternally in the positivity of perfection and goodness. It will not, of course, satisfy those who need God to need them nor satisfy traditional Thomists, who will no doubt wonder whether Clarke has compromised the divine simplicity.

(Return to first article)

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4 Responses to God is Different Because of the World

  1. Thomas says:

    I find Clarke quite interesting, but I think on this point he misunderstands both intentional being and Aquinas’ general notion of knowledge.

    When I think of, say, Mount Everest, it is Mount Everest that gains intentional being, not, properly speaking, me. When we know things, the things we know gain existence in a new way. It isn’t real existence. Mount Everest could be destroyed (losing its real being) but remain in our memories (having intentional being). Were it not Mount Everest in our memories, we could not be remembering Mount Everest.

    On the other hand, when I think of Mount Everest, I gain a real accident. My act of thinking is a new way of being that I really (not intentionally) gain, and the product of that act of thinking, the inner word, also really exists. That is to say, both I and the thought really exist, we have real being. Fr. Clarke seems to imagine that thoughts and acts of thought have merely intentional being. On this point, he both misinterprets Aquinas and is wrong on the substantive issue, or at least so it seems to me.

    The second point is less clear from his writings, but it seems to be the background assumption driving his arguments. Knowledge, for Aquinas, is not primarily taking a look at things (to put it as Lonergan famously did) and registering them in the mind’s database. Knowledge is the immaterial possession of what is known. In our case, we do need to take a look and register the result in a discrete thought. In the case of God, however, there is no aspect of being outside him. He already possesses, immaterially, all that is, for he is the subsistent act of being. To my mind, this obviates entirely the need to suppose the changing contents of Gods mind, while (wisely) not attempting to imagine what it is like for God to know.

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The objection to God having a “real” relationship with us seems to me to be centered around the concern that to do so God has to be different to that which he was before as a result of our actions, which messes up the timelessness.
    Is it a real relationship and does it mess up the timelessness if we instead say God is different to what he would have been, had we acted differently? In other words that our actions are logically but not temporarily prior to Gid’s knowledge of them. (And does this even make sense?)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The challenge here (I think) is to avoid introducing passivity into the Godhead. Does your proposal (“our actions are logically but not temporarily prior to God’s knowledge of them”) avoid this? At first glance your proposal sounds as if God is a spectator to history, as opposed to its creative/ontological cause. FYI: “Eternal Knowlege of the Temporal in Aquinas.”

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        By logically prior I think I meant causally prior, that is our actions are the cause of (some of) God’s reactions or states, even though they do not necessarily come chronologically in sequence. This does not leave God passive or a spectator: God does (or did) X because we do (or he knows we will do) Y, but X does not therefore have to happen later in time than Y. The problem arises if we assume that action and reaction for God must operate in the same linear fashion that they do for us.

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