Once the transcendence of Transcendence has been properly grasped, many of the objections advanced against the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity lose their persuasive power. Perhaps they have some purchase among analytic philosophers attached to the univocity of being; but for those who have been schooled in the apophatic vision of the Church Fathers, they just seem … well, irrelevant. One might as well complain about European football not being American football—two different games, two different sets of rules. So it is with Dale Tuggy’s book What is the Trinity? The book is intended for a popular audience, but it issues from the author’s extended conversations with his fellow analytic philosophers. No doubt they recognize in his published works an understanding of divinity shared within the analytic community, as evidenced by the fact that he was chosen to write the entry on the Trinity for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Tuggy knows well the contemporary philosophical debates on the doctrine of the Trinity and believes he has advanced telling criticisms of it. But I suspect that neither Orthodox nor Roman Catholic theologians will pay them much mind—not because they are not well-stated, but simply because Tuggy and his fellow analytics seem to be playing a different game. Where, one might ask, is the Mystery?
If Trinitarian theologians (at least those outside the analytic camp) agree on anything, they agree that the dogma of the Trinity points to a mystery, the one Mystery whose divine essence is incomprehensible to finite rational beings (at least in this life and perhaps even into the Eschaton). By divine revelation we may know who God is—namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but we cannot know what God is. We cannot provide a definition of divinity. He does not belong to a class or genus nor stand alongside his creatures as one being among many—hence the heavy reliance by the Church Fathers (the very individuals who formulated the dogma) upon negative attributes like infinity, immutability, and simplicity. These negative attributes highlight the incomprehensibility of the divine substance and secure the Creator’s absolute uniqueness and incomparability. The Fathers are happy to talk about the perfections of God, but these perfections are enveloped in the recognition of his ineffability. Tuggy names this apophatic strategy “mysterianism.” He goes on to distinguish between positive mysterianism and negative mysterianism, but the key is the assertion of divine incomprehensibility, which then opens the door to paradox and antinomy (and probably dancing, too!). Tuggy restricts mysterianism to Trinitarian discourse, but this is a mistake, I think. The three great monotheistic traditions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—apprehend the one Creator as infinite mystery and have commonly employed the via negativa in order to distinguish him from the creaturely order (see David Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God). Thus the great Rambam:
The Second Principle is Gd’s unity, may He be exalted; to wit, that this One, Who is the cause of [the existence of] everything, is one. His oneness is unlike the oneness of a genus, or of a species. Nor is it like the oneness of a single composed individual, which can be divided into many units. Nor is His oneness like that of the simple body which is one in number but infinitely divisible. Rather He, may He be exalted, is one with a oneness for which there is no comparison at all. This Second Principle is attested to by the verse: “Hear, O Israel, the Lrd thy Gd, the Lrd is One” [Dt. 6:40]. (“Thirteen Principles of Faith“)
There cannot be any belief in the unity of God except by admitting that He is one simple substance, without any composition or plurality of elements: one from whatever side you view it, and by whatever test you examine it: not divisible into two parts in any way and by any cause, nor capable of any form of plurality either objectively or subjectively. (Guide for the Perplexed 1.51)
From the Yigdal:
Exalted be the Living G-d and praised,
He exists—unbounded by time in His existence.
He is One—and there is no unity like His Oneness.
Inscrutable and infinite is His Oneness.
He has no semblance of a body nor is He corporeal;
nor has His holiness any comparison.
He preceded every being that was created—
the First, and nothing preceded His precedence.
Similarly Ibn Sina:
The First also has no genus. This is because the First has no quiddity. That which has no quiddity has no genus, since genus is spoken of in answer to the question, “What is it?” and [moreover] genus in one is a part of a thing; and it has been ascertained that the First is not a composite. … the First has no differentia. Since He has neither genus nor differentia, He has no definition. There is no demonstration of Him, since there is no cause of Him. For this reason there is no “why” regarding Him, and you shall know that there in no “why-ness” for His act. … The negation that follows it does not add [anything] to it above and beyond existence, except the relation of distinctiveness. This meaning does not include any realized thing after existence, nor is it a meaning of something in itself; but it is only in terms of relation. (The Metaphysics 8.4.277)
And Al Ghazali:
We say that [the word] “one” can be taken and understood in the sense of that which does not admit of division, that is to say, it has no quantity, no perimeter, and no extension. Thus, the Creator most high is one, meaning that he is not quantifiable, meaning that quantification denies something’s wholeness by dividing it. But [God] is not divisible, since divisibility pertains to things that are quantifiable. Quantification results in division into parts, becoming smaller. But that which is not quantifiable cannot be described as divisible. Furthermore, [one] can be understood as that which has no equal in its rank, such as when we say that the sun is one. In this sense also the Creator most high is one, since he has no peer. (On Divine Essence 73.10)
And representing the Church catholic, the Anaphora of St John Chrysostom:
It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to give thanks to Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion: for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit.
The oneness of the Creator confounds and delights the human intellect. Everything we know may be differentiated one from another, based on their respective natures and particularities; but this is impossible when we seek to apprehend God in his transcendent unicity. The God of faith cannot be counted. Confessing the one Deity is not a matter of comparing respective pantheons. “You Romans have many gods (Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Pluto), but we Jews have only one.” That would reduce YHWH to being an instantiation, albeit the sole instantiation, of a divine nature. The Lord becomes, as it were, the last deity standing. Once upon a time there were many dodos, but then the species started dying out. Eventually there was only one left; then that one died, too, and now there are none. (As the pop-atheist meme goes: “I just believe in one fewer god than you do”). The one God is not the last dodo—hence the traditional monotheistic insistence that God is beyond counting. Counting presupposes that we know the natures of things and can differentiate one from another. We can count computers and chairs and airplanes, for we know their essences; but we do not know what it means for God to be God. His nature is beyond our grasp, his essence incomprehensible. The mystery of divine oneness is beautifully expressed by the medieval Jewish poet Solomon ibin Gabirol:
Thou art One, the first of every number, and
the foundation of every structure,
Thou art One, and at the mystery of Thy Oneness the wise of heart are struck dumb,
For they know not what it is.
Thou art One, and Thy Oneness can neither be increased nor lessened,
It lacketh naught, nor doth aught remain over.
Thou art One, but not like a unit to be grasped or counted,
For number and change cannot reach Thee.
Thou art not to be visioned, nor to be figured thus or thus.
Thou art One, but to put to Thee bound or
circumference my imagination would fail me.
Therefore I have said I will guard my ways lest I sin with the tongue.
Thou art One, Thou art high and exalted beyond abasement or falling,
“For how should the One fall?”
Denys Turner invites us to engage in a thought experiment. We bring together all the scientists in the world, and we ask them to make an exhaustive list of everything that exists. The list will no doubt number in the billions, trillions, zillions. After the list is finished, would it then be legitimate for someone to say, “But you have omitted God. Don’t forget to add him to the list”? No, Turner replies. “God cannot be counted in any list of the ‘everything that is.’ God’s oneness is not the oneness of mathematics, as it would be were I to say of any creaturely oneness: ‘I’ll have one pie for lunch, not two’” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 120; also see Turner’s essay “Christians, Muslims, and the Name of God“). The confession of the one God immediately brings us into the transcendent mystery of the God who is not a god. The ontological cleavage between creator and creation is decisive. We can number the gods, for the gods (if they exist) belong to the world of nature. But the one God plus the world does not equal two. As St Dionysius writes, “For God is not some kind of being” (Divine Names 817D). St Gregory Palamas is even more provocative: “Every created nature is far removed from and completely foreign to the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature; but if every other thing is nature, He is not a nature, just as He is not a being if all other things are beings. And if He is a being, then other things are not beings” (Capita 78). It is therefore false to claim that there are two Gods (what could that mean?), whereas to say that there is one God is true, though with this important nuance: “the oneness of God is beyond our comprehension. That is why the manner in which ‘There is one God’ excludes ‘There are two Gods’ is not the same as the manner in which ‘There is one pie for lunch’ excludes ‘There are two pies for lunch'” (Turner, pp. 275-276, n. 15). The oneness of the Creator is a transcendent oneness of Being (or beyond Being), not a oneness of entities. Hence to speak of the one God as numerically one is incorrect. The divine unicity excludes all numeration. Our language breaks precisely at this point—at the point of the infinite interval between Creator and creature. Neither unitarians nor Trinitarians can escape it. “Christian trinitarianism does not rock a unitarian boat that would otherwise be plain sailing for Jews and Muslims,” Turner remarks. “Whether by God’s oneness or God’s threeness, we are in equal measures theologically benighted, or, as one might more positively put it, believers of all three faith traditions are thereby invited into a participation in love with the same unknowable, indescribable Godhead” (pp. 130-131). In the end, we are all mysterians and mystics.
But this apophatic way of speaking and knowing the one God disappears when we turn to Dr Tuggy’s reflections. In his recently published essay “On Counting Gods,” Tuggy proposes three conditions for divinity:
- To be a deity requires selfhood. It must be “a being/entity who is in principle capable of having a first-person point of view and knowledge, and performing intentional actions” (p. 190). It is a person whom we may address and who communicates with us.
- To be a deity requires power, more power than ordinary human beings possess, thus enabling them to act in those areas of life which human beings care about. Not only can they do most of the things human beings do, but they are also capable of performing feats of which ordinary humans are incapable—think superheroes. But deities are greater than the greatest of our comic book heroes, because they also fulfill condition #3.
- To be a deity requires supernatural power, that is to say, it must possess “the ability to intentionally act in ways not wholly constrained by the natural world’s normal ways” (p. 192). Whereas a superhero still acts within the constraints of the laws of nature (pushing them to their very limits, perhaps manipulating hidden laws), a deity is able to transgress the laws of nature: “a deity has powers to act not wholly constrained by nature’s normal ways, and he or she acts without making use of hidden natural laws.”
Note that the above are conditions for being a deity (lower-case), as analyzed from the perspective of comparative religions. Tuggy then makes a second distinction, between being a deity and being a god/God: while all gods are deities, not all deities qualify for godhood; they lack the quality of ultimacy. “An ultimate,” Tuggy explains, “is a being/entity which is unique and unsurpassable in reality (degree and/or kind) and/or in explanatory priority. Roughly, an ultimate is supposed to be the highest, most basic, most real, or ‘farthest back’ being” (p. 195). The concept of godhood necessarily implies ultimacy; the concept of deity does not. On the other hand, ultimacy does not necessarily imply godhood, as the ultimate may lack the characteristics of selfhood and personality which all gods must have. Examples of an impersonal ultimate would be the Tao of Chinese religion and the Brahman of Advaita Vedanta Hindu philosophy. Tuggy proposes that an impersonal ultimate be called “The Ultimate.” We thus get this Venn diagram:
A further clarification is needed: Can there be more than one god? Tuggy thinks not. As used in analytic philosophy, the term “god” is employed not as a name or title but as “a sortal or a kind term, referring to the sort of being that atheists believe there to be no example of” (p. 194).
It is presumed that there can be at most one such being; if there is any such being, it is of necessity unique. There is supposed to be a contradiction in the claim that there is more than one god (but not in the claim of more than one deity). Nor is a god supposed to be just any old deity. If there are other deities, none is the god’s peer. A god is by definition incapable of having a true peer. (p. 195)
Tuggy is aware that those who believe in an impersonal ultimate sometimes identify their ultimate principle or entity as “God.” He finds this usage confusing and reasonably suggests that the title be reserved for a being who qualifies as a god. Hence it appears that if a being qualifies as a god (i.e., an ultimate deity), he is, by definition, God. Tuggy goes on to develop various categories and distinctions, ranging from “naturalistic adeism” (old fashioned atheism) at one end of the religion spectrum to “polydeistic monotheism” (one god plus angels, demons, and maybe even some cool preternatural creatures) at the other end. This last category is of particular interest, because this is where he locates most Jews, Muslims, and Christians, as well as monotheistic Hindus. Polydeistic monotheists believe in the existence of exactly one personal creator, “yet they are polydeists, with a plurality of deities, such as angels, demons, the divine council, sons of God, jinn, devas, or asuras” (p. 205). “Polydeistic monotheism” must also be distinguished from “monodeistic monotheism,” which lies in the middle of the spectrum. Monodeistic monotheists believe in the existence of one god but deny the existence of non-god deities. So what’s the difference between an adeist and a monotheist? A matter of number—0 or 1.
How well do Christianity, Judaism, and Islam fit into Tuggy’s categories (whether #3 or #8)? Clearly Tuggy thinks they fit just fine. What’s the problem? Each of the three monotheistic traditions speak of one absolute Deity possessing ultimate metaphysical status. This divine self has all the essential properties to qualify for godhood: “super-powerful and knowledgeable and good, unique creator of all else, who is uniquely provident over history” (What is the Trinity?, p. 117). What more do you want? Yet I can easily envision Dionysius, Aquinas, Maimonides, and al-Ghazali jumping up in protest, exclaiming, “There’s no counting in God!”
Any hint of God’s radical unicity and transcendent difference or the inherent inappropriateness of our theological language is notably missing in Tuggy’s presentation. To put it bluntly, God is simply the greatest thing around. Tuggy’s analysis of ultimate personal divinity is thus vulnerable to the criticisms advanced by Barry Miller against “perfect being,” or Anselmian, theology:
The Anselmians’ notion of a perfection has immediate implications for their understanding of God’s transcendence over his creatures. They succeed in setting him well apart from his creatures, many of which may perhaps have great-making properties but no one of which would have even one of them to the maximum degree possible. On this view, the gulf between God and creatures would therefore be wide, and perhaps unimaginably so, though it would not constitute an absolute divide. It is difficult to see how it could be more than a difference of degree, since the terms indicating his properties—‘powerful,’ ‘knowing,’ ‘loving,’ ‘merciful,’ ‘generous’ and so on—seem to be used univocally of God and creatures. True, when applied to God, those terms are often qualified as ‘maximally powerful,’ ‘all knowing,’ ‘infinitely merciful,’ ‘unsurpassably generous,’ but the qualifiers do nothing to change the sense of the terms they qualify. Hence, the role of ‘maximally,’ ‘all,’ ‘infinitely,’ and ‘unsurpassably’ cannot be that of alienans adjectives like ‘decoy’ in ‘decoy duck,’ or ‘negative’ in ‘negative growth,’ each of which does serve to change the sense of the term it qualifies. Rather, they are merely superlatives, which of course leave quite intact the sense of the terms they qualify. Thus understood, God’s properties are merely human ones, albeit extended to the maximum degree possible.
As conceived of by perfect-being theologians, therefore, God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship. The point is that the terms that perfect-being theology predicates of God are being used in precisely the sense that ipso facto precludes their being predicated of a God who is absolutely transcendent, since it is a sense in which they could equally be predicated of creatures. The difference between creatures and any God of whom they really could be predicated would therefore be simply one of degree. Although this may seem to be a hard saying, it follows straightforwardly from the fact that absolute transcendence cannot be attained merely by extending human attributes to whatever degree is deemed to be ‘maximal.’ The Anselmians’ God is therefore anything but ineffable, for not only can we talk about him, we can do so in precisely the same terms as those we use in talking about humans. Such a view succeeds in presenting God in terms that are comfortingly familiar, but only at the price of being discomfitingly anthropomorphic. (A Most Unlikely God, pp. 2-3)
Perfect being theology presupposes a scale of “greatness” (one can hardly avoid thinking of the Hellenistic chain of being), with the greatest and most perfect being at the summit. It seems all very reasonable. Yet by itself, the Anselmian view leaves us with a Deity who is less than Deity. What should Anselm and his followers have done? asks Miller. They should have considered the possibility, as St Thomas Aquinas certainly did (“we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not” [ST I.3]), that the greatest being does not exist on any scale, that the items on the scale merely point to the ultimate reality without ever converging upon it. “In other words,” suggests Miller, “what should at least have been considered was the possibility of the greatest F not being the final member in a series of members that were F to an increasing degree, not belonging to the series at all, but lying completely outside it. In that case, the greatest F would not be a maximum or limit simpliciter in an ordered series of Fs, as Anselmians understand it to be. Rather, it would be the limit case of such a series” (p. 4). A limit simpliciter differs by degree from that of which it is the limit, whereas a limit case differs absolutely. For perfect being theology, Deity ends up being a human being writ large (with appropriate qualifications)—let’s call it a divine self—but he still remains significantly different from the ineffable God worshipped in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, whose transcendent uniqueness is determinative. I imagine that some would reply that Miller’s concerns are fully satisfied by the attribution to God of incompositeness, but divine simplicity is a contentious issue in analytic circles (see William Vallicella, “Divine Simplicity,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; R. T. Mullins, “Simply Impossible“; cf. Dale Tuggy, “Why I Am Not a Thomist” [part 1, part 2]; for a defense of apophaticism from an analytic perspective, see Jonathan D. Jacobs, “The Ineffable, Inconceivable, and Incomprehensible God“).
Where is the incomprehensibility of the divine essence or the transcendence of Transcendence? The problem, I surmise, lies with perfect being methodology. If we begin with maximal attributes and the difference of degrees, it’s hard to see how we can ever rightly conceive divine transcendence, even if, like Tuggy, we identify God as an ultimate and unique being. Aristotle’s unmoved mover, for example, is a unique and ultimate being, but it’s still just a being within the continuum of being. But if we begin with the biblical revelation of the creatio ex nihilo and the infinite analogical interval, then all the superlatives of the perfect being may be properly gathered into the one and holy Mystery. Herbert McCabe eloquently states the necessary distinction, with implications:
The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is at the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (God Still Matters, p. 59)
Here is the surprising weakness of Dr Tuggy’s presentation of unitarian divinity—the failure to properly conceive the transcendent oneness of the one God.