“‘It ain’t obvious what’s obvious,’ at least not in philosophy,” quips Bill Vallicella, quoting Hilary Putnam. 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.
Of course, I ain’t no philosopher, yet I remain convinced that a properly Christian understanding of divine transcendence denies, or at least dramatically qualifies, the theistic-personalist claim.
We begin with “the Christian distinction,” as articulated by Robert Sokolowski in his book The God of Faith and Reason (also see “God+World≠2” and “Creatio ex Amore“). 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 1,500 years ago. Preachers have always spoken of God as a divine individual—it’s 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 of 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 and 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.
(4 May 2015; mildly edited)