An Utterly Simple State of Affairs

If God is the Absolute who stops all the bucks, the answer to our most profound existential and metaphysical questions, then he must be characterized by an absence of parts and potency; otherwise, classical theists maintain, we would still find ourselves asking for an explanation for either his composition (what brought you together? where did these properties come from?) or the realizations of his potentiality (what made you change?). Yet if this is true, how do we reconcile this divine simplicity with God’s personal identity and freedom? R. T. Mullins flatly states:

Could God have refrained from creating the universe? If God is free then it seems that the answer is obviously ‘yes.’ He could have existed alone. Yet, God did create the universe. If there is a possible world in which God exists alone, God is not simple. He eternally has unactualized potential for He cannot undo His act of creation. (“Simply Impossible,” pp. 195-196)

The classical theist has only two options, argues Mullins: he must abandon divine simplicity or concede that God had no choice but to create the world. Divine simplicity logically entails the abolition of possibilities in the divine life. Everything God does he must do; there is only necessity. Philosophers call this modal collapse:

One could avoid this problem [of unactualized potential] by allowing for a modal collapse. One could say that everything is absolutely necessary. Necessarily, there is only one possible world—this world. Necessarily, God must exist with creation. There is no other possibility. God must create the universe that we inhabit, and everything must occur exactly as it in fact does. There is no such thing as contingency when one allows a modal collapse. (p. 196)

In response to the modal collapse objection, Hugh McCann proposes an innovative (yet perhaps also traditional) answer: God is an actual state of affairs. “State of affairs”‽—to say the least, this is an odd expression to apply to divinity and requires some unpacking.

”States of affairs,” writes McCann, “are referred to by gerundive expressions such as ‘the piece of paper’s being white’ or ‘Booth’s assassinating Lincoln’” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 226). So what’s a “gerundive”? In Latin grammar a gerundive refers to a specific verb form: a “verbal adjective, that expresses the fitness or necessity of the action to be performed” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary)—but English has no such equivalent. English does, however, have gerunds: verbs ending in –ing that function as nouns. So I think what McCann has in mind are gerund phrases. He then goes on to distinguish abstract states of affairs from their instantiations:

The actual or concrete state of affairs that was Booth’s assassinating Lincoln was an action, by Union lights an act of treason; it plunged the nation into shock and mourning, and produced a fierce reaction against the states that had formed the Confederacy. By contrast, the abstract state of affairs Booth assassinating Lincoln is not an act, neither of treason nor of anything else; it is an act type. It is no more shocking than William Seward assassinating Lincoln or George McClellan assassinating Grant and like any other abstract entity it is utterly incapable of producing anything. Indeed, as with universals, there is no reason to think abstract states of affairs even exist apart from their instances and from thoughts about them; they could serve no purpose in an independent existence, for like universals they are utterly inert. (pp. 226-227)

When McCann suggests that we might usefully think of God as a state of affairs, he is clearly thinking of something concrete and active, not abstract:

If we are to think of God as an actual state of affairs, we must first decide whether to portray him as a state—something analogous to Socrates’ being wise—or as an event or act of some kind, analogous to Socrates’ behaving wisely. Of these, the second is by far the better choice. States, as the name implies, are static. Nothing is accomplished in a state qua state, whereas in God everything is accomplished. In addition, to portray God as event-like is in keeping with traditional views according to which God must be understood to be “pure act”—that is, to involve no unactualized dispositions. As such, God is a unique sort of being. He does not change … but also because for him to change would simply be a matter of one or another disposition in him coming to realization, whereas God has no unrealized dispositions. Nevertheless, there is a dynamic quality in God that is not captured by the notion of a state. God is best thought of as a kind of primordial event, but one that does not consist in a transition, and is therefore timeless. What kind of event is that? The traditional answer was: the fullness of being, existing of its own nature—for us, then, an event in which God is identical with his actual or realized essence, which is in turn identical with being itself. God is, then, his existent nature, his being, an actual dynamic state to which existence itself is essential and upon which all else that is real depends. He is not reactive or passive toward anything, awaits no prompting in order to be manifested in any respect, and is not modeled on any archetype. God is, rather, fully and completely spontaneous—nothing held back, nothing hedged, nothing in doubt or subordinated, and by the present account utterly without dependency of any kind. (p. 228; emphasis mine)

The McCannian construal of divinity as dynamic state immediately connects to the Ipsum Esse Subsistens of St Thomas Aquinas. Timothy McDermott interprets the famous Thomistic phrase: “God exists as the doing of all being, the existence that acts in all existence, an existence in the world’s existing but not of it, no thing, but not therefore nothing” (Summa Theologiae, p. xxxii). God is a verb, not a noun. McCann’s proposal also connects with St Dionysius’s understanding of the One as ecstatic outpouring of being, not a being but transcendent event of love.

McCann notes one advantage of thinking of God as an actual state of affairs. In all phrases that refer to states of affairs, subject and predicate are inseparable. For example, consider the example given above: Booth’s assassinating Lincoln. “Assassinating Lincoln” does not stand on its own. It must be accompanied by reference to the actor: “Booth’s assassinating Lincoln.” McCann draws out the analogy:

In the nominals that refer to states of affairs … subject and predicate have to remain together. God is not just goodness and justice, but his being good and his being just. The inexpungibility of the subject points in the direction of the ultimate unity of God, but it also reflects the fact that he is irreducibly personal—so that in the primordial event that is God the features essential to personality, in particular those of knowing and willing, must be displayed. And it is easy to see how these can be displayed in the same act, for it is impossible to will anything, without at the same time comprehending what is willed, without understanding what one is willing. As for the object of that act, for Aquinas the primary object of God’s knowing will is in fact himself; that is, God is an act of at once comprehending and willing his own essential being. This should not be taken as suggesting that God is self-creating, in the sense of conferring existence on himself. Rather, I would suggest, it signifies that God fully comprehends and is absolutely committed to being all that he is, and moreover that he is in fact identical with the very act that is his being thus comprehending and committed, that these dimensions of his nature are as fundamental as his being perfectly good, or anything else about him. (p. 229)

Classical theism is often accused of depersonalizing divinity, yet McCann’s divine state of affairs exhibits all the characteristics that we associate with personhood, minus the corporeality. Deity knows and wills and acts. He’s tailor-made to be sovereign Creator we meet in the Bible. But Deity is also metaphysically simple: we cannot ultimately distinguish who he is from what he is or from what he does. God is his personhood, is his attributes, is his activities. McCann bites the bullet: in the act that is his eternal identity, God eternally wills to be Creator:

The actual state of affairs that is foundational to all actuality must equally be the action that is God’s being his own being, so to speak, and also the action that is his creating the universe. So God is not only identical with his existing; he is also identical with his creating the world. (p. 229)

In the idiom of event: “God just is his creating the universe” (p. 230).

To better understand the relation of God to the universals we call divine attributes, McCann adduces Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo’s nature did not cause him to paint the ceiling; he freely accepted the papal commission. Hence the attribute creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling is accidental to his being; yet while it is accidental to his being, it is essential to his action: “the act that was his creating the ceiling could not have existed except through this attribute being displayed, and if the attribute could be taken away, the action would go with it” (p. 230). Now compare God’s creation of the universe. The universals creating and creating the universe belong to the divine action. If they were not present, the action would not be. The relevant difference between the two lies in the simplicity of the eternal Creator. If God just is his creating the universe, then creating and creating the universe are essential to him. The same logic applies to all of the divine attributes. As McCann notes: “For by the simplicity view, God’s creating the universe is precisely the same actual state of affairs that is his being omniscient, his being omnipotent, his being perfectly good and just, and the rest of what we think belongs to God as creator” (p. 230). These properties too are necessary:

Since the actual state of affairs that is God’s creating the world is equally one of his willing his own being and his existing a se or of his own nature, the universals that define these characterizations are essential to him as well. Finally … there is no need whatever to think of these universals as having any being apart from their manifestation in the actual state of affairs that is God himself. Accordingly, their existence is in no way prior to his own, so that he is not dependent upon them. On the contrary, since on the present view universals have no existence in their own right, they depend for their being on the primary reality that is God. The same can be said for the multitudinous abstract states that are instantiated in that reality. (p. 230)

The universals we call divine attributes depend on the primary reality that is God. Concrete existence always comes first in the order of being.

But what about modal collapse? It looks as if Dr McCann may have made the situation even worse. How is God libertarianly free if the divine act of creation, with the attributes manifested therein, necessary to God being God? Do we still need to issue a worldwide alarm?

(Go to “The Absolute Freedom of the Simple Life”)

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9 Responses to An Utterly Simple State of Affairs

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    OK, let’s say God chose not to create the universe: what then? God is still God, the universe is still uncreated, God can still create it. Only God’s creation of the universe creates a situation where God is not free to create it or not. At some “point” (so to speak) God will choose to create, since he may make infinite choices not to and still, eventually, choose to create, since it is not possible for him to irrevocably preclude himself from doing so.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, I’m going to hold off trying to offer a McCannian response to your comment, as it requires an argument that will be outlined in the next (and concluding) article in the series, which I will publish tomorrow afternoon. Bottomline: I think McCann would say that it makes no sense to think of God making infinite choices not to create and then choosing to do so. That would violate the divine immutability. We are talking here of the primordial and eternal event that is God.


    • Ian, I think it’s important to note that when we predicate choice to God it is only via analogy. To tip my hat, I still haven’t been convinced beyond Dionysian emanation and total transcendence where Divine freedom and necessity cohere. I think St. Denys said enough without saying too much – even with my Thomistic/Calvinist leanings I don’t think anyone has improved on St. Denys.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, another possible McCannian response (I say “possible” as I’m really unsure of my grounds here). Consider the proposition “God made infinite choices not to create the cosmos.” This is a universal, but given that, according to McCann, all universals are created, your proposition did not exist, could not exist, “until” God created this universe (if we can talk this way). So how can your proposition be an essential property of God? Is it not proven false by the fact that “God is eternal Creator” is an essential attribute of God? Remember: God has no accidental properties.


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I think that’s cheating. If it doesn’t violate divine simplicity to consider God as doing something analogous to possibly creating or possibly not and then picking one of the two available options (which is what you have to imagine for the question “Could God have refrained from creating the universe?” to have any coherent meaning at all) it doesn’t violate divine simplicity by imagining him doing so any number of times, or infinitely contemplating not doing so before / as well as doing so (indeed in a sense completely fulfilling the potential of not creating the universe before actually then doing so).


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, think of it this way: It doesn’t make sense to think of as _simultaneously_ God willing to create and not willing to create, just as it doesn’t make sense to think of God willing to be good (or to be Goodness) and not willing to be good (or Goodness). The self-determining and timeless event that is God precludes the way you have formulated your challenge. I think that is what McCann would say to you in reply.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Having read the next article, it looks like McCann’s approach is to argue that the question: “Could God have refrained from creating the universe?” simply isn’t a meaningful question given the nature of God. I think he is probably right.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    Change, becoming, movement from potentiality to actualization, is denied with Divine Simplicity – thus ‘making a choice’ entails only intention; as Gregory of Nyssa so aptly states, God’s “will is the only measure of his power”. And even intention is not like we know it to be. It seems to me wrong to ascribe to divine intention the notion of process, a deliberation as we know it – therefore I think the language we use, “making a choice” is deceptive when applied to God. For God’s intention is ‘simply’ goodness itself. It apparently includes creating the cosmos, and if wasn’t for the Good then it would not have been a divine intention. At the same time, even without creating, God would be just as fully God lacking nothing, and there’s no compulsion or anterior necessity to create. This leads me to surmise that there is a perfect identity of God’s ousia and thelema (nature and intention), of the act of God’s being and his willing to act. Hence the picture of God’s goodness as ‘overflowing superabundance’ seems fitting – creation is the product of God’s very being, in Whom we live and move and have our being. We participate in the superabundant good being and intention of God, the very act the product of which constitutes our being and our logos for existing.

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