God is Different Because of the World

InTheMindOfAnAncientGod.jpg

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). The claim can be exposited in various ways (see, e.g., “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, however, satisfy those who need God to need them nor satisfy traditional Thomists, who will no doubt wonder whether Clarke has compro­mised the divine simplicity.

(13 February 2017)

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26 Responses to God is Different Because of the World

  1. Tom says:

    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.”

    I think something like this must be true. And Bulgakov asserts the same distinction.
    Tom

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  2. Thomas says:

    > 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).

    Clark is, on this point (and some others), a thinly veiled Cartesian, where res extensa : real being :: res cogitans : intentional being. Not that Clark thinks God is extended, but both underlying dualisms are grounded in the conviction that the real is what is mind-independent.

    He’s also confused about the real/intentional distinction. If I attribute some difference to God in relation to the world, such as that he is angered by sin, you might ask: do you mean that there is some difference in God himself (i.e., a real difference), or is the difference really in our way of thinking about God (i.e., an intentional difference)? I cannot assert the former and still believe God is pure act.

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  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I’m not sure I see a problem, as such: *we* have to change in order to respond to a thing because we do not know it is going to happen before it does: not knowing, we may start with plan A and switch to plan B when we find out, or formulate no response until we learn what is to happen. However, if God is omniscient he already knows what is to happen and how he is to react to it, so responding to a thing requires no actual change in himself – how God is and always was is by reason of how he always knew we were going to react to him. If the whole concept of atemporality is coherent at all, I can’t see it as incompatible with a God with whom it is possible for temporal creatures to interact within time. God is not different than he *was* because of how the world responds, he is different to how he *would have been* if the world were to have responded differently, and even here he needn’t be different in his beginning or eternal end (which are the same thing) but only in his temporal actions within creation.

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    • David says:

      That’s a strong argument showing that God’s knowledge of change need not itself change – that the timeless can embrace change without itself changing. But, as Fr Kimel alludes to and Thomas argues above, many would hold that divine simplicity (and the divine aseity) must require not simply that God does not change, but that there is nothing in God that ‘would’ be different had the world gone differently, else it renders God in some sense composite (i.e. composed of necessary properties like God being omnipotent, and contingent ones like God knowing Iain committed X act at Y time’) Of course that leaves you with the problem of how God can be said to know things without being different (isn’t knowledge just an intrinsic mental state that would be different if something different was known?). I believe that Thomas and others try to resolve this by seeing knowledge (or rather the proposition that God knows X) as more like a relation or a presence, rather than an intrinsic state that must be different depending on what is known, if you can wrap your head around that one.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        How we “know” factual information about something in the past or future or being told about second hand is different to how we “know” what we are directly experiencing right now. The factual information we hold about things is in a sense extrinsic to ourselves – we hold it as a possession to observe within ourselves. The things we are experiencing right now may be composite themselves, and what l am experiencing and indeed how I am reacting would be different if what I was presently experiencing was different, but I don’t see that makes me in any sense composite or contingent as such – it’s at the point where I step back and analyse it piecemeal that my mind is not unified. The more direct and unanalysed the experience of the world, the more coherent and unified the soul (that’s how meditation is supposed to work). Trying to solve the problem by postulating God less connected to the world makes it worse, rather than better, I would have thought: God as pure, instant, directly responding act is not composite – detach God from his reaction and response to the world and you make him more composite, not less.

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        • Thomas says:

          But God neither experiences nor observes. For one thing, he lacks a nervous system. For another, experience has as a condition the existence of an object. God, however, is not (on the traditional view) conditioned by anything. Roughly, conceiving knowledge as a kind of access or confrontation is why the Platonist tradition separated the One and the Intellect.

          Experience is not knowledge. Lobsters have experiences but lack knowledge. Immaterial beings (angelic or divine) have knowledge but not experience. Even in our case, while we need experience to gain most of our knowledge, our act of understanding is not an experience (else one could understand the gravity merely by looking around).

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          • David says:

            I agree that God does not ‘experience’ things external to Himself – in the sense that God does not reach out and look at the world to see what he’s doing it, but simply intuitively comprehends all that is in his one eternal act of knowing himself. God is a doer, not an observer.

            But in a looser sense I would hold that ‘experience’ can simply mean ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’ of something, and knowledge does seem to be a species of conscious act, just as seeing the colour red or ‘feeling like’ anything at all is a conscious act.

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          • Thomas says:

            We should make a distinction here, since there are varying forms of consciousness. The consciousness we have of red as a sensory quality is sensory or animal consciousness. God, being neither an animal nor having senses, does not have an animal consciousness.

            The consciousness we have of red as we try to understand it scientifically through sciences like optics or neuroscience is intelligent, discursive consciousness. This gets us closer, since it is a form of knowledge (whereas “knowing” what it feels like to see red is not really knowledge.)

            But while God is an intelligent consciousness, but his consciousness is not discursive, so this form of our consciousness, while closer than feeling or perception, doesn’t quite map on either.

            Intelligent self-consciousness gets us quite a bit closer, since it does not depend on an extrinsic object. But still there is the limitation that to be self-conscious for us is not to make of ourselves an object that we are aware of, but to be aware of ourselves in coming to know other things. And God does not, I would argue, come to know other things.

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          • David says:

            Thomas, it seems to me that all the types of knowledge you mention are still species of consciousness – in the sense that the consciousness *is* the knowledge, and that the precise reality of this consciousness/knowledge is different depending on what is actually known.

            It’s clear that God does not come to know things in the sense that his knowledge does not change. But if God’s knowledge is something akin to pure self consciousness… and God’s knowledge is ultimately just ‘God knows God’… then I have a question.

            When we state God knows God, does that mean just that God knows what God is intrinsically (i.e. just what God is in Himself) or does it also include what God is extrinsically (i.e. creation’s relations with God). If it’s just God intrinsically, then this does not seem to account for how God knows events in the world. But if it includes what God is extrinsically, then this seems to me that the knowledge is different and what God knows is different depending on the world.

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  4. George Domazetis says:

    “Only by the eternal and contin¬uous 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..”

    The doctrine of creation from nothing has held a fascination for me, as scientifically it seems impossible to consider “nothing”. We obtain knowledge in various ways, and we include “0” (zero) as part of our reasoning, but we cannot “know nothing”.

    If my comment is valid, how can we consider creation from nothing as having meaning to us as intelligent human being?

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  5. Liam says:

    I found this blog become I became interested in the writings of David Bentley Hart after reading “That All Shall Be Saved.” I have always been confused by the concept of divine immutability, but Clarke’s distinction between God’s relational consciousness and God’s inner intrinsic being resolved a lot of my confusion with divine immutability.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I too found Clarke helpful on this point, though most Thomists disagree with him.

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      • Liam says:

        I’ve never really understood Thomism. I agree with Hart’s critique of Thomism in “That All Shall Be Saved.”

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      • Liam says:

        Hi Fr Aidan,

        This is unrelated to this post, but I was hoping to hear your thoughts on the problem of evil. I searched “problem of evil” on this blog, and I did a quick skim of the post that came up. That post seemed to rely on libertarian free will. I was hoping to hear a response to the problem of evil that doesn’t rely on libertarian free will. As a starting point, why do you think God did not create us so that we were already in the state we will be in when we are in heaven?

        Have you read “The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?” by DBH? If so, would you recommend it?

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  6. Liam says:

    By “limit his own omniscience,” I meant “make himself not omniscient.”

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    • mercifullayman says:

      Most here are going to accept the classical idea that God would have to know everything, but that doesn’t require him to determine everything. Inn effect, to be simple he must be immutable/impassible. DBH address this, as does Clarke, in a way that I think is helpful There won’t be a “process” view towards it as some change or lack of knowledge would be a change in God, thus making him passible/mutable. However, even in the classical view, there is a healthy dose of mystery on some things in regards to it all. Bulgakov notes this in Unfading Light, himself.

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      • Liam says:

        Hi mercifullayman,

        Thanks for your response; it was helpful.

        Do you believe in libertarian free will?

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        • mercifullayman says:

          I used to. Not so much anymore, and to be honest I’m still working some of that out. I think there is a certain hubris when it comes to libertarian free will perspectives rooted in the Enlightenment and its need to misunderstand the connection between God and man. To me, the desire to be THAT free, strikes of the sin of the Garden. That implicitly, to need that kind of freedom, we would place ourselves as equals in many ways to God himself. Even God, as ultimate freedom, good, etc, has limits. So if by libertarian, we are arguing for a purely unbound ability to choice in all moral/ethical respects, even within the nature we’ve been given, I think the Garden clearly demonstrated that doesn’t really work so well and is exactly our greatest fault. We can choose, but there are always conditions and limits within those choices….knowledge for instance, and the tint that that knowledge can take based on subjective experience. I do think Hart is onto something when he says that to choose freely means to choose the good, because that intrinsically means we are choosing what is best for us. When we choose against that, we are still wanting to fulfill that desire for the good within us, just in the wrong way. Sin (via habit/environment/experience), then, essentially weigh us down into an even more limited sense of choice and freedom. God, through Christ, must then show us how to properly use that freedom again…the chains, or limits we’ve put on ourselves, become loosened. We still decide, we still work through our choices, but it is in willing the moral good that we find true freedom. We aren’t bogged down by the ramifications that come along with choosing poorly. If any of that makes sense.

          I used to be a big process guy as a way to escape the problem of evil. It made sense at first, and I learned a great deal from embracing the mystery of passivity/impassivity from it, but it still rang hollow by the end of where I got with Whitehead and others. I think sometimes that maybe the big issue is how we understand the relationship between God’s knowledge and creative act as always ex nihilo(as potential, like a wellspring powering us as the ground of being and the ramifications on how that matters to God’s knowledge) and God’s knowledge and actual creation made manifest (the actuality of an event as it actually manifests on the horizon and the choices/ramifications due to it encountering this world/humanity.) I don’t know how to reconcile those, and people far smarter than I am, have addressed it, I’m sure….but I think there is where the tension lies, and adds to the wonder of what is known/not known, and how it works itself out in the impassibility discussion. If so great an intellect like Maximus, Bulgakov, and others have said its a mystery at the end of the tunnel, then I’m ok with that explanation for now.

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          • Liam says:

            I also find libertarian free will to be problematic.

            I agree with what Hart says here:

            “Simply said, if God required evil to accomplish his good ends—the revelation of his nature to finite minds—then not only would evil possess a real existence over against the good, but God himself would be dependent upon evil: to the point of it constituting a dimension of his identity (even if only as a ‘contrast’)” (“Providence,” p. 49)

            I find it difficult to reconcile the existence of evil with what Hart says here. I recently ordered “The Doors of the Sea,” so I will see how Hart approaches the problem of evil.

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