Part Three: Dialectical Theism and Its Implications
Dialectical Theism and the World Religions
While this book has been written with the conviction that natural theology, in the sense explained in the first chapter, is a valid enterprise, I have several times drawn attention to its limitations. Not only does it never rise above a certain level of probability,1
it also suffers from abstractness and generality and even a kind of artificiality when compared with the rich concreteness of a theology that has arisen out of one of the great historical religions of the world. Thus I even went so far as to say that natural theology seeks its embodiment or even its incarnation in some faith that is tied to a particular manifestation of the divine.2
But to express the matter in this way could be misleading, if it were taken to mean that religious thinkers first arrive at a general natural theology and then go on to the formulation of some particular tradition. The sophisticated undertaking of natural theology comes after the formulation of particular theological traditions, even if it expresses in a schematic and generalized way the beliefs that are logically prior to the particular formulations and that can be exposed by stripping these formulations down, so to speak. On the other hand, this does not mean that natural theology should replace the concrete theologies of the various religious traditions. This may have been the ideal of the Enlightenment, perhaps of Kant when he wrote Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
, but such a theology would be so formally rationalistic and so lacking in imagination and poetry that its appeal would be limited to very few people and it could never exercise the influence that belongs to the concrete teachings of, say, Christianity or Hinduism. When Lord Gifford expressed his desire that the lectures which he founded should be made available to a wide public and declared his belief that natural theology has an important contribution to make to human well-being,3
we would, I think, misunderstand him if we supposed that he had any wish to replace the concrete theologies based on revelations or supposed revelations with an abstract philosophical understanding of religion. I take him rather to have been meaning that the study of natural theology would enable those who assented to Christian or some other revealed theology to come to a more critical and therefore intellectually more secure grasp of the concrete faith which they held. For natural theology, by exposing the fundamental beliefs which in any concrete theology are clothed and covered over with the language of dogma and even mythology, makes these beliefs more accessible to evaluation and lets their reasonableness (or unreasonableness) be more clearly seen. Thus in the preceding chapter I tried to show that the central Christian dogmas of the triune God and the incarnation of the word, both of them highly paradoxical and initially implausible, are philosophically defensible in the light of natural theology, or, at least, that form of natural theology which I have called ‘dialectical theism’.
In the present chapter I again want to strip down, as it were, the concrete religious traditions to examine the underlying natural theology, but with a different purpose from what I had in the previous chapter. There my motive was to show the compatibility of dialectical theism with Christian dogma. In the present chapter, I wish to broaden our field of view. Christianity is one among half a dozen or so great world religions which together number as their adherents the great bulk of the human race. At first sight, what may strike us most forcibly is the great differences between these faiths. Yet we must also be impressed by similarities and recurring features. At least some of the differences turn out to be accidental, arising from different cultural and historical modes of expression, though the underlying ideas may be very close. The question is, whether there is a basic natural theology concealed within the several concrete theologies of the major world religions, and whether this basic natural theology—if indeed there is one—can be understood in terms of dialectical theism. If we are pointed towards an affirmative answer to this question, then another function of dialectical theism would be to promote dialogue among the world religions, by drawing attention to deep-lying essential convictions that are common to the different traditions.
I do not, of course, want to exaggerate what could be achieved along these lines. The very idea of dialogue implies that there are differences to be sorted out as well as similarities to be exhibited. The simplistic belief that the great religions are all saying much the same thing is, in the end, inimical to better relations among them, for it lacks respect for the distinctive characteristics of each tradition. The Buddhist ideal of humanity, for instance, is different in important respects from the Christian ideal, and neither of them is served by an over-hasty identification or by minimizing the differences. A worthwhile dialogue, leading to better understanding on both sides, can take place only if careful attention is paid to the differences as well as to the similarities.
In the present discussion, it is the idea of God in the different traditions that calls for study. But precisely in this matter the difficulties seem most acute. We often hear it said, somewhat naively, that the great religions are different ways to the one God, but a moment’s reflection shows us the difficulty in making such a claim. For instance, to return to the contrast between Christianity and Buddhism, the former recognizes a personal God while the latter, in its original form, is often held to be atheistic or to recognize as its ultimate an impersonal cosmic principle. Thus it is doubtful if even the word ‘God’ (or its equivalent in other languages) is common property to the religions, or God himself their common concern. I have suggested elsewhere4
that perhaps the expression ‘holy being’ would be a less prejudicial way of expressing that ultimate reality which all the religions seek. The word ‘God’ may be too concrete and too heavily laden with personal connotations. It is the word which Western people use for holy being, but in their minds it is inevitably coloured by associations derived from the family of religions which they know best—I mean, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The religions of further Asia would for the most part think of holy being in different ways. But there can be only one ultimate. So either that Western conception of God, derived from Semitic sources and understanding holy being in concrete personal terms, is mistaken, or else the conceptions prevailing in further Asia are mistaken, or else, in spite of the apparently irreconcilable opposition between the two views, which perhaps reaches its highest pitch when someone contrasts theistic Christianity with allegedly atheistic Buddhism, there is the possibility of a more comprehensive concept which would be able to embrace both Eastern and Western conceptions of holy being. To express this in another way, we could say that there is still another dialectical opposition in God in addition to those we have considered earlier. This final dialectic is the opposition of personal and impersonal.
Although I have not explicitly discussed the dialectic of personal and impersonal, we have had glimpses of it in the studies of some of the representatives of dialectical theism. Many of them entertained the idea of a ‘God beyond God’, if we may use the expression. In the teaching of Plotinus, The One which is incomprehensible and ineffable stands above both Mind and Soul, and is so wholly other in its ultimacy that even the name of ‘God’ is not appropriate.5
Dionysius the Areopagite spoke of the ‘thearchy’, which he explicitly claimed to be not only ‘beyond being’ and ‘beyond intellect’ but even ‘beyond deity’, and it seems that the very persons of the Trinity lost their distinctness in the inexpressible unity of the thearchy.6
In somewhat different terms, Meister Eckhart described the highest reach of the mystical consciousness as the ‘breakthrough’ in which the soul penetrates beyond the persons of the Trinity to achieve union with the single undifferentiated essence of deity.7
In more recent times, Heidegger has rejected the idea of a personal creator God in favour of the ontological difference between the beings and wholly other being, and has posited as the ultimate a transpersonal event which can be described only as ‘It gives’.8
Among modern theologians, Tillich has popularized the idea of ‘God above God’ which he calls ‘the content of absolute faith’ and which, he says, ‘transcends the theistic idea of God’.9
As he somewhat ironically remarks, ‘God became “a person” only in the nineteenth century.’10
He explains this remark by referring to the fact that after Kant reality was divided into two spheres—a self-regulating nature, where physics is supreme and God is superfluous, and the realm of personal beings, ruled by moral law, where alone there is a place for God. Still, even if we were to agree with Tillich that the explicit affirmation that God is a person is a relatively recent one (for the traditional application of the term ‘person’ to the hypostases of the triune God had a different and less clearly defined sense), it cannot be denied that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God had always personal attributes.
What, then, are we to say of this strong tendency among the exponents of dialectical theism to turn away from, or, at least, to qualify profoundly, the idea of a personal God? Three points are, I think, worth noticing.
The first is that among the examples I have quoted (and they are only a selection) there appear to be two distinct ways in which the thinkers concerned have come to the idea that the ultimate reality of God lies beyond the personal, or, if one prefers to speak in such a way, that there is God beyond God. The first of these ways is most clearly illustrated by Plotinus. In common with other dialectical thinkers, he recognizes a triune God, and he places the impersonal, incomprehensible, wholly other character of God in the most primordial of the divine hypostases, what he calls ‘The One’. The other possibility is best seen in Meister Eckhart. For him, the ultimate and ineffable reality is not the most primordial hypostasis (the Father) but the one essence of Godhood which is common to all three hypostases. This first point may strike the reader as somewhat academic, but it is of interest as reflecting a longstanding difference between East and West in the understanding of the triune God and it is not without some practical consequences.
The second point is that when one denies that God is a person, it is almost automatically assumed that he must be impersonal in the sense of ‘sub-personal’ or ‘less than a person’, perhaps a mere life-force, nisus, élan
or however it might be described. But this is not the only possibility. God, in the depth of his Godhood, may be suprapersonal. To say that God is not a person can be understood in a Dionysian sense as meaning that he is ‘beyond personhood’ or ‘more than a person’. These are not meaningless phrases, for personhood, as we know it, is essentially imperfect and subject to limitations. For instance, our experience is never completely unified, we never have a total recall of our past, and for the most part our minds grasp things discursively, point by point, rather than intuitively in their totality. F. H. Bradley paid considerable attention to such questions, and suggested that the immediacy of feeling affords some clue to the nature of an experience transcending our own and to which the adjective ‘suprapersonal’ or ‘superpersonal’ would be appropriate. He speaks of an experience characterized by ‘a unity higher than all relations, a unity which contains and transforms them’, and claims that ‘of the manner of its being in detail, we are utterly ignorant, but of its general nature we possess a positive though abstract knowledge’.11
This language from a philosopher is reminiscent of the negative theology of Dionysius and others, though Bradley seems willing to allow a more affirmative understanding of God than were some of the mystics, at least in their explicit statements. However, Bradley is critical of those religious people who insist on the ‘personality’ of God in such a manner that they really turn God into another finite self with the same mode of existence as they have. God is not a person, but this is no lack or deficiency, for he is supra-personal.
This leads to a third point: although God transcends the category of personality, nevertheless we can and must address him and talk of him in personal terms. For although God is transcendent, he is also immanent in his creation, and in that creation, personal beings stand higher than any other kind of entity. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, the human being, endowed with personhood, is the recipient of God’s manifestation in the finite (his ‘theophanies’) and is at the same time the adequate medium for such a theophany (incarnation).12
So to say that God transcends the personal is not to deny that he includes personality. If it is incorrect to say that God is a person, or that he is good or wise or beautiful, it would be even further from the truth to say that he is less than a person or bad or foolish or ugly. As I have insisted more than once before, though we may not know what these various words mean when applied to God, we at least know in what direction to look. To return for a moment to F. H. Bradley:
With regard to the personality of the Absolute we must guard against two one-sided errors. The Absolute is not personal, nor is it moral, nor is it beautiful or true. And yet in these denials we may be falling into worse mistakes. For it would be far more incorrect to assert that the Absolute is either false or ugly or bad, or is something even beneath the application of predicates such as these. And it is better to affirm personality than to call the Absolute impersonal. But neither mistake should be necessary. The Absolute stands above, and not below, its internal distinctions. It does not eject them, but it includes them as elements in its fullness. To speak in other language, it is not the indifference but the concrete identity of all extremes. But it is better in this connection to call it superpersonal.13
These reflections, then, may suggest to us that the conception of a personal God in Western religions and the conception of an impersonal ultimate in some of the Eastern religions may not be such an absolute difference between them as it seems at first sight. Personal/impersonal is one more dialectic within the divine coincidentia oppositorum, and like the other dialectics, this one is not to be dismissed as mere contradiction. Both sides have their right, and, with proper care for the context, both sides deserve to be given expression, both liturgically and theologically. As in all dialectic, sometimes one side of the opposition receives greater emphasis than the other, and there may be good reasons for a particular emphasis in a particular historical tradition, but neither side can totally vanquish the other, and should not be allowed to do so. If a predominantly impersonal (or suprapersonal) conception of God seems remote and even cold, that may be less of a distortion than the warm pietistic personal devotion, which can reduce deity to human dimensions and may finally evaporate in romantic emotion.
I think we shall find that in all the great religions of the world, personal and impersonal ideas are intertwined in their several conceptions of deity (God or holy being) and that beneath the concrete symbols developed in their histories, we can discern the contours of dialectical theism. Obviously, if this could be made explicit, the way would be opened to constructive dialogue between traditions which, on the surface, might seem to be very far apart. The only way to make it explicit is to review the major traditions and to show the dialectical elements that are latent in each of them. Clearly, we can do this only in the most sketchy and provisional way, but it will be enough to show that there are many paths leading in this direction we have indicated, and that these are well worth exploring.
We begin with Christianity, and we can treat this tradition briefly, since I have already devoted a whole chapter to showing the compatibility of dialectical theism with Christian doctrine. It goes without saying that the Christian conception of God is overwhelmingly personal. This is fully understandable, seeing that Christianity inherited the Jewish conception of God and, moreover, believed that God had given the definitive revelation of himself in the form of a human person. Yet, over against this, has to be set the fact that Christian reflection on the God who had manifested himself in Jesus Christ led to the doctrine of the Trinity, three persons in one substance or being. Some theologians have taken that word ‘person’ in its modern sense, and have constructed a ‘social’ trinity, but it is hard to see how such a view can avoid lapsing into tritheism. On the other hand, it is equally hard to see how the Trinity can together constitute a ‘person’, as Barth seems to claim, while acknowledging that this way of talking has been devised as a modern safeguard against naturalism and pantheism.14
Furthermore, theological reflection needs to introduce such impersonal expressions as ‘self-subsistent being’. Pace
Pascal, Ritschl, et al
., the responsible Christian thinker cannot be content to use only biblical images of God drawn from personal life, for to call God ‘Father’ or ‘King’ and, even more, ‘Maker of heaven and earth’, is to venture, whether one wishes or not, into assertions about what is real and what is unreal, and these assertions can only be clarified and assessed by putting them into ontological language. Christianity is certainly committed to the belief that God is not less than personal and has revealed himself in personal form, but equally it is not committed to the belief that personality exhausts the being of God and the history of its own theology shows that it has been necessary to deploy a whole battery of impersonal ontological and metaphysical terms in order to say what has to be said about God as the ultimate beginning and end of all things.
When we turn from Christianity to its nearest neighbour among the religions, Judaism, it might seem more difficult to point to any personal/impersonal dialectic in God, for Judaism and the ancient Hebrew scriptures have no doctrine of a trinity, and in the central tradition of this faith, God is one, personal and transcendent.
But alongside that central tradition, even in the Old Testament, there are secondary elements which modify the central body of teaching. God is certainly one—this is a fundamental affirmation. Yet, as we have noted,15
the usual Hebrew word for God is a plural form, suggesting some distinctions within deity. In some of the ancient narratives, God seems to alternate with the ‘angel of the Lord’ who was identified by some of the Christian Fathers with the Word or Logos and was named by some Jewish sectaries ‘little Yahweh’, so that he has something of the character of a second God or an emanation of Yahweh.16
The Old Testament speaks also of the ‘Spirit’ of God, while in the wisdom literature, which represents a more reflective and even contemplative stream of Hebrew religion alongside the predominant prophetic stream, wisdom becomes a kind of divine hypostasis which has been with God from the beginning.17
Of course, the language may be merely metaphorical, but it contains the seeds of a conception of God in which stark unity has been modified. Again, God is certainly personal in the Old Testament, and the language is frequently anthropomorphic. Yet, as Rudolf Otto showed, the God of the Old Testament is also a mysterious being, possessed of numinous, that is to say, non-rational and non-personal, qualities, which are more fundamental than the rational and moral qualities which are ascribed to him at a more developed stage of the religion. Otto mentions the prophet Isaiah, a man with the most serious ethical concern, as nevertheless equally aware of the mysterious depths of God, whom he typically calls ‘the holy one of Israel’.18
(The Hebrew word for ‘holy’, qadosh
, means literally ‘separate’.) Curiously, it is a very anthropomorphic expression, the ‘wrath of God’, which seems to symbolize most vividly the non-rational, non-personal depth of deity. Finally, the God of the Old Testament is certainly transcendent, but he can be near as well as far and he is deeply concerned for his people. We find one prominent Jewish scholar, Leo Baeck, declaring that here there is no foundation for ‘the conflict between transcendence and immanence’.19
When we pass from the Old Testament to Judaism, the tendencies described become intensified. We have already noted that at the beginning of the Christian era, Philo of Alexandria was bringing together biblical teaching and Greek philosophy.20
He bestowed on God the impersonal name of ὁ ὤν, ‘He who is’, declared his essence to be unknowable, introduced mysticism and posited the Logos as the intermediary between God and humanity. The greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, taught a negative theology. Among the Jewish sects, mysticism flourished—first among the Kabbalists, and then in less esoteric form among the Hasidim of Eastern Europe, who, in turn, had a profound influence on the most famous Jewish philosopher of modern times, Martin Buber.21
Buber tells us how his own initial attraction to mysticism eventually gave way to the personalist philosophy for which he is well-known. But when Buber confronts the question whether God is a person, He gives this strongly qualified answer:
The description of God as a person is indispensable for everyone who like myself means by ‘God’ not a principle (although mystics like Eckhart sometimes identify him with being) and, like myself, means by ‘God’ not an idea (although philosophers like Plato at times could hold that he was this); but who rather means by ‘God’, as I do, him who—whatever else he may be—enters into a direct relation with us men in creative, revealing and redeeming acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter into a direct relation with him. The ground and meaning of our existence constitutes a mutuality, arising again and again, such as can subsist only between persons. The concept of personal being is indeed completely incapable of declaring what God’s essential being is, but it is both permitted and necessary to say that God is also
This carefully weighed statement by the leading exponent of the I-thou philosophy does not seem to me incompatible with the views of F. H. Bradley, quoted above, and gives hope that the Jewish concept of a personal God has within it a dialectic that can make possible a constructive dialogue with those Eastern religions whose concept of holy being is apparently impersonal.
Before we leave the Western/Semitic family of religions, we must consider the youngest and perhaps the most vigorous among them, Islam. The case here is different from what we find in either Judaism or Christianity. It is true that again we have one God, but his unity is so strictly interpreted that anything like the Christian belief in a triune God is excluded, and likewise his transcendence is stressed to such an extent that any sense of his personality is greatly weakened. God is said to have seven attributes: life, knowledge, power, will, hearing, seeing, speech.23
These attributes do seem, for the most part, to be the characteristics of a person, and the last three appear to be quite anthropomorphic. But they are interpreted in ways which would rigorously exclude any anthropomorphism. God hears, sees and speaks, but in ways quite different from our human ways of hearing, seeing and speaking, and incomprehensible to us. This God is even more numinous than the God of the Old Testament. The difficulty in relating him to the ways of understanding holy being in the further Asian religions is therefore quite different from what we encountered in the cases of Judaism and Christianity. A true dialectic is always complex, sometimes tortuous, and if we find a dialectical analysis working out too mechanically, it is probably mistaken. In the case of Islam, the problem is not to generate an impersonal element, for Allah has already been removed to such a transcendent height that he is effectually depersonalized. The problem is rather to bring him near, so that a closer relation is possible.
Such a relation has been realized in Sufi mysticism, the corrective which Islam has supplied from its own resources. According to J. S. Trimingham, ‘early Sufism was a natural expression of personal religion’, called forth in ‘reaction against the external rationalization of Islam in law and systematic theology’.24
The God of Islam had always been called ‘merciful’ and was believed to be nearer than anything else, but Sufism, with its mystical practice and sense of the immanence of God, gave these beliefs a new vividness. The Sufis called God al-Haqq
, ‘the reality’, and, at least to begin with, this appellation probably referred to the reality of a God known directly in experience rather than to the abstract idea of metaphysical reality.
When we move on to the religions of India and the Far East, we find a different situation. Here, impersonal conceptions of holy being are dominant, and these are combined with a strong sense of immanence, even to the point of pantheism. But the dialectic inherent in the idea of deity comes into play, in the opposite direction from what we found in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and now personal conceptions of God emerge as correctives to the prevailing impersonalism (or, it may be, suprapersonalism). Let me briefly give examples.
The religion of India has taken innumerable forms, and within these the dialectic of personal and impersonal is clearly to be seen. The two sides of the dialectic are represented by two great classical philosophers of India, Shankara and Ramanuja. Shankara represents the predominant trend, which is monistic and impersonal. These ideas go back to the early Vedic hymns. One famous Vedic hymn25
speaks of a primal Absolute, of which one could not say either that it existed or did not exist, or that it breathed or did not breathe. The gods are later than this Absolute and represent aspects of it. According to Shankara, human souls too are parts of the Absolute, though sin may blind us to this truth. There is nothing real besides the Absolute, even the world of nature is maya
, a surface-play which is not far from illusion. The Absolute is impersonal, though perhaps one could say that it is spiritual, and through retribution and rebirth, it exercises a moral government. Salvation is achieved by realizing one’s unity with the Absolute.
In all this, one can see resemblances to Plotinus, Eckhart and other Western thinkers considered earlier in this book, but Shankara’s doctrine is far more one-sidedly monistic than any of the Western teachings. Ramanuja, dissatisfied with this impersonal monism, taught the relative independence of nature and of the human soul, thus allowing sufficient space between the souls and God for the possibility of personal devotion (bhakti
). In the popular Hinduism of the present time, personal devotion to Krishna has a prominent place. Krishna is an incarnation or descent (avatar
) of the high god Vishnu, but though he is Vishnu in human form, something of the impersonal and numinous otherness of the god remains in the background, as one sees from the theophany in the Bhagavadgita
Buddhism began as an offshoot from Hinduism, and it has often been said that the original Buddhism was atheistic. That would depend, of course, on what qualifies as ‘theism’, and we have seen that the charge of atheism has often been made without adequate grounds.27
The Buddha did not deny the reality of the gods, but he did seem to conceive the ultimate reality in a quite impersonal way. Still, we might say, as we did in relation to Shankara, that the ultimate, though impersonal, was none the less spiritual and moral. It was a process involving judgment, retribution, rebirth and, for those who became enlightened, salvation. But such an austere doctrine does not satisfy the religious instinct for worship and communion. The Buddha himself was soon being venerated, even in the older (Theravada
) form of Buddhism. In the later (so-called Mahayana
) Buddhism, personal devotion to buddhas and boddhisattvas proliferated. In Japan today, a popular figure is the Amida Buddha, who, having gained his own salvation, vowed not to accept it until he had brought all to salvation: ‘In case I attain the ultimate goal of buddhahood, I vow to receive all human beings who think of me one to ten times or more, sincerely wishing to be received into my pure land. Until I have fulfilled this vow, I will not become a buddha but will remain a buddha-to-be (boddhisattva
Another popular figure, whose features are to be seen all over Japan, is the compassionate Kannon, who has a female form and is said to be modelled on an eighth-century empress of China.29
These and similar developments are not to be attributed simply to popular demand for what Kierkegaard called ‘a nice human God’,30
but have their roots in the dialectic of deity and can be philosophically defended, as we learned from the passages quoted earlier from the writings of Bradley and Buber.
Turning finally to religion in China, we find that the personal/ impersonal dialectic has sorted itself out into the two distinct indigenous religions of that country. Confucianism and Taoism. These are very different and have often been in conflict, but they have also been closely intertwined and each has made its essential contribution.
In Confucianism, the rational and the humanistic prevail. Indeed, it looks very much like ‘religion within the limits of reason alone’, and it was for this reason that all things Chinese were admired in eighteenth-century Europe. The Confucian God or Heaven is no doubt real, but like the God of deism he is kept discreetly in the background. Anything savouring of mystery or of the numinous is eschewed. With Taoism, it is quite different. The Western mind can hardly begin to understand what Taoism is, especially as experts disagree over the translation of the basic texts. The word tao itself has many meanings in Chinese philosophy, and is, of course, used also by Confucius. In Taoism, tao refers to the ultimate cosmic principle, but even to call it tao is somehow to do it violence, for it is strictly ineffable, though in mystical ecstasy one can come into relation with it. Perhaps the nearest equivalent is The One of Plotinus. Within the universe, the dialectical forces of yin and yang (male and female, day and night, summer and winter) are continually at work, and the tao maintains them in unity and harmony. The ideal for human beings is the quietist one of conforming to the rhythm of the universe. Since in China it has usually been considered permissible to profess more than one religion at a time, we may suppose that the ideal would be to combine the reasonableness and humanity of the Confucian tradition with something of the depth and spirituality that have come from Taoism.
The result of this survey of the understanding of deity or holy being in the great religions is encouraging. I have confined myself to the half dozen major religious traditions because their long persistence and the large number of their adherents is evidence of their inherent spiritual value. In spite of all their differences, we find them pointing to a spiritual source which is recognizably the same in each, a dialectical unity of opposites which constitutes the fullness of being, even if in particular traditions one side or other is exaggerated while something else is diminished. This fullness of being is deity, the goal and inspiration of our own human transcendence. It is attested not only by the several religious traditions but by the reflections of natural theology, and we can understand why Lord Gifford claimed that the knowledge which comes from such reflections ‘lies at the root of all well-being’.