Part One: Classical Theism and Its Alternatives
Towards a Concept of God
Who or what is God? Perhaps this question ought to have been asked even before we discussed the viability of natural theology, since all theology presupposes God as its subject-matter. However, as has already been pointed out, ‘God’ is a word of our language, and there is a corresponding word in every language. Presumably we have some general idea of what the word means. But here is the difficulty. There was a time in Western society when ‘God’ was an essential part of the everyday vocabulary. The word was on everyone’s lips. What God demanded determined the way in which people lived; what God was doing explained the events taking place in the world around them; prayer to God was the safeguard against misfortune. This state of affairs still holds in many societies. But in the West and among educated people throughout the world, this kind of God-talk has virtually ceased. For two or three centuries, the process of secularization has been going on. The demands of society rather than of God determine our patterns of conduct; events around us are explained in terms of other events within the world; prayer is only the last uncertain resort when more mundane methods of coping with problems have failed. People once knew, or thought they knew, what they meant when they spoke of God, and they spoke of him often. Now in the course of the day’s business we may not mention him at all. The name of God seems to have been retired from our everyday discourse. Even a believer, if he is asked ‘What do you mean when you speak of God?’, may find himself stumbling over an answer. The word that for thousands of years held a central place in language has become elusive.
When we are uncertain about the meaning of a word, we usually look up the dictionary. This is in fact the method recommended by Gordon Kaufman for getting theology started. Its basic terms including ‘God’, belong to the common stock of words, so we may at least begin with the dictionary definitions.1
I am not sure myself that one could get very far along this road—that would depend on whether the lexicographer consulted happened to be also a good theologian. Still, it is an interesting experiment to look up two leading dictionaries, one British and one American: to be precise, the Oxford English Dictionary
and Webster’s Third International Dictionary
, and see what they think the word ‘God’ conveys to contemporary post-Enlightenment men and women of the English-speaking world. Both dictionaries have separate entries for ‘god’, as the word is used in respect of the divine beings of polytheism, and ‘God’, as the word is used in monotheistic faiths or in philosophy. On the first usage, they are in fairly close agreement. Oxford
defines a god as ‘a superhuman person who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind’, while Webster
tells us that a god is ‘a being of more than human attributes and powers, especially a superhuman person conceived as the ruler or sovereign embodiment of some aspect, attribute or department of reality, and to whom worship is due and acceptable’. In the case of the God of monotheism, Oxford
has: ‘the one object of supreme adoration; the creator and ruler of the universe’, while Webster
has: ‘the supreme or ultimate reality; the deity variously conceived in theology, philosophy and popular religion as…’ and then follow half a dozen brief descriptions of God as he is understood in the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other traditions, including some philosophical traditions. Let us consider these definitions for a few moments.
Perhaps the first point to impress itself upon us is just the sheer variety of meanings that have been assigned to the word ‘God’, as is evidenced in these definitions. God has been understood—or possibly misunderstood—in many ways by different human beings at different times and in different places. No doubt there has been development. Some ways of thinking about God are obviously more reflective than others. But the differences are not to be explained only in terms of greater or less maturity, deeper or shallower penetration. In different traditions, reflection has taken different directions, and distinctive ideas of God have emerged. The reason for this may be that God is a reality with such rich or even infinite content that any idea of God can only encompass some of his characteristics. Each tradition seizes upon certain attributes that have been important in the formation of the tradition, and in all probability will develop these in a one-sided way, to the neglect of others that have been missed. I am not, of course, saying that all the differences in the ideas of God that are held or have been held can be resolved in a single unified idea. We may well discover that God surpasses all human understanding. Yet I do believe that some of the differences, at first sight quite sharp differences, can be overcome in a more inclusive view. It is surely significant that those who hold different ideas of God nevertheless assume that they are talking about the same God. Even if one thinks that a person in another tradition has got it all wrong or has seriously distorted views about God, it is assumed to be the same God. And here at least is a point of agreement. As soon as people have got beyond the polytheistic stage, they realize that there can be only one God. We should notice, too, that although each tradition claims some more or less determinate knowledge of God, it is doubtful if any would claim that its knowledge is exhaustive. They are agreed in recognizing that there is a mystery of God. If in each case there is an idea of God, and this idea tends to be made more definite, in each case it also shades off into a hidden depth. It is possible that what has been brought into the clear focus of one idea of God remains hidden in another, and that once again this may suggest that different ideas of God are not necessarily in sheer contradiction with one another.
Let us first of all go back to the gods, since it is in that early polytheistic phase that recognizable God-talk begins, though of course religion had already had a long history before that, in animistic and possibly pre-animistic forms. In typical polytheistic religions, the gods were the great powers of nature: sun, wind, sea, rain, mountain, river and so on. Human life was dependent on them and sometimes destroyed by them. Certainly the idea of power—power of a superhuman order—featured prominently in the understanding of the gods. But I question if this was the important feature. It was not the power of these forces that made them gods, it was the belief, perhaps originally just the feeling, that somehow these powers were personal or quasi-personal, that they had a being which, to recall David Hume’s phrases about natural theology, ‘bears some remote analogy’ to the kind of being that we know in ourselves. I am suggesting that God-language, even in its earliest usage, arose from the sense of affinity that human beings had with the cosmic forces around them. Indeed, has this not been of the very essence of belief in God from early times down to the most sophisticated forms of theism—that the believer has had a sense of affinity with an environing reality which he believes to be of a higher order than his own? The atheist, on the other hand, acknowledges no such affinity. For him, that environing reality is indifferent to the human spirit and belongs to an order of being that is essentially mechanical and sub-personal.
At the level of the polytheistic religions, talk of the gods takes the form of mythology. Stories are told of the gods, and in these stories they take on more definite personal characteristics. They may be represented in the visual arts as human or quasi-human beings, usually with some special feature that relates them to the particular force of nature or department of human life over which they severally preside. They are still considered to be immanent in the world and perceptible in the world, just like the natural forces which they represent. But surely, as indeed I have already indicated, human beings never worshipped the powers of nature simply as such. The notion of a merely natural phenomenon is a modern one, and is reached only by a gigantic effort of abstraction. For the archaic religious mind, the sun or the lightning flash or the river was more than a natural phenomenon—even if they had had the conception of a merely natural phenomenon. All these things were already sacramental. Through them, the worshipper believed, a reality at least in some ways analogous to his own inward being, was touching his life.
Of course, someone may say this was just pure superstition, and so are all the more sophisticated religious beliefs that have developed subsequently. The sun is nothing but a gigantic nuclear furnace, the lightning flash is nothing but a discharge of electrical energy in the atmosphere, the river is nothing but a dynamic configuration of water; in short, the reality that surrounds us and from which we have ourselves arisen has long ago been de-divinized, and we know it now to be nothing but a vast congeries of physical particles acting and reacting on one another. This language of ‘nothing but’, sometimes called ‘nothing-buttery’ or, more respectfully, ‘reductionism’, enjoys, of course, great prestige in the scientific age. One could not for a moment deny the value of methodological reductionism in the sciences. Arthur Peacocke, for instance, says, ‘The progress of the sciences has certainly been in part due to their successful propensity to break down, for purposes of exploration, unintelligible complex wholes into their experimentally more manageable component units.’2
As an illustration, he mentions the famous discovery of the molecular basis of heredity. But to go from methodological reductionism to ontological reductionism may well be a quite fallacious move. It would be obviously false to say that heredity is ‘nothing but’ the behaviour of certain complex chemical substances, and the falsity of reductionism becomes even more obvious if one seeks to extend it to a general view of reality. The richness and concreteness of the world of human experience has to be taken on its own terms as a world in which meaning and value and spirit and possibly God himself are not considered any less real or less ultimate than physical process. The philosopher who has in recent times made the best case for interpreting the world in its concreteness rather than in the abstractions proper to specific scientific enterprises was Whitehead, and we shall be examining his thought in more detail at a later stage.3
For the present, it is enough to say that the polytheist’s intuition of a numinous or divine aspect in the powers of nature cannot be summarily dismissed as mere superstition. It was an attempt, however unsatisfactory, to express the mystery of being that is already raised by the occurrence of the simplest phenomenon.
In polytheistic religions, many gods are recognized, sometimes very many indeed, representing the multiplicity of natural forces and human affairs. It is probably that multiplicity that first of all impresses itself on the human mind. But sheer multiplicity would be chaos, and the mind seems to seek a unity in the multiplicity. This is true above all of the religious mind. ‘If it is allowed that the existence of the many gives rise to a problem,’ writes Frederick Copleston, ‘synthesis takes the form of a movement of the mind towards The One, conceived as the source of the many and as the ultimate reality.’4
The unity of God, of course, has more than one meaning. We have already noted that when people begin to reflect on the idea of God in any depth, they see that there can be only one God. Still, even the assertion of God’s unicity has to be qualified. It is not a numerical unicity, but rather the realization that if there is divine being, the category of number is not applicable to it. This was clearly recognized already by such thinkers as Plotinus. But the unity of God is also understood as his unity within himself. The very idea of God implies an unimaginably rich and inclusive content, but this content belongs to God as that which has been perfectly unified.
Precisely how the advance from polytheism to some form of monotheism comes about historically is not clear, and no doubt it has happened differently in different cultures. Sometimes the appearance of a religious genius like Zarathustra or Mohammed would seem to have been the occasion for the transition, but the seeds are already there in polytheism itself, in the form of both religious and logical tendencies. The gods of polytheism are often imagined as constituting a family, and within the pantheon one god usually comes to have a position of dominance over the others. Thus, either explicitly or implicitly, polytheism moves towards monotheism.
Monotheism takes two fairly distinct forms—the religious and the philosophical. Since these are sometimes in tension with one another, we shall begin by considering them separately.
The classic example of religious monotheism is surely the faith expounded in the Hebrew scriptures. These scriptures, of course, were written over several centuries and retain some primitive features, but the difference from polytheism is striking. The unity of God is central: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.’5
This oneness has the two senses distinguished above. God is unique. The polemic against the gods runs all through Hebrew religion. These pretended gods are unreal and ineffective. Only the one God acts. This God, moreover, is faithful; that is to say, he is no capricious God but a God who can be trusted because all the attributes of deity are united in him. The common Hebrew word for ‘God’ is a plural form, elohim
, though it is considered as singular and used with singular verbs and adjectives. It has been suggested that, whether consciously or unconsciously, this usage implies that all the gods are included in the one God of the Hebrews; all deity is comprehended in him.
In some ways, however, this monotheistic God retains features that were found in the polytheistic gods as well. He is very definitely a personal God, and his personality is portrayed in quite anthropomorphic ways. He speaks to patriarchs and prophets, he makes covenants and promises and can also utter threats. He experiences passions and emotions and is frequently angry or displeased. In spite of what was said above about his faithfulness, he sometimes repents or changes his mind. He is usually characterized by images rather than concepts, and these images are taken from human society—king, judge, shepherd, warrior, father—though sometimes natural or material objects are used as images: rock, tower, light.
But over against this anthropomorphic tendency we find that God is in many ways contrasted sharply with man and the world. The God of the Bible is very much a transcendent God, unlike the immanent gods of polytheism. This is implicit in the doctrine of creation, which now stands at the beginning of the Bible. God is prior to the world and independent of the world, which he has brought into being by his commanding word. Again, the typical language of the Bible is not mythology, in which the gods appear within the world, but a form of history in which events are seen as under the control of God. Certainly, God is involved in the history of Israel, but not as another item within the world. Even the anthropomorphisms are neutralized: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’6
God is not exhausted in anthropomorphic descriptions, and the Bible certainly leaves room for the mystery, otherness and even hiddenness of God. When Moses inquires about the name of God, he gets the enigmatic answer, ‘I am who I am.’7
Admittedly, the writer of Exodus presumably did not foresee the subtle ontological speculations that would be reared upon these words, but he must have been aware that he was safeguarding the ultimate incomprehensibility of God, and he succeeded pretty well, as is evidenced by the fact that the most learned scholars are still arguing about the meaning of his words!
It is a noble picture of God that emerges in the Hebrew Bible, in spite of occasional lapses. It has been an inspiration for centuries, and in a sense it cannot be superseded. Yet for centuries there has been developed alongside the religious monotheism a philosophical monotheism. Although the concrete imagery of kingship, fatherhood and so on cannot be superseded in the actual life of religion, in prayer and liturgy for instance (who ever addressed a prayer to necessary being?), and although the strongly personalist and even anthropomorphic language serves to keep before the worshipper that sense of affinity with the divine being which we have seen to be essential to belief in God and which it is the business of religion to encourage and enhance, reflective members of the religious community have looked for ways of expressing theism that would be more satisfying intellectually. In general, they have tried to move away from images to concepts and to express theism as a philosophical doctrine.
The immediate occasion for the development of a philosophical concept of God was the confluence of the religious monotheism of the Hebrew tradition with the metaphysical speculations of Greek philosophy, but I think we should recognize that philosophical reflection on religious belief was not just the result of contact with the Hellenic world but is fundamentally a demand of our own rational nature, so that if Greek philosophy had not been available for the task, it would still have had to be done sooner or later in some other philosophical idiom.
The Jewish scholar, Philo of Alexandria, led the way in developing the new philosophical theism, and the task was continued by the early Christian writers and their successors right into the Middle Ages. The personal God who had been represented as king or shepherd became a distant transcendent principle of being. The ‘I am’ of Exodus had been translated ὁὤν in the Septuagint, and this becomes the philosophical name for God—‘He who is’, or, in the Latin translation, Qui est. In course of time, names even more distant from the religious tradition were used, for instance, ‘self-subsistent being’ and ‘necessary being’. Whereas the biblical tradition had been content to apply to God such adjectives as ‘righteous’, ‘merciful’, ‘faithful’ and the like, new semi-technical expressions were introduced, such as ‘omnipotent’, ‘immutable’, ‘impassible’ and many others. In order that God might not be brought too closely into contact with the world, Philo developed the idea of the Logos as the intermediary between God and the creation, and, of course, this idea came to play a major part in Christian theology. So, for instance, it was not God himself who had spoken to Moses at the bush, but the Logos. Philo and his imitators also developed the method of allegorical interpretation as a way of handling stories in which God was involved in affairs within the world. Again, whereas the biblical tradition (like other religious traditions) simply assumes the reality of God, philosophical theism began to search for arguments that would prove the existence of God.
It is not easy to see how the religious and philosophical forms of theism can be integrated. As I mentioned, they have in fact often been in tension with each other. Pascal, Kierkegaard and Barth are obvious examples of very acute men who regarded philosophical theism with very profound suspicion. The God of such theism, whether we call him ‘unmoved mover’ or ‘supreme intelligence’ or something else, seems a pale abstraction alongside the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Attempts to prove the divine existence may only sow doubts, rather than providing certitude. The whole enterprise may seem to have become a theoretical matter and to be cut off from the practical business of living—an artificial separation of which we were inclined to think that Kant was guilty in his treatment of religion.
Yet there is something to be said on the other side, too. There are minds which cannot rest unless they have inquired, as far as their powers allow, into the very foundations of belief. They would consider it irresponsible not to conduct such an inquiry. I do not think it is fair, either, to say that such persons end up by putting an abstraction in place of the living God. The American philosopher Paul Weiss writes: ‘Behind the Gods of the various religions is an ultimate, inescapable being which is irreducibly real and effective here and now, no matter what men may think or say or do. This is not a mere being, a “God beyond God”, but God himself, freed from the particulars added by particular religions, but not freed from an involvement with man and other realities.’8
If one reads the book from which this quotation is taken, I think it is perfectly clear that the author has not turned some abstraction of thought into a God. He has a genuine religious relation to God, but his intellectual integrity demands that his concept of God must be clarified and criticized as far as possible.
I have to stress the words, ‘as far as possible’. Philosophical theism does not in most cases claim that we can arrive at a comprehensive concept of God. Indeed, most of the thinkers who have been mentioned in the preceding paragraphs took the view that God transcends our understanding. We can apprehend him up to a point, we can make some affirmations about him, we can even say (and we shall have to ask how this is possible) that God must be such and such, if he is a reality at all.
An interesting question arises at this point. What is the relation of concepts to images in talking about God? The philosopher who tries to express belief in God as metaphysical theism would seem to have given concepts priority over images. This was certainly the case with Hegel, whom we shall be considering at a later stage. Hegel placed absolute philosophy above absolute religion, precisely on the grounds that the former deals in concepts, the latter in images. Hegel, however, was a panlogist, that is to say, he believed in the competence of reason to understand everything, even God. But if, like some of Hegel’s own followers, including the English philosopher F. H. Bradley, we make a more modest claim for reason and acknowledge that the ultimate reality is beyond the grasp of Mason, then we may wish to answer the question about concepts and images rather differently. If God is finally a mystery, our conceptual grasp of him will take us only part of the way. Is it not the virtue of an image that, although it lacks the precision of a concept, it has a certain creative and imaginative power which allows it to point beyond the strictly knowable, stretching both our language and our minds? In religious discourse, we shall never be able to dispense with images, symbols and metaphors, perhaps not even with myth and story. These are the primary modes of expression of the religious consciousness, bringing to words the obscure knowledge that is already there and at the same time pointing beyond what the words are able to express. Yet as responsible rational beings, we have to guard against becoming lost in a world of luxuriant fantasy, and this means that we have to ask critical questions about the meaning of the images and symbols, to clarify them conceptually and judge their truth. Perhaps there will always be a tension between images of God and concepts of God, between religious or biblical or revealed theology and philosophical or natural theology, and perhaps different types of mind will always lean towards the one side or the other, but we would make a mistake if we tried to eliminate either one of them. They belong dialectically together within theological reflection on God.
The reason for this becomes apparent if we think back for a moment to those dictionary definitions of God from which we took our departure. They spoke of God in both existential and ontological terms, that is to say, as the reality that is known primarily in the religious consciousness and as the reality that is posited by the intellect as the ground of all that is. If we remind ourselves of one example, the Oxford English Dictionary
told us that God is ‘the one object of supreme adoration, the creator and ruler of the universe’. In the history of religious thought, we find that often God has been defined in only one of these two ways. Luther is strongly existential: ‘That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.’9
In this he has been followed by many Lutheran theologians, including Ritschl in the nineteenth century and Bultmann in the twentieth. But this way of thinking of God is far too subjective. God may very well end up as just an ideal in the mind of the believer. Luther himself was aware that his definition of God would apply equally well to an idol. How then does one distinguish God from idols or from subjective ideals? It is at this point that we need an ontological definition which will claim for God a reality beyond either my mind or the mind of the believing community, indeed, an ultimate reality. And we may note that although the existential definition of God arises from the religious consciousness, that consciousness itself refers its awareness of God to a reality beyond itself. But it is to theologians like Thomas Aquinas who names God ‘He who is’,10
or Anselm, who defines him as ‘Something than which no greater can be thought,’11
that we must turn for a concept of God which affirms primarily his ontological reality, his objective being as distinct from the subjective being which God undoubtedly has within the religious consciousness. But having said that, we now have to make the opposite correction to the one which we deemed appropriate in the case of Luther. There we had to guard against a subjectivizing of God; now we have to guard against severing his association with the religious consciousness and turning him into a merely metaphysical entity.
As our exploration of the concept of God proceeds, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a dialectic built into the very idea of God. Whatever we say about him, it seems we are bound to correct it by saying something of opposite tendency. This may be traceable to the double meaning that is always present in the word ‘God’—highest value, from the point of view of the religious consciousness, highest reality from the point of view of the intellect. Yet the division is not so neat as this might suggest. The religious consciousness demands reality as well as value; the intellect, unless it has been forcibly detached from the entire range of personal existence, is never value-free.
We have, I think, an inherent tendency to see things in a one-sided way, and perhaps we are especially prone to this error when we try to think of God. The so-called ‘swing of the pendulum’ in theology is usually to be explained in terms of one one-sided idea succeeding another that had been equally one-sided and whose very one-sidedness carried within it the seed of its dissolution. Yet the two sides belong together, and each needs the other. We have just been touching on the dialectic of subjective and objective elements in the conception of God. Obviously, however, there are many more oppositions—transcendence and immanence, impassibility and passibility, eternity and temporality, to mention only a few—and in each case we have to resist the temptation to be one-sided and try rather to give due weight to each side of the opposition. I do not think, however, that one has to give equal weight to each side, for one may be more fundamental than the other. If we accept the traditional analysis of thesis, antithesis and synthesis as a guide to the structure of dialectic, one may say that the thesis is fundamental, and though it needs to be qualified by the antithesis, the final synthesis will be closer to the original thesis than to the antithesis.
Dialectic requires us to say that if God is transcendent, he must also be immanent; if he is impassible, he must also be passible; and so on. What is the meaning of this ‘must’? How can we say that God ‘must’ be this or that? I think we are simply saying that if God-language is appropriate, then certain conditions must be satisfied. These conditions correspond to the requirements of the religious consciousness and of the intellect. Is the idea of God, then, a priori? In a sense, I think it is. There is a quest for God in the human being, and we have seen at an earlier stage how this issues in both a sense of affinity with the environing reality and a sense of a unity which makes that reality more than just a collection of contingent items. On the other hand, it is no doubt the broadening and deepening of experience which supply an ever richer content to the concept of God, while at the same time making us aware of that vast hidden area of Godhood that has not yet been opened to thought and experience.
Does God exist? The fact that the religious consciousness and the intellect together frame a conception of God is in itself no guarantee of his reality. He might be, in the Kantian phrase, no more than a focus imaginarius or a regulative idea. The ontological proof for the existence of God is open to too many objections for anyone to invoke it by itself. On the other hand, the fact that human beings do seem to have an a priori idea of God and a predisposition to believe in him has at least some significance.
It has been said that the correct procedure for natural theology would be first of all to form a coherent concept of God and then produce evidence that there is a reality corresponding to it. This is much too naive a suggestion. It might be the right way of settling the question about the existence of some object within the world, but does not touch the complexities of the question of God. If someone asks whether unicorns exist, the procedure would work quite well. One would first of all consult zoologists, and ask whether a unicorn is a conceivable form of life. It might well turn out that there is nothing biologically impossible about a unicorn. Then one would institute a search for an actual specimen. But the case of God is clearly very different. Even to speak of the ‘existence’ of God can be very misleading, for if he can be said to ‘exist’ at all, the mode of existence is quite different from that of any finite being. To say that unicorns exist means that they can be found within the world. God, by definition, is not an item within the world, so he does not exist in that sense. Incidentally, the world itself does not exist in that sense—the world is not an item discoverable within the world. It is an a priori idea implicit in our recognition of any object. In fact, the logic of the concepts ‘God’ and ‘world’ is very similar. Both are inclusive concepts for quite unique realities. The question of the relation between God and the world and the question whether the word ‘God’ means anything more than the word ‘world’ (the question of pantheism) will have to be discussed later.
We cannot discuss the question of the reality of God by asking whether there exists an entity corresponding to the concept. The method must rather be as follows. The concept of God is an interpretative concept, meant to give us a way of understanding and relating to reality as a whole. There are other possibilities, of which the most obvious is atheism, but although theism and atheism are the extreme opposing interpretations, there are other possibilities between them. We can compare these different interpretations, and although we are not likely to get beyond probability, we ought to be able to judge which interpretation is most coherent and best accords with experience.