We have in the last three lectures viewed the human cave as dominated by a teleology of reason as conducing in all its arrangements whether toward or untoward gross or subtle to the release and development of a rational mind that can disengage itself from the immediacies and contingencies of personal and environmental existence and can achieve stances and points of view and modes of activity that are essentially those of everyone everywhere and at all times. Among the most important creations of this rational mind—if ‘creations’ they may be called when they exist only in and for the intentions that constitute them—are the varied family of abstracta of entities of reason—characters sets logical forms propositions facts intentional directednesses truth-values senses meanings etc.—which a quasi-scientific devotion to economy has delighted to decimate fortunately quite in vain since they so obviously have a clearer meaning for us than their murky substitutes and are in fact the very prototypes of the unambiguous and the clear. Through these entities of reason and through the logical principles that connect them and the logical values that inspire these principles—principles not merely permitting us to educe the same truth-coverage from the same but to adventure dangerously but reasonably beyond our starting-points—the whole realm of concrete particularities is taken up into the heaven of discourse and science and is made over into that pure ‘gist’ that can be ruminated over and communicated.
Lecture IV | Religion and Its Objects
This creation or constitution leads up however to a still more eminent creation or constitution that of the values and disvalues which are nothing but the new mandatory objects of interest which arise when we seek to rise above the non-mandatory contingencies of first-order interest and which are tailored to meet the aspirations of those who by a strange but deeply rational transformation no longer wish to act as anyone in particular or for anyone in particular. This creation is so imprecise in its contours and so dappled over with varied iridescence that it readily becomes suspect to the too simple intelligence. It is however despite its mistiness and its flashing variety the most invariant of the cosmic fixtures without which in fact we should have no stable coordinates in any field whatsoever. Now however we plan to rise to a yet higher reach of the cave's upper regions to a point in fact which represents its zenith or crown or apex: if values are the stars of our speluncar underworld what we are now to ascend to is its sun. This unlike the Platonic sun still firmly falls within the cave.
The apical phenomenon we are now to consider is none other than the id quo maius cogitari nequit of Anselm or the ens realissimum of Kant to which noble creatures of rational theology we turn with some relief after the malformed spawnings of much modern obscurantism or ill-directed mysticism. It is also to go beyond our tradition the One without a Second the Bright Golden Person beyond the Darkness of the Upanishats or the self-sufficing omnipresent infinite all-begetting emptiness to which Lao-tzu could only give the name of Tao. It is an intentional object unique among cave-objects in that it brings into one focus all recognized values and leaves no room for an alternative synthesis beside it: it is also unique among cave-objects since it cannot be thought of in full seriousness except as existing and as existing with necessity. It is an absolute since it is given as being and given as being what it is entirely a se in and through itself and not in virtue of anything that is not itself and it is a religious absolute since it is the one thing wholly fitted to satisfy the attitude of worship of complete unconditional self-dedication in which religion consists. Religious awe is not as it is often deemed to be a contingent human development an attitude that we encounter among other attitudes in ourselves and others and that might very well have been absent from ourselves and from the world. It is not as it has often been held to be the mere product of man's original need helplessness and ignorance which will ‘wither away’ in a well-appointed Marxist society or in a civilization built on science. None of the fundamental emotional attitudes of men and animals—those picked out by such salient names as ‘fear’ ‘anger’ ‘hatred’ ‘disgust’ ‘admiration’ emulation’ etc.—are mere facts of nature. All have not only a definite ‘constitution’ in which their various traits hang together in a necessary or near-necessary manner but there is also something inevitable about their emergence in a living and conscious being. They are all attitudes involving a definite ‘policy’ a definite way of conducting oneself which is part and parcel of the ‘being-in-the-world’ of a living and conscious creature one of the ways in which it expresses what it is—thus fear in principle avoids anger in principle smashes etc. etc.—as well as having a characteristic or normal object in response to whose judged or imagined presence the attitude in question arises. Thus fear avoids what gravely menaces or threatens the main activities and being of the creature anger what obstructs it but is given as less grave etc. So far are these attitudes from being mere contingent existences that they all have inbuilt norms as part of their constitution norms which in part regulate their development but which to the extent that they do not so regulate it offer an internal point of view from which the attitudes in question can be critically judged. Thus it is plain that fear when of something weak inoffensive perhaps beneficent and known to be such is an unjustifiable abnormal or deviant attitude one which certainly may exist but which also has some tendency to eliminate itself as insight is strengthened. The continuance of fear in the face of known harmlessness requires explanation but not so its speedy reduction or elimination. This necessary and normative structure of our emotions this internal logic if one may so call it can of course be given a linguistic illumination in terms of the way in which the words ‘fear’ ‘anger’ ‘rivalry’ function in our speech an explanation which appeals to the ultimate mere facts of human affectivity and of human usage. The connections we postulate obtain since they are part of the use of our words and they are part of the use of our words since they are part of what happens in fact. This linguistic illumination is correct but quite topsy-turvey since it is plain connections of essence imperfectly illustrated in experience that justify linguistic rulings and not vice versa. It is when we see and understand fear in all the misleading pantomine in which it sometimes shows itself—in e.g. Cleopatra's sublime moments of poetry and courage at the end of Shakespeare's tragedy—that we recognize its policy its object and its intrinsic norms which all go quite beyond what stands palpably before us. We may however be glad that the logic of the emotions like so much other essential but not formal logic should have entered modern philosophy through the back door of language rather than have been passed over altogether. We may likewise be glad that at an earlier period it entered empirical science through the portal of a doctrine of ‘instincts’ before extreme empiricism smelling out its a priori character found sufficient grounds for banishing it altogether. A good demonstration of the thoroughgoing apriorism of the emotions is to be found in the third book of Spinoza's Ethics. The possibility that such a book should have been written and should illuminate our emotional life so profoundly is sufficient proof that emotions are structures whose internal and external relations are at all points governed by real (and not merely definitory) necessities.
The attitudes characteristic of religion involve then a characteristic policy of deference of humble self-surrender before what appears very much greater stronger and more admirable than ourselves. It is no doubt the case that they were first evoked by untamed natural displays by eerie and unaccountable manifestations by acts of great kindness from remarkable individuals by human need in the face of certain calamities etc. etc. But the attitudes in question are part of the necessary range of performance of our creaturely being-in-the-world and are from their birth stamped by inbuilt norms which to some extent govern their development. One can worship wood and stone but only because one endows them with marvellous unmanifest properties of various sorts: to recognize them as mere wood and stone is to tend towards the end of one's worship. One can likewise reverence an utter rogue as a saint but to recognize him as an utter rogue who has done things one abhors and despises in others is to tend to be shaken in such reverence. Slowly and ineluctably in deference to their inbuilt norms of appropriateness our attitudes of worship tend to converge on an intentional object in which all the demands of reflective valuation are satisfied together. The adequate object of religious deference must not merely be valuable in this or that limited fashion: it must incarnate all the values that we recognize and particularly all those that we recognize as mandatory upon everyone and not merely on ourselves and it must incarnate all these values in an incomparable unsurpassable manner: there must not merely be nothing better than it it must be impossible that anything should surpass it. It must also be entirely unique and single not set side by side with another case of the same recognized excellences and all inferior cases of what is good must derive their goodness from it and be incapable of making one independent step towards such goodness. And it must in the last place be a true absolute one that is an ineliminable necessary foundation for whatever is thought to be: its being must be demanded by its essence however strange and paradoxical such a demand may be and it cannot be conceived with complete understanding if not also believed to be certainly and necessarily real. It is not we may note plain that the adequate object of worship must be a God after the Hebrew-Christian tradition: it is in fact arguable that a God who to some extent stands aloof from his imperfect world is less satisfactory and less adequate as an object of worship than one which conforms to the ‘acosmism’ of Spinoza and certain other philosophers and who gives to the world and its contents no shadow of independence and otherness from itself. It is not plain either that we should confine the adequate object of religion to the category of thinghood or substance: it is arguable that it should be placed among characters relations or essences or transcendentals that it should be regarded as a state a way a core of personal being or a goal of the world or something that combines and transcends all these even as a deific absence of anything in any way definite. We are not at present deciding in favour of one type of religious absolute as against another though there are and must be reasons for considering some of these absolutes more satisfactory than others and though no more than one of them can be ultimately satisfactory. We are not even holding that all of them may not be infected with absurdity: objects of worship may be phenomena genuinely given to us in certain sorts of mental intention or attitude which none the less together with the attitudes that set them before us cannot survive the most profound searching and scrutiny. There remains however for all of us in certain moods properly called ‘ecstatic’ or ‘exalted’ an approach to something that can only be called the apical phenomenon in our world nebulous perhaps and changing with our cognitive and value-experience but not nebulous in the extremity of its pretensions: it is as much central to the cosmic picture to the world in which we all find ourselves as the navel is central to the human body. A phenomenology of the first blush must sketch the profile of such a religious object or of varied types of such religious object with their varying adequacies and inadequacies. A phenomenology of the second blush must make use of the criteria of adequacy inherent in such appearances and in other appearances as well to see whether such a religious orientation is an expression of Vernunft of right reason or whether it must dissolve and be discarded as we deepen our immersion in the essences of things. But in either case we are not shaping our notions in the arbitrary manner characteristic of much science mathematical logic and analytic philosophy. For us the initiative lies with the object: we are trying to let the matters before us shape and reshape themselves in a manner suitable and inevitable to them
We may begin then by considering the character of aseity of necessary and ineliminable being which is part of the constitution of many objects of religion—they are eternal primordial undecaying deathless etc.—and which tends to become more emphatic as religion develops even reaching assertions of a nobly empty ontological type (‘I am that I am’ etc.). The negative characterization of the religious object in terms of emptiness and non-being as in Taoism and certain forms of Buddhism is not as different from its characterization in terms of being as it would seem to be non-being or emptiness being thought of as rich in dissolved alternatives and as even harder to eradicate than what is called ‘being’. Aseity or absolute being is a notion found difficult by philosophers combining as it does the two utterly elementary notions of being and necessity and rendered obscure by this utter elementariness. Philosophers find it hard to see what can be conveyed by saying that anything is or has being since if it hadn't being it wouldn't really be anything—they forget that it could still perfectly well be thought of and even shown or seen—and harder still to see what can be conveyed by saying that something necessarily is since this means that there is no conceivable state of things with which its being there can be contrasted and these difficulties lead to attempts to construe these notions in ways which depart far from our ordinary use and understanding of them and which create as many difficulties as they resolve. But being presents no particular problem to ordinary thought having as its contrast the perfectly understood bracketed status of merely intentional objects whether thought of or seen as well as the utterly specific even perfectly individual shadows which their believed or conceived absence is felt to cast or to be ready to cast on our believed or conceived world. That this which I see before me might not have been nay more that it is not even when or while I see it—I beg forgiveness for such archaic English—are suppositions unintelligible to no one but a philosopher. Necessity of being and necessity of being the case have their contrast similarly with what freely permits of a more or less serious bracketing; what necessarily is makes itself evident in the fact that we cannot in full seriousness and absorption in our subject-matter bracket it or imagine it absent from the world. As Kant showed in the Transcendental Aesthetic space and time in their all-inclusiveness boundlessness and seamless wholeness are for ordinary conceivers perfect cases of such aseity: we may not be able to form images of them but the sense of their absoluteness enters into the unfettered use of our imaginative schematism or as we ourselves should put it we feel it in our bones that they are there and could not but be there. Matter or stuff is a less plausible candidate for aseity but it is given at least as having the relative aseity that once there it seems to require nothing additional to preserve it in being: it is part of its idea only shaken by serious criticism to go on in its being and in its occupancy of space. The aseity of ‘consciousness’ or of the conscious subject is a notion which though open to rapid sapping certainly recommends itself to ordinary thought particularly in those intimations of immortality which it requires much argument to reason down: we receive with blank incredulity the information of our elders that there were times when we were not and it is likewise not at all easy to believe that there will be times when we shall not be there. The immortality of the soul may or may not ultimately recommend itself to right reason but the first-blush phenomena have as little place for our own origin or demise as they have for a beginning of space or time. Ordinary thought also quite readily performs a Platonic inversion and discovers aseity absolute being in abstract directions: philosophers may have difficulty with the notion of self-subsistent truths or self-subsistent moral rules but they often occur in the gnomic reflections of a Greek tragedy.
When religion enters the scene aseity soon becomes explicit. Though some religious objects and figures may be infected with remarkable contingencies with the matings and killings e.g. of a polytheistic mythology there is a plain tendency hastened on by prophets and philosophers for these to become mere surface embroideries upon what is eternal unique selfsame and necessarily there. There is little doubt that even the God of Judaism and Christianity who is credited with so large an overlay of arbitrariness the choice e.g. of the Jews the speaking by the prophets the non-despising of a certain virgin's womb etc. etc. is never thought to have a limited local or temporary sovereignty and never by implication one that might have accrued to another being or to no being at all. Barth and others have rightly seen in the God of Anselm's Ontological Argument the God of Christianity and Judaism the God whose misleadingly styled ‘jealousy’ is no more than his unique ontological necessity. And if we turn from religion to philosopy there certainly seems to be a game played with the notion of necessary being. This is of course true of the extracosmic God of Anselm and Aquinas of the acosmic God of Spinoza of the Absolutes of Fichte Hegel Bosanquet Bradley and so on: none of these existences could for their believers have been replaced by non-existence. But what is remarkable is that this is also true of philosophers who have tried to make contingency part of the notion of existence and fact. Thus the systems of Russell and the early Wittgenstein are in aspiration at least systems in which nothing exists necessarily. Russell e.g. explicitly says that it is a defect of a logical system if it has to affirm the existence of something in one or other of its axioms or theorems. Yet in Principia Mathematica (∗22.351) we learn that the world contains at least one individual of unspecified character a necessary consequence of Russell's refusal to distinguish between the necessity that something (if there is something) should be either φ or not—φ and the necessity that there should be something that is either φ or not—φ. Wittgenstein likewise builds his world out of Sachverhalte or atomic facts regarding which he affirms that each of them can be or not be the case while everything else remains the same. This seems to imply that there might happen to be no atomic facts at all but this does not seem to be a possibility that Wittgenstein ever seriously entertained. The fact that two philosophers so opposed to anything Anselmian as Russell and Wittgenstein should none the less have followed a line so thoroughly ontological suggests that some sort of a necessity of existence is in fact unavoidable.
It would appear then that religious and other persons handle the notion of aseity of necessary existence without any particular embarrassment: it is notorious however that many philosophers have found it gravely absurd. And the absurdity has sometimes turned on the Kantian point that all significant necessity is necessity ex hypothesi necessity either that something would be the case if something else were the case or necessity that something is the case because something else is the case. The necessary existence of a religious absolute is however a necessity not subject to any supposed or actual condition and this is a necessity of which no sense can be made. To this general difficulty a more specific difficulty relating to ‘existence’ is added: this is the famous contention that existence is not to be regarded as a predicate or an attribute or a perfection of anything that it cannot enter into or enrich anything's character or essence or notion but that it involves rather a relation of characters or essences or concepts to what lies essentially outside of them the realm of concrete individuality that we encounter only through sense-perception or some other form of Anschauung. This relation is by its nature one of which it is absurd to predicate necessity except in an ex hypothesi sense with a non-necessary protasis. To form the notion of something that exists of necessity is therefore to form the notion of something which has an attribute which is no attribute and this is either pure nonsense or self-contradictory. Kant's conclusion ought now to be that since the notion of a God who exists of necessity involves one or other of these illegitimacies it is itself a wholly illegitimate notion one that we can know has no instance whether in the world of phenomena or the world of noumena. Whereas what Kant in fact holds is that the idea of God necessary existence included is a flawless transcendental ideal in whose noumenal reality we can have good practical grounds to believe.
Modern treatments of necessity and existence in the Russellian-Wittgensteinian vein have left matters much as they were in Kant's time except that now necessity is thought to rest on the rules of our language rather than the relations of our concepts. Existence once again has sense only when general descriptions have an extra-linguistic application: to say things exist is a roundabout way of saying that their descriptions apply. And the further rider is added that if we could give sense to the necessary existence of anything we should at once make anything we said of that thing empty and unmeaning. For the nature of necessary truths is that they hold whatever the non-necessary circumstances may be and this means that there could be no saving or redemptive or consoling implications in the necessary existence of a religious absolute. On all counts then the implications of modern linguistic philosophy as of Kantianism are that religious absolutes are not things that possibly may not exist: they are things or putative things which certainly do not exist since reference to them involves either a violation of the forms or the rules of logic. We should not be agnostics or sceptics regarding God Tao Brahman etc.: we should be flat rejecters of them. These implications were worked out by myself in an article published in 1948 which I intended to call ‘Disproof of the Existence of God’ but which out of deference to possible susceptibilities I renamed ‘Can God's Existence be Disproved?’ My article shows that if necessity and existence are interpreted as much modern philosophy interprets them the existence of a religious absolute is logically impossible: if a religious absolute is a necessary existent and there can be no such thing as a necessity of existence then there can be no religious absolutes. I still think this article is perfectly correct as far as it goes and it shows Anselm as paradoxically refuting the existence of his creator in the very attempt to demonstrate that existence.
I shall now suggest that it is no true role of philosophy and above all of a philosophy that claims to be ‘phenomenological’ to revise its account of phenomena of the experienced world and of our major enterprises in it in a manner so radical that those major enterprises lose their sense. We may follow the methodological principle (which has its roots in Moore) that philosophical arguments and principles and methods that end by undermining too much of what we feel with our bones regarding the world and our tasks in it end by undermining themselves. It is they rather than our bones that suffer. Revision there must be—the phenomena may in fact be said to revise themselves under scrutiny—but if e.g. in some revisionary perspective science comes to seem mere unprincipled guesswork and values and moral precepts matters for quite arbitrary choice then it is such revisionary perspectives rather than the views that they subvert that really require reconsideration. This holds though perhaps more shakily of the ordinary the philosophical and the religious notion of necessary existence. The notion that there are some facts of existence that cannot be thought away reveals no intrinsic absurdity: the alternative to it is the supposition that there might very well have been nothing which does not seem to be a deeply illuminating supposition. Certain eastern sages have simply opined that before there was anything there was nothing and that all there is came out of this nothing: whatever can be said of this opinion it cannot be said to fill the mind with a flood of light. In dealing with each object in the world we certainly proceed as if matters that are accidental in regard to them arise in a framework of what they essentially and necessarily are and all science is directed to discovering what that core of necessity or essence really is. (We do not in ordinary thought know how to operate with the Wittgensteinian notion of things that have no intrinsic character other than the power to be combined with other intrinsically characterless things.) This necessity of essential character depends however on there being things of the essential character in question which in most cases there very well might not be. Nothing however precludes the possibility that contingencies of existence which may or may not be actual point back to an existential framework which cannot be varied such as in fact space time matter consciousness the Ego God absolute truth etc. are by many thinkers supposed to be. It is arguable that our inability to talk about the total absence of anything is merely a speaker-centric predicament since there are always at least ourselves our speech and the presuppositions of our speaking but it is equally possible to regard this as an unwarrantable dogma. Nothing prohibits us from recasting the logic of existence and modality so that a necessity of existence has a place in its definitions axioms or theorems and while we cannot in such a logic hope to derive existential theorems from premisses which do not affirm at least the possibility of necessary existents one may very well make it include principles which affirm just such a possibility in certain privileged cases.
Naturally the acceptance of such principles in a formal system will considerably alter the meaning of both ‘existence’ and ‘necessity’ in such a system. ‘Existence’ will no longer be the sort of Russellian notion that concerns only the application of general descriptions to unspecified cases: it will be capable of use in the case even of named and shown individuals. We shall be able to acknowledge or not to acknowledge the existence of this object standing before us in perception and to regard the existence of things of the sort in question as depending on the existence of shown individuals and not vice versa. We shall be able to say as ordinary speakers are able to say. ‘This might not have existed’ and even utter the more daring statement ‘This tiling before me does not exist’. The verb to exist will not however be confined in its use to cases where we thus encounter extraneous phenomena and fit some notion to them. It may sometimes be used in cases where we have tried not to fit some notion e.g. occupancy of space presence to consciousness to at least one thing that we can imagine and have found ourselves unable to do so. The objects of religion may evince their being not so much by astonishing empirical incursions as by their sheer inescapability: if we take the wings of the morning we shall not successfully evade them. They may in fact involve concepts in whose case the more fully we approach the understanding of what they involve the more certain we become that they must apply in whose case content and application are in the limiting view inseparable. This does not mean that from the mere idea of something we can progress to knowing that it applies but that except superficially and unreflectively it is not possible to have a mere idea of certain things. These ideas will of course forbid us to hold any merely empty verbal doctrine of necessity nor is there any reason other than sheer epistemological dogma why we should accept such a doctrine. Necessity is necessity it involves a marriage of conceptual content and coverage with conceptual content and coverage and there is no reason why it should not at times qualify a marriage of conceptual content with inevitable application. Such necessities need not be elucidated in terms of anything simpler even if in some cases this may be appropriate. And we discover such necessities by an ever deepened reflective boring beneath the surface of symbolism of abstract manipulation of licentious imagination. Such necessity once laid bare can of course be made a merely analytic matter and ought for mechanical purposes to be made so: it is more convenient to make axioms and premisses and rules do the work that must otherwise be done by direct difficult intuition. But the prime cases of necessity can be held to be the synthetic not the analytic cases and the latter to be merely a limiting trivialization of the former.
I now turn to consider a remarkable circumstance that goes far towards justifying Anselm in his two proofs of the divine existence the first where he argues merely to God's existence from his superlative perfection and the second where he argues to God's necessary existence from the same superlative perfection. These proofs can be so read as to be plainly illegitimate: from the mere fact that existence or necessary existence enters into the intentional constitution of some object we have before us it does not follow that anything can be said of such an object outside of such intentional brackets. We can say only what it is thought of as being and not what it is nor that it is. We can only say that if it exists it exists and exists of necessity and not contingently. If we rule that nothing exists necessarily or can exist necessarily then it follows that our protasis is invalidated: a perfect being does not exist and it is impossible that it should exist. This is the purport of my before-mentioned article. What I did not perceive when I wrote this article is that one can work its argument in reverse. If instead of holding a necessity of existence to be impossible one holds it to be conceivable possible then one is at once able to conclude that it is actual and necessary. It is clear in fact that a being having aseity cannot exist contingently or be contingently non-existent: this certainty violates its very idea. It can only exist necessarily if it exists at all and if it does not exist necessarily then its existence is quite impossible. This means by a simple case of the modus tollendo tollens that if we hold its existence to be possible it will also exist necessarily. An absolute being one that has aseity is therefore in the unique position that its necessary existence and so also its mere existence follows from its mere possibility. The only way it can avoid existence is in fact by being at some point internally inconsistent or otherwise impossible. If Anselm's notion of id quo mains cogitari nequit is really a ‘flawless ideal of thought’ as Kant said it was then the existence of id quo mains cogitari nequit does follow from its mere possiblity its consistent idea exactly as Anselm conceived it. Only if the idea involves some hidden inconsistency or absurdity as Gaunilo's notion of a most perfect island plainly does involve one can it evade the toils of existence. One of these hidden inconsistencies will however be the having of viable alternatives for what exists of necessity has no viable alternatives.
The argument just put has been symbolically set forth in ten elaborate steps by Professor Charles Hartshorne in his Logic of Perfection and will carry conviction to many who find me unconvincingly terse. But Professor Hartshorne like myself must appeal to an ‘intuitive postulate’ to the effect that perfection which entails necessary existence is not impossible and this is the Achilles heel of the whole reasoning: those who think necessary existence inconceivable can still circumvent Anselm and Professor Hartshorne and they might very well argue that the fact that the acceptance of the possibility in question leads preposterously to the acceptance of its truth and its necessity shows that it ought to to be rejected. The argument has at least shown that if one's ideas of the possible are not unclear and muddled (as they always to some extent must be) one cannot merely be dubious about a necessary being: one must either reject or accept it outright. And in the context of the present argument our attitude is one of tentative acceptance. Necessary existence seems to be part of any fully developed ideal of cognitive explanation as it is part of any fully developed synthesis of values such as our religious and mystical experiences point to: there is prima facie the possibility that the notion can be developed in a viable and not absurd fashion and the obligation to try to do so. And if we can construct a viable notion of a necessary being—and there can be only one such viable notion if there is one at all—and if our understanding of this notion is not merely muddled then it follows at once that there is and must be such a being.
It will not be possible in the present lecture to work out a full theory of an absolute being much less that of a religious absolute which incorporates and synthesizes all values in whom in fact necessity of being is only one among many perfections. It will only be possible to explore a number of alternatives—alternatives that is at the present stage of our insight—and see which accords best with the position that we now have reached. A more adequate theology will perhaps shape itself towards the close of these lectures when we have boldly exceeded the limits of our present world and life. What we may however lay down is that a religious absolute one that embodies all values can obviously not embody these values accidentally: it cannot merely happen to embody the wise the just the beautiful the compassionate and to be in other ways maximally excellent. So much is clear not only because what accidentally possessed these perfections could conceivably not have possessed them and could then have been surpassed by some other thing that did possess them and so prove an inadequate religious object but also because secondly the precise and specific ways of being excellent do not seem to admit of a complete joint realization but lie to an indefinite extent in different and incompatible directions and also because thirdly even when such incompatibility does not confront us it remains meaningless to conceive of a highest realization of such excellences. The realm of values sketched in the last chapter is antinomic and without a clear maximum: the value e.g. of innocence and simplicity quarrels with the value of being widely experienced and knowing the value of accommodating kindness with the value of stern self-consistency and fairness etc. and even when there are not such practical conflicts it makes no sense to conceive of any precise arrangement or disposition than which no better can be conceived. Id quo mains cogitari nequit fails of necessary existence not because necessary existence is an absurd conception but because the notion of an exhaustive synthesis of all excellence involves contradiction and is also a plain case of an illegitimate totality. These antinomic and maximization difficulties do not of course diminish if the object of religion is thought to possess all its perfections essentially and necessarily if it not only essentially exists but is also essentially omni-excellent. The only difference is that then paradox and antinomy enter the inmost essence of the object of religion and impart a resounding hollowness to all its crowning claims.
The only way out of these quandaries seems to lie in the difficult direction of trying to transcend certain normal distinctions of categories: we cannot in the case of an absolute an entity that has aseity and embodies all values draw any clear distinction between species and specimen or between the sort of thing it is its essence characters structure essential mode of operation etc. and that it is. Following a mediaeval lead we cannot distinguish deity from God as we can distinguish humanity from men: we have not in such a case anything like a mere form or nature which requires some other individuating principle to turn it into a full-fledged existent. The same would be true of non-religious absolutes: the character or essence that renders them absolute is one with the absolute entity that shows it forth. Thus for all those who like Kant and ordinary people regard space as something absolute it is not really possible to draw a clear distinction between spatiality and space: spatiality is if one likes the individuality of space regionally morphically qualitatively and otherwise specified while space is no more than the differentiations and possibilities that it admits. Hence the perennial disputes between those who espouse a substantival and those who espouse an adjectival view of space. Hence also the necessary uniqueness of space: it is a complete systematic character which is at one with what by analogy one is tempted to call its only possible instance.
These things which hold regarding space and spatiality hold a fortiori when we turn to religious absolutes. In their case it is quite destructive to conceive of a generic form of perfection which they humbly exemplify. Not only must we say with the schoolmen that a religious absolute is its being its goodness its power its insight and its other excellences: we must also say that it in some way eminently is the being goodness power insight etc. of anything whatsoever. This is of course what all religious people feel when they say deeply driven such strange things as that God is Love God is Truth God is not good but Goodness itself or the Good itself etc. The Platonism which makes an ideal form a more real and precious thing than its instances is a one-sided form of this tendency. For obviously we should not have an adequate religious object if it were merely an unsurpassed instance of certain valuable properties of which there were other inferior instances. There must be no manifestation of value anywhere which owes an alien allegiance; all must be its own must in fact be itself. This is why religious people naturally regard all valuable attributes as gifts and graces from the Father of Lights as in fact simply being the Father of Lights in action. It is the limiting coincidence of character with individual being which alone guarantees the absolute's uniqueness: if it is not a case of certain excellences so much as those excellences themselves it will not permit of the numerical diversity proper to mere cases. And it is this limiting coincidence which alone likewise guarantees unsurpassability to which it gives a new ‘eminent’ meaning. Each case of some value or form of excellence may be capable of being surpassed by some other case but something which is not a case of this value or form of excellence but this very value or form of excellence itself can very well be said to ‘surpass’ all its cases inasmuch as it is the general possibility and foundation of them all. (All this as we have said was well understood by Plato and much misunderstood by his critics.) It surpasses them much as ℵ0 the number of the finite inductive cardinals surpasses all those finite inductive cardinals among which it is not to be found but of which it is none the less the number. And it is this limiting coincidence which alone will guarantee the compatibility of the excellences which in their instances are plainly incompatible. To be a case of one sort of excellence is often necessarily not to be a case of another sort of excellence but to be the principle of the one sort of excellence is not necessarily not to be the principle of the other. If we make our absolute a ‘mind’ it will in fact be precisely tailor-made to reconcile and to incorporate in unity and joint pursuit all the forms of excellence that it is logically impossible should ever be completely and jointly realized in their instances a mind being as Aristotle says a place of forms in which without matter we none the less have something not fitly called abstract but concrete.
Many will of course be revolted by the talk I have just permitted myself which does not accord that absolute priority accorded to instances that has become mandatory in modern philosophy; it will be objected that to make God Love etc. is like making an absolute of the number system. This objection is however invalid since an absolute is in intention at least not the sort of thing that admits of abstract treatment nor which can be divorced from full reality whereas a number system may very well lack instances of its higher members and so have the imperfection which has plagued modern mathematical theory. An absolute is in intention at least a real transcendental overleaping the distinction of case and attribute of sort and instance whereas an abstract number-system merely side-steps or ignores it. The whole notion of such an overleaping of categories of course raises immense difficulties and it is not clear as will be argued in the next lecture that such an overleaping will not take us beyond the limits of the human cave. In the present context however we shall not dwell on these difficulties; we shall still consider that we have not reached nonsense in the notion of a being that exists of necessity and that synthetizes all values not so much by having as by being them all.
If our theology has so far been fairly orthodox it now takes a wild leap into unorthodoxy: we feel forced to hold of a religious absolute as of any other absolute that it cannot solely have or be a set of essential features or perfections but that it must also have many contingent features. It must have to modify certain notions of Spinoza's a natured as well as a naturing nature or to follow Whitehead a consequent as well as a primordial nature. What this means is that an absolute must always be the possibility of countless things as well as the actuality of some of them its absoluteness of course consisting in the fact that it is the ineliminable framework of whatever is actual while whatever is actual is simply the fulfilment of one or other of its essential possibilities. Potentiality is in fact as inseparable from the notion of a viable absolute as actuality and the doctrine of the absolute as pure act if seriously entertained by those who profess it is also a case of pure absurdity. Space for instance whatever its ultimate tenability as a self-existent being certainly has contingent as well as necessary features: we may go so far as to say that its necessary features consist in the contingencies that it permits. (Cf. Wittgenstein's view in the Tractatus that the ‘form’ of an object consists in all its possibilities of combination with other objects.) Thus space permits innumerable types of occupancy and motion which will diversify it in countless fashions: each such diversification is contingent and might not have been realized but it is the essence of space that it permits such diversifications and that it permits them all. Even wholly empty space has a contingent nature since to be void of occupants is as much one of space's possibilities as any case of occupancy. The same holds mutatis mutandis of a religious absolute whose necessary being sums up all values: its being is always the possibility of countless cases of such values as well as the limiting possibility of there being no such cases at all. There is a logical dependence of a perfection even if regarded as something which a thing is rather than has on possible cases or exemplifications and this is so even if the latter likewise depend on it and are necessarily imperfect in their representation of it. This logical dependence also remains when there are no cases of the perfection in question; this perfection is always essentially something of which there might be imperfect instantiations.
The development of a theory of religious absolutes would be a long interesting affair at the end of which after considering and rejecting many alternatives one would arrive at a viable religious absolute which could without absurdity be conceived as existing necessarily and as being in some sense the principle of all values. Here we can only suggest in the light of the dialectical work previously done that such an absolute would have to be far more inclusive and explanatory of contingent imperfect creaturely being than the aloof views of the religious absolute we owe to Aristotle and the schoolmen. It is tempting to place the finite creaturely world more or less outside one's religious absolute as an inconsiderable unnecessary appendage to its sequestered perfections but in doing so one really (as Hegel points out) renders one's absolute finite and imperfect since one places many good things outside of it and things good in a struggling passionate earnest real manner that must be expressions of one's absolute if the latter is not to be desperately impoverished. One may even go so far as to say that there is an axiological as well as a logical dependence of a religious absolute on possible exemplifications in the sense that it would be a defect if it remained shut up in itself cloistered not communicating to anything the excellence it possessed or was. This is the principle stated in the Platonic doctrine of the unenviousness of God as well as in the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation and though it may not be official school dogma there is no doubt that it enters deeply into Christianity for which the creation of a world is no gratuitous exercise or trivial divine sport but a deeply serious perilous venture and glorious because it is serious and perilous. If Christian theology does not normally reach as far as saying that God ‘would give up the ghost’ had he no finite creatures to redeem and love it certainly comes close in its less guarded exponents to saying and feeling just this.
As opposed to all this we have not only the doctrines which make creation gratuitous but the parallel doctrines which make evil negative not in the sense of positively striving against and rejecting the absolute good but merely in the sense of falling short of it or exhibiting it defectively. This notion of evil as mere defect is infinitely impoverishing to a religious absolute and the parallel Vedantist doctrines of ignorance and illusion have the same impoverishing effect. Spinoza's doctrine of ‘mutilation’ in the finite modes has likewise the effect of trivializing the human struggle and thereby also the being and thought of the One Substance in which all mutilated views merely lose themselves. Here we may only say in keeping with the stage so far reached in our whole phenomenological and dialectical examination that a viable absolute one not internally discrepant and so not incapable of existence must be one which not only embraces all contributions of contingent creatureliness but to which the existence of such creaturely being together with its grave possibilities of evil and disorder is both essential and necessary. The precise form taken by such creatureliness is of course by definition contingent but that there should be some such creaturely contingency is not contingent but necessary if the religious absolute is to achieve the plenitude of value which its conception involves. And with the existence of creaturely being go indefinite possibilities of real evil for to every value there is a disvalue which not only falls short of it but actively tends against it and whose parasitic contrast is moreover essential to the value in question. It must be in the great work of releasing all this contingency and evil and also as far as possible transforming and redeeming it that a viable religious absolute not only reveals its perfection but also has or is it. Such at least is the doctrine of the Germanic theology hinted at by several mediaeval German mystics but which may be said to reach its highest peak in the Hegelian philosophy of religion. It is arguable that so far from being anti-Christian as it is from many Kierkegaardian perspectives it can perhaps claim to be the best philosophical restatement of ‘the meaning of the cross’. The themes we have touched upon will however concern us in our next lecture when we shall also find ourselves increasingly dissatisfied with any merely this-world view of a religious absolute.
From the book: