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God and Personality

1917 to 1919
University of Aberdeen

In God and Personality, Webb examines the notion of personality as distinct from individuality and attempts to show its proper place in an adequate conception of God. For historical as well as philosophical reasons, Webb argues that the appropriate order in which to study the attribute of personality is to first study it as it relates to God, and then as it relates to man. This volume is concerned with the first stage of that project.

The second and third lectures are concerned with the historical genesis of the concept of ‘personality’, first in general and then as applied to God. Webb begins by exploring the concept’s roots in the Latin persona and substantia, examining Boethius’s claim thatPersona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia: a person is the individual subsistence of a rational nature. He then considers the later Schoolmen’s preoccupation with the idea that personality is incommunicable, progressing to Descartes’ understanding of self-consciousness and Kant’s notion of will as essential to personality. This discussion leads to a historical and philosophical account of how the notion of personality has been applied to God. He distinguishes the expression ‘personality in God’ from that of ‘personality of God’. The former is a notion found in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, whereas the latter involves the idea of the divine nature being something to which worshippers can have reciprocal personal relations.

Moving on from the historical starting points, Webb goes on to attempt to clarify his operative conception of personality, taking Boethius’s definition as the starting point. Lecture IV distinguishes personality from individuality, examining their relation to notions such as consciousness, universality, embodiment and morality. An individual who transcends moral distinctions, Webb argues, is not one we ought to think of as personal. Lecture V continues in the same fashion, concerning itself with personality and rationality. Webb points out that this aspect of the Boethian definition is often thought of as opposed to the idea of the personal. The personal, it is supposed, is essentially irrational, in the sense that what is personal in human conduct is not what is explicable in terms of universal rationality. The supremely rational is that in which all personal differences disappear. So a difficulty appears in that it might seem that the infinitely rational God loses an essential feature of personality, whereas a personal God becomes finite.

Lecture VI takes issue with those who would ascribe to a doctrine of a finite God, either because ‘God’ is not identified with the ‘Absolute’ because God is personal and the Absolute is not, or, such as in the case of Bradley, because a claim that God is personal is a religious truth claim that metaphysics cannot support. Webb discusses religious experience in relation to the antithesis of immanence and transcendence, and observes that stressing one or the other generates unnecessary difficulties in conceiving of God as personal. A correct understanding of these notions allows that God, in his immanence and transcendence, can enter into reciprocal personal relations with finite spirits, and this is the sense in which we ought to understand God as personal.

Lectures VII and VII consider the problems of creation and sin, respectively. Creation is not here examined in terms of God’s creation of the physical universe, but rather as the specific creation of finite spirits. Webb examines the notion of creation as emphasising difference, and compares it with the notions of procreation and emanation, which are more suggestive of identity. Webb wishes to avoid the position of the Scholastics, who, it is suggested, deny the divinity of the human spirit, while at the same time he rejects the tendency found in Idealism to identify our spiritual nature with the divine. He instead tries to understand the above notions as metaphor, introducing the conception of a Mediator, as in the Son of God who is distinguished from created spirits and is represented as the archetype and ideal completion of the essential nature of finite spirits, which are of course themselves imperfect. He raises and deals with possible objections to his view, most significantly accepting that it has a mythological character, but denying that this is problematic. The problem of sin then arises, since finite spirits are not merely imperfect but sinful. He examines the relation between personality and evil, rejecting claims to the effect that in denying a personal cause of the world one can deny that there is evil in the world. Nor is it satisfactory, Webb maintains, to admit that God is personal yet deny that he is identical with the Absolute and thus finite. Though such a strategy may in some way diminish the problem of evil, it does so with the costs noted in Lecture VI. He then continues his account of a religious experience that implies a personal relation of ourselves to God, and the poignancy of sin in this respect. While remaining mysterious, in this kind of experience a solution to the antimony between a realised perfection and an eternal activity is nevertheless hinted at.

In his concluding lectures, Webb ties previous threads together with a discussion of the distinction between philosophy and religion and the role of religious experience. Philosophy, like religion, is concerned with, as he puts it, the Supreme Reality. There is, he supposes, a religious consciousness in which a personal relation to God is experienced. Yet the religious consciousness cannot adequately conceive of God as less than the Supreme Reality. Philosophy can bear witness to the Absolute and expound on the supreme principle of unity, yet only the religious consciousness can contribute the notion of personality through experience of personal intercourse. In the final lecture, he discusses upon religious experience and how it should be related to theology. He concludes by returning to an earlier question and suggests that abstract reason should not be the model for divine personality, but rather our understanding can be illuminated using the model of reason as manifested by the artist, as art cannot be understood through reason alone.

  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen