THE NATURE OF GOD
In an earlier essay in this collection, Atheism, we demonstrated that theism and atheism share a common history and a common intellectual orientation. We contrasted this with “idolatry” (ancient and modern) in all its manifestations, including “agnosticism”.
Theists and philosophical atheists agree that “God does not exist”, i.e. that God cannot be an existent among other existents, that God cannot be defined by contrasts with other existents or even by contrast with non-existence.
The reality of God concerns Being, not existence. Being is precisely what all existents share in common, the ground of their individual existences, and therefore Being itself cannot be an existent.
Here is where theists and philosophical atheists part company: theists affirm that God is Being, atheists do not. But what does this actually mean? And why does it matter?
Theists define God by the qualities that constitute his nature; those qualities, that nature, are God. Perhaps the most famous Christian theologian of all time, Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) writes, “God is the same as his essence or nature…in him essence does not differ from being.”
Now God’s nature (or essence), as understood by most theists, is not value neutral. Anything but! Aquinas writes, “To be good belongs pre-eminently to God…God alone is good essentially.” If God is “good essentially” and if God is Being and if Being is what all existents share in common, then the universe of existents cannot logically be value neutral either.
On the contrary, every existent must in some way be an expression of God’s nature since every existent exists by its participation in Being, which is God.
Further, the universe of existents itself must be an expression of God’s nature since every existent in that universe participates in Being, which is God.
Finally, the very fact that there is a universe of existents at all (creation) must itself be an expression of God’s nature since that nature (God) is Being and existents exist only because they share Being as their common ground.
Our inquiry from here on will be a two way street. First, we will delve into the nature of God to understand better the essential qualities that theists attribute to his essence, i.e. to Being itself. Later, we will examine the universe of existents looking for evidence that that divine nature is in fact reflected in some way on the existential plane.
As stated in Atheism, our inquiry is not strictly deductive nor strictly scientific; but it does share elements of both. We cannot deduce the nature of God from obvious first principles but we can insist that all the qualitative statements we make about God be consistent.
Nor can we deduce the nature of any existent from the nature of God. Each and every existent is a radically free agent (Jean Paul Sartre’s “etre en-soi”) with an entirely unconditioned element. However, we can insist that a phenomenological analysis of existents reveal some trace of the influence of Being, i.e. God’s nature. If we can identify no such element(s), then either God is not real or God is not relevant (which is the same thing as not real) or we have misunderstood God’s nature after all.
Again we turn to Aquinas. His Summa Theologica attempts a systematic presentation of God’s nature. Thomas begins by defining God (Being) negatively in contrast, not with certain existents, but with all existents qua existents.
Existents undergo change, God does not.
Existents are caused by other existents, God is not.
Existents can either be or not be, God cannot. (He cannot not be.)
Existents manifest various qualities in varying degrees; God does not. (He is quality per se and therefore all qualities inhere in God, purely, perfectly and without gradation.)
Existents modify their behavior in consideration of other existents, God does not. (The action of God on the world is identical for all existents at all times and in all places. God is the “final cause” which draws existents into existence, their raison d’etre.)
Then Aquinas turns the tables and proceeds to define God positively, but also in contrast, not with certain existents, but with all existents qua existents.
God is essentially simple; existents are not.
God is “supremely one” (i.e. oneness itself, essential unity); existents are not. (Unity is an aspect of existents, a perfection, but it is not their essence).
God is infinite (eternal), existents are not. (They are spatially & temporally finite).
God is good essentially; existents are not. (They are good existentially in so far as they share Being as the ground of their existence but otherwise they are good only accidentally…and that in varying degrees; and in so far as they are good accidentally, they are good by their participation in and likeness to divine goodness. “There is one goodness and yet many goodnesses.”)
There can be little doubt that this presentation of God’s nature is self-consistent; at any rate, we will take that for granted for the remainder of this essay.
It is by no means obvious, however, that we will be able to find elements in the universe of existents that exemplify such a nature. If this description of God’s nature is accurate, and if God in fact is real and relevant, we should see some sign of that in our universe. But do we?
We will argue that an examination of the universe of existents reveals several fundamental and universal phenomena that are consistent with the nature of God elaborated above and with the notion that existents participate in God as their ground.
First, every existent, “visible or invisible” in the words of the Nicene Creed, manifests qualities. According to 20th century existentialist philosopher, Martin Heidegger, qualities are not how we know that something is (Dasein) but they are the only way we know what something is (Wassein).
It is the essential nature of existents to manifest qualities and such universal manifestation is consistent with existents’ participation in God (who is quality per se and in whom all qualities inhere in perfect harmony) as their ground.
Second, every existent in our universe enjoys some mode of connection with every other existent. In an earlier essay in this collection, The Perpendicular Present, we detailed the various types of connection that operate among existents; but for purposes of this inquiry it is sufficient to note just that universal connectedness is in fact the case. There are no isolated, independent matters of fact.
This universal connectedness is consistent with existents’ participation in God (who is simple and one) as their ground.
Third, every existent is lured into being and then into acting by the attraction of something outside itself. Whether it is an electron emerging from a virtual particle pair and then racing off into space to bond with a proton or a man heading to a restaurant in anticipation of steak and martinis (not necessarily in that order), extrinsic motivation is universal.
(Note: so-called “intrinsic motivation” is actually motivation toward a later stage in the development of the existent itself; that later stage is extrinsic relative to the existent at its current stage of development. Therefore, all motivation is extrinsic.)
The effectiveness of extrinsic motivation depends upon the Good. All existents seek what is good. If there were no Good or if existents had no innate sense of the Good, then existents would have nothing to strive for. Extrinsic motivation would be entirely ineffective. Existents would not spring into existence and they would not continuously change.
In reality, however, extrinsic motivation is both universal and effective. This is consistent with the hypothesis that all existents have an innate sense of the Good and that there is an objective Good extrinsic to them toward which they strive.
The universe of existents is characterized by an objective Good that motivates all existents and by a subjective sense of the Good resident in each such existent that makes it possible for that existent to seek the good beyond itself (or beyond its current stage of development).
Earlier we said that according to our model, both the universe of existents and each existent within that universe must be an expression of God’s nature and that we would look for evidence of that in the data we call reality. The universal effectiveness of extrinsic motivation confirms both sides of our hypothesis.
Fourth, existents shape their behavior in consideration of other existents and modify that behavior in response to the behavior of those existents.
Such behavior includes at least an element of self-abnegation. This raises the fundamental question of why any existent would ever shape or modify its behavior in consideration of any other existent. Why are other existents even relevant?
The answer lies in the infinity (eternity) of God. Existents are inherently finite in space and in time. As such, all extrinsic motivations are ultimately mirages. In the words of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity, all things are vanity!…There is no remembrance of past generations nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.”
But if this is the case, then the Good itself must be a mirage and God a chimera!
Ecclesiastes concludes, “A bad business God has given to human beings to be busied with. I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind.”
Without an eternal element, the lure of God is an empty promise; it would not spark the explosion of existents that characterizes our universe. The Good is only good if it is in some sense eternal. Whatever ceases to be never really was (Ionesco). In infinite spacetime, every region, every event, is infinitesimal. Only the eternal is real and only the real can consistently motivate.
So the fact that every existent has a sense of good and seeks it and that the Good acts as a lure to existence and to action for all existents is consistent with existents’ participation in God (who is eternal) as their ground.
But that is just the beginning. God is simple, God is one. Therefore, in God there can be no conflict. Existents can only share in God’s eternity to the extent that they are harmonized with each and every other existent. Therefore, inherent in the lure of eternity is the lure of harmony.
As noted above, harmony requires at least an element of self-abnegation. An agenda that focuses on self alone and disregards all others in the process is less conducive to the evolution of a harmonious whole than an agenda that takes other existents into consideration ab initio and grants them reck.
Paul writes in Romans, “None of us lives for oneself and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
Paul’s Lord, God, simple and one, is synonymous with the ultimate, eternal harmony of all existents (parousia). Fortunately for us all, the primary agent for the harmonization of existents is God; it does not depend solely or even primarily on the actions of the existents themselves. Nonetheless, existents who seek to share in eternal harmony will naturally seek to harmonize their behavior with existents around them.
God’s dominant role in harmonizing existents into eternal unity is what we call “Grace”. In a later essay, we will explore the process by which God (Grace) effects this harmonization; but that is not germane to our project here.
It is sufficient for us to show that existents have a sense of eternity, that that sense of eternity includes a sense of harmony (simplicity, unity) and that that sense of harmony influences their constitution and their behavior. This is consistent with existents’ participation in God (who is simple, one and eternal) as their ground.
Earlier we worried that we would not be able to find any trace of the influence of Being (God) in the universe of existents. On the contrary, we have been able to identify a number of universal tendencies that are perfectly consistent with the nature of God articulated here and with the hypothesis that existents participate in (and are influenced by) God as their ground. This gives our model a high level of confirmation.
Of course, confirmation is not proof. There could perhaps be other models that would conform as tightly to the data as ours. However, I posit that such models would fall into one of two categories: (1) they would be structurally identical to our model, albeit with different terminology and perhaps a different syntax; or (2) they would be trivial. (An example of the trivial alternative is the naïve realist or positivist assertion that “things are just the way they are and that’s an end to it.”)
The only real threat to our model is that someone will find a class of empirical data that is inconsistent with it, that disproves it and sends us back to the drawing board. It turns out that there is one…and probably only one…candidate for that job and it is the appropriately named “the problem of evil”.
Contrary to the fairly rosy picture painted by our model and by our analysis of the empirical data, the world we live in is full of evil and often seems to be dominated by that evil. In the face of holocaust, war, poverty and infant mortality, who can possibly defend the idea that the universe of existents manifests “a tilt toward the Good” (as we stated in Atheism)?
Let’s not stop here! If God is Good and God is Being and all existents participate in Being as their ground, why aren’t all existents both existentially and accidentally good all the time? Why isn’t the universe of existents a utopia?
The philosopher Leibniz accepted this argument and answered it by saying that this world is indeed the best of all “possible” worlds. But anyone who has suffered a tragic loss knows that is not true. The world could be better than it is…much, much, much better.
We will not adopt Leibniz stance in the essay; but before we do answer the question, we need to return to a concept introduced in an earlier paragraph, the concept of unconditioned freedom or “will”.
An existent, it turns out, has two elements in its constitution: qualities (from God) and will. What we call “will” is not necessarily a matter of conscious decision making; it rarely, and perhaps never, is. What we call “will” is the element in the constitution of every existent which is capable of projecting its own lure, its own vision of its future, which may or may not be in harmony with the qualitative synthesis that is God.
Now all this talk of projection, vision and lure sounds terribly anthropomorphic but such terms are really metaphors for what happens at every level of the existential universe, from humans (or beyond) to quanta. The character of an existent is never fully determined by any set of extrinsic motivations, even those derived from God. Every existent is ultimately free to shape its own character and destiny.
With this in mind, let’s return to our problem. Recall first that all existents come into existence through the lure of God (God’s uniform action on the world). In the words of John’s Gospel, “All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be.” As such, every existent is existentially good.
Recall further that every existent is accidentally good, at least to some degree. The act of self-constitution itself is a good act because it seeks to emulate the simplicity and the unity that characterize God. Therefore no existent is without at least some accidental goodness as well as existential goodness.
But now recall that every existent is a radically free agent. To the extent that an existent makes choices inconsistent with the lure of God, choices for example that ignore the lure of harmony, eternity, that existent is not accidentally good, and to the extent that any existent fails to be accidentally good, the phenomenon of evil enters the world.
This formulation derives from Augustine of Hippo who described evil as the privation of good.
How can the apparent prevalence of evil be consistent with the reality of the Good? Let us return to the human realm for our examples:
Consider the schoolyard bully. He may be strong and tough; in and of themselves, these are good qualities. But the bully uses those qualities, not to defend the weak or to pursue justice, but rather to persecute others. The fault, the evil, is not with the qualities themselves but with the will that organizes and applies those qualities for ends inconsistent with the lure of God. The bully ignores the lure of God’s agenda and uses the qualities that derive from God to pursue his own agenda.
The same dynamic plays out even more dangerously on the world stage. Tyrants often possess qualities that cause them to have great popular appeal…at least temporarily. Such qualities helped Mussolini make the trains run on time, Stalin preserve the sovereignty of Mother Russia, and Hitler resist the injustices imposed on Germany after World War I. But in the end, those tyrants used the good qualities they derived from God to pursue agendas diametrically opposed to the qualitative synthesis that is God.
Evil is a very, very real, sometimes overwhelming phenomenon in our world. But it derives from the radical freedom of each and every existent and not from the qualities that emanate from God. The problem of evil is an enormously serious assault on any theistic doctrine; but in the end it is insufficient to disprove the theistic hypothesis.
In this essay we have presented classical notions concerning the nature of God and shown by a phenomenological analysis that the universe of existents conforms broadly and tightly to the hypothesis that such a God is real and that every existent is conditioned existentially and accidentally by its participation in God as its ground.
We have proven neither the reality nor the nature of God; we did not set out to do so. What I hope we have done is to set the bar very, very high for those who would propose an alternative hypothesis.