When we survey the treatment that God has received from philosophers down through the millennia, it is not hard agree with Unamuno’s assessment of the god of philosophy as “a dead thing”.
Neoplatonism’s mystical impulse, and that of many subsequent mystical traditions, highlights a problem with the conception of Ultimate Reality that was and still is central to both western and eastern philosophy. This problem concerns the fact that insofar as Ultimate Reality is deprived of personhood, we are dealing not with a conscious Being with agency, with the capacity to love, hate, experience anger and be moved to pity, but with an impersonal, rational mechanism, an unmoved generator of motion, the indifferent source of emanations. It is worth reflecting on the extent to which this is how God has been represented by philosophers down through the ages, right up to the present day. It is this god, rather than the God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, that philosophers have striven to either defend or deny for millennia. Miguel de Unamuno puts it like this in The Tragic Sense of Life:
“The logical, rational God, the ens summum, the primum movens, the Supreme Being of theological philosophy, the God who is reached by the three famous ways of negation, eminence and causality, viæ negationis, eminentiæ, causalitatis, is nothing but an idea of God, a dead thing. The traditional and much debated proofs of his existence are, at bottom, merely a vain attempt to determine his essence; for as Vinet has very well observed, existence is deduced from essence; and to say that God exists, without saying what God is and how he is, is equivalent to saying nothing at all.” 1
The conceptions of God that we find in much of western philosophy seem to focus on his putative existence or non-existence as some kind of initiating mechanism. This mechanistic God, the transcendent Watchmaker whose role in the cosmos was confined to triggering the process whereby the universe came into being, but who then withdrew from it and let it run its course, was the kind of Creator that Isaac Newton posited, though Newton also believed in the God of Judeo-Christian revelation. While René Descartes accepted Catholic dogma, the “God” whose existence he set out to prove was, likewise, the Prime Mover of Aristotle’s model.
The problem with this model was that it reduced God’s role in the cosmos, and therefore the need for his existence, to that of an initiating mechanism. If other mechanisms could be found, within the cosmos itself, to be capable of initiating the process of “creation”, then there would no longer be any need for God. The belief that such a mechanism has been found or, if not, eventually will be, has been the driving force behind atheistic reasoning since the Enlightenment. But it could be argued that the God they are finding no place for is the God that the West has inherited from the Platonic and Aristotelian models: the God whose existence was deduced by mere Reason. The logical arguments that have been deployed to arrive at the conclusion that God necessarily exists may well be shown, unequivocally, to be valid, but the “God” that such reasoning arrives at is a very far cry from the God of Judeo-Christian revelation. It is the “god of the philosophers” that both Pascal and Miguel de Unamuno fulminated against.
So were Plato and Aristotle positing the existence of an entity who/which has nothing in common with the God who Jews, Christians and Muslims believe made himself known in their Scriptures? God does indeed reveal himself in Scripture as the source of life, the source of light, the One from whom meaning (the Logos) emanates, the Mind that purposefully moves the cosmos towards its goal. Several ancient Greek philosophers deduced this much about God through processes of reasoning, rather than as a result of any kind of personal encounter. But the God who is revealed in Scripture, in particular the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, is so much more than that. The God whose role the Enlightenment reduced to that of mechanistic starting point is the “God of the gaps”, the God for whom there is less and less need as more and more satisfactory scientific answers emerge. As if God’s sole purpose was to cause the physical phenomena in the cosmos!
The God who reveals himself in Scripture does not just happen to possess Personhood in addition to his being the source of everything that exists. His personhood is not accessory to his being, as if you could believe in God as the Supreme Being but pick and choose as regards the other attributes that Scripture ascribes to Him. There is no non-personal common core which “believers” of all sorts can unite around while discarding the attributes that we do not find so congenial. Either He is a God who, loves, commands, calls, chooses, acts in accordance with perfect justice, perfect mercy and perfect faithfulness, or, as Miguel de Unamuno put it, the concept of God is “a dead thing”. Pascal, who experienced the life-transforming encounter referred to at the start of this essay, pointed out that mere deism, God as a Prime Mover, is as far removed from the Christian faith as atheism is. There is no point in believing in God only in Platonic and Aristotelian terms, because such a God is ineffectual.
Before considering what the personhood of God entails, it is worth reflecting on what personhood means, independently of whether we are talking about God or any human being. Personhood is related to consciousness (potential or actual), to the capacity to think, to remember, to imagine, to reason, to make choices, to love, to formulate purposes and act in accordance with them rather than only to act out of instinct or in response to primary needs, among many other attributes. When Scripture represents God as having these attributes, there are two possibilities. Either it is revealing the nature of God, and therefore of Ultimate Reality, as it actually is, or it is projecting the attributes of the human authors of Scripture onto a hypothetical Divine Being, and magnifying these attributes so as to provide their communities with an ideal to strive towards. Either humans are persons because God, the Ultimate Personal Reality endowed them with personhood, or God is seemingly personal because human beings have endowed an impersonal Ultimate Reality with personhood. Either God created humans in his image, or humans created God in theirs. Orthodox Christian thinkers and theologians have, obviously, maintained the former. During the last couple of centuries a number of very influential atheists have argued the latter.
During the first millennium of the Christian Church, orthodox, Biblical theology which represented God as Person and the source of human personhood, was taken for granted by the apostles, the Church Fathers and the scholastic philosophers. But even within Christendom Christian theology was influenced by Neo-Platonists like Plotinus, for whom the Supreme Being was an impersonal source of all other being. Scholastic philosophy also largely inherited, though it adapted it, the legacy of Aristotle and his conception of the Unmoved Mover. Because of Aristotle’s influence, many Medieval theologians and scholars struggled to accept that God could be moved to pity or act out of compassion. That would have been inconceivable for Aristotle. St Augustin broke with Platonic and Aristotelian tradition when he declared that God created the cosmos ex nihilo, out of nothing. For Aristotle, the cosmos was eternal and God’s interaction with it was confined to impassively moving matter from potential to actuality. Even St Anselm, famous for originating the so-called ontological argument for God’s existence, continued to believe that though the cosmos originated in God’s nature, he did not create it out of nothing. Nevertheless, we do not have to read very far into his Proslogion (for example) to realise that Anselm certainly did not accept Aristotle’s belief in God’s impassivity. Out of his perfect justice, his perfect mercy, his perfect love, God actively and constantly seeks to restore the human soul to eternal fellowship with himself. Aristotle could never have written about God in that way. Likewise Thomas Aquinas, whose theology and philosophy were deeply influenced by Aristotle, experienced such a personal encounter with God near the end of his life that he said, “all that I have written seems like straw after what has been revealed to me” 2.
These words bring us back to the extract from Pascal’s mémorial quoted at the beginning of this essay. The God that Pascal met, the God who revealed himself to Thomas Aquinas, the God that reveals himself in Scripture through the Old Testament patriarchs, poets and prophets and then uniquely in the event of the Incarnation and everything which that entails, is not the “god of the philosophers”, the hypothetical being “than which nothing more perfect can be conceived”, the Unmoved Mover deducible by reason alone from the fact that everything else is in a state of constant motion and flux. God is the Person without whom human personhood itself is incomprehensible, He is the Creator of all there is but also the Redeemer and Restorer of all that was broken through the rebellion of his creatures, the Lover who seeks out and gives his life for his Beloved, the Hunter in relentless pursuit of his quarry, the Father, and indeed Mother, who is determined to bring the lost and wayward child back under his (her) love and care, the Shepherd who will not rest until His sheep are safe from the enemies bent on destroying them, even at the cost of His own life.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared God to be dead. There is some debate as to whether he saw this as a reason to lament or to celebrate. In view of the many different conceptions of God that philosophy has produced, it is worth asking which God he declared to be dead. As we have seen, Miguel de Unamuno also declared the god of the philosophers to be “a dead thing”. This is probably not what Nietzsche meant. To judge from his writing as a whole, he needed to kill God off in order to make room for his own hubristic ambition to become the architect of a brand-new morality. And undoubtedly, albeit at a smaller scale, this refusal to relinquish moral autonomy and submit to any authority beyond oneself is the spirit that motivates a great deal of ancient and modern unbelief.
As Martin Luther reminds us, the human soul is incorrigibly “bent in on itself”. But when we survey the treatment that God has received from philosophers down through the millennia, even from many who supposedly believed in Him, it is not hard to find reasons to agree with Unamuno’s assessment of the god of philosophy as “a dead thing”. The sad thing is that this is the God that so many people have decided they don’t believe in. And who can blame them? A very different God is the God who inhabited the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the God that it is our mission to call people to believe in. I began this essay with a reference to Pascal’s memorial, added on to the Pensées as an appendix. I will end it with a reference to one of the reflections with which he opens his Pensées: “Order. Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it truly understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.” 3 It is with reference to how God reveals himself in Scripture and especially in Jesus Christ that we can and must show that the Christian faith is worthy of “reverence and respect”. Only a philosopher can love a First Cause!
Roger Marshall, English language and literature teacher in Barcelona, Spain.
1. FROM GOD TO GOD Chapter VIII Tragic Sense Of Life, by Miguel de Unamuno, on ReadCentral.com.
2. St Thomas’s reply after being asked to resume writing "Summa Theologiae" (then left unfinished), after a mystical experience while saying mass on or about 6 December 1273
3. Blaise Pascal Pensées 1. Order 187