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Western Concepts of God

Dr. Brian Morley

Western concepts of God have ranged from the detached transcendent demiurge of Aristotle to the pantheism of Spinoza. Nevertheless, much of western thought about God has fallen within some broad form of theism. Theism is the view that God is unlimited with regard to knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), extension (omnipresence), and moral perfection; and is the creator and sustainer of the universe. Though regarded as sexless, God has traditionally been referred to by the masculine pronoun. Concepts of God in philosophy are entwined with concepts of God in religion. This is most obvious in figures like Augustine and Aquinas, who sought to bring more rigor and consistency to concepts found in religion. Others, like Leibniz and Hegel, interacted constructively and deeply with religious concepts. Even those like Hume and Nietzsche, who criticized the concept of God, dealt with religious concepts. While Western philosophy has interfaced most obviously with Christianity, Judaism and Islam have had some influence. The orthodox forms of all three religions have embraced theism, though each religion has also yielded a wide array of other views. Philosophy has shown a similar variety. For example, with regard to the initiating cause of the world, Plato and Aristotle held God to be the crafter of uncreated matter. Plotinus regarded matter as emanating from God. Spinoza, departing from his judaistic roots, held God to be identical with the universe, while Hegel came to a similar view by reinterpreting Christianity. Issues related to Western concepts of God include the nature of divine attributes and how they can be known, if or how that knowledge can be communicated, the relation between such knowledge and logic, the nature of divine causality, and the relation between the divine and the human will.

A. Sources of Western Concepts of God

Sources of western concepts of the divine have been threefold: experience, revelation, and reason. Reported experiences of God are remarkably varied and have produced equally varied concepts of the divine being. Experiences can be occasioned by something external and universally available, such as the starry sky, or by something external and private, such as a burning bush. Experiences can be internal and effable, such as a vision, or internal and ineffable, as is claimed by some mystics. Revelation can be linked to religious experience or a type of it, both for the person originally receiving it and the one merely accepting it as authoritative. Those who accept its authority typically regard it as a source of concepts of the divine that are more detailed and more accurate than could be obtained by other means. Increasingly, the modern focus has been on the complexities of the process of interpretation (philosophical hermeneutics) and the extent to which it is necessarily subjective. Revelation can be intentionally unconnected to reason such that it is accepted on bare faith (fideism; cf. Kierkegaard), or at the other extreme, can be grounded in reason in that it is accepted because and only insofar as it is reasonable (cf., Locke). Reason has been taken as ancillary to religious experience and revelation, or on other accounts, as independent and the sole reliable source of concepts of God.

Each of the three sources of concepts of God has had those who regard it as the sole reliable basis of our idea of the divine. By contrast, others have regarded two or three of the sources as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Regardless of these differing approaches, theism broadly construed has been a dominant theme for much of the history of Western thought.

B. Historical Overview

1. Greeks

At the dawn of philosophy, the Ionian Greeks sought to understand the true nature of the cosmos and its manifestations of both change and permanence. To Heraclitus, all was change and nothing endured, whereas to Parmenedes, all change was apparent. The Pythagorians found order and permanence in mathematics, giving it religious significance as ultimate being. The Stoics identified order with divine reason.

To Plato, God is transcendent-the highest and most perfect being-and one who uses eternal forms, or archetypes, to fashion a universe that is eternal and uncreated. The order and purpose he gives the universe is limited by the imperfections inherent in material. Flaws are therefore real and exist in the universe; they are not merely higher divine purposes misunderstood by humans. God is not the author of everything because some things are evil. We can infer that God is the author of the punishments of the wicked because those punishments benefit the wicked. God, being good, is also unchangeable since any change would be for the worse. For Plato, this does not mean (as some later Christian thought held) that God is the ground of moral goodness; rather, whatever is good is good in an of itself. God must be a first cause and a self-moved mover otherwise there will be an infinite regress to causes of causes. Plato is not committed to monotheism, but suggests for example that since planetary motion is uniform and circular, and since such motion is the motion of reason, then a planet must be driven by a rational soul. These souls that drive the planets could be called gods.

Aristotle made God passively responsible for change in the world in the sense that all things seek divine perfection. God imbues all things with order and purpose, both of which can be discovered and point to his (or its) divine existence. From those contingent things we come to know universals, whereas God knows universals prior to their existence in things. God, the highest being (though not a loving being), engages in perfect contemplation of the most worthy object, which is himself. He is thus unaware of the world and cares nothing for it, being an unmoved mover. God as pure form is wholly immaterial, and as perfect he is unchanging since he cannot become more perfect. This perfect and immutable God is therefore the apex of being and knowledge. God must be eternal. That is because time is eternal, and since there can be no time without change, change must be eternal. And for change to be eternal the cause of change-the unmoved mover-must also be eternal. To be eternal God must also be immaterial since only immaterial things are immune from change. Additionally, as an immaterial being, God is not extended in space.

The Neo-Platonic God of Plotinus (204/5-270 A.D.) is the source of the universe, which is the inevitable overflow of divinity. In that overflow, the universe comes out of God (ex deo) in a timeless process. It does not come by creation because that would entail consciousness and will, which Plotinus claimed would limit God. The first emanation out of God (nous) is the highest, successive emanations being less and less real. Finally, evil is matter with no form at all, and as such has no positive existence. God is an impersonal It who can be described only in terms of what he is not. This negative way of describing God (the via negativa) survived well into the middle ages. Though God is beyond description, Plotinus (perhaps paradoxically) asserted a number of things, such as that virtue and truth inhere in God. Because for Plotinus God cannot be reached intellectually, union with the divine is ecstatic and mystical. His thought influenced a number of Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhart (1260-1327).

2. Early Christian Thought

Early Christians regarded Greek religion as holding views unworthy of God, but they were divided as to Greek philosophy. Christian philosopher Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) saw Christianity as compatible with the highest and best Greek thought, whereas Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) dismissed philosophy, saying that Jerusalem (faith) could have nothing to do with Athens (philosophy).

Having been born out of Judaism, Christianity was unambiguously monotheistic and affirmed that God created the material of the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo). But it also affirmed the Trinity as multiplicity within unity, a view it regarded as implicit in Judaism.

Consistent with theism, Augustine (354-430) regarded God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, morally good, the creator (ex nihilo) and sustainer of the universe. Despite these multiple descriptors, God is uniquely simple. Being entirely free, he did not have to create, but did so as an act of love. As his creation, it reflects his mind. Time and space began at creation, and everything in creation is good. Evil is uncreated, being a lack of good and without positive existence. Though God is not responsible for evil even it has a purpose: to show forth what is good, especially what is good within God. Augustine developed a theme found as early as Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno of Citium, that God is a perfect being. After enumerating a hierarchy of excellencies (things to be "preferred") Augustine affirms that God "lives in the highest sense" and is "the most powerful, most righteous, most beautiful, most good, most blessed" (On the Trinity, XV, 4). When we think of God, we "attempt to conceive something than which nothing more excellent or sublime exists" (Christian Doctrine, I, 7, 7). But where Aristotle concluded that the greatest being must be aware only of himself, Augustine emphasized an opposite and