The classical position and some problems with it (Processing, please wait 3)

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. I’m now going to look at some concepts in classical theology and see how they might be problematic.

Classical theology stresses the transcendence of God; God is wholly other. This is linked with the concept of God as being “holy”, but is not equivalent to it.

It also stresses the perfections of God; in the classical mould, God is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), not bound by time (eternal), creator of all things, perfectly just but also perfectly merciful and loving (omnibenevolent). It isn’t difficult to find proof texts for each of these statements about God in the Bible.

However, it is also not difficult to find texts which don’t read as if God possesses any one of these characteristics.

Thomas Aquinas (perhaps the most influential Christian theologian after St. Paul) also derived some further statements about God. He is the unmoved mover, the origin of motion; the uncaused first cause of all things; the fount and origin of all order. (These are three of the quinque viae, Aquinas’ “proofs of God”; the others are perfection and necessary existence).

Quoting the Wikipedia article, Aquinas determined there were five basic things which could be said of God:

  1. God is simple, without composition of parts, such as body and soul, or matter and form.
  2. God is perfect, lacking nothing. That is, God is distinguished from other beings on account of God’s complete actuality.Thomas defined God as the ‘Ipse Actus Essendi subsistens,’ subsisting act of being.
  3. God is infinite. That is, God is not finite in the ways that created beings are physically, intellectually, and emotionally limited. This infinity is to be distinguished from infinity of size and infinity of number.
  4. God is immutable, incapable of change on the levels of God’s essence and character.
  5. God is one, without diversification within God’s self. The unity of God is such that God’s essence is the same as God’s existence. In Thomas’s words, “in itself the proposition ‘God exists’ is necessarily true, for in it subject and predicate are the same.”

The first problem this raises for me is that it takes insufficient account of the immanence of God, his presence in all things (omnipresence). There are also plenty of proof texts for God’s omnipresence, such as Psalm 139:7-12. Yes, classical theology will stipulate the omnipresence of God, but in practice we will see time and again the suggestion that God is “other”, that there is a great gulf fixed between us and God, that being sinful we cannot be in the presence of or accepted by the holy and perfect God. This is probably the most vital problem for me, given that my experience is overwhelmingly of an immanent God, a God present in all things.

Classical theism will also say, however, that God is spirit, and that spirit can indeed permeate everything, but is something distinct from the material. Except insofar as we are acknowledged to be in part spirit ourselves, this also emphasises the “otherness” of God; we are material, God is spiritual and never the twain shall meet, with the exception of the incarnation and, possibly, the Holy Spirit. However, the presence of the Holy Spirit is something which is not always there; the presence of God is in effect rationed. There is, of course, also the sacrament of communion in which God is commonly thought to be particularly present – and passed out in very small bits by a gatekeeper, thus even more rationed. However, spirit-body dualism is a problem area in its own right, which I mention later.

This theology does not, frankly, lend itself well to the evangelical thinking of “relationship with Jesus” either; a tension is created with the distant, unapproachable God.

Process thinking does not draw rigid boundaries, and sees God as intimately involved with the world on every level and needing the participation of humanity in order to bring about his purposes.

The second problem, and the one which is perhaps most important for those who do not have a compelling consciousness of omnipresence, is that of theodicy, i.e. why bad things happen to good people. Put very simply, if you propose:-
1. God is all-powerful
2. God is all-knowing and
3. God is omnibenevolent (i.e. wishes the best for each and every one of us)
the mere observation of the world tells us that bad things are happening daily, hourly, minute by minute and second by second to millions of reasonably good people. Thus not all of these statements can be correct; either God is unable to correct these evils, he does not know of them (or does not know of them in advance so as to be able to prevent them) or he is not a good God.

A large number of “work-rounds” have been proposed for this problem. If there is a countervailing force of evil, God is not really all-powerful. If God withdraws (kenosis), God is not in practice all-powerful. If God witholds action in order to permit free will, God is not in practice all-powerful. Those are the common answers.

In fact, a prominent process theologian, Charles Hartshorne, wrote a book called “Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes”, which argues very cogently that neither omnipotence nor omniscience can actually be the case as a matter of philosophy, and, of course, Process Theology holds that God’s power and knowledge are in fact both limited, albeit very great. However, God’s power is expressed cooperatively and relationally rather than unilaterally. Theodicy is not a major problem to a Process Theologian.

The third problem is that God is thought of as perfect and therefore unchangeable and unmoved by emotion (“impassible”). This is not easy to provide proof texts for, and is in fact a deduction drawn from Platonic and Aristotelean philosophy; indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of instances in which God is seen to be wrathful, jealous, merciful, loving and downright emotional. There are also several instances of God changing his mind – the sparing of the Ninevites after their wholesale repentance in the story of Jonah springs to mind. A particularly good account of this is found in Jack Miles’ book “God, A Biography”, which treats the Hebrew Scriptures as a work of literature in which God is the main character (as far as I know an unique approach) and seeks to plot his character development.

The fact that unchangeability and impassibility is not well supported by scripture is only the start of it; if we are to talk about having a relationship with God, or indeed loving God, how is this possible in a situation where no emotion is returned? In fact, the God of the Greek philosophers is distant, unapproachable and indifferent, an attitude summed up by Shakespeare in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport”. It is unsurprising that development of this train of thinking led to the Enlightenment Deists, who were content with a God who set things in motion but was uninvolved thereafter, and was certainly nothing that one could love or have a relationship with, or, really, worship.

Process sees god not as the “unmoved mover”, as classical philosophy would have it, but as the “most moved mover”, intimately involved in every aspect of creation.

I’ll continue in the next post with some further problems.


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