008 God in Contemporary Thought

Several recent studies remind us of the perennial importance of “our idea of God,” the title of Thomas V. Morris’s recent work: Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, c. 1991). Designed “as an elementary introduction to philosophical theology,” this treatise seeks “to provide an example of how some simple, straightforward philosophical methods of thinking can shed light on theological matters which might otherwise remain obscure” (p. 11). And while the “simplicity” of the presentation might be questioned by those lacking some proficiency in philosophy, Morris’s stated intent works itself out in this clear and cogent case for theism.

First, one must believe God-talk has merit. Morris examines the claims of those who declare that if God’s really an infinite Being we finite beings can never understand Him. Certainly the task must be approached humbly; but the use of analogies and symbols, carefully employed by persons created in God’s image, offer us hope as we strive to craft a suitable idea of God. “If God is infinite Mind and has brought into existence minded creatures in his image, then it might be expected that those creatures’ minds could grasp something of his existence and nature” (p. 25). Not everything, mind you, but something!

While Morris acknowledges the value of various ways of thinking about God (e.g. biblical theology or creation theology) he favors “perfect being theology,” settling into the tradition of Anselm, who judged God an infinite Being–“that than which no greater can be conceived.” At the heart of this theology is this thesis: “God is a being with the greatest possible array of compossible great-making properties” (p. 35). By careful reasoning, one can move from this core conviction to the conclusion that God is “a thoroughly benevolent conscious agent with unlimited knowledge and power who is the necessarily existent, ontologically independent creative source of all else” (p. 40>.

Given this concept, Morris first explores God’s Goodness. In Boethius’ judgment, “‘The substance of God consists in nothing but in goodness'” (p. 47), and when we think seriously about it we discover “that beneath the surface of this apparently simple affirmation about God lies a surprising wealth of conceptual commitments” (p. 48). After exploring several of them, Morris then turns, in successive chapters, to questions concerning God’s Power, Knowledge, Being, and Eternity, offering insights and clarifications in the process.

For example, in his chapter on God’s Knowledge, he delves into the ancient argument that omniscience effaces free will. After considering some of the philosophical options, Morris suggests that Luis de Molina’s notion of “middle knowledge” provides a clue for thinkers concerned with preserving both divine foreknowledge and human freedom. (Interested in the resolution? Buy the book and study pp. 92-102!)

In chapter eight Morris turns to “The Creation.” In Genesis 1:1–“In the beginning, God created”–we find “the key to a distinctively theistic perspective on reality. This one statement captures the heart of a theistic world-view.” Still more: “it is no exaggeration to add that it is one of the most important truths about God” (p. 138), a truth concisely worded by Aquinas: “‘Anything that exists in any way must necessarily have its origin from God'” (p. 139).

The metaphysical doctrine of creation must not be reduced to or confused with scientific hypotheses–physics is not metaphysics! “We are seeking a level of understanding distinct from that promised by any application of the methods of the natural sciences” (p. 140). We seek to discern a divine creativity which is at once free, rational, and good–characteristics of a true Creator. Rightly pursued, “the theist can subsume all things distinct from God under the umbrella of divine creation. The greatest possible being will be the most thorough source of reality imaginable. Everything will testify to his greatness” (p. 158).

Our Idea of God is one of those books which makes sense the first time you read it–but you know you must re-read and ponder it to fully appropriate the author’s treasures. An associate professor at Notre Dame, Morris writes within the context of modern thought. But he is steeped in the ancient Christian tradition as well. In this treatise he nicely illustrates the worth of philosophical thinking within the context of the Christian faith.

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While Morris writes for the general reader, Franklin I. Gamwell, a professor of religious ethics at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, in The Divine Good: Modern Moral Theory and the Necessity of God (San Francisco: HarperSanFranisco, c. 1990) writes for the academic elite. If one can weather the journey, however, this treatise provides a fruitful landfall, providing a searching critique of Kant and MacIntyre as well as setting forth a theistic basis for modern moral theory.

Certainly we live in a highly secularized society, whose ethical principles come couched in humanistic, if not hedonistic or utilitarian, categories–almost universally stressing our autonomy, our capacity to design our own morality. Throughout most of our century, religion and its transcendent reference point (God) have been excised from “morality” as understood by secular thinkers. “This book,” Gamwell declares, “argues that this dominant consensus is mistaken. More specifically, I seek to show that the validity of moral claims presupposes the existence of God” (p. xii). Any “success in modern moral theory waits upon the reassertion of theism” (p. 1). Consequently, “It is appropriate to say, then, that the argument here is an attempt to reassert and redeem the integrity of religious convictions in modern life” (p. xii). To clear the ground for his own presentation, Ganwell considers “Teleology and Nonteleology: Aristotle and Kant,” monumental thinkers (and a few of their modern advocates) whose moral theories “eminently exemplify the two principal alternatives in Western philosophical ethics” (p. 19). Making careful distinctions, moving cautiously, he faults both traditions. He’s particularly effective in showing the fatal flaws in Kant’s cavalier rejection of metaphysical knowledge. Modern versions of their views, as found, for example, in Alisdair MacIntyre’s influential extensions of Aristotle, are similarly rejected–though I personally find MacIntyre generally more persuasive than Gamwell!

In Karl-Otto Apel, though, Gamwell mines a modern “hermeneutical teleology” worth refining. “As does Kant, Apel seeks an a priori moral law” (p. 128), deeming “his project a ‘transformation of Kant’s transcendental philosophy'” (p. 128). Unlike Kant’s autonomous subjectivity, Apel argues inwardly thinking and outwardly unveiling one’s thoughts go together. “‘Self-reflection is, then, a self-expression, in which a subject seeks to communicate his or her thought to others'” (p. 131).

As a consequence, the very process of thinking, “hermeneutical rationality,” requires that we “‘understand the validity claims and the arguments for them offered by others, that is, to understand the thought of other subjects.'” We think, not as soloists, but in concert with others. As Apel says, “‘If when a person seriously enters an argumentative discourse, then he not only accepts the rules and presupposed ethical norms of an argumentation-community, but he also expresses his presupposition that it is possible and necessary in principle to solve the conflicts of practical life by argumentative discourse . . . . Now this presupposition of every serious argumentative discourse implies that one has not only accepted the formal ethical norms of fair discussion . . . , but that one supposes, in principle, that the argumentative discourse qua “practical discourse” may and should lead to an agreement about concrete material norms‘” (pp. 141-142).

Yet Apel falls short, along with Kant, Gamwell charges, by failing to acknowledge the absolute necessity of a metaphysical reality underlying the “transcendental intersubjectivity” basic to his ethic. “I believe it can be shown,” Gamwell says, “that a materially comprehensive telos must be metaphysical” (p. 147).

This leads him to a discussion of “theistic teleology.” Here he draws upon the work of Charles Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead (as well as his teacher, Schubert M. Ogden, to whom the book is dedicated), staking his position in process thought. After a rather tortuous and turgid discussion, Gamwell concludes thusly: “The completion of Kant may now be expressed again by saying that a life of integrity or respect for the moral law is, in Aristotle’s profound sense of the term, a happy life. Only insofar as all of our affections are educated in accord with piety or rever3ence is our distinctively rational existence perfected. For the ground of all human understanding is the reality of God. So far as I can see, the reassertion of theistic conviction is required to redeem the modern project and, therefore, modern moral theory. In other words, the divine good identifies the substantive or material meaning of the humanistic commitment, just as the love of God is the authenticity of the human adventure” (p. 211).

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Far more readable (perhaps because its author, Gordon Graham, lives and writes in Great Britain, serving as professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland) is Living the Good Life: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: Paragon House, c. 1990). It’s also designed for use in introductory courses in Ethics, so that may account for its readability! Textbook fashion, Living the Good Life clarifies the positions and explores the histories of diverse ethical options: egoism; hedonism; existentialism; Kantianism; utilitarianism. Thus far it’s a somewhat predictable scholarly discussion . . . a typical, if cogent, text.

In the final chapter, however, “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” the text takes a novel turn, addressing such issues as “God, good and evil, and the meaning of life” (p. 164). Though great philosophers have doubted the existence of God and questioned how a good God could allow evil to pervade His world, discounting the convictions of religious thinkers, in Graham’s mind, such issues will never be finally resolved. What he does find valuable, however, is the role of “religious experience” in giving meaning to life and guidance for moral action. The religious life is in fact “a distinctive sort of life” providing “a context in which other sorts of human endeavor are to be assessed and understood. In religion we find not a simple expansion of other concerns–scientific, moral, or personal–but a change of perspective. Religion, in a phrase of David F Swenson’s, is a ‘transforming power of otherworldliness'” (p. 181).

We’ll probably never prove, Graham holds, whether or not religious claims have objective certainty. That they provide subjective meaning and guidance seems sufficient, for “the fundamental conception of good at work is itself a religious one.” Indeed, “from a religious point of view, the ultimate aim of all human thought and activity must be to return us to our proper place in creation and hence to a harmonious relationship with God, the source of everything” (p. 189).

Thus religion, unlike the many inadequate philosophical ethics, holds forth hope for the good life, the truly ethical life. “We have seen” (Graham reminds his readers of discussions in earlier sections) “that in thinking about the good life there is a sort of fragmentation between the claims of personal happiness and fulfillment and the claims of impartial respect for the good of others. We can see that both matter, but cannot quite see how they can be put together. The problem with those secular philosophies examined in the first five chapters is that none of them seems able to supply an answer. Within the religious perspective, however, we can see how one might be provided. Both personal happiness and morally decent conduct towards others have their part to play in re-establishing communion with the divine” (193).

In short: the good life, the moral life, grows out of a healthy religious life which roots ethical decisions in a divine dimension.

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Over the years I’ve frequently used Glenn Tinder’s Political Thinking in my Social and Political Philosophy classes. Though evident to a discerning reader of that work, the somewhat muted Christian convictions of this MIT political science professor peal like church bells in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Introduction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c. 1989). Tinder makes “a personal statement,” one shaped “by the Bible and by Christian traditions” (p. 1). So it’s a testament, a reflective work by a scholar who’s devoted a lifetime to political thinking, one who argues that a generally solitary “prophetic stance” is the proper stance for Christians living in a forever fallen world. He focuses his reflections on five general themes: the exaltation of the individual; prophetic hope; liberty; social transformation; and prophetic spirituality.

Given Christianity’s first principle, agape love, “we come to the major premise of the prophetic stance and, indeed, of all Christian social and political thinking–the concept of the exalted individual” (p. 27). Created by God, designed in His image, we persons have a unique destiny. Our individual lives count for something! There’s a bedrock equality of persons in God’s family, so “no one is to be casually sacrificed” (p. 32). No one’s excluded, for agape love reaches out to all peoples.

Despite the individual’s exalted status, of course, Christians recognize his “fallen” predicament as well–a paradoxical but profoundly true reality. Sin flaws our royal lineage! It pervades that “worldliness” which handcuffs us to the realm at odds with God. It takes two paths. First, there’s pride, the incessant drive to be gods. Second, when self-exaltation fails, we turn to diversions. Both approaches help us “avoid the conscious dependence on God that is faith” (p. 37). Craving independence for ourselves, claiming a la Nietzsche a “Man-god” status which repudiates the “God-man” revelation of Christ Jesus, various forms of “idealism,” especially nationalism, encourage us to exalt and worship ourselves. “Dostoevsky wrote that ‘a man cannot live without worshiping something.'” Whoever denies God kneels before idols–which are only occasionally handcrafted figures. Contemporary ideologies, movements, and messiahs routinely attain god-like standing in their followers’ minds. All too often those who are most “proud of their critical and discerning spirit have rejected Christ and bowed down before Stalin, Mao, or some other secular savior” (p. 50).

Without God, we slyly exalt ourselves and seek to fabricate the fantasies spawned by revolutionaries’ dreams, thereby losing the true “exaltation of the individual” made possible for us in Christ.

Yet in its current condition this “world is not a fitting home for the exalted individual” (p. 53). Designed for a better world, we desire a perfect community. Thus we need a biblically-based “prophetic hope” to sustain us on our journey. To a degree we may, now and then, enter into communities of love and grace, but they’re forever imperfect and transient. Given our fallenness, we never really find or create a truly “good society” which secures for us the healthy community we long for.

In the midst of such imperfection, the prophetic stance grants us hope. It enables us to patiently wait on God, quietly listening and offering ourselves to Him, confident that only He can create the community of justice and righteousness we crave. Here Tinder cites Martin Buber, who “identifies as ‘the core’ of Isaiah’s ‘theopolitical teaching’ the doctrine that ‘Israel must keep still, as YHVH keeps still'” (p. 71). This means we reject reckless proposals to abolish evil and establish the “good society.” Confident that eternity alone provides the context for the exalted individual’s full realization, we patiently allow God to transact His will in our present world.

Christians, living within Christ’s Church, partially satisfy the longing for healthy community. “Community consists in sharing the truth, and degrees of community can be measured by the significance of the truth that is shared” (p. 91). Consequently, “Only theological truth (using this term to comprise liturgy and all other communal elements in the Church) can engage us in our full humanity; hence, it is the only truth in whose sharing our commonality can be fully realized” (p. 91).

Sharing such truth with one another, Tinder argues, is our only real liberty. Much that marches under the guise of “liberty” leads to the savage despotisms which dot the 20th century landscape. But true “Liberty is the possibility of entering with others into the search for truth. It is the opportunity of inquiring in common into destiny. Our greatest need as human beings is to take account of the ultimate issues before us–death, evil, redemption–and to do this in the company of our fellow human beings. We need to be participants in searching conversations” (p. 122). That’s the liberty which enables us to find our destiny, our eternal dignity as persons created in the image of God.

This anchors us in a “prophetic spirituality” which allows us to stay in touch with our world while attuned to heaven, always discerning the spiritual dimensions and ramifications of politics. In the spiritual disciplines of study and prayer, a believer “seeks God and strives for the clarity of spirit in which other human beings can be heard and answered” (p. 200). Listening to God and man, following God’s guidance in response to human need, “prophetic spirituality” funnels health and wholeness to the world less by action than reflection, less by doing things than teaching truths . . . teaching truths by lifting up and looking steadily to the Incarnate Truth, Christ Jesus.

Thus Tinder takes an Augustinian historiographical stance: two communities, one heavenly and one earthly, intermingle in time; but only the heavenly community (prefigured by Christ and partially realized in the Church) deserves our deepest fidelity. And by making God’s Kingdom our final end, our only ultimate goal, we simultaneously give the world what it most needs: truth to live by. # # # # #