Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Is [the] God [of classical theism] dead?
Is God dead? I’m not asking a Nietzschean question about the fortunes of the idea of God in modern Western culture. I’m asking whether the God of classical theism ought to be regarded as something literally non-living, even if He exists, given that He is characterized as pure actuality, subsistent being itself, immutable, absolutely simple or non-composite, etc. In the combox of a recent post, the notion was mooted that descriptions of this sort make of God something “static” and therefore “dead.” And of course, that the God of classical theism seems to some to be lifeless, impersonal, and abstract is a common motivation for theistic personalism or neo-theism. As one reader put it, God so conceived appears (to him, anyway) to be something like “an infinite data storage device” or “a giant USB stick.”
Such criticisms are not lacking in imagination. And that is the problem. As I emphasized in an another recent post, if we are to understand the key notions of classical philosophy and theology, we need to stop trying literally to picture them. We need to use, not our imaginations, but our intellects.
In particular, it is no good to bring before one’s mind images of living things moving about, growing, flexing muscles, and the like, as a way of understanding what it is to be alive. Such imagery would, if it showed anything, also support the idea that to be alive is to be material, but theistic personalists would not deny that God is immaterial even though He is alive. That the standard examples of living things change in the ways described simply does not entail that living things as such necessarily change. To think otherwise is to commit a fallacy of accident, like assuming that, since all professors have been under 8 feet tall (which I suppose is true -- if not, pick a larger number), it follows that professors as such must be under 8 feet tall.
Nor will it do to call before one’s mind conscious experiences and thoughts of the sort we have. For these too manifest limitations that even the theistic personalist would not want to attribute to God -- limitations in what one is aware of or can imagine at a particular moment, in how far one can see or hear, and so forth. And if these limitations have no essential connection to being a living thing, neither does undergoing change, even of a mental sort, have any essential connection to being alive. Or at least, it would (again) be a fallacy of accident to suppose that it is essential merely because it is characteristic of the usual examples of living things. (A USB stick or hard drive is, by the way, an even poorer analogy for theological purposes than human thought is, given not only that these objects are material, but that their “intentionality” is entirely derivative whereas our thoughts at least have intrinsic intentionality, whatever their defects as models for the divine intellect.)
For another thing, while the living things of our experience do of course change, what this change involves is (so the Aristotelian will argue) the actualization of potentials; and it is the actualization that is key to their being alive. (A living thing that failed continually to actualize its potentials -- for digesting food, taking in information, healing injuries, etc. -- would not remain alive for long.) Naturally, then, to be fully actual (as the God of classical theism is) can hardly intelligibly be said to be less than being alive. On the contrary, it is to be more than the sort of thing we are insofar as we are alive. It is to be that of which our living is but a finite approximation. But what is fully actual is also (for the standard reasons given by Scholastics) necessarily to be simple or non-composite, to be subsistent being itself rather than “a being” among others, and so forth. It follows that the key attributes of God as conceived of in classical theism are precisely the attributes of something that is more properly said to be living than we are, not less.
Nor does His being changeless entail that the God of classical theism is inert. On the contrary, as Aquinas writes, “power is twofold -- namely, passive, which exists not at all in God; and active, which we must assign to Him in the highest degree” (Summa Theologiae I.25.1). God cannot be changed, but it does not follow that He cannot cause change in other things. Indeed, it is precisely because He is pure actuality that He is the source of all causal (or actualizing) power.
Aquinas himself considers the question of whether God can be said to have life, and answers:
Life is in the highest degree properly in God. In proof of which it must be considered that since a thing is said to live in so far as it operates of itself and not as moved by another, the more perfectly this power is found in anything, the more perfect is the life of that thing.
He then goes on to argue that intelligent beings have a more perfect kind of life than non-intelligent living things have, since the former operate of themselves, or independently of other things, to a greater degree than the latter. With that much the theistic personalist would presumably agree. But then Aquinas argues further that
that being whose act of understanding is its very nature, and which, in what it naturally possesses, is not determined by another, must have life in the most perfect degree. Such is God; and hence in Him principally is life. From this the Philosopher concludes (Metaph. xii, 51), after showing God to be intelligent, that God has life most perfect and eternal, since His intellect is most perfect and always in act. [Emphasis added]
In other words, precisely because God just is His act of understanding, which just is pure actuality, His intellect is maximally independent of other things, and it is this which entails that He has life to the most perfect degree. For since His intellect is, as it were, “always already” fully actualized it cannot be actualized by anything else, and thus cannot depend on anything else. That is to say, the doctrines of divine simplicity and immutability, decried as implying a “lifeless” God, in fact entail the opposite conclusion.