Sunday, August 4, 2019
McCabe on the divine nature
Herbert McCabe was one of the more important Thomists of the twentieth century, and a great influence on thinkers like Brian Davies. Not too long ago, Davies and Paul Kucharski edited , a very useful collection of representative writings. Among the many topics covered are natural theology, Christian doctrine, ethics, politics, and Aquinas. McCabe’s style throughout is lucid and pleasing, and the book is full of insights. What follows are some remarks on what McCabe has to say about one specific theme that runs through the anthology, and about which he was especially insightful – the divine nature.
What God is not
What is God? McCabe’s answer is that God is that which accounts for why there is anything at all. “God is whatever answers our question ‘How come everything?’” (p. 10). What he has to say about the divine nature is largely the working out of the implications of this basic idea.
Some readers are bound to misunderstand McCabe even at this starting point. They might suppose that he is taking for granted some detailed and specifically Christian conception of God – as having revealed himself through the prophets, inspired scripture, become incarnate in Christ, and so on – and then going on to identify God so conceived with that which accounts for the existence of the world. But that is precisely what he is not doing. Of course, as a Catholic, he believes all that. But that is not what he has in mind when he says that God is that which answers the question about why anything exists.
What he is saying, in effect, is that when we start trying to think about God’s nature, we should begin by putting out of our minds everything but the idea that God is that which accounts for there being anything at all. “What we mean by ‘God’ is just whatever answers the question” (p. 11, emphasis added). That must be the governing conception, and only after we work out its implications can we properly understand the various specifically Christian claims we might make about God.
Now, the next thing to say, in McCabe’s view, is that if this is what God is, then he must be radically unlike the things whose existence we are accounting for by reference to him:
For one thing, whatever would answer our question could not itself be subject to the question – otherwise we are left as we were, with the same question still to answer. Whatever we mean by ‘God’ cannot be whatever it is that makes us ask the question in the first place. (pp. 11-12)
In particular, any aspect of a thing that makes its existence stand in need of explanation by reference to something else cannot be attributed to God. For example, since spatio-temporal objects require causes, God cannot be a spatio-temporal object. For if he were, then he would require a cause and therefore he just wouldn’t be that which accounts for why anything exists at all. He would himself just be one more thing among all the others whose existence we are trying to account for.
The things we are trying to account for have existence, but only insofar as they receive it from something else. They have it yet might have lacked it. God cannot be like that, or he wouldn’t be that which accounts for why anything at all exists. He cannot be merely one existent alongside the others whose existence we are trying to account for when we appeal to God. “If God made everything, God cannot be included in everything. God can’t be one of the beings that go up to make everything” (p. 37).
That God makes it the case that anything exists at all is what is meant by creation. But just as God’s being that which accounts for why anything exists at all rules out his being a spatio-temporal object, so too does it rule out any understanding of creation as a kind of manipulation of raw materials, or as a spatio-temporal process that we might observe as it unfolds. For any such materials, and any such process, are themselves among the things the existence of which we are accounting for by reference to God:
So creation is making, but not making out of anything. When X is created there is not anything that is changed into X. Creation is ex nihilo… The fact that things are created does not make the slightest detectable or undetectable difference to them, any more than being thought about makes a difference to things. (pp. 38-39)
You might say that if you can perceive it, then it is not God and it is not God’s creative act, but rather just one further effect of God’s creative act.
All of this leads McCabe to a heavy emphasis on Theological terms cannot properly be understood unless we subtract from them the implications and connotations we associate with their applications to ordinary things, and carrying out this exercise in subtraction is essential to understanding. There is no shortcut by which we can simply state a definition of a theological term without having to go through this exercise:.
To say that ‘creation’ is ‘making’ with-a-new-mode-of-meaning is to talk, I think, about the whole intellectual process by which you get to the word: the whole process and not just the end of it. I mean: you start by saying ‘God made the world’ and then you add various qualifications, all qualifications of a certain systematic kind, all qualifications, if you like, in a definite direction. And by the time you have finished, the notion of making has been whittled away… You yourself have to go through the slow killing of the verb ‘to make’. There is no separable end product, no finally refined concept, which is the meaning of the verb ‘to create’… Theological understanding, such as it is, comes just as the meanings elude our grasp. (pp. 36-37)
Among the things we need to delete from our conception of divine action is the idea that it amounts to an “interference” with what happens in the world. Creation is not a matter of God tinkering with the natural order so as to make it do what it otherwise would not do. It is a matter of his making it the case that there is any natural order at all. McCabe writes: “God cannot interfere in the universe, not because he has not the power but because, so to speak, he has too much” (pp. 10-11). His point is that modeling divine action on the way an engineer or builder alters preexisting materials trivializes it, reducing it to the sort of thing one part of the created order does to another. God is not one cause alongside the others, but rather is that which makes it the case that there are any causes at all in the first place.
As I’ve sometimes put it, God qua creator is not like one character in a novel alongside the others, who performs more impressive actions than they do. He is rather like the author of the novel. One character in a novel might interfere with what the others do or with natural processes going on in the story. But the author certainly does not “interfere” with what happens in the novel, precisely because, as McCabe puts it, he “has too much” power over the story intelligibly to be said to be interfering with it. His relation to the events of the story is of a radically different order from the relation the characters bear to them, and McCabe’s point is that God’s relation to the world is no less radically different from our relation to it.
McCabe is very good at showing how such philosophical points illuminate various theological issues. Consider his discussion of prayer. McCabe defends petitionary prayer against those who think it necessarily superstitious or otherwise less respectable than prayers of thanksgiving:
If we are allowed to see what has already happened as God’s free gift, and to thank him, what is wrong with seeing what has not yet happened as his free gift also, and asking for it? (p. 154)
But he also emphasizes that petitionary prayer should not be understood as a way of manipulating God, of trying to change him or bring about an effect in him. That makes no sense, since God is, again, that which accounts for there being anything at all, including my prayer. Hence my request itself, no less than what I am requesting, is the effect of God:
My prayer is not me putting pressure on God, doing something to God; it is God doing something for me, raising me into the divine life or intensifying the divine life in me. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, we should not say: 'In accordance with my prayer: God wills that it should be a fine day'; we should say: 'God wills: that it should be a fine day in accordance with my prayer.’ God brings about my prayer just as much as he brings about the fine day, and what he wills, what he has willed from eternity, is that this fine day should not be, so to say, just an ordinary fine day. It should be for me a significant fine day, a sign, a communication from God. It should be a fine day that comes about through my prayer. (p. 155)
McCabe sums up his position in striking remarks like: “Our praying is as much God’s gift as is the answer to it,” and “if you want to be forgiven, that is because God is forgiving you” (p. 25). Our prayers and repentance are not precursors to God’s loving action but precisely a manifestation of it.
McCabe also has some illuminating things to say about the Trinity, in the course of expounding Aquinas’s views on the subject. Here too he takes the philosophical points made above to be crucial to a proper understanding of theology. He begins by noting:
There are people who think that the notion of God is a relatively clear one; you know where you are when you are simply talking about God whereas when it comes to the Trinity we move into the incomprehensible where our reason breaks down. To understand Aquinas it is essential to see that for him our reason has already broken down when we talk of God at all – at least it has broken down in the sense of recognizing what is beyond it. (p. 269)
Again, because God is that which accounts for there being anything at all, what is true of the things we are accounting for by reference to God cannot be true of God himself. Hence we have a clearer grasp of what God is not than we do of what he is. He is already mysterious to us even before we consider the doctrine of the Trinity, so that the difficulties we have in grasping the latter should hardly be surprising.
In other ways too, negative theology is in McCabe’s view essential to approaching the doctrine of the Trinity. Here he draws an analogy with physics. The physicist is pushed to describe certain micro-level phenomena both in terms that apply to particles and in terms that apply to waves. This sounds contradictory, but it is not, because the aspects of ordinary physical objects which would preclude their being both wave-like and particle-like don’t apply to the micro-level phenomena the physicist is describing. That leaves us with a largely negative conception of the micro-level phenomena and thus with a high degree of mystery. We can say that the phenomena are in some way both wave-like and particle-like and also that whatever might make these ascriptions contradictory cannot be true of the phenomena, but it is much harder to give further positive content to our description.
Similarly, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that there are three Persons in one God, and negative theology tells us that whatever would make such an assertion contradictory cannot be true of the divine nature. But that leaves us with a largely negative conception of the Trinity. As with wave-particle duality, it is easier to grasp what the Trinity is not than what it is.
Still, we can say something further, though here too negative theology plays a crucial role. McCabe points out that on Aquinas’s philosophy of mind, to have an intellect is essentially to have the capacity to possess form without matter. For example, when you understand what a dog is, your intellect takes on the form or nature of a dog but in a way that abstracts it or divorces it from the matter in which it is embedded in the case of a given particular individual dog. Now, when this account is worked out it has the consequence that something is an intellect if and only if it is immaterial. Intellects are necessarily immaterial and immaterial substances are necessarily intellects. Naturally, all this raises questions, but McCabe’s point in his essay on the Trinity is not to defend Aquinas’s philosophy of mind but to show how it gets applied in an analysis of the Trinity.
Now, negative theology tells us that God is immaterial, since he is that which accounts for why anything exists at all, including material things. He must be distinct from the material world that is among his effects. But if being immaterial entails being an intellect, then we have to conclude that God is an intellect, albeit one from which we have to subtract all the limitations that apply to human intellects. There is also the fact that even when it comes to the human intellect, our conception is largely negative. It is easier to say what the intellect is not than what it is. So, attributing intellect to God, while it adds content to our conception of him, is itself largely a further application of negative theology.
Still, it is one that is especially relevant to the doctrine of the Trinity, because it opens the door to the traditional analysis of the Persons of the Trinity on the model of the intellect (which corresponds to the Father), the intellect’s idea of itself (which corresponds to the Son), and the intellect’s willing of that idea (which corresponds to the Holy Spirit). Once again, negative theology is crucial, because we have to subtract from our understanding of this model any of the limitations that apply to finite intellects like ours.
Among the things we have to subtract is the notion that God’s idea of himself is a kind of accident or modification of God, the way that our ideas are accidents or modifications of our intellects. For this would make God composite, and among the conclusions of negative theology is that God is non-composite or simple. Divine simplicity is sometimes claimed to be in tension with the doctrine of the Trinity, but as McCabe shows, in fact it is essential to understanding the Trinity. Divine simplicity entails that whatever is in God is God, and thus God’s idea of himself, and his willing of that idea, are God – exactly what we should expect given the Trinitarian insistence that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet they are not three Gods.
Simplicity is also essential to understanding the idea that the Persons of the Trinity are to be understood as relations. For example, the Father is said to generate the Son and the Son to be generated by the Father. But we have to subtract from these notions any supposition that the relations in question are accidents of God, the way that a human father’s relation to his son is a kind of accident. Again, whatever is in God is God. Hence God the Father doesn’t have a relation, he is a relation. This is mysterious, McCabe acknowledges, but then, God is mysterious anyway, even apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.
McCabe has much else of interest to say about the divine nature (as well as the other topics in the anthology referred to above) but I have been emphasizing the remarks that involve application of the idea that God is fundamentally that which accounts for why anything exists at all.
Again, McCabe heavily emphasizes the ways in which this entails a negative theology. In my opinion, he sometimes overdoes this a bit. Theological language cannot be construed in an entirely negative way. The most basic of theological assertions – that God exists – is at bottom an affirmative assertion, however many negative theological qualifications we put on it. And talk of the divine attributes would have no content or motivation at all if we took their content to be entirely negative. Negative theology is an essential corrective to theological misunderstanding, but it is not a complete account of theological language, and sometimes McCabe says things that seem to give the opposite impression. All the same, these days the greater danger is to go to the opposite extreme of crudely anthropomorphizing God, and McCabe does a great service in exposing the folly and theological shallowness of doing so.