Theism or pantheism
Let’s consider the first of a series of sermons on that topic he delivered at Notre Dame in Paris. The theme is God’s existence, and Lacordaire’s takeoff point is the first article of the Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” Lacordaire proposes the striking thesis that the only alternative to this conviction is the contrary affirmation: “I believe in nature, the mother almighty.”
Given that our age is prone both to naturalism and to feminism, one might well wonder whether there is some connection between them. I think that there is, but that is a topic for another time. For, notwithstanding his arresting formulation, that is not in fact Lacordaire’s own theme. The accent in his use of the phrase “nature, the mother almighty” is on the word “almighty,” for what he has in mind is a pantheistic conception of nature. And the upshot of his striking thesis is that some kind of pantheism is the only alternative to the theism affirmed in the first line of the Creed.
Contemporary readers will find that surprising. Surely, it will be suggested, atheism is an obvious third alternative. But I would suggest that to understand why Lacordaire says what he does, we need to keep in mind the way in which the great classical theist tradition conceives of the divine, and how it differs from the excessively anthropomorphic way of thinking about God that prevails in modern times (a tendency that Brian Davies has labelled “theistic personalism” and David Bentley Hart calls “monopolytheism”).
For classical theism – the tradition represented both by Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and by the greatest minds of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic theology – the starting point for understanding what God is is to think of him as the ultimate reality, and the source of all other reality. Most classical theists also regard God as personal insofar as he has intellect and will, but that has to do with the nature of God rather than with his existence. Now, if you take this as your starting point in thinking about God, then the thesis that the ultimate reality is just nature itself is naturally going to smack, not of atheism, but rather of pantheism – of collapsing God down into the world, as it were.
Now, for more anthropomorphic conceptions of God, the starting point for understanding what God is is instead to think of him as a person like us, only without our limitations. He’s like Zeus or Odin, but without a body or the petty foibles and restrictions on his power that the gods of the pagan pantheons have. At the same time, though, he is not conceived of in the terms by which classical theists have hammered out what being the ultimate reality entails – subsistent being itself, pure actuality, absolute simplicity, and the like. Hence, for “theistic personalist” types, God ends up being more or less like a pagan deity after all, except for being unique, stronger, smarter, and better behaved. Hence Hart’s apt label “monopolytheism.”
Now, if your approach to conceptualizing God is of that sort, then it is understandable why a view that denies the existence of any gods so conceived of would seem most fittingly labeled atheistic rather than pantheistic. And the fact that most atheists today also conceive of God in theistic personalist rather than classical theist terms is one reason (I don’t say it is the only reason) why they tend to think of themselves as atheists rather than as pantheists.
(Long and bitter experience has taught me that at this point I need to reiterate that the dispute between classical theism and theistic personalism is not about whether God is personal or impersonal – even if some people seem hell-bent on perpetuating this misunderstanding. Again, most classical theists, and certainly all Christian classical theists, affirm that God is personal. They would not only acknowledge, but insist, that there is intellect and will in God, and that he is three divine Persons in one substance. The dispute is instead about divine attributes such as simplicity, immutability, and eternity, and about whether God can be said to fall into any genus.)
It is worth adding that, though contemporary naturalists and atheists are certainly not the most reverent of personality types, even some of them are known to rhapsodize over the beauty of nature and the fundamental laws that govern it, in a way that really does not make much sense if you think of it all as just a big pile of particles differing only in size rather than significance from the little pile of dust and cobwebs that sits in the corner of your bedroom. What this amounts to, I would argue, is an inchoate and distorted expression of our natural inclination to affirm the reality of and worship a divine first principle – a natural inclination which, due to original sin, gets manifested in all kinds of distorted ways not only in the history of religion, but also in the history of irreligion. Naturally, the atheist will dismiss all this as a cognitive illusion generated by an overactive propensity to attribute agency to phenomena, blah blah blah. The point, though, is that the inclination is there, however one wants to explain it. And it lends further plausibility to Lacordaire’s thesis.
Four ways to God
Lacordaire does not, in his sermon, put forward rigorous proofs of God’s existence, as a Scholastic philosopher would in a metaphysical treatise. The reason is precisely that he is giving a sermon rather than writing a metaphysical treatise. But he does summarize what he takes to be four fundamental considerations that point to the truth of theism rather than the pantheism that he regards as its only realistic alternative. They have to do with: nature, truth, conscience, and society. Readers with a deep knowledge of the classical theist tradition will recognize in his remarks summaries of lines of argument that have indeed been developed more thoroughly and rigorously in that tradition. Here are a summary of, and some comments on, these four considerations:
1. Nature: Lacordaire first emphasizes that when we consider the natural world, we find that it is limited and subject to physical law. It therefore simply lacks the ultimacy that a first principle would have to have. The world is of this nature rather than that one; it is governed by these laws rather than those. Why? It could have been otherwise, yet it isn’t. Hence it needs an explanation beyond itself, and therefore cannot itself be the ultimate reality. Nature thus points beyond itself to a source that is infinite and subject to nothing outside itself. It points away from pantheism to theism.
We can think of this as a generic formulation of the cosmological argument for God’s existence, which can be spelled out more rigorously and in detail in several different ways. The versions I think the most powerful are what I have called the Aristotelian proof, the Neo-Platonic proof, the Thomistic proof, and the Rationalist proof, and I have expounded and defended them in Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Lacordaire’s exposition is more loose and popular than any of those arguments, but there is nothing per se wrong with that given that he was, again, giving a sermon (any more than a popular exposition of any subject – whether quantum mechanics, restorative dentistry, or automotive repair – should be faulted on the grounds that it fails to satisfy the rigorous demands of the expert).
2. Truth: Lacordaire next discusses how the human intellect is able to arrive at knowledge of a body of truths that is infinite in contrast with the natural world’s finitude, and of which the natural world is but a shadow. Anyone familiar with the classical and Scholastic traditions in philosophy will recognize that he is here alluding to the Platonic idea that in our knowledge of mathematics and of the essences of things, we are tapping into a realm of infinite, eternal, and necessary truths that outstrip both the material world and any finite mind or collection of finite minds. And when Lacordaire goes on to argue that the reality of this realm in turn presupposes a divine mind, the knowledgeable reader will recognize in this a version of what I have called the Augustinian proof of God’s existence (and which I have also expounded and defended in Five Proofs).
3. Conscience: The third consideration raised by Lacordaire has to do with the idea that our consciences take justice to be an objective feature of reality, and that we cannot ultimately make sense of this unless we recognize a divine lawgiver. In other words, he is giving a version of the moral argument for God’s existence.
That is not an argument that I have myself defended or said much about. That is not because I think it is wrong. To be sure, and as I have often said, I think that at least the fundamental principles of natural law and their rationally binding force can be known just by studying human nature, albeit human nature as interpreted through an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. You can do a great deal of ethics without having to bring theology into it, just as you can do chemistry and physiology without having to bring theology into it. However, I would not deny that a complete system of natural law requires appeal to natural theology, for reasons I discuss in the last section of chapter 5 of my book Aquinas. And those reasons do indeed provide the basis for a version of the moral argument for God’s existence.
The reason I have nevertheless not talked much about that sort of argument myself is this. In order to spell out such an argument, you need to defend the reality of teleology as an intrinsic feature of the natural order, since that is absolutely crucial to making sense of natural law. And in order to make sense of the notion of conformity to the divine will as the ultimate standard of the goodness of a human will, you need to spell out the sense in which the divine intellect is ultimately what orders things to their ends. But by the time you’ve done all that, you’ve more or less spelled out the key ingredients of Aquinas’s Fifth Way of arguing for God’s existence – his version of a teleological argument.
Hence it has long seemed to me that the moral argument, rightly developed, is essentially a riff on or a corollary of the Fifth Way. And in that case, one might as well just defend the Fifth Way itself (which I have done in several places, most thoroughly in my article “Between Aristotle and William Paley: Aquinas’s Fifth Way,” reprinted in my anthology Neo-Scholastic Essays).
I don’t mean to imply that the moral argument has no value. On the contrary, there are no doubt contexts in which moral considerations are the appropriate ones to begin with in arguing for God’s existence. But it seems to me that those would be contexts in which one’s audience is already prepared to acknowledge the objective reality of natural teleology and of moral goodness. That was, needless to say, likelier in Lacordaire’s time than in ours, so that the moral argument seems to me less effective in current cultural circumstances, and in any event a less fundamental argument than the others I’ve mentioned.
The astute reader may have noticed that Lacordaire’s first three approaches to establishing God’s existence roughly correspond to three of what Scholastic philosophers call the transcendentals – namely being, truth, and goodness. In Scholastic thought, these are convertible, the same thing looked at from different points of view. Hence, just as God is being itself, he is also truth itself and goodness itself. And thus, just as we can arrive at knowledge of God through the first transcendental (by arguing from what merely participates in being to that which just is being itself, as in the different versions of the cosmological argument I referred to above), and through the second transcendental (by way of the Augustinian proof), so too, it stands to reason, should we be able to arrive at it through the third (e.g. by way of a moral argument).
But that requires our having a sufficiently firm grasp of goodness as an objective feature of reality. And though it deludes itself that it is especially morally enlightened, our age is in fact so extremely morally depraved and blind to natural goodness that the latter is no longer a very effective avenue by which to draw the mind upward to God. (To revise Chrissie Hynde’s revision of Oscar Wilde, we are all of us in the gutter… and some of us seem quite happy to stay there.)
4. Society: Similarly more difficult to deploy today than in Lacordaire’s time is his fourth and final avenue of arriving at knowledge of God. Lacordaire points out that skepticism about God’s existence and about the objectivity of truth and of justice have, historically, largely been confined to a small minority of society – namely the powerful and educated elite, who out of pride delude themselves into thinking that they have no need of such ideas, and are able to develop clever sophistries to rationalize their rejection of them. The vast majority of society do not have the luxury of such delusions, and thus have been far less likely to fall into them. The pain of ordinary life that has been the lot of most people historically has been such that they have had no desire to try to talk themselves out of what we are by nature inclined to believe – that there is a divine cause of the world, that truth is absolute rather than relative, and that there is an objective moral order to which we are answerable.
But even if this is so, how, it might be asked, could it give us rational grounds for believing in these things? Doesn’t it amount to a fallacious appeal to majority? No, it does not. What Lacordaire sketches out here seems to me best read as a version of what is sometimes called an “argument from desire” for God’s existence. Such an argument first tries to establish that the inclination to believe in and desire God is built into our very nature. The appeal to what most people have thought historically functions as evidence for this thesis. The argument then appeals to the Aristotelian thesis that a natural inclination cannot be in vain – that is to say, that we cannot be directed by nature toward some end unless it is possible to achieve it. The argument then concludes that given our natural desire for God together with this Aristotelian thesis, we can conclude that God really does exist.
Needless to say, such an argument would need a lot of spelling out in order to make it remotely plausible to most modern audiences. Now, as I have said elsewhere, I think arguments of that sort can indeed be spelled out in a way that shows them to be plausible. The trouble is that doing so requires so much in the way of defending various background metaphysical assumptions that by the time you are done with that, you will already have effectively laid the foundations for establishing God’s existence by some other and more direct argument (such as the arguments I defend in Five Proofs). And in that case, the argument from desire will be otiose. In short, Lacordaire’s fourth line of argument, like his third, is not wrong, but rather simply less effective as a way of drawing most contemporary readers’ minds up to God.
But it isn’t just that intellectual error has made it harder for modern people to understand, much less see the force of, such arguments. It is that the material prosperity that was once confined to a relatively small elite is now enjoyed by a vastly larger portion of society, which has the wherewithal to maintain itself in lifelong comfort, to distract itself with endless amusements, and thereby to deceive itself into thinking it has no need of God. Christ famously said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, and the reason has to do with the latter’s prideful sense of self-sufficiency, and the deadly vice of acedia that material prosperity tends to foster. Hence the majority which, in Lacordaire’s day and in previous eras, hadn’t the luxury to entertain the sophistries he decries, is a much smaller majority today – and, in the contemporary West, perhaps not a majority at all.