Post Author: Bill Pratt
Is God a bearded old man living in the sky somewhere or is he completely unknowable? Both of these conceptions of God are held by various religious believers. When presenting a Christian conception of God on this blog, we have striven to follow the traditional, mainstream views of the church as elucidated by Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, and similar thinkers. If I were a skeptic of Christianity and wanted to critique the Christian conception of God, this is the conception I would address.
Edward Feser, in his book The Last Superstition, laments that very often skeptics do not even attempt to engage the traditional conception of God, but a much simpler conception. To help readers understand his point, he offers five gradations of conceptions of God, from simple to more complete.
Grade 1: God is literally an old man with a white beard, a kind if stern wizard-like being with very human thoughts and motivations who lives in a place called Heaven, which is like the places we know except for being very far away and impossible to get to except through magical means.
Feser notes that Grade 1 “represents a child’s conception of God, and perhaps that of some uneducated adults.” This does not mean that Grade 1 is totally without merit. “Some individuals, and certainly young children, find it difficult to understand God in anything but grade 1 terms, and such imagery can be more or less useful in giving them at least a rudimentary idea of Him.”
Grade 2: God doesn’t really have a bodily form, and his thoughts and motivations are in many respects very different from ours. He is an immaterial object or substance which has existed forever, and (perhaps) pervades all space. Still, he is, somehow, a person like we are, only vastly more intelligent, powerful, and virtuous, and in particular without our physical and moral limitations. He made the world the way a carpenter builds a house, as an independent object that would carry on even if he were to “go away” from it, but he nevertheless may decide to intervene in its operations from time to time.
Feser explains that “Grade 2 represents the conception of some educated religious believers, of popular apologetics, and of arguments like Paley’s ‘Design argument.'” Grade 2 is better than Grade 1 because it eliminates the “limitations inherent in physical imagery, which cannot apply to God.”
There are are three more grades to go and we will cover them in part 2 of the post.