Post Author: Bill Pratt
In part 1 of this post, we looked at Edward Feser’s first 2 gradations of conceptions of God. In this second part, we will finish looking at the last three gradations and than talk about why this is important.
Grade 3: God is not an object or substance alongside other objects or substances in the world; rather, He is pure being or existence itself, utterly distinct from the world of time, space, and things, underlying and maintaining them in being at every moment, and apart from whose ongoing conserving action they would be instantly annihilated. The world is not an independent object in the sense of something that might carry on if God were to “go away”; it is more like the music produced by a musician, which exists only when he plays and vanishes the moment he stops.
None of the concepts we apply to things in the world, including to ourselves, apply to God in anything but an analogous sense. Hence, for example, we may say that God is “personal” insofar as He is not less than a person, the way an animal is less than a person. But God is not literally “a person” in the sense of being one individual thing among others who reasons, chooses, has moral obligations, etc. Such concepts make no sense when literally applied to God.
According to Feser, “Grade 3 is the conception of classical philosophical theology: of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and other such thinkers.” Grade 3 captures Aquinas’s doctrine of analogous language to describe God. “God is not personal, or good, or powerful, or intelligent in the same sense in which a human being is, but He can nevertheless correctly be described in these terms if they are understood analogously.”
Grade 4: God as understood by someone who has had a mystical experience of the sort Aquinas had.
Here, Feser is referring to an experience that Aquinas reported late in life where he experienced God in a deeply profound way that made him feel like all his previous conceptions of God were totally inadequate.
Grade 5: God as [those in heaven] know him now, i.e., as known in the beatific vision attained by the blessed after death.
Feser adds that grades 4 and 5 are only attainable if “granted supernaturally by God,” while grade 3 is “about the best we can do with unaided reason.”
So where does this leave us? I think I want to address two audiences. First, since Grade 3 is the highest Christian conception of God without being granted a supernatural vision from God, it follows that Grade 3 is the conception that skeptics should address when they are challenging the attributes of the Christian God. A skeptic who is constantly challenging grade 1 or grade 2 is not dealing with the best of Christian philosophy and theology; he is ducking the fight to score easy points.
Second, since Grade 3 is the highest Christian conception of God without being granted a supernatural vision from God, it follows that Grade 3 is the conception that every Christian adult should attempt to understand. Merely stopping at grade 1 or grade 2 is an intellectual cop-out. Grade 3 stretches human reason about as far as it can go and so it represents the apex of Christian theology. That’s where all Christians should want to be, at the apex.