Who Is God? Part 2

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.

  • Anonymous

    I hate to break this to you, Bill, but Feser’s Level 1 and 2 are straw-men, and Feser’s Level 3 is meaningless word salad.

    What on earth can it possibly mean to say that something is “pure being or existence itself” and yet “utterly distinct from the world of time, space and things”?

  • Andrew_EC,
    You’re just proving Feser’s point. Go read the great theologians and learn what these terms mean. Your ignorance of theology does not make the subject meaningless.

    With regard to grades 1, every time a skeptic of Christianity compares God to a flying spaghetti monster or a unicorn or leprechauns, they are betraying a grade 1 conception of God.

  • Anonymous

    Those are *jokes*, Bill.

  • Andrew_EC

    Also, spare me your condescension. I’ve read plenty of theology — probably more than you have, if I were to take a stab in the dark. I’m not saying I don’t *understand* it. I’m saying that the terms used literally make no sense. They’re self-contradictory.

  • Todd

    I have to agree that Level 3 is “meaningless word salad” (thanks Andrew, I like that term). What I find fascinating is when presented with this mumbo jumbo someone rationalizes it as truth. If any normal person were to be given this explanation for anything but god, they would instantly realize their salesman is not smelling what he’s shoveling. But describe god as a contradiction inside an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by a mystery and Christians will nod their heads sagely at the apt description to which they dedicate their lives…

  • Maybe you’ve used those as jokes, but I have spoken to many skeptics, in person, who say things like, “I don’t believe in God just like I don’t believe in fairies.” They think they are putting forth a real argument, not a joke. They are comparing God to a fairy (or pick whatever other similar creature) and they demand that I respond to this “argument.”

    Maybe you should talk to your fellow skeptics about dropping this ridiculous line of argumentation and actually deal with the actual Christian conception of God.

  • I’m sorry you don’t understand Aristotle’s metaphysics as developed by the Scholastics. The terms used are well-defined and well understood by many philosophers and theologians. Since you are clearly not unintelligent, I can only assume that you do not want to understand.

  • Raphael Wong

    Well, because God – and the capital ‘G’ is important in this case 0 is not anything else; in fact in Principle God is not a “something” at all.

    Level 1 and 2 are straw-men, but even as straw-men they capture some aspects of God, although these aspects are very limited indeed. Fallacies are fallacies not because they are totally wrong, but because they stretch one aspect to cover too wide a scope.

    Level 3 is a philosophical concept, so it is more complex to grasp. It is “word salad” to you and Andrew because you don’t understand it, and because describing God strains language. Language creates models of reality; models, by their nature, only capture aspects of reality, so they can never capture the whole of reality. But to describe God fully, you need to describe the whole of reality fully, because God is connected to every portion of reality. The “word salad” is generated because of the tension between the act of division performed by language, and the unitary descriptive thread needed to describe God.

    Levels 1 and 2 result from our instinctive mode of creating models to simplify reality for consumption. But to understand reality and to understand models of reality are different. God cannot be simplified to one model. That’s why in Christianity God is linked to the unified flesh-and-blood-and-spirit of Jesus Christ. That is how the model can arise of Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God.

  • Raphael Wong

    I think they started off as jokes, but they have become something else entirely already. There is even a “Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn” on facebook; people do actually THINK that God is equivalent to the Invisible Pink Unicorn… the comparison is much more than a mere joke.

  • Raphael Wong

    If they are well understood by many philosophers, then there wouldn’t be so many people ditching Aristotle in universities nowadays…

  • Anonymous

    Respectfully, this doesn’t salvage Feser’s original claim.

    *Comparing* God to a fairy is not the same as saying that God *is* a fairy. The two are indeed comparable in at least two respects — (a) there’s no direct evidence of either, and (b) lots of people have faked direct evidence of both.

    Now, you’re free to argue that the two are disanalogous in more ways than they are analogous. Heck, you might even be correct!

    But seriously, Bill: *no* atheist thinks that God *literally* is “an old man with a white beard who lives in the sky.”

  • Anonymous

    Dude: just because we don’t *agree* with you doesn’t mean we don’t *understand* you.

  • Benjamin Baxter

    This was probably the most useful illustration Feser used in the whole book. Grades 1 and 2 are not straw men, either: Whatever the founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster meant by comparing God to a Flying Spaghetti Monster, there are very, very, very many FSM-esque mockeries who are equated in every way with God. Do we even need to mention Maher and his disdain for, and I nearly quote, that “sky-god?”

    It is worth saying, too, that Grades 1 and 2 exist within Christianity /and validly/. As Feser says elsewhere in the passage — I think; it’s been some months since I read it — it is more accurate to say that God is a man in a cloud than He is the universe, for His distinctiveness from the universe is therefore clear, &c. We cannot jump from not knowing God to understanding Him as Grade 3. We progress from one to the next to even better.

  • Boz

    “He is pure being or existence itself”

    “maintaining them[things] in being at every moment”

    What does this mean? These phrases are not communicating any information to me.

  • Todd

    On another note, I find it interesting how people can know so well what “God is” or “God is not”. It is well established that there is no empirical proof of god, and yet anyone that wants to believe in such fantasy is quick to give and defend god’s attributes. Even if you want to look at the idea of god through the flimsy scope of an analogous concept, it is an intellectual leap to say you know that god is linked to the continual maintenance of the universe, not personal, connected to reality, linked to flesh-and-blood, or even not a man in a cloud…

    Let’s take a quick look at the “God is” and “God is not” statements just from this article and it’s responses:

    “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.”

    ““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.”

    “But God is not literally “a person” in the sense of being one individual thing among others who reasons, chooses, has moral obligations, etc.”

    “Well, because God – and the capital ‘G’ is important in this case 0 is not anything else; in fact in Principle God is not a “something” at all.”

    “God is connected to every portion of reality.”

    “That’s why in Christianity God is linked to the unified flesh-and-blood-and-spirit of Jesus Christ.”

    “As Feser says elsewhere in the passage — I think; it’s been some months since I read it — it is more accurate to say that God is a man in a cloud than He is the universe, for His distinctiveness from the universe is therefore clear, &c.”

  • I would say that’s not because they don’t understand Aristotle, but because they do not like the theistic implications of Aristotle’s metaphysics.

  • Anonymous

    I… we’re seriously having a conversation in 2011 about *Aristotle*’s metaphysics?

    The guy who wrote an entire book claiming that women have fewer teeth than men (and that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, and others), despite the fact that he was married?

    The guy who — in the course of writing his tome — never once thought to LOOK IN HIS WIFE’S MOUTH to validate his hypothesis?

    Actually, as I think about it, this is probably a perfect pairing with theologians….

  • Andrew,
    Are there any other fathers of western civilization you would like to mock? I assume you would also like to make fun of Plato and Socrates. Would you care to provide us a list of all the great thinkers of the last 3,000 years that we should ignore?

  • Anonymous

    Andrew, It would probably be more useful to keep the argument about the argument, rather than about what degree of authority which should be properly given to Aristotle. (Skillful diversion, BTW) In none of the above do I read Aristotle trotted out as an unquestionable authority, to be believed because he said it.
    I do find him cited as the source for certain ideas of what a God must be like. You are certainly free to challenge those ideas, even reject them out of hand. But to claim that they are devoid of meaning, when they have been discussed as having content, pro and con, by greater minds than around this blog, for some 2,300 years? Well, it may be so, you may be the one to notice after all this time that his formulations are empty on their face, but that is not the smart money bet.
    Also, I note that this is not a particularly Christian issue, we haven’t got within miles of any Christian distinctive, and Aristotle was certainly not one. He is quite safe.

  • Anonymous

    R. Eric Sawyer: I was responding to Bill, who explicitly accused me (with zero evidence, but hey) of “not lik[ing] the implications of Aristotle’s metaphysics.”

    So, *you* may not be citing Aristotle as an authority, but Bill certainly is.

    Bill: To be slightly less snarky, how about this?

    Aristotle’s metaphysics are completely without merit. It isn’t that I don’t *like* them; it’s that he’s wrong.

    Better?

  • Anonymous

    Fairly said.
    Why is he wrong? (“Out of favor” or “Makes no sense” don’t help much)

  • Andrew,
    I never said you didn’t like the implications of Aristotle’s metaphysics. I was responding to Raphael who said that Aristotle was being ditched in universities. I don’t know why you thought I was applying this to you.

  • Anonymous

    Bill: Sorry — your reply to me accused me of not *understanding* Aristotle’s metaphysics.

    I would say that within that (baseless) criticism is the implication that Aristotle’s metaphysics are not completely wrong.

    Aristotle’s metaphysics are useful in a freshman Western Civ class; you need to understand his ideas in order to understand (say) the Enlightenment. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that he’s, you know, *right* about this stuff.

  • The Chisel

    Can someone please answer the question for me; Why do some people feel that they can tell others what they can, and cannot concieve of God?

    I don’t buy that “Mystic experience” or “supernaturally granted” garbage either, and essentially don’t trust a thing that came from Agustine.

    Is the simple act of concieving God not devine? and wouldn’t the most innocent, and scencere conceptions be the truest?

    Please, somebody. This issue frustrates me endlessly.

  • How do innocence and sincerity lead logically to truth? A sincere person may be sincerely wrong.

  • Anonymous

    He’s wrong about just about everything, so here’s one specific example.

    We know now that Aristotle’s conception of causes does not match up to the real world, particularly in the context of quantum mechanics. Nothing “causes” a particular radioactive isotope to decay, for example.

    Much of the rest of the _Metaphysics_ suffers from this sort of disconnect — e.g., Aristotle’s definition of “substance.” I probably should have spared the little jibe I made earlier about Aristotle not verifying his wife’s teeth; it’s true, but a somewhat cheap shot. It’s no insult to say that your work was useful for 2000 years but superceded in the past 2-300.

    Helpful?

  • The Chisel

    Thank you for the response but that doesn’t answer my question.

    Why do some people feel that they can tell others what they can, and cannot concieve of God?

  • The Chisel

    So wild guess here, I’m not going to get an answer am I?

  • Chisel,
    Your “question” is an accusation put in the form of a question. I don’t generally answer accusations. if I have misunderstood you, please re-phrase your “question” so that it is actually a question, not an accusation.

  • The Chisel

    Yes you have infact misunderstood me, it was a question asked in earnest.

    “Why do some people feel they can tell others what they can, and cannot concieve of God?”

    there’s no acccusation or finger pointing there. Just an honest curiosity.

  • Vaclav Chmelir

    This is complete ridiculous.