God: Abstraction or Person?

I find it reasonable to think that at the back of all changing things stands a changeless, fully active principle – one which causes other things to change in various ways. In short, I’m convinced of Aristotle’s unmoved mover argument.

But the argument takes you, not to the concept of a changing, thinking person, but some abstract notion of “pure being” as such. Thus we are driven to hold concepts like the impassibility of God – i.e. that the existence and even suffering of humans makes no difference to his own experienced, changeless bliss. This view of God is Platonic – it involves viewing God as the abstraction “good” as such. That being the case, he cannot have any sort of evil – any sort of psychologically painful experience – infect his being. This is because as the abstraction “good” he is an ideal, something which is purely what it is, like the color white. As soon as you make a mark on a perfectly white page, you no longer have perfect, ideal white as such. You have tainted your abstraction and mixed it with something else.

If this is how God is, it means it literally makes no difference to him what goes on in the world. Every human being could be experiencing torture right now, and he would be just as infinitely happy if none of them were, or even if they didn’t exist. Of course, Classical theologians will say that an impassible God can still “care” for his creation on this model. God need not suffer just because others are suffering in order to be fully concerned with helping those sufferers out. He need not be starving himself in order to give food to starving people.

But when I ask myself which thing is a better person – one who cannot suffer and therefore one to whom it makes no difference whether or not other people suffer or even exist, or one who can so suffer with and because other people are suffering – when I ask which person is greater, rather than which notion lines up better with a Platonic abstraction of “The Good,” I think I choose the latter.

But what about the argument for an unchangeable principle? And what about all the other arguments that classical theism employs (and which are quite powerful), such as the argument from contingency and mutability?

Well suppose that principle still exists and that those arguments are valid. Suppose God does have a necessary and unchanging nature. The question seems to be, why suppose that such a thing is identical with his personal experience? 

Undoubtedly there is some aspect of me that is unchanging. Otherwise, I could not be myself as I endured through time. But that aspect, whatever it is, is certainly not my conscious experience. It is not my emotional life, nor my creative life, nor my actions, nor my love. These things constantly break forth anew – sometimes in ways I did not previously imagine, even though they are from my own being. And that seems to me a good thing. It seems to me something enjoyable, joyous even, to be surprised at one’s own being. If you were to tell me that a new thought could never enter my mind and that I would never experience “novelty” again, I would be quite disappointed.

And it is not only the experience as such which makes the enjoyment. It is the passage, the creative rhythms to life, the unknown discovery of oneself and others, which is most wondrous and fascinating. To be held in awe, to be able only to marvel at one’s lack of comprehension, to be surprised at oneself: these are deeply meaningful personal experiences. If God is a person, how could he be fully alive if he lacked them?

The classical theologian will object that if God is emotionally moved by the world, or if his experience is enriched or diminished by it, then he is not the ultimate first cause. He is one more contingent thing that gets its being and is actualized by something outside himself. In which case, he is not the supreme being. But I have always wondered, why cannot God be emotionally moved by the world and depend on it if he has freely chosen to be? If God freely decides to enter into such a relation, why can’t he? To say it such is impossible is to conclude that God necessarily cannot be related to the world at all. But then how could he freely create at all? If God can only be what he necessarily is in himself, and cannot turn to other things outside himself because that would make his being actualized by such things, then how could he even create such things, which would then at the very least involve him now having the property “creator” which he did not have before?

In fact what is so interesting is that Aquinas and the whole classical line held that God “could” do other than he does. He could have not created. But wouldn’t that mean that God was able, at some time, to either create or not create? If we say of anything that it “can” or “could” that implies that at one time it stood or is standing in a potential relation to whatever that thing is we are referencing. If I “can” get up from the chair that means that right now I can potentially stand up. It makes no sense to say I could do something other than I am doing if I am changelessly doing that very thing.

And look what follows: if God could have not created, he must have existed at some time in the past when he was able to either create or not. But then he would not be timeless. At best he could only be eternal. Further, if God really was able to create or not, then he must have been able to relate himself to something outside himself by his own free action.

Thus, the classical model cracks under the pressure of trying to fit the personal, choosing, acting God into the mould of the Aristotelian-Platonic abstraction of The Good, Actus Purus, or Being as such.

Perhaps we should take a longer look at replacing that picture – or at least modifying it – to better reflect a being who seems to us to be greater and more worthy of love and worship.

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