Saturday, January 25, 2014

Is God Simple?

The question of whether God is 'simple' is recently being discussed, again.

We all agree that 'God is One', and has an essential unity. The issue is whether there is any kind of internal structure to God.

The discussion started with David Bentley Hart's recent book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  One reviewer summarizes Hart's view as
First, there was a consensus among ancient philosophers and theologians regarding the simplicity of God. Divine simplicity can be stated in many ways, but it basically means that God has no parts. Or you could just say that God is immaterial (since anything material can be divided). Second, this consensus was shared by nearly all the world’s oldest religions. Third, this consensus is crucial for the Christian faith. It is, in fact, the only way to make sense of God, and thus it is fundamental for everything that Christians believe and say about the divine.
This kind of view, Vincent Torley reminds us, is a theological consensus. Torley quotes the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser:
As I have indicated in earlier posts, the doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church, affirmed at the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council, and the denial of which amounts to heresy. (Classical theism, September 30, 2010.)
It should be noted that not only Christians, but Jews and Muslims, have traditionally affirmed the doctrine of God’s simplicity. According to the article on Divine Simplicity in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the roots of [the doctrine of God's] simplicity go back to the Ancient Greeks, well before its formal defense by representative thinkers of the three great monotheistic religions— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” It adds:
…representative thinkers of all three great monotheistic traditions recognize the doctrine of divine simplicity to be central to any credible account of a creator God’s ontological situation. Avicenna (980–1037), Averroes (1126–98), Anselm of Canterbury, Philo of Alexandria, and Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) all go out of their way to affirm the doctrine’s indispensability and systematic potential.
I [Torley] might add that the doctrine of Divine simplicity isn’t an invention of medieval theologians. It actually predates Christianity:
Christianity is in its infancy when the Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 B.C.E.– 50 C.E.) observes that it is already commonly accepted to think of God as Being itself and utterly simple. Philo is drawing on philosophical accounts of a supreme unity in describing God as uncomposite and eternal.

However, is it true?

Let me quote from George Porteous's book Emanuel Swedenborg: As a Philosopher, Metaphysician, and Theologian (text here), written in 1874:

Metaphysicians, since the sixth century, have all agreed that the Divine Being "is without body, parts, or passions," that He is a divine simplicity, divine essence or unity. The assertion that God is without parts, passions, and a form, amounts to the bold and blank declaration that "there is no God." It is this doctrine of the metaphysicians that is the basis of all that extreme imbecility exhibited and generated by the school-men and book-men respecting the nature of God and the faculties of man. The only hopeless mystics have been these metaphysicians. Though they lost the play of wisdom and insight, they endeavored to retain its gravity. They clutched at the reputation of being wise on the subject of Deity, and still they profess to know nothing of Deity! They built upon denials and assertions; and, in the words of the incomparable Droll—
     "They knew what's what, and that's as high As metaphysic wit can fly."
To every human note of inquiry they answered—"Mum!" To the painful utterances of struggling souls—to the voice wailing after God, "O that I might find Him," these cold men of the schools replied, "The substance of all our knowledge concerning God is the knowing what he is not, rather than what he is," and more modernly expressed by Bishop Beverage, "We cannot so well apprehend what God is, as what he is not."
God is represented on the one hand as a "pure idea," and on the other as a pure divine simplicity; now, as a "luminous abyss, without bottom, without shore, without bank, without height, without depth, without laying hold of, or attaching itself to anything—pure infinity then as a "formative appetency," a "metaphysical ens," an "infinite point," "the great ether of the universe." And solemnly let us repeat it, the framers of these definitions maintain that we cannot do better, when thinking (?) of God, than to think of Him after the fashion indicated above! Think of a luminous abyss, of a bottomless, fathomless, shoreless, bankless, depthless being! Truly this is mockery to the thought.
In striking contrast to this medley of absurdities, Swedenborg comes as a liberating angel, giving us, if not the absolutely true or final views, at least such views of God as redeem the nature of the Divine from the misapprehensions of a dull, scholastic theology, and an imbecile metaphysics, and show how God in himself exists, and what attitude He maintains to man. He clearly demonstrates that a being without body, parts, or passions, is not a being at all. His reasoning on this point, though more profound and less rationalistic and materialistic than John Locke's, is substantially the same. This great and gifted English philosopher has stated that whatever "has no form and parts has no extension, and having no extension, has no duration, and thus no existence." This is the severe logic of material reasoning: but it contains a spiritual application. Apply this reasoning to the doctrines currently taught about God. If God is without body, parts, or passions, He has no existence; for, as before observed, that which has no form, extension, and no duration, has no existence—no being—is not. When we say, " Our Father who art in heaven," we are, according to the stem logic of the preceding argument, addressing a nonentity. Do not mistake us. We are not insinuating for a moment that God has material parts or passions; all we are bent on advocating is, that God is a personality—is the infinite Divine Substance—is the only real substantial Being, with parts, and affections, and form, in ever hallowed and sublime activity. And this is Swedenborg's doctrine; yet without a knowledge of his doctrine of discrete degrees, and the nature of life, influx, and form, it is impossible, in the brief space allotted to a lecture, to give you anything approaching a clear and candid view of his position. Sufficient, however, has been advanced on the nature of God, as stated by Swedenborg, to quicken thought, and suggest volumes for your meditation.


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