God and gods

It seems apparent to me that, if the atheist wishes to disprove or otherwise snub his empirically verifiable nose at the idea of God, he ought to be sure that knows what the word “God” refers to. David Bentley Hart makes this one of the central propositions of his book “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” where he contends that “the more scrutiny one accords [the God Debate] the more evident it becomes that often the contending parties are not even talking about the same thing; and I would go as far as to say that on most occasions none of them is talking about God in any sense at all.”

There is a tendency, for instance, for atheists to believe that God is a god. The best example of this is in the following, oft-heard “arguments” — and I use the term in the haziest possible sense — against the existence of God: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further,” or that tragic, near-mystical exercise in atheistic coyness — “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

The problem with believing that the God of philosophical tradition is just another type of powerful, supernatural being — akin to Zeus — is that He is not, and no theist can be a theist within his own tradition and maintain otherwise. The successful dismissal of God-as-all-other-gods has all the nonsensical weight of dismissing the existence of a buffalo considered as a planet. The gods are contingent beings. They all have stories of their own creation — something else is always responsible for their existence. They are always popping out of someone else’s head or, if you have the misfortune of being Aphrodite, from Uranus’ detached and far-flung genitals. They are explained by some prior cause.

This is not God. God, if we are going to talk about the same thing, cannot be considered as a contingent being. God, considered properly, is the source of his own existence. He is absolute, which is infinitely, qualitatively different than the contingency of “all other gods,” as it is from all other beings. The Christian has every right to agree with the atheist who refuses to believe in God with the same vigor by which he refuses to believe in Zeus, a fairy or a flying spaghetti monster. For any fairies or noodly phantasmagoria — if they do exist — would not contain the source of their own existence.

Not understanding that this is what Christians actually mean when they say “God” is the primary reason why any one lends any credence to the that pervasive and Reddit-friendly “argument,” that “If God created all things, who created God?” The question only makes sense if we are speaking of a god, a very powerful, but nevertheless contingent being, a being who does not contain the source of his own existence and must be held in being by some other cause. Why then, does the theist posit the existence of an absolute God? Why believe in God and not god?

The average atheistic minded homo sapien – and the average Christian who doesn’t know better — seems to think that theists are proving the existence of a “god who started it all.” The argument goes like this: Every effect has a cause, and every moving thing is set in motion by some other thing, and thus there must be something which sets the first mechanical movement in motion, and — lest we become caught in infinite regress — this thing must be Uncaused, Unmoved, in short, Absolute. If all things are contingent, the first cause cannot itself be contingent, or else nothing would ever have come into existence. If all that ever existed was always contingent upon something else for its existence, nothing would ever exist. Therefore, from the fact of contingent existence, we may reasonably posit an absolute source of existence.

Now I’ll grant that this argument has more than enough weight to give the atheist pause.  After all, the only alternative to positing a first cause is positing some form of infinite regress. And atheists have, with wonderful gusto. The universe always existed, it is but one of an infinitely repeating cycle of universes, an infinite repetition of a Big Bang and Big Crunch, cycling through a wormhole, etc. If the theist questions the reasonable grounds for these theories, atheists generally point to the fact that, whatever poverty of evidence these theories suffer, they suffer no more than the theory of God.

It seems that we are at an impasse. The theist looks at the contingency of all things and posits an absolute which gives all contingent things a starting point — an Unmoved Mover. The atheist looks at the same and posits an infinite universe. Neither position seems to be rustling up any unopposable proof of its truth anytime soon. The theist may rightly ask how, if particular events are caused by an infinite number of prior events, any would ever happen. The atheist may rightly ask why an absolute on which all contingent things have their source has to be “God” in any meaningful sense.

But this first mover  (considered as so many atheists consider it, as an absolute “start” of all things (which, as readers have pointed out, is not how, say, Aquinas or anyone in the theistic tradition would consider it)) is still not God. Every single being in the entire Cosmos has some prior cause, and every single being has some other motion, event, or source that “takes responsibility” for its existence, and this is all well-worn and obvious, but things are not just contingent in their origin. Things are contingent in their current existence. Hart describes this fact well:

If one considers the terms of one’s own existence, for instance, one sees that there is no sense in which one is ever self-existent; one is dependent on an incalculable number of ever greater and ever smaller finite conditions, some of which are temporal, and some of which are definitely not, and all of which are dependent on yet further conditions. One is composed of parts, and those of smaller parts, and so on down to the subatomic level, which itself is a realm of contingently subsistent realities that flicker in and out of actuality, that have no ontological ground in themselves, and that are all embraced within a quantum field that contains no more of an essential rationale for its own existence than does any other physical reality. One also belongs to a wider world, upon all of whose physical systems one is also dependent in every moment, while that world  is itself dependent upon an immense range of greater physical realities, and upon abstract mathematical and logical laws, and upon the whole contingent history of our quite unnecessary universe…In short, all finite things are always, in the present, being sustained in existence by conditions which they cannot have supplied for themselves, and that together compose a universe that, as a physical reality, lacks the obviously supernatural power to exist on its own. Nowhere in any of that is a source of existence as such.

All things, in their present existence, are contingent upon innumerable, equally contingent realities for the fact of their sustained existence. I — right here, right now, typing these words — do not hold myself in being. The infinite regress that results from a proposed contingent universe that does not rest on any absolute — this is the same regress we are shot into when we consider, not just the origin of things, but the present existence of any single leaf, electron or baby. It is because of this fact, this poverty, this contingency that pervades our every moment, not just our physical origins, that the idea of God, and not a god, takes hold in the intellect. Hart makes this point clear:

One will not understand this line of reasoning properly, however, unless one recognizes that it is not concerned with the question of the temporal origins of the universe; it would make no difference to the argument whatsoever if it should turn out that the universe existed forever and will go on existing eternally, without beginning or end, or that it belongs to some beginningless and endless succession of universes….It might be worthwhile to invoke and old Western scholastic distinction between those causal relations that are “accidental (per accidens) and those that are “essential” or “intrinsic” (per se). The former are principally physical relations (in the broadest sense): transitions of energy, movements of mass, acts of generation or destruction, and so on. In an extended series of such relations, the consequences of a particular thing can continue indefinitely after that thing has disappeared, because all causes in the series are ontologically extrinsic to their effects. The classic example is that of a causal relation between a man and his grandson: by the time the latter is sired the former may have been dead for decades; the first act of begetting was not the direct cause of the second. The relation is one of antecedent physical history, not of immediate ontological dependency, and so the being of the grandson does not directly depend on the being of his grandfather. An example on a grander scale might be Roger Penrose’s postulate of an infinite sequence of universes that always meet at conformal past and future boundaries: even this beginningless and endless cosmogonic cycle would add up to only a causal sequence per accidens…Even if this kind of eternal chain of events and substances really were to exist, it would remain the case that, inasmuch as none of the links in that chain could be the source of its own existence, this entire series od causes and effects would be a contingent reality and would still have to sustained in a “vertical”–a per se or ontological–causality; and this second kind of of causal chain most definitely cannot have an infinite number of links. The ultimate source of existence cannot be some item or event that has long since passed away, like a venerable ancestor or even the Big Bang itself–either of which is just another contingent physical entity or occurrence–but must be a constant wellspring at work even now…The cause of being is not some mechanical first instance of physical eventuality that, having discharged its part, may depart the stage; rather, it is the unconditioned reality underlying all conditioned things in every instant.

A rejection of an absolute first “starting point” is not a rejection of God. It is, if anything, a rejection of the God of Deism, an uninvolved Absolute Domino in a cosmic line of dominoes. The God of theistic tradition, that which we mean by the word “God,” is posited by a reflection on the total contingency of all things, by the fact that no one holds the source of their own current-moment existence, any more than they do the source of their origins. A proposed absolute that results from this reflection would have to be an absolute that is an ever-present source of being, giving existence at every moment, an absolute in which all things live, move and have their being, utterly present in every single contingent thing, at every moment.

This is what the Christian tradition means by “God,” and it is not a claim done away with by the position of an infinite repetition of contingent causes, a repetition that requires a here-and-now source of being as much as it does a temporal origin. To do away with a contingent god is to do away with paganism and several sects of fundamentalism. To do away with a mere mover is to do away with Deism. To do away with the theistic tradition, one needs to confront God.

  • Tom

    Thanks for clarifying, but David Bentley Hart and Marc are talking about classical theism (which was the norm in philosophy for millennia, and still is in the Catholic Church) vs. theistic personalism (which is currently defended by WLC, Plantinga, Swinburne, and a lot of Protestants). I’m not sure where this “deistic vs. theistic God” business comes in, and I have no idea how original sin (which is just humanity rejecting God), miracles (which is easily supported by classical theism), the virgin birth and the resurrection (by which you seem to mean the Incarnation), and the Old Testament (in which God still describes himself as “I AM WHO AM”, which is pretty close to classical theism’s conception of God).

    • Brendan Wildcard Zaleski

      i guess it angers me that catholics like to pick and choose which parts of the bible are literal and figurative. it just seems arbitrary and contrived.

      • Tom

        That’s a fair bit removed from your initial contention, but I’m not really an exegete, so it seems our little engagement is drawing to a close.

        • Brendan Wildcard Zaleski

          i’m not that good at keeping conversations on track, i get tired of beating a dead horse at some point. cheers mate!

      • Gabriel Lindor

        Just a note — we don’t “pick and choose” arbitrarily…we have a particular interpretation of the Bible, because two thousand years of exegesis, study, prayer and discussion has led to agreement in the Church as to what should be taken literally, what figuratively, etc. You’re seeing the result of that deep scholarship.

        • Brendan Wildcard Zaleski

          that’s my point though. catholic tradition is completely contrived through thousands of years of scholarship and study. if you spent 2000 years thinking about unicorns and how they could be real and what it would take through breeding and genetics to create one, eventually you probably could bring it to life and make it true. the christian version of god is no different. god didn’t create us… we created him.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Why should that make you angry? It’s not like it’s a new thing. See Augustine’s On Christian doctrine for pointers. Remember, it was the Church that produced the Bible, not the other way around.

  • Lobi

    The universe being rather old, rather cold, rather empty and so forth, seems to be a precondition for our existence. It does not need to make the theist pause and think “golly, what if God does not exist, now that I know how big the universe is”, it could just as well make the theist think “golly, what an enormous universe, what lengths God has gone to make life possible!”

    Either spin is just an artificial poetry imposed on to the facts of the universe.

  • St.AmyR

    He is, the is probably getting it up the ass as we speak.

  • Dario

    Semitic people had hundreds, maybe thousands of years, to mold the meaning of the word “El”, originally the singular form of “elohim” (“gods”) into what He revealed to be.
    The characteristics of “El” (semitic term) were “lost in translation” when it became “Theos” (greek term): the Greeks (and the Romans, and every culture that was not the Jewish one, at that time) simply didn’t have a term to point to “El”, in the meaning that was revealed to Jews. “Theos” was the nearest word and so it was chosen, but we should always remember it’s very, very approximate: as any human word, it’s just a tool, useful but not perfect.
    Using “Theos”/”Deus”/”God” was useful to make clear that one could not believe in Him and also in pagan gods, but it gave birth to the problem of confusing “God” with gods. The idea of using Aristotle’s “prime mover” was a nice one, when everyone knew what it meant because it was a popular concept; when it started to become less understandable, we started using “id quod magis cogitare non potest” (“what no one could ever think of something greater of”); now, we should probably find another way to differentiate “Gods” from gods…
    Or we could just accept the fact that no one was ever given Faith from another man’s words, and stop arguing with atheists, pagans, wiccans, and so on: when Paul tried to convert Athenians using his oratory skills, he simply failed; then he turned to using deeds, and let the Spirit make the rest, and it worked (at least with Corinthians, Ephesians, etc…) – see 1Corinthians 2, 1-5.