Is God Unique? Is God Distinct? [Questions That Haunt]

This Question That Haunts Christianity series is now an occasional series, as opposed to weekly. But I’ll still field questions and do my best to answer. Directions on how you can submit a question below. Today’s question comes from reader Pat, and it concerns a contentious post by Roger Olson last week:

Last week, I read Roger Olson’s attack on process theology, and then I saw your tweet on the controversy:

I, too, am attracted to relational and process theologies, but I’m struggled with the feeling I get from process that God is not really very special, that God’s not unique. That’s why your tweet got my attention, so my question is this: Is God ontologically unique from the rest of creation?

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below. Submit your own question here.

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  • Craig

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  • Craig

    Pat/Tony, is this an equivalent question (just a different way to phrase it)?: Is God identical to the totality of all that is?

    I assume it is. But then what’s at stake? Not, at least in any obvious way, the uniqueness or specialness of God–for the totality of all that is would seem to be perfectly unique, and very special.

    • Ric Shewell

      Are saying: “Even if God is identical to the totality of all that is, God’s uniqueness is not lost”?

      I can’t imagine any theologian, philosopher, or logician going there with you.

      • Craig

        What’s not unique about the totality of all that is?

        • Ric Shewell

          The most common use of “unique,” “distinct,” or “special” implies that an object is different from other objects. If you want to talk about the totality of all that it is, then it cannot be distinct, unique, or special, because it encompasses everything. What is it distinct from? What is it unique among? Special is a relative term. In relation to what is it special?

          I just don’t think many people would use the words the way you are using them.

          • Craig

            Can you name some other things that are qualitatively identical to the totality of all that is?

  • Jason

    I would say yes, God is ontologically unique. I say this because I believe God created and ordered “the rest of creation.” If you believe this then you must believe God is unique. However, even if some kind of matter or energy existed eternally alongside God (the “tohu von bohu” of Genesis 1), and then was ordered and used as the building blocks to create what we now see, I think God would be ontologically unique in this situation as well. God would not be ontologically unique if God evolved alongside the rest of the cosmos. In that case God would simply be a “higher” creature. I’m no expert on any of this nor on process thought so this last example may not be representative of Process thought. But for me this third option goes beyond what I am able to agree with. The first two I could agree with and consider within the bounds of a Christian theology. Just my thoughts after reading Olson’s article and this post.

    • Rolland

      I think process thought would agree with that second example; Whitehead sees God as the event of creative transformation in the world, not part of the universe, but constituting the universe by giving it new possibilities. However, I think he also believes God’s consequent nature evolves as the world evolves; this reality is attested to in scripture as well. I don’t see why God’s eternality and evolution cannot coexist.

      • Jason

        I hadn’t considered this in the options I put forth. When I was thinking of the third option I was thinking more in materialist terms. In that God evolved materially from the same pre-exisitant energy/matter/material we don’t know about yet. So God would be a product of the “Big Bang” in the same way human life would be, only would be a ‘higher’ being. In that sense all of the cosmos would have the same ontological source and God wouldn’t be unique in that sense. I could see how in your proposal God could evolve but it would seem to be a kind of learning via relationship with others. But does this mean that God evolves materially into a different forms as we humans have? Maybe my materialist distinction doesn’t hold water but that’s where I was heading with my third option.

  • Scot Miller

    I’m of two minds when it comes to thinking about God. Like the Most Interesting Man in the World might say, I don’t often think of the ontological uniqueness of God, but when I do, I think in terms of process metaphysics (after Whitehead and Hartshorne). If it’s important to think of God as a being of some sort (and as a being that exists, I often fall into the trap of thinking of God too concretely on an analogy of being), then process metaphysics is hands down the most plausible/reasonable way of thinking of God as existing. God is that being that is exceeded only by Godself in goodness, harmony, and beauty, which makes God a unique actual entity. Of course, this means that the traditional notions of omnipotence and omniscience have to be redefined (God as as much power and knowledge as is metaphysically possible). God’s power is limited to the degree that an actual entity possesses freedom, and God cannot have knowledge of future events before a free being makes a choice. (God may have knowledge of probabilities of future events, but even God can be surprised about what happens.) God supplies the eternal aims to actual entities, inviting them to achieve higher states of harmony, beauty, and intensity (which are intrinsically good states), and away from disharmony, ugliness, and triviality (which are intrinsically evil states.) The greatest virtue of process theism (in my opinion) is that it offers the most coherent theodicy I can wrap my little mind around.

    On the other hand, I’m more and more convinced that thinking metaphysically and ontologically about God is the wrong way to think about God. Here, I’m persuaded by mystical tradition (after Meister Eckhart) and postmodern critiques of metaphysics (after Heidegger, Tillich and Caputo). Eckhart recognizes that there is a difference between God (the concept or being which is dialectically related to my being) and the Godhead (which is beyond Being and Non-Being). Or, as Tillich would say (echoing Eckhart), God is the the Ground of Being who does not exist but makes existence possible. God is misconceived as a Being alongside other beings. Or as Caputo would say, God does not exist, but God insists.

    • Ric Shewell

      It’s weird to me that, given your bent toward postmodern critiques of metaphysics, that you would ever turn to process, which is a thoroughly modern metaphysic where God necessarily exists.

      • Scot Miller

        You’re right, I’m weird.

        I was smitten by process thought back in the late ’70s when I read God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy by David Ray Griffin. It made sense to me… until I started reading Heidegger….

        I’ve become convinced that metaphysics is not a description of reality but a kind of interpretative framework to make sense of experience, so I don’t think God or Nature is “really” like any metaphysical description. Nevertheless, whenever we need to think about God as a reality that is not-us, I think process is the best we can do. (While I’m not a fan of the idea of “metaphysical necessity,” at least process thought gets rid of creatio ex nihilo. Whatever is, is. Ex nihilo, nihil fit.)

        • Brad

          Scot, I don’t know if you’ve read Aquinas’ De Ente Et Essentia, but perhaps his earliest work might suggest a different perspective of the scope and possibilities of medieval metaphysics. The younger Aquinas reminds me a lot of Heidegger in his rendering of metaphysics as a type of hermeneutic venture. And thanks for bringing up Heidegger as a valuable response to process theology. I suspect that if it weren’t for Heidegger, we would hardly find any value in metaphysical thought today.

    • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

      Still it seems to me that this kind of discussion is considerably more about what kind of metaphysics we prefer than anything about God.

      I happened, last month, to be trying to read just a little bit of John Scottus Eriugena. When he begins by defining “nature” as all that is and all that is not, it’s not surprising that God necessarily is conceived as a part of nature, a position that later became an unacceptable “pantheism.” But surely John is just starting with an extremely broad definition, one that doesn’t identify (as we conventionally do) nature with creation. I think it a good example of how our setting out of terms can get mistaken for novel assertions about God.

      If God matters, if God rules, if God insists, it seems that it matters very little whether he falls under the rubric of existence, or being, or ground of being, or root of possibility. Our characterization of how or whether God falls under the category of being is a very interesting question, and I certainly have nothing against entertaining interesting questions. But I don’t see it as having much religious significance.

      What does have religious significance is this question of God’s power. Theodicy is indeed a dicey matter. It does disturb me greatly to think that God is going to allow me, to allow all of us, to suffer and die, though he could prevent it. But I don’t think the alternative, that he wants to prevent it, but just can’t, is that much more comforting.

      • Rolland

        I think most people think It’s more comforting knowing that God is actually doing everything possible to bring about good in the world than to believe God has all the power to stop evil but doesn’t.

        Every single atheist I’ve ever talked to has found the all powerful God who does nothing about evil to not be worth believing in.

        However when I share the story of God as “the fellow sufferer who understands” as Whitehead puts it, that God seems much more like love.

        • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

          I am not sure that I would agree that the omnipotent God of conventional Christianity “does nothing about evil”–the whole trajectory of salvation history addresses how God is acting to overcome evil.

          I have to admit it’s been over 35 years since I read Whitehead. There is much I think that is true in his description of God as one who “lures” us to the good, rather than smiting the evil. But I think it is more accurate to say that his drawing us to himself by the gentler method is not through any want of power, but because, even though it entails our own suffering and death, it is our way of divinization, and possibly the only way.

          It is entirely understandable that, in our culture, our atheist friends look for a god like Zeus or Superman. It is not an easy thing to express how that kind of salvation is less loving that what God has in fact done in the incarnation, in the atonement, in the calling of all of us to the difficult but rewarding task of following God in a world where such a thing is not rewarded.

      • Scot Miller

        I think the religious question is how do we think about God after the end of metaphysics, especially if metaphysics can’t do what it thinks it can do.

        And I agree with Rolland, that if we have to think of God acting in the world, it makes more sense to think of God eternally working to redeem evil rather than failing to act even though God actually could prevent or stop evil.

  • ChuckQueen101

    I think of God as being both “in” the creation, pervading and permeating it, and “beyond” it, in the sense that God cannot be confined to it. I imagine that God is the energy that holds it all together, but God is also the infinite consciousness that is somehow guiding or directing it. Beyond that my simple mind cannot go.

  • http://homebrewedchristianity.com tripp fuller

    Is God ontologically unique from the rest of creation?…. Yes.

    God was for Whitehead too but I would think any theologian who is a realist about God would have to say yes or the word ‘God’ lacks any ontological referent. Perhaps the biggest distinctions to be made are on the nature of God’s uniqueness.

  • Bo Sanders

    I am continually surprised that this misunderstanding seems to be the sticking point for those who are theologically educated!

    For the person in the pew the contentious issue is the nature of God’s power. For the theologian, it is God’s uniqueness.

    Let me just say un-categorically that the answer to this question is “Yes. God is unique.”

    Process affirms that, both ontologically and in the incarnated revelation of Jesus. God is unique and Jesus is a unique expression that.

    Here is how process gets there:

    God is not an exception to the way the world works but it’s highest exemplification.

    God both affects and is affected by the world.

    While the world (and all that exists) is contained within God, God is not completely contained or explained by it. The relationship is not symmetrical.

    So in just those three simple points it is clear that God is unique! Also, God unlike other actual entities does not expire. This fourth point is perhaps the greatest distinction of uniqueness.

    I really don’t know how it could be any clearer that the process God is both unique and distinct! There is no reason that this should be a sticking point for Christian theologians.

    I confess that I am baffled as to why this continues to be a last ditch objection to adopt a process thought as a conversation partner in the theological endeavor. from the very first moment God is unique–the Alpha and the Omega–it is just that the Omega is different than the Alpha in that the experiences of the world have impacted the real and living God.

    Someone is going to have to explain to me how this picture of God is NOT unique.

    • Ric Shewell

      First, I don’t think process is as cohesive as you make it out to be. There are plenty of process people that will say God is unique, and plenty that will say the contrary.
      I think your third point is not altogether true to process. Whitehead says that it is true to say that both the World and God are immanent in each other, both transcend each other, and both create each other. His litany is an attempt to stress the point that the relationship is symmetrical.
      I think your fourth point is misinterpreting “unique.” While, yes, things die and God does not, process posits that the World neither comes into existence nor leaves it. On the one hand, God is unique from other things just like my thumb is unique from every other thing in the universe. On the other hand, the God that process puts forth is not unique from the World in that both depend and create one another and are limited by the same universal limitations. This is what most theologians have a contention with.

      • Jesse

        @ricshewell:disqus I had to clarify this on the HBC post as well.

        In PT, it is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God. In other words, we are co-creators with God. But your fear of God being precariously linked to creation in PT is a misplaced one, however. As far as I understand it, PT and traditional theism agree here. To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philo:

        “God’s existence is everlasting, but the existence of any particular creature is not. Nevertheless, the creatures, being lesser creators, create something in God, if only the knowledge of their own activity. For process theism, the activity of the creatures makes no difference to God’s existence, only to God’s experience of them.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/process-theism/#GodCre)

        You’re confusing panentheism with pantheism.

        So, to paraphrase McLuhan, we critique far too soon. We must first seek understanding.

  • http://www.twofriarsandafool.com/ Douglas Underhill

    I honestly don’t understand why this is an important question. What is at stake if God is not ‘ontologically unique’? Even assuming that we can meaningfully speak about anything that is distinct from the rest of the cosmos, since all of our capacities to understand and communicate are part of the cosmos. I assume I’m missing something here.

    • Craig

      The question “What’s at stake?” is a good one. I’d be less concerned, though, about the possibility of meaningful speech about something that is just “distinct” from the rest of cosmos. We can meaningfully speak about Santa’s village, or a unique string of words. Tony’s mustache might well be distinct from the rest of the cosmos. Is Tony’s mustache fundamentally distinct, or “ontologically” distinct? Maybe not. But then let’s get clearer on what it means to be ontologically distinct–and why this is or is not theologically important.

      • http://www.twofriarsandafool.com/ Douglas Underhill

        Yeah, I have no idea what it actually means to be “ontologically distinct.” From your examples, everything is, mustaches included, which sort of means nothing is. The arbitrary examples, for me, highlight the arbitrariness of the original questions.

  • Scott Paeth

    Coming late to this party, but enjoying the discussion. My very brief two cents on this is basically what I’ve said before on this subject: To say that God is “ontologically unique” from my perspective would mean that God in God’s essence cannot be analogized to any other being. That God is rather the precondition of being and is best understood as the Ground of Being itself. Though, as Tripp points out, to say that also implies that there is no ontological referent by which we could understand what it means to say that of God.

    And thus we are reliant on revelation, to God’s breaking in and revealing Godself to us in ways that allow us some analogies to things within creation. I think for many of us who harbor some suspicions of process thought, that may be rooted in what seems to be a hasty assertion in some process texts as to what God is and how God is in the world, without the requisite qualifications about God’s essence being, in itself, beyond analogy.

    • Craig

      An implication of your perspective: if God is ontologically unique, then there is no revelation of God.

      Why can’t we “analogize” the precondition of being?

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