Talking About God And God’s Existence

Talking About God And God’s Existence February 22, 2023

Kimon Berlin: The New Jerusalem (Tapestry of the Apocalypse)/ Wikimedia Commons

One of many problems which arise when talking about God is that people can and will different things by the word, sometimes at the same time. We can, for example, mean the one who created all things, that is, use it to imply some sort of creator figure behind the universe. If we mean that, we will not always think of the creator figure in the same way; we will predicate to the creator all kinds of things, some which will contradict what others predicate to the creator, and yet, despite those differences, intend the same subject, the same creator. Some, upon seeing the word God, will consider it as indication as a kind of being, one of many, a being which has the potential to exist or not exist, while others will think God is beyond being as such, and so declare God is necessary and beyond contingency. Even this difference of understanding does not have to mean different reference points are intended, although here it is possible, since some might consider divinity a kind of being which can and does contain a plurality of potential and/or real beings, and so not intend a single subject, while others might think only one single subject, a creator-God, can be classified under the name of God.

People will raise different questions about God, each based upon their particular understanding of what they think God is. They can be and will end up discussing the same subject, even if their reflections lead to drastically different conclusions. That is, being mistaken in relation to the divine nature does not generate new gods,  just as different people, upon looking at a particular car, with some thinking it is worn down and not likely to start,  while others think it looks like it does not have many if any problems, do not generate multiple cars due to their difference of opinions about it. And so, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and many others, can and do intended, and even follow, the same God despite their differences.

Henry of Ghent, realizing that different people will understand God differently, uses that realization to explain how and why people will have different takes on God’s existence, with some thinking God is necessary and so can never be conceived as not-existing, to those who question the existence of God because they understand God within the normative domain of contingent being. It is possible, he said, to both say God’s existence cannot be questioned, and to say it can, but it is possible due to the way people understand the divine nature. Thus, by apprehending God’s existence as necessary, some will no longer have to ask does God exist, and will even think the question, in the end, is nonsensical. But those who do not apprehend this, and there are many, show how and why the question can have value. The fact that people do question God’s existence means, in some fashion or another, God’s existence can be disputed. It would be absurd to say it is not possible, when we can see it happens often. What makes it possible, Henry of Ghent said, is that though people are talking about the same subject, the creator-God, some apprehensions of the divine nature will lead some to treat the creator-God as a contingent being:

To this it must be said that someone who would claim that it is utterly self-evident that God exists would have to deny that it can be demonstrated that God exists.  But this is not the case, as it was maintained above. Very many people, in fact, are able to doubt that God exists. This, however, does not come from the imperfection or the uncertainty of the being of God in himself, since he is the most manifest in his being in himself, but this comes from the weakness of our intellect, which cannot see him as he is in himself, so that it is necessary that the intellect derive certitude above the fact that God exists, by reasoning from things known to it by creatures and in that way demonstrate the  God exists. [1]

He pointed out that the way some use their reason to make for logical distinctions allows some to divide up God, so that the notion of deity is seen different from the notion of being. Once we take that logical distinction further than a mere logical construct, we can end up seeing existence is a predication which can, but does not have to be, applied to God, and in this way, we can be led to doubt God’s existence:

So too, because the notion of deity is other than the notion of being, one who understands God under the notion of deity need not at the same time understand him under the notion of being. For under a different notion we understand in God that he is a being, his essence, and his being. For a being is understood as having an essence and as informed by being. [2]

It is important that we accept that God will be apprehended differently by different people. Some will apprehend God far less than others, and as a result, will have to rely upon faith more than intellectual apprehension in order to accept God’s existence; others will have far more apprehension of the divine nature, will be able to use that to reasonably conclude God exists (and perhaps that God must exist):

For this sort of truth is entirely a matter of faith for some dense persons, for whom it cannot be proven from creatures. But for other people it is a matter of proof, that is, for subtler minds, and then for some it is a matter of knowledge in one sense and, nonetheless, a matter of faith in another – that is, to the extent that it cannot in this life by proven to a human being as clearly from creatures as one hopes to know it by unobstructed vision in heaven. And in accord with this, faith and knowledge or understanding are always present together in such persons, as was said above. [3]

There are all kinds of apprehensions which can lead to us to understand God not only exists, but is the source of all existence and so transcend contingency. Some, engaging metaphysics, and the question of being, see the answer lies there. Others, like Vladimir Solovyov, look not just to being, but to goodness, showing that we naturally are inclined to goodness. As we understand that some things are good, we conclude that there must be a source and foundation for all that good, which likewise is God:

To believe in God is to recognize the existence of that good which conscience attests, which we seek in our life, but which neither nature nor reason gives us; it is to see that this good exists, but outside us and in itself. But for this faith we should have to conclude that good is only a deceiving emotion or an arbitrary idea, that, in fact, it does not really exist at all. But this we cannot morally admit, for our moral existence, our whole life, has meaning only in as much as we believe in a real good, a good considered as truth. We must, then, believe that good exists in itself, and that it is the one truth: we must believe in God. This faith is both a divine gift and our own free act. [4]

Some will combine these points, showing that there must be a necessary connection between goodness and beings. Others, however, will point out these categories are all constructs of the human intellect, and so fail to really meet or comprehend what God is. Even the terms of goodness and being, being used for God, must be understood analogically, not univocally, because God transcends all the implications and meanings contained in those words. This can be seen in the way God is said to be simple. While we can logically divide up such concepts and predicate them individually to God, in God, they must not be divided but united as one (and seen as not other than God what God is by “nature”). That is, being, goodness, beauty, and other categories which we can apprehend, on their own, must somehow be seen as one in and with God. We might not be able to understand how and why they merge together without dividing or destroying the categories themselves, but we can see how and why they must end up doing so in relation to God. This is because, in the end, God has no predicates, and yet, we are treating them as such for God.

What we need to accept is that when we talk about God, we do so with logical, not real, distinctions, distinctions which reflect our own intellect and how it helps us to learn about the world around us. Each of us will come to God with different logical categories or distinctions based upon the way(s) we have apprehended (or not apprehended) God. If we try to absolutize those distinctions, we end up turning God into something less than what God is; this does not mean we are not talking about God, but rather, that our understanding of God is faulty. This will always be the end result of our God-talk; we will always have to understand that the words and conventions we use to represent God are less than what God is. We must not try to turn them into absolutes but realize their conventional value. We should talk about God the best we can, accepting, however, there is far more to God than what we can say with words. Then we will be free to grasp for more and more of the truth, accepting, with each greater apprehension, that the truth remains ever-transcendent, ever greater than what we apprehend. Apophatic theology teaches us this, that God is always greater, than what we say about God. This must be the caveat which lies behind any discussion concerning God. Once we accept this then we can truly talk about God with others, even those whose understanding differs from us. We will realize we can and will discuss God, despite those differences, and so truly come to understand why so many religions, so many theological traditions, despite the way they contradict each other, still end up following and accepting the same God.

[1] Henry of Ghent, Henry of Ghent’s Summa: The Question on God’s Existence and Essence (Articles 21 – 24). Trans. Jos Decorte and Roland J Teske, SJ (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), 133 [Art 22 Q4].

[2] Henry of Ghent, Henry of Ghent’s Summa: The Question on God’s Existence and Essence (Articles 21 – 24), 127-9 [Art 22 Q3].

[3] Henry of Ghent, Henry of Ghent’s Summa: The Question on God’s Existence and Essence (Articles 21 – 24), 147 [Art 22 Q4].

[4] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 11.


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