Is God “A Being” Or “Being Itself?”

Is God “A Being” Or “Being Itself?” May 16, 2015

I grew up thinking of God, the God of the Bible, the “Christian God,” as “a being”–at the top of a great chain of beings but with a clear gulf fixed between him and everything else down the chain. The gulf was crossable only from God’s side and had to do with the fact that only God is eternal and uncreated. Everything else in the chain was below God and created by God. The gulf was widened by the fall of angels and humans. This picture of God and everything seemed self-evident in Scripture. I never thought to question it until I got well into my theological studies when I encountered Origen, Augustine, Dionysius (the Pseudo-Areopagite), Anselm, Thomas Aquinas and (skipping far ahead) Paul Tillich. Then I learned that, as a thinking Christian wishing to avoid idolatry, I was supposed to think of God not as “a being” but as Being Itself–not as one, even the supreme and self-existent one, among many but as the Power of Being, the One OF the many. If God is really God, so the argument goes, and not like us, limited, finite, conditioned, he must be Absolute. Anything less than “the Absolute,” the Unconditioned, cannot really be God. If the God of the Bible is a being and not Being Itself, the Absolute, the Unconditioned, the One behind the many, then, so the argument goes, then he does not really deserve to be thought of as God because, to borrow Anselm’s term, the mind can think of a great being than him.

Well, that’s obviously a whirlwind explanation that doesn’t come close to doing justice to the argument for God as Being Itself.

I have often felt pressured to rise above my “simple Biblicism” and primitive picture of God as a personal being, even if the greatest of all beings, transcendently surpassing in greatness and glory all creatures, and confess God as Being Itself–not the Supreme Being at the top of a great chain of being but something entirely different–perhaps more like the infrastructure of a city that makes it “work.” (All analogies become problematic, of course, when attempting to depict Being Itself.) I have even been told that my childhood picture of God borders on idolatry.

The assumption underlying much of that thinking (of God as Being Itself) was expressed by Alfred North Whitehead who said that while Buddhism is a metaphysic in search of a religion, Christianity is a religion in search of a metaphysic. That is, the underlying assumption is that the biblical narrative does not give us an adequate, or any, metaphysical world picture, account of reality-itself, but expresses especially transcendent reality in myths, symbols and images which must be interpreted through the lens of some ontology borrowed from outside the Bible. One obvious candidate in early church history was Middle or Neo-Platonism. Another, especially in the Middle Ages, was Aristotelianism. Whitehead’s, of course, was his own organic philosophy of process.

What do all those attempts to bring Athens to Jerusalem have in common? All assume that the biblical portrait of God cannot be taken seriously; it must be supplement if not replaced by a philosophical picture of God which is then interpreted as “what the Bible really means.” Practically speaking, then, all biblical references to God as personal are relegated to the realm of anthropomorphisms–figures of speech that depict God in human terms whereas God is not really much like humans at all.

Over the years I’ve kept an eye open for (non-fundamentalist) theologians who pushed back speaking of God as Being Itself (as opposed to a personal being among others even if the “others” are created). I encountered especially, of course, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, but even they seemed to me inconsistent at times–wanting to affirm God’s “holy otherness” in ways that seemed to make God float off into inaccessible transcendence. I know that was not their intentions, but I came to believe they, like most serious, academic, “world class” theologians, were still infected with the idea that God’s transcendence must mean he is somehow absolute, unconditioned, etc. Brunner, in my opinion, came closest to taking the biblical portrayal of God seriously, resisting ontological ideas of God as Being Itself. Brunner sometimes spoke of God in brutally personal terms–pushing back against the whole Christian theological tradition of negative (apophatic) theology.

Every once in a while throughout my theological career (and even as a student of theology) I have run across a theologian that really appealed to me but is not widely known, read or discussed. Recently I’ve been reading articles published in the 1950s in theological journals by an American Protestant theologian named Edmond La B. Cherbonnier (b. 1918). Cherbonnier, who taught at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, pushed back very hard against ontological ideas of God as Being Itself and insisted that there is a “biblical metaphysic” in which God is “a being,” neither unconditioned nor absolute (as in “The Absolute,” the Being Greater Than Which None Can Be Conceived drawing on Greek philosophical ideas of “greatness” as metaphysical perfection).

Cherbonnier attempted to work out what he called “the biblical metaphysic” as a “third way”–alternative to Platonism and Aristotelianism (and certainly also alternative to Whitehead’s ontology). According to Cherbonnier, this biblical metaphysic differs from others than have been imposed on Scripture, or through which Scripture has been interpreted, because it is embedded in, implied by, Scripture itself. According to him, the biblical narrative contains an implied metaphysic and all attempts to interpret Scripture through the “lens” of extra-biblical, philosophical metaphysics or ontologies end up failing to do justice to the biblical revelation of God and reality.

For those interested, I recommend these two articles by Cherbonnier (whose death year I cannot find so I’m hoping he’s still alive so I can correspond with him): “Biblical Metaphysic and Christian Philosophy” (Theology Today 9:3 [October, 1952]: 360-375) and “Is There A Biblical Metaphysic?” (Theology Today 15:4 [January, 1959]: 454-469).

One reason I resist thinking of God as Being Itself as opposed to a personal being is that it tends to undermine prayer except as meditation. It lends itself easily to the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” That is, it undermines petitionary prayer which Schleiermacher, understandably because of his philosophical influences, called “immature prayer.” If God is Being Itself, the Absolute, Unconditioned, then it would seem prayer cannot affect God. In fact, it would seem God cannot be affected by anything outside himself.  My early Christian faith, which I have not entirely discarded (!), focused much on a “personal relationship with God.” God is someone, a being, who is other than I, and we stand vis-a-vis one another in what Buber and Brunner called an “I-Thou relationship.” Regarding God as Being Itself tends to lead away from relating to God as “Thou” with whom one can have a real, personal relationship.

Cherbonnier was on the right track, I believe; we need to retrieve from the biblical narrative its own metaphysic and not borrow ontology from elsewhere and interpret Scripture through that as a lens overlaying it. This would be an exercise in “the Bible absorbing the world” (Hans Frei) and therefore might be called a “narrative metaphysic”–an oxymoron to many philosophical theologians.

Postliberal Protestant theology has been mostly resistant to metaphysics, but if Cherbonnier is right, that could be because most Protestant theologians tend to think of “metaphysics” as synonymous with extra-biblical, rational ontologies that function as natural theologies. But if Cherbonnier is right, there is a biblical metaphysic that is embedded in biblical revelation itself. That is, the Bible itself strongly implies a reality picture that is deeper than doctrines but equally, if not more, important and it is an alternative to philosophical ontologies that usually conflict with God as person or as omnipotent power (as in process thought).

I have never been able to become comfortable with calling God “Being Itself” or thinking of God as “absolute” or “unconditioned.” These ideas of God seem to me unbiblical. In this case, as Pascal famously said, “The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” But there is a philosophy of God revealed through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. It’s just not what most people think of as “philosophy.” To hint at it: It does reveal reality as a “great chain of beings” (plural) with God at its top as creator and governor of all below him with a fixed gulf between him and the rest marked by the difference between being uncreated, self-existent, and being created and dependent (to say nothing of fallen).

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