I started thinking of ways to answer:
- How the modern scientific view of the world both makes discussions of divine attributes difficult because of our narrow concept of being and causality.
- How the Jewish concept of the goodness of God is related to optimism about the created world: we know God is good because of the goodness of creation.
- The notion of one, good, creator God is the result of the long process of the Jewish revolt against mythology, which likely grew from their nomadic experience and developed in the prophetic tradition, through the exile, into an idea of God that could be truly universal.
- How different the Jewish notion of a personal God communicating with real historical people was from the pantheistic tendencies of myth.
- God’s attributes must be argued through the Via Negativa of Pseudo-Dionysus, since God is utterly transcendent, his essence unknowable to man, and his attributes only definable as what he is not.
- How thinkers like Pseudo-Dionysus borrowed heavily from Plotinus and Plato, especially the exitus-reditus of being from the One, and the whole tradition of the transcendental attributes of being.
- How medieval theologians Christianized Platonic thought by introducing the distinction between being and essence (which in turn was an adaption of Aristotle’s matter-form distinction) in order to explain creation ex nihilo and to keep Platonic thought from falling into pantheism.
- How modern thinkers like Newton and Descartes took the Christian theology of God and adapted it to their notions of physics, and how this gave rise modern pantheistic philosophers like Hegel (exitus-reditus!), who in turn spawned atheist thinkers like Freurbeck and Marx, who gave the divine attributes to “man” in the collective.
But there is a big problem: it has been a long time since I studied philosophy and I am not as smart as I sometimes claim. I can invoke these half-remembered ideas, but would have to dig out old notebooks and visit the library to just sketch some of these concepts in a coherent way, and I have a full-time job.
So I just make a snarky comment.
But it is a reminder that ever since St. Paul tried to bring the message of Jesus to the gentile world, the main argument of Western Civilization has been about the attributes of God, which intimately correlates to our concepts of the world and of man. With roots in Abraham and the Prophets on the one hand, and Plato and Aristotle on the other, passing through John and Paul, the Stoics and Plotinus, Church Councils, Augustine and Aquinas, Bacon, Newton, Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzsche and hundreds in between.
I think we’ve cut ourselves off from that argument, and find ourselves stumbling into fragments of it here and there, asking the question with no sense of the whole, always biting off more than we can chew. I know I do it all the time. I think it is impossible not to do it, our culture being so fragmented, and the past of old white men so regularly demonized by people who have no idea what they are talking about, (or how they owe their own ideas to pasty white dudes like Marx).
I guess one can make a start on the big questions like this, starting with the Bible, then maybe Plato’s Symposium or Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Augustine’s De Veritate, and working on up the line, filling in gaps here and there with history books, but that is not practical for most of us, me included; I’ve already read a bunch of that stuff and forgotten most of it.
Maybe it is just a good reminder that we just aren’t as smart as we like to think we are.