Biting Off More Than We Can Chew

I read this post on another blog which asked the question “Why does it seem like descriptions of God’s attributes end up creating an non-falsifiable being?”

I started thinking of ways to answer:

  1. How the modern scientific view of the world both makes discussions of divine attributes difficult because of our narrow concept of being and causality.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. How different the Jewish notion of a personal God communicating with real historical people was from the pantheistic tendencies of myth.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.




  1. well done. i have spent years in dialogue on theology and philosophy and can tell you my interests there are not from those i’m generally speaking with; it’s more my addiction.

    that is to say that your comments are some of the better ones made in comparison to laymen who usually speak in volumes, having said little at all in the end.

    i wonder, what would you think of mccabe, geisler, rashdall, or schillebeeckx suggesting we leave god-ontology to a single sentence “god is”, full stop? that we have no concept of god, no language or capacity to suggest our words accord to the god we name and describe? that christianity is defined by community not communities formed as a result of recognizing a truth a certain, creedal way which is agreed upon as universally, absolutely true?

    anyway, again, well said.

    1. I think language about God can be abused, but no, I would not see the point in a church that was “community centered”: 1) it would have no continuity with the early church, which was creedal, and a community without continuity serves no purpose. 2) the point of the church is to worship God, it is God oriented. The proposed doctrine-free community centered church would serve to worship what? Itself?
      Anyway, thanks for your kindness. I wish these things were my addiction and not my play-thing.

      1. it depends, you see, on assuming the early church was creedal at all outside of the communities which formed them. for instance, was christ divine? was there a holy spirit? why all christians agree christ atones but none can say definitively how?

        as peter enns also puts it, the christian tradition has been one, the only religion in fact, that exists completely for the sake of its non members.

        this is not suggesting creeds don’t stand to bind christian communities; indeed they do. what is suggested is there is and has been sufficient diversity in christian belief that all we can make of catholicism is there is no genuine point of reference that guarantees any meaning. that is, aside from seeking and doing “the good”. authority of scripture then is by way of living out in society what we’ve made of scripture, by its fruits. aside from that, there is a history of arguing never likely to end.

        i think that’d be their combined thoughts as i’ve understood of what i’ve read of them.

        anyway, again, well done.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: