On several occasions (and especially at the end of my Month of Skepticism), I’ve noted that the concept of God I grew up with has some major problems. Many of these problems have to do with understanding how God acts in the world, the problem of evil, and science. My God Project, in large part, is my attempt to give these questions serious attention – and also to see if I can find a better way of thinking of God.
From the outset, I expected to find good answers in contemporary theology. After all, many of my questions have to do with characteristically modern (and postmodern) concerns: modern science, the unhinged chaos of the 20th century, the intellectual and cultural viability of atheism etc. But to my surprise, I’m starting to think that many good answers may come from premodern ways of thinking.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been reading two books: Experiences of God by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox philosopher, and The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God by Eric Hall, a Catholic who appears to be a professional academic theologian. Both of these books, in very different ways, present classical theism.
So what exactly is classical theism? What does it have to say about God?
I’m still trying to figure that out. Classical theism is more believable (even today!) than I initially expected, but there’s no denying that it is weird. It answers questions that I’m not used to answering. The rest of this post is my attempt, based on what I’ve been reading, to explain what exactly classical theism has to say about God.
#1 – The God of relation vs. The God of Philosophy
Eric Hall makes a helpful distinction between what we can reasonably say about God and what, in addition, God might have done. The former set of attributes is discerned through philosophy, and it tells us who/what God is. This category includes characteristics like omnipotent, omnipresent, Being itself, etc. The latter set of attributes (what God may have done) seems to be discerned through God’s own Revelation in Tradition and Experience. Examples might include Trinity, the God of Abraham, or the God who rose Jesus from the dead. In other words, classical theists who are also Catholics, like Eric Hall, believe in both the God of philosophy and the God of relation. Philosophy gives us a general picture of who God is; revelation tells us why we should care about this God.
Classical theism appears to be strictly concerned with who God is according to philosophical reflection. This helps make sense of point #2.
#2 – A God that most of us can agree on
According to David Bentley Hart, most “developed” religions buy into classical theism. These religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vendantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and the paganism of late antiquity.
But how could this be? Surely these different religions have vastly different visions of the divine, right?
Well, yes and no. As I said in point #1, many classical theists evidently make a distinction between what philosophy tells us about God vs. what revelation tells us about God. According to Hart, key mainstream philosophers across many different centuries, continents, and religions agree on the general metaphysical characteristics of God (more on those in a minute).
But don’t pagans and Hindus believe in multiple divinities? It’s not too crazy to imagine that the three major monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have pretty similar things to say about God, but surely polytheists are alone in a category by themselves, right?
#3 Monotheism and [some forms of] polytheism aren’t that different
Apparently, many forms of polytheism still believe in a single uncreated Reality which does not depend on anything else for its existence – AKA God. The lowercase-g gods function much like Christianity’s angels: they are spiritual forces, for sure, but they’re clearly not on the same “level” as God.
In fact, according to David Bentley Hart, the big difference is not between monotheism and polytheism, but between Creationists (along with the New Atheists who debate them) and classical theists.
#4 The Divine Battery
Classical theism seems to be primarily concerned with this question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Note, the question is not “Given the existence of gravity and matter, how do we account for the emergence of humans and Earth’s biodiversity?” While Creationists are concerned with explaining where life came from, classical theists are concerned with explaining where Existence itself comes from. Even if the world were an empty field of some sort, and even if it stretched endlessly forwards and backwards in time, the question wouldn’t go away, because the empty world and time would still exist. And where would that existence come from?
For classical theism, the answer is that everything is given limited, partial being from the pure, undivided Being itself (AKA God). This is both a metaphysical claim (finite beings need existence in order to actually exist) and a logical claim (when we say “a chair exists,” for example, we imply that we already believe in some Existence).
I told you it’s confusing. Luckily, Hart provides two analogies to help modern readers wade into this old way of thinking:
God is like a battery, giving power to everything that exists. An electric light bulb could light up, but only if it is hooked up to an external battery. In the same way, everything (except for God) could exist, but only if it’s “hooked up” to God, the Source of Being.
God is like white light. White light includes all possibilities for visible light, so when it is divided by a prism, it displays different individual colors. In the same way, when unified Reality is divided up into different incomplete parts, finite beings (i.e. everything except for God) emerge from God. The analogy breaks down, however, because in reality, the prism is not derived from the white light. In classical metaphysics, however, everything is included and sustained in God.
Trying to make sense of it all
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there anything at all? According to Hart, we can either answer “because a God exists” or we can shrug our shoulders and say “I dunno.” I’m not one for willful ignorance, so I’m inclined to go with Hart’s option.
I’ve said it a million times, but I’ll say it one more time: I’m not sure that I quite understand classical theism. Questions and answers like these have been banned from respectable modern discourse for centuries, so exploring classical theism feels a bit like exploring a different culture and a different era.
If there’s anything more striking than how strange classical theism, it’s how reasonable it seems. Before I began reading Experience of God and The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God, when I heard “classical theism,” I imagined old, bearded premodern people in robes sitting around, thinking up all sorts of arbitrary attributes to give to God, trying their best to explain the seeming unpredictability of the natural world. But to my surprise, classical theism seems to actually have a pretty sturdy logic to it. For the first time since my month of Skepticism, I’m beginning to think that believing in God might actually make some kind of sense after all.