Friday 26 April 2013

The finite God of David, Isaiah and Jesus versus His rival the absolute God.


First of all I must parenthetically ask you to distinguish the notion of the absolute carefully from that of another object with which it is liable to become heedlessly entangled.

That other object is the 'God' of common people in their religion, and the creator-God of orthodox christian theology.

Only thoroughgoing monists or pantheists believe in the absolute. The God of our popular Christianity is but one member of a pluralistic system.

He and we stand outside of each other, just as the devil, the saints, and the angels stand outside of both of us.

I can hardly conceive of anything more different from the absolute than the God, say, of David or of Isaiah.

That God is an essentially finite being in the cosmos, not with the cosmos in him, and indeed he has a very local habitation there, and very one-sided local and personal attachments.

If it  should prove probable that the absolute does not exist, it will not follow in the slightest degree that a God like that of David, Isaiah, or Jesus may not exist, or may not be the most important existence in the universe for us to acknowledge...

I hold to the finite God... but I hold that his rival and competitor--I feel almost tempted to say his enemy--the absolute, is not only not forced on us by logic, but that it is an improbable hypothesis.

From William James - A Pluralistic Universe



The Crow said...

That is most curious, and almost impenetrable, to me, in its ambiguity.
I had no concept of The Absolute, until, as if by accident, I discovered it. Whereas I could see no value at all, in the seemingly man-made God of Christians.
I know which I am willingly compelled to honour and revere. It is the Absolute, without which neither man, nor his man-made God, nor anything else, could exist.

Wm Jas said...

I thought this must be Terryl Givens or some other Mormon writer, until I got to the end and saw it was William James!

(By an odd coincidence, I happened to read this post just after composing a post of my own based on a long quote from James.)

Jacob Miller said...

Certainly sounds like a mormon conception.

SonofMoses said...

Meister Eckhart, the Thirteenth Century Dominican churchman, made a similar distinction, calling the two modes of Divinity God and the Godhead. Among his statements on this subject were the following:

‘God did not create the heavens and earth as we imagine when we say in our words, “Let them be!”; rather, creatures are all spoken in his eternal Word.’

‘When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the well-spring of the Godhead, no one will ask me from where I came or where I went. No one will miss me, for there God unbecomes.’

‘Everything in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing to be said. God works; the Godhead does no work. In the Godhead there is nothing to do; there is no activity. It never envisaged any work. God and Godhead are as different as active and inactive.’

‘Before creatures came into existence, God was not God. He was what he was. When creatures came into existence, God was not God in himself, but he was God in creatures.’

Bruce Charlton said...

As I have mentioned before, the link between William James and Mormonism was known during WJ's life, and he was in communication with Mormons, read Mormon scriptures etc.

But one difference between what WJ says here and what Mormon theology says, is that Mormons regard the Old Testament references to God, i.e. the Jehovah of David and Isaiah, as being (nearly always) to the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ; while the God of Jesus - who is addressed in the same personal/ finite manner as Jehovah of the OT - is God the Father.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

...his rival... the absolute [God], is not only not forced on us by logic, but that it is an improbable hypothesis.

How can the true God be other than the only absolute and necessary being? Logic forbids to think otherwise. I never read anything from William James before and what he said there does not make me think much of him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - What William James is proposing is a radically different metaphysical stance - pluralism - and those who make the move are those who feel profound problems wit the alternative. If you don't feel these problems, then there isn't much more to be said! I haven't always felt the problems with more monist metaphysics, but I do nowadays.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Sound philosophy or theology does not entail monism nor pluralism. It is a false problem. Being is one, and God will bring back all creatures in him in the end. Creatures are destined to make one with the Creator, and this without losing their personality. This is called the 'pleroma'.

Bruce Charlton said...

SDR - The distinction is quantitative, in practice. Monism is almost never completely pure - for example the Holy Trinity is pluralist compared with the God of Judaism or Islam (and the Mormon Godhead Trinity is more pluralist than that of most credal Christians).

But most Western philosophy, and theology, pushes strongly towards monism as somehow purer, more explanatory, deeper, more mystical...

Thus monism is ultimately about eternity, stasis, infinitude, a state of being etc. and has difficulty understanding any good reason for mortal life on earth, in time.

This is what repels me from monism - monism makes me feel that it would be better to be dead than alive - better to die and get on with the afterlife rather than wasting time in the painfulness and transience of mortal life.

Monism drains away reason for action, makes life a stripping down, a slowing down, a process of elimination. Makes the vision, the moment, into the ideal metaphor; and downgrades all processes and narratives...

jgress said...

To say God is finite, and to affirm pluralism, certainly sounds heretical to me; there is only one God, Who is infinite and uncircumscribable. In His essence He is not even knowable, since how can a finite mind comprehend the infinite?

At the same time, God is somehow knowable; if He were not knowable, we could not believe in Him. For God to be knowable, He must somehow circumscribe Himself, make Himself finite, so that we may know Him, what the Fathers call "kenosis", emptying.

That is what the Incarnation is all about. In the Incarnation, God becomes very particular, manifested in a single human person. God even made it clear that the only way we can know Him (the Father) is through His particular manifestation (the Son).

Monism, Deism and the various monotheisms that reject the Trinity and the Incarnation are wrong and it is no wonder you don't accept them. They err precisely because you can't possibly promote faith in a Being Who is essentially unknowable, as any infinite being must be.

But it seems dangerous to fall into the other extreme and affirm pluralism, the denial of a single Being that underlies all other Being. Both are nonsense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - these things are not nonsense - but they are partial, and break down when pushed. William James explains the issue very well, to my mind.

"God even made it clear that the only way we can know Him (the Father) is through His particular manifestation (the Son)."

This doesn't square with the God of the Old Testament, with whom the prophets have a personal (indeed face-to-face) relationship; unless that is regarded as Jesus in a preincarnated form - which I don't think is what most mainstream Christians (or Jews) believe (although I may be wrong) - most Christians (and Jews) seem to assume that the OT God was God the Father.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ consistently seems to have a personal relationship with His Father.

Indeed, the Bible consistently presents God as a personage - this is very clear and obvious and in-your-face when reading the Bible.

What is not at all obvious from the Biblical text (as well as being strictly incomprehensible) is all the abstract and absolute and philosophical conceptions of God (and the Holy Trinity).

In the end, Christianity is about Love - with numerous metaphors of Fatherhood and Sonship and Parents and Offspring, Kin and Families - and this kind of Love can only be of the limited, the circumscribed, the personal.

It was the inspiration or genius of Joseph Smith to read the Bible in this fashion, and recognize that taken literally (and with not much in the way of inferred interpretation, and that of second order importance) it all makes satisfying sense.

jgress said...

The patristic view is that when God revealed Himself openly in the OT, He did so as the Son. Certainly that is true for Moses and the burning bush. About the only place where the Father Himself appears is in the vision of Daniel ("Ancient of Days"), although even there some Fathers believe this also to be the Son.

These are not easy teachings to understand if you over-intellectualize and try to resolve all the paradoxes. I certainly don't understand it all. But I think you have the right instinct when you reject reductionist monism, which is a product of the over-rationalizing tendency that started back in the Scholastic period (some see it already in St Augustine). God is not simple, He is complex.

TE said...

"Indeed, the Bible consistently presents God as a personage - this is very clear and obvious and in-your-face when reading the Bible. "

Perhaps the problem lies in viewing personality as a necessarily limiting quality. It's certainly easy to look at ourselves and see how our own personalities limit us. This is why (many) deists aren't theists: they find a sense of wonder and marvel at something larger than themselves precisely at times when they temporarily lose their sense of personality.

But on the other hand we should pay attention to the ways in which our personalities don't limit us, but rather the opposite. If God is perfect then perhaps he can have an infinite, non-limiting personality-- possess only those aspect of personality that are non-limiting, and possess them to an infinite degree.