God after Aristotle

When I was in Junior Secondary School we covered the three major religions in Ghana, Christianity, Islam and indigenous religion for religious education. I remember each religion being placed side by side in columns comparing them. The principle similarity between them was they all believed in a supreme being. Not controversial at all, right? We’ve all used that type of language in talking about God, especially in such situations where you want to find commonalities with other religious traditions. Sometimes those names just sound more grand and imposing. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable, the eternal one, the perfect one, the divine being etc. are all examples of this. The problem with all these ways of referring to God is that as far as the Christian is concerned that is not the way the Bible talks about God.

The scriptures have their own theological vocabulary. God-talk in the Bible simply does not resemble terms like “supreme being,” which to be honest, is very vague and is not useful for actually talking about the one they serve in the religions I mentioned above. As I have already explored on this platform the word “god” does not have a univocal meaning. When someone says “god” you have to find out which god they are referring to. [1]The term “supreme being” actually refers to the god of deism which is completely foreign to any of the major religions in Ghana. I admit, it is pretty strange for a Christian to say God is not the supreme being. In a very general way that description is not wrong. However, if you take a further look at the term, not just its origin but what it means, you will clearly recognize it is completely inadequate in describing who the God of Jesus Christ is.

Now God is supreme but what happens when we say he is the supreme being?  A being is anything that exists. No matter what it is, it simply has to be. To call him the supreme being implies he is like any other thing that is but he is more so in some respect. Perhaps he is more powerful or he came first, either way he falls into the same categories as everything else. The discovery of the ultimate sort of being, the all-encompassing category everything falls under or is at least derived from is the pursuit of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of being, basically the entire subject of philosophy. Since being just is (you have such odd sentence constructions when talking philosophy) it is impersonal and non-relational. This un-relatable ultimate being and its categorical subdivisions are the chief subject of metaphysics. To use the language of Paul Tillich, the ultimate concern of philosophical devotion is none other than the god of philosophy. The use of such exalted, idealised language is in a sense quite religious, so it is unsurprising that many believers in the sacred, particularly Christians, accept that language.

Now philosophy has influenced Christianity a lot, particularly in the West. The reverse is also true because a lot of advances in philosophy came through church men. The use of metaphysical language to describe God reached its height in Christian thinking during the scholastic period. One of the key figures in that era was Thomas Aquinas. What was unique about him was that he introduced Aristotlean philosophy into the church which then held sway for hundreds of years until the scientific revolution. Before then, philosophy was still very influential but Neoplatonism had been the dominant paradigm. While the scholastics and earlier Christian thinkers came through theology to arrive at philosophy, Aristotle came to an understanding of god through metaphysics i.e. the prime mover and the uncaused cause. [2]This mixing of terms, where philosophy has a tendency to use theological language and theology tends to use philosophical language to talk about their ultimate concerns, is what is known as ontotheology. Onto- comes from the word ontology, the philosophical study of the types of being. The term was coined by the great 17th century philosopher Immanuel Kant but it was another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who in the 20th century further developed the thought and popularized it as a critique of all Western metaphysics. Merold Westphal summarizes Heidegger’s thoughts on ontotheology succinctly below,

[3]For Heidegger, onto-theology is the use of abstract, impersonal categories under the principle of sufficient reason that has one goal and two results. The goal is to make God fully intelligible to human understanding. The results are the disappearance of mystery from our understanding of God and the loss of any religious significance for the “God” that results.

The first part of the above statements is that the god depicted by ontotheology, the one who is the Supreme Being, the Prime Mover, the First Cause etc. is completely impersonal. You cannot pray to the first cause. He cannot be loved and more importantly he cannot love. He does not care about how we behave or the future of the world he has made. He is not a fair judge nor a passionate redeemer. The supreme being is simply aloof. It was quite easy for me to understand the definition but it was harder to appreciate the aims of ontotheology until I started paying proper attention to them. The second part about the goals of ontotheology, to make God completely intelligible thereby removing all mystery, depends on the principle of sufficient reason. The principle is that there is a reason for everything that exists because everything that exists must have a cause. If there is a reason for everything then whose reason is it? It is ours of course i.e. what we can understand. Therefore, the ontotheological god can be understood by human reason. While the lack of relationality is clearly not the nature of the God of the Bible which is not comforting at all, what disturbs me the most is the hubris of the idea that we can make sense of God.

The ontotheological god is one made after our own rational image. The idea of a god who is humanly comprenhisible is also thoroughly unbiblical because it precludes any possibility of divine revelation which the Bible is. It is God who makes sense of himself to us and not the other way round. For me a god I can understand is not great and that worries me even more than one I cannot have a relationship with. Ironically, the person who reintroduced Aristotle to the church, helped contribute to ontotheological understandings of God and provided five philosophical proofs of God’s existence, himself wisely sidestepped the ontotheological problem.

Thomas Aquinas avoided these shortcomings in two important ways. Now he did not think of god only as the uncaused cause. He was quite cautious about that language. He was very careful of how we use words and generally outlined three mains ways we use language to refer to things in his doctrine of analogy. He argues that our words can never adequately refer to God so we understand him analogically. If our descriptions of God fall short because of how great he is, it means our minds can never fathom the depths of who he is. Due to this sort of thinking he rejected another popular proof of God’s existence which is thoroughly ontotheological, Anselm’s ontological argument. It basically says God is the greatest conceivable being, the most perfect being that can ever be imagined. Aquinas did not think God was humanly comprehensible in any shape or form so he did not accept the argument.

Secondly, apart from the way Aquinas understood and used words was how he understood and used philosophy. He said philosophia ancilla theologiae which translates as philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. That meant where ontotheology considered philosophy a higher form of theology, Aquinas saw philosophy as a tool that can be used in the service of theology. This is not to say if it comes down to it theology should be chosen over philosophy. It rather means we should let philosophy be philosophy and likewise theology be itself. So we can use philosophy as a tool to do better theology but it can never replace or supersede theology because they are both their own thing.

When I came to this insight of Aquinas I immediately agreed with him because I had already been thinking along those lines. I do enjoy philosophy because I love ideas but for me it could never replace biblical theology in matters of the faith. The issue that really led to my stance on the relationship between philosophy and theology is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. My first problem with it was it used non-biblical language, which I later discovered belonged to the philosophical categories of their day. Though I did not dismiss the doctrine because of that it made me rather want to see how the Bible explains God according to its own terms. Philosophy and philosophical language are helpful but we have to know their limits. More importantly, when it comes to Christian faith we have to place the highest premium on biblical theology and language. The God-talk in the Bible is sufficient in discussing the God of the Bible because it is his revelation to us through the history of Israel.

Lately I have been learning more and more about God-talk in theology and philosophy. It has challenged me to see ontotheological terms as sign posts and uncover the path they are pointing to, which leads to the God of Jesus Christ revealed in and through scripture. We cannot just use abstract epithets for God. They must be grounded in the narrative worldview of scripture. For example, when we say God is omnipotent what does that mean? Does it just mean God has the potential to do anything? Funnily, enough the Bible does not primarily describe God’s ability in terms of potentiality, that is what he can do, but rather in terms of what he actually does. Therefore, in scripture a vague detached term crystallizes into something relatable. The question then becomes what does God actually do? This is true for words like divinity, goodness, omniscience and a host of other attributes of God. We cannot just assume we know what they mean without first knowing how they operate in scripture. It is within this scriptural framework that I hope to explore more of such questions on this platform. In short we simply have to take the word of God as the word of God.

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_the_Supreme_Being

[2] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summa/2013/06/an-introduction-to-ontotheology/

[3] Merold Westphal, Aquinas and Onto-theology, p. 173, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 2006.

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