God, Santa, Tooth Fairies, and Spaghetti Monsters

spaghetti monsterThere is a curious lack of precision today in the way many atheists and many Christians use the word “God.”

“God” is, without a doubt, one of the most slippery terms, with infinite varying concepts from one person to the next, yet a term which both parties (atheists and Christians) tend to treat as if there is perfect definitional agreement.

In one sense there is agreement. Both parties tend to treat the idea of God as a being that amounts to one more object within the universe of known objects. The Christian argues that this object is a personal being who caused the universe to come into existence, and the atheist denies the very existence of this being relegating it to the same category as Santa, Tooth Fairies, and Spaghetti Monsters. The atheist offers the Christian a simple challenge: provide physical proof of God’s existence and he will no longer be counted among fairytales. The Christian then offers the atheist a simple challenge: prove that God doesn’t exist. Both parties then fold their arms, high five themselves and imagine they’ve accomplished something heroic.

It’s a cat and mouse game typically aimed not at exploration and understanding, but at humiliating and ‘one-upping’. In reality, both sides are arguing something that finds no traction in the historical Christian understanding of God. This article is a short clarification on the issue from an Orthodox Christian perspective.

Simply stated: Orthodox Christianity has never believed in a God that is another being among other beings, differing only in power, authority, and durability; it has never conceived of God as a mere ‘First Cause’ and master craftsman of existence; in short, it has never believed in God as a ‘demiurge.’ Rather, as David Bentley Hart has put it, “Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all” (From: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss).

What usually passes as the Christian God in popular debates today is that of a demiurge. In classic Greek thought, the demiurge was a creator god; a kind of ‘world-craftsman.’ In Plato’s Timaeus the demiurge was the intermediary between the world of eternal forms and the world of physicality. He took forms present in the eternal realm and translated them into physical form, acting not as the ground of being, but rather the fashioner and causal agent of physical reality.

This idea of God is remarkably similar to a doctrine of Christ put forth by Arius in the early days of the Church. He taught that Christ was something like the demiurge of the Father who was created for the purpose of creating the universe. Arius’ stray from orthodoxy occasioned one of the longest and most fierce battles in the early Church.

Without going into a thousand historical details, I only wish to emphasize that many Christians today – by defending a concept of God that fails to rise above the category of demiurge – promote a concept of God that was thoroughly rejected by the historic Church and therefore effectively argue for a God foreign to Christianity.

As an Orthodox Christian it seems to me that many Christian vs. atheist debates are really in-house debates between parties operating from the same modern philosophical spin on existence – that of mere material and efficient causality. It’s almost punishing for an Orthodox Christian to witness such discussions. It’s like a third party candidate who really does have more to offer the situation than the two popular candidates; parties who dominate the spotlight not because of the veracity of their positions but because of cultural momentum.

My overriding point is to draw attention to a specific contrast in how God’s existence is envisioned by many today versus the actual claim of historic Christianity; not a rehearsal of the many Orthodox dogmatic statements of faith concerning God’s being. The point is that Orthodox Christianity does not insert “God” among all other known entities in some sort of naturalistic taxonomy; “God” is not a term to be inserted wherever one lacks sufficient understanding of how some mechanical something works or what ‘caused’ said mysterious something to exist. Rather we hold that God is the ontological ground of all existing things. This is not a position that is supplanted by science, but rather one that gives science meaning.

I hope the simplicity of this difference does not sacrifice its profundity for my reader. If this point is well understood it changes almost everything in modern Christian apologetics and reorients those who imagine to have landed a right hook on the chin of Christianity by attacking its phantom.

Thanks for reading!

47 thoughts on “God, Santa, Tooth Fairies, and Spaghetti Monsters

  1. Even atheists agree there is an “ontological ground of all existing things” consisting of a space-time arena and the laws of regularities of succession which govern how matter and energy changes form, position, and momentum in that arena. If you choose to use the word “God” to denote this, rather than “Tao” or “Logos” or “The Matrix” that is a matter of personal preference. If, however, you try to say this ontological framework for reality is jealous when people worship frameworks with different names, gets angered at the actions of continent beings which it could have foreseen from the beginning of time, alters the laws of physics on a whim, has a son, or really is another name for love, then atheists must part ways, because such beliefs must be placed in the same category of children’s literature with talking snakes.

    • Hello Linuxgal. So that I’m sure that I understand your position, I’ll state it again to see if we agree. You are saying that “space-time” and “laws of regularity of succession” are the ontological ground of being for all existence? Is that fair?

      Keep in mind that in order to be the ground for all being this space-time and natural laws must have being in and of themselves, meaning they sustain themselves, they are not contingent on anything for their existence. In addition, by listing two distinct categories – space-time and laws – you in effect call for at least 2 grounds of being, not 1. Are they then contingent on each other or did you mean to say they are one thing with 2 distincts modes or something of the sort?

      My follow up question will be: “Did space-time and natural law have a starting point or are they eternal?” if you have no further clarifications that changes the need for this question.

  2. If you insist on reducing the grounds of being to one, it works to postulate only the laws, which tell things how to wobble. When they wobble, they define space (the distance between the things that are wobbling) and time (the periodicity of the wobble). The space-time arena emerges as a consequence of the laws. And of course, you need something to wobble. But all this is getting sidetracked, since the point of my post was to highlight that a god which is postulated as the foundation of being bears little resemblance to the one in Scripture who walks with Adam and Eve, wrestles with Jacob, talks to Moses, and sacrifices his son.

    • Linuxgal, forgive me for only addressing the first part of your original post, but I feel that in order to properly dialogue I must first understand what you understand to be the ultimate ground of being and existence. I will happily respond to your question concerning God’s personal attributes once I get where you’re coming from.

      So, space-time is an “emergent” consequence of the laws and the laws constitute ultimate being and existence. Its clear from this line of thinking that physical matter must “emerge” from these laws as well. This is interesting in that I’ve never heard someone claim that natural laws were the cause of matter, but you say this is a point of agreement among atheists. However, your analysis seems to contradict this idea. You stated that “you need something to wobble” in order to have laws which “tell things how to wobble,” so clearly natural laws could not be the cause of the existence of wobbly things. It’s a bit like saying the laws governing sight created eyeballs.

      Help me understand where you’re coming from.

  3. You are claiming that God is the deepest level of reality, the “ground of being”. In my first reply I made the claim that even atheists can agree that there is a bottom substrate of reality that has no deeper explanation, and I suggested this was a two-part system consisting of a stage on which the players act, and a script. The second part of my first reply was to show where we diverge: This substrate is more like the god of the deists rather than the theists, which is what I presume EO Christians to be.

    In the second cycle you objected that I was proposing two grounds of being rather than one, and I countered by suggesting that the stage was formed by the players performing the script, leaving the script the only remaining “ground of being” for the players. And I acknowledged you needed the players too. But the players are foreground, they are known by their actions against the screen which is the deepest basis of being. You seem to be asking to merge the players with the script, leaving only the script.

    I do not know why there is something rather than nothing, and I do not know the ultimate source of the physical laws that we observe. It is like Mt. Everest, or the distribution of prime numbers: It’s just there. If you are content to call these physical laws by the name “God” you will have no intractable objection from atheists. A name is just a sound. But if you say that there is a thinking being outside of the whole system who set everything down by fiat, that is where atheists demur, since the claim is a purely metaphysical assumption with no means to back it up by observation.

    • Linuxgal, I’m sorry if you feel forced into a particular position. I am merely attempting to ferret out your understanding of being based on the assertions you provide. You have clearly stated that natural laws are not merely abstractions that do no more than describe a reality that already exists (which is how they are usually appraised), but rather have the power to create and sustain all existence, since, as you say, space-time is an emergent quality of laws.

      When I pressed to find out where these laws came from, since it is a logical absurdity that they should create the very things they are dependent on, or contain self-subsistence, you eventually came to the conclusion that “it is just there” (like Mt. Everest, which, incidentally, we can explain quite easily with elementary sciences).

      I fail to see how “just-there-ness” is logically distinguishable from magic. Your analogy above reads like this: “Once upon a time – *presto!* – there was a script then – *presto!* – from the script emerged players and a stage…” The very fact that it occurred to you to use this sort of analogy signals to me that you may have a fundamental misunderstanding of what is being discussed.

      Let me try once again to help you see where I’m coming from, this time, though, I’ll employ David Bentley Hart who put it like this: “The question of existence is real, comprehensible, and unavoidable, and yet it lies beyond the power of naturalism to answer it, or even to ask it. An old and particularly sound metaphysical maxim says that between existence and nonexistence there is an infinite qualitative difference. It is a difference that no merely quantitative calculation of processes or forces of laws can ever overcome. Physical reality cannot account for its own existence for the simple reason that nature – the physical – is that which by definition already exists; existence, even taken as a simple brute fact to which no metaphysical theory is attached, lies logically beyond the system of causes that nature comprises; it is, quite literally, ‘hyperphysical,’ or, shifting to Latin, super naturam.

      In addition, positing God as the ground of being is not to place Him within nature as some sort of chronological first cause (though, He did create all things ex nihilo), but to find in Him pure being – that sustaining ground of being that gives nature existence. Its the difference between seeing my grandfather as the cause of my existence, chronologically, and seeing my grandfather as the sustaining power of my life, the power which all my contingent factors find their ultimate unconditioned reality. My grandfather has no such power, but neither does anything else in nature, for nature itself is wholly contingent. To find the sustaining power of existence one must find what is, as philosophers term it, “necessary,” i.e., without contingency.

      Lastly, and sorry for the lengthy reply, let me touch on this, you said, “I do not know why there is something rather than nothing, and I do not know the ultimate source of the physical laws that we observe..: It’s just there. If you are content to call these physical laws by the name “God” you will have no intractable objection from atheists.”

      This is an important insert because it reveals at least two important things: (a) that you understand on some level that physical laws are not the ground of being as you have repeatedly claimed, and (b) as I have said throughout the article and in my replies to you, I do not wish to call physical laws “god.” This would be something similar to the demiurge notion that I thoroughly refuted earlier (please see the OP). This reminds me of the scene in the book of Acts where St. Paul addresses the Athenians who had an alter to “The Unknown God,” like atheists today with their unknown source and ground of being. This is the God I have come to tell you about. 🙂

    • In another place about two hours ago (I have many pokers in the fire, it seems), on a very related subject, I said in reply to Russel:

      “You do know something of quantum physics, I see, so you probably know that vacuum fluctuations are a consequences of the uncertainty principle, and that in turn is due to the fact that a Fourier transform of a spike in amplitude space (which corresponds to the position of a particle) results in a very broad spectrum in frequency space (corresponding to the momentum of the particle), and the reverse is true. And all that is a bare fact of mathematics which has no deeper explanation, any more than does the distribution of primes among the set of integers. We hit rock bottom.”

      It would be a wonderful thing to discover and publish a function P(n) that would output the nth prime number, but it isn’t happening, any more than we can find a deeper reason for the values of the rest masses of the various quarks and leptons. If you feel that it requires a supreme being to make the sum of the interior angles of a triangle always equal to pi you are welcome to believe that. I prefer to accept the most fundamental things as they are and probe no deeper, because that’s essentially what theists do anyway when they arrive at their god. Further discussion of the origin of that god is off the table.

    • I think he is just attempting to explain how he does feel that natural laws are the basis for all existence.

  4. This is an excellent point, Eric. While I certainly don’t (can’t) pretend to have the Orthodox understanding of God, I similarly find it cringe-worthy most of the time He is conjured down in the debate to be battled over in the way you describe. In fact, I don’t even know that I can claim I’m innocent of offering incomplete or flawed conceptions. Heaven forbid any atheist should walk away with any reinforced flabby demiurge “Zeus” in their noggin’ on my account!

    You know I’m currently working through “Miracles,” and finding it, if I may add, even more eye-popping though at the same time difficult in its own right than “Mere Christianity” and I can’t help but recall what Lewis says about our modern “picture-thinking” in conjunction with what you’re talking about here.

    The one thing I generally refuse to countenance however is when the Atheist (many perhaps offering no scientific basis whatsoever for what they’re saying, having performed 0 (or not all, and certainly not in the proper order) real steps of the scientific method) proceed to proffer “Science” as the ultimate take down to Christianity. That’s generally where the need is rather eye-popping to point out their utter lack of proof. Or claiming it, falsely, as the Christian lack of proof. And that leads into No True Scotsman fallacies, in my opinion. It’s funny. Perhaps Old European and Old American Christianity relaxed, basked and languished in that error and some even carry on to this day. However, now, I feel this fallacy is territory almost entirely taken over by popular or hipster-chic Atheism.

    It’s new name? “No Thinking/Reasonable Person.” Odd, isn’t it? Seeing as how the argument from reason is one of the strongest philosophical arguments I’ve heard.

    • Nice! Miracles is one of those game changing books for apologetics. I’ve read the first 4 or 5 chapters of that book probably a dozen times to get the way Lewis captures the argument and I still feel like I haven’t done it justice.

      Also, to your last point, it is odd that many philosophical naturalist leaning atheists tend to see their views as pure logic when so many logical absurdities are required to make it work.

  5. I’ve got to agree with linuxgal on this. If you want to play deist there is no real argument. Personal gods that intereact with humanity have a physical attribute or two. A god with physical attributes can be tested for. A god with no physical attributes cannot and therefore is no more real than a myth.

    It’s possible for you to define your god as beyond all existence. Great, you’ve got a good myth going there. Don’t tell anyone that your god causes tsunamis and interacts with people personally. Don’t tell me about wrestling with jacob or burning bushes and landing on mountain tops etc, nevermind impregnating a virgin. Your god is not the god of the Christian holy texts.

    The god of Christianity is a wizard, using magic to make things happen and his ‘word’ (literal or revealed) is an incoherent collection of impossible tales. They don’t make sense unless you’re willing to accept that magic is true and that YHWH is illogical, and at times too stupid to be called a god.

  6. I appreciate the way that you are moving back from the common concept of God. You move to something far more profound, than some mythical Being whose job it is to fulfill all our desires. It is my opinion that the God that most people worship today actually is Santa Claus.

    • I wonder if parents really know what they are doing when they tell their children the whole Santa Claus mythology, which is the first hypothesis children learn to discard and subsequently, for many of them, provides the perfect blueprint for discarding other beings who are omniscient with respect to their good and bad deeds, and unexplainably omnipresent.

    • Indeed, Christy. In that respect, as I said in the article, I cheer on both parties – the atheist/naturalist and the demiurge preaching “Christian” – in their mutual combat to mutual destruction. 🙂

  7. Eric vs linuxgal: this short thread has it all! Eric presents an attractive theist position, but in the end, i have to make that little leap too far of faith. Then, Linuxgal presents an attractive athiest position, but in the end, i have to accept brute facts on faith, without sufficient reason. …and linuxgals second point about how this ethereal impersonal ground of being projects itself into daily reality, well, isnt that the central mystery of the incarnation?
    Please eric and linuxgal, work it out and get back to me!

  8. Linuxgal, and others who might also have the question, let us address your other point:

    “But all this is getting sidetracked, since the point of my post was to highlight that a god which is postulated as the foundation of being bears little resemblance to the one in Scripture who walks with Adam and Eve, wrestles with Jacob, talks to Moses, and sacrifices his son.”

    I’m currently at a loss to understand why a belief in God as the ground of being makes him, eo ipso, an impersonal God.

    Help me out.

    (BTW, forgive me ahead of time if my replies are late coming. Tomorrow I start a new job that will keep me more occupied than I’ve been accustomed to for many years.)

    • The Deist position has reality being created by God, and the rules established, then God withdraws to watch it all unfold with no intervention at all, which in practical terms is identical to materialism.

      The Theist position has God supernaturally intervening in history time and time again, from the Noahide flood to Sodom to the plagues of Egypt, to the fall of Jericho, to the halting of the sun to aid Joshua, to the burning of the priests of Baal, and so on, until finally he comes down here personally to give everyone the straight skinny.

      So this is what you’re left with if you insist on a God that is simultaneously an activist, personal God, and not a demi-urge: You must show why the Logos, the fundamental procedure for physical laws, would show favortism for one variety of Canaanite (the house of Israel) over all the others, other than the fact that the House of Israel said so, since anyone could make the same claim.

    • Couple of problems right off the bat:

      (1) You impose a fairly common, but incorrect, distinction between Deism and theism. Deism is a theism. Thus, making the claim that materialism and Deism are practical twins is a concession I’m not sure many atheists would jump at (except in desperation to make the “origins” question go away).

      (2) The Christian position is not THE theist position, it is one of many theistic positions. You seem to use the two terms interchangeably.

      (3) Your demand for evidence as to why God, who is the “fundamental procedure for physical laws” (whatever that is suppose to mean) can also chose to reveal himself to the Hebrew people and not some other group is an interesting challenge, but not one germane to determining, “why a belief in God as the ground of being makes him, eo ipso, an impersonal God?” Could you please clarify how an answer to your demand satisfies this seemingly manufactured dilemma?

  9. I hope to find enough time today (or soon, anyway) to get to continue my ongoing discussion on other posts, and to finally get around to answering the “values” post (again). In the mean time, however, I’d like to add here that, without having read the book, and going purely on how you described it here, David Bentley Hart seems to be reiterating Anselm’s definition of God as “…that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

    Furthermore, I’ve often found that it’s the Christian who either knowingly tries to dismiss the arguments against God’s existence by reducing him, as you mentioned, or has unknowingly reduced him (God) himself (the Christian). This was a point of my frustration with you earlier when I was trying to explain the contradictory nature of claiming the positive existence of a being (entity) which requires existentially to be omnipotent. That is, of course, only true if one regards God as you (or Hart, I suppose) described him.

    Not wanting to go through all of that again, unless something new exists to be said about it, I will also mention that Anselm’s, and Hart’s understanding of God falls apart mainly in the “revelation” claim. In other words, the definition given is a deistic one, but the devil is in the details and the road from deism to theism is yet untraveled.

    I promise to answer any replies as time permits, but I must apologize ahead of time if it will take a few days for that to happen.

    • Hey Pavlos, maybe the most important thing to say in reply is that David Bentley Hart in no way claims to “define” God with the quote used in my article. As an Eastern Orthodox scholar he’s far from pretending that such things are possible, or even desirable as a quick summarizing of God. The portion I quoted only serves to make the point for my article which was to address a specific misuse of the term “God” when applying it to a being that differs in no essential way from the classic Greek rendition of the demiurge.

      To your last point, neither Anselm or Hart are Deists, nor are their quotes about God given above specifically Deistic ones. The actual fact, as Hart covers in depth in the book, is that nearly all forms of classical theism have this take on God – that He is “the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things…” Orthodox Christianity has MUCH more to say than this, but I’m hoping that is already understood from my noting so in the article.

      Btw, I would highly recommend that you get a copy of the book and read at least the first 2 to 3 chapters, and all of it if you have the time. It will either make you a believer or one of the best atheist apologists on the planet. How’s that for a sales pitch?

    • A good sales pitch indeed! It will have to wait, however (I’ll just have to add it to a long list of books I want to purchase and read when I am finally able to).

      Clearly I can’t comment on Hart’s view of God since I have not read his book. But I will say that, to me, it seems that theism itself reduces the concept of such a being down to a very human level. Once we start talking about what foods he doesn’t want us to eat, or what parts of our bodies must be “snipped,” it becomes hard to then try and re-elevate such a being to ““. . . the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all.” That understanding of God goes out the window pretty quickly as you start reading the bible.

    • Well, we believe in a transcendent God, yet one that is wholly immanent. This is possible because of God’s essence and energies. It is His essence which is transcendent and unapproachable and His energies in which we “live and move and have our being.” Christianity provides the greatest paradox of all time: how the eternal God had a ‘beginning’ in time born to a virgin. What can I say? It’s the faith. Being involved with humanity and the whole of creation is the work of this God. There is nothing in the understanding of God as being the “ground and end of all reality” which precludes the understanding of his personal attributes. But I’m open to hearing an articulated argument to the contrary, i.e., assertions with grounds, not mere assertions.

    • The contrary argument is rather simple: You’ve presupposed the destination prior to the trip. This works for vacation planning, but not for theology. This is also known as Confirmation Bias. Consider the example you offered about the virgin birth. It’s only a paradox if you presuppose that such things are possible, that they actually happened, and that they are in need of an explanation. Hume offered a succinct description of this in his question: “Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?”

      We can carry this further as well. Don’t you find it at all bizarre that God, as described, seems to be such a flawed character? Consider Exodus 20:5 “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” There’s the obvious admission of jealousy (described in psychology as “[An emotion whose] intensity is often shielding deep-seated feelings of possessiveness, insecurity or shame.”) but there’s also the underlying lack of justice; that my great-grandfather’s sins will be something for which I will be punished.

      That’s just a minor taste, but what’s telling about it is that if you remove the presupposed belief that God exists and that all he does is righteous, you are left with an unquestionably flawed, petty character who perfectly mirrors all that is lacking from us humans (all our failings . . . anger, jealousy, intolerance, egotism, etc.). This was, in fact, one of the earliest alarms in my head as I listened to my teachers (in Orthodox instruction) and priests in my younger years. I just couldn’t get over the fact that I was asked to accept as righteous (or divine, or perfect . . .) a character who could only be so if he were so because he could not be otherwise. Just replace “God” with “Ferdinand” and you’d think you’re reading the story of a rather gruesome dictator/warlord in the OT, with a *somewhat* better adjusted son in the NT.

      When I envision a being which is the Alpha and Omega of existence, a being so profoundly grand that I cannot properly conceive of such an existence, the last thing I expect is such pettiness, vindictiveness, small-mindedness, and all-round flawed, human, nature. In fact, prior to completely losing my faith I had a theory that I still find having some merit. It was born from something a priest told me once (“The greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince mankind he did not exist.”). I thought about it for about 5 seconds before scoffing so obviously that I earned a look that could kill, if it could shoot daggers. I realized that such a trick would be laughably simplistic. In fact, the greatest trick would be to convince mankind that he (the devil) was the creator god (while the true god would be portrayed as the devil). We’d all spend our life worshiping the wrong figure (and not just any “wrong” figure, but the great adversary himself). And why not? We can relate much better to such a human-seeming, flawed character, than we can to a true deity whose existence is practically inconceivable to us. He’s tailor-made for our finite minds to embrace, comprehend, and use as justification for our own egotistical endeavors.

      The point being that all parts of this theology, and any theology I know of, only seem to reduce a divine being into an anthropomorphized caricature of the same primitive men who first claimed to receive this revelation from their god.

    • That was a usual rant, but not an articulation of why “understanding God as being the “ground and end of all reality” precludes the understanding of his personal attributes.”

      It doesn’t matter whether or not your personal reading of the Bible and unfounded critique of justice is accurate or catastrophically misinformed. What I desire is a logical articulation of why God cannot be at once the ground and end of all reality and also make man in his image and likeness. It seems you are the one guilty of “presupposing the destination before the trip.” Your own confirmation bias has determined that any description of God as having attributes common to humans is an anthropomorphism rather than the other way around. I argue that attributing transcendent ideas of “justice” “Good” “Evil” etc, to human beings is to attribute ideas wholly removed from your understanding of existence, i.e., philosophical naturalism. You’re committing ‘theomorphism.’

  10. for me your article highlights the danger of trying to define God at all; because God is outside of creation and yet also present in every atom of it, because he is outside time and space and yet also is the very essence of all that there is; our language and imagination and limited space time perspective cannot define, encompass or understand him, if we could we would also be God. So we try to put him into boxes, categories, we compare him with things we can see and touch to try to describe his qualities, we make analogies and metaphors but sometimes we slip up and begin to worship the metaphor. Just as we can only conceive of eternity as “a really long time” we can only talk about God using our limited resources of language. That is why Jesus is so important; he came to us in a form we could recognise, he stripped himself of all the eternal trappings which make him inaccessible and showed himself to us, shared our experience so that we could get traction on the idea of God.of course the very idea that God could become human while remaining God is another concept which is far beyond human understanding. As Paul says we see through a glass darkly but one day we will be released from the limits of this world and see clearly.
    Thank you for your explanation, always thought provoking and well argued, and this discussion thread has been most illuminating!

    • Well put, hermitageno8, The Orthodox typically employ what is called “apophatic” theology when speaking of God; it’s a negative theology, meaning one defines God by what He is not as opposed to what He is since what He is not is far more accessible to our understanding. Orthodox dogmatic theology about God provides merely a boundary line signaling our limitations of knowledge – some of which is defined but totally incomprehensible, if that makes sense. A good example is the Trinity, how God is one God in essence and Three in persons; or how Christ is the second person of the Trinity without beginning and without end yet appeared in human flesh within time and space – paradoxes accepted by faith, not by “proofs.”

      Thanks for you reply, sorry for the delay in my response. Cheers!

  11. (In continuation of my conversation with Eric from above, since I can’t reply directly to your comment there.)

    Okay, let’s get philosophical here then.

    Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which no greater can be conceived” describes a being which is maximally perfect (or, as you put it ” [the] ground and end of all reality”. Such a being would be an absolute reality and, as such, must be an “ens a se” (“being from itself”) and so not dependent on anything distinct from itself for either its nature or its existence (so not “ens ab alio”). If God had properties in the way non-divine beings (humans) have them, however, he would be distinct from them and so dependent on them.

    In simple terms, this means God is identical to his properties (because he cannot have properties which he must depend on existentially). This is known as Divine Simplicity. (Have I adequately, and properly described your position?)

    But here’s the problem with it.

    P1: Properties are abstract, causally inert entities. (A property can not cause something to exist, or occur, rather its possessor must utilize the property as a means towards a goal)
    P2: Properties, by definition, are possessed (“held as a possession”).
    P3: A being which is existentially identical to its properties must be identical to the intrinsic existentiality of properties.
    P4: Therefore, such a being would be abstract and causally inert (from P1).
    P5: A being which is existentially identical to its properties (not dependent on them) is logically incoherent (because of P2).
    P6: God, being an “ens a se” (“being from itself”), is existentially one and the same as his properties.
    C: Therefore, God is abstract and inert (from P4), and logically incoherent (from P5 & P6).

    But this only addresses the problem of him (God) being “[the] ground and end of all reality.” It does not address the question of “why ‘understanding God as being the ‘ground and end of all reality’ precludes the understanding of his personal attributes.'”

    Your implied claim in your question is that God *can* be both “[the] ground and end of all reality” *and* we can understand his personal attributes. So let’s ignore, momentarily, the conclusion given above regarding the problem of God being his attributes and let’s focus on this claim which I will summarize as “God exemplifies his nature by exemplifying his attributes,” so this is how we (being creations of his and, therefore, part of his nature) can understand his nature.

    This argument, however, necessitates that if God exemplifies his nature, then God is distinct from his nature. The reason being that individuals have a nature, they cannot be a nature (it would be a category mistake to assert otherwise). God’s nature is an accumulation of his properties (which as I illustrated earlier are causally inert abstractions). To be his properties (nature) he would have to also be a causally inert abstraction and, therefore, not an individual capable of exemplifying his nature. So we have two categories here: Individuality (being a concretum), and nature (the conjunction of properties) (being an abstractum).

    In proper form:

    P1: Existential categories are limited to concreta and abstracta.
    P2: Something which is concretum cannot be abstractum (and vice versa).
    P3: A being (concretum) exemplifies its nature (abstractum) by being distinct from it.
    C: God is distinct from his nature.

    Which brings us, finally, to the question of “What is God’s nature?” You wrote “Your own confirmation bias has determined that any description of God as having attributes common to humans is an anthropomorphism rather than the other way around.” Concluding that “You’re committing ‘theomorphism.”

    As I illustrated in my previous comment, these attributes of God which I attribute to anthropomorphism and you to theomorphism, are symptoms of existential inadequacy (in other words, they belong only to flawed, rather than perfect, beings). A jealous being can only be jealous if it is lacking. You cannot desire that which you already have, nor can you be frustrated with feelings of insecurity or shame if there is nothing to be insecure about or ashamed of. If I am guilty of theomorphism then by definition you are claiming that our “jealousy” is merely a reflection of God’s jealousy. This negates his perfect nature and puts us on a road leading in the opposite direction of “that than which no greater can be conceived” or, as you put it ” [the] ground and end of all reality”. Of course jealousy is but one of many “less than” attributes not befitting a perfect being. Genesis 6:6 “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” is another one. A perfect being cannot have regrets because it cannot make mistakes, or create creations it does not desire, or that do not perform as it desired. Perfection entails purposefulness in creation. So when God expresses regret in something he is, by necessity, having a “change of heart” (because he couldn’t have mistakenly created something which performed against his desires). But the doctrine of divine immutability, necessitated by perfection, asserts that God cannot undergo real or intrinsic change in any respect. So we find ourselves with either a flawed description (my point), or a flawed being. He cannot be a flawed being, so he must be mistakenly described. If he is mistakenly described then he is anthropomorphized in his description.

    In proper form:

    P1: A perfect being is, by existential necessity, immutable.
    P2: Regret is to feel sorrow for an action now considered to be an error.
    P3: Desiring a different outcome is an “intrinsic change.”
    P4: Performing a new action for the purpose of having a different result from the initial action, now regretted, is a “real change.”
    P5: Genesis 6:6 Describes an intrinsic change.
    P6: Genesis 6:7 Describes a proclamation for an action for the purpose of having a real change.
    P7: If God is perfect he must be immutable (from P1).
    P8: If God is immutable he cannot be in error or feel regret (from P2).
    P9: Therefore God cannot be both perfect (thus immutable) and properly described in Genesis 6:6-7).
    P10: Any description of a being which asserts that it’s both perfect and flawed is contradictory.
    C: The description of God in the bible is contradictory to the nature of a perfect being.

    The only real objection to this is that I have misunderstood these passages from the bible which I am to take metaphorically (and I have misunderstood the metaphor, emotion, etc.) This is only possible as a flawed being (which I am). If I am flawed and created by God then I must be flawed because God desires me (us, humans) to be flawed. So the same flaw in my understanding is inherently existent in all of us (both readers and writers of the bible). Therefore, our understanding is flawed and incapable of perceiving correctly the true nature of God. Which means . . . that any human description of God is, as Anselm suggested, not of the true nature of God (who is by definition above our understanding and comprehension).

    • Okay, now let’s get theological.
      Pavlos, beautiful response, but unfortunately – and this kills me since I can tell that you spent a good amount of time on your response – the foundation of the entire post is based on a misunderstanding, and thus the structure you built upon it falls by its own weight of false conclusions.

      First, beginning your reply by giving Anselm’s “definition” of God is not the way to attain an Orthodox perspective. But leaving that aside, in your first paragraph or two you were getting along pretty well but as soon as you began using the words “properties,” “nature,” and such, we ran aground. To say that “God is identical to his properties,” and then defining properties as those things “held in possession… abstract… causally inert” is to use a term neither Scripture nor the Holy Fathers ever used to describe God (not that I have exhaustive knowledge of either source, but you get the drift). For the Orthodox, God has three realities (as stated by St. Gregory Palamas): essence, energy, and the triad of divine hypostases. You imply two realities: nature and properties. If you had stated that God’s essence is identical to his energies we would have something to work with, but even then it would be only half true.

      Here’s how it lays out: God’s essence is totally undivided and transcendent, shared with no created being; God’s divine energies are divided indivisibly (if that doesn’t make sense, think of it as the gift of God’s nature to millions of individuals – divided to supply them with it – yet wholly the same throughout the divisions –indivisible – , whereas God’s essence is not divided and no others beings participate in it). This is not two God’s but one and the same God. For example, it is the “property” of God’s energy to create (St. Cyril of Alexandria), and you see here how the Father’s would have used the term – as an action, not an appendage. It is the energy of God in which we can “partake of” (2Pet 1:4) and in which we can unite to God in Spirit. Thus, His energies are not “possessions” created and dependent on God’s essence, rather they are the uncreated, natural activities of God’s nature. To attribute to God “properties” in an anthropomorphic sense is to tread where no Orthodox Father has ever tread.

      At any rate, you asked in your beginning statements if you had “adequately and properly described” my position and I think it’s obvious that the answer is no. Based on this understanding of God’s being do you see why Christians, and particularly Orthodox Christians, have no problem with the God who is the “ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all,” yet also find in Him a personal God? If not, there is still much to say about the Holy Trinity that might help to clear this up from our perspective. I’ll save that for another time if you’re interested.

      Let me quick respond to the second half of your post. “Immutability” is not a concept that the Orthodox deal with much (again, maybe some do but I have not run across them). This concept hearkens back to Greek ideas of immobility and sterility. The Orthodox view is not that God is static but rather stable, constant, and dependable. That God is the ground and end of all reality certainly means that He cannot be moved or shaken by an enemy, but He can be moved by faith, love, humility, etc., but this is not a demonstration of “lack” as you put it, but of true power. Nothing in His essence and energies are changed by such a movement. Again, to argue this fully would necessitate a fairly lengthy discussion of God as ontological Trinity, which I’m willing to do if you desire it. Oh, and yes anthropomorphic language used in the Bible for God are consessions for describing God’s activity with mankind. Changes in God’s relations with people are changes not in God’s essence but in his activities (though, properly speaking, these are not “changes”). For example, it is God’s will for people to be saved, but people choose to go astray. God’s action to bring them back is not a change in God’s will as evidenced by his activity to bring them back.

    • No need to feel “pained” that you are in disagreement with me. If I’m wrong, then you are enlightening me so that I don’t mistakenly continue entertaining a mistaken argument. If I’m partially wrong then you are motivating me to correct the argument where it is lacking. Either way I see “debates” and arguments (such as this) as educational gifts. I have no use for people who agree with me, or who disagree but can’t, or won’t, articulate why. This is, after all, how I choose to spend a good portion of my free time. Anyway . . .

      I’ll attempt a quick response to better understand (or see if I already do understand better from your reply) what you’re saying so that I don’t formulate more arguments that are irrelevant to us here.

      In researching some of the specifics of your answer I stumbled upon this “As St John Damascene teaches, ‘all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature.'” Because “God’s ousia is incomprehensible to any created being.” There are problems with claiming to comprehend something well enough to know it’s incomprehensible, but that aside, it seems Damascenus is answering your question “why ‘understanding God as being the “ground and end of all reality” precludes the understanding of his personal attributes.'” in my favor. Damascenus is saying that God’s essence is incomprehensible to us, you wrote that “God has three realities (as stated by St. Gregory Palamas): essence, energy, and the triad of divine hypostases” but “David Bentley Hart expresses doubt ‘that Palamas ever intended to suggest a real distinction between God’s essence and energies.'” If there is no distinction, and his essence is incomprehensible to us, then so are his personal attributes.

      Also, “attributes” and “properties” are interchangeable words in this discussion so I don’t follow your reasoning that my argument doesn’t apply because God doesn’t have properties.

      To the point about immutability, you wrote “The Orthodox view is not that God is static but rather stable, constant, and dependable.” To make sure we were on the same page I looked more in depth into this and found this quote “Two definitions of divine immutability receive careful attention. The first is that for God to be immutable is for God to have a constant character and to be faithful in divine promises; this is a definition of “weak immutability.” The second, “strong immutability,” is that for God to be immutable is for God to be wholly unchanging.” Weak or strong, both speak to the same approximate aspect which I was covering: that immutability is so because to not be so is to be flawed.

      There are some passages from the bible which indicate mutability (Jeremiah 26:1, God relenting and not doing what he had said he would do; 1 Chronicles 21:15 God grieves his decision and reverses it.), but if this is something not addressed by Orthodoxy then . . . well , i don’t know because it seems to me that it needs to be addressed, but I can see how perhaps not yet since we can’t even come to an agreement if we can even comprehend God’s essence or not. I would, however, say that this is not something can be overlooked or dismissed because it is a part of the understanding of we mean when we speak of God.

    • Let me take what you found in your searching and give commentary as I am capable. Starting with St. Damascene, you noted: “As St John Damascene teaches, ‘all that we say positively of God manifests not his nature but the things about his nature.’” Because “God’s ousia is incomprehensible to any created being.”

      Those things that we can say positively (or cataphatic theology) we say about God’s energies because this is the gift of God’s presence that He makes available for us to participate in. When speaking of God’s essence we can only speak in the negative, or speak of what God is not (i.e., apaphatic theology). God’s essence, that is “ousia” is God’s domain alone, there is no participation for created beings in God’s essence.

      St. Palamas articulates much of this talk of Gods essence and energies. But let me make this point, as I think it will be important for future research you may do, Palamas does not speak on these things as a lone voice. He is rather summarizing what all the Fathers have taught. There are no lone voices in Orthodoxy. Where one does find a lone voice – even among the Fathers – one is not obligated to consider it part of the tradition. Many Fathers taught unique things that got them in trouble at times and are teachings not considered Orthodoxy. The bit about David Bentley Hart expressed doubt over Palamas’s teaching on the subject is somewhat irrelevant, for this reason: If Hart did say this as a commentary on Palamas it fails to address the entire tradition that backs up the differences between the essence and energy of God which stretches back long before Palamas. I am also curious where you found this quote. I would be surprised if Hart made this comment in context with what we are discussing and if he did he simply misspoke. I know from my personal study of Palamas that he most definitely taught the Orthodox understanding of the subject.

      Moving on, I do not agree that ““attributes” and “properties” are interchangeable words in this discussion,” for the reasons already giving. God’s energies are not appendages of his Person; as if they are his “possessions.” Attributing to God attributes in this fashion is to follow a heterodox version of the Orthodox tradition.

      And, touching the immutabiity thing again, you may have to ask some pointed questions in order for me to understand what it is you are wanting to know. Much of the discussion is found in our speaking on the essence and energy, but the rest of it likely falls to a discussion of the Trinity and the difference between God’s essence and triad hypostases. As a side note, the argument you’ve been making is great against Reformed (i.e., Calvinistic) theology, but when you make it against Orthodoxy you run into many levels of theology where it gets derailed, which hopefully you’ve gotten a sense for already in our current discussion. Much of it I am still working through. Even having a masters in theology only gets me to a certain point. Digesting the Holy Fathers and personal subjectivity to the faith is necessary to complete the “study,” if one can even call it that.

    • I found Hart’s quote on wikipedia, but it cites this as the source: “David Bentley Hart, ”The Beauty of the Infinite”, p. 204. Books.google.com (2004-10-31). Retrieved on 21 January 2012.”

      On the “attributes” vs “properties” topic I went to the dictionary for help.
      : an inherent characteristic;”

      “char·ac·ter·is·tic noun
      : a distinguishing trait, quality, or property”

      This leads us to “property” (attribute -> characteristic->property)

      But there is no clear explanation if the three descriptors are interchangeable (trait, quality, property). So let’s ignore “property” and continue with “trait” and “quality.”

      “trait noun
      : a quality that makes one person or thing different from another”

      “Trait” leads to “quality.”

      “qual·i·ty noun
      : a characteristic or feature that someone or something has”

      This is extremely similar to the possessive nature of “properties,” but let’s continue on with “feature” because “characteristic” has been defined above to include “property.”

      “fea·ture noun
      : an interesting or important part, quality, ability, etc.”

      “Quality” has already been defined, so now we have “part” and ability.”

      “Part” has several definitions, but as it relates to this topic the most appropriate is this:

      “part noun
      a constituent of character or capacity”

      This yield “capacity.”
      “ca·pac·i·ty noun
      : the ability to do something : a mental, emotional, or physical ability”

      “Capacity” leads to “ability” (which is also yielded from “feature.”)

      “abil·i·ty noun
      : the power or skill to do something”

      Now we have “power” and “skill.”

      “pow·er noun, often attributive
      : the ability or right to control people or things”

      “Ability” has been covered, and “right” isn’t part of this discussion.
      So we’re left with “skill” from the definition of “ability.”

      “skill noun
      : the ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice”

      “Skill” leads back to “ability.” It’s also problematic because God’s “skills” don’t derive from “training, experience, or practice.”

      It seems to me that “ability” and “power” (defined interchangeably in this context) would be the ultimate goal of what you mean when you say “attributes.”

      So God is “able” (has the ability). But where do abilities come from? What makes someone able?

      Our abilities come from our properties. “Property” here defined as:
      “prop·er·ty noun
      : a special quality or characteristic of something”
      So there’s a clearly circular nature to this. “Quality” leads to “characteristic,” “characteristic” leads to “property,” and “property” leads back to “characteristic” which originally came from “attributes.” So I see “attributes” “properties.” Your properties define your characteristics which cause you to be able to do something.

      And that leads me back to the possessive nature of “properties” which excludes a being from itself.

      A bit of a side-question, but after reading this “When speaking of God’s essence we can only speak in the negative, or speak of what God is not (i.e., apaphatic theology). God’s essence, that is “ousia” is God’s domain alone, there is no participation for created beings in God’s essence.” I’m left wondering how is it that you can speak about what something is not, if you have no epistemic access to what it is. So, if God’s essence is incomprehensible (and we can’t participate in it at all, nor even understand it or speak of it), what enables you to speak about what it’s not? For example, I’m looking at my coffee mug beside me and I can tell you what it’s not only by virtue of knowing what it is. If there is something else beside me which I can’t see, touch, or experience in any way, I can’t even understand it because I can’t comprehend it, then not only do I not know if it’s there or not, but I certainly can’t speak about what it is or isn’t.

      I’ll leave the immutability questions for later because I don’t want to go down a potentially pointless road.

  12. An immutable being cannot know what time it is now, since that knowledge represents a change from when it knew a previous time as now.

    This knowledge of the present time, however, is available to even imperfect human beings with a watch.

    Therefore, immutability is inherently incompatible with perfection.

    • Linuxgal, what is your understanding of “immutable”? Forgive me, I am simply trying to relate your concept to the question I posed you: “why a belief in God as the ground of being makes him, eo ipso, an impersonal God.”. I have not used your term for good reasons (see the end of my reply to Palvos above).

    • Immutable means simply that there is no change, no “shadow of turning” (James 1:17 “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”) This means an immutable being cannot learn something. Normally this is not considered a handicap, since God is portrayed as already nowing everything, but in order to experience the present moment of time, one’s knowledge must constantly change as the second hand sweeps. God sees all of time at a glance, but he cannot know one simple thing: what time it is.

    • Linuxgal, thank you for your response. You are still involved in a categorical error in your reasoning on this subject. From the start you have shown your ability to discuss ‘individual beings’ in existence, but what you have failed to do from the start is to discuss ‘being’ itself – there is a profound difference and I’m not sure how to help you bridge this gap. You still view God as another object among other objects in existence, but this is not the God of Orthodox Christianity (a point well made in the article, which I highly recommend you read in order to follow this discussion).

      If God is the source and ground of all being and reality, and not merely another being among other beings, one can see that He is the very ground of every moment, every second. Not only does He know what time it is, He is the ground of time-space reality itself, not merely a participant (on this point also see my discussion with Pavlos directly above this thread involving Gods essence and energy).

      But besides this categorical error, there are a few ad hoc assertions that you made. First, you state that, “in order to experience the present moment of time, one’s knowledge must constantly change.” This may be true for non-actualized beings such as human who are ever-changing – who fall in line with the Greek and Hegelian dialectic of existence, that is that existence entails a constant flux between non-being and being, i.e., every new moment is an actualizing of being and every past moment falls into non-being. God’s constancy (or as you put it, “immutability”) means that He is the source of His own being – He is complete – He does not participate in this nonbeing-being flux of natural existence – again, this is an illustration of God as “Being” rather than God as “another being among other beings”. Each moment of time is grounded in God, we can only “experience” it due to this fact. As far as God experiencing time, if by this you mean God experiencing His own creation then sure. And He can “experience” it without the need to change (i.e., without the need to grow/develop).

      Another groundless, and rather odd, assertion is this: “God sees all of time at a glance, but he cannot know one simple thing: what time it is.” If one follows this logic one must conclude that if God cannot know what time it is then he cannot know what any future time is, since all future time/moments will eventually be present time/moments. Either God can know “all of time” including the present moment, or one must make a special exclusion of the present moment from time, and hence remove all present moments in the future. In short, this assertion simply fails the test of common sense.

  13. Often God’s view of eternity is portrayed as a tapestry hanging on a wall, where he can see every event, past, present, and future laid open to his view. My argument is that when time is presented like that, there is no way to locate the “present”, whether you are God looking at it from outside or a person inside of time experiencing it. The relativistic Twin Paradox shows why this must be. Certainly you are familiar with the basic argument: Karen and Taryn are identical twins, but Taryn travels to the nearest star and back in a spacecraft that is capable of making the journey at very close to the velocity of light, experiencing the entire voyage in a single day, while Karen stays home and grows eight years older. Taryn’s perception of what is the present moment lags Karyn’s by eight years, yet when they meet they are able to converse as though the “now” moment of both girls was suddenly synchronized. What this thought experiment really does is completely negates the “tapestry” view of time. There is only now, no past nor future for even God to see. As a side benefit, this preserves free will for both God and men, which is completely negated by the tapestry view. Imagine if God looks on the tapestry and sees himself intervening in history somewhere. You see that he must be locked down to that course of action, otherwise he didn’t see it.

    • I see. Yes, that is an often used analogy by some Christians to describe how they conceive of God’s relation to time (your “tapestry” analogy), but the concept still fails to reach the understanding of God as presented in this article and discussion. Thank you for the clarification, I understand your point better but I’m not sure it is internally sound. Dissecting it would be, for me, just for kicks since I have no dog in that fight, but it seems that you are using the Twin Paradox to demonstrate the impossibility of past and future due to the fact that transferring things from the future to the past, or vice versa, is impossible thus eliminating both concepts. I’m not sure that pans out. But regardless, this may be a useful bridge for you to see where I’m coming from regarding God as the source and ground of being. See my last reply for specifics (i.e., the Greek and Hegelian dialectic of existence and how this does not apply to God).

  14. Pingback: Top 10 Most Common Atheist Arguments, and Why They Fail | Eric Hyde's Blog

  15. First of all, I find your profoundly intelligent. I can’t tell if it’s visible in your eyes (my grandmother’s true test !). So far I think you are an open Christian (I’m Episcopalian, and I embarrassed myself in 4th grade by telling my teacher that, “We believe anything.) I’m gay. If that presents a problem for you, other than how to woo and marry me, let me know and I shall disappear.

    • Well, they did just legalize same-sex marriage in Oklahoma (my current state) but neither I, my wife, my two children, nor the ancient Orthodox faith would smile on me marrying a man. However, the fact that you are gay does not present a problem for me. Please feel free to drop by whenever.


  16. Pingback: Top 10 Most Common Atheist Arguments, and Why They Fail | Eric Hyde's Blog

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