27 December 2009

God beyond Being?

In a post on the Incarnation below, I note that our ancestors in the faith struggled to express the Christian revelation in Greek philosophical terms.  Having no non-pagan theological language of their own, the Church Fathers borrowed and adapted the terms and methods of the Platonism of their day.  Our creeds are the best examples we have of how the marriage of Platonism and Biblical revelation can be worked out.

Many contemporary philosophical theologians, following Nietzsche and Heidegger, reject this Greek philosophizing and challenge us to begin a long journey back to the Patristic period to start over with nothing but the Biblical story: the older and newer testaments of our faith.   They argue that our journey back must begin by "forgetting metaphysics" and accepting that God is "beyond being."  But we might wonder why Greek philosophy (esp., metaphysics) poses such a problem for the Biblical witness of faith. 

Etienne Gilson, in his highly accessible book, God and Philosophy, lays out the problem of thinking philosophically about God:

The first character of the Jewish God was his unicity:  "Here, O Israel:  the Lord our God is one Lord."  Impossible to achieve a more far-reaching revolution in fewer words or in a simpler way.  When Moses made this statement, he was not formulating any metaphysical principle to be later supported by rational justification.  Moses was simply speaking as an inspired prophet and defining for the benefit of the Jews what was henceforth to be the sole object of their worship.  Yet, essentially religious as it was, this statement contained the seed of a momentous philosophical revolution, in this sense at least, that should any philosopher, speculating at any time about the first principle and cause of the world, hold the Jewish God to be the true God, he would be necessarily driven to identify his supreme philosophical cause with God.  In other words, whereas the difficulty was, for a Greek philosopher, to fit a plurality of god in a reality which he conceived to be one, any follower of the Jewish God would know at once that, whatever the nature of reality itself may be said to be, its religious principle must of necessity coincide with the its philosophical principle. . .When the existence of this one true God was proclaimed by Moses to the Jews, they never thought for a moment that their Lord could be some thing.  Obviously, their Lord was somebody. . .Hence the universally known name of the Jewish God--Yahweh, for Yahweh means "He who is" (38-40, emphasis added).

Essentially, what Gilson is saying here is that those trained in Greek philosophy who later became Christians in the early Church would find it very difficult to separate their philosophical ideas from their religious commitments.  They had not yet learned the art of Cafeteria Catholicism! At some point, these folks, being consistent philosophers and faithful Christians, would have to find a way to reconcile the God of Biblical revelation with the metaphysics they had found to be true. 

Gilson continues on this very point:  Now, as has been pointed by the unknown author of the Hortatory Address to the Greeks as early as the third century A.D. what Plato had said [about the ultimate nature of reality] was almost exactly what the Christians themselves were saying, "saving only the difference of the article.  For Moses said:  He who is, and Plato: That which is."  And it is quite true that "either of the expressions seems to apply to the existence of God."  If God is "He who is," he also is "that which is," because to be somebody is also to be something.  Yet the converse is not true, for to be somebody is much more than to be something (42).

According to the contemporary theologians who would teach us to forget metaphysics and find God beyond being, the problem with traditional theological thinking is that traditional theologians forgot (sometime after Aquinas) that God is Somebody before He is "something."  Their complaint is that traditional theology (called "onto-theology" by Heidegger) is really just a dressed-up Greek metaphysics with the occasional Biblical touch thrown in for decoration.  So, rather than Christians adopting Greek philosophy for their own theological ends, Greek philosophers adopted Christianity for their philosophical ends. 

You might be wondering at this point:  so what?  What does it matter that we have identified the God of Biblical revelation with the Greek concept of Being?

That is the question for tomorrow's post!  (Hint:  it's evil).


  1. Anonymous11:29 PM

    What? Could a Dominican be questioning the classic Thomist understanding of God as ipsum esse subsistens?

  2. Oh no, just working my way toward an explanation of a classical problem in the phil of rel.

  3. Be sure to work in some Jean-Luc Marion in your explanations, pretty pretty please?

  4. Flambeaux1:48 PM

    Very nicely done, Father. I'm looking forward to the next installment.