Virginia Mayo and the Transcendent God

virginia-mayo-c-1945In the late 1940’s the Sultan of Morocco Muhammad V said American actress Virginia Mayo was tangible proof of the existence of God. Maybe he was right. It’s understandable if you agree. After all, Dostoyevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world.” And though we think he had something else in mind, we’d agree up front to the presence of God in the perceivable beauty of the world—Virginia Mayo included. But we’d like to begin exploring transcendence, and to that end we’ll share those objections we have to the two competing theisms we’ve been considering—classical and Process theism.

We’ve said classical theism’s defining claim is that God is actus purus (in whom there is no potentiality), while Process theism stands on the other end of the spectrum viewing God as processu operis (a “work in progress”), that is, as One whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as his unending ‘becoming’ via relationship with the created order. We’re convinced both of these views are wrong.

As for our objections to the classical position of actus purus, we find the belief that there is absolutely no potentiality in God—

  • Difficult at best to reconcile with authentic God/World interactivity as described in Scripture.
  • Difficult at best to reconcile with any genuine ‘becoming’ within the world; that is, the distinction in God between ‘actuality’ and ‘possibility’ is lost and all becomes actual.
  • This arguably entails a necessity that undermines the gratuity of the world expressed in the belief that God created the world unnecessarily.

There are also we think problems with the Process view of God as processu operis (a “work in progress”). Given this view—

  • God is in a necessary relation of becoming with the created order.
  • God is not self-sufficient.
  • Unilateral exercise of divine power is impossible, making other orthodox beliefs (incarnation for example) either impossible or extremely implausible.
  • The Trinity is either unnecessary or, if believed, ill-conceived.
  • Unorthodox Christologies ensue.
  • The Christian hope (Eschatology) of certain, final victory is impossible to ground.

the-truman-show-final-sceneWe’d like to suggest that behind these two competing views of God lies the more fundamental question of ‘divine transcendence’. Process lacks a proper sense of divine transcendence while the classical view lacks a proper sense of divine relatedness to the world. Hence it is with respect to transcendence that we feel the most fundamental theological errors derive. Either God is so related to the world’s process and becoming that his own essential, necessary attributes are identified with this process, in which case there is no God apart from God related to and in process with some world, or God is so independently actual in his self-sufficient fullness that no room remains within God for unactualized potential, for free and contingent expression. Open theism in our modern day emerged as a debate over divine foreknowledge. But John Sanders immediately suggested that the real debate wasn’t about foreknowledge at all but rather about competing views of providence (risky or risk-free). We’d like to suggest that open theism now develop along a third more fundamental front, transcendence. It’s clearer now that this is the more fundamental issue at stake between classical and Process theisms, and it’s our conviction that what stands behind the relevant disagreements between classical and Process theisms, and open theism and Orthodoxy (to the extent Orthodoxy rejects actus purus) has to do with one’s understanding of and motivation for embracing or rejecting the reality one believes is named by the word “transcendence.”

The question is how to preserve a necessary, orthodox sense of divine transcendence from the world (including self-sufficiency) while preserving a theologically workable sense of divine/human synergy and interpersonal relationality. We think an open worldview exists that avoids the problems of standard Process and classical theisms while preserving the advantages of both. Our objections to actus purus get at the ‘synergy’ aspect while our objections to Process get at the ‘transcendence’ aspect.

(Pictures here and here.)

5 comments on “Virginia Mayo and the Transcendent God

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I thought I’d post this brief comment here, thought it might perhaps be more appropriate in response to one of your two postings on Denys Turner. If we take into consideration everything Turner has said about apophaticism and the mystery of God, which would seem to flow from the creatio ex nihilo and a proper understanding of the doctrine of creation, I do not understand why you believe that you need to speak of divine potentiality, as if this is needed in order for God to be the God of the biblical narrative. It seems to me, Tom, that as soon as you start talking this way, you have begun to treat God as an inhabitant of the universe, i.e., as a reality about which one can employ the act/potency distinction. I hesitate to say about about Aquinas, but my guess is that he well understood the limitations of this distinction when applied to the transcendent deity. Aquinas is clear that we do not comprehend the divine nature; we do not know what God is. All the talk about act and potency needs to be interpreted within that context. God is not a being. He is the Creator.

    For this reason I am skeptical about the suggestion that the God of Aquinas is incapable of intimate involvement with the world he has made. I do not understand how that can be true, given that he is at the heart and center of every creation sustaining it in existence by his Word in his Spirit. It is precisely because of God’s radical transcendence (i.e., difference) that he is capable of being radically immanent, without in any way compromising creaturely integrity.

    I am leaning here very heavily on Herbert McCabe’s first four essays in his book *God Matters*. Turner was heavily influenced by McCabe.


    • tgbelt says:

      Thank you Fr Aidan.

      I would want to ask how or why your claim that God “is capable of intimate involvement with the world” does not suffer the same calculus from which our claim (that God “is capable of freely realizing potentialities inherent to him”) suffers. If we should not say there are potentialities inherent in God which God is free to realize or not because this violates the creator/created distinction, on what basis do we say that God is capable of intimate involvement with the world?

      What Dwayne and I are suggesting is that our claim (re: the capacity in God to freely realize [or not] the inherent potentiality to intimately involve himself with that which is not God) is actually entailed in your claim (re: the capacity in God to intimately involve himself with that which is created freely and unnecessarily).

      We completely agree that the attribution of SOME manners of change are incompatible with God’s self-sufficient actuality. After all, God can’t be ‘potentially but not actually’ everything. That which constitutes his essential, God-defining triune self-sufficiency is by definition actual. There’s no movement from ‘potency to actuality’ here. But it doesn’t appear to us to follow from this that all manner of change is equally incompatible with God’s essential self-defining actuality. It might be that the self-sufficient God also possess the capacity for contingent self-expression. This ‘capacity’ (or ‘disposition’) would be possessed necessarily but exercised contingently. Indeed, the world would be only as contingent as the exercise of God’s disposition to create.

      What do you think?


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Tom, you really need a Thomist dialogue partner. I’m way out of my depths.

        First thought: it seems to me that the assertion that God is pure act is a way to say that God is the fullness and perfection of life and being. Hence is not incomplete, as we creatures are; he is not in a process of becoming. Once we have said that, I’m not sure what “change” would mean for God, as the only “change” about which I am acquainted is creaturely change. Hence it seems to me that there is a real danger here for the projection of our creaturely nature upon the Godhead (i.e., anthropomorphism). I think there is a sense in which we might say “God ‘became’ the Creator” and “God ‘became’ Man in Christ.” I think we have to talk this way because we need to maintain a distinction between uncreated and created being. Perhaps there are other things we also need to say for the same reason. But I’m not sure if we know what we are talking about at this point. 🙂

        Needless to say, none of this means that God is static or frozen or anything like that.

        Second thought: you ask me on what basis do I say that God is capable of intimate involvement with the world? Because he’s the transcendent Creator who created the world from out of nothing! How can he not be intimately involved? Everything that is exists because he wills it and sustains it in being. God does not exist alongside his creation; he is the mysterious source of creation. He is present at the ontological heart of every existent. The divine immanence isn’t a problem: it flows directly from the creatio ex nihilo.

        Just last night I was re-reading the first four essays by Herbert McCabe that I mentioned above. Consider this passage in which McCabe comments on Aquinas’s claim that a real relation does not exist between God and his creation:

        “The point about the lack of real relation on God’s part is simply that being creator adds nothing to God, all the difference it makes is all the difference to the creature. (Indeed, the gift of esse is too radical to be called a ‘difference’ since clearly the creature is not changed by coming into existence.) But it makes no difference to God not, of course, because God is indifferent or bored by it all, but because he gains nothing by creating. We could call it sheely altruistic, except that the goodness God wills for his creatures is not a separate and distinct goodness from his own goodness. The essential point that Aquinas, surely rightly, wants to make is that creation fulfils no need of God’s. God has no needs.

        “I am repeating at too great a length the familiar point that the God of Augustine and Aquinas, precisely by being wholly transcendent, … is more intimately involved with each creature than any other creature could be. God could not be other to creatures in the way that they must be to each other. At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act (ST Ia, 8, 1, c)” (God Matters, pp. 45-46).

        And this is why, McCabe says, for example, that it is improper to say that God literally suffers in his divine nature, and yet he is, in the maximally possible way, involved in the sufferings of his creatures.


  2. tgbelt says:

    There’s not a lot I’d disagree with, Fr Aidan!

    1) If in fact all ‘pure act’ is meant to posit is the more reserved claim that God is the fullness and perfection of life and being, that he is in no way incomplete, and that these perfections and this completeness are not in a process of becoming, then count me in. I’m totally on board with that.

    2) But the claim that this fullness necessarily precludes all conceivable change (i.e., changes that don’t constitute the necessary fullness of his perfections), is an additional claim that doesn’t seem to us to be entailed in God’s being the fullness of perfection of life and being in no way incomplete. Must God’s being the fullness and perfection of life and being, in no way incomplete, preclude ‘change’ understood as the free, contingent and gratuitous “self-expression” (not a “self-constituting”)act, a change which (to agree with McCabe) adds nothing to God’s perfection? That’s what we want to explore, and our feeling is that no ‘incompleteness’ or ‘privation of being’ is attributed to God if he is thought to experience change with respect to creating, sustaining, saving and — as you put it — intimately involving himself with us. In other words, no all change involves a movement from less perfect to more perfect. Perfection can remain as perfect, as intensely and fully perfect, change in some respects.

    3) What would “change” mean to a God whose very existence is the fullest perfection of life and being? THAT is the question we think open theists ought to give more time to, and surprisingly it’s the question Boyd pretty much devotes his doctoral work to.

    4) If, as you say, the only “change” about which we’re acquainted is creaturely change (and I agree), it’s also true that the only “intimate involvement” with which we’re acquainted is creaturely involvement, and we don’t seem to be as reserved in attributing that kind of involvement with us to God. So if “God is not static or frozen,” might there be room in this already-full-and-perfect-movement-of-love that God is for God to contingently, needlessly, freely and graciously EX-press himself ad extra without that expression adding to his perfection? So we’re just talking about the “sense in which we might say ‘God became the Creator’ or ‘God became a human being’,” etc.

    McCabe is on my to-read list!


  3. […] He moulds humans, breathes ruach into our lungs, and walks in the garden with us. God’s transcendence and immanence go hand in […]


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