Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 2

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Fr Aidan has a nice review of the (Thomistic) classical position on God’s relatedness to the world. I’d like to pick out a portion of it for comment. He summarizes:

Of every being and of the universe as a whole we may ask why? but of the One who is the answer to that question, why? may not be asked. It may not be asked because God can only be the answer if he lacks all the features of finite being that raises the question to begin with. And that, I think, is what actus purus effectively means. God is the infinite plenitude, fullness, and perfection of being and thus the ultimate and final explanation for why finite beings exist. He does not contain potentiality, because that potentiality would in turn evoke the metaphysical question. Potentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment. A rubber ball cannot realize its potency to bounce unless someone throws it against a wall; a stick of butter cannot realize its melting potential unless someone spreads it on a hot slice of toast. “Potency does not raise itself to act,” explains Thomas; “it must be raised to act by something that is in act” (SCG I.16.4). If God were not the infinite actualization of existence, then not only would we find ourselves wondering “Why does God exist instead of nothing?” but so would God! We might even imagine Deity as enduring an eternal existential crisis: “Why do I have all of this unfulfilled potential?”

There’s a lot to agree with here. I like the explanatory approach centered on asking ‘why?’ and seeking answers that explain our actual experience (including our finitude, temporal becoming, aesthetic appetite, consciousness, etc.). ‘Why’ is an intuitive and clarifying question, and Aquinas understood (as did all Christian thinkers before him) that neither any particular thing in the universe, nor the material cosmos as a whole, is sufficient to account for why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Given the nature of created becoming, some explanation is required – some reality that is its own reason for being, not requiring an explanation for its existence from outside itself, a self-sufficiently transcendent reality that explains both itself and all else – i.e., God.

We can and must ask ourselves ‘why?’ of God as well. But with God we get a different answer because a God capable of answering why the material-sentient universe exists without begging the question of his own existence is unlike the universe in profound ways. Where the ‘why?’ question asked of the universe derives its answer outside itself, God – properly understood – is the answer to his own ‘why?’. In this sense every sane theist agrees with Aquinas. It is a point I have urged open theists to explore at greater depth with seriousness and an open mind.

compassionOne could (and probably ought to) for the sake of argument ask whether the cosmos itself can be its own explanation. After all, if theists can posit God as uncreated and self-sustaining, let’s just suppose (as Carl Sagan asked us to) that the universe is self-sustaining and exists necessarily. Why multiply explanations beyond necessity?

By all means, one ought to explore this option. We won’t do that here, but it’s been done at great length by others, and we agree the cosmos does not give evidence of being self-sufficient/self-sustaining. My comments here are directed to theists who already grant this and who agree that God is the world’s transcendent creator.

The question that continues to be debated today by some, and which we here are most interested in, is: What sort of relations might a transcendently self-sufficient God have with the world he creates and knows? Certainly there would be a certain asymmetrical relation. That’s already entailed in God’s being the end-of-the-line sort of answer to our question ‘why?’. God explains why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Creation does not, however, explain why there is a God. Obviously, a non-mutual relation obtains: God creates and sustains the world, gives it being, and explains why it is at all. The world cannot explain God in any such respect.

For some, this is all there is to say about the manner of relations that might obtain between God and the world. However, while divine aseity (as self-sufficient transcendence) is true and essential, many don’t feel that it follows that God “does not contain [any conceivable] potentiality.” The reason some, like me, think this doesn’t follow is because it doesn’t seem that all potentiality evokes the specter of a mover other than the agent. We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself. In our view it is false, as Fr Aidan argues (following Aquinas), that “[all p]otentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment.” That rule would follow for created beings certainly, but it’s conceivable, we think, that some potentialities (namely, divine potentialities) may be self-sufficiently motivated and actualized from within, freely and contingently.

Examples that demonstrate Aquinas point with respect to creatures are innumerable. Fr Aidan describes a few – rubber balls, sticks of butter, etc. With respect to created entities, Aquinas has to be right when he says “Potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act.” But does it follow that a self-sufficient reality (God) – a reality whose essence is self-sufficient act – cannot be thought to have any unfulfilled potentiality since it must them be dependent upon something outside itself to raise any supposed potency to actuality?

It depends on the potency. If we mean a self-constituting potential, then God would require some reality already in act to bring his potential to fulfillment, and obviously we do not want to say that. But not all unfulfilled potentiality need be self-constituting. Potential may be self-expressive and not self-constituting. We think there are good reasons to suppose, given the existence of the kind of world we live in, that God is more than necessary (i.e., God transcends his own necessity), and as such his essential, antecedent, triune actuality both determines the scope and nature of his potential for self-expressive acts and that this antecedent actuality is the only realized ‘act’ we need to reference in explaining the movement of such potentiality to actuality.

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Such contingency in God would be of a peculiar kind. It would realize self-expressive, not self-constitutive, potential, and it would do so unlike created potentialities which require ‘being moved’ by some actuality other than God. There seems no a priori reason to suppose that a God self-sufficient to explain why the world is at all could not himself possess unrealized potentialities for a contingent expression extrinsic to the necessary plenitude of his essential triune act, and that these potentialities would require nothing outside this plenitude to raise them to actuality. Like the classical tradition, God would not be subject to finite, created becoming (he would not become a mere ‘god’ who requires a mover other than himself), but unlike the classical tradition God would possess potential for duration without loss, duration that includes contingent, gracious, wholly self-expressive relations.

Would those relations with the world be “real”? If ‘real’ relations are defined as relations that affect or determine what a thing is essentially, then I’m happy to say God is not so affected by his relations with the world, because I do not suppose God to be essentially affected by us. But if ‘real’ relations are defined simply as relations one truly has (i.e., relations that involve one in acts of mind and will vis-à-vis what one is related to) but which remain extrinsic to what one is essentially, then I’m fine with positing God’s real relations with the world. Does this commit me to a notion of divine simplicity unacceptable to classical theists? I’d be surprised if it did not. I know these terms (“real” for example) have long established meanings and many are loath to adjust/expand meanings and vocabulary to accommodate new insights. I don’t have any pretenses about affecting the conversation at that significant a level. I confess, I’m more interested in working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Jesus, Savior, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

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7 comments on “Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 2

  1. RE: But if ‘real’ relations are defined simply as relations one truly has (i.e., relations that involve one in acts of mind and will vis-à-vis what one is related to) but which remain extrinsic to what one is essentially, then I’m fine with positing God’s real relations with the world. Does this commit me to a notion of divine simplicity unacceptable to classical theists? <<<<<

    I think some Scotists would certainly accept your notion of divine simplicity.

    http://lyfaber.blogspot.com/2010/02/divine-simplicity-and-formal_20.html?m=1

    http://www.iupui.edu/~arisbe/menu/library/aboutcsp/Grace/scotus.htm

    Also, some neo-Thomists would, too: The Jesuit philosopher W. Norris Clarke advises Thomists to “simply drop” the doctrine of the lack of real relations in God and to adopt the view that, “[God's] consciousness is contingently and qualitatively different because of what we do”.

    As some have put it, it's one thing to affect God's absolute nature but quite another to affect God's nature absolutely, only the latter violating divine simplicity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Hi, Tom. Thanks for your article. I’ve read it a couple of times. Parts of it are over my head (which will not surprise you, I know). To help me better understand your position, let me ask you this question: What specifically about Thomas’ understanding of God as infinite actuality and the act of existence excludes that which you deem necessary to say about God?

    For example, you write:

    We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself.

    Now I can imagine lots of things, but there are any number of things I don’t need to imagine of God. 😉 If I am reading your rightly (correct me if I’m wrong), you wish to imagine a kind of potentiality in God that does not require an actuality external to God for realization; in other words, you exclude from God the kind of passive potency that characterizes finite beings. Is that right? If yes, then you and Thomism are on the same page (I think). Thomists have no problem speaking of God as pure active potency. As Ed Feser has commented over at his blog:

    When it is said that God is pure actuality and devoid of potency, what that means is that He is devoid of any passive potency (the capacity to be affected by anything) whatsoever. But He is supreme in what is sometimes called active potency or power — the capacity to affect other things. (“Potency” is also a word for power, after all — as in “omnipotent.”) See Summa Theologiae I.25.1.

    So how does your understanding of divine potentiality depart from the Thomist notion of divine active potentiality?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      I responded to this over at your place Fr Aidan, but I’ll repost it here for my thousands of readers!

      —————————-

      Thanks Fr Aidan. I’ll try to clarify.

      Tom: We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself.

      Fr Aidan: If I am reading you rightly (correct me if I’m wrong), you wish to imagine a kind of potentiality in God that does not require an actuality external to God for realization…

      Tom: Yes. God’s free determination to create, for example. That’s what I had in mind.

      Fr Aidan: …in other words, you exclude from God the kind of passive potency that characterizes finite beings. Is that right?

      Tom: Well, it’s excluded with respect to God’s free determination to create. Obviously the determination to create can’t be a response God has to realities outside himself. But I wouldn’t exclude a kind of “passive potency” (see if I get close to it below) regarding God’s knowledge of an existing, free creation exercising powers of self-determination. God’s knowledge of the world then would not in some sense a response to the free exercise of these endowments. I want to use “response” carefully, because I don’t mean that God “waits” to know what creation freely does.

      Remember last year I asked DBH whether he was OK with the idea of the divine will terminating not in the final form of creaturely expression but in the range of creative possibilities offered to creatures to uniquely shape their expressive form? In other words, God doesn’t have a specific will for each and every thing we do. Rather, God wills a scope of options that we freely resolve. Hart didn’t have a problem with this (though I’m sure he’d disagree with what I think it means). He said he preferred to think that “healed, [the gnomic will] remains, and that it makes each soul’s reflection of and participation in divine beauty a unique inflection or modulation of the whole, which makes each individual indispensable, of course, to that glory.”

      Fr Aidan: How does your understanding of divine potentiality depart from the Thomist notion of divine active potentiality?

      Tom: I think it departs from Aquinas in that (a) mine involves temporal duration (though I hear you saying Feser denies that Thomism precludes a temporally enduring God), and in my view (b) God’s knowledge of the world is in an important and, hopefully, very guarded sense, “passive.” God’s never passive with respect to his essential, trinitarian fullness (his self-constituting act of being), but he can be passive with respect to his self-expressive acts within creation.

      Here’s my thing. It seems to me there has to be a sense in which God “let’s go” of creation for creation to be endowed with the power to resolve upon the transition of ‘possibility’ to ‘actuality’ among a scope of options God gives to creation. Obviously God can’t “let go” of creation in every sense. With respect to existence as such God has to be causally and explanatorily prior to us. It’s never true that creation is actually sustaining itself in being. Fine. But that God has to be prior to us in every sense? Here we disagree. There’s this ‘all or nothing’ posture to the classical view that’s reluctant to even explore the possibilities of its being true that God’s “letting go” of us in one sense (endowing us with powers the exercise of which cannot causally or explanatorily precede us) is compatible with God’s “not letting go of us” in another sense (i.e., God’s sustaining us in existence, which provision of being has to explanatorily precede us) such that God’s knowledge of our acts reflects the nature of these two senses. God would immutably know all created possibilities (because his ‘essence’ grounds and defines them), but God would come to know which created possibilities come to be as the created causes resolve those possibilities (because we define that resolution).

      If God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, then the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is God’s will, then it seems to me that God’s knowing creation would reflect what God wills for creation. God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ (i.e., passively – carefully intended) and not only as knowing what God actively ‘gives’.

      Fr Aidan: Thomists have no problem speaking of God as pure active potency. As Ed Feser has commented over at his blog…

      Tom: That’s news to me. So, you’re saying you don’t have any problem with temporal duration in God so long as the ways in which God changes over time are freely determined by God himself without reference to realities outside himself?

      In light of that, let me ask – what if all the possible ways God may freely relate to and manifest himself within the created, temporal order are themselves immutably known to God (because he immutably grounds them), are irreducibly and transcendentally grounded in the good, and are irresistibly teleological oriented towards God as our final end. Once God “lets go” of us within that what possible objection is there in saying God does in fact “receive” from, is “apprehended” by, creation as it freely resolves upon God-given options? As Bulgakov said, “Although creation cannot be absolutely unexpected and new for God in the ontological sense, nevertheless in empirical (“contingent”) being, it represents a new manifestation for God Himself, who is waiting to see whether man will open or not open the doors of his heart. God Himself will know this only when it happens.”

      ———————-

      Too long as usual. I don’t know how to trim this sort of thing down to a paragraph or two.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom, by not affecting God’s nature, absolutely, I was conceiving of act-potential in terms of perfectability, which would be predicated only on the order of real being, esse naturale. One the order of intentional being, esse intentionale, affecting God would have nothing to do with altering any intrinsic perfections but would certainly entail changes in His extrinsic relations or constitutive dispositions or illustrative expressions, all which would entail what Scotists would call formal distinctions as well as contingent and qualitative differences in God’s consciousness.

    Concretely (and weakly analogous, I know), I think of my love for my children as, ideally, immutable. Nothing could make me love them more or less, delight in them more or less. My relationships with each are variously constituted, though, based on life’s contingencies and their exigencies, which command — not a change in the intensity of my love, but — changes in the scope of how I choose to be present.

    I’m enjoying the old blogs of folks like Robert Connor, Alan Rhoda and their ilk. Every now and then I see interlocutors named “Tom” and I wonder.

    Like

    • Tom says:

      Pax: On the order of intentional being, esse intentionale, affecting God would have nothing to do with altering any intrinsic perfections but would certainly entail changes in His extrinsic relations…

      Tom: Agree.

      Pax: …all which would entail what Scotists would call formal distinctions as well as contingent and qualitative differences in God’s consciousness.

      Tom: Are there Scotists who grant such changes in God’s knowledge (i.e., changing states of mind/knowing relative to the temporal world)?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom, I would have to defer to Fr Christiaan on that. It seems like Scotists could, in principle, adopt the same distinction as Fr Clarke between esse naturale and intentionale and then affirm contingency in the latter. Otherwise, within a trinitarian panentheistic stance, many Franciscans affirm divine passibility. As long as they do it like Joe Bracken and not Whitehead or Hartshorne, they won’t stray as far from classical theistic commitments. Merry Christmas!

        Liked by 1 person

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