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


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.


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.

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 1

insidegodsheartii2074pxI’m just thinking through the metaphysics of being and becoming. It’s not something I’ll ever finish (pun intended). For the moment I’d like to express temporal becoming in Process terms because I think in some respects PT articulates ‘becoming’ fairly well (even if Process has no real concept of transcendence).

We (irreducibly temporal creatures that we are) ‘become’ in that we possess our being and existence as an unending process of negotiating between the perceived data of past occasions (memory) and the perceived possibilities of the future. That determination, our present experience, is a “creative synthesis” (Hartshorne) between past occasions and future possibilities. In PT these future possibilities are God-given. They are “divine subjective aims” (Whitehead) for things – their ideal states of becoming. God provides all things (from the small, simplest ‘actual occasion’ to larger societies of occasions) an ideal state in light of which it freely determines itself. This process continues without end. (To briefly stand on the classical side of this conversation, Dwayne and I agree that God cannot be a subject of such becoming.)

Several thoughts come to mind.

(1) For beings that ‘become’ temporally in this way, as classical theism observes, their ‘essence’ is not their ‘existence’. That is, the actual existence of temporal beings is always changing. We are always a ‘becoming’ toward some end, whereas our ‘essence’ (to the extent process theists posit an ‘essence’ to things) is just an abstraction that supervenes upon the ever-changing process of becoming.

(2) Since the possibilities that ground our becoming are God’s “subjective aims” and do not derive from the actualities for which they are ‘ends’, in an important sense temporal becoming is asymmetrically related to God. Our existence as such, even the possibility of our becoming, are “given” to us. We do not generate or constitute the possibility of our existence, however free we are to determine ourselves within the range of God-given possibilities we enjoy. For us ‘possibility’ and ‘actuality’ are distinct, however inseparable they are.

(3) This distinction, in an important sense, cannot be the case for God as it is with us. Any necessary being has in some sense to be his own possibility and that possibility is convertible with an essential-necessary actuality. For God, the possibility of his existence and his actual, essential existence are identical, since (a) God is possible, (b) God is actual, and (c) God is self-sufficiently necessary. It follows that nothing other than God can give God the possibility of his own necessary existence. God’s essential actuality is not another instance of a temporal ‘process’ of becoming.

(4) We must, then, posit some antecedent necessary actuality (call it the divine ‘essence’) which is convertible with God’s essential existence, some divine experience not the subject of temporal becoming, not a process of creative synthesis which negotiates between its own past occasions and its perceived possibilities of becoming in the future what it presently is not. God cannot be reduced to such a process of temporal becoming, for there are no candidate possibilities for God to consider outside his own actuality which would fill the necessary role of “subjective aims” to define his future possibilities. Every act of ‘becoming’ requires a telos, and every telos is grounded in some actuality which does not itself become in this created sense. We’ve discussed before (from Greg’s Trinity & Process) why Whitehead & Hartshorne’s view of God failed in this sense – neither posited an antecedent divine actuality as the ground of the divine perfections, perfections which on their view were simply logically assumed abstractions that supervened upon the divine actuality (entirely a process of becoming).

ingod(5) Even if we posit a necessary God-world relationship in PT fashion, or even a necessary God-series/of/worlds relationship as Oord does (though his ‘series’ reduces to a single world), it’s still the case that non-divine reality cannot provide God subjective aims for God’s becoming, nor can a God who is irreducibly temporal provide himself his own subjective aims for his own future, for possibilities by definition are what a thing is not yet but which it may become. Thought through consistently, it follows that not only can nothing other than God provide an irreducibly temporal God of becoming the “subjective aims” or “end” for his own becoming, but neither can such a God be his own subjective aim, for no merely temporal God can be in the present an actuality sufficient to offer itself possibilities to become what it is not.

If God, like created things, is essentially subject to temporal becoming, then he determines himself in the present in light of past occasions and future possibilities, possibilities guided by subjective aims which, on Process terms, have no antecedent actuality in God. Whence these possibilities for divine becoming? Who or what can offer God the “aims” for his idea states of becoming? It seems that neither any created being nor God’s own process of becoming at any given ‘present’ moment of becoming can define the perfections in light of which God determines himself as creative synthesis. I’m being brief and to the point, but as our Christmas gift to those reading, we’ll just say that the Process view of God doesn’t make it to the end of the runway. God must in some essential sense be an antecedent actuality that is not subject to becoming. In this essential sense, we have to say God’s necessary essence and his essential actuality are one and the same.

(6) This brings up the most interesting question – What about contingency in God with respect to his knowledge of and relations to the contingent world he creates and sustains? If there can be no contingency intrinsic to a necessary being’s essential actuality, is it possible to conceive of God as capable of freely expressing himself in ways that are not constitutive of him essentially-intrinsically but merely expressive of him contingently, extrinsically?

Who touched me?


I love this beautiful work of Ed de Guzman depicting the healing of the woman who suffered 12 years with an issue of blood (LK 8). I’ll get to her as an illustration toward the end  of my thoughts, but I first wish to make a few comments in light of discussions with Malcolm (Comments section) regarding God and time, something about which it seems all any of us can do is speculate. But I appreciate the opportunity that challenging conversation gives me to clarify and grow. Malcolm asks:

You say the reason you prefer the temporal view is because you can ‘posit changing states of knowledge in God’. But that seems to me precisely the problem, isn’t it? That would make God mutable, insofar as I can see, and don’t we both want to avoid that?

In answer to Malcolm, the only problem I see here is attributing to God self-constituting becoming. I don’t see a problem in attributing to God “changing states of mind” that are not self-constituting. I think the objection to this comes from understanding divine simplicity in a way that views everything we say about God as expressive of his ‘self-constituting’ plenitude, whether we’re speaking about the Father’s begetting of the Son or the procession of the Spirit (on the one hand), or the creation of the world and God’s relations to it (on the other), whether we’re speaking about God’s knowledge of himself as fount, as begotten, as proceeding (on the one hand), or his knowledge of the world in its changing actualities (on the other). If divine simplicity means that what God does freely in creating a contingent world is as self-constituting of God as the Father’s begetting the Son, then I can’t espouse divine simplicity.

I don’t think I’m dragging God “into time” when I say the possibility (but not the actuality) of what we call the creation’s experience of “becoming” is a feature of God’s abiding, unchanging specious present. The analogies I shared explain how we ourselves are familiar with extended specious presents that are not in themselves defined or interrupted by tacit awareness of other specious presents that come to be and cease to be. True, for us it’s never the case that any specious present is infinite. All our conscious experiences are subject to temporal becoming, even if we sometimes have “specious presents” that do, without loss or change, contain other specious presents that come and go. But it’s not obviously incoherent to suppose that a specious present can be infinite and eternal and also accommodate tacit specious presents which, we might say, mirror or reflect the eternally actual truth, beauty and goodness of God’s essential, self-constituting present.

I don’t think of God’s eternal “specious present” as an unblinking cosmic stare or the temporal equivalent of a knife’s edge, an atemporal point with no width or content. That kind of timeless instant is an abstraction pure and simple. What I’m trying to imagine is more like a ‘saddle’ than a ‘knife’s edge’. (Language strains!) It has content to it but no history of becoming. It is not a temporal “process,” i.e., not an actuality possessed of some unrealized self-constituting potential which in actualizing it becomes (and so forth). I agree God cannot be thought of as “taking time” to become the triune God of hypostatic/personal fullness. It seems to me that the classical tradition supposes that if this much is true about God, that’s all that can be true about God, i.e., if God is actus purus (in a personally, self-constituting sense) there’s no room left in that plenitude for God to freely, contingently “contract” (like fractals contract their infinitude in a self-same way across finite scales) into real relations with, and changing states of knowledge of, created realities.

If God does not “take time” to become the triune, self-sustaining God, I don’t think it follows that God cannot “make time” for us. Let me give an example that functions as an analogy or illustration. In LK 8 we have the story of the woman who suffered with an issue of blood for more than a decade. She had seen doctors and spent all she had but never improved. As the crowds press around Jesus, she manages to push her way through and touch the hem of his garment and be healed. What she did could hardly be noticed given the crowds. But what does Jesus say? He questions, “Who touched me?” A bit surprised, Peter responds, “You’re being touched by dozens of people pressing in on you. What do you mean?” (Perhaps Peter can stand in for all analytic philosopher-theologians!) Jesus basically answers, “Somebody’s faith touched me. I know it because I felt power leave me.”

Jesus-heals-the-bleeding-woman-157251Interesting. Jesus felt healing power leave him. My question is this: Was there less healing power available on account of power “leaving” Jesus? Was the healing virtue present in Christ partially depleted or used up on account of having “left” him? Is that divine relation some scarce commodity that gets used up as our needs spend it in acquiring the healing we seek? Obviously not. What then? Power really left, but it also really didn’t make a difference. It left in one sense, and didn’t leave in another. There’s a real relation, a real going out of divine power to heal, but no determination of measurable loss in return. The relation can be known ‘in its going out’ without being known ‘as a going out’ (i.e., as a lessening of itself). We might liken all of creation, and God’s changing knowledge of and within it, as ‘interest’ paid out into and as creation on an immeasurable ‘principal’. Creation enjoys the interest but never spends the principle, and there is real expenditure even if no loss of principle.

Analogously, I’m (doing a very poor job at) suggesting that God can experience the world as tacit contractions of his plenitude—in his ‘going out’ in sustaining us—without the relation in turn depleting/lessening him. But if the simplicity of God’s plenitude is taken to mean that any ‘going out’ (temporal or otherwise) constitutes a depletion or loss, is not this view as guilty of viewing divine plenitude in ‘competitive’ terms as is typically thought to be the case in reverse? If God has a changing thought in knowing the changing world, divine plenitude is thus “depleted” like a finite commodity? To answer ‘yes’ seems to assume a competitive view of God’s presence and activity in the world.

Let me wind things down. Malcolm asks how it can be that God comes to know created realities contingently without it being the case that this potential to know is, like all contingent possibilities, grounded in some antecedent actuality. For on my view only God’s specious present can be the required actuality. So how can God also be open to contingent experiences and states of knowing? How can what is necessarily actual be the ground for its own unrealized potential? That seems obviously self-contradictory.

The short answer, I think, is that it is self-contradictory if we’re talking about an openness to self-constituting potential. I don’t think there can be any unrealized self-constituting potential in God. But neither do I think all change is self-constituting. As I suggested above, if one views divine simplicity as a totalizing proposition that means everything we say about God must express what is ‘self-constituting’ of God, then I agree there can be no unrealized potential in God—no changing states of knowing, acting, or sustaining the world.

It’s not a question of supposing such immutability to be in competition with the world. It functions on another level altogether. I don’t suppose for a tiny temporal instant that David Hart would agree with my appropriation of him on this point, but he made an interesting comment last summer at Notre Dame in arguing on moral grounds for the absolute incompatibility of divine benevolence and eternal conscious torment. I can only hope others see the similarity. Hart writes:

The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like “good,” “just,” “love” to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.


In the same Notre Dame piece, Hart says, “It must be possible to speak of God without mistaking him for a being among beings.” And if this applies to moral categories, and by extension generally existential ones, what of temporal categories? Are these neatly separable? I don’t know. But I get the sense that in supposing God to be absolutely atemporal/timeless (in the sense of precluding all conceivable potential to act or know freely in relationship to contingent creatures in ways not essentially self-constituting of God) we use words such as “know,” “act,” and “create” of God “not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures,” but instead “as if they bear transparently opposite meanings” and end up saying nothing.

I don’t see the obvious reduction of God’s infinite plenitude to mere finite becoming in supposing an unrealized possibility to create to be a necessary feature of God’s unchanging perfection. That is, God’s triune perfections are—necessarily—more than necessary. The divine disposition by which God constitutes himself in triune fullness is itself a disposition for self-constituting and freely self-expressive modes of being, his freedom to do other than constitute himself in triune bliss. In this sense, to act and to know contingently in relationship to the world are a free and contingent exercise of the disposition to be God in ways that express the divine identities without determining them. As Hart said on another occasion, and I freely appropriate his words knowing he intended them in some other way I don’t understand, “God even transcends his own transcendence.”

Prayer: Created by you I am all desire. Called by you I am all response. Received by you I am all at home.