Blog Archives

Theism Revisited: God, Gods, and Íñigo Montoya

Eight years ago, I looked at the various forms of theism and considered what they meant for us moderns, particularly my fellow Catholics.  For various reasons, I want to return to that topic and look at it from a different perspective.

I’ll start with a common atheist slogan often used in discussion with monotheists (usually Christians).  I should make clear upfront that I am not deriding or criticizing atheists as such.  I put in that disclaimer because a commenter on one of my posts a year or so ago took considerable umbrage at my noting that he was, in fact, an atheist in linking to his blog.  I thought that by doing so I was indicating that people who disagree on substantial matters can actually agree on other things.  He seemed to think I was somehow calling him a horrible, awful, evil person because he was an atheist.  That was a complete and total mischaracterization of what I said, and bore no resemblance to it, in fact, and we ended up having a fairly long (and, alas, pointless) argument in the comments.

Thus, I want to note here that while I’m going to discuss a view that many atheists hold that I think is mistaken, this is in no way meant to disparage atheists as such, or paint them as evil people.  In fact, plenty of theists consistently make the very same mistake.  It is a somewhat subtle mistake that is very widely held; and thus I think it to be worth discussing, from either a theistic or atheistic perspective.  Onward, then!

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Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last pagan philosophers of antiquity.  Daughter of the mathematician Theon, she was active in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th Centuries AD  Her father, though not a major mathematician in his own right, edited and corrected the mathematical works of Euclid, and his edition was so accurate that it supplanted all other editions for centuries.  His daughter was talented in mathematics as well, and also was renowned as an astronomer.  Her main claim to fame, though was as a teacher of Neoplatonism.

A fair amount of background is necessary.  Alexandria, Egypt–founded, shockingly, by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC–had become one of the Mediterranean world’s great metropolises, second in size only to Rome itself, and second to none in its cultural influence.  Alexander, conqueror though he was, was also an idealist.  He had a dream of spreading Greek culture worldwide, taking the best of the cultures it encountered and blending it with Greek learning and culture.  Though he died young and his empire dissolved into several states led by his generals, Alexander’s dream lived on.  The various successor states to Alexander’s empire indeed spread Greek–that is, Hellenistic–culture throughout the ancient world.

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How to Make a Universe

Emanation

It occurs to me that during the course of the various religious and philosophical musings I’ve posted here, there are some concepts which I have used very frequently, but which I haven’t really elaborated.  In short, I’ve just tossed them out with a link, if that, and plowed on.  One such example in particular is the concept of emanation.  Emanation is a highly important concept in both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, in which they both differ from orthodox Christianity.  The mode in which the universe came into existence has implications for one’s theology, cosmology, and philosophy, so I think it’s worth revisiting these different views on the origin of the cosmos and looking at them in greater depth.

First, it’s important to look more generally at how the universe came into being.  First, one might maintain that the universe did not come into being at all, since it has existed and will exist eternally.  Both some atheists and some theistic systems assume this model.  The universe may change or go through cycles (which may or may not repeat), but it has no discrete origin.  It’s worth pointing out that even this perspective doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of creation.  As Mortimer Adler pointed out in his book How to Think About God, one can still think of God “exnihilating”–holding in existence–a cosmos without linear beginning or end.  As I’ve explained in more detail here, God, properly understood, is completely outside of time and space in the sense in which we use those terms.  A linear infinity of time–going infinitely into the past and likewise into the future–is still far “smaller” or “less” than the true atemporal eternity of God.  To re-use the image I used in the earlier post consider:

pleroma2

Eternity, in this depiction, really shouldn’t be a separate sphere, but the entire plane–or better, the entire space–within which the comparatively tiny line of time lies and by which it is supported.  Thus, God can easily be thought of as creating spacetime in all its linear infinity as a mere drop in the higher-order infinity proper to Him.

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Quote for the Week

gridman

We may treat of the Soul as in the body — whether it be set above it or actually within it — since the association of the two constitutes the one thing called the living organism, the Animate.  Now from this relation, from the Soul using the body as an instrument, it does not follow that the Soul must share the body’s experiences: a man does not himself feel all the experiences of the tools with which he is working.

Plotinus, The Enneads, First Tractate : The Animate and the Man, translated by Stephen Mackenna and B. S. Page; courtesy Wikiquote.

Quote for the Week

plotinus

Perhaps, the good and the beautiful are the same, and must be investigated by one and the same process; and in like manner the base and the evil. And in the first rank we must place the beautiful, and consider it as the same with the good; from which immediately emanates intellect as beautiful. Next to this, we must consider the soul receiving its beauty from intellect, and every inferior beauty deriving its origin from the forming power of the soul, whether conversant in fair actions and offices, or sciences and arts. Lastly, bodies themselves participate of beauty from the soul, which, as something divine, and a portion of the beautiful itself, renders whatever it supervenes and subdues, beautiful as far as its natural capacity will admit.
Let us, therefore, re-ascend to the good itself, which every soul desires; and in which it can alone find perfect repose. For if anyone shall become acquainted with this source of beauty he will then know what I say, and after what manner he is beautiful. Indeed, whatever is desirable is a kind of good, since to this desire tends. But they alone pursue true good, who rise to intelligible beauty, and so far only tend to good itself; as far as they lay aside the deformed vestments of matter, with which they become connected in their descent. Just as those who penetrate into the holy retreats of sacred mysteries, are first purified and then divest themselves of their garments, until someone by such a process, having dismissed everything foreign from the God, by himself alone, beholds the solitary principle of the universe, sincere, simple and pure, from which all things depend, and to whose transcendent perfections the eyes of all intelligent natures are directed, as the proper cause of being, life and intelligence. With what ardent love, with what strong desire will he who enjoys this transporting vision be inflamed while vehemently affecting to become one with this supreme beauty! For this it is ordained, that he who does not yet perceive him, yet desires him as good, but he who enjoys the vision is enraptured with his beauty, and is equally filled with admiration and delight. Hence, such a one is agitated with a salutary astonishment; is affected with the highest and truest love; derides vehement affections and inferior loves, and despises the beauty which he once approved. Such, too, is the condition of those who, on perceiving the forms of gods or daemons, no longer esteem the fairest of corporeal forms. What, then, must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful itself?

–Plotinus, “An Essay on the Beautiful“, translated by Thomas Taylor; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Quote for the Week

Plotinus (1)

It is now time, leaving every object of sense far behind, to contemplate, by a certain ascent, a beauty of a much higher order; a beauty not visible to the corporeal eye, but alone manifest to the brighter eye of the soul, independent of all corporeal aid. However, since, without some previous perception of beauty it is impossible to express by words the beauties of sense, but we must remain in the state of the blind, so neither can we ever speak of the beauty of offices and sciences, and whatever is allied to these, if deprived of their intimate possession. Thus we shall never be able to tell of virtue’s brightness, unless by looking inward we perceive the fair countenance of justice and temperance, and are convinced that neither the evening nor morning star are half so beautiful and bright. But it is requisite to perceive objects of this kind by that eye by which the soul beholds such real beauties. Besides it is necessary that whoever perceives this species of beauty, should be seized with much greater delight, and more vehement admiration, than any corporeal beauty can excite; as now embracing beauty real and substantial. Such affections, I say, ought to be excited about true beauty, as admiration and sweet astonishment; desire also and love and a pleasant trepidation. For all souls, as I may say, are affected in this manner about invisible objects, but those the most who have the strongest propensity to their love; as it likewise happens about corporeal beauty; for all equally perceive beautiful corporeal forms, yet all are not equally excited, but lovers in the greatest degree.

—Plotinus, “An Essay on the Beautiful” as translated into English by Thomas Taylor (1917); courtesy Wikiquote.

Damnation: Inside, Outside, Upside Down

Update:  I have edited this post and the following posts in this series slightly to make the taxonomy of various forms of  universalism clearer.

Continuing with the project of rectification of names regarding Hell–that is, saying things as they are, and bringing out  hidden implications, let’s review what we’ve got so far, and then move on to some metaphysics.

Either

1. a) infinite punishment for finite sin is just or

1. b) God is a capricious tyrant.

Regarding people who hold the TVOH, and thus necessarily (if implicitly) one of the above,

2.  a) Many Christians actually see Hell not as a sorrowful thing, but a vital necessity and an active good.

2. b) As a corollary, they have an active desire to see malefactors damned.  In short, it’s not just a tragedy, but an active attitude of, “Yes, those m*^%$#@*&^%$#s are getting what they deserve!  Justice is served!  God is not mocked!”

2. c) As another corollary, such people seem to have a model of morality that is at best conventional, if not pre-conventional, a model which they project on everyone else; that is, they assume that people are driven so much towards selfishness and sin that only threats, the bigger the better–preferably the infinite and eternal threat of Hell–can keep them in line.

2. d)  As a final corollary, this implies that these people have rather disordered inner lives themselves.  In short, they are not saying, “Because of the love of God and the grace He gives me, I no longer have a desire for sin X,” or even the less exalted, “Though I am strongly tempted to X, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” but rather, “I wanna do X soooo bad, but if I do I’m gonna burn, so I’ll refrain.  As long as all the other yahoos who give in will burn.”

3. a) Soft universalism does not mitigate points 1. a) and 1. b) above.  The rarely stated implication is still that somehow eternal damnation, at least in principle, is just.  The only difference is that there is now a hope that God won’t implement it.  This has no logical bearing on the morality of God setting up such a policy in the first place.  Adding to my original phrasing of this point, it is sometimes said that “Hell exists, but it’s empty.”  Not only does this fail in the way we’ve already described, but it’s not even intelligible.  As most theologians and the late Pope John Paul II have said, Hell is not a place, but a state of being, an eternal alienation from God.  A possible state that is not implemented doesn’t even exist.  It’s like telling my child that there is a time out, but it’s not inhabited!

3. b) The belief that God damns no one but that any damned have brought damnation upon themselves by their sole fault also does not mitigate 1. a) and b) above, nor is it logically coherent.  God has created intelligent beings and established a universe and a milieu in which they can damn themselves; and thus ultimate responsibility still resides with Him.

3.  c) It seems that the main appeal of soft universalism is that

i) it does not deny traditional doctrine, thereby assuaging the fears of those who hold it of being thought by others or by themselves to be heretical

ii) it assuages believers’ discomfort with the concept of eternal damnation by positing that maybe God saves most or all

iii) it “lets God off the hook”–by positing that all people might be saved, and that if that doesn’t happen, then it’s purely and solely the fault of the damned themselves, and God is absolved of all responsibility in the matter.

Thus we can continue to think of Him as all-loving and all-benevolent while still allowing, at least in principle, the existence of Hell.

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Excursus: John Scottus Eriugena

The greatest philosopher of the early Middle Ages, John Scottus Eriugena, was interestingly, a universalist.  I’m not going to talk much about him myself in this post.  Rather, I want to quote extensively from this excellent essay on Eriugena at the website of  professor of philosophy Leonard O’Brian.  I will refer back to this in developing some ideas in the next couple of posts on heaven, hell, and universalism.  The emphasis in the following quotes is mine.

Eriugena’s metaphysics of emanation produces an optimistic understanding of human nature. In Christian thought usually, the fall requires the resurrection whereby Christ cleanses us of our sins. Christianity generally teaches that (1) God created humankind in His image; that (2) this integrity between Imager and imagee—between God and humankind—did not preclude that the imagee might disobey the Imager; (3) that the imagee did freely choose disobedience; (4) that this act initiated a universal falling of man and woman from their Imager; (5) and that man and woman were thereby weakened, so that only the gracious action of God can save the imagee from sinful inclinations. Incarnation and resurrection constitute this gracious action. Christianity is pessimistic about human nature since regeneration depends essentially on its external source.

In contrast with the usual Christian conceptualization, Eriugena draws on Neo-Platonism. He thus creates a tension. He wishes to develop a fully Christian philosophy. Compared to much of Christianity, however, Neo-Platonists are optimistic about human nature.

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From the Neo-Platonic perspective, while the objects of human knowledge—the objectively real ideas, ultimately, the Good or the One—transcend the physical world, we human beings have the potential, through reason, to transcend the physical world ourselves.

How would Eriugena, both Neo-Platonic and Christian, resolve the tension between optimism and pessimism? In his view, the fall and resurrection consist of cosmic processes of differentiation and return to unity. While he conceptualizes the cosmology in four parts or phases, the parts are really one: God, the uncaused, causing the Word or Christ; wherein the primordial principles emanate into the realm of stones, plants, animals, angels, and human beings; these last, the human beings, contributing the further differentiation of gender through the fall; whereupon the Word, Christ, returns to God, unifying man and woman into genderless humankind; and, through humankind, the entirety of creation, returns to unity in the undifferentiated One. In the end, all will be saved, saints and sinners. Read the rest of this entry

Reincarnation: Index

I’m planning a post soon that deals with reincarnation, but which is not part of any of my ongoing series.  It occurred to me as I thought of it that I’d done quite a few posts on that topic.  Looking back through the archives, I realized that I’d done even more than I’d remembered, especially if you count postings of poetry and music with reincarnation as a theme.  I decided, therefore, that the topic deserved its own index.

The first two posts deal with pre-existence.  That’s a separate topic, but some of the philosophical issues are related to those involved in reincarnation, so I’ve put them in, too.  They are part of the “Legends of the Fall” series, and there are two because I’d forgotten that I’d written the first, and wrote another post with the same theme.  I decided not to take the second post down; each makes its point in slightly different ways, so they’re both here.

This series won’t be ongoing in the way that some of my others are, but I will add posts related to reincarnation to this index as I put them up.  Enjoy!

Interlude:  Pre-existence, or Déjà Vu All Over Again

Excursus:  Pre-existence

Reincarnation:  The Ultimate Recycling

Reincarnation:  Haven’t We Been Here Before?

A Reincarnation-Oriented Video

A Poem by Emerson for the Weekend

Another Reincarnation-Oriented Poem for the Weekend

Some Head-Banging for the Weekend

An Original Poem

Reincarnation:  The Disadvantages

Another Perspective on Reincarnation

Dualism: I’m of Two Minds on It: Index

Actually, the dualism posts are part of the “Pretty Good Book” series.  However, they make up almost a third of that series, and will end up longer than my “Double Shadow” series.  In addition, the ideas are relevant, I think to the existing “Legends of the Fall” and the upcoming “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy” series.  Thus, I’m giving them an index page of their own for anyone who wants to look at dualism in depth without going through the rest of the other series.

I’m a Dualist, Except When I’m Not

The Decline of Dualism

Dualism and Its Discontents

Dualism:  I Want Your Drama, the Touch of Your Hand

Dualism:  Orthodoxy,  Heresy, Refrigerators, and Lawn Mowers

The Downside of Dualism:  Body and Soul

Dualism:  Living in a Material World

Chasing the Incarnation