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30.1 Rational theology

One traditional approach to metaphysics in rational theology is to define God as “that than which no greater being can be conceived". Although this definition may or may not yield Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, it can certainly be used to determine the attributes that should be ascribed to God. In careful hands, Ward (1996), for example, shows how to, from this starting point, derive a theology in good agreement with our scientific theism. The need for careful hands arises because of the difficulty in this method. How do you decide which attributes are ‘greater’ than certain other attributes? Is it greater to be unable to suffer or to be able to suffer? Aquinas thought that God could not suffer (that God is impassible), whereas Whitehead (with many since him) holds to the contrary that it is better that God suffers with the suffering of his creatures.30.1Swedenborg holds the intermediate position that God does not suffer but may at most grieve. These three views follow directly from their respective ontologies: the God of Aquinas is Pure Act; the God of Whitehead is within a process ontology; and the God of Swedenborg is Love Itself. In our scientific theism, since God is characterized by being life itself, he is certainly not unable to change, and hence he is not Pure Act because he can respond to our love.

The theism and science presented in the previous sections attempt to explain the relation between God and the world in a way that is rationally comprehensible. The scheme must be devoid of self-contradiction or inconsistency, as otherwise anything whatsoever could be proved. A reductio ad absurdam, for example, could then be used to disprove any additional hypothesis. We acknowledge, of course, that it is God we are here talking about, so we freely admit that there are infinite depths and heights to God that we may take an eternity to try to understand. But we insist that the further existence of these depths and heights does not contradict our best rational understanding. We insist on this, in part, because our best rationality comes from God (who is Wisdom itself) precisely for that purpose.

In requiring some rational comprehension to be faithfully true,30.2 scientific theism cannot include any kind of non-rational assertion that verges on the self-contradictory. We cannot follow Plotinus, for example, in declaring God to be beyond both being and non-being. Nor can we include the assertion of Aquinas that in God essence and existence are identical, nor similarly that his substance and form are identical. Nor do I see a non-contradictory manner for asserting that God consists of three persons and yet is Absolutely Simple. Nor do I follow Aquinas in saying that love and wisdom are not truly predicated of God except by analogy. Perhaps some theologians feel free to add in such non-rational assertions as addenda, but, unless it can be shown how such declarations may be consistent, they cannot be part of any rational theism.

Part of the impetus for these assertions by Plotinus, Aquinas, and others is their belief that God is greater when his unity is beyond not only all division but also beyond all rational distinctions. To have to distinguish between being and nonbeing or between essence and existence was ‘beneath’ God, they thought.

I reply that, while we may agree that God is “that than which no greater being can be conceived", we are definitely not claiming that God is “greater than can be conceived". It would clearly diminish God if these inflated unities necessarily involved contradictions!30.3


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