Philosophical Views of God

by Jan Garrett


Suppose an extraterrestrial, who lacked a religion but possessed what most of us call rational capacity, were to visit earth. She might be quite puzzled by the fact that millions of people believe in God--that is, they believe that somebody or something called "God" exists and is very important--but she would be hard pressed to determine exactly what they mean by "God." Her quest would not be made easier if she possessed an historical sense. A little inquiry reveals that God has been described in hundreds, if not thousands, of ways, enough to confuse anybody. Here are a few of them: Supreme Being, Perfect Being, Life Eternal, The Supreme Good, The Way, The Truth, The Light, The Glorious One, The Incorruptible, Father of All, Mother of All, Creator, Ruler of the Universe, Lord, Allknowing, Allmighty, The Unmoved Mover, Providence, Fortune, Shepherd of His Flock, and a Friend in Time of Need.

What does all this confusion and the puzzlement of this extraterrestrial have to do with us? Not very much if we are secure inside the cocoon of an isolated village where there is only one church and only a short list of approved descriptions of God. But few of us are so lucky--or is it unlucky? In any case, many of us are in a situation not wholly unlike that of our extraterrestrial. Either we have never had, or we had once but have since lost, a faith which was secure only because we were unaware of alternatives. We are aware of a variety of religions and God-descriptions, and this very awareness makes our being-religious at least a little bit problematic.

Philosophical reflection on what is meant by the term "God" and whether such a God exists tries to use rational methods to clarify this problematic situation. Defining "rational" is almost as difficult as defining God, but I offer in Part I of this paper some groundrules which suggest some limits to rational inquiry on our subject. The remainder of the essay discusses philosophical conceptions of God which try, with different degrees of success, to meet conditions like those laid down in my rules. The essay takes no stand on whether one can rationally prove that God exists. It takes up a prior question--possible definitions of God; only if we are confident that an idea of God is coherent can we reasonably ask whether a being conforming to that idea exists.

Part I: Some Guidelines for the Discussion

The following rules are not presented dogmatically: once you see what they rule out or allow in, you might wish to reject one or another of them. It would then be incumbent upon you to say what rule you would put in its place.

No. 1. The Compatibility Rule. Thou shalt not attribute to God incompatible properties.

This rule is required in order that the discussion of God remain a rational discussion. This rule would exclude the possibility that God is both the father of Jesus and Jesus himself if "father" is used in the biological sense of "male parent." It also excludes the possibility that both of the following are true together: (1) God's will is eternally fixed and (2) He actually makes up His mind at a particular point in time, say, after someone petitions Him in prayer.

No. 2. The Contemporary Knowledge (CK) Rule. Thou shalt make an effort not to describe God in such a way that the existence of such a God would conflict with the cautious conclusions of contemporary scientific and historical investigators.

Whereas the Compatibility Rule is designed to keep the discussion rational in the sense that logical inconsistencies are eliminated, the CK Rule is designed to keep it rational by taking seriously the collective human experience represented by communities of experts now mostly centered in universities where free inquiry takes place.

The CK Rule--as applied today--would tend to exclude claims like "God created the Sun to move around the earth" or "God placed a complicated system of dead animal skeletons (what we call fossils) in the earth to see if scientists could resist the temptation to develop a (false) evolutionary theory."

We should be especially wary of misapplying this rule. It would be a misapplication to assume that a view maintained by a small minority of contemporary scientists or historians counts as contemporary knowledge. (I would even say that a live theological option might conflict with a majority view among scientists or historians, so long as a significant minority of qualified researchers still had doubts.)

The following argument would also be a misapplication of the CK Rule: "Contemporary scientific knowledge does not provide substantial support to claim C about God; therefore C must be considered false." Scientific research investigates the physical aspects of reality. Theology makes claims about aspects of reality sometimes rather distant from these physical aspects. So we should not expect science to provide decisive support for one and only one theology.

Incidentally, none of these rules are designed to prohibit anyone from formulating any description of God whatsoever. We have to formulate even the zaniest ideas before we can refine or correct them. The rules are designed to guide us in the evaluation of competing possible descriptions of God once these are "on the table."

No. 3. The Anti-Idolatry Rule. Thou shalt not mistake the symbol for what is symbolized.

If, for example, God is the power from which all life comes, it will not do to represent this power as, say, a young animal (a calf), then to represent this again in a graven image (for example, a golden calf), and then to think of the graven image as if the image were the power from which all life comes. If this is at all an accurate account of what is reported in Exodus, then the Israelites who worshipped the golden calf broke Rule No. 3. Something similar occurs when one has overzealous reverence for the allmighty dollar or the American flag.

The founders of most of the world's great religions reject idolatry. We are being quite traditional if we accept rule No. 3.

This rule might also be called the Anti-Fetishism Rule. A fetish is a visible object which is attributed more power than it has or more significance than it merits, all things considered.

No. 4. The Anti-Blasphemy Rule. Thou shalt not describe the divinity in such a way that people who accepted that description of Him (or Her or It) might be inclined to do something obviously immoral or to behave consistently in such a way that their moral growth might be prevented.

The effect of this rule is to build an ethical component into any rationally permissible theology. The rule would exclude, I suspect, a description of God as one who delights in the torture of nonbelievers or in the military conquest of one national group by another. I call this rule the "anti-blasphemy rule" on the assumption that if one describes God as encouraging people to become worse individuals, one is describing an evil God, and to do that is, in effect, to blame God for one's own bad traits. (This is not quite the usual sense of the word "blasphemy," but it is closely related to the word's original meaning.)

No. 5. The Heritage Rule. We should describe the divinity, so far as possible, in ways which show our acceptance of our cultural heritage.

The word "our" here in this rule needs to be taken broadly. The Rule does not justify an exclusive focus on the religion of one's biological ancestors. Even on that ground, of course, we would be justified in studying pagan religions (since we all have pagans among our ancestors). Our heritage is a pluralistic heritage. With many South Asian immigrants, the U.S. is getting more pluralistic every day. Moreover, we are all the children of one planet; that means that even if we were raised Christians, our religious heritage also includes Judaism, Islam and Buddhism at the least.

This rule affirms the importance of past wisdom. We cannot escape the past by wishing it away. Besides, the past is a reservoir of great insights. If we are to benefit from them, we must not reject them by blanket condemnations simply because some people who claimed in the past to agree with them performed great crimes.

It is important not to take this rule as cancelling out any of the other rules. If my ancestors believed a doctrine full of literal contradictions, this is no justification for my believing them. If my ancestors worshipped golden calves, this is no justification for my worshipping them. If my ancestors' religion called for human sacrifices, it doesn't follow that I ought to try to perform them now. What the Heritage Rule demands is that we sift our religious traditions not only for their literal insights but also for the wisdom expressed in parables and poetry and other nonexplicit ways of communicating.

Part II: Traditional Philosophical View I

The first philosophical notion of divinity to be considered here is the conception of God employed by theologians of the Middle Ages. For a thousand years or more, God was described in terms derived from ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed, in Philosophy of Religion courses, God is still usually described in these terms. God was said to be an unmoved mover, eternal, all-knowing and transcendent. "Transcendent" here means existing beyond the physical universe, independent of it and outside of space and time. Transcendence is contrasted with immanance; an immanent deity is somehow bound up with the physical universe and would not exist without it. We'll consider an immanent conception later.

The classical descriptions of God seem to be based on carrying something like the following thinking process to its so-called logical conclusion. Observe a child. It has little ability to remember or anticipate. A teenager will have better memory and better ability to anticipate and to plan. The normal adult will surpass the teenager in these respects. And a king of a great kingdom will be superior even to the normal adult. He will have at his disposal a network of spies liberally sprinkled throughout the opposition groups and a coterie of historians and wise men. His spies will give him ability to anticipate, his historians will tell him about past experience and his wise men will help him put it all together.

Thus, as the power of the adult surpasses that of the child, so the power of the king surpasses that of the normal adult. As we shift from the child to the king, we move from someone who has little knowledge of past and future to someone who has, comparatively, great knowledge of both. Traditional theologians merely extend this reasoning. There is, they say, a perfect mind whose knowledge of past and future is total. They will even draw a picture for us. Draw a straight line across the page. Mark the beginning as the first day of Creation, mark the end as the Day of Judgment. Somewhere in the line (probably closer to the end than to the beginning), mark "now." This represents time from Creation to the Last Day. We can take this line in all at once, just by standing back from the page. Well, then, that is the way God is said to see the whole history of universe, "all at once."

On this description, God must be beyond the universe and outside of time, just as we must be beyond the line in order to "take it in all at once." The term "eternity," in the strict sense, refers to being entirely outside of time; it also includes not being subject to change, for only things in time can change. Note that "eternity" does not mean "lasting through all time." (The label for what lasts through all time is "everlasting.") Presumably, if an all-powerful God willed it, He could make some material object last through all time, but it would not then be eternal in the way God is thought to be eternal.

Any such God will be utterly unchanging. He knows everthing, past, present and future--He is never surprised.

This traditional view of God also usually involves the following doctrines. (Let's call the fuller view that includes them all Traditional View I.)

(1) God is an omnipotent creator: Everything that occurs is part of his plan. He creates the universe from nothing. While a sculptor or architect creates something from preexisting matter, God creates the matter as well as the form.

(2) God is perfect and good. This is another reason why He is not subject to change. (Any change would be for the worse.) As a result, God cannot be affected by anything outside Himself.

(3) God's creation is good and perfect. This is what you would expect if God is perfect and omnipotent.

(4) God Himself is pure mind. The traditional view tends to regard possession of a body as a sign of imperfection; after all, creatures with bodies are subject to disease, suffering, sexual temptation, excessive desire for material possessions, etc. Since God is perfect, they reasoned, God must be bodiless.

Part III: Puzzles Associated with the Traditional View I

The view of God as all-knowing and eternal causes certain difficult questions to arise.

(A) If God knows all, then does He not know the future, and if the future can be known, is it not fixed? If the future is fixed, then how can we mortals make free choices? If we cannot make free choices, does it not follow that nobody is responsible for her actions? How then is moral evaluation possible?

(B) Another puzzle arises from the addition of the philosophical interpretation of "creator" to the notion of God as all-knower. God's will is then understood as the source of all being. That would include the being of our actions (when we perform them). In a way, God would seem to be also the source of our failures to act (for, on this view, do we not fail to act just when He wills not to give being to the acts we should have done?) But if God is the source of our actions and our failures to act, how can they really be our actions? Once again, moral responsibility seems to be impossible.

(C) A third puzzle arises from the fact that adherents of the Traditional View I also often considered themselves Christians or Jews or Moslems, and prayer is important in these religions. These philosophers understood God as free from any influence whatsoever from outside forces. Now, if prayer is a form of communication (which seems plausible) and communication affects the being with whom one communicates (which also seems plausible), then how can one pray to God?

(D) A fourth puzzle has to do with the reality of evil. A good and omnipotent God would make nothing bad. The traditional philosophical view holds that, in some sense at least, God makes everything. It would seem to follow, then, that everything must be good. What about evil, then--"natural evils" such as diseases, earthquakes, and deformed births or "moral evils" such as lies, thefts, murders, and briberies? Are these merely apparent evils, and not real evils at all?

Can the puzzles be solved? We are about to consider some proposed solutions. Most of them involve revising Traditional View I on one or more main point. Another possibility, which defenders of the Traditional View may wish to consider, is that all the puzzles involve faulty reasoning at some point or other. If you think so, your task is to show where the error is.

Part IV: Revision of Traditional View--Traditional View II

Some people who are attracted in many ways to the view of God identified above as Traditional View I attempt to avoid some of the puzzles by taking more seriously what seems to them to be implicit especially in the Old Testament narrative of God's relation to the human beings He created. This view, which we may call Traditional View II, does not necessarily deny God's omniscience, but it does deny that He plans everything down to the last detail, especially where human actions are concerned.

That is, Traditional View II holds that God is able to (and indeed did) create beings, distinct from Himself, who are able to make free and responsible choices. These beings include some embodied beings, such as humans. Therefore, once human beings are on the scene and external nature (ultimately controlled by God) permits them to function, God does not control literally everything they do, and thus He does not control everything that occurs.

This view immediately dissolves Puzzle B; for God, on this view, is no longer the complete cause of our actions or failures to act. It may well be that we are responsible for them.

Puzzle D, to the extent that it concerns moral evil, is also dissolved. If God is not the complete cause of moral evil (since it is up to us and not to Him that moral evil enters the world), then the presence of moral evil is no argument against the goodness of God.

Defenders of Traditional View I may respond that to take this approach is to deny God's omnipotence. But Traditonal View II can develop the following interesting response:

Suppose God had a choice, to create a purely machinelike universe entirely under His control or to create a universe such as we say the present one is, with embodied free beings distinct from Himself. Which is a richer world? Certainly the latter. Which is a better world? Certainly the latter. If God created the machinelike world, He would not have created the better world. Assuming God's goodness (as holders of Traditional View I do), the only explanation for His failure to create the better world would be that His power is limited. It seems that it is not us, but you, who believe in a relatively weak God. When we say that He created free human beings, we are celebrating His power, not His relative weakness.

We have not shown that Traditional View II can dissolve Puzzles A and C or Puzzle D insofar as it concerns the reality of natural evil. I leave it to class members who are attracted to View II to work at that task.

Part V: Augustine's View

In some ways, the theology of Augustine (354-430 AD), the first major and perhaps the most influential Christian philosopher combined features of the two preceding views. Augustine makes a distinction in time between the period after Creation before Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge (thus sinning) and the period after his sin. Human beings had been created able to sin or not to sin; that is, they originally had free will.

But when Adam sinned, his sin permanently disfigured or corrupted human nature. All of Adam's descendents inherit this corrupt human nature. Now, left to our own devices, and relying upon our human nature such as it now is, we are unable not to sin. Our will cannot free itself from bondage to sin through any effort of its own. Nor can we do anything to earn release from this bondage, wretched creatures that we are. However, through no merit of our own, God may bestow His grace upon us. If He does, we may avoid sinning, but if He does not--if we are left to what human nature now offers us--we shall certainly sin.

Incidentally, Augustine does not think that the people who have not received God's grace and, therefore, cannot avoid sinning as a result of inherited Original Sin, have any excuses. They still deserve punishment for their sins.

Some commentators have understandably said that Augustine's theology attributes free will to human nature prior to the Fall only to deny that it has free will ever since. Many of the Puzzles that arise for Traditional View I seem to arise for the Augustinian View as well.

A Final Observation on the Traditional View of God

Before we turn to alternate views, let us consider a final challenge to the traditional philosophical view: Perhaps the analogy on which it seems to be based extrapolates or extends the concept of mind and knowledge beyond all reasonable bounds. A critic might say that the analogy between the king and the eternal mind breaks down because for all his knowledge and hired wisdom, the king is still a prisoner of time. He must make sense of his information in the here and now. He must do so from his own point of view. The critic claims that all knowledge, whether it be that of a child, a normal adult, an historian, a king or a wise man, is inevitably bound up with the perspective of the knower. It is an occurrence, at a particular time and place, on the basis of limited, never complete, information. If the critic is correct, then the so-called "perspective of eternity" which God is alleged to have is not a perspective at all, because it lacks this limitation. If knowledge always includes dependence upon a perspective, then eternal knowledge is a contradiction in terms.

Even if this is so, it is a noteworthy fact that the idea of an all-seeing God has had important, salutary effects in Western thought. For one thing, divine knowledge is one way of describing the impartiality towards which morally sensitive people strive without being able fully to attain it. By trying to see social and moral relations a bit more as an all-seeing God might see them, we are encouraged to treat those outside our immediate circle of acquaintances more fairly and to take into better account the long-term consequences of our individual and collective actions.

Part VI: Charles Hartshorne's Panentheist View

If the puzzles associated with the traditional conception of God cannot somehow be removed, the traditional view will clash with the Compatibility Principle, whose main point is to rule out inconsistent beliefs. Some philosophers of religion believe that most of these puzzles are insoluble, and so they have sought a different conception of God that can avoid the puzzles. One of the most important contemporary philosophers to try this approach is Charles Hartshorne.

You might be attracted to Hartshorne's view if you find that the idea of a mind existing completely independent of a body makes no sense to you. For Hartshorne, God is both immanent and transcendent. That is to say, God's divine mind is present in the physical universe as a whole but also transcends or surpasses it. Hartshorne's view is that the universe is in God, or as it is sometimes called, "panentheism" (from Greek pan (all) + en (in) + theos (god)).

How does God's mind inhabit the universe? Perhaps an analogy to the way a life principle works in our bodies will help. Suppose all the cells, fluids, etc. from a living human body were first detached from one another and gathered in a heap somewhere. This heap would contain exactly the materials which were found earlier in the living human body. What, then, made the difference? Clearly, the difference was the way in which the component cells, fluids, etc. were put together into a dynamic unity. Let's call this extra thing the "structure" of the whole. It's important to realize that in living beings this structure is rule-governed and in human beings this structure (which makes us what we are) is partly intelligent. There's no question here of the structure's existing without the parts--if this structure is the human life principle, it is not going to survive the death of the body. (At least this is Hartshorne's view.)

For Hartshorne, God's mind is the structure and principle governing the whole physical universe. Since Hartshorne does not believe that the universe can have an end, he also believes that the universe and God have always existed.)

But Hartshorne's God also has a transcendent aspect. His mind transcends the material universe and is not entirely bound by it.

Hartshorne's God has a peculiar kind of qualified omniscience. God's mind perfectly knows what is happening and has happened. It knows all about the present and the past. But, contrary to what both versions of the Traditional View hold, God does not know all about the future.

Hartshorne rejects complete divine knowledge of the future for two connected reasons:
(1) The future is not yet entirely determined, according to him; so how could anyone have complete knowledge of it?
(2) God's mind is not the ultimate source of all decisions: beings other than God, such as you and I, make choices independent of God's plans. (If we couldn't do this, Hartshorne believes, our actions would not be free and we would never be responsible for them.) Now, if God does not entirely make the future, He cannot be entirely sure what it will be.

Because his God is not entirely omniscient, Hartshorne's view is not subject to puzzle (A) concerning omniscience and moral responsibility. Nor is it subject to puzzle (B) concerning omnipotent creation and moral responsibility. Hartshorne's God is not omnipotent. Since human beings at least are free centers of choice partly independent of God's plans and designs, some things we do are beyond His power to force or prevent. He is therefore not as powerful a deity as some people might think they can conceive.

Hartshorne would nevertheless say that his God is the most powerful being really conceivable. If we try to conceive one more powerful, he would claim, we end up with something like the traditional philosophical view. This traditional view produces the puzzles we discussed (and which Hartshorne believes it cannot solve). Therefore, on his view, the traditional view is ultimately incoherent.

Hartshorne's view does not seem to be subject to the puzzle (D) concerning evil and the goodness of God. If some things that happen are not the result of His will, there's no contradiction in admitting that some things are imperfect or evil. One does not have to say that things which seem bad are only apparently so, or are only so from our imperfect point of view.

Far from holding that we do not influence God, Hartshorne claims that we influence Him in a very important way. Since He is omniscient about the past, but not about the future, He will learn what we have done when we have done it (but not, at least not in detail, before). Therefore our deeds are, as it were, etched in His memory. In fact, this is our immortality according to Hartshorne: we don't survive death as individuals, but our good and bad deeds are preserved forever in divine memory. They are not forgotten.)

Hartshorne is influenced by the scientific notion that nature operates according to general principles or laws. Thus he does not claim that God may temporarily abolish a natural law so that somebody may perform a miracle, only to reinstate the natural law afterwards. But the laws of nature now in effect are not the only laws that nature might have; another set of natural laws might also be coherent. Hartshorne believes that God, whose mind is the ultimate guarantee of the coherence of nature, might change the natural laws if He thought that He could improve the cosmos that way. (Note how Hartshorne's belief in God corresponds to an optimism about the future of the cosmos.)

It might be objected that since Hartshorne's God is partially embodied in physical matter, there is a good chance that he is materially if not morally corruptible, and that possibility would not fit well with common conceptions of divine perfection. The dominant philosophical conception avoids this problem when it holds that God is incorruptible because He is immaterial, bodiless. But a defender of Hartshorne's view might argue that a partially immanent God can be incorruptible too. Beings are corruptible generally because they are subject to influences from outside. Individuals do not seduce themselves with money or sexual favors--these are influences coming from others. But nothing is outside of Hartshorne's God; for the whole physical universe, including our bodies, is His body.

Part VII: The Stoic View of the Supreme Being

The traditional philosophical views of God flourished in the Middle Ages and are still defended by many thinkers today. The panentheist view discussed in the preceding section had ancient and medieval ancestors but received its most thoughtful formulation in the twentieth century. A third view, the ancient Stoic view, has few contemporary adherents, but is of interest to us for three reasons:

(1) It is another view concerning a divine supreme being to which rational people have been attracted; (2) its similarities and differences with the other views can illuminate them; and (3) it competed in ancient Greece and Rome with the atomist philosophy of Epicurus, which was a modified version of the atomist philosophy of Democritus.

So many features of the Stoic view are adopted either by the traditional transcendent view or by Hartshorne's immanent view that a chart setting out the similarities and differences can help us quickly grasp the nature of the Stoic view. Although the Stoics were, strictly speaking, polytheists and pagans, one god, the ruler of the universe, has a special place in Stoic philosophy.

The Stoic view of the supreme being is like the traditional view in the following respects:

(1) The Stoic supreme being is omniscient regarding past and future.

(2) The Stoic supreme being is the omnipotent planner/designer of everything that happens.

(3) The Stoic supreme being is absolutely good. Whatever happens happens for a good reason.

(4) The Stoic supreme being wills that we should obey moral principles.

The Stoic supreme being is unlike God in what I have called the traditional view:

(1) The Stoic supreme being is not the only deity, since there are also lesser divinities.

(2) The Stoic supreme being is immanent, not transcendent.

(3) The Stoic supreme being (or divine reason) is a "body."

Unlike Epicurus and Lucretius and many more recent thinkers, the Stoics believed that two bodies could occupy the same place at the same time. (Think how two liquids, for example, water and milk, appear to pervade each other when they are mixed.)

A widespread idea among the ancient philosophers of nature was that nature is made of four material stuffs or elements: earth, water, air and fire. According to the Stoics, two of these four "bodies" (air and fire) were active powers, and two of them (earth and water) were passive. The active powers were responsible for the lawfulness of nature in general, the cohesion of material objects from stones to living organisms, and the activity of active beings generally.

Among the active powers, fire was identified with intelligence. The Stoics described the supreme being as "an intelligent fire" pervading and controlling all things.

(3) The Stoics denied that there is a beginning and an ending point in time (like Hartshorne); nevertheless they agreed that time is finite (like what I have been calling the traditional view). How? Time is cyclical. Each cycle is of a fixed length and every cycle exactly repeats the previous one.

Why did they believe that time is finite (if they could not imagine an absolutely first moment in time)? Only finite things can be well-crafted. The universe is well-crafted. So it is finite. Cyclical time is a way of retaining finiteness without a beginning or end.

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The views discussed in this essay do not by any means exhaust the possibilities. For a twentieth-century immanent view of divinity which is compatible with what modern science tells us about the natural universe, see An Introduction to Pantheism. This website also contains an essay on the classical Greek polytheist ideas of the divine. See Homer's Gods, Plato's Gods.

Return to Dr. Garrett's homepage.