An extreme thesis in natural theology

A: I’ll just say it – we need to posit evil in God.

B: But this is a settled question. God is entirely good and admits of no evil. It counts as a relatively rare case of philosophy coming to a definite conclusion. Placing evil in God would make him both good and evil, and therefore somehow incomplete, or that-than-which a greater could be thought.

A: I agree that God is entirely good, but this is why I want to place evil in him. Let me explain that. You accept that if God exists, the argument from evil must be unsound?

B: Absolutely.

A: And wouldn’t you also say that if the argument from evil is unsound, it must be because it is better to overcome evil than to never let it arise?

B: This seems right.

A: But then it is better to place evil in God as that which is eternally overcome than that which never arises.

B: Let me think about that.

A: God’s supreme goodness is his supreme overcoming, not some sort of serene, Platonic separation from the world that he made. He is the exemplar of what the world should be.

B: And so you see the drama of this world as reflected in the life of God himself?

A: Absolutely. Isn’t this what the Christian thinks? You have God tempted by Satan – but it is crucial to the story that he could have fallen – you aren’t Docetists, after all. Christ “had no sin” in the same way Adam did – it wasn’t given in advance that he couldn’t fall. We can’t vacate from Christ this moral victory in the face of evil, but to make his virtue invulnerable certainly seems to do just that.

B: What else do you think this explains?

A: It can make more sense of the reality of Hell, I think, and the value of Christ’s eternal sacrifice. We visualize Christ’s sacrifice as something which, even if it was made once, is now being done “automatically”, as though his offering to the Father is not ongoing. Where is the drama in that? One might as well be redeemed by an idol – if he simply stands there before the father like a fountain or a back-yard water feature that simply “pours out” grace automatically. We can likewise see the necessity of the eternity of Hell – it is populated by those who choose to be eternally overcome by infinite goodness.

B: Infinite goodness? But then how is there any drama in your God? How could infinite goodness ever lose out to evil?

A: Precisely because the infinite goodness consists in his continual overcoming.

B: So now we’re talking about continual overcoming – about time and incompleteness.

A: Maybe so. But the alternative, it seems to me, is to have a god so bound by his necessity that his personality is completely ridiculous. We only add personality on when we are forced to, and not because it is integral to our conception of God. How thin is St. Thomas’s reason for divine personality! What is it “that which is most perfect in nature is the person, etc.” But this idea of perfection is precisely the sort of determined act that freezes the divine existence.

B: So this is what it comes to – another complaint about the static character of existence in natural theology. Another complaint that it gives us an impersonal God.

A: Well, yeah.

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8 Comments

  1. GeoffSmith said,

    December 12, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    That’s an interesting way to put it. Are you familiar with Greg Boyd’s dealing with these issues?

    • December 12, 2014 at 4:45 pm

      Boyd and I are kinda neighbors. His Church and mine are pretty close. I like the stuff he posts at ReKnew.

      • GeoffSmith said,

        December 12, 2014 at 4:51 pm

        He’s pretty bright.

      • JSPflug said,

        December 14, 2014 at 8:57 am

        This may not be the right place, but, since Boyd is mentioned, I have always wanted a clear Thomistic response to some of Boyd’s ideas in his “Trinity and Process.” In chapter 3 of this book, he uses a distinction between God’s “subjective intensity” (the joy of experiencing the Trinitarian Life, which has some level of contingency as it “admits of a zenith”) and God’s “objective expression” (which just is the unsurpassable actuality of the Trinitarian Life). He later (see especially chapter 6) uses this distinction to describe how God “could be actually necessary and actually contingent in different respects” within God-self, that is, before creation.
        How would a Thomist argue that this is incompatible with God being Pure Act? As far as I can tell, Boyd’s presentation gives no reason to deny a divine potentiality in God, that is, God-self as the Trinitarian Life consisting of the Father with the Son in the Spirit everlastingly experiencing varying intensities of perfect engagement with one another in this one, eternal “Objective Expression (or Trinitarian Identity).”
        Of course this is a paraphrase of Boyd’s view, but how would you imagine Aquinas responding to this?

  2. mhumpher said,

    December 12, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    Wouldn’t this give a reason for creation? It is better that God create/overcome non-being/evil by bringing something from nothing than not. Indeed, isn’t this the ultimate overcoming of evil and non-being?

  3. December 13, 2014 at 4:39 am

    My first reaction is either this constant overcoming is necessary in a way that the only difference that distinguishes it from the classical accounts of divine goodness is its bombastic mode of expression. This is not trivial, or a bad thing. It certainly seems more the stuff of a Church than a dusty old demonstration. But for bombast… didn’t Thomas write the Pange Lingua, too?

    In any case, perhaps this only illustrates that demonstration isn’t always the best way to express something. Even if it isn’t wrong, it can hit the ears like an English Horn solo of Ode to Joy. You can get the notes right, but come on.

    The alternative – i.e., taking it at face value – seems to make of God a cosmic Cal Ripken. Can he possibly suit up and play short again tonight?

    Well, whaddaya know?- There he goes! 2132 times in a row!

    • December 13, 2014 at 9:07 am

      Good point – God on A’s account seems to be an infinite series of action movie sequels: the bad guy rises, gets predictably beaten, and then finds a way to survive for the next installment where the same thing happens all over again. Hard to see the drama in God winning for the infinity-eth time.

      There might be a general point in this for anyone who wants to humanize God or make him more personable. A God of predictably humanized behavior is just as dry, intellectualized and lifeless as any Scholastic account is accused of being.

      • Caleb Neff said,

        January 28, 2015 at 3:44 pm

        I don’t know about that. It seems to me that “A” holds evil as the default state, and posits that God in His eternal goodness defeats this default state. It isn’t that there is an infinite series of action movie sequels, so much as saying God actively opposes evil from eternity. When He incarnates, He actively opposes the absence of goodness in time as well as eternity.

        But then why place evil in God? The nail has been hit on the head: because God prevails in eternity, it makes no sense to believe He can fail in time. Evil never arises in eternity, period.

        With this, I think A’s thesis is answered perfectly by saying that it is only better to allow evil to be overcome in creatures, which are made more perfect through acquiring virtue, whereas this is not applicable to God because His nature is immutable, so that God is always Good.


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