Friday, February 19, 2010

Divine Simplicity and the Formal Distinction, Part 1

In response to a request I'm reposting the two essays I wrote for the old Pontifications some years ago. I didn't revise them, but I glanced over them, and it seems like I can pretty much still endorse their contents. This first one does seem rather overblown to me now, though. Don't judge too harshly, faithful readers.

The first essay is pretty long, and I'm posting it in two parts. The second part will follow tomorrow. The other essay - really just a single long argument - is shorter and I'll post it whole.

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Revelation, in the sense of an experiential contact with God, began at the Garden of Eden and has continued throughout human history: God in his dealings with Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham revealed Himself as Creator, Judge, and Lord. He spoke to the patriarchs and wrestled “face to face” with the fathers of Israel as he began the work of redeeming the human race, setting aside a people to himself as the first stage in the great plan. God’s personal interaction with Abraham and Jacob might be said to constitute the beginning of mystical theology, in which He is touched, argued with, grappled with in the darkness of divinity.
In another sense, however, Revelation begins centuries later than this. Moses, standing before the burning bush, asks his interlocutor, “When the children of Israel ask who sent me, what shall I tell them?” The Voice, the Word replies, “I AM WHO I AM. Tell them that I AM has sent you.” This, no less than the call of Abraham, is an epochal event in the history of the Church. Before this point the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was known to the Israelites, but not by any name peculiar to Himself. They called Him God, Lord, the Most High, and so forth, but these were all names used by other peoples for other gods. This God was surely not one among these many gods, for He was the Creator of all; but how was he to be distinguished from them? At the burning bush God reveals Himself to His chosen people in a sense less intimately than to their fathers, for he does not appear in the likeness of human form; but in a more important sense He now becomes more intimate with them, casting off His created mask to unveil His own nature, separating Himself from the many names of the many gods by revealing His own proper Name. This is the seed and beginning, not of mystical theology, but of dogmatic theology. The Name, the vocal formulation, reveals a truth which the Israelites do not experience, but accept as definitive and authoritative; and yet in it God is more truly known than He was through patriarchal experience.
Based on this foundational moment western Catholic theology has continually affirmed that God has revealed among His many names His true and proper Name, and that name is Being. “I Am” is Who He Is. The stupidest thing the fool can say in his heart is “there is no God,” or “Deus non est.” Deus est! God is! This is taken to be a revelation of God’s very essence, His nature, so that while for every creature to be is something other than what the creature is, for God to be IS what God is: He is ipsum esse subsistens, substistent being Himself.
This is both a theological statement and a metaphysical statement. Revelation is not merely an interpersonal exchange; it has intellectual content. At the encounter with Moses in the burning bush the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals Himself as at the same time the God of the philosophers.
Furthermore, in addition to His Name God revealed to Israel through Moses at least one more “dogmatic” fact, formulated in the “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.” This, perhaps, is the whole essence of the theology of the first covenant: God is One, and we know His Name; these two facts provide the template for Jewish identity hereafter. These two dogmatic truths are also the essential precondition and presupposition of the Christian Revelation, for the most radical and Godlike statement Christ ever made was “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This is no mere claim of longevity, and the Jews knew it; Christ gives as his own the Divine Name; this is the mustard seed which contains the entire tree of Incarnational Theology, and hence, Trinitarian Theology.
All of this has been said by way of preface; for my intention is to write about the “problem” of Divine Simplicity. It seemed necessary before discussing the content of Catholic philosophical theology to defend it at the outset from certain characterizations which sometimes take the form of reproaches. Theology is both mystical and dogmatic; it takes place on the intersection between Revelation and Philosophy, between experience and authority. No adequate theology can afford to neglect one of these strands in order to privilege another, though this is not to imply that there is no hierarchy in the elements of theology—there is. Thus, though the theology of the Catholic Church is mystical as well as dogmatic (and I will have occasion to glance at how the doctrine of divine simplicity does indeed affect the doctrine and experience of deification), still it is in a sense dogmatic before it is mystical: the experience of God, the vision of Him face to face, is indeed the end and goal of all our theology, but we begin in the darkness of faith which relies on doctrine to guide our experience, to ensure that our experience never mistakes the false for the true. And again, if Catholic theology has a tendency in its pedagogy to begin with the One and proceed to the Many rather than the other way around, it claims as precedent the order of divine revelation itself.
For the Catholic theologian and philosopher, then, God is Being and God is One. The doctrine of Divine Simplicity exists to safeguard these absolute and fundamental truths. Before I look at how it may also be problematic, and at the solution to these problems, I will first examine how it serves a positive role in distinguishing God from everything else.
Every creature is composed. In the case of corporeal creatures this is obvious enough. A tree, a rock, a man, is composed of elements into which it can be dissolved and thereby destroyed. Science has not yet found a simple elemental particle devoid of all composition, and chances are never will. A tree can be actually divided into wood, bark, leaves, etc. The leaves can be removed from the tree and still exist (although remove enough bits and the whole tree will no longer exist). Components of this type, components into which the whole can be dissolved, I will refer to as parts. Corporeal things are composed of parts by way of continuity and contiguity, i.e. my parts have to be either continuous with themselves, like flesh, or attached by direct contiguity, like the way flesh is attached to bone. Having parts in this way requires having divisible spatial extension, and so I will refer to no other elements of composition as parts. Note that the whole is greater than its parts and is not its parts: I am not hands plus feet plus blood and so forth. Otherwise a collection of the same parts jumbled together any which way would make the same whole (which is the case with heaps and piles, but not with real substances), which they do not. My parts have to be composed according to something which is not a part or collection of parts, that is, the ruling idea, the form.
Clearly God is not composed of parts in this way. There are all sorts of reasons why God cannot have extension and corporeal structure, and I can only mention a few. If God were composed of parts that would mean he was posterior to them—after all, I certainly come later than the atoms which compose my body, and they will continue to exist when my body is dust. I depend on them to exist but they don’t depend on me. But if God had such parts then He could not be Being, but something composed out of beings. He could not be the source of all being, because He Himself would have some prior being as his source. Furthermore if God were composed of many individual parts He would not be One in the highest degree, and He could, perhaps, be dissolved back into His component parts the way other bodies can. This is all obvious enough and therefore all sane Christians admit that God is simple, that is, uncomposed, in this sense.
There are however other kinds of composition. My mind is not composed of extended, continuous or contiguous parts. It cannot be “decomposed” into more primitive structures, but is an indivisible whole. In this sense my mind is simple. However, as with the body the mind is composed of potency and act, and (according to some Catholic thinkers) of its own kind of matter and form, and (according to some others) of essence and existence. My mind has some potentialities which are not yet and may never be actual, concurrently with it present actualities. My essence, my nature whether specific or individual, is not the same thing as my actual existence. I can have my matter and a different form (within limits). I can have my current potential but be exercising different activities. There can be my essence without it having its own proper existence (Hamlet and Frodo Baggins have essence—I can say what and even who they are—but they don’t have existence). Even though my potency and act, my essence and existence, cannot be removed from each other and continue to be, the way parts can, they are still really differing principles that requires God to bring them together for the whole really existing me to be.
God is not composed in any of these other ways either. God can have no potentiality, or else something would have to be able to actualize it. God can’t have both matter and form, or else something prior would have to unite them. Most of all, God alone among beings cannot have an essence other than His own existence because He is Being. Who could give existence to His essence? Who could give being to Being? He is the source of being for all others things and can have no source himself.
One way to look at it is like this: God is sometimes called by theologians an infinite ocean of substance. Being is not an abstraction, like a sole mathematical point, with all determinations stripped away; Being is an overflowing fullness of substance, infinite where all else is finite. Essence in creatures is a contraction, a limitation, a narrowing of Being. Humanity, my essence, is not what it is to be, but what it is to be human, to be such-and-such, while arbority, the essence of a tree, is what it is to be arboreal, to be another sort of such-and-such, to be this way instead of that. To be a creature is to receive limited being from unlimited Being. God then, Being Himself, can have no such essence other than what He Is. What it is for God to be is not to be such-and-such, to be in this kind of way and not that, but simply to be. God then is not composed of principles (as opposed to parts) in this way, i.e. He is simple.
Again, the necessity of having a limited essence for creatures is tied up with the necessity of creatures to be composed of potency and act. Let me trot out a few terms here. Potentiality in Greek is dunamis, and is correlative with energeia, with in scholasticism is translated as actuality. All potentiality is a potency for some actuality; all actuality (for creatures) is the act of some potency. But not all actualities are the same; my actuality is different from that of a tree or dog; nor can the differences between them be reduced to differences in potentialities, since at its root potency is undetermined. The same atoms can be trees or dogs or me. The mediating principle then between potency and act is form, eide, or essence, to ti en enai, quod quid erat esse, what-it-is-for-a-thing-to-be. The essence of a creature is a limiting formal determination of the potentiality in question to this or that kind of actuality, simultaneously precluding it from being determined to other kinds. So if I have the essence humanity, if I have human nature, the range of actualities for me is restricted to human ones, excluding canine, arboreal, or angelic actualities. But God cannot have a limited and limiting essence in this way. God cannot fall under this genus of things and not under that. God cannot be one thing among many. If God is Being than all beings will all their determinations flow from Him and He can be limited by nothing. If God is Being than he can have no potential Being (what prior thing could bring Being to actuality?), but only actual Being. If God is Being he can have no limiting essence, nothing which determines an actuality this way or that way, but rather He must be actuality pure and simple; not the act of any potency, one among a range of possible acts, but absolutely unlimited, infinite actuality. God is existence with the finite limiting determinations of the essences stripped away. Therefore God is not a composite being like all created beings; therefore He is simple Being.
Let me note before moving on that Catholics do not say, with some Orthodox theologians, that God is “beyond Being.” We believe we must affirm that the God who says “I AM,” IS. Nevertheless He is not subsumed under rationalistic “categories of Being.” All such categories were formulated with respect to and only have relevance for creatures. No dichotomy of genus/species, substance/accidents, essence/existence, etc., applies to God. He is not a being among beings, He is Being from whom all beings have their source.
The claim that God is simple in the sense of wholly uncomposed is not controversial among Christians. What is controversial is the way in which God’s simplicity is to be reconciled with distinctions in God that everyone sees the need to make. Most obviously, God is not only One, but Three. How can we say that God exists in three Persons without saying that God is composed of three persons? How can we say that God both knows and wills without saying either that He is not absolutely simple or that for Him knowing and willing are the same thing (which is hard to understand or affirm)? How can we say that He knows each and every creature individually without positing in Him a multiplicity of concepts?


Anonymous said...

Greetings, Michael. It's been a long time since the old Pontifications blog. Please drop me a line:

Fr Alvin Kimel

Thomas Hamilton said...

Orthodox (at least not Palamas read properly) don’t take “beyond being” to be contrary to God’s being an infinite ocean of being. Rather, insofar as being is coextensive with intelligibility, and insofar as intelligibility is coextensive with a particular thing being in an intrinsic relation of comparisons and contrasts, God in His essence is beyond being because the actualities belonging to His essence and constituting that web of comparisons and contrasts flow from the essence. This is to say that the actualities- of which God has all- are not undifferentiated. Rather, they are infinitely differentiated, and God has all actualities in all their particularity. He does not merely radiate with white light containing all colors considered as one, but radiates with every particular and specific shade on the whole spectrum of color- there being infinite such shades. We say that God is infinite on account of His flowing so perfectly with the ocean of all being. The essence transcends that flow because it is the spring from which the endless ocean of being pours forth.