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An Existential God New Perspectives in Philosophy of Religion. John Davenport November 17, 2007. Two Fundamental Questions in Religion. Does God (or the divine) exist? Transcendence: Is there anything more to reality than the material world (i.e. matter-energy, space-time)?

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An existential god new perspectives in philosophy of religion l.jpg

An Existential GodNew Perspectives in Philosophy of Religion

John Davenport

November 17, 2007


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Two Fundamental Questions in Religion

  • Does God (or the divine) exist?

    Transcendence: Is there anything more to reality than the material world (i.e. matter-energy, space-time)?

  • Is the history of religiousness consciousness in human culture evidence for a transcendent source, or can even the earliest human concepts of the “sacred” and the “profane” be explained naturalistically?

  • Does the testimony of revealed religious traditions give us evidence for the existence of supreme being of the kind described in their texts?

  • Is there good evidence against the existence of God, e.g. moral and natural evil?

    2. What does “God” properly mean? (what is it whose existence we are debating)?

  • The “sacred” or “divine” in primary human socieities is directly associated with the transcendent source of reality (cosmogonic power) in the creation myths of all cultures.

    (a) this includes the idea that the divine is the ultimate origin of all things, but the later idea of creation ex nihilo is a more radical extension of the basic cosmogenic idea;

    (b) but it also includes the idea of the divine power as the ultimate owner, possessor, and thus destining power in reality: all rightful authority or sovereignty originates with the divine.

  • These two features correspond to what Rudolph Otto called the divine as “mysterium tremendum,” the sacred as both absolute power and awe-inspiring determiner of fate.

  • It is a later development of the “axial turn” in human history (800 – 300 BCE) that the divine is conceived as ethically good, or as The Good (Plato), the origin of all value and model for all justice in human affairs.

  • In western culture, this ethical turn is cotemporal with the emergence of monotheism among the Jews and Greeks.


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The Archaic Sacred as “Wierd” in northern European Mythology

The “Wierd” (which we find in Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poems such as “the Wanderer,” and in norse mythology) means roughly fate or destiny.

It is the divine reality that stands behind the gods, the because the source of reality is the ultimate owner and controller of all things, which is uncontrollable by human beings: God is the unappropriable appropriator of Being itself.

It is represented by mythic symbols such as dragons, sacred trees, and three Fates (Norns) (e.g. Shakespeare’s three “weird sisters” in MacBeth).

It is the law that prevents misappropriation of divine right from prevailing.


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The Archaic Conception of the Profane Mythology

Likewise in archaic mythology, the “profane” is the opposite of the sacred because it attempts to misappropriate divine authority by owning or dominating free beings and destroying the order set up in creation.

  • Thus the “profane” is chaos that prevents the order on which life depends

  • The profane is represented by images of death, decay, rigid mechanism or iron necessity (e.g. the Death Star in the Star Wars saga)

  • It is in northern European mythology, it is represented by monsters such as the dragon and the other monsters in Beowulf.

  • Will this original sense of the profane be preserved in new film versions?


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The Axial Conception of Maximal Perfection: Plato, Augustine, and St. Anselm

The archaic conception of norse mythology, and the very different “Lord of Hosts” in the Torah, both contrast with the “God of Philosophers” in Greek and Christian thought.

Perfect Being Theology in the western traditions (a brief summary)

  • God as maximally great, or perfect in the static sense, having greatest consistent set of properties that add to metaphysical value in a being (including freedom?)

  • Necessary existence: God exists necessarily rather than contingently (Anselm)

  • Omnipotence (maximal power, e.g. in God’s role as creator or cosmogonic divinity)

  • Omniscience (maximal knowledge, including knowledge of the whole future)

  • Omnipresence (the divine is present everywhere, at all times, keeping things in being)

  • Eternality (God is absolutely unchanging, and hence above or outside of time)

  • Impassibility (God cannot be moved or desire, since motivation implies change)

  • Simplicity (God has no parts, is absolutely unified, since God is not generated)

  • First cause/First mover: God is not only the cause of the existence of all contingent beings, but also their final end or natural goal (what they really seek or desire)

  • Aseity: God exists absolutely from God’s self (absolute independence and originality)

  • Maximal goodness (“omnibenevolence”): God is the ultimate standard of goodness, the source of all value; to be united with God is our ultimate happiness or blessedness.


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Plato’s argument in Augustine, and St. AnselmRepublic II

  • God is perfect [definition of divinity]

  • If God changes, he changes for the better or worse [change is assumed to be alteration in a value-property]

  • If God were to change for the worse, he would be imperfect

  • If God changes for the better, then he improved [from the definition of improvement]

  • If something X improves from state A to state B, then X was imperfect in state A, or lacking a valuable property [intuitive truth?]

  • Hence, if God changes for the better, he was not always perfect [from 4, 5, Hypothetical syllogism]

  • Hence, if God changes either way, he was imperfect perfect before he changed [from 2, 3, and 6 by Disjunctive Syllogism]

  • Hence God does not change [1, 7 by Modus Tollens]

In other words, since we start from the concept of God as perfect, this concept implies that God cannot change: any change in him would imply imperfection: “Obviously a perfect being cannot get better. Nor can he get worse since He’d be corruptible now if He could….God cannot gain a new property or perform a new action without that property or action adding to His goodness as a being or agent” (Katherine Rogers, “Anselmian Eternalism,” Faith and Philosophy 24 no. 1 (January, 2007): 2-27, p.10)


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Difficulties with the Standard Anselmian Model of divine attributes in ‘natural theology’

  • Divine agapē or creative love: if God is impassible, how can God love his/her creation, or feel and compassion or benevolence towards us?

  • Motivation: more generally, strong divine impassibility seems to follow from Plato’s idea that all motivation is erosiac in form, a lack seeking completion. Since God is complete and needs nothing, God cannot be motivated to act at all.

  • Creativity: but if he/she is without motives, then why would God create a universe of contingent beings? (Note that we do not have to think that we can guess God’s plans or reasons for creating the world to judge that a being who could not be motivated to create, or to love his/her creation, is not perfect – not God – after all).

  • Biblical portrayal of God: western monotheistic religions (Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam) portray God as reacting to the created order and even as passionate.

  • Free will: If the freedom that created mortal persons (e.g. human beings) require to be responsible for their character and actions involves the liberty to make alternate choices, this seems to be incompatible with divine foreknowledge of our future choices, and with total divine predetermination or providential control.

  • Soteriology and Eschatological Hope: the standard Anselmian model does not seem to include the most distinctive attribute of God according to monotheistic religions after the axial turn, namely God’s power to save created persons from spiritual lostness, or to bring about an ethically perfect state of being in the “hereafter.”


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Sources for an alternative existential conception of God (or divine attributes)

Søren Kierkegaard Martin Buber Emmanuel Levinas Mircea Eliade Danish existentialist Jewish existentialist Jewish alterity ethicist German mythographer

Charles Hartshore, Process Theologian

William Hasker, Philosopher of Religion, defender of “open theism”


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The Process Concept of Perfection divine attributes)

From the Process Theology of Hartshorne (inspired by Whitehead) the existential model takes a basic alternative to the static conception of perfection that is the keystone of the standard Anselmian model.

  • Perfection is maximal, endless, infinite development, qualitative enrichment, growth in richness (unity within diversity) through relationship

  • Superabundance: the most perfect being creates out of pure generosity, not to satisfy any need or lack in itself, but thereby grows richer through relationship with lower orders of being (contingent, created reality)

  • Panentheism: the perfect being transcends its creation (is not identical with it) but is also immanent within it.

  • Higher Time: this kind of perfection implies a series of successive stages, with an asymmetry that is something like the difference between past and future as we know it. This is not created (physical) time, but an uncreated temporal series that is part of the divine being itself (compare Heidegger).


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God as Personal Being & Agapic Love divine attributes)

The process concept of perfection fits well with the idea emphasized by the biblical traditions and religious existentialists that God is the Ultimate Person, rather than an abstract principle like Plato’s “Form of the Good” or a maximal combination of value-properties.

  • Agapē. Kierkegaard follows several church fathers in emphasizing the idea that faith is a relation with a personal God, a being of perfect love who in turn commands and makes possible agapic love between human beings.

  • Ultimate ‘Thou’ (Du): In his famous book, I and Thou, Buber argues that persons can be directly present to one another in their uniqueness and independence as persons (which he calls the “I-Thou” relationship, as opposed to the “I-It” relation). For Buber, God is the person who makes possible all interhuman I-Thou encounters, and who is the ultimate Thou, always offering encounter, direct mind-mind contact.

  • Alterity: Emmanuel Levinas follows Buber but argues that the relationship of moral obligation is more aymmetrical: we are called to responsibility by the “Face” of the other person, or what he calls their “alterity” (otherness, independence). He relates alterity in this sense to creation ex nihilo.


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God’s Relation to Human Persons & the World divine attributes)

The Levinasian idea of Alterity and Open Theism’s emphasis on divine personhood provide a way of applying the process conception of perfection to the relation between God, created persons, and the natural world.

  • Alterogenesis: A crucial divine attribute suppressed in the Anselmian model is that God is the only being capable of creating alterity: our fabrications remain our possessions, but God is capable of creating beings with an independence or aseity like God’s own: free human beings can face, choose relation with God, or even reject God to the end.

  • Imago dei: human alterity involves our free will and is a reflection of divine freedom, personhood, and capacity for agapic ‘going out of oneself’ towards alterity: like God, we grow through relationship with alterity – though what is strange to us, uncontrolled by us.

  • Subcreation(Tolkien’s term): human beings are like God in being capable of free creativity, which is the essence of authentic artwork – that is, creating beauty and value for its own sake, for its pure wonder, rather than for material gain or self-completion. (Consider chidren’s art)

  • No absolute human autonomy: But unlike God, we do not create primary reality or alterity itself; our works are made possible by the powers and the materials we have been given. Thus we cannot claim absolute ownership over our works, or absolute sovereignty over ourselves: God is the being from whom our ethical authority derives (see God as ‘Wierd’)

  • Natural Law: perhaps a universe run by natural law that cannot be constantly violated without destroying its order (on which the moral significance of human choices depends), has its own kind of alterity.


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Kierkegaard on Eschatological Faith divine attributes)

Finally, in his most famous book, titled Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard (though a pseudonym) argues that the distinguishing mark of religious faith is found in Abraham’s trust that God will ensure the promised ethical outcome – that Isaac live to father a great nation – despite the obstacle constituted by the demand to sacrifice him (or “by virtue of the absurd”).

  • Using this case as a model, we may generalize that “eschatological possibilities” are final realizations of a promised or revealed ethical ideal that cannot be achieved by human striving: it is only by divine power or miracle.

  • “God” or the divine, as the object of religious faith, is then properly understood as the personal source of eschatological promises and eschatological possibilities. God is not only creator, but finisher, Alpha and Omega.


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Open Theism and limited divine foreknowledge divine attributes)

The Risk-Taker version of the Free Will Defense for Moral Evil (and perhaps natural evil too)

1. Divine foreknowledge of future choices (“simple foreknowledge”) are incompatible with leeway libertarian freedom and thus with moral responsibility.

(A) Omniscient foreknowledge that I will vote for the democratic candidate in 2008 makes it temporally impossible that I will choose to vote for the republican candidate instead (this is like the necessity of the past, which not even God can change on standard western theism).

(b) Omniscient divine knowledge of what (to us) are choices still to be made in the future make these choices inevitable in a similar fashion, removing human freedom.

  • Divine preordination of future choices (through directive contrastive influence to choose option D over R, or through pre-selection of possible persons by knowledge of so-called Molinist counterfactuals (about what they would choose to do if created) is incompatible with real human power to choose otherwise.

  • But human moral agency (responsibility for one’s self, character, and actions) is a crucial value in the world; according to the alterity thesis, it is one of God’s central purposes for creating the universe that it include agents with a freedom that is an image of His/Her own.

  • Therefore God is incapable of being both maximally good, omniscient about the future, and governing by total providential predesign: rather, it is part of divine perfection to take the risk that free mortal persons will use their moral freedom to sin or make evil choices, thus leading to moral evil.

  • If human moral freedom requires a law-governed universe that nevertheless includes indeterminism, then to create moral agents, God must also take the risk involved in creating such a universe, making natural evils of various kinds possible.


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Conclusion: Should we believe in God, divine attributes) as conceived on the new existential model

Results of our Analysis

  • The new existential picture synthesizes what was most insightful in the older archaic models emphasizing cosmogonic power and the divine as absolute unappropriable appropriator

  • Through the process conception of perfection, it shows that other elements of the existential model cohere well together: God as absolute person and perfect love is not impassible but capable of self-motivation in creating persons and worlds, and God’s attributes include not only God’s cosmogonic role as the beginning or source of all things, but also God’s eschatological role as the finisher and perfector of the world (which is so vital for direct human relationship to God as savior or source of self-transcendence).

  • These elements in turn fit with the notion of God’s being as essentially temporal or processive: God is not the same before creating the world, during the history of our universe, and in the Hereafter (the “new heaven and the new earth”). So we have at least three stages of higher or divine time.

  • Finally, the new existential model makes possible more believable answers to the problem of evil (the hardest challenge to western monothestic conceptions of God in any form).


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