The question is not idle. The structures of Western modernity have been built on one, in my view untenable, answer to it. Insofar as modern Western technology and political assumptions have been exported around the world, it is a question which affects both the history and future direction of the whole world.
It has, very broadly, two answers. One is that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Let’s call this Type 1. The other, Type 2, is that God is a being: the Supreme Being, but nonetheless, a being. Either account might be argued on the basis of Scripture. Whether the accounts are compatible is another question.
The first is God as the reality in which we participate, as both the source and ultimate destination of all things. The second is God as a separate element within a shared reality, ultimately other to and in opposition to all other things. The relationship between creator and created in the first instance is one of participation, of beings within the source of Being; in the second, one of opposition, of beings in alterity to another being. Ironically, it is the radical differentiation between beings and the source of Being in Type 1 which allows interpenetrability, the participation of beings within that which transcends them; while if, as in Type 2, we put God and creatures within the same category of “being,” we define God as an other instance of something we all have in common. The first conception allows for God’s simultanous transcendence of all things and immanent presence within all things; the latter makes both true transcendence and true immanence impossible.
The first is God from whom all things emanate as a natural outworking of his nature as life-giving, creative goodness, and whose will is not and cannot be other than his nature. The second is a God who creates by sheer act of will. In the former case, what is good, true and beautiful is what is in conformity with the divine nature; in the latter, the divine will defines what is good, true and beautiful. The relationship of the created order to the former God is one of continuity, and we can discern something (however dimly) of the nature of God in the the cosmos which derives from him; but to the latter God, it is one of obedience to divine command, whatever that command may be, and any continuity is limited to a continuity of will, that is, of submission of our will to the alien will of an ultimately discontinous entity. What God is remains entirely inscrutable except by direct, willed revelation. What God wants, which alone defines what is good, is something that we cannot discern by reason, but only by God’s direct command.
One might want to argue for a third possibility: that there is no kind of God at all, God as Napoleon’s “unnecessary hypothesis.” But I would aver that this is only a variation of Type 2, and really, insofar as it is a rejection, it is a rejection of Type 2 only. In fact, I would go further, and say that the consequences of Type 2 theism and the atheism which derives from it are barely distinguishable. Both conceive reality as a collection of discontiguous, atomised entities, among which any universal categories and any sense of harmony or continuity are real only insofar as they are successfully imposed by the dominant will. Whether that is the will of the state, the people, the intellectuals or of God is a matter of detail, not of substance, because in either case, God is only one hypothetical being among many. The picture is the same.
Type 1 is quite different. Type 1 is not a hypothetical being, but a hypothesis about the nature of reality (or Being). So, an atheist rejection of Type 1 has to proceed along very different lines: either by arguing that there is no such thing as “reality” or “Being,” or that God (however construed) in an inadequate or false depiction of whatever in fact constitutes reality. In this latter scenario, the atheist and theist have at least a common point of discussion, because neither disputes the existence of reality, but rather, disputes the nature of what that reality is. The complete rejection of reality as a meaningful point of discussion is harder, but possibly more fruitful, as the atheist and theist alike may reach the conclusion that terms like “existence” and “non-existence” are tools too blunt for the task – but it remains that they are still fellow-workers on a shared intellectual task. The Type 1 theist and the Type 1 atheist may find they have more in common than they initially expect. For example, Buddhists who style themselves atheists would be of this typology. They have more in common with the Type 1 theist than with the Type 2 atheist.
In contrast, despite the shared consequences of the Type 2 theist and his cultured despisers – disenchantment, or the erasure of the spiritual from the material realm – the arguments between them become mutually incomprehensible and irreconcileable, simply because neither has recourse to anything more than fideism: the undemonstrable conviction that such-and-such a being does or not exist, and should or should not be obeyed.
I think it is clear by now that belief in the Type 2 God is the one I find untenable, and I have darkly alluded to its consequences, which I find indistinguishable from those of its concomitant and perhaps inevitable atheist rejection. Let me elaborate on what those consequences are. They are both theological and political, but from the outset, I would warn those who are uninterested in theology that these are inseparable, and that the historic theological consequences of turning from Type 1 God to Type 2 have yielded concomitant political consequences which persist to this day and have been exported throughout the world.
The theological consequences can be summed up as a rejection of the sacramental life of the Church, though it took several centuries for the implications of that to unfold. In brief, the Type 1 insistence that all things participate in God led to a high view of the material world, including the human body. Though this participatory outlook can be found in non-Christian and even pagan religion and philosophy, it is most evident in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, where the Word of reason of God which orders all things is made flesh in the person of Christ. Christ founds the Church by the institution of the Eucharist, which brings the produce of creation – bread, wine and all the elements which go up to make it, including the forces of nature and work of human hands – to the altar for participation in his self-offering on the Cross. This realises in time and space the outpouring of creation from the creator, and its return to him. God’s self-offering to God through the Church effects, or more properly simply is, the realisation of participation of all things in God for the sake of all things. The bread and wine are not destroyed or replaced by God’s will, but perfected into divine food consonant with the divine nature; the human celebrants in the visible Church are perfected into the Body of the perfect God-human, Christ; and the Church itself is not merely a body of willing individuals, but the prototype and culmination of the entire Cosmos perfected by union with God. Visible things mediate the invisible. The Mass sanctifies the entire cosmos as a theophany, a self-revelation of the self-giving and self-empyting Crucified God.
It is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile this sacramental view of reality with the Type 2 God. The cosmos cannot participate in God, because God is in a sense external to it, as a fellow but separate instantiation of the overarching category of “being” or “existence.” At most, the adherent to the Type 2 God can see in created things the “brushstrokes of the artist” or “fingerprints of the potter.” There is no organic resemblance whatsoever. All that can be known of God is what God chooses to impart. It follows, then, that the sacraments cannot effect any participation in God other than the mental or imaginary – “messages from God” – and that insensible things like bread or stones (think of the debates around the use of church buildings) or even animals cannot have any part in this. They are merely things to be used to prompt the human to remember what God has told them, either verbally or in images which can be verbalised. “Do this in memory of me” becomes just a reminder. The Church becomes a group of individuals who happen to assent to this divine command. All reality other than the human mind (if such reality is even admitted) is shorn of any spiritual value. Its value is determined only by the dominant will. Needless to say, there is little room for poetry in this prosaic view of the world. It is a world in which everything can be expressed in binary code. Perhaps in our quest to develop artificial intelligence, the human mind is beginning to resemble that of its mechanical idols.
The political implications of the theological consequences I have just outlined lead all the way back to Eden, and toGod’s gift of “dominion” over the garden to Adam. His name simply means “human,” and who mythically represents humanity, but there is no further need to get into Hebrew etymology. The two types I have outlined are enough to make sense of the difference. For the Type 1 theist, for whom everything in the cosmos is a refraction of the one divine light, the human role is to care for, tend and nurture creation. Whether mineral, plant or animal, nothing is without higher significance. But for the Type 2 theist, for whom the will and mind are all, the material realm has no such higher meaning. For the likes of Francis Bacon and other children of the Enlightenment, dominion comes to mean domination. The natural environment, plants, animals and other people are not suffused with any higher meaning or value at all. Their value and meaning is whatever the strongest will asserts. Slavery, mass slaughter of animals for consumption, deforestation, any kind of technological advance, including nuclear weaponry and abortion, all become permissible if the sanction of the highest will can be argued in favour. Nothing has intrinsic value or meaning; its value and meaning is reduced to that which is bequeathed on it by the supreme, which is to say the most powerful being. An means are justifiable in obedience to that being’s will. If that being is God, and his will can be known only by reference to a book, then the interpreters of that book wield great power. When their power diminishes or is violently overthrown, a rival power replaces it, whether the power of the proletariat, prince or president.
By way of conclusion, let us name these two positions which I have so far labelled Types 1 and 2, starting with the second, as it seems, alas, to be the more common: it is the “nominalist” conception of reality. Briefly defined, nominalism, derived from nomen, the Latin word for “name,” is the position that there are no extra-mental abstract realities. Ockham’s razor sliced away the hypothetical existence of any universal categories except as maps imposed by minds on what are, in reality, completely individual things. We see things that look similar to us and name them as such, but in reality, there is only difference. There is therefore no such thing as being, but only discrete beings. Hence the correlation with the theism of the second type: for how could God be Being itself, or even the source of Being, if there is no such thing as Being? While he is in this view source of all other beings, and infinitely greater than all other beings, he remains himself a being. But by extension, if there are no such overarching categories as “being,” no universals, there is really no such thing as humanity outside the human mind, but only individual humans; no such thing as society, only individuals; no such thing as man or woman, only individual people with certain perceived common characteristics. The political capital of this in modern identity politics is obvious enough. While this worldview may seem commonsensical to moderns who have been raised in it, it does leave the puzzling question of what physical laws are, and especially the numbers on which they depend, if numbers do not really exist but are only part of the collective conceptual map of individual human minds. Remove God from this picture, and you are left arguing that reason derives from a source which is itself irrational.
The other and older Type 1 theism I would term “Platonic,” in the broadest sense of the term, because Platonism is essentially the philosophy of anti-nominalism. Notwithstanding the varieties of Platonism, the defence of the reality of abstract realities outside the human mind, and a pre-mental, contemplative source of those realities called variously the One, the Good and Beyond-being is the kernel of this philosophy. For the first twelve centuries of Christianity, there was little doubt that this philosophy was consistent with Scripture, and particularly with God’s self-revelation to Moses from the burning bush as “I AM WHO I AM,” that is, as Being as such rather than any mere being. Within the tradition, including among Christian Platonists, there are differences of definition, and I go into these in detail in my book, The Lost Way to the Good, in which I argue for commonalities between Christian, Jewish and Muslim Platonist metaphysics with Buddhist philosophy, in the hope that the ancient religions can stand more strongly together against the destabilising influence of nominalism on the world today. What I have said here can be taken as a primer before reading the book.
For fear of misunderstanding, we should note that these two theisms do not map neatly onto the Catholic-Protestant divide. The first nominalists were pre-Reformation Catholics, though the destabilising influence of their thought on the sacramental system of the Church was one precursor to the Reformation. It can be argued that Calvin is best understood from within the intellectual framework of Catholic scholastic theology. Yet not all Protestants are Calvinists. While both Rome and Calvinists wrestled for centuries with the inheritance of Aristotle (as mediated by Avicenna and Aquinas), Anglican theologians, poets and writers as diverse as the Elizabethan and Caroline divines, the Cambridge Platonists, the Tractarians and the Inklings maintained a more patristic and hence more Platonic outlook, in common with the Eastern Orthodox churches. Platonic theism is, in my view, the more truly Catholic, but at least within the Western Church, the division between Platonism and nominalism crosses confessional lines. As I show in my book, something very similar can be said for Islam. There are similar sorts of intra-confessional debate going on there, and to a lesser extent, in the Buddhist world as well.
Nominalist theology diminishes the Church and the world. It exchanges the pursuit of harmony for the pursuit of power. Given that the culmination of divine revelation is the Crucifixion, the pursuit of such power is clearly ungodly by any Christian measure: but the deeper crux of the problem is metaphysical before it is scriptural. Our questions of interpretation of Scripture, of the presence of Christ in the Church and the Sacraments, and of the moral life are like houses built on sand unless we start with the question of what God is. There is no middle way. The answer leads to a view of the world either as theophany or warzone.