October 15, 2009

Thoughts for 10.15.09

The Blogosphere as Schul
It seems to me that much of our discussion, on a number of topics, has taken on an almost Talmudic quality, in which any given thesis or concept is surrounded by a halo of commentary and commentary on commentary — much of it in the interlinked realm of the Internet rather than the printed page. In the midst of this sometimes polemical but always expanding web of conversation, what are we to make of those who want a simple black-and-white up-or-down answer to the underlying question? Perhaps the best answer to the unanswerable is to hedge it about with every possibility, in the hope that a pattern might emerge?

Actus Purus
Think of God not only as Being Itself or the Ground of Being, but also as Potentiality Itself; not as a Thing or even the Best Thing or even just the Source of all Things, but also the origin of even the Possibility of Thinginess. This gets us away from Nobodaddy and the God Rejected by Dawkins, but also and to an important extent even somewhat away from the God of Scholasticism. As with the former thought, this is also about hedging about the Unknown with the Merely Known.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


rick allen said...

I'm not sure, Toby, how this way of thinking about God gets us away from scholasticism, since the categories in which you frame the question are themselves the Aristotelian categories in which the scholastics operated, and against which so many of our Eastern Orthodox friends protest.

St. Thomas affirms God to be the "purus actus," but also affirms that "in Deo maxime sit potentia activa," in contrast to the passive infinite potentiality of creatures in whom God acts.

Seems to me that to identify God with that merely passive potentiality is to negate those positive attributions to the divine nature, such as (the perhaps most important one) "God is love," taking the apophatic theology beyond where it should go.

Perhaps you could get the atheists on board with the notion that God is that great "nihilo" out of which all things come, but I'm not sure that that gets them anywhere closer to the beatitudes.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Rick. Yes, I acknowledge I'm still using some of that Scholasitc language (though I'm trying to freshen it up a bit by saying "Thinginess" instead of "Reality." I think Thomas is close to what I'm suggesting (or vice versa) but I suppose the problem is still the extent to which the Realists thought in terms of God as Best Thing, and the limitation that some kind of reality must precede potentiality, and therefore God must be the ultimate Reality.

From my perspective, the best solution is that of Process Theology, which posits two Natures in God: the Primordial and the Actual. As you know, Process gets us away from "things" altogether in seeing all Reality (or Thinginess) as Processional -- with God as the sole absolute Actual Entity (agin with the special meanings Whitehead attaches to those words -- part of the problem in engaging with his way og thinking. It may well be that Aquinas was beginning to edge into this sort of understanding.

I would quibble slightly with a notion of "passive infinite potentiality" for creatures. I would argue that only God (in the primordial nature) has infinite potentiality, and that all creatures are finite even in potentiality, of if infinite, of a different order of infinity (as in, for example, there are an infinite number of points on a circle of circumference X, but a "larger" infinite number of points on a circle X+1. If, as someone said, God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere, that is the highest degree of infinity possible, or infinity raised to the power of infinity.

Finally, I don't think we find the Beatitudes in the "nihilo" except to the extent that the "nihilo" is what makes the Beatitudes possible. The "positive" act of God is the Love in action that allows the universe, or "that which is not God" to come to be -- what Jewish mysticism calls the gracious withdrawal of God, allowing something other than God to come into existence. That is not passive, but the ultimate action.

Getting folks like Dawkins to understand that is not the god he is opposed to takes some work. I don't know if we'll ever get him to the point of grasping the Incarnation -- but one has to start somewhere!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Oops... I should have said the two Natures in Process are Primordial and Consequent. (The terminology is arcane.)

rick allen said...

I once actually knew something about Whitehead--over thirty years ago I wrote an undergraduate thesis comparing his approach to metaphysics with Heidegger's--but memory and understanding fade, I fear, a reflection I seem to keep coming back to in my own little blog.

St. Thomas' account of God and his attributes has long been traditional in the West, for many Protestants as well as Catholics, but I recognize they don't have the dogmatic weight of, say, the Chalcedonian Christological definitions. Still, I think they remain the most adequate, in part because I'm not sure it's helpful to go back and keep re-hashing these things.

And I also recognize that this Thomistic notion of "pure act" and "infinite potential" to some extent breaks the rules of the Aristotelian categories, as indeed some of the dogmatic trinitarian definitions (three in one, fully God and man) break rules as well.

But, there's a passage in Dionysius, I don't have it with me, I was looking at it last week, where, after affirming the utter impossibility of making positive statements about God, he then goes on to say something to the effect that we therefore fall back on what revealed scripture says.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that, with all the logical difficulties of the scholastic way of talking about God's nature and attributes, to me it gives a better philosophical account of God, as understood from scripture, than the God-in-process-with-nature of Whitehead.

To put it another way, I think that Whitehead, a mathematician, after all, sets out a more consistent metaphysic than St. Thomas, but one that sacrifices a key element of our creedal inheritance, the creator, the pantokrator. His is an attractive image, and certainly stands as a corrective to God-the-angry-despot images--but I think in the end it costs too much.

(All for today, I'm afraid. I could only respond because I had to come home to get a bird out of the house.)

June Butler said...

I am Talmudic! Who knew? Not I!

I hope that someone is keeping track of the commentary. It could be of vital importance to Christians of the future.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Rick, speaking purely subjectively I find Whitehead's way of seeing to resonate more with Scripture and the mystical tradition than I do Aquinas. I believe they both have a place, and this may be a situation not unlike the two James's: the novelist who wrote like a psychologist and the psychologist who wrote like a novelist. Here we have the "mystic at heart" (as his "so much straw" comment suggests) trying to systematize everything, and the mathematician (who with Russell tried to plumb the depths of mathematics, and at least according to Gödel, failed) concocting a largely mystical world of potency and realization, more Platonic than Aristotelian.

In the long run these are all shouts in the dark; the good news being our trust that they are heard, and will be answered, by the One whom we seek.

Mimi, I believe it is all stored up in the Web Archive somewhere, even things deleted. Great GooglyMoogly!

Christopher (P.) said...

Tobias-- I very much like your post, but my mathematician friends tell me that, indeed, there are exactly the same number of points, "aleph-1," on the circumference of a circle of size X as there are on a circle of circumference of size X+1. They are both infinities of the same size!

I find it hard to think of humans being of infinite potential--wide, yes, but not infinite. But on the other hand, I don't know how my view squares with "with God, all things are possible," and wonder if my view is perhaps a bit too residual of the craftsman God of Plato, working with some rather difficult & sticky clay, rather than the creator God of Scripture.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Christopher P., I will trust to your mathematician friend, as my only real acquaintance with Cantor's Set Theory is having had a line in a play once referring to him. (It now occurs to me the character, a mathematician turned religious cult leader, may have been based on Whitehead -- the author, Stanislas Ignacy Witkiewicz, was familiar with Russell and Whitehead's work, and even referred to it in one of his plays.) All I could remember is that there is a hierarchy of infinites, in the aleph-series. I'll make a correction above.

As to the limitations on humans, in terms of finitude, I think one point is existence itself: that is, that one exists rather than not existing is a limitation. Though there is a greater openness in process thinking that if not infinite is at least more hopeful than an essentialist or realist (thing-oriented) view. As Teilhard said, "I am not the part of the universe I control in whole, but the whole of the universe I influence in part." or words to that effect. Every action taken by any entity sends our waves of influence upon other entities. For instance, even as you read these words (not an actual "thing" as ink on a page, but a pattern of phosphors constantly "refreshed" -- so do they "exist"? -- physical and chemical activities are taking place in your brain, and you will never be quite the same as before reading. Did I "cause" that? In some sense, yes, but there is so much more freedom involved -- including your freedom to have stopped reading before getting to this point, in which case, To whom am I writing?

Actually, I think the image of God as a craftsman working in clay is quite Scriptural!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Oops, just realized I can't make corrections to comments -- so my ignorance of Cantor will have to stand as is. Thanks, C.P. for the correction.

Another question, though, is whether the mathematical concept of infinity has relevance to the physical universe. Does space-time itself have a quantum character, and a point beyond which it cannot be divided, a quantum of distance? (OR rather, a length below which nothing can be known or observed.) I seem to recall that it does.

As related to the infinite points on a circle, or perhaps better, on a line AB, still, the line itself is of finite length. So an entity can be "infinite" and "finite" at the same time.

Marshall Scott said...

Is this where we get to the question of "How long is a string? And how long its wavelength?"

R said...

Call Brian Greene, but don't expect a theological response!

(Tobias, thank you for this solid food for thought!)

Christopher (P.) said...

Re: the clay and potter--yes, even as I wrote it, I thought of that, in the prophetic books. The underlying question becomes then why is there imperfection in a world created ex nihilo by an all-powerful, all-good God? Framed that way, the question is becomes profoundly unsettling (see the book of Job). But as a metaphor for our growing life in the midst of things, and in the midst of God, it's a good one.