thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Fabulously absolute #1

with 3 comments

Readers of this blog will be aware of its fascination (did I hear obsession?) with all things religious, combined with an aversion to most of them.

Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center

Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center

To bring this down to earth I should say that at least one reason for being so anti is the immense material impact religion has on people’s lives. Suicide bombers, 9/11 and the hidden sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church are not angels on the head of a pin.

Yes religion can also have a positive spin-off. Yes if a benevolent God were to eradicate religion overnight and leave everything else unchanged we would not wake up in utopia. But we would need to be eyeless in Gaza and a few other places besides to see religion as always the innocent party.

Over the last few weeks I have been involved in correspondence on Tony Equale’s Blog, particularly on a series of articles arguing The Case for “Materialism”. It has helped clarify a particular problem I think I have always had with the concept of God.

It is not so much a problem with God’s existence or non-existence. It is more to do with belief in God as a choice or assumption someone can make who may be unmoved either way by arguments as to the existence or non-existence of God.

Some people just ‘know’ there is a God. Carl Gustav Jung for example: ‘I don’t need to believe, I know.’

Others see belief in God as an intrinsically good thing – or as something intrinsically good if approached in the right way – whether that God exists or not. I have some sympathy with this view, although I cannot say I share it.

My question for today is what this God represents.

And that is where it gets tricky. Try to describe what people appear to believe and theology gets all Prufrock on you: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. But what the hell.

I hope it’s not too controversial to say that whatever other features they have, most people’s concepts of God include the idea of ‘absoluteness’. Nothing is greater than God in at least one respect. God is without equal. God is sovereign. If God has a sphere, he, she or it is the greatest in that sphere. Or, more likely, God has no sphere; or God is the sphere; or there are no spheres. God is absolute goodness and/or absolute perfection and/or the absolute cause or ground of what is. Or God just is the Absolute.

But when we ask ‘absolute what?’ we get some different answers.

William Blake: The Ancient of Days

William Blake: The Ancient of Days

If God is in any way related to what ‘is’, then there is some kind of ‘metaphysical’ component to the concept of God. I’ve put ‘metaphysical’ in quotes to mean something very broad. It could include science – for believers whose God had a hand in creating the physical universe. For other believers God is more the ‘ground of being’: the reason why there is something rather than nothing. All these concepts and claims I put under the ‘metaphysical’ heading – without implying I either understand or do not understand them. The point is not just that there can be a metaphysical component to the concept of God, but that if God has a metaphysical side, God’s absoluteness is some kind of metaphysical absoluteness.

Another aspect of God is to do with ethics. God is love, or God is the sovereign lawmaker. Or God is goodness or the source of goodness. Or God is somehow linked to our aspirations to goodness. Or God is our reward if we are good. Again I am not implying I understand or do not understand these claims, or that they are consistent or inconsistent. All that matters for now is that they belong under the heading ‘ethical’. And again the ethical and the absolute are related. God is absolute goodness, absolute love, the absolute sovereign lawmaker and so on.

We now have four logical choices.

The first we can probably discount but I’ll include it for completeness. It is to have a God which is neither metaphysical nor ethical. Some of the Norse or Olympian Gods may have been of this kind. There may be religions with such Gods in the world today, but they must be a niche market. Gods who drive pilots into skyscrapers and terrify raped children into silence are something mightier. Gods who are neither metaphysical nor ethical are also unlikely to be absolute, so they are not relevant to today’s discussion – or to much else either.

The second is to have a God which is purely metaphysical. This God would be eg the (absolute) creator of the universe and/or the (absolute) source or ground of being. Nothing else is the absolute ground of being, and there is no other being which could have a different ground. Or the metaphysical God is (absolute) being itself – but would not be the source of goodness as distinct from evil. Maybe there is no such thing as goodness. Perhaps what we think of as goodness is purely subjective or illusory. Or the metaphysical God, being the source or ground or identity of all that is, is the creator or source of both good and evil. The important point is that a purely metaphysical God is not especially ‘good’.

Which brings us to the third choice, that of a purely ethical God. This is the the (absolute) sovereign lawgiver or (absolute) source or ground of goodness and what is right – but not of evil. This God is (absolutely) good by definition, and is the reason why there is goodness and justice in the universe. Also by definition this God did not create (or is/was not the source or ground of) the entire universe or the whole of being because evil does exist and this God is no part of that.

The fourth and last is the traditional absolute monotheistic God. This one is both metaphysical and ethical.

Remember we are only really talking of monotheistic Gods. If God is absolute, then there cannot be another one. So the absolute but purely metaphysical God should not have to contend with another absolute but purely ethical God. If the absolute but purely metaphysical God is the only God, then ethics is something else. It may be just the clash or aggregate of human opinion or political power. Or just an illusion. There is only nature red in tooth and claw.

Similarly, an absolute but purely ethical God should not have to contend with another absolute but purely metaphysical God. Being, the universe, reality – these are not God’s (or a God’s) domain. They just are.

It should be clear by now why there is such a temptation to see God as falling in the fourth category. If our God is both monotheistic and absolute then God is almost by definition the combined metaphysical and ethical supremo. The ethical-plus-metaphysical God is absolute on both counts.

Enough for now. To be continued…

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

3 July 2010 at 10:40 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Thank you, Chris. And of course I will wait. In fact, I’ve finally accepted that I cannot dash through a philosophical discussion on subjects that are new to me and still hope to understand what I’m reading. So slower is usually faster for me.

    An example is the point you have been making throughout your blog and much of your discussion on Tony Eguale’s blog: a suspicion of an absolute concept of god. For years I have become immediately suspicious of almost any sentence beginning with “always,” or “never.”

    But I didn’t fully appreciate why you have difficulty with an absolute god until now.



    10 July 2010 at 9:40 pm

  2. Chris –

    It is, as usual, an absolute delight to read your blog. I never come away from it without thinking. I’m very much looking forward to reading your next posts on the subject.

    By coincidence, I posted thoughts on my own blog about the different needs we are trying to meet using various constructs of “god”. My definitions of god are a great deal less informed than yours, which makes me wish I’d read your post before writing my own.

    For now, I’m trying to understand why an absolute metaphysical and absolute ethical god cannot be one and the same. Are you saying it’s because an absolute metaphysical god must necessarily include both “good” and “evil,” while an absolute ethical god could not include the evil we see in the world?

    If so, what about the Buddhist position that does not see evil as “substantive” (sic!), but merely as incompleteness, which we, in our ignorance, misinterpret as evil or sinfulness?

    Now off to catch up on Tony Equale’s blog now that I’m home.



    4 July 2010 at 8:48 pm

    • Thanks again Terry.

      As on previous topics I think it’s going to take me a while to get to the point!

      But I’m not saying an absolute metaphysical and absolute ethical god cannot be one and the same. So far all I’m doing is separating four conceptual categories of (absolute) god – one of which is a god which is both metaphysical and ethical.

      What I hope to go on to argue is that the concept of an absolute metaphysical and absolute ethical god is not a good one to have – ie it’s a dangerous concept to have.

      So yes I am saying that an absolute metaphysical (but not absolute ethical) god must either have nothing to do with ethics or must necessarily include or accommodate both good and evil. And that an absolute ethical (but not absolute metaphysical) god could not allow or condone the evil in the world. But because this kind of god has no ‘metaphysical’ dimension (in my broad sense of ‘metaphysical’) there is no theological ‘problem of evil’.

      As far as the Buddhist position is concerned, can I leave that until I get further with the series? It may or may not be relevant to the argument – which is primarily about the ethics of entertaining different categories of god…

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      10 July 2010 at 10:00 am

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