Our friend Bruce Charlton has recently devoted several posts (they are all worth reading, but see especially here) to arguing that the tenets of classical theism can be bad for the faith of ordinary Christians. He claims (and who could really deny it?) that discussions of the divine attributes are opaque and abstract, while the Christian faith should be accessible to simple folk and children. He also claims that philosophical theists have insuperable problems squaring an omnipotent being’s benevolence with the world as we see it. In contrast, Bruce proposes a limited God, neither omnipotent nor omniscient, part of the world rather than above it, who is too weak to remove evil from the world and is thus not responsible for it.
It is no unhealthy thing for natural theology to be called upon from time to time to justify itself to those who recognize that communion with God is the only ultimate good. This is a good thing for traditionalists “in good standing” to be discussing. Nevertheless, I think Bruce has misjudged the classical doctrine of God, whose purpose is not to confound the faith of simple folk but to justify it.
Does one need to know that God’s essence is His existence in order to get to heaven? Does one need to know that He is atemporal, or that His causal influence takes place on a different order than that of creatures? No, certainly not. We may hope that millions of illiterate peasants have ascended to the company of angels without troubling themselves with any such matters. They believed in God and trusted in His Son. Neither God nor His representative on Earth ask any more.
In what does this simple faith consist? For a simple, spontaneous faith, it is better to speak of a general attitudes than of articulated beliefs. One sign of a proper relationship to God is gratitude. The pious man is grateful to God for every good thing he enjoys, whether it comes to him in an obviously miraculous way or through ordinary means, meaning he senses that the natural order itself and even his own efforts within it are ultimately gifts from God. The pious man also feels contrition for his sins; he asks forgiveness of God as if God were Himself the primary wronged party in any moral transgression. God is for him the face of the moral law. Conscience is His voice, and guilt is an echo of His wrath. While he may not use the word “omniscient”, he knows that no wrongdoing escapes God’s notice, and no ignorance of circumstance ever makes His judgments incorrect. Not least, the pious man feels awe, reverence, fear of the Lord. He does not regard God as a being who can be for any purposes set on a level with others. God is not one interested party whose voice might conceivably be outweighed by others’. He cannot be indebted to anyone else; no one could have a claim on Him. His presence defines the world’s center and high point.
I claim that, if God is a limited being inside the world, these attitudes are unjustified. If matter exists and acts independently of God, then He deserves no thanks when we, though our own effort, bend it to serve our purposes. If you say that creatures acting without divine coercion only do evil, I would ask you what evidence you have to hold such a low opinion of them. And in any case, why should we be thankful to God for tyrannizing over creation so as to make it act entirely against its own inclinations? If God is just another being, then morality doesn’t essentially have anything to do with Him. The Euthyphro dilemma cannot be unthought, and if God is in the world, that is the only sensible solution. If you wrong someone, apologize to that person, but God should have nothing to complain about. Why should His voice always carry the day anyway? Just because He’s stronger? In order to absolve Him of all charges of negligence against us, He must not be very much stronger. Perhaps with a concerted effort, we could end His despotism. But He is a loving Father, you will say? Well, I already have a loving father, and I don’t feel the need for a second one. And anyway, if the universe has some sort of independent existence, why posit the existence of God at all?
In other words, rejecting the God of theism leads by a short road to atheism. Does this contradict what I said above about natural theology not being needed to get into heaven? Not at all. No one is obliged to start thinking about how God is related to creation and to morality. But if you do start asking these questions, you will probably end up either accepting something like the theistic God, in which case the simple faith with which you begin will have been vindicated, or you will conclude that your simple piety was an error in reasoning. Even those theistic personalists who think they have a viable alternative to classical theism should acknowledge the value of theism in avoiding the latter calamity.
The man who accepts God as pure Act, as subsistent Being, Truth, and Goodness will see that the peasant’s attitude was entirely proper. God is the sole ultimate creator, sustainer, and goal of all that exists. Their existence is a participation in His act of being; they are ultimately intelligible only by reference to Him. Just as the moon only shines by reflecting the light of the sun, and its spectrum only differs from the sun’s by not reflecting perfectly, so our existence is nothing but a reflection of Him, and our perfection is to reflect Him more perfectly. The theist cannot separate his love of neighbor from his love of God, because being a fellow participant in God is the ultimate truth about his neighbor.
Classical theism also gives the correct response to the question of how God could allow evil in the world. It is the same response given by simple persons and by sacred scripture. The answer is this: “How dare you presume to ask the Lord to justify Himself to you, you pitiful, impudent worm? If He wishes to prepare vessels of wrath for destruction, what is that to you? Pray that you are not one of them! Where were you when He laid the foundations of the world?How can you imagine that you know anything about His plans?”