Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Maximality Test

This skeleton key helps us think about God, by telling us whether or not we are thinking about God in the first place, or about some lesser thing. The test presupposes that God, properly so called, can only be that being than whom there can be no other who is more worthy of worship: that he is the maximal being, the ultimate being. In helping us think about God, the Maximality Test shapes and directs, informs, orders and corrects our worship, our responses to our world, and thus our culture.

To run the Test on a particular notion about God is fairly simple: one merely asks whether another notion of God would make him nobler, greater, more perfect, or better, along any dimension of excellence, than the notion under test.

To take an extreme and so easy answer: which would be greater, along any dimension of excellence: a divine being who requires the sacrifice of millions of children, or a divine being who requires no such thing? The question answers itself. Take it a step further: along any dimension of excellence, which would be greater: a divine being who does not require the sacrifice of children, or a divine being who abhors it? Again, simple. In each of these examples, it is easy to see which notion indicates a thing unworthy of worship.

Alright then, let’s apply the Test to a trickier notion: which would be greater, along any dimension of excellence: a divine being who is one among many like him, or a divine being who is infinitely and categorically more powerful than all and any other beings there might be? Obviously, the latter.

Or try this: which would be greater, along any dimension of excellence: a divine being who had risen to divinity from humanity, such as the diligent among us shall do, or a divine being who is divine by his original nature? Again, obviously the latter.

It is apt to worry that the Test evaluates notions of God according to our human understandings of excellence, and so is bound to arrive at a more or less anthropomorphic notion of God. Fair enough; we must be careful about that, as theologians have warned for thousands of years. But in the first place, our human understandings are the only sort we can possibly employ in any event. And in the second, incomprehensibly great greatness is a notion often deployed in human thought – as of, e.g., infinities. We can denote infinity, but there is no way we can comprehend it completely. So it is routine for theologians and mystics to point out that while God is good, e.g., his perfect, maximal goodness is so much better than any goodness we can comprehend that it far outpasses our best understanding. An analogy might be light too bright to bear looking at: we can tell it is light, but we can’t take it in. Bearing that caveat in mind, we can avoid such categoreal confusions as thinking that God is larger than anything else in the same way that the solar system is larger than Earth, or that he is like a man that is magnified above all men, or the like.

Now, thinking properly about God is small beer compared to worshipping him, and a fortiori to apprehending him. But it does help us worship him accurately – in truth – and, so, in spirit. If on account of your errors of thought you are worshipping and serving some spirit who is less than God, you are in terrible risk of big trouble – as a person, and as a culture – for, to worship a being is to pledge fealty to him, of some sort; and by subjecting yourself to him, it is therefore to invite him to order you and your acts according to his lights. That can turn out badly.

Viz., the Aztecs and the Phoenicians. Their faulty notions of God shaped their horrible rituals, in which they immolated hundreds of thousands of people, and that motivated their neighbours to destroy them utterly, lest their vicious cults spread their pollution. I could adduce also in likewise the modern cult of abortion.

The spirits can’t come unless you call them. But when you call them, they do come. So, it is important to call upon the best spirit you can think of. And that is why it is important to think about God as well and as carefully as you can. The Maximality Test is a tool that can help with that.

27 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Maximality Test

  1. My impression is that your arguments leave-out the necessity of Jesus Christ (for Christians) – in that they would have applied much the same if Christ had not been, and not been who he was.

    The fact of Jesus’s incarnation and death *and resurrection* (i.e. eternally to retain a human body and form) – historically, as a Man; and (for instance) the ‘anthropomorphic’ way that Jesus discussed and spoke with his Father – makes a decisive difference to the Christian specifically.

    It is the difference between a God of philosophically- inferred attributes, and a God we might (and should) Know personally.

  2. I think our notion of worship has been debased by Hollywood depictions of savage obeisance to the Volcano God, and, truth be told, by some of our highly stylized first-hand experience. I’m not about to go Pentecostal on you, but I do think true worship should be moved by something like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Maybe I should call this natural or spontaneous worship since it is the astonishment we naturally feel in the presence of anything that is worthy of astonishment. Recognizing the danger of nature worship, I nevertheless think Wordsworth is describing natural worship when he says “my heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” We worship when we are, as more modern Englishmen say, gobsmacked.

    The moments of astonishment I have described are mere intimations of the absolute worship you discuss here, but I think you will agree that the sublime is a foretaste of God. I find the notion of maximality incomprehensible by nature. I’m using the word incomprehensible in its true (indeed worshipful) sense ungraspable, and not as a synonym for nonsensical. I might say that worship of God is like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, but more so; but I think a better way would be that it is like seeing the Grand Canyon forever with the same astonishment and gobsmacked wonder of the first time. This isn’t to take away from what you say here about God’s excellence, only to add the that once cannot grow blasé in the presence of God.

    • Agreed on all points – speaking as one who has participated the sublime both as a whitewater boatman in the Grand Canyon and as a Levite singing the sublime music of sublime liturgies in sublime cathedrals. I don’t think it is possible to tire of the sublime; it keeps getting deeper, higher, larger, more intense – and more comprehensive – the more you partake it. So yeah, I think you’ve nailed it. Whenever reckoned, the Presence is an occasion of supernatural dread and of joy.

      I would distinguish between the formal ritual motions of worship, the act of worship (which ritual is designed to prompt and enable), and the feeling of what it is like to enact worship. The awe we feel at the Grand Canyon or Ely Cathedral is the feeling of what it is like to enact worship; it arrives together with a healthy feeling of humility. You can’t feel awe without feeling a bit smaller than is usual.

      To worship is in its essence, I suggest, to recognize the sublime beauty, the overwhelming superiority (along some many dimensions of excellence), and thus the authority, of incomprehensible, immense vastness: and, so, to recognize and admit to subjection to that superiority. At its best, the formal ritual of worship, which intends and formally announces submission to that superior – to some lord, not just of stuff in general, but of your life – engenders the spiritual act of worship. Which feels terrific (in both senses of that word).

      But, of course, most formal ritual is merely formal, and therefore spiritually dry (albeit, not therefore necessarily spiritually inefficacious). It takes a certain degree of art on the part of all those involved for ritual to be effective in prompting the spiritual act of worship, so as to gobsmack them with the glory of the majesty of it all. This, in tight analogy to the way that it takes a certain degree of art to succeed at whitewater or polyphony. You must in all such arts maintain humble synthetic attention, and take care, even while you feel the overwhelming beauty and power of him to whom you have turned.

    • I do think true worship should be moved by something like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Maybe I should call this natural or spontaneous worship since it is the astonishment we naturally feel in the presence of anything that is worthy of astonishment.

      Just a sidenote tangent to the OP, but this is a very important point that I fear modernity has eroded away from us. Somewhere in the middle of Brooklyn, New York, is an absolutely beautiful church staffed by what I believe were Dominicans. The building itself moved me to tears, it was so beautiful and so unexpected. I felt what I imagine I would feel on seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time (I have not seen it yet, but it’s on the list don’t worry). Everything about worship ought to direct the mind and spirit to the transcendent.

      The parish I attend regularly in the heart of Northern Virginia I have (perhaps uncharitably) described as a bingo-hall with a crucifix in front. The architecture does nothing to give me a sense of the sublime and neither does the choir. Another parish nearby has a very confusing architectural style but at least closer to what I would hope for, but their choir is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard and has given me that sense of the sublime. Even a resolute modernist would have a hard time ignoring the sublime if the setting were as beautiful as that parish in Brooklyn, or the choir were as beautiful as that nearby parish here in Virginia. Rarely can we have it all, though.

      Everything about the liturgy–EVERYTHING–ought to be designed with the goal of turning the mind and spirit to the transcendent. Just because the architecture or choir are lacking doesn’t mean sublimity is impossible, just that it takes more effort on our part. We shouldn’t leave that to chance though.

      • Boy o boy, is that ever correct. Don’t get me started on modernist churches and lousy choirs. You’ll want to shoot me after a day or two of my whining. I just won’t go to an ugly liturgy in an ugly building. It’s like spray painting loathsome graffiti on the Pietà or David. It is an insult to the Most High. It is a scandal to the faithful. It would be a mercy for those who have propagated such abominations to be flung into the sea with millstones about their necks.

      • The Puritans rejected all visual aesthetic aids to worship, the effect being some of the most extraordinary verbal aesthetic aids known to man. If a cathedral is a sermon in stone, Milton’s Paradise Lost is a cathedral in words. I don’t mean to set you off, Kristor, but the musical and architectural decadence of the Catholic Church must have some spiritual significance. A sacramental theology would seem to require sacramentals that look like vehicles of grace, and not like something you might win at a carnival midway. Scoot’s church sounds typical. It’s a Puritan meeting house cluttered with “religious” bric-a-brac.

      • Doing my best over here to control my blood pressure. The wreckage wrought upon the majestic edifice of Christendom, established and elaborated over 1500 years – architectural, musical, liturgical, representational, symbolic, yes and theological, apologetic, and catechetical – by misguided worldly modernists trying to be relevant and contemporaneous and friendly to the inimical (rather than to them properly and sternly charitable) is immense. It is appalling to consider how many millions of souls were lost forever to Christ and to the heavens on account of the deep wide abandonment by all the churches – not just, but especially of late the Catholic Church – of the adornments of the faith.

        As Rodney Stark has definitively demonstrated, empirically, the easier a faith is to take on and to put into practice, the worse its life expectancy. The mainline Protestant churches had demonstrated this truth manifestly by the time Vatican II came along and tried to make Catholicism easier. The formerly predominant mainline Protestant churches are now all but gone; are dead letters. Meanwhile the Catholic Church – in the modernist sophistical West, anyway – having followed in their footsteps, is in big trouble.

        Except for the trad parishes and institutions. Those are doing great, in all the churches. They are the hardest.

        We may hope for a renascence, of the same sort that Newman and the Oxford Movement obtained for Anglicanism in the 19th Century, a florescence that did not decisively recede until the massive cultural insults of 1968. In traditionalist Catholicism – and in the Anglican Ordinariate – something of that sort is already well underway. The Pope’s assaults upon it do not seem to have undermined it; on the contrary. Deo gracias.

        Meanwhile, as to beauty: sacraments are an outward sign of an inward and invisible grace – or want thereof. Beastly ugly stupid liturgies are manifestations of want of grace.

        As for my present parish, where I am about to start singing again, here it is; my stall in the choir is over in the second row on the right, among the decani:

        Saint Dominics Church

      • Yeah, that’s what the undercroft is like in a traditional church building in America. With the caveat that the undercroft is usually set up – appropriately – for parish meetings and meals and Bible study groups. Sad.

        How could people be so stupid?

        They could have done something so much simpler, and so much less expensively, and it would have been so incomparably better:

        null

  3. My fear is that a misunderstanding of “greatness” vis a vis God would lead a well intended sheep astray.

    Take this: Which is greater, a God who punishes the sinful, or a God who is overflowing in mercy even to the sinful?

    This is perhaps a disingenuous phrasing of the problem but it seems to me it is a problem likely to occur. This phrasing creates a false dichotomy, of course, because God both punishes the sinful (in justice) and is likewise overflowing and abundant in mercy (via the sacrament of Reconciliation) yet a well intended sheep may seek to avoid contrition and penance in favor of a universalist theology, thinking that the greater God is the one which demands nothing from us.

    To my mind–such as it is–you need a guiding principle of Goodness to act like a rudder to the sail that is your Maximality test. A God who asks nothing of us and is abundant and overflowing in mercy would be maximally great (unending forbearance!), but would He be maximally good? Thus the God who punishes the sinful in perfect justice would be maximally great in power (with perfect discernment of our souls) and likewise maximally good (acting with perfect justice).

    • A crucial point. Presumably the Aztecs thought their gods maximally great, and the Carthaginians must have thought a god who demanded the sacrifice of their first born children was greater than a god who did not. Both Julian the Apostate and Nietzsche thought the God of the Christians a wan, pale, pathetic, weak thing, nowise worshipful. I had this consideration in mind when I wrote in response to Bruce’s comment that the Maximality Test is not by itself sufficient. Accurate standards of greatness – that are accurate in the sense that they pick out true qualities of greatness – are among the other things that are needed.

      Fortunately, it is possible to ascertain the true qualities of greatness by recourse to game theoretical truths which are both eternal and accessible to any sufficiently intelligent mind. One need not be a mathematician to gain access to game theoretical truths. The Gedanken Policy Test is an easy way to do it. Human sacrifice fails that Test. So a god who demands human sacrifice can’t be great.

    • Hah! Good question. Is sex a dimension of greatness? I doubt it. In some species the female sex is more powerful, bigger, or smarter. And females are definitely better at some things than males.

      When it is difficult to tell whether x is more excellent than y, it is probably because there is in play no dispositive dimension of excellence.

      • Plato tells us that sex is a privative property. To be female is to lack the characteristic properties of the male; to be male is to lack the characteristic properties of the female. Plato’s theory is that the eros of sex is driven by a desire for completion, or perfection, in conjugal union. His eros of philosophy is likewise driven by a consciousness of incomplete or imperfect knowledge. Sex is also privative property because it has an intrinsic relation to generation, and hence to mortality.

        If eros begins with consciousness of a lack, an infinitely great God obviously cannot know eros. Some have said that the incarnation gave God this knowledge, thus making him greater still. God the Father is at the same time unambiguously masculine. As we so often see among humans, not all males are masculine and not all masculine humans are males, so I suppose God the Father is masculine but not male. I can imagine feminine goddesses in a pantheon, but a feminine God strikes me as either ludicrous or horrible.

      • I was thinking more along the lines of creating and giving birth. Obviously, only males sire and only females give birth. Which is the greater act? I think most would say giving birth. So why is God a father and not a mother? There is a Hindu sect, Shaktism, that identifies the Brahman with the tripartite Goddess, pretty much for this reason. Of course, God is only masculine or feminine in relation to creation, as C.S. Lewis wrote, but, leaving revelation aside, is there a good reason to believe He’s masculine?

        Sorry for the mess of a comment. I’m doing the written version of thinking aloud.

      • There is good reason for thinking God is masculine, apart from revelation. Being eternal, the form of each contingent thing is logically prior to its material actuality, and is the necessary forecondition thereof. The matter of a thing – the potential that it could come actually to pass – could be real without that thing ever coming actually to pass. E.g., the wood that could be made into a chair can be real, without ever being made into a chair. For the chair to come to pass, the form thereof must be introduced to the wood. No form of the chair → no chair. Likewise with a baby. The matter of the baby – the physical stuff of which he is constituted – is from the mother. So is some of the form of the baby. But without the contribution of the father to the form of the baby, there will be no baby. The potential of the actualization of the baby will lie dormant, without the formal input from the male side of the equation. Even in cases of parthenogenesis, the form of the baby is due in part to the formal contribution of her father to the mother.

        Generalizing, all becoming then continges upon a formal contribution from something other than the material / maternal substrate of becoming.

        Not only that, but even the raw material of becoming – the mere possibility that something might happen – continges upon the eternal forms of all the things that might become. If there is no form of x, then certainly there is no material possibility of x, under any state of affairs. So, even Prime Matter continges upon the formal input from the Eternal One.

        From these considerations we may conclude not only that God is masculine, but that he creates ex nihilo.

      • Do you reject it on aesthetic grounds? That’s interesting, since without the Bible (if I were an Ancient Greek or something) that’s probably why I’d lean towards accepting it.

      • If you were an ancient Greek – or Hebrew – you would think masculinity much greater than femininity. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews thought men were *much* better than women.

      • Good point! But, to be fair, I did write “or something.”

        Regarding the other comment. Would a good summary be that the masculine is the active principle and that this is superior to the passive?

    • If one thinks of God as female, it is very easy to fall into thinking of God the Creator as giving birth to the universe. And thus blurring the distinction between creator and creation — a very serious error. (And one which Hinduism absolutely does fall into, frequently, although other causes are probably more important.)

      Thus, conceiving of God as female seems to be a bad idea as a matter of human psychology, regardless of your metaphysics.

      • It would blur the distinction because both the creatrix and her creation would be feminine. The more like his creation the creator, the easier it is to confuse the radically different characters of their natures, and thus to fall into the error of thinking oneself somehow as excellent as God. This was Lucifer’s catastrophic mistake. The angels are not sexed, but they are masculine in respect to lesser creatures; that might have contributed to the confusion of Lucifer.

      • Here in Texas people will say that something is “useless as tits on a boar.” The same could be said of tits or any other sexual apparatus on an immortal being. We have sex because we die. This of course raises some questions about Adam and Eve before the Fall, and also suggests some interesting answers to why it was they suddenly knew that they were naked.

      • That also casts a new light on the question of sex in heaven. Perhaps one of the Providential payoffs of the Fall, the Incarnation and Redemption, and so of our resurrection as formerly mortal animals who, as resurrected, are still sexed, is the addition of immortal but still sexual beings to heaven. On the Principle of Parsimony, our sex in heaven will not be any less useful and valuable than it is here under the orbit of the Moon; on the contrary, it will in heaven attain its original purpose. So, perhaps, there will be sex in heaven; heavenly sex. Whatever that might look like. Presumably the spiritual unanimity and completion as one organism that spouses can sometimes enjoy during intercourse is a foretaste.

        When a company of rebellious angels appeared on Earth incarnate so that they could mate with human women (Genesis 6:1-2), they became mortal, so that they would die like men (Psalm 82:7). Apparently, death and sex do indeed come along together as a package deal: not only do we have sex because we die, but we die because we have sex. This, at least, if our motivation to engage in sex is profane, rather than holy. The rebellious angels cast off their immortality – and ipso facto their feudal fealty to YHWH – for the sake of something less, thus worse.

        Fallen man, on the other hand, hopes that, by his restored fealty to YHWH, all the goods of his mortal life will in heaven be perfectly realized.

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