What it is like to be a personal God

A number of posts on this blog revolve around the ideas that much that is wrong with the theological origins debate is also what is wrong with contemporary Christianity, and that much of that has to do with the emphasis on personal freedom and autonomy in our culture. A related concept, in my view, is the prominence of theistic personalism, whose source is the belief, originally from the scholastic Duns Scotus, that God can only relate to us genuinely if his mode of being is the same as ours. Prior to that, the classical view of Thomas Aquinas and his theological predecessors was that God is essentially different from us, and relates to us through analogies of our mental processes (though strictly, it is our mental processes that are shadowy analogies of his real ones).

A couple of examples of this are in an otherwise good post by V J Torley on Uncommon Descent, in which the author suggests that perhaps God chose the means of creation that involved “least effort”. One of his commentators adds that it seems plausible that God would become bored with repetitive tasks, since we do. On a theistic personalism model, those are fair deductions – on a classical theism model, they are absurd and near-blasphemous. How much room does omnipotence leave for “effort”? How much is God’s infinite care for everything he has made limited by “boredom”? That such things pass without comment shows today’s theological near-bankruptcy

I came across a more seriously misleading quote from philosopher of religion (and theistic evolutionist) Richard Swinburne, describing how one can easily imagine being, like God, an omipresent spirit. After asking us to consider gradually becoming aware of the experiences of other bodies apart from our own, choosing any point of view, moving any external thing as easily as we move our own limbs etc, he finishes:

However, although you find yourself gaining these strange powers, you remain otherwise the same – capable of thinking, reasoning and wanting, hoping and fearing … Surely anyone can thus conceive of himself becoming an omnipresent spirit.

The sheer hubris of this, coming from a major academic, astounds me, but its falsity is demonstrable (for those who cannot already see their own creaturely limitations).

My only, dubious, claim to any intellectual superiority comes from one small episode in my life: my membership of an interest group on the cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget in my university psychology days. Piaget held that children pass through four distinct and universal stages of cognitive development. These are called sensorimotor (age 1-2), pre-operational (2-7), concrete operations (7-11) and formal operations (11+). What these are doesn’t matter here, but the last involves abstract reasoning. Our tutor, to illustrate this, gave us a “formal operations” question which, if I remember, was about whether the area of a parallelogram remains the same when the angles change. I immediately thought of the limiting case when the shape became a line, and answered “No.” It turned out I was the only one in the group who could work it out – the failure of an entire group of half a dozen final year Cambridge undergrads to have reached cognitive maturity still seems rather amusing.

Piaget’s work nevertheless shows that even adult humans have a different mental world from children. This is often obscured from us by our own inbuilt (and remembered) affinity for human childhood. Even so, academic bachelors are prone to wonder why children can’t comprehend simple abstract concepts, and conversely good primary teachers (I’ve noticed) have a tendency to think in terms of concrete operational cognition even when in adult company. The trick, with children, is to translate formal concepts into concrete ones – to relate analogically to them, in other words. Asking them to imagine having the ability to think abstractly is, I’m afraid, futile.

An even better example is a novel application of Thomas Nagel’s seminal essay What it is like to be a bat‎ . Nagel’s aim was to show that some concepts simply cannot be reduced to “scientific” objectivity, his example being the impossibility of conceiving the experience of being a bat; aware of ones surroundings by echo-location, almost blind, non-rational, able to fly but not walk and so on. As he points out, the best one might do is to imagine what it is like for a human to imagine being a bat – the reality is simply inconceivable to us, and will remain so unless we should ever become bats.

It seems to me that Swinburne’s imaginative exercise on being God falls foul of Nagel’s example, but on a literally infinite scale. A bat is, at least, a flesh-and-blood mammal like us, yet its subjective world is totally, and fundamentally, inaccessible to us. Yet we are supposed to have no problem with imagining ourselves as an omnipresent spirit, because it’s just like being ourselves with some easily-conceived additional powers. No wonder, with such a limited view of God, that it’s thought to be so easy to judge him morally and pronounce on what he would, or should, do. When did we forget that he is in heaven, and we are on earth?

But consider this – God is not only the God of humans – he is the God of bats, too – and porpoises, tortoises, tapeworms and extremophiles. He is “loving towards all he has made” (Ps 104, twice): indeed, he has compassion on them (v9). And that necessarily means that, quite unlike us, what it is like to be a bat, or a porpoise, tortoise, tapeworm or extremophile is completely known to God. He made them all, after all.

So although we are created in God’s image – and perhaps that image is at least in part to do with reason and moral capacity – there are many ways in which we cannot even begin to think like God. Whatever we relate to in the animal world, we relate to as humans, anthropomorphically. Whereas God relates to them as they are, just as he relates to us as we are and even to small children, as they are. I would suggest that he has greater knowledge of even human experience than we do, certainly of each other and even, perhaps of ourselves (cf Psalm 139.1-4).

I suppose one might say, in order to preserve theistic personalism’s univocity of human-divine interaction, that those things in God’s being that we cannot begin to imagine at all are a matter of degree rather than kind. If we were actually omipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, perfect, ineffable and the source of all being, then we would have no problem at all thinking like God, because in essence he is like us. You’ll maybe forgive me for thinking that to be a completely meaningless point of view.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to What it is like to be a personal God

  1. pngarrison says:

    “One of his commentators adds that it seems plausible that God would become bored with repetitive tasks, since we do.”

    This reminds me of Chesterton saying something to the effect that “our Father is younger than we are. Every morning He says to the sun (like a child demanding a repeat performance for the umpteenth time), “do it again.”

  2. Gregory says:

    p.s. your link to “theistic personalism” does not, at least for me, reveal a full post. It ends in the 1st paragraph with: “It is theistic personalism that explains the ascendancy of my bête noir”

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Works fine for me, Gregory – I think it must be a problem at your end.

  4. Cal says:

    While I agree with the dismissal of Scotus’ teaching and scorning Swinburne’s arrogant following through with it, I’m sympathetic to the “theistic personalism”. This is only because the Incarnation grabs me as the first means for seeing God, Aristotle (or Aristotle Redivivus in Thomas) cannot lead me anywhere.

    Thus I must understand God as and in the Man Jesus, who is personal. However, that doesn’t mean the boredom criticism holds any water. We’re ignorant of the glory of creation if we were to say “Sun rise today…again? How cliche!” Jesus was not such a fool.

    Anyway, I’m sort of caught in between Calvin and Barth in that Calvin would say: “God is the God who stoops” and Barth: “God is God in stooping”

    God is exhaustively God in His mediation as Word, eternally, to His creation, but God is not exhausted in His mediation to Man as Mediator. He still knows what it is to be a bat.

    2 cents,

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Nobody’s ever disputed, by classical theism, that Jesus is not a human person, nor that he is the means by which we know God.

    But just as we don’t, because of the Incarnation, believe that Deity has a human body, or a liking for olives, or a mother and father, so the idea of God as “an individual of the person category” does no justice to his glory.

    The key, as you rightly say, is that God is not exhaused in his mediation to Man. But that’s the very reason we need to consider him, if anything, as supra-personal, at least as far as reasoning goes. Relationally we can just love him. But it’s the reasoning, from wrong premises, that takes us into mistakes: IF God is a person, THEN he must be like me in … changing his mind, not knowing the future, being accountable for his actions, reasoning on insufficient premises etc etc.

  6. Cal says:

    I guess I’m tied up that God is most supra-personal in His personal. God, in choosing to make man in His image, freely bound Himself up in the personal. That’s why I am sympathetic for the personalism drive.

    However, that does not mean I am an Open-Theist or believe in Process- Theology. All the things listed by said personalist are inadequacies except for being accountable for his actions.

    The fact that He acts “in remembrance of His covenant”, and the constant trumpet that the Lord is utterly faithful, means He has kept Himself to the actions He has committed to do. I don’t doubt you’d agree with this, you probably had something creational in mind (i.e. “Why did you make carnivores!!?”).

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “You probably had something creational in mind”

    Indeed Cal, I did – God is the source of justice and righteousness, and there’s no other standard with which to compare him. “With whom will you compare me?” Not to mention, “I am who I am.”

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