Divine Plurality For Non-Trinitarians

hqdefault[1]Jews and Muslims stand united in their rejection of the Trinity. To them, the doctrine seems to compromise the divine unity; it seems to directly violate the Shema and the Shahada, which clearly state that there is only one God:

Deuteronomy 6:4, The Shema Yisrael

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord

The Shahada

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.

However – as we shall see in this post – it is possible to come to a doctrine of “Divine plurality”, even if not a full doctrine of the Trinity, merely by depending upon reason, logic and the common “classical theistic” grounding that is shared equally by the more sophisticated strands of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim intellectual traditions.

God as Pure Actuality – The First Way

220px-Carlo_Crivelli_007[1].jpgTo get the ball rolling, it is helpful to rehash one of the classic proofs of God that has traditionally been put forward in some form or other by big name thinkers from all three Abrahamic traditions. In point form:

  1. We invariably observe change in our everyday experience of life.
    • Change is defined as the actualisation of a potential, or a “movement” from potential to actual.
      • For example a match has the potential to be lit, but this potential is not actualised until the match is struck, at which point the match becomes actually lit.
      • Another example would be a ball placed on top of a desk. The ball has the potential to roll off the edge of the desk, but this potential is not actualised until something bumps the ball and causes it to actually roll off the table and therefore actually be on the ground. Prior to this bump, the ball is only potentially on the ground.
  2. It seems to be a fair assumption that no change can bring itself about, which is to say no potential can actualise itself. An implication of this principle is that in order for some given potential to be actualised, something which is already actualised has to operate upon the potential.
    • An example would again be the match. The match cannot just randomly and spontaneously combust (abstracting away quantum theory for the sake of argument). Instead, a human agent – who is already in some combination of various potential and actual states – has to come along, pick up the match and strike it. This picking up of the match and striking it is an example of actuality working upon potential to bring about further actuality.
  3. We observe chains of causality between agents. One thing actualises potential in another, this thing too actualises potential in some further thing, and this further thing goes on to actualise potential in something else.
    • It is helpful to draw a distinction between two types of causal series: Causal series ordered per esse and causal series ordered per accidens.
      • A causal series ordered per accidens in one which stretches backwards and forwards in time. This sort of causal series is the sort that most people think of when debating the beginnings of the universe and the existence of God. “What was before the big bang?” the apologist asks; “What caused the big bang?”. “God” responds the Christian. “Nothing” responds the Atheist. A biblical example of this sort of series is “Abraham begets Isaac, Isaac begets Jacob”. There is no intrinsic necessity tying the two actions together: Abraham need not continue to be around and exercise his causal power in order for Jacob to get about the business of begetting Jacob. Similarly, arguments for the existence of God that proceed from a “What was before the big bang?” platform inevitably are going to come up short: God may have created the universe and then immediately ceased to exist on this account, which would make him all but irrelevant to our lives today.
      • A casual series ordered per esse is a different sort of beast. It is a causal series in which the relationship between the agent doing the actualising and the potential being actualised is simultaneous. That is, in an essentially ordered series, time has been abstracted out of the equation. It’s not that the brick first hits the window, and subsequently the window shatters; instead the brick hitting the window and the window shattering are conceived of as simultaneous events. A classic example of a per esse series, is that of a hand holding a long stick and using this long stick to push a rock into a loaf of bread. In this case the actuality flows through the chain of potentiality like electricity through a wire: the stick has the potential to move the rock, the rock has the potential to sink into the bread, the bread has the potential to mould itself around the shape of the rock. However until the hand actually applies itself to the stick, the entire chain is devoid of movement. The question becomes, “What is acting upon the bread?” is it the rock, or is it the hand? The answer is “both, but in different senses”. The rock is the next link in the causal chain, but it is the hand which is the source of power and actuality for the entire chain. If not for the hand, nothing would happen.
  4. It is a reasonable principle that such causal chains must necessarily have either a first actualised element, or some external agent which can bestow actuality upon the entire chain.
    • Consider an infinite chain of potentials. Unless there is some first element of the chain which itself is in a state of actuality, then by point two this infinite chain of potential interactions must remain inert and immobile.
    • Alternatively, consider an infinite chain of potential interactions with no “first element”. In this case, the source of actuality must come from somewhere outside of the chain.
  5. It is this “First element of the chain” or “External agent which bestows actuality upon the chain” which everyone refers to by the word “God”.
  6. A variety of properties of God are immediately implied. To name a few: Pure Actuality, Immutability, Omnipotence.
    • One of the properties of God which immediately falls out is that God cannot itself have any potential, because if it did then some explanation would be required for how that potential is being actualised, and as established by point 2, no potential can actualise itself. In this way, God is actus purus – pure Act. He could also be referred to as an unmoved mover or an unchanged changer, for it is the principle which actualises all potential while it itself requires no such actualiser.
    • Seeing as God is infinite actuality and completely devoid of potentiality, he is immutable. God cannot change, because the ability to change implies some sort of unactualised potential.
    • If power is defined as the ability to bring about actuality from potentiality, and if God is the ultimate source of all observed actualisation, and is himself pure actuality, then this implies that he is omnipotent. All things that actually are actualised are actualised by the power of God.

And so in 6 precisely defined steps, we logically move from the observation of change to the existence of an immutable, omnipotent, purely actual God.

Divine Simplicity

shutterstock_313063250-jpgoriginal[1].jpegIt is helpful here to quickly import the concept of divine simplicity, which is one that can be proven by a variety of methods but for the sake of brevity we are just going to take it on faith. Divine simplicity – simply stated – is the idea that God is not composite; that God has no components or parts. Combining this with Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is essential to have any hope of comprehending it. In God, love, mercy, grace, existence, being, justice, willing, action, freedom and all other attributes; are in reality one and the same thing – God himself. However we cannot understand all these words in a univocal sense (ie, in exactly the same way that we understand them normally) because otherwise we run into absurdity: for example in our everyday experience of life wrath is totally different to love, justice is totally opposed to mercy. The key point is that when we apply these terms to God and say that in him, they are all one and the same thing, we are speaking analogically. It is important to remember that Analogy does not mean Equivocity; when we apply these words to God we are saying something intelligible and meaningful. However we do not know precisely what we mean when we call God these things, and instead have to rely on the ineffable movements of divinity within our intellects and intuitions to bring us to a wordless apprehension of the Truth of the analogical situation.

In summary, in God all attributes are univocally equal, whereas with us, they are all equivocally unequal. The relationship between these attributes as they apply to us and the attributes as they apply to God is one of analogy: In us, justice and mercy are different but in God, they are the same. The relationship of our justice to Gods justice, and our mercy to Gods mercy, is the relationship of analogy.

Implications of Pure Actuality and Divine Simplicity

heider[1].jpgSo, we have a God who is simple, and purely actual, devoid of potential. Certain classical theists (Most notably, Edward Feser), argue that because God has these properties, there can only be one God. The reason why is easy to see: If there were two Gods, there would have to be some way to tell them apart, but this would imply some potential which is actualised in one God and not the other, or some component in one God which the other God lacks. But this is absurd, because as we have already established, God has no potential and God has no parts. Therefore, there can only be one God.

The logic is sound but the conclusion is faulty. What such classical theists have discovered is not some sort of logically necessary “numerical monotheism”. Instead, what they have discovered is God’s divine and uncountable infinity. As Aquinas says, “There is no number in God”. It does not make sense to count God, for divinity is uncountable. Lets for the sake of argument say that we had three purely actual, completely simple Gods: How on earth would we even begin to count them? There would be no way to tell them apart! You would point your finger at one of them in order to start audibly counting “one, two, three”, but the moment you point your finger at one of them, you have pointed your finger at all of them! And this is the crucial point: it makes no more sense to say that there is one God than to say that there are three Gods. In fact, we may as well say that there are an infinitude of Gods! Once you start trying to count the uncountable, you find yourself counting up to infinity!

These reflections might sound familiar to those who are well versed in deeper Trinitarian thought such as the doctrine of perichoresis and the apophatic doctrine of “stupid arithmetic”. We could easily imagine three purely actual beings and arbitrarily call them the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It would be immediately noted that these three beings could not be separated one from the other, and it would not be possible to even clearly distinguish between them or count them. Combine this with a couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the church, and we would be well on our way to developing a robust doctrine of the Trinity.

This is the point where we can extend an ecumenical bridge to our Jewish and Muslim brethren. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all equally humbled before the mystery of an uncountable divine infinity, which subsists as a purely simple and actual plurality in unity. It makes just as much sense to say “one”, “none”, “three” and “infinity”, because in God there is no way of distinguishing between these numerical designations.

Divine Plurality

6dd734196c30266fdf6fdf422fb3b4c1[1].jpgWhat are some further implications of divine infinity?

Well, for one thing, it becomes possible for God to relate to God as one relates to another. Thoughtful readers will have the Trinitarian dogma hovering at the back of their minds:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Spirit is God.
  4. The Father is not the Son.
  5. The Son is not the Spirit.
  6. The Spirit is not the Father.
  7. There is only one God.

The Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father in return; this is simply God loving God. However the crucial point is that due to the divine infinity, God loving God does not take on a schizophrenic, selfish character, as if it were one person “loving himself”. Instead, due to the divine infinity, Divinity is able to relate to divinity “as one relates to another”. To put it bluntly, when Jesus prays to the Father, this is not an example of divine schizophrenia; Jesus is not talking to himself. There is indeed a conversation going on within God, but God is not confusedly muttering to himself. Jesus is not the father, and yet they are both the same infinite reality that we call “God”.

maxresdefault[1].jpgLet us conceive of God as an infinite ocean of pure bliss, unspeakable love, ineffable consciousness. In this case, God relating to God takes on the character of this infinite ocean folding back upon itself, and simultaneously taking on the roles of the lover, the loved and the love itself. A Plurality spontaneously arises from this wonderful infinitude of unity. A true relationship, “as one to another” naturally emerges from this boundless ocean of bliss and love.

Points 4-6 of the Trinitarian dogma as stated above serve to secure the “as one to another” aspect of this divine love. If the father were the son, then we would indeed have a case of divine schizophrenia, as the father/son would be talking to himself. However by pinning down the fact that the father is not the son, and the son is not the spirit, we lay hold of this beautiful doctrine of a God who is both the love between distinct individuals and the individuals themselves.

God is love, but love demands both a subject and an object. And of course due to divine simplicity God is both the Subject, the Object, and the love itself. Some readers may find this sort of talk familiar to traditional Trinitarian presentations of divinity. The Father begets the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is just that love that exists between them, and all terms of the equation are divine.

It is interesting to note that Christians often hurl an accusation at Muslims and Jews, that their God is not “love by nature” because he is a single numerical personality and therefore requires his creation in order to have an object to love. However an astute Jew or Muslim, after reading this post should be able to articulate why this is not the case, even if they don’t go as far as the full Trinitarian dogma. God does not require his creation in order to be loving, because within the infinitude of God and flowing from his perfect simplicity, there is a divine plurality in which God loves God as one loves another. Whether you call the one “Son”, the another “Father”, and the act of love that exists between them “Spirit” is by-the-by. The fact of the matter is that just as one loves another, God loves God, and God is love. I guess that’s a Trinity of sorts.

The Divine Dance of Love

image_291[1].jpegA question comes to me as I reflect on these things: If the son is not the father, what is it that distinguishes one from the other? If there is something that distinguishes one from the other, then doesn’t this violate divine simplicity and pure actuality? Doesn’t it imply some sort of actualised potential which the son possesses and the father lacks? How else could we identify them as father and son? The doctrine of perichoresis states that all that the father has and is, the son also has and is, such that if you were to take the son, you would get the father too, and vice versa. And yet in theological discourse, we say that the son became incarnate, and not the father. What do we mean by this? Surely we can’t mean that only part of God became incarnate? God has no parts; if the son became incarnate then surely this implies that the entirety of God became incarnate, father and spirit too?

Perhaps the Son is different to the Father only in the act of loving – there is no actual difference between them besides the roles they assume in the Subject Verb Object formula, and as such they are completely interchangeable. The one doing the loving could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, the one being loved could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, and the love itself could equally well be the father, the son or the spirit. The crucial point is that so long as it is the father who is doing the loving, it is necessarily either the Son or the Spirit who is being loved. Similarly so long as it is the Son doing the loving, it is either the Father or the Spirit being loved. In this way the differences between the hypostases of the Trinity only arise in the context of their assuming different roles in the relationship of love. And yet due to divine simplicity and pure actuality, in a sort of divine dance the hypostases of the trinity assume all of the roles all at once.

But these are ponderings for another time.

(Go to “Simplicity and Trinitarianism”)

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