Home » Classical Theism » “Like oil and water”

“Like oil and water”

vision-of-the-empyreanI usually don’t spend too much time on Deseret News but I saw a link to a Peterson and Hamblin production that compelled me to write a bit.  I don’t know Hamblin’s style, but while Peterson is quite enthusiastic in his denouncement of anti-Mormon challenges, he is often quite sensitive and fair when he talks about other faiths, especially Islam.  However, this piece was disappointing and shallow.

The gist of the article is that Aristotle was a man of almost unsurpassed genius, whose influence outlived him by many thousands of years.  This much is true.  They also note that Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” concept influenced the major monotheistic faiths and their conception of God.  That is true as well.  Aquinas, al-Ghazali, and Maimonides would have been far different without Aristotle.  However, Hamblin and Peterson’s portrayal of the classical theist conception of God is a strawman.

A major problem for Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers, however, was that the God depicted in the Bible and the Quran is plainly personal, reacting to human sin and human faithfulness, intervening at some points in human history but not at others, revealing messages to prophets that are tailored to their specific times and circumstances. Yet the unmoved mover seems essentially impersonal. How were these two seemingly distinct conceptions of the divine to be reconciled, even blended?

It can be argued that they never really were. Not successfully. The unmoved mover, endlessly contemplating itself because it’s the only thing in the universe worthy of its notice, seems unlikely to pay any attention to the sufferings of less worthy beings such as, say, humans. And if it truly affects all other things but cannot be affected, there appears little point in praying to it. One might as well pray to a rock. Finally, for Christians, is it even remotely conceivable that Aristotle’s God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)?

Aristotle’s concept of God and that taught in the Abrahamic revelations are like oil and water. They don’t mix. As the early 20th century Anglo-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped with regard to this view of the divine (which he rejected), the God of the philosophers is, unfortunately, not available for religious use.

There are a few major objections to this that I’d like to put on the table.  First, the blog seems to just take it for granted that nobody ever successfully showed how an Unmoved Mover could be reconciled with the Biblical God.  But that just begs the question.  All the Christian classical theistic philosophers attempted to show how the two views could be reconciled, and to just hand-wave all their attempts away as “unsuccessful” without actually explaining why is not an argument.  Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover only contemplated Itself, but Christian conceptions of the Unmoved Mover did not just eternally think of themselves.  Rather, this God stands in an eternal, loving relationship with His Creation.  In fact, according to Aquinas, God is love (in an analogous sense).  This God is unchanging, and yet his relationship with Creation, or creatures, can change by way of their “Cambridge properties.”  In a nutshell, if my height is 6’3”, and your height is 5’0”, then I am taller than you.  However, if you grew a foot and a half, you are suddenly taller than me.  The change in relationship is not due to some change in me, but rather due to a change in you.  This can give you a clue as to how a modern Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher can explain how God can seem angry with people at one moment but happy with them the next – it is not God who has changed, but the people who have changed in relation to God.

Similarly, God can cause miracles because the Universe is being sustained at every moment by God, and a miracle is simply like a musician “deviating from the score” through improvisation.  God is unchanging, but the Universe is continually shaped, ordered, and created by God and reflects His ever-loving nature.  Therefore, it is not useless to pray to this God because the natural order we find ourselves in is shaped to reflect His nature, and therefore miracles can happen on our behalf given that miracles happen in the natural order.  For more information on this kind of classical theism, you can read about it in this series on Edward Feser’s blog.

Now this is not to argue that this view is correct, but to show one piece of the reasoning that modern classical theists may use to reconcile a Biblical God that changes, gets angry, loves, allows people to repent, hears prayers, etc. with an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover.  However, Hamblin and Peterson are silent on all of this.

Secondly, the only thing that resembles something like an argument in their piece is that, since the classical theist God cannot change or feel emotions, praying to this God is like “praying to a rock.”  But this is just a silly strawman that seems to be intending to ridicule an idea that was not sufficiently argued against.  Praying to the classical theist God is not like praying to a rock, because a rock is not the source of all Creation, does not sustain creation moment-by-moment, cannot provide salvation, did not order the Universe to suit the needs of humans which were created in its image, does not stand in loving relations with Creation, etc.  It would seem that Hamblin and Peterson would prefer to make fun of this conception of God rather than make some kind of argument against it, hoping to rely on a Whitehead quote to provide some kind of authority to their ridicule.

And the reason I bring it up on this blog is that it represents something very troubling I have always noticed with Mormon discussions of other religions and belief systems (truly, it is not unique to Mormons, but in theory Mormons should be above it).  I grew up being taught that the Athanasian Trinity doctrine was just obviously false, because it just makes no sense for something to be 3-in-one.  We were taught that a God without “parts or passions” was not a loving God and wasn’t anything at all.  We were taught that other Christians just believed that “all you have to do is believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved.”  These are merely cartoonish versions of Christian doctrine, but I grew up thinking that Christians were just so duped and closed-minded that they simply would refuse to see the obvious fact that traditional Christianity was simply incoherent – and their criticisms of Mormonism were actually just fear and anger at how right we actually are.  However, once I discovered that the shapers of these doctrines were not idiots and had very good reasons to argue what they did, I was shocked.  You mean there are actual arguments that support classical theism and Trinitarian doctrines?

Now I’m not saying classical theism is right here, only that Hamblin and Peterson’s article serves no real purpose other than to ridicule without offering any real substantive argument.  There have been thousands of pages written on how to reconcile classical theism with Biblical Christianity.  Shouldn’t they at least interact with that literature if they want to argue their point?  It reminds me of a G.K. Chesterton quote I read at one of my favorite philosophy blogs:

There are three ways in which a statement, especially a disputable statement, can be placed before mankind. The first is to assert it by avowed authority; this is done by deities, the priests of deities, oracles, minor poets, parents and guardians, and men who have “a message to their age”. The second way is to prove it by reason; this was done by the mediaeval schoolmen, and by some of the early and comparatively forgotten men of science. It is now quite abandoned. The third method is this: when you have neither the courage to assert a thing nor the capacity to prove it, you allude to it in a light and airy style, as if somebody else had asserted and proved it already.


One thought on ““Like oil and water”

  1. Pingback: A Thomist Brain and an Orthodox Heart | Saints and Saints

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