Monday, October 8, 2012

Alternatives - Part 1: Absolute Theism

Theism Defined

What is theism?  Classical theism as understood by Jews, Christians, and Muslims can be defined as follows:

...the belief in an unchanging God, external to the world, who nevertheless miraculously and supernaturally acts in the world at specific moments in its history (Epperly, p. 13). 
Classical theism has been called by philosopher of religion and science Philip Clayton, "supernaturalistic theism" (p. 120) in which God works as an agent outside of the cosmos, independently "looking in."  Classical theism generally conceives of God and the world (the cosmos) as substances which by definition are essentially spatial and cannot overlap.  In this context God is an absolute, unchanging, immutable being who is by definition sovereignly separate from the material cosmos which is inferior because it is always in the process of change.  God is perfect; the world is imperfect.  God is absolute; the world is contingent.  

Creation from Nothing: A Theistic Essential

An essential pillar of classical theism is the doctrine or idea of creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing").  God created the cosmos out of nothing and all aspects of the natural world from the laws of nature to the existence of humanity are contingent and so unessential.  In turn, God is not restricted by the cosmos, and God's power is not limited by the the nature of the cosmos.  How do the contingency of the cosmos and the unrestricted will of God relate to creatio ex nihilo?  Erickson (1985) explains this well:
God did not work with something which was in existence.  He brought into existence the very raw material which he employed.  If this were not the case, God would...have been limited by having to work with the intrinsic characteristics of the raw material which he employed" (p. 374).
Grudem (1994) similarly asserts:
...were we to deny creation out of nothing, we would have to say that some matter has always existed and that it is eternal like God.  This idea would challenge God's independence...[and] his sovereignty (p.264). 
Grudem uses the following diagram to illustrate the God-world relationship:

Grudem's God-World Model
Both Grudem and Erickson agree that creatio ex nihilo is essential to the otherness and absolute nature of God.  With God utterly independent from the material cosmos, Erickson (1984) affirms, "...a definite supernaturalism -- God resides outside the world and intervenes periodically within the natural processes through miracles" (p. 304).

God can hence suspend, annihilate, or reverse natural law as God pleases.  In fact, natural law becomes illusory because there is nothing natural about it.  The ultimate essence of the cosmos is characterized by supernaturalism, or as Griffin (2004) notes, "...the 'laws of nature' can be interrupted because they are not really natural in the sense of being inherent in the very nature of things" (p. 36).  

The God of classical theism, the God of the classical God-world metaphysic, the God of ontotheology is thus 

- Absolute
- Unchanging
- Independent of the cosmos (in sovereignty and in actualization) 

Having set these foundations, let us consider how atheism is the best answer to the God of classical theism.


The God of ontotheology is a failure.  If the concept of creatio ex nihilo is correct and God is radically independent of the cosmos, the implication is that God could intervene at any time.  Hence, "...any evil that has occurred--from the rape of a child to the Nazi Holocaust--could have been unilaterally prevented by God."  Further, if God is the independent author of natural law, then all "natural evils" from birth defects to earthquakes to tsunamis were freely created by God and God, " hypothesis could have freely created a world with all of the positive values of this one but without the possibility of these evils" (Griffin, p. 38).  

For many with "punitive oriented, rewards-punishments positions" (Epperly, p. 39), there are no problems with an unrestricted, all-powerful, omnipotent God who doesn't intervene in the affairs of the world to prevent or to bring cessation to suffering.  Such positions, however, run the risk of canonizing and sacralizing structural injustices as the will of God, and, indeed, there is a rather poor scorecard on the part of many theists who have done exactly this and exonerated institutions from patriarchy to slavery with appeal to the absolute nature of God.   

Dissolution of Science: Gaps and Ignorance

The natural world is characterized not by supernaturalism but rather by what appears to be a closed-causal system of cause and effect.  At no point in the explanation of observable phenomenon from the rising of the sun to the conception and birth of a baby does one need to appeal to supernatural agency--everything happens within the context of natural law.  And, it seems that this same observation and the methodology it implies--naturalism--can be used to explain not only what is observed today but also what we know happened in the past including the origin of life, the change of life over time, and the processes that brought the cosmos into its present form.  

Many of the observed phenomenon that we now attribute to natural law were once deemed to be supernatural acts of God.  Many today, however, resist the explanatory value of naturalism and insist that there remain and will always remain "gaps" in the causal order of natural law, of cause-and-effect relationships.  These gaps, some insist, will forever point to the outside intervention of a supernatural God and will never lend themselves to the causal explanations of naturalism.  Science, however, operates only by naturalism and the use of naturalism to methodologically explain the natural world.  To insist on a God anchored in supernaturalism is to ultimately lay a logical foundation for atheism.  As soon as a naturalistic explanation has been found for what was once thought to be attributable to the divine, miraculous agency of God, God is no longer necessary.  Supernaturalism hence logically leads to atheism.  

Abusively Absolute Alerity

Theologically, alerity is the otherness of God.  God in classical theology exists outside and independent of the material cosmos as an absolute, unaffected by the material cosmos.  In turn, God is abstract, nonrelative, and that which is attributed to the status of God's will is also traditionally seen as absolute.  God's will is thus seen as absolute truth and deemed "nonrelative to anything else, absolved of all interdependence, all conditions, all vulnerability, all passion, all change (Keller, p. 16).  As mentioned under theodicy, this results in sacralized structural injustices.  It was God's will for Europeans to exploit and colonize North America, India, and Palestine.  It is God's will for millions to die of AIDS in Africa because condoms are sinful. It is God's will for American blacks to be economically disenfranchised.  It is God's will for the West to exploit cheap labor markets.

In this post we have considered some of the abuses associated with classical theism.  In the next post will will consider naturalism as a metaphysical absolute.  In a third post will start to consider alternatives to the standard theistic and atheistic absolutes. 

Works Cited:
Clayton, Philip. Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008.
Epperly, Bruce G. Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.  New York, T&T Clark International, 2011. 
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Baker, 1985.
Griffin, David Ray. "Panentheism: A Post-Modern Revelation" (pages 36-47) in In Whom We Live Move and Have our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World. Clayton, Philip and Peacoke, Clark eds. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994. 
Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008.

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