“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Belief in a Personal God

The following is my response to the theologian Jason Michael McCann’s blog post about the personal nature of God in the Christian tradition. Yesterday, he posted a critical response to one of my short essays on materialism and imagination that I will also respond to soon.

The distinction between truth and fact (which I understand to be similar to that between archetypal/a priori and experiential/a posteriori knowledge, respectively) is very helpful. Your point that Medieval Christians were not trying to explain the measurable motion of matter, but rather (as I see it) to understand the existence of personality in the universe (which, indeed, seems to require entering into a loving relationship with this universe and His/Her/Its* personality or spirit) is also well taken. Post-Enlightenment materialists like Richard Dawkins refer to the “God hypothesis,” and dismiss it as unscientific since scientific explanation must refer only to natural phenomena. God is supposedly immaterial because supernatural, and to admit the existence of such a being (with each of His/Her/Its usual characteristics, especially omnipotence) would put all scientific attempts to explain the universe by reference only to physical phenomena in a rather uncertain epistemic situation. All the sudden, natural phenomena no longer exist and behave as a result of arbitrarily imposed “physical law,” but instead draw their being from the Being of God, and act according to His/Her/Its grace. But Christianity is not committed to an engineer’s conception of the universe, wherein “God” serves the role of explaining how the whole thing was designed and put together. God is not, as I imagine Him/Her/It, a clock-maker who oversees the proper functioning of the cosmic machine, interfering with its natural processes to perform miracles at various points of human history. God, rather than a hypothesis, is the very basis of my own existence, confirmed not by scientific proof but by the immediate relationship or felt presence of divinity in my personal and interpersonal life. God is present in my life as the voice of conscience which I know guides not only myself, but every human being. It is not my voice, it is the voice of God. His message and only commandment is simple: “Love.” We do not always have the ears to hear this voice, of course. We can become deaf to its gospel. Sin is a reality.
As for your reading of my thesis [“that autonomous human imagination and creativity is able to construct its own reality”], I would remove the words “autonomous” and “own.” The human imagination is to the divine imagination what the microcosm is to the macrocosm. As Coleridge put it, imagination is: “…the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.”
You write: “Like the primal relationship between mother and child, the primordial relationship between Creator and creature is one which occurs within the interiority of the human spirit without the demand of either party lacking concrete reality.” The notion of our relationship to God being only interior feels lacking to me. My relationship to the exterior cosmos as God incarnate is no less revelatory (indeed, perhaps it is more so). Earlier in your essay, you spoke of personality being a pre-requisite for sociability. I’d want to balance this statement by pointing out the opposite but equally reasonable notion that personality depends upon relationship. I do not think there is a specific point in time when a developing human becomes completely “cognitive” or self-conscious. There is a continuous movement toward more consciousness, if we’re lucky, but never a sharp break where we move from “dependent” to completely autonomous. My identity is never fully my own, as I remain dependent for the entirety of my life upon my relationships with others. Others are forever like mothers, in this sense. I can only be as intimate with myself as I can be with others, since I come to know who I am as a result of the way others respond to me. Personality is constituted by love and its need for both expression and recognition. I note in closing that the notion of a personal God would (if the above is valid) imply that God is not unaffected by human love.
*(sorry for the clumsy use of pronouns, but I think the nature of God is neither exclusively masculine or feminine, nor exclusively personal… Men [Him], women [Her], and children are made in the image of God, as is the universe [It]).




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2 responses to “Belief in a Personal God”

  1. homophilosophicus Avatar


    Thank you for the extended comment. It is flattering to imagine that there are other people in the world interested in my musings. You have made a number of interesting points which I shall address, hopefully not at such length, presently. As I have said (somewhere) previously, all opinion requires a position lest it fall into absolute relativism and meaninglessness, consequently it must be highlighted that we each inhabit different positions and therefore our opinion shall (hopefully not always) be at variance.

    Personally I would not agree with your assumption that ‘the human imagination is to the divine imagination what the microcosm is to the macrocosm (yet I shall forever respect your opinion).’ As a Christian who subscribes to the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed and the Oecumenical Councils of the Church I am conscientiously bound to the idea of the ultimate incognitivity of God, therefore any comparison of divine and human imagination or nature is inconsistent with my theology. By all means we can use this logical process as a theory of divine and human relationality, but in the final analysis it is an argument to the knowledge of the unknowable. The suggestion that human imagination is in some way infused with, and inseparable from the divine imagination is also at variance with my theological stance. In the simplest of terms it would corrode both human and divine autonomy, a position which you are entirely free to hold, with the result that God may only be theorised in animistic or pantheistic articulations, and removes the possibility of freewill. Doctrine and conscience place the acceptance of this over the Rubicon.

    As to our intelligibility of God being only interior, I feel that our differences are but superficial and semantic. What I had hoped to convey by this statement was that all of our reality is ultimately the play of neurons within the grey matter. By no means would I limit the reality of God or his* relationship with humanity as merely interior.

    It is not a subject to which I have paid much attention, but your argument that relationship precedes personality is not convincing. I shall refrain from being dogmatic on this point, pending further inquiry. I do see clearly the point that you are making and it does present itself as holding its own in a cerebral boxing ring. It is just the case that I have always held the autonomy of the human person as the seat of initiative; in this schema it is the personality which has an innate desire for relationship and therefore reaches out. Here too is where the analogy (and I hope you liked it) of mother and child is useful. The newly born child’s necessity demands that it reaches for its mother; it is not the relationship in itself that invites the child to satisfy its hunger.

    I agree that all humanity (the old, the young, women and men) shares in the imago dei – via sacred scripture. It does not follow that the universe shares this divine attribute. The result of this would be pantheism and the deterioration of the ‘like’ analogy of thinking God and thinking man (masc. as general to humanity collectively rather than a reference to gender).

    *Do not worry about your use of pronouns friend. It worries me not whether God is masculine, feminine or neuter – or none of the above – it is only for the sake of convention that I choose to use the patriarchal ‘he (never capitalised).’

  2. Shawn Doyle Avatar
    Shawn Doyle

    I cannot understand your beliefs concerning man and god. What is the relevance of a deity?

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