Sunday, October 01, 2006

Chandler's question of Lewis and the doctrine of God

In his helpful remarks, Jason writes:

JP: "It is true that Lewis claims that God transcends 'ordinary' personhood; although I don't think he would have put it quite the same way HC does (i.e. as far above as a rock or number is 'beneath' ordinary personhood.) The important thing though, is that Lewis very strenuously emphasized in such discussions (his MaPS chapter on pantheism being a good case in point) that we should not consider God's transcendence of ordinary personhood to mean something _less_ than what we would call person-ness. (Which is related to that whole trinitarian thing again, as I mentioned last time. {g})

HC: As I understand it, traditionally, when it was said that God is, or is 'in' three 'persons', the word 'persons' does not (or did not) mean that God is, or is in, three PEOPLE. Didn't it mean God is (to be viewed as, in some sense, three aspects - even perhaps three 'masks' (persona)?

VR: As I recall, that's a heresy, alternatively known as Sabellianism of Modalistic Monarchianism.

Anyway, Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, believed that God was absolutely 'simple,' i.e. had no 'parts' of any kind. (This was, presumably, reconcilable, with the 'God in three persons' doctrine, as they understood it.)

It is, I believe, principally because of the 'simplicity' doctrine that these people held (although they wouldn't put it this way) that God could not be a 'person' in anything like the ordinary sense. 'People' (in the ordinary sense) have 'parts' (in various senses of the term). For instance, they have temporal parts, and various mental - psychological - faculties, they have memories and aspirations, they have reason and passions. They are 'entities' that have 'properties.' God, I think these people thought, is not like this.

Plantinga, as I understand it, strongly rejects this tradition. Norman Kretzmann, on the other hand, definitely accepted it. [See his Metaphysics of Theism]

Where does C. S. Lewis stand on this matter? I would really like to know. My IMPRESSION is that he was (really) on the side of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas - he accepted the absolute simplicity doctrine and all that it entails. But I am going on very little evidence, and may well be wrong.


Lewis's exposition of the doctrine of the trinity is in book III of Mere Christianity. By and large he stayed away from issues like simplicity, which he thought were divisive.

These passages, from Miracles, might help some:

CSL: ". . . When [people] try to get rid of man-like, or, as they are called, 'anthropomorphic,' images, they merely succeed in substituting images of some other kinds. 'I don't believe in a personal God,' says one, 'but I do believe in a great spiritual force.' What he has not noticed is that the word 'force' has let in all sorts of images about winds and tides and electricity and gravitation. 'I don't believe in a personal God,' says another, 'but I do believe we are all parts of one great Being which moves and works through us all' -not noticing that he has merely exchanged the image of a fatherly and royal-looking man for the image of some widely extended gas or fluid.
"A girl I knew was brought up by 'higher thinking' parents to regard God as perfect 'substance.' In later life she realized that this had actually led her to think of Him as something like a vast tapioca pudding. (To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.) We may feel ourselves quite safe from this degree of absurdity but we are mistaken. If a man watches his own mind, I believe he will find that what profess to be specially advanced or philosophic conceptions of God, are, in his thinking, always accompanied by vague images which, if inspected, would turn out to be even more absurd than the manlike images aroused by Christian theology. For man, after all, is the highest of the things we meet in sensuous experience."

1 comment:

Jason said...

HC: {{Where does C. S. Lewis stand on this matter? I would really like to know. My IMPRESSION is that he was (really) on the side of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas - he accepted the absolute simplicity doctrine and all that it entails. But I am going on very little evidence, and may well be wrong.}}

In order to answer this question, I have to distinguish between what the doctrine of divine simplicity is fundamentally about, and what the doctrine has been held to entail by various exponents of it. This is complicated by the fact that, historically, the topic has crossed paths with the question of privative vs. positive aseity: does the Independent Fact exist ungrounded, or does it ground Itself?

If I recall correctly, the exponents of divine simplicity whom Dr. Chandler is referencing, were also proponents of privative aseity. (To which, again if I recall correctly, we may add Aristotle, whom I think they are all more-or-less following along this line.) The doctrine of privative aseity is such, that any kind of action or behavior at all would be inimical to the IF in Its own nature, or at Its own fundamental level of existence. Thus the notion of an Unmoved Mover, wherein the IF is recognized to not be inherently vulernable to reaction from outside stimuli (which should be true of a positive aseity IF, too, by the way), can elide subtly but crucially into the notion of an Unmoving Mover. And once that is on the table, the tendency will be to deny, as an implication following from the doctrine, any specific action of the IF at all--including the expression of what we would recognize as personality.

The doctrine of divine simplicity is another way of affirming the existence of a single IF, in opposition to limited-multiple IFs (e.g. a God/Anti-God or God/Nature cosmological dualism where both entities are proposed to be IFs) and in opposition to infinite regression philosophies. When the trinitarian disputes were entered into (the Arian disputes being a paradigmatic case), the proponents of orthodoxy were concerned with affirming a single-IF reality (both on testimony of scriptural witness as well as in accordance with coherent metaphysical logic), thus explaining why they rejected tri-theism; and often, their opponents (such as the Arian parties) were also attempting to affirm a single-IF reality _which they thought the orthodoxy party was intentionally or accidentally denying_. (These kinds of debates still go on, as I can personally attest; Bill Vallicella, over at Maverick Philosopher, routinely calls in divine simplicity as a conceptual problem to orthodox trinitarianism, or at least was routinely doing this when last I was posting there.)

I will add here, that this simplicity doctrine is not inherently limited to either theism or supernaturalism. For example, a naturalistic atheist, as such, is also advocating the same doctrine, over against cosmological dualism (for instance) and infinite regression. Yet, I think most naturalistic atheists would agree that behaviors are taking place within the existence of (what they consider to be) the fundamental ground of reality; Nature behaves in particular ways, and not in other ways. It has specific characteristics, not only ontologically so (in its existence as such), but in behaviors.

Here, though, we start to get back to why Christians (and other supernaturalistic theists) have often _in practice_ wedded the doctrine of divine simplicity, to the doctrine of privative aseity. They're doing it in order to draw (what they consider to be) a clearer distinction between Nature and Supernature; thus, we routinely find them talking about how the _behaviors_ of Nature, simply by being behaviors at all, disqualify it on various (supposed) grounds as being the true IF. By apparent contrast to Nature, a supernatural IF should not have behaviors at all at Its own level of existence--though frankly, I have trouble seeing how that doctrine can be held _while also_ affirming that the IF acts in other regards (to produce Nature, for instance). An Unmoved Mover is one thing; an Unmoving Mover, though, looks (to me anyway) very much like a contradiction in terms.

In any case, I think it will be found, under examination, that this accounts for why many famous exponents of divine simplicity not only tend to promote the idea that the IF has no behavior characteristics of Its own (which would tend to include what we call personal behaviors--I would call this atheism myself!), but seem to be _connecting_ this with divine simplicity per se.

Having thus distinguished the various notions involved here, now I can address the question in regard to Lewis himself.

With Victor, I don't recall Lewis ever addressing the notion of divine simplicity in that term. However, he does on occasion discuss and affirm the notion of a singular Independent Fact (my term, not his so far as I recall) over against cosmological dualism (and, though I can't put my finger on it at the moment, I half-recall him discussing against infinite regression. What he does argue for would certainly exclude it anyway.) Insofar as that goes, then, he affirms divine simplicity, and would agree with the A-list (Aristotle to Aquinas {g}) to _that_ extent on the topic. (The most obvious reference would be chp 2 of MaPS, I think, though this may have to be pieced together with some of his discussions about CosDu in MC and elsewhere.)

Relatedly, Lewis essentially affirms a distinction of Persons in a singularity of substance (though again not quite in those terms), in several places, the most obvious of which is where Victor mentioned (MC's Book IV, on the doctrine of the Trinity). So again, on this he does agree with at least three of the four As (barring Aristotle, of course. Someone more familiar with Anselm than I am may have a caveat here, perhaps...?)

Lewis, as noted earlier, strenuously affirms personal characteristics to God, including active personal behaviors. (Too many examples of this to easily reference. {g} Pick up a book and thumb through it for a while, you'll probably find one. To take a convenient random example, I was discussing Chp 22 of _Screwtape Letters_ this morning over at the Christian Anime Alliance site.) This may be in contravention to three or four of the A-list, when it comes down to brass tacks. (Though if Augustine and Aquinas are technically denying it, which I do seem to recall myself, they also can speak _as though_ God was doing those behaviors.)

I don't recall, myself, Lewis ever addressing the positive/privative aseity question, even under other terms. My own estimation, in lieu of material specifically germane to the question, is that his theology across the board fits better into positive than privative aseity; but he might have thought differently himself for various reasons.

In regard to a more literal application of the term 'divine simplicity', Lewis was probably not on the same page as the A-list. From MaPS (2nd ed) chapter 11, "God is basic Fact or Actuality, the source of all other facthood. At all costs therefore He must not be thought of as a featureless generality. If He exists at all, He is the most concrete thing there is, the most individual, 'organised and minutely articulated' [borrowing a phrase from Blake regarding representing a Spirit in art]." (Victor's reference, which is also to the point, comes from chp 10, "Horrid Red Things"; itself based originally on a paper Lewis wrote that can be found in _God and the Dock_.)

And indeed, looking at that whole chapter, I think it answers more strongly than anything else Lewis wrote, where he would probably have landed in the privative vs. positive aseity debate. And it wouldn't be on the side of the classical privatists.

When the topics are thus distinguished and untangled a bit, it can be seen that Lewis' agreement with the A-list, in regard to divine simplicity and surrounding topics, is most strongly centered on the affirmation of a single IF. The A-list, due to some important topical overlaps, may consider divine simplicity to entail a lack of personal characteristics for God (appearances or scriptural language aside), probably via conflation with privative aseity; but Lewis soundly rejected this as an implication for divine simplicity. Again from MaPS, shortly afterward, same chapter:

"And here the subject of imagery, which crossed our path in the last chapter, can be seen in a new light. For it is just the recognition of God's positive and concrete reality which the religious imagery preserves. The crudest Old Testament picture of Jahweh thundering and lighting [sic] out of dense smoke, making mountains skip like rams, threatening, promising, pleading, even changing His mind, transmits that sense of _living_ Deity which evaporates in abstract thought. Even sub-Christian images--even a Hindoo [sic] idol with a hundred hands--gets in _something_ which mere 'religion' in our own days has left out. We rightly reject [the sub-Christian image], for by itself it would encourage the most blackguardly of superstitions, the adoration of mere power. Perhaps we may rightly reject much of the Old Testament imager. But we must be clear why we are doing so: not because the images are too strong but because they are too weak."

Jason Pratt

PS: it looks like I'll be out of the office from Wed until Friday, or maybe Monday Oct 9th. I'll check back then. Hope this is helpful meanwhile.