God exists, and is responsible for the existence of all that is, has been or will be. By definition, all ‘beings’ by definition rely on God (as I will explain). Yet too often we are told that God is an anthropomorphic, sentient being, who consciously chose to create the universe. I disagree with this.
The Egyptian-Greek philosopher Plotinus also disagreed. Plotinus said that God had to be completely simple, for if God consisted of multiple parts, then God would have causes, and could not be the first cause of all. He criticised Aristotle, for positing that the first cause had to be a mind, for if a mind was responsible for the universe, it had to be thinking of something else, so could not be completely simple.
I have adapted Plotinus’ argument thus:
- There must be a first principle of all to explain why the world exists.
- This principle has to be completely simple, to prevent it from having a cause in itself.
- If this cause was a mind, it could not be simple, since it would be thinking of something else.
- Therefore the first cause is non-sentient.
- There can only be one first cause, for two or more first causes would require attributes to distinguish them, which would violate their simplicity.
- Therefore, there is only one first cause, which is non-sentient.
In addition to this, it is wrong to give God commonly given attributes such as Omnipotence, Omniscience, Necessity, etc, for these would imply that God has traits, which he does not. I believe we should therefore follow Maimonides in describing God apophatically. God can only be described by what he isn’t. (that being said, it is not wrong to say that God has no limits to his power, since that is a negative attribute)
After this introduction, I would observe that,—as has already been shown—God’s existence is absolute, that it includes no composition, as will be proved, and that we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence. Consequently it is a false assumption to hold that He has any positive attribute: for He does not possess existence in addition to His essence: it therefore cannot be said that the one may be described as an attribute [of the other]; much less has He [in addition to His existence] a compound essence, consisting of two constituent elements to which the attribute could refer: still less has He accidents, which could be described by an attribute. Hence it is clear that He has no positive attribute whatever. The negative attributes, however, are those which are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe concerning God;
Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed (pp. 61-62). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.
In edition to this, we can conclude that the first cause of the universe (thus being what we must identify as God if we wish to avoid polytheism), is ‘being’. It should not be controversial that all things rely on being in order to be, even if the universe is eternal or exists as a brute fact.
How can we reconcile such ideas with scripture?
Well, lets begin with Genesis 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Nothing I have just said contradicts this scriptural fact, for I accept God as the first cause for all that is. What is harder, at least for fundamentalist readers is the idea of God creating the earth through speech, for surely this implies God is sentient and anthropomorphic. What about the fact that God pronounced everything he created good?
First things first. Yes, God has speech in Genesis, but Genesis also mentions an ocean in the sky, daylight being independent from the sun, and the moon emitting light. The point being is that Genesis does not truly speak of ‘how’ God truly created the world, but it’s main message is ‘that’ God created the world. One does not need to believe that God literally said everything is good to know that everything is good.
Jacob having a wrestling match with God?
An allegory for how humans suffer with understanding the truth of God and his ways, and how this is just a healthy part of faith, as shown by how Jacob is renamed ‘Israel’, the name held by the bearers of God’s covenant for the rest of time.
How then does divine inspiration work?
Here is where I depart with mainstream religious orthodoxy. I see Moses, Solomon, Isaiah, and other great religious figures as ‘mystics’ who understood great truths about God and being (seeing God face to face), and constructed theologies about how to approach being, theology which is in many cases still relevant today.
But how could ancient people have apprehended this fundamental reality thousands of years before Plotinus?
Well, as Karen Armstrong explains, the inhabitants of the Ancient Near East absolutely had an idea of the fundamental reality, which the Akkadians called Ilam (divinity):
In the Middle East, the region in which the Western monotheisms would develop, there was a similar notion of the ultimate. In Mesopotamia, the Akkadian word for ‘divinity’ was ilam, a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. The gods were not the source of ilam but, like everything else, could only reflect it. The chief characteristic of this ‘divinity’ was ellu (‘holiness’), a word that had connotations of ‘brightness’, ‘purity’ and ‘luminosity’. The gods were called the ‘holy ones’ because their symbolic stories, effigies and cultus evoked the radiance of ellu for their worshippers. The people of Israel called their patronal deity, the ‘holy one’ of Israel, Elohim, a Hebrew variant on ellu that summed up everything that the divine could mean for human beings. But holiness was not confined to the gods. Anything that came into contact with divinity could become holy too: a priest, a king or a temple – even the sacred utensils of the cult.
The main innovation of Moses, the first great mystic of the Hebrews, was to combine the Mesopotamian concept of transcendent divinity (which Moses called YHWH) with the old Semitic sky god El Shaddai/El Elyon, so that divinity and God became one and the same. So it is easy to see how such ideas could have developed in the Ancient Near East before Plotinus.
I propose we need to find a new way to think of prayer. Rather than praying to expect actual benefits (which requires a personal God), we should pray to form a relationship with the ultimate reality, YHWH, The One, Elohim, Ilam, Brahman, Dao, whatever you wish to call it, so that we may gain a higher level of knowledge of truth.
I also propose we need to think of judgement, heaven and hell in a new way. Obviously, if God is not personal, he cannot judge us. At the end of our lives however, we will either feel accomplished, for our deeds we have done, or dissatisfied for living lives which could have been much better. That is how heaven and hell work in my theology.
The following conclusions can be made:
- The first cause of all that is is being itself.
- Being must be identified with God to avoid polytheism.
- Being has a be a simple force, to avoid it having ontological beginning.
- Being must therefore be non-sentient, to remain simple.
- God is therefore non-sentient, ‘The One’.
- God cannot be positively described, as this implies God has traits, and is therefore not simple.
- This theology can still be reconciled with the writings of the Israelite prophets.
rkb ‘rpt, out!