As an agnostic, I find the argument between intellectual Christians over whether God is a person or the Ground of Being interesting. On one side are Protestants like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne (God is a person, not merely some abstract Ground of Being). On the other are Catholics like Edward Feser and Thomas Aquinas (God is prior to personhood). Here’s Feser framing the debate:
The God of classical theism — of Athanasius and Augustine, Avicenna and Maimonides, Anselm and Aquinas — is (among other things) pure actuality, subsistent being itself, absolutely simple, immutable, and eternal. Critics of classical theism sometimes allege that such a conception of God makes of him something sub-personal and is otherwise incompatible with the Christian conception. As I have argued many times (e.g. here, here, here, and here) nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, to deny divine simplicity or the other attributes distinctive of the classical theist conception of God is implicitly to make of God a creature rather than the creator. For it makes of him a mere instance of a kind, even if a unique instance. It makes of him something which could in principle have had a cause of his own, in which case he cannot be the ultimate explanation of things. It is, accordingly, implicitly to deny the core of theism itself. As David Bentley Hart writes in The Experience of God (in a passage I had occasion to quote recently), it amounts to a kind of “mono-poly-theism,” or indeed to atheism.
Never mind that in the above passage Feser, in a bit of incoherence, repeatedly refers to God as he. Instead, focus on what Feser is arguing. He’s saying that if you think of God as literally a person–the greatest of ghost persons, with or without a ghost dick–who prefers and makes in the way that you prefer and make, you basically have a notion of God indistinguishable from a demiurge (a god like Zeus or Baal):
Theistic personalists are, as I have said, explicitly or implicitly committed to regarding God as an instance of a kind. Their core thesis, to the effect that God is “a person without a body” (Swinburne) or that “there is such a person as God” (Plantinga), seems to give us something like the following picture: There’s the genus person and under it the two species embodied persons and disembodied persons. Disembodied persons is, in turn, a genus relative to the species disembodied souls, angelic persons, and divine persons. And it’s in the latter class, it seems, that you’ll find God.
And from here, Feser goes on the attack, his critique of personalistic theism ironically adopting the ridiculing tone–and even argumentative form–of new atheists like Richard Dawkins:
For the theistic personalist, then, the biblical assertion that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” seems to amount to something like “a certain instance of a species within the genus disembodied persons acquired a body.” Now, when you think about it, that’s essentially the plot of Ghostbusters II. Not as bad as the critics took it to be, I suppose, but hardly the Greatest Story Ever Told. […] What you’ve got then is […] the Incarnation as a movie pitch: […] I think we can get Anthony Hopkins, though maybe he’ll worry about typecasting after the Thor movies. Anyway, God’s an Intelligent Designer too, like Downey, Jr. in Iron Man but with angels. We’ll show him making bacterial flagella and stuff — CGI’s pretty good now, so it’ll look realistic. Now, here’s the twist: He takes on a human body and comes to earth! It’s The Ten Commandments meets Brother from Another Planet.
This is coming, recall, from a Catholic. And Feser continues:
Well, we’ve seen that movie a hundred times. Horus was incarnate in the Pharaohs, Zeus changed into a swan, the Marvel Comics version of Thor took on the human guise of Donald Blake, and so on. If God were, as theistic personalism claims, “a person” and “a being” alongside all the other persons and beings that populate the world, then he would differ only in degree from these other gods.
Okay, that’s ridiculous. If God really exists, God is not like that. But what’s the alternative? Here’s Feser again:
Now for the classical theist, God is not “a being” — not because he lacks being but on the contrary because he is Being Itself rather than something which merely “has” or “possesses” being (in “every possible world” or otherwise). Nor is he “a person” — not because he is impersonal but on the contrary because he is Intellect Itself rather than something which merely “exemplifies” “properties” like intellect and will. (As I have put it before, the problem with the sentence “God is a person” is not the word “person” but the word “a.”) Describing God as “a being” or “a person” trivializes the notion of God, and it thereby trivializes too the notion of God Incarnate.
For the classical theist, what the doctrine of God Incarnate entails is that that which is subsistent being itself, pure actuality, and absolutely simple or non-composite, that in which all things participate but which itself participates in nothing, that which thereby sustains all things in being — that that “became flesh and dwelt among us.” That is a truly astounding claim, so astounding that its critics often accuse it of incoherence.
And that’s the problem. You’ve got a child’s conception of God–which Feser ably dismantles–or you’ve got accusations of incoherence.
I see this very debate as yet another example of theism in a state of serious intellectual crisis in the 21st century. You have intellectual Catholics summing up Protestantism as (at best) demiurgic polytheism and at worst atheism, and you’ve got intellectual Protestants summing up Catholicism as (at best) incoherent and at worst atheism (because the Ground of Being promoted by Thomists like Feser is simply too abstract a peg on which to hang a truly personal God). Both sides are highly, highly educated and well-versed in the issues at stake. Both sides have thought about God’s nature a lot. And they can’t agree, dismissing one another’s view of God as ultimately a subtle form of atheism.
What if they’re both right?