Is God a Person or The Ground of Being?

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. hereherehere, 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 itselfpure 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?


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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18 Responses to Is God a Person or The Ground of Being?

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    I’m personally somewhere between agnostcism and atheism, but the personalists are wrong, obviously. They can’t respond logically to Feser, so they do the next best thing, which is, essentially, to accuse him of blasphemy. Fair enough, I suppose, since a kind of blaphemy is implicit in Feser’s approach as well, but what kind is unclear. What could possibly anger such an entity?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      My problem with Feser is that he assumes that he can, by his considerable intellect and clarity of expression, decisively win arguments about matters that are, by their very nature, uncertain and larded with ambiguity (and possible errors of judgment all along the way). He is, in other words, a Don Quixote fighting for a metaphysical position that he thinks can be won by simply stating it clearly. He thinks he can corner Protestants and atheists in their metaphysical evasions in such a way that they will be compelled, if they are fair-minded, to see it his way.

      But the problem isn’t with the metaphysical argument, it’s with experience, evidence, experiment. In other words, Feser falters on Hume. Hume famously said that we need experience to support our arm-chair reasoning–but God ain’t talking. So we just have to muddle through and be cautious. But Feser is a confidence man. He thinks he can arrive at certainty by metaphysical argument alone, absent evidence. Feser talks a good game, but never shows us the money (because God never shows us the money).

      Thus Feser’s greatest enemy is God’s silence. God frustrates Feser in the way that the multiverse frustrates physicists who are sure it exists. If you don’t have a way to bridge the gap between theory and reality by experience and experiment, you can never be quite certain that you’re not fooling yourself.

      But Feser has set it as his task to move the intellectual cosmos away from materialism and Protestantism back–way, way back–to medieval Scholasticism by metaphysical argument alone. But that tape has already run in history, and it ran away from Scholasticism. The only way it would ever run back is for EVIDENCE to emerge that Scholastic ways of thinking are true.

      Short of this, it’s all just big talk.

      At a subconscious level, I bet Feser has a bit of rage at God. Feser has to work so, so hard to defend God because God, in his silence and hiddenness, doesn’t bother to defend himself (itself). Does God see all the heavy lifting that Feser does on his (its) behalf? Defending God intellectually can get exhausting, and so Feser takes it out, not on God, but by being impatient with atheists and Protestants who can’t keep up–and maybe Feser goes home and kicks his dog. All God has to do, after all, is speak or do something unambiguously miraculous, and all the metaphysical argumentation and precise intellectual hair-splitting could be done with.

      • Mikels Skele says:

        You hit the nail on the head. Theorizing about the true nature of the Easter Bunny is a thankless task.

      • Mikels Skele says:

        On reflection, however, I think it is quite acceptable to argue such things on the basis of their internal coherence. By that I mean, is your position consistent with your stated premise? I think Feser tops his adversaries easily on that count.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I agree that Feser is very good on that account. But in my own reading of a couple of his books, his internal consistency–his Hermeticism, if you will–is achieved by throwing down, here and there, bridges of “logical possibility” across his arguments that are dubious. For example, in his book on the mind, he argues that a perfect mapping of every thought and behavior to specific neuronal brain activity would not disprove the soul, which is true. But who would still believe in the soul if science reached that point with the brain? It would be like arguing that H20 is not a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of water. Feser’s form of argumentation boils down to metaphysical apologetics on behalf of a God thesis he means to defend against all enemies. His reasoning, being motivated to this high degree, necessarily leads to folly at various points (in which he doesn’t see the forest for the trees). It’s a human folly. We’re all motivated reasoners; we all do it to some degree. But trying to bring motivated reasoning down a peg is part of the difficult practice of critical thinking. “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort” (Orwell).

  2. Eneraldo Carneiro says:

    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.
    What is baffling about all this is that it doesn’t make any sense at all. “he is Being Itself”, “he is Intelect Itself” (it should be ‘himself’, or ‘it is’ instead of ‘he is’ isn’t it?) are just meaningless propositions. Both sides are just throwing pompous bullshit at each other.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I like that you caught his interchanging of “it” and “he.”

    • davmash says:

      I know you were making a bit of joke at the end, but you actually nailed the point on the head: they actually _are_ both right! I had this dawning realization recently that this very point is the core essence of the Holy Trinity: God the Father is Being Itself, the Oneness of all things; Jesus is 100% God but also a man (the “Person” God described above); and the Holy Spirit, far from coming into you _is_ you, it is _your_ essential Being when exposed from the filth of sin surrounding and obscuring it. In this way, “God in Three Persons” (which I guess is just a bit of a misnomer for the theology I’m describing here), is why the whole thing is so mysterious. Because all three are equivalent, not parts of a whole at all. This is why Jesus “shows us the Way”: because there is also an equivalency between our deepest self (Holy Trinity) and Jesus in whom we see this mysteriously confusing equivalency with the timeless formless One Being, God, the Great I Am (also “the Father” in the sense that he is the creator of the universe and more directly the creator of Jesus’ human life). This also connects the ideas of Christianity to the Eastern religions that talk of Enlightenment, and that is another valid angle you can see it from as well.

      Thanks for the post, found it very interesting, hope this finds you well!

  3. Eneraldo Carneiro says:

    Sorry. Broken blockquote.

  4. Cloud2013 says:

    Good summary thanks. I don’t know if I buy your last paragraph, but that’s just the way it is.

  5. Pingback: Edward Feser Thinks God Flashed Fire Upon Elijah’s Sacrifice | Prometheus Unbound

  6. KD says:

    I find this rather silly. God is spoken of in personal language in Abrahamic Religions, because God reveals himself though the Word, originally, the Torah. God speaks. If you look at the story of Sodom in Genesis, here you find Abraham haggling with God to spare the City of Sodom.

    Come to Christianity, you have the claim God becomes incarnate, the incarnate Word, in a person, through whom we are told we know God the Father. God is personal because our knowledge of God is revealed in personal terms (the same way we know our own mothers).

    Now the God of Philosophers is something abstract and cosmic, which gets grafted onto the Abrahamic Religions, and so God becomes both the “ground-of-being” as well as the personal God. One way to view this debate is not about personalism vs. “ground-of-being” (as both groups will speak in both idioms), but rather which God has primacy, the God of Revelation, or the God of the Philosophers? [And Pascal’s ruminations are compelling here.]

    Obviously, given the general ignorance of ancient philosophy, the God of the Philosophers is inaccessible to most modern people, so from the standpoint of mass marketing, perhaps personalism will take the day, as that standpoint is more amenable to a classy line of tattoos. Most people don’t even grasp the problem of the One and Many, which arose out of ancient attempts at philosophical understanding–not apologetics–so how could they understand the One? Even those who studied the problem had difficulties grasping the One (because it is by definition ungraspable).

    One interesting feature of the discussion is the Christian Doctrine of Trinity, which affirms that God consists of Three Persons, a sacred community so to speak, and it does not seem that Feser’s version of the One is necessarily compatible with the Trinitarian view. Moreover, a more careful speaker, like Swinburne, might note that the “Personhood” as it applies to God is the true meaning of “Personhood”, whereas “personhood” as applied to a human being (imago dei) is personhood in a derivative and inferior sense, so Feser’s argument fails because it presupposes univocity with respect to “personhood”.

    Most of these debates grow out of different sets of underlying philosophical assumptions, which lead to different elucidations concerning the nature of God. The form of argument is to accuse the other side of being wrong, e.g. atheists. This doesn’t mean God is in trouble, it means that you have philosophers doing what they do best, quibbling over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether the incarnation is special if God is really a person, etc. Honestly speaking, the God of Revelation doesn’t actually need help from philosophers, He is doing pretty well at improving his global share of devoted Earthlings.

    • Andrew Davis says:

      Great comment!

      “Personhood” as it applies to God is the true meaning of “Personhood”, whereas “personhood” as applied to a human being (imago dei) is personhood in a derivative and inferior sense.

      Hit the nail on the head.

    • davmash says:

      Lol, had not read your post when I made mine about the Trinity. I think both are valid points.

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