The Divine Attributes: Why an Imperfect God Just Won’t Do
In this past winter, the New York Times Opinion Pages released a popular blog post entitled “An Imperfect God”. Traditionally, theists, especially Judeo-Christian theists, believe in and defend a belief in a God who is perfect, that is, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good, immutable, etc. The NY Times article, however, written by philosopher and biblical scholar Yoram Hazony, currently the president of the Institute for Advance Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, argues that theists, in the face of the recent onslaught of “New Atheism,” ought to reconsider this traditional position:
Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done. In fact, part of the reason God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so influential (apart from the fact they write so well) is their insistence that the doctrine of God’s perfections makes no sense, and that the idealized “being” it tells us about doesn’t resemble the biblical God at all.1
Hazony’s solution: abandon claims about a “Perfect God” in favor of a much more defensible and supposedly biblical “Imperfect God.” Nonetheless, such a solution betrays a thorough misunderstanding of the perfection attributed to God by traditional, particularly Christian, theists. Instead of presenting God’s perfection as a dynamic, infinite, unbounded mystery, a reality who eternally discloses himself to us through Creation and Revelation, Hazony represents the traditional perfect God as a static, finite, and bounded ideality, doomed to self-contradiction and inconsistency. In fact, not only is a “Perfect God” philosophically and biblically consistent, but actually God’s perfection, when properly understood, is inalienably essential to traditional Judeo-Christian theology. Quite simply, an “Imperfect God” is no God at all, at least not the Judeo-Christian one.
Hazony provides two examples of supposed inconsistencies in the traditional view of God. First, he gives a general formulation of the classic Problem of Evil: if God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and yet also omnibenevolent (perfectly good), how can it be that we experience and recognize so much injustice and evil in the world which he created? Let us consider this first accusation, for a moment, in order to illustrate how a misconception of these perfections arises. One might easily give Hazony the Christian apologist’s stock reply to this common criticism: the fact that God permits evil in the world does not entail that he causes it. For example, just because a parent might permit her miscreant child to go out to a party does not mean that she caused her child get in a drunk-driving accident. Nevertheless, neither Hazony, nor any other critic for that matter, is likely to be impressed with this response: after all, isn’t our answer just a weak rationalization? Sure, one can give this stock Christian response, but it does not give any comfort or provide any assurance: we still haven’t really answered the question, the question of why God permits it.
But likewise, we ought not let Hazony get away with his own weak rationalization: it is not enough for him to say, “There is evil and injustice in the world. Therefore, if God is real, He can’t be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.” After all, there is no logical necessity here: what is needed is a deeper exploration of the meaning of omnipotent and omnibenevolent, an exploration that makes evident their logical inconsistency with the existence of evil and injustice in the world. For the theist, the same exploration is needed: an exploration of omnipotence and omnibenevolence that illuminates why God permits injustice.
It is precisely here that we stumble into something very odd about the traditional theistic conception of God: divine simplicity. God is said to be perfectly simple: his justice, benevolence, power, immutability, etc. are inextricably bound in one, perfectly simple being. But what’s more, God is not even understood as “a” being but rather as Being Himself, as Act itself. In Thomistic terms (i.e., theology in the tradition of the great 13th century Christian theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas), God’s essence (essentia) is identical to his existence, for he is unconditional activity, the ultimate to be itself (esse). God, in traditional theology, is unbounded in a radical way. He is infinitely active. Eternal. And yet all these perfections, all these divine characteristics, converge in one absolute simplicity. All this is to say that traditional Christian philosophy turns-the-tables on critics like Hazony: the difficultly is not, as Hazony suggests, illustrating that God’s omnipotence is compatible with his omnibenevolence but rather showing that God could be omnipotent without being omnibenevolent, for to be omnipotent is also to be omnibenevolent in traditional theology. If God were all-powerful but not all-good, he would be lacking some power, the power of the perfectly good; likewise, if God were perfectly good but not all-powerful, he could be even more good if he were more powerful and hence is not perfectly good after all.
The result is that God’s perfections (e.g. omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc.) cannot be treated like mere tokens, like representations standing in for properties that we can comprehend, as if God were just a bigger, stronger, and more moral human being, like a titan or superhero to whom philosophers have given a list of superpowers. Indeed, that we cannot grasp or fully comprehend what it means to be omnipotent or omnibenevolent should not be surprising. If we could, it would not be omnipotence or omnibenevolence. Instead, these properties, these words, guide our theology like shafts of light illuminating, only partially, the mystery that is God: they themselves are not God but rather point us toward He Who Is (Exodus 3:13-14). Yes we have names for them (e.g. omnipotence, omnibenevolence, immutability, etc.), but the names are necessarily incomplete articulations, for they indicate something beyond articulation: God, the voice from the whirlwind that silences Job’s mutterings; Yahweh, the one whose name cannot be spoken.
Let us apply this to Hazony’s second “inconsistency.” He wonders how God, relying on his omnipotence, can interact with his creation if He himself is unequivocally immutable. If immutable means absolutely static, as if God were a kind of ethereal rock hidden in the heavens, then, of course, Hazony is right: we should worry about an inconsistency. But God, in addition to being immutable, is also said to be absolutely dynamic, that is, Act Itself. What is required, then, is a deeper penetration of the meaning of immutability. Indeed, rather than designating inactivity, the perfection of “immutability” indicates just the opposite, that is, it indicates God’s total lack of potentiality: if God were to change, then he was not All that Is, for he has become something new and hence was lacking in whatever was added. There is nothing for God to change into, for he lacks nothing and is complete in himself: He is the fullness of reality.
Here, we can use an analogy, which, whilst not giving the fullness of God’s immutability, may perhaps allow us to better understand what we mean by immutability and thus understand its consistency with God’s involvement in his mutable creation. Here is the analogy: Aristotle speaks of stability or immutability character, associating it with virtue. The virtuous man has a stable character in that he is dependable and trustworthy, for he can be counted upon to be himself, as who he is is the best that he can be and hence there is no reason for him to act otherwise. He is faithful. His actions are indeed diverse, changing according to the particular factors involved in each given situation, whilst nevertheless all proceeding from one stable character. It is in this sense that we can analogically understand God’s immutability.
This brings us to Hazony’s accusation that a “Perfect God” is inconsistent with biblical revelation:
The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he’s repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants.2
Such cherry-picking of biblical passages, although all too common amongst critics of Christianity, is frankly surprising in a professional biblical scholar. It’s worth noting that all Hazony’s passages come from the Old Testament, that his comments are actually interpretations of those passages, and that he ignores the quite obvious references to God’s perfection in the New Testament (e.g., “Be you perfect as your Father is perfect”).3 Moreover, Hazony’s claim that “it’s hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) thought of God in this way at all” is rather puzzling.4 Perhaps he did not search very long, as critics often do, for, whilst no passage may explicitly use the terms “immutable,” “omnipotent,” etc., these divine attributes are implicitly prevalent throughout, especially in the Psalms.
Though Hazony is right to point out that these philosophical terms are not used explicitly, that does not make their attribution to God false. On the contrary, they capture (admittedly in a less full sense) through a philosophical concept what the Bible accomplishes through the narrative of salvation history: God’s immutable love for his people, God’s power over all creation, God’s protection of all that is just and good, God’s transcendent majesty, God’s covenant with his people, and God’s merciful faithfulness to that Covenant, despite the frequent unfaithfulness of His people. Nevertheless, this still leaves us with some passages that seem antithetical to God’s supposed perfection, such as those cherry-picked by Hazony. Here again, we must move beyond a mere rationalization to the question of why, penetrating deeper into the meaning of these perfections imputed to God.
In defending his “Imperfect God,” Hazony tries to unpack the meaning of “perfect”: “Normally, when we say that something is “perfect,” we mean it has attained the best possible balance among the principles involved in making it the kind of thing it is.” He continues, “You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.”5 Ironically, then, Hazony does want to defend a “Perfect God” after all, just a God whose perfection is more after Hazony’s own heart, namely wherein perfection consists in balance rather than maximization.
But Hazony once again overlooks something so obvious yet so critically important: God, at least in traditional Judeo-Christian theology, is not a “thing” at all. Indeed, God is the Personal Reality whom we discover through rational reflection on Creation and through the divine inspiration of faith, that is, the Reality who discloses Himself to us through His Creation and Revelation. Hazony, however, speaks of “God” as if it is a human invention, a concept we have constructed ourselves: we already understand all its parts and need only discover the proper proportions in order to maximize its perfection.
Opposed to this is the traditional theological understanding of God as pure, simple, spontaneous, unlimited Act – all these apophatic qualifiers point to One who is beyond the circumscribing limits of conceptualization. This is not to say that God transcends logic and that beliefs about God can be contradictory – such an irrational stance is antithetical to traditional Christian theology, despite the best effort of atheistic propagandists to say otherwise. Rather, it is to say that the terms involved in theological reasoning exceed a circumcising, definitional human comprehension: indeed, we cannot pretend to know the essence of God, to know what it means to be omnipotent, omniscient, or any such thing, except by analogy from the traits we do know in his Creation. At most, we know of God that it is so: for example, we know of God that he is omnipotent, though we do not understand fully the meaning of omnipotence.
Now, there is certain sense in which Hazony recognizes and establishes this transcendent character of the divine. Adding to previously mentioned criticisms, Hazony expresses disdain for what he sees as a presumptuous pretense of knowledge that exceed mortal bounds: “…the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary in just this way. Even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, is told that he can’t see God’s face, but can only catch a glimpse of God’s back as he passes by.”6 However, Hazony erroneously concludes from this that attributing perfections such as omnipotence or immutability to God is a kind of “pagan conceit.” For this reason, we must distinguish between two kinds of apophaticism, that is, two ways of understanding the limits of our knowledge of the transcendent. The 20th century Christian philosopher Josef Pieper writes of this distinction,
The term “unknowable” is literally capable of several or at least of two meanings. It can indicate something that “in itself ” is capable of being known, but which a particular knowing faculty is unable to grasp because it lacks a sufficient power of penetration…But this term “unknowable” can have another significance, namely that no such possibility of being known is given, that there is nothing to be known…Unknowability in the latter sense, namely that something real should in itself be unknowable, would be for St. Thomas simply preposterous… Accordingly, for St. Thomas, the unknowable can never denote something in itself dark and impenetrable, but only something that has so much light that a particular finite faculty of knowledge cannot absorb it all. It is too rich to be assimilated completely; it eludes the effort to comprehend it.7
For St. Thomas Aquinas, although they fail to disclose the fullness of their referent, philosophical divine attributes such as omnipotence, immutability, etc., truly belong to God and illuminate, albeit slightly and incompletely, the divine. Reason and philosophy can play a supporting role to faith and dogmatic theology, providing the praeambula fidei (“preambles of faith”). On the other hand, Hazony’s version of apophaticism restricts theists to a kind of fideism, wherein our rational concept “God,” a human construct, is radically divorced from the subject of our faith, the non-conceptual, personal God. The result is confused, even contradictory: Hazony quotes Donald Harman Akenson, saying that “The God of Hebrew Scripture is meant to be an ‘embodiment of what is, of reality’ as we experience it,” seemingly making God an abstract conceptualization of the deepest yearnings of our human hearts. Hence, he writes,
God’s abrupt shifts from action to seeming indifference and back, his changing demands from the human beings standing before him, his at-times devastating responses to mankind’s deeds and misdeeds — all these reflect the hardship so often present in the lives of most human beings. To be sure, the biblical God can appear with sudden and stunning generosity as well, as he did to Israel at the Red Sea. And he is portrayed, ultimately, as faithful and just. But these are not the “perfections” of a God known to be a perfect being. They don’t exist in his character “necessarily,” or anything remotely similar to this. On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith…8
Based on this, Hazony argues that the God of the ancient Israelites is “more realistic” than the God “descended from the tradition of Greek thought.” Here, the author does reveal something important: the ancient Judeo-Christian God is more realistic than that of the Idealistic traditions of Greek thought, such as that found in Plato and in later European Rationalists such as Descartes, wherein a radical dualism separates the intellectual-spiritual from the physical-material. However, this greater realism is not, as Hazony suggests, the result of lowering one’s standards of perfection for the sake of a defensible, believable, albeit in a certain sense “imperfect” God. Indeed, Hazony has conflated epistemic and metaphysical issues: though God is epistemically indeterminate as a result of the finitude of our minds, this need not mean that metaphysically God is unknowable in himself. Using St. Thomas’ distinction between two kinds of unknowability, we can characterize our epistemic limitations with respect to God as the blindness not of one lost in a cave of impenetrable darkness but rather of one dazzled by the brilliance of pure light, Light Himself. This in turn allows for a harmonious relationship between faith and reason, whereby, instead of a blind hope, faith becomes a divine gift whereby we can penetrate more deeply the inexhaustible brilliance of the same being known by reason: our own being, the being of Creation, and Being Himself.
Hazony makes the same mistake as the New Atheists: they think of God as an invented human construct and his attributes as names we immediately assign to him, as if theists were like children imagining terrific superheroes with a list of spectacular superpowers. In traditional theology, however, God is not immediately known but reasoned to. Theological philosophers relying on natural reason do not start with God and his divine attributes but instead describe the perfect God by reasoning analogically from created perfections in world around them; similarly, the theologians relying on Revelation describe the God of Bible not based on a superficial patching of Biblical passages as Hazony suggests but through deep reflection on the mysteries revealed through this Revelation. Hazony is right to point out that nowhere in the Bible is God said to be “omniscient” or “omnipotent” or “simple” or etc. Instead, these attributes, attributes which are fundamentally circumscribed and unlimited, are expressed through metaphors of God’s royal majesty, of his plumbing depths of the world’s waters, of his heroic courage, etc. Both philosophers and theologians reflect upon and contemplate the things before them, seeking a deeper comprehension through open terms like omnipotent or omniscient, terms which are not limiting but instead invite a continuous search for fuller understanding. If contemplation were put to a quick end by the name “omnipotent,” as if one need only say “God is omnipotent” and that is the end of it, then Hazony’s critique would merit further attention. But, thankfully, words point to a reality beyond themselves. God is God, not omnipotence, even though omnipotent might be one of his attributes.
Thus, the realism of the Judeo-Christian God lies precisely in His transcendent perfection, in his inexhaustible, complete knowability and yet endless unknowability to finite intelligences like our own. For God is He whom we discover (invenio) by the natural light of reason and the supernatural light of faith; he is Reality, not a concept we invent, even though the Latin word invenio, meaning “discover,” has gradually given way to the English word invent, meaning “construct.” Never must one leave the land of intelligibility and rationality in order to make an irrational crossing, however brief, into a new land of a supposed second type of intelligibility: there can only be one intelligibility, open to both natural reason and supernatural faith. Indeed, Aquinas famously explains that faith takes up where reason leaves off, guiding the human subject deeper into one and the same reality whose spontaneous fullness can never be exhausted by human thought, no matter how deeply it penetrates. A theist must never be satisfied with the mere apophatic statements of divine perfection, wherein we affirm God’s transcendence through unconditioned names such as omnipotent, immutable, etc. Indeed, the theist, with heart and mind open to the fullness of reality, must always respond further to the reality disclosed to him by nature and grace, penetrating deeper into the mystery of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, and omnibenevolence, thereby becoming transformed not only in mind but in heart.
1. Yoram Hazony, “An Imperfect God,” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/an-imperfect-god/?emc=eta1.
3. Mt 5:48.
7. Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, trans. by John Murray and Daniel O’Connor, 3rd edition (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 1999) 59-60.
Chris Hauser ’14 is from Barrington, IL. He is a Philosophy and History modified double major.
Image: The Sun by Edvard Munch.Tags: apologetics, Aquinas, Aristotle, atheism, Descartes, Donald Harman Akenson, evil, God, good, injustice, Josef Pieper, logic, love, mystery, philosophy, reason, theism, Yoram Hazony