The Future of Philosophical Theism

Anselm refers to God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived, on the basis of which he argues for God’s absolute and immutable perfection. If God were to change, God would either be better or worse than before — which means that there would something conceivably better than God, namely, some past or future instance of Himself. Since to say ‘there is something conceivably better than that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is to utter an outright contradiction, God’s perfection must be absolutely immutable.

Charles Hartshorne, perhaps best known for his defense of a modified version of the ontological argument, challenges Anselm’s understanding of divine perfection. At an existential level, love seems to imply that the lover rejoice in the joys and share in the sufferings of the beloved. So, if God loves us creatures, then His own happiness must in some way vary with ours — however changeless His power, wisdom, and glory may be.

Hartshorne charges that Anselm’s concept of absolute perfection is metaphysically incoherent: An absolutely perfect being is a being that possesses actually all possible perfection. But the notion of possessing actually all possible perfection is absurd since, as Hartshorne puts it in Reality as Social Progress, “it implies that mutual incompatible possibilities are co-actualized.” For example, it is surely good to be a bird and to possess wings, just as it is good to be human and possess hands. But to possess one or the other implies limitation; and winged-handed beasts would surely have their own specific limitations as well. Since the actualization of some possible perfection is always at the expense of the actualization of other possibilities, to claim that “God possesses all possible perfections” is to say that the simultaneous possession of incompossibles is possible – a contradiction to be sure. God’s perfection cannot, therefore, be absolute in the way Anselm thinks it is. Hartshorne proposes instead a notion of perfection according to which God is that than which no other being can be greater, except for future instances of Himself. God is not an unmoved mover; God is that being unsurpassable by all other beings other than God. Anselm’s and Hartshorne’s position are usually designated as classical theism and neo-classical theism respectively.

I think Hartshorne is correct is arguing that for classical theism, the distinction between possibility and actuality ultimately breaks down. At least one proponent of classical theism, Nicholas Cusanus (1401 – 1464), argues explicitly that it must collapse. One finds a splendidly concise presentation of his argument in the sixth chapter of the dialogue entitled De Possest or, following Jasper Hopkins’ translation, On Actualized Possibility. I have paraphrased the argument elsewhere as follows: “Relative possibilities often pre-exist their co-relative actualities; the mound of clay pre-exists the sculptor’s masterpiece. Absolute possibility cannot, however, pre-exist absolute actuality; for the possible cannot become actual save through the actual. Further, absolute actuality cannot pre-exist possibility; for if absolute actuality were not possible, it could not actually be. So since neither absolute possibility nor absolute actuality is prior to the other, each coincides with the other.” Cusanus also argues that God must simultaneously possess perfections that are in the created realm otherwise incompatible; consider the following argument taken from his first and most famous work, On Divine Ignorance: “The absolute maximum [God] is actually everything that can possibly be (omnis id quod esse potest). The minimum is that than which there is no lesser, i.e., it is the absolutely smallest possible. Therefore, the maximum, which is all possibles, must be the minimum.” (Should classical theists be tempted to dismiss Cusanus as a Renaissance aberration, I would argue that something like his doctrine of the coincidence of opposites in God must be the case for any system of classical theism in which God is said to be able to create or not create, to create other worlds incompossible with the actual world, and to contain virtually or eminently the perfection of all possible creations.)

For Cusanus the emergence of such apparently contradictory conclusions is not a reason for abandoning classical theism; but for Hartshorne it is. The difference can be explained in part when one considers the motivation behind their respective speculative projects. For Hartshorne, speculative philosophy is, in the words of Whitehead, “the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general terms in which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” To the extent that something fails to be described in those terms, even God, the system is deemed inadequate. For Cusanus, on the other hand, speculative philosophy is one means by which one prepares oneself for deeper, more intimate union with God that lies beyond discursive reasoning. Classical theism (a discursive habit of mind that attempts to show that certain predicates belong to God necessarily) anticipates negative, mystical theology (a silencing of discursive reason in expectation of an immediate union with God through love) as its proper fulfillment.

Note, however, that while the neo-classical theist may reject classical theism as simply incoherent, classical theism cannot so quickly dismiss its apparent rival. If classical theism anticipates the collapse of the contrary concepts characteristic of discursive reason, then the sharp distinctions between such pairs of opposites like act and potency or being and becoming – contrasts that especially typical of the metaphysical systems from which classical theism received its initial impetus – invite rethinking. For example, classically the notion of receptivity implies potentiality, which in turn implies imperfection; and yet we find a contemporary classical theist like Norris Clarke rethinking the issue in his 1993 Aquinas Lecture entitled Person and Being. Clarke states: “In the lower levels of being, indeed, receptivity is woven in with poverty, incompleteness, the process of change from potentiality to actuality. As we move higher in the scale of being, however, specifically into the personal, it turns more and more into an active, welcoming, gratefully responsive attitude, which is a positive joy-bringing aspect of personal relations.” True to has classical roots, Clarke immediately adds, “and if all change and time is removed from it, so that the receiver always possesses what it has as gift, as in the case of the inner life of the divine persons in the Christian Trinity, then receptivity, represented archetypically by the Second Person as Son and Word, must be a purely positive perfection connatural to being itself.” (My emphasis)

I am not surprised to find within the works of an especially astute student of classical theism like Clarke the assertion ‘receptivity must be a purely positive perfection connatural to being itself’, no matter how grating such an assertion might at first strike the classical theist’s ear. It is indicative of what I hope will be a the future progress of philosophical theism over the next century or so, namely a synthesis of the classical and neo-classical paradigms of divinity – a synthesis every bit as momentous as the synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelianism in the works of thinkers like Aquinas and a synthesis, I believe, called by the very aspiration of classical theism itself.

To that end, I propose to the reader the juxtaposition of three simple arguments from Anselm, Hartshorne, and Cusanus respectively. At play in their differences are some of the most primordial of our metaphysical concepts, concepts like the actual, the possible, the existent, change, time, limit, lack of limit, negation and perfection; and at stake is the most unassailable of all philosophical principles, the principle of non-contradiction. I do not yet know what sort of spark might fly from this titanic clash of flint and steel, but I recommend their juxtaposition as an object of frequent meditation for aspiring metaphysicians.