Lectures on John Courtney Murray's The Problem of God

Chap. 1: The Scriptural Problem: The Presence of God

A. The Old Testament Conception of God

The first thing to note is that one has to suppress a large number of striking texts in order to maintain the now seemingly entrenched claim that the Old and New Testament conceptions of God are incompatible with one another or at least in deep tension with one another, that the OT God is a God of Judgment and Justice and the NT God is a God of Salvation and Love. This picture can be painted only because most of those who are taught it are abysmally ignorant of both the OT and the NT. Anyone who reads the OT carefully will realize that a central Judaic conception of God is that of a faithful lover trying to reform an adulterous spouse; anyone who reads the NT carefully (without ignoring what you don't like) will note many places in which Jesus warns us about how easy it is to be lost ("I will say, 'I do not know you'") and identifies himself as the Judge of the living and the dead. However, there are developments and more importantly, many different facets of the concept in both the OT and NT, and Murray's discussion is excellent for getting at these.

Assumption: "My assumption is that the books of the Old Testament record the events of a sacred history in and through which God revealed himself to the people whom he chose as his own, also record the developing faith of the people in the God who so revealed himself" [p. 5]. Notice, as Murray will make clear below, such a revelation cannot be reduced to a mere religious experience available to everyone by virtue of being a human being. Murray insists that it is part of the distinctiveness of the OT conception of God that God's presence in history and in nature is freely bestowed.


    1. Exegetical Analysis:

    To know the name of someone is (in Judaic culture) to know the person, his function, what he has the power to do, how he relates to you. Murray suggests three possible readings of the tetragrammaton YHWH, and he is aiming to latch on to the meaning which is closest to the human author's intended meaning and the meaning that likely suggested itself to the Judaic reader:

      a. ontological: I am who am. The Absolutely Existent One to whose being there is no limit or restriction. This sense is valid and true, but not the first one that suggests itself to the writers and readers. (Notice here that Murray even at this early stage resists the common claim that there is an incompatibility between biblical and philosophical conceptions of God. Still, it is not ontology that the early Jews are writing. It is the history of God's saving and judgmental actions.

      b. causative/cosmological: I make to be whatever comes to be. God as Creator and Sustainer of Nature. This is not anachronistic, but in the first instance YHWH is their God, the God of their Fathers, the power behind their peculiar history, more than the God of the universe.

      c. intersubjective: I shall be there, with you, in power. This relational or intersubjective sense is probably the one evoked by the whole passage read above. The first revelation is of the God who is powerful enough to saves his people and makes a covenant with them that puts demands on both him and them.

    2. Theological Analysis

    According to Murray the text as understood in the promissory sense contains a threefold revelation:

      a. of God's immanence in history: I shall be there. The initial revelation is that God will come down to save his people; he becomes God-with-his-people through frequent visitations. The name YHWH affirms God's constancy and fidelity to his promises over against the inconstancy and unfaithfulness of his people. In this sense the name YHWH is a banner of the people of Israel which gives them unity and self-identity.

      b. of God's transcendence to history: I shall be there as who I am. Here two aspects of the divine mystery are highlighted:

        i. the divine freedom: God's presence is free and never a function of our calling except insofar as God bids us call and 'binds' himself to us. The initiative is always and everywhere with God; his being is transcendent and not defined in terms of what he can or does do for us. [Say a few words about the scandal of particularity.]

        ii. God as he is in himself: The text is in a sense testimony to the fact that God's name is ineffable. We cannot know God in the way that we can (at least in principle) know created things. [Give some examples.] This conception is starkly anti-immanentist (he does not need the world to be God) and starkly anti-anthropocentric (it hints at what God is independently of any relation to us. God's total transcendence as found in image of God being adored via trisagion by seraphims (highest angels) covering their faces. 'My ways are not your ways.'

      Note that both (a) and (b) are needed in order not to get a distorted picture of God. Today we find mistakes on both sides, one emphasizing presence and eliminating transcendence, one emphasizing transcendence and eliminating presence.

      c. of God's transparency through history: As who I am shall I be there. God, remaining in himself unknown, will make himself known through his works: (i) presence qua salvation and (ii) presence qua judgment. He is present, but on his own terms and making demands on those he is present to. The many names which describe God's interaction with his people are really names of God and yet at the same time they leave God unnamed. [Develop this: for God's name to be ineffable is for his ways to be beyond our ways; we cannot know his nature, which would entail knowing every possibility.]

    3. The Structure and Content of the Problem of God

    Here there are four questions (two pairs) which help us to understand the problem of God for the man of the OT:

      a1. existential: Is God here with us now?

      This question is fraught with anxiety during the Exodus and Babylonian Exile especially. This sometimes led to religious doubt and then to idolatry, the search for a god who would be palpably present and disponible. The taunting of their neighbors: "Where is your God? Is he active on your behalf or not? Is he dead?"

      a2. functional: The God who is here with us--what is he [towards us]?

      This question has to do with God's power and activity, his attitude toward his people. YHWH is present as both Savior and Judge, in both steadfast love and wrath. Also, here we see the echo of the negative theology adumbrated above; we cannot comprehend what God is, but instead get glimpses by contrasting him with creatures. We must first ask: What is God not? God is not his creation, he is not any force of nature or artifact of man; there is no power of salvation in such things. To believe and act otherwise is to be an idolater.

      b1. noetic: How is this God, who is present as both Savior and Judge, to be known?

      b2. onamastic: How is this God to be named?

      God's name has not been given to us to know and yet God has given himself to be known and named by men. "So the first answer to the noetic question is that the knowledge of God is mediated not by metaphysical reflection on the necessity of his being but by historical experience of his presence, which was not at all necessary but utterly contingent and most graciously free" [p. 19]. God is the living God who gives life. [The metaphysical knowledge of the philosophers can enhance and enrich this knowledge, but it cannot replace it.]

      Later these two questions underwent development in the Wisdom literature.

      First, a cosmological dimension emerged from reflection upon the idea of God as creator of the universe.

      Second, the Hebrews were forced to deal with the more refined idolatries and scepticisms of the Greeks. Pantheism was never a danger for the Hebrews because of their firm belief in the divine transcendence; what's more the idea of dark powers in nature was wholly foreign to them. But the Greeks raised the possibility that the world was wholly secular and in no sense a manifestation of a transcendent God. "Is nature, like history, a transparency, so that in its beauties and powers the higher majesty of its Artisan and Ruler is somehow apparent? The Hebrew answer is unhesitatingly affirmative" [p. 21].

      Read condemnation of idolatrous philosophers at Wisdom 13:1-9.

    4. Alternative Responses to the Problem of God

    There are two alternate responses to the problem of God: knowledge and ignorance:

    a. knowledge: a relationship that involves the whole self, like marriage; an affair of the heart, "in the biblical sense of the heart as the center and source of the whole inner life in its full complex of thought, desire, and moral decision" [p. 21]. This is the affirmation that God is present with us; we choose him, ally ourselves to him, promise to obey him. Knowledge = faithful love. "To know God is to recognize that he is here, in the situation of the moment; it is to recognize his action in the situation whether it be a deed of rescue or of wrath, and it is to respond to his action by a turning to the Lord, a 'going with' him" [p. 23].

    b. ignorance: reciprocally, "to be ignorant of God implies an active ignoring of him, a refusal to recognize him as present in the moment. It, too, is an affair of freedom, decision, and choice" [p. 23].

    Notice, there is no middle ground here. The assumption is that everyone has a chance of some sort to know God. Those who do not are at fault.

    5. Summary

    In the OT the problem has to do with God's presence and is raised in the 'intersubjective' [what he is to us], not metaphysical [what he is in himself], mode of conception. That is, "the problem is posed on the plane of religious existence and not on the plane of philosophical-theological inquiry. ... The issues they raise are presented not simply for understanding but for decision" [p. 23]. The confrontation is with the living God and the issue is life or death.

    "Evidently, it was God himself who constituted the problematic by creating the situation. He came down in gracious freedom, and he confronts man on the plane of human historical existence. It is this fact which raises the four questions in their biblical form. They do not form a raitonal heuristic scheme devised by man on the basis of his common experience of himself, of others, of the world, and of himself-with-others-in-the-world. The problematic is a datum of history, not a discovery of reason" [p. 24].

    The name YHWH is not a human invention, but a divine revelation. It is precisely the combination of intersubjective dimension plus transcendence ['As who I am I will be present to you'] which reason could not attain to on its own.

B. New Testament Conception of God

Assumption: "The New Testament records the faith of the early Christian community and this faith was based on the new revelation contained in the total event of Christ" [p. 26].

The structure of the NT question about God is the same; the main thread that unites the OT and NT is the divine presence, the active existence of God with his people. On the other hand, the substance of the NT problem is 'transcendently new'. The OT problem of YHWH is transformed into the NT problem of Jesus. "Who do you say that I am?" Am I the Messiah (functional)? Am I the Son (ontological)? The four questions:

    a1. existential: Is God present to his people in the presence of the man Christ Jesus?

    a2. functional: What is the role of Christ Jesus toward us?

    b1. noetic: How is God now to be known?

    b2. onamastic: How is God now to be named?

Jesus is the kyrios (the Greek translation of YHWH), Emmanuel (God-with-us); this leads to the doctrine of the triadic presence of God in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a doctrine which can be summarized in three simple propositions:

    a. God still remains the God of the OT, now called the Father.

    b. Jesus Christ, the Son who was sent down into our midst by the Father, himself bears the divine name.

    c. The Father who is the one God and the Son who is the Lord-of-us are present in us through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, who is sent by them to be the Lord-with-us, the life-giving Lord, the indwelling Spirit of our adoption, by whom we are empowered to address God by his proper name, 'Abba'.

That is, we shall be there as who we are shall we be there. "As triune, God is more hidden than ever, more unknown, his Name more mysterious. Yet his Name has been revealed. As Father he is more intimately known, and he is more than ever truly named by the all the many names that had long been used but are now laden with new meaning because they are read by men from the new works of God in our midst, more wonderful than ever--the Son's ransoming deed of love, and the Spirit's ceaseless energizing in the Church.

So the structure of the problem remains the same, with the four questions now set within a Trinitarian framework. And the responses to the problem of God in the NT are still knowledge of God and ignorance of God, the knowledge again being a recognition and the ignorance being willful. Note that the problem is a problem for every human being, even though we may conspire to keep it from arising for ourselves.

Chap. 2: The Theological Problem: The Understanding of God

The men of the NT were not caught up in anxious questioning about the problem of God; they acknowledged God's presence through His Spirit. But not all questions were at an end. New condtions led the noetic and onamastic questions to be raised again in a new mode. "The very fact that a resolution of the problem had been found on the plane of religious experience only served to move it into a new phase ... [This] concerned the theological understanding of the New Testament revelation of the Name of God--that he is the Father who through the Son and in the Holy Spirit is the one God-with-us" [p. 32].

In the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries the Christian mind, tutored both in faith and in philosophy, clashed in stern encounter with its two deadliest enemies, Gnostic syncretism and Hellenistic rationalism. Three issues stand out:

    a. The relation of the Christian faith both to Hebrew religion and to Greek culture. Is it possible to combine the three?

    b. What is the nature of reality and is human intelligence powerful enough to reach it?

    c. What are the senses of Scripture? How does one construct a valid hermeneutic by which these senses can be reached?

Murray divides the chapter into three sections, each highlighting a different aspect of the theological problem of God. We will consider these in turn, although most of our attention will be focussed on the Nicene Problem.

A. The Nicene Problem [concerns existential and functional questions]

Keep in mind the three components of the NT conception of God:

    (i) The OT heritage: There is the one Lord, who is the living God, the Holy One hidden in the midst of the people, known through his active existence in their history.

    (ii) The NT heritage: The same one God of the OT is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Father is the God, God with the definite article, the one God, as Christ is the one Lord.

    (iii) The common heritage: Monotheism or, better, monarchianism. "It was this doctrine of the Monarchy that sustained the Christian polemic against Manichaean dualism, against the Stoic World-Soul, against the Platonic Idea of the Good, against the Gnostic Pleroma, and against all other false or faulty theologies. The one God is the Lord of the cosmic universe as its Creator, and he is likewise the Lord of history as its Ruler. The one Lord is radically distinct from the whole realm of his creation, both cosmic and historical. His power is of an order totally different from that of the forces that operate in the material universe or in the temporal process. This common heritage suggests an overarching providential power. God does everything.

This threefold heritage yields three distinct theses:

    (i) The doctrine of the Monarchy, the one overarching Pantokrator, is to be maintained as the teaching of the Church.

    (ii) The teaching that Jesus Christ is Lord, i.e., the Pantokrator, is also to be maintained.

    (iii) It must also be maintained that Christ, the Pantokrator, is the Son; he is from the Father and therefore is other than the Father, who is the God, the Pantokrator.

The Nicene problem is one of showing that these three theses can be consistently maintained. Two solutions initially proposed are these:

Tertullian (160-223):

    Analogy One: The Father and Son are parts of a quasi-organism which is itself undivided and the power of which is one. [Does not do justice to the distinctness of the persons; a form of Modalism or, better, Monarchianism].

    Analogy Two: The Monarchy is preserved by apprehending Father and Son as united in a complete harmony of mind and will. [Social Trinitarianism].

Origen (185-254):

    Uses the notions of the One or Goodness, which is divine, and the Logos, which emanates from the One and participates in the One as the image of the divine Goodness. So we have the following theses:

      The Father is the God.

      The Logos is not the God; he is simply God by participation.

      Therefore, the Logos is God "of the second order".

    So what we have here is a form of Subordinationism. But this, of course, destroys the terms of the problem, one of which is that Christ is the Pantokrator, the Lord, Kyrios.

To set the problem clearly, we need to set the alternatives clearly, and this is what Arius did. Arius (fl. 318) wants to stop the metaphors and the anthropomorphisms and set the question in straightforwardly metaphysical and ontological terms. Is the Logos God or is he instead a creature? He cannot be both. And Arius answers unequivocally that the Son is from the Father as the most perfect creature. He came to be from the Father from nothing, and before he came to be, he was not. Therefore, "there was when he was not". This was "the answer of the rationalist who eliminates the seeming contradictions within the Christian statement of the mystery of God by evacuating the mystery itself" [p. 39].

According to Arius, then, what originates from God, the Unoriginate, must necessarily be created. But it is important to note the mode in which Arius raises the question. He raises it in a way that precludes its being settled by appeal to Sacred Scripture. Is the Son the Creator or a creature--i.e., a mere creature, however exalted? This is an ontological mode, and the question now is this: Is this a legitimate question and does it demand an answer from the believing community. This is the Nicean problem. So the NT answers to the problem of God are in place, but these answers must now be formulated in such a way as to answer a new mode of questioning, a mode of questioning typical of Hellenic philosophy, but, Murray correctly insists, inevitable given the intrinsic dynamic of the human intellect, which moves ineluctably from the descriptive or, better, functional (What is it for us?) to the explanatory or, better, ontological (What is it in itself?) mode.

Four important comments on Arius's question:

    1. Arius's question is new. The question is new in the form and mode in which it is raised, since it cannot be answered definitively by appeal to Scriptural affirmations. The Christology of the NT is functional, and Arius accepts all the functional titles (Son of God, Son of Man, Lord, Word, Savior). (This is the point that Eusebius did not grasp.)

    2. Arius's question is inevitable. There are two reasons for this:

      a. The essential dynamism of the human intellect moves us toward questions about what things are in themselves and not just for us. This is certainly part of the drive for scientific knowledge. "In this case it moves from inquiry into the reality of God's presence to inquiry into the reality of the God who is presence.

      b. There is a realist conception of the word of God contained in the Scriptures and in the Fathers. This is not, as some have charged, foreign to the Scriptures, even if ontological questions are not often the ones had foremost in mind by the human authors of Scripture. The Scriptures are not simply the record of someone's subjective religious experience; the early Christian took his faith to be based on the events of sacred history [read from p. 42]. "The event of Christ supervening on the ancient events of the history of Israel. ... The point is that behind the Athanasian rule lay the universal patristic conviction that, to put the matter in our technical terms, a realist epistemology and ontology are implicit in the conception of the word of God which the Scriptures exhibit. The word of God is true; therefore it expresses what is" [pp. 42-43].

    3. Arius's question is legitimate. The reason is that it is stated in ontological terms (creator or creature?) that are undeniably Scriptural, and the Scriptural affirmation that God is creator and that a creature is a creature "are not a matter of religious experience but of ontology" [p. 43].

    4. Arius's question is such that it demands an answer which is an answer of faith. It demands an answer because of the soteriological conviction that only God, and no mere creature, however perfect, can rescue us from death in all its forms. "Hence, from Athanasius onward, the Fathers argue that, if the Son is not God, fully the Pantokrator, then he is not our Savior and we are not saved" [p. 44].

The Nicean answer (325) takes the form of the homoousion. "Begotten, not made, one in substance (being) with the Father, through him all things were made." This is clearly incompatible with Arius's position and is according to the Church an expression in the ontological mode of what is asserted or presupposed by the functional mode of expression in the NT. "The answer is given, as it had to be given, not in the empirical categories of experience, the relational category of presence, or, even, the dynamic categories of power and function but in the ontological category of substance, which is a category of being" [p. 45].

So (a) this was not a new revelation or a new truth, but instead a new formulation of what had been revealed. [This raises some interesting philosophical questions--perhaps it is better to say that it does not go beyond what is presupposed by or implicit in what has been revealed.] However, (b) the dogma is new in that it states a sense of the Scriptures in a mode of understanding which is not formally Scriptural. This was necessary because the Arians could accept with a straight face all the explicitly Scriptural affirmations.

Here Murray launches into a discussion of the opposition on both the conservative and radical sides. The conservatives oppose a deviation from the language of Scripture, but do not realize that the problem is insoluble without such a deviation (archaism); the radicals want no constraints on how Scripture might be interpreted in the future (futurism). Archaism leads to futurism, since if we can speak only in Scriptural terms, then there will never be a definitive solution to the tensions that will inevitably arise; there can be no canonical and authoritative resolution of the tensions caused by ontological questions such as Arius's, even if those questions are deep and serious enough to demand a resolution.

"The Nicene homoousion avoids both fallacies, archaism and futurism. It transposes the scriptural affirmations concerning the Son into a new mode of understanding--what we now call the Nicene or dogmatic mode for the reason that the Nicene dogma was its first historical illustration. But there is no discontinuity or incoherence between the dogmatic mode and the scriptural mode. The transition from one to the other was not made violently--from the descriptive, relational, interpersonal, historical-existential, scriptural mode, to the difinitive, absolute, explanatory, ontological, dogmatic mode. The passage was made with ease and naturalness on the internal authority that it is in accord with the native dynamism of intelligence" [pp. 50-51].

The status of the homoousion: a parameter within which one must fall and beyond which one cannot go if one is to remain orthodox.

Five aspects of the Nicean formulation:

    a. It was a rejection of the Eusebian archaism and its effort to restrict the Christian faith to the formulas of Scripture.

    b. The definition formally established the statute of the ontological mentality within the Church.

    c. It sanctioned the principle of the development of doctrine or, better, of the growth in understanding of the primitive affirmations contained in the NT revelation.

    d. By sactioning the principle of doctrinal growth it established a bridge between Scripture and conciliar dogma.

    e. By sanctioning the status of the ontological mentality in the field of faith, Nicea established the statute of the philosophical reason in the field of theology, thus laying down the charter of Scholasticism.

B. The Eunomian Problem [concerns the noetic and onamastic questions]

We still have not dealt with the paradoxical Scriptural affirmation that God is known and that God is unknown. How can we fashion a theological understanding of God that will safeguard both His transcendence and His immanence in nature and history? How can God be both totally unlike us and yet such that creatures are made in His image? How can we be both in the condition of gnosis and in the condition of agnosia with respect to God.

1. The dangers:

There are two dangers here:

    a. anthropomorphism: The position that God is a being who has attributes proportionate to those of his creatures, only to a much higher degree.

    b. obscurantism: The position that God is so utterly different from us that none of our attributes in any way resembles any of His attributes.

Eunomius (d. 394) was an Arian bishop who gave the following startling answer: "I know God as God knows himself." This is a striking answer that immediately threatens God's transcendence but also threatens to collapse all the other names into one. God's only name is Agennetos, the Unoriginate, and all the other names are either empty verbalisms or synonymous with this one.

2. From Scriptural affirmation to theological understanding

What the Cappadocians and Chrysostom did was to raise the question to the level of theological understanding where, once again, philosophical reason becomes central to deepening our understanding of the faith and, most importantly, to helping resolve a crisis triggered by Eunomius.

First of all, they insisted that we begin with God's transcendence and our ignorance of God, so as to avoid a facile scrutiny of God. No matter what we say about God, we must be always aware that we are here face-to-face with a great mystery that we will not be able to understand fully or even satisfactorily--though this in itself does not rule out scrutiny of the divine attributes. Still, we must be aware of the constant temptation to "bring God down to size" in order to make Him more accessible to us epistemically. (This, I think, has happened in large sectors of contemporary philosophy of religion, even those who insist on orthodoxy over against the excesses of liberal theology.)

Second, they elaborated the idea that God is known as He reveals Himself in history. (Question: Are there any properties of God that we might come to know without revelation? If so, just which ones?)

In order to do this they used the philosophical distinction between affirming that something is and affirming what it is, between existence and essence. We can affirm that God is, but we cannot grasp God in a simple and proper concept. (That is, we do not, strictly speaking, have a natural kind designation for God, the sort of designation that would serve as a proper starting point for a science of the divine. The best we have are descriptions taken from Scripture and from the philosophical disciplines [e.g., first cause, unmoved mover, etc.].) But God's very transcendence does give us a sort of negative knowledge of God, a knowledge of what God is not.

Third, they had to face the inevitable question of whether the names we give to God, names drawn from creatures, are not simply anthropomorphic projections of human traits. Are we merely fashioning an idol? The Scriptures affirm both that God is utterly unlike His creatures and that His creatures bear a similarity to Him by virtue of being caused by Him. This led eventually to the threefold way: the way of affirmation, the way of negation, and the way of eminence.

"The patristic concern was to defend the scriptural faith not simply by reaffirming its paradoxical affirmations but also by seeking a deeper understanding of them so as to bring them into harmony. Until this latter, characteristically patristic, task was accomplished, the scriptural affirmations could indeed still be made, but in a vacuun of understanding that was dangerous, as the Eunomian impiety had demonstrated. In the things of God it is perilous to misplace either one's agnosticism or one's gnosticism. The risk is the loss of one's God, who is lost both when he ceases to be God, because no longer unknown, and when he ceases to be our God, because not known at all" [p. 65].

NOTE: Make some remarks about the importance of liturgical practice as a guide for philosophical theology, one that keeps God's transcendence and immanence constantly before one's mind.

C. The Thomist Problem

1. The faith and philosophical reason

The patristic answers to Arius and Eunomius were adequate for their times, but they raised a new issue: viz., the systematization of these conciliar and patristic answers by the theological reason, that is, by the philosophical reason functioning under the illumination of the Christian faith.

"The council of Nicea implicitly established the statute of the philosophical reason and its processes of analytic and synthetic thought within the distinct and inferior province, problematical rather than mysterious, of theology. I mean here theology in the strict sense, that is, Scholastic theology, the centuries-old discipline that concerned, not with the certification of the truths of faith, whose truth and certainty are warranted only by the Church, but with their systematic understanding insofar as this understanding--analogical, imperfect, and always incomplete--is accessible to the resources of reason" [p. 67].

We cannot know what God is, that is, we cannot know God's "natural kind" and investigate it in a scientific way, viz., by defining God and hooking up his properties with his nature, etc. The best we can do is to reason from what God is not to properties that a being who lacks X, Y, and Z must have. That is, we can know him only through his effects, and we can never have a proper science of God that would deduce his properties from his essence--in the way that we can (at least in principle) have science with respect to material substances.

2. The threefold approach to God

We will get into this in more detail in the next two or three weeks. To anticipate, St. Thomas's strategy in the theology of naming God is to look at a three phases which we must keep in mind in making attributions of God:

    a. The way of negation (via remotionis)

    b. The way of affirmation (via affirmationis)

    c. The way of eminence (via eminentiae)

As Murray puts it, St. Thomas's way of proceeding gives us a gnoticism of affirmation combined with an agnosticism of definition.

Word of caution: "There is nothing more disastrous than a negative theology that begins too soon. Ignorance of God becomes a true knowledge of him only if it is reached, as Aquinas reached it, at the end of a laborious inquiry that is firmly and flexibly disciplined at every step by the dialectical method of the three ways" [p. 73].

3. Is reason theist or atheist?

Is a natural theology possible? Is its possibility an important determinant of the relation of faith to reason. [Question: Does Murray establish that what is important is a positive proof of God's existence or just a negative claim that it is rational to accept God's existence?]

Read selections from pp. 74-75 and discuss.

"In any event, it is obviously within the intention of the five ways--and of the whole Summa, for that matter--to demonstrate that reason is not atheist, that atheism is not the reasonable conclusion from the data of common human experience, that the twin universes of faith and philosophy, distinct as universes of knowledge, are not utterly divorced, that their cardinal point of delicate intersection is in the crucial instant when reason affirms, what faith likewise affirms, that God is" [p. 75].

Chap. 3: The Contemporary Problem: The Death of God

A. The Godless Man in the Bible

    1. The godless man within the people of God. This is the one who proclaims, "God is not here, with me, now." This is the Psalmist's fool. "He is the 'the stupid man', 'the senseless man' of Psalm 92, who 'knows nothing' and who 'understands not at all' the terrible truth that, "if the wicked sprout like grass, and if evil-doers flourish, it is only to be destroyed forever" [Psalm 92:7-8]. "And behind the denial of God's presence clearly lies the will to libertinage, to the passionate existence as we might call it. Because I will that what I do be permitted, says the wicked man, therefore I deny that God is here to tell me that it is not permitted" [p. 79].

    2. The godless man qua godless people. The people who do not know God and will not listen to his word. This is the biblical analogue of the godlessness of the polis, the people that publically, as a people, are godless. "In biblical though the peoples who do not know God have no principle of spiritual existence. They are in a state of nonexistence as peoples. They make no sense; their condition is absurdity. The condition is designated in the Bible by the symbol of darkness: the godless peoples 'sit in darkness and in the shadow of death' [p. 80]. Two biblical propositions [read top of p. 81]:

      a. Not to know the one God, living and faithful, is to be an idolator. There is no middle ground.

      b. To be an idolator is to be an atheist.

    The idols of the nations are nothing, i.e., they have no power. And worshipping them makes one a nullity oneself. St. Paul is especially hard on them: They are without excuse [Romans 1:20]. They had refused the evidence that was before their eyes in the cosmos which is sacral. And this is not just an intellectual mistake.

    3. The godless man qua godless philosopher. This is the man of learning who explores the work of the Creator and fails to find the Creator himself. The sacred writer deals with him more gently than those who fall down before wooden and stone idols, but nonetheless does not excuse him. Even he--perhaps especially he--should know better. The predecessors of today's dominant scientific culture. "Man, who is God's image, cannot fail to find God just below the surface of his works and accessible to ready inference, but man can refuse to recognize him" [p. 84].

The biblical view is thus that the godless man, in any of his forms, is in bad faith. His existence is not authentic; he refuses to recognize the reality of the human situation by failing to recognize God. And this is a matter of choice, a choice that launches the project of living the godless life. (This seems to conform, for instance, to the view that Nietzsche and Sartre have of atheism.) This is the will to be autonomous even as God is--but then there is no room for God.

B. The Godless Man of Modernity

    1. The godless man of the Academy. The dynamic of this atheism is to understand and explain the world (nature, man, history, society) without God.

    2. The godless man of the Marketplace. The dynamic here is simply the will to prosper in the world without God.

    [Addendum: 3. The atheism of the City. Religion is thought of as completely privateand prohibited from public discourse (pp. 99-100). Though this atheism is modern, it forms a bridge to post-modern age in at least three ways: (a) the political will to atheism takes the form of a refusal of the God of history, the political craftsman, instead of the God of nature, the cosmic craftsman, (b) the resulting totalitarian democracy in France is an ancestor of the messianic atheism of Communism, (c) this atheism was not just a view of reality, but a historical force that altered political reality and the very concept of civilization.]

How to understand these dynamics which, Murray claims, would have been in place even if the throne and the altar had not been so closely connected in early modern times? Murray sets these two forms of godlessness against the background of three medieval events:

    (i) the transposition of the problem of God into a problem for philosophical intelligence, a formally metaphysical, gnoseological, and linguistic problem. "For the first time in history the quadriform problem was squarely put to human reason" [p. 88]. Modernity, however, chose to divorce the realms of faith and reason, and so the modern will to atheism emerged.

    (ii) the Thomistic reception of Aristotle. In the Augustinian worldview the universe was of-God and its value lay in this alone. In the new Thomist view the universe, though from God, has a certain autonomy, as does reason. (It would be helpful to articulate the different 'feels' of the Augustinian and Thomistic views. For instance, the Augustinian view does not denigrate natural science, but perhaps does not provide as strong a rationale for doing it, etc.). This opened up the possibility of a betrayal, of (the return to) a secularized natural science and concomitant philosophy.

    "The betrayal occurred when modernity, having divorced faith and reason, went on to decide that there is only one form of rational truth, one method for its pursuit, one measure of the certitudes attained. "In this decision, the modern will to atheism is more clearly discernible. Scientism supervened upon rationalism. If scientific methodology is atheist, as it is, and if it is the only methodology, as it is said to be, the mind has no way of reaching transcendental truth. There is, in fact, no transcendental truth. And there is no God. No evidence for his existence can be discerned by the methodology of science" [p. 90].

    Modernity did not immediately try to suppress talk of God, as long as it was consigned to the private sector, as it were. The only problem was to explain why there is such talk at all. Here the predominant view is that religion is the work of the imagination, this being by the nineteenth century a classical thesis of modernity:

    "The Christian position had been that Christianity is a religion of events; its faith is based on histroical happenings. It is also a religion of domas; its faith is expressed in affirmations that are true and therefore bear on transcendental reality--on God himself and on his will for man. To the modern anti-intellectual spirit, this could only be pretentious nonsense" [p. 91].

    So according to the modern mind, Christianity is a religion of myths that have no historical truth and of dogmas that have no ontological truth. The myths and dogmas are have only the relative, pragmatic and emotional value of statements about the subjective order of religious experience...."my reactions to myself-in-the-world".

    (iii) the construction of the problematic of creation. There are two aspects to this central problem of Christian philosophers:

      a. Metaphysical: If God is, how can anything else be? (This is a good rubric under which to talk about occasionalism and other views about God's causal contribution to the ordinary course of nature--in fact, it may be the most plausible formulation of the problem.) Modernity succumbed to the temptation to portrary the situation as one in which one must choose either God or the world. And both choices lead to atheism, since a God who is identical with the world is no God.

    b. Moral: "My own proposition, derivative from the Bible, is that atheism is never the conclusion of of any theory, philosophical or scientific. It is a decision, a free act of choice that antedates all theories. There are indeed philosophies that are atheist in the sense that they are incompatible with faith in God. But they are reached only by a will to atheism. This will, and the affirmation into which it is translated ('There is no God'), are the inspiration of these philosophies, not a conclusion from them" [p. 95].

C. The Godless Man of the Post-Modern Age

There are two new types of godless man:

    1. The godless man of the worldwide communist Revolution, who wills to transform rather than understand the world.

    2. The godless man of the Theater. "The will of the godless man of the Theater is not that of his predecessor of the Academy--the will to understand and explain the world without God. For him the world is absurd. Still less does he will to change the world; for it would still be absurd no matter what the change. His project is to 'exist' the godless world" [p. 103].

What these two forms of godlessness share in common:

    a. Their problematic. The medieval and modern problem was a metaphysical problem of the coexistence and coagency of Creator and creature and a moral concerning the relation between divine sovereignty and evil. The test here is to our freedom rather than our intelligence. The temptation is to reject the reality of God's presence as the providential ruler of the world. "Where is my God? Is he the living God, or not?" This is the post-modern problematic.

    b. The myth of the death of God. The modern atheist affirms that God does not exist and never was needed to explain anything. The post-modern rejection of God is more poignant and more virulent, a new direction for man's destiny:

    "In his myth, Nietzsche consciously brought to terrible explicitness the question that the modern age had been able to avoid, though in bad faith. You may say, if only because men have said, that the world does not need a Creator to explain it, but you cannot say, because no one dares to say, that the world does not need a Ruler to govern it. If God is dead, who is Pantokrator? Not even through bad faith can you avoid this question. It is the question that the man of the Revolution and the man of the Theater squarely confront, each in his own way, both standing on the common ground of God's death" [p.105].

    c. Atheism as a postulate and not (as with the enlightenment) a purported conclusion. In this way atheism attempts to put the burden of proof on the believer. Our postulate is the guiding postulate; it is up to you to argue against it. (Sometimes there is, as with Marx, the naive assumption that the Enlightenment did God in intellectually.)

    d. They regard God as a positive menace and not just an explanatory superfluity.

    e. They base their anti-theism on God's threat to human freedom. "Lamb of God, who take away the freedom of the world, go away."

    f. A highly concrete concept of freedom: freedom from human nature. Both aim at a new creation, a new liberated human being whom the history of the earth has not yet seen.

Specific comments about the godless man of the Revolution:

    a. His will to oppose God is based on messianism, and not on libertinage or the prideful worship of 'reason'. Unlike God, he does not tolerate evil (or at least what he takes to be evil, viz., exploitation). "This is the purest and most passionate form of atheism, when man rejects God in the name of his own more God-like morality.

    b. Out of the Marxist exasperation at the misery of man is born the will to freedom. But his freedom is the freedom to alter nature and society.

    c. The ultimate enemy of freedom in the Marxist sense is God the Pantokrator. "For the sake of his own comfort man projects into an illusory heaven the fantasy of a power who is master of history, powerful enough to rescue man from misery and to guide history to a paradise beyond history. But this is the projection of what man himself is. Therefore the projection, the fantasy projected, and the belief in the fantasy are utterly pernicious" [p. 109]. He wants the suppression of God in both public and private life.

    d. He aspires to a scientific understanding of theory that incorporates the death of god.

    e. He is unique because he wants to deliver the human race from evil, and realizes that this entails bringing good from evil.

    f. He displays confidence proper to one who has become god. He knows that history needs a master and he is ready to play this role. "He is selfless. He is incorruptible by money or pleasure. He is commited to the asceticism of constant work, the essential work of the working class, which is to hasten the consummation of the Revolution. Presently he wills to seize dictatorship over all the world, but only in order that he may thereby save the world. He even wills his own death, which is the withering away of the state, the instrument of his power, in order that his death may be the ransom of the Many, who will thus rise, by its virtue, to the new life of the classless society. This event is invisible now, but he confidently sees it coming. The invisible is always visible to faith" [p. 113].

Specific comments about the godless man of the Theater:

    a. He proceeds not from the world of ideas but from the world of fact, with the problem of evil before him. Not cynical, but sympathetic with human sufferers, his climate of soul is opposite to the bright hopes of the Enlightenment.

    b. He does not acknowledge a need to understand and explain the world. "He simply summons out of his vision the will to freedom. ... The will is that man should recognize the absurdity of the world and that he should also recognize himself to be absurd" [p. 115].

    c. He affirms the death of God--God is not here with us now. But in his most serious mood he affirms that God should be absent, since God threatens man's freedom to create himself ex nihilo. "If God is present, man's existence, which actualizes an essence, is transformed into a destiny, a destiny which he himself did not choose" [p. 117].

    "The man of the Theater is, I said, an elusive figure, ill-defined even by himself, resisting definition by anyone else. At least he is a new figure, not to be disregarded even by us here in America. To us he may seem to be an alien figure only because we still live, or think we live, in the modern age and because the problem of evil has hitherto touched this blessed country only lightly. All the more should we attend to him; for there he stands as a judgment on the modern age. After all, the world that he declares to be absurd, the human existence from which he says that God is absent, the freedom of man that he sees as no more than a frustration--all these were the creations of modernity. If he is obsessed with the problem of evil, it is because this ancient problem in a newly complex and visible form was his heritage from modernity." [p. 118]


    Part One: The modern problem of God, as raised by the godless man of the Academy, had a measure of dminishing continuity with the medieval problem as structured by Aquinas. But with the context of post-modernism, this way of stating the problem becomes meaningless.

    Part Two: In the post-modern age the problem of God has come back to its biblical mode of position.

    "Is the presence of God constitutive of man's historical existence or destructive of it? In order that a man may exist, 'stand forth' as a man in freedom and in human action, what is required--that he recognize and acknowledge the presence of God, as the Old and New Testaments says, or that he ignore and refuse God's presence, as the Revolution and the Theater say? In order that a people may exist, organized for action in history as a force to achieve an historical destiny, what is required--that they disown God or own themselves to be his people? What is it that alienates man from himself--the confession of God's presence in history and in man's consciousness or the supression of him from history and the repression of him from consciousness? How is it that a man or a people comes to desist, to 'stand down' from human and civilized rank, to fall away into absurdity and non-existence--through knowledge of God or though ignorance of him?" [pp. 120-121].