GOD being GOD: Questions of Ontological Veracity
Questions of Ontological reality
In this article, we shall briefly, though importantly, address the notion of ‘God’ as the ground of being rather than as a determinate entity; in other words that the creation, though not purely the product of chance and necessity, was not the ‘design product’ of personality/personal ingenuity.
Should the term ‘God’ refer only to a ‘ground of being’ first cause, i.e., a first cause that defies description or a ‘first cause’ that may be loosely described as ‘nature’—then there would be no case to answer for the existence of evil—at least not on God’s part, because there would be no personal creative-agent against whom a charge may be brought. It is the case that, should the term ‘God’ refer only to a ‘ground of being’ first cause—a first cause that defies description or that may be loosely described as ’One’ as in Pantheistic Monism or as ‘Nature’ as in Naturalism and Atheistic Materialism, then there is no case to answer—for there is, indeed, no personal agent that may be found guilty of failure of any sort. The notion of a ‘Ground of Being’, presumably, thought by its advocates, to deal with, what might be considered, as a more intellectually coherent case for ‘god’, or that might better fit with the problem of natural evil, does nothing of the sort apart from demeaning the God of the Bible. However, it is such a view that is commonly espoused by philosophical theologians such as Wesley Wildman. Wildman opines (2011) that any notion of ‘ultimate reality’ is bizarre but adds that ‘most theologians and a few philosophers are captivated by such (ultimate reality) speech’ and that they even choose it while understanding its ‘final futility’. In his section on ‘Determinate-Entity Theism’, Wildman, regarding this alleged futility, asks what kind of entity the divine reality is? Wildman’s conclusion is that the God of the Bible seems to be made in the image of its authors (not an original thought). In short, God’s determinate nature is known in our longings. Everything else we say theologically (Wildman suggests) must serve this overriding important version of ultimate reality, and this (according to Wildman et al.) becomes the crucial criterion of determinate-entity theism. Wildman’s ideas seem to have little to do with any perceived notion of the goodness of the Triune God of Scripture, as Wildman’s picture of God bears no resemblance whatsoever to this God. Wildman’s rationale seems to be that “Speaking of God as The Ground of Being removes the possibility of proposing a divine character that is profoundly different from the character of the world.” i.e., the evolved/evolving biosphere. Wildman is, we believe, correct in his assertion that “Determinate-entity theism requires a divine goodness that our best scientific vision of the cosmos does not easily support, and so positively requires some ontological distance between God and the world and a layer of theological explanation for why the world is the way it appears to be—despite the purported impeccability of God’s moral character.” We agree with Wildman when he says that, “Ground-of-being theism needs neither to explain a discrepancy nor to distinguish among events to articulate the divine nature.” (Wildman 2007). The question is: Is this a valid reason for the ‘fabrication’ of a ‘god’ made in the image of other theologies or made in the likeness of ‘prevailing ’ world-views? It would seem that the notion of God as a ‘determinate entity’ (a personality rather than an abstract idea) creates huge philosophical questions yet aids the dismantling of others—especially the problem of [natural] evil. It is, of course, possible that the God revealed in the Bible is a figment of the imaginative wishful thinking of latter-day ‘hominins’—particularly the authors of the Old Testament. Wildman states that the ‘divine goodness’ described in the Scriptures is a ‘difficult fit’ with the apparent evidence. However, it is striking that many distinguished theologians and philosophers are content to hold to a more traditional approach.
Keith Ward (2008) comments that to call God good is to say that God actualizes within himself the best of all possible perfections—moreover, Ward suggests that “If such a God produces a universe like this, then God remains good, whatever the universe may be considered. A supremely good God might, then, necessarily create this universe, or some universe with similar characteristics.” By ‘necessarily’, we take it that Ward means that the sovereign God chose to create this universe in order to bring about the best of possible circumstances, i.e., the ‘best possible world’—according to God’s plans and purposes for such a world. However, this does not imply lesser capabilities on God’s part, but rather that this world is the best of possible worlds in which God’s ultimate ‘Good’ purposes can be achieved.
As far as Biblical Theism is concerned, there should be no willingness to dilute God’s attributes; however, should there be any attempts at ‘dilution’, the most likely candidates would be those of omniscience, omnipotence or benevolence. Should God be declared ‘less knowing’ or ‘not quite as powerful’ as previously thought, the question of God’s benevolence becomes less crucial. Any deity that is neither omniscient or omnipotent cannot be held responsible for that which is outside the scope of its influence. The attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, however, remain crucial to any theodicy that takes the legitimacy of the biblical narratives seriously. The ‘God is not omniscient or omnipotent’ view—in removing the notion of omniscience and omnipotence from the ‘stage’—leaves room only for the God of Open Theism or even worst: the ‘god’ of Process Theology/Monism. For proponents of this position, the argument is likely to be that ‘god’ does not have the necessary characteristics that enable ‘god’ to behave with consistent benevolence—leaving room only for dualism or impersonal monism.
Wildman gives an outline of the possibilities: Firstly, he makes clear in his view that a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity cannot create through evolution; therefore, God the creator is not a personal, benevolent, attentive, and active deity. He states though that we can preserve those affirmations symbolically (for whatever reason), but goes on to say that:
… they no longer refer to a divine being with intentions and awareness, with feelings and intelligence, with plans and powers to act; rather, they refer to the ground of being itself, to the creative and fecund power source in the depths of nature, to the value structures and potentialities that the world manifests. They refer to the God beyond God, which is to say the truly ultimate reality that hovers behind and beneath and beyond the symbolic gods we create and deploy to satisfy our personal needs, to make sense of our world, and to legitimate the exercise of social control. (2011)
There is neither time nor space to discuss Wildman’s assertion that the God of the Bible could not have brought about the creation through an evolutionary process, though we disagree entirely with Wildman’s conclusions. However, it is accepted that this does offer, to some extent, a challenge regarding providence within the evolutionary process. Wildman’s ‘god’ though lacks ‘substance’ lacks any notion of benevolence—indeed lacks anything in real terms. Naturally, this ‘god’ cannot manifest personal concern for the products of any likely creative processes because this ‘ground of being factory’ has no ‘mind’ and no personality from which to proceed. Nevertheless, Wildman’s alternative is somehow able to ‘allow for’ the transformation of the material in the cosmos that, in turn, allowed for the evolution of the biosphere.
Wildman’s apparent disillusionment with the biblical notion of God seems to have provoked him to strong language. Clayton and Knapp (2007) make the following reference to Wildman’s disdain, quoting him thus: “Frankly, and I say this with the utmost reverence, the personal God does not pass the test of parental moral responsibility. If God is personal in this way, then we must conclude that God has a morally abysmal record of inaction or action.”() Wildman’s view, as pictured here, offers a not dissimilar view to Sigmund Freud. Freud’s view offered by Nicholi (Nicholi, 2002)—that the very idea of ‘an idealised Superman’ in the sky—is so patently infantile and so foreign to reality seems, most likely, to stem from a total miscomprehension—even caricature of the God of the Bible. It is no doubt the case that some may naively interpret the biblical notion of God in the way that Freud expresses, but some (an increasing number even) may, due to this kind of reasoning or lack of a plausible notion of the God of the Bible, wish to find an alternative ‘god’; this, is totally the wrong direction to take as it leads to another path—a path void of any notion of ‘God’ whatsoever—at least to anything other than an unworthy caricature of the God that Scripture reveals. Wildman’s view is that ‘ground-of-being theologies’ are important because of their denial that ultimate reality can ‘possibly’ be a determinate entity—that this establishes a valuable theological contrast with determinate entity theisms. The ‘ground-of-being’ view of the ‘personhood’ of God as well as God’s possible interaction with the world may, as Wildman suggests, produce an enthusiastic intellectual response to these pervasive evils. But, at the same time, this view favours what Wildman considers to be philosophical logic over and above the revelation of Scripture. Wildman, we suggest, is mistaken in his deliberations—his alternative ‘deity’ is an unreasonable caricature. It is unacceptable for two reasons. Firstly, as a result of his dissatisfaction/ disappointment with the ‘performance’ of the God of the Bible, Wildman offers an extra-biblical, pantheistic alternative. Secondly, the substituted ‘ground of being’, alternative, fails to convince us that ‘it’ has any substance whatsoever.
Regarding the ‘narrative to Scripture’, Peter Sanlon states that:
[F]or the drama to be of any significance whatsoever, there must be real actors in the play. If the metaphor of a drama has to be developed further, then it must be insisted that the scriptwriter is also real. The God who creates, speaks, directs, interacts and participates must be a real person before he can do any of these things. In technical terminology, ontology is prior to revelation and salvation. Systematic theology recognizes this, and asks the entirely appropriate questions ‘What kind of being is he?’ And: What may we know of him from his words and actions? (2014)
God is the Triune ‘determinate entity’ [who] has created all things and [who] sustains all things for His ‘good’ purposes. Ergo, the God of Scripture is the ultimate ontological reality.
Process Theology & Omnipotence
In this section, we take a cursory glance at process theology as it applies to ‘omnipotence’.
Cobb & Griffin (1976) state the dominant position of process theologians clearly enough when they pose the question of why evil exists when there is in existence, according to Classical and Biblical Theology, a God with ‘controlling power’—suggesting that:
… a major reason that Christian theism has clung on so long to the notions of God as a Controlling Power is that thereby it can assure believers that God’s will, despite appearances, is victorious—for the sake of this assurance, it has risked seeing God as the author of needless suffering and even moral evil. It has risked the implicit denial of human freedom and the rebellion of humanistic atheism. (1976)
There is something to be said for this critique. However, the above depiction is an extreme caricature, and it is not the picture of sovereignty that is anywhere near to that adhered to by the author of this book—or even of ‘Open Theism’, which offers freedom without, mostly, denying the overall sovereignty of God(). Indeed, the Process interpretation of God offers a rather simplistic view of sovereign reality as it does not allow any means with which to comprehend any notion of ontological veracity for this alleged ‘ground of being’ other than that of a nebulous force akin to that of pantheism. Indeed, it does not offer anywhere near sufficient reason to replace the God of Scripture with any ‘straw man’ scenario in the form of a dialectical hypothesis. Wildman acknowledges the difficulty in that whatever God is, on the process account, it is exceedingly resistant to anthropomorphic modelling, ‘and certainly nothing like the personal God of so many sacred texts and religious pieties’. Wildman‘s summary accurately describes the problem from both perspectives.
The God of process theology is considered to be a God that does not abuse or ‘coerce’ but persuades—throughout nature and in living beings. The God of process theology cannot override free will; it is not that he (it) will not but rather that he (it) ‘Can Not’ (can not as in does not have the potency to so do). According to Griffin & Lubarsky (1996), the redefining of the omnipotence of God may be the solution that dissolves the problem of evil as there is no likelihood of culpability on the part of this particular notion of God. However, any possibility of continued adherence to the biblical view of omnipotence is ruled out as is made clear from the following, rather long but pertinent, quotation from Griffin:
Because our universe was created out of chaos rather than out of absolute nothingness so that creative power is inherent in the world, as well as in God, the creatures’ twofold creative power of self-determination and efficient causation cannot be cancelled, overridden, or completely controlled by God. On this basis, process philosophy denies the second premise in the argument…saying instead that although God is all-powerful—not only in the sense of being the supreme power of the universe but also in the sense of being perfect in power, having all the power one being could possibly have—God cannot unilaterally prevent all evil. If being ‘all-powerful’ is taken to mean being omnipotent in the sense of essentially having all the power, however, then process philosophy simply denies the first premise’s assertion that a being worthy of the name God is all-powerful by definition. (2001) []
Both the logic and implication of this kind of thinking is clear. There is, according to this view, in the world of matter (matter that pre-existed the emergence of ‘god’) an inherent creative capability out of which appears the process of evolution—a process that ‘God’ could not interfere with but only persuade. So it is from within the alleged ‘inherent creative capability’ of matter itself that the force of evolution manifests itself (ex nihilo, nihil fit)—and not out of the MIND of the God of Scripture—ex nihilo. Griffin states that ‘God’, though having all the power possible, does not possess ‘ALL POWER’ and therefore is not capable of preventing evil or of much else regarding the biological evolutionary process. In contradistinction to the views espoused by Griffin, Wildman et al.
John A. Leslie (1989) suggests that:
Neoplatonism is [today] often expressed in such a formula as that God is not a being but the Power of Being. On my interpretation, what dark sayings say that God is the world’s ethical requiredness or, equivalently, that God is the creatively effective ethical need that there should exist a (good) world.” (Leslie, 1989)
The idea that any such imagined requiredness could exist as a de facto state of affairs—‘conjured up’ as a more convenient replacement for the God of Biblical Theology—is hardly convincing. Moreover, the notion that ethical principles (or any other come to that) are likely to emanate from anything other than the actual character [Mind] of The God, who is by His very nature ‘the ultimate good’ is equally unconvincing. Here, We are in agreement with Gregory Boyd (2001), who suggests that “…unless God’s essential nature is necessary and actual—apart from his interaction with the world, neither the enduring nature of God nor the contingent nature of the world can be rendered intelligible. God must be self-sufficient within himself, creating and relating to the world out of love instead of metaphysical necessity.”
In the light of the problem of creaturely suffering, the process ‘alternative’ may seem an attractive proposition—one that may fit in with some current understandings of reality—but it cannot be taken as the final word regarding the God of the Bible as it fails miserably to do justice to the character of that God. This view of God, ‘helpfully’, dissolves the problem of evil. A ‘god’ with restricted or limited ability can hardly be held responsible for failing to address the problem of suffering in any significant way. Indeed, this ‘god’, it could be said, cannot entertain any kind of ‘planned intention’—vis a vis the creation of anything much—most certainly not creation ex nihilo. This ‘god’ though could not be mistaken for the God of the Judeo/ Christian Scriptures as this view of God is a step into the unknown and ‘unknowable’ and is not a God we could visualize and, most certainly is nothing like the Triune God of the Bible. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig offer a helpful summary regarding the difference between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ objects:
We have seen that God, though immaterial and spatiotemporal, would be classed by everyone as a concrete object in view of his being a personal causal agent. Perhaps that provides a clue to the distinction between concrete and abstract entities. It is virtually universally agreed that abstract objects if they exist, are causally impotent; they do not stand in causal relations. Numbers, for example, do not affect anything. (Copan, 2004)
 Wildman says, regarding the use of the word ‘evil’, that ‘suffering is a more useful category than evil because suffering is more neutrally descriptive and does not prejudge the moral character of…[?] regarding natural disasters, predation and the like’. Here, Wildman may well be correct.
 According to Clark Pinnock, “God as the creator of the world (italics mine) can make the kind of world he likes—in this case a world with free creatures in it…God exercises power in ways appropriate to the creation project…He gives creatures the room decides things and binds himself to the promises he makes. Thus God exercises sovereignty by sharing power not by dominion…God uses omnipotence to ‘free’ and not enslave…It takes omnipotence to create and manage freedom…” (Pinnock 2000)
 If indeed it was a notion that assumes that ‘nature is all there is’—and that God, should God exist, may be referred to as ‘mother nature’—the natural world or whatever.
 Madden & Hare (1987) conclude that God is, “…unable to move toward an aesthetic end and without an enormous cost in pain (his own and others); he is apparently so weak that he cannot guarantee his own welfare. If he is that weak, obviously he is not able as a theistic God should be, to ensure the ultimate triumph of an end of his choice.”(29)