This started out as a comment to Bruce Charlton’s post of November 24, 2013, titled “God of the philosophers versus God of revelation“. But it got too long so I decided to post it here.
Bruce takes issue with C.S. Lewis’ answering the question “What is God?” with the answer, “God is self-subsistent being, cause of himself.” Bruce says this is “a definition which could be made only by a trained intellectual, and only be understood by a trained intellectual.”
In contrast with Lewis, Bruce quotes with approbation Pascal’s description of God as “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob – not of the philosophers and scholars.” Bruce writes,
“Pascal (himself one of the greatest of philosophers) was teaching that the proper answer to What is God is to refer to revelation, to our knowledge and understanding of the experiences and teachings of scripture and Christian authorities. It is NOT to answer with philosophical definitions that 1. Beg all the most important questions and 2. Put God onto an intellectual plane incomprehensibly far above 99 percent of humans – past, present or future.”
But are not philosophy and revelation simply talking about the same thing from different viewpoints?
To me it seems similar to the question “Who is John Smith?” This could be answered in two ways: “Loving son, husband and father, loyal friend,” and so forth; or “carbon-based life form, male specimen of species homo sapiens, composite of soul and body,” etc. The former is the personal answer, for those who know John; the latter the scientific or philosophical description for those who are discussing John as an object rather than as a subject, so to speak.
Which answer you give will depend on the context of the conversation. It may also depend on whether you’re talking to people who know him personally.
The statement of Pascal’s which Bruce cites was apparently connected with a mystical experience resulting in his conversion. Naturally, this is a personal description of God because it arose from a personal encounter with him. Just as those who have known John Smith personally might think of him as “the John Smith of Freddie, Linda and Bobbie [his children]“, the one who cares for and encourages them, etc., and not merely as an anonymous “human”.
Pascal’s point, I believe (and perhaps Bruce’s too), was to argue that philosophical reasoning is non-salvific, that one may only be brought to true faith, and thereby saved, by knowing God personally. This is quite true, however it is not denied by, for example, St. Thomas or his followers. Indeed St. Thomas writes,
“[T]he perfection of the rational creature consists not only in what belongs to it in respect of its nature [e.g. reason], but also in that which it acquires through a supernatural participation of Divine goodness. Hence it was said above (I-II, 3, 8) that man’s ultimate happiness consists in a supernatural vision of God: to which vision man cannot attain unless he be taught by God, according to John 6:45: ‘Every one that hath heard of the Father and hath learned cometh to Me.’”
“In many respects faith perceives the invisible things of God in a higher way than natural reason does in proceeding to God from His creatures. Hence it is written (Sirach 3:25): ‘Many things are shown to thee above the understandings of man.’”
“[H]uman reason is very deficient in things concerning God. A sign of this is that philosophers in their researches, by natural investigation, into human affairs, have fallen into many errors, and have disagreed among themselves. And consequently, in order that men might have knowledge of God, free of doubt and uncertainty, it was necessary for Divine matters to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them, as it were, by God Himself Who cannot lie.”
Bruce’s assumption appears to be that while most people can’t understand philosophical explanations of God, anyone can fully grasp the God of the Old and New Testaments. I consider this debatable. Aside from the difficulty many people have in developing an accurate understanding of God and his nature from reading the scriptures, a lot of people haven’t read the scriptures in any great depth to begin with. It could often be the case that the philosophical explanation of God would be the most helpful as an introduction to Christian belief. Of course authentic Christian instruction wouldn’t stop there, but I see no reason why it couldn’t serve as a good introduction to some of the principles involved, or what St. Thomas refers to as the preambles of faith:
“The reasons which are brought forward in support of the authority of faith, are not demonstrations which can bring intellectual vision to the human intellect, wherefore they do not cease to be unseen. But they remove obstacles to faith, by showing that what faith proposes is not impossible….”
Finally, as to Bruce’s assertion that the philosophical answer given by Lewis has “nothing to do with actual revelation”: Do the scriptures positively not depict God as self-subsistent and uncaused? I hope Bruce would admit that that’s at least debatable.