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Classical theists believe that God is simple, in the sense described by the doctrine of divine simplicity. God has no parts, has no distinct essences, God's essence is God's existence, God is pure actuality, lacks any unrealized potentiality, and is just pure subsistent existence. They also say that God is not a person, and so God lacks beliefs and intentions. (Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher has a blog where he has written lots about classical theism, for example in this nice overview.) (Here, "person" doesn't mean "human being", it's more abstract: a person is just something with beliefs and intentions, or an intellect and a will.)

My difficulty with classical theism is that by removing personhood from God, I don't see how anything of spiritual or emotional significance follows from it. God is too abstract; believing in simple-God doesn't seem any different than believing in some other abstract metaphysical theory, and I wonder why it should even be called "God". Nothing of any real difference to how I live my life immediately follow from believing in pure act or subsistent existence.

One of my atheist friends put it nicely by saying something like this: "Let's say I take the cosmological arguments seriously, and so now I believe in pure act, subsistent existence, or some absolutely simple metaphysical entity that caused everything else. I would still continue to live my life as though I were an atheist. I wouldn't believe in an afterlife, objective moral values, life would still be (cosmically) meaningless, and so on. Why would pure act or subsistent existence care about us, take interest in our actions, give our life meaning or provision an afterlife, any more than any other entity (universals, fundamental particles, etc.) would? Such a God seems like just a thing."

To contrast classical theism, theistic personalism does seem to have the spiritual and emotional "punch" that I would expect God to have. God-as-a-person is capable of loving us, taking and interest in our life, giving our life meaning, giving us an afterlife, and so on. While simple-God is certainly capable of all these things, it doesn't seem like simple-God would have any reason to do any of them. In fact, simple-God, doesn't seem to have any reason for preferring a world with persons in it over a dead-world without persons.

But, many classical theists who accept divine simplicity and reject that God is a person are Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They do believe that God loves us, takes an interest in our life, is something we should worship, that there is an afterlife, etc. I don't understand how all these other beliefs follow (or even could follow, given that God is not a person).

How do classical theists overcome the objection that their God is too impersonal to be of any significance to humans?

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    How do you define 'person'? – Thom Jan 9 at 18:31
  • @Thom For the purpose here, let's use Richard Swinburne's definition from The Existence of God: a person is something with beliefs, intentions, and powers (to act on their intentions). – Adam Sharpe Jan 9 at 18:46
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    But classical theists do not remove personhood from God, they rather inflate (or if you prefer, transcend) it, their God is a super-person rather than a non-person. There is no thing, and an act can not be an "abstraction", those are causally inert, there is super-love and super-care flowing from there instead. Aquinas does not derive his divinity from the cosmological argument, he simply assimilates the "necessary being" of the conclusion to God, see SEP – Conifold Jan 9 at 21:10
  • @Conifold I'm having trouble squaring what you say with other things I've read. For example, Geremia's answer below, and Feser's book Five Proofs give me the impression they try to prove deductively (not by inference to the best explanation) that God exists and has all the divine attributes we associate with him (in some analogical way, at least). And, it's the analogical sense that God has these properties that I'm having trouble with, since they seem so far removed from normal experience that an atheist can believe that the first cause 'analogically' loves us, while still being an atheist. – Adam Sharpe Jan 9 at 21:38
  • It isn't atheist's "analogical sense". That refers only to our limited capabilities (as informed by apophatic theology), but He has love, etc. in the "super" sense, or via eminentiae:"The perfections manifested by creatures are in God, not merely nominally (equivoce) but really and positively, since He is their source... They are really in Him in a supereminent manner (eminenter) which is wholly incommensurable with their mode of being in creatures. We can conceive and express these perfections only by an analogy..." – Conifold Jan 9 at 21:50
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God seems like just a thing.

God is beyond all beings. He is a being in an analogous sense.

a person is something with beliefs, intentions, and powers (to act on their intentions)

God can be shown to have knowledge, a will that is free, love (willing the good of others), and virtues, so God would seem to be a person according to your definition.

How do classical theists overcome the objection that their God is too impersonal to be of any significance to humans?

By showing that God loves (wills the good) of creatures.

St. Thomas Aquinas shows that God loves all things by the following syllogism (Summa Theologica I q. 20 a. 2 co.):

  1. all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good,
    since the existence of a thing is itself a good; and likewise, whatever perfection it possesses.

  2. God's will is the cause of all things.
    cf. q. 19 a. 4

  3. ∴, To every existing thing, then, God wills some good.

The very definition of loving something is "to will good to that thing"; thus, "God loves everything that exists" because He is the cause of everything's goodness, including humans'.

It also follows that the more good something has, the more God loves it (q. 20 a. 4). So God loves humans more than any other animals or inanimate creatures because humans have more being/goodness.

God loves everything because he wills their existence. But is that what we really mean by "love"?

It's not exactly the same as how we love. St. Thomas continues:

Yet not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by it as by its object, our love, whereby we will good to anything, is not the cause of its goodness; but conversely its goodness, whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love, by which we will that it should preserve the good it has, and receive besides the good it has not, and to this end we direct our actions: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness.

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    Thank you. Your answer seems to be the standard Thomistic one. The difficulty I have with the analogical sense in which God has love, knowledge, etc. is that they seem to stretch the meaning of the words way too far. For example, you say God loves everything because he wills their existence. But is that what we really mean by "love"? God has knowledge in the sense that all forms exist "in him" abstractly and eminently. Is that really knowledge? And so on. I'm strawmanning here a bit, but I hope you sense my concern. – Adam Sharpe Jan 9 at 21:03
  • @AdamSharpe "The difficulty I have with the analogical sense in which God has love, knowledge, etc. is that they seem to stretch the meaning of the words way too far." Analogical predication does have a sort of "stretching"; univocal does not, and equivocal is all "stretching". Do you not agree that analogical middle terms sufficient for a valid demonstration? – Geremia Jan 9 at 21:59
  • I think you may be on to something. I need time to digest this, but my instinct says "no, I don't agree that analogical middle terms are sufficient for a valid deduction". My thinking is, that If P1 and P2 are analogical, then at least some inferences will be valid with one that will not be valid with the other. If we can say which ones and why, we will have given a proper univocal definition to both P1 and P2, and this whole analogical business turns out to just be a matter of vagueness. – Adam Sharpe Jan 9 at 22:57
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    How is god not a thing if you used it in a sentence as a noun? – Cell Jan 10 at 0:33
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    @Cell I did not say "God is not a thing," but "He is a being in an analogous sense." When one says, e.g., "The apple is good." and "God is good.", "good" isn't used in exactly the same sense (univocally), but analogously; an apple is good because it produces health, but God is good because He is the source of all goodness. Similarly for "being" (cf. the "analogy of being"). See also the 4th Thomistic thesis and references listed here. – Geremia Jan 10 at 18:10
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This is a good question. Here are two answers:

  • Platonic/Neoplatonic/Christian-Platonic: Human virtues are imperfect reductions of divine Virtues. For example, human love is a imperfect reduction of divine Love. We understand the divine Virtues through the analogy of the human version, but we understand them imperfectly, and we err when we attribute to them the same weaknesses as in the human versions. Thus, human love is complex, it is mixed in with lust and self-interest, and biology, and theorizing. But God's Love is simple in its perfection. God's Love does not judge, it gives gifts of sun and rain both to the just and to the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Or, to view it from another perspective, the Good, the True and the Beautiful are all one and the same thing --at least in God's realm. They are thus "simpler" than in our realm, where they rarely occur together.

  • Religious-Existentialist (Kierkegaard, Ecclesiastes, Tertullian, etc.): It doesn't make sense, and that's ok. Credo quia absurdum, meaning we believe because rather than in spite of the absurdities. Our human understanding is so limited, that if it made sense to us, it would necessarily be wrong.

As you might have noticed, as different as these two traditions are, they essentially are affirming the same idea --we are too limited to understand God, and the things that don't seem to make sense are an artifact of that. It is deeply difficult to make rational sense of a God who is both an abstract unity of all perfections and simultaneously deeply and personally interested in human affairs. But that's a feature, not a bug, at least from the viewpoint of those theists who hold both conceptions of God simultaneously. In Christianity, in fact, this is known as the "Great Mystery of Faith", which, at a minimum, indicates that this is a known challenge in doctrine, and not just something that happens to have been overlooked by the faithful.

  • Thanks for the answer. Since "rediscovering" my belief in God, I suppose I've been doing your second option since I find both the arguments in favor of God's simplicity (some of the cosmological and ontological arguments) and the arguments in favor of personal-God (teleological arguments) both very good. Maybe personhood and simplicity are intimately connected in a way that is not understood. To your first option, I've heard things before such as God has love, intellect, will, etc. analogically. I didn't find this very satisfying but I can't remember why at the moment. – Adam Sharpe Jan 9 at 19:37
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    The (neo) Platonic view is less that God's Love is "analogous" to human love, and more that it is the truer original that human love imperfectly imitates. The following ee cummings poem hints a bit at this kind of love: poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/22224/… – Chris Sunami Jan 10 at 4:18
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Q: How does God reside in the human soul?

There are two ways in which God resides in the human soul:

a) The natural way and it is threefold: by essence, power and presence (per essentiam, potentiam, praesentiam). Aquinas proves this in his summa:

God is said to be in a thing in two ways; in one way after the manner of an efficient cause; and thus He is in all things created by Him; in another way he is in things as the object of operation is in the operator; and this is proper to the operations of the soul, according as the thing known is in the one who knows; and the thing desired in the one desiring. In this second way God is especially in the rational creature which knows and loves Him actually or habitually. And because the rational creature possesses this prerogative by grace, as will be shown later (I:12. He is said to be thus in the saints by grace.

But how He is in other things created by Him, may be considered from human affairs. A king, for example, is said to be in the whole kingdom by his power, although he is not everywhere present. Again a thing is said to be by its presence in other things which are subject to its inspection; as things in a house are said to be present to anyone, who nevertheless may not be in substance in every part of the house. Lastly, a thing is said to be by way of substance or essence in that place in which its substance may be. Now there were some (the Manichees) who said that spiritual and incorporeal things were subject to the divine power; but that visible and corporeal things were subject to the power of a contrary principle. Therefore against these it is necessary to say that God is in all things by His power.

But others, though they believed that all things were subject to the divine power, still did not allow that divine providence extended to these inferior bodies, and in the person of these it is said, "He walketh about the poles of the heavens; and He doth not consider our things [Vulgate: 'He doth not consider . . . and He walketh,' etc.]" (Job 22:14). Against these it is necessary to say that God is in all things by His presence.

Further, others said that, although all things are subject to God's providence, still all things are not immediately created by God; but that He immediately created the first creatures, and these created the others. Against these it is necessary to say that He is in all things by His essence.

Therefore, God is in all things by His power, inasmuch as all things are subject to His power; He is by His presence in all things, as all things are bare and open to His eyes; He is in all things by His essence, inasmuch as He is present to all as the cause of their being.

However, in this way, he resides in all things, not specifically human. So we can now ask, is there another way in which God is present specifically in humans? The answer is yes (for those who are in the state of grace), and that leads us the second way in which God is present in the soul

b) The special way called Divine indwelling in which, by the reason of the sanctifying grace Divine persons are present in the soul. By this way of indwelling, he is not present in all things, but God is present in humans (who are in grace) in this way. This indwelling is the basis of Christian spirituality. From this indwelling, virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit follow. Also, what follows from this is authentic spirituality, in which one unifies himself with God.

However, this mode of indwelling is the proposition of faith and you do not prove it by demonstration (however, that does not mean it is not certain knowledge, for we are absolutely certain about it!).


What troubles you, it seems to me, that classical theism does not give you 'spirituality', that is to say, it does not give you authentic unity with God that can be achieved in prayer for example. It leaves you 'dry' so to say. However, virtues and gifts, and union with God, is the consequence of the second mode of God residence in the soul, and not the first one. When God resides in your soul in a second way, you can be sure that He is Personal. And in that way, God, who gathers all the perfections (in an analogical way, in the most eminent manner; see Geremia answer), resides in your soul, as a person, with whom, you are able to achieve union via most beautiful friendship. That is quite 'spiritual'. I hope this helps you; feel free to ask any questions.

  • O.P. essentially tried to explain the effects of the second mode of presence, via the first mode of presence. – Thom Jan 10 at 22:10
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Great question.

A comprehensive answer would be a long one but here's a few thoughts.

Classical Christianity is, or may be interpreted to be, consistent with the Perennial view of God, so for research into this issue you have a wide range of literature to examine. Christianity was incomprehensible to me until I had studied Buddhism. This led me to the Classical teachings and the doctrine Divine Simplicity - which are carefully not taught by the modern Church.

I find it difficult to imagine what it would mean to say God has a personality or is a person, and feel it is a mere anthropomorphism.

But, many classical theists who accept divine simplicity and reject that God is a person are Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They do believe that God loves us, takes an interest in our life, is something we should worship, that there is an afterlife, etc. I don't understand how all these other beliefs follow (or even could follow, given that God is not a person).

These question can be answered but not briefly or quickly. This is an area of study and it is not conquered easily.

Plotinus warns us that when reading the sayings of the sages it is a good idea to put the phrase 'It is as if' in front of their words. They are describing the indescribable, and any words are bound to be capable of misleading. As Lao Tsu notes, the eternal Tao cannot be spoken and for his view the ultimate truth would be beyond conceptual fabrication.

When a person says God loves us he may have some idea of an old man with a beard, but he may also be dumbing down the idea that God is love. Not a personality that loves, but love as a fundamental phenomenon. This is connected with the notion that Reality is a Unity or 'non-dual'.

For a 'non-dual' explanation of God some texts that come to mind are: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart; God: A Guide for the Perplexed by Keith Ward: A Course in Miracles by Helen Schucman/Jesus. The latter is the one most likely to address your questions in detail, but it's a monster and is post-grad level in respect of religion and psychology. For the relationship beteeen God and Love there are also the books of Paul Ferrini. I would also recommend Plotinus and the poet Rumi. Someone who speaks clearly on God is Sadhguru and his talks can be found on youtube.

How do classical theists overcome the objection that their God is too impersonal to be of any significance to humans?

Obviously they are convinced in their own mind, which suggest there is no problem with the idea. The point to remember that for the Classical Christian any concept of God is false since He cannot be conceptualised. 'God' would be the ultimate nature of Reality and as such immediately accessible to all of us, but language could never capture His nature.

I feel it would be best to remain agnostic on the the question you've asked and spending a year or two browsing the 'Wisdom' literature. Good luck. I wish I could have answered the question directly but it would take a long time and much work and the authors I've mentioned and others do it much better and with more authority.

In fact the Classical view makes God even more loving than the Romanised teachings. It is a doctrine not just of forgiveness but of sinlessness. There would be no such thing as sin and nobody would condemned to eternal damnation. Love would be a basic property of Reality and a path to its hidden secrets.

EDIT: Answer 2. If you are seriously interested in this question then here's an idea. Get hold of a copy of The Perfume of Silence by Francis Lucille (the teacher of Rupert Spira) and read it while keeping in mind that when he speaks of Consciousness in its fundamental state he is speaking of what a Classical theist would call 'God'. Creation and evolution would take place in consciousness, not prior to it, and 'God' would be nothing like the deity of naive theism. This would be why the later Roman church crushed the gnostic form of Christian teachings and practice, burnt the books and knocked down the churches. Fortunately we now have the Nag Hammadi Library and can study what the original followers of Jesus had to say.

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The difference between 'classical' theism (as you've presented it) and atheism is that the first sees the universe as a consciousness while the second sees the universe as an object. One can do that with anything, really. Look at a tree and see a living entity, or a potential pile of lumber; look at a house and see a mechanical shelter, or a home imbued with feelings and memories; look at another person and see someone with a rich inner subjective life, or a mere physical body subject to biological urges and patterned responses. We all make that choice: idyllic or cynical, warm and connected or cool and detached, subjective or objective.

This is one of the reasons I think everyone should meditate. Past the first couple of jhānas one naturally experiences the world as a warm consciousness. Not a consciousness that is specifically interested in people, per se, but one that is universally kind and compassionate. Without that experience, people are stuck with abstract notions of a god or gods, which they either reject out of hand (atheism) or anthropomorphize as a person like themselves (non-philosophical theism). Philosophy and theology can help point us in the right direction, but philosophy and theology by themselves won't give us the experience, and it's the experience that's relevant.

Like you, I've heard people say things like:

Let's say I take the cosmological arguments seriously, and so now I believe in pure act, subsistent existence, or some absolutely simple metaphysical entity that caused everything else. I would still continue to live my life as though I were an atheist.

That's likely true if one accepts the cosmological arguments intellectually, as a matter of philosophy, but having the experience of a subjective universe changes outlook at a fundamental level. Your friend may still call himself an atheist, but not with the same conviction or level of importance. The urge to separate oneself from the universe will shift, and with that the urge to define oneself by labels like 'theist' and 'atheist' will dissipate. Check out some of Sam Harris' later work, and you'll see a bit of what I mean (I'm not endorsing Harris, just noting that he went from one of the Fab Four of the New Atheism to something much less definable).

At the simplest level, a god does not need to be a person; a god does not need to be an agent that does things or works for goals in the world. A god serves one purpose: to remind us that the universe is much bigger and kinder and more compassionate than we like to imagine. Our egoic selves have a grandiose self-image that is all out of proportion to our actual existence. That experience pulls us away from our egoic selves, so that the universe seems 'right' again.

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