At first glance, the premise seems self-evident. Yet, it’s not as simple and straight-forward as it might seem. Human beings (myself included) have a natural inclination — a sort of instinct — for thinking and acting as if we were in control of everything and therefore believe ourselves to be responsible for the outcome of everything. We become frustrated and angry when things don’t go our way or when unforeseen influences change or frustrate our plans. We humans may give lip service to believing in a god, yet we act as through the deity in charge is Us.
That’s not all. Most of us at some time or other come to an awareness of the spark of divinity within us. Throughout history, humans have tried to give voice to some sort of understanding of what that means, whether it’s as simple as Ovid’s non omnis moriar (“I shall not wholly die”) or as profound as Hinduism’s Brahman from which we came and to which we shall return like a drop of water into the ocean.
Now, post-enlightenment western thought has tended toward an opposite pole, positing that deity, if it exists, is totally “other,” unknowable and unreachable by our mortal experience. These people may refuse even to name it, in effect denying the possibility of any knowledge of divinity or connection between it and humanity.
The connection between divinity and humanity is so tenuous because it hinges completely on an analogy of being. Our language, as powerful as it is, suffers from two enormous shortcomings: 1) it imposes discrete meanings onto a continuum of perception (which means we create things that are not “there” in reality, like “green” out of the continuous spectrum of light), and 2) language itself forms a continuum between univocity and equivocity (it flows between a name as the literal identification of a thing and the symbolic application of a name to something to which it does not literally apply). The name “God” refers to something that exists somewhere between being identical to us (univocity) and something being wholly distinct and other (equivocity or metaphor).
I was trained in Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical thought. Although it’s tempting to characterize it as an archaic philosophy long discredited, don’t. Think of it as a thought language. So-called “Thomistic” vocabulary seems incredibly simplistic and trite today because we’ve had centuries of exposure to it (and its misinterpretations). It’s important to realize that when Thomas Aquinas wrote, he was inventing a new vocabulary, using words differently from the way Plato and Aristotle used them. The meaning of his terminology is also completely different from how we understand those same words today. His language is, in itself, analogical.
Take the word “cause” for example. We think of “cause” in terms of “cause and effect” — in other words, what had to happen in order for something else to have occurred. For us, “cause” exists in the world of action and reaction: why something has happened, is happening, or will happen. Not so for Aquinas. He took Aristotle’s four causes that refer to actions and used them analogically to refer to the way beings are. When he used the word “cause,” he was answering the question how (rather than why): how something exists as it is. For him, “causes” are neither objects nor forces existing independently (like matter or energy in the universe). They are principles that are determining how a being does its existing.
Aquinas wrote about four of these “principles” of any being. He called them the “material cause,” the “formal cause,” the “final cause,” and the “efficient cause.” None of these four terms meant what they have now come to mean. For example, the “material cause” does not refer to what something is made of. Rather, it refers to the realm (or, in mathematical terms, the “set”) of infinite possibilities not yet realized. The “formal cause” then refers to what differentiates this being from all others and determines what it is. The “efficient cause” refers to the “existing” of a thing. It’s what “locates” it in existence apart from all unrealized possibilities. The “final cause” (“final” refers to “the end” as in “purpose” rather than as in “last”) indicates how a being fits into the scheme of things — its place in the universe.
God and Not-God
When we think about what things are, we generally think about it in scientific terms: what is the structure and makeup of a thing and what are its characteristics? We have a practical interest in what things are made of and/or how they are put together, be it an atom or a galaxy. We have come to use a combination of physics and mathematics to study and analyze our universe. The problem is that when our analysis tries to work with the extremes of space and time, those tools break down and human language itself begins to stammer — especially when we find ourselves needing to include God in the equation, as even Einstein did.
When we take the existence of the universe to its extremes, we come to recognize a continuum of matter/energy inhabiting a continuum of space/time. Oddly, (as Teilhard de Chardin pointed out) science has pretty much ignored the continuum of life/consciousness/spirit from that equation, possibly because science can only observe and measure its effects, not its makeup. We need to study these things using tools that go beyond physics and mathematics. I believe that Aquinas’ insights can help.
When we consider ourselves within our universe, we begin to understand that existence has an underlying continuum of unity while it expresses itself in diversity. The act of existing expresses itself in limitless ways. When pure potential is actualized, it does its existing as unique individuals (efficient causality, material causality, formal causality, and final causality). When we consider beings from a philosophical perspective, what a thing is can almost be considered secondary to what a thing is not. In the continuum of existence, it is differences that distinguish one being from another. Formal causality, as a limitation to material causality (infinite possibility reduced to a single actuality) determines the individuality of a being. Think of pure, undifferentiated existence (if you can), and it becomes clear the critical role non-existence (it’s a this, not a that) plays in determining the contents of the universe.
Believers tend to think of creation in terms of God making “something out of nothing.” Quite a magic trick, even for God! However, once we begin to think of God as pure existence (“I am who am”), then we can at least imagine creation as something quite the contrary: it would have to be God introducing “not God” into pure undifferentiated existence. In pure existence, there is no possibility, therefore no individuation. Once “not God” is introduced, the possibilities become infinite, and all that is can be understood as mere varieties of what each of them is not. In all of creation, it is limitation that determine identity. We can now understand formal causality as the specific limitations that existence (efficient causality) applies to pure possibility (material causality) and which therefore differentiates it from every other being (final causality).
The reason why we cannot adequately talk about God as “existing” is that our human language — as creating discrete units out of a continuum and as struggling to apply univocal concepts to analogical existence — cannot adequately express causality. We do not perceive the principles of existence. We only perceive existing beings, each limited in the way it exists. As limited beings ourselves, we cannot conceive of limitless being. We can see how various kinds of beings exist with more or less limitations (rock -> bacteria -> plant -> animal -> human, etc.) and we can understand that when we say “is” about beings in each of these categories, we are speaking analogically, because none of them exercise their existence in the same way as any of the others. There are similarities, but they differ (more or less) in their limitations, although all are limited.
When we say, then, that “God exists” we speak analogically, since we have no concept of what existence really means for God. Our minds have no way of even imagining what limitless existence is. The way God exists is necessarily beyond any type of existence we can ever experience. We say that God exists, but we can just as truthfully say that God does not exist because God’s existence is unlike any other in the universe. We must say that God does not exist (like any other being) and therefore is not alive (like any other life form) and is not conscious (like any other consciousness). So we must imagine that, for God (analogically speaking), creation was the introduction of the “not” into existence.
Finally, since limitations determine identity, and since death is a physical phenomenon and not a spiritual one (change rather than ceasing to exist), it would seem clear that we will not just drop back into an undifferentiated sea of limitless being at some point. Our limitations — our identities — define us now and will survive us. I am my limitations. And that is why I am quite certain that I am not God.