The Unity of God in Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians 8 (177 CE)

Athenagoras responds to the charge that Christians are atheists by pointing out that they believe in God, but in a single God with no other gods beside him, and so deny the multiplicity of Gods of the Pagans. But this is a purer theism, one held to by many Pagan philosophers and writers (most especially Plato in the Timaeus), not atheism, even if it does deny popular superstition.

His argument for unity of God are rooted in Plato, but take an interesting turn of their own.  If there are several gods, then they either participate in the same being (the same Form) or they do not. If they do, they are of a single kind, and they would be alike, but that cannot happen with uncreated things. Presumably he means that whatever things participate in the same form must arise in time, and so are created, or at least must share a dependence on the Form in which they participate—but a god is not created or dependent. So these two gods do not share any Form and must be completely unlike one another. But where would this second God be? It cannot be in the world, for the world does not belong to it. The point depends on Plato’s view that the world itself imitates a single Form, the Form of the Good, and that the lower Forms are but partial expressions of that same Good—thus there is no room in the world for a second God, perhaps with a different set of Forms unrelated to The Good. Well, perhaps this second God is outside the world, but there is no space outside. Nor is this second God found in unoccupied space surrounding the actual cosmos, for all the space outside is taken up by the God of this world, its creator and the bearer of its forms. That means the second god can be nowhere at all, and so cannot exist.
Athenagoras insists that everything that exists is somewhere, and holds that God, though immaterial, is everywhere. This, it may be objected, reflects an inadequate grasp of God’s transcendence. The unity of the world, with its single set of related natural kinds and natural laws, reflecting a single Form of the Good, may be thought to imply the unity of the God which is its creator. It is hard to see, though, how to reject the notion that a second God, entirely unrelated to this world and its Good, might exist, except by noting that this second God must be somewhere, and claiming that all the space is taken up by this world we live in. Perhaps space itself is subject to the Forms below the Good, as Plato suggests in the Timaeus, and if we insist that Athenagoras must have had a higher conception of God’s transcendence, seeing that a God is not in space at all, his metaphor then implies that a transcendent God leaves no logical room for a second transcendent God, presumably because the very notion of a logical space (of possible beings, say) is a result of our thinking and applying the one set of Forms. Logical space is not something preceding our thinking or the Forms. Perhaps it could be pointed out that all the facts about possibilities are contained in the Forms, and are not antecedent to them.

If it is objected that the God of this world is composed of a number of other gods, Athenagoras suggests, then it can be pointed out that this God is uncreated, therefore indestructible and impassable (that is, it cannot be affected in any way by anything else—it stands outside the order of nature), but this implies that it is indivisible, and so has no parts. Finally, Athenagoras points out, if, despite its impossibility, we allow a second God, then it would have to be the God of some other world, standing in no relation at all to this world, and so of no concern to us, since it cannot possibly affect us. It could not have power over this world and its God unless, of course, this world and its god somehow fell under the providence of the second God, participating in whatever serves as the analogue of the Form of the Good in that second God. But then the God of this world would not be uncreated or independent.

     The two points that impress me here are (1) that logical space is established by the Forms, it is not a space within which the Forms, perhaps together with other forms, are found, and (2) that a second transcendent God who did not create this world could have no power over or relevance to anything going on in this world. The first point seems to bar a mistake that was made in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which Wittgenstein himself later saw through, the mistake of supposing that what can be said is shaped by the possibilities, rather than the possibilities (what possibilities there are) being shaped by what, for certain kinds of reasons, cannot be usefully said. (Here I associate the ideal language and what can be said in it with the Forms and what can fall under them.) Or let me try saying it another, more comprehensible, way: what is possible is what is possible in this world. I won’t say we can’t leave this world, but if we think of that (traveling to the Moon, working within a different cultural context in which certain forms of literature unknown to us are already established in a complex tradition, doing experiments in high energy physics . . .) then our erstwhile notions of possibility become notion of possibility given certain preconditions (on the surface of the earth, in our culture, under normal, earth-like, “low-energy” conditions). Of course, then we have new notions of possibility, possibility under the new conditions, and perhaps possibility, full stop, without conditions specified. But that last is problematic, of course, for whenever we say “no conditions,” we really mean “no conditions we can think of or specify at the moment, working within current parameters.” So can there be a second God while the first remains transcendent? How would we decide that? What would rule it out? Maybe nothing could rule it out, since whatever might would fall into the world of some God, under some set of Forms, and we are talking about what can happen outside those conditions. But if we give some sense to the notion of possibility by considering that something might not be possible, then we find ourselves trapped within a certain set of conditions (even if we can’t specify what they are right at the moment). (So, perhaps, if we are free, in a certain metaphysically powerful sense of ‘free,’ all things are possible, and to God, whose power has no limits, all things are possible, and so on.) (I am reminded of J.L. Austin’s “Ifs and Cans”). If the world we are in is the world of a truly transcendent creator, then there can’t be any set of possibilities outside the possibilities in that world.
     What of the second point? If I insist on proceeding anyway, and allow a second God, and provide this God with his own world, then, as Xenophanes might have said, neither God, neither world, can limit what is possible in (for) the other.  From this, it seems on a moment of reflection, it follows that neither God can interfere in any way in the other’s world. So the God of this other world has no bearing whatsoever on this world, and is nothing to us. We have our own God, and he is everything to us. Moreover, the God relevant to us is not the perfectly transcendent God (who might have been the God of another world, but chose not to?), but the God of this world.The God that reasonably interests me is the creator of the world I am in. My first loyalty–I want to say this, but I know it is naughty–is to this world, and it is to God only because God rules this World. I suppose I need not say it in such a naughty way, so try “my God is my creator, and if anyone else is up there creating things having no connection to me or my world, that is not my God.” Of course, I am imagining that I cannot travel between worlds (which is necessarily so if my God really is transcendent), so I don’t have problem of potentially divided loyalties that a Gnostic might. In any case, I am reminded of a Buddhist point, introduced when Gautama discussed the fellow who refuses to be treated for his arrow wound until he knows all the particulars of who shot the arrow, why, and so on. Likely he’ll die. One need only press the point a little to see him suggesting that the Realist’s metaphysical reflections never have any practical bearing on life, and so are of no concern to us. The question is, how to make things better for us, this world, and the transcendent God is only relevant if we make him not quite so transcendent as all that. It is because God stoops to his creation to help us that he is relevant to us. Perhaps it makes no sense to suppose that a genuinely transcendent God stoops in that way, perhaps because God’s actions are all necessitated by his perfect development of the Good in the world, and we can drop the God-hypothesis for the hypothesis that this is (necessarily, given the principle of sufficient reason) “the best possible world”. Given how little we know or can know about how the best possible world would go, the hypothesis is of little use, though. To get any traction at all, and make some use of our views, we have to allow that they could be right, and they could be wrong, but we think they are right, and so that means that this action, and not that one, will be effective . . .Necessary truths are useless, except perhaps to get us from one contingent truth to another.
Which leaves me with this on my mind: Can the transcendent god of the philosophers be a god in whom it makes sense to have faith? The only way I can see to say he could be, at the moment, is to argue that faith is necessary to shape my overall reaction to things, so I can avoid despair. But I am not so sure that the problem here is my having any overall reaction at all (piecemeal reactions will do nicely), rather than having a bad one (though, clearly, most of them are bad) or the wrong one. That is why I’m a Buddhist,  suppose.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s