Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A discussion on Judeo-Christian monotheism (as opposed to classical polytheism)

Opening Essays: Nick : Steven ::: Concluding Essays: Nick : Steven
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I received a request from a self-proclaimed “classical polytheist” named Steven to debate the ‘traditional’ notion of ‘God’. Since there are various ‘traditional’ understandings of God throughout the world and history, it is not enough to simply say we believe in God, since this can mean something heterodox and erroneous by those who are misled. Given that, the debate resolution was intended to convey two things. First, that ‘God’ in this debate is to be understood as how Jews and Christians have basically understood monotheism. A Judeo-Christian understanding of God is that God is Personal, One, Almighty (omnipotent), All-Good, All-Knowing (omniscient), and Providential. Since Steven already grants there is some divine entity that can explain questions like how Creation came about, this debate will not focus on typical Atheism-vs-Theism questions, but rather what is a proper understanding of God’s Nature.

While this was originally going to be a formal debate, I told Steven that I couldn't come up with enough information to make it a true debate, so I offered to make this a brief exchange consisting in one Opening Essay and one Rebuttal/Commentary Essay

I will not so much focus on advanced philosophical or ‘academic’ arguments but rather more practical and straightforward arguments. I believe the latter approach is just as valid as the former, especially given that such ‘practical’ arguments are presented in the Christian Scriptures. And since we are finite creatures, these kinds of discussions involve talking about matters that transcend our capacity to fully grasp what it means to be infinite, perfect, almighty, etc. But even if we cannot fully grasp such concepts, we none the less have at least some understanding about what they are. 

St John of Damascus gives a fine summary of the Christian approach to using reason, logic, and common sense in proving Judeo-Christian monotheism:

But that God is one and not many is no matter of doubt to those who believe in the Holy Scriptures. … But with those that do not believe in the Holy Scriptures we will reason thus:

The Deity is perfect, and without blemish in goodness, and wisdom, and power, without beginning, without end, everlasting, uncircumscribed, and in short, perfect in all things. Should we say, then, that there are many Gods, we must recognize difference among the many. For if there is no difference among them, they are one rather than many. But if there is difference among them, what becomes of the perfectness? For that which comes short of perfection, whether it be in goodness, or power, or wisdom, or time, or place, could not be God. But it is this very identity in all respects that shows that the Deity is one and not many.

Again, if there are many Gods, how can one maintain that God is uncircumscribed? For where the one would be, the other could not be.       

Further, how could the world be governed by many and saved from dissolution and destruction, while strife is seen to rage between the rulers? For difference introduces strife. And if any one should say that each rules over a part, what of that which established this order and gave to each his particular realm? For this would the rather be God. Therefore, God is one, perfect, uncircumscribed, maker of the universe, and its preserver and governor, exceeding and preceding all perfection. (Exposition on the Faith, Book 1, Ch 5)

Breaking this down, St John Damascene is making three arguments that ultimately tie together. First, he says that difference among gods necessarily means they fall short of perfection, with each god being ‘different’ precisely because each god lacks (or falls short of) the quality that another god has. Thus, God must be perfect. Second, he points out that if there are many gods, then this necessarily means they cannot all be in the same place at the same time, thus essentially limiting each god to a ‘location’. A god confined to a location is merely an extension of humans being confined to geographic locations on earth. Thus, God must be present everywhere (omnipresent). Third, he points out that a multitude of gods cannot govern or organize the world without ‘infighting’, which would necessarily lead to the world’s destruction. So a democracy of gods cannot explain any order or providence over the world and universe, meaning there must be a hierarchy of beings, with one being ‘at the top’. Thus, God must be Almighty.

The basic Christian reasoning is essentially that of recognizing and showing how anything other than Judeo-Christian monotheism ultimately collapses into absurdities and contradictions. Any ‘god’ that is not one, perfect, almighty, etc, is not a god one can believe in and trust, but is rather a finite and limited being, making ‘god’ nothing more than a ‘progressed man,’ like in Mormonism. 

I look forward to what Steven has to say on this matter!

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