In a comment posted here, a reader named Duane asked (in an edited version):
Why is Jesus never referred to as “the Father,” aside from that Isaiah prophecy? Is it incorrect to call Jesus “Father” or “Abba”?
This article is an edited version of my response, originally posted as a comment here.
Isaiah 9:6 and similar prophecies make it clear that the one to be born would be not only the Son, but also the Father—and of course, God:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Jesus was not born fully divine
However, during Jesus’ lifetime on earth he was not fully divine because he still had the finite human element from his human mother in addition to the infinite divine element that was God, the Father. During his lifetime on earth it would not have been correct to refer to him as “God” or “Father,” but only after he became fully one with the Father. That is why it was after his resurrection that Thomas recognized him not only as “Lord,” but also as “God” (John 20:28).
Now that he is fully glorified and one with the Divine Father, he is also Father, just as Isaiah 9:6 prophesies that he will be. And so it is good for us to think of him as Father and to call him “Father” as well. (“Abba” is an Aramaic word for “Father.”)
The Trinity is within God
It helps to make a distinction between the internal dynamics of God and God’s relationship to us. Internally, God consists of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which are the Divine Love, the Divine Wisdom, and the Divine Power. This means that within God there is a metaphorical relationship of Father to Son and Son to Father, and of both with the Holy Spirit that proceeds from them. These are not separate “Persons” of God, but distinct parts of God. (See: “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?”)
However, that is within God. In relation to us humans, who are not God, all of God is our Father.
There is only one God, who is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Regenerator of all. That God is the Lord God Jesus Christ, who is one both in essence and in person—contrary to the false and unbiblical doctrine of the Trinity of Persons that invaded Christianity early in its history, and has held it captive ever since. (See: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”)
We can and should call Jesus “Father”
All of the attributes of God are in that one God, and are that one God: Father, Creator, Redeemer, Regenerator, and every other name that is applied to God. They are all names of the one God, seen in God’s various qualities, characteristics, components, and powers. We can and should call Jesus all of these things because that is who and what he is: the one and only God of the universe.
Yes, now that the Lord Jesus has been glorified and is the one God, sovereign over heaven and earth (see Matthew 28:18), it is good and proper to call Jesus “God” and “Father,” just as he is called in the Old Testament prophecies of his coming, and just as he identifies himself to Philip in John 14:8–10:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak from myself. It is the Father living in me who is doing the works.”
Jesus prepared us for his full union with the Father
Keep in mind that almost half of the Gospel of John, chapters 12–20, covers events and sayings that took place in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. When he spoke these words to Philip in John 14, he had nearly completed the process of glorification: of becoming fully one with the Father.
Much of what he says in these last chapters before his crucifixion is in anticipation of his full union with the Father. In his last days with his disciples, he was preparing them for the great change both in him and in their own lives, when he would be not only their Lord, but their God, and when he would not only be the Son of God, but would be God their loving Father.
Further, if the Epistles were properly translated according to the exact meaning of the original Greek, and not bent in translation to conform to the false doctrine of the Trinity of Persons, readers would see many places where Jesus is called both “God” and “Father” by the Apostles after the resurrection. Whoever is God is also our Father. There are not three of them, but one of them.
(And yes, God is also our Divine Mother. See: “The Mother of All the Living.”)
For further reading:
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
- What is the Biblical basis for disbelief in the doctrine of the Trinity?
- If Jesus Christ is the One God, Why Did He Talk and Pray to the Father?
- What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?
- The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus
Dear Lee Thanks so much for sharing this conversation with so many details!! It is so amazing how high and detailed people may go to this aspect of life and history. One of the things that came to mind, some time ago, about explaining how and why Jesus came to earth with this idea. Please have a look at this link. This approach can be extended and be made more detailed but this is just the basic idea. Thanks so much for the conversation. https://sites.google.com/site/liveitupspiritually/home/writings/Fish-tank.txt
Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. FYI, I slightly edited the link in your comment. For those reading in, the link goes to a Google site where you can download a TXT file.
I do like your “fish tank” analogy. Yes, our “fish tank” here on earth got dirty, as it inevitably would given our God-given freedom that makes it possible for us to choose evil over good. And yes, eventually God had to come personally and “clean up the mess.” Not that there would be no more mess (those fish keep right on doing their thing), but that the mess we are still making became more manageable.
Though I know you’re not using technical language, my only caution would be about the statement, “So God created a human being with Mary . . .” As covered in some of the articles linked at the end of this one, though Jesus at birth did have a human side from Mary, which was indeed “created,” the divine side of Jesus was not created, but is an uncreated extension of God. However, that is a quibble for the theologically-minded. I do get what you’re saying.
Thanks for a good and thoughtful piece!
This was a great article Lee…..It helps others to see the mystery of the “Godhead” and to understand it better. My only concern is your statement where you said:
“Further, if the Epistles were properly translated according to the exact meaning of the original Greek, and not bent in translation to conform to the false doctrine of the Trinity of Persons”
Show me 1 instance where translations deliberately differed from the Greek to conform to a trinitarian concept of God
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the article!
I do not mean to imply that the various Nicene Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) Bible translators deliberately change the language of their translation to conform to a trinitarian concept of God. Though this sort of deliberate changing of the text occasionally does happen in translations—for example, Luther’s famous or infamous insertion “alone” after “faith” in Romans 3:28 in his German translation of the Scriptures—for the most part it is more subtle and nuanced than that. People of various doctrinal stances read and understand the Bible according to their own doctrinal stance. Their translations bend toward that doctrinal stance, not “deliberately,” but because that is the lens through which they read the text. They sincerely believe that they are accurately translating the text into the target language. Translation is an art, not a science. It depends heavily on the translator’s reading and understanding of the text.
As for examples of the Epistles calling Jesus “God” and “Father” if they are translated more exactly according to the original Greek, I first encountered this in the wonderful book Great Truths on Great Subjects, by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley, originally published in England in 1850. In the discussion following the first lecture (on pp. 44–45 of the linked reprint edition on Amazon), this question and answer occurs:
Unfortunately, Amazon has not linked the print edition to the Kindle edition. If you want to purchase Great Truths on Great Subjects for Kindle, you can do so here. These are my own reprint editions of this fantastic and highly recommended book.
Introducing the Commander in Chief and the President of the United States. Same person.
Firstly I need to say a massive thank you for helping me out with some religious questions that have puzzled me in the past. If I hadn’t come across your blog I would be completely turned off by Christianity and you helped me feel I could still be a christian and not be part of a faith that judges people and feels superior. About a year ago I think, you told me that when Jesus was on earth, God was still in his heaven at the same time – something that confused me beforehand.
I wanted to ask though seeing as Jesus and God are spoken about separately and for thirty three years Jesus had an earthly mother do you think they two different entities or the same. Are Jesus and God now in heaven one spirit or two. A lot of people say Jesus is God and I do believe that God came down in human form to spread his message of love and compassion to others as Jesus Christ but after death I question whether he is God as he was reconciled to him or a part of him sitting beside him, but then not actually him. I know from people who have had near death experiences that some of them have said they felt the love of god and some say they have felt the presence of Jesus but not always both. As there are 6 major world religions and many of smaller ones where they mostly believe in God, only one of them believes that Jesus is anything to do with God. Some people suggest that Jesus is a path to God for Christians and similarly Mohammad would be a path to God/Allah for Muslims as he is the one they worship. I was interested to hear your opinion as what you think about that. This is what Oprah Winfrey has said she believes while I believe that Jesus is for all of us with love and acceptance but seeing as other religions pray to other prophets I’m sure people of other faiths would seek out the prophet that means a lot to them but that Jesus draws all to himself as well. I believe that but I don’t like having the my religion is right, your religion is wrong mentality to others. I do believe Jesus is God but was wondering if God turned up as God to everyone firstly or as Jesus as people of other faiths probably wouldn’t reject God but could reject Jesus as to them he is a stranger in the way other prophets would be to me.
Lastly I have always wondered as Jesus is the savior of all human beings from his life on earth and came to save us all what happened before to all our ancestors and other biblical characters in the old testament if he wasn’t on earth to save them. Any thoughts?
It says Enoch and Elijah were taken to heaven directly by God and I like to think that seeing as our ancestors have been around for six million years and Jesus only came 2019 years ago that they went to Heaven. It does bring up the question of what was the purpose of Jesus if we were all saved beforehand but If good people were sent away from God after death thats a horrible thought. I have always heard people talk about Jesus saving us but never about what happened to everyone in the old testament before Jesus if they weren’t saved after death. Seeing as God is seen as love it makes God sound unloving and Jesus sound forgiving. If jesus is God then surely he is the same person and would want to save his children since the beginning of time. God coming to earth and sending out his message to the world through Jesus was an amazing thing to do and I love that when I went to a church in Africa God was seen as a black man and in my church he’s white as it shows he is for us and relates to us whatever we are and his message is for everyone.
Good to hear from you again! I’m glad our blog has been so helpful to you. That’s why we do it.
About your first round of questions, please read these three articles, and see if they provide the answers you are looking for. The third one was a response to a similar question that you asked earlier.
About your second round of questions, the salvation of people in the Old Testament is a problem only for “Christians” who believe in the false doctrine justification by faith alone. For such “Christians,” there is no salvation without intellectual belief in Jesus, so the salvation of people who lived before Jesus was born is a real problem. They have various work-arounds, none of which are really convincing unless you reject their basic doctrine of faith alone. (I put “Christians” in quotation marks because these people reject what Jesus Christ and his Apostles teach in the Bible, so they can’t really be called Christians.)
For people who believe what the Bible actually teaches, which is that we are saved if we believe in God, love God, and live according to God’s commandments, there is not a problem about the salvation of people in Old Testament times. Those who believed in God and lived according to God’s commandments were saved. Those who did not were not saved.
It’s the same for people of all religions. Even atheists who live according to a code of ethics that they believe is more important than their own self-interest are believing in God and living according to God’s commandments. They just reject the label “God,” mostly because traditional Christianity (and other religions, too), has made God look like a total jerk. See: “Do Atheists Go to Heaven?”
Here are some more articles that go into this in more detail:
I know that’s a lot of articles. But you’re asking a lot of big questions! If, after reading these articles, you still have questions, or don’t understand something, please feel free to leave further comments.
Do you think it’s too harsh to put ‘Christians’ in quotes when referring to Protestants and Catholics on account of their doctrines of justification, effectively calling them pseudo-Christians? I realize that, among many of the aforementioned, their indictment of Swedenborgians has historically been similarly uncharitable, but I once heard a podcast by William Lane Craig in which a student asked him about oneness Pentecostals and if they were truly ‘Christian’, and he remarked: ‘it seems to me that the only necessary condition to be a Christian is to accept the Divinity of Christ,’ and I would be inclined to agree with this.
Now, I would draw a difference between qualifying conditions and disqualifying conditions. I would put ‘Christians’ in quotes when referring to, say, white supremacists, who believe Jesus is Lord but nevertheless hold to a set of deeply contrary and abhorrent beliefs. Conversely, I wouldn’t call the ethical atheists you referred to in your reply as ‘Christians,’ for even though they (unknowingly) live in accordance with the basic Christian teaching for salvation, they don’t consciously and in their hearts place that belief within a larger spiritual framework.
But do you feel a doctrine of justification can be a disqualifying belief?
Doctrinally, Catholicism and its schism Protestantism are not Christian. This not a matter of being “uncharitable.” It’s a matter of being factual.
Christians accept the teaching of Jesus Christ, and of the Christian Bible. But Catholicism and Protestantism have long since rejected the basic teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible, especially on the critical matter of salvation, and have substituted non-biblical and anti-biblical teachings originated by such theologians as Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.
Catholics are now doctrinally followers of Anselm and Aquinas, not followers of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. Protestants are doctrinally followers of Luther and Calvin, not followers of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. They therefore, in point of fact, are “Christian not in essence or in reality but in name only,” to use Swedenborg’s description (in True Christianity #668).
Now, individual Catholics or Protestants may be Christians if they embody Jesus’ own definition of his followers:
More generally, if they follow Jesus’ two Great Commandments, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, then they are Christians in reality and essence, meaning in their lives, even if they are not Christians doctrinally because they belong to a non-Christian church.
As for accepting the divinity of Christ, Catholicism and Protestantism do this only in a limited fashion. They see Christ as the human side of one-third of the Godhead—of the “Second Person” of the Trinity. They do not see Christ as fully Divine, meaning that he is God. He is only part of God, or more accurately, part of part of God. So they do not accept the full divinity of Jesus Christ, but grant him only part of the divinity—one-sixth of it, to be precise. This is true of Orthodox Christianity as well.
This is fantastic. Thanks for mentioning my question!
I have a follow up to this, which is sort of a clarification: Jesus had to have, as a human, a distinct personality, right — that is, as a finite human being? Was this personality God’s personality? Or is God’s personality precisely Jesus’?
I hope this question makes sense in light of what you wrote above, and that it is clear I am not exactly asking the same question.
It’s a good, and interesting, question.
Jesus, while he was on earth, was a first century Jew living in Palestine. He would have been a different personality if he had been a third century Chinese living in China, or a fifth century African living in Ethiopia. The particular personality he had due to his particular ethnic and temporal human background is not any more God’s personality than any of the other potential personalities he could have had if he’d been born in a different time and place. However, the divine aspects of his personality would have been the same no matter where and when he was born.
It is similar to Swedenborg’s statements in Secrets of Heaven #10453 about how the Bible would have had a different literal sense if it had been written in a different culture, but its spiritual sense would have been the same.
Whoa! Ok! That’s fascinating. I always assumed his personality was God’s! So does Jesus now retain that aspect of his personality, post-glorification???
Also, I believe you have a link about Jesus’ earlier years and his coming to understand himself as God’s son. Do you have a link for this?
Post-glorification, Jesus is infinite and omniscient, and is God.
God does come to different people in particular human forms, including as the common picture of Jesus among Christians here on earth. This is likely not what Jesus actually looked like; it is simply how Europeans, especially, have come to visualize Jesus. For a fascinating brief article on this, see:
What did Jesus really look like? By Joan Taylor
In other words, the Lord commonly appears to us in the guise that we expect. That doesn’t mean that’s what Jesus “actually looks like.” God, the Divine Humanity, encompasses all (good) human characteristics at a divine level. How the Lord appears to us depends greatly upon how we picture the Lord in our own minds, and in our prayer life. This is not wrong. It’s just human. For a related article, see:
How does Jesus Appear to Us? Can We See God Face to Face?
I don’t think I have an article here specifically on Jesus’ early years and his coming to understand himself as divine. However, there are sections in a couple of my recent comments-turned-to-posts:
It comes up in various other articles here as well.
What do you make of the images in the Bible that picture God the Father on a throne and Jesus next time him, seemingly representing “two” persons or even beings rather than one? I am thinking mainly of revelation (to the one who sits on the throne and the lamb, etc.), but also even Jesus’ own proclamation that he will be seated “at the right hand” of the power.
Here’s the article you’re looking for:
What Does It Mean to Sit at the Right Hand of God?
Lee, I can’t seem to find your reply on here, but No no. I didn’t mean for traditional trinitarianism; I meant, for Swedenborg and yourself, are the distinctions in God real or merely apparent. It’s sort of a philosophical question that I’m interested in as to the “ontological status” of difference or distinction. In other words, does God’s wisdom and his love merely appear different to us, or are they real distinctions in God. Does that make sense now?
I accidentally hit “save” before I was finished with my reply, and deleted the incomplete answer. I have now posted the completed answer to your question below.
Thinking about the Trinity again and rereading some of your posts as well as, at this moment, Thomas Aquinas. I already know what you think of the traditional Doctrine of the Trinity, as well as what Swedenborg thinks, of course. My question is: are the distinctions in God (Wisdom, e.g.) real? That is, is God different truly or distinct really from his wisdom and love even though they are of course him, in the one God who is one person, namely the Lord God Jesus Christ. does this question make sense?
Thank you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Good to hear from you again. Happy New Year!
If I am reading your question correctly, it resolves into two distinct questions:
In traditional Christianity, this might be answered by reference to the Shield of the Trinity, which seems to have originated at about the time of Aquinas:
Visually, if you ignore the labeling, this image presents a picture in which not only are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit distinct from one another, but each is distinct from the central figure of God. I realize this is not the intent of the creators of the diagram. But visuals often tell a truth that words do not. They present what is actually in the person’s mind, whereas it is easy to obscure the mental picture, which is the person’s real thoughts, through the use of words that express what one is supposed to believe, but not what one actually believes. On this, please see:
Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?
In reality, traditional trinitarians picture three gods in their minds, one of whom is the Father, another of whom is the Son, and yet another of whom is the Holy Spirit. These three gods, however, are conceived of as being “one” by means of an “essence” that is represented visually in the shield of the Trinity by the central “God” circle.
As represented visually in the Shield of the Trinity, in traditional trinitarianism the answer to both of the questions I see embedded in your comment is “yes.” The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct from God, who is an essence behind each one of them; and they are also distinct from each other. Once again, I realize that trinitarians themselves would disagree with this description of their beliefs. But as shown in the above-linked article, their words are at odds with the picture in their mind, which is their actual belief about the nature of God.
In traditional trinitarian doctrine, though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each held to be God in and of themselves, in reality none of them is actually the one God, because it is the essence behind them that is God, and each of them is a manifestation of that underlying God. Despite trinitarians’ rejection of modalism as a heresy, their own conception of God is essentially modalist in conception. The central essence or being of God appears in three different manifestations. That’s modalism. In modalism, none of the “modes,” or appearances, or manifestations, of God is really God as God is in God’s self. They are each an appearance of God; none of them is the actual, full being of God.
Once again, the picture tells the truth more clearly than the words.
For a related article, please see:
What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?
If Swedenborg’s concept of the Trinity were to be drawn as a diagram, in simplest form it would be three concentric circles, the inner circle being the Father, the middle one being the Son, and the outer one being the Holy Spirit.
However, if, as Swedenborg says, God is One Person (not three), and if, as he says, God is Human, then the best way to “diagram” the Trinity is as a human being. After all, Genesis 1:26–27 says that God created human beings in the image and likeness of God. If we want to gain a real, concrete, and non-confusing idea of God, considering our own nature as human beings is better than any diagram.
We could then ask about ourselves the two questions I have resolved yours into, and gain a much better and more accurate picture in our mind of their answers. So let’s ask:
On question 1, though philosophers could certainly argue and debate the point, I would say it’s fairly clear that we are not distinct from our parts, but rather are the sum of our parts. Without all of the parts that make us human, primarily spiritually but also physically, we are not ourselves. Yes, physically we can lose a limb or an eye. But our remaining parts are still distinctly human parts. And without any of our parts, we consider ourselves to be incomplete. And if we lose one of the parts that is essential to our life as a human being, such as our heart, our lungs, or our brain, we cease to be human because we cease to be alive.
On question 2, when we consider ourselves as human beings, it is quite clear that our different parts, both physical and spiritual (or psychological) are indeed distinct from one another. Our feet are not our eyes. Our heart is not our lungs. Each part and organ is distinct from every other part and organ. Yet together, they make us the human being that we are—the spiritual parts and organs even more so than the physical ones.
The same answers apply to God:
In tackling these rather tricky concepts in more abstract verbal form, Swedenborg uses the Latin expression distincte unum. This comes out in English as “distinctly one” in the older, more literal translations. The New Century Edition more helpfully translates it as “distinguishably one.” In other words, we can mentally distinguish them from one another, and they are, in fact, distinct from one another, but they are indivisibly one in forming the whole, and in their functions.
For example, we can mentally distinguish the heart and the lungs from one another, and they are distinct from each other. But if you separate them from each other, and from the rest of the body, they cease to be heart and lungs, and become dead, functionless matter instead. Yes, in this day and age they can be separated temporarily, as in a heart or lung transplant. But unless they are fairly rapidly put together with their counterparts in a living body, they will soon decompose, and will no longer be a heart or a lung.
This is the same way in which God’s “heart,” or divine love, is distinguishably one with God’s “lungs,” or divine wisdom. We can distinguish them in our mind, and they are in fact distinct from one another. But they cannot be separated, or neither one retains its own essence, being, reality, and function. They must be together, or they are nothing.
For some passages in which Swedenborg discusses how the various parts of God are distinguishably one, please see Divine Love and Wisdom #14–22 and #34–39.
Ah ok, so I would certainly resist the “parts/whole” language because that’s more of a physical analogy, right? Bc if God is spirit, it would be difficult to talk about parts. But the “distinction” language is interesting. So a follow up: (a) is God’s wisdom really “distinct” from his love, or are they the same thing, just (b) distinguishable in our mind? in other words, are these distinct in God or to us? It really makes the question arise for me re: the immanent vs. economic trinity in traditional lingo, where the traditional trinitarians have argued that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, whereas, it always made more sense to me to think of God as “tri-une” to us, that is, in his dealings with us, but not in himself, which I find to be “basically” the same as what Swedenborg is saying (maybe? I’m sure you’ll response to this part). Another point of interest re: your human analogy, which reminds me of Augustine using the very same point, in particular mind and will (Aquinas later picks this up too), which seems to correspond to Swedenborg’s points.
So I guess, in short: Is distinction real in God or just to us; that is, does difference have an ontological status of its own; Also, what appears to be important for Aquinas is that the “hypostases” are essential relations, which are related to each other; so the Father is in relation to the Son and to the Spirit. Would Swedenborg talk this way? Is the Father in relation to the Son? (Do you see how this is all basically the same question?)
I would very much recommend that you read the sections in Divine Love and Wisdom that I referenced in my previous reply. In fact, if you are interested in the nature of God from a philosophical and ontological perspective, I would highly recommend that you read Divine Love and Wisdom in its entirety. That is the book for you.
About God having parts:
Yes, of course God has parts. Traditional Christian philosophy is utterly confused on this point, attempting to make God “simple” while simultaneously saying that God is three Persons. It is a self-contradictory and meaningless doctrine, hatched and developed by darkened minds during a very dark and brutish period of human history.
Among the sections from Divine Love and Wisdom that I referenced, there is this one, in which Swedenborg makes it quite explicit:
The Bible is also very clear that God has all the parts and organs of a human being. Why else would it say that we humans are created in God’s image and likeness? See:
Was Adam Anatomically in God’s Image?
Of course, God’s parts are not made of physical matter, nor are they made of spiritual substance. They are made of divine substance. But the divine being of God has every part that we created human beings have. Otherwise, how could we be created in the image and likeness of God? Unless God has all of the parts we do, that statement in Genesis has no meaning whatsoever.
Lee, I’ve never understood that passage to mean that God literally has organs or anything; but rather, humans being made in the image and likeness of God concerns our intellect and our will (freedom). While I’m open to what you are saying, I don’t think saying that God has no body (or at least, HAD no body prior to the incarnation?) makes the passage meaningless. Anthropomorphism is the term often employed; just as it is said that God gets angry by analogy and anthropomorphism, so too it COULD BE that God has hands and blows smoke out his nose and whatever else. Again, I’m not disagreeing just saying it need not ipso facto mean that without also having other meanings. But, ultimately, that question isn’t as important to me as figuring out the question of relation between the parts of God to one another. Recently I read a few articles by Catholic theologians who argue (and I know I’ve noted this before to you a while ago) that to say God is three person means not that God is three consciousnesses; that is, person is a subsisting relation (whatever that means!) not a consciousness. So God is one consciousness in three subsistences which are in relation according got traditional trinitarianism. So my point is not to of course try to argue they are saying the same thing, but simply ask you if you think that definition would be something closer (at least) or maybe even identical to what Swedenborg thought?
Again, you dont have to worry about convincing me or the error or the history. I’m with you, I’m simply wondering if that might be closer to what youre saying?
In other words, do the “parts” “relate” to each other?
Our intellect and our will also have parts. They are not “simple” entities. They are complex entities—and complex means “having many different parts, with many different functions.”
In order to properly understand God, we must divest our mind of the idea that God is some wispy, insubstantial thing. God is not a ghost, made of inchoate vapor. God is a human being, made of all of the component parts that make us human beings.
If God just has inchoate “will” and “understanding,” what is the content of that will and understanding? Does God have a specific love for you, and for me, and for every other individual human being on this earth? Or does God just have a wispy, generalized “love” that has no distinct shape, direction, or object?
And if God is omniscient, doesn’t this mean that God’s mind contains every single detail of knowledge that can possibly exist? If so, then God’s intellect is not some generalized “simple” entity, but consists of infinite distinct elements or parts, all unified together as a single divine mind.
I am aware that this is not really where you want to go. But I do not think you will be able to understand the answers to your questions if you reject the idea that God consists of infinite parts. If there are not parts in God, then the whole question of whether they are distinct, or distinguishable, has no meaning and no referent.
Nicene trinitarians see this dimly due to their belief in three persons of God, which they insist are in relationship with one another. The actual picture in their head, as I’ve said before (echoing Swedenborg) is of three gods talking to each other. The rest is just fancy theological and philosophical language to make it sound like they’re not simpletons who believe in three gods. Unfortunately, they are simpletons who believe in three gods. The words they use to describe God have no real meaning. They don’t even understand it themselves. They’ve simply backed themselves into a corner with their irrational and unbiblical belief in three persons of God (really, three gods), and they are trying to philosophize their way out of it. That is why their teachings about God are so confusing to anyone who tries to figure out what they mean. In fact, they have no idea at all what God is like. They, including Aquinas, really do think that there are three gods talking to each other from eternity. This is the “relationship” that they have with each other.
If you can read Aquinas, you can certainly read Swedenborg, learn what God is really like, and get the answers to all of the questions you are asking.
Short version: Yes, the different parts of God, both the big general ones such as love and wisdom, and the small individual ones such as a particular love for Duane Armitage, and also a particular love for Lee Woofenden, really are distinct from one another within God. They are not just something that appears distinct to us.
oh oh! I’m sorry, i didnt mean to give the impression that I am not or would not or have not read Swedenborg. I’ve read quite a lot of him since we met a few years ago on here. I just do not have the formal education and training to know where to go to find stuff (like I do with Catholic or Roman theology) so I appreciate the suggestions on where to go.
Everything here makes sense. Thanks Lee. I agree that none of the Trinitarian stuff ever made sense, as well as the simplicity bit.
Understood. If you haven’t yet read Divine Love and Wisdom, do yourself a favor. It’s a deep well, but it’s where all of these philosophical questions about the nature of God are answered. The first three chapters of True Christianity cover some of the same ground, but from a less philosophical and more theological and biblical perspective.
If I seem a bit irascible on these subjects, it’s because I find it both sad and frustrating that traditional “Christian” theology based on the human-invented doctrine of the Trinity of Persons has induced so much confusion and darkness on people’s minds that even the most basic and simple truths about God become obscure and hard to understand. That’s not because those truths are intrinsically difficult, but because the thick cobwebs of falsity that have taken over the human mind in the Christian world must be swept away before the light of truth can shine in unobstructed.
In your questions there is much of the shadow of the old, dark, and corrupt theology that has been constructed for so many centuries on the false foundation of a polytheistic picture of God that was hatched by darkened minds only a few short centuries after the Light of the World walked this earth. Aquinas represents the final codification of that falsity within the Catholic Church. This then led to the monstrously false doctrines hatched by Luther, Calvin, and their theological followers, which now hold much of the “Christian” world in their grip.
Week after week people come here, most from a Protestant background, but some, such as you, from a Catholic background, and show the sad effects that these terribly false doctrines have had on their minds, and on the world. If my anger and frustration at these doctrines sometimes flashes out in my responses, it is not at the person, but at the errant falsity that has pervaded “Christianity,” darkening people’s minds and leading to great confusion, and in many people, to fearful despair about their life and their eternal salvation. This is the bitter fruit of false doctrine.
I urge you to drop Aquinas. His writings will only keep your mind mired in confusion. Because his teachings rest on an utterly false foundation, they are themselves utterly false. Falsity does have an element of truth within it, because falsity has no existence of its own, but rather is the twisting of truth into deceptive forms. Perhaps there are a few nuggets of truth in Aquinas. But they have been so twisted and falsified in his polytheistic and pagan theology that instead of making those few nuggets of truth perceptible to the mind, his writings bury and suffocate them under heaps and heaps of obscurity and foolishness. In traditional “Christianity,” truth lies enshrouded in the grave.
Instead, read and re-read Swedenborg, starting, in your case, with either Divine Love and Wisdom or True Christianity. Let the old doctrine, built upon the false foundation of a pagan belief in three gods, be washed out of your mind by the clear waters of true Christian doctrine as found in Swedenborg’s writings, and founded upon the Bible understood from a spiritual perspective rather than from the materialistic perspective of Nicene Christianity.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
I would also recommend that you read and re-read the simplified versions of Swedenborg’s teachings about God found in the articles here, starting with the articles linked for further reading at the end of the above article, and including “Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?”
Once you clear the old, false theology from your mind, the truth will be easy to see and understand. I have explained many of these things in basic language to five- and ten-year-olds in Sunday School classes, and they can understand them perfectly well. Yes, there are some more challenging doctrines that can take time to grasp and master. But the basic nature of God is easy to understand precisely because God has created us in God’s own image. By looking at how we are made, we can understand what God is like.
In many places Swedenborg emphasizes that it is critical to believe that God is human; that God is a person. He says that simple-minded, uneducated people who see God as a human being understand God better than highly educated theologians who resist the idea of God as a human being, chalking it up to humans anthropomorphizing God.
The reality is the reverse. God has anthropomorphized us. God is, in fact, the only truly human being in the universe. We created humans are finite copies of the infinite humanity of God.
Making us human in the image of God’s humanity is not only about form. It is also about the substance of humanity, which is divine love. However, the human form is an essential part of what it is to be human. Even our physical shape is not random chance brought about by the fortuitous concourse of atoms.
Secular scientists have long resisted the idea that there is any inherent design or direction in nature. They have considered the human form to be largely a fluke of nature, believing that we could have turned out in any number of other potential forms. However, when we actually study the human form—meaning here specifically the human body and human physiology—we can see that it is perfectly adapted to express the mind of a rational, self-aware being motivated by love and endowed with freedom.
Consider the human lungs, windpipe, and mouth, and how they are able to produce spoken language. I have trouble watching the new computer-animated films in which animals talk like humans. In reality, the form of their mouths, nasal passages, and windpipes would be incapable of producing human speech even if they had the intelligence to frame it in their minds. Such movies look fake to me, no matter how realistic the CGI. It is not arbitrary that our windpipe, mouth, and nasal passages are structured the way they are. That specific structure allows us to engage in spoken language with one another, which is an essential for human life as we know it.
Consider that unlike almost any other animal that has arms and hands, we walk upright, without any need for assistance from our arms, so that we can devote our hands entirely to accomplishing useful work. Doesn’t this reflect our human focus on engaging in good and useful service to others, and not merely satisfying our own physical needs and those of our offspring and our pack, as in lower animals?
Consider the arrangement of our reproductive organs and our overall bodily form, which enables men and women to have face-to-face sexual intercourse in a way that few other animals are capable of doing due to the form of their bodies. We can have sexual relations in the ways that other animals do if we wish, but they cannot have sexual intercourse in the most intimate ways that we humans can. Does this not express right in our physiology the reality that human love is capable of a mutuality and tenderness that sets us apart from lower animals?
The human form is not arbitrary or adventitious. It is perfectly suited to express the human soul. And the human soul is perfectly suited to express the nature of God. This is because these layers of reality correspond to one another, to use Swedenborg’s term. We humans express the human nature of God. And our bodies express the human nature of our spirit.
This is true not just in general outline, but right down to the tiniest details of our human mind (which has a complex human form of its own) and our human physiology. We are made not only in the image, but also in the likeness of God. We are not merely an external image, but also an internal likeness of the nature of God. Physiologically, this means that every part, organ, and cell of our body expresses and corresponds to something specific in the nature of God.
This is why Swedenborg, in Divine Love and Wisdom #18, says that God has every single part and organ that we human have in our body. Once again, God’s parts and organs are not made of physical matter as our physical bodies are, nor are they made of spiritual substance, as our spirit and our spiritual body are. God’s parts are made entirely of divine substance, which is the self-existing substance of divine love. And yet, God is indeed differentiated into infinite parts, because while love unites, wisdom distinguishes. And God is a perfect union of love and wisdom, so that “in the Divine-Human One, infinite things are distinguishably one” (Divine Love and Wisdom #17).
All of this understanding of the nature of God, and much more, becomes accessible to our minds once we understand, accept, and believe that God is a human being—a person. Not a finite, created human being as we are, but an infinite, uncreated human being.
People who think they’re highly educated, intelligent, and wise have trouble accepting this. They want God to be some inchoate force without form or structure. This seems “wise” and “philosophical” to them. As a result, they cannot understand or accept the simplest truths about God, but write huge long treatises full of empty speculations about a God that they neither know nor understand.
I would urge you not to succumb to the pride of intelligence that causes so many smart people to reject a human God as a childish notion that is beneath their dignity. It is precisely by humbling ourselves in the presence of the Divine Humanity of God that we begin to gain real knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in the nature and ways of God.
Hi Lee, Hi Duane,
Very much interested in seeing where this discussion is headed (if it is to continue), because the question of Divine Simplicity is one that I’ve occasionally wrestled with in my own conception of God, and also one that you (Lee) would surprisingly share a a patch of common ground with Protestant philosophers and theologians, as most seem to outright reject the notion that God has no parts, and have sought to argue against the doctrine.
As a somewhat minor point, I would disagree with Lee that such a notion is merely the product of overly educated people who fall prey to the limitations of human rationally and accept it because it has it sounds wise or enlightened to them.
For people- myself included- God is seen as completely, utterly ‘other’- totally transcendent, and for the trans theistic person, ultimate reality, and the ground of all being. In either case many people just come to conceive of God as something that is just so profoundly separate and distinct from themselves, and you find this in certain strands of religious mysticism, and in the belief of the common person who just believes that God- as an infinite being- simply cannot have the crudeness of ‘parts’. ‘Parts’ are for finite beings. God is pure essence, whatever that may be.
This is a belief that I had held in the past and am trying to move away from, but seeing as I my conception of God had evolved to be something infinite, loving, transcendent, and just…something ‘ease,’ the idea of God having parts is still something I’m growing comfortable with.
But the point is, this more abstract conception isn’t simply the product of haughty minds who think they’re crafting something lofty. It’s just the way many people think when they hear the word ‘God.’
If you’re using terms such as “divine simplicity,” “transtheistic,” “ultimate reality,” and “pure essence,” then you’re far beyond the common person intellectually. The very fact that these concepts are in your head, and that you struggle with them, shows that you come at God from an educated perspective.
In my experience, common people not only don’t use these terms, but they don’t consider or wrestle with such issues. They see God described in the Bible or in their religion’s sacred texts as having human parts, emotions, and qualities, and they therefore think of God as an old man in heaven who watches over us. Ordinary Christians who haven’t been confused by the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons think of God as the very human and approachable Jesus. In fact, one of the greatest beauties of Christianity is that we can think of God not just as transcendent—as far beyond us—but also as immanent—as right here with us in a person-to-person relationship.
Because common people commonly think of God as a an infinitely powerful man (and occasionally as a woman), they have a more accurate idea of God than educated people who struggle with fancy concepts such as “divine simplicity” and “pure essence.”
Swedenborg is unusual among highly educated people in that he never lost his childlike humility before God. He therefore retained the simple concept of God as a human being. (He always uses the Latin word homo, “person,” never the word vir, “man,” when referring to the Lord.) Though Swedenborg was perfectly capable of high flights of abstract reasoning, he kept his idea of God grounded in the basic idea of God as an infinitely loving, wise, and powerful human being, in whose image we are created as finite human beings.
This is precisely how the Bible presents God. And it is better than all of human philosophy put together.
To start, I certainly don’t ‘want’ who I’m asking to answer in one way or the other. I have no personally invested interest in whether the respondent replies yes or no, or whether they would personally hold a mental image that involves ‘parts,’ as I might say, or ‘body parts,’ as they might envision. I wouldn’t attempt to stack the deck with deliberate language so as to elicit a certain reply, so I hope you believe that
What I’m saying is that the ordinary person might very well react negatively to the idea that God has body parts. It might simply be at odds with what the basic idea of ‘supernatural’ might be to them. What does God need with hands? Why would God have a face? To them it may sound like a created being. WE are the created beings. God is the creator. So whereas one person might hold the mental image of the Man Upstairs, others might see God as, I don’t know, a glowing orb of light. In either case, these are mental images that exist for our benefit so as to comprehend something beyond us. Because we, as humans, need to.
Whether or not the person creating an interview or survey intends to ask leading questions, it’s been shown time and time again that the precise way that a question is worded does influence how people will answer. Ask the same people the same basic question, but worded differently, and the responses will be different.
In particular, “body parts,” and “parts” when applied to living beings, have somewhat negative connotations. “Body parts” sounds like severed limbs and dissected organs. Yech! God doesn’t have those! And “parts” sounds mechanical and impersonal. Not like something God would have.
However, a face and hands are something people—at least Christians—commonly think of God as having, if only because they read it everywhere in the Bible, and because they think of Jesus as God. A face and hands are warm and human—something that it sounds like a loving and wise God would have.
I am aware that there are many people who think of God as a disembodied force or an orb of light. But I would say that such people have a very wispy and sketchy idea of God. Often, such people really think of God as being simply a spirit that animates nature, and do not really believe in God at all as Jews, Christians, Muslims, and adherents of many of the other major religions would define or conceive of God.
With regard to Islam, while God- like in Christianity- is described as having parts and attributes, none of those parts are distinct from each other. In Islam, as in classical Christianity, and as with classical monotheism, God’s love is His justice which is His mercy which is His wisdom and so on; God is undifferentiated unity. I’m not in the business of dropping links, but this amounts to a good summary of divine simplicity in Islam:
Your objection that God, in Islam, must be complex on account of His attributes sounds more like an objection to the idea of divine simplicity in general, though it doesn’t appear as though you’ve given much credence to the objection to the idea that God has parts, which are formidable.
This is one formulated by the eminent Christian philosopher Richard Swineburne
No, indeed not. It would be a feature of simplicity that there are no parts. And parts make for complexity. And God, since God is omnipotent, he can do anything anywhere. But a being which has parts, their ability to do things will depend on the operation of those parts. And therefore will be dependent on different things which are separate from themselves. So, no, God does not have parts.
I realize you’re skeptical if not outright suspicious of these high minded philosophers and theologians, but I’d regret to think that you’re outright dismissive of them, as what is the human ability to intellectually apprehend God (to the extent that we can) if not a God-given gift?
Thanks for the link. However, it’s not just a matter of being arbitrarily “outright dismissive” of the statements of Muslim and Christian theologians. It’s that those theologians are engaging both in specific errors of thought and in philosophical verbiage that has no real meaning.
To start with your quote from Richard Swinburne:
Swinburne thinks that because God, being omnipotent, can do anything anywhere, this means that God cannot have parts, which would limit God’s operation. This only shows that Swinburne is thinking of “parts” in a materialistic fashion, as being characterized by time and space, and therefore limited to particular times and places.
This is a fundamental error. Time and space are properties of physical matter. God is not made of physical matter, but of divine substance, which is beyond and above time and space. God is present in all time apart from time, and in all space apart from space. This means that every one of God’s divine parts is also present and active in all time apart from time, and in all space apart from space. God’s having parts in no way limits God’s ability to act everywhere, in all times, with every one of God’s “parts” or attributes.
Further, he erroneously assumes that “parts” implies things that are “separate from themselves.” But our face, arms, legs, hands, heart, lungs, kidneys, and so on are not “separate from themselves,” nor are they separate from ourselves as human beings. Rather, they are each distinct parts of ourselves. When one acts, they all act together as one. If they do not, then that body is a diseased and unhealthy body. And it should be obvious that God is not diseased and unhealthy.
It’s not that I’m “outright dismissive” of Swinburne’s statements. It’s that he makes very basic errors that render his analysis false.
The Muslim piece on Divine Simplicity that you linked suffers from similar errors of thought.
It also starts out with an appeal to authority by referencing “the infallible Imams.” Catholicism makes similar claims of infallibility for its Pope and magisterium. But there is only one who is infallible, and that is God. We humans are not capable of infallibility. To ascribe infallibility to a human religious leader is to bind one’s mind to a falsity right from the start.
My general impression of the piece is that it is just a lot of words trying to make a point, but they are words without any real meaning. It employs philosophical jargon to make its argument sound intelligent and plausible, but that jargon and those words don’t mean much when you break them down and put them into ordinary terms. It says, in essence, that God has many attributes, but they are really all just one attribute. That is nonsensical. It’s like saying that there are many colors, but they are all the same color. For example, the article says:
This makes no sense whatsoever. God’s eternity is not God’s power, and God’s power is not God’s goodness, and God’s goodness is not God’s intellect, nor is God’s intellect God’s will. That’s like saying our arm is our leg, and our eye is our ear, and our foot is our brain. It’s just a bunch of words strung together with no real meaning, demonstrating that the author of the article has no real idea, picture, or understanding of what s/he is talking about. Will, intellect, eternity, power, goodness, and so on are all distinct things. They are not the same as one another. But they do all operate together in God to form the fullness of God’s being.
Love and wisdom are one in God. But they are not one attribute. They are distinct attributes that form one in God. All of the 99 names or attributes of God are distinct from one another. They are not all the same thing. But they make a one in God because they all operate together in everything God does. It is precisely like the human body, in which trillions of individual cells, hundreds of organs, and dozens of parts all work together as one, while being distinct from one another.
Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. The human body, therefore, shows in most outward form what God is like. However, unlike the human body, God’s cells, organs, and parts are not delimited by time and space.
It is because these theologians are unable to think beyond time and space that they get confused about God’s parts. They reject the idea that God has parts because they are thinking materialistically, not spiritually, about the parts of God.
They are also apparently incapable of thinking of God as an “organic” being, meaning one who has specific, organized functions within God’s being. They reduce God down to a mathematical point because otherwise they can’t avoid thinking of God as being extended in space and time. This, once again, is a result of their thinking of God in terms of time and space, and not in terms of divine “state”—which is the word Swedenborg uses in this connection.
The author of this piece does indeed use the analogy of the human body, but gets it all wrong:
Physiologically, it simply isn’t true that all of the different attributes of a human being can be separated out from one another, and that the presence of one doesn’t affect the presence of another. To use two of the author’s examples, sight and hearing are not radically distinct capabilities that can be separated out from one another. In fact, they are heavily dependent upon one another. We see and hear simultaneously, and it builds up the overall perception of our surroundings. For example, we may hear a bird’s song, then turn to see the bird. Without hearing, our sight would not look for the bird. Or we may see a lighting bolt, and our ears will prepare themselves to hear the thunder.
The idea that we can separate out the different parts and functions of a human body from one another, and they will still be themselves, is a fundamental error. Every part of the human body and mind is closely intertwined with every other part, such that they cannot be separated from one another, nor can they be taken away from a person, without ceasing to be what they are, and without our ceasing to be a human being. We are able to survive without some of our functions, but only at the cost of diminishing our fullness as human beings. And when it comes to our essential functions, if even one of them is taken away, all of the rest cease to function as well. Take away the heart or the brain or the lungs, and every organ in the body dies and ceases to exist as a human organ.
It is true that some people lack hearing or sight. But this limits their ability to fully function as a human being. And they commonly have sight and hearing within their own mind, even if they cannot see or hear physical things around them. Their physical body may lack some of its capabilities, but their spiritual body is whole and complete.
Once again, the human body provides a perfect material image of the divine nature of God. It is very true that God’s attributes all form one, and cannot be separated from one another. Precisely as the various attributes and parts of the body all form one, and cannot be separated from one another without destroying the body, and the person.
Even saying that “the attributes are the essence” is not really saying much, as it is framed in the linked piece. Would we be essentially human if we could not see, hear, taste, touch, smell, think, love, and so on? No we would not. Each of these is a distinct attribute, and all together they form our essence as human beings. But as the author of this piece uses “attributes” and “essence,” s/he reduces them down to abstract constructs that have no actual meaning in reality.
I could go on critiquing the piece, but I hope this is enough to show that I am not just “outright dismissive” of the piece. I reject its conclusions because it contains many fundamental errors of understanding and thought. It asks us to believe mistaken, fallacious, and irrational things based on the “infallible” authority of human beings. That is not something I am willing to do.
Few points to hit on here.
First, and again, it seems as though your objections to this article has less to do with one particular conception of divine simplicity (which I’ll just refer to as DS from now on), and more to do with the very idea of DS in general. The idea that God’s providence is His love which is His wisdom which is His mercy and so on is the most basic idea behind DS, and if that seems utterly nonsensical to you, then, yeah, this doctrine ain’t for you. But my purpose behind linking you to this article was to demonstrate that DS isn’t merely the product of a few overeducated theologians who are just projecting their own ideas into the their religion’s belief system from armchairs in their ivory towers. On the contrary, a simple search of the subject makes it clear that DS has and continues to be a traditional part of Jewish theology and Christian theology, though Islam *may* have ultimately rejected it. In fact a great deal of Jewish thought involves negative theology, where God is spoken of in terms of what God is not, where even existence cannot be said as a property that God possesses.
And if DS is something you ultimately reject, then, again, you will surprisingly find yourself in the company of several Protestant philosophers and theologians who have also vocally rejected DS, including two who are considered by many to be among the greatest living: Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig (but more on your feelings toward scholarly authors in my next post).
Outside of a doctrine that posits a God with no parts, I do believe the conception of a God *with* parts can easily present intellectual and emotional difficulties for the average, ordinary believer. To say that God has ‘parts’ (however you wish to understand that) makes it sound as though God is comprised of something, that He is assembled out of something, which makes God sound both limited and dependent. Assembly and composition is a feature of created beings, like us. We need our hands in order to grasp things and perform tasks. We need our eyes in order to see the physical world around us. We need our mouths in order to communicate with other beings. What need does God have for these ‘parts’ if God’s immaterial will is sufficient to bring anything to fruition?
This doesn’t sound like a God who’s image we were created in, but rather, a God we created in *our* image, not unlike the Ancient Greek deities who would walk, eat, speak, and sleep- beings who appear suspiciously human, at least in light of the way we understand ancient humans to have crafted their mythological beings.
While the average believer may envision a God with hands and a face- both on account of Biblical passages and the human need to envision a being so as to make their thoughts of the being comprehensible them- I don’t believe that same believer accepts the idea of a God with a literal hands and face, and sees it as ultimately metaphorical despite not necessarily pausing in order to ask themselves that question. I believe it’s reasonable to say the average believer thinks of God as, in the most basic way, a kind of immaterial spirit, who is, in the most basic sense, ‘beyond.’ Beyond the world, beyond space, beyond all physicality, and the idea of a God with parts- like us- undermines that sense of transcendence, grounds God in the physical universe, and makes Him sound like the same kind of implausible myths that we’ve evolved out of creating and have long since stop believing.
But those are just the push factors. The idea of DS also has some appealing, pull factors, in that it carries a certain (and I fully expect you to put this in scare quotes, so I’ll just go ahead and do it myself 😉 ) “metaphysical elegance” to it. I know it certainly did for me, as someone who emphasized God’s utter transcendence as much as he emphasized His infinite love. And I believe it also resonates with a lot of average people who simply, passive conceive of God in some profoundly ‘beyond’ kind of way. At the same time, that person will also not shy away from talking about things like God’s love and justice, even if they’re drawn to the idea of all those seemingly different things ultimately being just one thing, and there we may find an instance of people intellectually professing to believe one thing, but inwardly accepting another.
Just as your argument against the Trinity involves indicting its believers as professing to believe in one God, but really believing in three, likewise, the person who professes to believe that God is simple, and with no parts, may inwardly, unavoidably believe in a God who has them on account of the way they think about a God who has different attributes (in the case of Swedenborg, love and wisdom).
In any case, and I just want to make it clear that I am not arguing in favor of DS, but all of this boils down my point that the idea of a God with parts/body parts/limbs/organs however you want to describe can understandably be more instinctively unacceptable to the average believer than you are willing to accept. It’s not hard to imagine being put off by the idea of a God with legs.
Divine simplicity is based on the lack or rejection of two very basic ideas about the nature of God and of God’s creation of the universe:
Further, within Nicene Christianity any emphasis on God’s “otherness” among church academics ignores the central feature of Christianity that distinguishes it from the two other major Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, which is God’s incarnation as a flesh-and-blood human being. (Hinduism does have a belief in divine incarnation, but in multiple divine incarnations rather than in a single unique divine incarnation as in Christianity.)
Swedenborg explains and expands upon these ideas extensively in his theological writings, especially in Divine Love and Wisdom and in the first three chapters of True Christianity.
To briefly take up the two numbered points above:
Once “Christian” philosophy is divorced from basic principles contained in the Bible about the relationship between God and the created universe, it can say whatever it wants and make it sound plausible, because its defenders reject any analogy with anything that God has created, and reject the most basic ideas in the Bible about their subject.
Therefore, for example, defenders of divine simplicity can say, “God’s will is God’s intellect is God’s grace is God’s power is God’s mercy,” because there is no need to defend this by reference to anything whose nature we know. As I already pointed out in my previous response on this subject, if we were to say this of a human being, as in, “Our head is our hands is our feet is our heart is our liver,” the statement would be obviously false. But since no analogy between God and created things is admitted in the arguments of Nicene Christians in defense of divine simplicity, all sense and reason goes out the window. We are expected to simply accept utterly nonsensical statements simply because those statements are made about God.
The reality is that God did indeed create humans in God’s image, just as the Bible says. This means that analogies between human substance, form, structure, and function and God’s substance, form, structure, and function are indeed valid. Otherwise, the Bible’s statement that God created man and woman in the image and likeness of God would have no meaning whatsoever.
As I have already pointed out, another missing element in Nicene Christian arguments for divine simplicity is the willingness and ability to think outside of time and space, which are properties of the physical universe. Because these theologians are not lifting their thinking above time and space, and thinking of the timeless and spaceless divine version of what among human beings and human bodies does partake of time and space, they are coming to all kinds of false conclusions that involve, as I said before, reducing God down to a mathematical point in order to avoid having God be extended in time and space.
Once again, the arguments of the proponents of divine simplicity are false because they are based upon multiple false premises and upon materialistic thinking. (Arguments about God that are based on time and space are materialistic precisely because time and space are properties of the material universe.)
If you really want to understand how these things work, once again I recommend that you read Divine Love and Wisdom and the first three chapters of True Christianity. That is where the concepts required to rightly understand the nature of God, and of God’s relationship to Creation, are presented and explained. Without these concepts, it is not possible to think and reason rightly about God and Creation.
I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that you are ‘outright dismissive’ of scholarly figures in the world of theology and religious philosophy, but, and let’s be be honest, you are routinely disdainful of them. And I understand and am sympathetic as to why, especially so in light of how I, myself, have come to regard the destructive influence that follows from the allowing human intellect to (mis)guide human thought. I sense that you see them as a collective institutional complex that has needlessly complicated that which was meant to be made simple, innovated horrifying doctrines from the purity of their source material, and stunted the spiritual growth of countless millions through their influence and authority.
But I also believe that theology, like everything else, can and should be treated as an academic subject like (most) anything else, giving ‘the scholar’ their rightful place, but your readings of their work is an invariably cynical one. And it’s evident in the language you use. You don’t see them as attempting a deep analysis of a complex subject, they’re just ‘trying to sound smart.’ You don’t see them as using a necessary set of sophisticated terminology in order to describe a difficult topic; they’re just using ‘fancy words.’ The theologian just seems to be an agent of obfuscation to you, rather than a learned person who is laboring to advance our objective understanding of religion and scripture.
At least Protestant and Catholic theologians. It doesn’t appear often, but when it does, I don’t see you expressing the same contempt of Swedenborgian theologians or at least theologians of a sufficiently similar persuasion, who also use those same ‘fancy words’ and who seem to be trying just as hard to ‘sound smart.’ Again, I’m deeply sympathetic to the mistrust that can easily flow considering the many destructive precedents that academia has set, and to be fair, it’s not as though you’re simply brushing them off the moment you see an article authored by “comma Ph.D”, as you always make a detailed effort and interacting with the presented viewpoint to the fullest extent possible. But it’s plain to see that a basic skepticism pervades your dealings with them.
“Outright dismissive” was your wording, at the end of your comment here.
As for my disdain for the thinking of Nicene Christian theologians and academics, I see them in the same light as flat-earthers, who exercise their brains mightily in an attempt to show that all of cosmology supports their belief in a flat earth, but whose fundamental premise is simply incorrect, vitiating their entire thinking process and all of their conclusions. We have pictures of the earth from all angles in space. It is not flat. This is a known fact.
If you took a whole academy of trained cosmologists, hypnotized them into believing that the fundamental fact of their profession is that the earth is flat, and then set them loose explaining the cosmos, no matter how smart and well-trained they were, every significant conclusion they came to about the nature of the solar system and of the universe would be false, because they would be starting from a false premise that they are not able to question. The false premise would falsify all of their arguments.
This is precisely the situation among Nicene Christian academics. Their entire theology is based on the false premise that God is a Trinity of Persons. Therefore every significant conclusion that they come to about the nature of God and Creation is false.
“Disdain” is an emotional term. And yes, the falsities of Nicene Christianity, and the pain and destruction its institutions have visited upon billions of people based on those falsities, do indeed make me angry. But aside from any emotions I may feel, intellectually this is a simple case of rejecting an entire theology and philosophy, and all of the arguments of all of its defenders, because it is founded upon a false premise.
You cannot come to correct conclusions when the basic, unquestionable assumptions upon which you rest your arguments are false.
Yes, it is possible to individually refute all of their arguments. I have done so here as requested. My arguments against their beliefs are not simply general disdain, but analyze and reject those arguments individually due to specific intellectual errors in both their assumptions and their arguments.
However, it is also possible simply to dismiss their position generally, and largely ignore their writings and their arguments. This is similar to rejecting flat earth theory without bothering to descend into the details of its defenders’ arguments. Knowing that Nicene Christian academics base all their arguments upon the false foundation of the Trinity of Persons is sufficient to know that all of their major conclusions will be false.
Personally, I would recommend the general path. Why waste all of that intellectual energy on the arguments of people whose entire system is based on a false premise? But if you must argue detail by detail to satisfy your intellect, bring it on. I’ll continue to refute their wrong understandings and wrong reasoning point-by-point as long as my patience holds out.
For an article that makes a similar link between faith alone / penal substitution and flat earth theory, see:
The Extreme Weakness of Faith Alone and Penal Substitution
PS: Sorry the site migration hasn’t worked out. I took a gander at it when it was up, and definitely appreciated the more vibrant layout, but I guess we’d all rather just have something that just plain ‘works.’
The importation process missed about a quarter of the posts, and about an eighth of the comments, and none of the comments were linked to their posts, making the entire body of comments inaccessible to every visitor to the site. The techs proposed some work-arounds, but it just wasn’t worth spending many hours on a process that would likely result in much lost content no matter how much I banged my head against it.
As for the more vibrant layout, I would have gotten rid of all that pink first thing! I want this site to be relaxing and calming in aspect, even if making it “exciting” might draw more oohs and ahs. 🙂
The fact that *I* am theological terminology to describe a specific conception of God doesn’t mean it can’t be held by someone who is unfamiliar with it. There are plenty of ‘common people’ who are ‘pragmatists’ or who may be very ‘utilitarian’ in their attitude toward life without understanding what any of those words mean. Likewise, I’m using ‘divine simplicity’ to describe a (previous) personal understanding of God that long pre-dates my knowledge of that term. All these words and terms are doing is to put a label on the workings of human thought, and many of these thoughts work in much the same way from the uneducated to the educated person. And if I am to use those terms, or to describe myself using them, it’s not the end result of some kind of education. It’s more reading over different ideas in theology and philosophy, and concluding ‘ah, that’s what I’ve been all along.’
So no, I would disagree with the idea that you would need to be educated in order to view God in this way. After all, divine simplicity- whether you want to use that term or not- very much has a foothold in Jewish thought and in Kabbalah, as well as in Islamic thought, and I don’t see that as the end result of the way a few high minded theologians have shaped their traditions- that just simply IS the tradition (though I think they may be contested within those traditions, but am not sure). Nevertheless, the average believer most likely sees God in the very human way you described.
To that point, and this is something I realized after I posted by first reply to you, I would be inclined to agree that our first, childlike impressions of God are probably much closer to a correct understanding than that which can often replace it as our minds develop. That is, the ‘big man in the sky,’ who is more akin to a super super human who loves and watches over us. But he is also, in this child’s mind, many of things that Swedenborg (and yourself) would seek to dispel as falsities about God. So, clearly, our conception of God is something that *does* need to grow and evolve as we, as people, grow and evolve, and in my case- as is the case with many others- it just grew and evolved into something more ‘other’. I don’t chalk this up to being educated- on the contrary, I hold no degrees, never finished college, and never finished so much as a book on theology cover to cover. I just read, here and there, and try to learn what I can from the snippets I find. In my case, my previous childhood conception of God just felt too anthropomorphic to be real, but by more abstract conception just felt too distant to be relatable. I’m currently seeking out the middle ground that exists between the too. I feel compelled to believe that other people-educated or not- are on or have shared a similar journey.
You’re not wrong that people can arrive to some horrendously bad ideas about God because they put they’re finite brains in the driver seat. But these errors can be every bit as personal as they can be intellectual.
Formal education is not essential to be an educated person. There have been and still are many highly intelligent and knowledgeable people who were self-educated. However, the vast bulk of ordinary people do not read books, articles, or even snippets about theology, or about any other intellectual subject. If they read at all, it’s harlequin romances or murder mysteries. But mostly, they don’t read unless they have to. Instead, they watch cat videos and football games. You are in the 1% simply by having read any material at all that uses all of that theological terminology. As you say, your mind was already running along those tracks before you learned the terminology. The other side of that coin is that if you hadn’t been thinking along those lines (as most people don’t), you wouldn’t have sought out material that would give you the words to properly label and analyze your thoughts on these subjects.
So yes, theoretically it would be possible for common people to think about these things without knowing the proper terminology. But in my decades of experience in talking to people about God and religion, I simply haven’t found ordinary, non-intellectual people thinking about these things but not knowing how to express them. Their concerns are much less abstract, and much more practical. They are worried that God is going to send them to hell for something they’ve done, or not done. They want to know whether they can still be married to their beloved husband or wife in heaven. They want to know if their mother or father or sibling or friend whom they love, but who doesn’t believe in Jesus, is going to hell. These are the sorts of issues I encounter over and over again among ordinary, non-intellectual people. I just don’t hear them asking whether God is a person or an undifferentiated wisp of spirit. To them, God is a big and very powerful Man in the Sky, and He’s going to decide their eternal fate.
Having said that, it is perfectly possible to have a highly developed theology that is also realistic and pragmatic. Swedenborg’s theology is based on some very simple principles. But it can get as complicated as you want it to be. There are satisfying answers to the hard philosophical questions about God that are in the minds of people such as you who think about the more tricky and intricate aspects of reality. However, those answers are still anchored in concrete reality, because concrete reality is the direct expression of divine and spiritual reality. Swedenborg’s concept of correspondence ties them all together, and makes it possible for us to anchor abstract concepts in external, physical, understandable things.
In the case of God, we can anchor our idea of the nature of God in its most physical and outward expression: the human body. Doing so does not require us to make God purely physical, any more than our having a physical body makes us purely physical beings. We have rational minds and human loves that transcend our physical body—but once again, are also anchored in it. However, keeping it straight in our mind that even the most transcendent aspects of God are expressed in outward, embodied forms helps us to avoid the castles in the air that fancy theologians have built for many centuries.
And incidentally, Christians don’t have a corner on the market of intellectualism. Judaism prides itself in its intellectualism, and has produced many well-known philosophers. For several centuries in the Middle Ages, the Islamic world was far in advance of Christianity in scientific and intellectual pursuits. Hinduism has also had its intellectuals for thousands of years. The intellectuals of these other religions are perfectly capable of contemplating the abstractions that Christian theologians commonly think are unique to Christianity.
I can find very little in your reply that I might take issue with, though, again, I do believe that contemplating and ultimately having some kind of opinion on some of the trickier, complex issues in theology is more prevalent amongst the average person than it might appear, if only even by accident.
The ordinary believer may concern themselves with ordinary things, but if you were to ask them, say, what they believe about the afterlife, and they reply ‘everyone goes to the heaven,’ you could reply ‘ah, so you’re a universalist,’ whether they know that term or not. Conversely, if they reply only Christians get into heaven, then they’re unknowingly ‘exclusivists.’ You can essentially run the same thought experiment with virtually every major issue in theology for which there exists in an otherwise fancy term. Like in philosophy, most people *do* have theological beliefs that correspond to the multisyllabic jargon and dense body of literature without even knowing it.
When it comes to divine simplicity, if you were to ask the average person if God has parts, it might just not…*feel* right to them. Like it doesn’t simply line up with the basic way in which they conceive this supreme being. Whereas the theologian might say ‘divine simplicity,’ the ordinary person might say ‘God has no parts. God is just…God.’
And that’s kind of how my own increasingly abstract, trans-theistic ideas about God evolved. Its possible that the narrow, limiting forces you described were influencing me more subconsciously, but near as I can tell, It had nothing to do with education and theology per se, but rather just a feeling of unrest with my previous beliefs, beliefs that I sought to replace with something else.
And again, the average Muslim would balk at the notion that God has parts, whether they were educated or not. For them, the oneness of God is absolutely paramount- God is undifferentiated unity. To suggest that God has parts, to the Muslim, is to compromise that unity, and that is completely unacceptable. Divine Simplicity is uncompromisingly essential to the Islamic faith, the faith of the educated and uneducated alike.
I would add, though, that just as people can have the beliefs of a complex philosophy without knowing it, it’s also possible for one to profess a belief in simplicity, but ultimately believe God has parts without knowing it. That is, the way in which one talks about their experience of God- even if they claim God to have no parts- simply can’t be accounted for by a God that lacks parts.
As is often the case in taking surveys, much of it depends upon how you ask the question. If you were to ask the average person on the street, “Does God have parts?” that would sound strange to them, so they might say “no” just to be safe. But if you were to ask, “Does God have a face and hands?” then, if they answered according to their mental picture of God, and not according to what they think you, an obviously educated person, want them to say, they would say, “Yes, God has a face and hands.”
A face and hands are body parts. In short, they are parts. So the average (religious) person, at least in Christian circles, does believe that God has parts. They just wouldn’t use that word to express it, because they haven’t heard people saying, “God has parts.” But they have heard people referring to God’s face and hands.
Whether this is true in the Muslim world, I don’t have the experience to say. Does the Qur’an not ascribe a face and hands to God, as the Bible does? And isn’t the Bible, in which human body parts certainly are ascribed to God, considered a holy book in Islam, albeit considerably less so than the Qur’an?
I do know that according to one of its hadiths, Islam traditionally ascribes 99 names, or attributes, to God. Looking down the list at the linked Wikipedia article, these names are superlative versions of human qualities that are ascribed to God. Yes, they are mental and emotional qualities, and qualities of power, rather than physical attributes, qualities, or parts. Still, the result is the same: God has many different qualities, all of which are encompassed in one God. That is a belief in many divine “parts” that make one God, just as Swedenborg teaches.
Swedenborg also is a strict monotheist. That is why he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons: because in reality, it is a polytheistic belief.
However, it is impossible to ascribe any qualities to God at all and still be describing a “simple” God. Or perhaps we could ascribe one and only one quality to God, and retain God’s “simplicity.” But if God has at least 99 attributes, as Islam says, then that is a complex God, not a simple God. I would therefore question your statement that “Divine Simplicity is uncompromisingly essential to the Islamic faith.”
I had been meaning, since your last reply, to follow up on this and continue the conversation, but my timing is every bit as out of step with the rhythm of conversation as it’s ever been. Still, I hope you don’t mind my further adding to it so long after the fact and hopefully still managing to move the discussion further.
I want to mention again, for emphasis and as a refresher, that I’m neither qualified nor inclined to mount a defense of DS, nor refute your objections. As I said before, it’s not my own personal view, and if anyone is able to take you up on either side of that debate, it would be Duane.
But the purpose behind my bringing this up was twofold. In the first place, it was to point out that this notion of a ‘God without parts’ isn’t some fringe innovation. It became a part of Christianity almost immediately, though I know that immediacy doesn’t carry much weight with you, since you believe that Christianity, itself, went off the rails almost immediately. But it likewise also has deep roots in Judaism, a strong presence in Islam (though that again might be murky), and pervades the mystical traditions of all three monotheistic faiths. Are you saying that all three have got it wrong from the start?
The second purpose was to demonstrate that such an idea is more intuitively apprehended by the ‘ordinary believer’ than you may suspect, though I’m backing away from this, to some measure. I don’t think the idea of a ‘simple’ God in the philosophical sense is something that’s at all intuitive to the average person, and I think that same believer is also inclined to accept the idea of a ‘complex’ God, as in the idea of a God with ‘parts,’ or as more basically conceived, a God with distinct attributes. Most people will use a number of similar adjectives when positing God’s attributes, and it’s self-evident to them that these attributes are distinctly different from one another.
What I do think this average believer is inclined to reject is the idea of a God who is composed of something, one with extremities. Not merely because it sounds distasteful in the ‘body parts’ way you described a few posts back, but because it simply sounds too anthropomorphic to be acceptable, and, again, too akin to the idea of a god we fashioned in our own image, rather than being creatures that were made in His.
I naturally can’t speak to any kind of consensus as to what the average believer thinks in terms of what God ‘is,’ but I think it’s reasonable to say that most who believe in God (at least in a theistic way) conceive of Him as an incorporeal, disembodied spirit, who simply *is*, with a will that simply *does*. We might be inclined to put a face, hands and other extremities on this being, but that speaks more toward the human need to have some kind of relatable touchstone by which to comprehend something that is ultimately incomprehensible to the human mind, whether it be the human form, a ball of light, or a translucent haze suspended in mid air: these are necessary human abstractions, not intended or accepted as intellectual conceptions.
Finally, don’t we all seem to unknowingly use the language of simplicity when taking about God? One of the most obvious examples- from the average believer to the university theologian- is the expression ‘God is love.’ That, to my mind, is a statement of simplicity, for the basic idea behind the doctrine (as I understand it) is that God’s *existence* is identical with His * attributes*, and this expression posits just that. We don’t say that God *has* love, but rather that God *is* love, so is that not a ‘simple’ conception of God?
Swedenborg would say that God is love and wisdom, though more specifically, love *shaped* by wisdom, which is somewhat tricky, because is the marriage of love and wisdom is one , fully integrated thing, then that’s one thing; but if love and wisdom are two separate attributes, and God is identical with both of them, despite being different things than that sounds like Divine Simplicity to me.
I would say that the fire behind the smoke of divine simplicity is that humans on earth can hardly think outside of time and space, and yet mystically and philosophically minded people rightly rebel at the idea that God is extended in time and space. And since they don’t have any concept of how God could have parts or “extremities” without being extended in space, they fall back on the notion of divine simplicity—which, somewhat less abstractly conceived, is basically saying that God is a mathematical point. A mathematical point is not extended in space. And that’s as far as people in this material world who have no concept of non-spatial, non-temporal reality can get if they start to intellectually examine the concept of God.
For intellectual and mystical types, there is a certain structure of understanding that is necessary to rightly conceive of and think about God and spiritual reality, both of which are non-temporal and non-spacial. If such people don’t have that structure of understanding, and the various concepts that form it, they inevitably fall off into errors of every kind when they attempt to suss out the nature of God and spirit with their intellectual minds. This is what has happened in the intellectual circles of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other religion whose intellectuals have come up with nonsensical and absurd ideas about God.
As for ordinary, non-mystical, non-intellectual people, I would say that in general, they think of God as a supremely powerful human being. This is clear in the Old Testament, where God is conceived of as human, with all of the human parts. See:
Was Adam Anatomically in God’s Image?
In the New Testament, it’s even clearer: Jesus, who is clearly a human being, is God With Us (Matthew 1:23). And so ordinary Christians, when they think of God, commonly think of this very human Jesus. Yes, their churches confuse them with a (non-existent) Trinity of Persons, so if they start thinking of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as separate “persons” of God, they do get confused. But Christian artwork demonstrates that even these personages of God are commonly seen as human, or at least as embodied, in the case of the Holy Spirit. See:
Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?
I can’t say how it is with common people in other present-day religions. However, in the old polytheism the various gods were generally pictured as human or semi-human. Hinduism has gods that are largely human in conception. It even has incarnations of God, such as Krishna, which are generally human. And Islam, though it may forbid depicting God, attributes all of the good human emotions and powers to God. So God in Islam is, at minimum, psychologically human.
In short, I believe that throughout the world, it is most common for people to picture God as human or near-human. This seems to be almost instinctual in human beings. Only people who get all up in their intellect, and certain people have transcendent mystical experiences for which they have no framework of understanding, veer away from this human conception of God. But for ordinary people, God is a supremely powerful human figure.
The “anthropomorphizing God” objection just shows that the people making that objection are thinking that humans, not God, are primary in the universe. As I’ve said before, Genesis 1:26–27 is very clear that God made humans, both male and female, in God’s image, and not the reverse. Ordinary people can understand and accept this quite easily. That’s because, as I said, they think of God as a supremely powerful human being. It’s only philosophical types and skeptics who get all tied up in knots about this. And that, underneath it all, is because they don’t believe in God at all, and are just looking for ways to discredit the reality of God, and confirm themselves in their own inner, if not explicit, atheism.
Some philosophical types say they believe in God, but when you dig into what they believe about this God, it turns out that they basically believe that nature is God, which is really not believing in God at all. And philosophical types who insist upon a wispy, disembodied God with no parts or attributes also don’t really believe in God. Such a God would have no reality, power, or manifestation, and is therefore nothing. It’s just a placeholder in such people’s minds so that they can think of themselves as accepting some Supreme Being, when in fact they are atheists at heart—something that becomes clear once they enter the afterlife and all of their inner thoughts come out into the open.
Any real, existent God must be embodied. Ordinary people sense and know this, even if they don’t have the intellectual chops and confidence to argue it with people who think of themselves as being very smart.
I would be remiss if I didn’t use this space to deeply, happily, enthusiastically congratulate you on your new position and your big new move. I trust you and Annette have since moved and (hopefully) settled into your new living space by now, and are slowly but surely adjusting to your new surroundings.
I truly value and believe in what you do on this blog, and am always grateful to the attentiveness you give from everyone attempting to satisfy their intellectual curiosity, so those who feel up against the ropes of a spiritual crisis; well benefit, and are better, for the work you do here, as no doubt will the students you surround yourself with going forward. Blessings and congratulations to you both!
Thank you for your congratulations and kind words, which we very much appreciate. Yes, we have now been in South Africa for three weeks, and are gradually getting set up and acclimated here. It will take some time. Meanwhile, we are enjoying our new community and surroundings.
Few points I’d like to hit on here.
Firstly, your appraisal of philosophical conceptions of God and the conceptions that flow out of mystical experiences seem a tad little cynical and dismissive, respectively. The person who philosophizes about God in the ways you had described doesn’t strike me as someone who is attempting to rationalize a kind silent atheism or materialism while simultaneously allowing for the existence of at least *something* called God. Certainly, some go further than others, and are left with a borderline atheist idea of god, where god is simply ‘the ground of all being,’ or something similar. But many Christian philosophers and mystics alike are very much focused on the transcendence and ‘otherness’ of God; the philosopher (of a certain persuasion) will affirm that God is wholly ‘other’ than us, and completely beyond us and beyond human understanding, and so too will the mystic, though the mystic seeks to unify themselves with that transcendent otherness.
But both very much reject- or at least attempting to move beyond- the conceptions of God that are obviously byproducts of humans projecting their material ideas into the idea of a supreme being. It’s one thing to say that heaven itself and God Himself have spiritual analogs to our material reality and to us material humans, but it’s quite another when you have a god who is obviously assembled in this material world by material humans with material minds out of their own material clay. That’s what I mean by a ‘suspiciously anthropomorphic’ conception of God akin to the way that ancient Greeks built their Gods, who eat, sleep, and drink. That’s what the philosopher rejects, and what the mystic seeks to see beyond, beyond to something greater that has been otherwise processed in the narrow view of our human eyes. It’s not believing that humans are the center of the universe, but just the opposite: that us humans are so puny and incapable of doing anything on our own, that God *must* be greater than us, *so* much greater and significant that He must be wholly ‘other’ than us, wholly ‘beyond’ us.
And some of those material conception are ones that you yourself seek to do to your own extent, aren’t they? The idea of a god who punishes us when he’s angry, and who rewards us when he’s pleased with us? You say that the average person sees God as basically a supreme human, but these human-like qualities that you don’t see in God are not only readily accepted by the average person, but form a key part of their conception.
So while you point to the average believer as ironically having a much better, much clearer idea of God than these high minded philosophers, with their complex ideas, and these levitating mystics, with their abstract but ultimately meaningless ones, it sounds like it’s a mixed bag, because human, for them, involves all the things God has in common with us, but a number of things He doesn’t. So how are to regard seeing God as human when it seems to include *all* the things that make us humans, including the distasteful ones?
Another word about mysticism, I’m a huge fan of mystical literature from both theistic and non-theistic traditions because so much of it was among the most spiritually invigorating, life affirming material I had ever read. This is because I, myself, was feeling disillusioned and restless from having felt saddled with an idea of God that just seemed too human to be real. It wasn’t that God wasn’t relatable for me, but rather that God was simply *too* relatable- God just didn’t feel real to me when He was made to seem so human. Like mystics and many philosophers, God, for me, was something beyond and an incomprehensible reality, and reality that we all seek to merge with. While I don’t believe that all mystical outlooks are equally valid, I certainly don’t see the pearls of wisdom that come from the mystical traditions of Sufism or Kabbalah traditions as the experience of something for which one had no proper frame of understanding.
Finally, and again: how is ‘God is love’ not a statement of divine simplicity? The average believer would affirm both that God is, basically, a supreme human being, but also that God is love itself. One is a God with parts, the other is a clearly abstract idea of God who is identical with the attribute of love. My own thought about the defense of this doctrine is that those who make it are attempting to reconcile two things: any meaningful idea of God must include different attributes, but the the idea of distinction within God is simply unacceptable to be meaningful, so they find that middle ground by saying that, yes, God has different attributes, but all those different attributes are, in essence, the same thing, without creating division within God.
My own take definitely sides with Swedenborg’s, which is made easier for me to understand and accept on account of correspondence theory, but despite many ardent protests against it, many of the ways we talk about God seem unavoidably ‘simple.’
I don’t dismiss mystical experiences of God. But these are experiences, not descriptions, and certainly not philosophical analyses of God’s nature.
Consider an experience of seeing a beautiful rainbow as the sun comes out from behind the clouds in the midst of a gentle shower of rain. We experience the beauty of the scene. But that is very far from a scientific analysis and description of how the rainbow is produced, or what its essential nature is. We can experience the beauty without having to know exactly what it is or how it is produced.
In short, mystical experiences are experiences, not theology. They can and do have a profound effect on people’s spiritual lives. And that is good. But they should not be mistaken for doctrine.
As for my appraisal of philosophical conceptions of God, I’ll see your “a tad little cynical” and raise it to “highly cynical and cavalierly dismissive.” 😀
In my experience as a non-philosopher, most philosophical conceptions of God that I’ve encountered seem to me to be mere castles built in the air, having no foundation underneath them. They are mere abstractions, which have nothing to do with any sort of reality, material, spiritual, or divine.
A “simple” god is a non-god. No “simple” being could produce the fantastically complex universe, not to mention the fantastically complex human form, that we see. Calling God “simple” is a meaningless abstraction.
As I said in my previous reply to you, yes, there are reasons theologians, philosophers, and mystics alike have hatched that idea. But those reasons have to do with a lack of any real grasp of who and what God is, and a lack of even the most basic structures of understanding required to gain some real grasp of who and what God is. They are also attempting to understand spiritual and divine things based on material, spatial and temporal thinking, which is impossible.
In True Christianity #508 (which you can read for yourself at the link if you wish), Swedenborg recounts an experience of seeing a magnificent temple in the spiritual world, over whose door was the inscription, “Now It Is Allowed” (Nunc Licet, in Latin)—which, he says, “means that we are now allowed to use our intellect to explore the mysteries of faith.” He interprets the entire temple as a representation of the new church that he said was just beginning in his day in heaven and on earth.
In his commentary on “Now It Is Allowed,” he focuses on how dangerous it is to intellectually explore the mysteries of faith from a self-serving mindset. And I do think that many philosophers are more intent upon establishing their own reputations as extremely learned and wise people than they are upon following the truth wherever it may lead them.
However, strongly implied by “Now It Is Allowed” is that previously it was not allowed.
The reason Swedenborg gives that it is now allowed is that “the teachings of the new church are continuous truths revealed by the Lord through the Word.” This is the same thing I was referring to when I said that philosophers cannot correctly understand God because they do not have the structure of understanding—here called “continuous truths”—that is required to examine the nature of God from an intellectual perspective. Aside from philosophers seeking to burnish their reputations by writing books that sound lofty and erudite to ordinary people and scholars alike, even if they are not motivated by building their own reputation, in nearly every case they simply lack the conceptual tools to be able to successfully probe the nature of God with their minds.
Swedenborg himself did not have those tools prior to his enlightenment by the Lord. It required the Lord leading him step by step, while he was reading the Bible, for several years before he began to gain a real grasp of the nature of God and spirit. Without that enlightenment from God both through the Bible and through being given extensive experience in the spiritual world, the chances of a human being coming to a correct understanding of God and spirit are virtually nil.
For all of these reasons, I do emphatically and enthusiastically dismiss all of the speculations of the philosophers on the nature of God. Their writings are not worth the paper they are written on.
And if that is not dismissive enough for you, their writings are the chaff that the wind drives away, compared to the solid kernels of truth that the Lord revealed to Swedenborg about the Lord’s nature, and about the nature of spirit.
And if that isn’t dismissive enough for you, I view the speculations of the philosophers on the the nature of God and spirit as big heaping stinking piles of manure.
So don’t soft-pedal my view of philosophers writings on God with “a tad little cynical.” I consider them not only to be utterly unenlightened and useless, but damaging and destructive to anyone who takes them seriously.
Your own struggles with the unbiblical, illogical, irrational, and ridiculous idea of “divine simplicity” are a case in point. Since lots of famous theologians, philosophers, and mystics have talked about it, you think you have to take the idea seriously, and engage in intellectual battles to deal with it. You therefore waste much mental and emotional energy.
Me? I just say, “I don’t care who said it, that’s ridiculous!” Then I move on to more fruitful matters of understanding.
About God’s “otherness” vs. God’s likeness to us (though once again, it’s really the other way around), what’s missing from traditional Christian and philosophical conceptions of God alike is Swedenborg’s concept of correspondence.
Yes, at God’s core, God completely transcends all of our human understanding, all of our human love and feeling, and anything else that we finite humans are capable of grasping. In the context of the Trinity (meaning Swedenborg’s understanding of the Trinity) in God, that utterly transcendent aspect of God is “the Father.” Jesus tells us that no one has seen the Father at any time, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. That’s because the Father is entirely beyond any human capability of seeing, perceiving, or experiencing. We can experience God only through the Son, which is the human manifestation and presence of God.
However, just because the Father is beyond all human conception, that does not mean the Father is a featureless “simple” point. In fact, the Father is beyond all human conception because it has infinite “parts” or attributes, all of which are infinite in nature. Our finite, created human minds simply cannot grasp that.
Further, Swedenborg’s teaching about correspondence informs us that all of those infinitely infinite parts or attributes of God express themselves in lower, more limited form as God creates spiritual and material reality. Far from humans creating a limited, anthropomorphic God in our image, God has created humans as pale, limited spiritual and material expressions of the infinite humanity of God.
As a result of this, if we were able to experience the humanity of the Father, we would barely even think of ourselves as human any longer. We would have seen the ultimate reality of humanness, of which we are such limited, flattened representations that it is like calling a photograph of Mt. Everest Mt. Everest itself. And in fact, the best of the angels hardly dare to call themselves human. They say that only God is human, and that any humanity they have is God’s humanity dwelling within them.
Compare David’s poetic expression of this same self-evaluation:
The best of the angels similarly consider themselves worms, and not human, in comparison with God.
The idea that we have created God in our own image is so ridiculously limited in conception that it fades into nothingness compared to the real truth: that God created us human in God’s infinitely human image.
As for the negative human emotions that are attributed to God, such as anger, rage, jealousy, and so on, this also requires concepts that are not available, or are only dimly seen, in traditional Christianity and in the works of the philosophers alike.
The most basic concept required is that what flows in from God is changed by the recipient into an image of itself. If the recipient is in harmony with the nature of God, that image of God is a true, accurate, and loving, albeit finite and limited, one. But if the recipient is out of harmony with God, and especially if the recipient is in opposition to God, then the image of God is turned into the opposite of the reality of God.
In illustrating this, Swedenborg uses the metaphor of the sun’s light and warmth striking all living things on earth equally, but in what he considers “good” animals and plants, it is turned into gentleness and life, whereas in what he considers “bad” animals and plants, it is turned into fierceness, predation, and destruction. Consider also, he says, the different effects of the sun’s rays on a living body and a dead body. A living body is enlivened by the sun’s warmth and light. But in a dead body, that same warmth and light causes maggots to proliferate and quickly consume and destroy the body right down to its bones.
By the same principle, every positive element of God that strikes a resistant and evil person turns into, and is actually experienced as, its opposite. The “wrath of God” for example, is how God’s love is experienced by people who are focused on and driven by evil and destructive loves and desires. God’s love, if allowed to shine into them, will destroy that evil in them, and its justifying falsity along with it. The wrath of God is real. But that wrath is not in God; rather, it is the way God’s love feels to, and affects, those who are opposed to it.
For more on this, please see:
What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
In other words, even the negative human emotions correspond to something in God. It’s just that they correspond in an opposite way. The entirety of hell is an inverted monster that reflects in negative fashion everything in the “universal human” of heaven—which is a reflection of the nature of God.
Once we understand correspondences, and the principle that everything good and true is turned into its opposing evil and falsity when it is distorted by greed and selfishness, then all of these issues that you have raised against the idea of God as human fade into nothing.
When the light arrives, the darkness dissipates.
About Sufism and the Kabbalah, I would not call these frames of understanding God, but rather modes of experiencing God. As I said previously, the two are not the same.
Finally, if “God is love” were the only true statement about God, then yes, God would be unavoidably simple.
But it’s not. God is also wisdom. God is also truth. God is also power. God is also every positive aspect, characteristic, and capability that we humans have or can conceive of.
Love by itself does make everything into one.
But God is not love by itself.
God is love married to wisdom.
Wisdom is what adds the “many” to the “one” of God. God exists in the marriage of the many and the one, so that God both has many parts and is one.
Divine simplicity fails to comprehend what this means, and therefore fails to provide a genuine understanding of God.
If we apply this same conception to anything other than God, its meaninglessness becomes crystal clear.
What about “auto simplicity.” Saying that a car is “simple” would reduce it to a mathematical point, so that there would no longer be a car. A car is both many and one at the same time. It is one car. But it is made of many parts. Without both the oneness and the many working together in the same entity, not only is it not a car, but it is nothing at all.
A mathematical point has no real existence. It’s just an abstraction in the human mind.
Divine simplicity also has no real existence. It’s just an abstraction in the human mind. But in comparison to a mathematical point, which does have a use in mathematics, divine simplicity is an empty and useless abstraction.
But the marriage of love and wisdom, which in mathematics resolves into the union of oneness and many-ness (such as in an array), is a highly fruitful understanding.
We can apply this same understanding to a human being, who is made in the image and likeness of God. If we are not one, then we are not a human being; we are just a collection of unrelated parts. But if we do not have many parts, we are also not a human being. The oneness of a human being requires the many-ness of the parts that together form a human being.
It is precisely the same with God. God is one through love, and many through wisdom. God exists in the interplay between that oneness and many-ness. There are not many gods, precisely because God is love. But God is not simple, precisely because God is also wisdom.
There is no “division” within God. None of God’s parts are at odds with or in conflict with one another. Like a human being, both physical and spiritual, every part of God works together to make God the one God whom God is.
“Divine simplicity” offers us no understanding whatsoever of the marriage of love and wisdom that is the being and essence of God, and that flows out as the power of God to create and sustain everything in the universe. In fact, divine simplicity was born from a lack of knowledge and understanding of the divine marriage.
Divine simplicity reduces God to a featureless mathematical point. We can say with our lips that all of God’s attributes are contained in that point. But those words are meaningless. God would still be a mathematical point, which means that God would have no real existence. Divine simplicity, if clung to in the afterlife, will lead a person to atheism, because it is unavoidably a denial of God’s reality.
Divine simplicity is nothing but a mental quagmire into which people who lack the most basic concepts provided in Swedenborg’s writings, such as correspondence and the divine marriage of love and wisdom, fall into because they are attempting to grasp something for which they lack the tools of comprehension required to grasp it.
Quite a bit to talk about here, but I wanted to drop in for a moment in order to specifically address some of your later comments on divine simplicity.
You remark that God would be simple if all God was is love, but then go on to identify all the various other attributes that God is, many of which have been formulated in the same ‘God is…’ sentence (like truth, power, etc).
This, again, and ironically, just seems to point to a simple God.
If a simple God is one who is identical with his attributes (God = Love), then how can God logically be identical with different attributes and still be the same God? How can X be identical with Y, but also be identical with Z, when Y and Z are different attributes? It’s like saying ‘Tom is Frank, but is also Lisa.’ Likewise, how can God be identical with Love, when He is also identical with power?
Divine Simplicity seems like the only way this could make sense. For God to be identical with, and not in mere possession of, two different attributes, such as love and power, then those must be, in essence, the same thing: God’s love is power is wisdom etc.
A question that popped up here: God is love but also “wisdom.” Wisdom usually means knowing certain truths (sophia) or making wise choices (“good deliberation”– phronesis). What sense then does it mean to say God is wisdom? How could God make good choices in himself apart from his economia, or interaction with the world?
First, I don’t think it’s correct to say that God makes choices (though I’m still pondering this one). I would say, rather, that God expresses God’s will and God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom, then, is not making wise choices, but acting wisely.
Second, God’s expression of God’s will and wisdom is in interaction with creation.
Keep in mind that God is an atemporal being. There is no such thing as “God before Creation” because for God, there is no before or after. There is an infinite present, which encompasses everything we experience as before and after. God is always acting into God’s creation from God’s love as shaped by God’s wisdom.
Ah I think you’ve misunderstood me. I am of course familiar with the atemporality of God; but (a) God’s essence cannot be determined (e.g. as wisdom) by the creation, insofar as God creates freely out of himself and his love, and thus (b) in order to preserve the creature/creator distinction, it must be possible to speak of God apart from the creation in his “theologia” as the fathers called it, otherwise the creation becomes eternal with God and affecting the inner nature of God himself (e.g. again as wisdom).
Your query was clear enough to me. It’s just that the church Fathers did not have in their quiver of conceptual arrows the necessary concepts to understand these things intellectually. Or if they did, none of them was able to systematize them in such a way as to come to a sound understanding of the nature of God and Creation. Hence their eventual origination of the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons and other seriously problematic doctrines.
I do not believe humanity had the concepts necessary to properly understand these things, or that they were systematized in such a way as to be coherent, until Swedenborg came along. Hence my reflection in a recent comment on Swedenborg’s experience of the temple in heaven that had “Nunc Licet” inscribed over its door. Only since Swedenborg brought to us from the Lord the systematic theology required to probe into these matters of faith intellectually have we been able to come to any correct conclusions about them.
I am reminded of the words of the Psalm:
Swedenborg interpreted “Jerusalem” as the doctrinal structure of the church. And he stated that he was publishing the doctrines that will be for the New Jerusalem. That doctrine is indeed “builded as a city that is compact together.” Its structure of thought is firmly bound together into a coherent whole that does not exist anywhere else.
Setting aside poetry, and turning to the specific issues you raise:
(a) It is precisely the reverse. Creation is determined by the wisdom of God. And it reflects the wisdom, and love, and power, of God. The primary concept that the early church Fathers were missing here is Swedenborg’s doctrine of correspondence.
The church fathers, without this doctrine, eventually settled on a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, “creation out of nothing.” They stated, without any understanding, that God created the universe out of nothing. Based on this doctrine, the universe could be formed in any arbitrary way that God “freely chose” that it should be created. Many false doctrines have been hatched from the idea that the created universe is entirely “other” than God, created, as it was, out of nothing by divine fiat.
Not so, says Swedenborg. Rather, the universe was created out of God’s own substance, which is love, and reflects God’s own nature, which is wisdom. The created universe is a reflection of God. It does not determine God’s nature. Rather, God’s nature determines its nature. And if our mind is properly formed with correct concepts, we can gain an understanding of God through seeing God’s nature reflected in the nature of Creation.
(b) Here, the church Fathers were missing not only the concept of correspondence, but also the concept of distinct levels (traditionally “discrete degrees”). They were also missing a clear understanding of the distinction between atemporal and temporal reality. Yet again, they did not understand the nature of the relationship between God and creation, specifically, a correct understanding of “influx,” or how God flows into creation. Without all of these concepts, they had no hope of coming to a correct understanding of God and creation.
Their big problem seemed to be a desire to avoid any thought or implication that created things should affect or determine the nature of God. Lacking all of those concepts, as I said earlier, they developed concepts of a universe created out of nothing and therefore divorced from God. They brought about a divorce in the heavenly marriage between God and creation, and more specifically, between God and God’s people.
Here are the basic points I brought up just above that are necessary for a correct understanding of these things:
When the church Fathers tried to avoid making Creation eternal with God, they did so without a proper understanding of the atemporal nature of God, and of God’s eternity. God does not exist from eternity to eternity in time. God is an eternal being because God is precisely one and himself(/herself), and therefore is always the same in relation to all created reality that is subject to change and to time (spiritual and material reality). God does not exist as the same being from one minute to the next, and one hour to the next, and one day to the next, and one year to the next, and one millennium to the next. Such things do not apply to God, because God, while present in all time and space through influx, does not himself(/herself) exist in time and space. God is above and beyond time and space.
There is no possibility that the created universe would partake in this eternal, unchanging nature of God because the created universe, both spiritual and material, is subject to change. In the material universe, change takes place within the passage of time. In the spiritual universe, change takes place through growth in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Since angels can learn and gain wisdom, they experience change, and a passage of events. This doesn’t apply to God. God has, and is, infinite knowledge and wisdom. God never learns anything new. God is simultaneously present in all spiritual and material events and experiences, and knows all things from an existence outside of those realms of change.
It is therefore impossible for Creation to affect the inner nature of God. All of the events, knowledge, and experience of Creation is already known and encompassed in the inner nature of God. Nothing Creation can do can change God, because God is already there:
I could go on, but really, for a full understanding of these things you must read Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Wisdom, and the first three chapters of True Christianity. There, the concepts we need to understand all of these things are laid out in an orderly fashion.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this sort of playing with words absent any meaning to the words, and absent any reference to the actual realities represented by the words, is precisely why the blatherings of the philosophers are the chaff that the wind drives away. These types of ratiocinations are the castles in the air, with no foundations, that I spoke of earlier.
Let’s use a concrete physical example to get a clearer idea of what all of these words actually mean in relation to God.
Let’s say I point to a bridge, and say, “That bridge is steel.” I am not saying, “That bridge is identical to steel.” No. I am saying, “That bridge is made of steel.”
Now if I say, “That bridge is beauty,” I am not saying, “That bridge is identical with beauty.” No. I am saying, “That bridge is an expression of beauty.
Now if I say, “That bridge is transportation infrastructure,” I am not saying, “That bridge is identical with transportation infrastructure.” No. I am saying “That bridge belongs to the category of transportation infrastructure.”
The bridge is identical to none of these attributes of the bridge, nor are any of them identical to one another. Each refers to a different part or attribute of the reality of the bridge. The bridge is all of them together, and many more parts or attributes as well. Without substance, form, and function all together in one entity, a bridge is not a bridge. And of course, the bridge has a specific substance, form, and function, each of which is a necessary part of its being a bridge, and not something else.
It is exactly the same if we say, “God is love,” “God is wisdom,” “God is power.” God is not identical to any of these. Rather, these are all essential “parts” or aspects of God. Love is God’s substance. Wisdom is God’s form. Power is the exercise of God’s function. God is not identical to any of these, nor are any of these identical to one another. They are each necessary aspects of God, without which God is not God.
And just as a bridge is not “simple,” but is a complex entity, so God is not “simple,” but is a complex entity. We have mentioned only some of the most general attributes of the bridge. In reality, it has innumerable details of construction, each of which is a necessary part of the whole.
Ditto our discussion of God. God has literally innumerable “details of construction,” because God consists of infinite “parts” or aspects or attributes, each of which is itself infinite.
Thinking in this way, through concrete examples, is thinking according to the actual meaning of words and phrases, rather than just playing with words divorced from any reality, and therefore coming to absurd conclusions.
A better analogy for God, of course, is a human being. Once again, God created humans in the image and likeness of God. As an exercise in well-grounded thinking, I would suggest that anything you want to say about God, you consider whether you could say it about a human being, except in finite, limited form instead of in infinite, unlimited form as with God. If, keeping in mind this adjustment from infinite to finite, saying something about a human being makes no sense, then it also makes no sense to say it about God.
And the simple fact of the matter is that we humans, made in the image and likeness of God, are not “simple” beings. We are complex beings, reflecting the infinite complexity of God.
Just to put it more simply, you say that God *is* this, and *is* that; ‘is’ indicates that God is identical with these attributes, and, to my mind, as of now, the only way I can see that being true is if all these attributes are the same in essence, which would make God simple.
Nope. See my comment just above yours.
That’s a pretty strong reply, one that I had not yet considered, and I thank you for putting the time and care in bringing it up. I was all prepared to say I’m sold on it, until, upon reflection, I saw what may be a categorical wrench in the works.
It seems that these analogies about ‘X is’ (bridge, building, etc), with the phrase ‘God is…’ may be conflating ‘essence’ and ‘attribute,’ for all your examples refer to what something ‘is’, in terms of an attribute it has, and not of what something ‘is,’ in terms of the essence of the thing itself. But when we say that ‘God is love,’ we’re not taking about a mere attribute of God, but of the essence of what God is, and so the word ‘is’ means something entirely different in that regard.
For example, consider this dialogue:
“What is that?”
“It’s a bridge.”
“Yes, but what is a bridge?”
Well, that wouldn’t make sense, because it’s clear that the person asking the question, and the person answering are talking about two different things. One person is asking about what the essence of a bridge is, and the other is replying with an attribute of the bridge, which doesn’t tell us anything about what a bridge is. ‘Steel’ is not a bridge, just as ‘tall’ is not a building. But ‘love’ is what God *is*.
A meaningful version of that dialogue would appear as:
“What is that?”
“It’s a bridge”
“Yes, but what is a bridge?”
“It’s a structure designed to get people over an area they couldn’t safely travel across.”
So now we have an answer to what the bridge ‘is’- it’s essence.
Likewise, ‘love’ is not an attribute of God in the way that steel is an attribute of a bridge, it’s what God is, Himself.
It’s one thing to say that love is one of many attributes of God, but if you’re trying to say that love is God’s essence, and justice is God’s essence, etc, then I don’t see how you get around divine simplicity, as it seems, to me, the only way to maintain all these claims about all the different things that are God’s essence.
The only other idea that I still haven’t fleshed out is that God’s essence is the infinite collection of all of God’s infinite attributes…but that doesn’t seem to tell us what God’s essence is, just the infinite things that make up…’something’ we have no word for, no conception of, and is simply beyond love, justice, power, or any one attribute.
Once again, if you try to talk about God, and God’s essence, and God’s attributes, using mere words, without any meaning or substance behind those words, you are going to end out with nonsense. Divine simplicity is talking about God’s essence and attributes absent any meaning or substance to the words used. Once you start adding substance and meaning, the nonsense of it becomes clear.
“God is love.” What does that even mean? Is it just three words in grammatical relationship with one another that can mean anything at all, or nothing at all, so that we can treat it like some sort of mathematical equation or logical syllogism?
If those words are to be more than mere abstractions, more than castles in the air to play with at will in one’s mind, then there must be more to it than that.
And the most basic thing to understand is that when we say that “God is love,” it means that love is the substance of God. God is made of love.
That is where the analogy of “the bridge is steel” comes in. Steel is not just an “attribute” of the bridge, nor is it identical to the bridge. It is the substance of the bridge. The bridge is made of steel.
But when we say, “That bridge is beauty” (not the best descriptor for this analogy, I know), we are talking about something very different. We are not talking about the substance of the bridge, but about the form of the bridge.
It would be better to picture the actual form of the bridge: say, a suspension bridge such as the Golden Gate Bridge.
Once we consider the actual meaning of these two “attributes” of the bridge, we see that although they are indeed one in that they are both essential to the bridge being a bridge, they are not reducible to one another, they are not the same as one another, and they therefore cannot be reduced to something that would make the bridge “simple.” Substance and form are together as one, but they are quite distinct from one another.
So it is with the substance and form of God. Love is the substance of God. Wisdom is the form of God. These are one, in that together they are essential to God being God. But they are not reducible to one another, they are not identical with one another, and they cannot be merged together into identical things so that God would be “simple.”
Now let’s add the power, or action, of God, and we have a third essential element of God that, while it flows from the substance and form of God, cannot be reduced to either one of them, and is not identical to either one of them. It, too, cannot be reduced to “simplicity.” It is entirely distinct from, albeit one with, God’s love and God’s wisdom.
This is analogous to the function of the bridge, which you expressed as, “a structure designed to get people over an area they couldn’t safely travel across.” That function is not reducible to the steel of which the bridge is made, nor is it reducible to the form of the bridge: a suspension bridge. It is an entirely distinct essential of the bridge that is neither its substance nor its form. It is the function that flows from the substance and form of the bridge. It is also the purpose for which the bridge was constructed of steel, in the form of a suspension bridge.
The bridge is not “simple.” It requires a minimum of substance, form, and function, three entirely distinct essentials, in order for it to be a bridge.
And these are just the basics. When we start talking about the pylons, the girders, the cables, the bolts and nuts, the welded seams, and so on, we begin to have many, many elements of the bridge, none of which are reducible to one another, such that the bridge could be “simple.”
Similarly, in God there are not only the basics of love, wisdom, and power, but all the other attributes of God recounted in the sacred literature of humankind. To take just one, if God is omniscient, this means that God has infinite instances of knowledge and understanding that form the foundation of that wisdom. God knows, for example, every pylon, girder, cable, bolt, nut, and welded seam of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not a single one of these instances of knowledge is reducible to one another. Each one is quite distinct from every other. They cannot be reduced to “simplicity.” They are unalterably complex. And those are just a few elements of God’s knowledge of one bridge among thousands, if not millions, of bridges on this earth. We haven’t even started talking about God’s knowledge of every mineral, plant, and animal on this earth, every human on this earth, and every star, planet, moon, grain of dust in the universe, and every component part that makes up every one of these objects. Then there are the even more numerous spiritual entities, and their components, that form and constitute the spiritual realm of reality. Every single one of these objects and entities, and every component part of each one, is a distinct piece of knowledge in God’s mind. They cannot be reduced to one another. They are not “simple.”
Divine simplicity can be maintained only if we empty God of all content, thus making God a nonentity. If we give God even two elements or attributes, and they aren’t mere abstractions, but are actual, substantial attributes or elements of God, divine simplicity is already impossible. And God has not just two elements or attributes, but infinite elements or attributes. Hence the utter absurdity of divine simplicity.
Don’t form your understanding of God from empty abstractions. Consider that God is a real, substantial being who has a nature, elements, and attributes.
Once again, consider your own being, physical and mental. You are made in the image of God. You are not a “simple” being. As soon as you try to make yourself “simple,” the whole idea of it immediately becomes absurd. The exact same thing will be true if you try to think of God as “simple” when you have some actual idea of God’s nature, and aren’t just tossing around words and abstractions.
The people who make God “simple” have no real idea of God’s nature. They are just tossing abstractions around, without any understanding of the real, solid nature of God.
Don’t fall prey to that empty kind of thinking. In the end, it will only lead to the denial of God’s reality. And I do believe that those who insist upon divine simplicity are either simply ignorant, and are just trying to look erudite, or they are atheists at heart, who inwardly deny God’s existence altogether, no matter how beautifully and cleverly they may write about a “God” about whom they have no real knowledge or understanding whatsoever.
A “simple” God is an empty God. A “simple” God is a nonexistent God. Divine simplicity ultimately reduces to a denial of the reality of God. And if you could look into the souls of the vast parade of theologians that have formed and developed the monumental absurdities of today’s “Christianity,” you would be amazed at how many of them were atheists at heart.
Coming back to this topic, because it’s one that I, myself, tend to come back to. I think a combination of both time and my interactions with you have caused me to come further around to a more, well, meaningful and less wispy (as you would say) conception of God. God may be ultimately incomprehensible and transcendent in at least the same way that the human mind regards the notion of infinity as ultimately incomprehensible and (in a way) transcendent, but that doesn’t mean that God is some indiscernible haze, some amorphous blob of which we cannot describe or even speak.
My mind had always naturally inclined toward seeing God as not just much bigger than us, but much different than us, such that ‘traditional’ depictions of God that appear in Abrahamic religious text- the attributes, and the behaviors- just sounded unacceptably anthropomorphic. I didn’t feel as though I was reading about God, I felt as though I was reading about the way that human beings imagined Him. I felt to approach a more substantive understanding of God, I- and ultimately, we- would need to evolve our understanding beyond the early psychology we relied on to talk about God in a way that earlier humans could understand, and instead use a different spiritual psychology and vocabulary to describe ‘the ultimate.’ Indeed, this is the view of many theists, though most belonging to this type of thought are more akin to deists, or a kind of ‘post-theism.’
But more than unsatisfying traditional depictions of God, I also became very enamored and deeply inspired by mystical literature. The Sufis, the Kabbalists, Eastern wisdom traditions…that’s where I found this ultimate Source, and the truest, realest impulses of spiritual life. There was no old man with a beard who sits on a throne and oversees the universe, rewarding and punishing his creation, to be found in these mystical traditions. There was only ‘The One,’ ‘The Source,’ ‘The Ultimate.’ That’s where I found everything I was looking for. In Islam, God is said to have 99 attributes, and in the Sufi tradition, from what I recall, there is said to be a 100th which is hidden, and which the Sufi’s seek to know, merging themselves with the Divine consciousness. I mean, that stuff *really* lit a fire under me.
Unfortunately, relying on this as a basis for ones conception of God sounds better in theory than it does in practice. The above depictions are profound, expansive, and reverent…and, by themselves, unfulfilling. I’m not qualified to speak for these mystics and how they perceive God, especially since they all ultimately fall back to their respective scriptures, but, for me, importing the God of the (Abrahamic) mystics left me with nothing to connect to. God wasn’t a personable presence, had no features, had littler to connect with: when God is just pure essence, God has no face, and there’s a reason why the first thing we look at in another is the human face.
But that’s where Swedenborg comes in, and for me, he manages to bridge the gulf I felt between ‘traditional’ God concepts and mystical ones, providing the animating spark that brought my otherwise stale, impersonal concept to life. This exchange has also caused me to realize that our first, and often earliest, instinctive ideas about God are likely to be much closer to the truth that the needless complications scholarly human beings have layered on top it, taking something that was perfectly fine in its intuitive simplicity and turning it into a jumbled mess of the mind. If we believe that we’re created in God’s image, then we need to take that seriously enough to discard a lot of the intellectualized nonsense that misleads the mind from actually understanding what that means.
All that said, do you think there is still some place for mysticism, and its pursuit of some kind of divine communion and elevated states of consciousness? I don’t think these mystical depictions are wrong, but at the same time I don’t believe they’re revelation either, for as you said, a mystical experience is just that- an experience. At the same time, they’re not nothing, and I see them as having value. Is there a way to integrate the ‘experiential revelations’ opened up by religious mysticism into your own spiritual life, without it amounting to an impersonal otherness, as it did for me?
My sense of Christian mystics is that they commonly focus on the experience of Jesus Christ—which is, of course, a human presence of God.
But yes, even if we know that God is human, and came to us as a human being, and is therefore a definite being, not some wispy thing, there is still plenty of room for mystics to experience the ineffable in their communion with God and spirit. Jesus Christ is God’s human presence with us. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a divine essence far beyond our human ability to experience or comprehend. And there is everything in between. Meaning that there are as many levels of mystery in God as the human mind and heart can hope to probe or experience, and infinitely more.
In theological terms, yes, God is immanent. But God is also transcendent. What the New Testament calls “the Father” is the transcendent part of God. That level of God is beyond the ability of our finite human selves to experience directly. What the New Testament calls “the Son” is the immanent part of God. That is the part of God that we can know as a friend knows a friend. And the Holy Spirit is the love, wisdom, and power that flows into us from having that personal relationship with the Lord.
I think you have misunderstood me and where I am coming from. I am not polluted with old false theology; I am, by profession, a scholar and an academic; it is my job to study the history of ideas; I often read those whom I disagree with most, in order to better understand my own positions, otherwise I, like most academics, would wind up in an echo chamber (now I do not recommend that the average person to do this). But, e.g. I often read Nietzsche in order to better understand my own faith. Moreover, JS Mill has a great argument in “On Liberty” as to why we need to constantly engage with those who disagree with us (whether living or dead) in order to keep our minds sharp and clear on the truth. So no, I’m not going to stop reading Thomas; I am reading Thomas because I am interested in how exactly and where exactly he disagrees with Swedenborg.
I know you said you don’t believe in faith alone saves, but from what you have been saying, it sure sounds like you practically think that? Help me out here? That is, if believing false things is indeed as damaging as you are saying (and I dont disagree), it sounds like you might be saying something like: “while technically faith alone doesnt save” it is impossible or nearly impossible to be saved without orthodox faith (in the etymological sense of orthodox), unless perhaps one is a simpleton or a rube from some remote part of the world?
Of course, what you read is at your own discretion and choice. I simply think it is hard not to get infected with faulty ideas. But I do agree, to some extent at least, that it is good to know the positions of those who disagree with one’s own. For me, the main purpose of knowing those ideas is to be able to competently refute them when people confused by them come to me seeking clarity and understanding. But I find them exceedingly dreary and depressing to read. It is like wandering in swamps in dark valleys when I have seen beautiful light at the mountain top.
And no, in no sense to I believe that we are saved, or damned, by faith alone, or in more ordinary terms, merely by what we believe. However, false beliefs, though they don’t by themselves damn a person to hell, do cause tremendous damage to people’s spiritual and emotional life. For more on this, please see:
Does Doctrine Matter? Why is it Important to Believe the Right Thing?
I hear you. I feel the same about the opponents. Strangely, I know I’ve told you this before, but I came to many of the ideas of Swedenborg on my own, before reading him, particularly regarding the Trinity. Aquinas doctrine makes absolutely no sense, and from the moment I became a Christian in faith I just understood the Swedenborgian way. My sense is that such is revealed to one who is earnest in prayer? In other words, genuine seekers sort of get that the idea of three persons makes no sense and devolves into three gods
I do think that people who seek the truth in earnest prayer can find it, with the proviso that the reason they are seeking the truth is that they want to use it in love and service to God and to their fellow human beings. However, it is complicated, because the more a person has been instructed in “essential” Christian truths by their traditional Christian priest or pastor, the harder it is for them to break through those false ides imposed upon their mind, and arrive at the truth. So it’s not just a simple matter of, “Pray, and the truth will be revealed to you.” This is more likely to be true if a person’s mind hasn’t been strongly impressed and ingrained with existing false doctrine.
When Swedenborg was well into his theological period, he stated that the Lord had not allowed him to read theology, but that he had studied the works of scientists and philosophers instead, because he was being protected from having false doctrine ingrained in his mind. This, he said, would have prevented him from seeing and accepting the truth that God had in mind to show him later in his life.
We can’t take this statement too literally. We know from Swedenborg’s notebooks that he did read the works of some Christian theologians during his pre-theological period, including Aquinas, and (quite extensively) Augustine. However, he was in no sense a trained theologian. And he considered that to be a positive, not a negative, when God called him to reveal spiritual truths to people on earth. It was precisely because he was not a trained theologian, he said, that his mind was clear enough to be able to understand and accept the genuine Christian truth that God wanted him to pass on to humanity.
In my own experience, I have found it hardest for people heavily trained and inculcated with traditional Christian doctrine to accept the things I teach here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life. They will argue and argue, and can only with great difficulty expunge their old, false beliefs from their minds. I have seen it happen a few times. But not easily. Most often, people who come to accept Swedenborg’s teachings were not strongly inculcated with traditional Christian doctrine, but were more generalized Christians (and a few from other religions as well).
However, one thing I have heard many times is, “This is what I always believed. I just didn’t know there was a church that taught it!” In that regard, your experience is not unusual.
For my part, I think what Swedenborg taught is simply a distilled and exalted view of what the Bible teaches in its characteristic pragmatic and life-centered way. I believe that any sincere person looking to live a good life, and not too badly blinded by false doctrines, could find the basics of Swedenborg’s teachings, and even some of his more advanced concepts, simply by prayerfully and studiously reading the Bible—as you did.
Swedenborg himself said that he did not get any of the teachings of the church from any spirit or angel, but from the Lord alone while he was reading the Bible (see True Christianity #779).
Oh good! we are back up — Yes, I see your point. It’s next to impossible for the Trinity not to almost immediately devolve into three gods, which divides the consciousness.
Btw, re: reading Swedenborg. As I said, it’s tough to know where exactly to go. My experience reading him (really reading him carefully!) is it can be a bit daunting because he will go on and on about a vision or an enigmatic conversation he had with some people in Heaven and I get sort of lost in where he was going with all of it. So what i usually do if I have a question I can’t quite get Swedenborg to answer, is simply ask you, knowing that you’ll point me to the text(s).
What I’ve always notiiced btw is the equivocation most people use when speaking of Jesus as God. They will say “God came down and died for us,” or “Jesus was God in the flesh” . — They mean the Father! but when you press them on it they say “God’s essence in the Son” or something that makes no sense.It was always so clear to me that whenever the New Testament used the term God (ha theos) that it meant the Father; so , e.g. when it says Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” or that he was “in the form of God” etc. It’s clear that that is synonymous with the Father.
Also: when you say God has a body, do you mean, God now, as Jesus, or prior to the incarnation God has a body? How does the pre- and post- incarnation “soma” of the Lord work?
The attempt to move the blog to new hosting turned out to be a quagmire. So it’s back to business as usual here.
I understand about the daunting nature of Swedenborg’s writings. It is a vast and complex collection. Here is a short, readable book that will help you wrap your head around it:
Swedenborg’s Garden of Theology: An Introduction to Emanuel Swedenborg’s Published Theological Works, by Jonathan S. Rose
And of course, I am always happy to field your questions as you read.
About Swedenborg’s stories of the afterlife, though some of this type of material appears in almost all of his theological works, in his later works, notably True Christianity and Marriage Love, he includes one or more of these stories at the end of each chapter. Sometimes they relate directly to the subject of the chapter; sometimes they don’t. It is therefore best to read them as a distinct collection of material. They often do throw light on the subject of a chapter, but sometimes they go off on an unrelated tangent.
Though Swedenborgians have commonly read these stories as “doctrine,” I would suggest reading them as illustration. In True Christianity #779 Swedenborg says that he did not accept any teaching on the doctrine for the new church from any angel, but from the Lord alone, while he was reading the Bible. And yet, his stories from the spiritual world are full of discourse with angels and spirits on doctrinal matters. This is why I view the statements of the angels and spirits in those stories as the views of those angels and spirits, which are certainly subject to error, and not as Christian doctrine that Swedenborg is presenting for our consideration and acceptance. The latter is what’s contained in the expository sections of the chapters.
There is much fascinating and enlightening material in the stories. But they must be read for what they are: discourses with angels and spirits in which they express their views on various subjects.
About the Trinity and the Incarnation, it’s important to understand that in Nicene Christianity, Jesus is not God in the flesh, if by “God” is meant the Father, or God as a whole. Rather, in Nicene Christianity Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh—the Son of God being one of the thee Persons of the Trinity, each of which is believed to have coexisted with the others from eternity. So at best, Jesus is one-third of God in the flesh.
But even that is not an entirely accurate understanding of Jesus in Nicene Christianity. Because only the divine element of Jesus is the Son of God. The human element of Jesus is a fleshly vessel from Mary that the Son of God took on in order to live on this earth and suffer the Cross. Its disposition after the resurrection is rather uncertain—to me, at least. The idea that God was crucified and died on the cross is specifically rejected as “patripassianism,” which is another name for modalism or Sabellianism.
On this basis, Swedenborg commonly says that the Christian church of today “divides God into three, and the Lord [meaning Jesus Christ] into two.”
This puts Nicene Christians (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) in a bind. They read in the Bible statements that certainly make it sound like God came to earth in the flesh to save us. But their official theology says that this is wrong; that it was the Son of God who came to earth in the flesh to save us, and further, that Jesus’ human side was not really the Son of God, but the son of Mary. Hence the equivocation you have noticed in how traditional Christians speak about Jesus.
In response to this:
As it turns out, I have recently been working on some annotations to Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven (Arcana Coelestia) that deal with just this issue.
Short version: Before the Incarnation, God’s “body” was the angelic heaven. When God spoke to people on earth, it was not directly, but rather through angels filled with God’s divine presence, who spoke as proxies for God. However, being finite, not infinite, the angelic heaven ultimately proved inadequate to reach out to and save humanity. Therefore when humanity reached its lowest ebb spiritually, and God could not exercise sufficient power through the “body” of the angelic heaven to save us in our fully fallen state. God came personally to earth and took on a divine body through which and in which God would henceforth operate in reaching out to and saving humans, both collectively and individually.
For more on this, please see:
How does God Speak to Us, Before and After the Incarnation?
Just a question: How much of Thomas, Augustine, et al have you read? Have you studied these guys on the Trinity?
I have not done much sustained reading in the works of Nicene Christian theologians. I find it depressing to do so. It is hard for me to separate their wrong thinking from the human damage it has done through the ages, and continues to do to this day.
The last time I read an entire book by a famous (contemporary) theologian, as recommended by an online Protestant debate partner, it turned my teeth on edge. I tried to get through the second recommended book on the same topic by a different contemporary Protestant theologian, and had to stop halfway through. It was too grating and too painful to wade through it.
The truth matters to me in a very real and personal way. In my ministerial work, I encounter far too many people who have been maimed and broken by traditional “Christian” falsity for me to be able to read the works of its developers and defenders dispassionately as an academic subject. People are getting hurt, and even killing themselves, over the things their “Christian” preachers and teachers have told them, originating in these very same Nicene theologians from a few centuries after Christ right down to the present.
Mostly, I read briefer sections of various theologians’ works when I am researching a particular topic, and it requires dipping into what famous and influential theologians have said on the subject.
But how do you really know what the Nicene Fathers think if you haven’t read it? Certainly you could argue against how what they wrote has been perceived and represented; it seems to me though that those (what that actually wrote/said vs. what they were said to have said) are two different things.
I make no claim to being an expert on the Nicene Fathers. But I know that the theologians of that period developed and solidified the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons, which progressively vitiated all orthodox Christian doctrine from then on.
Well a Trinity of “hypostases” — which didn’t mean person the way we understand it today. When I talk to the majority of Christians, they honestly think of God the way Swedenborg does — they often say Jesus and the Father are “one and the same” and say “Father Jesus” (which prompted my asking the question on this thread). But, I see your point.
False doctrine starts from a seed before growing into a full-blown false doctrine. The seeds of the doctrine of the Trinity of Persons were sown before the Council of Nicaea, and didn’t develop into the full doctrine until well afterwards.
I do believe that Christianity is gradually moving away from the Trinity of Persons toward Swedenborg’s doctrine. However, the official doctrine of the vast bulk of Christian denominations remains firmly trinitarian. This tends to confuse the minds of average lay Christians who naturally lean toward thinking of the Christian God as Swedenborg does—because it’s really the only sensible and biblical way to think of God from a Christian perspective.
Hi there. Jesus told us to pray in His name. What exactly does that mean? From a Swedenborgian perspective, what do you think of finishing prayers saying “in the name of Jesus we pray”? After all, whenever I pray I’m talking to Jesus anyway, right? Still, as I come from a traditional Christian background, I always start my prayers saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and finish saying “we ask this in the name of Jesus your Son” or “in the name of Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit”. Is this necessary, optional or incorrect? Anyway, I bet that praying in Jesus name doesn’t mean literally doing that, but I do want to know whether I’m doing it wrong or not.
Yes, as you have already surmised, there is more to “the name of Jesus” or “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” than just those names. In the cultures of the Bible, and still in many cultures today, names were given to denote some quality or virtue in the one so named. The various names of God, then, represent various qualities of God.
For more on this, please see the section titled “What’s in a name?” in this article:
Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?
What’s most important in prayer is not to use the correct verbal formula, but rather to have a sound idea of God in your mind as you pray. Unfortunately, traditional Christianity does not have a sound idea of God. It thinks that there are three “Persons” of God, which really means that it thinks there are three gods. So traditional Christians pray to the Father for the sake of the Son, and to the Son for the sake of the Father, and ask them to send the Holy Spirit, and so on, as if they were three different beings. See:
Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Polytheistic?
But there are not three gods, nor are there three Persons of God. Rather, there is one God, in one Person. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different “parts” or aspects of that one God. See:
Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?
As a Christian, it is best simply to pray to Jesus Christ in whom is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no need to pray to the Father or to the Son or to the Holy Spirit, as if they are separate beings. There is only one God, and Jesus Christ is that God. My recommendation then, is simply to pray to Jesus Christ. And if you are praying for something in particular, it is fine to say, “I pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” or something similar.
Thank you. And since we mentioned traditional Christianity, in a comment in one of your articles I saw that you talked about John Clowes, who was both an Anglican priest and a follower of Swedenborg. I was very interested in his story because it’s so unusual. Do you happen to know of anyone else who did something similar or is Clowes’ case sort of one of a kind? It’s not everyday that we see a Christian minister who believes and teaches Swedenborg’s ideas to his congregation.
Early on in England there was a whole group or movement of “non-separatists,” who remained in the Anglican Church while being full believers in Swedenborg’s theology. Of the ordained clergy in this group, the best known are John Clowes, Thomas Hartley, and William Hill. The first two named were pastors of Anglican congregations to which they preached Swedenborgian doctrines and Bible interpretations, Clowes in Manchester, and Hartley in Northamptonshire. Hill may also have had a church. I’m not sure about that. These non-separatists opposed the formation of a sectarian New Church organization. They believed that Swedenborg’s teachings would gradually suffuse the existing Christian church.
Though non-separatism largely died out as an organized movement after that first generation of ministers and their congregations, to this day there are scattered here and there ministers who preach Swedenborg’s teachings, either openly or without identifying their source, in non-Swedenborgian churches. Some of them are pastors of mainline Christian churches. Others are pastors of dissenting churches, such as Oneness Pentecostal churches, whose doctrines also differ from Swedenborg’s teachings, but may have some points of similarity.
That’s very interesting. Thanks!