Monday, October 11, 2010


To speak of the God of the philosophers, as Blaise Pascal does, is to speak in general terms. It is to assume that the philosophers are all part of what we’ve come to call “the Western tradition.” It’s also to assume that “the philosophers” are in agreement on the question of what God is.

These assumptions call for scrutiny.

The question regarding God’s existence, or nonexistence, has no doubt been a major theme in Western philosophy. Both Plato and Aristotle gave reasons to think that some god exists. After Christianity came on the scene, theologians such as Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas set forth arguments for the Judaic and Christian God’s existence. “Pure” philosophers, including Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and, more recently, Charles Hartshorne also entered into the fray.

But what is less known are philosophical theologians from other traditions. Before Aquinas, using Aristotle, came up with his famous “Five Ways” to prove that God exists, the Islamic thinkers Avicenna and Averroes had found benefit in Aristotle’s thought in order to come to the same conclusion. And in early medieval India, Adi Sankara worked with the pan-Indian concept of karma with the same result.

What is God? All kinds of metaphysical compliments have been given to a Higher Being. God has been conceived as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, all good, and so forth—in other words, the sum of all perfections. Nevertheless, not all philosophers would subscribe to these doctrines. Following Alfred North Whitehead, the twentieth-century process theologian Hartshorne held that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent: he cannot foretell the future of free-willed human agents, and thus he can’t possibly be in a position to cause humans to act in a predetermined way.

But is this philosophical God the same as the God who is spoken of in many of the religions? Pascal says no. Here we leave the question dangling while we move over to the God, or gods, of those religions.

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