Thursday, October 7, 2010


The French mathematician, physicist, inventor, bachelor-about-Paris, and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-62) cryptically, famously, and immediately after an intense religious experience, stitched into the lining of his coat the aphorism: “Feu. Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu d’Jacob, non des philosophes et savants....”

This is usually translated as “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers,” with no mention of either fire or the savants. Nor did Pascal name the philosophers, though a good surmise would be that he was thinking of his older contemporary Rene Descartes as well as such scholastic thinkers as Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom devised arguments for the existence of God.

Whatever Pascal meant by this aphorism, interpreters have cited it to distinguish between the God of revelation and the God of reason, and to favor the former God while censuring the latter.

If we want to deal with the God questions, we can’t ignore this distinction. But it has limits. It can hardly apply to the Buddhist tradition or those of the Far East, let alone the smaller traditions. Like the concept of religion itself, it is a construct of Western civilization.

The same can be said for the standard categories used by those born to philosophize.

Here’s a list of these categories, including the date a recent Webster’s marks as their arrival to our common English vocabulary:

Atheism (1546 )
Polytheism (1613)
Monotheism (1660)
Theism (1678)
Deism (1682)
Pantheism (1732)
Panentheism (1828)
Henotheism (1860)
Agnosticism (1869)

To the contemporary scholar of religion, there’s something ancient about this list; ancient, and too neat. Most of these items are not useful for the comparative study of religion.

Four are worth keeping. Monotheism (the belief that there is one God) is useful, as is its polar twin, polytheism (belief in a group of Gods, which may or may not have a leader; if so, it becomes henotheism). The other twins, theism (belief in a personal God who both created the universe and continues to intervene in its daily workings) and atheism, (the denial of this belief), make sense, especially within the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The other categories can be consigned to the sterile, dated debates carried on by philosophers of religion.

Note: Agnosticism (either the statement that one doesn’t know whether or not there is a God, or the claim that it is impossible to know) appears to be a halfway house between theism and atheism, but is often a dodge for the atheist who wants to be accepted in the company of believers.


  1. Hi Paul,
    I've been enjoying the clarity of your definitions and tour through the scholarly world. Thanks to Charlotte for pointing me to this blog.-Joe