Note: this is the seventh post in a series on the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:
If you have followed along thus far, you know that we have looked at reasons to believe that there is a necessary being that is the eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique creator and sustainer of all contingent reality. But there is one more attribute we need in order to demonstrate that this necessary being is God. Is the necessary being personal? After all, based on what I have argued up until this point, the necessary being could be The Force from Star Wars! So why should we believe that the necessary being is not just an impersonal field of energy? Why believe in a personal God?
Just Like vs Sort of Like
Before I explain why that which is necessary is personal, there is a very important disclaimer I need to make. It goes without saying that if there is a necessary being (one that doesn’t exist in time, that doesn’t consist of parts, that doesn’t change, and that is unique), then this necessary being is vastly different from anything in my immediate experience. I exist in time (I just turned 50). I consist of parts (which are breaking down – I just turned 50). I change (see previous parenthesis!). And as the sort of being I am (human), I am not unique – there are eight billion others on the planet at this moment. As a contingent being, living in a world of contingent reality, I recognize there is a great gulf fixed between what I am and what this necessary being is.
Since that is the case, it would be a huge mistake for me to think that this necessary being is just like me, only bigger/older/stronger/smarter. That may be a good way to think of various pagan conceptions of gods like Thor or Athena, but it would be an egregious category mistake to confuse those concepts of “god” with the concept of a necessary being. It is simply impossible by definition for me (or anything else in the contingent order) to be just like the necessary being; at the very most I can only be sort of like the necessary being.
I’ve said all of that to offer this disclaimer about whether the necessary being is personal. I am going to offer some reasons why we can use that word to describe this ultimate ground of all reality, but we must always bear in mind that what “personal” means for you and me as contingent creatures is not exactly what it will mean for the necessary being. An old illustration explains it like this. If I say, “I see the tree,” and “I see your point,” I am using the same word – see – to express concepts that are sort of like each other, although one is vastly greater than the other. To see a tree is a physical act of the senses. To see your point is an intellectual act of the mind. “See” conveys both concepts, but one kind of “seeing” is much greater than the other. And so it is with the word “personal.” I am a personal being, and that which is necessary is a personal being – but in a vastly greater sense.
With that caveat in place, let’s now discuss why this necessary being is personal.
To think more deeply about what it means to say that the necessary being is personal, consider how you feel when you receive an email from a friend as opposed to a piece of spam. Spam is automated. No one chose to send such an email to you in particular, and whatever algorithm spat out your name on its mailing list, it certainly didn’t do so because it knows you individually. Since it lacks knowledge and will, spam is impersonal. On the other hand, if a friend sends you an email, it is because he chose to do so, and also because he knows you. That kind of email is personal.
This helps to clarify what we mean when we say that something is personal rather than impersonal. It involves qualities like intellect and free will. “The Force” in Star Wars doesn’t really have the properties of mind or will; Sith lords and Jedi knights tap into its impersonal power based on their choices and knowledge. But why should we think that the necessary being possesses such personal attributes?
Let’s begin with the quality of will. We have talked a lot in this series about the difference between what is necessary versus what is contingent. As you recall, that which is necessary doesn’t rely on anything else to exist – it simply is. That which is contingent, on the other hand, does rely on something else to exist. Its existence is not necessary. But why did that which is necessary enable that which is contingent to exist in the first place? It could only be because that which is necessary made a choice to bring contingent things into existence. Since to make a choice is to exercise free will, we can deduce that the necessary being has the personal quality of will.
What about intellect? Consider this illustration. Quite often I have two cups on my desk, a mug for coffee and a tumbler for water. The mug is made of ceramic and the tumbler is made of plastic. Even though they are made from different materials, they are both “cups.” Why? Because in addition to the stuff out of which they are made, the mug and the tumbler each consist of a configuration or pattern – one in the pattern of a tumbler and the other in the pattern of a mug. And both of those patterns share features that identify the mug and tumbler as belonging to the same category – cup. This feature that I have called a “configuration” or “pattern” or “category” is what ancient philosophers called a form. If I wanted to go into the cup-making business, the form/configuration/pattern of “cupness” would have to exist in my mind before I could fashion the ceramic or plastic into an actual cup. Since the necessary being is ultimately responsible for bringing all contingent reality into existence, that means that all of the forms of contingent reality must exist in its intellect, just as the form of “cup” exists in the intellect of the cup maker.
But what about the supreme personal feature, love? Is there any reason to think the necessary being is capable of love? Yes – in fact, we can go a step further. We can say that the necessary being is goodness itself, the very source of love. Why do I say that? Think about the following sentences:
“That is a good tomato” (maybe some of you think there’s no such thing!).
“She’s a good basketball player.”
“I have a bad knee.”
In each case, whether something is good or bad is a question of the extent to which it fulfills the potential of the sort of thing it is. A good tomato exemplifies the redness, sweetness, and juiciness of what a tomato is supposed to be. A good basketball player displays the skills and abilities of basketball to a high degree. A bad knee, by contrast, falls short in the extent to which it functions as a knee should. This is just another way of saying that something is good to the extent that its potentials have been actualized (as Aristotle would put it). If this is the case, then something that is pure actuality (as we’ve previously described the necessary being) is good to the ultimate degree. It is pure goodness, goodness itself. And since to love someone is to determine to do what is good for them, that means that – as goodness itself – the necessary being is the ultimate source of all love.
Will, intellect, and goodness. Such features of the necessary being lead us to add one more attribute to its nature – it is personal. Just bear in mind that when I use the term “personal” with regard to the necessary being, I mean something analogous to but not identical with what I mean when I describe myself as a person. Yes, the necessary being can do things like choose, think, and love, but it does so to a degree far beyond comparison to anything in the experience of contingent reality.
Let’s summarize everything we have pieced together in this argument over the last several weeks. The contingent order points to a necessary being. This necessary being is the unique, personal, eternal, immaterial, and immutable sustaining source of all contingent reality. What would you call this sort of being? I agree with Thomas Aquinas’s conclusion at the end of a similar sort of argument: “This all men speak of as God.”
Now, someone may object that these arguments haven’t proven that Christianity is true. And that is correct – of course, these arguments weren’t designed to do so. All I have been seeking to show thus far is that God exists. Whether God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth is a different question, one I plan to address in a future series. But next week I want to bring this series to a conclusion by comparing the portrait of God found in Scripture with the one we have deduced over the last few weeks.