The Separation Of Revelation And Reason

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John Calvin (1509-64), while not being especially interested in philosophical issues about the concept of God, holds that God is self-existent and eternal. God's essence is incomprehensible, but he relates to us in loving kindness, judgement and righteousness. He is omniscient, in that 'to his knowledge there is no past or future' (Book 3, Ch. 21, 5; Calvin 1989:206). This omniscience follows from the more basic fact that 'God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction' (ibid. 1989:210). Calvin argues that God's sheer will and pleasure determine humans to Heaven or Hell; yet they deserve Hell because of the corruption of their natures, so that God is both just and merciful. Given that one cannot morally assess God, there is not much one can say to this. One might doubt whether a God whose pleasure it is to torture sentient beings forever can consistently be called perfectly good. However, Calvin argues that God sets the standard of goodness by his mere willing, too; so he is good if he says he is. To say 'God is good' is simply to say that God is what he is, and call it good. Calvin here expresses a strain of anti-philosophical thought about God which has existed in Christianity since Tertullian, who asked, 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' If revelation is simply to be accepted without rational justification, then reason is powerless against its claims. The unrepentant philosopher might ask, however, how one is to decide which revelation to accept, and how to decide between competing interpretations of it. It is perhaps not obvious, after all, that the Bible portrays the omnipotent undetermined will of which Calvin writes, or that the Bible is to be accepted in precisely the way Calvin thinks.

If Calvin and some of his Reformation colleagues divorced revelation from philosophy in a radical way, the philosophers responded by bidding farewell to revelation. In England, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) argued that five ideas are common to all religions, forming a 'natural religion':

1 There is a God.

2 God ought to be worshipped.

3 Virtue is the chief form of worship.

4 Repentance is a duty.

5 There is life after death.

He was the forerunner of Deism, whose adherents hold that revelation is not needed for knowledge of God, and that God does not interfere in the workings of creation. The idea that it would show bad workmanship if the Creator had to interfere in his creation to put it right or adjust it in any way gained strength after the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton himself believed in miraculous intervention by God. However, the view of nature as a vast mechanism, running in accordance with immutable mathematical laws, which seemed to many to follow from Newtonian mechanics, made Divine interference seem to many superfluous or even impossible and derogatory to the Divine wisdom. A Deistic view of God became popular in France, with Voltaire and Rousseau, and was later accepted by Immanuel Kant.

The fathers of modern secular philosophy, Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza, developed a purely rational concept of God without any appeal to the Bible. They defined God as the supreme substance, existing without dependence on any other and containing all perfections in itself. Spinoza (1632-77) argues in his Ethics that there could be only one true substance, which would include all things, and have infinite perfections to an infinite degree. This substance is necessary in every respect, and we know only two of its attributes, thought and extended matter. Because Spinoza's God is the all-inclusive substance, he has been seen as a pantheist (identifying God with the universe), though clearly God is much more than the material cosmos we see. Perhaps his most interesting conceptual move is to interpret 'infinity' (unlimitedness) as necessarily excluding (and so being limited by) nothing, i.e. as including all things. For Aquinas, infinity was different in kind from all finite things, and could not mix with them. For Spinoza, infinity is the unlimited whole of which all finite things are part. A better term for this is panentheism, a term coined by K.Krause (1781-1832).

Leibniz (1646-1716), in his Monadology, held that the universe consists of an infinite number of substances, or monads. God is the highest possible substance, necessarily existent, from which all other monads proceed. Leibniz famously argued that God must (morally must) create the 'best of all possible worlds', a position effectively satirized by Voltaire in Candide. This is because God, surveying all possible worlds, and being perfectly good, must create the best world he can. Since he is omnipotent, he can create the best possible world; and so his moral nature dictates that he must do so. The success of this argument depends upon there being one best of all possible worlds, which entails that all possible worlds must be locatable on one common scale of increasing intensity, which is not infinite (or there would be no 'best'). It is not obvious that this is so.

In opposition to these Rationalist philosophers, the British Empiricists held that all knowledge must be based on sense-experience; or, in its extreme form, that knowledge must be confined to possible sense-experience. This led David Hume (1711-76) to deny (sometimes) that there are any necessities in nature, that the concept of a pure Spirit is coherent, and that God can be inferred from the world. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), tried to mediate between the Rationalists and the Empiricists. He argued that all theoretical knowledge is confined to experience, so one cannot have such knowledge of God. His definition of God remained the Rationalist idea of a supreme substance containing all perfections, an Ens Realissimum. This idea becomes a regulative ideal for thought and action. We need to think that God exists, Kant argues, as a presupposition of scientific activity, which assumes that the world is wholly intelligible. The idea of God is also, he argues, a presupposition of rational moral commitment, which must assume that rational moral activity aims at a state of happiness-in-accordance-with-virtue (the Summum Bonum), which only God can guarantee. In general, reason postulates three main ideas, those of God, freedom and immortality, on moral grounds. One must postulate that one is free, to account for moral responsibility. One must postulate that one is immortal, if the supreme purpose of our moral commitment is to be achieved. One must postulate there is a God, who can ensure this purpose can be achieved.

None of these postulates, for Kant, gives any theoretical knowledge. They are postulates of Reason. One must therefore act on the assumption that they are true. Yet they cannot be given any content in the phenomenal world of sense-perception. The noumenal world, or the world of things-in-themselves, is completely unknowable, so they cannot be given any content there either. The postulates are thus necessary but purely regulative Ideas of Reason: 'this idea is thus valid only in respect of the employment of our reason in reference to the world' (Kant 1952:316). It is in this sense that Kant sees himself as restricting Reason to the phenomenal world, 'to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith' (ibid.: 22). Faith, here, consists in the acceptance of the postulates of God, freedom and immortality, without claiming knowledge of them, on the basis of a practical commitment to specific forms of moral action.

Kant sees the concept of God as playing a regulative role in making possible certain forms of human action, but as having no constitutive (theoretical) role. We can have no knowledge of reality-in-itself, but we must think of it as though God exists as its ultimate ground, while admitting that it cannot really be just as we suppose. Kant's account hovers between pragmatism (the view that concepts of God are used because they are useful for certain human purposes) and an extremely apophatic rationalism (the view that Reason compels us to believe in God, but forbids us from thinking we can know theoretically what God is). The pragmatic account is prominent in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, in which concepts such as that of Hell are recommended solely on the ground of their moral efficacy. Critics will protest that Reason does not compel us to think the idea of an Ens Realissimum; that the belief that there is a noumenal world which is the cause of the phenomenal world, but of which we can say nothing, is self-referentially incoherent; and that pragmatic considerations are not sufficient for asserting the existence of anything. Kant's notion of God as regulative Ideal is deeply problematic. It is, however, the forerunner of more recent views which see God as a regulative concept making possible a religious form of life, but not entailing any statements of empirical fact.

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