A proposal for a new definition of ‘God’ in a philosophical context.

I have recently been pondering on the tradition philosophical (‘Anselmian’) definition of God. To be more precise, I’ve been wondering whether other viable, analytic definitions of God could be constructed other than ‘maximally great being’. Wrapped within this question is a series of questions: could we develop a definition of God as non-omniscient? Non-omnipotent? The reason this question concerns me is that, it would seem, an Anselmian definition of God is necessarily monotheist. That is, if there were two ‘Gods’, neither could be considered maximally great, since either would be greater if the other didn’t exist. More precisely, the issue seems to relate to the property of omnipotence – in the case where we have two ‘Gods’, each is limited in respect of their power, by the presence of another (presumably equally powerful) ‘God’. A being with no limits on their power is greater that a being with limits; therefore the two ‘Gods’ on this model aren’t truly God (by definition).

My concern, then, is that this model begs the question when it comes to monotheism. Historically thousands of people have believed in the existence of multiple deities. Are they merely confused about the scope and meaning of the term ‘God’? (This is a possible objection to my argument – see below). Or is there a less limiting definition of ‘God’ which will allow us to speak of multiple Gods. My suspicion is that such a definition can be formulated, and that the monotheist has more work to do in order to demonstrate that there is only one God than simply refer to the definition of the term ‘God’. (It may only take a little more work, but it is an argument which has to be made). This definition would be more basic than the Anselmian definition insofar as its conditions might be fulfilled without fulfilling the conditions of the Anselmian definition (but not vice versa).

What might such a definition be? The definition must not include or entail ‘omnipotence’ as a necessary condition for being divine, and meeting the terms of this definition must constitute a sufficient condition for being a ‘God’. There is, I believe, a definition which meets these criteria. I also believe that this tradition describes a necessary condition for being considered divine for (almost?) every religious tradition. (Whether it is also a sufficient condition in every tradition is harder to say – see my reply to objection 2 below). Thus it has the advantage of not begging the question in favour of any one religious tradition.

The definition I propose is this: ‘God is that which is deserving of worship.’

The definition is a tricky one, not least because it has an imperatival element. Yet I suggest we can discuss some of the implications of this definition, which give us a picture of how such a definition might function. What do we mean to say that a being is ‘deserving of worship’? Most fundamentally, it seems to me that in order to be worthy of worship, a being must be omnibenevolent. Must it also be omnipotent? I’m not so sure. After all, the Manichees believed in two deities, one omnibenevolent, one malevolent, each equally powerful. Yet they had no difficulty worshipping the less-than-omnipotent good God. At least, it seems an argument has to be made to demonstrate such a claim: it cannot be assumed as true by definition.

This definition would thus allow for one to talk in a logically coherent manner about multiple gods – for instance one could have a council of omnibenevolent beings, who are collectively omnipotent, but individually lacking in some aspects of power (being omnibenevolent, they presumably decide to act in the same manner, whilst still consisting multiple powers).

I have recorded a few immediate objections which came to mind formulating this definition. They are listed below, along with my responses.

Objection 1: The only being worthy of worship is the maximally great being. Therefore defining God as ‘that which is deserving of worship’ doesn’t change anything.

Reply: That may be so, but it seems to me this is a position which must be argued for, not simply asserted. My reason for thinking this is that there have been many believers of polytheist religions for whom this assertion wouldn’t be considered self-evidently true. To assert this position without argument would thus be to refuse to engage with these non-monotheist traditions, rather than to refute them.

Objection 2: ‘That which is deserving or worship’ is an insufficient definition of God-it is simply the incorrect definition (and, vice versa, the Anselmian definition just *is* the correct definition). To put it another way, to use this definition is nothing more than a misunderstanding of terminology.

Reply: Again my response is ‘demonstrate it’. Certainly within Abrahamic monotheist traditions ‘being deserving of worship’ would seem to be a sufficient condition for being considered divine. A being doesn’t deserve praise unless it is divine; if it does deserve praise, it must be divine. Insofar as ‘is deserving of praise’ does not necessarily = ‘maximally great being’, and insofar as being deserving of praise is a sufficient condition for being divine, my definition offers a more precisely correct understanding of what it means to be ‘God’. (On ‘‘ ‘is deserving of praise’ does not necessarily = ‘maximally great being’ ’’, see my claims above that a) a being deserving of praise needn’t be omnipotent and b) if it does, this needs to be demonstrated). Whether it is sufficient in other traditions is less certain. However, it is a significant development in philosophical theology even if only adherents of Abrahamic monotheistic traditions are able to recognise ‘is deserving of praise’ as a more basic definition of God than the Anselmian definition.

Objection 3: Omni-benevolence necessarily implies omnipotence, and indeed all of the other traditional divine properties.. Therefore ‘that which is worthy of praise’ is in fact the maximally great being.

Reply: This is essentially a more sophisticated version of objection 1. Whereas I am inclined to agree, this is not an uncontested claim within the field of philosophical theology. Therefore, once again, it is the duty of the defender of the Anselmian definition to demonstrate that her definition is implied by mine.

I will leave the objections at this for now. You will notice that of the three, there are two methods. One is to outright reject the definition (objection 2). One problem with this approach is how do you choose which definition is best without begging the question? How does one choose which is the best definition? The method I have been working with this ‘The optimal definition of any thing x is that which spells out the sufficient and only the sufficient conditions for being x’. I have also argued that ‘that which is deserving of being worshipped’ better fits this criteria than ‘a maximally great being’; since the former spells out the sufficient conditions for being divine alone, whereas the latter goes beyond the sufficient conditions.

The second method is to try to demonstrate that my definition is essentially the same as, or logically implies, the Anselmian definition. In response to this form of objection, I have noted that this is an argument which must be demonstrated. Significantly, this argument implicitly accepts the priority of my definition. The burden is on the defender of the Anselmian definition to demonstrate that my definition logical entails theirs – not the other way round.

Thus, I would like to tentatively suggest that the definition ‘God is that which is deserving of worship’ is to be preferred to the definition of God as a ‘maximally great being’.

I look forward to hearing the thoughts of the Oriel theology community (and no doubt to being academically roasted by superior analytic minds!).

YIC

B

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14 thoughts on “A proposal for a new definition of ‘God’ in a philosophical context.

  1. Hi Brendan,

    I imagine it depends on what you mean by a ‘philosophical definition’ but Romans 1:20 seems to give good reason to include omnipotence in a general definition of God.

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  2. That may be so Ed, but I’m trying to come up with a definition which doesn’t assume any particular religious tradition, so I an appeal to scripture doesn’t wash, You’re right that in order to develop this I would need a clearer sense of what I mean by ‘philosophical definition’.

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  3. Thanks, Brendan. I wonder whether an absolutely neutral definition is possible. To take the definition you suggest, how might one establish who/what is ‘deserving’ of worship? Are we to assume a Kantian understanding of reason? In which case won’t our definition of God be inescapably subjective, leading us to Fichte/Feuerbach’s critique of projectionism?

    i.e. What protects the difference between ‘God is that which is deserving of worship’ and ‘God is that which I choose to worship’?

    Many thanks for the post and discussion.

    Ed

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  4. As an Old Testament scholar I surely betray my lack of experience in philosophical theology here (and, in addition, I hope my contribution is welcome as a non-Oriel student!); however, I’m wondering to what extent the definition itself is useful. ‘Maximally great being’ puts some constraints on the definition of God inasmuch as it demands particular characteristics from the being we can call God. It is, to an extent, self-defining rather than an independent assessment of a being, but on the other hand this definition ‘goes’ somewhere, to a necessary conclusion of what we may term ‘God’. If we slacken the definition to ‘anything deserving of worship’ – accepting thereby that that may extend to multiple beings, such as in a polytheistic system – the question becomes how we define that.

    As you point out, we could conceivably do this within the Abrahamic religions using their own terminology, but this is where in my mind the problem lies: within these religions, we already know what being is deserving of worship, and the definition adds nothing new. If we abandon these constraints, however, the question of what is deserving of worship (to my mind, lemon sorbet…) becomes an open one. Unlike Anselm’s definition, which requires particular characteristics and could thus conceivably work outside of the Abrahamic constraints, this new definition isn’t self-guiding. Lemon sorbet clearly isn’t maximally great; but it might be deserving of worship.

    All the best!
    Marten (St Cross)

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  5. It is also true that within monotheistic religions, non-divine figures were considered appropriate recipients of worship and the Old Testament uses terms of divinity for beings that are not the creator.

    I would change the definition to “that which is deemed worthy of worship.”

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  6. Thanks for your suggestion Geoff. You’re right to point out that in some cases in the Hebrew Bible it seems that worshipNips applied to beings other than YHWH/the creator. I think this highlights the point that the line between the divine and the non-divine, creator and created is blurred in early Jewish thought,mane clarity in this regard doesn’t really come about until the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. My concern with your definition is that it makes the referent of ‘God’ a function of the human decision to deem something worthy of worship, rather than a property of God in-itself. I do think the language of ‘worthiness’ sounds more apt that that of desert.

    Edward – there certainly is a question to be asked as to whether a non-traditioned definition is Possible. Either way there is the need for a functional definition which can be employed in inter-religious philosophical contexts e.g. If I wanted to construct a philosophical argument for monotheism vs polytheism. I also think that creating such a definition is desirable within an historically Judaea-Christian tradition precisely because it allows us a terminological framework within which we can speak of the distinction between divine and non-divine as somewhat blurred, and so make better sense of this stage of our theological development (and why we came to make the distinctions we made).

    In terms of your second question, you’re right that there is an epistemological problem when it comes to working out What is entailed by ‘being worthy of worship’. However, this epistemological issue is no barrier to me claiming that there ‘being worthy of worship’ is an ontologicalLy valid category, regardless of whether I can know what this is.

    One more thing – I never assume a kanthan understanding of anything!

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  7. Thanks for your comment Marten. It seems to me you make an important point, which Ed also makes: how can we know what is deserving of worship? To my mind, whereas this is indeed a big problem, it doesn’t fundamentally challenge my argument. The problem is epistemological – how do we know what is entailed by this definition? As far as I know, it could be lemon sorbet. However, this is not the same as to say my definition allows an ‘anything goes’ approach to the divine. ‘Being worthy of worship’ is a property of the being-in-itself – it is not the same as ‘what I consider to be worthy of worship’. Thus it is not enough to say ‘I consider lemon sorbet to be worthy of worship (and therefore God) – I need to investigate this claim, and to work out whether lemon-sorbet has this inherent property of ‘worthiness’. Whether we are in an epistemological position to make such a claim is, I admit, uncertain.

    I also recognize your point about the functionality of the Anselmian definition. I agree that in many instances it is the appropriate definition to use. However, I also think there are certain contexts – such as inter-religious dialogue- in which it is functionally deficient. In these circumstances, my new definition functions better as a placeholder. For instance, if I were to debate with an early Christian who held an angelomorphic conception of the Spirit (the spirit is a divine/angelic being – again, blurred boundaries) using an Anselmian definition of divinity, we would most likely end up talking past one another. My new definition would have a useful placeholder function in such a debate.

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  8. Brendan – thanks for this post, it’s really interesting.

    Marten has raised the question as to how we talk about what makes a being worthy of worship. I’d also like to ask what you think worship actually is. On your model, can a Catholic pray a Hail Mary without treating the BVM as a deity? Do we need a hierarchy of cultic actions; our Roman Catholic brethren have a ready made scale in their distinctions between latria (for God), hyperdoulia (for the BVM) and doulia (for the saints in glory). It looks to me as if, in the end, we draw the line between latria and hyperdoulia with something that looks a lot like the Anselmian definition.

    Secondly, there’s a really pertinent chapter in a book by Jaco Gericke called “The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion” which asks what an El is in Hebrew Scripture; the term is used both as a noun for a divine beings and as the proper name for a god in the Israelite/Canaanite pantheon. I can’t remember its conclusions, but it’s concerned with the extent to which the Hebrew Bible has something like a concept of generic godhood.

    Gericke, and a few others, present interesting lines of possible research on the border between Old Testament studies and analytic theology. So maybe watch this space!

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  9. I think the definition suffers with the issue of it being a practical definition, i.e one regarding an action we owe to the Being, rather than a speculative definition, regarding what the Being is. As such, it only really views God from the perspective of Ethics giving us little input from the perspective of Metaphysics. If the definition cannot give input the the metaphysical science, the metaphysician will be unable to approach the question as to whether such Being exists and the discernible attributes of said being.

    Whilst I can understand an issue with the Anselmian definition being that it subtly begs the question; for how can we know that such that «God is the maximally great being» without first knowing God’s existence and his mode of existence? Thus I would argue that the definition offered by Avicenna in his Metaphysics (God is the Necessary Existent) and St Thomas (God is self-subsistent Being) too get over this issue. The definition is also a speculative definition rather than a practical definition, and thus can be employed by the metaphysician to rationally discern whether such a being exists and the properties that follows consequently upon this.

    Now I’d like to addressed the definition given in the blog post directly. I would object to the definition given in the post, God is that which is deserving of worship, because it is ambiguous. By what do we mean by worship? For in Theology do we not usually distinguish several kinds of acts that some would consider worship?

    There is the honour given to the saints that have attained beatitude, there is the supreme honour given to the Blessed Virgin, and finally there is the adoration which is given to the Godhead alone. Yet there are segments, even of Christianity, that would object that the honour (the cult of dulia) and supreme honour (the cult of hyperdulia) are acts of worship. Whilst Catholics and Orthodox would respond that it is adoration (the cult of latria) that is worship simpliciter, others are derivative from this and only analogically related.

    So if the definition is meant to cover all threes kinds of cultic acts, then it is not apparent that all things that are deserving of worship are God. Whilst if «worship» is only taken in its simply sense (the cult of latria), then it must be asked what kind of Being, and in virtue of what, is deserving of adoration? A necessary condition would appear to be man’s dependence upon the being, essentially, for his existence. For a secondary analogue to it would be the honour, analogous to the cult of dulia, we owe our parents.And the sufficient condition would appear to be its underived perfection, for anything that has its perfection derived from another would itself imply that its principle perfection, its existence or Being, is derivative from another.

    I hope this makes sense.

    Adam

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  10. I’m interested that you pick out omni benevolence as a necessary condition for worthiness of worship, whilst wanting to exclude omnipotence from this status. I assume that plenty of people do worship that which they do not take to be omni benevolent, just as many worship a deity they do not take to be omnipotent. It is clear that you want to take worthiness of worship as your criteria, in such a way that this is not tied to the actual act of worship (your God could in fact not be worshipped by anyone, and just because a being is worshipped is no guarantee it is divine), so this is not necessarily a massive problem. But I’m interested in whether this is an intuitive judgement that this is what is fundamental to worship worthiness, if you take this from your own religious tradition, or if you have some other basis.

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  11. Hi Brendan,

    What do you mean by ‘worship’? If worship is that which is to be given or performed to God alone, what is ‘that’?

    On another note, compromising on God’s omnibenevolence is one way of trying to solve the problem of evil. But it might be less problematic to respect and love a being who is is perfectly good but cannot perfectly defend goodness than one who could perfectly defend goodness but prefers not to.

    Jason

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  12. Some interesting comments here, I’m glad my post has generated some interest. Time for a (brief) response.

    First I’d like to respond to Adam’s objection that ‘worship-worthiness’ is a ‘practical’ definition, and therefore can’t do the metaphysical heavy lifting required of it. I feel that this is an inaccurate characterization of my definition. I consider worship-worthiness to be a metaphysical property or bundle of properties which entails an ethical duty of worship. To claim tha something is ‘worthy of worship’ is in many ways a moral statement – one ought to worship x- but that doesn’t mean it cannotmalsomdenote a state of the affairs. Indeed, if one adopts a realist stance in meta-ethics (which I do) ethical claims are in fact statements about the way something is. To put it another way, to say ‘one ought to worship x’ is (given a realist meta ethical viewpoint) not merely a statement of duty, but is also a claim something about the what x is – About the ουσία of x – a metaphysical claim. Thus I do not see that my definition is merely a practical one.

    Which metaphysical properties comprise the overall condition of being ‘worship-worthy’ requires further parsing out. However, it seems to me that this is a reasonable task for the theologian to undergo. As Jason’s post seems to indicate, we have some intuitive sense that an omnibemevolent but not omnipotent being might be more worthy of worship than an omnipotent being that wasn’t omnibemevolent (although perhaps it would be more prudent to worship the latter anyway!). There seems to me to be an intuitive and direct connection between worship-worthiness and metaphysical claims about what the being actually is. It seems, then, that intuitive judgements such as we see in Jason’s post suggest that this definition can have genuine metaphysical input.

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  13. In order to try to work out the metaphysical properties entailed by ‘worship-worthiness’, we need a more robust understanding of what we mean by worship. John, Adam and Jason have all made this or a similar point. One of the tasks such an understanding would have to achieve, as mentioned by john and Adam, is to work out the distinction between worship and other forms of adoration, such as veneration of the saints.

    It seems to me that this would be a legitimate and interesting task for a theologian to underg, and that such a task could be approached in a number of directions: historical, analytic, scriptural, phenomenological. I have no significant contribution to make on this at the minute, but a blog post from someone else on this topic would be very welcome.

    One possible avenue to pursue would be a close investigation of some ancient Christian thinkers that worship, knowledge of God (at the highest level) and unity with God are one and the same thing. This of course also raises the qeustion as to whether one can have an understanding of worship outside of a particular religious tradition; if not, the utility of my definition for intereligious dialogue would be hampered (although it could still be used in relation to ancient pre-Niven Christian and jewish thought).

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