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!).