Conceptions of God

Conceptions of God



According to orthodox Christian theology, God plays three main roles: he is the creator of the universe; he acts as moral judge; and he is our divine benefactor. These roles are combined in a single entity, though they are different roles. There would be no contradiction in the roles being possessed by distinct entities. Creating the universe requires one sort of capacity, meting out justice another, and caring about human welfare another. In normal human life such roles are assigned to different people. But God is multi-talented: he can perform all three. There is some tension between the role of judge and the role of benefactor: if God decides to punish us (justly) by sending us to hell, he is not acting as our benefactor; and benefactors are not ipso factoagents of justice. He cares about us, but apparently not enough to spare us the flames of hell. A theology that invoked distinct individuals to play these roles would be more intelligible. Yet we have become accustomed to monotheism. True, God is sometimes divided into sub-gods, as with the Holy Trinity (God the father, God the son, and God the holy ghost): but it is supposed that these are somehow aspects of a single entity. How can we be sure of this? Whether there is any god is a commonly asked question, but what about the question of the cardinality of gods? Why exactly do we posit a single god?

This raises the issue of the criterion of identity for gods. Different tribes can worship different gods, and the ancient Greeks worshipped many gods, so it is not as if the concept of God logically implies unity; so why do we amalgamate the three roles I mentioned into a single being? What are the groundsfor asserting identity? Has anyone ever seen the being that performs these roles and observed that they proceed from a single source? Is there any deduction from them to the identity of their bearer? Clearly not: it looks like a dogma. Presumably there are many different types of divine ontology in logical space: three gods, twenty-seven gods, an infinity of gods. Yet we have settled on the single-god ontology (with possible subdivisions). But how are gods to be counted? We know how to count apples and humans, but how do we count gods? In Greek mythology the implicit criterion is in terms of role performed (the god of love, etc.), but in Christian theology that principle is abandoned. What is put in its place? Nothing, so far as I can see. Why exactly don’t we entertain the proposition that three different beings perform the jobs of creator, judge, and benefactor? Why not a divine committee? It can’t be because the members of the committee might disagree, because that can be ruled out by means of an omniscience clause. Is it an affront to the dignity of a god that there should exist other gods? But why is it less dignified to exist alongside other gods than to exist alone? God could certainly create other gods, being omnipotent, so why does he practice divine solipsism? He created Jesus, and angels too, so why not another god like him? Why not propose a theology in which monotheism is relaxed? Why the obsession with singularity? After all, we pray to our benefactor for help, but not to the creator of the universe, still less our stern moral judge. Don’t the three roles naturally call for different entities to perform them? Holiness need not be confined to a single individual. Isn’t the idea of a single god a holdover from the days of monarchy (there was never more than one king)? Doesn’t modern democracy fit better with a divine collective—a kind of supernatural cabinet? Isn’t there something cultish about a single unique super-being? What about checks and balances, distribution of powers, division of labor? What about an executive god, a legislative god, and a god of welfare? Isn’t there at least a possible world in which godliness is thus divided? Is it not an epistemic possibility that God is not one but many? How can we rule out discovering at the pearly gates that there is more than one god? Couldn’t we discover that God has more than one child, contrary to what we now tend to believe? Monotheism hardly seems like a certain and necessary truth. We should keep an open mind on the question.

We have a certain conception of God, though it tends to be hazy and undefined: he exists outside space and time and is not as other mortal beings. He stands apart from us in a special realm of his own, imperceptible, immaterial, and incorruptible. He doesn’t walk the streets or travel on the subway like the rest of us. Why do we think like this? What led us to conceive of god in this removed and elusive way? Suppose you had read the tales of Sherlock Holmes and took them to be reports of actual events. That is, you mistakenly think that Holmes is real not fictional. You think Arthur Conan Doyle combed police records and discovered an amazing detective who lives on Baker Street, has a friend named Dr. Watson, etc. You become fascinated by this remarkable man and want to meet him, not realizing that his fictional status precludes such a thing. Given this, you might haunt Baker Street in the hope of sighting him and making his acquaintance. However, diligent research and ceaseless surveillance fail to turn up the famous detective—he is nowhere to be found. Nor, you discover, has anyone else ever seen him. You might draw the conclusion that your initial assumption was wrong: Holmes is fictional not factual. But suppose you are too far-gone for that, too emotionally invested, so you persist in your initial belief. How then to explain the great detective’s absence from the scene? Is he just remarkably adept at eluding detection, slipping in and out of his residence on Baker Street without ever being observed by anyone? No, that is too implausible—no one could be thatelusive and yet dwell on planet earth. So you come up with a radical hypothesis (indeed a strong conviction), namely that Holmes is not as other men—he is not a concrete earth-dwelling being at all. He actually lives (if that is the word) elsewhere, in a special realm reserved only for superlatively gifted detectives—and indeed there was always something otherworldly about him. He is, you might say, a…god. That is, he is a special type of being that lives in a special place outside space and time, though he contrives to intervene in worldly affairs. Admittedly, this belief requires some reinterpreting of the Doyle texts, but it is not beyond the powers of human imagination to conceive. The reason Holmes is never seen about the place is that he is not a mortal being at all.

Clearly, this explanation, though intelligible, is not correct. You started with the false assumption that Holmes is non-fictional and then erected your theory to explain his lack of earthly presence, while you should have reconsidered your belief that he is a real person. You believed that a fictional character was real and then invented a wacky theory to explain his lack of presence in the empirical world. Couldn’t something like this be true of our conception of God? We read a text about a fictional entity and believe that entity is real (we are told as children that it is), but then we are perplexed by his absence from the observable world, so we invent a theory to explain this disparity. What elsecould explain why a real entity isn’t evident in the observable world? It’s because this entity is not ofthis world, but of another world. There are two possible explanations of God’s absence from the empirical world: (a) he is a fictional character and so doesn’t exist in reality, and (b) he isn’t a fictional character and exists in a special unobservable realm. If our transcendent conception of God arose in the way the transcendent conception of Sherlock Holmes arose, then we can see how we came to conceive God in the way we did—it is a natural response to his lack of empirical presence. I am not claiming that this ishow it arose, only that ifit did our manner of conceiving God would be explained. That is, if there is no God—he is a fictional character—and yet we believe in his existence, it is natural that we should conceive of him in the transcendent way we do. Believing in the reality of fictional entities is apt to generate wacky theories about their whereabouts. If I believe in unicorns but find that none ever reveal themselves, I might form the theory that unicorns exist elsewhere—in a special unicorn meadow far far away. It is no accident that Santa Claus is supposed to live at the North Pole, because if he lived in Neasden it would be a puzzle why no one ever spots him. The North Pole is sufficiently far removed that inquisitive children can be palmed off with the information that he lives far way, so that’s why he is never spotted around town. Fictional entities that are objects of belief need special places to exist that are hard to access—unicorn-land, the North Pole, heaven. No one is going to believe that a mythical being exists if he said to live around the corner. Mythical beings that are believed to exist must be supposed to live where their non-existence can’t be detected.


Colin McGinn


2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Gods used to live in every day places, as well as in forests, lakes, mountains, on the battle field – detectable though rarely visible. Maybe they still do live with us: perhaps there is a god of the corner store, the god of the video store that died and been replaced by the god of streaming, the multi faced god of social media, the sometimes sleepy sometimes volatile god of the global markets. Perhaps it’s just that today our imaginations are too weak to give them colour and form, our intuitions too stunted to recognise them.


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