Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - Honorable Mention 2

The greatest conceivable being 
—St. Anselm (of Canterbury, 1033-1109)

Noted philosopher, abbot, and Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm produced, perhaps, the most famous definition of God. At one time I placed it tenth—no doubt seduced by the gravitas of a saint. Unfortunately, Anselm's description and subsequent work, including his famous 'ontological proof' for God, grew into a fantastic divine-attribute-generating machine spewing surreal sticky notes onto God which were later codified by the church

Much of the blame can be placed on the Roman and Greek intellectual tradition—both in the early Church and its revival in the Middle Ages—which tried to incorporate philosophical ideals onto something which originated as unknowable. Speaking of God became, as theologian Karl Barth wrote, "speaking of man in a loud voice"—no longer totally different, but just more intelligent, more powerful, and in more places.

As we see today, it is but a short step (of about a thousand years) from this to God as the greatest conceivable American football fan whose divine mind in execution (i.e. through the actual bestowal of grace and glory) wins the super bowl. What chance does humanism (or religion, for that matter) have against the Immaculate Reception?

It's not all bad, however. Any definition, embraced as strongly as Anselm's was, is bound to lead to idolatry. We all have a hard time not conceiving some image of God, try as we might. In the top ten we will discover some pretty abstract notions which also can lead to problems. C. S. Lewis tells of a girl he knew who was brought up by "higher thinking" parents. God was not anthropomorphized in her household. However, "in later life she realized that this had actually led her to think of Him as something like a vast tapioca pudding. (To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.)"

Doesn't it make sense to use the finest model we have? Using a chair, for example, we could talk of perfect stability, infinite support or everlasting comfort. But by choosing a human model we can infer divine compassion, intelligence or love (and, yes, heaven forbid, the anthropomorphic 'intelligent design'). So while Anselm's definition has practical use, it contains failures also. But even the very best definitions of God, no matter how compelling, fall short—by definition.

In St. Anselm's defense, he always said at the end of his arguments, "this thing we call God", as a means of keeping the idea open ended.

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Anonymous said...

22 févr. 13
Bonjour à tous, les hommes, les femmes, et les enfants.
C'est une belle journée à lyon, le ciel est bleu, mais l'air est froid. Typique février dans la pays.
Aujourd'hui, je joins une recette pour les herbes de Provence (la recette est en anglais!) ce qui le rend spécial, c'est la lavande. Je grince toutes les épices dans les dans le mixeur et en faire une poudre. Il senteur est très bon. J’envoie également une recette de pain d'épices. Il est très, très bon et a une odeur délicieuse. La recette est aussi en anglais !
Le vin est beaujolais – toujours !!!

Les herbes de Provence

• 3 tablespoons oregano leaves
• 3 tablespoons thyme leaves
• 1 teaspoon basil leaves
• 1 teaspoon sage leaf
• 3 tablespoons savory
• 2 tablespoons lavender flowers
• 1 teaspoon rosemary

Pain d'épices

• 1/2 cup warm water
• 3 3/4 cups flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1½ teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon coriander
• 1 teaspoon anise seed
• ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
• ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
• 2 large eggs
• 3/4 cup honey
• 2 tablespoons plus 1/3 cup of dark rum
butter & flour 9x5 pain, start oven at 400 bake bread for 15 min. reduce temperature to 325 cook till done (40 – 45 min) remove from pan, add remaining rum
combine dry ingredients together. Mix liquid BUT only 2 tablespoons of rum!!

James R said...

C'est magnifique!
Vieux proverbe: Le chemin vers Dieu passe par l'estomac.

Big Myk said...

You've visited this idea of God as a being which possesses every conceivable perfection in the highest conceivable way in a previous post. See Finding Fault with God. There, you introduced us to an excellent article which points out that this concept of God is neither scriptural nor sensical. An Imperfect God.

As the author, Yoram Hazony, points out, the idea of universal perfection is pretty much meaningless. We might describe perfection as the attribute of something that cannot be improved upon. In that sense, a perfect object does what its supposed to do as well as imaginable. Hazony's example is a bottle. He points out that a "perfect" bottle is one which makes the optimum trade-offs between amount of liguid it can hold and the ease of carrying and pouring it. Hazony says that if a bottle were perfect in every conceivable way -- say, it held the perfect amount of liquid -- it wouldn't be perfect as a bottle at all.

But beyond this (not mentioned by Hazony), the perfection of a bottle is its perfection for someone. It's totally subjective. A perfect bottle may differ depending on how long your arms are or how much you can lift. Similarly, a perfect turkey sandwich, or say, a perfect pain d'épices is going to differ depending on who you talk to. So, if perfection is subjective and God is perfect, what exactly does that mean?

Another thought: God is defined by these folks as a perfect "being." Perfection, as we have said, means "cannot be improved upon." But, what is the function of a being, as opposed to a bottle, such that it cannot be improved upon. Well, the only function of a being is to be. Once a being has achieved existence it is perfectly suited for what is is. Well, it seems to me, then, that every being is a perfect being: it "is" as perfectly as possible and cannot be improved upon in its being. Therefore, to call God a perfect being does not distinguish it from any other being.

James R said...

Extra points for mixing the recipe into the gist of your insightful comment. I can enthusiastically embrace your thoughts as none of the top ten definitions contain "a being" (as far as I can tell).

Big Myk said...

I don't think we can leave this post without some consideration of Anselm's ontological argument for God. I confess that I don't think that I really understand it, but why? Is it because the argument is so profound my prosaic mind can't grasp it? Or, is it because the argument is gibberish?

Anyway, I've found two helpful discussions of the argument posted by philosophy professors for their classes. The first from Gideon A. Rosen, philosophy professor at Princeton: Anselm's Ontological Argument. The second is from Bruce Hauptli, philosphy professor at Florida International University: Supplement to Hauptli's Lectures on Anselm's Ontological Argument [1033-1109] .

Perhaps, as Hauptli points out, Jim Holt made the clearest statement of the ontological argument:

"God exists by his very nature, for he possesses all perfections, and it is more perfect to exist than not to exist."

James R said...

My guess is gibberish—though I might be profound-challenged also—or why would Prof. Rosen give his homework assignment?

Uber God: that which contains all the properties of God plus is sweet tasting.

Actually, I think for most people, perfect humor would be essential in describing the greatest conceivable being. It would be a lot higher on the list of attributes than, say, immutability. Perfect humor, however, might be an oxymoron as people started dying from laughter, á la Monty Python, at God's first joke.