Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
The Concept of a Finite God as an Adequate Object of Worship
Blake T. Ostler
[p.77]The most common challenge to the notion that God is finite rather than infinite and absolute—that God is socially related with his creations and “in process”—is that such a being could not be perfect. Because what we generally mean by “God” is a being that is absolutely perfect and totally good, many people contend that solving the problem of evil by suggesting that God is not absolutely perfect denies that there is a God. This challenge to a finite God presupposes an idea of classical, absolutist perfection. The value judgment underlying this idea of absolute perfection was fostered by neo-Platonism which preferred Being to becoming, the One to the many, the timeless to the temporal, and the abstract Ideal to the concrete and material. The orthodox Christian notion of static or infinite and absolute perfection is that God exists completely independently of any relation to all other beings.
This concept of God’s absolute sovereignty and independence, called aseity, consists of two aspects. First, if God is absolute then those attributes which are essential to his godly status cannot depend on anything independent of himself. Otherwise, he would be limited by dependence on other beings; and if they ceased to exist, he would cease to exist as God. Moreover, because God must be the explanation of all other existence, he must be absolutely unrelated to his creations. For if it were necessary to refer to any other [p.78]thing to explain God, he would not be the unexplained explanation of the cosmos.
Second, the absolute must emulate all great-making attributes to their greatest potential, for anything potentially greater is not absolute. Hence, God must be completely actualized and therefore cannot progress in any manner, for unrealized potential is considered a defect. This line of reasoning is the basis for Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” or Thomas Aquinas’s “Actus Purus,” a being who is “pure act” though without any act conceivably left to accomplish.
From these premises it follows that God is immutable and impassible, or unchanging in any way and without any feelings or passions. Aseity entails that God could not act to fulfill a need or enhance his status in any way. It also follows that creatures are simply superfluous to the Purely Actual God. God does not need creation; indeed, the very notion that God would undertake to create is inconsistent with the view that God is complete without any creatures. The notion of “sufficient reason” suggests that every positive action requires an explanation.1 But what sufficient reason could God have to create anything if he has already accomplished everything and needs nothing? (While the criterion underlying this notion may never be proven, its validity is assumed by reason itself.) Unless God acted fortuitously in creating, then the criterion is reasonable and appears to entail that God would not undertake any positive action.
An all-good being would presumably prevent evil only if it could do so without thereby preventing some greater good not possible without the lesser evil. God would have created persons only out of his pure love for them and desire to enter into a genuine relationship with them. Love presupposes, however, an object that exists in some way. If God created persons out of love for them, they must have preexisted (at least in his foreknowledge) and in a mode more real than the manner in which ideas exist in the minds of mortals. Indeed, if God desired our love, then he manifested a need essential to godhood—but God’s manifesting any need is clearly incompatible with the concept of an absolute being. What consistent meaning can be given to love when applied to a being that cannot respond, that cannot grow in happiness when others do or become sad when others experience sorrow? If God is loving he cannot be [p.79]satisfied with the contemplation of his own perfection like the Aristotelian or Thomists’ God.
The idea of static, absolute perfection must be replaced, I believe, with the idea of perfection as a dynamic creativity that acts to enhance the happiness of others and by so doing enhances its own happiness. As one non-Mormon theologian observed, “It is in fact extraordinary that Christian theologians have been so mesmerized by Greek [absolutist] concepts of perfection that they have been unable to develop a more truly Christian idea of God whose revealed nature is love.”2 The requirement that God must be unconditioned to be worthy of worship is unreasonable both because it is incoherent and because the being it describes is not available for religious purposes.
Faith requires that the object of its hope be minimally sufficient to bring about the realization of the maximally valuable state of affairs. The contemporary Mormon concept of a finite God is an adequate object of faith because all individuals, indeed all aspects of reality, look to him for the realization of all that matters most ultimately. The Mormon God is thus the Optimal Actualizer. God makes all things possible, but he can make all things actual only by working in conjunction with free individuals and actual entities. Hence, Mormonism does not shy away from recognizing humans as co-creators in God’s purposes. God needs us and we need him for the realization of all that matters most. We are truly co-laborers, for growth of any nature or realized potential is impossible without him.
The Mormon revelation of a finite God also recognizes an immanent aspect of God’s nature. Mormons refer to God’s spirit to explain his influence or creative activity in the world. God stands in relation to his spirit as the sun stands in relation to the light emitted thereby, for it “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space” (D&C 88:12). Hence, even though God is confined to space and time by virtue of his corporeal aspect, he nevertheless acts upon and experiences all reality immediately by virtue of his spirit. God sustains the cosmos and has controlling power in the sense that his spirit is manifest in the creative moment of becoming in each actual entity. When his creative influence withdraws, the material universe consumes itself in entropy and individual atrophy, for his spirit is manifest in the “light which quickeneth your understandings… . The light which is in all things, which giveth life [p.80]to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed” (D&C 88:7-13). Although God cannot determine how free entities will actualize the optimal options offered, without God’s continual loving persuasion there are no genuine options. Hence, we properly praise and thank God for sustaining life and promoting personal growth.
The adequate object of worship must possess power sufficient to compensate for the possible eventualities brought about by the free choices of all beings, otherwise God’s power and knowledge would be insufficient to insure the realization of his purposes. The Mormon plan of salvation is such a provision, compensating for the free choices of Adam (humankind) by meeting the eternal requirements of justice and mercy through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Although God is conditioned by eternal principles, he utilizes other eternal laws and principles to nullify their effect without contravening their efficacy, analogous to the way a jet utilizes natural laws to lift tons of steel into the atmosphere, overcoming the natural law of gravity without revoking it. Hence, God is an invincible ally who can insure the realization of his purposes. This has always been the Mormon understanding of God’s omnipotence and miracles: not suspending natural laws but utilizing a complete knowledge of nature to accomplish what is not possible to mortals.
It should be noted that this concept of power appropriately places the emphasis on God as the object of religious worship and faith, for the point is not God’s unlimited power and knowledge but his purposes and love. God need only possess power and knowledge sufficient to save, exalt, and insure the eternal lives of those who trust in him.3 His knowledge and power certainly exceed this minimal requirement, but he is not thereby a more adequate object of faith. Indeed, the classical definitions of timeless omniscience and unlimited power are quite irrelevant to one aspiring to understand his relationship to deity. Religious faith is more a function of intimacy than of ultimacy, more a product of relationships than of logical necessities. That is why faith in God should make all the difference in the world.
Some may object to the attempt to understand the adequate object of faith because the absolute transcends all of our categories of thought. For many, to be mystified is to be edified and a God understood is a God unthroned. There is something dishonest, how-[p.81]ever, about a theology—any theology—which maintains that reason demands an absolute, infinite being as the adequate object of faith yet commits treason against reason whenever it speaks of God. God is not a more adequate object of faith simply because we attach to him contradictory notions of power, knowledge, timelessness, and aseity—adding nonsense to religious awe. In fact, if God is a total mystery, then we could never have any idea about the type of being it is, including whether it is an adequate object of faith or not. As David Hume’s Cleanthes contended, “Religion would be better served were it to rest contented with more accurate and more moderate expressions. The terms admirable, excellent, superlatively great, wise, and holy—these sufficiently fill the imaginations of men, and anything beyond, besides that it leads to absurdities, has no influence on the affections or sentiments… . If we abandon all human analogy … I am afraid we abandon all religion and retain no conception of the great object of our devotion.”4
In this sense, a finite God is uniquely worthy of worship. If the purpose of theology is to help mortals understand their relationship to God and the meaning of their experience in the world which surrounds them, then the least satisfying theology would be one that precludes a relationship between God and humanity or which takes refuge in mystery when confronted with human existence and our experience with evil.
The problem entailed in prayer to a finite being while worshipping absolute, infinite being is not exclusively Mormon; rather, it is a question which Christianity in general must face. The only truly absolute being is a pantheistic being, the identification of God with whatever is real. Judeo-Christians have pushed their concept of God as close as possible to pantheism to insure the absolute status of God. They have nevertheless shunned pantheism in name because it contravenes the teaching of Hebrew scripture that God is distinct from the world and socially involved with humans. Christians have insisted that God is personal yet possesses none of the characteristics common to persons. They have insisted that he is absolute, but not quite that absolute. They have asserted that God is both personal and absolute, yet what they propose is neither personal nor absolute. Therefore, Judeo-Christian theology fails to meet its own criteria of the adequate object of worship, for such a being is not the greatest conceivable being. In fact, it is not even a coherently conceivable [p.82]being. Orthodox Christian theologians must abandon their theology when they kneel to address deity, and they must abandon the deity they pray to when they speak of theology. The acceptance of two mutually exclusive ideas has led to a dilemma in logic: A god that is both conditioned and unconditioned, related and unrelated, temporal and timeless. If Mormon Christianity is to remain true to its early Hebrew and Christian roots, I believe, its theology must be of a personal and therefore finite God who makes a difference in human experience.