There is a story regarding philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his youth asking his teacher a simple question, “What is God?” The teacher was stumped and didn’t know how to answer Aquinas. So, how about you then? What is God?
God and the Philosophers
The short answer is, “We don’t know.” We Christians are agnostics about what God is. That is, in terms of God’s essence we cannot tread our feet of knowledge onto – they are too dirty. However, we Christians are not agnostics about God’s existence. Even though we can’t know what God is we most definitely can know that God is. In fact, we can prove it.
In Greek philosophy (Plato specifically) there was an underlying principle, or “ultimate philosophical explanation,” regarding things that exist which is grounded in something (without change) that truly exists. Namely, “That which is.” The Christians differed in terms of the article used: “For Moses has said: He who is, and Plato: That which is.” However, what is interesting here is that if God is “He who is” then he must also be “that which is” (Gilson 2002, 42). In other words, to be somebody also means to be something.
What makes Christian philosophy (i.e., the metaphysics of being) so interesting and unique is that the supreme principle is a God whose very name happens to be “He who is.” In other words, God just is – without any limitation to his being. In the words of French philosopher Etienne Gilson, “We cannot even say that such a God has knowledge, or love, or anything else; he is it in his own right. . . Nothing can be added to him; nothing can be substracted from him. . . “He who is” can eternally enjoy the fullness of his own perfection, of his own beautitude, without needing to grant existence to anything else, or to anything whatsoever” (Gilson 2002, 52).
In Paul’s visit to Athens, we remember his observance of a statue’s inscription that read: “To An Unknown God” (v. 23). Christians did not have the struggle of finding God viametaphysical explanation to some problem, but rather through what had been disclosed to them by the manifestation of God Incarnate: Jesus Christ.
Scholars will talk about the “God of the philosophers” and the “God of the theologians.” In the former, God was pure Being, Thought or Intellect, “circling around forever closed in upon itself without reaching over to man and his little world” (Ratzinger 2004, 143). This God of the philosophers in the transformation by the men of faith no longer saw this God as merely “the thought of all thoughts,” or as “the eteral mathematics of the universe,” but as agape, the power of creative love.
God emerges from the burning bush not just as “pure Thought” but as a name: I AM. God may very well be eternal mathematics but only because he is creative love. It is through this name that God enters into the world of man.
Gilson, Etienné. God and Philosophy. 2002. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. 2004. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
*This ws originally posted over at my second blog, The Peripatetic Blog