The Concept of God

Philosophy/Religious Studies 3752 (03)
Fall 2005 (first half)

Either providence, or atoms! –Marcus Aurelius

I shall now prodeed to prove that there is in being a being that has no reason for its being.
–Ibn Sina

[God is] the personality in which all is actual that should be and nothing is that should not be: the actuality of all ideals. –Wilhelm Windelband

The contact we have with the divinity is not to be taken as knowledge. Knowledge, after all, is separated (from its object) by some degree of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the unitary connection with the gods that is natural <and indivisible>. We should not accept, then, that this is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are gods.

The world is only beautiful for him who experiences amor fati [love of fate], and consequently amor fati is, for whoever experiences it, an experimental proof of the reality of God.
–Simone Weil

What we say about God should have a direct bearing on our own self-transformation.
–Merold Westphal

I think everyone has an ideal. But everyone is missing something more important. I’m sure that God doesn’t have an ideal.
–Bruno in Le Petit Soldat (by Jean-Luc Godard)

Does God exist? Can God do anything? Does God know everything? Is God perfectly good? Can God suffer? Could God and Nirvana turn out to be the same? Can anything other than God exist except as part of God? Must God be a supernatural being? Must God be Being itself? Must God not be? Is it possible for human thought or speech to give a valid indication of God?

These diverse questions all assume some understanding of what we’re talking about. What, then, do we understand by the term “God”? It’s possible to answer that question, I think–we’re not lost in total, hopeless confusion when the subject of God comes up–but the answer isn’t likely to be simple or easy. Not simple, because a mature understanding of God is funded and guided by a number of different considerations. Not easy, because God is, to put it mildly, an extraordinary object or direction of thought.

The primary purpose of this course is to gain insight into the meanings of “God,” meanings which apparently have great influence in philosophy, religion, morality, and politics (and, some think, in natural science as well). An associated purpose is to develop our philosophical skills of analysis, articulation, and critical reasoning.

Grades for the course will be based on class participation (20%), shorter writings (20%), a 5-6 page essay (30%), and a take-home exam (30%).

The required books, available in the bookstore, are:

Paper, Jordan. The Deities Are Many. A Polytheistic Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Robinson, Timothy A., ed. God. 2nd ed. Indianapolis. Hackett, 1996.

Other required readings will be in e-mails or handouts.
SCHEDULE (showing post-hurricane changes)

Aug. 23 Introduction to the class. How is the concept of God constituted?

Aug. 25 What is the divine? Two classic approaches.
READ: Otto and Eliade (God 285-308)

Sept. 13 The phenomenology of the divine: main avenues of religious experience and imagination.
READ: Paper, The Deities Are Many, Chaps. 1-5

Sept. 15 Polytheism vs. monotheism.
READ: Paper, The Deities Are Many, Chaps. 7-8

Sept. 20 God the answer
READ: “Theology of Memphis” and “Hymn to the Aton”; Aquinas (God 30-36)

Sept. 22 Critiques of the God-answer
READ: Russell (God 113-120)

Sept. 27 The process God.
READ: Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Chap. 1

Sept. 29 God, wish, and guilt.
READ: Lewis (handout) and Freud (God 262-276)

Oct. 4 The problem of anthropomorphism and negative theology.
READ: Selections from Moses Maimonides, The Guide to the Perplexed, and Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity

Oct. 6 Problems of sexism and anthropocentrism.
READ: Selections from Rosemary Ruether, Sexism & God-Talk and Gaia & God

Oct. 11 The “Wholly Otherness” of God as a critical principle.
READ: Selections from Karl Barth and Emil Brunner

Oct. 13 God as infinite You and the Buberian conception of spirit.
READ: Buber (God 397-407)
Essay due Sept. 30 anytime.

Oct. 18 God as an excess over being: Levinas.
READ: Emmanuel Levinas, “God and Philosophy”

Oct. 20 Conclusion.

Final exam and any remaining coursework due October 24.


1. Definition of the problem. By the end of your introductory paragraph, the reader should know what issue you are addressing in your paper. It should be an issue that you care about and that is worth everyone’s wrestling with. It could be an issue like (for example) the force of a certain argument for atheism, or whether God may be conceived as a person, or how “faith” or “love” differs from “experience” as a mode in which the meaning of God is determined, or how our understanding of God relates to our understanding of evil.

2. Explanation of the problem. Show why the answer to the question you are posing is not obvious and straightforward. Usually this involves setting forth conflicting points of view on it, and especially the view that stands as a strong objection to the one you are going to defend. You want to show, as best you can, the plausibility of the conflicting views, and especially of the one hostile to your own.

3. Solution of the problem. Now explain the right way to think about the issue and the reasons that should decide us in favor of this way. Here you may or may not be helped by readings you have done, but in any case, you are taking responsibility here for the solution.
Remember to be reasonable. Don’t preach. Don’t dogmatize. Don’t simply report opinions. Don’t be merely facetious. This is a philosophy assignment. A good philosophical essay probes for convincing justifications.

4. Defense of the solution. Since you did such a good job of presenting an objection to your own view in step #2, now you need to handle the objection. Show the mistake in it, or show how to interpret that point in such a way that it harmonizes with your view. Possibly you were able to do this in step #3, but in most cases it will be worthwhile to write an extra paragraph or two just for this purpose.

5. Enjoy. What could be more rewarding than seeing your own thought take shape on a vitally important question? If you turn in your essay on time you will certainly have the opportunity to rewrite it, so don’t be too anxious to make it perfect on your first go-round. Care about it, but don’t worry about it. The best reasoning often comes out in response to questions and challenges from the reader.
Much of what is said above applies to this sort of paper too–it’s an alternate way of reaching the goal of philosophical insight.

1. Choose a work that promises to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the concept of God.

2. The goal of your review is to advance our understanding by improving our understanding of a specific thinker’s arguments. Your review must, therefore, carefully establish what a thinker’s reasoning is on a given problem, and also evaluate that reasoning.

a. In the part of the review that is devoted to making your author’s own case, you have to decide what’s most relevant. Don’t try to explain more than you can explain sufficiently. Be sure to pay attention to the author’s reasoning, not merely her or his opinions.

b. In the evaluative part of your review, do not merely agree or disagree with your author. Offer reasons of your own for thinking that the author’s treatment of the given problem is right or wrong, adequate or inadequate. You can be a good philosophical partner to the author and be creative and honest at the same time.

3. CITATIONS. The purpose of citations is to enable readers to find what you are referring to or drawing on. You also want to do this as unobtrusively as possible. When a single text will be referred to many times, a good approach is to footnote your first reference like this:

1. A. Jones, “The Meaning of God,” in B. Brown, ed., Perspectives on God (New York: Smith & Sons, 2000), pp. 100-125. Page references in text are to this essay.

Thereafter you can refer to the Jones essay like this: “But, on the other hand, Jones claims: ‘If God is not a being, then agency cannot meaningfully be attributed to God’ (117).”


(from a vast literature)

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Cicero. The Nature of the Gods. Trans. P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. A very readable overview and synthesis of classical reasoning.

Duméry, Henry. The Problem of God in Philosophy of Religion. A Critical Examination of the Category of the Absolute and the Scheme of Transcendence. Trans. Charles Courtney. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. A classic of phenomenology.

Hartshorne, Charles, & William L. Reese, eds. Philosophers Speak of God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. Reissued by Humanity Books, 2000. A great reference for conceptual options.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In Principal Writings on Religion including Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. Ed. J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Devastating, extremely influential critique of natural theology.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. God the Wholly Other as a unique Teacher.

McFague, Sallie. Metaphorical Theology. Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982. A contemporary classic.

Morris, Thomas V., ed. The Concept of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Here is a good place to look for the work of analytic philosophers on divine omnipotence, simplicity, etc.

Neville, Robert. Behind the Masks of God. An Essay in Comparative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. A certain conception of “creation from nothing” is at the heart of Neville’s argument.

Scheler, Max. “Problems of Religion,” in On the Eternal in Man. Trans. Bernard Noble. Hamden: Archon, 1972. Concerned with the value-character of the divine.

Spinoza, Baruch. Ethics. Impressive rationalist statement of the identity of God, Being, and Nature.

Ward, Graham, ed. The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

Westphal, Merold. Transcendence and Self-Transcendence. On God and the Soul. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.
One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the second absence. (For example, someone who missed class 6 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class inquiry is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

3. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgement–that is, passing them off as your own–is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.

4. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.