I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.
As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.
Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.
The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)
This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)
As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.
But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?