John Macquarrie’s dialectical theism

In his Gifford Lectures, published in 1984 as In Search of Deity, Anglican theologian John Macquarrie develops a view of God that he calls “dialectical theism”–to provide an alternative to what he calls “classical theism.”

According to Macquarrie, classical theism has over-emphasized certain attributes of God, resulting in a less-than-satisfactory concept of divinity from both a philosophical and religious point of view. For instance, he contends that it has over-emphasized divine transcendence, resulting in a “monarchical” picture of a God who is removed and aloof from creation. “The intellect demands a more dialectical concept of God, while the religious consciousness, too, seeks a God with whom more affinity can be felt, without diminution of his otherness” (p. 31).

This is not an unfamiliar criticism, but instead of simply swinging to the other extreme and positing an “immanent” God, Macquarrie argues that an adequate concept of God requires holding certain seemingly opposed attributes in a “dialectical” tension. Hence, “dialectical theism.”

Macquarrie describes a series of six “dialectical contrasts”, each side of which he thinks we need to attribute to God in order to have a more adequate concept of deity:

–Being and nothing: God is being, or as Macquarrie prefers to say, the power of “letting-be.” At the same time, God is not an existent in the same way that particular things in the spatio-temporal world are. So it is true, in a sense, to say that God does not exist. God is not “a thing” or “a being” alongside other beings, but that which gives to other things their being.

–The one and the many: God is one (or maybe better, beyond numbering) and is the ultimate unity that grounds the multiplicity of things. But there are also reasons for thinking that there is a kind of differentiation within the being of God: a divine “abyss,” and intelligible self-manifestation, and a drive toward unity or communion (echoes of the Trinity).

–Knowability and incomprehensibility: Because God expresses himself in creation, God is knowable, “intuited in the world as a presence or as its unity.” But this knowledge is indirect, mediated by symbols, and the inexhaustible being of God transcends what we can know about him.

–Transcendence and immanence: God is independent of the world in the sense that the world depends on God for its existence. But God is also deeply involved in the world, intimately present to the processes that make it up. Images of “making” and “emanation” provide complementary ways of picturing the act of divine creation.

–Impassibility and passibility: Because God transcends the world, the suffering in the world cannot overwhelm or destroy him–or ultimately defeat God’s purposes. But God experiences what happens in the world and it affects him–the world matters to God. Its history makes a real contribution to the divine life.

–Eternity and temporality: God transcends the succession of past, present, and future and “remains constant and faithful, neither his power nor his love is diminshed by the passage of time” (p. 182). But God is also involved in the movement of time, “engaged in the struggle,” “an active participant.” “God is himself in the events of history and is concerned about their outcome” (p. 182).

Macquarrie acknowledges that his view is similar to the “panentheism” often associated with Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, but he prefers to avoid the connotations that this term might have of “pantheism.” He also thinks his dialectical theism preserves a more robust sense of divine transcendence than one finds in Whitehead. You could say that Macquarrie’s version of theism is a characteristically Anglican “both/and” approach that tries to affirm the kernel of truth in seemingly opposed claims.

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3 thoughts on “John Macquarrie’s dialectical theism

  1. Please forgive me if this comment identifies me as obsessed, but I wonder if somewhere Macquarrie gives a brief definition or encapsulation of his “god concept,” specifically with reference to the origin, location, or generation of a divine intentionality, and how (perhaps the same question) what is in effect a pseudo-being being finally unaffected by what happens heredownbelow can also be considered finally involved in what happens heredownbelow. In this presentation he doesn’t seem to have solved the dualism, dichotomy, or disjunction except by acknowledging it and dubbing it “dialectic.”

  2. I’m not sure this will provide a satisfactory answer to your question, but here goes. If I’m reading him right, Macquarrie isn’t just ascribing two contradictory attributes to God and papering over the contradiction by calling it “dialectic.” I think he means for it to be dialectical in more robust sense than that. That is, the attributes qualify each other. So we might say that “classical theism”–the view of God as utterly transcendent, impassible, etc., provides the “thesis.” But these properties are qualified by their antitheses, ultimately resulting in a “synthesis” that is still recognizable a form of theism. So, for example, Macquarrie says that God is impassible in certain respects–his essence, his character, his existence are eternal and unchangeable. But God’s experience of the world is genuinely affected by what happens “here below.” So he’s not simply saying that God is fully impassible and fully “passible,” but that God’s impassibility holds in certain respects and not others.

    In terms of justifying his view, I don’t think he does quite enough argumentative work. But he does offer reasons for thinking that the main alternative views–classical theism, atheism, and full-blown pantheism–are unsatisfactory.

    Does that help?

    (I think we’re both a bit obsessed with this. :))

  3. Thanks. Yes, it does help in one way – understanding Macquarrie’s apparent limitations – and it doesn’t help at all in the other way, thinking the closure of the gap or the unity in duality. I think the logical implications remain, possibly distressingly, atheistic by way of physitheism and anthropotheism, and so on, similar to the ancient Epicurean argument against “the godness of the gods.” I think my reasons for saying that might be better on my own blog at the right time.

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