The interpretative, non-literalistic outlook of God as "the ultimate point of
reference in terms of which all else is understood, and the ultimate focus of
life and of human devotion"(1)
instead of a "'free-standing' separate or distinct 'object' or being"
(2)is a fairly recent idea in the history of Western thought. The
intellectual tradition concerned with deriving "objective" knowledge of God
through rational argument remains, till this day, very much alive in theological
circles. The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, to uncover an important
method - that of ontological hierarchizing - in the dialectics and epistemology
of this ancient tradition; second, to expose its dubiousness.
Ever since Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, (3)the philosophical conception of God as the Ultimate in an ascending scale of existential levels has been quite established. Expounding on the nature and / or the acts of Deity, theologians frequently reason, implicitly or otherwise, along this line:
1. Take quality / state / action X. Conceivably, there are various possible levels or degrees of X.
2. XL,possible or actualized in the world, represents a certain level or degree of X.
3. XH, as X at a higher, more superior level or degree than XL, is conceivable.
4. God is the Supreme Being. He necessarily possesses quality X, or exists in state X, or performs action X, insomuch as this X is of the highest, most superior level or degree. This divine, maximal X is defined as XG.
5. XH= XG
So pervasive is this dialectic of ontological hierarchy, it surfaces
recurrently, in various forms, in theological discourses both contemporary and
pre-modern. It manifests itself in the deliberation of practically every major
aspect of Divinity, for example:
X = being:
Underlying Paul Tillich's insistence that God is the "infinite power of being" and "being-itself"(4) as opposed toabeing (even the highest or most supreme being) is the understanding that God so defined is "superior to the supposedly finite God of traditional Christian theism who is thought of as a person and a being".(5)(XL = differentiated, individualized and derived being; XH = XG = undifferentiated, fundamental BeingquaBeing)
In Thomas Aquinas' concept of the scale of being, "(t)he higher a nature the more intimate what comes from it, for its inwardness of activity corresponds to its rank in being".(6) Hence, plants rank higher than inanimate objects for the working of some intrinsic principle of motion in them. Sensitive creatures rank higher, but lower than mind, for the latter possesses the capacity for self-reflection and self-understanding. Again, amongst minds, the human intellect ranks below pure spirits, since the former's knowledge is derived from external things whereas the latter have wholly intrinsic self-knowledge and thus, "a more perfect intellectual life".(7) Yet, in spiritual creatures, understanding and being are not identical. Ultimately, in God is "the highest perfection of life",(8)
where essence and understanding are unified. (XL = being characterized by inward-outward dichotomy; XH= XG = wholly unitive being with self-emanating life)
Since God is maximally perfect, reasons Anselm of Canterbury, His life,
wisdom and other attributes must be one - otherwise He would be an inferior
being characterized by plurality and the real or conceptual possibility of
(XL = simple being; XH = XG= plural
X = freedom:
According to Alexander J. McKelway, whereas Man's freedom isgivenby
God,forfeitable through decisions against God, andboundby
God is "unequivocallyfree and…free from other being and the limiting
causal relations which belong to it".(11)
God is "freein himself …[and] does not need any other being".(12)
(implication: XL= dependent, relative and limited freedom;
XH= XG = absolute, complete freedoma se)
X = temporality:
Aquinas describes beings in time as travelers on a road that cannot see those
who come along far behind them, whereas God in eternity is someone who sees the
whole road from an altitude and can see all the travelers at once.(13)
As Geroge N. Schlesinger observes,
(t)heologians have insisted throughout the ages that a being who exists in
time is therefore in some important sense limited or circumscribed, so they have
thought it necessary to release God from temporal confinement and place Him
above or beyond time.(14)
(XL= linear-experiential, moment-by-moment temporality;
XH= XG = holistic-experiential, eternally-present
transtemporality or atemporality)
X = knowledge:
Aquinas ranks levels of cognition according to levels of immateriality (by which the capacity to "possess the forms of other things" varies), progressing from "plants", to "sense", to "mind", to God "the summit of knowledge", in whom "knowledge is consummate".(15)
Also, divine knowledge, supposedly simultaneous and devoid of discursiveness, is contrasted with human knowledge, which proceeds in succession and by causality.(16)
(XL= incomplete, step-by-step knowledge; XH= XG = complete, whole knowledge)
Thomas V. Morris, on the other hand, gradates beings according to properties that are "intrinsically better to have than to lack". (17)
Thus, he argues, God - being maximally perfect - must be in a state of
knowledge since it is better to have knowledge than to be otherwise, and He must
also be omniscient since it is better to be so than to be deficient in
(XL = zero knowledge / limited knowledge; XH=
XG = at least some knowledge / omniscience )
X = goodness:
According to Anselm, the goodness of God alone is "supremely good" because it
alone is "good through itself", whereas the goodness of other beings are good
for some utility, or are good through God.
(19)(XL = other-dependent goodness; XH =
XG= original, wholly intrinsic goodness)
X = personhood:
Aquinas argues that personhood is a perfection(20) - since God is perfect, He must be a Person. A modern argument in the same spirit ranks personhood higher than animality, and reasons subsequently that God must possess personhood to an infinite degree.(21)
(XL= non-personhood / finite personhood; XH=
XG = personhood / infinite personhood)
X = act of creation:
In the likes of Johannes Scotus Eriugena, we see the Neoplatonist idea that
God creates not just out of volition but, indeed, out of necessity. Otherwise,
so it was thought, God would somewhat fall short of true Eternal
= creation as a decision; XH = XG= creation as a necessity
entailed in omnibenevolence)
Beyond the fine points, undercurrents of ontological hierarchizing have contributed tremendously to molding the theological landscape at large. One area where this is evident is theodicy. Notably, in how Origen, Augustine, John of Damascus, Eriugena, Anselm and Aquinas dealt with the infamous problem of Evil, there is the intrinsic tension between an essentially common set of XL(= Good as alternative reality to Evil) and XH/ XG(= Good at a higher level than Evil altogether). The underlying motivation is basically the need to "maintain the supremacy of God, and therefore to represent Him as the source and sum of all things...to show that the deep differences that exist in the world are somehow lost in a higher unity."(23) Also, ontological hierarchizing has seen explicit and extensive application as Anselmianism is being revived in the modern days, with all its confidence in deriving all divine attributes from the property of absolute or maximal perfection.(24) In fact, one may even argue that the entire development of twentieth-century theology, as a "see saw of transcendence and immanence"(25)
, hinges at least partially on intuitions of ontological hierarchy.
Historians of theology have noted that
twentieth-century theology illustrates how a lopsided emphasis on [divine
transcendence] or [divine immanence] eventually engenders an opposing movement
that in its attempt to redress the imbalance actually moves too far in the
Time and again, alternately, an overly transcendent(27) or immanent God struck Western thinkers as being a less-than-perfect God. The constant redressing of the imbalance represents, in a way, fine-tuning of the conception of some XL, XH and XG.
Despite its importance, the whole method of ontological hierarchizing as
outlined above poses three major problems when subjected to critical
examination. They are:
1.The non-universality of the intuitive judgments involved in steps
3. and 5.. The derivation of so-called "objective" knowledge of God
becomes questionable when the evaluative meta-ideational system by which
XH is judged more superior than XL, or XG equal
to XH, is not universally or even widely shared. For instance, some
theologians deem personhood greater than impersonality, but some others insist
it is the latter that befits divine transcendence (not to mention the third
opinion that superiority either way is totally obscure).(28)
Again, while Charles Hartshorne argues that the perfection of God's love
requires His feeling all the joys and sufferings of every human being (as
contrasted to the limited empathies of mere humans),(29)
Richard Creel replies that such all-participating passibility actually degrades
God as "God would have to be thought of as suffering, feeling stupid, feeling
horny, taking pleasure in vicious acts, and so forth, because we humans
These examples represent but the tip of the enormous iceberg of controversies,
all rooted in conflicting ideas of perfection or superiority.
While Christian thinkers already have enough disagreement amongst themselves, disputes only escalate hopelessly when one considers the conception of the Absolute in belief systems outside of Semitic monotheism. Consider: the Buddhist scale of being, as embodied in the vertical hierarchy of realms in cakravăla cosmology, culminates in a very different kind of Highest Existence from what Aquinas imagined, being structured according to a different set of metaphysical principles.(31) Again, what is considered maximal greatness which befits the Ultimate differs sharply between the Yőgăcara theorist and the neo-Anselmian.(32) Muslims understand that "(t)o put human limitations upon God and to believe in His incarnation in a human body is to deny the perfection of God" (33)- yet Christians perceive that it is precisely the Incarnation in Christ that demonstrates God's insurpassable power and compassion.(34)
Even if we accept Morris' formal proof that the Anselmian definition for God as the maximally perfect being is viable, (35)and despite Schlesinger's claim that opinion differences merely demonstrate the obscurity (though not unknowability) of ontological gradation,(36)
no one can show that one is hierarchizing in THE one and correct manner corresponding to reality. Comparisons like those given above utterly demolish any hope of ascertaining, through ratiocination, objective standards by which to gradate levels of X's across and over pre-established memeplexes.(37)
One is tempted to extend John Macquarrie's insight to say that all those who
tried to deduce the attributes of God already believed in those attributes, and
must have had a more primordial source for their conviction than their own
2.The perpetual possibility of elevating XHtowards the
receding ceiling of XGbut never reaching it. As Oriental
thinkers have long discovered, there is a generative, almost mechanical method
of describing ever higher levels of ontological superiority ad
infinitum - that is, through recursive quasi-subsumption of lower levels -
in much the same way mathematicians churn out higher and higher levels of
One way of doing this is uni-directional regression through the repeated
application of the same predicate or nominal, as when Chuang Tzu speaks of "the
beginning", that "there is not as yet any beginning of the beginning", and that
"there is not as yet beginning not to be a beginning of the beginning."(40)
Buddhist philosophy abounds with another kind of conceptual hall of mirrors,
transcending levels after levels relentlessly through the nesting of and / or -
neither / nor relationships ŕ la Mădhyamikas.(41)
Having affirmed that God is Good, what stops one from going on to say that He is
really beyond Good and Evil, or further on, that He is neither that which is
beyond Good and Evil nor that which is circumscribed by Good and Evil? Even
provides no escape - as one affirms that God is More Than Good, More Than Wisdom
etc., what stops one from going on to say that He is neither More Than Good nor
Good nor less than Good, or at once both More Than Wisdom and less than Wisdom
etc.? The objectivist theologian can hardly justify why he chooses one
particular point over another on this ever-escalating ascent to apply to the
3.The potential for radical derivations. In one of Jorge Luis Borges's short stories, an imaginary theologian is persuaded that -
a) Since God is perfect, His act of redemption for Man must be perfect.
b) For God to incarnate as Jesus Christ and be crucified as a sacrifice is really not stooping low enough.
c) The most superior, noblest sacrifice would actually be that God becomes the vilest of men, commits the basest of acts, and undergoes eternal suffering in hell.
d) Therefore, the true Savior, Logos in the flesh, is actually Judas Iscariot. (43)
Here is a shocking conclusion that would most certainly be condemned by
orthodox soteriologists. Nonetheless, as Stanislaw Lem observes,
[this] heterodoxy arises only because Borges does not halt where, according
to Scriptures, any orthodox theological attempt at interpretation must "desist
unconditionally." Borges's conclusions lead to a point which transcends the
permissible boundaries, but this does not destroy logic, for this boundary is of
an extralogical nature.(44)
Indeed, the logic employed by Borges here is really of the same kind as that
of Aquinas or Anselm.
Similarly, one might also come to a highly counter-intuitive conclusion - ŕ la Christian Scientists - with the following hierarchizing argument:
I) God, being supreme, has the greatest love.
II) Love that precludes any suffering is greater than love that allows suffering.
III) God's love, being the greatest, would not have allowed suffering to come about.
IV) Therefore, what we now perceive and experience as suffering does not really exist. All suffering is a kind of illusion.
The possibilities are endless.
One might contend that revelation, common sense, experience and such can
serve as the "supreme court of decision"(45)
with which the validity of such derivations might be checked. Nonetheless, in
cases where derivations do not violate these boundaries directly, the dialectic
morphology per se fails to assure us that they truly reflect divine reality.
How, for example, can we be sure that God truly exists in an eternal now? Or
that His wisdom, compassion and power truly are one and the same?
While attempts by the likes of Morris to formulate objective foundations for ontological hierarchizing have, by far, not stood up to criticism,(46) theologians have tried to circumvent the pertinent problems by another way. They envision God not merely as the point-like apex of the existential hierarchy, but as the matrix and basis of the entire stack of echelons. Hence, Tillich would maintain that " 'Personal God' does not mean that God is a person. It means that God is the ground of everything personal and that he carries within himself the ontological power of personality."(47)
Henry Bett expresses the same kind of "God-broadening" motivation
Any conception of God which makes Him one of a number of things that exist, a
mere item in the catalogue of universal beings, is manifestly untenable. The
stipulation that He is the greatest of all existence does not save the
situation. Our thought of God is wholly inadequate unless it makes Him at once
the source and the sum of all that really is, and therefore greater than all,
before all and beyond all.(48)
The paradigm is at least as old as Aquinas, whose apologetic argument from the degrees of reality concludes that "the maximum in any order is the cause of all the other realities of that order. Therefore there is a real cause of being and goodness and all perfection whatsoever in everything; and this we term God."(49)
Admittedly, this approach elevates God above the petty comparison of levels of X between lesser existents. Nevertheless, it does little beyond placing God on a new level of gradability which is perhaps explored more boldly by mystics than by philosophers. At this superordinate level, one ventures to ask questions like: is God as Neither-Being-Nor-Nonbeing greater than God as Being? Indeed, the distinction certain Western mystics like Meister Eckhart(50) and Richard Jefferies(51)
made between God and some "God above God"(52)
could have been an expression of intuitions arching beyond the boundaries set by
revelation and conventional theology. As shown above, there is really no end, no
Ultimate to anchor God to in the piling up of transcendence over
In view of the difficulties outlined above, it is clear that rational
investigation of Deity through the hierarchizing of levels of qualities, states
and acts cannot lead us to epistemic certainty. The dialectic of ontological
gradation is beyond salvage, a classical weapon in the theologian's arsenal that
has outworn its usefulness. Discarding it would, no doubt, be a considerable
loss to the endeavor of rationalistic objectivist theology - but a necessary
one. The void it leaves behind invites the objectivist, insofar as he
undertakesvia affirmativa, to explore new ground - to take innovative
and more effective approaches in his attempt to understand what Divinity is
1 Gordon D. Kaufman,The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 29.
3SeeThe Celestial Hierarchies, III, in the Editors of the Shrine of Wisdom (trans.),The Mystical Theology and the Celestial Hierarchies, 2nded. (Nr. Godalming, Surrey: 1965), 29-31.
4Paul Tillich,Systematic Theology, Vol. I (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 235.
5Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson,20thCentury Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age(Downers Grove, Illinois: 1992), 125.
6IVContra Gentes, II. See Thomas Gilby (trans.),St. Thomas Aquinas: Philosophical Texts (New York: Galaxy Books, 1960), 182.
9Proslogium, XVIII. See Sidney Norton Deane (trans.),St. Anselm: Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon,; and Cur Deus Homo (Chicago: Open Court, 1903), 23-5.
10See Alexander J. McKelway,The Freedom of God and Human Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1990), 25.
11Ibid., 24. Italics mine.
12Ibid., 19. Italics mine.
13Commentary,I Perihermenias, lect. 14. See Gilby (trans.),St. Thomas Aquinas, 84-5.
14George N. Schlesinger,New Perspectives on Old-time Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988),16.
15Summa Theologica, Ia. xiv. 1. See Gilby (trans.),St. Thomas Aquinas, 99-100.
16Summa Theologica, Ia. xiv. 7. See Gilby (trans.),St. Thomas Aquinas, 101.
17Thomas V. Morris, "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Anselm", inAnselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 12.
19Monologium, I. See Deane (trans.),St. Anselm, 39-40.
20Summa Theologica, I, q. 29, a. 3. See Gary Legenhausen, "Is God a Person?", inReligious Studies, Vol. 22, Sept./Dec. 1986, 311.
21Legenhausen, "Is God a Person?", ibid., 311.
22See Henry Bett,Johannes Scotus Erigena: A Study in Mediaeval Philosophy (London: Cambridge University Press, 1925), 94-5.
23Ibid., 127-8. See also 129-30.
24See Morris, "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Anselm", inAnselmian Explorations, 10-25, and Schlesinger, "Divine Attributes", inNew Perspectives, 4-41.
25Grenz and Olson,20thCentury Theology, 12. (Cf. also Bett,Erigena, 91-2.)
27By "transcendent" here, I am referring to first order transcendence. No "transcendence of transcendence" is implicated.
28Legenhausen, "Is God a Person?", inReligious Studies, Vol. 22, Sept./Dec. 1986, 311, 316-21.
29See Charles Hartshorne,Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 110, 120.
30Richard Creel,Divine Impassibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 129.
31See Randy Kloetzli,Buddhist Cosmology: From Single World System to Pure Land: Science and Theology in the Images of Motion and Light (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983), 12, 23-30.
32See Paul J. Griffiths, "Buddha and God: A Contrastive Study in Ideas about Maximal Greatness", inThe Journal of Religion, Vol. 69 no. 4, Oct. 1989, 502-29.
33Ulfat Asiz-us-Samad,Islam and Christianity (Safat, Kuwait: Sahaba Islamic Press, 1405 A.H./1985 A.D.), 38, cited from Robert L. Fastiggi, "The Incarnation: Muslim Objections and the Christian Response", inThe Thomist, Vol. 57 no. 3, July 1993, 470.
34See Robert L. Fastiggi, "The Incarnation: Muslim Objections and the Christian Response", ibid., 483.
35See Morris, "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Anselm", inAnselmian Explorations, 15-9.
36See Schlesinger,New Perspectives, 17.
37A memeplex is a group of memes (elements of culture that propagate from mind to mind via imitation in the broadest sense of the word) that replicates en masse. See Susan Blackmore,The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18-20, 42-3.
38Macquarrie's original statement is: "all those who tried to prove the existence of God already believed in Him, and must have had a more primordial source for their conviction than their own arguments." See John Macquarrie, "How is Theology Possible?", in Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman (eds.),New Theology No.1 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1964), 31.
39See Rudy Rucker,Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (Boston: Birkhäuser, 1982), 64-73.
40"Working Everything Out Evenly", in Martin Palmer,Elizabeth Breuilly, Chang Wai Ming and Jay Ramsay (trans.),The Book of Chuang Tzu ( London: Penguin Books, 1996), 15.
41See Thomas E. Wood,Năgărjunian Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-glass(Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 1-77, 91-117, 157-209.
42Periphyseon, I. 14, see Myra L. Uhlfelder (trans.),Periphyseon: On the Division of Nature (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1976), 23-8.
43"Three Versions of Judas", in Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (eds.), Jorge Luis Borges,Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970), 128-9.
44"Unitas Oppositorum: The Prose of Jorge Luis Borges", in Frank Rottensteiner (ed.), Stanislaw Lem,Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 235, footnotes.
45Ibid., 235, footnotes.
46See Paul J. Griffiths, "Buddha and God: A Contrastive Study in Ideas about Maximal Greatness", inThe Journal of Religion, Vol. 69 no. 4, Oct. 1989, 502-29.
47Tillich,Systematic Theology, Vol. I, 245.
49Summa Theologica, Ia. ii. 3. See Gilby (trans.),St. Thomas Aquinas, 58.
50The idea that Godhead is somewhat higher than God is expressed in Eckhart's "Sermon LVI":
Everything in the Godhead is one and of that there is nothing to be said. God
works, the Godhead does not work, there is nothing to do; in it is no
activity…God and Godhead are as different as active and inactive…When I go back
into the ground, into the depths, into the wellspring of the Godhead, no one
will ask me whence I came or whither I went. No one missed me: God passes
See F. C. Happold,Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), 242.
51Gradation is also evident in Jefferies' "The Story of My Heart",
I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher
Again, in Chap. III and IV:
- a great life - an entire civilization - lies just outside the pale of
common thought…such life is different from any yet imagined. A nexus of ideas
exists of which nothing is known - a vast system of ideas - a cosmos of thought.
There is an Entity, a Soul-Entity, as yet unrecognized…(I)t is in addition to
the existence of the soul; in addition to immortality; and beyond the idea of
the deity. I think there is something more than existence.
Ibid., 356, 360.
52A term borrowed from Tillich. See Paul Tillich,The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), 186-90.