Picturing the Connection: Knowing the Unknowable God

Before scrutinizing the distinction of God from the world it would seem best to consider their connection. Indeed, some would want us first to concern ourselves with establishing such a connection. And it is true that the vast majority of endeavors in philosophy of religion over the past few centuries in the west have been devoted to ways of confirming creation. That is, for the most part, what arguments purporting to exhibit God’s existence in­tend. Even those which pretend to proceed not from effect to cause but from interior analysis of the notion of divinity, will not only begin with beings as we find them, but must conclude to a being whose very being gives existence to all that is. As Kant showed how the more familiar “cosmolog­ical” arguments implicitly embodied the notion of God demanded by their “ontological” counterparts, so we might remind ourselves how these more recondite analyses pre­suppose as their conceptual background the notion of creator—or at least a One from which emanates all that is.

Yet for all these efforts, the connection turns out to be less something we can establish than it is something which imposes itself on us. And that fact will become more comprehensible the better we grasp the distinction. Kant’s capstone concern whether—even were one successful—the first principle obtained would be a divinity we could worship, suggests one import of the distinction. A more metaphysical way of putting it would be to ask how one establishes what one deems to be the floor upon which one operates, and this logical query animates proposals reflecting a spectrum of philosophical tempers: from God as a “basic belief” to what is presupposed to a specific way of life.

In any case, the “proofs” must invariably involve a reflex­ive moment, when one presumes to assess the way we consider whatever we consider, and this move cannot help but render them suspect as proofs. (Again understanding the distinction will clarify this moment.) As a result, many have taken refuge in a decision—or less coherently, a “fundamen­tal option”—yet “decisions” of such moment represent more a cumulative awareness than a discrete action, so Newman’s notion of “converging lines of probable reason­ing” comes more and more to the fore. And in such cases, it turns out that we seldom, if ever, reason to God’s exist­ence, but rather retrospectively retrace our tracks to satisfy ourselves of the cogency of the individual steps which cumulatively brought us to where we are.

This essay, at any rate, will presume such a perspective on foundational matters and it will display that presump­tion by showing how a gathering awareness of the import of “the distinction” renders that perspective increasingly plausible. In fact, we shall find ourselves wondering how we (or so many others) had so long been captured by another. There remains, however, what I shall dare to call a yet more fundamental issue, though it is less strictly a conceptual one. I shall call it “picturing the connection.”

1.1 Background and Imagination

A theme common to attempts to convey the secular ethos of our time, especially by contrast to that of “pre-modem” times, highlights the absence of an enveloping tapestry in which we can locate ourselves. It is precisely the shift from a cosmology accessible to imagination—and rendered fruitfully present, say, by Dante—to one which leaves the imagination with a vast emptiness. We may fill the void, of course, with science fiction, or let that en­deavor be fleshed out for us with archetypal themes—as in Tolkien—yet the fact remains that we are doing it. Some would trace this imaginative impasse to Galileo, and hence to the modes of conceptualization inherent to modern science and only accentuated by Einstein’s relativizing it all; others will find it focused in Freud, for whom a root­ less individual must come to terms with a senseless cosmos.

In any case, the “crisis in meaning” which secularity represents, embodies a crisis of imagination which only dawns upon most of us when the events of our time cumulate to challenge our capacity to imagine evil. Auschwitz epitomizes what has become our preoccupation: how can we retain what we deem most precious—human life with human relationships—when that very gift can be systematically eliminated by totalitarian regimes, or made administratively to disappear by their authoritarian counterparts? And are not such callous “procedures” but the political consequence of our metaphysical malaise: how sustain our conviction that this is what is most precious—human life with its attendant relationships—when its origins and our imaginative hold on its sense vanish into a swirling void?

Philosophers, and the philosopher in us all, will resist such vertiginous language, but does not our collective imagi­nation—or our collective incapacity to imagine—hold us all in thrall? Are we not carried to that point where we must acknowledge the centrality of imagination in such ultimate (or religious) matters? Yet what can all this pos­sibly have to do with that distinction of God from the world, which must certainly outreach our imaginations? Indeed, as we shall see, attempts to imagine the distinction invariably betray it. Furthermore, the effort to articulate this distinction, above all, has always been recognized to be a properly metaphysical task, especially by those skeptical of such endeavors, and Aquinas could not be more forceful in reminding us that entering upon metaphysics means entertaining discriminations quite beyond our capacity to imagine.

I shall answer that question indirectly, by sketching the background picture shared by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious thinkers up to the thirteenth century, in an effort to invoke its power as a picture. What first appears to us as a collective piece of science fiction can suddenly refocus as an entirely plausible picture. Yet picture it remains; those who received it as an account, we shall see, could find refuge in it from the rigors of “the distinction.” It is not replaceable, certainly, but we will better appreciate how its absence can actually help us in our effort to formulate the distinction the more we realize the role that picture played. Aquinas’ part in the drama becomes the more crucial as we realize how his grasp of the distinction unraveled the pattern of the grand tapestry, even though Dante would still picture the pilgrim’s journey culminating in that “love which moved the sun and moon and all the stars.”

1.2 An Imaginative Scheme

While logicians prefer to concentrate on “argument” as the primary means of advancing our understanding, struc­turalists have long been reminding us of the role which schemes or patterns play—often precisely in licensing or facilitating particular paths for inference to take. These are often less in evidence than are overt chains of reasoning; sometimes they are nothing more than the fashions of an age, which deem certain questions worth treating and others settled or irrelevant. More significantly, such pat­terns can represent the varying weight we give to different forms of argument, and so be illustrated by methodological reflections like Aristotle’s opening observations in the Ethics about the various meanings which “precise” or “rigor­ous” should assume as we undertake different sorts of inquiry. In this sense, we might consider the schemes I will be displaying as conveying what we value in inquiring.

What we may justly call “the classical scheme” grew out of that neo-platonic harmony of Aristotle with Plato legiti­mized by passing on Books I-II of the Enneads of Plotinus as the “Theology of Aristotle.” The result was an articulated emanation from the One of diverse levels of spiritual substances (more or less identified in the heavenly bodies) culminating in the Agent Intellect, whose role was to enlighten human beings regarding their place in the cosmos by illuminating them regarding all that lay above and below them. The levels of intelligences, moreover, offered a paradigm for those same human beings in their noblest practical endeavor: politics. So the scheme not only linked nature with spirit, the structure of the cosmos with a theory of knowledge, but provided a pattern for action as well by properly subordinating practical to speculative knowing.

Presented with such an elaboration, we are usually so puzzled as to ask: did they really believe this is how things are? What could they possibly have proffered as evidence? And curiously enough, they bring forth little by way of evidence; the Arabs in particular seem more concerned with elaborating the scheme than with establishing it, and it passed neatly from Alfarabi to Ibn-Sina with some minor alterations. They “took it on faith,” it seems, as embodying the teaching of “philosophy,” and as representing the connection between the first cause—primal being (or God)­—and all that we see or know. Moreover, the ten cosmic spheres represented that connection mediately, so facilitating the move from One to many, all the while preserving the axiom: from One only one can come.

Now the logical sleight of hand involved in reducing the scandal of many in the face of One by the simple ruse of adding intermediaries should alert us that something other than argument is going on here. In fact, as we shall see, it is less a matter of “how the world is” than it is how we should relate to what is. The cosmological components seem not to be important in themselves (as assertions of how things are) so much as in establishing a parallel between nature and knowing, so that the world, and especially our place in it, will be intelligible enough to lead us onto the proper return path to the One—by way of contributing to a virtu­ous city by actively imitating the pattern, or of consciously retracing the steps of emanation from the One so that we contemplate our origin as our goal. The scheme serves as an aid to self-consciousness by properly locating us in the overall scheme of things, and indicates how we should ful­fill that self (our nature) by active or contemplative paths—a judicious blend of Plato’s Republic with Aristotle’s Politics.

We are in the presence, then, of an intellectual scheme which purportedly speaks of the natures of things, designed rather to offer a background image of the connection between God and the world, and hence a pattern for our activity within that world and under that God. Such is the interpretation suggested by Joel Kraemer’s essay tracing the structural similarities among John of Damascene, Alfarabi, and Moses Maimonides in their elaboration of and the use to which they put a common scheme. Let Kraemer’s list of “what Alfarabi calls the things all the people of the virtuous city ought to know in common” (113) provide the scheme:

(1) The First Cause and all that by which It is charac­terized.

(2) The things separate from matter and how each one of them is characterized by attributes specific to it; and the hierarchy of things separate from matter leading ultimately to the Active Intellect, and the activity of each.

(3) The heavenly substances and how each is charac­terized.

(4) The natural bodies below them; how they come into being and pass away; that what transpires among them does so by precision, mastery, providence (’inaya: pronoia), justice, and wisdom; and that there is no neglect, deficiency or injustice within them in any way.

(5) The generation (or: existence) of man; how the faculties of the soul originate; how the Active Intel­lect causes an illumination to emanate upon them so that the primary intelligibles are attained; volition (irada: boulesis) and choice (ikhtiyar: proairesis).

(6) The First Ruler and how revelation comes about.

(7) The rulers who must succeed him if he does not exist at some time.

(8) The city and its people and the happiness their souls attain; and the cities opposed to it and what their souls revert to after death: some to misery and some to non-existence.

(9) The virtuous nation and those that oppose it (114).

These realities are divided by Alfarabi into theoretical­ (I) to (5)—and voluntary—(6) to (9). The theoretical com­ponents correspond with John of Damascene’s outline in De fide orthodoxa:

(1) Existence and nature of God: limitless and incom­prehensible

(2) Creation: threefold division-invisible, visible, human being

(3) Angels: intellects with custody over earth and vision of God

(4) Visible creatures: heavens and four elements

(5) Paradise

(6) Creation of man “according to God’s image”: intel­lect and free will

Damascene emphasizes creation whereas Alfarabi presumes a necessary emanation, while Damascene’s insistence that “God does not belong to the existent beings, not because He does not exist, but because He transcends all existent beings and being itself” (Kraemer, 112) is not to be found in Alfarabi. While he “stresses . . . the distinctiveness of the deity from other existents, Alfarabi is not placing God beyond being, but rather the First Cause, Primal Being (al­-mawjud al-awwal), the necessary existent and intellect in actu” (114–15).

While this particular difference between John of Damascene and Alfarabi will be of moment in a more de­tailed scrutiny of ways of formulating “the distinction,” it is noted here simply by way of contrast and not to suggest any direct lineage between the works. In fact, as scholars of the period note, there was a coincidence of interest and of form among Jews, Muslims, and Christians “who refuted philosophical opinions that destroyed the foundations of their law” (107). This observation of Maimonides (in the Guide 1.71) appears to follow Alfarabi’s views of the matter. Moreover, Kraemer maintains that there is a direct link between Alfarabi and Rabbi Moses, contending that “Maimonides conceived his role as that of Alfarabi’s philosopher-statesman . . . , whose function it was to posit correct opinions for the virtuous city, or religious commu­nity” (109). His aims, then, in the Foundations of the Torah will not be directly philosophical, but indirectly so, as in kalam literature, where the “techniques, patterns and themes . . . are aimed at the intellectual capacity of the members of a community who cannot be addressed . . . philosophically” (109).

Suffice it to note here that Kraemer has little difficulty in finding the major themes of the theoretical part of Alfarabi’s design in the Foundations of the Torah (126–32), and even more significantly, notes how Maimonides refers to this treatment of his, in the Guide (3.35), as containing “fundamental opinions” which the community needs to pursue its goal. Alfarabi’s “entire plan lays stress upon the hierarchy of existence, the great chain of Being suspended from the First, which should be represented for the people of the virtuous city by political symbols, i.e. the hierarchy of rulers and ruled; for the imitation of cos­ mic order is what induces political order and stability in the city” (135). Maimonides’ treatment parallels this, with. Closer attention to the gift which. Singles out his people: the Torah. Yet withal “contemplation of the hierarchy of the beings and God’s wisdom leads to love and fear of God and the desire to imitate his ways by righteous actions” (135).

Neither Alfarabi nor Maimonides had much use for Kalam when it had recourse to shoddy argument in defense of religion, yet neither felt such a task dispensable either (109). So it would not be implausible to find each engaged in a similar task when the needs of the community called for it. In that sense, one could propose the Guide to the Perplexed as a work of Kalam as well (108), through which “the apprehension of God, i.e. of his attributes that are His actions in the world, leads to political and ethical virtues” (141). This goal is stated explicitly in the final chapter of the Guide (3.54), showing once again how Maimonides’ aims coincide with Alfarabi's in The Virtuous City, where “God’s just and wise governance and ordering of the cosmos is the guiding and dominant theme” (141).

The cosmological scheme, then, so characteristic of the neoplatonic synthesis which characterized Arab philosophy, was shared by Jews and Christians in the same milieu. It offered a background within which to locate more detailed questions of observance regarding the Torah, and a way of attenuating the stark appearance of the revelation of the Qur’an, as well as offering a context for multiple decisions of shar’ia. One may presume that philosophers like Ibn­ Sina would themselves be more directly concerned with the truth of the scheme, especially as he will employ it to conjure a more purely intellectual union with God. Yet it seems reasonable to think of it functioning within the community as Kraemer suggests: forming the set of back­ground beliefs within which the real transactions between God and humankind take place. Such is clearly the case for Dante’s cosmology, which provides a cosmic setting for the journey whose moving forces are rather Virgil and Beatrice, as compassionate human understanding and the loving light of faith respectively, and whose terrain elaborates the human spirit far more than it imitates a cosmic order.

1.3 From Picturing the Connection to Articulating the Distinction

It is a neat question whether we really believe such back­ground schemata which form the context for our lives of faith, or whether indeed such shaping presumptions may not offer a paradigm for our real beliefs. Everything turns on the emphasis one gives to ‘really,’ and whether that must mean ‘explicitly,’ or whether one’s implicit yet basic presumptions do not often function even more effec­tively than our more explicit beliefs to shape our outlook on the world. Some prefer ‘convictions’ to ‘beliefs,’ as a way of discriminating among the ambiguities noted. I have chosen to speak rather of ‘picturing’ or of a ‘back­ground scheme’ to convey the role which the ‘great chain of being’ played in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought as well as in popular imagination. What pushed it farther into the background for Dante was undoubtedly Aquinas’ explicit refusal to accord the scheme any analytic role in relating God to creation, so preparing the way for Galileo’s dismantling it from our side. And Aquinas challenged the scheme precisely for obscuring the distinction—by pretend­ing that anything created could share in the act of creation.

The question had already been joined in Islam by al­ Ghazali, who had ridiculed the scheme as lacking any warrant. Yet his real target was the notion of emanation as such, which obscured the issues surrounding creation as a gracious act of God. For Maimonides, the intelligences become angels who have a share in governance (as in John of Damascene), but the scheme foundered for him when considering God’s knowledge of singulars (Guide 3.20). The creator whom he knew from the Torah was directly engaged with individuals; the One of the emanation scheme only indirectly so as they are “ordered and defined.” That phrase is a favorite of Gersonides, writing in the century after Aquinas, who located the source of Maimonides’ extreme agnosticism about divine attributes in this matter of God’s knowing individuals. Gersonides’ resolution, however, beholden as it was to a literal rendering of the scheme, failed to meet the issues involved; Maimonides had the better instinct.

For, as Aquinas perceives clearly, the motivation for the mediation scheme lay in the axiom: from One only one can come. But that rule only governs natural emanations (per necessitatem naturae), he insists, whereas “things pro­ceed from God by way of knowledge and intellect, thus allowing many to come forth immediately from a first principle of divine simplicity” (De pot. 3.4). God’s creation may (and does) include diverse orders of being, but not in such a way that one is created via another (ST The crucial reason why nothing created may share in the act of creation—because that action consists in “producing to be as such” (ST 1.45.5)—will be considered as we look for ways to formulate “the distinction.” What is at issue here is a clean discrimination of creation from emanation, of intentional activity from necessary bringing forth.

The scheme purported to serve an analytic purpose in showing how many emanated from One; should it survive after Aquinas’ surgery, it will remain but one feature of a contingent creation. And the point of that surgery was to sever the Creator from intermediaries which would compromise the gratuity and intentionality of the very activity which denominates God not as prime mover or first being, but creator. So it is conceptual clarification of some mo­ment that Aquinas is after.

The fact that the neoplatonic scheme allows one to con­ceive (and even to execute) a return to God—one thinks of Augustine’s descriptions in Books 7 and 9 of the Confes­sions—does not authorize us, Aquinas insists, to let it obscure the way in which God's creative activity presupposes nothing at all. For it is one thing for a created order to assist in guiding intentional creatures to their proper end, yet quite another to let that fact and concern cloud the distinction between God and God's creation (De pot. 3.4.1). One thinks of the efforts of philosophers of religion to “construct” a divinity they can reach—and asks whether Aquinas has not touched a critical nerve extending from Ibn-Sina to our time. There was something decidedly anthropomorphic in the way the emanation scheme so neatly replicated our ascent in knowing.

We have already noticed the ambiguity in Alfarabi’s denominations: first cause, primal being, necessary exis­tent. For what is first could be the first of many, and there are diverse ways of explicating “necessary existent.” To be sure, he insists on the singularity of this first: it is uncaused, without beginning or end, it is not possible that this being not exist (I). Indefinable because indivisible (IV), this being is distinguished from all other beings by that being by which it essentially exists: “it is one insofar as it pos­sesses the being proper to it” (V); and in giving existence to others, it does not acquire any perfection beyond its proper perfection” for that “being which emanates from it to others is its essence (dhat) (VII). It would be difficult to realize a more explicit statement of divine oneness, yet Alfarabi is known to us more for the scheme of emanations which he elaborated than for these assertions. Moreover, one will have to await Ibn-Sina’s explicit distinction of being (wujud) from essence (dhat) to appreciate how iden­tifying them in the first being sets it off from everything else. Without Ibn-Sina’s distinction, Alfarabi’s assertions risk being taken as hyperbole, still imbedded in the context of the emanation scheme.

This factor alerts us to an endemic tendency we have in attempting to distinguish God from the world. We cannot help, it seems, treating this distinction as though it were one in the universe—like every other distinction we make. And that tendency has two quite opposite effects. Taken in a Platonist (or Ash’arite) direction, it can result in denigrating the world we know, in favor of another (or a God) which truly is. Or quite inversely, it will find congenial a system which seeks to comprehend the whole—including God—and so evacuate the original intent. For if the distinction of God from the world is treated as one in the world, then either God will be exalted at the expense of God’s world, or God will be seen as part of a necessary whole—since in each case the attempt is to understand the entirety: God-plus-world.

The clean alternative is simply to assert God to be other than the world, holding on quite firmly to the reality of the world in which we live. This can be considered Maimonides’ position (as it is identified in our time with Karl Barth), but one always feels in such cases that one’s religious self holds one’s mind captive. For it takes but a little reflection to realize that God cannot be that neatly other if we are to use the name creator, or if divinity is to be in any way accessible to our discourse. If the first tendency fails in seeking global coherence, this tactic is internally incoherent for it undermines its founding assertion any time it uses the term “God.”

What is needed, then, to articulate the distinction be­tween God and the world in such a way as to respect the reality appropriate to each, is a distinction which makes its appearance, as it were, within the world as we know it, yet does not express a division within that world. Such a distinction would be of a logical type apt for articulating the relation of creator to creation: the connection which must display “the distinction.” The conceptual materials came to the west in the form of Ibn-Sina’s observation that existence (wujud) is not included in what we understand of things—their essence (or quiddity, mahiyya)—but can only be said to “happen to” them. In Aquinas’ hands this distinction will become the key to conceiving created beings in relation to their creator, as well as articulating what distinguishes the source of all that is from everything else which is, in short, “the distinction” we are in search of.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Michelangelo, Hand of God (and Adam), c. 1512; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


David Burrell

David B. Burrell, C.S.C. (1933 - 2023), was formerly the Theodore Hesburgh Professor in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was the author of many books on philosophical theology.

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