The first chapter of Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, ‘Excluding God’, is in many ways a restatement, albeit a more historically documented and richly textured one, of the arguments made by the nouvelle theologie and Radical Orthodoxy, that much of the confusion about God and creation in modernity can be traced back to the idea of the ‘univocity of being’ proposed first by Duns Scotus and radicalized by William of Occam. Univocity of being means that when we speak about the being of some creature and the being of God, we are talking about the same kind of property, despite the tremendous differences in scale and type of being. In the later philosophy of Occam, ‘insofar as God existed, “God” had to denote some thing, some discrete, real entity, an ens–however much that entity differs from everything else’ (p. 38). God’s agency in creation, although invisible, omnipotent, etc., is thus the same kind of agency as creaturely agency on a supremely vast, humanly incomprehensible scale. Thus, as the natural order came to look sufficient in itself in light of increasing scientific knowledge, God’s agency became a hypothesis that could be discarded as unnecessary. God’s agency came to be invoked as a kind of competing explanation (in other words, God became ‘God of the gaps’) for what happens in ‘nature’, and in the light of the explanatory success of the natural sciences, it was no longer a compelling or necessary explanation.
But there’s only one problem: the God who can be rationally domesticated through the invocation of univocity of being and then discarded as an obsolete hypothesis by shaving him off with Occam’s razor has virtually nothing in common with the God of the Christian tradition. Alasdair MacIntyre has quipped that ‘the God in whom the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came to disbelieve had been invented only in the seventeenth century’ (MacIntyre and Riceour, The Religious Significance of Atheism, p. 14), and this is nearly correct, as Gregory says: ‘Ironically, and in fact, despite undermining Aristotelian cosmology, science left untouched the biblical conception of God within a sacramental worldview–despite the widespread rejection of the latter, and despite the lack of recognition by early modern Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, about just how science and the traditional view were compatible’ (p. 53). Gregory goes on to make the startling claim that nothing conceptually has been added to the conversation about God and the natural order, despite increasing refinement of intellectual treatments of the natural order within the framework of metaphysical univocity in the past few centuries: ‘its intellectual bases remain what they were in the seventeenth century, and even more deeply, what they were in the late Middle Ages: a univocal conception of being and the use of Occam’s razor in the relationship between natural causality and alleged divine presence, whether in the United States, Britain, or Europe. Nothing conceptually original, including Darwinian evolution, has been added for many centuries’ (p. 64). Gregory’s point is not that there has not been conceptual advance, but that the advance has been entirely within the deeply rutted channel dug in the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. I think this account is substantially correct.
In Patristic Christianity, and more articulately and sophisticatedly in the high medieval systems of Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, God is not a being among beings, albeit the highest among beings in the created order, God is Being itself, who out of love creates all that is in a lesser sense ex nihilo, and upon which all created being depends. This does not necessarily mean, as the Fathers recognized, that God creates at a certain ‘moment’ in time. As a Augustine puts it in Confessions, when God created all that is, he created time with it. God’s eternity is of a different temporal order than created time and contains all moments contemporaneously within God himself, just as all created being is equally present to God himself. Precisely because God is not a being like the beings in the created order, God is immanently present within, without being identified with, the created order. Nothing simply ‘is’, but rather everything has being insofar as it depends upon God for its being. In other words, creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing and why that something is meaningful. Gregory writes that
The difference between Christian and other ancient views of God (or gods) is more fundamental than is often recognized, and goes far beyond a distinction between monotheism and polytheism. According to this Christian view, God is not a highest, noblest, or most powerful entity within the universe, ‘divine’ by virtue of being comparatively greatest. Rather, God is radically distinct from the universe as a whole, which he did not fashion by ordering anything already existent but rather created entirely ex nihilo. God’s creative action proceeded neither by necessity nor by chance but from his deliberate love, and as love (cf. 1 Jn. 4:8) God constantly sustains the world through his intimate, providential care. Although God is radically transcendent and altogether other than his creation, he is sovereignly present to and acts in and through it. There is no ‘outside’ to creation, spatially or temporally, nor is any part of creation independent of God or capable of existing independently of God. (pp. 29-30).
So far, Gregory’s book is providing a much needed, clearly written antidote to many of the current culture wars swirling around the incommensurability of science and religion. But is Gregory right about the provenance of metaphysical univocity? And is the Reformation to blame for the turn toward univocity? I’ll take a brief look at why Gregory places the onus on the Reformation in the next post.