Chapter 5 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Edwardsian Idealism, Imago Dei, and Contemporary Theology” by Joshua Farris. This is an interesting article that directly and constructively addresses one of the central theological issues raised by metaphysical idealism of the Berkeley/Edwards variety. However, I was left with some confusion about what the paper’s overall lesson was meant to be.
Farris frames the central question here as how, given Edwards’ idealism, he can understand the imago dei doctrine in a way that does not devalue the body. Edwards is said to be drawing on but ‘reconceiving’ the prior tradition of Reformed theological anthropology. This prior tradition is said to rely on substance dualism. However, at one point substance dualism is defined as “the belief that humans are soul-body units” and ‘hylomorphic dualism’ is said to be another name for this same view (85). In the present context, the difference between substance dualism, which holds that the human soul and body are separate substances somehow connected to one another, and hylomorphic dualism, which denies that the soul and body are separate substances and holds instead that a complete substance is made only by their union, is quite important. Substance dualism has often been criticized for making the body a kind of optional appendage to the human person: we would still be what we are if we were disembodied. The hylomorphic view, on the other hand, takes the union of soul and body as primary. Accordingly, even if (as on the view Farris attributes to the prior Reformed tradition) the imago dei is primarily a matter of the possession of certain mental attributes, nevertheless what possesses these attributes is a substance whose nature is to be embodied. The embodiment is not accidental, nor is it bad. The hylomorphic view provides a better explanation than the substance dualist view of the sense in which the human person may be the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth. For this reason, it matters whether Edwards is compared with substance dualism or hylomorphic dualism. Farris calls the view he is comparing Edwards against ‘substance dualism’, but recognizes no distinction between this and hylomorphic dualism.
In any event, on Farris’s interpretation of Edwards, everything is just divine ideas, and the distinctive feature of human beings which makes them the image of God is that they have ideas that represent God. This provides a straightforward sense of ‘image’—humans are in fact representations of or about God. Similarly, it provides a straightforward sense in which humans can be said to reflect God’s glory. It also provides a straightforward sense in which we can talk about the image of God being defaced but not destroyed by the Fall, and ultimately restored in the eschaton.
But I see two problems here. First, I’m again worried that this is just Spinoza. Farris recognizes this problem in note 52 (p. 103), where he writes, “One might still argue that Edwards’ unusual brand of idealism-constant creation-panentheism collapses into Spinoza’s pantheism, but the manner in which Edwards defines the substances would not reduce to pantheism because created minds retain individual properties distinguishing them from the Creator-God.” But this does not distinguish Edwards from Spinoza, for Spinoza holds that modes of God may possess modes of their own, at least in some sense. After all, even though the ball is round and the ball is a mode of God, it’s not really correct to say God is round. So Farris is getting Spinoza wrong here. Now, one could simply respond, on Edwards’ behalf, that a Christian can actually take on board large parts of Spinoza’s metaphysics of the relationship of God to finite beings, and the differences with Spinoza will be found elsewhere (perhaps in the affirmation of divine freedom in creation and divine goodness in a moral sense). It would be interesting to see that case made, but it is not made here.
The second problem is that this seems to attribute hardly any importance to the body. Despite setting this issue up as one of his key concerns, in the end all Farris says about it is that those who charge Edwardsian idealism with denigrating the body have not made a case for why this should be so (97-98). But this is a strange thing for Farris to say, since he has just given an account of the imago dei that says so little about the body, or how the mind/soul is joined to it. Perhaps the problem is supposed to be solved by giving some role to the physical in communicating the image of God to human beings, or helping us to gain deeper union with God (as suggested on p. 93), but this is not spelled out.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
The first paper in Idealism and Christian Theology is James Spiegel’s “The Theological Orthodoxy of Berkeley’s Immaterialism.” This piece was originally published in Faith and Philosophy in 1996, though I must confess that I had not read it before today. I found the essay rather odd, partly because I have some confusion about the nature of its project. Contrary to my expectations, it does not really address any of the questions I outlined in my last post. On the whole, I think the essay makes problematic unexamined assumptions about Berkeley’s religion, and it relies on a controversial characterization of Berkeley’s analysis of body with which I disagree, but it emphasizes the role of divine language in a way I find helpful and also makes some interesting and original points about this topic. I will address each of these in turn.
Berkeley and Orthodoxy
Spiegel does not really address the question of what Berkeley might have meant by ‘orthodoxy’. At one point (endnote 26) Spiegel defines ‘theological orthodoxy’ as adherence to the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, but this clearly isn’t really what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ since these creeds play no further role in his examination of Berkeley’s ‘orthodoxy’. Rather, as is quite clear beginning at the first page of the article, what Spiegel means by ‘orthodoxy’ is consistency with the Bible. The creeds do not come into it at all. Having defended Berkeley’s orthodoxy (in this sense), Spiegel goes on to say that Berkeley’s ultimate conclusions “would undoubtedly please a theologically conservative Anglican so sensitive to heresy” (27). The trouble is, Spiegel’s characterization of Berkeley as a theologically conservative Anglican is (in the historical context) inconsistent with Spiegel’s assumptions about what ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ mean for Berkeley. A defining feature of conservative (‘high church’) Anglicanism in Berkeley’s time was adherence to tradition, in both faith and practice. For a conservative Anglican, ‘heresy’ would be departure from the creeds and the tradition. A conservative Anglican would not just interpret Scripture however he or she pleased, in the ‘just the text’ fashion Spiegel employs. If Berkeley really was a theologically conservative Anglican, then he ought to be far more worried about how immaterialism can be rendered consistent with, for instance, the Chalcedonian Definition, but neither Berkeley nor Spiegel addresses this. This is an inauspicious start to a book purporting to deal with issues in Christian theology: Spiegel characterizes Berkeley as a conservative Anglican, but (implicitly) ascribes to him a Baptist conception of orthodoxy.
Having been a little hard on Spiegel in the preceding paragraph, let me make two more conciliatory points on this subject. First, Spiegel’s question of the consistency of Berkeley’s philosophy with Scripture is certainly an intrinsically interesting question and one that mattered a lot to Berkeley. Second, Spiegel primary mistake here is his characterization of Berkeley as a theological conservative, which occurs in a passing remark on the last page of the paper. In fact, the approach Spiegel employs in the article is not as far off the mark as it would be if Berkeley were a theological conservative. Let me expand on this last point.
It seems pretty clear to me that Berkeley is a latitudinarian Anglican and a religious populist. The term ‘latitudinarian’ is one that was in use in Berkeley’s lifetime and it is a description I believe Berkeley would be happy to accept (though I know of no text in which he applies the term to himself). Latitudinarians supported the status of the Anglican church as ‘established’ (i.e., state-supported), though most of them (including Berkeley) also supported toleration for dissenting Christians. They thought that the established church was important for social unity and the promotion of individual virtue, as well as (of course) for the spiritual salvation of their fellow citizens. Latitudinarians believed that the best way for the church to accomplish this was to keep doctrinal requirements to a minimum—that is, to allow broad latitude in individual belief. But not unlimited latitude. The established church was still to be a specifically Christian church, holding to the Bible and to Christian distinctives like the Trinity and the Incarnation. This perspective is in evidence, in particular, throughout Berkeley’s Alciphron.
Berkeley’s latitudinarianism is closely connected with his religious populism, that is, his view that “the Christian religion is … an institution fitted to ordinary minds, rather than to the nicer talents … of speculative men … [so that] our notions about faith … [must be] taken from the commerce of the world, and practice of mankind, rather than from the peculiar systems of refiners” (Alicphron, sect. 7.13). If the main justification for the established church is the moral and spiritual health of the nation, then the religion taught by the established church had better be a religion that benefits the ordinary people of the nation, and not only ‘speculative men’.
Now, to Spiegel’s credit, he quotes in full, on p. 13, Berkeley’s notebook entry 405: “All things in Scripture wch side with the Vulgar against the Learned side with me also. I side in all things with the Mob.” This entry makes clear what Berkeley is doing in the discussions of Scripture in the Three Dialogues Spiegel addresses later: he’s resisting the importation of metaphysical subtleties into the text of Scripture. Scripture, Philonous insists, never talks about material substrata (which Berkeley rejects). Instead, it talks about “the sun, moon, and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals” (Luce and Jessop, p. 250). Berkeley believes in all of these things. So Berkeley’s view is that if we set aside “the peculiar systems of refiners”—i.e., traditional systems of metaphysics and philosophical theology, such as that of Thomas Aquinas—and read Scripture as speaking in plain language to plain people, then we will see that it is not only consistent with but actually deeply harmonious with immaterialism. But actual conservative Anglicans in the 18th century, such as Peter Browne, would hardly call this ‘theological orthodoxy’.
So in the end my complaint here is that Spiegel has characterized Berkeley’s theological orientation in a way that is deeply flawed relative to Berkeley’s historical context. Berkeley would certainly count as theologically conservative relative to the Anglican churches of England, Ireland, and North America today, but in his own time he was not a conservative. If he had been a conservative, the entire approach Spiegel takes in his essay would be deeply flawed. However, because Spiegel is wrong about this particular point, much of the rest of what he says is actually correct. In general, though, the essay would have benefitted from a more careful characterization of Berkeley’s view of theology and Scripture. This would also have helped at the end of the essay, where I think Spiegel underplays the extent to which Berkeley takes his philosophy to be useful for the promotion of virtue, and not merely cold intellectual assent to Christian doctrine.
Bodies and Divine Ideas
I’ll be brief here. In his discussion of Berkeley’s treatment of creation, Spiegel interprets Berkeley as identifying bodies with divine ideas. Following Dancy, he takes these ideas to be of two kinds, private archetypes and public ectypes. The ectypal ideas are immediately perceived by us. While Spiegel is not the only one who interprets Berkeley this way, I am far from convinced that Berkeley holds that the ideas we perceive are numerically identical to ideas perceived by God. Further, I am not convinced that this reading of the divine archetypes avoids collapsing into a form of representative realism (how can I know that the idea I experience corresponds to the archetype?). I develop a very different interpretation of Berkeley on bodies in my book. Of course nothing one could have said on this point would have been uncontroversial, but this controversial interpretation plays a large role in this paper.
The strongest point of the article is its emphasis on divine language, and the extent to which Berkeley takes literally, or almost literally, the large number of Biblical passages that talk about God speaking things into existence. For on Berkeley’s view the perceived world just is God’s speech. I think Spiegel is correct that Berkeley sees this as a key point where his views are more consonant with Scripture than materialist views. Further, Spiegel suggests that Berkeley might regard our capacity for language as very important in the interpretation of the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God. This is an interesting and original point that’s well worth consideration.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
I have been asked to review Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton’s Idealism and Christian Theology for Faith and Philosophy. In accord with a previous practice I have found useful, I will be blogging through the book, one post per chapter, in preparation to write the review. This post will be not so much a discussion of the book’s introduction as my own way of framing and approaching the issues in the book.
The fundamental paradox of theological anthropology in the Abrahamic tradition is the understanding of the human being as the breath of God dwelling in the dust of the earth (see Genesis 2:7). The philosophical/theological task is to unpack or spell out this evocative metaphor. It is widely believed in the broader culture (and perhaps also to a large extent among Christian analytic philosophers) that the Christian view (or, often, more generally the ‘religious’ view) of the human person is substance dualism: the breath of God is to be understood as an immaterial soul, and the dust of the earth as a physical body. The human person is an embodied soul. Yet, historically, this has not (at least in its straightforward Platonic/Cartesian version) been the dominant view in Christian philosophy and theology, and has often been regarded with suspicion by Christian philosophers and theologians. The reason for this is that the substance dualist has difficulty explaining how the human being can be a genuine unity of body and soul (or, indeed, how body and soul could be in any sense united). The breath of God must be taken to dwell in the dust of the earth; we must hold, as Descartes said, “that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship” (Sixth Meditation). The human being, the tradition has held, is a unity of mind and body. The true self is not to be identified with the mind or soul rather than the body, but with the unity of both. The human being is formed from the dust of the earth. Contrary to Plato, I am not an immaterial soul trapped in a body. I am fundamental a corporeal being.*
This has broader theological consequences. For the Abrahamic tradition generally, it has been connected with the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The majority of this tradition holds that disembodied existence is possible but bad for human beings, and that we exist in a disembodied state after death only temporarily: in the end, we will again be embodied beings. There are also specifically Christian concerns following from our understanding of embodiment: the Incarnation of Christ and the doctrine of the Eucharist.**
Now, metaphysical idealism—particularly the Berkeleian sort—has often been thought of as a doctrine friendly to religion. After all, its chief proponent went on to become a bishop, and he himself sold the doctrine in large part as an aid to religion, since it supports the existence of God and the natural immortality of the human soul. All of this can be seen as an affirmation of the human person as the breath of God, an affirmation that was crucial for defenders of traditional religion at a time when Descartes’s ‘beast machine’ was gradually developing into La Mettrie’s ‘man machine’. Yet there is reason to fear that Berkeley, like many other modern Christians, in his zeal to defend the status of the human person as the breath of God has fallen into heresy by denying that the human person is also the dust of the earth.
This particular heresy, the denial of the fundamentally bodily nature of the human person, is usually considered a form of Gnosticism, and in fact Berkeley’s last (and strangest) major philosophical work, Siris (1744) explicitly connects his philosophy to the tradition of Christian Neoplatonism (and especially Ralph Cudworth). Though this tradition has some exponents whose orthodoxy is unquestionable (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine),*** it has also often veered into Gnosticism.
So there is reason for suspicion about the theological orthodoxy of Berkeleian idealism. But Berkeley himself is of course not unaware of these issues, and he insists at length, especially in Three Dialogues, that his view preserves the reality of bodies and, indeed, does so better than materialist competitors. Just as the theological orthodoxy of Descartes’s dualism depends on the success of his (virtually non-existent) account of the union of mind and body, the theological orthodoxy of Berkeley’s idealism depends on the success of his defense of the reality of body. Further, the resulting view needs to be able to accommodate the specific religious doctrines mentioned above.
We now come, finally, to the present book. This is the first of two volumes in Bloomsbury’s Idealism and Christianity series edited by James Spiegel. The second volume, Idealism and Christian Philosophy, ed. Steven Cowan and James Spiegel, is already out. Volume 1 contains two previously published essays and nine new essays addressing theological questions arising from Berkeley’s idealism and the similar idealism of Jonathan Edwards. Judging from the introduction and table of contents, it appears that every one of the issues I have outlined above will be addressed. Over the next month or two, I will record my thoughts on each of the essays in the volume, so stay tuned!
* Since one of the main aims of Descartes’s Meditations is to make mechanical philosophy (science) acceptable to the Catholic Church, he repeatedly affirms this. I am not denying that a substance dualist can affirm this, but only observing that philosophers and theologians have sometimes been suspicious of the dualist’s ability to do so. In Descartes’s particular case, for reasons noted by Elisabeth of Bohemia, no account has been given (or, I think, can be give) of how the soul is united to the body.
** Even for traditions that reject the Real Presence (e.g., Zwinglian or Calvinist interpretations) there remains the question of why such a bodily act as eating should be an appropriate form of worship.
*** The orthodoxy of a creative and original philosopher or theologian is never unquestionable in his/her own lifetime; it becomes unquestionable only when later generations come to regard that thinker as to some extent definitive of orthodoxy, as is the case with both Gregory (one of the architects of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity) and Augustine.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)
Part of the beauty of natural systems is their wildness. We intuitively value things that are un-spoiled, pure, natural, wild and free. A field of sunflowers would seem less beautiful if we found out that the sunflowers were plastic replicas. The beauty of Old Faithful would be much diminished if the National Parks Service had to install pumps to keep the geyser operating regularly. And fishermen would find their “appreciation for catching cutthroat trout in an isolated and rugged mountain valley reduced by reports that the Department of Fish and Game stocked the stream the previous week.” There is great value, then, in letting natural systems remain free of the external influence of persons. Tampering in the natural order strongly detracts from the aesthetic value that wildness brings to the the Earth.
If we look at the world in its entire history, it seems as if God values wildness very much even though wildness comes at an enormous cost to individual creatures. The graceful tiger leaping for its prey with unsheathed claws is an awe inspiring sight but it led William Blake to wonder, “what immortal hand or eye dare frame [the tiger’s] fearful symmetry?” Although the untamed wild is stunning–beauty often flourishes on the same tangled vine where the grotesques and horrors bloom. We now know that the existence of wild animals, parasites, viruses and bacteria were not the result of the Fall, but are part of God’s original design plan. It is perhaps because of the great good of wildness that God chose to let the first creation evolve under natural laws without much, if any, divine intervention. An all-powerful being could have intervened in our evolutionary history to keep parasites and predators from evolving, to redirect hurricanes and still tsunamis and to rescue lambs from lions, but He does not. Presumably one reason God chooses not to intervene in the natural world is because such interventions would detract from the wildness of natural systems and would thereby destroy their inherent beauty and value. Such interventions would come at the cost of the wildness.
If God valued wildness the first time around, perhaps He will include a space for the untamed in the New Creation. Wild nature is beautiful but, at least in our world, it comes with its costs. It be disappointing if the New Earth is one large cultivated garden; I would hope that there are spaces that are untouched by persons where animals run free. But I also hope that much of the natural evil that causes so much suffering in our world will not be present in the new creation. There are hints in the Bible that the New Creation will not be ‘red in tooth and claw.’ (I’m sure that the rabbits living in the Eschaton would prefer not to be torn apart by hounds.) Perhaps we can have it both ways in the New Creation—maybe we can have the natural beauty of the untamed wild without the predation, disease, decay and death. But perhaps we can’t have it both ways. If it were possible to have wildness without suffering in the first creation, wouldn’t God have done it that way? Perhaps untamed wilderness is a good that can only be had in the first creation and in the eschaton untamed wildness will be replaced by another kind of good.
 Ned Hettinger and Bill Throop, “Refocusing Ecocentrism: De-emphasizing Stability and Defending Wildness,” 140.
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 148.
A few years ago, I had a student with Cerebral Palsy. He was one of those students that I connected with outside of the regular classroom. One day while we were talking about theological matters at our favorite local coffee shop, he told me that he’d be “really pissed off” if he didn’t have CP in heaven. The reason he gave for this claim was that his disability is part of his identity.
I confess that his claim struck me as odd at the time. Like many individuals, I had the thought “but why wouldn’t you want to not be disabled if that’s possible?” But over the past year and a half as I’ve begun immersing myself in various disability literatures, I’ve come to learn that my student’s thought is common among many people who have disabilities. Some members of the Deaf community think that they’ll be deaf and speak in sign language in the eschaton, just as others expect to speak in their own linguistic communities. (Just as I would like to be able to speak and understand Farsi in heaven, should I get there, I hope that I’ll be able to communicate in ASL.) And theologian Amos Young, in his well-known Theology and Down Syndrome, argues that his brother will still have Trisomy 21 in the eschaton.
Why might it be important to take seriously this line of thought? I think because of the substantial history of harms that have been done against those with disabilities, both in general but also more specifically by denying their voice when they speak of their own experiences. In her wonderful The Minority Body, Elizabeth Barnes talks about the tendency to downplay such testimony from those with disabilities as a kind of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice. According to Miranda Fricker, testimonial injustice “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to dive a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word”(Epistemic Injustice, p. 1). (As an illustration of some of the difficulties facing individuals with disabilities and the denial of their voice, I highly recommend people read Harriet McBride Johnson’s “Unspeakable Conversations.”).
Now, I don’t think that the need to take such testimony seriously means that it’s always veridical. (Neither does Barnes.) But it should make us pause and think before speaking. In what follows, I especially encourage those with disabilities to weigh in. And I encourage those of us that don’t have disabilities to take their reports seriously.
So what of the question, “will people have their disabilities in the eschaton?” Obviously, on one sense of the term ‘identity’, if a disability is part of a person’s identity then they will. Here I’m thinking of specifically numeric identity. But I also think that there are compelling reasons to think that not all disabilities are part of a person’s identity in this sense. (I’m inclined toward the view that there’s not a single thing that is disability, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I think that not all disabilities are similar in the relevant respect.) Disabilities that are acquired later in life—e.g., dementia or disabilities which result from a traumatic brain injury (TBI)—aren’t essential to a person’s numeric identity. If a person exists prior to having a disability, then it is possible for that person to exist without that disability. And if Christianity is true, it’s also possible for those born with a disability to no longer have it. The blind are given sight; the lame walk.
But this doesn’t mean that all disabilities are like that. It may be that chromosomal abnormalities (e.g., Trisomies 18 and 21, 2p15-16.1 Microdeletion Syndrome) as well as other kinds of disabilities are not separable from one’s numeric identity in this sense. I confess I don’t know what to think about these kinds of cases. But I think we have some (though certainly defeasible) reasons for thinking that these disabilities will be present in the eschaton because they are tied to a person’s numeric identity.
There’s another—a weaker—sense of identity where I think it makes sense to say that disabilities are part of a person’s identity, and that’s the “self-understanding and narrative” sense of the term. This is, I think, what many people mean when they say that being disabled is part of their identity. It is, for instance, what I think is present in the following passage from Simi Linton:
While retaining the word disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the literature in disability studies is that disability is best understood as a marker of identity. As such, it has been used to build a coalition of people with significant impairments, people with behavioral or anatomical characteristics marked as deviant, and people who have or are suspected of having targets of discrimination…. When disability is redefined as a social/political category, people with a variety of conditions are identified as people with disabilities or disabled people, a group bound by common social and political experience. (Claiming Disability, 12)
A similar approach to one’s identity as disabled can also be found in Harilyn Rousso’s Don’t Call Me Inspirational. For many people with disabilities, their disability has so shaped their self-understanding that they cannot understand what it would be like for them not to have those disabilities (even if it is metaphysically possible for them to exist without those disabilities).
There are other aspects of one’s identity, so construed, that might also be understood in a similar way. Being a parent isn’t part of my numeric identity (since I was still me prior to being a parent), but it is a significant part of my own self-understanding and who I’ve become. And this is also true more specifically of being a parent of a disabled child. Even if I am no longer a parent at some point in the future (that thought is horrific to me!) or still a parent but not of a child with disabilities, the ways that those experiences have shaped my life are, I think, marks that I shall always bear in the future. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to know what these marks will be like prior to having them. Such marks are, in Laurie Paul’s term, transformative experiences.
Answers to the question depend on lots of philosophical questions (e.g., What is the nature of disability? What is the correct account of human nature? What kinds of goods and diversity will be realized in the heavenly kingdom? What experiences are compatible with the beatific vision?). It is my hope that in the future there will be more interaction between philosophy of religion and disability studies.
 I’d like to Michelle Panchuck, Scott Williams, and Hilary Yancey for discussions on these issues.
An Argument for the View that God has a Sense of Humor
Does God have a sense of humor? Here is one argument to think that he does. Let us start with the following uncontroversial premise:
(1) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for human beings.
This does not seem to need much by way of defense: surely, ceteris paribus, we prefer someone with a sense of humor over someone without a sense of humor. In fact, when asked what we deem most important in relationships with other persons, the attribute of humor is usually in the top five. The second premise is as follows:
(2) For any property P, if P is a good-making property for entity X and P is intrinsically good, then for any entity Y that can have P, P will be a good-making property for Y.
Let me point out two important features of this premise. First, it says that if something is a good-making property for X, then it is a good-making property for Y if Y can have that property. The following example illustrates the relevance of this restriction. It is good for a building to be hurricane-resistant. However, since God is an immaterial being, it would be ridiculous to think that God is hurricane-resistant. God does not even have all good-making properties that humans have. Being a fast swimmer is a good-making property, but, of course, God is not a fast swimmer—nor is he a slow or an average one; he is simply not a swimmer at all, given that he does not have a body. That some property P (say, being hurricane-resistant or being a good swimmer) is a good property for one thing X (say, a building or a human being) does not mean that it is also a good-making property for some other thing Y (say, God). Only if Y can have that property is it good-making for Y.
A second important feature of (2) is that it is restricted to properties that are intrinsically good. It is a matter of philosophical debate precisely how we are to spell out what it is for goodness to be intrinsic rather than instrumental, but it seems the following will do for our purposes: something is intrinsically good if it is good in itself or for its own sake rather than as a means to something else. It is good that the water in my cup is fluid, but merely because I want to drink it. It is, therefore, merely instrumentally good. However, the beauty of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride or the courage of a fireman who attempts to save someone’s life by risking his own life are intrinsically good, because they are good in themselves and for their own sake.
The third premise is:
(3) Having a sense of humor is a property that is intrinsically good.
To have a sense of humor seems to be a property that is intrinsically rather than (merely) instrumentally good. To have a sense of humor is good in itself or for its own sake, not merely because it is a means to something else. Among the things that are usually considered to be intrinsically good are happiness, beatitude, contentment, and pleasures and satisfactions of certain kinds. To be amused seems to be one of the pleasures and satisfactions that are intrinsically good, for it seems that if someone is amused at something and there is nothing morally wrong about that, then that is a good thing in itself: it need not serve any further purpose in order to be good.
From (1) through (3) it follows that:
(4) If God can have a sense of humor, then having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise is:
(5) God can have a sense of humor.
I return to this premise below. (4) and (5) together allow us to infer that:
(6) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise says that:
(7) If having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God, he has that property.
And from (6) and (7) we conclude that:
(8) God has the property of having a sense of humor.
Let me now defend the two premises not yet discussed. The reason to embrace (7) is that God is perfect in all regards. This is not to say that God will have any good-making property that he could have. It is, presumably, a good-making property of God that he has actualized the actual world. Assuming that God was free in actualizing this possible world, he could have actualized another possible world, and if he had done so, he would have exemplified the good-making property of having actualized that possible world. But God cannot actualize this possible world and another possible world. Hence, God will not have all good-making properties that he could have. With the property of having a sense of humor, things are different, though. There seems no property or set of properties that God contingently exemplifies, such as having actualized this possible world or having raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that rules out his having a sense of humor.
This leaves us with (5), which says that God can have a sense of humor. Is this true? Well, I see no reason to think that it conflicts with God’s omniscience. And I cannot think of a good reason to think that it would be ruled about by God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, or any other properties that are traditionally ascribed to God as essential properties that he has. There seems to be nothing in the nature of being amused or having the disposition to be amused that is ruled out by God’s nature. Thus, for all we know, God can have a sense of humor.
It follows from the argument that God has a sense of humor.
Robert Adams famously argued that an unsurpassable being need not actualize the best possible world. Adams urges that he does not believe that there is a best world, but assumes there’s one for the sake of argument.
I think it is fairly plausible to suppose that God could have created a world that would have the following characteristics: (1) None of the individual creatures in it would exist in the best of all possible worlds. (2) None of the creatures in it has a life which is so miserable on the whole that it would be better for that creature if it had never existed. (3) Every individual creature in the world is at least as happy on the whole as it would have been in any other possible world in which it could have existed. (‘Must God Create the Best’, PR, 1972)
Links added 4 August:
Information about this case isn’t easy to come by, but here are a couple of old stories that provide some account of the events:
-From Aug. 19, 2011 in the Banner, the “official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church” (the denomination with which Calvin College is associated) there is “Calvin College Religion Profs in the News; One Alleges College Is Being Dishonest”
-From the Aug. 2011 Spark, Calvin’s own alumni magazine, there is “Calvin professors in center of origins conversation”
“A Tale of Two Professors” is a recently produced documentary, half of which is on the interesting case of John Schneider, who was a tenured professor in the Religion Department at Calvin College, until he was forced into early retirement over his work concerning how to understand the doctrine of the Fall in light of scientific results suggesting there were no historic first humans, Adam and Eve, who began their lives in an unfallen world, free of evil and death. (I would not recommend the documentary’s telling of the other story they cover, but, unfortunately, the tales are woven together so that you kinda have to take them both in.)
Schneider’s story was also told a couple of years ago by Michael Ruse in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an opinion piece whose title reveals how Ruse saw the whole affair: “The Shame of Calvin College”. And in a blog post at New APPS, Jon Cogburn helpfully quotes the question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism that seems most relevant to the case. (Faculty at Calvin sign a “form of subscription” endorsing that Catechism, along with a couple of other historic Reformed confessions; the form itself is here. Batman’s response is here.)
The documentary brings in Jamie Smith of the Calvin philosophy department to give the college’s side of the issue. Smith explains:
We want to cultivate a theological imagination that doesn’t assume that it’s either/or. As if, “Oh, this new data has come in. We’d better abandon everything we’ve thought for fifteen hundred years.” So, we want to ask hard questions, but we want to do that faithfully.” (8:42 – 8:59)
I want to be careful in responding to that. The context in which it’s presented in the documentary suggests that it is aimed at Schneider, as an explanation/justification for why his treatment was appropriate. But I can’t be sure that the documentary is presenting this fairly. For all I really know, Jamie could have been just explaining how in principle the college might be justified in restricting someone, or, indeed, he could have been just explaining how he thought these questions should be pursued, with no reference at all to the issue of whether the college should take any actions against anyone who didn’t pursue the questions in that way. In that case, my complaint is against the documentary, and not against Jamie.
But since it is suggested – whether by Jamie himself or by the editing of the documentary – that this is directed at Schneider, it really ought to be said that we’re not talking here about “new data” that has just come in. The results that drive Schneider’s questions are quite old. It’s stuff we’ve known for a long time. And I take myself to be seeing things much as Ruse does in saying that it’s stuff that many parts of the Church have been embarrassingly slow to respond to in anything close to a satisfying way. And as for the “abandon everything we’ve thought for fifteen hundred years” bit, well, that’s obviously blowing things up a bit (or more than a bit), since of course nobody’s talking about all that, either. Perhaps that’s just some harmless rhetoric (since it is so obviously blown up), but one might wonder about the use of such pumping of one’s opponent’s position in the context of discussing the ouster of someone from his job. (Though again, I’m not certain whether my complaint here is against Jamie or against those who put this documentary together.)
Incidentally, Jamie is part of a group that has a grant from the BioLogos Foundation for a project entitled “Beyond Galileo – to Chalcedon: Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall”, so, presumably, we will soon be able to see a concrete example of how to ask the hard questions here faithfully. Making sense of evolution while remaining faithful to the honest-to-God truth of “all the articles and points of doctrine” of the Reformed confessions would seem to me quite a challenge!