God: Existence, Identity and Predicates

Submitted by frlarry on Mon, 09/24/2007 - 17:00

Trinitarian Theology is, perhaps, the one area that is, as it is officially expressed today, transparently relational. God's revelation to Moses, for example, is characteristically relational.

God's Identity and Existence

"But," said Moses to God, "when I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?" God replied, "I am who am." Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you." [Exodus 3:13-14; NAB translation]1

It is possible to glean from this more than one relational predicate of God, bearing in mind that pure logic is not fully capable of expressing existence, per se.

  • God exists. In precise relational terms, we can characterize existence as the property of bearing non-trivial predicates. (Although actual existence must entail more than this, the proposed characterization at least anchors it in non-vacuous relationships.) If predicate "p" is true of God, then {x | p(x)} is a non-empty set containing God. It is possible to predicate some non-trivial things of God and to assert the negation of others. To give an example of this, the set of all x such that x is almighty, omniscient and all good is a non-empty (indeed, singleton) set.
  • God's independent existence is a defining property of God. By "independent existence" we mean that there does not exist an x such that God's existence is dependent on the existence of x. (Indeed, for all x, it's the other way around.)
  • God is the only being with this property. That is, for all x, if x is not God, there exists a y such that x's existence is dependent on the existence of y.

Each of these predicates is relational in some sense. The first predicate asserts a relationship between God and reality, the set of all things that exist. The second predicate negates a relationship between God and each other member of reality. The third predicate asserts a relationship of uniqueness.

It's crucial to note, here, that the opening lines of John's Gospel reflect a deep recognition of the necessity of this level of relational specificity…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.2 [RSV]

It seems to me that each of these predicates, or something very like them, is implied in God's revelation to Moses, and, indeed, his revelation may contain much more (such as eternal, unchanging existence), all in four pictographic terms.

Note: one translation given in the CCC on the Vatican web site is "I AM WHO I AM." [See ¶ 205.] It seems to me this translation presents a vacuous meaning, as distinguished from "I AM WHO AM." "I am who I am." is true of everybody, and, as such, is not a particularly interesting statement, even when every word is written in capital letters. Furthermore, it is not fully consistent with God's next statement, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you." I've heard of other possible translations, such as "I AM THAT I AM." This translation, unfortunately, fails to capture the uniqueness property. It seems to me this is probably nothing more than an inaccuracy in the English. The rest of the CCC on this makes it clear that God is "HE WHO IS," as opposed to the more vacuous "HE WHO IS WHO HE IS."

God's Predicates

God's predicates have a special quality. It is insufficient, for example, to say that God is superlatively powerful, merciful, loving, etc. Tradition attaches the qualifier "all" to these predicates. What does "all" mean, however. It seems to me that it can mean two things in ordinary conversation. To say that someone is "all thumbs," for example, suggests that their manual dexterity is "challenged" because their thumbs dominate so much they get in the way. There is a suggestion in this direction even when we way someone is "all heart," and this is decidedly what we mean when we say someone is "all brawn and no brains." In that sense, we wouldn't accuse God of being "all" anything. Rather, when we say God is "all powerful" or "all loving" we mean that God is so superlatively these things that nothing greater can be conceived.

We also say, using the same word "all," that God is "the source from whom all being flows." This claim also applies to God's predicates. God is the source from whom all power, love, knowledge, understanding, goodness, truth, beauty, mercy, justice, etc. flows, and not just at this moment, but existentially, for all time and all place.

These predicates can, in some sense, be subsumed in the predicate "good." God is "The Good." Indeed, the predicates belong together (and, indeed, are inseparable) precisely because they fill out the meaning of "good" in God.

Jesus alluded to these two senses of "all" when he said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega." To say that God is the source of all goodness is to say he is the Alpha. In the same way, to say that he is the greatest good that can be conceived, either now or ever, is to suggest he is the Omega of goodness. This relationship parallels the relationship between Eros and Agape love studied so admirably in Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical "God is Love." Agape love is love that "issues forth," while Eros love is love that "draws toward."

The "human" predicates

¶ 210 and 211 of the CCC introduce God's mercy and graciousness. To say that God is merciful and gracious presumes that God exists in a relationship of power to others. This is implied by the fact that all beings stand in a relationship of existential dependence on God. God graciously wills all beings to exist. Thus, this existential dependence says something about God's will and our relationship to it. Furthermore, the graciousness of God's will is already expressed, in some measure, by the claim that existence itself is something positive that God freely chooses to give. His gracious will, however, extends to a relationship of nurturing. God nurtures our spirits, and lifts us up out of the darkness of our narrow concupiscence and self-absorption.

Together with his mercy, God's graciousness places him in a more deeply personal relationship with us. He is not simply an abstract target to aspire to, or an abstract judge of our moral limitations. This perspective on our relationship to God gives us a "warm fuzzy" the way nothing else can. God is not simply "God" or the "I AM." He is "Abba!" These predicates of God, more than any others, help us to believe the reality that we are His "children" made in His image and likeness.

Thus, the predicate "Father" or "Abba" cannot be over-estimated in its importance to us. It is a subsuming predicate, comparable in some ways to "Good," but it is a deeply personal predicate, and thus a highly complex and subtle one. Like the other predicates, however, it is both a "source" and a "sink." God's "Fatherhood" is both the source and the model of all other fatherhood.

  • 1. In his marvelous treatment of this passage, Dennis Prager (a noted Hebrew scholar who has already published two volumes - Genesis and Exodus - of what he has called The Rational Bible) comments "Hebrew does not have a word for the present tense of the verb 'to be.'" The original Hebrew is transliterated "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh." Prager identifies 4 possible repetitive translations (leaving out a fifth, "I AM THAT I AM", found in the King James version, as well as others that fail to reproduce the repetitive form of the original Hebrew, such as one finds in the RSV or the Douay-Rheims). He goes on to note "God's response is not only for Moses. It is also for us who are reading this thousands of years later. It is important to remember the Torah has the almost impossible task of being relevant to slaves living in the Bronze Age, to people in our time, and to our descendants. That it has succeeded in doing so is another reason I regard the Torah as not man-made." Indeed, it was this very thing that had a huge impact on my journey back to the Church after my conversion experience in 1987.
  • 2. We already find a deep appreciation for this relational specificity in the writings of several Doctors of the Church. Consult the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas for important examples.

Final musing...

If I ever do wind up in hell, I suspect my punishment will be to teach math to politicians and journalists. Then again, it might be, instead, locating and fixing all of the grammatical and spelling errors in everything I've ever written. (Myth of Sisyphus, anyone?)
Fr. Larry