I like to keep an eye on Thomists. In my estimation, Thomism affords the most intellectually rigorous system of thought for monotheists. That isn’t to say that Thomism is true or reasonable, only that I think if one insists on being monotheist, they ought to be a Thomist. Whether there is anything to that opinion or not however, Thomism fundamentally starts out on the wrong foot, and so takes as its first principle something which is not truly first. As a result, everything thereafter rests on a ground that offers no support, and so what may appear at first to be a magnificent cathedral of reason turns out in the end to be little more than a house of cards.
Today I’d like to illustrate this by taking a look at a contemporary Thomist thinker by the name of James E. Dolezal. Dolezal is a Reformed Christian (or, broadly, a Calvinist) who, from his God Without Parts to his Trinity, Simplicity and the Status of God’s Personal Relations, has done some impressive work within the parameters of Thomism. Recently, he published All That is In God, a book he wrote “to acquaint readers with some of the fundamental claims of classical Christian theism and to commend these claims as nothing less than the truth about God as He has disclosed Himself in creation and in Holy Scripture.” (xiii) I read this hoping to find in it the genuine interaction with polytheism that Edward Feser’s 5 Proofs of the Existence of God knew nothing of. After all, the book covers such things as YHWH’s simplicity (chapters 3 and 4) and unity (chapter 6)! But, no such luck.
In fact, when Dolezal does directly touch on the subject of whether there could be many Gods, he simply repeats standard Thomist thinking:
“In a multitude of beings of the same kind or class there is something more in the being of the individual than just the nature or essence by which it is defined. That is, something more than the nature or essence as such gives it distinction from all others in the class. That distinctive quality may be one’s particular matter or perhaps some other accidental features of its being. But in God, there can be nothing that He is that lies outside His nature – no determination of His being in addition to His essence.” (115)
As with Feser and every other Thomist I’ve read on this matter to date, Dolezal simply assumes without argument that part of what it is to be a plurality just is for several or more ‘whos’ to have some ‘what’ in common. No attempt is made to consider even the possibility that ‘whos’ could instead have other ‘whos’ in common, with a corresponding sense of ‘have’. 1 No attempt is made to consider even the possibility that in order for there to be many divinely simple individuals, there would have to be a plurality that did not involve complexity. In this respect, Thomist treatments of polytheism are unphilosophical and guilty of the straw-man fallacy.
On the other hand, given their typical rigor, one can but only marvel at the shortsightedness of the Thomist’s arguments on this subject. You see, the Thomist wants to convince the polytheist that there can only be one God. She does this by arguing that the divine nature cannot be instantiated by many because it is really just YHWH himself. But, if “the divine nature” were really just YHWH himself, then to tell a polytheist that many cannot instantiate “the divine nature” is just to say that many cannot instantiate YHWH himself, and what polytheist would disagree? Neither can many instantiate Poseidon, Odin or Ra. Divine simplicity turns “the divine nature” into a personal name, making it trivial at best and meaningless at worst to deny it of others. This manner of disagreeing with polytheism is not a means of disagreement at all, and is entirely unworthy of convincing polytheists to change their mind.
For many of my readers, I am perhaps beating a dead horse at this point. But, it may be of interest to you that Dolezal does voice other concerns which are not typical of Thomistic treatments of polytheism. For example, on page 14, Dolezal quotes Acts 17b-28, wherein he says “Paul is confronting the idolatry and ignorance of the Athenians.”
“Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: ‘God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And he has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope from Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us: for in Him we live and move have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’.”
As Dolezal implies, Paul is under the impression that for the Athenians, the Gods are somehow enriched or repaid by their actions, or at least that such enrichment or repayment is an indication of imperfection. But, Paul says, all things are from God, so what could we give that is not already his? My interest here is not historical: did Paul represent the Athenians fairly? Did the author of Acts report the event accurately? These types of questions are beside the point for us. What matters is, on the one hand, the idea that all things come from YHWH alone and, on the other, that Pagan Gods would be enriched or repaid by our actions, or at least that this would indicate imperfection. Let’s start with the first issue.
Dolezal will agree that due to divine simplicity, the distinction between a God and her creative act reflects a difference in our minds, but not a difference in reality. In reality, a God and her creative act are just the same thing considered from different perspectives: viz. a God as she is in herself, and a God as the world relates to her. As such, for Dolezal, there is no abstract one way to cause everything, there is only this one’s way of causing everything. But, it is incoherent to treat this one’s way of causing everything as if it were an abstract “one and only way to cause everything.” However, using the claim that “YHWH caused everything” to disagree with polytheists is to treat this one’s way of causing everything as if it were an abstract “one and only way to cause everything.” As such, Paul’s move is incoherent: the polytheist could just say “yes, YHWH created everything in his own way; as did all the other Gods in each their own way.”
The idea that Pagan Gods would be enriched or repaid by our actions because not all things belong to them as it is thus rests on a confusion. Moreover, if, as Dolezal (14-15) tells us, that “[m]an is not the agent by which these actualities are produced in God. Human actions are simply the occasions for the unfolding of God’s ad extra display of these unchanging and unacquired virtues”, then it is difficult to understand why enrichment and repayment cannot themselves be unchanging and unacquired virtues as they look when unfolded by human actions. Such a notion does seem to have been considered. As he says, (17) “No one is enriched in any way by what one already possesses. Such a notion of giving and receiving of that of which one is already in perfect possession is trivial at best and nonsensical at worst.” Why then engage in this trivial or nonsensical activity when it comes to the Gods?
*1. Individuation precedes differentiation because nothing can be differentiated from anything else unless there is something to be differentiated from in the first place. Inasmuch as being individual involves “having” anything, there must be a mode of “having” which precedes differentiation, such that for one to ‘have’ something is not, in and of itself, for one to have something which others do not. This is one way to understand the mode of ‘having’ which would apply in the case of a plurality in which ‘whos’ have other ‘whos’ in common: they would not be ‘had’ in common like a property, accident, form of being, or anything else which is only ever ‘had’ in a differentiative sense. They way in which they are ‘had’ is fascinating to ponder, but too far afield from this post. My point here is to encourage folks to chew on this, especially before declaring that there is only one kind of plurality and it only applies to complex individuals.