Is classical theism 'spiritually' equivalent to atheism?



Classical theists believe that God is simple, in the sense described by the doctrine of divine simplicity. God has no parts, has no distinct essences, God's essence is God's existence, God is pure actuality, lacks any unrealized potentiality, and is just pure subsistent existence. They also say that God is not a person, and so God lacks beliefs and intentions. (Edward Feser, a Catholic philosopher has a blog where he has written lots about classical theism, for example in this nice overview.) (Here, "person" doesn't mean "human being", it's more abstract: a person is just something with beliefs and intentions, or an intellect and a will.)

My difficulty with classical theism is that by removing personhood from God, I don't see how anything of spiritual or emotional significance follows from it. God is too abstract; believing in simple-God doesn't seem any different than believing in some other abstract metaphysical theory, and I wonder why it should even be called "God". Nothing of any real difference to how I live my life immediately follow from believing in pure act or subsistent existence.

One of my atheist friends put it nicely by saying something like this: "Let's say I take the cosmological arguments seriously, and so now I believe in pure act, subsistent existence, or some absolutely simple metaphysical entity that caused everything else. I would still continue to live my life as though I were an atheist. I wouldn't believe in an afterlife, objective moral values, life would still be (cosmically) meaningless, and so on. Why would pure act or subsistent existence care about us, take interest in our actions, give our life meaning or provision an afterlife, any more than any other entity (universals, fundamental particles, etc.) would? Such a God seems like just a thing."

To contrast classical theism, theistic personalism does seem to have the spiritual and emotional "punch" that I would expect God to have. God-as-a-person is capable of loving us, taking and interest in our life, giving our life meaning, giving us an afterlife, and so on. While simple-God is certainly capable of all these things, it doesn't seem like simple-God would have any reason to do any of them. In fact, simple-God, doesn't seem to have any reason for preferring a world with persons in it over a dead-world without persons.

But, many classical theists who accept divine simplicity and reject that God is a person are Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They do believe that God loves us, takes an interest in our life, is something we should worship, that there is an afterlife, etc. I don't understand how all these other beliefs follow (or even could follow, given that God is not a person).

How do classical theists overcome the objection that their God is too impersonal to be of any significance to humans?

Adam Sharpe

Posted 2020-01-09T17:57:19.390

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1How do you define 'person'? – Thom – 2020-01-09T18:31:38.760

@Thom For the purpose here, let's use Richard Swinburne's definition from The Existence of God: a person is something with beliefs, intentions, and powers (to act on their intentions). – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T18:46:37.830


But classical theists do not remove personhood from God, they rather inflate (or if you prefer, transcend) it, their God is a super-person rather than a non-person. There is no thing, and an act can not be an "abstraction", those are causally inert, there is super-love and super-care flowing from there instead. Aquinas does not derive his divinity from the cosmological argument, he simply assimilates the "necessary being" of the conclusion to God, see SEP

– Conifold – 2020-01-09T21:10:35.910

@Conifold I'm having trouble squaring what you say with other things I've read. For example, Geremia's answer below, and Feser's book Five Proofs give me the impression they try to prove deductively (not by inference to the best explanation) that God exists and has all the divine attributes we associate with him (in some analogical way, at least). And, it's the analogical sense that God has these properties that I'm having trouble with, since they seem so far removed from normal experience that an atheist can believe that the first cause 'analogically' loves us, while still being an atheist. – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T21:38:03.317

It isn't atheist's "analogical sense". That refers only to our limited capabilities (as informed by apophatic theology), but He has love, etc. in the "super" sense, or via eminentiae:"The perfections manifested by creatures are in God, not merely nominally (equivoce) but really and positively, since He is their source... They are really in Him in a supereminent manner (eminenter) which is wholly incommensurable with their mode of being in creatures. We can conceive and express these perfections only by an analogy..."

– Conifold – 2020-01-09T21:50:52.173

@Conifold I think that my issue is that I reject analogical predication as basically being vague. The same term may seem to be used analogically in different contexts, but only because the two uses are not fully defined in their respective contexts. Once we've fully fleshed out the ways in which two uses of the term are different, we're essentially left with two different terms that happen to have the same word. "A man loves his wife, analogically to how God loves the world" after analysis becomes "A man loves_1 his wife, and God loves_2 the world". My question becomes, why care about love_2? – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T23:12:24.317

In the light of apophatic (negative) theology, this approach is bound to fail with God, or indeed any subject that is "beyond our ken" (for the time being, or in this case, forever). You can compare it to what Wittgenstein in the Tractatus says "can be shown but not said". There is no point to analysis beyond a threshold, "analogical" within which kataphatic (positive) theology can proceed is meant to be evocative, not conclusive. One has to employ higher, "spiritual" faculties to approach the divine, His love and care are something that can be felt, not described, and that is the answer. – Conifold – 2020-01-09T23:40:12.050

It seems like there are some philosophers who are trying to change what "classical theism" refers to into deism, so that what used to be called classical theists now have to be called "theistic personalists". Or we could just stick to the old definitions. – curiousdannii – 2020-01-10T04:40:02.560

I think I know how to answer your question. You are really interested in how God resides in one's soul. I'll post answer later. – Thom – 2020-01-10T19:53:42.153

@Conifold - You speak much good sense, as usual, but you cannot assume this topic is 'beyond our ken forever'. This is not what the Classical teachings say. One has to explore experience to go beyond logic and contact the fundamental but logic is enough to prove this is the case. God would be unknowable but would be 'be-able' and knowable in this sense. It would be God who is reading this comment. . . , – None – 2020-01-11T11:44:44.120

Perhaps the best starting point for any discussion about god is the fairly simple recognition that god did not reveal itself to anyone but that we discovered/created the concept 'god'. Then recognizing the anthropomorphic properties attributed to this 'god' can be seen to be understandable and yet obviously unrealistic. Once that air is clear, we can begin to ask, in what does the recognition/understanding of a 'causa sui' (Cause of itself), consist? Once humans recognize that they did not cause their own existence, many alternatives present themselves. Take your pick. CMS – None – 2020-03-06T21:07:33.457

I would suggest reading Meister Eckhart and Plotinus. – None – 2020-03-08T11:00:48.353



God seems like just a thing.

God is beyond all beings. He is a being in an analogous sense.

a person is something with beliefs, intentions, and powers (to act on their intentions)

God can be shown to have knowledge, a will that is free, love (willing the good of others), and virtues, so God would seem to be a person according to your definition.

How do classical theists overcome the objection that their God is too impersonal to be of any significance to humans?

By showing that God loves (wills the good) of creatures.

St. Thomas Aquinas shows that God loves all things by the following syllogism (Summa Theologica I q. 20 a. 2 co.):

  1. all existing things, in so far as they exist, are good,
    since the existence of a thing is itself a good; and likewise, whatever perfection it possesses.

  2. God's will is the cause of all things.
    cf. q. 19 a. 4

  3. ∴, To every existing thing, then, God wills some good.

The very definition of loving something is "to will good to that thing"; thus, "God loves everything that exists" because He is the cause of everything's goodness, including humans'.

It also follows that the more good something has, the more God loves it (q. 20 a. 4). So God loves humans more than any other animals or inanimate creatures because humans have more being/goodness.

God loves everything because he wills their existence. But is that what we really mean by "love"?

It's not exactly the same as how we love. St. Thomas continues:

Yet not as we love. Because since our will is not the cause of the goodness of things, but is moved by it as by its object, our love, whereby we will good to anything, is not the cause of its goodness; but conversely its goodness, whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love, by which we will that it should preserve the good it has, and receive besides the good it has not, and to this end we direct our actions: whereas the love of God infuses and creates goodness.


Posted 2020-01-09T17:57:19.390

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1Thank you. Your answer seems to be the standard Thomistic one. The difficulty I have with the analogical sense in which God has love, knowledge, etc. is that they seem to stretch the meaning of the words way too far. For example, you say God loves everything because he wills their existence. But is that what we really mean by "love"? God has knowledge in the sense that all forms exist "in him" abstractly and eminently. Is that really knowledge? And so on. I'm strawmanning here a bit, but I hope you sense my concern. – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T21:03:51.537

@AdamSharpe "The difficulty I have with the analogical sense in which God has love, knowledge, etc. is that they seem to stretch the meaning of the words way too far." Analogical predication does have a sort of "stretching"; univocal does not, and equivocal is all "stretching". Do you not agree that analogical middle terms sufficient for a valid demonstration?

– Geremia – 2020-01-09T21:59:43.263

I think you may be on to something. I need time to digest this, but my instinct says "no, I don't agree that analogical middle terms are sufficient for a valid deduction". My thinking is, that If P1 and P2 are analogical, then at least some inferences will be valid with one that will not be valid with the other. If we can say which ones and why, we will have given a proper univocal definition to both P1 and P2, and this whole analogical business turns out to just be a matter of vagueness. – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T22:57:35.230

BTW I'll probably accept your answer in a bit (I like to leave my questions open for a few days, just to see what happens) since it is indeed the response that classical theists give. I'm not sure if I'm just thick and not getting it, or if it's that I disagree with it. – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T22:58:20.790

@AdamSharpe Cajetan's The Analogy of Names is the classic text on analogy. He precisely defines the 3 types of analogical predication and distinguishes them from univocal and equivocal predication. (source: this discussion)

– Geremia – 2020-01-09T23:42:14.813

1How is god not a thing if you used it in a sentence as a noun? – Cell – 2020-01-10T00:33:58.433

@Geremia I'll check it out, thank you. – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-10T02:08:11.710

@Cell God is not a being alongside all other beings but the source of all being. – Geremia – 2020-01-10T17:33:32.763

@Geremia Why did you @ me? Your comment did not answer my question on why you can use God as a noun in sentence, but claim it is not a thing contradictory to what a noun is. – Cell – 2020-01-10T17:46:43.893


@Cell I did not say "God is not a thing," but "He is a being in an analogous sense." When one says, e.g., "The apple is good." and "God is good.", "good" isn't used in exactly the same sense (univocally), but analogously; an apple is good because it produces health, but God is good because He is the source of all goodness. Similarly for "being" (cf. the "analogy of being"). See also the 4th Thomistic thesis and references listed here.

– Geremia – 2020-01-10T18:10:12.437


This is a good question. Here are two answers:

  • Platonic/Neoplatonic/Christian-Platonic: Human virtues are imperfect reductions of divine Virtues. For example, human love is a imperfect reduction of divine Love. We understand the divine Virtues through the analogy of the human version, but we understand them imperfectly, and we err when we attribute to them the same weaknesses as in the human versions. Thus, human love is complex, it is mixed in with lust and self-interest, and biology, and theorizing. But God's Love is simple in its perfection. God's Love does not judge, it gives gifts of sun and rain both to the just and to the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Or, to view it from another perspective, the Good, the True and the Beautiful are all one and the same thing --at least in God's realm. They are thus "simpler" than in our realm, where they rarely occur together.

  • Religious-Existentialist (Kierkegaard, Ecclesiastes, Tertullian, etc.): It doesn't make sense, and that's ok. Credo quia absurdum, meaning we believe because rather than in spite of the absurdities. Our human understanding is so limited, that if it made sense to us, it would necessarily be wrong.

As you might have noticed, as different as these two traditions are, they essentially are affirming the same idea --we are too limited to understand God, and the things that don't seem to make sense are an artifact of that. It is deeply difficult to make rational sense of a God who is both an abstract unity of all perfections and simultaneously deeply and personally interested in human affairs. But that's a feature, not a bug, at least from the viewpoint of those theists who hold both conceptions of God simultaneously. In Christianity, in fact, this is known as the "Great Mystery of Faith", which, at a minimum, indicates that this is a known challenge in doctrine, and not just something that happens to have been overlooked by the faithful.

Chris Sunami supports Monica

Posted 2020-01-09T17:57:19.390

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Thanks for the answer. Since "rediscovering" my belief in God, I suppose I've been doing your second option since I find both the arguments in favor of God's simplicity (some of the cosmological and ontological arguments) and the arguments in favor of personal-God (teleological arguments) both very good. Maybe personhood and simplicity are intimately connected in a way that is not understood. To your first option, I've heard things before such as God has love, intellect, will, etc. analogically. I didn't find this very satisfying but I can't remember why at the moment. – Adam Sharpe – 2020-01-09T19:37:58.293


The (neo) Platonic view is less that God's Love is "analogous" to human love, and more that it is the truer original that human love imperfectly imitates. The following ee cummings poem hints a bit at this kind of love:

– Chris Sunami supports Monica – 2020-01-10T04:18:00.827


Great question.

A comprehensive answer would be a long one but here's a few thoughts.

Classical Christianity is, or may be interpreted to be, consistent with the Perennial view of God, so for research into this issue you have a wide range of literature to examine. Christianity was incomprehensible to me until I had studied Buddhism. This led me to the Classical teachings and the doctrine Divine Simplicity - which are carefully not taught by the modern Church.

I find it difficult to imagine what it would mean to say God has a personality or is a person, and feel it is a mere anthropomorphism.

But, many classical theists who accept divine simplicity and reject that God is a person are Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They do believe that God loves us, takes an interest in our life, is something we should worship, that there is an afterlife, etc. I don't understand how all these other beliefs follow (or even could follow, given that God is not a person).

These question can be answered but not briefly or quickly. This is an area of study and it is not conquered easily.

Plotinus warns us that when reading the sayings of the sages it is a good idea to put the phrase 'It is as if' in front of their words. They are describing the indescribable, and any words are bound to be capable of misleading. As Lao Tsu notes, the eternal Tao cannot be spoken and for his view the ultimate truth would be beyond conceptual fabrication.

When a person says God loves us he may have some idea of an old man with a beard, but he may also be dumbing down the idea that God is love. Not a personality that loves, but love as a fundamental phenomenon. This is connected with the notion that Reality is a Unity or 'non-dual'.

For a 'non-dual' explanation of God some texts that come to mind are: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart; God: A Guide for the Perplexed by Keith Ward: A Course in Miracles by Helen Schucman/Jesus. The latter is the one most likely to address your questions in detail, but it's a monster and is post-grad level in respect of religion and psychology. For the relationship beteeen God and Love there are also the books of Paul Ferrini. I would also recommend Plotinus and the poet Rumi. Someone who speaks clearly on God is Sadhguru and his talks can be found on youtube.

How do classical theists overcome the objection that their God is too impersonal to be of any significance to humans?

Obviously they are convinced in their own mind, which suggest there is no problem with the idea. The point to remember that for the Classical Christian any concept of God is false since He cannot be conceptualised. 'God' would be the ultimate nature of Reality and as such immediately accessible to all of us, but language could never capture His nature.

I feel it would be best to remain agnostic on the the question you've asked and spending a year or two browsing the 'Wisdom' literature. Good luck. I wish I could have answered the question directly but it would take a long time and much work and the authors I've mentioned and others do it much better and with more authority.

In fact the Classical view makes God even more loving than the Romanised teachings. It is a doctrine not just of forgiveness but of sinlessness. There would be no such thing as sin and nobody would condemned to eternal damnation. Love would be a basic property of Reality and a path to its hidden secrets.

EDIT: Answer 2. If you are seriously interested in this question then here's an idea. Get hold of a copy of The Perfume of Silence by Francis Lucille (the teacher of Rupert Spira) and read it while keeping in mind that when he speaks of Consciousness in its fundamental state he is speaking of what a Classical theist would call 'God'. Creation and evolution would take place in consciousness, not prior to it, and 'God' would be nothing like the deity of naive theism. This would be why the later Roman church crushed the gnostic form of Christian teachings and practice, burnt the books and knocked down the churches. Fortunately we now have the Nag Hammadi Library and can study what the original followers of Jesus had to say.


Posted 2020-01-09T17:57:19.390



Classical theism doesn't negate theistic personalism in an allegorical, simile sense, it only negate it a literal. It indicates that the reality of God is beyond, transcends that.

God Loves us is true, and it's true in as meaningful of way as this possibly expresses, but it's not true in a literal sense. To Love fills some inadequacy in us, some need and longing in us, God has no such need or longing, so Love can't ultimately mean the same thing when it comes to God, and a person. Love is more an expression of who God is, than something God does. God is Love a more accurate representation, that God Loves us, as a more literal iteration.

Thomas Udamai

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The difference between 'classical' theism (as you've presented it) and atheism is that the first sees the universe as a consciousness while the second sees the universe as an object. One can do that with anything, really. Look at a tree and see a living entity, or a potential pile of lumber; look at a house and see a mechanical shelter, or a home imbued with feelings and memories; look at another person and see someone with a rich inner subjective life, or a mere physical body subject to biological urges and patterned responses. We all make that choice: idyllic or cynical, warm and connected or cool and detached, subjective or objective.

This is one of the reasons I think everyone should meditate. Past the first couple of jhānas one naturally experiences the world as a warm consciousness. Not a consciousness that is specifically interested in people, per se, but one that is universally kind and compassionate. Without that experience, people are stuck with abstract notions of a god or gods, which they either reject out of hand (atheism) or anthropomorphize as a person like themselves (non-philosophical theism). Philosophy and theology can help point us in the right direction, but philosophy and theology by themselves won't give us the experience, and it's the experience that's relevant.

Like you, I've heard people say things like:

Let's say I take the cosmological arguments seriously, and so now I believe in pure act, subsistent existence, or some absolutely simple metaphysical entity that caused everything else. I would still continue to live my life as though I were an atheist.

That's likely true if one accepts the cosmological arguments intellectually, as a matter of philosophy, but having the experience of a subjective universe changes outlook at a fundamental level. Your friend may still call himself an atheist, but not with the same conviction or level of importance. The urge to separate oneself from the universe will shift, and with that the urge to define oneself by labels like 'theist' and 'atheist' will dissipate. Check out some of Sam Harris' later work, and you'll see a bit of what I mean (I'm not endorsing Harris, just noting that he went from one of the Fab Four of the New Atheism to something much less definable).

At the simplest level, a god does not need to be a person; a god does not need to be an agent that does things or works for goals in the world. A god serves one purpose: to remind us that the universe is much bigger and kinder and more compassionate than we like to imagine. Our egoic selves have a grandiose self-image that is all out of proportion to our actual existence. That experience pulls us away from our egoic selves, so that the universe seems 'right' again.

Ted Wrigley

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