daliTo understand the concept of God in Modernity, I first turned to the high point of Christianity in both the East and West. According to patristic tradition, God can be known in two ways. Cataphatic, or rational, knowledge defines God by positive statements; apophatic knowledge is direct experience of God, although such knowledge cannot be expressed in words. God, however, is not known in his essence through either of these. Reason understands God as the creating and sustaining Cause of the world, while spiritual insight gives a direct experience of His mystical presence, which surpasses the rational knowledge of God as Cause and transcends all possibility of definition. These two kinds of knowledge are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive; rather, they complement each other. Apophatic knowledge of God, clearly, needs elaboration.

God is not identical with any of his named qualities given by rational knowledge; neither eternal nor infinite nor simple, God is beyond all categories of human thought. The essence of God cannot be named; thus, God is the Unnamable. In his book The Divine Names, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite[*] tabulates fifty-two names of God used in the Old and New Testaments.[1] A few are God of gods, Holy of holies, Cause of the ages, the still breeze, cloud, and rock. Pseudo-Dionysius insists that God is not Mind, Greatness, Power, or Truth in any way we can understand. God “cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can hold him. He is not one of the things that are and he is no thing among things.”[2] Pseudo-Dionysius says the path to God is though unknowing: “The more our words are confined to ideas we are capable of forming… we shall find ourselves not simply running out of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”[3] Such speechlessness opens the possibility that spiritual insight may directly experience the mystical presence of God.

Subsequent Church Fathers whole-heartedly embraced the insights of Pseudo-Dionysius. John of Damascus (c. 675—749), for instance, wrote, “God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself.”[4] St. Peter of Damascus (twelfth century) concurred: God “is always beyond goodness, righteous, all-wise, all-powerful, unconquerable, dispassionate, uncircumscribed, infinite, unsearchable, incomprehensible, unending, eternal, uncreated, invariable, unchanging, true, incomposite, invisible, untouchable, ungraspable, perfect, beyond being, inexpressible, inexplicable, full of mercy, full of compassion and sympathy, all-ruling, all-seeing.”[5]

St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662) pointed to the tension between cataphatic and apophatic knowledge of God: 1) “We do not know God from His essence. We know Him rather from the grandeur of His creation and from His providential care for all creatures. For through these, as though they were mirrors, we may obtain insight into His infinite goodness, wisdom, and power;”[6] and 2) “If you are about to enter the realm of theology, do not seek to descry God’s inmost nature, for neither human intellect nor that of any other being under God can experience that.”[7]

The crucial problem in the patristic tradition was how to combine two statements about God that appear contradictory: 1) We can know God; and 2) God is by nature unknowable.

St. Gregory Palamas (1296 – 1359) is credited with the resolution of this paradox; we know the energies of God, not His essence: “Not a single created being has or can have any communion with or proximity to the sublime nature [of God]. Thus, if anyone has drawn near to God he evidently approached Him by means of His energy.”[8] Here, Gregory distinguishes between God’s essence, or substance (ousia), and His activity (energeia) in the world. The energies of God are experienced as Divine Light, such as the light of Mount Tabor or the light that blinded St. Paul on the Road to Damascus. The Church Fathers, however, warned that for most devout Christians visions and heavenly voices do not come from God but from a fevered imagination and are a distraction in the spiritual quest.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the most rational of theologians, also reached the conclusion that God is beyond the comprehension of reason: “It is because human intelligence is not equal to the divine essence that this same divine essence surpasses our intelligence and is unknown to us: wherefore man reaches the highest point of his knowledge about God when he knows that he knows Him not, inasmuch as he knows that that which is God transcends whatsoever he conceives of Him.”[9] The terms good, wise, and just do not signify the essence of God “perfectly as it exists in itself, but as it is conceived by us.”[10]

In the patristic tradition, God is the ultimate mystery, the Unnamable. The Eastern Fathers vigorously fought the temptation to replace the experience of the unfathomable depths of God by philosophical concepts.

Unlike the patristic understanding of God where the substance of God is unknowable and such named attributes of God as good, wise, and just are defective and imperfect, René Descartes (1596-1650) introduced the modern concept of God, the highest being among beings, a larger and more powerful version of humans, knowable by rational arguments, and literally possessing the highest virtues of humankind. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes uses logic to demonstrate the existence of God. He first observes that he has ideas of the eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, and omnipotent; he then asks whence came these ideas, since he is none of these things. Because he cannot be the author of these ideas, they must come from a being outside of him who is eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, and omnipotent, that is, from God. Descartes concludes that he is not surprised that God in creating him placed the idea of God within him, like “a mark of the craftsman imprinted on his work.”[11]

This modern God resembles the gods of primitive religions; He is a super-human open to any criticism of heroic warriors, secular rulers, and ordinary mortals. Just as Socrates subjected the Olympian gods to a critique readily applied to human rulers, some modern atheists condemn God as a despot enslaving human beings with a moral code impossible for any mortal to live up to. Christopher Hitchens expresses these sentiments in his introduction to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever: God is the “utter negation of human freedom…. Who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance and could convict us of thought-crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died?”[12]

Descartes envisaged the cosmos as a clockwork mechanism and God as its designer and maker, a philosophical image embraced by deists of the Enlightenment. The supposed Divine Craftsman fashioned mindless matter into a cosmic machine run by elegant mathematical laws, although now He is outside the physical universe and does not interfere with its operation. In antiquity, such a god was the Demiurge, a god amongst gods, not the source of all existence.[13] In early Modernity, such a god was the center of Deism, a rational religion held by such Founding Fathers of America as Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).

Most Christians in the twenty-first century do not see God as the ultimate mystery and believe the words they use to express God’s attributes are literally true. Theologians “capture” God with their true doctrines; biblical students “contain” God within the Holy Book; churchgoers “understand” God, every Sunday, inside the one, true Church. Such Christians believe they live near God and know Him intimately, much like they live near and know their neighbors. No person, however, knows the hidden, interior life of another person, much less the essence of God. A danger inherent in modern Christianity is that the “understanding” of God becomes an empty idol, a false god, a mere human projection, a danger recognized by the patristic father Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335—c. 395): “Every thought and every denning conception which aims to encompass and grasp the divine nature is only forming an idol of God, without declaring Him as He truly is.”[14]

Today, organized religion is irrelevant to how most people live, especially the young in the United States and Western Europe. The prevailing political and economic order of democracy and capitalism has no place for religion. Democratic equality erodes the hierarchical authority of every institution, including the Church; capitalism focuses life on material prosperity, away from eternal salvation; science, the only intellectual authority, denies the history of humankind given in the Bible. With the cultural emphasis on the individual, the Christian virtues of humility, obedience, and self-sacrifice vanish in favor of self-achievement, getting ahead in the rat race, and making a name for oneself. Few Christians today see themselves as pilgrims journeying through this life to the next, shunning the attachment to worldly things and avoiding the snares set by the Devil.

Not surprisingly, the World Values Survey (2000) discovered that in twelve major European countries, thirty-eight percent of people say they never or practically never attend church. In some areas of France, Denmark, and the Netherlands church attendance is less than ten percent. The Swedish government reported that eighty-five percent of Swedes are church members, but only eleven percent of women and seven percent of men go to church regularly. By contrast, in the United States, only sixteen percent say they rarely go to church.

Long before the obvious decline of religion in the twenty-first century, the Nation-State had absorbed the allegiance of the masses and took over many of the former functions of the Church, such as education and establishing laws that govern marriage and divorce. With a stronger grip upon the souls of the citizens than any religion, the Nation-State made God the Ultimate Citizen. Shortly before World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II claimed God bestowed upon him the care of the German Nation-State: “I look upon the People and the Nation handed on to me as a responsibility conferred upon me by God, and I believe, as it is written in the Bible, that it is my duty to increase this heritage for which one day I shall be called upon to an account. Whoever tries to interfere with my task I shall crush.”[15] For Kaiser Wilhelm II and his people, God was a German.

Horatio Bottomley, financier and Member of the English Parliament, in a speech at the London Opera House, September 14, 1914, claimed that the Prince of Peace and Progress sided with the British Empire: “It may be—I do not know and I do not profess to understand—that this is the great Audit of the Universe, that the Supreme Being has ordered the nations of the earth to decide who is to lead in the van of human progress. If the British Empire resolves to fight the Battle cleanly, to look upon it as Something More than an ordinary war, we shall realize that it has not been in vain, and We, the British Empire, as the Chosen Leaders of the World, shall travel along the road of Human Destiny and Progress, at the end of which we shall see the patient figure of the Prince of Peace pointing to the Star of Bethlehem which leads us to God.”[16] For members of the British Empire, in 1914, God was an English gentleman and the upcoming global war would lead to the Christ.

In peacetime, priests, ministers, and rabbis are forbidden by democratic consensus to advocate moral restraints on free markets or to interfere with lawmaking, apart from such moral issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. In present-day America, churches and synagogues, except for providing soup kitchens and homeless shelters, have virtually no role in political or economic life. Any institution that has little or no influence on everyday living soon disappears, as the medieval guilds and the extended family did.

The modern world is founded on atheism, not the atheism of antiquity, such as that expounded by Lucretius (c. 99 BC—c. 55 BC), but—and at first this may sound strange—a Judeo-Christian atheism, which is not a contradiction in terms. Judeo-Christian atheism denies the existence of God, agrees with Lucretius that in matter “lies the sum of all created things,”[17] and yet borrows key elements from the Old and New Testaments.

Copernicus learned from Genesis that “the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all”[18] created the cosmos; consequently, the cosmos must be intelligible and beautiful. The second element that Copernicus drew out of Genesis is that since man and woman were made in the image of God, natural philosophers could discover “the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.”[19]

Four hundred and seventy-three years after the publication of Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, physicists and philosophers, now inhabiting a Godless universe, assume that nature is intelligible, but offer no explanation for this central tenet of science, nor do they explain why Homo sapiens can apprehend the hidden, highly abstract mathematical laws of nature.

Christianity demystified nature, banished the spirits, demons, gods, and goddesses of antiquity, and denied the sacredness of plants and animals. With nature no longer sacred, Francis Bacon could establish the goal of modern science, a restoration to the Garden of Eden, so that once again man would command nature. He envisaged a “great mass of inventions”[20] that would contribute to the “relief of man’s estate,”[21] a way to treat some diseases, bring about modest improvements of health, and perhaps increase physical comfort and pleasure—“in some degree [to] subdue and [to] overcome the necessities and miseries of humanity.”[22]

The Nation-State incorporated key components of Judaism. Modern nationalism, in contrast to patriotism, drew upon three elements from the Old Testament—the chosen people, the Covenant, and the Messianic expectancy.[23] Moses told the Children of Israel, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6). The chosen people were united to God, forever: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generation for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7). God would lead the chosen people to a Messianic Age, a future time without poverty, civil strife, and war. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

The founding of America was based on the Puritans’ belief that they were the new chosen people of God. In route to New England, in 1630, John Winthrop stood on the deck of the Arbella and delivered a sermon on the Puritans’ historic destiny: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”[24]

In his classic work, The New England Mind, Perry Miller emphasizes that the early towns of Massachusetts and Connecticut established by the Puritans “were not designed to become mere abodes of prosperity and contentment, to give men land and crops, peace and security. They were to demonstrate to England and Europe what yet remained to be achieved” to complete the Protestant Reformation.[25]

The Puritans knew their government had been brought into existence by a covenant of the people; furthermore, they believed the people created the one kind of government outlined by God. “New England political theory made the state almost a kind of second incarnation, a Messiah fathered by God and born of the people,” Miller writes.[26]

As religious inspiration waned in America, the belief remained that Americans are the chosen people with a special destiny in history. America was a new continent, a new beginning for humanity, a beacon to light the way for the rest of the world. John Adams, in 1765, expressed this national Messianism in his diary: “America was designed by Providence for the theater on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness, and glory were to exist in peace.”[27] George Washington in his First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789, proclaimed, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token providential agency.” Thomas Jefferson in his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, said, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Europe is Egypt; America, the promised land.

At first glance, the modern world drew nothing from the New Testament, from the Gospel of Love. Neither the Nation-State nor the free market resides on love or friendship. John Locke (1632-1704) supplied the philosophical foundation for both modern democracy and free-market capitalism in his book Second Treatise of Government, and James Madison (1751-1836) concurred in The Federalist Papers.[28] Both the philosopher and the future president of the United States held that in a state of nature, each individual, alone, without love or friendship, “full of fears and continual dangers,”[29] encounters hate and enmity. What forces individuals to form civil society is love of self and self-preservation. The free market, too, is based on self-love and the disregard of the good of others. Adam Smith (1723-1790), the founder of modern economic theory, makes clear that a participant in a free market looks after his own interest and knows that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that I expect my dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. I address myself, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of my own necessities but of their advantages.”[30][†]

The theoretical underpinnings of the Nation-State and capitalism reject the Gospel of Love. The modern world totally denies Christianity, in the sense that love is banished from public life and is confined to the private sphere of friends and family, unlike the ancient Greek understanding that the polis was held together by philia (friendship).[31]

Modernity did draw from the New Testament a buoyant optimism, the positive emotions accompanying the belief in the dawning of a new age heralding a bright future, where all the current ills of human life—poverty, illness, and strife—would be overcome. However, the course of history was understood not as the continuing dialogue between God and man, but as the progressive emancipation of the individual from the tyranny of hierarchical social structures that in the past oppressed the vast majority of men and women. In the future when freed from all oppressive regimes, each individual will be free to choose his own end, so that he will be obedient only to himself.

Judeo-Christian atheism, then, holds that only matter exists, that the cosmos is governed by intelligible laws, graspable by men and women, and that through the command of nature humankind will achieve its final historical destiny, Paradise on Earth. Such a view of human nature and history is a jumble of contradictions: men and women are free agents, yet slaves of matter; technological innovations produce happiness, yet Hiroshima, the Gulag, and the Holocaust would have been impossible without science and engineering; all gods are illusions, yet humans worship the Nation-State; men and women are driven by self-interest, yet citizens are called upon to sacrifice their lives and well-being for the good of the New God; the possession of material goods make a person happy, yet with abundant riches, Americans are lonely and discontent; each person is King of the Castle, the sole judge of what is true, good, and beautiful, yet an insignificant speck in the cosmos.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[*] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite is the anonymous theologian of the late 5th to early 6th century whose works were erroneously ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34.

[†] What Smith calls self-love economists now call self-interest.

[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 596A.

[2] Ibid., 872A.

[3] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 1033B

[4] John of Damascus, quoted by Timothy Ware The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 63.

[5] Peter of Damascus, Twenty-Four Discourses in The Philokalia, vol. III, ed. and trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 255.

[6] Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love in The Philokalia, vol. II, ed. and trans. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 64.

[7] Ibid., p. 69.

[8] Gregory Palamas, Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Tests in The Philokalia, vol. IV, ed. and trans. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p. 382.

[9] Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei, Q. VII: Article V, respondeo.

[10] Ibid.

[11] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes Volume II, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 35.

[12] Christopher Hitchens, “Introduction,” The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. xxii.

[13] See Plato, Timaeus, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[14] Anthony Meredith, “On the Life of Moses” in Gregory of Nyssa: The Early Church Fathers (New York: Routledge, 1999), 2.165. A

[15] Kaiser Wilhelm II, quoted in Voices from the Great War, ed. Peter Vansittart (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984), p. 4.

[16] Horatio Bottomley, ibid., pp. 40-41. Capitals in the original.

[17] Lucretius, De Rerum Nature, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 34.

[18] Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, trans. R. Catesby Taliaferro in Great Books of the Western World, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1939), vol. 16, p. 508.

[19] Ibid., p. 506.

[20] Francis Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960 [1620]), p. 103.

[21] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, ed. William Aldis Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963 [1605]), p. 45.

[22] Bacon, The New Organon and Related Writings, p. 23.

[23] See Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1965).

[24] John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, ed. Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 199. Our text is in modern English.

[25] Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939), pp. 470-471

[26] Miller, The New England Mind, p. 419.

[27] John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), vol. I, p. 282.

[28] James Madison, “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments,” Federalist No. 51.

[29] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson (New York: Hafner, 1980 [1690]), p. 66.

[30] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776), Bk. I, Ch. II.

[31] See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII, Ch. 1.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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