What is Perfect Being Theology? - J.L. Schellenberg

J.L. Schellenberg - Philosophy of Religion

J.L. Schellenberg

J.L. Schellenberg is a Canadian philosopher known both for his atheism and for his defense of a broader skepticism compatible with atheism -- a form of skepticism which, as it happens, opens a path to a new evolutionary brand of religion.

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J.L.
Schellenberg

Philosopher of Religion, Mount Saint Vincent Univ.

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

John, I'm told that, if I am to believe in God, which I'd like to do, I have to believe in a perfect being, and then I'd get immersed in a – in – in a storm of perfect being attributes, all powerful, all knowledgeable, all good, all free. Uh, how do I begin to think about perfect being theology?

J.L. Schellenberg:

Well, I think it's a basic intuition that you find, um, at least in our culture, and that we have to deal with, um, because most of us share it that if there is a divine reality then it is ultimate. And that is very easy to connect to the idea of perfection, that it must be perfect in some way in which we are not. Um, but I would distinguish between, uh, two levels of which you can think about this. Perfect being theology, as the name suggests, uh, has been developed to try to explicate, to try to understand the traditional theistic idea of a – of a personal God, and that's why you mentioned the omni- attributes: omnipotence, right, all power ... this is something that a person would – would hope to possess, perhaps. And God does, so it is said. Uh, omniscience, all knowledge, only person knows things, uh, and so on. So, perfect being, uh, perfect God, uh, perfect personal God, has to have these attributes. But what if the ultimate isn't a person at all? What if the ultimate, uh, is something else all together? One of the – one of the sources of perfect being theology is, um, the work of Anselm, the, um, the great, uh, philosophical theologian who said of God, that God is that than which none greater can be thought. And in that way, he was just articulating that intuition I mentioned before, that God is – whatever God is, God has to be that than which none greater can be thought. Now, Anselm himself was inclined to go further and say, God has to be the person then, which none greater can be thought, or maybe even the Trinitarian person, than which none greater can be thought, because Anselm was a Christian. But the basic intuition he gives us, that than which none greater can be thought, doesn't refer to a person: it's "that." The reality, whatever it is, than which none greater can be thought. And I don't think we have got there yet, uh, in our attempts to conceptualize the divine, the ultimate. So, perfect being, um. If you – if you think that the divine has to be a person, then sure, you're led in the direction of those omni- attributes, but you might set loose from them if you think that the divine doesn't need to be a person.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Let's look at the two terms: ultimism, which you use, the ultimate reality, and perfection. It would seem that you have to have some sort of an ultimate, it – it – however limited or however broad. But that doesn't have to be perfect, as someone we would define.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Well, the word perfect –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It has to be ultimate.

J.L. Schellenberg:

The word perfect tends to reflect our – our own, perhaps, limited standards of value, and that's I think why some people, even some theologians have been inclined to say, oh, we shouldn't think of God as perfect; that reflects too much of us. But if you instead go with, uh, Anselm's basic idea, one way of putting it as – as a different way than his, is to say that God has to be – or the divine has to be unsurpassably great; is that any better than perfect? Unsurpassably great, um, maybe that, or unlimitedly great, or as I say when talking about –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Those are all different, slightly different nuances, between unlimitedly great or – or unsurpassably great. You can be unsurpassably great, nothing can be more than you, but not be unlimited.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Um, well, I think that the unsurpassably great has to be unlimited, because we can, uh, mentally, at least, surpass anything that is limited.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, if – if you allow it from a conceptual basis as opposed to a reality basis, because we – there are two issues here, whether we want to think of it just conceptually, what we can imagine, or what really exists. Because what really exists really does exist, and it existed before we – there were ever human beings to imagine that.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Sure, sure. Well, we started this conversation by talking about a concept, an idea, um, the idea of – of God, uh, and God as – as perfect. Um, I'd be inclined to say that, um, thinking of God, even in the broadest sense as perfect, might reflect our limitations. But if we – if we use some of these other words to try to elicit what we're really after, we might get something that we want to stay with. Um –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What would you use –

J.L. Schellenberg:

Axiological ultimacy, how's that?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Define what that means.

J.L. Schellenberg:

That's a mouthful. Um, embodying the greatest possible value, and of course the word "embodying" has to be taken as a – you know, non-literally.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

A representative – representative. Expressing.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Expressing, uh, containing in itself.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

The greatest possible.

J.L. Schellenberg:

The greatest possible value. Um, you see the religious impulse, the fundamental religious impulse in, for example, synagogues and mosques and churches when people worship God, all right? Wouldn't make sense to worship God if God were surpassably great, or if God weren't axiologically ultimate, ultimate in value, all right? And so, we need to think about, what reality would be like, if it included, uh, a reality that was not just metaphysically ultimate in the way that science itself might say something is, but also axiologically ultimate. And it may be that we want to let go of the word perfect, because it's got too many human-centered connotations to it. But I don't think we're going to be able to let go of the – of some related concept, of the sort I've mentioned.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, at the end of the day, how do you describe your ultimate divine reality, which is not a personal, theistic God?

J.L. Schellenberg:

Well, I think there're three – three kinds of ultimacy. I mean, this kind of talk, talk about ultimacy, is often derided as being, you know, vague and contentless. And I do think that if you just say, well, there's some ultimate, that doesn't say a whole lot. But if you flesh it out a bit, as I would suggest, uh, you get more content. You can say that it is ultimate in three different ways, metaphysically, as was mentioned earlier, that means it provides the deepest explanation, it is perhaps, we could say the deepest fact, the ultimate fact. Um, but also axiologically, as we were saying, so not only metaphysically ultimate, but also axiologically –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Which means values.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Value, that's right. It embodies, as I was saying earlier, the deepest possible value, that goes way further than any naturalist would be inclined to go, right? And that's part of what allows us to see that we're talking about something religious, here. I think that's what distinguishes religion from any naturalism. And thirdly, soteriological ultimacy, which just means ultimate good for us and for the species and for our world can potentially be obtained in relation to this reality. You take those three things and you've got something I would call distinctively religious. Um, and of course, something like the idea of perfection with which we began is in the middle of it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But you're still a skeptic of whether it's real.

J.L. Schellenberg:

I'm a skeptic about it because I think there're various reasons for being skeptical about such very big and ambitious claims, religious and non-religious too.