Is reality ultimately personal or impersonal?

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Should we prevent those who disagree with us from having a platform to share their views? Or should we allow a multiplicity of views?

Should our elected governments trust the invisible hand of the market to manage the cost-of-living crisis? Or should they choose to enact policies aimed at protecting the most vulnerable?

Is reality ultimately one or plural? Personal or impersonal? This article looks at how naturalists, Christians, Jews and Muslims may answer this question.

Naturalism and the problem of the one

Naturalists usually consider the universe to be the foundation of reality. So most come down on the side of unity. Therefore, naturalists often consider the universe’s existence to be necessary. For example, Graham Oppy, Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, argued the universe is either eternal or had eternal initial states.

This is understandable. A universe where plurality is foundational is unknowable. A place without fixed laws. Chaos.

However, theologian James Anderson points out absolute oneness has a similar problem:

Suppose, on the other hand, that unity is ultimate. It follows that reality is fundamentally monistic: it is one undifferentiated thing. But once again, nothing can be known in principle about such a thing, because there can be nothing from which to distinguish it. In either case, since reality cannot be cognized at its most basic level, the prospects for understanding any part of it are bleak.

(James Anderson. If Knowledge then God: The epistemological theistic arguments of Plantinga and Van Til. Calvin Journal of Theology)

Naturalism and the problem of the many

But this unity is the foundation of incredible plurality. To put this in perspective, let’s take a simple example — a coin toss:

…the coin contains ten thousand billion billion atoms, and not one of them can be called self-contained — each is subject to outside forces from our hand, from the air and from the gravity of the earth. (Hutchings and Wilkinson. God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse)

Accounting for the profound unity observed in the vast plurality of our universe is complex. We must posit an even more complex (and untestable) reality, for example, the multiverse. But then the many have spilt onto the one.

The oneness of God in Islam

The oneness of God (Tawheed) is central to Islam:

Islam believes in ‘Tawheed’ which is not merely monotheism i.e. belief in one God, but much more. Tawheed literally means ‘unification’ i.e. ‘asserting oneness’ and is derived from the Arabic verb ‘Wahhada’ which means to unite, unify or consolidate. (Zakir Naik)

The Qur’an condemns the Trinity for contradicting the oneness of God:

Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;

Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;

And there is none like unto Him. (Surah 112, translated by Yusuf Ali)

The Eternal Qur’an: a threat to absolute oneness?

The Oneness of God is ultimate. Yet an important tradition within Islam poses a challenge to this doctrine:

Nay, this is a Glorious Qur’an,

(Inscribed) in a Tablet Preserved!

(Surah 85:21–22, translated by Yusuf Ali)

Shaykh Gibril Haddad provides a helpful summary of the eternal nature of the Qur’an in Islamic thought:

This article sums up the doctrine of the massive majority of the Muslims…Ahl al-Sunna agree one and all that the Qur’an is the pre-existent, pre-eternal, uncreated Speech of Allah Most High on the evidence of the Qur’an, the Sunna, and faith-guided reason.

The issue is that from all eternity we have Allah and his word ‘in a tablet preserved’ — an additional other (presumably preserved in heaven) which has always existed.

Eternal attribute of love

Love is a key attribute of God in Christianity — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have been in loving communion for all eternity.

The eternal love of God is a doctrine shared by most monotheist religions like Islam and Judaism. In Islam, one of the 99 eternal names of Allah is ‘the Loving’. To deny the eternal nature of Allah’s attributes is heresy:

there are as many exceptions to the phrase “Allah has created everything” as there are Divine Attributes, and that to speak of any of His Attributes as created, is kufr [unbelief].

However, as theologian Mike Reeves points out, love requires another person to love. It is possible to love oneself. We have plenty of examples of our politicians being rather accomplished at that. But love is ultimately expressed in relationship with another:

But how could Allah be loving in eternity? Before he created there was nothing else in existence that he could love (and the title does not refer to self-centred love but love of others). (Reeves, The Good God, p22)

Allah shows his love by his care for his people. However, this leads to a problem. He potentially becomes dependent on creation to be who he is. Again, the plural has overrun the one.

The One and the Many in Judaism

Judaism also affirms the absolute oneness of God.

We believe that this Primal Cause [God] is One. [His is] not like the oneness of a pair, nor like the oneness of a species, nor like man, whose complex oneness may be divided into many units, nor like the oneness of a simple body, which is one in number but may be divided and separated without end. Rather, He is One with a Oneness that knows no parallel in any manner. This is the Second Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deut. 6:4): “Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.” Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith

Judaism also struggles with the issue of the one and the many. First, as above, the eternal attribute of love is as much an issue for Judaism as it is for Islam.

Second, Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic culture at UC Berkeley, has argued the “two powers doctrine” was probably the majority view among Jews of the first century. This view posits a God in heaven who no human has ever seen, and a divine mediator between God and humans. I’ve discussed this in more detail in articles on John 1 and the doctrine of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Boyarin argues that the depiction of Jesus as a divine mediator in John 1 draws from a Jewish tradition reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures, Philo, and the Aramaic Targums:

Rather than seeing in the Logos of John a parthenogenetic birth from a Greek mother-father, foisted illegitimately on a “Jewish” Christianity… I think, highly conceivable to see this Prologue, together with its Logos doctrine, as a Jewish text through and through rather than, as it has often been read, a “Hellenized corruption” of Judaism. (Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines, p31)

But what about the Shema?

Does the verse “Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4)” contradict Boyarin’s argument?

There are two main words for one in Hebrew. Yachid means “only, only one, or solitary”. It focuses on absolute oneness. For example, Judges 11:34 uses yachid to refer to Jepthath’s daughter an only child — the emphasis is on ‘only one’. Isaac is also referred to as yachid because of his uniqueness as the only promised son. When Maimonides refers to God’s oneness he uses this term.

However, Deuteronomy 6:4, quoted by Maimonides, uses the word echad to refer to God as “one”. Echad has two meanings:

  • Numerical oneness
  • Unity

Therefore, to interpret the meaning of the word we must read it in context. For example in Genesis 2:24 the man and wife are echad. In this context, it means a unity of persons rather than the man and wife are one person. Ezra 2:64 is another example where echad means unity as it refers to the nation of Israel who at that time were more than one person!

I argue in more detail elsewhere the context of the Torah shows there are plural persons addressed by the divine name. For example, in Exodus 33:11 there is a person who speaks with Moses face to face and another person who no one may see and live (Ex 33:20). Both are referred to with the divine name (Yahweh). So Deut 6:4 is probably referring to the latter meaning (unity) rather than numerical oneness.

Opponents of Christianity commonly question the distinction between echad and yachid as an apologetic invention. However, Lubavitcher Rebbe — probably the most influential Jewish leader of the 20th century — makes exactly this point in an article on the Chabad website:

Chassidic teaching explains that, on the contrary, echad represents a deeper unity than yachid. Yachid is a oneness that cannot tolerate plurality — if another being or element is introduced into the equation, the yachid is no longer yachid. Echad, on the other hand, represents the fusion of diverse elements into a harmonious whole. The oneness of echad is not undermined by plurality; indeed, it employs plurality as the ingredients of unity. ( Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The numerology of redemption.)

Christian Trinitarianism

A Christian explanation of the universe is a personal one. The one God, according to Christianity, is an eternal relationship of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But the Western church has often struggled with this doctrine of the Trinity. Since Augustine, many have focused on the logical puzzle of how the Three Persons can be One.

According to Gunton, the source of Augustine’s struggles with the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the influence of Neo-Platonist individualism. Augustine proposed the mind as a key analogy for understanding the Trinity. Many centuries later Descartes used a similar analogy for our identity as individuals:

For Descartes, the person is the thinking thing, the intellectual reality to which all other human experiences ultimately reduce…Descartes’ view of the person is individualist because the conception of the human being as a mind encased in matter gives rise to a necessarily problematic relation with other persons. (Gunton, Promise of Trinitarian Theology, p84)

God as community

The Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory Nyssa, Basil Caesarea) saw the Bible proposed a different understanding of personhood:

The being of God is not now understood in the way characteristic of Greek metaphysics, but in terms of communion. God is a sort of continuous and indivisible communion…The being of God consists in the community of hypostaseis [persons] who give and receive their reality to and from one another. (Gunton, ibid, p94)

This understanding of personhood resolves the problem of the one and the many:

In God the particular is ontologically ultimate because relationship is permanent and unbreakable. Because the Father, the Son and the Spirit are always together, the particular beings are the bearers of the totality of nature, and thus no contradiction between ‘one’ and ‘many’ can arise. In trying to identify a particular thing, we have to make it part of a relationship, and not to isolate it as an individual. (John Zizoulous, quoted in Gunton p95–96)

This understanding of personhood finds its origin in the New Testament:

…ultimately it has its roots in the Fourth Gospel’s profound meditations on the way Jesus and the Father exist only ‘in’ each other, the extended exposition of the claim that from eternity and in the incarnation the Word [Jesus] is with God and the Word is God. (Gunton, p89)

The foundational reality of the one and the many

Naturalism, Judaism, and Islam propose that reality is founded in oneness — either in the universe (naturalism) or God (Judaism and Islam).

A foundation of oneness struggles to account for the personal and relational. For example, there is great beauty in the harmony (wa) of Japanese life. Yet the proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” suggests there may be some downsides too.

Of course, western culture is more individualistic. But even our emphasis on plurality gets swamped by desire for unity over plurality. For example, the rise of “White Nationalism” on the right and “no-platforming” on the left.

In contrast, for Christians, reality is founded on Jesus’ revelation of a God who is both plurality and unity:

the concrete link between the one and the many, the eternal God and his erring creation, is Jesus Christ, who is both the one and the many: the historic hypostasis [person], Jesus Christ, utterly human tempted as we are; and yet through the Holy Spirit the basis from all eternity of a personal and communal relationship with God. (Gunton, p98)

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Nick Meader

Nick Meader

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My background is in psychology, epidemiology and medical statistics. I’m mainly discussing here theology, philosophy of religion and mental health.