To claim that the divine is a person or personal is, according to Swinburne, ‘the most elementary claim of theism’ (The coherence of theism, 1993, p. 101). I argue that, whether the classical theist’s concept of the divine as a person or personal is construed as an analogy or a metaphor, or a combination of the two, analysis necessitates qualification of that concept such that any differences between the classical theist’s concept of the divine as a person or personal and revisionary interpretations of that concept are merely superficial. Thus, either the classical theist has more in common with revisionary theism than he/she might care to admit, or classical theism is a multi-faceted position which encompasses interpretations which some might regard as revisionist. This article also explores and employs the use of a gender-neutral pronoun in talk about God.
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I use the terms ‘revisionary’ and ‘revisionist’ interchangeably.
Deweese notes that ‘[t]he criteria of personhood are very much in debate in contemporary philosophy, from applied ethics, dealing with beginning- and end-of-life issues, to cognitive science, dealing with artificial intelligence’ (216).
Wolf (1964, p. 28) notes that some of the earliest uses of the phrase ‘the personality of God’ may be found in Paley (1850), and the first edition of Schliermacher (1958) (Wolf 1964, p. 28). Hick notes that ‘person’ understood in the ‘modern’ sense—i.e., as an individual centre of consciousness and will—also features in “‘social” conceptions of the trinity as three personal centres so intimately united as to form a complex unity of three-in-one’ (2004, p. 270).
For example, the teaching that Allah has two hands has been commonly interpreted by Muslim scholars as a symbol for divine power, while Ibn Arabi argued that it is a symbol for the polarities, the opposites, which exist within human beings. See Sells (1994), p. 86.
There are, of course, other interpretations of analogy (see, e.g., White 2010). I discuss Swinburne here because he adopts an analogical interpretation of God as a person.
Since few would argue that the divine is literally masculine, I adopt the gender-neutral pronoun ‘xe’ (pronounced ‘zi’). According to Mario Pei, Don Rickter notes the use of ‘xe, xen, xes’ (for ‘he/she’, ‘his/her’, ‘him/her’) in the United Nations World of 1 May 1973 (Pei 1978, p. 145). Others attribute the first use of ‘xe’ to the UU World (the Unitarian Universalist publication) of the same date, with an independent invention of the term by Jim Sinclair in 1992 (Wiktionary 2014), but I am unable to access the publications in question in order to check this. A gender-neutral pronoun may be employed to mean ‘he, she, or it’, but also to indicate a person of unspecified gender. While some languages already employ gender-neutral pronouns, and Sweden has recently (2012) adopted ‘hen’, there is no generally-accepted English term. From those which have been suggested, I have chosen ‘xe’ to refer to divinity conceived of as a person, or personal, on the grounds that the ‘x’ which replaces the first two letters of the gendered pronouns seems particularly appropriate in the context of an apophatic theology. There are some variations in use but, for the purposes of this article, ‘xe’ is formed as follows: xe (he/she/it), xem (him/her/it), xir (his/her/its—i.e., possessive determiner), xirs (his/hers/its—i.e., possessive pronoun), xemself (himself/herself/itself) (adapted from the table found at Wikipedia 2014).
There are, of course, alternative interpretations of metaphor. For example, Harrison (2007) argues that, following the work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980), metaphor should be seen as reality-constituting, and therefore as reality-transforming—i.e., as changing the way in which we experience the world. Soskice rejects this example of what she terms ‘the metaphor-as-myth thesis’ (1985, pp. 81–82), while Stiver draws out the similarities between Lakoff and Johnson’s position on the one hand, and that of Soskice on the other (1996, p. 120, 126).
Brümmer draws on McFague (1982, p. 13) here.
This possibility had been previously mentioned but dismissed by Thatcher (1985, p. 67).
There are, of course, other possible explanations which, for non-believers, represent a better fit with the observed phenomena.
I use ‘non-realism’ to refer to agnosticism about a God who exists independently of human thought—as opposed to ‘anti-realism’ which claims that there is no God existing independently of human thought.
Flew seems to have changed his mind about this at the end of his life (Flew 2007).
Cf. Harrison’s recommendation that we should adopt a ‘family resemblance’ approach to differing interpretations of the same religion (2006, pp. 147–152).
Phillips himself denies this, although he is almost as reluctant to describe himself as a realist—he sees the terms ‘non-realism’ and ‘realism’ as ‘battle-cries in a confused philosophical debate’ (1993, p. 35).
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for the observation that my argument depends upon the idea that it is ‘proper’ to treat ‘divine personhood’ and ‘divine agency’ as metaphors at least partially [properly] explained in terms of analogy, and the suggestion that some classical theists hold that God is a person and an agent in a straightforward literal sense, while some revisionist theists deny that God is a person and an agent in even a metaphorical sense. My argument, however, is that the reflective classical theist cannot hold that God is a person and an agent in a straightforward literal sense. And, while it is true that some revisionist theists deny that God is a person and an agent in even a metaphorical sense, I would argue that, at least for those whose beliefs are derived from the Abrahamic tradition, in which God as a personal agent features prominently, it is not necessary even for the revisionist to jettison this important aspect of religious belief.
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I am grateful to Vincent Brümmer and Victoria Harrison, who drew my attention to their own work on metaphor and religious language, and to Stephen Law and Keith Ward for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
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Burns, E. Classical and revisionary theism on the divine as personal: a rapprochement?. Int J Philos Relig 78, 151–165 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-014-9500-3