Sharing in the Divine Nature
A Personalist Metaphysics
- ISBN: 9781725266384
- Published By: Wipf and Stock
- Published: May 2020
In Sharing in the Divine Nature: A Personalist Metaphysics, Keith Ward presents in an accessible way the “personal idealism” he has developed and urged for some time. He does so through engagement with philosophical and theological interlocutors, both historical and contemporary—arguing for salient features of his metaphysics against rival positions and responding to potential objections. There is a logical ordering to the chapters but principal points recur across chapters.
Ward defines metaphysics as “a general account of the nature of reality, and the place of human beings within it” (2). Those “non-realists” who under Wittgenstein’s influence reduce metaphysical discourse to grammar still ineluctably make metaphysical claims, betraying that “[m]etaphysics is . . . inescapable” (17; original emphasis). In personal idealism “mind is the ultimate reality, and the physical world would not exist without mind as its source” (20; original emphasis). Thus, God is an “uncreated supreme mind” (102) with consciousness, knowledge, thought, feeling, and intention. Because purpose is an essential mental faculty, values are central to personal idealism. This means that reality is not a “blind valueless assembly of material particles . . . made up of lumps of unfeeling matter” but a fundamentally spiritual reality. Evolving matter “produces awareness, mind, purpose, and value, and these become apparent in human beings” (110).
Language is at the forefront throughout Ward’s book, and a key point is that apophaticism, or the belief that the divine cannot be conceptualized or described with words, and even analogical predication, divest God-talk of any real meaning and lead to logical absurdities. There must be at least some primary, non-metaphorical, literal meaning to our words about God: “however far beyond all our categories of thought God is, that same God must also be in part within the reach of human thought . . . God is good, intelligent, just, and loving . . . and we understand what these words mean” (68).
The primary foil for Ward’s personal idealism is the Aristotelian and Thomistic legacy in Christian thought. The author supplies convincing arguments against the traditional doctrines of divine simplicity, immutability, impassability, atemporality, pure actuality, and identifying the divine essence with existence, especially in dialogue with contemporary exponents of these doctrines. These are incompatible with the thinking, feeling, purposing, and loving that Christian thought ascribes to God. Analogous to dipolar process theism, Ward’s God is in different respects eternal and temporal, immutable and mutable, infinite and finite, necessary and contingent, actual and potential, (e.g., “God has properties that God without creation would not possess, though they do not change the eternal nature of God” ).
Retooling Anselm, Ward argues that a purely actual, immutable God who is the “fullness of Being” is not the “most perfect imaginable state” because it excludes novelty (71). God is the ground of all possibilities (85) and seeks to maximize possibilities of positive value, while created agents realize values that have always been potential in the divine life (116). According to Ward, these include negative possibilities (59–60). Although the cosmos is created and held in being by God, the multiplicity of free agents God created as genuine others possessing libertarian free will can and do frustrate the divine will, resulting in estrangement from God (127; 145–46).
Yet, “creation, estrangement, reconciliation, and theosis (sharing in the divine nature)” constitute the Christian story (113) with the concepts of being “in Christ” and “sharing in the divine nature” as primary. Re-envisioning aspects of functional Christology, Ward frames Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, atonement, and resurrection as demonstrative and morally persuasive. They show God sharing in world history and willing to liberate from estrangement all who respond to the demand of the good and move believers to a sorrow that is active in their restitution. In Christ, God creates, grieves over creation’s corruptions, heals suffering, and actively works to realize a cosmic communion of creatures in the divine life (127–29).
For Ward, God’s salvific action in Jesus Christ is paradigmatic but not unique (80), and although Jesus mediates the presence and power of the Spirit in a distinctive way, the Spirit is active always and everywhere in human lives (134). There are diverse pathways to the final consummation but God determines the outcome (104), the uniting of all creation in Christ where all things find their fulfillment (137, 144,147). This is of a piece with Ward’s rejection of Aristotelian and Thomistic theology: “My central argument is that any such participation, if it is real, will change the divine nature, and that this will be a manifestation of the perfection of God, not a diminution of divine sovereignty” (146).
That Ward’s explication of his personal idealism generates so many considerations is telling of its substance and significance. Despite criticism of Platonic ideas (72), Ward’s use of the concept of Platonic participation is pronounced and thoroughgoing, with the “temporal embodiment of eternal values, the inbreaking of the eternal into the world of time” (93) being front and center. Ward’s method is that of contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy, and the “linguistic turn” is on full display—the “whole notion of truth” amounts to “statements in some language” (141). Although there is a certain value to non-literal and poetic religious expression (111–13), “analytical thinkers have the job of teasing out the latent profundity behind the rhetorical contradictions” (75).
One concern here is that the canons and methods of contemporary analytic philosophy are so foreign to most human religious discourse that incommensurability renders meaningful treatment of the latter according to the former difficult if not impossible. For instance, it is interesting to contemplate applying the same exercise to what the personified deity (Ishvara) Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gītā about creating, sustaining, and entering into the world while at the same time remaining timeless and immutably unaffected by these same activities (e.g., Bhagavad Gītā 4.13–14; 7.4–13; 9.8–9; 15.16–18).
Such considerations notwithstanding, this is one of the clearest, most cogent, refreshing, and stimulating books on the topics it addresses. Ward is certainly not the first to have argued many of the specific points, but he does so in ways that are fresh and new for those already familiar with these arguments from other quarters, and of course the synthesis is entirely his own. The book is accessible to educated lay readers, but upper-level undergraduate or master’s level theology and philosophy students would be best prepared to apprehend and appreciate Ward’s book.
Marc A. Pugliese is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Saint Leo University.Marc A. PuglieseDate Of Review:June 24, 2022