Sunday, August 13, 2006

Comments: Hume and Maimonides on Our Idea of God and its Relation to Human Perfection

Of Our Idea of God and its Relation to Human Perfection

In the Inquiry, Section 2 (“Of the origin of ideas”) Hume writes:

The Idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind and augmenting without limit those qualities of goodness and wisdom.

In order to come to a better appreciation of the nature and implications of such an understanding of the Idea of God, it will be worthwhile to see how Philo and Maimonides would respond. It will be seen that these two would reply in much the same way. Both Philo and Maimonides would assent to this basic premise. However, following their initial acceptance of such a premise, both will have much more to say regarding the significance of this claim with respect to religion. That is, the two will be in agreement that while this is the case, it is hardly the whole story when it comes to religion. Both will argue, in their own way, that this idea has its origin in man’s original ignorance of God’s true nature. Philo will maintain that this ignorance is insurmountable and that true wisdom and religiosity lie in our understanding of this limit. On the other hand, Maimonides will argue that upon increasing our understanding we will eventually come to understand the minimal way in which terms expressing human perfection convey God’s own perfection. Upon understanding this, we ought, according to Maimonides, to endeavor to imitate God as much as it is possible for a human being. In imitating God, we will be drawn towards greater human perfection which may eventually result in knowledge of God. Therefore, according to Maimonides, in addition to its root in our ignorance, this Humean position regarding the origin of our idea of God also has an ethical and religious importance to our own lives.

In Hume’s own Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, we encounter a critical acceptance of the claim that such as is our idea of God originates in our idea of human perfection. Philo says: “Wisdom, thought, design, knowledge—these we justly ascribe to him because these words are honorable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration” (Dialogues Part II, 14). That is, we “piously ascribe to him every species of perfection” (Dialogues Part II, 14). However, Philo is quick to note: “But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature” (Dialogues Part II, 14). While we wish to worship God and so ascribe to Him what we can understand of perfection, Philo maintains that although we must do so through the use of terms applicable to man, we should not therefore believe there to be any correspondence between human perfection and God’s perfection. It is not merely the case that God is an exemplary human being. God’s perfection and man’s perfection differ not only in degree but also in kind. Therefore, Philo maintains:

But let us beware lest we think that our ideas anywise correspond to his perfections, or that his attributes have any resemblance to these qualities among men. He is infinitely superior to our limited view and comprehension; and is more the object of worship in the temple than of disputation in the schools.

(Dialogues Part II, 14)

However, as he noted above, it is piety that induces us to ascribe human perfections to God. To do so is not to be an anthropomorphite unless one fails to recognize the categorical difference between God and humanity.

How, then, are we to make sense of the fact that we can only worship God in language pertinent to humanity? During Part I of the Dialogues Philo has maintained that the benefits of “skeptical considerations on the uncertainty and narrow limits of reason” lie in their continuing influence over one’s future philosophizing (Dialogues Part I, 6). Furthermore, one who has practiced skepticism will, when discoursing on matters outside the reach of philosophy, maintain a judicious suspension of judgment and assent. Philo says:

But it is evident, whenever our arguments lose this advantage and run wide of common life, that the most refined skepticism comes to be upon a footing with them, and is able to oppose and counterbalance them. The one has no more weight than the other. The mind must remain in suspense between them; and it is that very suspense or balance which is the triumph of skepticism.

(Dialogues Part I, 6)

That is, in matters such as theological speculation, one who has practiced skepticism will be able to see the foolishness of dogmatically choosing any one system over any other. This is precisely what Philo does when he subjects Cleanthes’ and Demea’s positions to fierce criticism. In pointing out the follies and fallacies of their systems, Philo demonstrates his “just sense of the imperfections of natural reason.”

Philo believes that this abhorrence of theological dogma allows for one to become a “sound, believing Christian.” He says, at the end of the Dialogues:

A person, seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural reason, will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity…To be a philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian;

(Dialogues Part XII, 89)

Therefore, while agreeing with Hume’s notion of the origin of our idea of God, Philo will require much critical understanding of this idea in order for one to become a “sound, believing Christian.” While this religious philosophical skeptic will understand our inability to represent God’s true nature in words, he will nevertheless be able to worship and give praise to God from within the framework of our understanding of human perfection.

Let us next consider how Maimonides would react to Hume’s claim. In Chapter XXVI of the first part of his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests:

“In a similar way one has ascribed to Him, may He be exalted, everything that in our opinion is a perfection and that no deficiency whatever mars Him. Thus none of the things apprehended by the multitude as a deficiency or a privation are predicated of Him. Hence it is not predicated of Him that He eats, drinks, sleeps, is ill, does an injustice, or that He has any similar characteristic. On the other hand, everything that the multitude consider a perfection is predicated of Him, even if it is only a perfection in relation to ourselves—for in relation to Him, may He be exalted, all things that we consider perfections are the very extreme of deficiency” (Guide I: 26, 56).

In explaining the meaning of the dictum, “The Torah speaketh in the language of the sons of man,” Maimonides claims: “The meaning of this is that everything that all men are capable of understanding and representing to themselves at first thought has been ascribed to Him as necessarily belonging to God, may He be exalted” (Guide I: 26, 56). According to Maimonides, within their first exposures to things divine, the multitude ought to be instructed as to the perfection of God in terms of what they understand of the perfection of men. According to their imperfect understanding, the first things that the multitude will hear, namely the affirmative dicta of scripture, will be understood in only the external, vulgar sense of the words used. The idea of God is originally communicated in human terms because this is all that people can first understand. However, upon further understanding and maturation of intellect, Maimonides claims that people ought to be:

…made to accept on traditional authority the belief that God is not a body; and that there is absolutely no likeness in any respect whatever between Him and the things created by Him; that His existence has no likeness to theirs; nor His life to the life of those among them who are alive; nor again His knowledge to the knowledge of those among them who are endowed with knowledge. They should be made to accept the belief that the difference between Him and them is not merely a difference of more and less.

(Guide I: 35, 80).

That is, it is necessary that we eventually come to learn that these first things do not truly express God’s attributes. While originating in our idea of human perfection, the true idea of God surpasses this in ways that we cannot yet comprehend. Like Philo, Maimonides stresses that these attributes do not hold true of God in the same way as they do of men. Again, the difference between human and divine perfection is not merely a difference of degree.

However, that is not to say that terms originating in human perfection are wholly without purpose in their application to God. For, Maimonides will attempt to give us an understanding of the way in which these perfections do in some important sense convey God’s perfection. While we cannot truly understand how or why God acts in the way that He does, reflection on experience will lead us to consider how we might achieve something like this human perfection by endeavoring to act in a manner analogous to God. Of our ascription of compassion to God, Maimonides says: “It is not that He, may He be exalted, is affected and has compassion. But an action similar to that which proceeds from a father in respect to his child and that is attached to compassion, pity, and an absolute passion, proceeds from Him, may He be exalted, in reference to His holy ones, not because of a passion or change” (Guide I: 54, 125). While humans act with compassion in response to some feeling, God does not. However, the effects of God’s action resemble the effects that we would observe from the actions of a perfect human. If this bare similarity is understood, it will then become necessary for man to seek to imitate God by attempting to act perfectly without passion or affect. Therefore, our original idea of God, as expressed in terms of human perfection, will serve as a guide towards our own ethical perfection. This guidance, as we will see below, will, in turn, lead us toward true apprehension of God, which will result in our truly coming to act like God. As Maimonides says: “The way of life of such an individual, after he has achieved this apprehension, will always have in view loving-kindness, righteousness, and judgment, through assimilation to His actions, may He be exalted” (Guide III: 54, 638).

Both Philo and Maimonides would accept the basic notion that our vulgar idea of God has its origins in what we know of humanity. Inasmuch as we begin with an understanding of human perfection and are not in a position to understand God, we must know that there is not a correspondence between God’s perfection and our human ideal. However, following our understanding of the original limitation of human understanding, Philo and Maimonides will formulate their own positions regarding the applicability of this notion to our religious and ethical lives. Philo will maintain that an understanding of the limits of human reason will lead us to a pure form of religious worship. Similarly, Maimonides will maintain that in realizing our ignorance we will be drawn towards a better understanding of the true nature of God. This final understanding will result in our actually becoming like God. That is, inasmuch as we are eventually able to become like our idea of God, we will achieve our ultimate ethical and religious perfection.


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