Does Berkeley Anthropomorphize God

Abstract

Berkeley occasionally says that we use analogy in thinking and speaking of God. However, the scholarly consensus is that Berkeley rejects the traditional doctrine of divine analogy and holds instead that words like ‘wise’ apply to God in precisely the same way as they apply to Socrates. The difference is only a matter of degree. Univocal theories of the divine attributes have historically been charged with anthropomorphism—that is, with imagining God to be too similar to human beings. Can Berkeley fairly be charged with anthropomorphizing God? In one sense, the answer is clearly yes: for Berkeley, God is one spirit among many. God is, uniquely, an infinite spirit, but this is an infinity in God’s degree of knowledge, power, etc. God is a spirit in precisely the same way as you, me, and Socrates. On the other hand, Berkeley’s view differs dramatically from the kinds of anthropomorphism that were criticized by classical philosophical theologians. In the first place, the classical tradition was concerned to deny that God is a body with proper parts. Berkeley, of course, also denies this. Second, the classical tradition was concerned to deny that God was composed of form and matter. Insofar as Berkeley takes the Aristotelian concepts of form and matter to be incoherent, Berkeley clearly does not hold that God is composed of form and matter. Third, the classical tradition denied that God had a real plurality of attributes. Fourth and relatedly, the tradition denied that the distinction of substance and attribute applied to God at all. There was no consensus, in the tradition, on precisely how to analyse statements like ‘God is wise’ without admitting that there was such a thing as God’s wisdom distinct from God and God’s power. However, Aquinas held that, in this context, ‘wise’, ‘powerful’, etc. express different partial conceptions of God. Similarly, Berkeley holds that ‘will’ and ‘understanding’ are two names for “one simple, undivided, active being,” the spirit itself. Finally, the tradition held that God was ‘pure act’, denying any distinction of act and potency in God. In the notebooks, Berkeley twice affirms that spirit is ‘actus 1 Does Berkeley Anthropomorphize God? 2 purus’ before resolving not to use this ‘Scholastique’ term in print. Although there is considerable difficulty in understanding precisely what Berkeley meant by this claim and how it relates to his published views about created spirits, Berkeley is consistent in insisting that there is no passivity in God. Berkeley’s God, like the classical God, is not a body, is not composed of form and matter, does not possess a real plurality of attributes, and is purely active. However, in all of these ways, God is exactly like us. I conclude that, as compared with the classical tradition of philosophical theology, Berkeley does not anthropomorphize God—he deifies the human being. Recognizing the roots of Berkeley’s account of spirit in classical conceptions of God can help to illuminate Berkeley’s remarks about how we can, and cannot, speak and know about spirits.

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Author's Profile

Kenneth L. Pearce
James Madison University

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Divine Analogy in Eighteenth-Century Irish Philosophy.Thomas Curtin - 2014 - Journal of Theological Studies 65 (2):600-24.

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