God and the Concept of Being

See Sanders’s Theology in the Flesh, 248–258.

The ancient Greek philosophers sought an explanation for all existing things. All things that exist have “being.” Now, imagine all existing things inside a box. How do we explain the origin of being? Is the origin inside or outside the box? They sought what I call the UMP (ultimate metaphysical principle) that explains everything else. This became a fundamental question that shaped Western concepts of God.

Here are four different positions regarding God and being. The first three options think of being as a container (box). The logical structure of containers entails three possibilities: (1) an entity is inside the box, (2) an entity is outside the box, or (3) an entity is the box. Hence, God is either inside the box, outside the box, or God is the box.

#1. God is an entity inside being (IB). God is “uncreated being” while creatures are “created beings”. Scotus, Plantinga. Key problems with IB are that Being looks larger than God and makes God a being among other beings.

Being is the container


#2. God is outside being (OB). Being is finite so the infinite God does not have being. Plotinus, Dionysius. A key problem with OB is that if God lacks being, then does God exist?

God                                                                                  Being   


#3. God is being itself (BI). God is infinite being. Created beings are the contents in the uncreated container. Aquinas, Tillich. A key problem with BI is to explain how the infinite box is the source of finite beings and their characteristics.

God is Being Itself (the container)


#4. Relationality is fundamental. Being. Jean Luc Marion, Sanders.

We do not have to begin with the issue of being and the metaphor of the container with its three options. After all, we do not interact with the abstraction “being” but with persons, dogs, trees, and the like. We begin our reflections on God from our experience of relationships and from the narratives of religious traditions. Many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers agreed with the Greeks that the journey to thinking about God begins with the concept of being. However, making the assertion that my spouse or a friend is a being or has being simply does not get at what is truly important and meaningful in life. The journey for our understanding of God begins with a narrative of God and creatures in relation.

The narratives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam depict God as an agent who lives and interacts with creatures. This means that God shares some characteristics with creatures even though God is “uncreated” being and so significantly different. However, many thinkers in these traditions considered this inappropriate for God because they believed that the UMP must not have any characteristics in common with creatures. Most thinkers in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions affirmed 2 or 3 through the thirteenth century at which time #1 began an ascent. #1 now has strong representation, particularly among contemporary Christian theologians and analytic philosophers.

Proponents of 1 and 4 affirm that God has some characteristics in common with creatures. Specifically, God is thought of an agent who engages us. Proponents of 2 and 3 harshly criticize any sort of commonality between God and creatures. They claim it limits God by giving God characteristics of creatures or renders God too anthropomorphic (human like). Sanders responds to these criticisms with theological, philosophical, and cognitive scientific reasons in Theology in the Flesh. The debate is between theistic personalism—God as agent (1 and 4) and the UMP without characteristics (2 and 3. Sometimes called classical theism).

My main point: it is legitimate to think of God using the category being but if you do then you are constrained by the logic of the schema to three alternatives. Since the alternative of thinking of God as “a being” (placing God inside the container) seems inappropriate to many thinkers we are then left with God as being itself or beyond being. The motivation for this distinction, to protect the divine nature from being reduced to the level of a creature, is appreciated. However, both the God as Beyond Being and the God as Being Itself views lead to particular problems of how we can know and talk about God and make it difficult, if not impossible, for traditional theists to worship God. Views 2 and 3 are both apophatic: God is beyond human knowledge and language (see Lyon, God and Being, 2023). God is completely different from anything we know. What, then, can be said of God? We can say “that” God exists but not “what” God is like. But divine “existence” is nothing like our existence. Feuerbach said 2 and 3 result in a “subtle disguised atheism.”

However, we don’t have to begin with the language of being. The language and categories we use have their own logics and we are not confined to the abstract notion of being. The biblical stories and much of the Christian theological tradition begins with the category of interpersonal relationships rather than the category of being. This is the move Jean Luc Marion makes when he says, “Does Being define the first and the highest of the divine names? When God offers himself to be contemplated and gives himself to be prayed to. . . . When he appears as and in Jesus Christ, who dies and rises from the dead, is he concerned primarily with Being? He goes on to say, “No doubt God can and must in the end also be” (i. e., God has being) but this is not the beginning of Christian thought. Marion claims that Christian reflection starts from the notion “God is love” rather than from the highly abstract notion of being.

This is the same sort of move Moltmann makes about divine transcendence. Why begin with the logic of non-personal entities such as containers instead of the richer category of interpersonal relations? The biblical writers prefer the interpersonal metaphors for God as did people such as Julian of Norwich. Cognitive linguistics explains why we have this preference: the category of interpersonal relations and the metaphors used to explicate it are far richer in their entailments regarding what we are to do. They give direction to our lives whereas the category of being does not tell us how to live. A God beyond being or God as being itself tells us little, if anything, about how we are supposed to live in relation to God and others.

Paul Ricoeur says we face a choice between bringing God down to our level or knowing nothing about God.  “[T]o impute a discourse common to God and to his creatures would be to destroy divine transcendence, on the other hand, assuming total incommunicability of meanings from one level to the other would condemn one to utter agnosticism.”

I claim that we must use the only mental tools available to us and so are constrained to think of God via human cognition. The real question is not whether we will bring God “down” to our level but which human concepts we believe are appropriate to apply to God and which ones think should be rejected.

Our understanding of Transcendence

Spatial concepts have a privileged place in human cognition as source domains so it is not surprising that these are used. Note that Ricoeur uses what is called the verticality schema (up/down) when he says we bring God “down” to our understanding. Western understandings of divine transcendence tend to think of God as beyond, above, higher, and far. These use the mental frame of objects in space.

However, this is not the only way to understand transcendence. If we use a different metaphor, for instance, then the meaning of transcendence can change. Moltmann, for instance, says “God is not ‘beyond us’ or ‘in us,’ but ahead of us.” Hence, God transcends us by leading us on the journey towards a destination. Biblical writers speak of divine transcendence in ethical rather than ontological terms when they speak about God as exemplar we should imitate such as when Isaiah says that God’s ways are not our ways because God forgives those who sin against God (55). Western Christians are so accustomed to thinking of transcendence in particular kinds of spatial categories that they typically miss other ways of understanding transcendence that involve interpersonal relationships.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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