[Milton-L] Re: "Ontological superiority"

Michael Bryson michael.bryson at csun.edu
Wed Jul 19 15:50:06 EDT 2006

Despite Jim Rovira's desire to "help us avoid wasting time down avenues of argument that miss the point," the fact that--in forms of Christian thought influenced to one degree or another by Greek thought (Platonism, Neoplatonism, among others)--"God is not a predicate and has no predicates" cannot be so cavalierly dismissed in thinking through Milton's poem. This is one of the central problems with traditions of personal deity; personalities can, and will, be judged in human terms (justice, morality, wrath, mercy, etc.), and often, the argument meant to get around such questions (or subtly mock them as irrelevant) "flows from the unspoken assumption" not "that God is a creature among other creatures," but that the divine can be expressed (or even concretized) in personal terms without incurring any of those inconvenient questions of justice and morality. "God" as personality gets defended as "God" the One or "God" the unmoved Mover or "God" the central organizing principle of the universe. "God" with qualities (name, habitation, likes, dislikes, emotions, etc.) is conflated, in such a defense, with "God" without qualities (and, in practice, this conflation goes far beyond what might be explained by theories of accommodation, which recognize—-even insist on—-the wide difference between representation and what is represented). 

This problem of personal deity is among the things I think Milton is highlighting with his portrayal of the Father in Paradise Lost. Victoria Silver addressed this problem in her recent book by arguing that the "hidden God" in Luther and Calvin is a useful way of explaining Milton’s portrait of God. In this view, God is only known as he is for us (experientially), not as he is in himself (ontologically); Silver went on to argue that Milton’s portrait was intended "not to ratify the image of the Father [...] but to separate us from the assumptions that induce this picture and so pervert how we understand deity" (54).

I think this is a telling point: so many times, and as a kind of shorthand, we argue about the Father of Paradise Lost (an experiential portrait of God-for-us) as if he were the deity (God-in-itself). This is not to imply that we do not, in theory, recognize the distinction, but in practice that distinction is often elided. Lewis’ classic statement (paraphrased from memory here), that people who object to the Father in Paradise Lost merely have a problem with God, effectively captures the dynamic I am describing. When readers ask questions about the justice of the Father in Paradise Lost, or make statements like those of Richard Strier ("That the Father was first and is the strongest does not mean that He is morally admirable. Strength and temporal priority are not moral categories") it strikes me as being one of those "avenues of argument that miss the point" to short-circuit the process of accusation and acquittal involved in PL’s attempt to justify the ways of God to men by eliding distinctions between God-for-us and God-in-itself. The idea that the infinite (the One, Ein Sof, or--from an entirely different tradition--Nirguna Brahman, God without qualities) is beyond human questions of justice, does not necessarily lead to the idea that representations of that infinite (or representations of representations) are also beyond such questions. And with the Father in Paradise Lost, we are dealing with a representation that is at an even further level of remove--a literary character, one which is, in my view, a representation of representations, not an attempt to represent the infinite itself. But regardless of the latter, to argue that readers must not--if they are not to be wasting time "missing the point"--consider, debate, even vehemently argue about questions of morality where a human creation is concerned is, to me, odd to say the least.

Michael Bryson

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