Last week I examined the theology of Marcion of Sinope, who believed – as did many other early Christians – that there existed two gods, one good and one evil. I argued that Marcion’s theology is an ingenious way for a Christian to make sense of the atrocities in the Hebrew Bible. But this week I want to argue that the appeal of such a theology goes well beyond the interpretation of scripture in the West. Rather, it is also a way to help us understand the world, if we are to take theism seriously.
Let us put aside the evil acts attributed to God in scriptures, and let us also put aside the evils of damning people eternally to a literal hell, as so many theists believe God does. Let us just take a barer, philosophical concept of God, the kind of God to which inquiry into the nature of goodness and value can potentially lead – the kind of God that most philosophical arguments for God’s existence would point toward.
Such a God would be a being at the root of reality – all reality, including moral, aesthetic, epistemological reality. A first explanation for a reality acknowledged to be not only matter. This, it seems to me, is the kind of God whose possibility a serious philosopher must wrestle with.
In such a God, I think, there are two key elements that the arguments for God’s existence suggest are in harmony – perhaps wrongly. First, such a God is perfectly good, indeed at the root of goodness and value itself, the source of value in existence – an answer to the problem of good. But second, such a God is at the root of being, the first explanation of and perhaps creator of all that exists, the root of the world of matter. The question is, can these two attributes really be shared by the same entity? Can we identify being with goodness?
In the specific context of Western monotheism, these two attributes become expressed as God’s omnibenevolence and omnipotence. And it is the potent combination of these attributes that gives us the problem of suffering. If God is perfectly powerful, he should be able to stop suffering, and if he is perfectly good, he should want to. And yet he doesn’t.
We can take a step back and abstract from that specific context. Metaphysically, the problem here seems to come up when we identify goodness with being. For some being is bad; bad things exist. What do we do about that?
In India, the Advaita Vedānta tradition of Śaṅkara refers to the ultimate reality as sat – a Sanskrit word meaning truth, goodness and being. But this sat is a being beyond the world of matter that we perceive with our senses. That world is filled with badness and suffering – but it is an illusion born of ignorance of the real sat beyond. But Śaṅkara’s critic Rāmānuja rightly retorted: then how can that ignorance exist? How can it be a part of the goodness of sat?
Augustine had a powerful solution to the problem in this sense by identifying badness as an absence like cold; bad things just lack the full existence of goodness. But that solution faces analogous problems of its own. Why isn’t everything just purely good? Some things, like Hitler and the Black Plague, seem very lacking in goodness indeed.
Śaṅkara and Augustine have their own answers to the questions I have asked. But we can see that any answer to this question is going to have its problems. In some of the posts linked above I have suggested that this may even be true of the worldviews that deny a god – they have a harder time explaining the real existence of value in the world. (And no, evolution is not an explanation here, not of the kind we need.)
And all of this, I think, brings us back to the Marcionites, the Manicheans, the Gnostics: the early Christians who believed there were in fact two gods in conflict with each other. One god is the supreme principle of value and goodness; the other is the principle of being, the creator of all that is. And in all of this we have a potent description of the world we face, with its terrible, yawning gap between what is and what ought to be. We take a different god as the explanation of each, and with a stroke we solve the problem of suffering: the good god who embodies value and loves people and wants them to be happy is not the creator god, the one who made the physical world with all of its terror and pain.
As you might expect, the two-god explanation has fundamental problems like any other. Most importantly, what’s the relationship between the two gods? We could imagine one as an ultimate explanation of the physical world and another as an ultimate explanation of value. But if we have two competing principles of explanation, then neither one suffices as an ultimate explanation, a first explanation. You need some sort of third god that underlies both.