On Divine Unity and Diversity (Plural-Unity)
This book addresses the question of God’s existence (He Is There) and what we can know about him from observing the nature of reality (He Is Not Silent). It is considered the third of a trilogy beginning with Escape From Reason followed by The God Who Is There. He limits his whole discourse to only four chapters and organizes them as follows:
1. The Metaphysical Necessity
2. The Moral Necessity
3. The Epistemological Necessity
4. The Epistemological Necessity
By these chapter titles it is evident that Schaeffer argues that what we call God is a logical necessity. Only this God provides an explanation for why there is anything at all, why human beings exist as different from animals or machines, and why we are universally moral beings who, for all our talk of relativism, invariably draw upon objective moral standards. These plus the answers to other related questions about reality have everything to do with the nature of this God who is preeminently revealed in the Bible. We are moral, for example, because God is moral. We are creative because God is creative. We are noble because God has given us dignity.
To illustrate one antithesis to biblical monotheism, Schaeffer talks about pantheism, which is usually associated with Indian Hinduism. Although it allows for multiple gods, its ‘master teaching’ is one of “hyper-unity’ in which all is one, or that all is in one, as in panentheism. (Taken together he called them “pan-everythingism”.) In this worldview there are no particulars, only the illusion of them. Schaeffer believed that it pervades not only in the East but in many Western schools of thought too, and several prominent European philosophers espoused it, namely Spinoza and Hegel. The two main problems with this system are that it is impersonal so it cannot explain personhood, and that its hyper-unity cannot adequately explain diversity.
Schaeffer begins this discussion in the first chapter with these words:
Every once in a while in my discussions someone asks how I can believe in the Trinity. My answer is always the same. I would still be an agnostic if there were no Trinity, because there would be no answers. Without the high order of personal unity and diversity as given in the Trinity, there are no answers. …
Einstein taught that the whole material world may be reduced to electromagnetism and gravity. At the end of his life he was seeking a unity above these two, something that would unite electromagnetism and gravity, but he never found it. But what if he had found it? It would only be unity in diversity in relationship to the material world, and as such it would only be child’s play. Nothing would really have been settled because the needed unity and diversity in regard to personality would not have been touched. If he had been able to bring electromagnetism and gravity together, he would not have explained the need of personal unity and diversity.
In contrast, let us think of the Nicene Creed—three persons, one God. Rejoice that they chose the word “person.” Whether you realize it or not, that catapulted the Nicene Creed right into our century and its discussions: three Persons in existence, loving each other, and in communication with each other, before all else was.
If this were not so, we would have had a God who needed to create in order to love and communicate. In such a case, God would have needed the universe as much as the universe needed God. But God did not need to create; God does not need the universe as the universe needs him. Why? Because we have a full and true Trinity. The persons of the Trinity communicated with each other and loved each other before the creation of the world.
This is not only an answer to the acute philosophic need of unity in diversity, but of personal unity and diversity. The unity and diversity cannot exist before God or be behind God, because whatever is farthest back is God. But with the doctrine of the Trinity, unity and diversity is God himself—three persons, yet one God. That is what the Trinity is, and nothing less than this.
We must appreciate that our Christian forefathers understood this very well in A.D. 325, when they stressed the three persons in the Trinity, as the Bible had clearly set this forth. Let us notice that it is not that they invented the Trinity in order to give an answer to the philosophical questions which the Greeks of that time understood very dynamically. It is quite the contrary. The unity and diversity problem was there, and they realized that in the Trinity, as it had been taught in the Bible, they had an answer that no one else had. They did not invent the Trinity to meet the need; the Trinity was already there and it met the need. They realized that in the Trinity we have what all these people are arguing about and defining but for which they have no answer.
Let us notice again that this is not the best answer; it is the only answer. Nobody else, no philosophy, has ever given us an answer for unity and diversity. So when people ask whether we are embarrassed intellectually by the Trinity, I always switch it over into their own terminology—unity and diversity. Every philosophy has this problem and no philosophy has an answer. Christianity does have an answer in the existence of the Trinity. The only answer to what exists is that he, the triune God, is there.
Schaeffer’s words may sound overconfident to you. To be honest, if I were not already a trinitarian that might be my reaction. To say, “This is not only the best answer, but the only answer” is hardly in keeping with today’s relativism. Many would call him downright arrogant. Be that as it may, I do agree with him, but by now that doesn’t surprise you. Let me offer my own commentary on his words and this subject in general.
Throughout the history of philosophy there has been debate over the unity vs. diversity of reality, or the one and the many. Is the universe essentially just one thing or is it many? Related to this is the question of whether or not there are universals? This paradox goes at least as far back as the Presocratic philosophers, the Greeks before Socrates in the 6th-5th centuries BC. Parmenides and Zeno, for example, both espoused the former in what they called “the One”, while Empedocles and Anaxagoras espoused the latter, for which they were called “pluralists”. When we observe the world around us, we readily see myriad individual objects and materials, or particulars as Schaeffer calls them. When we consider human beings, for example, we can talk about the individual uniqueness of each particular person with his or her dignity and rights. And yet we can talk about ‘humanity’ as one class or set of living things. This question applies to pretty much everything, from the smallest sub-atomic level to the largest expanse of the entire universe, including multi-verses if they exist. If there are, we can call them the “mega-verse” collectively, that which encompasses everything. This is precisely how author and professor of philosophy Dr. Joshua Rasmussen at my alma mater, Azusa Pacific University, sets up the argument of his book, How Reason Can Lead to God: A Philosopher’s Bridge to Faith. He starts with the largest possible set of one—Everything, beyond which there can be nothing else. So it’s certainly possible to say there is only one everything, but of course it is comprised of trillions of different kinds of things, and quadrillions of individual particular things. Since then most probably philosophers have wrestled with this apparent paradox and have tended to come down on one side or the other. Today, those who emphasize particulars to the exclusion of universals are called nominalists, and those who recognize universals (as well as particulars) are called Realists.
So which is it, one or many? Schaeffer says the answer is, yes. It’s both. In answer to pantheism (and panentheism) I offer this commentary of my own with which I think Schaeffer would agree: Apparent particulars, at least, abound everywhere for everybody without exception. Nobody can live as though they do not. If they are only illusion, that illusion is so powerful that everybody universally perceives and interacts with them. They must, for it is impossible not to. Reality literally forces this upon a person—even if only an illusion. Language itself forces the issue. Every language in the world has nouns and pronouns that refer to particulars. Even in India and Bhutan, one cannot think, speak, or behave without reference to particular objects, places, persons, speech acts, words, and ideas. If they are only illusion, then what is illusion? They have the full weight and force of objective Reality and so are indistinguishable from it; therefore they are Reality, or they may as well be. Without actual particulars (or at least the illusion of them) we would be utterly incapacitated as rational beings. We could not think or talk about anything, or identify and distinguish any object, idea, or person from any other, and there could be no nouns or pronouns in language, like person or you or me, or this or that. But there also could be no plurality. If there is only the One, and Oneness, then we can expect only oneness from it. In that case there could be no two-ness or three-ness or many-ness, and no plurality, so no these or those, and no people, only one people or person, I guess. As for numbers, there would be only the number 1. So there would be no math, and no counting, because there would be only one thing to count. Thankfully, there is every indication of the existence of particulars. If they are all only illusion, one wonders why the Brahman or the universe, or whatever would deem it necessary or beneficial to supply them so abundantly and universally. On the other hand, if the Brahman or some other divinity is so absolutely One and Everything, one wonders how it could know anything at all of particulars so as to supply them. Particularity, plurality and diversity would be so utterly foreign to such a Force so as to render it impossible.
In answer to the nominalists I say something similar: Apparent universals, at least, exist. They abound inescapably as sets, groupings, classes, collections, and categories in every sphere of thought and experience insofar that we can think and speak of them. It is an indispensable idea. Consider the set of all foods with nutritional value for humans; then the grouping of all fruits, the class of all citrus fruits, the category of all fruits that contain antioxidants, and the collection of particular fruits in this box. Yes, apparent universals exist universally for the set of everybody, everywhere without exception. If they are mere conventions or social constructions, they are so powerful that it is impossible not to utilize them. All of Reality and language itself forces this. As is true for particulars, every language has nouns and pronouns for universals, and to my knowledge there is no religion or people group that rejects them. Only the category of nominalist philosophers does. It is impossible to think or speak without reference to universals, even when rejecting them! If they are mere habits of mind or useful mental constructs, why are they unavoidable? Indeed, there could be no meaningful thought or communication, or even reason without them. They have the full force of objective Reality and are indistinguishable from it; therefore they are Reality, or they may as well be. Without at least the construct of universals we would be utterly incapacitated as rational beings. We could not think or talk about anything other than this or that thing, or identify and distinguish any object, idea, or person from any other; every one would belong to no category because there would be no categories. Neither would there be any collective or plural nouns except maybe the word “things”, but even that is questionable. There would be only singular pronouns that refer to this or that “thing”, or an individual person (then again, there would be no class of ‘persons’), or you or me. But there also could be no plurality of the same or similar things because there could be no such thing as same or similar, really. If there is only diversity, the many of innumerable individual particulars then there could be no humanity, or any all at all, only individual persons with nothing in common with or distinguishable from any other person, and nothing to distinguish her from an animal. Thankfully, there is every indication of the existence of universals. If it is only a convention or a useful construct, one wonders why that god or the universe would deem it necessary or beneficial to provide them so abundantly and globally. On the other hand, if everything (read: every thing) is the product of a divine force, it seems that it could only have been a company of individual gods with no unity like the Greek pantheon, or perhaps a semi-rational demigod that can only create individual things. That god would know nothing of universals, or unity, or commonality, or likeness and unlikeness, etc. It would only know plurality and diversity.
Yes, apparent diversity/plurality and unity/oneness are both part of our universal experience, our common reality. Every person everywhere lives as though they are because we must, it is impossible not to. I think that qualifies them as actual diversity and unity. Therefore, we should conclude that both universals and particulars exist—the one and the many. It is not an either/or question, it is a both/and phenomenon. We do not have to choose between them, nor should we attempt to. With the essential complementarity of both diversity and unity in the universe and in our world, we daily think and speak of thousands of things that are simultaneously one and many. We do because we can, and because we must. Innumerable examples abound. At the micro level, consider molecules. Every molecule is one, and yet it possesses a plurality of two or more atoms. An atom is also one with a plurality of protons, and electrons. On the other extreme, there is one universe (or if you like, one multiverse, the ‘megaverse’). It is Everything, it is one. And yet it consists of multiple other things—stars, galaxies, and planets, etc. Thus the one megaverse possesses oneness and diversity, or plurality. The same can be said for every singular galaxy and solar system, and every star and planet. Each is a marvel of plural oneness, diversity-in-unity. In between these two extremes there are also myriad examples: fundamental substances like light, water, air, fire, rock, soil, chemicals, tissue, wood and all organic matter. Each of them can be spoken of as one universal set or class, and yet they each consist of multiple other components. Then we can consider living organisms—plants and animals. Each plant is one, and each animal is one in a very real sense. Indeed, to dissect one or even talk about its ‘parts’ is in some way arbitrary since it is not essentially a bunch of parts but a living whole. And yet we do talk about its multiple ‘parts’ that each has its own form and function that contribute to the whole. And each organism also has its unique cellular, molecular, and chemical composition that can be thought of as one composition. But, of course, a composition is a multiplicity of other things by definition. Now let’s talk about human beings, the highest of all living organisms by many measures including their rational intelligence, dominion, and psycho-social and spiritual complexity. All that I’ve said about lower organisms can also be said of humans. Every human is fundamentally one being and one person, to be sure, with one mind and one soul. But every human is also a composition of the body (and its composition) plus the brain, the mind, the person and personality, the soul, the will, the desires and affections, and a complex system of other things. So even the human is a plural-one. It’s true that we don’t seem to have a healthy analogy for multiple ‘persons’ or ‘personhood’ within any one human being, but that does not alter the fact of his/her multiple aspects. In light of these examples, one wonders if any counter-examples can be brought to bear. Is there anything that is not a plural-one, a unity of plurality? …No, nothing.
What about God? Surely he is in a class all his own. Yes, of course. But with the weight of evidence in favor of plural-oneness in nature, should we not expect some resemblance between creation and its Creator? My Muslim friends say emphatically no. Not only is God (Allah) absolutely one, he is also absolutely other. But as Schaeffer would say, and as I said in chapter 15, that is impossible. God cannot be so radically other that nature would not reflect his qualities in some ways. A God that knows only darkness in his being and in his realm, for example, could not or would not create light. So the plain fact that there is light must reflect something in the nature of God; it is evidence that he has light in his realm, and he likes light. Indeed, both the Bible and the Qur’an affirm that God created light. The Bible goes on to say that, as with love, “God is light”. (1 John 1:5) In this light (pun intended), it makes perfect sense that God would create light for us, and that the light we have tells us something about God. The same can be said for love, on which I exposited in chapter 14; and truth, and justice, and goodness, and flourishing, and creativity, and reason/logic, and order, and language, and happiness, and personhood, and yes, plural-unity. If it is true that Allah bears no resemblance to his created order, than he cannot be or have light, or love, or truth, or justice, or goodness, or creativity, or reason/logic, or order, or language, or happiness, or personhood, or any of the ingredients that contribute to human flourishing, or Earth’s in general. Conversely, if Allah does not possess any of these, then he could not have given them to the world. Perhaps that is the case. But the Bible ascribes all of these qualities and more to Yahweh, who has shared them with the world. We can know this by natural theology and from the revelation of the Bible. Further, the world demonstrates both diversity and unity, or plural-unity. If Yahweh were absolute oneness, as Allah is claimed to be, then he could not share this with the world because he would have none of these things to share. One cannot give what one does not possess. In that case there could be no diversity, no plurality, no multiplicity, no particularity, no individuality, no variety, and no uniqueness. Only monolithic sameness. The fact that all these things abound points to a God who possesses both diversity and unity. He also possesses personhood. So when the Bible shows and tells us that this God has multiple persons we should not be surprised. In fact, he has three persons that each possesses the divine qualities and share them in perfect complementarity and reciprocity. That’s also how we can explain these things in the world, as I have endeavored to do in this book.
In the excerpt above, Schaeffer said that every philosophy has tried to work out the solution to the problem of diversity and unity, but none has succeeded. They have all failed. That’s because, first, without God it is impossible to explain. But not all Gods equally provide the explanation. It can only come from a Supreme Being that enjoys both diversity and unity within His nature. This is the God that is portrayed in the Bible—the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
*Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) was an American philosopher and the founder of L’Abri in Switzerland.