Is God more like a rock or the idea of a rock? If you had to choose one or the other, which would it be? On its face, the answer seems obvious. Rocks represent matter at its most obdurate state, while ideas transcend matter altogether. Ideas are the proper activity of the intellect. They live in minds, while rocks don’t live at all. Isn’t God infinitely closer to an ideaindeed, the idea of just about anything, let alone a rockthan he is to anything that is, well, any kind of thing?
We could answer that God is infinitely dissimilar to both an idea and a thing. That move, however, would leave us with very little idea of what God is. And it would go against the grain of classical theism, a formidable consensus that includes Plato, Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas. They contend that God is absolutely simple, immaterial, and indivisible. God is pure being, not a being in the world. That makes God much more like an idea of a rock than a rock.
Following this train of thought gives you an immaterial God outside of time and spacemuch closer to an idea than a rock. This God thinks, and beings appear. Created things can be this or that, which means that they have a mutable nature. God, as their source, cannot be among these things. When classical theists state that God is the being of all things, they could just as easily say that God is the thinker of all things, the eternal knower whose thinking is what we perceive as reality.
We might eventually end up at hylomorphism, the idea that all beings except Being itself are composed of form and matter. (Angels remain an ambiguous limit case of this idea.) Matter is the potential for something to be, while form is what anything actually is. It follows that when we know something, we know its form. Matter itself is not only unknowable, but non-existent for practical purposes. God did not first create matter and then form it. Instead, he brought matter into being by thinking of a variety of things, which are distinguished by how close they are to his own thinking.
How we think about the world is thus our best clue to the nature of God. Indeed, God created us to share in his thinking, which makes our intellect infinitely closer to God than our physical bodies (which do not even have the material continuity of rocks). This insight into the nature of our intellect is near the very origins of Greek philosophy. Plato believes we can know the forms because our souls are immortal and were once contemplatively united with the divine. Aristotle builds on Plato: We have an active intellect (nous) that gives us the power to identify with the truth of all things and thus participate in God’s thinking of his eternal thoughts. The truth we find through this contemplation is unchanging, which means true ideas cannot be conditioned by the vagaries of time. Knowing the truth (and thus knowing God) requires the purging of our sensory limitations.
This intellectual contemplation is self-reflection of a very specific kind. We must know ourselves as transcending space and time so that we can identify with God’s eternally true knowledge of us (and of everything else). Classical theism sees all true spiritual pilgrimage as a purely interior movement. We cannot leave our bodies in this world, but we can rise above them in our minds.
No philosophical method can induce this experience. It comes, as even Plotinus believed, as a gift or grace. Beauty typically is the form of this gift, but it manifests itself in the physical world without becoming a part of it. The beautiful is how the transcendent draws our desire for pleasure away from the mutable and toward the eternal. Objects are beautiful when their parts are so finely integrated that their unifying principle makes them appear to be as one as the truth is. Our sensible apprehension of material things can thus be the basis for an experience of unity with the absolute that defies description. Rocks are too thick with matter, too bound to their own implacable objectivity, to be windows that open to the divine.
All physical things, according to classical theism, will come to an end when God is all in all, because matter, being formless, is the absence of the divine. Our unification with the indivisible divine will not add to or alter God’s simple oneness. We will be like a dreamer who has forgotten that she is dreaming and thus thinks she is alive in her dream. Or we will be like a thinker who thinks without being limited by a body. Being with God will mean thinking God’s thoughts, and since we are thoughts of God, our self-reflection will be nothing other than God’s own thinking. We will arrive in eternity to find ourselves in the mind of God. There will be no bodies, or persons, since persons are bodies with their own individual thoughts. Needless to say, God will no longer think about rocks, or even the idea of a rock, since God’s thinking is identical to his creating. Will God even, in the end, think about us?
Classical theism is a beautiful way of thinking about thinking, and for those who are passionate about pure thought, there is no idea more beautiful than the idea that God is like our ideas. This beautiful idea is not a good idea, however, because it reduces God to the idea that intellectuals have about themselves. Classical theism thus demonstrates that something does not have to be material to be an idol. Personally, I think that God is as much like a rock as an idea of a rock: Like a rock, God is an entity, with its own specific nature, and like the idea of a rock, God is the mind that makes everything what it is. To answer our initial question, we could say that God is like a rock that thinks. Or we could just say that God is a person, like us.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.