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The God of What-If: Deconstructing the Idolatry of Theological Hypotheticals

By Fr. Wesley Walker

“Clearly, whatever you are, you are in your self; you are not derived from another. You are the very life by which you live, the knowledge by which you know, the goodness by which you are good, and so forth.”

St. Anselm, Proslogion, XII

Richard Mcbee - In the Cleft (2008)

As finite beings locked into a linear timeline, it is easy to think about the “what-ifs” that could have been. Where would I be now if I chose this school or that other major? What if this or that relationship worked out? What if I was born into a different household with different parents who had different religious or denominational commitments? Counterfactuals are possible by virtue of being part of creation and function as a way we can learn. What if Mike McCarthy had the Cowboys kick a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down in week 1 of the NFL season? What if dogs had three legs instead of four? What if we increased the dosage of medication for the patient? In each case, the what-if has a pedagogical value for students of situational management in football, biology, and medicine.

Here, it is important to make a distinction between hypothetical counterfactuals and speculation within theology. Hypothetical counterfactuals pose questions about how God could have done differently what he has done. Could God have refrained from creating? Could God have made us so that we would not fall? Could God have remained aloof after the Fall as humanity slipped into nonexistence through sin? These kinds of questions are different from acts of speculation. Here theologians posit tentative explanations as a means of going “further up and further in” the mystery of the faith. Speculative theology builds off of what is known instead of taking us into what could have been. Speculative theology uses deductive logic. That which I am suspicious of is the use of hypothetical counterfactuals as a method within speculative theology. We have to engage in speculation but without reasoning from counterfactuals.

The Problem With Hypotheticals

Christianity has affirmed divine simplicity, which means that God has no parts. He is immutable and impassible because he cannot change and does not derive pleasure or pain on account of his creatures. These doctrines point to an even more fundamental reality that God is not another thing within the cosmos. Pagan metaphysics largely asserted that the gods plus the rest of what is equals everything. But the Christian tradition defies this notion. God is not a part of everything. Everything that is is entirely dependent on him; “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Dominican monk Herbert McCabe astutely points out that “It is not possible that God and the universe should add up to make two (God Matters 6). Adding requires likeness (two horses, two humans, two beings, two things) but God is altogether not like us because he is not another thing within creation.

This is further complicated by the subject of being. As creatures, we are given the gift of being by him who is pure being, ipsum esse subsistens. Everything in the world exists “through a participation in esse” (Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason, 41). What is, therefore, cannot be arbitrary. According to Aquinas, a thing’s form exists within God and so, as God knows himself, he knows things “deeper than the natures, features, and properties we come to know through our cognitive involvement with them” (Sokolowski 44-45).

So, can we use hypotheticals to talk about God? No. Or, at least we have to use them cautiously. This is the case for three reasons: immutability, being, and nature. God cannot change. He is pure being and, therefore, is actuality instead of potentiality. He cannot act apart from his nature. Arbitrariness implies options: if I arbitrarily pick film x to watch, it means I chose it over option y for no particular reason. This is a feature of creaturehood. God acts according to his unchanging essence.

Divine mutability, being, and nature should give the theologian a degree of caution when it comes to entertaining hypothetical questions about God. For example, “Could God have not created?” Of course, we must affirm nothing other than creation’s utter dependence on God. The world’s relation to God is one of contingency not mutuality. Existence is a gratuitous gift, not a necessity which somehow increases or diminishes God in any way. Yet, we cannot really entertain the alternative “timeline” of non-being where God did not create because then we would have a God who could change his mind, who stands before a grand decision tree of possible worlds from which he arbitrarily chooses. A god who has to choose between multiple options is another being stuck within a causal chain.

This is not to elevate the created world above its station in the chain of being. God is not externally compelled to create anything at all. It is, however, to rightly acknowledge that we have the world we have because we have the God we have. Creation is not an arbitrary act, and while we say it is not owed anything from God, we cannot engage in any extended thought experiment where God did not create. And we cannot engage in other hypotheticals about God on similar grounds. Did he owe it to use to make us one way or another? No, but he made us peccable and not in any other way. Did he have to redeem the world? No, he did not owe the world anything, but he did redeem it. While counterfactual hypotheticals have their place in creaturely affairs, they are not applicable to the Creator.

The Idolatry of What-If?

In the Old Testament, the prophets critique pagan idols because of how utterly anthropomorphized they are. Not only that, but they are derivatives of derivatives: how can one expect their god to speak when he or she was crafted into a stone figurine by the town artisan? It is the epitome of foolishness for a creature to worship something they created (Isa 44:9-20; cf. Jer 10:14; Hab 2:18; 1 Cor 12:2). While the inclination might be to assume that we moderns are more advanced than our pagan predecessors, we really have just traded pocket statuary for credit cards and smartphones, both of which we attribute the same power to as pagan deities. Besides the obvious monetary and technological idolatry, we are susceptible to a cerebral form of idolatry that occurs when we craft our own deities based on hypotheticals. When, for example, we theologize about the God who may or may not have created, created humanity differently, or redeemed the world, we are dealing with something other than the God that exists. This is the critical problem in much of the “best of all possible worlds” theologizing which finds its origin in the work of German philosopher Gottfried Liebniz (1646-1716). When God becomes full of potentials and has to consult a decision tree to chart the best course of action, he becomes just another agent within the world. Those potentialities exist beyond him even though classical theism tells us nothing can exist beyond God.

The problem with the god of “what-if” is that it makes us lose focus on the God who is, substituting reality for a poorly designed mental construction. When we see through a mirror dimly lit, it is all too easy to lose focus. This is why our theology must be so firmly tied to the Church and her Scriptures, Creeds, and liturgies. The Church firmly asserts that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands (or minds) but is uncircumscribed and eternal (Anselm, Proslogium, 13). The band As Cities Burn succinctly summarizes the point: “Is your god really God? Is my god really God? I think our god isn’t God if he fits inside our heads.” While it could be argued that hypotheticals attempt to “break the mold,” they are not ultimately helpful because they force him into the world as a being among beings. It is not our use of icons that violates the Second Commandment but our mental reconstructions of a god who exists within the cosmos as an agent among agents or a being among beings.

Perhaps, however, I have overstated the case against hypotheticals somewhat. For Gideon, the deconstruction of idols necessitated a reconstruction of an altar to God from the pagan ruins (Judges 6). So, the positive is that hypotheticals give us something which can be deconstructed that points us to a truth about God. Perhaps the best instance of this occurs in On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. Athanasius begins his argument by establishing God as the fountain of all being and goodness (ch. 3). Humanity’s fall meant turning away from “eternal things” to self-corruption leading to death. Sin was leading humanity into destruction and non-being to the point of “disappearing” (chs. 5-6). It is here that Athanasius asks us to consider hypotheticals by posing a “divine dilemma.” In light of humanity’s state, could God have just forgiven his creatures? On the other extreme, could he have left humanity to its own devices and not saved them? The answer to both hypotheticals is a resounding no. God could not do away with the law he had given humanity lest he be a liar nor could he have stood by and watched humanity slip into non-existence because he is good and loving. The hypotheticals are not a starting point but stand in contrast to the God who is as if they originate from the mouth of a pagan objector to the Christian faith. Athanasius does not engage in any actual speculation of “what ifs.” In fact, the whole treatise is answering objections from those outside the faith to the way in which God acted in saving the world. Every time a hypothetical is raised, it is knocked down to advance the truth of the Gospel. Could Christ have died another way besides the cross? Athanasius leaves little to no room for speculation. The cross is tied to God’s economy because it is how Christ bears our curse, pays the ransom and draws all men to himself (John 12:32), and defeats Satan, purifying his kingdom, the air (Eph 2:2). So, a hypothetical maybe a valuable tool insofar as it is a foil against how God actually is. The God who would not create is hardly the Christian God who, for whatever reason, bestows upon us the gratuitous gifts of existence and salvation. That there is no external constraint to either his works of foundation or his works of redemption (Hugh of Saint Victor, De Sacramentis, Prologue) accentuates the point: his essence really is goodness. Anything other than the God who is is an idol that must be destroyed.

If we apply counterfactuals to God, we cease to deal with God as he has been understood by the Christian tradition. The idea that there are counterfactuals about God assumes he exists somehow within the cosmos and is working his way through a decision tree. The problem is that God is immutable, pure being and actuality, and acts according to his essence. This is not to say God is externally constrained. In fact, these doctrines are absolutely essential to any understanding of divine freedom. When we look at the world God created, we can affirm that the world exists the way it exists because of the God who is existence. What this means is that applying hypotheticals to God can become an exercise fraught with peril because it may be a subtle but powerful way of constructing idols that obfuscate the God who is. However, this is not to discount their use entirely. As with St. Athanasius, counterfactuals can be a teaching tool: when we destroy the hypotheticals, our understanding of God becomes a little bit clearer.

Fr. Wesley Walker is the Assistant Rector at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Crownsville, MD and is the co-host of the Sacramentalists podcast.

1 Comment

Fr. Mark Perkins
Fr. Mark Perkins
Oct 02, 2020

Fantastic piece, Fr. Wesley! The example from St. Athanasius is wonderful in showing how hypotheticals can be used wisely as another way of contemplating He Who Is -- whereas modern theologians sometimes engage in counterfactualism premised upon (a) the idea that God could be otherwise and (b) that they might know better than God...

The second chapter of Marc Cortez's ReSourcing Theological Anthropology employs this reasoning nicely in the "Incarnation anyway" argument -- that God would have been incarnate regardless of human sin. This position is often objected to as speculative: we know that God's incarnation responds to and resolves human sin, and so to assume that it would have happened anyway is counterfactual speculation. Cortez argues that the suggestion…

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