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I Believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth

On the Creed.

This essay is the first in an occasional series I plan to publish intermittently over the course of the next year, in which I reflect on the articles of the Creed. In this initial entry, I begin my discussion of the first article, Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae.

A family friend once asked the young Ronald Knox what he liked to do best. “I lie awake and think about the past,” the four-year-old responded. For as long as I can remember I have struggled to fall asleep at night. And what I sometimes thought about at roughly Knox’s age, fumblingly but not (I hope) fruitlessly, was God.

What does it mean to refer to God as “the Father Almighty”? Here, alas, I find it necessary to do something I hope to avoid as much as possible—namely, quoting Latin. In the phrase Patrem omnipotentem the noun precedes the adjective, which is perfectly normal in Latin but somewhat rare in English unless we are being deliberately archaic, like the authors of vampire novels for children who write sentences like “On a morning dark. . .” Though it now usually sounds absurd in our language, there is a good deal to be said for putting adjectives after nouns. After all, it is impossible to know what a “blue” is, but, having been asked to envision a “fish,” it requires no very great stretch of the imagination to envision one that is blue.

That said, I think for our present purposes there are good reasons for taking “Father” and “Almighty” in reverse order, not because the latter is more important than the former—everything in the Creed is of equal importance—but because we all have some idea of what fathers are while having precious little experience of what it means for someone to be “almighty,” whatever that means.

When we call God “Almighty,” we are ascribing to Him the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and is all-powerful. The first of these two is, in my experience anyway, much easier for people to wrap their heads around. Christopher Hitchens was fond of comparing God’s omniscience to Kim Jong Il, which told us a great deal about his own personality and sense of humor, but revealed, among other things, his ignorance of life in North Korea. The whole point of surveillance in a totalitarian state is to know as much about what people are doing as possible in the hope of controlling them. With God, to Whom we also ascribe the attribute of omnibenevolence or total goodness, it is very much the opposite: He knows everything about us—what we had for breakfast, what we did instead of sending that last work email, the place where we left our car keys. But instead of combining His omniscience with His omnipotence to rule over us as a tyrant, as He might effortlessly have done (and as dictators have always hoped to do), He gave us free will.

This brings us to the precise meaning of God’s omnipotence, which has been the subject of debate for two thousand years. There was once a waggish sort of parlor game of the sort that philosophers and, perhaps more to the point, a certain kind of undergraduate philosophy student, enjoy which involved asking such questions as “Can God create a stone so heavy that He can’t lift it?” The idea behind this and similar paradoxes is to make omnipotence seem nonsensical. The argument might be sketched in the following manner:

1) If God in the sense in which Christians mean when they refer to Him is omnipotent, there is nothing He cannot do.

2) If God is omnipotent, He can create any kind of stone, including a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it.

3) But if God cannot lift the stone that is too heavy for Him, He is not omnipotent.

4) The same is true if God cannot create such a stone.

5) Therefore, God is not omnipotent (and perhaps does not exist).

Ever since a version of this argument was proposed in the Middle Ages, Catholics have rightly rejected it. Saint Thomas insisted that even God could not do things that are logically impossible. Asking whether God could create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it is a kind of category mistake, like asking whether He could fashion an eight-sided pentagon.

With all deference to the Angelic Doctor, I prefer the solution proposed by the late Professor Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, who quite sensibly pointed that if 2) is true, then 3) must be presumed false; “if,” he says “God is supposed capable of performing one task whose description is self-contradictory—that of creating the problematic stone in the first place—why should He not be supposed capable of performing another—that of lifting the stone?” To paraphrase the Red Queen, one should have no trouble assuming that God can do at least six impossible things before breakfast. 

For this reason, I have no trouble believing that a God who could effect a virgin birth is perfectly capable of creating a triangle whose angles do not add up to one-hundred eighty degrees or a square circle, and of dividing fourteen or any other number by zero. In fact, there is something baselessly pleasing to me about the image of a seventh grader with her protractor carefully checking and rechecking her work only to find the absurd but undeniable answer: the sum of the angles is one-hundred seventy-nine degrees, but it is somehow still a triangle. (Why God should wish to do any of these things is beyond me, but it also pleased Him to create the narwhal and the pink fairy armadillo.)