“In him we live and move and have our being”

“In him we live and move and have our being…”

Acts 17:28 is Berkeley’s favorite biblical gloss for his philosophy of immaterialism. But, as he noticed early on as well, it was equally a favorite of so straightforwardly pantheist (or acosmist) a thinker as Spinoza. In his notebooks, he wrote, “Spinosa (vid. Præf. Opera Posthum.) will have God to be “omnium rerum causa immanens,” and to countenance this produces that of St. Paul, “in Him we live,” &c. Now this of St. Paul may be explained by my doctrine as well as Spinosa’s, or Locke’s, or Hobbs’s, or Raphson’s, &c.” (52). It’s not insignificant that this conflict between the pantheist Spinoza and the Christian Berkeley seems to reprise the original conflict implicit in St. Paul’s offering that line as a gloss on the doctrine of the Stoic Aratus. The Christian doctrine of creation does seem to be drawn naturally toward pantheist turns of phrase, even as it struggles to differentiate itself from them. Why?

Stephen Daniel is interesting on this. He suggests that, for Berkeley, “God is not a subject or self but rather the discursive domain in terms of which we are initially able to speak about minds, ideas, and their relations…God is the semantic matrix of reality, the place or space in which all things (including minds and ideas) have identities and are originally differentiated” (“B’s Pantheistic Discourse,” 180). To say that the world is “in God” is to say that God means in and through the world – the entire order of being, as significant, stands to the LORD as signifier.

But this equally gives us some things to say about the difference between body and mind for Berkeley. Daniel goes on to observe that Berkeley says that sensibles “exist,” meaning that it “is thought as having a determinate identity by some mind,” while minds “subsist,” meaning “that they are the particular patterns of association by means of which things in the world are identified as having meanings” (187). (Cf. PHK 90, Dialogues 212, 235-6.) A mind, then, isn’t some radically distinct kind of substance from the beings (ideas) it perceives, but rather is the transcendent act of ordering those ideas; the mind is the world viewed as active, as willing and understanding, rather than willed and understood.

What does the LORD do, then, in creating? He crafts a discourse, whose moments – which is to say, creatures such as trees and stars and quarks – are legible to us only by virtue of their standing in a set of grammatical relations to every other moment. And where are we in that discourse? Daniel suggests that, for Berkeley, we “are expressions of the syntactic alignments in terms of which relations in nature are identified” (188-9). This brings to mind an interesting comment by David Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, where he suggests, “All creation declares God’s glory, and so should be understood not simply according to a logic of substances, but first as a free and flowing succession of semeia, within which ‘substances’ are constituted as the relative stability of the ‘notes’ or ‘moments’ that whole discourse (the Logos) calls forth” (209). (Hart’s comment points the way to a richer ontology than Berkeley seems to be interested in, wherein impersonal creatures might have a place as well…)

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