Cusa’s dialogue between the Christian and the Pagan presents some challenging questions for contemporary Christians’ language about knowledge, certainty, faith, and how one speaks about God. I find the Christian in the dialogue to be very different from mainstream Christianity’s desire for certainty, rational proofs for the existence of God, and other efforts that inadvertently express to the wider world a degree of epistemological arrogance. (I recognize that to some degree this is a generalization.) More to it, admitting that one does not know something about God (or any other matter of faith) is seen as weakness, laziness, a lack of faith, a rejection of the Bible as a source of knowledge, and a lack of confidence in God. At worst, admitting that one doesn’t know something is seen as a sinful ignorance. Additionally, agnosticism is a target of polemical apologetics. Agnostics are, like atheists, people who’ve got it all wrong. They need to be corrected. To be shown true knowledge. While I’m not disputing the fact that agnosticism is often a mask for apathy or disinterest, I am saying that the inherent value of agnosticism for the Christian faith is underestimated. Again, some observations.
So, back to the Christian and the Pagan.
Where I last left off, the Christian had said something very peculiar about his God: “I know that everything I know is not God and that everything I conceive is not like God…” That is to say, the Christian recognizes that his intellect cannot conceive of anything like God on its own. Even if faith, which amplifies and enlightens reason, allowing one to go beyond reason, is brought into the equation, I think that this simple detail, God’s incomprehensibility, remains true.
The Pagan, of course, is still quite confused by this Christian who says he doesn’t know and yet he knows, but he doesn’t really know that he knows, etc.
Pagan. Therefore, God is nothing.
The Pagan thinks that the Christian is just playing around with an illusory God who is in reality, nothing.
Christian. God is not nothing, for this nothing has the name “nothing.”
The Christian replies that nothing is still a concept. It is still a name, for, nothing (surprise!). Thus, to call God nothing is still to call God something and to say that God is something (even if that something is nothing). Calling God nothing is still putting God in a box.
Pagan. If God is not nothing, then God is something.
The Pagan believes God can fit into neat categories that are black and white. If its nothing, then it doesn’t exist. But if it isn’t nothing, then it has to be something.
Christian. God is beyond nothing and beyond something…God cannot be called ‘this’ rather than ‘that,’ since all things are from God.
The Christian chooses his language about God to emphasize God’s beyondness. God is extends away from humanly constructed concepts to a realm which mere language and reason cannot penetrate. God’s beyondness is necessary because if God is something (or nothing) then God is not God because he would be subject to a principle greater than himself. Nothing and something are subject to God.
Christian. …for nothing obeys God in order that something may come into being. And this is God’s omnipotence, by which God surpasses everything that is or is not, so that thus that which is not obeys God just as that which is obeys God. For God causes not-being to enter into being and being to enter into not-being. Therefore, God is nothing of those things that are under God…
It is accurate then, the Christian says, to consider God neither nothing nor something. God is neither, nor, but beyond. Everything is subject to God so much so that concepts themselves are subject to God. Concepts cannot be formed about God; language cannot be spoken, because it did not exist prior to God. Moreover, God is not an object to be studied because that would presuppose the ability to get a view of God that only God possess.
Now the Pagan turns to the question of “What is God’s name?” The Christian replies “that whose magnitude cannot be conceived remains ineffable.” Once more, the Pagan is confronted with the paradox of the Christian’s view of God: God is not ineffable nor effable, but beyond effability. In other words, God is beyond language. Language does not even begin to scratch the surface when speaking about God. God does not have a name since that would imply names pre-existed God.
Christian. God is not ineffable but beyond everything that is effable, for God is the cause of all nameable things…
Simply put, naming God is like putting the cart before the horse.
God, the Christian later says, is “infinitely excellently prior to everything we conceive and name as ‘truth.’” By extension, to say something true about God is to acknowledge that God is infinitely excellently prior to everything we conceive or say about him, including what I just wrote.
I like to imagine speaking about God as a sort of orbit. What first starts off as a seemingly infinite cyclical motion of affirmation and denials ends in language, experience, names, everything about God being catapulted beyond. As long as we remain in orbit around our words, names, ideas, and experiences, we can never actually move toward God. We are stuck in a perpetual orbit.
Finally, an important question of the Pagan is, what about the word ‘God’? Isn’t that itself a name? And how can the Christian call God, God if God does not have a speakable name?
Pagan. Do you not name God ‘God’?
Christian. We do.
Pagan. Are you saying something true or something false?
Christian. Neither the one nor the other, nor both. For we are not saying that it is true that this is God’s name, nor are we saying that it is false, for it is not false that this is God’s name. Nor are we saying that it is true and false, for God’s simplicity precedes both all that can be named and all that cannot.
The Christian explains further that the word ‘God’ comes from ‘theoro,’ which is translated ‘to see.’ Very simply, the Christian uses the metaphor of colour and the relationship to sight. We see colour by our sight. But there is no colour that can be used to name sight. Concepts and ideas that refer to colour cannot be applied to sight. Sight is beyond colour itself and beyond all names for colours. Colour and sight are two different realities. But colour needs sight in order to be considered colour. Our ears cannot name colour. Likewise, God and Creation share a similar relationship. The names and concepts that exist in Creation cannot be applied to God who exists outside, above, and beyond Creation. God is beyond Creation as sight is beyond colour.
Pagan. …I clearly understand that neither God nor God’s name is to be found in the realm of all creatures and that God flees from every concept rather than being asserted as something.
That concludes my brief look at Dialogue on the Hidden God. There is much more in Nicholas of Cusa to explore. Hopefully I will have some time to do so.