Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa – Pt 4

Question 13 in Aquinas’ Summa wrestles with the question of theological language. How do we use words, of human construction and origin, to speak about transcendent realities? Can we use words to speak of God? Can we name God? Do our words describe God’s essence? Does a word that is applied to a human or a thing mean the same when applied to God? What does the word ‘God’ even mean?

Article 1. Can we use any words to refer to God?

  • Aquinas quotes Pseudo-Dinoysius’ radical statement: “Of him there is no naming nor any opinion…” (Divine Names, 1)
  • Aquinas differentiates between two types of nouns: the concrete and the abstract. Both types of nouns cannot be adequately and properly used to speak about God.
    • Concrete nouns are said to be “inappropriate” because God is “altogether simple.” (1a, 13, 1)
      • While I don’t quite understand what Aquinas means by this, I did a little bit more reading elsewhere and a concrete noun is often used to refer to a physical object that is sensible. (At least this is the contemporary usage.)
    • Abstract nouns are equally problematic because they “[do] not signify a complete subsistent thing.” (1a, 13, 1)
      • Abstract nouns refer to ideas, not an actual existent reality. God is not just an idea. God is a “subsistent thing.” (Though he’s not a thing.)
  • Aquinas then talks about other grammatical considerations one should be aware of with theological language: “A noun signifies a thing as coming under some description, verbs and participles signify it as enduring in time, pronouns signify it as being pointed out or as in some relationship. None of these is appropriate to God…” But why? (1a, 13, 1)
    • Nouns are not appropriate because we don’t have a definition of what God is and any “accidental attributes” (that which we see God do?) are also not available to us.
    • God is also outside of time so verbs and participles break down in their use when applied to God.
    • Pronouns also are problematic because a pronoun requires some other descriptor (like a verb and noun) to be applied.
  • Thus, it seems as if God is so far beyond speech that we are left speechless.
  • But, what about Scripture’s statement that “The Lord is a great warrior, Almighty is his name.”
    • Aquinas quotes Aristole’s idea that words signify a thought and thoughts bear the “likeness of things.”
    • Thus, Aquinas writes that “how we refer to a thing depends on how we understand it.” (1a, 13, 1, Reply)
  • Aquinas refers back to his already decided upon beliefs that “we do not see the essence of God, we only know him from creatures…”
    • God is known as the source of all creatures who is beyond them.
    • “It is the knowledge we have of creatures that enables us to use words to refer to God, and so these words do not express the divine essence as it is in itself.” (1a, 13, 1, Reply)
    • Words are dim indicators of the essence of God and should (perhaps?) not be taken as literal statements of God’s essence.
  • Thomas concludes that “God is said to have no name, or to be beyond naming because his essence is beyond what we understand of him and the meaning of the names we use.” (1a, 13, 1, 1)
  • Moreover, we know God through creatures (analogy of being), and we use language that refers to creatures to refer to God, with the caveat that the words we use are limited and analogical.
  • God is a composite of the form and the subsistent (the abstract and the concrete). This means that we are able to use both concrete and abstract nouns to refer to God. “…though neither way of speaking measures up to his way of being, for in this life we do not know him as he is in himself.” (1a, 13, 1, 2)
  • Because we can use these nouns, we are also free to use verbs, participles, and pronouns because we are speaking of God as a definite form that is subsistent.
  • Verbs can be used because even though God is not bound by time, he contains time within himself.


Dialoge on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 3

Read part one and part two.

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.

Continue reading

Highlights from Nicholas of Cusa

From Nicholas of Cusa’s On the Vision of God

Introduction § 1 

But I pray first the Word from on high and the all-powerful Discourse, which alone can disclose itself may be given to me in order to set forth, according to your grasp, the wonders which are revealed beyond all sensible, rational, and intellectual sight. (235)

Ch 6 § 21 

In all faces the face of faces is seen veiled and in enigma. It is not seen unveiled so long as one does not enter into a certain secret and hidden silence beyond all faces where there is no knowledge or concept of a face. This cloud, mist, darkness, or ignorance into which whoever seeks your face enters when one leaps beyond every knowledge and concept is such that below it your face cannot be found except veiled. But this very cloud reveals your face to be there beyond all veils… (244)

Ch 7 § 25

No one can approach you because you are unapproachable. No one, therefore, will grasp you unless you give yourself to this person. How do I have you, O Lord, I who am not worthy to appear in your presence? How will my prayer reach you, who are unapproachable by every means? How will I beseech you, for what would be more absurd than to ask that you give yourself to me, you who are all in all? (246)

Ch 9 § 34

If, therefore, your essence penetrates all things, so too does your sight, which is your essence. Just as nothing that exists is able to flee from its own proper being, so neither can it flee from your essence, which gives essential being to all things, nor therefore, can it flee from your sight. (250-251)

Ch 9 § 36

Hence, I experience how necessary it is for me to enter into the cloud and to admit the conincidence of opposites, above all capacity of reason, and to seek there the truth where impossibility confronts me. And above reason, above even every highest intellectual ascent when I will have attained to that which is unknown to every intellect and which every intellect judges to be the most removed from truth, there are you, my God, who are absolute necessity. And the more that cloud of impossibility is recognized as obscure and impossible, the more truly the necessity shines forth and the less veiled it appears and draws near (251)

Ch 9 § 37

Therefore, I thank you, my God, because you make clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me. (251)

Ch 12 § 47

Formerly you appeared to me, O Lord, as invisible by every creature because you are a hidden, infinite God. Infinity, however, is incomprehensible by every means of comprehending. Later you appeared to me as visible by all, for a thing exists only as you see it, and it would not actually exists unless it saw you. For your vision confers being, since your vision is your essence. Thus, my God, you are equally invisible and visible. (256)

Ch 12 §50

O Depth of riches, how incomprehensible you are! So long as I conceive a creator creating, I am still on this side of the wall of paradise. And so long as I imagine a creatable creator, I have not yet entered, but I am at the wall. But when I see you as absolute infinity to whom is suited neither the name of creating creator nor that of creatable creator, then I begin to behold you in an unveiled way and to enter the garden of delights. For you are not anything that can be named or conceived but are absolutely and infinitely superexalted above all such things. You are not, therefore, creator, but infinitely more than creator, although with you nothing is made or can be made. To you be the praise and the glory through all eternity. (257)

Ch 13 § 51

O Lord God, helper of those who seek you, I see you in the garden of paradise, and I do not know what I see, because I see nothing visible. I know this alone that I  know that I do not know what I see and that I can never know. I do not know how to name you, because I do not know what you are. Should anyone tell me that you are named by this or that name, by the fact that one gives a name I know that it is not your name. For the wall beyond which I see you is the limit of every mode of signification by names. Should anyone express any concept by which you could be conceived, I know that this concept is not a concept of you, for every concept finds its boundary at the wall of paradise. Should anyone express any likeness and say that you ought to be conceived according to it, I know in the same way that this is not a likeness of you. So too, if anyone wishing to furnish the means by which you might be understood should set forth an understanding of you, one is still far removed from you. For the highest wall separates you from all theses and secludes you from everything that can be said or thought, because you are absolute from all the things that can fall within any concept. (257-258)

Ch 13 § 52

Accordingly, when I am lifted up to the highest, I see you as infinity. For this reason you cannot be approached, comprehended, named, multiplied, or seen. Whoever, therefore, approaches you must ascend above every end, every limit, and every finite thing. Bu how will one reach you, who are the end to which one strives, if one must ascend above the end….The intellect, therefore, must become ignorant and established in darkness if it wishes to see you. But what, my God, is intellect in ignorance if not learned ignorance. O God, you are infinity, and no one can approach you except one whose intellect abides in ignorance, that is, one whose intellect knows that it is ignorant of you….The intellect knows that it is ignorant and that you cannot be grasped because you are infinity. For to understand infinity is to comprehend the incomprehensible. The intellect knows that it is ignorant of you because it knows that you can be known only if the unknowable could be known, and the invisible seen, and the inaccessible reached. (258)

Ch 13 § 53

My God you are absolute infinity itself, which I perceive to be the infinite end, but I am unable to grasp how an end without an end is an end. You, O God, are your own end, since you are whatever you have; if you have an end, you are an end. You are, therefore, an infinite end, because you are your own end, for your end is your essence….When, therefore, I assert the existence of the infinite, I admit that darkness is light, ignorance knowledge, and the impossible necessary.(258)

I am better and wiser than God.

Meister Eckhart

If I have learned anything in my experience with doing marketing stuff for different groups I’ve been affiliated with, it’s the power of language to get someone to do something. Thus, a provocative title to get you to read this.

But I didn’t just come up with the title.

I am reading Sermon 83 from the 13th c. Dominican friar and mystic Meister Eckhart. Specifically, I’m reading him to get idea of how he uses negative theology in his understanding and communion with God.

To start, in Sermon 83, Eckhart is talking about renewal that comes from the Holy Spirit. But he switches gears a bit to talk about the namelessness of God.

Now pay attention: God is nameless, because no one can say anything or understand anything about him….So if I say: ‘God is good,’ that is not true. I am good, but God is not good. I can even say: ‘I am better than God,’ for whatever is good can become better, and whatever can become better can become best of all. But since God is not good, he cannot become better. And since he cannot become better, he cannot be best of all. For these three degrees are alien to God: ‘good,’ ‘better,’ and ‘best’ for he is superior to them all. (206-207)

Eckhart is pretty emphatic here about our inability to attribute proper and clearly defined names to God. This sort of radical thought is pushed to the edges when Eckhart states that it is not accurate to call God good. God is beyond good, but not the epitome of the adjective good. It seems that what Eckhart is getting at here is that some language implies development and change, the opposite of what God is. If God is just good, then that means God might be able to become better, and that God might even become the best. God, for Eckhart, must be beyond change, and thus, beyond transitory adjectives.

And if I say: ‘God is wise,’ that is not true. I am wiser than he. If I say: ‘God is a being,’ it is not true; he is a being transcending being and a transcendent nothingness. (207)

Here Eckhart critiques putting God into ontological categories (e.g. being) that might result in God being called just another but more supreme being or considering God the ground of all being, that is, Being-itself. What I find interesting though is that he paradoxically uses the word being to still refer to God: “he is a being transcending being.” I think it would be clearer and less confusing to refer to God as surpassing being, beyond being. Eckhart’s choice of the word nothingness at first appears confusing because how can something (God) be nothing? Eckhart would argue that God is not a thing, this would be reducing God to a mere object. Instead, God is no-thing. God does not possess the qualities of a thing nor should we ascribe to God qualities of things. But God’s nothingness is beyond what we would call nothing. Nothing, in our language, might refer to something not being there physically or not possessing the qualities of existence. God is no-thing insofar as he is not an object, but rather a subject.

On a side note, the Papal Bull In Agro Dominico did not shy away from condemning Eckhart’s assertion regarding the untruth of the statement ‘God is good.’ The Pope wrote that this article (and another 16) “contain the error or stain of heresy as much from the tenor of their words as from the sequence of their thoughts.” (80) It continues, “we condemn and expressly reprove…[these]…as heretical.” (80)

Moving right along, then, Eckhart quotes Pseudo-Dionysius (but for some reason he says that Augustine said it):

The best that one can say about God is for one to keep silent out of the wisdom of one’s inward riches. (Mystical Theology)

In other words, the wise person will know that their language ultimately falters in speaking about who God is in his nature; it is better to keep silent. Eckhart adds “So be silent and do not chatter about God; for when you do chatter about him, you are telling lies and sinning But if you want to be without sin and perfect, you should not chatter about God.” (207) Chatter, which might be something like ‘casually talking about God’ or ‘speculation,’ is not helpful to one who desires to become perfect. Perhaps this ‘chattering’ that Eckhart speaks about might be a more accurate example of taking God’s name in vain. God’s name and essence are not to be spoken about lightly, in other words. Casual talk opens up the possibility of speaking incorrectly about God because one has not carefully contemplated God. Speculation, (the perpetual sin of the theologian? Oh no!), is ‘chattering’ that is more conducive to splitting theological hairs than actually investigating the essence of God. For Eckhart, casual talk about God and speculation, redirect one’s attention from the primordial truth about God: that God is “beyond all understanding.” (207) I don’t think Eckhart is saying that the vocation of the theologian is somehow sinful, because they are prone to what appears to be chattering. Nor do I think that Eckhart would be against conversations amongst individuals about God. His emphatic statements like this seem more intent on drawing our attention to the absolute importance of speech about God. Talking about God, no matter the context, is a privilege. It should not be done lightly.

If I had a God whom I could understand, I should never consider him God. (207)

Quoting an unknown source, Eckhart intimates that if one claims to know God in an intellectual sense, understanding God’s essence, then it is probable that one should not consider that ‘god’ as God. What one claims to know about God “in no way belongs to him.” (207) If one does understand God, then in reality they do not understand God and the result is that they “arrive at a brute’s stupidity.” (207) Eckhart turns the tables, then, and says that to avoid “a brute’s stupidity” one must acknowledge that thy do not understand God. The brute thinks he understands but really doesn’t. The one who is not a brute acknowledges right off the bat that he does not understand and thus lives in this truth, not as a brute, but as a humbled creature who knows he does not know and does not pretend that he knows.

Eckhart ends this train this paragraph by asking the question in light of everything he has said: “Then what ought I to do?” In words that seem to echo the Eastern Christian theology of theosis, Eckhart calls upon the Christian to “sink down out of all your your-ness, and flow into his his-ness, and your ‘yours’ and his ‘his’ ought to become one ‘mine,’ so completely that you with him perceive forever his uncreated is-ness, and his nothingness, for which there is no name.” (207) Union with God is the mode of knowing God, which is ultimately unknowing. Though I am sure that Eckhart speaks more about this union elsewhere, from what I see, he is suggesting that one must empty themselves of themselves, giving up their rights and expectations, all that they are and want, and having it subsumed into the very nothingness of God. Eckhart’s vision for union seems pretty well radical in that the one becomes so unified with God that there is no ‘yours’ or ‘his’ but only ‘mine.’ One knows God intimately so much so that the two become one. Is there still a distinction or is this a complete union that does not allow of differentiation and distinction? My guess is that the union is so unitary, and because God is the perfect One, that this union does not allow for the individual to remain and individual. I could be wrong about Eckhart’s theology of union here. I will go into detail regarding this union in another post.

…you should never be content with God, because you can never be content with God. The more you have of God, the more you long for him, for if you could be content with God, and such a contentment with him were to come, God would not be God. (206-207)