Theological discourse is (too) easily cast into two opposing methods: the kataphatic and the apophatic. The former suggests there is much we can and must say about God. The later asserts that there is far more that we cannot say about God and we must therefore be silent. Moreover, these two ways both succumb to tendency to see itself as the only way, exclusive of the other. The artificial boundary between the two is in fact much more porous and, as we shall see, Kearney takes complete advantage of this, exercising an anaphatic back and forth between the two domains. Finally, both ways show up in theology in extreme ways. Kataphatic theology is inclined towards decisive statements about God with varying degrees of certainty. Apophatic theology is equally swayed towards resolute denials that are also held with differing intensities of certainty. Both are steadfastly intent on saying something about God, whether by affirmation or denials, and both hold their statements quite tightly. The kataphatic becomes too confident in their capacity and authority to say things about God; they forget that they are talking about something inherently mysterious and unknowable. The apophatic may steer themselves too closely to the shores of apathetic silence: If we can’t say anything, why bother?
I started writing this post a few days ago and when I logged back into WordPress, the draft came up as ‘(no title).’ I thought it was a perfect title for a short musing on negative theology.
On our drive out to Alberta on Monday, my wife asked me what sort of conclusions I came to after finishing my papers on negative theology. My reply was something to the effect: “Well, negative theology is critical. It is an absolute must in any theology. It is irreplaceable. We can’t do without it. It allows us to become ‘silent’ and ‘catch our breath’ when we’ve been chattering and making noises about God that we think say it all. Critique is the gift of negative theology. We have to knock down our idols, recognize the total inadequacy of language to encapsulate the Divine. Negative theology helps us realize how idiotic we sound talking about mystery.”
I can imagine this all sounded pretty bleak to her.
I wasn’t done.
“But! But! We must speak! We need to say something about God and that something is poetic. It is not necessarily precise scientific facts, verifiable, fixed once and for all. Instead, we need metaphor, narrative, story, liturgy, art, iconography, and a host of other mediums to ‘speak’ about God in still meaningful ways. And we must always realize that our ‘languages’ about the Divine are interpretations that are open to new possibilities.”
The next day, I randomly came across this quote that I thought was such a simple way of expressing the whole of what I’ve learned this past year.
When those who love God try to talk about Him, their words are blind lions looking for springs in the desert. (Leon Bloy)
The lions need water. But their imperfections prevent them from finding and beholding the totality of the wellspring they search for. Their search is not in vain, but it is a difficult task to undertake.
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.)
- Concrete nouns are said to be “inappropriate” because God is “altogether simple.” (1a, 13, 1)
- 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.
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.
Read Part One.
Where we last left off, the Pagan had asked how the Christian would explain our ability to distinguish between a human being and a stone. The Christian was explaining to the Pagan how we really don’t know the essence of something even though we may claim to. The best example of this is to try to answer the question “What is a stone?” Our intellect cannot exhaust the essence of a stone (if there is an essence at all). But again, how is it that we know something is a stone and not a human being and vice versa?
Christian. …That you know that a human is not a stone does not result from a knowledge by which you know a human and a stone and their difference, but it results from accident, from a difference in the ways of operating and their shapes, to which you discern them, you impose different names.