Merton on the need for a critique of religion.

If in practice the function of organized religion turns out to be nothing more than to justify and to canonize the routines of mass society; if organized religion abdicates its mission to disturb man in the depths of his conscience, and seeks instead simply to ‘make converts’ that will smilingly adjust to the status quo, then it deserves the most serious and uncompromising criticism. Such criticism is not a disloyalty. On the contrary, fidelity to truth and to God demands it.

Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, p. 273

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.


Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa, Pt 3

Well my reading of Aquinas was put on hold for the past few days because I misplaced my copy (actually the university’s copy). And then I looked up and there it was on the shelf. Bizarre.

I am skipping ahead to article 7: “Can a created mind comprehend God’s essence?”

  • To begin with, Aquinas discusses the argument that proposes “that those who see the essence of God comprehend him.” (1a, 12, 7, 1)
    • Aquinas quotes Paul who speaks of his journey towards comprehending God. (cf. Phil 3.12, I Cor 9.26)
  • But this raises the question, what do we see when we comprehend God (if we can see and if we can comprehend God in his essence).
    • Augustine: “We say that something is comprehended when the whole of it is so visible that nothing of it is hidden.” (De Videndon Deum)
    • This would lead to the conclusion that to see God is to comprehend him in his totality since “nothing is hidden” because “God is altogether simple.” (1a, 12, 7, 2)
    • God is totally seen in his totality because “we shall see him just as he is.”
    • “Whoever, therefore, sees God in his essence sees him totally, and this is to comprehend.” (1a, 12, 7, 3)

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Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa, Article 1

If I am honest, I will admit that I have had an aversion to Aquinas that was pretty well unfounded on an assumption that he was an ardent rationalist intent on creating a neat systematic theology that excluded any sense of epistemological humility. While his Summa Theologiae is still intimidating to me, I have to say that in reading only a few pages so far of the volume on knowing and naming God, I have once again been proven wrong in my stereotypes.

I was astonished when my prof suggested I read Aquinas for this course on apophatic theology. Seriously? How much would he have to say about the apophatic way? Wasn’t he all kataphatic?

Even though I took a course that spent half a semester on Aquinas (a course which I was not prepared intellectually or spiritually to take made all the more evident in realizing I don’t remember anything from those classes), I had no realization of just how important Aquinas would be on this little study of negative theology.

And so to my amazement, I have met the Angelica Doctor on the via negativa.

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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)