Humans have been babbling, chattering, and making other noises about things ‘wholly other’ since the advent of what we could define as language. But even before that, there was a (divine?) itch to ‘speak’ about Transcendence, God, the gods, or the Divine, even if it was through rudimentary images painted on cave walls. Generations after generations of theologians, professional and lay alike, continue to be puzzled by bland truisms such as “How can we speak about God?” or “What can we say about God?” Some have even ventured as far as to ask the more disturbing question “Why do we feel the need to say anything at all?” These are the most rudimentary questions that theology asks and are also of significance to the average believer, though they may not be conscious that they ask these same questions. Richard Kearney asks all three of these questions, most explicitly in The God Who May Be, Anatheism: Returning to God After God, and the many articles and dialogues that have ensued since. Kearney’s hermeneutics of religion tables a moderating voice in the ‘God Debates’ between atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and theists, mostly Christian apologists seeking to put an end to atheistic naturalism. No real ground has been made by either side because that’s just the problem: they have posted their battle lines publicly and refuse to budge. This polarizing debate has recently been entered into by thinkers from all sorts of confessions (and anti-confessions) who propose a middle way. Richard Kearney is one such thinker who has evidently been faced with the very real and pressing critiques of belief, God, and faith, and sought to account for those critiques while remaining open to the possibility of faith becoming new in a time when hope, justice, love, and responsibility to others are needed now more than ever as we witness and experience social, political, economic, existential, and religious upheavals on a daily basis.
The most elementary question that I am seeking to ask here is: Can Richard Kearney be considered an apophatic thinker?That said, it seems to me that there are many flavours of the apophatic way that we really can’t speak of it as some sort of monolithic theological idea. It may be best, then, to speak of via negativas, negative ways, apophatictheologies, rather than one via or one via negativa and one apophatic theology. So, is Kearney an apophatic thinker?
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.
Everyone is familiar with the famous expression of the madman in The Gay Science: “God is dead.” But the true question is to know, first of all, which god is dead; then who has killed him (if it is true that this death is a murder); and finally what sort of authority belongs to the announcement of this death. These three questions qualify the atheism of Nietzsche and Freud as opposed to that of British empiricism or French positivism, whose methods are neither exegetical nor genealogical…
Which god is dead? We can now reply: the god of metaphysics and also the god of theology, insofar as theology rests on the metaphysics of the first cause, necessary being, and the prime mover, conceived as the source of values and as the absolute good. Let us say that it is the god of onto-theology, to use the expression that was coined by Heidegger, following Kant.
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.
Dialogue On the Hidden God (1444) is a short conversation, written by Nicholas of Cusa, between a Pagan and a Christian on the topic of God, specifically on how we might know, or not know, God. A Pagan comes across someone engaged in the act of worship, prostrate and weeping, and is curious. What is this person doing? Who are they worshipping? Why are they worshipping? The Pagan finds out that this person is a Christian and begins to probe as to what sort of God the Christian worships.