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.

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Dialogue on the Hidden God – Nicholas of Cusa – Pt 2

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.

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The unknowing of what is beyond being.

Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names

Just as the senses can neither grasp nor perceive the things of the mind, just as representation and shape cannot take in the simple and shapeless, just as corporal form cannot lay hold of the intangible and incorporeal, by the same standard of truth beings are surpassed by the infinity beyond being, intelligences by that oneness which is beyond intelligence. Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process. (49-50)

PD begins The Divine Names by calling his reader, Timothy, to seek to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in speaking about God. Immediately we notice that PD argues for an understanding of God that places the Divine beyond being. This results in speech and knowledge of the Divine that does not rely on concepts or language that cannot adequately place God beyond speech-itself, our intellect, and our notion of being.

How can we speak about God, then? We can identify two ways so far that speech is still possible, albeit extremely limited. First, speech is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Second, speech is made possible by examining and listening to the Sacred Scriptures. Speech about God must be derived from the Sacred Scripture through Spirit-enabled reading and reflection.

Already, however, PD resorts to using different terms to refer to God: “the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being…Cause of all existence…” (49) These are important Platonic concepts that PD is relying on. But the thing I want to think about is the term “supra-existent Being.” This seems to make the question “Does God exist?” an irrelevant question. God is above existence. Thus, to try to prove that God existences, using the same techniques to prove that something else in the world exists, is really missing the point and steers dangerously close to linguistic and conceptual idolatry. Perhaps recognizing this would help us get over the apologetic obsession that try to “prove God’s existence.”

PD takes a pretty radical approach to speech about God when he says in section 2 that “Now as I have already said, we must not dare to apply words or conceptions to this hidden transcendent God. We can only use what scripture has disclosed…” (50) Scriptural revelation becomes an essential reference point for theological language, but it isn’t like we get much further in finding words to speak about God. That’s because Scripture, PD notes, reveals to us that God is “not only invisible, and incomprehensible, but also ‘unsearchable and inscrutable’…” (50) But, PD continues, this doesn’t mean that God is “absolutely incommunicable” (50). There is the possibility of coming to the knowledge of God by contemplation and enlightenment that God gives “proportionate to each being.” (50) PD seems to be arguing for a progressive approach to God that starts off at small ‘doses’ and steadily increases as God sees fit.

For starters, PD states that the Sacred Scriptures reveal a God

that is the cause of everything, that it is origin, being, and life. To those who fall away it is the voice calling ‘Come back!’ and it is the power which raises them up again. It refurbishes and restores the image of GOd corrupted within them. It is the sacred stability which is there for them when the tide of unholiness is tossing them about. It is safety for those who made a stand. It is the guide bringing upward those uplifted to it and is the enlightenment of the illuminated. Source of perfection for those being made perfect, source of divinity for those being deified, principle of simplicity for those turning toward simplicity, point of unity for those made one; transcendently, beyond what is, it is the Source of very source. Generously and as far as may be, it gives out a share of what is hidden. To sum up. It is the LIfe of the living, the being of beings, it is the Source and cause of all life and of all being, for out of its goodness it commands all things to be and it keeps them going. (51)

A lot of words from a man who says we can’t say much about the Divine! PD explains that this is all derived from Scriptural readings. Scriptural authors also point to a God who is a monad (a Pythagorean term for God that expresses God’s oneness). But, according to PD, God is also expressed in terms of being a multiplicity of persons while remaining a oneness of substance: in short, Trinity. The significance of this is that it reveals God as Love for “in one of its persons it accepted a true share of what it is we are, and there by issued a call to man’s lowly state to rise up to it.” (52) The utterly transcendent God became immanent in the Incarnation. The supernatural took on human nature. Knowing and speaking of God as Trinity is a gift of enlightenment made possible by the Spirit through the Scriptures.

In the eschaton, PD believes, we shall behold God in a new light that is a gift. Our understanding will be able to know God more deeply and profoundly than here on earth. But until the arrival of the eschaton, we are severely limited by the incapacity of our mind and senses.

This leads PD to ask the question:

 How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all things while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding. How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable.? (53)

Speech seems impossible at this point. PD bolsters this assertion further by saying “it is at a total remove from every condition, movement, life, imagination, conjecture, name, discourse, thought, conception, being, rest, dwelling, unity, limit, infinity, the totality of existence.” (54)

Are we hopelessly left in a realm of utter silence before an unknown, unnameable God? What differentiates this Divinity, which is called Good by PD, from a more sinister force? (PD, by the way, appears to derive the descriptor ‘the Good’ from the very fact that God created and sustains the world; he views this as an act of pure goodness.)

Into The Darkness

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God? (80)

This question begins Gregory’s in depth interpretation of Moses’ journey up the mountain of Divine Knowledge. The first observation Gregory makes is that Moses’ encounter with the Divine is in darkness, not in the Light of the Burning Bush. Rather than see this as a contradiction, Gregory asserts to his readers that Divine Truth first comes as light to those who desire truth: “the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light.” (80) But the closer one gets to the light, the darker things become.

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