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.
One has either got to be a Jew or stop reading the Bible. The Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not ‘spiritually a Semite.’ The spiritual sense of the Old Testament is not and cannot be a simple emptying out of its Israelite content. Quite the contrary! The New Testament is the fulfillment of that spiritual content, the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, the promise that Abraham believed in. It is never therefore a denial of Judaism, but its affirmation. Those who consider it a denial have not understood it.
Merton, CJB, 14.
Believe in order to be.
We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be.
Merton, CJB, 15.
Reunion begins in oneself.
If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.
Merton, CJB, 21
The Natural is Sacred or Profane. We choose which it will be.
Whatever is done naturally may be either sacred or profane, according to our own degree of awareness; but whatever is done unnaturally is essentially and irrevocably profane.
A.K. Coomaraswamy, in CJB, 25.
If I have not love, but all the knowledge in the world, then I am a clanging gong.
Gandhi once asked: “How can he who thinks he possesses absolute truth be fraternal?”
Commenting on Gandhi, Merton writes:
Only he who loves can be sure that he is still in contact with the truth, which is in fact too absolute to be grasped by his mind. Hence, he who holds to the gospel truth is afraid that he may lose the truth by a failure of love, not by a failure of knowledge…Knowledge expands a man like a balloon, and gives him a precarious wholeness in which he thinks that he holds in himself all the dimensions of a truth the totality of which is denied to others. It then becomes his duty, he thinks, by virtue of his superior knowledge, to punish those who do not share this truth. How can he ‘love’ others, he thinks, except by imposing on them the truth which they would otherwise insult and neglect?
Merton, CJB, 44.
Christians are a minority. Now get over it.
Christians stand to gain more in the long run by accepting their minority position and looking for quality rather than quantity.
Christopher Dawson, in CJB, 55.
Frivolous News is nothing New.
Every time [President] Kennedy sneezes or blows his nose an article is read about it in the refectory.
Merton, CJB, 58.
Oil: The Sacrament of American Folk Religion. The car: the chalice that contains it.
We waste our natural resources, as well as those of undeveloped countries’ iron, oil, etc. in order to fill our cities and roads with a congestion of traffic that is in fact largely useless, and is a symptom of the meaningless and futile agitation of our own minds. The attachment of the modern American to his automobile and the symbolic role played by his car, with its aggressive and lubric design, its useless power, its otiose gadgetry, its consumption of fuel, which is advertised as having almost supernatural power…this is where the study of American mythology should begin.
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.
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.
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.