God After Auschwitz (Part 4 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

IV. Speaking about or in the name of God after Auschwitz.

The subtitle, “After Auschwitz who can say God?,” of Kearney’s third chapter in Anatheism gives us a more concrete vantage point from which to look at Kearney’s interest in the question of speaking of God. “The biggest ‘no’ to theism in our modern era,” writes Kearney, “was not Nietzsche’s philosophical announcement of the death of ‘God’ in 1882 but the actual disappearance of ‘God’ from the world in the concentration camps of Europe in the 1940s.”[1] Kearney sustains a post-Holocaust consciousness—an acute sense that the monstrosity of the Holocaust cannot simply go unnoticed or unanswered by any mature thinking, political, religious, social, or otherwise. After World War II, “one can’t believe again in the same way…The God of theodicy, the omnipotent, the omni-God, the alpha God who is going to come to our rescue, who has a plan for us all, a providence…Who can believe in that? What’s left?”[2]

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Can we say anything about God? If so, how? (Part 3 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

III. Is/Is not and Narrative as a means of retrieving speech about God.

In The God Who May Be, Kearney admits that it is hard to ‘nickname’ to his hermeneutical method.[1] Kearney admits the difficulty of placing his hermeneutics in a particular box, but he is quick to affirm that he does want to “float, nonetheless, a number of tentative quasi-names—or what [he] might call methodological pseudonyms.”[2] Names that are ‘floated’ have some insecurity, always at risk of being sunk by a rogue wave of critique which exposes the name as lacking ‘buoyancy.’ Kearney states that these names are not really names, but quasi-names. They are partially accurate names; names that only go to a certain extent; superficial names that cannot express the content of his method in its fullness.

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The Apophatic Way (Part 2 of ‘The Anaphatic Way’)

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II. Two ways of (not) speaking about God.

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?

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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.

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.