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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The Anaphatic Way – Introduction

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.[1] 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.[2] 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?[3]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, apophatic theologies, rather than one via or one via negativa and one apophatic theology. So, is Kearney an apophatic thinker?

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What I am up to, in a 50-minute nutshell.

I still have quite a difficult time summarizing what exactly my studies are circling around. Most of the time, I just leave things ambiguous and say that I’m studying English and Philosophy. But, if pressed a little further, I’ll say that I’m studying ‘theology.’ Maybe a bit further, and I’ll say ‘anatheism.’ Of course that confuses many people because it sounds like some sort of New Age conglomeration of religion (which it’s not). So I have to explain: ‘Something that takes into account the critiques of atheism and the affirmations of theism.’ Or, ‘something that takes seriously doubt and faith working together.’ Puzzled looks or a polite “Oh interesting” is often the response.

Lo and behold, Richard Kearney, the author of Anatheism did an interview on CBC Ideas this past year and it’s probably the most straightforward explanation of what ‘anatheism’ is. Kearney is pretty good at breaking it down into more manageable bites.

Click here to go to the CBC website to listen to the interview.

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.