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?
Logotherapy seems immediately relevant to another area of interest that I am pursuing right. Next week is the last of five modules that I have taken in order to become a Spiritual Care volunteer in the Fraser Health region. Within the next few weeks I hope to be working on the medical ward at the local hospital. As I read Man’s Search for Meaning I couldn’t help but find a wealth of thoughts that I think will become incredibly beneficial to working with patients who are probably at two of the most difficult stages of life: illness and death. Frankl’s personal experience of suffering in four different concentration camps during World War II and his subsequent reflection on the role of suffering in human life is fascinating.
For example, Frankl writes:
“Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances [as a concentration camp], decide what shall become of him–mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski [sic] said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” (75)
“Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” (76)
“When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves.” (116)
“It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.” (117)
“There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or to enjoy one’s life; but what never can be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.” (118)
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.
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.
Businesses are, in reality, quasi-religious sects. When you go to work in one you embrace a new faith. And if they are really big businesses, you progress from faith to a kind of mystique. Belief in the product, preaching the product, in the end the product becomes the focus of a transcendental experience. Through ‘the product’ one communes with the vast forces of life, nature, and history that are expressed in business. Why not face it? Advertising greats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments.