Denys Turner has done more than any other modern thinker to correct my misunderstandings of apophaticism (misunderstandings which I think characterize a lot of open theist objections to the idea) and to give me an appreciation for the role which the negative plays in theology. I’ve commented before on a few of Turner’s insights. Here I’d like to briefly summarize his relevant points and then make a comment or two on what I see as a potential problem. Turner is extremely thorough and never wanders far from his texts (in this case the 6th century Pseudo-Denys). So I’m open to being entirely wrong in my criticisms.
To any who might be wondering, ‘apophaticism’ is a technical term that refers to a longstanding strategy of unknowing, a kind of learned ignorance, an ‘unsaying’ of what we say about God so that God’s transcendence of us gets reflected within our language. As Turner says, “The apophatic is the linguistic strategy of somehow showing by means of language that which lies beyond language.” This is bound to produce chaos for the very medium (our language) by which we express such transcendence, and there’s the rub, for language—rational, logical, coherent, propositionally ordered and obedient—is the philosopher’s (and the theologian’s ?) tool of the trade.
If ‘apophaticism’ refers to the negative in theology, ‘cataphaticism’ refers to the positive, to all that we must say about God. But both function together, and I want to suggest that Turner may be mistaken on ‘how’ it is that they function together. At first blush apophaticism looks like a rhetorical sleight of hand. Talk about God then just take back everything you say. But Turner is clear that apophaticism is not simply taking back everything we say about God by way of affirming the contradiction of all our propositions or, worse yet, composing the most ludicrous assertions we can manage. Turner (Silence and the Word) writes:
So it is not that, first, we are permitted the naïve and unself-critical indulgence of affirmation, subsequently to submit that affirmation to a separate critique of negation. Nor is the ‘way of negation’ the way of simply saying nothing about God, nor yet is it the way simply of saying that God is ‘nothing’: it is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.
Language collapsing under its own weight. That’s a curious picture. What’s one left with? This is part of what frightened the (very) amateur philosopher in me. My view was that theology was about determining what can meaningfully be said of God, and meaning has its own rules—the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and usually the law of excluded middle, bivalence, etc. If we don’t observe these in all we say about God, or if we fail to extend their embrace to all we allow ourselves to affirm and negate regarding God, then we don’t speak meaningfully of God and aren’t doing theology, right?
You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God. And the reason for this, as I see it, logical interdependence of the negative and the affirmative ways is not the true but trivial reason that logically until you have something to affirm you have nothing to negate. The reason is the more dialectically interesting one that it is in and through the very excess, the proliferation, of discourse about God that we discover its failure as a whole.
I can actually get with this, and even see the necessity of it. And I’ve felt for some time now that I was tracking with Turner pretty well, but then this past week I ran across a comment of his in The Darkness of God which got me wondering whether I had misunderstood him. In describing the apophatic strategy he says:
We must both affirm and deny all things of God; and then we must negate the contradiction between the affirmed and the denied.
Note: two negations. Turner continues:
For the negation of the negation is not a third utterance, additional to the affirmative and the negative, in good linguistic order; it is not some intelligible synthesis of affirmation and negation; it is rather the collapse of our affirmations and denials into disorder.
The more I thought on this the more the ‘tilt’ lights flashed in my mind. Turner claims the apophatic way involves two negations. The first is the negation of every affirmation we make about God; that is, one simply contradicts everything one says. Turner has already argued this isn’t where ‘apophaticism’ ends, but he does argue this is apophaticism’s first step:
Apophatic denial is indeed not ‘Aristotelian negation’. But it presupposes it. And by the juxtaposition of the affirmative and negative images is achieved the negation, in the sense of the transcendence….
We should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.
Though Turner discusses this very passage from Pseudo-Denys, he insists that the apophatic can only proceed on universal denials which are simply the opposite (or contradictories) of affirmations, contrary to what Pseudo-Denys says.
Turner’s second negation is the apophatic negation both of every affirmation and of their denials. So, we are to say “God exists” (there’s the cataphatic step). Then we’re to deny this first with “God does not exist.” Only then do we further negate both this affirmation and its denial. So for Turner apophaticism involves two negations: the first a denial of every affirmative statement about God and the second what he describes as the ‘denial of the propositional’ itself, that is, categorically denying the entirety of our propositional efforts (affirmations and denials together). This is language collapsing in upon itself under the weight of the reality which God is.
I sense something wrong here. I have reservations about Turner’s first negation, that which negates every affirmation before a second negation of both the affirmation and its denial. My sense is that cataphatic ought to proceed undisturbed within the logic that governs it, and this means holding the logic and reasoning that give meaning to our categories and language. This is qualified by a single apophatic denial. So for example, where the logic of the cataphatic would lead us to affirm “God exists” is true and that therefore “God does not exist” is false, we ought to leave these truth values in place as we move on to Turner’s second (apophatic) negation. But in this case we have a single negation, the apophatic negation of the cataphatic—period. We do not, contra Turner, first negate every affirmation by positing the truth of its contradictory before going on to negate all this with a second (apophatic) negation. Turner’s first negation serves no purpose. Let the cataphatic perform its service: “God exists” is true and “God does not exist” is false. Neither is negated by the logic that establishes its truth or falsity. The apophatic denial then embraces all this in its entirety as a strategy for demonstrating (imperfectly, for there can be no univocal demonstration of transcendence by the transcended) God’s transcendence.
a) Affirmed: “God exists”
a’) Denied: “God does not exist.”
b) Affirmed: “God is love.”
b’) Denied: “God is not love.”
c) Affirmed: “God is personal.”
c’) Denied: “God is not personal.”
All the above propositions are apophatically negated, but apophatic denial is not an instance of cataphatic denial (operative in a’, b’, and c’). That is, when we apophatically negate what is cataphatically true and false, we are (as Turner says) negating the propositional and not merely making more negative propositions. We are creating linguistic space for a transcending negation — as ironic and chaotic as it must appear to our cataphatic ears — as a strategy to remind ourselves of the inadequacy of language and so, hopefully, to be led into an experience of our being unspeakably transcended.