The phrase was used by Aquinas, following Aristotle, meaning that affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge and it’s theological application is the affirmation of Aquinas’ apophatic theology. Apophatic theology, or the “way of negation,” is resoundingly rejected by open theists as a virtual blasphemy. It’s believed to represent the core methodological error that lands one ultimately in the mistaken belief of classical theism’s actus purus.
This is so among open theists because, as we said earlier, methodologically speaking open theists stand squarely within that Process assumption that God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication, that is, God is not to be thought of as the exception to (nor an apophatic negation of) our metaphysical principles but as their chief exemplification. Open theists embrace this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology that embraces and explains both divine and created being. And just so you remember, to challenge the necessity of this methodology to open theism is one of the goals of this blog.
Ask open theists what ‘negative’ or ‘apophatic’ theology is and you’ll likely be told that it means “taking back everything you say about God” or “negating by way of contradiction everything you affirm about God” or worse yet that it means “attributing the most nonsense possible to God.” This is not the kind of apophaticism one finds in, say, the Orthodox thinker Pseudo-Denys who is much more thoughtful and complicated.
For the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly returned to the scrumptious provocations of British philosopher/theologian Denys Turner. I keep returning, in particular, to his chapter “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (eds Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, 2002). I’d like to share several quotes I think shed light on our understanding of the proper limits of theological language.
…all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure. But this is because an adequate cataphatic theology has to be unremitting in its affirmations of theological language, for everything about the world tells us something about the creator. 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.
…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….
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.
(Picture from here.)
I don’t have any particular stance on “apophaticism” except to say that what we might call “extreme apophaticism”, the view that *no* affirmative propositions about God are literally true is nonsense. Undoubtedly there are milder or limited forms of apophaticism that may well be defensible.
I must object, though, to a tendency I’ve noticed in this and other posts on this blog to speak of what “any” open theist or what “all” open theists would say on this or that. Open theism is not so monolithic a movement as to permit easy generalizations outside the few theses that form the core of open theism, what I have elsewhere called “generic open theism”. So my charge to you is: Don’t paint with such a broad brush.
In the post above you make many generalizations about “open theists” that strike me as just plain *false*:
1) “Open theists embrace this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology that embraces and explains both divine and created being.”
2) “Ask any open theist what ‘negative’ or ‘apophatic’ theology is and you’ll be told …”
3) “Apophatic theology, or the “way of negation,” is resoundingly rejected and sometimes mocked by open theists as a virtual blasphemy.”
I’m sure you can find *some* open theists who would (1) embrace the Process belief in question, (2) characterize apophatic theology in the ways you indicate, or (3) “resoundingly reject” and “sometimes mock” the very idea of apophatic theology. But come on, you *know* better than to include all or even most open theists under those labels. Heck, a lot of open theists don’t even have the foggiest idea what “apophatic theology” is, much less have any firm opinions about it.
Alan, thanks tons for the feedback. All good points. We’d be happy to qualify all three points. “All open theists” without exception is too broad a brush. We haven’t personally met “all.” So let us say “all the open theists (especially the published ones) that we know and have read” instead of “all” without exception.
We’re not aware of any who do not share the Process belief that our categories apply to God, as you say, “literally.” As you say, any other view is “nonsense.” You may have just demonstrated our point. Of course, we haven’t said what “literal” means, and we know that’s a long and notoriously complex discussion. We’ve been trying to clarify it in our posts. But we’re pretty confident that open theists generally, without any exception that we know of, believe in a shared ontological space (shared, that is, between divine and created being). I know this description is on the fly and general, but it’ll have to do. We’re still in process on a lot of this ourselves too. But Dwayne and I aren’t there any longer (i.e., don’t stand in that fundamental Process belief). And perhaps it’s not uniquely Process. One could make the case that it’s older; that it’s equivalent to onto-theology, or is a descendent of Hegel. We know this makes US the oddities. But that’s our point too. Ours is not the standard assumption.
We’ll qualify the same with apophaticism. True, some open theists wouldn’t know what it even was. But for those who do have some notion of it, it’s not embraced as a theological method and is very often described as nonsense. As for the third, we’ll qualify that too. You’re right. Some open theists would not mock apophaticism. But a ton do. We used to led the charge.
Appropriate qualifications are all I ask for. 🙂
Regarding “open theism”, on that I take a minimalist stance. I would say that open theism *as such* is neutral on a very wide range of theological issues, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of apophatic discourse concerning God. Open theists can and do take stances on such issues, but when they do, they are speaking not as open theists (per se) but as, for example, orthodox Christians.
Regarding what I called “extreme apophaticism”, my reason for calling it “nonsense” is that there are obvious counter-examples to the thesis that *no* affirmative propositions about God are literally true. For example, “God is the greatest possible being”, “God is the only proper object of worship”, etc. To be plausible, therefore, apophaticism needs to be qualified. That is, it needs to be restricted to *certain kinds* of affirmative propositions about God. I take it that the quotations you give from Turner express some kind of “modest apophaticism”. I see nothing odd or paradoxical in his claim that “the way of negation … is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately.” Indeed, that is uncontroversially true if by “adequately” he means something like “in a way that fully expresses God’s essence”.
I thought this post deserved a bit of correction in light of Alan’s comment. So where we previously said, “Ask any open theist…and you’ll be told that…,” we now say “Ask open theists…and you’ll likely be told that….” I didn’t see any other “all open theists” statements. But we’ll do our best to stay clear of sweeping generalizations.
Good and Holy Friday turned out to be Christmas. Our mutual friend, Fr Kimel, put this essay out on Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/187398413/Apophaticism-Idolatry-and-the-Claims-of-Reason#download
Life is stinking great.
Right on Tom!
Good thoughts, and Denys Turner is right on the money here. It is a worthy topic, within Orthodox circles there’s much misinformation about the nature of apophaticism as well, in no small part due the popularization of Lossky’s approach to it.
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