A unified field theology?

categories-wordpress-organizingAristotle was the great ‘organizer’, ‘categorizer’. He categorized everything in nature by showing how all things can be classified under various categories and subcategories by virtue of their shared being. My dog Daisy is a living creature, more specifically an animal, more specifically a vertebrate, more specifically a mammal, more specifically a dog, more specifically a Dachshund, more specifically a female Dachshund, most specifically ‘this’ particular female Dachshund. Look around the observable world and pick anything. Whatever you pick up belongs to a higher category. Consider the game “What am I?” or “21 Questions” where people have to figure out what you are by asking 21 questions. Is it concrete? (Yes). Is it living? (Yes). Is it mammal? (No) and on and on until you get down to the specific thing you’re looking for. One writer said that if Aristotle invented “21 Questions,” we should credit Plato with having invented “Hide and Seek.”

What about God? Should we categorize him? Can God be categorized by us? If yes, how do we categorize him? If no, how do we talk about God? One option is that taken by the early Church. Their answer was to say God isn’t a “thing” or a “being” in the sense that he can be subsumed under some overarching category; he’s not one thing among all the things on the inventory of things that exist, not an “instance” (even the greatest conceivable) of the being which other beings are lesser instances of. A second option is well-expressed in Whitehead’s claim that God is the chief exemplification of all metaphysical principles and not their exception. This is the opposite alternative. In the first option God transcends our categories (i.e., is not just an instantiation of them) and in the second option God doesn’t just not stand outside the categories, God is the categories.

We previously shared a passage from Pseudo-Dionysius (PD) that explains how the Orthodox approached the problem of understanding how our language related to God, that is, the problem of attribution. PD says:

“What has actually to be said about the cause of everything is this; since it is the cause of beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings…”

This sure looks like Whitehead’s axiom that God is the chief exemplification of all metaphysical principles. Looks pretty straightforward and univocal. But PD immediately follows with:

“…and that we should negate all these affirmations since [God] surpasses all being.”

Now that looks ridiculous, no? We should say (God is X) and then we should say ~(God is X)? We should contradict every positive statement we make about God? No, that’s not it. PD continues:

“Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites [i.e., the “contradictions”] of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all [God] is considerably prior to this….”

So the negative (or ‘apophatic’) way isn’t simply taking back or contradicting every positive thing we say about God. It’s how we are reminded that however true our statements about God might be, God is never reducible to them in any straight-forward, univocal, way.

PD counsels two things about this failure of language to ultimately render God at our disposal. First, he says that though it is a limit upon our rational capacity (to imagine, conceive, deconstruct, explain, account for, etc.), it is no hindrance to our experience of God (to worship, to love, to continually expand into God our own capacity for loving and joyful existence). Second, it is how we’re able to conceive of and express God’s self-sufficient existence without the world. It tells us that God is logically and ontologically prior to our categories and experiences. I think PD would entirely agree that transcendence means that although God is always more than he reveals himself to be he is never less than he reveals himself to be. Perhaps that’s a safe place to start.

image077For us the question is how to understand the sense in which our categories (derived from our experience) speak truthfully about God. (Dwayne and I are posting our explorations at this point, not announcing firm conclusions.) But perhaps an analogy might help. Think about what our best science is able to say about the origin of the material universe. The ‘language’ in this case is the language of mathematics. It can take us back virtually to the initial state, but it cannot deliver the initial state itself, that is it cannot describe the initial state in terms of existing laws and languages. It takes us back only so far, then at a certain point in the earliest history of our universe our mathematics fail. They simply don’t apply, though we have to admit that some reality must precede them as their ground. Nobody thinks there’s nothing on the other side of this categorical failure of our laws and languages. But none of our present laws apply and none of our languages (mathematics) can take us there.

There is no theological equivalent to what scientists call a unified field theory, a kind of unified field theology. But this admission of transcendence doesn’t lead us to epistemological despair any more than does the failure of our existing physical laws and languages to explicate their own origins lead us to such despair about living sucesssfully in the world. Though the universe of our experience is governed by the laws and language that cannot explicate its own origins and ground, that universe remains describable in terms of those laws. It’s just not reducible without remainder to those laws. They, like us, derive from a transcendent source — something categorically other than us but inseparably immanent to and within us. In terms of physics and mathematics, we have even within our own universe the categorical failure of laws and language. Likewise, whatever theological truths we may be able to apprehend, God’s transcendence of them doesn’t mean we may disregard them without consequence to our spiritual health or that our relationship to God is not describable in terms of those truths.

One may say the created order is in some real sense self-transcendent and that we experience this in the categorical failure of every attempt to extend our physical laws, language (mathematics) and categories too far back into the earliest history of the cosmos. This makes perfect sense to theistic believers who believe the transcendent God is immanent within creation. Our point here, however, is just to offer an analogy of the categorical failure of language with respect to God.

(Pictures here and here).

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10 comments on “A unified field theology?

  1. Rob Parris - Asher says:

    Hey Tom, I largely agree, but let me ask this: “It tells us that God is logically and ontologically prior to our categories and experiences.” On the face of that statement I agree with it, but I think it can be taken one of two (at least) ways. Which way are you more inclined to follow? One way is as follows: for sure God’s categories and experiences are logically and ontologically prior to our own, but ALL our categories and experiences are derived from ourselves so that there really is no similarity between His categories and our own….or a second way to take it is: God is the ground of being for ALL our categories and experiences in a broad sense, and perhaps some (not all) of our categories are His categories first, and finding the vein of His logically antecedent categories we may embrace them as our own. Never in fullness, but in bits, but those bits being His actual categories, are true enough in themselves.

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  2. Rob Parris - Asher says:

    Take your time. Loving you guys new blog. Let me elaborate just a bit more on a part of my post, so it’s not misunderstood. When I say, “God is the ground of being for ALL our categories and experiences in a broad sense” I certainly don’t mean that ALL our categories and experiences are correct, but that God grounds even the possibility for category mistakes. But that just further underscores the need for some (not exhaustively complete) one to one correspondence among some of our categories and God’s.

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    • Rob Parris - Asher says:

      What does being in God’s image entail?

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      • tgbelt says:

        Got that right here in my back pocket. Hold on a sec…um…having difficulty here…sumin’s stuck.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Rob: Hey Tom, I largely agree, but let me ask this: “It tells us that God is logically and ontologically prior to our categories and experiences.” On the face of that statement I agree with it, but I think it can be taken one of two (at least) ways. Which way are you more inclined to follow?

      Tom: The one that’ll keep you as my friend!

      Rob: One way is as follows: for sure God’s categories and experiences are logically and ontologically prior to our own, but ALL our categories and experiences are derived from ourselves so that there really is no similarity between His categories and our own….or a second way to take it is: God is the ground of being for ALL our categories and experiences in a broad sense, and perhaps some (not all) of our categories are His categories first, and finding the vein of His logically antecedent categories we may embrace them as our own. Never in fullness, but in bits, but those bits being His actual categories, are true enough in themselves.

      Tom: Honestly, I hear BOTH versions coming out of Orthodoxy. So I’m still getting my bearings. On good days I’m in the first way, pretty radical. On bad days I’m in the second one.

      Rob: Let me elaborate just a bit more on a part of my post, so it’s not misunderstood. When I say, “God is the ground of being for ALL our categories and experiences in a broad sense” I certainly don’t mean that ALL our categories and experiences are correct, but that God grounds even the possibility for category mistakes. But that just further underscores the need for some (not exhaustively complete) one to one correspondence among some of our categories and God’s.

      Tom: I hear ya. I think there’s a first-way (your first way) sense in which all our language and categories are transcended by God, and that mean there’s no 1-to-1 (if that means “univocal”) correspondence between how our language properly attributes X to me and how it properly attributes X to God (including the word proper—haha!). But maybe this first-way approach is an apophatic humbling of the categories, a recognition that God never becomes our “cognitive property.” If THAT kind of humility can be maintained within your second-way, then that second way is where we probably spend most of our time.

      I’m still learning.

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  3. Rob Parris - Asher says:

    “Our point here, however, is just to offer an analogy of the categorical failure of language with respect to God.” Again, I don’t want to push for too much, because I know there is something right about what you are saying in this particular blog post, but when we say Jesus is the Word of God, is He not in ANY sense a Word for us as well? Not exhaustively, as if we can by our language apprehend God in His fullness, but is there any truth at all in our language about God…or is all our truth about God actually truths about the shadows of the cave…and is all we can apprehend about Him restricted to experience (obviously even there we wouldn’t be experiencing God in His fullness)? And our language is just a stammering, seeking of release…for the momentous experience we can have of Him…but never REALLY express?

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    • tgbelt says:

      Even someone like Pseudo-Denys or Gregory of Nyssa will insist that our language speaks truthfully of God. By the “categorical failure” of language I meant the “failure of our categories” to do what they do (categorize, explain, contain, lay bare, propositionalize, define, delimit, etc.). Does the fact that our own categories and language (mathematics) fail to comprehend the universe’s earliest moments help? There’s the kind of failure I mean. Our laws and mathematics are what they are from and because of those earliest moments (they’re ‘ground’ you might say), but the same laws and categories fail to account, define, or categorize in their own terms that earliest reality. They just stop short of having anything to say or anything to categorize IN THEIR OWN TERMS (and yet they derive what they CAN say and comprehend from those inexplicable moments). Something like that maybe?

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      • Rob Parris - Asher says:

        Yeah, I totally get that, and I think it’s a useful analogy. I guess where I see a difference in the two things being compared is that mathematics is a tool of conscious beings, so when mathematics can’t get behind, say the Planck moment, you’ve reached the limits of the tool. But if what is on the other side of the divide is another conscious being, in this case THE Conscious Being…there might be something different going on than the mathematics analogy. And again, what does it mean that humans are in the image of God if there is NOTHING that has a 1 to 1 correlation…again excluding any idea of exhaustive knowledge of God. Here’s an example from physics…Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Some people falsely understand it as some mystical principle confounding man, when in fact it just shows the limits of our tools. Using the tools we have to measure, say the position and momentum of a particle…we can measure either thing…it’s position or it’s momentum, but not both at the same time for any given unit of time…because the measurement tools themselves, when measuring for one, say it’s position, affects it’s momentum, and vice versa. But that doesn’t mean that the particle doesn’t have an exact position and momentum at any given time, just that we can’t know both things at the same time. But could God? I think we’d agree that He could. And can God communicate with us? Sure. I mean, I don’t see why it would be so important for God to communicate that particular information, but He could do it, and we’d know both things at once for that instant. And it’s the very fact that God can communicate with us that makes me think there is SOMETHING that has a one to one correlation. Not exhaustively one to one about every bit of data knowable about God, but across the spectrum of billions upon billions upon billions of knowable things about God (especially His categories of thought…which might be the very essence of logic to begin with….John 1:1 In the beginning was the LOGOS, and the LOGOS was with God and the LOGOS was God. All things were made by that LOGOS…and He is the Light that lighteth every man that comes into the world…and grace and truth cometh by that Lighting LOGOS.) so maybe not the unfathomable billions of things can be known, but can some things…perhaps logic itself (and not that we are always right about things we think logical). But anyways, I’ll leave it of there. And no worries, much love (Hey wasn’t that Dwayne’s moniker at otb?) to you both!

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      • tgbelt says:

        All good thoughts, Rob. I can see how our analogy doesn’t map everything. No analogy does. But I tend to agree that what it means to bear God’s image is where the central question here is found, and that question is: Must an “image” and “that which the image is an image of” both occupy a shared ontology? Must uncreated and created being, ontologically speaking, share “the same being” in order for it to make any sense to say we bear God’s image? That’s what you mean by “1 to 1 correlation,” right? You mean “being sufficiently the same thing.” Your point is that only a “shared ontology” can ground our God-talk and get ‘attribution’ off the ground, without which we’re consigned to utter agnosticism and can never speak of God.

        This is where I’d love to hear from our Orthodox friends!

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