Aristotle 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.
For 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.