Unspeakably Transcended—Part 3

imagesPhilosopher Dale Tuggy has referred to and engaged James McGrath’s veiled endorsement of Tillich. McGrath writes:

“Tillich’s emphasis is that God is not a being, one among others but really advanced. If that term means anything less than Being itself, encompassing all of Reality, then the term denotes a god and not God, and our worship is idolatrous.”

This is axiomatic for apophatic theologians, of course. But Tuggy objects:

“To me, this is not a Christian view of God and isn’t even any sort of monotheism. In fact, this type of view has always competed with the monotheisms. Isn’t it obvious that the Christian God is a He, not an It? ‘God’ in the Bible has human friends, loves and hates, has knowledge and plans, sent his Son, and wants to be obeyed.”

McGrath responds:

“The Reality that encompasses every he, she, and it does not necessarily need to be thought of as ‘it’ as opposed to transcending even the appropriateness of such pronouns.”

And lastly then, Tuggy responds:

“To me, this type of view…is a kind of atheism. I mean, believing in God (in the context of any Abrahamic religion) is believing in a great and powerful self, the creator of the cosmos, and this this view entails that there is no such being. There is, on this sort of view, which I have called ‘Ultimism’, an Ultimate – a reality which is somehow more basic than, and which in some sense lies behind the physical world. But that being is denied to be a self. This is not naturalistic atheism, to be sure (which is what people most often mean by ‘atheism’ nowadays), but it is atheism.”

I think there is in Dale’s comments an indication of what’s at the heart of apophatic theology, and his comparing negative theology to atheism reminded me of something Yale professor Denys Turner said along precisely the same lines though to a very different effect (Silence of the Word, pp. 13-14; emphases mine). A bit lengthy, but worth it:

“Of course the obvious response of a determined atheist to so radical a theological negativity, this denial of all nameable divine essentiality, used to be that it can be no more than a strategy of theological evasion, a death of God by endless qualification, and that you might just as well be an atheist as maintain so extreme an apophaticism. But it is a matter of some interest that this is not the response found in some of our radical deconstructionists, who less complacently – indeed, with some considerable anxiety – have been caused by the encounter with a Meister Eckhart or a pseudo-Denys to question the ultimate radicalness of their own atheistic deconstruction. For those who, since Nietzsche, had supposed their deconstruction to be as radical as is possible in consequence of its atheism, might indeed wonder whether they have not been outflanked in point of radicalness by the theism of a fourteenth-century Dominican friar. In any case, what degree of negativity, it may be asked, is available to be called upon whereby to negate so wholesale a denial as is already contained in Eckhart’s theology?

“For sure, the denials of the apophatic theologian exceed the reach of any such atheistical negation as proposes merely to excise God without consequences, that atheism which thinks it can do without God while leaving everything else in place – an inference which inevitably follows from the denial of that God whose existence had in any case had no consequences, the God we know of –stereotypically, but emblematically – as the ‘deist’ God of ‘enlightenment rationalism’, the God of ‘modernity’. But what unnerves the contemporary mind, for it problematizes the postmodern project, is the thought that an authentically apophatic theology destabilises more radically than any atheistic denial can, even Nietzsche’s.

“Therefore, one is inclined to say what Marx had already suggested as early as 1844, that the issue between theism and atheism is as such an issue characteristic of modernity, an issue which it is necessary to surpass and deconstruct if modernity itself is to be surpassed and deconstructed. Our problem, therefore, cannot, as Feurbach thought, any longer be restated in terms of the disjunction between the existence and the non-existence of God, for it is not atheism which retrieves our cultures from the grip of modernity. Atheism leaves us trapped within the constraints of the modernist disjunctions, since it explores only the more nihilistic of the options it makes available. Our problem, therefore, consists in identifying that negation which is the ‘negation of the negation’ between theism and atheism, in identifying that ground which is opened up upon emancipation from that disjunction which is, if anything is, definitive of ‘modernity’ as such: theism and its negation.

“I do not find it to be in the least paradoxical if, in the search for the form of negation which dissolves the theism/atheism project, premodern theological sources seem profitably to be explored. For, after all, a contemporary interest, whether of theological or of non-theological inspiration, in the dissolution of modernist theological disjunctions is at one level at least the same interest as was consciously intended to be served by much late medieval theological apophaticism: the dethronement of theological idolatries. What we can see – and seeing it differentiates our reception of those medieval apophaticisms from their authors’ conscious intentions – is that there is as much idolatrous potential in merely atheist negativity as there is in merely theistical affirmativity, for again eadem est scientia oppositorum. Hence, our problem – and I mean, it is everyone’s problem and not that of the ‘theologian’ alone – is to know how to negate the disjunction between atheism and theism – which you cannot claim to have done if thereby you merely fall prey to the atheist disjunct. In short, our problem is to know how to construct an apophatic theology distinguishable from the mere denial of theism.”

(Picture here.)

2 comments on “Unspeakably Transcended—Part 3

  1. […] Thomas Belt, “Unspeakably Transcended” (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). […]


  2. Jeff says:

    “In short, our problem is to know how to construct an apophatic theology distinguishable from the mere denial of theism.”

    That’s only a problem if you think your beliefs are supposed to be conceptual and linguistically communicated to a community. And by “linguistically,” I don’t mean the “lyre” view of language that Hart claims scripture serves as, since that view is not about linguistic meaning at all. For clarification, Hart means that the reading of scripture (with some exceptions) is a mere mechanical means to private revelation–revelation that can not be derived exegetically from the language of the text.

    Maybe such “revelation” can be non-conceptual and therefore non-communicable via language. But then, at least, communities of those who had received that “lyre”-generated, non-conceptual knowledge of “God” could conceivably commune “verbally” to one another in the “lyre” mode–i.e., “verbally,” but without linguistic meaning. Alternatively, maybe such revelation is conceptual but non-communicable by mere conventional human language.

    On the one hand, Turner seems to be saying that “God” talk doesn’t communicate anything in terms of human linguistic meaning, which in turn seems to mean that “God-knowledge” is non-conceptual. And that seems to mean that any normative critique or praise which is so by virtue of being somehow related to “God,” at least indirectly, can’t be communicated linguistically/conceptually. But it’s hard to see what that leaves us with as far as communal “God talk” that doesn’t amount to the “lyre” view of language.

    But it seems that he believes this approach is not impossible because he thinks he knows at least something conceptually apart from any conceptual knowledge of “God,” even indirectly. For he says,

    “For those who, since Nietzsche, had supposed their deconstruction to be as radical as is possible in consequence of its atheism, might indeed wonder whether they have not been outflanked in point of radicalness by the theism of a fourteenth-century Dominican friar.”

    But I don’t see how the distinction can be known conceptually. I would like to see his linguistic articulation of how he thinks a conceptual distinction between warranted and unwarranted belief can be done without conceptual knowledge of God-as-relevant-kind-of-causal-being/substance such that anything is knowable at all, where “knowing” is defined as believing what is true non-serendipitously. Without such an account, I can’t conceptually see the practical difference between atheism and negative theology, whatever non-practical difference might exist.

    An example of a non-practical difference between one version of atheism and negative theology could be something as practically worthless as the following:

    1) atheist – the set of all real possibilities is a subset of all logical possibilities constrained by human categories

    2) negative theologian – the set of all real possibilities is a subset of all logical possibilities plus all possibilities that transcend human categories

    But once a “theology” divides humans, with respect to enlightenment concerning the practically relevant, into the absolutely “favored” and the absolutely “unfavored,” I can’t see how it can have any practical implications for any human. And the “lyre” approach to practically-relevant divine revelation seems to be hard to distinguish from just such a “theology” unless that distinction is explicated by the articulation of seemingly pontifical insults of lots of people.

    The latter is, of course, the logical role of the “idolater” label in negative theology. That label either has practical import or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, why care if you’re an idolater? If it does, it’s seemingly because it implies that one’s status as idolator is not only normatively inferior in some sense, but DESERVED because chosen. And yet it’s the very negativity of negative theology that renders negative theology impotent to provide a conceivable ground for conceptually-adjudicating choices.

    So we have the chicken-and-egg problem if the “idolater” label has practical import. Namely: Does God have to just reveal to the non-idolaters what renders them non-idolaters independently of their choices, rendering them the absolutely “favored” in that sense? Or do humans actually have the ability to adjudicate choices non-conceptually such that somehow adjudicating thus rightly causes them to become non-idolaters? I find the latter incoherent, since I don’t know what adjudicating “aright” even means apart from adjudicating consistently with one’s current knowledge of God. And yet I find it difficult to believe the former since I find it difficult to believe that a God that is benevolent in any practically-relevant sense has put the negative theologians between the rhetorical rock and hard place they find themselves between.

    I’m assuming here, as an open theist, that “practically-relevant” has no meaning apart from real free-will. At least the double-predestination Calvinist may disbelieve free-will and thereby leave out that connotation of “deserved” that many open theists can’t, although I have no idea what “deserved” does mean apart from free-will. Accordingly, I find it much easier to see how a negative theologian would disbelieve in free-will. That way, they need not use the “idolater” label at all to distinguish themselves from atheists. In that “world,” so long as events are caused, “right and wrong” just mean “true and false;” nothing more. And propositions about the future could be true or false in the sense of that bivalence that many open theists deny.

    The other way out is to deny that free-will has any relation to normativity. But then we need a very specific definition of “value” that will be quite different than the common conventional one. Short of that, the language of negative theology still fails to communicate linguistically anything about open theism, best I can tell.


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