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.)

Unspeakably Transcended—Part 2

cloud-of-unknowingDenys Turner has done more than any other 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. 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 tool of the trade for philosophers and theologians.

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.”

byzantine icon 1220adLanguage 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?

Turner, again:

“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….”

imagesCA2BX22YThis seems strange in light of Pseudo-Denys’ own comment:

“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 (affirmations and denials). 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 (first) negation. My sense is that the cataphatic ought to proceed undisturbed within the logic that governs it, and this means holding the logic that gives meaning to our categories and language. This is then 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, of the cataphatic dialectic (between a true proposition and its false contradictory). We do not, contra Turner, first negate every cataphatic affirmation (by positing the truth of its contradictory) and then go on to negate this dialectic with a second (apophatic) negation. Turner’s first negation is the problem. 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 (i.e., this propositional dialectic of cataphatic affirmations and their relations – i.e, contraries, contradictories, subalterns, etc.) as a strategy for demonstrating God’s transcendence.

For example—

1) Cataphatically we…
a) …affirm: “God exists”
a’) …and deny: “God does not exist.”
b) …affirm: “God is love.”
b’) …and deny: “God is not love.”
c) …affirm: “God is personal.”
c’) …and deny: “God is not personal.”

2) Apophatically…
All the above propositions are apophatically negated, yes, but apophatic denial is not an instance of cataphatic denial (operative in a’, b’, and c’). That is, we apophatically negate what is cataphatically true and false and therefore (as Turner says) negate the propositional and not merely make more negative propositions. As PD says, the apophatic denial of some affirmative (cataphatic) truth is not its logical contradictory. We are rather 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.

(Pictures here, here, and here.)

Unspeakably Transcended—Part 1

x-Suso2I can’t seem to get enough of pondering the question of how our language apprehends God, that is, how it is that the concepts and categories we created beings use to speak of God actually apply to God. This question belongs to the larger question of God’s transcendence of the world, something religious believers have never stopped thinking about and about which there was once widespread agreement that God did in fact transcend the created order. Today however, among Protestant thinkers, this is not the case.

Transcendence worries some. The worry is that if our language doesn’t describe God univocally, then we are consigned to absolute agnosticism regarding God. On the other hand, univocal attribution worries others who believe that our terms and categories can apply univocally to God only at the cost of reducing divine and created being to a single category of ‘being’ and thereby erasing the creator-creature distinction.

I enjoyed running into this conversation recently on Dale Tuggy’s blog where he references a post (‘The Dread God Roberts’) written by James McGrath. Father Aidan over at Ecclectic Orthodoxy has engaged it as well. I thought it a good opportunity to chime in with my own thoughts and hesitations. We’ve dedicated a few posts here at An Open Orthodoxy to the question of theological language. See here and here. What makes this a particularly difficult question to address for me is that I’m of the view that there are some deep existential issues (all theology is autobiography after all) at play in how we process the arguments. I heard this for years from believers on the Orthodox side and was frustrated with what seemed to me to be a lack of urgency in providing philosophical arguments for this existential component. Now, having lived my way into a deep appreciation of apophaticism, I can appreciate their lack of urgency because, frankly, I find myself equally at the same loss, a loss to articulate a neat syllogism which captures and expresses, from within the transcended, God’s transcendence of things. The point of apophaticism is to furnish a linguistic strategy for recognizing this ‘capture’ as impossible. But from where I sit now, I’m OK with this—with the fact that the reality of the divine is, as Denys Turner says, a “language-defeating silence.”

(Picture from here.)