Not that ‘Lost in Translation’. Rather, the feeling I and a friend both have whenever we talk about what it means to talk about God.
Here’s a bit of our conversation over past couple of weeks. It has to do with how language captures the truth about God. I’ll say up front that I’m comfortable denying particular assumptions or beliefs about what in fact is going on when we claim or deny that God is this or that (loving, just, good, etc.). It’s harder to state positively exactly how language apprehends God. (Or is it that language is already to be apprehended by God?) Truth is, I find myself more comfortable these days with silent modes of speech? Some might balk at even that: Silent speech? “Silence,” Juana de la Cruz wrote, “is not having nothing to say; it’s being unable to find words for all there is to say.”
This categorical failure of language is the greatest surprise faith has brought my way the last ten years or so. I would say today that my most positively apprehending, truth-bearing, reality depicting modes of speech are forms of silence – either a ‘groaning that words cannot express’ (Rom 8), or, at other times, ‘an inexpressible/ineffable and glorious joy’ (1Pet 1).
I wish I had better answers, better “definitions”; a way to cordon off the divine reality within the categorical reach of language for my friend here (who I’ve named Webster to keep him anonymous). The conversation included much more than I’m posting, but I hope what’s here will invite comments and suggestions.
Tom: We possess our life as temporal “becoming,” an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not – a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future. So when you ask what I mean by “being” when I say God is not “a being among beings,” this is what I mean. I don’t see how God can be an instance of such “becoming” even if the process that is his essential life is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.”
God is not that ‘kind’ of thing, and since every kind of thing in creation is, by virtue of being created, the kind of thing that has its being in and as ‘becoming’ (through the grace of participation in that which it is not), it seems to me that saying God cannot be “a being among beings” better captures something truth about God and ourselves.
Webster: To plausibly explain anything ‘by’ God as a least a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, I have to know something about God in terms of his attributes. Since I can’t manufacture attributes by manufacturing new categories, those attributes will be intelligible to me in terms of my existing categories unless God gives me new categories with which to conceive of his attributes.
Without knowing some of God’s attributes, God can’t explain any event whatsoever except as an absolutely spontaneous cause unrelated in any way to his attributes. This is why I say that without defining God as having certain relevant essential attributes, we couldn’t predict anything he will ever do or even whether he will ever do anything else. And that would also rule out any standard teleological thinking about any aspect of the universe. But once we conceive of God as having attributes that are conceived of in terms of our categories (which renders them intelligible), like for example your claiming that God has felt-experience (i.e., God is sentient), then in that one sense, God is a being as we are in ‘that’ one sense.
We [shouldn’t] reject analogy where it explains things that would otherwise be unexplained, like how the validity of induction is entailed in certain relevant attributes of a Designer/Creator of the universe. Only the right kind of theism gives us that kind of ontology. Neither atheism nor deism does. And I contend that impassibilistic theism doesn’t either. Because it can’t get us beyond absolutely spontaneous divine action, which renders divine explanation absolutely arbitrary.
I know you will say that you aren’t being arbitrary. But you always put words that would normally be truly explanatory in quotations. Like God “cares” about us, e.g. Why the quotes? Because you’re not using the dictionary meaning of the word “care,” or “love,” etc. But you never say what meaning these words have after stripping them of their normal definitions. And as far as I can tell, once you take the divine “impassibility” route, there’s no analogy left between human love and caring and God’s putative “love” and “caring” that gives those terms any explanatory power whatsoever. What you seem to be doing to me is arbitrarily assigning divine causality to some event that, if God ‘actually’ loved you by the dictionary meaning of that term, would ‘probably’ have been caused by God – the teleological God that the rest of us believe in. But you’ve already stripped God of all the attributes that make the “probably” an actual “probably.”
Tom: Everything in our universe is contingent. Things come into being, are caused, subsist temporally through participation in that which is other than themselves, pass out of existence, etc. That is the ‘being’ of the world. God isn’t an instance of it, and for that simple reason I don’t describe God as “a being” (without appropriate qualification). If I put quotation marks around something God is or does, it’s only to note this point.
You say that “To plausibly explain anything by God as a least a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, I have to know something about God in terms of his attributes.” True. But it’s also true that God explains nothing if he’s just another instance of that which we’re trying to explain.
You say that “once we conceive of God as having attributes that are conceived of in terms of our categories (which renders them intelligible)” like my claiming that God has felt-experience (viz., beatitude), then “God is a being as we are in that one sense.”
There’s likeness – the way a mirror might reflect my likeness while being very unlike me (the reflection will be two- and not three-dimensional, will not share the original’s ontology/being, etc., though it does reflect an image). So, for example, to say God is “cause of all things” is to attribute the being of the world to God, but this is not to say that with respect to causation God is an instance of what we observe between any finite cause and its effects within the causal changes that comprise our world. As the world’s “cause,” God doesn’t stand in relation to the world the same way any finite cause within the world stands in relation to its effects. If that were so, we’d have to ask what caused God and thus would face an infinite regress. The infinite regress is prevented, however, not through logical cosmetics (by virtue of parsimony or by the magical effect of saying “uncaused” before we say “cause” in the case of God) but because God in himself is indeed not another cause among causes.
You wonder whether God’s being ‘impassible’ in the sense I’ve argued (i.e., the beatitude or bliss of his triune experience cannot be diminished or improved upon by the world) means we are at a complete loss to predicting God’s behavior. I’m not seeing why this follows. If the character of God’s beatitude just is his benevolence (i.e., don’t divorce the beatitude of being from its benevolent character) then we can know that God will (predictably) love and not hate, seek the highest good of others, not their destruction, etc. So when you ask, “What do you think God will eventually do, and based on what attributes?” my answer is that God will consistently love what he creates, pursuing its highest good in him, and he’ll do it because he is love.
Webster: I’m not sure how you’re using certain words. On the one hand you say there is no ‘actual infinite’, hence there can be no infinite past. But then you, like Hart, throw the word “infinite” around about God like I’m supposed to understand what you mean by that.
By category I mean those very fundamental conceptions and relations that are at the foundation of all propositional thought. I consider the substance-attribute corollary something at that fundamental a level, as is cause, final-cause, temporal relations/concepts, spatial relations/concepts, etc. So if God doesn’t have attributes as per something as fundamental as what we mean at the abstract level of substance-attribute, I have no idea what we’re saying when we speak of attributes of God.
Also, I’m not sure I know what is being meant by analogy. When I say something is analogous, I mean it is the same in some respect. It matters not to me whether there is such a thing as infinite love, because I can’t conceive of how God will ever infinitely love me or any finite being. Any experience I’ll ever have will be finite. And I will always have existed a finite amount of time. So I can never experience ‘infinite’ love at all. So I see no point in obscuring a conception of God based on what I can never fathom or experience. I conceive of God per what can be known of him by a finite mind, regardless of whether God is infinite in any sense. Since I’ll never experience any infinite experience, even if God is somehow infinite, it explains nothing I’ll ever apprehend. For I have no reason to believe that any finite experience requires an infinite capacity to cause. So I don’t get what role such speculations play in a theology that is to have practical implications.
Tom: Regarding analogical language. Maybe it’s all beyond my pay-grade, but I don’t think one has to assume a shared ontology between two relata in an analogy. There can be a shared ontology between relata, as there undoubtably is between vegetables and me when I say “Vegetables are healthy” and “I am healthy,” where “healthy” describes the same reality but differentiates the possession of it by vegetables (which are healthy because they ‘give’ health) and by us (who are healthy because we’re ‘made healthy’ by vegetables). But vegetables and we are equally created things. We could perhaps span this difference with something approaching a univocal sense of the word. I don’t know. But when we say “Vegetables are healthy” and “the economy is healthy” or “my marriage is healthy,” we’re not talking about a univocal sense of the word “healthy” in the economy or marriage which is derived from the meaning as we find it in vegetables. If our language of God is thought to apprehend an essential unity between God and the world (as relata) on an ontological level, then I don’t see how God can be an ‘answer’ to the question of being/ontology (Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?), for he would just be “one of” the things that creates the question.
Webster: I can’t see how we could know induction is valid if benevolent, competent teleology (a teleology of risk for God, not a guaranteed boon for God that would imply compatibilistic creation) isn’t the impetus for the existence of the universe we inductively infer.
Tom: I agree, except for the fact that the competent teleology we posit needn’t be a risky one for God in the sense you mean and for the reasons you suppose. An accomplished, benevolent beatitude/bliss can will the existence and pursue the highest good of that which it creates without putting itself at risk.
You say, “transcendence, per se, doesn’t automatically amount to something worthwhile about the destiny of humans” and that “Deism is intelligible transcendence.” But I have to disagree. Deism’s God isn’t transcendent, for transcendence is not absence (as it is in Deism). If God is either locked out of creation or he opts out of intimacy with it, he’s not transcendent in the Christian sense.
Webster: If you can’t articulate what I’m misunderstanding, it’s probably because you really don’t understand it yourself. But surely by now you know that there is literally no idea pertinent to any practically-relevant theistic thinking that all intellectuals agree on. If you can’t articulate your own arguments using words that you can define or that I can find in a dictionary, it’s still the case that I can’t read minds.
Tom: I don’t mean to be so frustrating. I thought I’d defined the way I used the words you asked about (“being,” “infinity,” “transcendence”). So let me try again. If I were asked to try to narrow it down, I’d say that by “a being” I mean a subject of temporal becoming, an entity whose existence is a temporal movement toward some final end…and so forth. That’s the realm from which we derive the abstract categories that supervene upon all that is. I don’t include God in this because he’s none of these things. Rather, he is that in which all becoming participates, toward which all teleology tends, and in which all categorical perfections (truth, beauty, goodness, difference, unity, etc.) rest (to be participated in by us).
What about “infinite” as attributed to God? I take it that by saying God is infinite, Hart and others mean to describe the fullness or plenitude and fecundity of God’s life, a plenitude fully realized as love in all its perfections, without needing to be determined by anything outside himself, and that these perfections however endlessly they obtain in creation, are immeasurably actual in God. Since this plenitude is not quantifiable, is immeasurable (because no finite standard can encompass it), is unconditioned by the pathos of contingent becoming, and is its own source and ground and end, “infinite” seems a perfect term for expressing such a radical thing. I think I have this right in Hart’s case, but if not, then let me just say that it is what I mean by saying God is infinite.
I take transcendence to basically capture the same idea. It’s precisely because God is infinite/transcendent in this sense that transcendence does not become ‘absence’, which is basically what happens when we make God “a being among beings” (i.e., a subject of temporal becoming, an “instance of” some category or other, determined by the pathos of the contingent, achieving the plenitude of his being dialectically through relations external to himself, etc.).
Take note too – I don’t take these as “definitions” in the “dictionary” sense of the word. I take these (the good, the true, the beautiful, etc.) to be “names.” And a “name” is not exactly a “definition.” There’s no “defining” God if you mean standing in a relation to God as we do, say, when defining any discrete object in the world. This is so because to define something is to assume a certain relation of sufficient competency to it as an observer, a certain perspective that encompasses its act of being within the terms available to the one doing the defining. But in my view this ia not a relation we can sustain to God. So we “name” God from our experience of him, from his acts in creation, etc., but he’s not some object in the universe (even if we locate him at every point in it) that our categories “supervene upon.” God is not “supervened upon,” and for that reason can’t be de-fined (you like definitions – from the Latin: de + finis/finire [end] = to bring to and end).
Webster: If (a) what are poised as words “about” “God” aren’t really words (i.e., symbols for defined concepts) that can communicate anything “about” God, and (b) the only way I can “get” anything “about” God is to see God seeing me, with words failing me, then: reading those essays you recommended using definitions that don’t apply to their words isn’t going to advance me a wit towards that end, is it? Wouldn’t God just have to reveal himself to me for me to see him, thus? And if God doesn’t, well then, God doesn’t. And there’s nothing that anyone, including me, can do to aid my advance thereto. This is why I have no idea why you ever talk to me at all, unless you just enjoy telling me you have something that I don’t.
Tom: Obviously we have to use words to talk about God, to maintain a corporate faith (with language of evangelism, worship, prayer, etc.) and to talk to ourselves. All I’m saying is however much we must talk (and the more the better, says Denys Turner) we never succeed in drawing a line around God, we never “make an end” (de + finis) of God categorically, packaging him up neatly within our cognitive grasps as do our definitions generally with finite objects.
Is there anything ineffable about your experience of God? Can you reduce everything about your experience of God to neat syllogisms and dictionary entries? Do your categories ever collide in an experience of God that escapes their grasp? Is it really that frustrating to contemplate God as escaping your cognitive grasp?