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.)

Ineffable, all-surpassing, incomparable, unimaginable and incomprehensible

325We’d like to mention five New Testament passages in which a vision of and appreciation for divine transcendence is explicitly at work.

EXULTING IN A JOY THAT’S INEFFABLE. “Ineffable” just means “indescribable” or “unspeakable.” Some object to the idea of God’s being ineffable. But it does not mean nothing can be said truthfully about God. It means no speech about God can exhaust him. God can’t be “contained” or “reduced without remainder” to what we can say. And it’s a biblical idea. In addition, we are able to experience this ineffability for ourselves in some small measure. In 1Peter 1, Peter describes the suffering believer as “rejoicing with a joy unspeakable.” Now just look at that. We “rejoice” (or “exult”) with/in a joy which is “unspeakable” (or “ineffable”) while others persecute or harm or do us violence. Here we have an experience of transcendent joy in suffering.

KNOWING LOVE THAT SURPRASSES KNOWING. In Ephesians 3 Paul prays that we “know that love which surpasses/transcends knowing.” Surely we can appreciate the transcendent at work in Paul’s thinking here. Do we “know” God’s love intimately? Experience it genuinely? Of course, yes. Paul says as much: “…that ye know God’s love….” Nobody suggests an understanding of transcendence that denies this.

But this love also “transcends” (“surpasses” or “exceeds”) our very real knowledge and experience of it. That’s Paul as well. Here we must at least recognize that God exceeds our experience of God, not just in the sense that God is “more of the same” (like a bowl of a single flavor of ice-cream so large we’ll never eat our way through it; not just immeasurably more of what is known), but he is something unimaginably more — more diverse, more surprising, more astounding, more satisfying, more novel, more unimaginable, more ineffable, more than our present experience contains without denying it — always exceeding our experience and knowledge without falsifying them.

DESTINED FOR A GLORY THAT IS INCOMPARABLE. In Romans 8.18 Paul writes that “no present sufferings are worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” the glory that will thoroughly define us when our embodied selves are properly glorified by the beatific vision, the vision of God’s glory. What surprises are in this passage. How is it that our experience of God’s glory will render all conceivable suffering incomparably beside the point, not even worthy of being compared to the experience of God? Is God really that beautiful? Is the beatific vision really that defining?

If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours by virtue of this vision, what does this say about the God who always perceives his own beauty, about the very joy and delight God presently gets from seeing himself? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings when we participate in it, what must be the case about God’s present transcendence of all suffering in light of the fact that he eternally is this glory? Augustine describes God as perfectissima pulchritudo et beatissima delectation, “the most perfect beauty and the most blessed delight.” And that’s exactly how Greg Boyd envisions God’s essential necessary experience in Trinity and Process. God doesn’t have to wait (as we do) for the eschaton to bring his experience of glory to fulfillment. He is that glory now.

joy1CONCEIVING A FUTURE THAT IS UNIMAGINABLE. In 1Corinthians 2 Paul discusses the wisdom of God’s plans which went unperceived by the world but which we believers presently enjoy. In vv. 9-10 we get this same transcendent embrace. Our experience of God in the eschaton is something which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for us…” similar to Romans 8. God exceeds our wildest imagination. And yet he says these things have been revealed to us by the Spirit who searches our hearts. So we have unimaginable things in store for us which are also revealed to us. Does the sense in which they are revealed to us (v. 10) falsify the sense in which they remain unimaginable? As always, describing the experience of God’s transcendent presence, we’d have to say, “Yes and no.”

GUARDED BY A PEACE THAT’S INCOMPREHENSIBLE In Philippians 4.7 Paul promises that the “peace of God which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” We open theists stress the importance of divine ‘vulnerability’ (and that has its place). However, here is a passage that describes that about God which because it is not vulnerable is able guard our hearts and minds, and that something is “God’s peace.” This regards transcendence specifically. God has a peace (or rather is a peace) which surpasses comprehension/understanding, and this peace can guard one’s mental and emotional life. And though we have passages that describe our future enjoyment of this in its fullness, here we are told that this peace which defines God can come to define us in our present experience, and the transcendent enjoyment of it is beyond comprehension.

It is the experience of God in the above terms (as ineffable joy, as all-surpassing love, as incomparable glory, as unimaginable hope and as incomprehensible peace) which the term “transcendent” seeks to capture in describing God and our experience of God. While God is truly experienced, and truly God is experienced, God nevertheless always exceeds our wildest imaginations and purest propositions — not simply in the quantitative sense as being “immeasurably more of the same” as if we repeat what we comprehend of him eternally, but in the transcendent sense of always carrying us beyond our own categories. God will forever be the categorically new, and in this sense he is always categorically other.

(Pictures here and Scot Saw’s Transcendence here.)

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).

Mapping the Divine

Following-up on our previous post regarding apophaticism, let me say that I think Turner’s description of the apophatic-cataphatic ‘dialectic’ (and the two have to be exercised together as a dialectic, that’s the point) as “the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God” is the best phrase I’ve seen which gets at what apophatic theology is about. We’ll certainly explore this more in time, but I wanted to emphasize again that this “way of negation” isn’t merely glorying in contradiction and irrationality, nor is it going out of one’s way to ascribe incomprehensibilities to God. It is, as Turner says, an exercise meant to demonstrate to us “the failure of what we must say about God.”

As such this dialectic is a particular kind of failing, carefully approached and constructed since there are things to say of God and other things which cannot be said of God. Not just any failure of rationality will do. Apophasis isn’t attributing to God every nonsensical proposition one can imagine and then taking comfort in having faithfully demonstrated the infinity of God, nor is it simply prefixing every positive truth about God with the negating “It is not the case that….” It is rather ‘experiencing’, not just ‘saying’ (though saying it is the discipline by which one brings oneself to the experience of it), the inadequacy of human categories to ‘define’ God. God always exceeds, as it were, even that which we must say about God, and the saying aids us in approaching just the right ledge, the right precipice, from where the Spirit takes us off the map.

To assure you we’re not making this up or violating what the Fathers mean by apophaticism, check out this very interesting comment by Pseudo-Dionysius (5th/6th century CE). In The Mystical Theology, he explains:

What has actually to be said about the Cause of everything is this—Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more importantly we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.

48bed5e8ad0c5_58263bThere you are. Pseudo-Denys clearly explains that apophatic negations are not simply contradictions of affirmations. We are not simply placing the logical operator (~) for negation in front of all we affirm about God.

Let me suggest an analogy for the sense in which God transcends all that we must say about him. Think of the similarities and dissimilarities between ‘maps’ and the ‘territories’ they describe. Are maps good and useful? Most certainly. Do they speak accurately so far as they are able? Yes. Can just any lines or circles be drawn on a map and it remain a good and useful map? Certainly not. But is the map the territory? No. Can any map of the Grand Canyon be the Grand Canyon? Can even the best map of the Grand Canyon ‘say’ (because ‘saying’ is what maps do) the Grand Canyon, that is, say ‘what’ the actual terrain of the Grand Canyon is (so that the ‘saying’ and the ‘being’ of the Canyon are the same)? Most certainly not. In this sense it may be helpful to conceive of the cataphatic/apophatic dialectic as an aid in experiencing the transcendent. And that’s the good news in this — we do experience the ‘territory’ we call God.

(Picture from here.)

Eadem est scientia oppositorum

marco4The phrase was used by Aquinas, following Aristotle, meaning that affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge and it’s theological application is the affirmation of Aquinas’ apophatic theology. Apophatic theology, or the “way of negation,” is resoundingly rejected by open theists as a virtual blasphemy. It’s believed to represent the core methodological error that lands one ultimately in the mistaken belief of classical theism’s actus purus.

This is so among open theists because, as we said earlier, methodologically speaking open theists stand squarely within that Process assumption that God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication, that is, God is not to be thought of as the exception to (nor an apophatic negation of) our metaphysical principles but as their chief exemplification. Open theists embrace this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology that embraces and explains both divine and created being. And just so you remember, to challenge the necessity of this methodology to open theism is one of the goals of this blog.

Ask open theists what ‘negative’ or ‘apophatic’ theology is and you’ll likely be told that it means “taking back everything you say about God” or “negating by way of contradiction everything you affirm about God” or worse yet that it means “attributing the most nonsense possible to God.” This is not the kind of apophaticism one finds in, say, the Orthodox thinker Pseudo-Denys who is much more thoughtful and complicated.

For the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly returned to the scrumptious provocations of British philosopher/theologian Denys Turner. I keep returning, in particular, to his chapter “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (eds Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, 2002). I’d like to share several quotes I think shed light on our understanding of the proper limits of theological language.

…all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure. But this is because an adequate cataphatic theology has to be unremitting in its affirmations of theological language, for everything about the world tells us something about the creator. 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.


…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….


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.

(Picture from here.)