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.)