Pseudo-Denys on the Law of Non-Contradiction

denisI’ve tapped into Denys Turner writings before (Unspeakably Transcended Series, Whatcha Reading? 2, Eadem est scientia oppositorum, and Mapping the Divine). I ran across an interesting and helpful portion of his Ch. 8 from Faith, Reason and the Existence of God that may address concerns some have about the abiding relevancy of the laws of logic in theological language. Here’s the portion of that chapter. It’s not a guest blog (I wish!), and it’s a bit long, but I hope those interested find it helpful.


Difference and hierarchy: the pseudo-Denys

At first blush, however, one would have supposed that classical forms of negative theology would hardly commend themselves to the ‘democratic’ temperament of post-modern philosophy, if only for the reason that hierarchy is ineradicable from the earliest classical formulations of negative theology; they are born twins in their first incarnations. And if not the first, then certainly the most influential of those incarnations in Western Christian thought must be that found in the pseudo-Denys’ Mystical Theology. For the pseudo-Denys a hierarchy is a differentiated structure of differences. Thus, in the fourth and fifth chapters of that work he describes a hierarchy of differentiated denials — denials, that is, of all the names of God. Those names, to use a later, medieval, metaphor, form a ladder, ascending from the lowest ‘perceptual’ names – ‘God is a rock, is immense, is light, is darkness…’ – derived as metaphors from material objects – to the very highest, ‘proper’, or ‘conceptual’ names of God: ‘God is wise and wisdom, good and goodness, beautiful and beauty, exists and existence’. All these names the pseudo-Denys negates one by one as he progresses up the scale of language until at the end of the work the last word is that all words are left behind in the silence of the apophatic. This ascending hierarchy of negations is, however, systematic, is governed by a general theological principle and is regulated by a mechanism. It has a grammar.

As to the general theological principle, the pseudo-Denys has already said earlier in Mystical Theology what he had emphasized in Divine Names, that all these descriptions denied are legitimate names of God and yield the possibilities of true and of false statements about God. Hence, these fourth and fifth chapters of his Mystical Theology are, in the first instance, expositions of an intrinsically hierarchical affirmative theology. Moreover, the foundation of this affirmativeness lies in God’s being the Creator of all things. It is God’s being the cause of all which justifies God’s being described by the names of all the things he has caused, even if what they mean as thus predicate of God must fall infinitely short of what God is; nor is there any sign, anywhere in the Corpus Dionysiacum, that Denys anticipates a problem of consistency between an epistemologically realist affirmative theology and a thoroughgoing apophaticism.

Indeed, it is probably one of the chief arguments of Divine Names that if we are not to be misled in our theological language, we not only may but must use as many different ways of describing God as possible: as he himself says, if we gain something in how we think of God be describing her as a ‘king in majesty’, then we ought to remember that she can appear to behave towards us in a manner so irritable and arbitrary that we may as appropriately describe her, in the manner of the Psalmist, as behaving like a soldier maddened by an excess of wine. Theological language, for the pseudo-Denys, consists not in a restraint, but in a clamour of metaphor and description, for negative theology is, essentially, a surplus, not a deficit, of description; you talk your way into silence by way of an excessus embarrassed at its increasing complexity of differentiation. Hence, if we must also deny all that we affirm, this does not, for the pseudo-Denys, imply any privileging of the negative description or metaphor over the affirmative. For those denials and negations are themselves forms of speech; hence, if the divine reality transcends all our speech, then, as he says in the concluding words of Mystical Theology, ‘the cause of all…is’ indeed, ‘…beyond every assertion’; but it is also, and by the same token, ‘beyond every denial’. You can no more ‘capture’ God in denials than you can capture God in affirmations.

The point of the serial negations of the last two chapters of that work, therefore, is not demonstrate that negative language is somehow superior to affirmative in the mind’s ascent to God; rather it is to demonstrate that our language leads us to the reality of God when, by a process simultaneously of affirming and denying all things of God, by, as it were in one breath, both affirming what God is and denying, as he puts it, ‘that there is any kind of thing that God is’, we step off the very boundary of language itself, beyond every assertion and every denial, into the ‘negation of the negation’ and the ‘brilliant darkness’ of God. But even here we should note that this ‘negation of the negation’ entails neither that some ultimate affirmation gains grip, nor that some ultimate negation does so. The ‘negation of the negation’ is precisely the refusal of ultimacy to both the affirmative and the negative, to both similarity and difference. In this sense the theology of the pseudo-Denys is neither an ‘apophaticism’ nor a ‘cataphaticism’. It is the entirely ‘unclosed’, ‘unresolved’ tension between both. It is within that tension that, for the pseudo-Denys, all theological language is situated; it is situated, in a certain sense, within indeterminacy.

So much for the theological principle of his apophaticism – which is necessarily at the same time the general principle of his cataphaticism. As for the mechanism which governs this stepwise ascent of affirmation and denial, we may observe how that mechanism is itself a paradoxical conjunction of opposites: the ascent is, as I have said, an ordered hierarchical progression from denials of the lower to denials of the higher names, and yet at every stage on this ascent we encounter the same phenomenon of language slipping and sliding unstably, as the signifying name first appears to get a purchase, and then loses grip, on the signified it designates. We may say legitimately, because the Bible says it, that ‘God is a rock’ and as we say the words they appear to offer a stable hold on the signified, God: we have said, Denys supposes, something true of God, albeit by metaphor, and something of the divine reliability is thereby disclosed. But just as we have let some weight hang from the grip of this word ‘rock’ on the being of God, the grip slips: God is not, of course, ‘lifeless’, as rocks are, and we also have to say, since the Bible tells us we must, that God is love and must be possessed of intellect and will, and so enjoys the highest form of life of which we know. Hence, in order to retain its grip on the signified, the signifier has to shift a step up the ladder of ascent, there itself to be further destabilized. For God is not ‘intelligence’ or ‘will’ either, and the signified again wriggles away from the hook of the signifier and shifts and slides away, never to be impaled finally on any descriptive hook we can devise, even that of existence. For in affirming that ‘God exists’, what we say of God differs infinitely more from what we affirm when we say that “Peter exists’ than does ‘Peter exists’ from ‘Peter does not exist’. For the difference between Peter’s existing and Peter’s not existing is a created difference, and so finite. Whereas the difference between God’s existing and Peter’s existing is between an uncreated and a created existence, and so is infinite. Hence, any understanding we have of the distinction between existence and non-existence fails of God, which is why the pseudo-Denys can say that the Cause of all ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’. Mysteriously, the pseudo-Denys insists that we must deny of God that she is ‘divinity’; more mysteriously still the signified eludes the hold even, as we have seen, of ‘similarity and difference;’ mysteriously, that is, until we are forced to discover just why God cannot be different from, nor therefore similar to, anything at all, at any rate in any of the ways in which we can conceive of similarity and difference; or else God would be just another, different, thing. Just so, for the pseudo-Denys: for ‘there is no kind of thing’, he says, ‘which God is’. Therefore, there is nothing we can say which fully circumscribes what God is, and, which is more to the point, there can be no language of similarity and difference left with which to describe God’s difference. In short, for the pseudo-Denys, only the otherness of God could be ‘totally’ other, and that otherness of God is, perforce, indescribable – God’s ‘otherness’ is to be beyond ‘otherness’. Hence, as to ‘this’ difference between God and creatures, we cannot even describe it as a difference, the difference, of which we can give an account.

Moses_Burning_Bush_Bysantine_Mosaic_thumb[1]For the pseudo-Denys, then, we are justified in making true affirmative statements about God, because if God is the Creator of all things, all things must in some way reveal, in what they are, the nature of their origin. That is his concession, as we might put it, to ‘foundationalism’. But creatures do not all reveal the same things about God, or in the same way, or to the same extent. For this reason, it is correct to say that, for the pseudo-Denys, there is a ‘grammar’ of talk about God, a grammar which governs equally its cataphatic and the apophatic ‘phases’. For even if we do not have a proper ‘concept’ of God (there being no kind of things which God is for there to be a concept of), we have a use for the name ‘God’, a use which is governed by determinable rules of correct and incorrect speech. In fact, it is clear that, for the pseudo-Denys, that grammar is complex and differentiated, governing, that is to say, different logics of grounding in truth, different logics of consistency, and above all, different logics of negation, negation being the foundation of all logic, and so of ‘difference’. These ‘logics’ are determined by the order of creation in so far as creation is an order and scale of revelation, a hierarchy, for as some things are ‘nearer’ to God in their natures, and others ‘further’ from God, so their likeness to God is more or less ‘similar’. Of course, all the names of God fall short of what God is: you can even say that God is equally ‘other’ than all these names, though they are not equally other than God. But because there is a hierarchy of affirmations, there is a corresponding hierarchy of denials.

For, in general, what you are doing in negating predicates of God depends on the logical standing of the predicates you are negating, and four logical types of negation – and so of ‘difference’ – seem to be theologically at play. First, at the level of metaphor, and so at the ‘lowest’ level of our discourse about God, we affirm and deny of God what is proper to material creation: ‘God is a rock’, ‘God is a lion’. Obviously ‘God is a lion’ negates the force of ‘God is a rock’ to the extent that a rock is lifeless and a lion alive. Hence, one metaphor is negative by its metaphorically negative counterpart. But even metaphors which cancel each other in one respect are with consistency affirmed of one and the same thing in another, for there is no inconsistency in saying that God has the stability of a rock and the fierce energy of a lion. In any case, a negative metaphor, as ‘no man is an island’, negates an affirmative, such as ‘some men are islands’, but is for all its negativity still a metaphor. Consequently, the relations of affirmation to negation within the metaphorical differ from those between a metaphor, whether affirmative or negative, and its negation as a metaphor.

For, secondly, the negation of metaphor simply consists in a recognition of its literal falsehood: ‘It is not the case that God is a rock’, which is simply a way of acknowledging that ‘God is a rock’ is a metaphor. But then again, at a third level, a literal affirmation entails the negation of its literal contradictory, for eadem est scientia oppositorum. Hence, you may legitimately say that ‘God exists’, which is in no way a metaphor, and is no more than to say the contrary of what the atheist says; and you may legitimately say that ‘God is good’, which entails the falsehood of ‘God is evil’. In either case, the first, being true, excludes the truth of the second. And all these three relations of affirmation and negation are straightforwardly ‘Aristotelian’; they are negations governed by the laws of classical logic.

But as to a fourth level of negation, that which the pseudo-Denys calls ‘denial by transcendence’, this is the ‘negation of the negation’, as when he says that the Cause of all ‘falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being’. And it is clear that the pseudo-Denys’ apophatic negations are of this last kind. For in the sense in which it is correctly said that ‘God is not good’, it is not now entailed that God is evil; in the sense in which God is said, correctly, not to be ‘a being’, ‘not-being’ equally fails of God. What is being negated, therefore, is that any creaturely understanding of the difference between good and evil, between being and non-being, finally holds its grip on God. The ‘negation of the negation’ is ultimately the negation of that hierarchy which structures the oppositions of affirmation and negation which lead up to it. For that hierarchy is a structure of differentiation, an articulation of a scale of negations; whereas the ‘negation of the negation’ places God beyond hierarchy itself, for to say that God is ‘beyond both similarity and difference’ is to say that God is not different by virtue of any of the differences on the scale, but that God is, ultimately, off the scale itself. But how do such denials – the double negation – achieve this?

It is sometimes said that they do so by ‘going beyond’ Aristotelian logic. And this is in one way true, and in another way distinctly misleading. For in so far as what is meant by saying that the ‘apophatic denials’ reach out to some space ‘beyond’ the realm in which the principle of contradiction holds is that here, when talking about God, we happily say contradictory things without ‘Aristotelian’ scruple, this clearly misrepresents the pseudo-Denys’ view. For it is, on the contrary, because two propositions which formally contradict each other could not both be true of God – in other words precisely because here, too, Aristotelian logic does hold – that we know our language to be failing of God. The ‘negation of the negation’ is not the abandonment of logic’s hold on language. On the contrary, it is precisely because logic does retain its hold on language that the negation of the negation is the abandonment of language as such. Hence, for the pseudo-Denys there is no such thing as ‘apophatic language’. If it is apophatic, then it is beyond language. If it is within language, then it is obedient to the laws of ‘Aristotelian logic’. It is only ‘beyond speech’, therefore, that, for the pseudo-Denys, indeterminacy rules. In the meantime, and leading up to that point, there is a hierarchical differentiation and structure within negativity, and so within ‘otherness’, a hierarchy which is intrinsic to the statement of his apophaticism.

(Pictures here and here.)

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.)

Bridging the ontological divide?

bridge-to-nowhereFr Aidan’s comments about open theism’s inherent tendency to collapse the distinction between the immanent and economic trinities is well taken. If we express his concern in terms of distinctions we’ve already made, it would be the distinction between Process and Classical approaches — viz., the Process insistence that divine and created being constitute between them a ‘single order of content and explication’, that is, both are embraced categorically and univocally (in which case God is one being (even if an exemplary and all-inclusive one) in the inventory of beings), and the Classical insistence that God ontologically transcends created being.

Open theists, we noted, pretty much all stand within the Process camp on this question, and in that case Fr Aidan’s comments are spot on. Process theism doesn’t just entail the collapse of the ontological distinction between divine and created being; it aims at and argues for this collapse. But must it be the case that open theism also stand within this Process tradition? We think not. Recall what we posted earlier from Denys Turner regarding the apophatic/cataphatic dialectic. Turner comments that:

“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 again:

“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….”

Allow us two important comments, then a suggestion.

First, apophaticism isn’t the attribution to God of every irrationality (logical or moral) conceivable. For example, we are not to attribute evil to God just to demonstrate God’s transcendence of the world. Such an affirmation is not admissibly cataphatic. We shouldn’t say it. Second, as Pseudo-Denys said, even with regard to those things we can and must say about God, apophaticism isn’t simply placing the logical operator for ‘negation’ (the sign ~) in front of all our affirmations. “We should not conclude,” says Pseudo-Denys, “that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations.” Apophatic negation is not mere ‘contradiction’. Why? Because eadem est scientia oppositorum (affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge). To “merely contradict” is to collapse the ontological distinction as well, because affirmation and mere contradiction both leave God embraced entirely within the categories of the created “cognitively possessed” by us and at our disposal.

What’s our suggestion? The suggestion we want to explore is to conceive of open theism’s defining claim and three core convictions expressed by us here as part of that “prolixity” which Denys Turner insists defines the cataphatic/apophatic dialectic, part of what he claims “we must say about God,” the true negation of which is not mere contradiction but is rather, as with all human claims and categories, an admission of its inadequacy (because its affirmation fails to render God unqualifiedly possessed by us cognitively). As Merold Westphall says, “God never becomes our cognitive property.” And as part of what must be said about God cataphatically, open theism would be appropriate to affirm and inappropriate to contradict (following Pseudo-Denys line of thought).

So can one affirm open theism cataphatically and negate it apophatically in this Dionysian sense (as we must all such statements)? We think so. But in this case open theism is no more or less transcended by God than any other Orthodox belief which is expressed cataphatically and negated appropriately.

The problem this creates for Dwayne and me with our open theist friends is that we do not share the reigning metaphysical (Process) assumption that “God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication,” and this makes us appear too “classical” and “orthodox” (words that open theists have invested a lot of energy to expose as perversions of biblical faith). On the other hand, the problem this creates for us with our Orthodox friends is that we are tampering with that list of affirmations believed to constitute “that which we must say about God” in order to be led, apophatically, to the truest sense of our finitude and thus to the truest experience of our salvation.

(Picture from 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.)