A theology of fragments

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a helpful passage* from David Tracy that ties in to what I’ve been exploring with others about Paul Hessert’s book Christ and the End of Meaning, the second chapter of which contrasts (1Cor 1.22-25) human ways of meaning-making through the use of ‘power’ (Jews demand signs) and ‘rational systems that seek total explanations’ (Greeks seek wisdom) with the abandonment of this structure of meaning that faith calls us to in Christ.

Beyond this early Romantic groping after ‘fragments’ which helped to challenge the stranglehold of the Enlightenment system lay the two greatest unveilers of modernity’s secret dream to be the logos of its own secret, ontotheology – Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Is there anyone, even today, better than Kierkegaard at exposing the bizarre drive to totality of almost all modern rationalist, idealist systems including Christianity become Christendom? What Kierkegaard showed is that Christendom, not Christianity, is an attempted triumphalism, a triumphant totality system that could not and cannot survive any experiment with authentic Christian living. Philosophy should abjure its modern pretensions to a total understanding of life, the individual, art and religion and learn to think anew from the new forms for dialectical though invented by Kierkegaard in two of his greatest works; the works by Johannes Climacus, entitled Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He left us what? Fragments and inconclusive postscripts. Both are fine forms indeed to challenge Hegelianism, the then reigning totality system of Kierkegaard’s culture. As several post-modern thinkers now argue, Kierkegaard’s fragments smashed not only Hegelianism with its temptations to totality. It is Kierkegaard, in several of his works, who first begins to use the category of the “Impossible.” He strove, through Johannes Climacus, not for the actual, nor the possible, but for the Impossible. In nearly all his work, on how religion – both religiousness “A” and religiousness “B” (Christian religion for Kierkegaard) – showed how to render what would otherwise be consider Impossible.

Kierkegaard will do almost anything to break the reified ice of what he considers modernity’s hold on all our thinking or Christendom’s hold on Christians…He will forge a new and indirect discourse for the sacred to undo any claim to adequacy of direct discourse in the idealist version of totality…But then what about this breakthrough into a form for the Impossible, into grace?…Kierkegaard did not have the calling to preach…Therefore he invented form after form to render present the one content modernity denied—the reality of the Impossible—grace, Christ, God.

Kierkegaard’s paradoxically anti-Christian double, Nietzsche, plays the same fragmentation role for Christendom and Enlightenment modernity alike, but now with a hammer. When Nietzsche’s hammer becomes too blunt a tool against Christianity as well as against bourgeois modernity, he too, like Kierkegaard will try any form, any genre, any intellectual strategy to try to break out of any totalizing system. He forged style and style just as Kierkegaard forged genre after genre. Form Nietzsche’s early essays to his quasi-gospel genre in his great Thus Spoke Zarathustra to genealogical analysis through aphorisms piled upon aphorisms to fragments juxtaposed to fragments, Nietzsche organized in what seems to me in an increasingly desperate attempt to recover…not merely the controlled rhetoric of Aristotle’s topics but the out of control rhetoric of the tropes, especially the trope of irony careening with joy at the very edge of what he saw as an Abyss or Void opened up once the totality systems collapsed.

For those familiar with Hessert, compare Hessert’s exposition of culture’s false attempt find the world “meaningful” (per the ancient Greek’s search for “wisdom,” 1Cor 1.22) to Kierkegaard’s attack upon modernity’s “systems of totality” and it’s “dream to be the logos of its own secret.” Achieving a single logos, a single, all-embracing system of rational explanation that can reduce the cosmos to a fixed account of the whole is not what Christianity is about. Any truly Christian attempt at a rational account of things will necessarily be ‘fragmentary’. It can be logos. It can never be Logos. And oh how we balk and complain with ‘fragments’. So as Tracy said, faith is necessarily a way to live with fragments, and we need a ‘theology of fragments’. This is not to say faith does not locate all fragments (all logoi, however imperfectly understood) in the One (unfragmented) Logos who is Christ the God-Man. We may have only fragments, but each is a small mirror that reflects, in its limited capacity, Christ who is in all things and in whom are all things.

*“Form and Fragment: The Recovery of the Hidden and Incomprehensible God” in The Concept of God in Global Dialogue, eds. Werner Jeanrond and Aasulv Lande (Orbis Books, 2005).

The coincidence of loving and being loved

unity-rhiannon-marhiFellow Californian Rhiannon Marhi combines captivating colors and themes that settle the heart down and help it find its center where all is gift – where one experiences oneself most fundamentally as graciously gifted. It’s popular (and correct, I think) to argue that beauty describes a more fundamental, more primal mode of knowing than language. That’s why ‘ineffable’ doesn’t imply ‘irrational’ or ‘meaningless’. When I find a great quote, I think of what it would look like if it were painted. Nicholas of Cusa’s quote here speaks of self-knowledge as coincident with knowledge of being loved by God. I thought that quote sounds like Marhi’s painting appears.

“The likeness which seems to be created by me is the Truth which creates me, so that in this way, at least, I apprehend how closely I ought to be bound to You, since, in You, being loved coincides with loving. For if in You who are my likeness I ought to love myself, then I am exceedingly bound to do so when I see that You love me as Your creature and image.” (Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464 CE)

The myth of ‘divine withdrawal’

crucifixionWhy the gruesome picture? Because sometimes theology gets in the way.

I continue to contemplate the crucifixion. Where was God? What was he up to? What was his part in this? What happened there that day which God gives to faith to perceive that so radically transforms the world? God-talk these days is full of references to ‘divine withdrawal’, and to the Cross as the quintessential manifestation of divine withdrawal. I’d like to reflect here a bit upon that idea.

• If we understand God to be inseparably present to creation (as its creator and sustainer – a fairly unobjectionable reading of Scripture), then talk of God “withdrawing” from can only be a figurative expression for the phenomenological aspects of our suffering. We experience ourselves and the world in ways we explain by removing God from the scene. If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so God must “really” be somewhere else; he must have withdrawn himself.

• But it cannot literally be the case that God withdraws himself absolutely, metaphysically speaking, such that the created things he withdraws from continue to exist in a state wholly vacated by God. Not even hell – whatever that is – can be construed as so absolute an absence of God. For nothing created has created itself, nor can it sustain its own existence. Creation remains, at every level of its being, inseparable from God who is creatively present actively sustaining it and knowing what he sustains.

• Consider too that God isn’t a ‘composite’ being, i.e., he isn’t composed or assembled from parts more fundamental to him than his actual triune life. He isn’t the achievement or product of a series of divine events which combine over time to produce God’s triune fullness as its effect. “All that God is” is “everywhere God is,” and that’s everywhere without conceivable exception. God is fully all he is everywhere he is, and that means immeasurable and inseparable intimacy with and love for created things. Any notion of divine withdrawal has to be understood as a kind of presence to things as the most intimate act of their being, even when we suffer, even as we do the evil we do. Divine withdrawal, properly understood, is a ‘mode of presence’ not of ‘absence’, a way of being with and sustaining us, not a way of being without us or moving away from us.

• The Cross cannot, then, be understood as contradicting this fundamental sense in which God is fully present, always and everywhere, creatively at work in sustaining and loving the world. Everything God does, including dying, reveals this much to faith. The Cross manifests God’s triune fullness within every narrative of divine withdrawal (even biblical ones). However, the Cross itself is not a narrative of withdrawal. It is a narrative of approach, of nearness, of presence. It is where God, in the full simplicity of triune love, insists upon being with us, thus judging (viz., rendering) all narratives of divine withdrawal, from within the circumstances that created those narratives, to be myths and fabrications of despair and dereliction. The real ‘cry of dereliction’ (as theologians have named it) is not that cry Jesus utters on the Cross (“My God, My God! Why?”). On the contrary, the real cry of dereliction is ours: “Crucify him!” There is the only despair and dereliction connected to the Cross, the dereliction that hangs Jesus on it, while the only real sanity in view is Jesus’ confidence in the Father’s love. The dereliction is heard in a thousand other cries – cries that give up altogether, but also cries that scream their despair all the louder. Much of our despairing dereliction gets published as Christian theology.

• To speak of God ‘witdrawing, then, is to describe the suffering and despair of a life that refuses to embrace the truth of God’s presence. But that refusal does not thereby affirm some other truth – namely, a truth of divine absence. It is rather the pain of our taking the myth of divine absence to be true. But happily God needn’t suffer the pain of falsely believing such a myth in order to free us from it.

We are all wardrobes—Part 1


I wonder if the univocity insisted upon by advocates of “relational theologies” doesn’t actually suppress human aspirations for the relational by corralling it within the limits of what can be said determinately. The relational becomes a real experience only when we’re able to “say it” because we only really experience what we can describe given the laws of univocal apprehension. But I think we know the sequestering of experience to determinate language is impossible, and attempting it ends in despair, or perhaps it’s motivated by despair. We fear losing our identity, our very self, to an undomesticated infinite. So language domesticates God and we become happy the way a child addicted to playing the same pinball game again and again is happy with an endless repetition of the same – same game, same features, same distances. God will not – cannot – offer us this kind of happiness. There are no predictable borders to the ecstasy of knowing God, and I suspect that in our most honest moments of reflection, we realize that this is what we truly want. The indeterminacy of language is where and how that divine adventure calls to us. We are all Lewisian wardrobes, and only the childlike find Narnia.

Recent conversations I’m enjoying have focused on the well-worn problem of theological predication, which is shoptalk for how our language apprehends God, how it captures and expresses the truth about God. It’s a very old conversation that few master. Anyone remotely familiar with the conversation knows that it concerns the relationship between God’s transcendence and the reach of our concepts.

The standard options on the menu are three:

Univocity (in which “Being” is predicated of God and creatures in the same way. “Love,” for example, has the same sense predicated to God that it has when predicated of creatures.)
Equivocity (what is predicated of God and creatures is predicated with entirely different senses)
Analogy (what is predicated of God is predicated analogously to what is predicated of creatures)

Equivocity is yoked to univocity as its contrary mode of predication. Both represent options of a single all-inclusive understanding of predication that supervenes upon a single reality, ‘being’, whether we’re talking about divine or created being. Analogical predication (itself a slippery concept prone to endless qualification) represents the ancient and, say classical theists, only viable alternative to the facile reductions of a univocal theology. I’m assured by people who know better than I that these options exhaust the possibilities, and while I appreciate and agree with various concerns expressed by those who argue these approaches, I’d like to suggest a completely different way to approach these concerns – an approach that’s performative and functional.

On a recent out of town visit to my sister-in-law, she reminded me, “The water here is hard.” As we know, hard water is water that has a high mineral content. The phrase “hard water” lodged in my brain and set me thinking of how strange, almost illusive, language is that a word like “hard” can mean so many things. Take for example:

“Possesses high mineral content” used of water
“Dense or resistant to change” describing the mass of a physical object
“Intellectually challenging” of solving a math problem
“Stable in value” used of stocks or commodities
“Not prone to displays of sympathy or affection” describing a strict or severe father
“Potent or powerful in effect” of liquor
“Harsh or unpleasant” of a long and cold winter

272_-_words_as_artSome of these meanings are more closely related than others, but taken together they form the semantic field (the scope of possible meanings) of the word “hard.” Several interesting points this observation yields are that (1) there is no one meaning to the word “hard” (or to all but a small number of highly technical terms). There are only possibilities of meanings. And (2) the possibilities are contextually and socially determined, and they all describe aspects of our experience of the world. Language never escapes this existential grounding and social context. It is an attempt (and never more than an attempt) to map our experience of ourselves in the world we inhabit.

This grounding in experience is crucial to me because I’m going to suggest that existentially speaking, the distinctions between univocity/equivocity and analogy disappear (or it might be that they converge) in one and the same attempt to make sense of the experiences we have. Instead of assuming that language is our immediate reality and then adopting a deflationary view of our experience, let us explore the possibility that our experience is the more fundamental reality and that we should take a more deflationary or circumspect opinion about the adequacy of language to capture reality – whether the reality we’re talking about is God or the world. It seems to me that language fails at rendering both finally determinate.

I’d like to explore this debate and its subject (theological language and predication), then, from an entirely different approach, one that sidesteps the three standard options (univocity, equivocity, and analogy) and suggests a fourth, which I’ll call:


Or we might say that language predicates of God:


Theological predication is functionally related to theosis – to empowering, facilitating, and sharing the experience of God to the end that we become finally transformed in and – carefully said – into Christ. Christ-formation (in one’s self and the extent to which one is instrumental in empowering it in others) ought to be the measure of the success of our God-talk and not particularly which theory of reference one might adopt to express that transformation. Keeping this point central gives us a different vantage point than the standard options from which to think about our God-talk.

Let me state up front in this post a tentative conclusion and then explain in a Part 2 what reasons I think I have for taking this view. Simply stated, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as univocal predication when it comes to God-talk (and probably when it comes to talk of anything at all for that matter, but I’ll leave that for now), that analogy is probably the only thing we have but that as it is argued in the context of this debate, analogy also ends up failing. The chief reason I think these all fail is because they tend to excuse themselves from certain irreducible existential givens that define all human experience and end up becoming just theories of language and reference.

csm_asawa_bmc76_nd-1_7ffa4cfd83As strange as it may sound, I do mean to say that even univocal theories of theological language fail to take proper account of certain existential givens, which explains my opening paragraph. I mention this because proponents of univocity will appeal to the fact that we do experience God – not an analogy of God – for a view of reference that seeks to secure the integrity of this encounter but whicch ends up being very uncomfortable with the possibility that there is might be no conceptual horizon within which God can be circumscribed. I will agree we truly experience God within the givens of our finite, created capacities, but I’ll also agree (with Pryzwara) that all our experience has an irreducible transcendence about it to begin with which we never overcome or exhaust whether it’s the experience of God or the world around us that we’re describing. Because our capacities bear the image of God and are grounded and sustained in God, they remain irresistibly open to forever expanding our experience and enjoyment of God, an experience of one’s own self as unbounded and uncircumscribed.

Transcendence is experienced as an overwhelming presence to which our created natures answer with existential (never linguistic) fulfillment and ecstasy which at the same time perfectly anticipate the unknown the way awakened desire knows what it anticipates and anticipates what it doesn’t know. As far as one explores outwardly or inwardly, one finds no horizon that draws a final end to the possibilities of the ever-new, ever-surprising, and ever-enticing beauty of God which will not permit us to speak with finality. Language does what it can, and because we create our languages to map our shared experience, and new experiences (like the transforming ecstasy of experiencing God) will always stretch and exceed language.

The vantage point from which I’m suggesting we consider the purpose and function of theological language is a ‘functional’ view of language – functional relative to the “formation of Christ in us” (Gal. 4.19). The concern for language, then, ought to be about the success to which our language serves to increase conformity to Christ—period. From this vantage point, proponents of the standard alternatives – univocity and analogy – are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. Why do I say this? Because proponents of both agree that we truly experience God, not an analogy of God, and that our natures are fulfilled and perfected as Christ is truly formed in us. This agreement I believe makes irrelevant to a large extent theories of predication. Disagreements between these theories become a bit like arguing over whether the words “red” and “round” apprehending an apple univocally or analogically has anything to do with the experience of enjoying its sweetness when eaten. I’m suggesting the experience of the apple transcends (surprise) that entire disagreement.

Divine Mångata

12725078_1704032533176899_126138029_nMångata is a Swedish word that refers to the Moon’s road-like reflection cast upon water. You’ve seen it on clear nights when the Moon is bright. Its reflection stretches out like a winding road of interrupted shards of light. It’s a true reflection, but given the nature of the water’s rippling surface, the moon’s reflection appears partial, broken, and imperfect.

Should this remind us of the way we (and our language) reflect God? We truly are a reflection of God, but finitude’s surface ripples with the inherent limitations of our ignorance, the pressing necessities of survival, the vagaries of mortal existence—need I go on?—which at the very least attenuate or impair our ability to determine the Moon’s precise shape, size, and nature. There’s a lot of the ‘water’ in the reflection. Indeed, any reflection is bound by the limitations and nature of the surface upon which an image is cast.

However perplexing it may be to think as deeply upon how our language (as mediating surface) appropriates God as we do upon God himself, I don’t see any happy ending for theologies that pretend there is no such tension. There may be no permanent rest from this tension in the middle ground between univocity and equivocity, but as unsettling as the middle is, the options on either end are dead on arrival. David Bentley Hart (“God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho” (Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, Vol. 3, Number 1 [September 2015]: 1-17) laments (to be fair, Hart simply “states” it, but to me it amounts to an honest “lament,” for there is as much ‘letting die’ in theological language as there is hoping for a new day):

It must be possible to speak of God without mistaking him for a being among beings, an instance of something greater than himself. Between God and creatures lies an epistemological chasm nothing less than infinite, which no predicate can span univocally. Even Scotists believe that, within the weak embrace of a largely negative conceptum univocum entis, the modal disproportion between the infinite and the finite renders the analogy between God and creatures irreducibly disjunctive. But neither can theological language consist in nothing but equivocal expostulations, piously but fruitlessly offered up into the abyss of the divine mystery; this would evacuate theological language not only of logical, but of semantic content; nothing could be affirmed—nothing could mean anything at all. And yet, down the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages—most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness.

I want to play the Devil’s advocate here and ask “Why?” Why “must” it be possible to speak of God without reducing him univocally to the catagories inherent to our very thinking? Why “must” we be able to speak meaningfully of the identity and nature of that which we name “God”? And are not all possible answers to these questions dictated by the very categories and existential needs from which God is expressly said to be qualitatively, infinitely removed?

‘Who’ and ‘What’ God is


I’ve been struggling here and there with refining how I understand language to apprehend God—univocally, equivocally, analogically. How does our language about God apprehend God. I’ve expressed some frustration with this over at Fr Aidan’s place in the comments. I thought I’d express here how I try to approach theological language via Christology/Incarnation. It helps me. Perhaps it might help some others.

Begin with Christ, God truly incarnate in human flesh, but hypostatically (personally) so. The divine ‘nature’ isn’t reduced to the constraints and limitation of created being; God doesn’t “turn into” a perfect human being (as if ‘what’ God is essentially is human being writ large). Chalcedon spells out the terms: one person—two natures.

Now, if language is viewed as intrinsic to human nature personally realized, and God assumes and redeems that nature, then our language speaks of God the way Christ speaks of God, that is, our language speaks as truly of God as Christ truly makes God present, but hypostatically (personally so). A univocal apprehension would have to proceed upon the assumption of a “natural” equivalence (the way we as created beings speak of other created entities within a shared created ontology or nature), an approach I want to avoid.

Another thought that helps me balance theological epistemology by constantly referencing the Incarnation is the thought that in Christ God apprehends human being, in which case God apprehends our language, not the other way around. He is not ‘apprehended by’ or ‘made an object of’ our studious reference. In Christ the world experiences and fulfills itself as recognizing its ‘being given’. In Christ human being and language take the posture of a passio essendi, of being apprehended. And if we strive at least to posture our language in the same terms, we may avoid complicating the struggle.

So perhaps the best thing to say about how our language apprehends God is the same thing we say about how the Incarnation is God apprehending the world. Thus:

  • Cataphatic about WHO God is (based on the one Person of the Son with two natures)
  • Apophatic about WHAT God is (based on the two natures united inseparably in the one Person of the Son)

Our language always anticipated (because creation was always made for Incarnation) and now after the fact reflects, the cataphatic/apophatic relationship between God and the world and revealed finally in the achievement of this anticipation in the Incarnation understood in terms of Chalcedon. So perhaps the cataphatic and apophatic functions of language relative to God parallel each other from different perspectives (that is, one with respect to ‘who’ and the other with respect to ‘what’ God is) rather than operating sequentially within a single perspective inclusive of both ‘person’ and ‘nature’ (that is, employing cataphatic claims about God regarding both the personal and natural but then qualifying all this afterwards with something like “Well, God is after all excessively more than what we can say”).

Perhaps it would be helpful to understand the cataphatic to apprehend who God is (‘person’) and understand our apophatic qualification as a way of recognizing what God is (‘nature’) as inaccessible to us.

I wonder if God wonders

DeaCe_Web_StillCelia Deane-Drummond (Professor of Theology, Notre Dame) takes wonder as a point of departure in considering the nature and existence of the world. I could listen to her speak all day, and I love what she shares here. A sense of wonder is how we first experience the world’s beauty. We later learn the scientific ways the world works predictably. We discover something of the world’s logos. But wonder remains. And wonder is never ‘accounted for’ physically. Wonder is never reduced to a cog in the parts of the world whose beauty is the cause of such amazement. Wonder is in this sense transcendent of the world itself, though we experience wonder in and through the world’s own apparatuses (i.e., embodiment).

Thinking about Deane-Drummond’s comments on wonder (see the video below) got me thinking—Does God experience a sense of wonder and amazement at the contemplation of himself? One reason to think not might be the assumption that ‘wonder’ implies finitude and ignorance. One is only amazed if what one is amazed at is ‘discovered’, if there’s an inherent element of surprise, of moving from a state in which one’s experience wasn’t defined by such wonder to a state in which one awakens to such wonder. So ‘wonder’, one might argue, can only be experienced by finite creatures who don’t already perceive all truth. God couldn’t experience a sense of wonder or amazement even at the contemplation of himself because that would imply a certain discovery of what he didn’t already fully realize about himself, and that in turn implies a certain failure to know himself, and certainly we don’t want to say God can fail to know himself.

That said, I don’t think it follows that all sense of wonder entails the kind of discovery that implies finitude and ignorance. Traditionally, God is believed to be the summum bonum, the highest good, the greatest beauty, an unsurpassably intense delight grounded in his own self-contemplation. I agree there’s a certain necessary, timeless fullness to God’s being and identity that we cannot reduce to any temporal becoming, but I don’t suppose this precludes—in fact I think it requires—divine wonder. Bliss is wonder.

I imagine God to be ‘wonderful’, to experience and know himself with an infinite sense of wonder, not because he is forever discovering things about himself he didn’t know, but because there is nothing possibly boring or redundant about God. God is never bored with himself. He always experiences himself as supremely wonderful. The Father’s eternal begetting of his Logos is an exclamatory act (!), an eternal “Wow!” whose utterance is God’s existence.

So how do we imagine such wonder? Well, I’ve listened to certain pieces of music repeatedly, through the years, more times than I can count, knowing the notation, knowing what is to come, so to speak—no surprises there—and yet I continue to experience a sense of wonder at their beauty and my wonder isn’t preceded by some ignorance. The same can be true of fine art. I’ve sat contemplating favorite works of art for hours, and do so still, years after being captured by them as a teenager, and I continue to experience wonder, a kind of pre-linguistic experience of possessing myself ecstatically in and as shared beauty. We discover ourselves piecemeal because of our finitude. We are not our own bonum. But there’s no reason to suppose that God, who just is the beauty toward which all our discoveries of wonder tend, is not also infinite wonder.

Here we meet the most serious diseases of modern—I’ll stick to my own tradition—Evangelicalism. God is more or less thought to be boring. Our religious services are full of diversions put in place to insure that our services are sufficiently entertaining. True, we concede God must be appealed to in order to explain the world’s beauty or to make our experience of the world enjoyable. We can do this much. But what do we make of just God? We never say it. It would be anathema to admit it. But it is everywhere evident in the dysfunctions of our theology, the dispositions of our worship, the endless diversions of our culture that at our center there is not an experience of God as the transcendent, unifying wonder of existence. There is instead a gnawing absence of such wonder which threatens to consume everything we are and do with infinite boredom.

Enjoy Deane-Drummond’s Closer to Truth video.


Wonder is thy name,
Not trapped being the same
In form and thought; nor art thou boringly so.
Eternal delight without repetition
Of what in thee gives thee joy; nor by omission
Art thou Infinite Wonder, but euphorically so!

More on logical & ontological possibility

Necessity-page-0Allow to me pull out a few relevant passages from the Hartshorne piece (Religious Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 [Jun., 1977]), I linked to in the preceding post regarding logical and ontological possibility/necessity (all bold emphases are mine):

“Note that the meaning postulate used to define God can be rejected as lacking self-consistent meaning. Also some hold that ‘there might have been nothing’ is consistently conceivable, granting which the notion of a nature such that there logically must be something having it is absurd. So far as I recall, Hick nowhere discusses the conceivability of ‘there might have been nothing’….”

“What is Hick conceiving when he ‘conceives’ the divine non-existence? Is it ‘the existence of bare nothing’? I take this to be a series of words with no clear, consistent, specifiable meaning….”

“I insist there is a problem here that Hick has merely ignored. It is not incidental to my reasoning but central to it. I think Hick has entirely failed to show what ‘God does not exist’ means, assuming that ‘God exists’ has consistent meaning. He is comparing two allegedly conceivable but not mutually compatible ‘states of affairs’, but has given us no help in conceiving the negative alternative.”

“Consider now the points made by Anselm and me that a logically contingent statement must be such that, were it false, its being true would remain conceivable, and that this conceivability of both truth and falsity is intelligible only with assertions of things that are not eternal, that could come into or go out of existence. A still-born child that never became an actually thinking animal might have survived to become such an animal. A couple that had no child might have had one. Even the logical contingency (conceivable falsity) of assertions about non-eternal things is dependent, Anselm and I hold, against Hick, upon the non-eternality of their subjects. As Aristotle said long ago, eternal things are necessarily necessary and temporal things necessarily contingent. Hick wants necessity here to be merely ‘ontological’, that is, to mean self-sufficient, ungenerated and indestructible. I think Aristotle neither implied nor would have accepted any such view, any more than Anselm would have accepted it. Hick identifies God’s necessity with his eternity and self-sufficiency. However, no one, not even God, can wait forever to see if something is always there; for then he would never know its eternal status. It is necessity that explains eternity, not vice versa. And Hick partly sees this. God will live forever because he could not be destroyed. And this is the logical could not! Hick says so…but adds that this logical necessity depends upon an hypothesis that there is an ontologically necessary being.”

“The issue now grows clearer. Granted that God exists at present, there is no further logical contingency about his always existing. But his non-existence, Hick tells us, still remains conceivable. Yet, how do we conceive this allegedly conceivable negative case?”

“Anselm holds that some existential assertions, all ordinary ones, are logically contingent, that is, their denials involve no intrinsic absurdity, while at least one extraordinary existential assertion is not logically contingent, that is, its denial does involve intrinsic absurdity, either a misuse of words or a contradiction. Thus I cannot at all accept the gulf between talk of logical modality and what Anselm intended. He had the idea of logical necessity, though not the distinction between those cases which involve more than the constants of formal logic as now recognized, and those which involve meanings additional to purely logical ones. Either way the necessity in question turns entirely on the meanings of the terms employed.”

It is analytic that a thing to whose existence there is a conceivable alternative is either something producible (at least indirectly) by causes capable themselves of not existing or of not acting as they acted or would act in producing the thing, or else is something that could exist without cause of its existing and could fail to exist without cause of its non-existing. Since God is conceived as eternal and without cause of his existence, only the uncaused case is relevant. Such a causeless yet contingent existence is without connection with our ordinary ways of understanding contingency. I do not believe that any extraordinary way has been or is likely to be arrived at.”

We do not seek causal explanations of non-contingent truths, as in mathematics, but we do seek them for contingent truths. The empiricists tell us in effect to forget all this when considering God. They accuse Anselm of violating rules; but they violate the elementary rule that logically contingent matters are intelligible in genetic and causal terms, or not at all.”

“As Leibniz with his marvelous clarity saw long ago, a mere definition cannot establish existence, not, however, because there is no logical connection of ‘idea’ with reality, but only because it is possible for sensible sounding phrases to lack definite and consistent meaning, so that the assumed ‘idea’ is only a set of words. I find this more illuminating than all Kant’s lengthy verbiage on the proof. Some definitions, like ‘greatest possible number’, fail to express a coherent thought. Thus the conviction of so many that existence cannot be derived from a mere definition is fully justified, but not for the usual reasons. Thought does have a necessary connection with reality, for even contingent ideas make sense only because there is a creative process able to produce or not produce various things. What lacks necessary connection with reality is only words and sentences. If they fail to capture a thought, they will certainly not capture a true thought.”

“The foregoing theory of contingency, without which I take no stock in any ontological argument, means that to exist contingently is to be, or to have been, contingently produced, that is created. It follows of course that no eternal entity can be contingent. Am I now speaking of ontological or logical contingency? Neither, as Hick explicates terms. His logical contingency of the divine existence is, to me, a meaningless business of a way we can talk about nothing, while pretending to talk about something. All existence implies God as its creative ground, according to both Hick and me. Still there might be, he thinks, neither the creative ground nor its contingent creations. This might be is merely logical, it has no ontological referent. I think it is mere words.”

Logical & ontological possibility/necessity

HartshorneI’m not a process theologian, but I like a lot about Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000, pronounced ‘hearts-horn’ by the way), an extremely brilliant philosopher. Recent conversations about the distinction between logical and ontological possibility have taken me back to Hartshorne’s view that ultimately logical and ontological possibility coincide and are one and the same. But philosophers today (exclusively of the analytic sort?) distinguish between these two modes of speaking and being. Logical possibility/necessity is strictly about the formal-logical consistency of the terms of a proposition. Do the semantics of some claim or description violate the axioms of logic (about which there is ongoing debate), which traditionally are the law of identity (A is A), the law of non-contradiction (A is not not-A), the law of excluded middle (between A and not-A there is no third option). Others (e.g., Schopenhauer) add the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) as a fourth which states that everything that exists has a reason sufficient to explain its existence. Some of these four are hotly debated today.

It is generally (as far as I can tell) held that logical possibility/necessity concerns itself with language and conceivability. It’s primarily about speaking. Something is logically possible just in case its definition doesn’t involve any violation of the rules of logic. Ontological (or metaphysical) possibility/necessity describes realities themselves. It’s about being.

The question then is, what is the relationship (if any) between logical and ontological possibility, between logical modalities and ontological modalities? One option is to conflate them, take them as coincident and say that whatever is logically possible is ontologically possible, or that whatever is ontologically impossible is logically impossible. Another option makes a hard distinction between them and holds that neither mode of possibility can be assumed from the other. What is logically possible may in fact be ontologically impossible. But to begin to expose the difficulty of positing too absolute a distinction between the two, I don’t know of any philosopher who argues that what is metaphysically possible may be logically impossible. That is, it must be logically coherent to say of what exists that it exists, or what may exist that it may exist. Additionally, and controversially, others (e.g., Hartshorne) argue that it is not coherent to conceive of what exists necessarily as not existing.

A clear example of how the two manners of speaking relate would be the existence of God. Take the proposition:

P1  “A necessary being of infinite intelligence and goodness exists.”

(Assume whatever apophatic qualifications you wish.) I don’t know of any atheist who argues this is logically impossible (i.e., the words generate one or more violation of the axioms of logic), although all atheists are committed (though very few recognize it) to the ontological-metaphysical impossibility of such a being, for the only way a proffered ‘necessary’ being fails to exist is if its existence is impossible. Contingent existence isn’t an option for the God folks debate. He either exists necessarily, or his existence is impossible.

However, many theists who hold to the truth of P1 agree that its contradiction (“No necessary being of infinite intelligence and goodness exists”) is logically possible. That is, the non-existence of God is ‘conceivable’, because it is thought that conceivability is purely about the formal-logical consistency of language. “God does not exist” does not generate any obvious logical contradiction, hence it’s logically possible (i.e., conceivable).

Charles Hartshorne took the rare view that ultimately logical and ontological possibility coincide and are one and the same. I’ve always gravitated toward this view. It doesn’t make sense to me that once committed to the necessity of God’s existence, one should concede the conceivability of the non-existence of God. Hartshorne felt the same thing. He expressed this on many occasions and the linked article here is one such instance.


No one who believes in the metaphysically necessity of God can find his non-existence conceivable, at least not if one’s understanding of God is that he is the ground and source of all being (as opposed to believing in “a” God, Zeus for example). We’re speaking about a necessary being here, so our options are either he exists necessarily or his existence is impossible. Hence, to the extent one grants the logical possibility of God, one is committed to his actual existence. When theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, grants that God’s existence is indeed logically possible but he doesn’t believe God exists, he’s being self-contradictory.

So what do we do with logical and ontological possibility? Well, since it isn’t immediately obvious what metaphysical necessities there are, we do require a consistent and predictable way to talk about candidates, and to this extent Hartshorne granted a distinction between logical and ontological possibility/necessity. The laws of identity, non-contradiction, etc., remain the immediate rules for meaningful discourse. But, as Hartshorne’s arguments revealed, once one had reasoned one’s way through to conclude the existence of a necessary God, one was justified in maintaining the inconceivability of God’s non-existence. And the rules of logic held one to this. The inconceivability in question had to be argued for, of course. Hartshorne didn’t think metaphysical (a priori) truth was always obvious, laying on the surface. And he granted that debate over the status of such truth would continue. But where the mind embraced the truth of God’s existence, it could not consistently concede the meaningfulness (conceivability) of his non-existence, even if to enter into conversation about God he admitted atheist claims for examination alongside his own rather than dismiss atheist claims as obviously incoherent, like “Married bachelors exist.” But he did maintain that there are legitimate grounds for affirming the logical impossibility of the metaphysically necessary. So long as one is up front and careful about one’s use of language, all is well. There’s no logical reason why one one’s formal-logical language game must in all cases remain unrelated to one’s metaphysical commitments. Metaphysical commitments carry logical implications.

I’m doing a poor job of describing it. Forgive me. Enjoy the Hartshorne piece.

Consecrated vs desacralized thought



Kudos to Fr Kimel for the head’s up on this very interesting article by William Desmond, whose writings I’ve been acquainting myself with since hearing him recommended last summer. Here he discusses the anxious relationship between ‘Priest’ and ‘Philosopher’ (that is, between faith as embodied in a community’s tradition and the authority that naturally attaches to that, on the one hand, and the need to think freely and creatively in renewing or challenging tradition on the other. Both are necessary vocations.