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).

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

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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.)