The God Who Cannot Be Defined In Words

If you search by means of discussions Columban

Richard Beck shared this quote from St. Columban, and it immediately struck me as memeworthy.

Since Columban was using words to instruct in the very act of writing this, we are protected from going to an extreme to which the one who wrote these words would not have wished. In their broader context, the emphasis is on how one lives, on humility, as an alternative to disputes about doctrine which often do not merely distract from, but actively undermine, those other emphases.

Think about it. How frequently do you see someone who would say that how one lives is important, and yet engages in arrogant assertions of their own knowledge, and unkind denigration of others, in the process of defending the truth of those beliefs which they think, if one only accepts them, will lead to a transformed life that is humble and kind.

I know many people bristle at language which seems to pose a stark dichotomy between believing and doing. Obviously one’s beliefs will and should impact one’s life.

But emphasizing belief over practice is the issue, the thing that so often has the effect of leading someone not to live in accordance with their purported beliefs. The belief that we know (especially things that, as the COlumban quote emphasizes, we by definition cannot know) leads us astray. And so too the belief that feeling certain is central to faith, if not the very definition of faith, likewise leads people astray.

Of related interest elsewhere on Patheos, see Darrell Lackey’s post about christians being upset over the wrong things. There he writes, “The legalistic, simplistic, and shallow world of fundamentalism (and even many aspects of evangelicalism) breeds some rather odd triggers for what it is we are supposed to get upset about.” What follows after that is really important, and so I highly recommend clicking through and reading it.

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  • John MacDonald

    From the Wikipedia entry on Apophantic Theology:

    Negative theology has a place in the Western Christian tradition. The 9th-century theologian John Scotus Erigena wrote:

    “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything [i.e., ‘not any created thing’]. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

    When he says “He is not anything” and “God is not”, Scotus does not mean that there is no God, but that God cannot be said to exist in the way that creation exists, i.e. that God is uncreated. He is using apophatic language to emphasise that God is ‘other.'”

    Theologians like Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross exemplify some aspects of or tendencies towards the apophatic tradition in the West. The medieval work, The Cloud of Unknowing and Saint John’s Dark Night of the Soul are particularly well known.

    • Mark

      This is already perfectly developed in standard sources like Thomas Aquinas who organizes everything around a via negativa. It isn’t just characteristic of overtly ‘mystical’ writers at all. After the 5 ways Thomas says

      “When the existence of a thing has been ascertained there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.” It’s only then that we learn even elementary things like that God isn’t a corporeal being, or is ‘one, not many’ and ‘unchanging’.

      But it permeates the text. This is why the five ways do not proceed from a definition of God – and why standard ‘philosophy of religion’ treatments of them are so dull: they begin by first defining ‘god’ as ‘all powerful, all benevolent, all knowing, …’. But the five ways (crudely speaking) just exhibit certain orders of why-question (e.g. about causes, laws, purposes,etc), and reflect that we can’t suppose explanation in any of these styles to go on forever. That’s it. We are at this point just supposed to apprehend some demand for ‘ultimacy’ in some kinds of ordered intelligibility. We are supposed to think about repeatedly asking “Why?” or “What for?” like small children. It’s the same with Kant’s austere so-called Transcendental Ideal, which is ‘the limit’ or ‘totality’ in certain explanatory regresses reason finds in itself.

      Kant is the only one who strikes directly at the actual austere procedure of the 5 ways (note that his criticisms presuppose his idealism). Everyone else just says ‘these arguments suck’ because they presuppose a positive picture of the supposed result. But nothing in the five ways rules out that we will go on to develop e.g. a Spinozistic conception of the divine – or even that ‘god’, the ultimate ground in this or that order of grounding, will turn out to be ‘the laws of physics’ or something. All of that stuff is supposed to come next and the procedure requires that the approach is ‘negative.’

      • John MacDonald

        Traditionally, the ground of a being was divided into its essential being, and its existential being. So, for instance, a chair may be hard and brown (its what-being, “essentia”), and badly positioned (its how- being, “existentia”). Kant made the observation that existence is not a real predicate, which is to say it doesn’t get predicated of the “res.” So, we may comport ourselves toward the chair as brown, as hard, as badly positioned, or we may comport ourselves to the chair in such a way that we posit it absolutely, as such, not relative to us. Even in our understanding of an object as such, it is still required that we posit it as such. So, for instance, the Ontological argument doesn’t really work because we don’t do an analytic of concepts to reason to God’s existence in His “what-being,” but rather we must first posit God’s existence in his “how-being.” I’ve always had difficulty believing in God in the popular sense since the traditional proofs are suspect, and I’ve never had an experience of the numinous that would serve as an experiential basis for faith.

        • Mark

          Yes, Thomas of course rejects ontological arguments, so Kant’s remarks about that aren’t to the point. The distinction between essence and existence is post classical – usually imputed to ibn Sina – I would say it latently presupposes a monotheistic framework of ideas: crudely, ‘essences’ are before God who then supplies some of them with ‘existence’ in creation. Thomas adopts this jargon and says that the distinction somehow collapses with respect to the divine – if you speak in these terms, you have to say: the existence of God = the essence of God = God. After all, one of the things we might ask is why /in general/ some ‘essences’ ‘exist’ and others not; the answer had better not be something about which this question arises. In other words, in something like the five ways, the notion of existence or ‘there being’ is operating in another way.

          The ‘traditional arguments’ don’t get you to a “God in the popular sense” – or even a God in some exalted theological sense – and aren’t intended to. They get you to something like the idea of an ultimate explanation, or ground, or basis of things (pardon this telegraphic crudity) – starting with some idea of one things explaining/being-based-on/grounded in another. Once you accept that we can speak of such an ultimate ground or basis, you are speaking of ‘what all humans call divine’. If you think it’s the laws of physics that ultimately explain everything, then fine you believe in an ‘ultimate explanation’ of everything and thus accept the conclusion of the ‘traditional arguments’. Similarly if you believe that the ‘ultimate explanation’ of everything is the big bang or a guy on a great throne. The traditional arguments prove much less than they are thought to do.

          Once we have this rather ‘meta’ idea, which can dispute what to affirm or (better) deny of the ‘ultimate explanation’ the we all together affirm. The very first question after the 5 ways gets rid of the guy on the great throne, who is corporeal. He is also subject to change. (The laws of physics would pass these tests as would a Spinozistic god). In Thomas we don’t get really close to what we think of as Monotheism ’til we are well well past the ‘traditional arguments’ — when he argues that his ‘ultimate explanation’ can be said analogically to have a ‘will’ http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1019.htm Here he finally says something that Spinoza, say, (or Aristotle) clearly won’t.

          • John MacDonald

            Lots of good ideas! One thing that sometimes gives me pause is when people think they are giving proofs or refutations of God, when really they are only giving evidence for or against a God of a “particular type,” not God as such as an ultimate ground. So, for instance, Ehrman says the problem of Evil leads him to be agnostic. But really, the presence of Evil is only really evidence against a God of a particular type (omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient), not God as an ultimate Ground.