January 6, 2011 by 79 Comments
For connoisseurs of theological gibberish, check this out (by Paul Wallace, in Religion Dispatches, from last Dec. 14):
I was particularly impressed by these two paragraphs:
The third level is the most difficult but the most important. This is second-order negation, or the inversion of the inversion. Here we would say, “God is not a fire, but God is not a not-fire either,” and “God is not love, but neither is God not-love.” God transcends the (human-based) distinction between love and not-love. Obviously what is happening here is a deliberate straining of verbal logic. It may sound like mere mental gymnastics or game-playing, but it has a very serious purpose: To question and test language, to step outside of ourselves and ask ourselves what we are doing when we talk about God, to critique the very ground upon which theology stands, to search for that place—if there is a place—where concepts fail.
Also on this third level is found the insistence, made for centuries by theologians throughout Christendom, that God transcends the distinction of being and not-being. Therefore, if we use the conventional definition of existence, God does not exist. Our category of existence does not apply to God. Put another way, the word “exist” cannot be used univocally of things and God. These are artificial categories imagined and used by human beings; they are manifestly not divine attributes. In the end, to speak correctly, there are no divine attributes. Which means that God is not distinct from creation, nor is God not-distinct from creation. That is, in God there is no distinction at all, nor is there non-distinction. No affirmation or denial properly applies to God.
Something has gone seriously wrong here, but just what? Wallace seems to think that if we accept that we can straightforwardly deny anything of God, such as that he (she? it?) is a fire or is love we thereby illicitly enclose God within human concepts, but God transcends those concepts. However, his argument seems to be based upon a straightforward misunderstanding of the meaning of negation. Consider the statement “God is love” where the “is” here is the “is” of identity. Symbolically, (x)(y)(Gx & Ly → x = y). This seems the sense of “God is love” Wallace is considering. The denial of “God is love” is “It is not the case that God is love.” However, to say “It is not the case that God is love” is NOT to say that God is identical to not-love, any more than to say that “It is not the case that four equals five” means that four is identical to every number that is not five. Likewise, to say “God does not exist” is NOT to attribute something to God or to place God in some sort of human-devised category. As Kant observed long ago, existence is not a predicate; neither is nonexistence. Saying “God does not exist” is to say that “God” is not instantiated. “Whoa!” Wallace would say, “My point precisely is that there is no concept “God” to either be instantiated or not! He says “No affirmation or denial properly applies to God,” and this is tantamount to saying that there is no concept of God. Two problems here:
1) Isn’t saying “No affirmation or denial properly applies to God” attributing a property to God, namely that he has the property that no affirmation or denial properly applies to him? Seems like a self-defeating assertion to me.
2) Well, if there is no concept of God, then we cannot really say anything at all about God. In this case, would it not be best to follow Wittgenstein’s advice at the end of the Tractatus: “That whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence.” In other words, if we can’t know what we are talking about, it is best to shut up.
Actually, talk like this always makes me feel like a yokel in the hands of some fast-talking city slicker. I think he is trying to sell me snake oil, but, gee, he sure sounds smart. Am I missing something? Can anyone out there make more of this stuff than I could?