Wednesday, August 1, 2018
Tugwell on St. Albert on negative theology
Negative theology is a crucial component of classical theism. To a first approximation, the idea is that at least with respect to some aspects of the divine nature, we can say what God is not rather than what he is. But again, that is only a first approximation, and a potentially misleading one at that. In his long and substantive introduction to the spiritual theology of St. Albert the Great in Albert and Thomas: Selected Writings, Fr. Simon Tugwell makes some important observations about the matter. I want to call attention to four of them.
An obvious and uncontroversial example of negative theology would be the claim that God is uncaused. To say that God is uncaused is, by itself, merely to say that he is not caused. This assertion doesn’t strictly tell us what God is but what he is not. Pretty simple. Except that there is more to it than that, and my “by itself” qualifier is essential. This brings me to the first point from Tugwell:
1. Negative theology is not a matter of God merely lacking something
Suppose your eight-year-old child has started piano lessons and seems to be doing reasonably well. You mention to a friend that your child seems to be musical. Suppose your friend responds, blandly and without a trace of irony: “That’s interesting. I was watching this movie Amadeus last night. Mozart was musical too.” I’ve embellished Tugwell’s example a bit, but he observes that “we might… hesitate to say that Mozart was ‘musical’; the little boy next door may be musical, but Mozart—? The word hardly begins to do justice to his talent” (p. 43).
The point, of course, is not that Mozart is lacking musical ability, but rather that what he has is not properly conveyed by attributing to him the sort of thing a little boy has. Saying that “Mozart was musical too” trivializes his ability. Mozart is more than “musical” in the sense in which the boy is musical, not less. Hence, Tugwell suggests, we might truly say that Mozart was not musical, insofar as what Mozart had was not limited to being “musical” in the way that a little boy might be musical.
To supplement Tugwell’s example, consider the famous lines from The Elephant Man: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” In saying this, Joseph Merrick was not intending to contradict the Aristotelian definition of a human being as a rational animal, and he was certainly not claiming to be less than an animal. Rather, he was saying that he was more than a mere animal. You might think of the remark as a kind of “negative anthropology,” one we all deploy when we distinguish human beings from animals. What we are saying is not that human beings lack animality, but rather that they cannot be reduced to mere animality.
So, go back to the claim that God is uncaused. When we refer to the cause of a thing, we are identifying something external to it that explains it or makes it intelligible, something that makes it the case that it exists or that it has some attribute. But when classical theists say that God is uncaused, they are not saying that God lacks intelligibility or an explanation of his existence or attributes. They are not denying the principle of sufficient reason. Rather, they are saying that, unlike other things, the source of God’s intelligibility, what explains his existence and attributes, is not to be found in something external to him. Rather, it is to be found within him, in his very nature. Things need causes to the extent that they exhibit potentiality or composition. God is purely actual or without potentiality, and absolutely simple rather than composite. Hence he needs, and indeed can have, nothing outside him that could cause his existence and attributes.
The claim that God is uncaused is, accordingly, not the claim that God has less intelligibility than things that have causes do, but rather that he has more intelligibility than these other things do. His intelligibility is entirely intrinsic to him as something that is, as it were, “already” purely actual and thus has no need for some external agent to actualize him. Other things have less intelligibility insofar as any explanation of their existence and attributes has, to some extent, to refer to something outside them.
In general, claims of negative theology are not mere negations. They are not mere denials that God is this or that. They tend to contain an affirmative implication as well, to the effect that there is something in God (intelligibility, for example), but without the limitations that that something exhibits when it is found in creatures.
2. The metaphorical and mystical names of God
This leads naturally to a second point. St. Albert notes that there are two sorts of negations that the negative theologian wants to make. Suppose someone said that “God is a rock,” meaning that, like a rock, God is solid, stable, and a foundation on which other things might rest. The negative theologian will point out that this way of speaking can only be metaphorical rather than literally true.
But other claims about God are not metaphorical. For example, when we say God is a cause, we are speaking literally. But God’s mode of causality is nevertheless radically unlike that of creaturely causes. For example, when bringing about effects, God does not work through corporeal organs, the way we do. For the very existence of anything corporeal is precisely part of what he is causing. Hence we have to deny that God’s causality is like the causality with which we are familiar in experience. As Aquinas emphasizes, we have to say that there is in God, not the same causality that we see in the world around us, but rather something analogous to what we call causality in the world around us – where analogical attributions of this sort are not univocal but not metaphorical either.
Albert gives as an example the attribution of fatherhood to God. This is, for Albert, no mere metaphor. At the same time, here too we are attributing to God something which, in its creaturely manifestations, has all sorts of limitations that cannot apply to God. For example, human fathers produce their children by way of sexual reproduction and thus by way of corporeal organs, they are imperfect in their love and wisdom, and so on. None of this is true of God. So, for much of the content we associate with the term “father,” the negative theologian will deny that it applies to God.
These non-metaphorical attributions are labeled by Albert the “mystical” or “secret” names of God. The idea is that when we call God a cause or a father, we are not speaking merely metaphorically, but that since the limitations associated with creaturely causes or fathers must be negated, the positive content of the attribution is thinned out in the extreme. The nature of God’s causality and fatherhood are in this way largely secret or hidden to us. We can affirm literally that God is a cause and that he is a father, but we can say far more about what this does not involve than what it does involve.
There are, Albert says, three ways that these mystical names of God can be potentially misleading, so that the negative theologian insists on qualifying them:
[T]hey present as complex a reality which is of infinite simplicity; they present imperfectly what is absolutely perfect; and they sometimes present as an accident something which is really substance. (Quoted at p. 77 of Tugwell)
Hence, creaturely causes are always composite. In the case of a physical substance, this entails having corporeal parts, and with all creaturely causes it entails at the very least being a composite of act and potency. But God is pure actuality and entirely simple or non-composite. Creaturely causes are always in various ways limited or imperfect in their causal power. God is not. In a created thing, we can distinguish between the thing itself, its causal power, and the exercise of that causal power on some particular occasion. In God, who is simple or non-composite, we cannot make such distinctions. Hence much of the content we associate with the things of our experience that we call causes has to be negated in the case of God.
This does not entail that there is no positive content left over once the needed negations have been made, though classical theists disagree about the extent to which our knowledge of God is negative. (I discuss this issue in the chapter on God’s nature in Five Proofs of the Existence of God.) But even where the attribution of something God is not metaphorical, the negative theologian insists that its positive content will, given God’s pure actuality, simplicity, etc., inevitably be at least somewhat less than meets the eye.
I would add to what St. Albert and Tugwell have to say that if you think this somehow makes theology suspect, you should keep in mind that exactly the same thing occurs in physics, when the physicist describes something remote from ordinary experience. For example, as philosopher of physics David Albert notes in his book Quantum Mechanics and Experience, the physicist’s notion of a superposition has very little positive content. What the physics tells us about a quantum object in a superposition of states A and B, Albert says, is that it is not in A and it is not in B and it is not in both and it is not in neither, but rather in a superposition of A and B. “And what that means (other than “none of the above”) we don’t know” so that “superposition” is “just a name for something we don’t understand” (p. 11).
This is exactly what we should expect. The human intellect’s natural home, as it were, is the world of ordinary physical objects, which are mixtures of actuality and potentiality. But God is pure actuality devoid of potentiality. And quantum mechanics, I would argue, studies that level of physical reality which is closest to (though not quite identical with) what the Aristotelian would call prime matter – the pure potentiality to take on form. The closer the intellect gets to either pure actuality or pure potentiality, the less its ordinary modes of description apply, and the more those modes of description have to be qualified by negations.
3. Negative theology can lead precisely toward scripture rather than away from it
Classical theists are sometimes accused of conceiving of God in a way that lets philosophical speculation trump scripture. When one considers how deeply scripture permeates the thinking and writing of classical theists like Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, et al., the charge can be seen to be quite ridiculous. But as Tugwell points out (see pp. 43 and 78-79), classical theism’s emphasis on the role of negative theology in a proper understanding of God often leads its advocates precisely toward an accent on scripture rather than away from it.
The reason is that one of the key themes of negative theology is the limitations that inevitably face the unaided human intellect in grasping the divine nature given, on the one hand, its creaturely and finite nature, and on the other hand, the infinity of God. The human mind simply cannot, on its own, attain very much in the way of positive knowledge of the divine nature (though, again, exactly how much or little positive knowledge we have is a matter of dispute between classical theists). Hence we must rely largely (or entirely, depending on the negative theologian in question) on God’s revelation to us in the Bible, rather than on anything philosophical speculation can yield.
In this way, negative theology can lead precisely to an emphasis on scripture over philosophy as a source of knowledge of the divine nature. Note that the point isn’t that it always leads in this direction or that it has to. Moreover, even the scripture-oriented negative theologian will insist that scriptural descriptions of God must always be interpreted in a way that avoids the attribution to God of any creaturely limitations. The point is rather that it is superficial to suppose that classical theism’s key philosophical commitments entail a downgrading of scripture.
4. Negative theology is a remedy against idolatry
Albert summarizes the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius as the thesis that God “is seen precisely in our ignorance of him” (quoted at p. 90). It is only when we take seriously all the ways that God is not, how radically unlike created things he is, that we begin to get a glimpse of the divine nature. Tugwell writes:
[This] might appear to make God painfully remote. But if this is how it strikes us, we need to look carefully at our reaction. There is a very proper way to make God remote from us, namely, the removing of our comfortable false gods, our idols. Negative theology reminds us of just how many things are not God. The patron saint of a later and rather different kind of "mystical theology," St. John of the Cross, tears away at our domesticated deities with almost insolent ruthlessness. If we feel that St. Albert is “taking away our God,” maybe our “God” was never really worth having anyway. (p. 92)
It is in light of these four points from Tugwell that we need to understand the criticisms Thomists sometimes raise against the thesis that “God is a person.” Tugwell writes:
If certain particular ways of talking about God come to be taken as fully clear and satisfactory accounts of what God is like, our very clarity will do much to obscure our apprehension of him. The modern dogma, for instance, that “God is a person” can be given a perfectly serviceable sense, as long as we do not imagine that it tells us what God is in a way that we can understand. If we omit the negative corrective, as most of the devotees of this slogan appear to do, then not only do we produce some rather bizarre theologies, not only do we cut ourselves off from many centuries of Christian tradition, but we also trap ourselves in assumptions about the Christian life that may actually make life rather miserable for us… [T]his is likely to conjure up all kinds of associations, which will in many cases be frequently disappointed. (p. 94)
Tugwell goes on to suggest that to say something like “God is truth” is no less correct than saying “God is a person,” but entails such a radically different way of conceiving of God that it helps to balance slogans like “God is a person” and to correct the crude anthropomorphisms we are liable fall into if we focus obsessively on that slogan.
It is these crude anthropomorphisms that can lead to the spiritual misery and disappointment to which Tugwell refers. We can start to think of God in a very worldly way, as if he were like a rich uncle or a conscientious bureaucrat, only smarter and stronger and invisible. If an uncle doesn’t send us that check we desperately need or a local bureaucrat doesn’t get that pothole repaired, we start to doubt his good will or competence. And if God doesn’t get us that job we prayed for, or heal that disease we’re suffering from, we start to doubt his good will or competence – if we are thinking of him in crudely anthropomorphic terms. But God is not a mere doler-out of this-worldly goodies and favors, not because he is less than that, but because he is more than that. His will for us is for a good that transcends these worldly goods, and if he does not give us what we want here and now it is only because he wants to give us something far greater in the hereafter. And he knows – in a way we can’t, and precisely because he is not a mere cosmic uncle or bureaucrat – that denying us these worldly goods is itself sometimes precisely the best way to ensure that we attain that higher good.
As I have explained many times – though some people seem willfully to refuse to get the point – when criticizing the thesis that “God is a person,” the Thomist is emphatically not saying that God is impersonal. To think that is like thinking that Joseph Merrick was denying that he had the animal faculties of sensation, appetite, and locomotion when he said “I am not an animal.” It is like thinking that we are denying that Mozart had musical ability when we object to the bland remark that “Mozart was musical too.”
No, Merrick was saying that he was more than a mere animal, not less. Mozart was more than merely “musical” in the way that a little boy might be musical, not less. And God is more than the sort of person with which we are familiar in ordinary experience, not less. The slogan “God is a person” trivializes the intellect, will, and love that are in God, just as “Mozart was musical too” trivializes Mozart’s ability, and just as remarks like “Human beings are just animals” trivialize human beings.
As I have also said many times, the problem with the slogan “God is a person” is not the word “person” but the word “a.” There are two main reasons why this word is problematic, one philosophical and one theological. The philosophical reason is that the slogan suggests that God is a member of the genus person, in his own species alongside the species human person and the species angelic person. And that cannot be right, because God is not in any genus at all. If he were, then he would be composite – he would have a genus, and a differentia that marks his species out from other species in the genus – and thus would not be absolutely simple. And if he’s not absolutely simple, then he would have potentiality in need of actualization, would require a cause of his own, and would not be unique or ultimate in principle, but at most contingently. He would not be God, but merely one creature-like entity among others.
The problem, again, is not the word “person.” After all, Thomists also often object to assertions like “God is a being.” And the problem here, too, is not the word “being” but the word “a.” God is not a being; rather, as Aquinas says, God is subsistent being itself. “A being” merely participates in being, whereas that which is subsistent being itself is that in which the various individual “beings” that there are all participate. To call God “a being” thus trivializes his mode of existence.
Now, when Thomists make this point, no one ever accuses them of denying God’s existence. No one says “If you deny that God is a being, you must be saying that he lacks being and is therefore unreal!” Even critics of Thomism understand that that is in no way what the Thomist is saying. Yet for some reason, when the Thomist objects, on the very same grounds, to the formulation “God is a person,” some critics immediately soil their pants and in high dudgeon accuse the Thomist of making God out to be something impersonal. The Thomist is doing nothing of the kind.
The second reason the formulation “God is a person” is problematic is, again, theological. No orthodox Christian can possibly maintain that the assertion “God is a person” is strictly correct. And the reason is that God is a Trinity of Persons. A person of the sort we are familiar with in everyday life is a substance. Hence if you’ve got three persons of the ordinary sort – Mike, Carol, and their son Bobby, say – you’ve got three distinct substances. But Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not like that. They are three Persons in one substance.
Now, if you go around indignantly insisting on formulations like “God is a person” – a formulation which, as Brian Davies has pointed out, is of historically relatively recent vintage and foreign to the orthodox Christian tradition – then you are bound to raise in your listener’s mind questions like: “Oh, he’s a person, is he? So exactly which of the three Persons you Christians always talk about is he?” Naturally, the answer that suggests itself is that he is the Father, specifically. But then it sounds like the Son and the Holy Spirit, being distinct from the Father, must not be God. Or maybe the Father is God with a capital “G,” and the Son and the Holy Spirit are lower-case “g” gods. Or maybe there are three Gods with a capital “G.” But all of these suppositions are heretical.
You might respond: “But I don’t believe any of that! That’s not what I mean when I say ‘God is a person’!” Good, but in that case, you are going to have to very seriously qualify this misleading assertion that “God is a person.” And when you qualify it in all the ways you will need to in order to avoid heresy, you are going to find that you agree with the Thomist after all. In which case, why are you so attached to this misleading slogan? It’s no good to answer: “Because I don’t want to reduce God to something impersonal,” because neither does the Thomist.
Here, Tugwell would insist, is where negative theology can be especially helpful. If you are attached to this slogan “God is a person,” carefully consider all the aspects of “persons” in the ordinary sense that you will have to negate in order to maintain orthodoxy and philosophical coherence. You may find, at the end of the exercise, that you differ from the Thomist only verbally rather than substantively.