The Limit of Theology

Our staunch Mormon commenter Leo rightly points out that,

… apart from revelation and experience [reason must] be humble. The Book of Job is full of arguments back and forth, quite impressive ones, and the conclusion of the book suggests humility before God regardless of how tight one’s argument might look. The world’s philosophical schools are hardly in agreement, and a recent study suggests 62% of philosophers are non-believers. Many of them would argue against all religion by the light of their reason.

That this is all true is fairly obvious. And we would do well to remember it; I, in particular, should bear it ever in mind, I know (all too well, as I grope forward – I hope it is forward – through the darkness, knees skinned and toes stubbed on this scandal and that). Reason ought to be humble; reason would be the first to insist upon it. That reason should be humble is only reasonable; the notion is an issue and product of reason. Therein lies a clue.

There is no escape from reason. “We ought not to trust too much to reason” is a judgement of reason. We can’t fail to have a reasoned opinion on anything at all, for even, “I have no idea,” is a reasoned opinion, based on an intellectual evaluation. To recuse is to cuse. To recuse from any judgement about x is to assert a judgement that any other judgement about x finds no support in one’s own knowledge and experience. And “cuse” is “cause:” to recuse from judgement about x is implicitly to call into question any judgements about x that have been vouchsafed by interlocutors, thereby influencing the discourse by introducing a note of skepticism about its prospects.

We must all do philosophy – must all love wisdom – whether or not we think we like philosophy, and whether or not we know we are doing it.

Nor likewise is there any escape from experience, or from revelation – a department of experience (or is it the other way round?) – or from history, also known as Tradition, and as memory: the trace or record in the present moment of past experience. There is no way for reason to be somehow separate from experience, revelation, history; for they are at once the grist of reason’s mill, and the limit of her compass. The data limit the algorithms that can adequately process them.

Theology then is ever shaped by the confrontation with reality: with history, experience, revelation. It cannot get started without them, or finish, or even say anything whatever; because it is about them.

But nor is it possible to live unreasonably – to live unreasonably is just to go ahead and die, more or less quickly – and so there is no successful escape from reason. One way or another we must process what happens, and decide what we think about it – or, just go ahead and think what we do think about it. We can’t stop our thinking, right? So, reason ought to be humble, but by the very same token, there is no point inveighing against reason as such.

Now, where all this comes down to brass tacks is at the question of whether the God of the Philosophers has anything to do with the God of Abraham. To answer in the negative is to reject reason, and as we have seen, this rejection cannot transpire except by an operation of the reason. Reason cannot coherently repudiate reason. So it is not really feasible (however tempting it might seem) to say that Athens and Jerusalem have naught to say to each other. Truth must there be, and all truths must coinhere; so, Athens and Jerusalem must somehow perfectly and luminously agree, and illumine each other. We cannot do without Athens, cannot get along without her, anywhere at all; not even Jerusalem can get along without Athens, as the legal disputations of the rabbis make so plain.

Nor however can Athens get on without Jerusalem. The arguments of the Areopagus must at bottom be about something real, concrete and huge, that far outpasses their poor compass, or they are nothing but vapors, vain and empty, signifying nothing – and not, therefore, worthy of attention. The ardent disputations of Mars Hill cannot have been about nothing at all, cannot ultimately have mattered not at all to their agonists, or they would none of them ever even have entered the lists, instead disporting themselves hors de combat on athletics or politics. In which case, we would never much have noticed little Athens.

A revolting thought, that the Athenians and their ilk were nothing more than Sophists, the lot of them – and a false, thanks be to God, for as Paul saw on his way to the court of their argumentations, the Athenians had ever felt in their guts the loom over all their discourse of the Unknown God, to whom it was all in the end referred, and to whom it pointed, and to whom it was offered. From the earnest wrangling of the Greeks there issues the same sweet sober odor of sanctity – of holy purpose, seriously undertaken – that perfuses the work of the Fathers and the Scholastics, and aye of the mystics, too, besotted with their bridegroom.

The limit of thought is fact. God is the ultimate Fact. So the limit of theology is just God himself – not a net of abstract ideas, but a living, concrete real, and a flux of felt power. We see this at every summit of human thought: where philosophy tops out, and climbing cannot continue, there must ensue the contemplation of the beauty of the heavens, that utterly transcend, and calcine, all sublunary works. At sublimity, where analysis and ratiocination have completed their proper tasks, and looking up through the translucent veil of the firmament, adoration, joy, terror, peace are the natural response of the human heart. To the theoria of the high places, there are but two alternatives: a careful and orderly descent to the fruitful plain of a hearty quotidian life, informed by the perspectives of the heights; or else a precipitous Fall into anomie, nihilism, skepticism – into despair. Thought that has no final end in theoria aims willy nilly at nonsense, and at unreason, at chaos, and death – and must eventually meet them.

40 thoughts on “The Limit of Theology

  1. Wonderful post! Very well said, and I agree completely. The neoconservative position, at least for followers of Leo Strauss, seems to be that Athens and Jerusalem are irreconcilable, which accounts for many of the problems in American (and Canadian) conservative thinking and politics.

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  3. @Kristor – I apologize if this is merely re-covering old ground; but while I certainly agree that it is true to say that we need both Athens and Jerusalem – or (perhaps) reason/philosophy and revelation/ narrative – the big question is how these are related.

    I think the answer is quite simple: Jerusalem first and primary, and Athens second and subordinate: Revelation sets the framework, philosophy must work inside this framework.

    Jerusalem is larger and more complete than Athens – because Athens obtains its precision and generality by selection and abstraction.

    What this means in practice works at the level of metaphysics -our understanding of the basic structure and workings of reality- because this sets the framework within-which our more specific understandings – such as moral philosophy, or the sciences, or the arts – operate.

    So, the ultimate metaphysics should come from Jerusalem; and we should not allow Athens to put a frame around Jerusalem – which is often has done and continues to do; for example when the Nature of God is defined by Athens, and (as it were) forced upon Jerusalem – such that when some one refuses to accept the Athenian definitions, they are defined (by Athens) as not-of-Jerusalem.

    *That* is putting Athens first.

    So, yes, we need and must have both; but there is a hierarchy – and for Christians that means Jerusalem first and foremost.

    The alternative, of Athens first – Jerusalem subordinate, is also good (in my opinion) – it is essentially deism (e.g. of, for example, Einstein) – at most a ‘deist Christianity’ (as, for example, mid-life Ralph Waldo Emerson) – but it is a lower, weaker, less complete and more elite good than Jerusalem.

    • Bruce: To be sure, revelation is primary. That’s just Christianity, no? More: it is philosophy. And I said as much in the post: the data determine the form of the algorithm that is adequate to their comprehension, and not vice versa. Revelation is a type of fact. We ignore the facts at our peril. And no theologian would contest this. One doesn’t turn to the map to tell whether or not there is a mountain over yonder where that mountain stands.

      But where this argument – an argument in which we two are not engaged, understand – runs off the rails is in thinking that there can in the final analysis be any contradiction between Athens and Jerusalem. Either truth is integral, or there is not quite any such thing. So, when Athens and Jerusalem are properly and accurately interpreted to each other, they beautifully agree. Those who impugn Athens have usually failed to understand her, quite; have misapprehended what she undertakes to perform.

      God of the Philosophers : YHWH :: map : territory.

      Jerusalem says what it says, and Athens is in no position to call it into question, but rather only to interpret it. But then, lots of people who claim to speak for Jerusalem turn out, upon examination (by Athens), to be urging nonsense, incoherent notions – e.g., there is no God, but only finite gods, that nevertheless deserve our worship, qua God. Heresy, in short, that as errant repudiates both Athens and Jerusalem at one fell swoop. The rigor of Athens – learnt in the first place, as Athens herself insists, and as we must never forget, in the temples of Syria – can help us discern when we are in danger of falling into heresy, which to say, incoherence.

      • But Kristor, if you cannot acknowledge the possibility of Jerusalem/ Revelation independent of, that is *before*, Athens/ Philosophy – then you have put Athens first.

        “– runs off the rails is in thinking that there can in the final analysis be any contradiction between Athens and Jerusalem. Either truth is integral, or there is not quite any such thing. So, when Athens and Jerusalem are properly and accurately interpreted to each other, they beautifully agree. ”

        Again, this is to put Philosophy first; because in practice it is impossible to regard two qualitatively different things equally – and you are implicitly asserting that non-contradiction, the ‘integral’ nature of truth’, the beautiful agreement… are being established using the precise, formal abstractions of philosophy.

        This is shown by your following remark that “nonsense, incoherent notions – e.g., there is no God, but only finite gods, that nevertheless deserve our worship, qua God. ”

        – the implication is that such a belief is ‘nonsense’, ‘incoherent’; the use of ‘only’ is question-begging; the usage of the word ‘deserve’ also, as if it is both transparent and obvious what this entails (and that this is necessarily a matter of reason to establish)… all these usages show that you are fitting *all possible* religious discussion into the prior frame of Athens/ Philosophy.

        You are saying that if it doesn’t fit that frame, then it is ‘nonsense’, ‘incoherent’ – this you are saying there is no legitimate discourse outside that frame.

        If *that* isn’t putting Athens first, then I don’t know what is!

      • As Kristor says, revelation is a kind of fact. Facts are always understood through reason, so the whole notion of putting one before the other is malformed — whether it is putting reason before revelation or vice versa.

        Folks who think they are putting revelation ‘before’ reason aren’t actually doing so. They just lack self awareness when it comes to their own metaphysical priors.

      • @Zippy – Do you have faith in metaphysics, then? I think you don’t – but that is what you are asserting here.

      • It seems there needs to be some baseline common sense that is just assumed without having to evoke Athens/philosophy. So when I say “I” I mean “me” and I can just understand that basic fact without saying that I needed Athens/reason/philosophy to get there. Likewise, when the Bible reveals that there was a worldwide flood, I understand what those words mean and I don’t need Athens to interpret. This would allow Revelation to stand on its own for many important things.

      • Hello Bruce,
        I understand faith to be trust vested in a person, and more specifically to be trust in the veracity of things revealed by a trustworthy person. So it would – strictly speaking – be a category mistake to say that I have faith in that sense in a non-person, e.g. metaphysics.

        However, in order to understand anything at all a person has to trust his own reason. So in that sense everyone has faith in his own metaphysics. Many people lack awareness of their own priors, but nobody can think at all without the foundations of thought and being; so a lack of awareness or denial just demonstrates a lack of awareness or denial, it doesn’t mean that the individual is in fact capable of coherently ‘putting revelation before metaphysics’.

      • Zippy’s nailed it concisely. There’s no escaping metaphysics. The only options open to us are to use it properly in respect to revelation, or not. E.g., the assertion that it is not a category error to think that a creature is worthy of worship is a proposition in metaphysics. It relies on a prior proposition that there is nothing supernal to that creature (for if there were, then obviously that supernality ought properly to be worshiped, rather than the creature). It relies, that is to say, on the prior proposition that there is no Ultimate. But the proposition that there is no Ultimate is incoherent in a number of different ways. Like “there is no number greater than googol,” it just doesn’t make sense. This incoherence is not peculiar to Athens; it constrains reason as such, both in Athens and Jerusalem, and in Palmyra, and at Betelgeuse, and throughout the Andromeda Galaxy, and in the heavens.

        YHWH has revealed himself to us as the Creator of all things. He has revealed himself as a Person. He has revealed himself as a storm god, in some ways like Zeus or Thor, and as the Angel of the Nation of Israel, and of the Church. What is much more, he has revealed himself as a Galilean man. And he has commanded that we worship him, and have no other gods before him; he has revealed to us that there are in fact no such gods out there for us to worship in the first place: that he is the God of gods. YHWH has told us without mincing words that he himself just is the Ultimate.

        Revelation therefore *requires* us to construe YHWH as Ultimate – as, precisely, that than which no greater can be conceived. That’s all. If we are to pay heed to revelation – if we are to listen to what YHWH has told us about himself, and think as he commands us to think – we have no option. The problem for metaphysics, then, is to understand how the Ultimate could act, could be a Person, could be a storm god, could be a man, and so forth, all at once.

        This the Church has done. It turns out, thank goodness, that there is no need to choose between Ultimacy on the one hand and YHWH the Creator who is a god, an angel, a man, and so forth, on the other. With the conciliar rejections of the various heresies the Fathers had to cope with as the Church figured out how this puzzle fit together, and with the promulgation of the Nicene Creed, the Church spells out how we ought to think about God. That the Church employed terms from Greek philosophy in working out her solution to the perplexity is neither here nor there. So have all the heretics, right down to these latter days. The discourse had to transpire, and the solution to be found, in *some formal metaphysical language or other,* or else Arius (or some other heresiarch) would have prevailed, and we would not now be worshipping YHWH as he has revealed himself to us, and as he commanded that we do. We would be breaking the First Commandment of all, upon which literally everything in heaven and on earth depends. And that would be bad.

    • Oh, I could go on about that painting for thousands of words, explaining its meaning and effects upon the viewer. But my words could never replicate its effects upon the viewer. They could only ever evoke in the reader their own effects.

      And vice versa. The painting could never evoke in the viewer the experiences that my analysis of the painting could evoke.

      This pair of reciprocal facts vitiates neither the painting, nor its analysis. The map is nowise wrong simply because it is not the territory mapped; or vice versa. Where’s the problem?

      To describe the taste of a peach is not to taste a peach. That does not mean that the description is false. It means only that the description is not itself the thing described. But it would be foolish to expect otherwise. The taste of a peach is one thing, the description thereof another. They ought to commensurate, but commensurability is not identity.

      We try to explain or understand one thing by another, but at the limit of its greatest utility all metaphor breaks down. Viz., the use of metaphors from combat and mechanics in that last sentence. Things resemble each other, more or less; yet semblance supervenes upon difference. There are differences, so the semblances cannot suffice to a complete explanation; but that does not mean they are not true semblances. Indeed, difference would be impossible to ascertain if there were no semblances to work with.

      One can suggest that mere, unanalyzed experience is somehow more genuine or veridical or concrete or zen than its analysis. But then, analysis is itself a mere, unanalyzed experience, just as concrete and zen, etc., as any other. On reflection, the pejorative judgement of reflection turns out to be invidious.

      First, there is a mountain. Then, there is no mountain. Then, there is a mountain.

      Standing upon that height, one forgets the climbing and contemplates the sky, and the mountains it contains.

      • “The painting could never evoke in the viewer the experiences that my analysis of the painting could evoke. ”

        Why should they need the experiences from your analysis after they have already got the experiences of the object of your analysis?

        “The map is nowise wrong simply because it is not the territory mapped; or vice versa. ”

        The map is absolutely not wrong, but its purpose is to guide people to find the destination in the territory, after one has reached the destination, the map has become obsolete.

        “To describe the taste of a peach is not to taste a peach. That does not mean that the description is false.”

        A peach is originally for eating and tasting, not for describing.

        “But then, analysis is itself a mere, unanalyzed experience, just as concrete and zen, etc., as any other.”

        You are just playing word and logic games.

        “First, there is a mountain. Then, there is no mountain. Then, there is a mountain.
        Standing upon that height, one forgets the climbing and contemplates the sky, and the mountains it contains.”

        What do you mean by this compare with the article you wrote?

      • For one thing, people often have a greater enjoyment of a painting after they have had its less obvious features, and their intended (or likely) meaning, pointed out to them. That is the function of good art criticism.

        Besides, people usually interpret–and therefore experience–reality through the categories of thought they possess. And even if they do not interpret it while they are having the experience, they interpret it afterward.

        One can rightfully criticize an inaccurate or poorly-formed theoretical interpretation of a thing. But it is wrong simply to criticize theoretical analysis per se.

      • Why should they need the experiences from your analysis after they have already got the experiences of the object of your analysis?

        I don’t know; up to them. But they seem to think that they do. If people didn’t find analyses valuable, there wouldn’t be any.

        … after one has reached the destination, the map has become obsolete.

        You discard maps after a single use? Seems wasteful. I use mine repeatedly. Having climbed to where the map ends at the summit, as I said in the post, one stows it and looks out, and up. But often it comes out again on the way back down to the valley.

        A peach is originally for eating and tasting, not for describing.

        Sure. And a description of a peach is for discerning (peach from apricot or plum, e.g.) and understanding (how to grow or cook, e.g.), not for eating.

        You are just playing word and logic games.

        I get that a lot from adversaries, as they begin to see that my arguments show that the logic and terms they have used to support a cherished notion don’t actually work out the way they’d like. “That isn’t interesting” is also common; and ad hominem.

        First, there is a mountain. Then, there is no mountain. Then, there is a mountain.

        What do you mean by this compared with the article you wrote?

        First, there is real essentialism: the possibility of real knowledge. Then, as the student learns a bit, there is nominalism, or skepticism, or acosmism, or eliminative materialism, or voluntarism, or occasionalism, or something of the sort: the impossibility of knowledge. When the student matures (and, throughout his intellectual career, as he carries his notions into practice), there is real essentialism.

        First, we try to do philosophy. Then, we begin to think that for one reason or another one just can’t do philosophy, even as we live by philosophical propositions, willy nilly. Then, we do philosophy.

      • “For one thing, people often have a greater enjoyment of a painting after they have had its less obvious features, and their intended (or likely) meaning, pointed out to them.”

        I disagree, the essential enjoyment of a painting is only from that direct impression one gets when it is first presented to people, all the wonders and miracles are from this, after it has gone through mental analysis, all such feelings disappear.

        “Besides, people usually interpret–and therefore experience–reality through the categories of thought they possess.”

        I would say it is then an incomplete and superficial experience, which doesn’t directly touch their innermost layer.

        “And even if they do not interpret it while they are having the experience, they interpret it afterward.”

        Then the true experience disappears afterward, it has already transformed to something else, of another dimension.

      • “But they seem to think that they do. If people didn’t find analyses valuable, there wouldn’t be any.”

        There are always people of different needs, there exists such kind of people who need analysis, it doesn’t directly mean that it is the highest form of cognition.

        “You discard maps after a single use? Seems wasteful.”

        No, not a single use, after the final use, after one has been familiar with the territory.

        “Having climbed to where the map ends at the summit, as I said in the post, one stows it and looks out, and up. But often it comes out again on the way back down to the valley.”

        The true summit would contain everything, includes the valley, if one has truly gone through the path to the summit, he surely knows the way of returning, and it is his real experience, not the indirect and virtual picture from the map.

        “And a description of a peach is for discerning (peach from apricot or plum, e.g.) and understanding (how to grow or cook, e.g.)”

        All those things you mentioned above are in fact serving for eating, eating is the final purpose of everything.

        “as they begin to see that my arguments show that the logic and terms they have used to support a cherished notion don’t actually work out the way they’d like.”

        This is also ad hominem.

        “First, we try to do philosophy. Then, we begin to think that for one reason or another one just can’t do philosophy, even as we live by philosophical propositions, willy nilly. Then, we do philosophy.”

        We don’t live by “philosophical propositions”, rather “philosophical propositions” are lived by us.

      • “One can rightfully criticize an inaccurate or poorly-formed theoretical interpretation of a thing. But it is wrong simply to criticize theoretical analysis per se.”

        Sorry, I forgot to reply this: “theoretical interpretation” is only adequate for theoretical understanding, when it tries to usurp the place of spiritual reality, it naturally falls into the role of fitting criticizing.

        A truly effective thing is not properly understood, it is properly being.

      • Why don’t you hate those who love transcendentalist paintings? What is the difference? Why may a painter but not a writer intercede between you adn God?

      • Why don’t you hate those who love transcendentalist paintings? What is the difference? Why may a painter but not a writer intercede between you adn God?·

        I think words are more cheatable, a writer can write something all the time but in fact being completely opposite to what he or she writes, but a painter and a musician would be much less so. Words are a more indirect form for expressing the essence, maybe except poetry.

  4. All of the very thoughtful discussion above shows how important it is to pay close attention to the specific relationship between reason and revelation (Athens and Jerusalem), aside from or along with the issue of which one should dominate. For Tertullian, revelation alone is Truth, for St. Thomas Aquinas, reason confirms and leads to revelation, for St. Bonaventure, reason and revelation are intertwined and inseparable, and for Leo Strauss (arguably), reason is for the elect, and revelation for the masses. A relationship can take many forms.

  5. @Kristor- When you say “There’s no escaping metaphysics. ”

    there is a sense in which this is true, but another sense in which it is false and a snare to Christians.

    The sense in which metaphysics cannot be escaped is that our *explicit* understanding of reality necessarily happens *within* a structure – so that when we are self-conscious, or communicating, we will be doing so from somemetaphysical position.

    The sense in which it is false is that we can change our metaphysics, we can choose our metaphysics – and it is possible *and normal* for Christians to have a variety of metaphysical positions.

    It may be asked on what basis we change or choose our metaphysics? The answer is that these are various, and they vary between denominations.

    The Transubstantiation schism in the medieval Catholic church was, as I interpret it, a dispute between the Roman church who asserted that there was only one true metaphysics of the bread and wine at Holy Communion – and that this had been given by revelation to the Roman church – all other metaphysical understandings being false, therefore sinful.

    The Orthodox and Anglican Catholic churches refused to make any specific metaphsyical system of what happened to the bread and wine ‘true’ but pronounced it a mystery and – in effect – a matter for personal revelation or local opinion, including having no expliict view at all on the matter.

    The Roman Catholic Church is distinctive in making *many* metaphysical and philosophical questions into a matter of general revelation and doctrine – with explicit and specific explanations decalred true and allothers false. Outside the RCC the empahsis on metaphysics varies with time and place – and some metaphysical explanations are regarded mandatory while others as more-or-less expedient.

    But the overall picture of Christendom through the ages is one in which metaphsyics is an expedient, which ought to serve a faith whose basis is much more than philosophy.

    In sum, Christianity properly regards philosophy as an imperfect, incomplete and biased *attempt* to make explicit a reality which just is *much* bigger and more various than philosophy can comprehend.

    Therefore a Christian can change his metaphystical beliefs without ceasing to be Christian; and there is more than one metaphysical way of being a Christian; and indeed there are (there must be) *non*-metaphysical experiences in Christianity above and beyond philosophy – the metaphysics only comes-in when people attempt to make explicit and communicate the basic experience.

    In that deep sense, metaphysics is (merely) an artefact of the process of explanation: and it is the limitations on explanation which necessarily cause the limits of metaphsics.

    • Prof. Charlton seems to conflate metaphysics in itself and various metaphysical theories. It’s one thing to say that metaphysics in itself is inescapable. It’s another to say that I can escape some particular group of metaphysical beliefs. Even a logical positivist, A.J. Ayer, for example, believed a metaphysical proposition by believing that metaphysical statements were meaningless. If he’s right, his statement about metaphysical statements is meaningless, too.

  6. Kristor,

    I am humbled that my comment deserves its own original post. Let me try to be brief. You write:

    “Now, where all this comes down to brass tacks is at the question of whether the God of the Philosophers has anything to do with the God of Abraham. To answer in the negative is to reject reason, and as we have seen, this rejection cannot transpire except by an operation of the reason.”

    I would state this more precisely as “Is the God of the Philosophers the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” To be precise we also need to define the God of the Philosophers, which for purposes of the Orthosphere seems to be the description of God in Catholic theology, including the arguments of Anselm of Canterbury. This amounts to saying that faithful Jews must necessarily subscribe to the framework of Catholic philosophy or be labeled as unreasonable, not just wrong or mistaken, but stubbornly, illogically, irrationally unreasonable.

    Norbert Samuelson, who holds the Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies at Arizona State University and who has written 13 books and 200+ articles and delivered countless lectures mainly focusing on philosophy, answers the question in the negative. See “That the God of the Philosophers Is Not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” The Harvard Theological Review, January 1972, Vol. 65, Nr. 1, pp. 1-27. The article is free to read on JSTOR. I invite you to read Professor Samuelson’s article and then claim that he is rejecting reason. On the contrary, it seems to me that Professor Samuelson is being eminently reasonable. It is one thing to argue that Catholics are right and Jews are wrong. It is quite another to argue that Catholics philosophers are rational and reasonable and Jewish philosophers are not. My personal observation is that the Jews I have known are some of the smartest people I’ve met.

    • I remember reading that during the Medieval Inquisition (at least in its official documents), pagans (or “gentiles”) were exempt from punishment for heresy, unless they transgressed the natural law, which is accessible to right reason by Christians and pagans alike. The Inquisition assumed there was a shared metaphysics apart from revelation, and that pagans had to take responsibility for their moral reasoning. On the other hand, Jews were exempt unless they denied the Law of Moses, so there was some recognition of a shared source of revelation but no concern with metaphysics. This comes from William Walsh’s book on the Inquisition.

    • Leo, I don’t know whether the Jews need to use a Catholic framework when they talk about God or think about Him. To me, it seems clear that ancient Jews and ancient Christians adored the same God, though many, maybe even most, ancient Jews didn’t know that Christ was and is God the Son.

      That’s why your post reminds me of a problem in the philosophy of language. How much do two descriptions need to have in common for each to signify the same object? Here’s an illustration from Professor Edward Feser’s blog or a variation on one.

      Suppose I emigrate from China to the US when I know very little English. While you talk about the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who held that job during Obama’s first term, I think you’re describing the one who types the Mr. Obama’s letters, brings him his coffee, maintains his appointment calendar, and screens his calls. Since I don’t know what it is you mean by “secretary,” I’m imagining a fictional person instead of Mrs. Clinton.

      There’s a similar problem with the word “God.” Though I disagree with them, many believe that Catholics and Muslims worship the same God. The Catechism of St. Pius X tells me that Muslims aren’t pagans. But it’s still hard for me to know whether Catholic and Muslim descriptions of God are about the same God. In one respect, they need to be about Him, I suppose. After all, if there’s a God, the one of the Bible, there’s only one God, and the others are fictional characters.

      Sure, Jews and Catholics can still be rational when they use different theological frameworks. But I want to know who’s using the correct one if there is a correct one.

      Now say you and I go to a Metropolitan Opera Gala, where you ask me to point out my favorite soprano, Natile Dessay. Pointing a little rudely, I reply, “Leo, she’s the black-haired one with the mink stole and the glass of champagne.” We introduce ourselves to her before she says, “I’m drinking ginger ale.” Since she wasn’t drinking champagne, my description false. It didn’t conform to reality. But it still helped you identify her.

      Well, I better rent a tux, eh? : )

      • Sorry to have been absent from the discussion for so long. Your analogy about sighting an opera diva reminds me that the issue may be between those who claim to have seen God and those who claim He is invisible and therefore can’t be literally so pointed out and thus can’t really have been seen at the opera or elsewhere, i.e. between the creed that defines God (“one only living and true God”) as being “without body, parts, or passions” (incorporeus, impartibilis, impassibilus) and the testimony of the righteous patriarchs of a much different sighting and experience, between the god of Aristotle and the God of Abraham.

    • Leo:

      You are welcome, my friend. You say lots and lots of things that, had I the time, would prompt posts of their own. Grateful as I am for your participation here at the Orthosphere, I must nevertheless beg to differ with the central premise of your comment, although not at all with its conclusion.

      Whether the God of the Philosophers – of Philo and Maimonides, of Spinoza and Einstein, of Levenson and Samuelson – has aught to do with the God of Abraham is not at all like the question whether they are just the same thing. They are obviously *not* the same thing; indeed, they are different *sorts* of things. The former is a map, the latter is the territory. We don’t expect maps to be *just like* the territory, but rather to correspond intelligibly thereto. The question whether the God of the Philosophers has aught to do with the God of Abraham, then, is the question whether the former corresponds intelligibly to the latter.

      Some maps adequate to revelation better than others.

      One thing, for example, that the territory of revelation clearly contains is that God is ultimate. It’s unmistakable. It’s right there in the Decalogue. God’s very first command to us is that we should recognize that he is Ultimate. One way or another, then, a map of revelation must adequate to the revelation of God’s Ultimacy. A theology that didn’t adequate to God’s Ultimacy would be like a map with no compass rose.

      • Dear Kristor,

        It is late, and choir practice took up my evening, wonderfully, of course. So I will be brief.

        I am perplexed that you would bring up the Decalogue. The God described in the Westminster Confession of Faith, without body, parts, or passions, is manifestly not the jealous (Exo. 20:5) God described in Exodus. See also Exo. 24:10, 31:18, 33:11, 33:23. The God in Anslem’s ontological argument is in no sense personal and is described negatively and is therefore vague and unclear (what exactly is ultimacy?), but the God is Exodus is very much positive, definite, and personal, even if terrifying. Terrifying I understand. He does very specific things that identify Him to his hearers (Exo. 20:2). These are not minor differences.

        Samuelson in the referenced article specifically takes to task the classical solution to the theodicy problem. He compares it to the fundamentalist argument explaining away dinosaur bones as something planted by the devil, logically consistent, perhaps, but unconvincing, particularly in light of the Holocaust. This is not a mere quibble.

        It is the Decalogue that warns us against putting another god, e.g. the god of the philosophers, before Him (Exo. 20:3). So while I might want to be charitable and say we are really describing the same God, just with a different map, there remains the real possibility that one God is really different from the other, as God is different from his rivals in the Old Testament, and He is not at all pleased with the conflation or the proposed mapping. Indeed, He warns against it in very strong terms.

      • I was at choir today too, singing Tallis’ If ye love me (John 14:15) at the funeral of an old friend’s husband, murdered this last week in the Oakland hills while out for a jog, the sacrificial victim (as I surmise) of a ritual gang initiation, there being no other possible motive.

        Certainly we must be alert to any tendency in us to grow too enamored of our little ideas about God. This is no more than the intellectual humility, the due and proper methodological caution, that I urged in the first paragraphs of the post. Certainly also we ought by the same token to be wary of our philosophical innovations, that hope to improve upon or correct the discoveries of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

        All that said, I note that in your comment you have still failed to notice that there is a categorical difference between our ideas about God, and God himself. My whole point in my last was to emphasize that the former and the latter are of two quite different sorts. The God of the Philosophers does not, and cannot, equate to God himself.

        It is not fair to complain that in his Ontological Argument Anselm did not take adequate note of God’s personhood – or for that matter his Incarnation, or his Trinity, or his eternity, or any of the other doctrines he elsewhere addressed – for, in his Proslogion, he was not talking about all those other things, but rather only about God’s existence and greatness. That other stuff just didn’t come up. And this is no defect on Anselm’s part. No logion can adequate to the Logos. This fact alone does not render any logion false.

        Likewise with the Westminster Confession. The authors of that Confession did not mean to repudiate the Incarnation or the Passion, certainly, with all its bodily suffering, bloody gobbets being torn off, and so forth; so one must do a job of work to find out what they did mean, and how they understood that bit of their Confession to agree with Exodus.

        What exactly is ultimacy? That is indeed the question. Too many critics of the notion, who would rather a God that is not quite so ultimate, not quite so far outpassing human telling, but something more domesticable to our customary categories of thought, have not taken the trouble to find out what it must properly mean. They have then (rightly) found that God cannot be ultimate in the incoherent way that they have construed ultimacy, and (wrongly) concluded that he is not ultimate, period full stop. It’s rather silly, and sad. Especially when it can be shown to them that ultimacy, properly construed, is quite consistent with all those aspects of God that seem most important to them – his personhood, his love, his mercy, his activity in history, and so forth. Not that this consistence is easy to show, or to understand, for it is not. But then, how aweful would a God be to us, that was easy? Not much.

      • Kristor,

        I have been away from the discussion since before Christmas. So sorry to hear about the murder of your old friend’s husband. Oakland is a dangerous place, indeed, where people are killed for no obvious reason or, worse, for obviously sinister reasons.

  7. Leo, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church teach that God is simple, that He has no parts. Someone simple in that sense of the word can’t go from, say, being happy to being angry, since that change would imply that happiness and anger were at least like parts. From what I can gather, Thomas would interpret God’s anger as a metaphor for His justice. The phrases “God’s power,” “God’s knowledge,” “God’s knowledge,” and stand for exactly the same object, for God, not for parts of Him. In St. Thomas’s writings, the phrases “God’s power,” “God’s knowledge,” “God’s mercy,” and so forth seem to be synonyms for “God.” If St. Thomas is right, the Old and New Testaments are about the same God.

    That’s why I believe that, while we read the Bible, we need to remember that it includes various literary genres, the historical one, the historical one, and the apocalyptic one, for example, along with one called “wisdom literature.” Too many, especially fundamentalists, the Bible as though it’s a 21st-century book. So they ignore, for instance, ancient Hebrew culture, those genres, the meanings of ancient biblical figures of speech, and other things.

    If you don’t mind my saying it, these are some problems we face because of sola scriptura.

    • This is very good; God’s mercy, love, etc., are “operations” or attributes of God. It is not a later distinction of Thomistic theology, but, going all the way back to the Patristic age (as recorded especially in a letter of Pope St. Leo the Great on the error of the Priscillianists), the Church has recognized that while creatures participate to a greater or lesser degree in wisdom, love, etc., God is the essential ground of all these things and, as such, does not “participate” in them, but is identified with them. Yet in Himself, God is not angry, punitive, etc.; this way of speaking illustrates a relative relationship of man to God.

      Imagine it this way: God, as Love and as the Fount and Origin of our existence, draws us to Him and wills to share Himself and existence with us. For the man who goes with this and yields to God, he finds that he is participating in God’s love and existence and proves the truth of the saying that God is He, “Cui servire est regnare” (in serving Whom, we reign). But to the man who turns his back on this and swims against the tide, trying to propel Himself against the inward pull of God’s inward gathering (that He may be all in all), he finds that the inevitable return of all things to God is hateful to him. He scrapes and burns and injures himself in fighting against this pull of charity, and everything flowing downstream towards God has become a dangerous projectile which he hates and loathes to encounter. For this man, his choice to reject charity and existence, which are inescapable with God, can only result in an opposition, tension and resistance which is inherently unnatural, evil and futile. This is hell, this is the wrath of God. It is why, in the Apocalypse, the just are seen in bliss while the damned are “tormented before the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment arises forever” (or something like that). It would not be right – it would not be possible! – for God to make His love other than love, or to cease to draw all things to Himself, and it is also not right and not possible for God to force a being with free will to “choose” God. Thus, all God can do is to continue to love and to draw all things to Himself; and if man wishes to reject and resist this, there is no loss or change in God, but the man himself is encountering one and the same thing as the righteous, albeit in a very different manner.

    • Bill, all you say in your second paragraph is true, but your final paragraph is a non sequitur: literally, it does not follow.

      Sola scriptura does not mean “read the Bible just like any contemporary book,” nor does it mean “read the Bible literally.” The problem with biblical literalism is not sola scriptura; the problem is literalism.

      To paraphrase Alan Roebuck, sola scriptura means that the Bible is the highest authority on all matters it addresses. Furthermore, the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That does not mean that every passage is equally lucid to us sinners, nor does it mean we should ignore information about the language used in it, such as the fact that Biblical Hebrew had no word for age, thus opening up the possibility that the days in which God created the universe could have been longer than 24 hours.

      Putting it simply, a church that teaches sola scriptura can—and should—acknowledge all the points you bring up (mine does). Literalism is an issue separate from, and independent of, sola scriptura.

  8. The problem is not that Reason must be humble; the Church has made it quite clear, how powerful and pure Reason is. Reason does not need to make a special effort at shrinking in humility, for Reason knows where Reason begins and ends, and this is truly humble; Reason knows that she leads us to the natural knowledge of God, but that Authority and Faith, albeit consonant with Reason, lead us from this knowledge into the purity of Catholic Dogma. Dogma can be shown to be reasonable, but Reason could never arrive at the Trinity, the Cross, etc., simply by reasoning from necessary causes without the light of Faith.

    It is man that must be humble, in assuming that he is being reasonable. It is not that reason is problematic and that 62% of philosophers are atheists “by the light of their own reason;” it is that 62% of philosophers are atheists because they are not exactly interested or competent when it comes to Reason. Have you ever met modern-day philosophers? I tried to take a philosophy course at my University recently, and dropped it after the first day, because it became clear that the roundtable discussion required of graduate-level students, would be the most mind-numbing adventure of mutual fart-sniffing that I had ever endured. These men have not arrived at any of their conclusions “by the light of their own reason.” They have merely decided which impenetrably asinine constructs they prefer to use, for cloaking their self-pandering in pretense.

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