Knowing God’s Essence

The danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The reason that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is as good as it gets. (To tell the story as if it is the fault of the philosophical arguments or the philosophers, is a slight miss-telling, as it presumes philosophy or philosophers are the movers and shakers in society when they may simply be the markers of a general failure.) It is not that the arguments or their purveyors generate this dualistic epistemology, but the gap, difference, or alienation, inherent to a common understanding, articulated and explained by Kant, presumed by Hegel, followed by Heidegger, becomes the epistemological frame for generations of theologians. The dichotomy between spheres of knowledge (science/humanities, sociology/religion, theory/practice, etc.) marks modern theology, which even at its best is modern because it presumes the mind is stuck in apriori Kantian spatio-temporal categories. Biblical studies focused on the historical critical method (whether of a liberal or fundamentalist bent), or theology focused on satisfying the mind of God, going to heaven, the apophatic, or the God beyond being, all betray this dualistic epistemology. Whatever else it might have spawned (e.g. the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation etc.) the modern is this shared epistemological starting point presumed to be more basic than religion or particular convictions about God. It is presumed that people know in the same basic way; it is just that they have journeyed to different places along the same road. Thus, the philosophical arguments (to say nothing of Christianity so engendered) do not challenge, but utilize what everyone knows to be the case (as the arguments explicitly state it).

Natural theology as the theological prolegomena (the philosophical arguments about God serve to introduce classical forms of theology and it was this beginning point Barth was attempting to sidestep), indicate that this problem is not external but internal to the modern theological project. Given the epistemology of the philosophical arguments, as Kant saw it, Christ is simply a prototype of what can be accomplished by reason and reason cannot get us to either the noumenal or to God. Though most theologians would not want to state it so bluntly, Jean-Luc Marion’s notion that God is unknowable is the theological conclusion to working within the Kantian framework (God is without being and beyond knowing). His is only one example of a long line of theological systems which would seal off God’s essence from the incarnation (cordoning off the economic Trinity from the immanent Trinity, or disconnecting the pre-incarnate Logos from the incarnate Christ, or suggesting, with Barth, that human language is inadequate, though it can be specially appropriated for and by revelation).

The solution (let’s not go there but start elsewhere), may seem to be no solution at all in its unwillingness to engage the starting point, but my understanding is that Christianity begins elsewhere. The fittingness of the world as a dwelling place for God is where the Bible begins (creation, God walking in the garden) and ends (heaven come to earth) and it is the point of the incarnation (Emmanuel – God with us). There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God in his essence.

As I have described it elsewhere (here), we identify who God is through incarnation because this is really who God is. The Logos is the incarnate Christ and, though we can ask other questions and raise other issues, the main point (God is with us in Christ) should not be subjected to some other mode of understanding or some other speculative questioning. We may ask after the pre-incarnate Christ, but the Bible and the early Church fathers equate the Word, of John’s prologue, with the Word of the Cross and the Word of the Gospel. It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from the Word of the Gospel (the crucified and risen Lord and not the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel). We begin as believers with the presumption that we encounter God a se (in his essence) in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in and what sort of creatures we are, who bear the image of God.

As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, in her “theological compatibilism,” God’s being is not remote but is known in “our earthly words and world and signs.” In what she considers a paradigmatic case, the appearance of God to Moses, “The bush burns with divine fire; yet the bush remains unconsumed. . . This event and truth simply is the mystery of the cosmos itself. . . This is the gospel. And every reflection upon epistemology and metaphysics must be in its turn gospel, rendered in formal analysis.”[1] God has revealed his nature and his name in an unapproachable light (Moses both sees the light and turns away), that both reveals and conceals God. To call this revelatory theophany a “paradox” would be to impose a prior framework, while what is unfolding in this event fits no frame. It is not idolatry, it is not an affirmation of absolute transcendence, and it is not some sort of paradoxical contradiction, but provides its own frame of understanding. God’s transcendence does not preclude his immanence as, on many occasions culminating in Christ, God is present, without mediation, without distance, without analogy, in creation.

God manifests himself in the world and this need not be balanced out, as Aquinas would have it, with negative concepts extrapolated from his transcendence. Aquinas reasons that humans can speak of God on the basis of the divine name (Ex. 3:14) but this negativity falls short of apprehending God in his simplicity, indicated by the name. As Matthew Wilcoxen describes it, Aquinas strips away false understandings of God’s being so that his existence is shorn of all composition. No relation to creation (inclusive of the elements of human understanding) can penetrate or approach divine simplicity – God’s essence within his self-relation.[2] This will become such standard fare in theology that it nearly goes without saying. Aquinas will set the stage for apprehending God through both the way of negation and the positive mode of revelation, and of course, subsequent to Thomas, these will become competing modes in which philosophical negation and certainty will co-opt the faith of Christ.

Understanding Jesus as Logos (as opposed to a pre-existent Christ) and recognizing with Sonderegger, God has chosen in his transcendence to be immanent/present in human history and human language, means that the world is perfectly adequate to reveal God in his essence. Humans, in their sinfulness, may not be up to this adequacy and may prefer to cling to dualism, antagonism, and a violent epistemology, but this human failure is not a delimiting factor for God. This is the point of the incarnation (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). God does not need protecting or defending through mediating categories which preserve his transcendence. Christ is truly human and divine.  Certainly, this does not mean that we know all of God in Christ or even all of Christ in Jesus. It does mean we can really know God in his essence as revealed in Christ which, in turn, points to divine hiddenness and transcendence. However, this hiddenness is forever being revealed and this transcendence is not an impassable barrier. As Sonderegger puts it, “We are never done with this invisibility and hiddenness, never done with this exceeding light, never far from this scorching fire. It is communicated to our hearts and to our intellects; yet never identified with them.”[3]

As she maintains, we do not need to be able to spell out how God can be poured into our world and into our understanding, it is enough to report that he has and to extrapolate from his act (in Christ) how we are to interpret and receive this mighty deed.[4] There is no end to the theological quest, no end to the questions and applications, given this compatible epistemological starting point, which forecloses on Anselm’s incomparable difference (the end point of his cosmological argument and the starting point of his ontological argument), which bequeathed to the world, not only philosophical arguments for God, but an epistemology devoid of the essence of God.  


[1] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 81-83. I am quoting from the Dissertation, Morally Perfect Being Theology: A Doctrine of Divine Humility by Matthew A. Wilcoxen.

[2] Wilcoxen, p. 182.

[3] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid, p. 127.

The Conversion of the Imagination

I am convinced that whatever the field of endeavor, whether philosophy, psychology, theology, or whatever, that each field of study or form of discourse hits the same wall or encounters the same failure, characteristic of failed human thought. The failure will show itself through a full stop: conversation stops, questions cease, imagination is halted, because the form of thought is not alive, it is not dynamic. Movement ceases because it presumes or desires too much and ends with too little. The Western philosophical/theological project, attempting to say it all, ends in nihilism; a positive theological scholasticism (to think God) ends in a purely negative apophatic theology; an attempt to pin down the master signifier of the law ends in perversion (to be the phallic object of desire) or hysteria (despairing over the lost object).  In theological terms, God is turned into an object to be contained within human knowledge while human knowing is assigned, simultaneously, a God-like power to shed its finite bonds (Martin Heidegger’s characterization taken from Kant, “ontotheology,” describes this modern project). In this ontotheological mode of thought, one would think himself out of the world, which freezes thought as it locks onto a static, impossible, object.

For example, Anselm’s cosmological argument begins by comparing differences in the world (some horses are fast, but there is a fastest horse) so that his argument depends upon differentiation which works its way to the ultimate difference. The ultimate act of differentiating locates God in a category of incomparable difference (a denial of recognizable difference). Thus, at the same time God is proven, he is also put beyond thought. The ultimate difference, God, is an unthinkable or empty thought. All the world is reduced to nothing in comparison to the being of God, and the mode of differentiating thought is exhausted on the “nothing” side of the ontological divide.

His ontological argument, (the name for God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought”) starts where his cosmological argument ended and consists of the same move. There is a name or a thought of God but “nothing” serves to define the “something” in the name. Anselm would “see God” (the absolute “something”) and only “finds darkness” and “nothing,” in his own words, as God is beyond any normative thought. Rather than bring heaven and earth together, as in the biblical cosmology, the characteristic of natural arguments tend, like Anselm’s cosmological and ontological argument, to introduce a gulf of separation between God and the world due to the form of the argument. Each of the “natural arguments” for God, leave God on the other side of an ontological divide, but also posit an uncrossable division within reality, which will come to characterize modern thought.

Kant posits the ever illusive noumena (the unthinkable and unattainable thing-in-itself) and leaves us only phenomena, while Hegel presumes the process of thought is the thing, always on its way but never arriving. In one instance, the focus is on an unobtainable object (the thinking thing, the noumena, the subject of the law, the master signifier), while the other is focused on a frustrated movement of thought (the “I think” portion of the cogito, the Geist or spirit). Maybe this helps explain how, for many, virtual reality now serves in place of reality. At the least, the philosophical impasse illustrates the full stop disengagement with reality marking this cultural moment. It is not simply the beatific vision, the hope for heaven, but earthly reality that has gone missing.

While this displacement of reality with a delusion is peculiarly sharp in this cultural moment, it is precisely this simulacrum Paul equates with the dynamic of desire aroused by the law – the law is falsely assigned a fulness of reality. Lacan, in a more prosaic turn of phrase, describes this impossible desire as the search for the maternal phallus. The diagnosis might focus on the disproportionate desire: to be the primal father (having all the women), or to stand in place of the law, or to penetrate the final mystery. Or the diagnosis might focus on the impossibility of the object: God is either posited as a thing in the world to be known, like an object of sight, or is consigned to an absolutely transcendent unknown (inherent to Paul’s description of the functioning of the law).

 In turn, thought takes on the characteristic of a “totalizing vision” (with the emphasis falling on “vision”) in which experience (the senses, personal experience, historical experience, the experience of others, etc.) and dynamism (in other words, reality) are subsumed. What surreptitiously takes place, as Marx noted, is the privileging of a particular stance (a particular culture and a particular place in that culture) as if it is universal. After Freud and Lacan, this has been dubbed “phallocentric” thought as it reifies the (male) symbolic order (law, the superego, language, the father) as it drives toward mastery and represses absence and incompleteness (the feminine).

The resolution to this form of thought, first articulated in the modern period as a conversion of the imagination by C. S. Lewis, is easier to describe than the various diagnoses (as illustrated in my abbreviated and hectic summary), but in order to understand the work this resolution is performing we need the diagnoses. The resolution offered in narrative or historical theology invokes a different standard (a call to justice, beauty, and love) and is relocating every element of the problem (God and Christ as object, the role of language, the adequacy of knowledge) but it is also giving rise to an alternative set of emotions, experience, and desire, captured in the notion of the conversion of the imagination. Lewis describes his conversion as “a baptism of the imagination,” by which he meant not merely the addition of God to a world already in place, but a transformation of every aspect of experience into a reworked world.

Following Lewis, we could picture the problem and solution in terms of types of stories. A failed or limited story, as with the failed imagination, might be said to engage a portion of reality, a level of experience, or form of thought. These stories are not necessarily untrue, though they may be, but they lack truth in the same way as some characters fall short of the truth. Lewis portrays failed characters as incapable of discerning the voice of Aslan or incapable, even when confronted with paradise (i.e. Narnia), of inhabiting it. Uncle Andrew only seeks magical power, Edmund wants Turkish Delight, and the White Witch, in her great beauty, is a type of the deceiver of Ezekiel, who would falsely proclaim herself Queen over Narnia. (Like the creature in Ezekiel, she has great beauty and cunning wisdom, both of which are deployed for deception and evil.) Each of these small or evil characters would use Narnia to fulfill their own unimaginative desires. They each order the world according to the shape of their desire and understanding, while we as readers recognize, Narnia is better, more complete, and differently ordered than these characters realize. They each make choices based on their failed understanding. As Stanley Hauerwas describes it, the moral life does not consist simply of correctly choosing but of being trained how to see. Moral notions expand character (and characters) so that they are up to the task of rightly perceiving reality. Through moral development the weak or small characters, such as Edmund, become attuned not only to the voice of Aslan, in Lewis’ world, but they come to love him. The development of moral insight comes then, with a training in the imagination which can only come about by being schooled in and initiated into an ever-expanding narrative.

If we only know one kind of story and are trained only to see a certain flatness, it may be that we are impressed with stick figure characters (and arguments). What we need (and I am not making an absolute claim as to how this might work) may be exposure to a fuller reality rather than more or bigger stick figures. Imagine trying to describe the music of Yo-Yo Ma to those who have never heard his music. You might use mathematics and a black board, but the medium would kill the message. Better let them listen to his music and experience it full on. True, there are those who may not have ears to hear or eyes to see: think of trying to illicit appreciation for Dostoevsky, or Wendell Berry, or even the children’s tales of C. S. Lewis, in a modern Trump-like character, devoid of any but the most insipid imagination. But to translate every tale into this world would reduce everything into idioms of power or variations on “greed is good.” Uncle Andrew, in The Magician’s Nephew, can only hear the roar of Aslan and cannot make out his talk, but maybe it is better to expose him to the roar and to let him see the comprehension of others.

As Tyler (who has young children) put it to me in conversation, Teletubbies may be perfectly adequate for a limited or constrained mentality but for developing and feeding a mature life and imagination they are inadequate and boring. The form fails to engage the fulness of reality and imagination (while it may be perfectly adequate for very young children (I don’t actually know, being unfamiliar with the show) precisely because of this failure). If we find ourselves in the midst of such a truncated story, we can only hope that it would end (setting aside the book, turning the channel, or committing suicide, depending upon the circumstance and our personal resources and investment in the story).

A profound story, however, such as The Brothers Karamazov, puts the full range of human experience and possibility on display. We can see the depths of depravity in the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. His sons, Dmitri and Ivan, represent the possibility of pure evil and greed, and raw intelligent skepticism, respectively, while Alyosha, guided by the good but worldly-wise Zosima, counters (though he may not answer) the darkness of the world of his brothers with a profound goodness and love. To be Alyosha, is to see the world lit up with beauty and goodness, though he is surrounded by and takes account of the depth of evil. Here is a story that enlarges the imagination by offering a picture of enslavement to the realities of darkness (every form of lust greed and wantonness), which only sharpens the hope for the alternative order and the longing for justice, beauty, and love, glimpsed in Zosima and Alyosha.[1]

In this artful presentation of reality, reality is assigned a depth of meaning, so that the story engages the reality of the world while providing a vision of God. It does not float free of the cosmos (as in the various arguments for God), but reads a depth of meaning into the world. The danger, in a less than true story, is that the world of the story falls short of reality, or in the language of theology, God and the world are made completely separate by the form of thought. According to Maurice Blondel this is the problem with neo-Scholastic arguments and reason; this form of thought made God extrinsic, rather than an intrinsic part of the natural world. As a result there is a depletion of desire for God, fostered by the very arguments which would prove his existence, as the form of thought is flat and boring.

To recover God must mean a simultaneous recovery of the world, a recovery of curiosity and participation, and an alternative deployment of language. We might picture it as a recovery of the language of Adam prior to the fall, in which Adam works with God in bringing order out of chaos by naming and assigning value as a co-participant in creation. Or we might picture it in terms of the Jewish Temple, as a microcosmos, with God and the world conjoined, and God emerging, through the mediation and work of his priests, from out of the Holy of Holies into the cosmos (see here for a fuller picture of this). Likewise, new creation “work” is a creativity assigned to human mediators and priests who serve in the Temple of creation to usher in, to represent, to witness to the movement of God out of the Holy of Holies into the Holy Place and into the created order.

 Do we not recognize this in the work of the artists we admire and would emulate? Or maybe we are not even up to admiring directly – but we learn to admire. I am thinking here of my good friend Jason’s fascination with Wendell Berry. Jason has been a priest to me of the beauty of an imagination of which I was not aware. I would like to think I was not a complete idiot but that I had been primed, and many of us have been so primed by Hebrew scripture, to the spiritual depth, to the fingerprint of God, or to the shining of the glory of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). This is not a language or speech that one recognizes “naturally,” as “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (19:3-4). As the Psalmist explains, one hears this speech due to the working of Torah: “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes” (19:7-8). The word of God resonates with the world, bringing it to life for the simpleton.

This is a different order of language from that which would divide off from the world and render all that is created a dead, cold, mechanical, system (Newtonian Theory, exploitative consumer economics, or simply “art” which renders the world a dead object). There is a “dead letter” which kills or there is a living word which animates, creates, and brings to life. The dead letter stops you in your tracks, turns you inward (“close the door of your room and close the door of your mind” Anselm advises, in order to conceive of his ontological God), while the living word calls you to quest further, to go deeper, to find the fulness, not in frustration, but in the joy of the unfolding and opening up of the conversion of the imagination.


[1] Thanks to Matt for the gift of a new translation I have undertaken rereading the story.

Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God

The God of the philosophers (the unmoved mover), the God of German idealism (who is becoming), and the God constituted as part of the psyche (the source of the previous two) is, I would claim, a singular entity which Christ defeated and rendered unnecessary in his death and resurrection. In each instance, God is the end term of a logical and psychological necessity in which the posited structure requires God. The philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological world constituted (I was going to say “glued together” but this is a world continually coming unglued) in conjunction with this God precedes, rather than proceeds from, his existence. It is not only a particular logic and mode of argumentation at work but this logic, in producing or arriving at God, absolutizes itself or the self’s capacity for the divine.  This way of putting it may miss the fact that this is an absolute immediately at hand, which argument does not so much render necessary as it renames. Underlying the absolute conclusion (God), the necessity of the argument (an irresistible logic, often equated with the divine), is a more immediate constraint – human finitude and mortality.  The trick of turning death into an ontological and epistemological resource equated with God is, precisely, the necessity Christ overcame. Continue reading “Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God”