God Is Not A Concept In Your Model
Recently I presented the first conference paper of my academic career. It was called “Riding a Bicycle Through the Big Bang: Paul Tillich’s Paradox and Analytic Theology.” In it I make the argument that the mode of analytic philosophy can be a doorway to theology by driving to the limits of conceptual thought and thereby making possible the paradoxical encounter with God by the use and failure of conceptual thought.
This implies a number of things; one of them being that God is not a possible object of conceptual thought. Another implication is that the fundamental terms in theology will necessarily be non-conceptual, or drive toward the non-conceptual. In view of this, a good friend of mine who is trained in the analytic tradition asked me:
“Once one accepts that talk of God is analogical/metaphorical, how do you go about theology ‘analytically’? Perhaps a better question: Why go about theology analytically once you accept that talk of God is non-literal?”
It’s a good question, one that is similar to a question that I was also asked by the moderator of my session (which just goes to show I didn’t develop that point very well in my talk!). Here’s a few words that work toward a response.
I think at least one important reason to make use of analytic thought in theology is that we simply have theological questions that have an analytic form. By “analytic form” I mean, broadly: descriptive, explanatory reasoning that is characterized by rigorous attention to clarity and formal correctness. If in response to the question “How do I build a boat?” someone were to perform an interpretive dance about building a vessel with strength to endure the sea and her fickle ways, the inquisitive party might be entertained, even edified, but not helped with their particular question. An answer of more analytical form would likely be of more immediate use.
In the case of theology we have many existential questions that take on an analytic form. “Where did the world come from?,” “What makes it true that X is morally wrong?,” “What do we mean by the word God?” “Does God exist?” etc…. Now, it may be the case (as I argue) that an analytic answer is ultimately insufficient to these questions theologically, but one will not be helped to see this fact by having someone read them a poem. Our analytical questions need to be fully entered into and have their logic worked out to their limit before an answer that outstrips our analyses will have any voice for us. Seeing where analytic thought finally runs off our conceptual maps can be a theologically relevant form of knowledge, though it is not itself conceptual or analytic knowledge.
It is important to note that I don’t think an analytic mode is the only way to theologize. It remains an important way and one with deep historical precedents, but it has unfortunately become a problem in our era because, unlike its early founders, many contemporary attempts at analytic theology have, to a large extent, lost the mystical element. That is, rather than be embraced by the terror and awe that comes with the limit of the conceptual and let that encounter flow back down through all their conceptual theologizing (and life in general), there is the tendency to let that “godly fear” keep one’s feet firmly planted in the shallow waters of our little conceptual god. If keeping this god alive becomes too much work, another option is to let it die. Such an act can be the first step toward learning to swim in the deep. Theologizing in the analytic mode, if not divorced from the mystical, can hasten its death.