Posts Tagged ‘existence’
Moishe the Beadle, in Elie Wiesel’s Night, says that
…every question possesse[s] a power that [is] lost in the answer …
It’s a tremendous line. When it comes to things like virtue, wisdom, peace, faith, and humility, the first real step toward any of them is realizing that no answer to their implicit question is ever adequate. What is virtue? What must I do to be wise? How can I attain peace? In what am I to have faith? How do I know if I am truly humble? The subjection of every answer to further questioning can itself be a sign of the state that is sought.1
Take, for example, just virtue. It turns out, virtue is just not the sort of thing that is well contained in an answer. As a settled answer it becomes law, and law, with its determinate nature, can only cover so much ground. The dynamic element of life always keeps law from ever attaining the status of virtue (legalism is no virtue). So, in a sense, there is no “answer.” But there is the question, and if we reflect on it, we might become aware that, when it comes to certain things, the question is itself the answer. After all, it was Socrates’ strenuous denial that he possessed wisdom that leads us to recognize his wisdom.
In virtue, faith, peace, wisdom, and humility, what is at issue is the precariousness of our life. The path to achieving any of them is to realize that they can’t be acheived by overcoming our precariousness. Rather, for their emergence in our life, our precariousness must first be accepted.2
In this way we develop the ability to live in the power of our questions rather than the weakness of any presumed answer.
1. This post emerged from a response to a thoughtful email sent to me by a friend of mine (who wishes to remain nameless).
2. I have Marvin Shaw to thank for helping to clarify what problem is addressed by this paradoxical motion. Marvin C. Shaw, The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving up the Attempt to Reach It (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988).
A good friend of mine recently told me that he needs to be able to conceive of God before it’s possible for him to believe in God. This got me thinking. We cannot conceive of anything apart from our ability to speak of it. How then do we speak of God? The way the situation is often put is that God is a being possessing a host of “omni” properties (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc…). Yet as we consider language of this nature it becomes clear that terms originating in finite existence are struggling to grasp an infinite reality. This can be seen when we consider what could it possibly mean to say that a being is present everywhere (omnipresence)? What results is actually a contradiction!
But what about other language we use to conceive God? We say God is love. We say God exists. We say God is a being, is triune, has a son, desires things, punishes the wicked, saves the faithful, and so on. Does our finite language run into similar problems with these ascriptions? Or are things more straightforward in these cases? Perhaps that’s a matter up for discussion, but for the time being I hope it can at least be seen that something puzzling happens when we speak of God. My basic thesis on this point is that the “something puzzling” is due to the “infinite” nature of the “object” under discussion and the finite nature of the linguistic tools we are using in trying to grasp it. In the interest of providing a framework for speaking of God under these circumstances, allow me to propose three types of God language.
- Natural Terms: Terms that mean exactly what they stand for but mean a reality that transcends the finite. For example: “God is the absolute.” “God is being itself,” “God is,” “God is that which is ultimately real,” etc…
- Analogical or Symbolic Terms: Terms that “participate” in the infinite reality they describe, but due to their origin in finite existence lead to absurdities if taken in their natural sense. For example: “God is all-powerful,” “God is all-knowing,” “God is personal,” “God exists,” “God is love,” “God lives,” etc…
- Metaphorical Terms: Terms that are not literally intended in most important respects, but which point toward a single conceptual identity located within some specific attribute (which itself most likely needs to be understood analogically). For example: “This was from the hand of God,” “God is our rock,” “God is a consuming fire,” etc…
What should be noticed is that category 1. contains a single affirmation which is affirmed in multiple ways. And here is what is important: That single affirmation is all that can be said about God with the use of natural terms. Every other affirmation must be understood symbolically (be it analogically, or metaphorically). The reason for this found in the nature of language and the structure of existence. God, as the absolute, grounds the categories of existence but is not conditioned by them. Our language is an expression of the categories of existence and as such is capable of dealing with objects within existing reality, but that is where its use as natural language ends. To speak of the reality that is not conditioned as an object within existence, but is both immanent in, and transcending of, existence, is to be forced to put language to a use that strains and ultimately breaks its natural role.
But it must be broken. For to the extent we insist our natural language grasps God, we force what is ultimate to play by the rules of that which is not ultimate. This can be easily seen by looking at the history of Christianity. The failure to recognize the symbolic nature of language about God has lead to innumerable conflicts, including: the conflict between God’s knowledge and will, freedom and foreknowledge, love and holiness, existence or non-existence, transcendence and immanence, power and weakness, unity and plurality, the list could go on. In each case God is being made a subject to the categories of existence, an attempt is then made to affirm God’s ultimacy, and the result is (as we saw above) a contradiction or antinomy.
There is real insight to be had in each of the above mentioned conflicts, but they ultimately reduce to analyses of existence. This is the doorway to analysis of God, but it is not analysis of God as God. God’s ultimacy assures this.
The implications of this insight are far reaching and existentially important. I have, myself, only begun the process of sorting through them. Perhaps the most deeply felt worry resulting from this discussion is the impression that God is being made infinitely remote, as in deism, or perhaps irrelevantly present, as in pantheism. There is insight in each of these concerns, but ultimately they succumb to the same problem we have been mentioning all along. So where is God? As natural language the question defeats itself. As the cry of our heart, it wells up from, and draws us toward, our origin, condition and end.
May we continue to speak of God, but may we avoid having our symbols become idols.
In our present age this term is problematic, as it now carries with it the connotation of being less real. It might be said that something is “only” or “just” symbolic. What is thought to have a greater ontological standing is language that is meant “literally.” This is unfortunate and is symptomatic of the basic problem I am addressing. On this latter scheme, either God is a being in the natural sense of the term, or God is not real. Modern atheism rightly protests the existence of such a being and accepts the latter conclusion. My point is that the dilemma is a false one. Symbolic language recognizes that all particular being participates in ultimate being. Language is one more instance of this general assertion. As such, to the extent that language is used symbolically it carries within itself its own negation. If it did not, finite reality would be capable of bearing ultimate reality, or ultimate reality itself would be subject to the tensions and conflicts essential to existential being. This cannot be so. Symbolic language dies to itself as natural language and in so doing reveals its own depth. If natural language resists this dynamic, it becomes idolatrous for it seeks to elevate something finite to the level of the ultimate.