Talking About Divine Being

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It was of concern to generations of Platonists that nothing should be predicated of the supremely divine which might in any way imply diminishment or limit, or be construed as so doing. For some, that meant placing God even beyond being, or at least declaring that to say that he is, is not to say of him anything which tells us what he is.1 Alternatively, some thought it allowable to speak of God's being, if his Being was clearly distinguished from the sort of being possible to things in the world of sense, or even the intelligible world.3 This kind of refinement was possible in Greek thought in part because the Greek language allowed it to be expressed. Latin's comparative inopia verborum, at least until the later mediaeval centuries, made anxiety less acute on this point for Latin-speakers. For Anselm of Canterbury it was enough to seek to prove 'that God truly is' ('quia deus vere est);4 he had no anxiety that to do so would be to predicate of God something unworthy of him. The terms ens, essentia, existentia, subsistentia had not yet acquired their later mediaeval technical loading. He is able to say that ens is equivalent to existens or subsistens, and that essentia bears the same relationship to esse and ens as lux does to lucere and lucens (Monologion, 5, S.1.20.15-16). He predicates all three of the Godhead, with clear Trinitarian connotations. Even for Aquinas the burning questions are not to do with whether we may speak of God's being at all, but whether God's existence is self-evident and whether it can be demonstrated (ST I.q.2.aa.1,2).

Underlying what were for Christians theological questions about the use of particular terms for, or concepts of, being in relation to God were the primarily philosophical matters dealt with by Aristotle in the Metaphysics. Aristotle suggests that there is a science which studies being as being. From the late twelfth century Avicenna's Metaphysics was available in Latin, and Averroes' commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics could be read in Latin from the early thirteenth century. Avicenna argues that metaphysics cannot prove that God exists, because that would make it a self-referent science, attempting the impossible, that is, to prove the existence of what it is about. Averroes thought the task of proving the existence of God belonged to physics, not metaphysics, because physics can prove that there must be a Prime Mover.

A lengthy debate took place in the thirteenth-century schools about this problem and the related one of whether essence, being and existence are the same thing, and if not, how they are connected. Here God presents the central problem, for it seems that if he exists, essence and existence must be one in him. But a tempting array of subsidiary problems arose, about essence and existence in created things. Henri de Gand5 was drawn to the Averroist account and he tried to explore the connection between being, on the one hand, and goodness, truth, unity, on the other, as essential properties of things and therefore not in any sense 'added' to them. He argues that if being were some sort of superadded esse, it is hard to see what it would be (Substance? Matter? Form? Accident?). Giles of Rome took up the questions which arise here about 'substance', 'matter', 'bodies' and 'quantities'.

Broadly speaking three views were current at the end of the thirteenth century, and their range illustrates very well the complexity of the relationships which were understood to exist between the problem of determining what things are and the problem of saying what they are. Albert the Great had taken the position that existence is an aliquod a something, 'added to essence'. Siger of Brabant took a position at the opposite extreme, that ens and res, 'being' and 'thing', are words signifying the same essence (essentia). He is insistent that they are not merely synonymous. Nor do they signify two 'intentions', as when one says that a man is 'mortal' and 'capable of laughter'. They signify the same intention by different modus. Ens refers to the modus of act; res to the modus of habitus. So the difference in usage of the two terms is merely a matter of modus significandi, mode of signifying, and does not imply that something has to be 'added to essence' for a thing to be. A third school of thought regarded esse as indeed an addition to the essence of a thing, but in some manner which made it neither an accident nor of the actual essence.6

Both the Platonist and the Aristotelian legacy, then, created an atmosphere of heightened awareness about talk of the being or existence of God. That is to say, his existence could not be equated straightforwardly with his being; nor could the available Latin vocabulary for conducting the discussion pass without intimate scrutiny. One solution was to refuse to attempt to talk of God's existence or being at all, or to try to say anything at all about him in a positive way. That approach had a long Christian as well as philosophical history. The Cappadocians, and especially Gregory of Nyssa, had placed an emphasis upon the ultimate inaccessibility of God to human knowing, certainly to the researches of human reason. Ps.-Dionysius takes much the same line, but he goes further. He would argue that incomprehensibility is not a result of the limitation of the human mind only, but a quality of God himself. It follows that we can make no statement which is true of God unless we use negatives. This road leads to mysticism as well as to philosophical consequences, and we find them developing together in a number of Western mediaeval authors, who had some access to this tradition, especially through Eriugena. But it is again instructive to look at Anselm here. In the first chapter of his Proslogion he sketches a wholly Western view of the notion of divine inaccessibility. There is no evidence that Anselm knew Pseudo-Dionysian thought, either directly or through Eriugena. Anselm begins by inviting the reader to withdraw into the 'chamber' of his mind, shut out everything but God and close the door. As he prays to God to lead him to himself he is forced to exclaim that God is 'inaccessible', dwelling in 'inaccessible light' (I Timothy 6.16). There is no one who can lead him into that light, and he does not know what signs he should recognise as indicating the presence of God there; he does not know what God 'looks like'. The image of God in Anselm's own person is so damaged and destroyed by sin that it can no longer serve its purpose and show him what God is like. Anselm's resolution of the difficulty is to ask, not to know God as he is, for he knows that that is beyond his understanding, but to seek to know God's 'truth'. That is a truth he already believes and loves, and through his faith he trusts that he may come to some degree of understanding. The thrust of his prayer is not that he may be given an intellectual grasp of trust as a support for faith, but that through faith he may glimpse something of the truth about a God whom he can never wholly understand or know as he is.7 Anselm's debt to Augustine is plain enough here, and there are certainly traces of the influence of Platonism which came to him by that route. But he draws directly on the New Testament, too, and he demonstrates the way in which mediaeval scholars could sometimes come more or less independently to theological and

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES philosophical positions which resemble those of predecessors who had in fact not been directly accessible to them.

Anselm's peculiar doctrine of divine knowability is essential to his argument for the existence of God. The notion that nothing can be said of God but what he is not was not necessary to his case. It was, however, central for other mediaeval authors. Late in the twelfth century, Alan of Lille compiled his series of theological axioms, the Regulae Theologicae. He was certainly familiar with the Ps.-Dionysian tradition. Regula XVIII runs: 'Omnes affirmationes de Deo dicte incompacte, negationes vere.' In his commentary Alan explains that affirmative statements about God differ from affirmative statements about creatures in that when, for example, we say 'Peter is just' we are bringing together 'Peter' and 'justice', so that there is a compositio, and we can describe the statement as compacta. If we say 'God is just', we make no such link. God's Justice is very God, and the statement is 'incomposite' or incompacta. There is no such 'improper' or extraordinary usage or signification when we make a negative statement about God, Alan suggests, because then we are 'removing' from God what is not inherently of his being. He cites Ps.-Dionysius by name as his authority. Alan has adapted the principle that only negative statements can be strictly true of God to the requirements of twelfth-century signification theory, but the core of it is consciously drawn from his source.

With Aquinas we come to a more systematic and developed treatment of the complex of questions on which Anselm, Alan of Lille, Bonaventure and others variously touched. In his Summa Theologiae he places the discussion of divine knowability not with the questions about the existence of God and his being, but later, after considering God's simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, immutability, eternity and unity. Aquinas argues that it is possible for created intellects to see the essence of God (ST I.q.12.a.1), and to do so not by means of a likeness but as he is (a.2). But it is not possible for the created intellect to see God with the bodily eye (a.3) or by its natural powers (a.4). Nor is it possible for creatures to comprehend God (a.7), or to see all that he is, when they see his essence (a.8). Nor can they see his essence at all in this life (aa.11, 12). It seems to Aquinas that God can be named, so long as it is understood that we are naming him only so far as our intellectual powers can know him. That means that in some way or other we must be naming him after created things: as their origin, or by making a comparison which tries to express how much more excellent he is than they. No name which we can predicate of God can express his essence in itself (ST I.q.13.a.1). He also disagrees with the school of thought which says that only negative statements can be true of God. He cites arguments based on John of Damascus (De Fid. Orth. i.9) and Dionysius (Div. Nom. i.4), which support such a view, and dismisses them. He concedes that some negatives are properly affirmed of God, expressing the distance at which his creatures stand from him, or their relation to him. But he himself does not think that affirmative names of God, such as 'good' and 'wise', must properly be read negatively, as expressing some 'remoteness from God' rather than as referring positively to his substance. He mentions Alan of Lille's Regulae (21, 26), but only to disagree with him. It is his own opinion that such names signify the divine substance and are predicated substantially of God, although they do not express what he is fully (ST I.q.13.a.2).

Meister Eckhart, in the next generation, goes to the opposite extreme from Aquinas' vigorous practicality on the subject of talking positively about God, and takes the mystical experience of a higher awareness as fundamental to any knowledge of God. It was his endeavour to stand, as it were, in the mind of God, so that God-as-other ceases to be the object of the Christian's seeking, and the believer comes to know as God knows, and to be able to say 'My truest "I" is God.' He thought he had thus come to understand that God is not an essence at all, in any sense which human understanding might reach for, as it does when it seeks to know other essences. One can say no more than 'God is', and that is the same thing as to say 'God is not', for God is not this or that. We are led beyond earlier 'negative theology' to a position where we must say nothing is external to God, the awareness of the human knower stands within God, and negative statements about God are necessary only because in human language all affirmations are unavoidably particular and determinate. To affirm something is to exclude what is not affirmed. It is therefore impossible to speak affirmatively of God without implying some restriction or limitation. Only by negations can we gain insight into what God is. So, for example, we may say that he is infinite. That should be seen not as negating any connotation of limit or boundary, but as affirming the negation of limit or boundary, by negating the negative concept of limit or boundary.8

With Nicholas of Cusa we come to perhaps the most highly developed, if also the most eccentric, of mediaeval explorations of negative and mystical theology. Nicholas exploited the paradoxes inherent in any such view. For example, in the De Docta Ignorantia (I.6ff.) he proves the existence of God defined as Absolute Maximum.9 One of these must be true: the Absolute Maximum either is or is not; or else it is and is not; or else it neither is nor is not. If one of these must be absolutely true, there exists an Absolute Truth. That must by definition (Nicholas assumes) be identical with the Absolute Maximum. It must also be the case that, since the Absolute Maximum

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE AGES is all that can be, there can be nothing either greater or lesser than that Maximum. But the Minimum is that than which there cannot be a lesser. So we arrive at our paradox, that the Absolute Minimum is identical with the Absolute Maximum. It is also paradoxically true for Nicholas of Cusa that because God is above and prior to all opposing forces, it is in God that all opposites coincide.

The ultimately Neoplatonic traditions on the subject of the being of God, then, weave their threads throughout the mediaeval discussion of divine being, causing no insuperable difficulties to Christian theologians, but making necessary a good deal of stretching of conceptual and linguistic resources.

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