Kenotic reason

But if such theisms and their counterpart negations in atheism seem equally to fail of intellectual radicalness, this will be so at least for the reason that their failure as answers can be traced back to the questions to which they purport to be the answers. For a 'scientific' answer which purports to displace the possibility of a genuinely theological question is bound to be as inappropriate as will be a spuriously theological answer to what is a genuinely scientific question. Fundamentalism of either sort, whether theistic or atheistic, will equally, and for the same reason, fail of radicalness, because neither can acknowledge the sort of question to which 'God exists' is the answer; and here we return to the argument of chapter six and to the case for saying that what is definitive of reason -as identifying the 'central' case of it - is its insistence upon a certain kind of question. I use the word 'insistence' here in a literal sense: there are questions which insist themselves upon the rational mind with the inevitability of the 'natural', so that if, without good grounds in logic, the legitimacy of such questions is denied, or the questions are arbitrarily side-stepped, something of our human nature is denied or evaded. And it is questions of that sort which determine the form, the 'argument-strategy', of rational proof of God.

At this point, then, it becomes clear that the failure of radicalness which unites the 'parasitical' atheist and the counterpart Christian believer in a common bond of intellectual complacency consists in a failure of nerve in respect of reason - a failure to concede to reason either its rootedness in our animal nature or its power of self-transcendence, or both. And it will also be clear by now that at the heart of my argument in this book is a proposition about the nature of reason which I have extracted from the thought of Thomas Aquinas. And that proposition is that we are animals who know God and that reason is how animals know God. To recap: I argued that for Thomas humans are 'essentially animals', and that our animality is essentially rational. We are not animals plus rationality. Rationality is the form of our animality, we are the sort of animals whose bodies are the bearers of significance. Bodiliness is the stuff of our intellectual being, as intellect is the form of our bodily stuff, and the conjunction is our 'rationality'. And so, as our rationality from one side is rooted in our bodily animality, so, on the other, reason has in its nature the capacity to surpass itself, for, as I have put it, reason exhausts itself as reason in its fulfilment as intellect. And I said further that reason thus 'abolishes itself in its self-realisation' in its entertaining a certain kind of question, for reason reaches its limit not in some final question-stopping answer but rather in a final answer-stopping question.

Proof comes into it on the one hand as the characteristically and centrally rational activity of demonstrating the necessity of that question, and on the other as the demonstration of the impossibility of taking full rational possession of what must count as its answer. For the answer could not have the form of a knowable 'something'. And so I said that on this account of it, reason is 'kenotic', for as it were from 'below' it completes itself in its self-emptying, apophatic, depletion in that which is 'above' it. We humans are rational precisely in so far as our animality thus opens up to that which unutterably exceeds its grasp - as it does in poetry and music in one way, but in our rationality narrowly conceived in the way of 'naming' that to which it opens up. For naming too is what animals do, but what they thus name is a mystery always beyond the power of the naming to capture. Reason ends where the mystery of creation begins; and they meet in the radicalness of the limit question it perforce must entertain.

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