Reason the central case

If music may be said to be 'definitively rational' in the sense of being a 'limit' case, defining a boundary, there is another sense of the word

14 See chapter 10, pp. 216-25 below.

'definitive' in which the 'definitive' is that which constitutes the central case; and in that latter sense I should say - and it is one of the principal purposes of this essay to defend the proposition - that the 'central' case of human reason is that which is exhibited in a formally valid proof of the existence of God. But to be clear in what sense this 'transcendent ratiocination' (as I should call it) is 'central' to human reason, it is necessary to be clear in what sense of the word 'central' this is being argued.

I have said that for Thomas Aquinas, to be rational is a way of being animal; there are, for him, no non-animal rational beings. Moreover, everything a human being does as an animal - feed, feel pain, have sex -a human being does as a rational kind of animal does it. And conversely, even though only rational animals can engage in 'thinking' properly speaking, and so in arguing and proving and inferring - in short, in 'ratiocinating' - still, rational beings could not do these things unless they were animals.

Further, we have seen that if, in that sense, human beings are, for Thomas, rational animals, they are also, in a certain sense, incarnate intellects: by which Thomas appears to mean at least two things, the first of which is that the characteristically 'discursive' nature of rational beings is the product of the dependence of human intellect on the five senses of the body; 'reason' just is intellect in the form it takes of that dependence. The second is that, definitive of rationality as that discursiveness is, such rationality would not be possible at all unless human beings were also capable of some activities which are purely 'intellectual', that is to say, unless human beings were capable of some cognitive activities which are not themselves the product of discursive rationality, but are, rather, presupposed to it. Such, then, is Thomas's concession to 'Augustinianism'.

If we combine these two propositions, first, that human beings could not be rational in the way that they are if they were not the sort of animals that they are, and second, that they could not be rational in the way that they are if they were not also intellectual, then we can conclude, for Thomas's part, with two consequences which follow from the conjunction. The first is that no human intellectual capacity is ever exercised except as the activity of an animal. The second consequence is that every activity in which a human being engages as an animal, being, as all such activities of humans are, activities of rational animals, in some way presupposes and engages with what I have described as the 'territory of intellect'. Now to say that transcendent ratiocination, proof of the existence of God, is a, or the, 'centrally' rational activity within this diversity and complexity of interrelationship between 'animality', 'rationality' and 'intellectuality', and that it is in that sense 'definitive' of the rational, is to say one thing very precisely, and is not to say a great number of other, imprecise, things at all.

In particular, it is to say nothing at all about where matters of logic and proof fall, by comparison with sex or music or poetry, on a scale of humanly affecting activities; nor is it absurdly to canvass any sort of role for a rational proof as an apologetic device likely to entice teenagers away from their clubbing and back to benediction and the holy rosary; still less is it to offer a reductivist account of every human activity as being 'rational' only in so far as it is reducible to some phenomenon of 'reasoning' (on which account, manifestly, music could not possibly be described as 'rational', as I have insisted it should: for manifestly, music does not involve anything reducible to 'ratiocination'; nor does poetry, or art, or making love). Nor yet does this centrality of rational proof entail that every exercise of 'reason' in any other form requires knowledge of reason's capacity to prove the existence of God. Indeed, it is manifestly possible to compose the most sublime poetry or music in the explicit denial of God's existence, and all the more possible in denial of the rational demonstrability of God's existence. Hence, the relationship of the 'peripheral' to the 'central' case of rationality is not that of the less to the more humanly appealing; nor that of the less to the more theologically persuasive; not at all that of the reducibility of the one to the other, and not even that the 'central' case be formally admitted as a possibility at all.

What does constitute the centrality of the demonstrability of the existence of God is simply that such demonstrability forms the point of convergence of an 'apophatic self-transcendence' which quite generally characterises every other form of rational activity in its widest sense. For it is true that every exercise of human reason in some way bears witness to a 'space' lying beyond its own powers to access and that every exercise of human reason is at least to that extent 'self-transcendent', that each may know in its own way that the conditions on which its own distinctive, particular, activities depend lie beyond its own scope. It is an everyday truth that music and poetry open up spaces beyond the power of music and poetry to gain entry; indeed, we can say of music that it 'carnalises' the inexpressible, it is the flesh made apophatic; but to the extent that such forms of human expression approximate to the condition of music as the limit case at one extreme, that space 'beyond' to which they point becomes increasingly indeterminate. For precisely because, as a form of human communication, music is most distanced from the formally linguistic, it is also the least determinate in the character of the 'otherness' it points to, or, as we might put it, is most free in its evocation of the transcendent. Nonetheless, the indeterminacy of human expression in regard to the otherness to which reason points is thus far quite general; for even verbal language as such cannot state all the conditions of its own possibility and so must, as Wittgenstein says, stay silent concerning that of which it cannot speak.15 That being so, it follows that even if all human rationality, in whatever shape or form, knows there is something that it cannot know, those 'spaces' are thus far absolutely indeterminate as to their nature: there is nothing at all to guarantee that that which lies 'beyond' is anything but a vacuous, empty nothingness, an endless prolongation of postponements, as the post-modernists say. Hence, there are no guarantees in the nature of poetry, or music, or art, that the conditions of the possibility of any rational human activity are met at all -unless reason has some power to give a name to that 'otherness' which lies beyond it, a power, moreover, which it derives from its own relationship to its own created condition. In short, all that power of human creativity and expression to point beyond itself - which is the essential characteristic of'rationality' - can be supposed to point beyond a nihilistic vacuousness, only if reason can justify the name of 'God' as that to which it points. In that sense alone does reason find its apotheosis in proof of God.

And here we close the loop upon a matter first addressed at the beginning of this essay, that of the relationship between a 'natural theology' and a 'negative theology'. If it is certainly wrong - in terms at least of the reading of Thomas - to set them in that opposition according to which a natural theology tells us about God those things - his existence and his nature - which a negative theology forbids us, nonetheless any account is equally flawed according to which a proof of God's existence leaves us with nothing at all but an unoccupied space of 'negativity' on the other side of creation. It is because they feared some such apophatically inspired absolutisation of the negative which would have to be indistinguishable from a nihilistic atheism (since it would allow no room for any criterion on which to distinguish them) that Milbank and Pickstock thought it necessary to attribute to Thomas some mode of experience, presupposed to reason's exercise, of the 'actuality' of perfection. But there is no need to appeal on Thomas's behalf to any such experience in order to insure against a purely nihilistic account of the unknowability of the rationally transcendent, or of the aesthetically sublime, as the case may be: and it is better not to do so, since, as I have said, there is absolutely no evidence that Thomas thought the human intellect was ever in possession of such

15 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 7, trans. C. K. Ogden, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, p. 189.

an experience. For Thomas appeared to think that there are only two ways in which God can be known this side of death: either by reason's graft, or else by faith's gift. For Thomas there is no experience of God of any kind in this life.

Nor may a nihilistic account of the sublime be resisted on grounds of some such 'experientialist' appeal. For if I may here anticipate more of my subsequent argument than can as yet be presumed, just because a causal proof of the existence of God ends in an unknowable 'otherness', it is not the case that it leaves us with a merely empty space, for we know that whatever answers to reason's questioning must have the 'shape' of the question it answers to: and the question is a causal question. As we shall see, the reason we cannot know what God is is that we could not know how to describe that which accounts for there being anything rather than nothing otherwise than as a 'cause'; and we could not know what sort of cause it could possibly be which brings it about that there is anything created at all about which to ask that question. The 'shape' of this space is that of the unknowably causal, not the less unknowable for being described as 'causal', nor the less causal for being described as 'unknowable'.

But that 'shape', if causal, can also be said to be 'sacramental', in form. For if in its broadest sense music offers us a limit case of reason's shape as 'proto-sacramental', then that too is the shape which must be possessed by that very particular exercise of reason which consists in ratiocination, in inference, in argument and in proof. Reason is always bound to end up with God, so why not ratiocination too? For reason in that sense of 'reasoning' gives names to things; it names all that which music, through its very indeterminacy, its refusal of any 'constative' character, does not and cannot name, because 'naming' is precisely what music refuses to do. But if reason, in this form as reasoning, names - it has to, because that is just what it does - it does so also in the shadow of music's inarticulateness and indeterminacy, for if reason ever dares name the name 'God', it may do so only as that which utterly defeats its powers. Naming God is reason's supreme achievement, but only in so far as in doing so it knows that what it so names escapes from under the naming, dodging all the arrows of naming that reason can fire at it. And that, as Thomas says, is quod omnes dicunt Deum, naming stretched out to the end of its tether until its tether snaps. In God reason reaches the point of collapse, because over-weighted with significance.

As I have so often repeated, I have no intention of exegeting, still less of defending in point of formal validity, those famous and much derided 'five ways' of Thomas Aquinas - nor, incidentally, does the first Vatican Council hold any brief for them. But since we are at this point attending to the 'shape' of the reason deployed in such proofs, to what I have called the 'argument-strategy' by which they work, then we can at this point note that reason in this narrower sense of 'ratiocination' has, as music has, the shape of the sacramental, the form of the body's transparency to the mystery we call 'God'. When, in Prima Pars question 2 article 3 of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas tells us that we can, by these five ploys of inference, prove the existence of God, we have seen that he notes immediately afterwards that what proves God to exist also proves that in that case we have finally lost our grip on the meaning of 'exist', so that in proving God to exist we push reason beyond exhaustion. And so it is that by means of rational inference we do in a merely speculative way that of which the Eucharist draws us into the very life. Reason gets you to where unnameable mystery begins, but stands on this side of it, gesturing towards what it cannot know, and there it is 'kenotically' self-emptied, as we might say, stunned into silence at the shock of its final defeat - this reduction of talk to silence being what is otherwise called 'theology'. But by the Eucharist we are drawn into that same mystery as into our very carnal life, so that we live by the mystery, we eat it; though the mystery is no more knowable, as Thomas says, for being eaten than it is for being thought. For he tells us that we do not resolve the mystery by faith as if it were some conundrum of reason to which faith held the key, and that we do not know what God is even by the revelation of grace: by grace, he says, we are indeed truly made one with God, but as to him who is unknown to us, quasi ei ignoto.16

Therefore, to close the argument of this first part of my essay, we may say that this reason, in that sense and in that capacity which is exercised in its asking those questions which it knows to be unanswerable, is reason in the 'central' case, for the theological significance of all other forms of rational access to the transcendent is guaranteed by that supreme exercise of reason which, as we shall see, is its pursuit of questions to the point of exhaustion. For when reason has been pressed to the point at which its questions become demonstrably unanswerable, it does not thereby demonstrate a space which could not be occupied, some 'otherness' lacking every character and description except that of 'otherness'; but rather one which is demonstrably occupied by that which we could not comprehend, the Creator of all things, visible and invisible, and so their Lord; and being the origin of all things 'out of nothing', necessarily containing all the perfections of all the things created, and for that reason too, unknowable to us, because too comprehensively intelligible; but if unknowable because possessing every perfection, then also, and for that

16 ST 1aq12a13ad1.

same reason, nameable by every name; and so to be praised by every form of creaturely praise.

Such, in a preliminary way, summarising ahead, as it were, of what follows, is the 'God of reason'; such is the 'reason' which knows God, the God who can be proved: in proving which, reason proves but the existence of a mystery, the mystery of creation. And in proving that, reason discovers itself to have been created by the mystery it shows to exist. Et hoc omnes dicunt Deum.

Part II

Univocity, 'difference' and 'onto-theology'

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