Theological rhetoric

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Anyone who has had the least acquaintance with the writings of Thomas Aquinas and of Meister Eckhart will be struck by how it is that the writings of these two Dominicans, educated as both were (albeit some forty years apart) in the same priory at Cologne, and possibly taught by the same Albert the Great, could differ so starkly in rhetorical 'feel'. It would be easy to put these differences down to a relatively superficial matter of style and imagery, dictated by differences of intellectual temperament, if it were not for the fact that those differences of style and imagery derive from a difference of another kind, more fundamental than the first, which indicates what would appear to be a difference of theological strategy of a wider significance, which is historical and more than merely personal. For what is distinctive in Eckhart exhibits an important development in late thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century theology, a marked shift towards a more conscious cultivation of a distinctive theological rhetoric.

17 Thomas distinguished between an actus hominis - an act performed by a human being but without human significance - and an actus humanus, which is an act performed by a human qua human; ST 1a q1 a1 corp. Human beings are no different from any other material object if, having jumped off a bridge, they fall to the ground. Only a human being, however, can commit suicide.

It is possible that this explicit cultivation of new rhetorical techniques at the service of theology is connected, in turn, with the emergence of vernacularity as a major theological medium; what is certain is that from the late thirteenth century onwards there emerges a volume of theological writings whose vernacularity enabled the emergence of that sort of new theological strategy of which Eckhart's Sermons are so strikingly representative.18

At any rate, the superficial differences between Thomas and Eckhart in style and imagery are obvious: Oliver Davies has pointed to the significance of rhetorical features of Eckhart's theology, features which are, of course, more prominent in the vernacular sermons - naturally enough, since they are sermons - but by no means absent from his more technical, Latin treatises. As Davies says, Eckhart's theology is a sort of 'poetic metaphysics', in which, as in all poetry, there is a certain 'foregrounding' of the language itself, of the signifier;19 and, one might add, this 'poet-icisation' of theological discourse goes along with a certain rhetorical 'performativeness', or, as one might say, a quasi-sacramental character. For it is a characteristic of Eckhart's language that it does not merely say something: it is intended to do something by means of saying, and, as we have seen, on the classical medieval account that is the nature of a sacrament: it is 'a sacred sign which effects what it signifies'.

When, therefore, we note the obvious, but otherwise incidental, fact of the extreme negativity of Eckhart's theological language - saturated as it is with images of 'nothingnesses' and 'abysses', by the featurelessness of 'deserts' and 'ground', and by 'nakedness' and 'emptiness' - we can begin to see that the rhetorical devices have a centrally theological point. Listen to Eckhart's homiletic rhetoric (it is essential to listen, even in modern English translation):

Then how should I love God? You should love God unspiritually, that is, your soul should be unspiritual and stripped of all spirituality, for so long as your soul has a spirit's form, it has images, and so long as it has images, it has a medium, and so long as it has a medium, it is not unity or simplicity. Therefore your soul

18 And not alone in Meister Eckhart. I am much obliged to several years of discussion with Dr Rebecca Stephens, who brought to my attention the theological significance of parallel rhetorical features in the Mirouer des ames Simples of Marguerite Porete, the 'sometime Beguine' burned at the stake for her theological pains in Paris in 1310. It may be that Eckhart knew this text, and there are those who claim a direct influence of the Mirouer on Eckhart's subsequent preaching, though Dr Stephens thinks the claims some have made for this influence to be exaggerated. In most of what is contained in this section I am much indebted to those many discussions I had with her, and to the PhD thesis which she completed at the University of Birmingham, Orthodoxy and Liminality in Marguerite Porete's Mirror of Simple Souls, 1999.

19 Oliver Davies, Meister Eckhart: Mystical Theologian, London: SPCK, 1991, p. 180.

must be unspiritual, free of all spirit, and must remain spiritless; for if you love God as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person and as he is image - all this must go! 'Then how should I love him?' You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is pure, unmixed, bright 'One', separated from all duality; and in that One we should eternally sink down, out of 'something' into 'nothing'.20

It is true that, looked at from a literary standpoint, the negativity of Eckhart's imagery is very striking. But it is also true that, looked at from the standpoint of the formal articulation of his negative theology, this negative imagery is 'incidental', and this is important, because so often it is that negativity of metaphor which is taken to be in itself indicative of Eckhart's apophaticism. It cannot be emphasised enough that, as I argued in chapter 3, negative imagery is, for all its negativity, still imagery; negative language is still language; and ifthe 'apophatic' is to be understood as that which surpasses all language, then, as the pseudo-Denys says, it lies beyond both 'affirmation' and 'denial': for eadem est scientia oppositorum, as Aristotle had said,21 what is sauce for the affirmative goose is sauce for the negative gander. Not incidentally, there are connected with this fundamental failure to understand medieval forms of apophaticism all sorts of nonsense, still unfortunately to be heard and read these days, about 'apophatic language', and worse, of an apophatic language which 'transcends Aristotelian logic': in so far as it is language which is in question, theology cannot transcend Aristotelian logic; in so far as the 'apophatic' is in question, it is not language, but the failure of language, to which we refer. Eckhart's explosive theological rhetoric is far from being, or even encouraging of, an irrationalism.

All this is clear to Meister Eckhart. And it is clear from this typical passage that the negativity of Eckhart's theology is not just something said by means of emphatically negative vocabularies, for it consists in his sense of the failure of all language as such, even of negative language. Nonetheless, Eckhart the preacher wants theological language in some way to participate, as one might put it, in the event of its own failure. Negativity, therefore, is not just a stylistic or decoratively metaphoric emphasis of Eckhart's theology; it is a living, organising, feature of the language itself and is intrinsic to its compositional style as theological writing. It is as if Eckhart were trying to get the paradoxical nature of his theology (it is at once a language, but, as Michael Sells has so aptly put it, 'a language

20 Sermon 83, Renovamini Spiritu, in Meister Eckhart, The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense, trans. and ed. Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, London: SPCK, 1981, p. 208.

21 Aristotle, De interpretatione 6, 17a 33-35; see also Aquinas, ST 1a q58 a4 ad2.

of unsaying'22) into the materiality of the language itself, so that it both directly says and as directly unsays in the one act of saying; he 'foregrounds' the signifier only immediately to disrupt its signification, block it, divert it, postpone it. Thereby the language performs rhetorically what it says technically: the performance utters what the utterance performs. And this rhetorical device, as it were of forcing into the sensuous, material sign the character of its own self-subversion as signifier, is what accounts for that most characteristic feature of Eckhart's language: its rhetorical self-consciousness, its strained and strenuous, hyperactively paradoxical extravagance - its apophasis by excess. The language, naturally, bursts at the seams under the pressure of the excessive forces it is being made to contain, the language as body bursts open under the pressure of its overloaded weight of significance.

The superficial stylistic contrast with the deliberate sobriety of Aquinas' theological discourse could not be more marked. If Thomas can understate the case, he will seize the opportunity to do so. If a thought can be got to speak for itself he will do as little as necessary to supplement it. Thomas is famous for his lucidity; as it were, the materiality of his theological signifiers disappears entirely into what is signified by them, and there is, in Thomas, an almost ruthless literary self-abnegation, a refusal of eloquence: the language is made to absent itself in any role other than that of signifying. Hence, for the most part, Thomas's theology aims for a language of pure transparency; it has the transparency of the language of physics, or of any strictly technical discourse, in which terms are as far as possible got to do no work of any kind except to mean the one thing that is stipulated by the language-game to which they belong. On a continuum occupied by the purely technical, stipulative lucidity of physics at one end, and the material densities of poetry at the other, Thomas's theological language is closer to the former, Eckhart's closer to the rhetorical densities of poetic diction.

And it would be easy to suppose that there is a more fundamentally theological reason for this difference on the score of theological rhetoric. Thomas's economy of speech accompanies, and probably derives from, a fundamental confidence in theological language, a trust that our ordinary ways of talking about creation are fundamentally in order as ways of talking about God, needing only to be subordinated to a governing apophaticism, expressed as a second-order epistemological principle: that all theological affirmation is both necessary and deficient. We must say of God anything true of what he has created, because that is all there

22 Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


is to hand with which to say anything about God, because there is no special 'hyperessential' meaning available to the theologian, and because we therefore know that whatever we say is in any case inadequate. Once we know that everything we say about God fails anyway, we can freely indulge the materiality of those metaphors, the carnality of that imagery, and calmly exploit all those possibilities of formal inference and logic, which appear so to unnerve the anxious Eckhart.

It is for this reason not difficult to see why there are those for whom Eckhart shares something spiritually with a post-modern mentality here not found in Thomas, a commonality which has led some post-modern writers to take an interest in his work, as we shall see. And there is indeed something to be said for the view that with both Eckhart and the postmodern the rhetoric appears fraught with anxiety, with a fear of the sign, a horror of the constative. Eckhart seems perpetually afflicted with a theological neurosis lest he get God idolatrously wrong, so he watches his theological language with a vigilance so anxious - violent even - as to arouse a suspicion: that he writes as if striving for that which he also knows to be impossible, as if there were some superior ideal theological syntax reserved for addressing God in correctly, to which his rhetoric strains, deficiently, to attain; or, as Derrida puts it, Eckhart's language strains for an impossible hyperessentiality - a 'hyperessentiality' which, for all its impossibility, nonetheless figures as a spurious measure of our apophatic failure. I once heard a theologian say that it was a mark of our philosophical sinfulness that we make the pattern of our existence to be the pattern of the divine - and he said it as if supposing that there were some, even notional, alternative state of affairs, some other, pre-lapsarian possibilities of language about God from which, through sin, we have fallen away. There is a dangerously Origenistic sound to this view, and in any case, it is to be wondered what this theologian could possibly have been imagining, which made him so worried about our fallen speech. What else could speech be but that which, before God, fails? That failure is down to language, not to sin; to our being human, not to our failure to be human. Thomas, knowing that you will never get God finally right anyway, seems less anxious, and that applies to anything you say: hence, an unstrained, technical, but demotic ordinariness of speech is all as right, one way or another, as it will ever be, for there is no other, higher, language by which its deficiency can be measured. Why this difference in theological temperament and style?

One reason appears to be that Eckhart, as I have said, wants to constrain all the paradoxical tensions of the theological project into each and every theological speech-act. It is the language itself which is the bearer of these contrary forces of saying and unsaying, of affirmativeness and negativity, and so his discourse must be got endlessly to destabilise itself. And Eckhart must in this way compel the material rhetorical dimension of his discourse into a constant interplay with its formal significance, he must bend and twist and stretch theological language, because he wants theology as language 'poetically' to do what it says, and so, as it were, to speak its own failure as speech. Eckhart does not simply preach the unknowability of God. He wants to transact that unknowing in the very discourse itself with the congregation to which he preaches. Eckhart wants his act of preaching to draw his listeners into the unknowing he preaches about, into a community in that unknowing.23

And on account of these things, undoubtedly true of Eckhart's distinctive theological style, I confess that I used to think that perhaps in the end Eckhart differs from Thomas on a point of very fundamental theological principle: that Eckhart cannot trust creatures to proclaim God and so mistrusts the ordinariness, the demotic character, of theological speech as Thomas conceives of it. In that linguistic ordinariness, from which there is no escape, no impossible and distorting alternative envisaged, we can, for Thomas, speak confidently of God, because that same theological act by which our carnal speech is shown to be justified as theology also shows that the God thus demonstrated lies, in unutterable otherness, beyond the reach of anything we can say. Hence, unlike Eckhart, there is for Thomas no need to try especially hard to say it. We have not, and could not have, and should not anxiously seek to have, any measure of the deficiency of our speech about God; we could not know and should not try to know how far all our language falls short of God. In fact one could well imagine Thomas's offering to Eckhart the advice the angel gave to Gerontius in Newman's Dream: 'it is thy very energy of thought which keeps thee from thy God'.24

There is something to be said for reading the rhetorical contrasts between Thomas and Eckhart as deriving from some such differences of theological temperament, though to deduce from these differences

23 Vittorio Montemaggi, research student in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, has pointed out to me that much the same can be said of that greatest of all theological poets, Dante. The Commedia, he says, not only speaks of the communities in which God may truly be known (and notoriously of the communities in which God is denied), but is itself a theological transaction with its readership, transacting through poetry an incorporation into that community. And that poetic transaction is central to Dante's conception of the theological act itself. As poetry, the Commedia is therefore itself quasi-sacramental in character: the poetic act and the theological act coincide as one and the same act. See Montemaggi's article '"La rosa in che il verbo divino carne se fece": Human Bodies and Truth in the Poetic Narrative of the Commediaforthcoming in Dante and the Human Body, Dublin: University College Dublin Foundation for Italian Studies, 2004.

24 Cardinal J. H. Newman, The Dream of Gerontius III, London: Mowbray, 1986, p. 21.

any picture of Eckhart's theology in the thoroughgoing anti-metaphysical, post-modern and anti-foundationalist terms that some have seems to lack serious justification. It is of course not difficult to see why, on such a reading, theologians of a post-modern mentality should be tempted in this way to enlist Meister Eckhart in support of a project of theological deconstruction, of an apparent displacement of rational argument by an apophatic rhetoric, and should experience no such temptation to enlist the support of Thomas Aquinas to that end. But such a reading does Eckhart no justice: Eckhart himself could have had little sympathy with the anti-metaphysical implications of such a post-modern reading. Indeed, Oliver Davies has argued persuasively that post-modern attempts to skim Eckhart's rhetorical 'apophaticism' off from the medieval cosmology and metaphysics on which it is for him firmly based inevitably result in a failed attempt to repeat, by means of an uprooted rhetoric alone, that which is possible only on a metaphysical ground. Thereby Eckhart's dialectical theology would suffer reduction to a mere rhetoric, to a rhetoric, one might say, as 'mere'. As Davies puts it: 'if we jettison the medieval cosmology which underlies Eckhart's system of participation, then we appear to want the fruits of a medieval world view without buying into the fourteenth century physics which supported it'.25 It is only on an unjustifiably selective account of Eckhart that it is possible to be misled about his purposes, as not only some of his contemporaries were, into suspecting a certain, paradoxical, 'hypostatisation' of the negative, a certain reduction of theology to a rhetoric of postponement, indeed into suspecting a sort of post-modern spirituality or 'mysticism'. But in fact Eckhart's rhetorical devices have a strictly theological purpose, and one which, after all, is not at odds with any purpose Thomas envisaged for theology, howsoever obvious may be the differences of rhetoric.

For after all, if with Eckhart as with Thomas, all theology must begin in, be mediated by, and end in the darkness of unknowing; and if, that being so, all creation in some way speaks God as irreducibly 'other' than it, why should not our language itself, being the natural expression of human rationality in its created materiality, speak God as unutterably other, not only in what we say in it, but also in the manner in which we say it, in its rhetorical forms themselves? That Thomas rarely exploits these rhetorical possibilities himselfis neither here nor there, for Eckhart's enthusiastic exploitation of them is perfectly consistent with Thomas's theology. Thomas says: all theological language fails. Eckhart's rhetoric

25 Oliver Davies, 'Revelation and the Politics of Culture', in Radical Orthodoxy? A Catholic

Enquiry, ed. Laurence Paul Hemming, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000, p. 121.

gets theological language itself to fail, so that its failure says the same. Thomas says: all talk about God breaks down. Eckhart gets the breakdown of language to say the same: the rhetoric says what he and Thomas both say in it. The material voice of the rhetoric speaks theologically at one with the formal significance which it utters.

There is therefore something almost frighteningly 'materialistic' about Eckhart's theology which, when looked at in this way, could with good reason be cause to revise some assumptions about Eckhart's dauntingly high-minded, and supposedly elitist, 'mysticism'. Eckhart's theology is in principle a demotic theology, and in his sermons it has taken on the character almost of a drama; at any rate, theology has become an act, for it enacts in its performance what it is about as word. For when Eckhart looks for God, he looks for him in what is most 'material', even 'animal', within our rational nature: in the materiality of the 'foregrounded signifier'. And if in this respect Eckhart's theology has, as Davies says, something of the character of the 'poetic', we can also say that it has something of the character of the sacramental: its enactment says what it signifies. It is as true, therefore, of Eckhart as it is of Thomas that he wants to find God in the created order; but he differs from Thomas in that he discovers and 'makes' the divine transcendence as much in our created language itself as in the creation that language describes. But then it is not in language's theologically expressive ability that he finds God, except in so far as that expressive ability is supremely exercised in its being pushed to the point of its failure, in the sustaining of quasi-poetic tensions between signifier and signified, each in turn subverting and transcending the other. In so far, then, as God is found in human language, within its characteristic rationality, God is found not, as Nietzsche thought, in the good order of 'grammar',26 but in the disordered collapse of speech into paradox, oxymoron, and the negation of the negation. And it is within this disordered and theologically contrived dislocation of language, a dislocation which must be endlessly repeated and renewed, that our created discourses open up towards a space which they can, as it were, gesture towards, but cannot occupy: through the cracks in the fissured surface of theological language there is glimpsed the 'space' ofthe transcendent. For Eckhart, therefore, reason, language, 'at the end of its tether' has the same shape as it has for Thomas, the form of an openness to an unknowable otherness. Thus does Eckhart's rhetoric say for itself that which cannot be said in it.

And as an account of how human reason - our animality - can in some sort speak God, this is also pure Thomas, just as, when Eckhart preached in Strasbourg that we 'should love God as he is nonGod', he said nothing that Thomas had not already written in his study in Paris when he tells us that 'by grace . . . we are made one [with God] as to something unknown to us'.

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  • bibiana
    What would meister eckhart think of natural theology?
    8 years ago

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