Can Analytic Philosophers Be Saved?

My tongue must be firmly placed in my check, for surely—surely!—there is one possible world in which analytic philosophers are in fact saved. Perhaps this world is that one. Perhaps.

The question wickedly crossed my mind while I perused a collection of essays entitled The Trinity: East/West Dialogue. The essays were originally delivered at a conference in Moscow. The Western participants were analytic philosophers; the Eastern participants, Orthodox theologians. My first thought: “The schism has never been greater!” My second: “Analytic philosophers just do not understand the trinitarian doctrine.” I can imagine the Orthodox auditors wondering to themselves as they listened to their Western colleagues: “What does anything of this have to do with God‽”

I grossly exaggerate. Of course analytic philosophers can be saved. There must be mention of this possibility somewhere in the Scriptures. And that reminds me of an old seminary joke:

A young couple were killed in an accident on the day before their wedding. When they arrived at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter asked if there was anything he could do to make being in heaven even more pleasant. So they explained about dying the day before their wedding and asked if it was possible to be married in heaven. “No problem,” said St Peter, “leave it with me.”

A hundred years or so later they met St Peter and asked about the wedding. “Everything is being arranged,” he assured them.

Another hundred years passed, and they met St Peter again. They reminded him about the wedding and said, “We know that in heaven, time is of no consequence, but we have been waiting over two hundred years.” St Peter replied, “I am sorry. All the arrangements were made the day after you arrived … We just can’t find a priest!”

As far as I can tell, analytic philosophers see the trinitarian doctrine as a conundrum to be solved through evermore precise philosophical analysis (see, e.g., Richard Cartwright’s paper “On the Logical Problem of the Trinity“); but this is just the opposite of how the early Church Fathers approached the doctrine. All one needs to do is to read St Gregory Nazianzen’s Five Theological Orations or St Basil of Caesarea’s Contra Eunomium. Both were well-trained in philosophical rhetoric. Certainly neither would have approved of sloppy argumentation on behalf of trinitarian orthodoxy. Yet both saw in the compulsive philosophical precision of Aetius and Eunomius a triumphant rationalism antithetical to piety and the authentic exposition of Christian doctrine (see “St Gregory Nazianzen as Confessional Theologian“). The God of the Scriptures transcends definition and categorization; his divine nature exceeds all human comprehension. “To tell of God is not possible,” declares the Theologian, “but to know him is even less possible” (Or. 28.4). And again:

Our starting point must be the fact that God cannot be named. Not only will deductive arguments prove it, but the wisest Hebrews of antiquity, so far as can be gathered, will too. The ancient Hebrews used special symbols to venerate the divine and did not allow anything inferior to God to be written with the same letters as the word “God,” on the ground that the divine should not be put on even this much of a level with things human. Would they ever have accepted the idea that the uniquely indisoluble nature could be expressed by evanescent speech? No man has yet breathed all the air; no mind has yet contained or language embraced God’s substance in its fullness. (Or. 30.17)

The Eastern Fathers begin their theological reflection from the apprehension of the divine ineffability. They were, in Dale Tuggy’s language, mysterians. The apophatic apprehension was later elaborated in Latin idiom by St Thomas Aquinas. Consider this remarkable passage from the Summa Contra Gentiles:

And yet the separate substance, through its own substance, knows of God that He is, that He is the cause of all things, that He is above all and far removed from all, not only from the things that are, but even from those that can be conceived by the created mind. This knowledge about God we also are able somewhat to obtain, because from His effects we know of God that He is, and that He is the cause of other things, surpassing all and remote from all. And this is the limit and the highest point of our knowledge in this life where, as Dionysius says, we are united to God as to something unknown. This happens when we know of Him what He is not, while what He is remains utterly unknown. Hence in order to indicate the ignorance of this most sublime knowledge, it was said to Moses (Exod. xx. 21) that he went to the dark cloud wherein God was. (CG 3.49)

“We are united to God as to something unknown.” How then can we subject the Creator to our philosophical categories and logically formulate the mystery of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Must not all our words break down before the incomprehensible transcendence who has grasped our hearts and minds?

When I read discussions of the trinitarian doctrine by analytic philosophers, I immediately note the confidence with which they write—confidence in their methods, confidence in their logic, confidence in their conceptualizations. But they neither begin nor end with mystery. They are consumed with dialectics and problem-solving. One would never guess that the doctrine of the Trinity is driven by the spiritual and liturgical experience of the Church catholic. Or to put it somewhat differently: the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to verbalize who God must be if the baptized have indeed been brought into deifying communion with the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Above all, the doctrine is soteriology.

Over at his blog Cognitive Resonance, Ben Nasmith shares with us the heresy of clarity, as explained to him by one of his professors: “As soon as you clarify what you precisely mean about the Incarnation or Trinity, you will speak heresy! The key to remaining orthodox is to remain silent.” The statement elicits a chuckle, yet I think many of the Church Fathers might have agreed. They dared to write on the Trinity only with fear and trembling, fully aware of their inability to bring to accurate speech the holy mystery. In his great treatise on the Trinity, St Hilary of Poitiers states that the false teachings of the Arians compelled him to speak, when he would have preferred to remain silent:

But the errors of heretics and blasphemers force us to deal with unlawful matters, to scale perilous heights, to speak unutterable words, to trespass on forbidden ground. Faith ought in silence to fulfil the commandments, worshipping the Father, reverencing with Him the Son, abounding in the Holy Ghost, but we must strain the poor resources of our language to express thoughts too great for words. The error of others compels us to err in daring to embody in human terms truths which ought to be hidden in the silent veneration of the heart. (Trin. 2.2)

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not an intellectual conundrum that we can solve, if only we would bring to bear upon it our most sophisticated philosophical analysis, nor is the doctrine in any way discredited by the acknowledgement that the Triune God eludes our attempts to comprehend the divine reality revealed in the Scriptures. We can identify the boundaries asserted by the trinitarian dogma, beyond which there is heresy. We can state the grammatical rules that govern churchly discourse on God. But ultimately all we can rightly do—and surely this is more than sufficient—is glorify the Mystery who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I know that a couple of analytic philosophers read Eclectic Orthodoxy. Some of my best friends are analytic philosophers.  I do not mean to offend, and I certainly do not want you to stop reading my blog or to stop arguing with me.  I actually do believe that you, along with your neo-scholastic brothers, contribute a real service to the theology of the Church.  You challenge all of us to think more rigorously and clearly.

But please stay deep in Scripture, liturgy, and the theological tradition of the Church. Remember the story of St Augustine and the seashell. Think upon the words of St John Chrysostom: “What, then, do you think? Do you think that the angels in heaven talk over and ask each other questions about the divine essence? By no means! What are the angels doing? They give glory to God, they adore him, they chant without ceasing their triumphal and mystical hymns with a deep feeling of religious awe” (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 1.35). Would that we could all follow the example of the heavenly hosts. Of course, that would probably mean I would have to shut down my blog. Hmmm.

Will analytic philosophers get into heaven before priests and ministers? Indubitably! 😀

(Go to “Can Analytic Philosophers Fix the Doctrine of the Trinity?“)

This entry was posted in Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Can Analytic Philosophers Be Saved?

  1. cumlazaro says:


    I suppose there are a number of different aspects here. One is that contrast that is sometimes made between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity precisely on the willingness of the latter to try to articulate mysteries (and thus a suspicion of Scholasticism among some Orthodox). Another is the strong tradition of empiricism which is behind Anglo-American philosophy and which perhaps makes it unsuited to theology. (And you can probably add into that reflections on the agonistic nature of the modern Western academy and of Anglo-American philosophy in particular.)

    Aquinas is a good model here. He is willing to use philosophical concepts and techniques to grapple with revelation, but remains aware of and docile to that revelation. There has to be some balance here: simple fideism is as dangerous as an overconfidence in reason. And the absence of the sort of critical reason you find specifically in analytic philosophy leads to the bloated verbiage of some post-modern theology.


    • I agree. I think coherentism is better than foundationalism, however, one must not get too cocky when trying to rationalize out every single detail especially those in which the categorical rule just simply doesn’t fit.


  2. “Above all, the doctrine is soteriology.”
    It was only through the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic doctrines of soteriology involving theosis (divinization to entrance into oneness with God) that I was able to finally come out of my own Arian heresy that I held to.

    Of course, to Archbishop Chrysostom I reply – “Well of course the angels do this! They have God explaining to them this very mystery and can think more clearly on this issue than mere mortal humans can!”

    At ASU, the philosophy they teach us predominantly continental philosophy. I’ve only taken two courses relevant to philosophy right now with only one counting as a philosophy credit but it is so much more fun to explore continental philosophy than analytic philosophy. Taking a course on existentialism next semester (Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Tillich, Heidegger, etc.). I’m surprised Tolstoy isn’t in our required textbook though. He was in my philosophy of religion textbook.


  3. Ben Nasmith says:

    No offence taken! Analytic theology certainly does have dangers–the primary one being never getting out of “discussion mode” into “obedience mode”, as Christian analytic philosopher Paul Moser would say. Succumbing to pride is another threat. But eschewing analytic thinking has dangers of its own: potential for hypocrisy, refusal to pursue the truth of the matter, Orwellian appeal to mystery (2+2=5, or was it 1+1+1=1?), and potential belief in necessary falsehoods. Indeed, Jesus regularly challenged his opponents by drawing out the implications of their views and highlighting inconsistencies. Perhaps being unteachable (as a mysterian or an analytic thinker) is more dangerous than being incorrect.
    Have you heard of Paul Moser? His “Christ-shaped philosophy” project is important for this discussion – The main lecture outlining it is here –


  4. Kevin Allen says:

    Dear Fr Aiden,

    I have just come across your blog and find that it covers very interesting ground – if at times somewhat ‘over my head’ content!!

    But my main reason for writing – and this is not for public posting – is to tell you how terribly and truly sorry I am reading of your dear son Aaron’s death in 2012. I read your beautiful eulogy and was very moved. I have a precious eight year old granddaughter – the apple of my eye, so to speak – and she has been diagnosed with Bipolar disease, which runs in my son-in-law’s family. She is receiving care and is on meds but it is still a factor in her life, one she does not want and did not choose.So I know how this feels and want you to know my heart aches for you and your family, especially at this time of the year.

    I pray that God would be with you all and help all of us to make sense of all this – or if not, to offer it all to God as we are able. May Aaron’s memory be eternal.


    Kevin Allen


  5. So…to put it bluntly we should as many theologians poets, and philosophers have said shut up! and listen. I guess that’s why St. Francis and not St. Thomas is my confirmation patron. Sigh.


  6. Reblogged this on CatholicPhilosophyBlog and commented:
    There is some truth in what Fr. Kimel writes here. To take one paragraph, “When I read discussions of the trinitarian doctrine by analytic philosophers, I immediately note the confidence with which they write—confidence in their methods, confidence in their logic, confidence in their conceptualizations. But they neither begin nor end with mystery. They are consumed with dialectics and problem-solving. One would never guess that the doctrine of the Trinity is driven by the spiritual and liturgical experience of the Church catholic. Or to put it somewhat differently: the doctrine of the Trinity attempts to verbalize who God must be if the baptized have indeed brought into eternal and deifying communion with the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
    As a Catholic philosopher I believe that there must be a balance between reason and mystery. Have analytic philosophers gone to far in the direction of reason? Perhaps we have something to learn from our Orthodox friends.


  7. tgbelt says:

    A great post, Fr. It spoke to me. Blessings!


  8. jdjacobs says:

    There is, of course, another side of the coin. The Fathers were very clear, and very particular, in their choice of language to describe the Trinity. And they required, on pain of anathema, that you believe the truth of the doctrines so defined. Many died for their defense of the creeds. (You may not say that the Father and the Son are homoiousious; you must say homoousious.) If we take the ineffability of God to one extreme, we are left deeply puzzled by why the church cared so deeply about these matters. (For what little it’s worth, I try to make some sense of this puzzle in a paper available here:


  9. Pingback: Is Heavy Metal Dead? | The True Metal Blog

Comments are closed.