Thomas Aquinas, Eleonore Stump, and the Maverick Philosopher: Is God “a” being among beings?

Is God a being among beings? It seems like the kind of question that only a fussy scholastic might worry about. Christians typically speak of God as if he were a being. We tell stories about him. We proclaim his mighty works. We refer to him by personal pronouns. He is the One to whom we direct our prayers and praises. Even as metaphysical a theologian as St Thomas Aquinas refers to him as ens and id quod est, a concrete entity and particular. Yet for Thomas this usage immediately needs to be qualified: God is ens perfectissimum, the perfect Being; ens summum and ens maxime, the supreme Being. Yet an even more drastic qualification remains necessary: Deus sit ipsum esse subsistens, “God is existence itself, of itself subsistent” (ST I.4.2). Unlike all other beings, God does not partici­pate in being; he does not receive being; he is Being, or perhaps more accurately, he is the sheer act of being–eternal and self-existent, the infinite source and uncreated ground of finite reality. Whereas the entities we encounter within the universe are marked by composition of existence and essence (by their natures they need not exist), God is metaphysically simple: his existence is his essence; his essence, his existence. God therefore exists necessarily. Timothy McDermott puts it this way:

God exists as the doing of all being, the existence that acts in all existence, an existence in the world’s existing but not of it, no thing, but not therefore nothing. … God exists (as is proved by the existence of his effects) but he does not share existence in the way everything else does, he is not a member of the genus thing—he is no thing, though not nothing. He is his own existence: not even the existence that other things share, but the doing of that existence. (Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation, pp. xxxii-xxxiii)

In light of Thomas’s analysis, particularly in response to biblicist and analytic presentations of divinity, many modern Thomists have emphasized the radical difference of the divine Creator. God does not belong to a genus, not even the genus of being. He is neither a thing nor kind of thing; nor is he an instantiation of a nature. In the words of Etienne Gilson: “He is absolutely” (Christian Philosophy, p. 110). God thus transcends every philosophical category and surpasses all our schemes of classification. Even the identification of God as Being may be misleading, as it suggests a nominalization of divinity. Better to think of God as a verb. “To be God is to be ‘to be’ (esse),” remarks Brian Davies (Aquinas, p. 73). (Don’t worry if you can’t get your mind around this formulation–that is the point.) Because of their mutual incommen­surability, E. L. Mascall argues we must not think of Creator and creatures as existing on the same metaphysical plane and therefore as addible entities:

The real difficulty for philosophy is not to explain the existence of God but to explain the existence of anything else. Whatever may be their respective nature, it might be urged, surely God plus the world is something more than God. Creation has increased the sum-total of existence. Hence God without the world must be something less than the fullness of being.

It must be replied to this objection that the statement, “God plus the world is more than God,” is not true of a God who is the unique self-existent and infinite Being, in the sense in which we have attributed those terms to him. Of any merely finite God, however great he might be, the objection would hold. The sum of any two finite beings is always greater than either of them taken separately. But if God is literally infinite this simply does not hold. God and the world being of radically different orders of reality cannot be added together.

To add beings together we must add them in respect of their common qualities. Two cows plus five cows make seven cows, for they are all cows. Even two cows and five horses can be added together in a certain way, for, although they are neither all cows nor all horses, they are all graminivorous quadrupeds; and the answer is seven graminivorous quadrupeds. We might even, passing to an extreme case, add together the four lions at the base of Nelson’s Column, the Thirty-nine Articles and the four cardinal virtues, and say that as a result we have forty-seven beings conceivable by the human mind, though the statement would be of no practical importance owing to the excessively small common content. But when it is a question of adding finite beings to God, the sum simply cannot be made. As Gilson says, God and the world “are, in all rigour, incommen­surable, and that is also why they are compossible.” In Thomist terminology God is not in any genus and any argument that treats him as if he were is illicit at the start. (He Who Is, pp. 102-103)

Some scholars, however, have begun to push back against the apophatic interpretation of Aquinas, notably, Eleonore Stump. After quoting some of its well-known proponents, she writes: “But if God is not a being at all, not any kind of concrete particular, it is hard to see how a human person could have a personal relationship to God and engage in conversation with him, as Jonah does in the story” (The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, p. 31). All Christian believers must share her concern. Prayer, intercession, and obedience are integral to the life of the Church. If a proposed philosophical construal of divinity undermines these practices, then it must be ruled out of court. “God is charac­terized by one mind and one will,” Stump elaborates. “Anything with a mind and a will, however, is an entity, an id quod est” (p. 32). If God is only esse, then he is not a person and therefore is not the One whom Christians serve and love. “Nothing that is not even an entity could enter into any kind of personal relationship with human persons. In fact, it seems that no standard divine attributes such as being omniscient or being possessed of free will, for example, could apply to something that is not a being. Or, to put the same point another way, it is very hard to see how something which is not a being but which is characterized only as being itself could be capable of knowing or loving anything” (p. 32). But in fact, Stump tells us, Aquinas professes God as both Being and concrete particular. She goes on to suggest that we are presented here with a paradox analogous to the quantum paradox regarding light. Is light a particle or a wave? Yes, the physicist cryptically answers. Stump concludes:

For Aquinas, then, on the doctrine of simplicity, being (esse) and a being (an id quod est) are somehow the same in God. And for this reason, contrary to what some scholars have maintained about Aquinas’s view, for Aquinas God is not just being, but rather being which somehow also subsists as a being or an id quod est. … That is, it is acceptable to say that God is being, provided that we understand that this claim does not rule out the claim that God is an entity, a concrete particular, an individual, an id quod est. (pp. 86-87; also see “Athens and Jerusalem”)

We cannot explain how God can be both esse and ens, but we must affirm both. If we deny the latter, states Stump, then we effectively reduce God to the status of an abstract universal; and an abstract universal neither speaks nor acts nor commands nor saves.

Stump, however, has not yet persuaded me. It remains unclear why the description of God as ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent act of existing) entails the problems and consequences she mentions. As early as the 2nd century Christian theologians began to speak of the divinity in philosophical terms and affirmed that the divine essence is incomprehensible. In the fourth century St Gregory the Theologian identified the God of faith with the plenitude of metaphysical being: “For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature” (Or. 38.7). Yet Gregory did not see this affirmation as contradicting the witness of the Holy Scriptures or requiring changes in apostolic proclamation and praxis. And the same may be said of multiple theologians after Gregory, both in the Eastern and Latin traditions. The Dionysian strand in the Byzantine tradition is even willing to speak of God as beyond being. Thus this striking statement by St Maximus the Confessor:

Everything that derives its existence from participation in some other reality, presupposes the ontological priority of that other reality. Thus it is clear that the divine Cause of created beings–is incomparably superior to all such beings in every way, since by nature its existence is prior to theirs and they presuppose its ontological priority. It does not exist as a being with accidents, because if that were the case the divine would be composite, its own existence receiving completion from the existence of created beings. On the contrary, it exists as the beyond-beingness of being. For if artists in their art conceive the shapes of those things which they produce, and if universal nature conceives the forms of the things within it, how much more does God Himself bring into existence out of nothing the very being of all created things, since He is beyond being and even infinitely transcends the attribution of beyond-beingness. For it is He who has yoked the sciences to the arts so that shapes might be devised; it is He who has given to nature the energy which produces its forms, and who has established the very is-ness of beings by virtue of which they exist.” (Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice 1.6; in Philokalia, II:165)

In characterizing God as beyond being, Maximus is neither depersonalizing deity nor limiting the Church to abstract discourse about divinity. And I’m confident the same is true of Thomas with his identification of God as ipsum esse subsistens. Both theologians would have found Stump’s worries misplaced, perhaps because both had been formed by the thought of St Dionysius the Areopagite. Just a thought.

The question I wish to ask Dr Stump is this: When we call God a being, are we speaking literally or figuratively; and if literally, univocally or analogically? Stump apparently believes that if we do not construe God as an entity (ens), then we are restricted to speaking of him as a universal, like redness or goodness. But why must that follow? Once the analogical interval between Creator and creature is granted, the gamut of linguistic usage is opened to us. Here is my concern: finite entities are distinguished from each other as beings in multiple ways. The computer screen I am looking at right now is a being, distinct from all the other beings sitting on my desk. I can even count them. If I were God, I could even count all their subatomic particles. Surely, however, the infinite and transcendent Creator is not distinguishable from finite beings in the ways a finite being is distinguished from other finite beings. Yet when I insert that little indefinite article and declare “God is a being,” I appear to be locating him alongside the beings that make up our universe-—and this seems odd, especially given that I can neither sensibly apprehend God nor provide a definition of his nature. But the oddity disappears once this way of speaking is recognized as either analogical or metaphorical. I have not yet decided between the two options, but at the moment I lean toward analogy, given Thomas’s identification of esse and id quo est within the divine simplicity: “In simple things, in reality (realiter) esse itself and id quod est must be one and the same” (In De hebd. II.33; quoted by Stump, p. 86). So what might Thomas have meant when he referred to God as a particular entity? Gaven Kerr proposes the following:

Now an id quod est, an ens, is a concrete individual; and most entia that we come across are such because they are composed of metaphysical parts (like matter and form, nature and supposit) making them so. But what permits their being referred to as entia, as so many entities, is the fact that they are concrete individuals, capable of being signified particularly. Esse divinum is a concrete individual, not because it is composed of any metaphysical parts, but, owing to its utter lack of composition, because it is one, unique, and incommunicable, such that there is nothing at all that is like it. Its unicity then resides in the fact that everything else is unlike it. As such it can be signified in the concrete and thus particularly as a subsistent individual, and so it can be referred to as an ens. But its ens-hood is not like that of the other things that we take to be entia (e.g., composites of matter and form); rather, it is an ens given its special status as esse divinum. It is precisely because it is esse divinum and nothing else is like it that it is a unique, subsistent individual. Simply because the ens-hood of esse divinum is unlike that of all other entia with which we are familiar does not entail that it is incompatible with being an ens; it only entails that esse divinum, God, is unlike any other ens that exists. …

Thus, it is precisely because God is one, simple, participating in nothing, and subsisting in Himself—i.e., it is because God is esse divinum—that God is most properly an ens because it is most proper to Him to be unique, individual, and subsisting. (“Aquinas, Stump, and the Nature of a Simple God,” p. 10)

Whereas the id quod est, when applied to creatures, signifies distinct individuality, when applied to God it signifies the divine uniqueness and unicity. I find this a plausible interpretation. Thomas seems to be saying something like this in the Summa Theologiae: “And as God is simple, and subsisting, we attribute to Him abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His substance and perfection, although both these kinds of names fail to express His mode of being, forasmuch as our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is“ (I.13.1). The simple fact is, Christians speak of God in both abstract and concrete, even corporeal, terms. That’s a given. Thomas’s concern is to help us to interpret this discourse rightly—hence his appeal to analogy and metaphor. I have yet to see a text where he makes a big deal about God as id quod est. I even wonder whether he would feel comfortable about Kerr’s notion of divine ens-hood? In any case, however Thomas may have understood the significance of the id quod est when attributed to divinity, it gets swallowed up in his decisive and fundamental assertion: Deus sit ipsum esse subsistens.

In my 2015 article “Absolute Deity,” I stated that “the claim that God is a being among beings is immediately ruled out … by the classical understanding of divine transcendence.” Dr William Vallicella, popularly known as the Maverick Philosopher, rightly rejoined that I had not yet demonstrated why the divine transcendence implies that God is not a being. “Why cannot it be like this?” he asks. “God, the self-existent One, creates beings distinct from himself. These beings ‘now’ (either temporally or logically) form with God a collection of beings. So although God has all sorts of properties that make him the supreme being such as omniscience, and the rest of the omni-attributes, he remains a being among beings.”

In the analytic way of looking at the world, a being is something which possesses properties. Since God presumably possesses properties, he too is a being (or is it the other way round?). Thus Vallicella:

First of all, what could it mean to say that God is a being among beings? As I see it, to say that God is a being among beings is to say that God is no exception to the logical and ontological principles (pertaining to properties, property-possession, existence, modality, etc.) that govern anything that can be said to exist. It is to say that God fits the ontological or general-metaphysical schema that everything else fits. It is to say that God is ontologically on a par with other beings despite the attributes (omniscience, etc.) that set him apart from other beings and indeed render him unique among beings. …

God has properties in the same way that creatures do. My first point was that there are some properties that both God and creatures share; my present point is a different one about property-possession: the having of these shared properties is the same in the divine and creaturely cases. (“God”)

So why shouldn’t we think of God as a being, the supreme being, with all sorts of nifty omni-properties? Why indeed? As mentioned above, that little indefinite article suggests a cosmos populated with countable entities. “Look, there’s a being. Oh, there’s another one. Now I see a third. Golly, the universe is being overrun with beings!” And not only are there zillions of beings in the universe, but they are different from each other, different not only by spatial and temporal location but by their respective natures. Photons are different from neutrinos, tigers are different from dogs, rocks are different from tomatoes. All this is commonsensical. Finite beings differ from each other by their respective natures and relationships. Now add the one God into the mix. We appear to have zillions of beings + one more being. To confirm, start subtracting, one entity at a time. Eventually you get down to you and God–two beings. Scratch yourself off the list. We have one being left, right? There’s a certain logic to all of this, because we are still thinking of God in relation to all the now-absent beings. But now imagine, if you can, the counterfactual of God never having created the world. Do we still have one being? Is God still countable, and if he’s not, was he ever countable? I suppose an analytic philosopher would insist that this solitary Deity is still a being, as he is the subject of properties and attributes. My thought experiment apparently hasn’t changed anything, but it has led me to suspect that the Thomists may be right: we really shouldn’t be thinking of the metaphysically simple God as an entity with properties.

Farrer.jpg~original.jpegWhen I was preparing three years ago to write the original version of this article, I took off the shelf my copy of Finite and Infinite by the formidable Anglican theologian Austin Farrer. I had never read the book and wondered if I ever would, knowing that it was way above my tiny metaphysical brain. But the engagement with Dr Vallicella pushed me through my reluctance. It is a dense and at times impenetrable book. Farrer opens his exploration in natural theology with the following description of Deity:

If God exists, He is unique, and if other beings are related to Him, that relation is also unique. By the ‘unique’ in this argument we do not mean simply that which alone exempli­fies certain characteristics; we mean that which shares no identical characteristic with anything else, and so cannot be placed in a proper class with others. (p. 7)

Farrer then goes on to highlight the philosophical challenges posed by this construal of God. If God does not head or belong to a class of existents, if he is a truly a singular being, how can his existence be demonstrated? Answering that question is the burden of Finite and Infinite. Farrer is sympathetic to the insistence of Thomists that God cannot be included among the categories of Aristotle. He does not belong to a genus–with one possible exception:

Now, however many descriptions we may withold from God in their plain sense–however zealous we are not to place Him in genere–we cannot dispense with one: we must have a subject to whom these descriptions are thus oddly related; God must be agreed to be somewhat, to be an existent. (p. 28)

If God exists, then he is an existent, albeit one unique in his mode of his existence. I suppose that if presented with my above thought experiment, Farrer would affirm the last entity standing as a being because he is a subject of whom existence may be predicated. On this question of divinity and existence, Farrer and Vallicella would appear to be in agreement (see Vallicella, “Is God Beyond All Being?“). In an article written after our 2015 exchange, Vallicella proposes that God should be thought of as a “uniquely unique” being:

A truly transcendent God, however, must transcend the ontological framework applicable to everything other than God. So it must transcend the distinction between kind and instance. In a truly transcendent God there cannot be real distinctions of any kind and thus no real distinction between kind and instance, nature and individual having the nature. Now if God transcends the distinction between instance and kind/nature, and is uniquely unique, unique in a way that no other being is or could be unique, then that is equivalent to maintaining that God is ontologically simple. … Again, if God is the absolute, then he cannot be one of many; he must be the ONE that makes possible the one and the many. As such he transcends the Discursive Framework in which the one opposes the many. The ONE, however, is the ONE of both the one and many. It cannot be brought into opposition to anything. (“God as Uniquely Unique”)

If God is uniquely unique, then he is incommensuable with creatures, precisely in the way explicated by Mascall above. Even his mode of existence, as one whose existence and essence are identical, is radically different from the way all other beings exist. How could such a uniquely unique being be added to the world to make two?

Recall the critical point advanced by Robert Sokolowski: God is more fundamental than the Creator/creature distinction. Even if he had never created the cosmos, he would still be the infinite fullness of Being. As Thomas controversially asserts, the Creator does not stand in a real relation to the beings he has made and is conserving: “Since therefore God is outside the whole order of creation, and all creatures are ordered to Him, and not conversely, it is manifest that creatures are really related to God Himself; whereas in God there is no real relation to creatures, but a relation only in idea, inasmuch as creatures are referred to Him” (ST I.13.7). The asymmetrical relation between Creator and creature is here decisive. God is not just a necessary being that must, by stipulation, exist in all possible worlds. (Once the divine transcendence is properly grasped, I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of “possible worlds.”) He is the ontological source and origin of everything. At every moment the contingent beings of the contingent universe are receiving their being from their infinite Creator. Or as Dionysius states, “For God is not some kind of being” (Divine Names 817D).

Vallicella has accurately identified the problem: a-being theists of the analytical school presuppose that “God is ontologically on a par with other beings” and thus affirm, at least implicity, a univocity of being. That is to say, they locate divinity alongside the universe, within the same metaphysical matrix (also see Barry Miller, A Most Unlikely God, chap. 1). What is missing is the ontological diastema that forms the traditional Christian apprehension of divinity and the world. Eleonore Stump is an exception, as she affirms the analogia entis; on the other hand, her affirmation would seem to undermine her quantum theology project.

(6 May 2015; substantially revised, retitled)

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26 Responses to Thomas Aquinas, Eleonore Stump, and the Maverick Philosopher: Is God “a” being among beings?

  1. Jonathan says:

    There is a lot to comment on here, and most of it is out of my pay grade. But I might be able to speak to the distinction between analogy and metaphor. I think you want to go strongly for analogy in this case. Metaphor is usually not what is happening when we use creaturely language to speak of the Creator, at least not if we’re asserting divine transcendence. Metaphor insists or, even more accurately, establishes supra-rationally a link between two things (beings) that are distinct on the same plane of existence. The energy of metaphor comes entirely from this fusion (so to call it, like in atomic fusion). Metaphor collapses distance; that is its job, to reveal in astounding ways the underlying unity of things. Analogy, on the other hand, asserts — not supra-rationally so much as paradoxically (at least when it is a good and useful analogy) — parallelism between two disparate entities or processes or series, etc. In order for two lines to be parallel, they must be perceived as distinct. Distinction is implied in analogy. One can use both devices in speaking of God, but there must be an awareness of the difference in meaning. To say that God is good metaphorically is to assert that God’s goodness is *in*, is somehow overlapping or imperceptibly one with, this or that created good. To say that God is good analogically, is to say that God’s goodness is *like* created good. Whenever we say that something is like something else, we are at the same time, only negatively (i.e. without saying it outright), saying that the thing is also unlike the other thing. Metaphor does not do that, it’s whole purpose is to avoid that implication of analogy and simile, their basis in distinction. Metaphorical language is more powerful and moving than analogical language precisely because it is more startling. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always more accurate.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Here is an example of how the two kinds of language work together. I literally just read this passage in a book I am writing on, The Peregrine, by J A Baker (which, by the way, is one of the most remarkable achievements of prose style in the English language in the last hundred years). The author is describing a sparrowhawk here. He uses two metaphors, both fairly abstract (“blankness” and “insanity”) and then augments what these metaphors establish by means of two similes (simile is a variety of analogical language). The metaphors are more powerful, in the sense that they assert more, but in this case they are also more abstract and the similes serve to concretize the description while at the same time cooling it down a bit, because as I say, analogical language is inherently less vehement than metaphorical language because it makes a more qualified claim:

      “[The eyes] had small dark pupils surrounded by a wide yellow iris. They were a blazing blankness, an utterly terrifying insanity of searing yellow, raging and seething like sulphurous craters. They seemed to shine in the dimness like jellies of yellow blood.”

      Just to break that down a bit: The first sentence is simply declarative and descriptive. The first two clauses of the second sentence are metaphors (the second is grammatically in apposition to the first, but the sense of the metaphor is not merely appositional, i.e. a restatement); the third clause is a simile. The third sentence is a simile, doubly announced by “seemed” and “like.” In fact, it’s a little more complicated even than that, because “raging and seething” is really metaphorical speech as well, and so is “searing.” In the case of “searing” it is a metaphor built off another metaphor; with “raging and seething” it is a metaphor that is drawn in by the simile (the crater). In actual practice, though the distinctions are clear conceptually, you can see how this stuff all blends together… at least, if it’s working well, which I think this passage does.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Dr Stump has informed me that she does affirm the analogy of being, which is not surprising, given her love for Aquinas. My article is potentially misleading here (it was originally written as critique of theistic personalism), so I have made a couple more revisions.

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  3. Tom says:

    Wonderful piece. I’m definitely jumping in soon.

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  4. Tom says:

    The first time I read through this I thought, “Yeah, I have a few thoughts I need to share.” Reading through this a 2nd time, gathering my thoughts while contemplating ‘God’ as the object of a discussion, I felt too small and stupid to say anything.

    I’ll still say something (because that’s what stupid does), but I’m overwhelmed by the subject matter. Maybe that ought to be the first point. Analytical philosophical methodology (it seems – I’m no professional) requires a certain objectification of things – both of the subject matter (in this case God) and of oneself – which is inherently at odds with the subject matter (in this case God) and one’s experience of God. Analytically speaking, one stands outside the conditions that define what one is analyzing and from a certain neutral vantage point ‘observes’ God. I used to thrive in this sort of structuring of thought and life and self-perception. I just find it impossible to do anymore.

    Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon” comes to mind: an excess of presence that so overtakes and overwhelms the knower that he cannot objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it within any cognitive grasp. None of us can sit inside another person’s head and judge what’s actually going on in terms of their experience of the Divine, so I don’t want to presume, but I don’t get the feeling that analytical philosophers are describing anything particularly overwhelming or even transformative. That have perfect control over their subject matter – and that disturbs me. I’m not saying their faith hasn’t changed them. I’m just saying my own experience of God is way too unsettling to permit me the idea that God and I stand together underneath one and the same umbrella of ‘Being’.

    That said, I like Stump’s idea that God has to be both ‘Being’ an ‘concrete particular’. I just don’t think being ‘concrete’ has to mean being “a” finite particular. When I say “a” (as in “a being”) I take it that one is circumscribing one particularity among other particularities within the embrace of some higher principle or measure not reducible to those particularities but which can account for their unity and difference. If God lines up alongside things by being circumscribable in our terms, then with God’s permission I’d like to go in search of whatever that higher principle. I wanna be one with THAT. So would God if he knows what’s good for him.

    But if God is neither “infinitely indeterminate” nor “concretely finite,” then the only thing I can conclude is that God’s concrete particularity is infinite and so present to every finite particular as origin, ground and end, but not “an instance [even an immeasurable instance] of” what those particulars are instances of. And, in my own experience, to apprehend this is to experience a certain failure of all ability to ‘say’ what it is, which is just to experience one’s own finite particularity as overwhelmed by a concrete presence (truthful, benevolent and beautiful) that both gives and exceeds all the categories in terms of which we reason, experience, speak, etc. If I am the phenomenon in “saturated phenomenon,” then I’m the kind of finite circumscribed being that participates and is grounded in that which saturates me. But it can’t also be the case that that which saturates and overwhelms me has its being – like me – through participating in some still higher principle of being. At some point the merry-go-round has to end. I have to surrender that last bit of control over saying who and what God and I are to saturation, and that means ‘the analytical’ itself has to be saturated and overwhelmed. And that hurts.

    In the end, what can an analytical philosopher of religion say about “burning bushes”? The phrase itself is analytically impermissible. But what’s Moses to do? There it is in front of him. He can only say the words ‘burning bush’ and shake his head as he unsays it (i.e., by combining otherwise contradictory parts of speech). After all, burning bushes are consumed. That’s what bushes are and that’s what fire does to bushes. And yet this fire doesn’t need this bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire. That “and yet” is the moment when you connect to something you don’t have categories for. For me, saying “God is not ‘a’ being among beings” is a way to express a kind of experience of God (as overwhelming, exceeding, irreducible, etc.). If God is “a being among beings” then it seems to follow that he, like me, is “reducible to” whatever category the “two of us” are instances of.

    Tom

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    • Tom says:

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that in the end language is in the service of experience, and experience is irreducible to language. So one has to contemplate the relative advantages of affirming or denying that “God is ‘a’ being among beings” in terms of how well each communicates one’s own experience of God. I don’t doubt that many religious believers have no concrete experience of themselves as transcended/saturated by God. They experience God “alongside” themselves (immeasurably large but still essentially “an instance of” the same being they are “instances of”). But history is full of those who testify to a different kind of experience of God, an experience that exposes “God is ‘a’ being among beings” as missing something essential. For me it comes down to that existential dimension behind this whole debate, though no one in the debate takes it into account. They don’t see themselves as articulating an experience of the Divine. They see themselves as analyzing concepts.

      Am I being unfair?

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      • Jonathan says:

        I don’t think you can divide language and experience like that.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Tom says:

          Like how, Jonathan?

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          • Jonathan says:

            The way you seemed to in the comment to which I was responding directly. You make it seem like language is only instrumental, that all it does is report on reality or subjective states (experience). In fact there are different kinds of language, and some of them are constitutive of reality. One has verbal experiences, and one’s consciousness is unfathomably shaped by language.

            I’m far from expert here, but it seems to me that the analytic tradition at least tries, some of the time, to deal with what language really is in all its weirdness and mystery. I don’t think it works out well, because I don’t think that’s the way to go about it. I’m more for old school philology (which includes responsible literary criticism) and a touch of linguistics. The problem with analytic philosophy, as far as I can tell, is that it tries to explain the whole car using only the driver’s door. But at least it knows there’s a car and doesn’t blithely assume that we get from one place to another by teleportation. (This is not a metaphor, by the way, but an allegory.)

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          • Tom says:

            Thanks Jonathan. Certainly, language can be constitutive of experience. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. My point was just that an experience can be both meaningful and ineffable, that the meaning of an experience isn’t always entirely convertible with, or constituted by, language.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Unfair? I would say ‘over-simplified’ better describes it. I don’t think analytics analyze concepts without taking into account experience, but rather theological pursuit is conducted (both conceptually and experientially) by means of a method which is wholly inadequate to the task. We must also make a distinction between different types of analytic theologians, as not all are alike, some take a more absolute position than others.

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        • Tom says:

          Thanks Robert. I’m not sure so. One can read pages upon pages of analytic philosophers doing theology without running into a reflection upon, or integration of, experience. I recognize there are different types, as you say. I don’t doubt that both the conceptual and the existential can be misappropriate through inadequate methods (whatever those may be, I’m not sure what you have in mind). My point was that (a) to focus narrowly on the conceptual would be guarantee a certain inadequacy from the start, and that (b) an experience of the transcendent God isn’t going to be ‘sayable’ in the terms many analytic folk want to reduce the meaning of experience to (thus a distinction – though not a divorce – between experience and language). All I’m saying is that the experience of can be ineffable while remaining meaningful. If that’s true, then experience isn’t reducible to language.

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    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      “That’s what bushes are and that’s what fire does to bushes. And yet this fire doesn’t need this bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire. That “and yet” is the moment when you connect to something you don’t have categories for.”

      I loved that. It’s interesting here that the reason why the bush is not consumed is precisely because the fire does not need it. The bush can be a bush in the presence of such fire because this flame is self-existent, requiring no source. And yet, consuming no thing, our God is called a consuming fire. Might it be that what God consumes is darkness, sin, death, falsehood and evil; destroying all that is insubstantial and privative; not that they provide fuel, but that this is a fire of creation? Our God destroys by creating. After all, it is destruction itself that must be destroyed.

      Metaphors, similes, parables, poetry; the scriptures are full of them. This used to frustrate me to no end as I would think “Why can’t you just tell it to me straight!” I’m starting to realize that perhaps these are the only ways to ‘tell it to us straight’ when God is our ‘subject’. How else can we use words to express the ineffable? But Jesus says that those who have seen Him have seen the Father and to know Him is to know the Father. I can’t recall anywhere being told we could understand Jesus or the Father, but we can know them. Knowledge is often much deeper than mere understanding, and experience is indeed an ineffable language.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        This is why icons so befit us, and the Church has insisted are essential, to worship the Ineffable, pointing beyond itself while drawing in the beholder by participation in the Prototype as a profoundly liturgical movement.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          The veneration of icons is so essential. I never understood this until I became Orthodox.

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        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          I know that you guys were mostly speaking about written or verbal language above, but I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the other kinds of language that Jonathan alluded to. We speak in so many different ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate or express accurately with words. We speak when we act, we communicate truth with paint, we worship by being attentive, etc. Thomas Keating said that God’s first language is silence; an idea toward which I’m sure many mystics would be inclined. Is it off base to imagine that through these other languages, we may speak the mysteries of God more directly? I find myself drawn to the thought that our very being speaks God as it reflects His image in silent song. That we have at our disposal a kind of ineffable language through which we can directly encounter God in all his transcendent otherness. We may not understand it, but we can speak it.

          Let me know if I’m speaking gibberish… 🙂

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          • Tom says:

            Matthew: Let me know if I’m speaking gibberish.

            Tom: Not a problem. I’m Pentecostal.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            God has given me the gift to interpret Tom’s gibberish. Alas, sometimes it is only gibberish. 😉

            Liked by 2 people

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Not gibberish at all. Silence has long been affirmed in the ancient Christian tradition as the way of personal encounter with God. It is an ascetic practice, and to our rational, scientific mind quite befuddling. How often Byzantine icons are denigrated as inferior, the beholder not quite getting its meaning. It is an alien experience. In the ancient Eastern tradition, still in use today, icons are ‘written’ and not painted in a practical demonstration of silence, how the Word is written without words.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan says:

        Ah, the double negative. Always was one of my favorite early English constructions. I like this idea a lot better than what the capitalists mean when they talk about “creative destruction.”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    Fr. Kimel,

    As someone who is in way over his head with most of this, I would like to say that I still appreciate you taking the time and making the effort to bring us these sorts of posts. I’m slowly learning about many things, and just as importantly, I’m discovering how much more there is for me to discover. This blog is one of the places I go when I want to ‘swim in the deep end’.

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