“We know that God is not what God is”

I would like to ask this question: Is it a limitation of Hegel that he does not have a plurivocal sense of being? Such an articulated sense, or lack of it, would surely affect the meaning of philosophy’s own systematic side. We would have to ask if indeed philosophy must be directed to the one totality, or rather toward a plurality of logoi about to on. This question also affects how we think of the plurivocity between religion and philosophy, and indeed art. If there is no sense of the plurivocity of being, is there not the danger, as I think we find with Hegel, of a recurrence to a higher speculative univocity? The ghost of Spinoza comes back to haunt him thus.

The question of plurivocity is also connected with the question of the ways we do and might (legitimately) speak of God. There are many ways, obviously, but the matter here is especially important with regard to the proper protocols for approaching the issue of God. If I am not mistaken finesse for these protocols diminishes notably in the modern epoch, and I take this to be inseparable from the will to univocity we find in so many areas, and not only in mathematics, science and technology. Think again how Spinozist univocity has its afterlife in much of German idealism, and indeed in contemporary philosophies of immanence (see, e.g., Deleuze). The plurivocity articulated space between immanence and transcendence is collapsed into the plane of immanence, beyond which nothing greater is to be thought, nothing greater can be thought.

How we are in the between, how we think in the between, is not given enough mindfulness. This is true also of the between marking the space of difference between us and the divine. The proper protocols concern how we articulate, or find articulated, this between-space, and how from it we venture thought about the divine as such. With the notion of analogy, Aquinas is in a healthier place on this issue of proper protocols. Analogy demands a finesse which is itself a kind of reverence for the proper protocols. To know that there is a proper question of protocols is already to display a certain philosophical-theological finesse. Is Thomistic analogy more finessed than speculative dialectic?

If we come back from this to Aquinas, in between the temerity of a Hegel or a Spinoza and the timidity of a Kant, we find that the sense of divine mystery looms large; the sense of the incomprehensibility of God is huge. Deus semper major. We know that God is not what God is. We find the reticence of a wisdom of limits, of finitude, that would not claim to be on a par with the divine knowing. There is a kind of wiser not-knowing that does not lead to the atheistic reduction above mentioned. This not-knowing is not an epistemic defect simply at the beginning and to be overcome by the fuller development of knowing along the immanent continuum of its own self-becoming. One does not argue to this wise nescience simply at the end—it constitutes something of the ethos of another way of thought. Within this ethos there are indeterminate ignorances and determinate cognitions, but the sense of astonishing mystery is in another dimension to such ignorances and cognitions, and companions all efforts at determinative knowing, and overcoming ignorance.

Hegel putatively argues through, along the continuum from ignorance to knowing, from indeterminacy to self-determination, and to the end of absolute knowing. Percolating into the whole development is the ethos of his thought as marked more by rationalistic recoil to mystery, if not secret hostility to it. There is a porosity of religion and philosophy in Aquinas which is different. Religion is the great companioning sister, the older sister of philosophy that cares for the primal reverences. There is also a different dialectic, to be sure. The medieval dialectic is not the same as the modern idealistic one, though one finds a scholarly variation on dialogue. I mean we find in Aquinas a finely calibrated dialogue of authorities, Scripture, reasonable argument in question and answer. The summa is architectonic and systematic but differently so than the idealistic version of system. The latter mingles the Spinozist sense of the One with the Kantian call (amplified, adapted, and modified, to be sure) for completeness of the categories derived from one principle.

There is a finesse for divine mystery percolating through the summa, rising up from a religious ethos where, at best, the practices of prayer keep unclogged the soul’s porosity to the divine. The sap of the mystery of God flows in the body of the work, though this is not always immediately evident on the surface, where sometimes a kind of forensic univocity marks Aquinas’s way of proceeding. More rationalistic philosophers tend not to be attuned to that sap and turn Aquinas’s thought into a Scholasticism closer to the prototype of modern rationalism. (I suppose the manualistic way of packaging Aquinas evidences this very much.) There is a kind of reversal of this in Hegel, in that religion is more a prelude to philosophy on the hierarchy of absoluteness. Philosophy is the more ultimate arbiter, not the inspired receiver to thought of what comes from beyond our thought.

William Desmond

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7 Responses to “We know that God is not what God is”

  1. brian says:

    What I would like to add to this speculation builds on the notion (nearly self-evident, I think) that modernity constrains perception to univocal modes. I have suggested before that various fundamentalisms are actually anti-modern forms of modernity. This is putative theology that presupposes forms of univocity, even when it aims at something transcendent. Literalism is often an incapacity to think metaphysics (the mysterious beyond, yet also amidst the flux of being.) Univocity is generally matched with forms of theistic personalism. The eschatological is evinced by a stunted imaginary where the implications of person available in TriUne revelation are replaced with nominalist, often voluntarist, at minimum libertarian notions of atomized individuals. The finesse that is needed requires a kind of aesthetic sensitivity to a hierarchy of modes of being; moreover, a complex hierarchy that is not static, but infinitely open towards greater flourishing and discovery. None of that can be encompassed or even countenanced by “theological univocalism.”

    It seems to me that many of the questions and controversies regarding Christian universalism founder on just these kind of differences. I’ve returned on a number of occasions to this pithy quote from Desmond’s God and the Between: “Not only with ‘nothing’ but with many other crucial notions, what seems one thing at one level of considerations means something other at another level.” It’s the capacity to appreciate the presence of these differences, to translate and interpret the change in meaning due to change in level that is lost to univocal consciousness. Hence, the point of an argument is often blithely missed — which is to say there is a Christian gnosis that evades an egalitarian view of the gospel. Ironically, fideism and rationalism equally lack the required perplexity and wonder that refuses to be satisfied with a catalog of established “sacred facts.”


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    The sentence “We know that God is not what God is” has been banging around in my head. Desmond could have made it much clearer if he had added a comma: “We know that God is, not what God is.” But he left out the comma. I have to believe that he did it intentionally. As the result the sentence hints at more cryptic possibilities.


    • brian says:

      I think you have to read that particular wording in terms of the overall argument in which Desmond is opposing Hegel’s “higher speculative univocity.” While not claiming to be an expert on Thomism, Desmond proclaims Thomas a “companionable” thinker. I have read Desmond as largely sympatico with my own idiosyncratically adapted Existential Thomism. My guess, if it is provocatively intended, is that Desmond wants to resist any tendency to enclose God within a metaphysics of the Whole. Hegel is not a dullard. He sees the equivocities that make a kind of fundamentalist utilitarianism inadequate to reality. Hegel is sensitive to art and religion — and yet he would ultimately refuse the infinite gifting that requires porosity to the transcendent, agapeic Origin. Hegel performs a covert reductionism that identifies the Divine with the totality of ens commune. Spirit is thus a term of “rational” mastery that wants to bring “metaxalogical drama” to a close.


      • Jonathan says:

        Yes. And I would add to this that it’s a matter of language, or the question comes to fruition in language. I am sorry to be always harping on one thing around here, it’s just that I only really know about one thing. The question is: can one produce a sentence like “God is not what God is” and still be making a meaningful utterance? If one can, then one is doing some porous philosophizing, and if one can’t — that is, if this sentence is merely nonsense, rather than nescience — then one has closed off one’s philosophy.


        • brian says:

          Right, which is why part of the necessary “between” is the “between” that includes the poet and the theologian, even if the poetics of a particular theologian is expressive of a “negative theology.”


  3. Jonathan says:

    This is a beautiful passage, it has a winsome musing quality to it. Makes me think I might be able to really get something from Desmond if I can find the time to spend with his work.

    I actually think “We know that God is not what God is” is maybe the clearest sentence in the passage. Anyway I take it to be a comment on the sentence directly prior: Deus semper maior. God is not what God is because God is always greater (than what God is). This is the kind of thing that we need language to think for us because we are not good at thinking it for ourselves, much in the way that I need the Creed or some other essential prayer to do a certain amount of thinking for me.

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  4. Thomas says:

    Adding a comma into the sentence “We know that God is not what God is” seems pretty important. That sentence is intended to be an interpretation of St. Thomas, and to say that St. Thomas affirmed that “God is not what God is” is incorrect. To say that we do not know what God is, however, is pretty central to St. Thomas.


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