With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

All Theology Must be Onto-theology

No, not the Heidegerrian boogeyman. I simply want to point out that there is a crucial problem with the more recent attempts by philosophers and theologians (eg. Marion, Levinas, etc.) to think God beyond the category of being: the inability to see just how pervasive the notion of being is and must be. Now of course many of the thinkers in this line are appealing to the apophatic theologies of the Neoplatonic tradition and their concern that we in no way confuse God with any of the finite conceptual idols that we inevitably construct out of "being." For surely, there is an infinite gulf between God and all of the modes of being that we ever experience (with all of the forms of composition and limitation in the orders of essence, existence, action, etc.). In this light, soemthing like "Good" becomes far more attractive as a primary name for God; and in certain respects, St. Thomas acknowledges this. No problem there. And yet still, unless we are clear, there is a serious problem with the attempt to think God without the mediation of being.

The reason this is problematic is because of a foundational fact of our epistemic condition (we might say, one of our hermeneutical horizons as incarnated intellects). As St. Thomas taught, being is the first concept conceived by the intellect. Not explicitly of course (children do not utter "esse!" before the utter "dada!" or "mama!".....though if anyone did, it was probably Thomas). But rather implicitly. No other concept can be formed without the notion of being attached to it, riding its coattails, or more appropriately, arm-in-arm with it. We might say, it is concomittant with all of our knowledge of.....well, everything.

So on the one hand, our conceptions of being are shaped and limited to all of the finite modes that we encounter (we are primarilly wired to know the essences of sensible beings, composed of matter and form, esse and essentia, etc.); and we do in a certain sense only have to work with being as it is cut-up into puzzle pieces. As differently shaped, limited pieces, they surely will not accurately apply to God by any stretch of the imagination; and thus we must eventually leave them by the way-side.

Yet on the other hand, we remain finite, incarnated intellects even when we try to think about God. And it remains that no matter what categories and concepts we use, "being" will always be analytically first among them, haunting them all. So if we try to replace being with, say, the category of "Good" or "Love" as purer, non-idolatrous concepts for God, we find that being somehow always beats them to the destination, or is always found stowing-away aboard them. This is simply implicit in the actuality of the perfections we wish to ascribe, such as "Good." Imagine if by "Good" we meant "an unreal Good" or "Good that really isn't Good" or "Good that is nothing absolutely." We would not be describing a perfection in its perfection at all. We would be describing a perfection insofar as it is somehow not a perfection. And that has got to be worse than any idol of being. We don't ever want to talk about privations when we talk about God, because there are none in him. "Being" then marks that concept which renders these other concepts in their perfection, in their reality, and not in their privation.

Even look at the way we would inevitably describe the alternative concepts in relation to God: "God is Love and not Being" for instance. We rely on the concept of being ("is") in the very predication of God's supposedly purer perfection. Its just an endless maze and at every turn, we end up finding the concept of being jumping out at us. Not only that, but we find that it is precisely what ensures the intelligibility even of our apophasis. Either 1) negative theology means that God is absolute nothingness (infinite privation) or 2) that God is nothing with regard to a certain sense or form of "being." But absolute nothingness is a phrase we use for what is inconceivable by definition. As it turns out, our language about this and other privations presupposes that we have a concept of being with which to negate. Nothingness is conceptually parasitic, and only to the degree that the concept of being precedes it is it intelligible.

So this would seem to leave option 2 as the only way to proceed. The most "nothing" we can ascribe to God is the denial of any peculiarity of our finite modes of being and knowing (composition). So why not just describe it this way? Sadly, I think, following Heidegger, too many thinkers concede that somehow "being" is entirely exhausted in its finitude. It is by definition a limited concept, encrusted in a certain limited modality. It's not the kind of thing we can strip and purify and remold when we apply it to God. But why would "Good" or "Love" be any different? In truth, we only ever encounter these concepts in finite modes (the good as perfection of things that are perfected; love as an accident of some substance). They are just as much cut-up into puzzle pieces by the world we live in as "being" is. Couldn't we just as easily write a treatise titled "God Without Good" or "God Without Love?"

No matter how they phrase it, folks like Marion do not really mean that we should think of God as nothing absolutely. What they want to describe is a perfection that somehow exceeds our modes of being and knowing, not an eternal void of empty privation. That would be the farthest thing from God imaginable (if we can even say it's imaginable!) . Even the silence and the deconstruction of the mystics implies some actuality which our finite mode of thinking cannot contain: it is a silence about God and not the silence of a tree or a stone. So if anything, the concept of being implicit in every other concept is what ensures that the most apophatic of thinkers conceive of God according to some perfection rather than as an infinite privation. Without it, folks like Marion and Dionysius would be indistinguishable from Atheists who claim that God does not exist, at all, in any sense ("there is no God").

So to put it simply, we as finite minds always grasp the concept of being first in any movement of knowledge. As human intellects, we can only conceive of everything through the concept of being. So attempts to think something, in this case God, without the concept of being seems to result in an attempt to abandon our inescapable hermeneutical limitations: in short, to think God as something other than a human thinker. It is an attempt to alter the order of knowledge that is inscirbed into us. But one could only do this by becoming a different kind of being with a different kind of knowing. Surely the extent to which we can know God must conform to the order of knowing that he inscribes into human nature and not to a struggle to negate it. I fear that too often modern negative theologians mistake negating the order of knowledge with exceeding it. They also fail to recall that theology is a human science, even negative theology. Ironically, sometimes the language of being can be far more theologically reserved than the attempt to get beyond it!

Here's the ontological Scylla and Charybdis all theologians are dealing with: If we rely on being-language, we certainly avoid any sense of applying a privation to God, but the perfection we signify tends to be limited to the finite modes of being we encounter, and we risk applying limitation to God. If we rely on nothing or non-being langauge, we certainly obliterate any risk of applying modal limitation to God, but we have suddenly opened the doorway for privation to slip back in, because we have obliterated all that distinguishes perfection from privation in our thought and talk. So its the danger of limitation or the danger of privation.

If one grants that being is intrinsically finite, then limitation will never look like a safe passage because being will always dead-end in some finite thing. But Thomas would simply ask: what compels us to assume such strictures? What if we suspend this presupposition? What if being is, actually, analogous: neither intrinsically finite nor infinite?

Grant this, and I think limitation, though always formidable, is the more managable foe. A theological ascesis can more easily purify language of the finite modes of these perfections; it seems far more dangerous to render vulnerable their very "perfectionness." It is easier to smash an idol than to make something out of nothing.

While most of the modern negative thinkers have thought that St. Thomas and those following him have not gone far enough in their apophasis, I think it rather the case that he has put his finger on the far more successfully negative approach. As long as we take seriously modal negations as the very heart and soul of conceptual mysticism, then this need not be a "wimpier" form of apophasis. It is simply a more precise, more prudent form, insofar as it is apophasis through the mediation of the concept of being. In this sense, all theology, even negative theology, must be Onto-theology; or else risk devolving into a nihilistic atheism.

Pax Christi,


  • At 6/25/2009 9:47 AM, Anonymous Ethan said…

    Denys Turner's essay in "Faith, Reason and the Existence of God" on Eckhart and Derrida (which deals extensively with Thomas and Denys) similarly argues that the best of ancient apophaticism is always married to some metaphysic. Otherwise, so Turner claims, the end of apophaticism is something more like sheer athiesm.

  • At 6/25/2009 10:12 AM, Anonymous Ethan said…

    Also one note: Both Denys and Marion do claim that God is beyond "Good." They claim only that it is the last and most basic predication to be negated in apophatic theology. Denys does call God "Being Itself", even if he thinks that as the mind ascends to God by negations that it be negated before the negation of the more ultimate term "Good." The reason, for Denys and to some extent for Marion, has to do with a different way than Thomas in understanding the "nothing" presuppopsed to God's creative causality in relationship to actuality and potentiality.
    Denys thinks that "good" should be negated last because the predications of the cataphatic are based on the fact that a cause pre-contains - more eminently - the perfections of the effect. Thus the good is more ultimate/universal than being becuase it names God's causal relationship not only to that which "is" but also to that which is not as God exercises his creativity as erotic lure (final causality/good) over even the nothing as he calls beings out of nothing. Thus the predication of "being" is derived from a less universal relationship of causality than that of "Good". Thomas concedes this point to Denys, but then offers his corrective, which is much like your own (though also rooted in a more sophisticated account of actuality, potentiality, and nothingness than Denys').
    I say this only because Edward Booth and Fran O'Rourke have both shown how Thomas is deeply indebted to Denys here - even as he corrects him. Ancient figures like Denys can be seen in a different light than what is shown when retrieval (like Marion's) is so focused upon avoiding Heideggerian or Derridean critique (important as it is).


  • At 6/26/2009 4:35 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for the response. I entirely agree with your points. Favoring the "Good" as the highest name is an entirely legitimate move from the perspective of causality, which as you note Thomas allows for. And I think you've hit the nail on the head by noting the real key is Thomas' more sophisticated understanding of act, potency, and thus what we can mean by "nothing" and how "being" relates to causal pre-eminence. Those, I think, are what allow for Thomas to enter the Dionysian tradition and advance it, bringing in resources to more positively reinforce it against the dangers of atheistic discourse (as Turner's article addresses: finding the right kind of "atheism").

    I think when those moves are made, the negative ascent to God, considered as final end (Good) or as pre-eminent unity (One), whichever Neoplatonic flavor you go with, can actually happen within the discourse of being, rather than apart from it.

    Fran O'Rourke's book is amazing. It woke me from my "dogmatic slumber" with regard Thomas' more Platonic sources.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 6/30/2009 1:09 PM, Anonymous TW said…

    is theoblogging ontotheology?

  • At 7/01/2009 7:18 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Wise warnings indeed. All things in moderation.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 7/09/2009 9:24 AM, Anonymous Dark Horizon said…

    Theoblogging is not ontotheology, simply because cyberspace seems more notional/logical than real/ontological.

    In other words, because theoblogging occurs in a virtual world, there is no question of ontotheology, which assumes the reality of the ontos.

    There is of course the risk of a bloggo-theology. Where ontotheology tends to confound being with 'God', bloggotheology tends to confound blogging with grounds or evidence that one's thoughts about God are in fact unequivocally true. We might say it is a form of the Platonic problematic, which erroneously assumes that 'if I can think it, reality must be such that it is true.'

    Many examples of this problem can be found throughout the Catholic bloggosphere (the blogger known as Zippy Catholic comes to mind as one example).

    But Patrick, aka X-Cathedra, is in no way guilty of this any more than he is guilty of ontotheology. He has risen well beyond this pernicious prejudice.

  • At 7/11/2009 10:05 AM, Anonymous Ethan said…

    Well put Dark Horizon.


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