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, February 16, 2010

The God Who Is Beyond Predication Transcends Human Logic

Cross Posted on Vox Nova (I thought this was good for both blogs).

Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. This allows us to understand something about God by understanding ourselves. "The rational man who has prepared himself to be set free through the advent of Jesus, knows himself in his intellectual substance. For he who knows himself knows the dispensations of the Creator and all that He does among His creatures."[1] But we must not take what comes out of such self-understanding too far; being in the image and likeness of God allows us to understand God by analogy, and all analogies include a similarity and a distinction. The distinction between God and humanity is infinite in its depth, so that we must always understand that what we come to know about God through ourselves is at once like God and yet infinitely unlike God at once. We are bounded beings while God is unbounded and beyond all being. At best, what we see in humanity can only present to us a confused, imperfect representation of God while not actually demonstrating what God really is.

Now, it is well known in theology that traces of the Trinity can be found in many levels of the human condition. For example, St. Augustine shows us in his De Trinatate how the psychology of the human person is Trinitarian, while reflections on God as love, such as in the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, show us how familial relations reflect God's Trinitarian nature as well. St. Gregory Palamas, in his own psychological fashion, sees human reason, the human logos as analogous to the Divine Logos in the Trinity, but reminds us that we must not take this analogy too far -- we must not confuse the Divine Logos with the human logos and bind it by human reason:
Neither is the Divine Logos equivalent to the reasoning power in our mind, even though this is soundless and operates entirely according to impulses that are bodiless. For the reasoning logos, as a faculty dependant on us, requires for its functioning successive moments of time, since it emerges gradually, proceeding from an incomplete starting-point to its complete conclusion. Rather, the divine Logos is similar to the logos implanted by nature in our intellect, according to which we are made by the Creator in His own image and which constitutes the spiritual knowledge coexistent with the intellect.[2]
Human logic is limited and bound; it is a tool which has been established through several centuries of development and refinement, but yet, it is still a tool, and its limitations are easily discerned by those who examine its features. The fact that logic can take various given truths, and in each case, come to a conclusion which might not be in accord with the conclusions which come out of other truths which we also know indicates the frail nature of the tool. Both are logically correct, and we can "understand" both as being true, even if we discern in the "and" which connects the two an antinomial paradox which our reason cannot overcome. This is especially true with revealed truths about God, because, as we shall see, God is beyond all being and predication.

But we do not have to explore divine truths to discern a problem with logic. Pavel Floresnky in his work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, shows us how the rules of logic themselves are beyond the realm of logic by pointing out what happens when we discern any given A. Any A gives to us a problem which logic cannot overcome because it shows us that we have to go beyond the dictates of reason to receive that A:
To explain A is to reduce it to 'something else,' to not-A, to that which is not A and which therefore is not not-A. It is to derive A from not-A, to generate A. And if A really satisfies the demand of rationality, if it is really rational, i.e., absolutely self-identical, it is then unexplainable, irreducible 'to something else' (to not-A), underivable 'from something.' Therefore, rational A is absolutely non-reasonable, blind A, unstransparent for reason. That which is rational is non-reasonable, non-comfortable to the measure of reason. Reason is opposed to rationality, just as rationality is opposed to reason, for them have opposite demands. [3]
Human reason allows us to explore many subjects, gain great insight into the world, but it does so practically. We see in the development of the empirical sciences what such practicality means: it is a never-ending search for perfection, which at once brings us into greater knowledge but yet, conversely, the more we come to know the more we realize we do not know. The intellect, a gift from God to us to be sure, is but human, and what it establishes is but human, and can never perfect us, nor lead us to discover the inner reality of anything which surrounds us. There is always something outside of our grasp for anything we explore, always something which cannot be reduced to the words we prescribe to it. And, we must realize, that our reasoning skill, however, good, has been hindered by sin, leading us to even further imperfections to our knowledge:
Mere skill in reasoning does not make a person's intelligence pure, for since the fall our intelligence has been corrupted by evil thoughts. The materialistic and wordy spirit of the wisdom of the world may lead us to speak about ever wider spheres of knowledge, but it renders out thoughts increasingly crude and uncouth. This combination of well-informed talk and crude thought falls far short of real wisdom and contemplation, as well as of undivided and unified knowledge.[4]
Since logic is itself a science developed by fallen humanity, it too has the imperfections of sin infecting its creation, and therefore, hampering its use and functionality in discerning the all-embracing truth behind all logic; our logic is, in effect, tainted by our egoism; it has little difficulty in dealing with individual entities cut up from each other, but it has difficulty in embracing the unitive pan-unity of creation. It is individualistic, not Sophiological.

Thus, human reason, both frail in its own limitations, is even worse off due to sin, and this provides us a double need for divine revelation. We need it to show us and lead us to the fullness of truth which transcends human logic:
It was necessary for man's salvation there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: "The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee" (Isaiah 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. [5]
But of course, this does not mean we are not to explore it with our fallible ability; rather, what is given to us is thus given to human reason and is to be explored, leading us to a greater understanding of the truth. "Although arguments from human reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith, nevertheless, this doctrine argues from articles of faith to other truths."[6] But when we do this, we must understand some things about revelation: what God reveals is that which is capable of being understood in a human way:
Now these modes of generation being well known to men, the loving dispensation of the Holy Spirit, in delivering to us the Divine mysteries, conveys its instruction on those matters which transcend language by means of what is within our capacity, as it does also constantly elsewhere, when it portrays the Divinity in bodily terms, making mention, in speaking concerning God, of His eye, His eyelids, His ear, His fingers, His hand, His right hand, His arm, His feet, His shoes , and the like—none of which things is apprehended to belong in its primary sense to the Divine Nature,— but turning its teaching to what we can easily perceive, it describes by terms well worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception.[7]
The fullness of truth evades human comprehension, whether we talk about revelation, or revelation combined with human reason. Revelation itself is given to us in analogous terms. And since what we contemplate from revelation is derivative, and is expressed through human words and human logic, what we say will tend to reveal itself as being even more imperfect. At once it will lead us into a deeper appreciation of the truth, while at the same time, because of the imperfections of all analogy, it will lead us into greater and greater paradoxes which show the limitations of the analogies which are used -- we must in those situations understand that our theological understanding is pointing to something greater than the words we use. The literal understanding of what we speak will be riddled with paradoxes, antinomies which logically follow from revelation, and can cause the one who is incapable of following the spirit of what is said to turn around and reject what has been revealed. Only once we understand that truth transcends paradoxes of theological constructions do we move beyond the games of children which seek to prove faith is irrational: it is super-rational, and intellectual, and not limited to the tools of human creation. This, then, brings us to God, who is beyond all being, beyond all predication, beyond all affirmation and negation, and therefore, beyond human logic:
There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth -- it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation, it is also beyond every denial. [8]
This is in accord with our understanding of God as being perfectly simple, as St. Albert the Great brings out from his commentary on Dionysius:
Or we can say that even the reality of these names refer to does not justify their application to God. In any predication you have to have a subject and something of which it is the subject, something that is, that is in it and be taken with it in some sense, and also there has to be some sort of relationship between them that makes one of them a proper subject and the other a proper predicate; you cannot predicate absolutely anything of absolutely anything. But God is utterly simple, and so in him it is not true that one thing is in another or that one thing is the subject of another, therefore the actuality reality of God transcends any possibility of there being subjects and predicates. This means that no proposition can truly and properly be formed about God, as the commentator shows on Metaphysics XI; when we talk about God, we use borrowed words and both subjects and predicate refer to the same reality and the distinction between them is not a real one, but only one which we make in our understanding on the basis of God's relationship to things outside himself.[9]
We can talk about God on a human level, but we must not confuse our talk with being more than mere analogy, and we must always understand the limitations of our talk. We can describe God using what God has revealed to us, and describe what logically follows from such revelation, but yet -- we must in the end deny, in the absolute sense, what it is we predicate while affirming the activity which we have done is beneficial, because we cannot talk about God without such activity: "Whatever one can attribute to him in this manner is, in a sense, all incorrect, and its negation is true. Consequently one could call him an eternal nothing. And yet, if one is to speak of how unsurpassable or even above comprehension something is, one still has to create names for it."[10]

The paradoxes which develop have led many authors, like St Bonaventure and Nicholas of Cusa, to reflect upon the coincidence of opposites in God. Here we see opposites being united as one, showing us, of course, the limitation of human constructs such as the "law of non-contradiction." Again, this is not to say the law has no value and use, but that there is a time and place for it, and a time and place where it is shown to be transcended and no longer relevant. Since God transcends all predications, all affirmations and negations, it is quite clear that God transcends such a human construct and has, for human reason, all kinds of paradoxical contradictions. Indeed, these contradictios appear to lead us to ends which are far apart from each other. And yet, in the infinite God, they are found as one. "Our reason falls far short of this infinite power and is unable to connect contradictories, which are infinitely distant."[11]

The kinds of games which are played about omnipotence, omniscience, trying to show self-contradiction in such notions, are all reflections on the limitations of the human imagination. They are predicated on a false assumption of human reason and its abilities to know truth. Instead, we must appreciate that God is beyond all human logic, even if human logic can help us explore the truth about God. Nicholas of Cusa provides us a good analogy of the problem which lies before us:
For the intellect is to truth as [an inscribed] polygon is to [the inscribing] circle. The more angles the inscribed polygon has the more similar it is to the circle. However, even if the number of its angles is increased ad infinitum, the polygon never becomes equal [to the circle] unless it is resolved into an identity with the circle. Hence, regarding truth, it is evident that we do not know anything other than the following: viz., that we know truth not to be precisely comprehensible as it is.[12]

The truth of God is outside of our comprehension, though we understand something about God through analogy, and so we must not say we are incapable of talking about God. Rather, our talk is limited, and will show those limitations the more we explore God through human reason. We grasp after God. We experience him in our lives. Although we will truly see him in the beatific vision, what we understand will not be God but something less than God,[13] always drawing us further and further in to the transcendent glory of God as we rise up and become more and more like God in our eternal theosis. For this is the reason that God became man -- so that we can become God participate in the unbounded divine life.


[1] St Antony the Great, The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 9. Or, as he says in another letter, "For he who knows himself, knows God: and he who knows God is worthy to worship Him as is right," ibid., 12.

[2] St Gregory Palamas, "Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts" in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume IV. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 360-1.

[3] Pavel Florensky, Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 24.

[4] St Gregory of Sinai, "On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; on Thoughts, Passions, and Virtues, and also on Stillness of Prayer: One Hundred and Thirty-Seven Texts" in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume IV. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 212.

[5] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros. edition, 1947), I q.1 a1.

[6] ibid., I, q.1 a.8.

[7] St Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius in NPNF2(5), 204.

[8] Pseudo-Dionysius, "Mystical Theology" in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 141.

[9] St. Albert the Great," Commentary on Dionysius' Mystical Theology" in Albert & Thomas: Selected Writings. Trans. Simon Tugwell, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 193.

[10] Bl. Henry Suso, "Little Book of Truth" in Henry Suso: The Exemplar, With Two German Sermans. Trans, Frank Tobin (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 309.

[11] Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance. Trans Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1990), 54.

[12] ibid., 52.

[13] "Someone beholding God and understanding what he saw has not seen God himself but rather something of which has being and which is knowable. For he himself solidly transcends mind and being. He is completely unknown and non-existent. He exists

beyond being and he is known beyond the mind," Pseudo-Dionysius, "Letter 1" in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 263.


  • At 3/11/2010 7:10 PM, Blogger CatholicGuy said…

    Mr. Karlson,


    Off-topic, but can't find your e-mail and wanted to make sure you got this.

  • At 4/05/2010 10:44 PM, Blogger Nancy Danielson said…

    The reason why God became man is so that we could know The Heart of God. Only through Christ, can we know the essence of Love.

    Off-topic, can't find your e-mail address-
    One cannot be a "Buddhist" Catholic because we worship The Blessed Trinity, not a quadinity or a quininity...,which is why The Holy Spirit must be The Ordered, Complementary, Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son and why the complementary nature of Man and Woman exists.

    "Let Us Make Man In Our Image."-God, a.k.a., The Blessed Trinity

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