The Paradox of God II by Augustine Holmes OSB

December 30, 2010


Pietro Perugino The ceiling medallion depicting God the Creator and angels.


Today’s post is the concluding selections from Fr. Holmes The Paradox of God and deals with a review of Thomism and the emergence of the modern attempt to find alternative ‘foundations’ instead of God. That attempt by the secularists, needless to say, has failed and they have been left with creation without a Creator. For them there is no guarantor of reality and all collapses into the void of nihilism. Fortunately the Christian view of creation both grounds reality and affirms the paradox in the Sustaining God.

Speaking of the Absolute: God the Unknown?
St Thomas famously said we can know that God is, not what he is. This needs qualification, but the way Christian thinkers speak about God, especially their use of affirmation and negation, shows that we must hold both his transcendence and his immanence; and, as we have seen in our discussion of the Old Testament, transcendence has a certain priority within this paradox.

The first Christian writer to use the Greek terms cataphatic and apophatic for the positive and negative ways of speaking about God was the Syrian who wrote c. 500AD under the pseudonym Denys the Areopagite (cf Acts 17:34). They had previously been used by the Neo-platonist Proclus (c.410-485AD), for whom the way of negation applied to the utterly transcendent ‘One’ we have already encountered, and the way of affirmation to the separate manifestations of the One described in Plato’s dialogue Parmenides[ Plato and Parmenides, tr. F.M. Cornford (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979).]

Plato ends the Parmenides with a series of Hypotheses on the One and the Many. While earlier Platonists such as Albinus saw them as an exercise in logic, the Neo-Platonists interpreted them theologically. Proclus is so apophatic that he denies that one can even say of the One that it is the One!]. As a Christian, Denys transcended Neoplatonic dualism by uniting these terms so that they both referred to the same God, thus affirming our paradox: God reveals something of himself in creation and revelation, which we can affirm, but this is not “the hidden Being that transcends being” [Denys, The Divine Names 1.] Generally speaking Denys speaks of God cataphatically in his treatise The Divine Names and apophatically in the shorter Mystical Theology. A good translation of all his works is found in Dionysius: The Complete Works, tr. Colm Luibheid (London: SPCK, 1987)..

Denys has been unfairly suspected of being more Platonist than Christian, but he was in fact part of a long Christian tradition of affirming the incomprehensibility of God and developing Biblical themes of divine transcendence. Following Philo and the Christian Alexandrians Clement and Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers also stressed this divine incomprehensibility in their battle against the heretic Eunomius (died 394 AD). Denying the divinity of Christ, Eunomius taught that the divine essence was only held by the Father and could be exactly defined and known as ‘unbegotten’: an example of Greek philosophy corrupting the faith because if we could know exactly what God was we would then be God.

St Thomas is heavily indebted to Denys. He uses his positive and negative theology and also his ‘negation of negation’ by the Greek prefix huper, the ‘way of eminence’: God is not just not good, he is super-good. It is, however, in his doctrine of analogy that Thomas most classically allows us to speak of the unknown God. This is a way of using a term to describe two things which is neither univocal, the word means the same in both instances, nor equivocal, it means something different in each; nor is it even metaphorical, the word conveys truth but not literally.

The Limits Of Created Analogies
In analogy the meanings are related but different, and in speaking of God one must remember that “between Creator and creature no similarity can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilarity” [Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Lateran Against Abbot Joachim, DS 806. ] When Thomas says we cannot know what God is, “this does not mean that we may say nothing at all about him, but we must realise that he always transcends anything we can say about him”[ Thomas Aquinas In Boeth. De Trin. II 1 ad6]. For Thomas we know what something is when we can define it, but God is outside all classes and categories and thus we must use analogy. Again we return to creation: since God is not a material object and we can only know anything by abstraction from material things, he is unknowable in his essence; in their perfections, however, creatures resemble God their source and therefore on this basis we can speak of God by analogy.

The Depth Of Mystery
This mixture of knowledge and ignorance, with the latter predominating, is a constant of Judaeo-Christian thought about God and it allows one to realistically affirm divine transcendence. It enables one to speak of God while retaining the mystery; but to speak of God in any way is impossible for many who are influenced by certain trends in modern philosophy. Analogy is an answer to pure empiricism (all knowledge derives from experience- as in materialism), but when one denies any constant referents of meaning (denying what ‘post-modern’ theorists call ‘foundationalism’) there can not only be no valid God-talk but also no objectively valid discourse about anything: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalms 11:3).One could argue that only by grounding things in a transcendent God can one affirm anything at all and thus avoid nihilism; paradoxically only God can preserve modern secular society. Much post-Enlightenment philosophy must be rejected before one can speak of God today, but mere intellectual affirmation is not enough. An authentic doctrine must relate to the whole person and thus I would argue that it must have some contact with mysticism: the experience of the paradoxical God.

Mysticism: Vision of God or of Oneself?  
Religious experience is not a good rational proof of God as it is so personal and ambiguous, but it is very relevant to our subject as the Christian mystics usually describe their experience in terms where the two poles of our paradox are held in non-contradiction: “One can only approach God via the cloud of unknowing; yet the only place one can find him is in the apex of the soul. [Eric Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism].

In holding together divine immanence and transcendence, however, one needs to ask whether, as many key modern thinkers affirm, mysticism is really only making statements about human subjectivity. Once this question is dealt with, two themes in Eastern Christian mystical theology may help our understanding of the paradox: natural contemplation and the distinction between divine essence and energies. These are often held to be in opposition to Western Catholic theology but there are actually remarkable points of contact.

Karl Rahner said that “dogmatic theology today must be theological anthropology” as “it deals with man’s salvation and really with nothing else”. His interpretation of man’s unsettled nature as a capacity for transcendence is traditional, being found for example at the start of Augustine’s Confessions, but it has more recent roots in nineteenth century German thought. FDE Schleiermacher emphasised ‘feeling’ as “an existential self-awareness which conveys an intuition of the human condition as a relation of total dependence on God”. (To which Hegel is said to have replied, “If the feeling of absolute dependence is the touchstone of religion, then a dog would be the most religious of beings”). Subjective feeling alone is not enough, and the problem for orthodox belief and mystical experience is whether one can really say that this ‘supernatural existential’ is an immanent experience of (desire for) the transcendent God or just a projection of the riches of the self to which the divine name is attached.

The modern critique of religion has moved “from fraud to Freud”. While the Enlightenment attack of such as HG Reimarus attempted to disprove the Gospel evidence, more recently any appeal to ‘God within’ or to a sense of his transcendence can be dismissed as “nothing but a projection of banished desires or repressed fears”. Freud’s God is a Father substitute and for him religion results from ‘desire for incest’.

For Alfred Adler it springs from the ‘will to power’, but Jung, who noted that patients’ dreams were full of God-imagery, was not satisfied and took religion seriously, interpreting it using archetypes in the unconscious. The problem here is whether these inherited images from the collective unconscious have any referent outside the unconscious mind. The English Dominican Victor White argued that they represent “an innate aspiration for God”, but Jung himself remained agnostic. [Michael Novak seemed to reach a different conclusion from this quote from Jung during a BBC interview: “Waiting in silence, in abandonment, even in the dry sands of the desert, one comes to know His presence. Not believe in it. Know it. In a 1959 interview with the BBC, C. G. Jung once made the same point. Asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied, “I don’t believe — I know.”]

Jung deliberately argued from an empiricist point of view while allowing the possibility that “God himself created the soul and its archetypes”. In his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung notes that his break with Freud was over the latter’s dogmatic opposition to religion, but he also reveals his own agnosticism and his ambivalent interest in alchemy and the occult. While depth-psychology can be given a Christian interpretation, it may be just a foundationless game with words. Similarly ‘atheist-theologians’ such as Don Cupitt who hold an anti-realist ‘coherence’ view of truth can use God-language: “‘God exists’ is true, not because the word God refers to an everlasting Being or a timeless substance but because the phrase has a use and a purpose within the… believing community”.

The Mind’s Ascent To God By Contemplating His Creation
Thus one must beware of presuppositions that neutralize seemingly orthodox discourse about God. Talk of God’s presence in creation can be just as subjectivist as that concerning his presence in us, but the patristic doctrine of natural contemplation (in Greek theôria physik) is a convincing way of affirming divine immanence while preserving transcendence. This is the contemplation of the logoi within things as taught by Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Denys and Maximus the Confessor. The Fathers held that at the heart of each created thing is its interior principle or logos, implanted in it by God the Word (in Greek Logos) through whom the Father creates (John 1:3). By contemplation of the material world and the events of history we enter via their logoi into communion with God, who is above and beyond all things yet as Creator within all things. The advantage of this seemingly esoteric theory is that it inserts a cosmic dimension into mysticism which is generally lacking in the West, at least in theory. It is thus a useful antidote to New Age pantheism.

Attaining to the Divine Essence?
Natural contemplation leads to theologia: an imageless contemplation of God in himself to which one is raised by grace and which results in deification: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In affirming this many Eastern Fathers posit a distinction between the essence and energies of God which safeguards the paradox of divine immanence and transcendence; a distinction elaborated by St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). The essence is absolutely inaccessible but we can have union with the uncreated energies which are God himself in his self-manifestation. St Thomas, however, follows the Western tradition in teaching that man can be raised by the grace of the light of glory to the vision of the divine essence itself, although there are degrees of glory and we will even then not know him fully.

For many Thomists the essence/energies distinction introduces an unwarranted division into God, but Palamas emphasizes that each energy is truly the one indivisible God, and that the distinction is only to be maintained from our point of view to preserve the paradox. The controversy reflects two interpretations of Dionysian apophaticism: 1) Aquinas: the unknowability of God is caused by the limitations of the created mind, which must be raised beyond itself to see God; 2) Palamas: unknowability is a property of the divine nature, although God can reveal himself. Thomist and Palamite both reject Eunomian comprehension of God, however, and the contradiction is largely at the level of language, as they both aim to hold the same mystery of our participation in the transcendent God: the same God reveals himself and remains transcendent in his own revelation.

The Problem of Evil - Does God Suffer?
Christian tradition has rich resources for understanding and presenting our relationship to the transcendent God, but in some quarters today the Christian view of God has radically changed. Rather than unchanging and impassible, the God who is love is now called “sensitive, emotional and passionate.” Like the ‘historical Jesus’ of liberal exegetes, this new God looks rather like an ideal projection of its academic creators; but, although it resolves the paradox away from transcendence, there are genuine modern concerns which have caused this change.

A Return To The God Of The Scriptures
The historical-critical method of exegesis separated Biblical studies from systematic theology and encouraged an examination of the thought-forms of the Bible itself. The Biblical God, especially that of the Old Testament, is often presented in an anthropomorphic manner and is even said to change his mind (e.g. Exodus 32:14; Psalms 77:10; Jeremiah 18:8). This fits well with a key trend in modern thought identified thus by Vatican II: “A dynamic and evolutionary concept of nature is being substituted for a more static one” (Gaudium et Spes 5).

This is true in all areas: social theory, philosophy, theology (e.g. the idea of development of doctrine), psychology, as well as biology and physics. It is thus not surprising that ‘becoming’ has invaded the sphere of perfect Being, and in process theology we have a limited God who grows and develops as he interacts with the world. [The movement started in 1920s America and its exponents include AN Whitehead, C Hartshorne and WN Pittinger. They reject 'static metaphysics' and 'classical theism' and instead of transcendent/immanent speak of divine 'bi-polarity' as primordial/consequent. In Process and Reality (1929) Whitehead called God "the fellow-sufferer who understands". A Thomist would say that the process 'god' points beyond himself to a First Cause i.e. God.]

The more immediate roots of a suffering changing God, however, are in the horrors of the twentieth century, Auschwitz etc.: the problem of evil. So compelling are these arguments, taken seriously by important Catholic theologians such as Jean Galot and Hans Urs von Balthasar, that the Protestant Jurgen Moltmann could write in 1991, “The doctrine of the essential impassibility of the divine nature now seems finally to be disappearing from the Christian doctrine of God”. [J Moltmann, History and the Triune God (London: SCM, 1991), p.xvi. His The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), played an important role in this change. Jean Galot, Dieu souffre-t-il? (Paris: Lethielleux, 1976); Balthasar, Theo-drama 5: The Last Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 212-246. Balthasar identifies the centrality of Hegel to this modern project, 224-6, and identifies Moltmann's ideas as 'Lutheran Hegelianism', p229.]Thomas Weinandy rightly argues in his recent important work Does God Suffer? that this view results from a misunderstanding of divine impassibility; it not only resolves the paradox but destroys the Christian and Biblical understanding of God.

We have seen that the God of the Bible is both wholly transcendent and fully involved. As well as the texts cited by the passibilists, those who reject divine impassibility, Scripture also explicitly teaches that God does not change: “I, the Lord, do not change” (Malachi 3:6); The Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of change” (James 1:17). The argument that this is an ethical not an ontological changelessness fails for the same reasons which reject an absolute division between Biblical revelation and philosophy.

Passibilists all agree, however, in believing that classical theism, the traditional Christian view of God, is a replacement of the Biblical view by Greek philosophy. From within authentic Christian tradition, however, the standard ‘patristic’ response to the problem is to affirm both divine apatheia (vocab: God does not suffer change) and a strong understanding of the communicatio idiomatum: the doctrine, associated with St Cyril of Alexandria, that, with the divine and human natures of Christ, the attributes of one may be predicated of the other because they are perfectly united in the one person of the Word. This enables one to say of Christ, “God suffers”. The Incarnation is thus the key, but why can one not say that it reveals the essentially passible nature of the Godhead?.

God’s Passionate Care Is Not Disordered Passion   
The answer is in this patristic notion of divine apatheia. Like the philosophers, Christians opposed the passionate and emotional gods of pagan mythology. While doing so, however, they understood the ‘passion’ (in Greek patheia) lacking in apatheia as an imposed external misfortune or an internal movement contrary to reason. Both of these are connected to sin and thus have no place in the revealed God, whereas pity, love and concern are shown by Scripture to be his essential properties.

Jerome famously said that a human claiming apatheia is “either God or a stone”. The passibilists consistently interpret patristic doctrine as saying God is like a stone: static, lifeless, inert; but it is clear from patristic texts that God’s immutability is not opposed to his vitality. Thomas Weinandy notes: “What God and rocks have in common is that they do not change… they are thus for polar-opposite reasons.. God is unchangeable because he is so dynamic that no change can make him more active”.

While not always avoiding mistakes, the Fathers generally transformed philosophical language such as apatheia when they used it to describe revealed truth. St Thomas Aquinas builds on their work to provide a deeper understanding of divine immutability. It is not primarily an indication of self-identity but rather shows the dynamic and boundless perfection of God as ‘pure act’: he is so fully realized that there is no room for any potential. It is because God is both wholly other and ‘Pure Act’ that he can be present to and active in creation.

The Suffering Christ Is Truly God
The Incarnation is the supreme presence of God in creation, one part of tradition actually says it is the goal of creation, and, as man, God suffers and dies. Passibilists invariably have a crypto-Nestorian Christology: by this I mean they follow the fifth century heresiarch Nestorius in being reluctant to identify the one Person of Jesus Christ with the second Person of the Holy Trinity. [Weinandy, 124. Balthasar, 221, notes how Origen and other Fathers both speak of divine apatheia and attribute passions such as pity to the eternal God in analogical ways which go beyond allegory and mere anthropomorphism.]

In criticizing Karl Rahner’s opposition to the ‘theopaschite’ formula “one of the Trinity has suffered”, Balthasar detects a similar error. He says that if this formula is not true and one cannot affirm that God suffers in Christ, one could rightly say: “Jesus may be having a hard time, but so what? That does not help me when I’m having a hard time”. [Balthasar, Theo-drama 5]

In rejecting a realist communicatio idiomatum, passibilists underestimate the Incarnation and tend to take Christ’s passion as a symbolic expression of what is happening in God as God. In orthodox Catholic thought, however, only the God who suffers in the flesh can both redeem us and give meaning to our suffering: otherwise he is merely an understanding friend and fellow sufferer. Thus again it is only his transcendence that gives meaning to God’s immanent activity.

Balthasar and Galot take the traditional doctrine one stage further and suggest that God’s ability to suffer in Christ is grounded in the mutual self-giving and love of the intra-Trinitarian relationships. Galot speaks of two levels in God, in a way reminiscent of Palamas, but Balthasar aims to preserve the paradox in the immanent Trinity itself. [Balthasar, Theo-drama 239-46, where he gives his source as an article by Jacques Maritain.]

We cannot discuss this here, but it does mean that a full presentation of our paradox demands reference to the mysteries of Trinity and Incarnation. That would take another article, but another key theological theme has recurred throughout this discussion: Creation. We shall therefore finally investigate how divine immanence and transcendence can only be properly understood and proclaimed by holding the orthodox distinction between the uncreated Creator and his creation.

A View From Creation: Can Modern Man Accept God?
We have noted that the paradox of God’s transcendence and immanence is relative to our position in the created order. Some theologians even see John Duns Scotus’ teaching that it is possible to consider Being in abstraction from the question of whether one is considering created or creating Being (i.e. creation or God) as at the root of modernity: the declaration of secular independence from God [A central thesis of the important modern Anglican theologian John Milbank, see his, "The Theological Critique of Philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi", in Radical Orthodoxy. ed Milbank, Pickstock, Ward (London: Routledge, 1999), 21-37.]. Certainly as ‘post-modern’ theorists have pointed out, the modern attempt to find alternative ‘foundations’ instead of God has failed and secularists have been left with creation without a Creator. For them there is no guarantor of reality and all collapses into the void of nihilism. Fortunately the Christian view of creation both grounds reality and affirms the paradox.

In his famous five ways of proving the existence of God Aquinas moves from the world of change and degree to the First Cause and Unmoved Mover: thus God is both Creator and Sustainer. Eric Mascall relates Aquinas’ project here to our paradox: “God is transcendent because a First Cause involved in the contingent cosmos would not provide a foundation for himself or anything else; God is immanent because unless every finite being was sustained at its ontological root by his incessant creative action (present by essence, presence and power), it would collapse into non-existence” [Eric Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism (London: Longmans, 1943), Chapter 10 "Transcendence and Immanence". 126].

This seemingly complex philosophical presentation confirms the insights of the Bible: God is the Creator of all and sustains all in being. Aquinas’ vision of the presence of God sustaining everything at its core is also similar to the Greek Fathers’ doctrine of the logoi outlined above, and could form the basis of a Western theory of ‘natural contemplation’.

In addition, this vision fits well with the science which informs modern culture. The sustaining God can be seen as active in the evolutionary process which follows laws present in the first moments of the ‘big bang’: he is not a ‘God of the gaps’. Stephen Hawking’s finite four dimensional universe of space and time without boundaries causes him to ask: “What place, then, for a Creator?”[ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London: Guild Publishing, 1988), 141]; but it only rules out the Deist God who starts it all and then walks away. Time is a property of creation and so the act of creation was not in time; but even with an eternal universe one still needs a simultaneous First Cause as sustainer as St Thomas allowed in his ‘five ways’.

Christ the key to ultimate Mystery
An authentic doctrine of God thus makes sense of modern science, especially as most scientists hold that the universe began in a singularity: the Big Bang. Science only describes, however, and, despite aiming at a ‘theory of everything’, it does not give ultimate explanations. The mystery remains and, while affirming the compatibility of Christianity and modern science, one must emphasize the otherness of the transcendent God if one wants to proclaim God to the modern world.

A final thought is that such a proclamation must be Christian from the start. As has been suggested above, it is only through the Incarnation and Trinity that one can begin to give a convincing response to the problem of evil, although a definitive answer must obviously wait until the beatific vision. It is also only in Christ the Logos that one can begin to form a valid picture of the paradox of our question. Our proclamation should therefore be of a mystery expressed in paradox, not of the solution to a problem; and, as proclamation is an act of language, it is itself a paradox as it proclaims him who cannot be expressed: as Augustine said: ‘If you comprehend it, it is not God’.

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