Sunday, May 27, 2012

Can we know the nature of God?

There are several ways of describing how much we can know about God.
1. Apophatic or ‘negative theology’: We can know nothing of the true Divine nature.
2. Cataphatic or ‘positive theology’: We can know something of the nature of God.

Within the positive approach, there are two options:
2a. Our knowledge refers only by analogies
2b. Our knowledge (at least in part) does truly refer to God.

1. Apophatic Theology
One well-established religious tradition—apophatic or ‘negative theology’—that refuses to make statements about Divinity. This is the via negativa.
This is almost self-contradictory, like saying "Nothing can be known about God". Not even that statement itself!

2a. Knowledge by Analogies
There have historically been many analogies for how we might be related to the divine, and the bible is nearly full of metaphorical descriptions of divine and spiritual things.

Aquinas uses the negative approach in part when he says that common terms such as ‘life’, ‘wisdom’, even ‘existence’ can only be applied to God analogically. He combines the via negativa with an analogical account of the way we know God. According to him, God does not have wisdom but has something analogous to wisdom. We talk about love with humans and love with God, but these are not strictly the same thing. Rather, God has something that is like the love that we know. It is sufficiently like love that we do call it love, but it is strictly distinct. Terms in his theology are not univocal, but analogous. According to Aquinas, this is all that can be given.

This would make establishing a theistic science difficult. None of the terms we might want to use in our arguments actually refers properly to God under the negative or analogical traditions. I, therefore, do not follow it.

2b. Unequivocal Knowledge
Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was one opponent of Aquinas on this issue. Scotus holds, for example, that ‘being’ is a univocal notion applicable to everything that exists without restriction. This to return to the position of Parmenides, for whom being is the central concept. According to Scotus, we should be able to unequivocally describe God with terms such as being, love and wisdom. Scotus’ view has become the dominant view in later Western history, and we will need it within theistic science. That is, we should try to avoid using analogies at the most fundamental level of explanation.

So I will attempt to form a cataphatic or positive theology and one, moreover, in which we can actually describe God to some extent.

I want to start with whatever can be truly attributed to God and then use well-specified analogies and similarities to deduce what attributes can then be truthfully attributed to us. I believe we have sufficient concepts given to us via revelation that we can make statements about God that are mostly true. We do not, of course, claim to make statements about all of an infinite God. We only claim that our terms do properly refer to God and at least approximately describe the nature of God.

That should not blind us, however, to the crucial role of analogies in learning new ideas concerning nature and divinity. In fact, some analogies are so important that they link not just our ideas, but also nature and divinity themselves. We call these relations correspondences. Later I will discuss how such relations are more than analogies and how they are important descriptions of structures and dynamics within theism. And, using theistic science, we will unequivocally describe things related by such correspondences and then see why the various analogies do hold. In this way we will have the univocal language of Scotus, while simultaneously agreeing with Aquinas that particular analogies are essential to understanding the relations between divinity and created things.

Adapted from chapters 7 and 11 of Starting Science From God.

No comments:

Post a Comment