Unknowing Rather Than Incorrectness

I recently finished Denys Turner’s Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God. More on it later, I hope. But one aspect of it dovetailed with a conversation I recently had about the knowledge of God, and I want to draw out how. The below is informed by Turner and I am generally writing from (what I take to be) his account of things, though sometimes I may have put things less strongly than he would. And of course, I might have Turner wrong as matter of interpretation, in which case I would welcome correction. With that said:

There is (depending on what is meant) a distinction between saying “I am wrong about God in some way” and “I do not know what I mean when I talk about God.” The former, in the sense I mean here, posits that some proposition held about God is not true, or some attribute is incorrectly assigned to Him. The second means there is some proposition held about God or some property predicated of him, the meaning of which escapes our understanding. In the first case, then, the proposition in question does not hold about God, plain and simple; it is false. In the second case, it does hold, but we don’t know how it holds (that is, it is true by analogy).

Take, for example, the statement “God is good.” The negation—”God is not good”—could mean “God lacks goodness” or, more strongly put, that”God is evil.” Turner says that the negation “God is not good” when it means “God is evil” is a negation that involves “literal falsehood.”

However, it could also mean “God is good, but how He is good is beyond our understanding, for He is not good in the way creatures are.” In this latter case, it is not that we thought God had goodness but it turns out He doesn’t. Rather, it is that He is too good for us to understand—it is not a lack, but an excess of goodness which results in the negation “God is not good.” This would be a theologically warranted negation, as opposed to the negation involving literal falsity.

To take the clearest case, one may, as part of the apophatic “process,” negate the statement “God exists,” if by this one means to deny that God exists in the way creatures do (and thus in the way our term “exists” is normally used). But this does not mean that the “God does not exist” of this process is saying the same thing as the “God does not exist” of atheism is. And as in the case of “God is good” or “God exists,” so, analogously, in all cases of propositions about or predicates of God.

For Turner, as he reads Pseudo-Dionysius, ultimately the point of apophaticism is not the denial, but the failure of language that we experience when speaking of God, by virtue of God’s being beyond both all affirmations and all denials (in other words, the theological negation “God is not good” is not itself the apophatic failure of language, for that failure consists not in denial but in God’s being beyond denial, as well as His being beyond affirmation).

Now, if what you mean by saying “I am wrong about God” is theological negation, then I think it is not useful to put it that way—certainly in our intellectual context, but perhaps even generally. Because to our ears, at the least, the statement “I am [or everyone is] wrong about God” carries with it the sense not of theological negation, but of literal negation. That is, it carries with it the equivalent of saying “God is not good” means “God is evil.”

Christianity is true, not false. The Creed is true, not false. And insofar as I affirm the creed, I am right, not wrong. Moreover, other religions, in so far as they deny truths that Christianity affirms, are false—literally false, in the sense I used above (which is not to say they contain no truth, or that grace cannot be given to non-Christians). And all of this is compatible with the idea that we do not know what God is in His essence. Turner quotes the first bit (“by…unknown”) of the following quote from St. Thomas, as I believe does Herbert McCabe, OP, a major influence on Turner:

Although by the revelation of grace in this life we cannot know of God “what He is,” and thus are united to Him as to one unknown; still we know Him more fully according as many and more excellent of His effects are demonstrated to us, and according as we attribute to Him some things known by divine revelation, to which natural reason cannot reach, as, for instance, that God is Three and One.

I find it helpful to say that we do not know what God is in Himself, and that we don’t fully grasp the way He exists, the way He is good, the way He is love, the way He is Creator, the way He is wisdom. That we are united to God as to the unknown, in that sense. I find this helpful because it reminds me that God is greater than I can understand, that His will is better than I can understand, that his providence is wiser than I can understand, and that one does not have to understand these things to be united to Him.

But I would not say that any of that implies the truth of the statement “I am [everyone is] wrong about God.”

[I am indebted to Frater Urban Hannon for recommending Turner to me, and I am sure my reading of Turner, and what I have written here, is influenced by communications with Frater Hannon]

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