The Wholly Other and the Possibility of a Theological LanguageTheology today is most fundamentally in quest of a language and mode whereby it can speak. Above all it is in quest of a language whereby it can speak of God.
- Thomas J. J. Altizer
When we speak of God, in the Western tradition, we speak in two ways: mysticism and philosophy. With mysticism we emphasize the otherness and uncontainability of God, the ineffability of the divine. With philosophy we explain God’s place in our system of thought, what God does in our world and how, so to speak, he works as a thing in this world. Both of these languages, however, are problematic. In mysticism we lose God, in this ineffability he slips beyond our world, beyond our comprehension. I am not speaking of the worst of mysticism, which is a fetish of secrets and obscured theology that believes itself capable of conjuring or decoding the divine, but of the best of mysticism which comes from this impulse of due reverence but still always loses the divine into the fog of distance between man and God. In philosophy, we lose God in the opposite manner, we lose God by containing him, bringing God into the circumference of our system and thereby making him less than God. In philosophy God reaches man and enters into the world but in fact becomes a part of the world. The world contains objects – men and trees and elephants and now, God. If God is included in our philosophy he becomes an ontological object, a bit of the furniture that makes up the arrangement of things. If God is beyond our philosophy, if he doesn’t enter our world, then he is irrelevant to it. We have God inside and God outside and neither of them are what we want when we want to speak of God.
We need, somehow, to have God in our world without our world containing God. We need, somehow, God outside our world without eliminating him from it. The God we want to talk about is both beyond comprehension and comprehendible. If we play it one way we lose God, the other and we still lose him. We seem then to be in an impossible bind. If God is in our world then he’s less than God, if outside it, He’s irrelevant. We need a God that crosses the line of outside/inside without falling over it. All of our philosophies and mysticisms attempt this (note, for example, that Spinoza’s heroic attempt to de-anthropomorphize God is problematized and tempered by the very real and this-world experience of men who love God) but seem to all fail at crucial moments, letting God slide irreconcilably into or out of our world. It is interesting to note that this problem doesn’t exist for Zeus, or angels, or UFOs.
The greatest attempt at speaking of God in such a way as to allow him to be wholly other, ineffably divine and yet still to take a place in our world and reach us here, is Anselm’s ontological argument’s thinking of infinity. Anselm attempts to balance God on this line so that God is infinite, he is the beyond, and also enters in. Anselm’s description of God has him piercing into this world and letting us see the Other. The person who approaches God Anselm-wise does so very vertically. He sees by God and through God to a God which cannot be delimited by the sight of man. (I’m not taking the time to recite Anselm’s argument, but if anyone would like we can talk about it during questions.)
Whether his argument works or not, there is something that feels wrong about it. I find this feeling in the island-argument response of his contemporaneous monk, in Kant’s famous rebuttal, and also in the average reading of your average freshman. It works on paper, the logic is sound, and yet we are deeply uncomfortable with it. I think there are two ways it feels wrong: First, it feels like a technicality. There’s a seemingly accidental nature of the proof. It is as if Anselm found a lucky technical solution for God. Second, this God of Anselm’s is entirely impersonal. In being on paper, he’s present to us logically, but not viscerally.
We may, however, be asking Anselm’s project to extent way beyond its limited intentions. Anselm is not attempting to prove the existence of God. Anselm’s “proof” is at most secondary, as he’s trying to prove that God’s character or nature is as we believed it to be and in doing this he sets out a way we can talk about God. Many readings of Anselm’s argument are trying, really, to follow him backwards. Where Anselm move was one of, as he said, “faith seeking understanding,” we read him trying to get from understanding to faith. But even coming from faith to understanding, we have a few problems with his formulation of a theological language whereby we may speak of God.
Anselm wants to move from meditation on the word “God” to God. He’s echoing Augustine’s language where Augustine says he wants to go from hearing the word “Deus” to “reach something than which nothing is better or more sublime.” It is unclear whether Anselm knew it or not, but he is also echoing the words of Seneca, where Seneca says God’s “magnitude is that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Problem: Augustine and Anselm want to use this theological language to speak of something that is beyond our world, unencirclalbe by our systems of thought, but Seneca uses the same language to speak of a god that isn’t wholly Other, that is one god among many and one worldly thing among many worldly things. Reexamining the language where God is “that which greater than which none can be conceived,” there is nothing to say that a God such as that must be something more than ontological furniture, more than the very absolutely biggest thing in the world. Anselm claims that in the course of his meditation he goes from God in intellectu, in perception, to God in re, in existence or, problematic yet literal, in things. So here too God has slipped into our world.
When men of faith talk about the death of God, they begin to count our types of God and to show us how the God who is now dead was never the one we wanted anyway. We are not speaking here of the old fashioned atheists, like, say, Sartre, who didn’t want a God or believe in any sort of God and thought an age without God would be a golden one, but of the men who loved something they called God, who’ve lost something they called God. Pascal is perhaps most famous for this, speaking of the “philosopher’s God” and opposing that God to the God he had, by philosophy, intended to love, the God of Abraham. Pascal sees that any God who is a piece of a philosophic system is less than God and he sees us struggling to speak of God in any way so that what we speak of can be the God we and he had set out to love and understand. He wants to stop himself at this point of ontological speaking and say no, something’s terribly wrong with this God who either slips beyond our world into obscure and nonsensical talk or slips into our world and becomes a bit of ontological furniture. He thinks that we began, as Anselm instructed, with faith seeking understanding but that the understanding has destroyed our faith. Let us then, he says, lose this God. So much the better. Buber makes this same move, counting in our history two Gods, two things we called God and we’ve now lost one but it turns out to be the one that was never really God. Buber says there is an It-God who was an object, and a Thou-God. Philosophy has always been about the It-God, and it may have seduced us into thinking we were loving the Thou-God by speaking of the It-God, but we were mistaken and the sooner the It-God passes away the better.
I am being to quick and short with Buber, Pascal and co., but what their story seems to be missing is the anguish. They’re with Sartre in dismissing this thing we said we loved as a hocus pocus story, and perhaps it was but to rush out to a solution so swiftly misses the pain this loss has caused us. Note that Nietzsche’s mad man, after proclaiming in the streets that God is dead and we have killed him, begins to weep and when no one understands him he goes to a requiem for the deceased divine. He is overwhelmed by anguish. When someone says “God is dead and we didn’t want him anyway” there’s something that’s just been run over. So let us say “yes, perhaps,” but then also query further. When a man destroys his household idols, having thought of them as gods but seeing now they weren’t, he’s still losing something, killing something. What? What did he think he had, what did we think we had with this thing we called God? There is an old joke about the atheist who is mad at God for not existing. It’s a joke because we don’t understand how someone could be mad at something that doesn’t exist because it doesn’t exist, but the anguish is very real. Where Buber and Pascal can be glad to be rid of that God, Nietzsche’s mad man, the atheist, Kierkegaard’s depiction of Abraham’s distress, and Christ’s cry of abandonment all express a pain that’s present in the loss. If we skip this anguish we have missed something, so let us ask again, what have we lost when we’ve lost what we called God?
What we wanted from the Anselmian project was the preservation of the infinite, was the intrusion of the ineffable into our world in such a way that it both reached us and remained beyond us. We need an infinite we can behold without making finite. The initial problem, which still remains, is how to think of and speak of God without either consuming him or losing him. Buber and Pascal still need a way to talk about God, still need a theological language. Let’s look at two modern attempts at speaking of God without disfiguring him, first the ethical and second the impossible.
There’s a Hasidic parable told about Adam and Eve. On the day they were cast from the garden the sun set for the first time and as the world passed into dusk and then into darkness they were terrified, believing that their sin had set the world sinking into nothingness. They spend the night trembling in fear, eyes dilated to the darkness, looking each other in the face. For them there was now nothing, God had left them and the world had gone dark and there was nothing left but the face of the other.
Tolstoy tells a religious story about a cobbler named Martin who despairs of life and wants to see God. Martin is promised in a dream that he would, the next day, see God. So he goes about his day keeping on the look out for God and does pretty well but is distracted, eventually, by someone in need. They’re cold and need something to eat and a coat so he takes them in and cares for them and realizes later that he was distracted and didn’t see Jesus. That night again he hears a voice promising that he will see God the next day, if he remains vigilant. The same thing happens the next day and he hears the voice again and then again he’s distracted by someone in need and then the last night, in total despair, he apologizes to God for getting distracted and asks to die. That night in a dream he sees the people he has helped walking by and he hears the voice telling him that he has seen the face of God in the face of these people.
Perhaps the error of Anselm’s attempt at beholding the ineffable was its verticalness. In the most recent scholarship on death of God theology there occurs and reoccurs a turn to Levinas and his talk of the face of the other. The “other” in Levinas, is a conflation of the otherness of people, the faces we see around us, and the Otherness of God. This is not a problem but rather the point. He wants to make an incarnational move. Levinas attempts to make the Anselmian move horizontally, and with that horizontality to let us see God in a way that’s not technical and is very visceral. He thinks the face of the other offers us a way in which to see the infinite, the ineffable, the unthinkable divine, without surrounding it, overrunning it, and destroying it. Through the face of other people we can let God enter the world and reach us while still remaining uncontainable. This ethics can speak theologically without losing God either by enclosing him in our world or walling him outside of it. Levinas offers us the possibility of a theological language that allows us to talk about God so that he’s in our world without our world containing him, and outside our world without being eliminated from it.
Yet. I had hoped to stop here, and yet the horizontal language has only repeated the problems of the vertical one. Buber’s point about the It-God and the Thou-God apply especially to people. It’s nice to think of the face of the other as happening in this space that is both in my world and reaching me and outside this world saying unencompasable, but really does this happen? Speaking practically and only for myself, I am a solipsist. How does one go about looking with the Levinasian look that doesn’t deface the face of the other? When we speak about people, we speak about them as things in this world, among the ontological furniture. There is nothing about the vertical move which allows the face to stay at this inside/outside space, it is constantly slipping into our world of things and being overrun, surrounded and destroyed. In explicitly Christian terms, notice that the incarnarnational God-the-Son is no easier to explain and no less prone to heresy than the outside-the-world creator God. This horizontal theological language, as far as I can see, isn’t any more possible than the first one.
So that’s it. Theological language is impossible and we are offered the bad choice of either speaking about God in a language that disfigures and defaces him or to say nothing at all. But, enter Derrida, perhaps this impossibility is the key to theological language, perhaps it is only with the impossibility always before us that we can speak about God while not disfiguring him. That is, Derrida wants to put forward the possibility of a language that recognizes and remains ever aware of its impossible task, thus it speaks of God, then notes its own inadequacies, then speaks of God, etc. This is a language that continually points out its own failure, a language that is always restless and disturbed. Our third choice is that of a blind theological language that recognizes its blindness, speaking within that blindness so that we know we’re saying impossible things but we are, by grace, through faith, hanging on by our teeth anyway.
Preliminary example: Parables.
There are, I think, three types of death of God theology:
1. Secularization or Scientification. This is the idea, popular with Chesterton, Lewis and many at Hillsdale College that historical changes have closed us off to the realm of the spiritual, that because of modernization or secularization or whatever historical movement, modern man sees the world wholly physical and scientific terms and cannot fathom the idea of the divine.
2. Theodical – the problem of evil. This is an old theological problem, but it comes up in new and troublesome ways, for example, in Jewish theologies after the holocaust, where they begin to wonder how they can talk about God in a world this evil. The classic example of this is Milton’s theodicy, where he ends up, I take it accidentally, heroizing Satan. Those Christians who say that God doesn’t know the future are, I think, examples of attempts at this kind of theology.
3. Ontological. This is what I’m going to talk about, not because the other two aren’t real problems or important, but because I think this is the oldest problem for theological language, because it’s logically prior to the first two, and because I think this is the problem we talk about the least.