4 responses

  1. Having read this again, it seems to me to be just repeating some of the things you say in your essay. But maybe the different, crude, wording can help.

    When I first read your piece, my inclination was to answer by saying: “The confusions you discuss can be traced back to the idea that the difference between cataphatic and apophatic theologies is a difference between species. The confusion will subside if we rather think of it as a difference between hypotheses—or views—about what it is to talk about God. For it is not that the proponent of cataphatic theology thinks that apophatic theology is a possibility, and it is not that the proponent of apophatic theology thinks that cataphatic theology is a possibility. To the cataphatic theologist, apophatic theology looks wrong or meaningless. And to the apophatic theologist, cataphatic theology looks wrong or meaningless—not a species of theology at all.”

    But I don’t like this reply. It makes the problem of talking about God look too slight. I mean this: it seems to me that when we try to talk about God, it should be completely natural for us to have cataphatic and apophatic moments, and that allowing oneself to be pulled in both directions is a sign that one is involved in theology in the right way. And this is not a matter of not being able to decide about our view. To be pulled in the two directions here does not mean to lean toward this view and then towards that. It rather means to NEED to be able to say something meaningful about God, and to NEED the realization that noting meaningful can be said about God.

    But even after saying this, I’m still not sure that the fact that we have both cataphatic and apophatic moments means that we can talk of these as two species of theology. The reason I am worried about that is that there are at least two features that make the distinction between cataphatic and apophatic theologies different from the distinction between kinds of noses, kinds of reds and kinds of gold.

    First, the distinctions between kinds of noses, of reds, and of gold separate different objects: concave and convex noses, shades of red, and pure and impure gold. The distinction between cataphatic and apophatic theologies, on the other hand, is a distinction between ways of making sense of the same thing—God. (The first distinctions are within language games, and the second is a distinction between language games.) The reason this makes me worried about saying that cataphatic and apophatic theologies are species of theology is that I’m not sure how to think of the distinction between ways of making sense in relation to the different kinds of generality—accidental, categorical, and essential. Part of what I’m unsure of is if (or when?) to say that the difference between ways of making sense of the same thing is a difference between species. What usefulness does the discussion about different kinds of generality have with regard to differences in language?

    The second feature that separates the distinction between cataphatic and apophatic theologies from the distinctions between kinds of noses, kinds of reds, and kinds of gold pertains to the fact that theology is very peculiar: When it comes to noses, to shades of red, and to gold the subject matter does not constantly escape our grasp. Something similar, I take it, can be said even if our subject matter is a form of discourse: at least some forms of discourse are relatively clear. As opposed to that, theology—the would-be discourse about God—doesn’t have a clear logic. God constantly escapes our grasp. So there seem to me to be a worry about saying that cataphatic and apophatic theologies are species of speaking about God, because it doesn’t seem to me to be clear that we can manage to talk about God in the first place (in either cataphatic or apophatic ways, or in any other way for that matters).

    So maybe we should say that if cataphatic and apophatic theologies are species (or kinds) of anything, they are not so much species (or kinds) of theology, but perhaps rather of attempts at theology—attempts at talking about God, and at understanding the difficulty of doing so. But then again, it might be the case that this is what theology is anyway: an attempt—an expression of a need that never knows how to fulfill itself.

  2. Interesting puzzles. I don’t have a lot to say, although I will confess that I’m attracted to the solution in puzzle 2, that “the apophatic theologian wages war on rational speculative theology.” Maybe “wages war” isn’t always the right term. But one might say: tries to keep it humble, or seeks to prevent the rationalists, as it were, from becoming too comfortable with, or complacent about, any particular way of talking about God.

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