Theology as Grammar

During the past month I’ve been reading through books and articles published in a syllabus for a “Philosophy for Theology” course at the University of Dayton taught by Brad Kallenberg. Kallenberg was a student of Nancey Murphy and has made some unique contributions to the study of Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Much of his work focuses on Wittgenstein in relation to Aristotle’s/Aquinas’ understanding of the close relationship between ethics and practical reasoning. You know, the stuff your parents taught you, like learning any skill requires time and commitment, and only later does it become second nature with practice.

I get the idea that reading Thomas’ interpreters can be like listening to your parents sometimes, except, in this case, you have to first listen to them in medieval Latin. Reading discussions of terminology that doesn’t have the same meaning in contemporary English looking for a few insights isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Changing the metaphor, Ben Myers, says, “[I] reckon reading a good work of Wittgensteinian Thomism is like taking a bath: you emerge clean, fresh and invigorated – even if it’s hard to see exactly what you’ve taken away from the experience.” 

Nonetheless, I persisted. As I read three of these thinkers, Fergus Kerr, David Burrell, and Herbert McCabe, I began to appreciate three things: focus on methodology and definition, rootedness and development within tradition, and close readings of texts. This theological tradition does these best. Wittgenstein is a dialogue partner for these Thomists because his overall approach regarding language draws out a number of latent ideas in Aquinas. Of course, there are other thinkers that have been made to serve the same function, notably Immanuel Kant.  The interpreters influenced by Wittgenstein, as a rule, don’t pretend to be Thomistic originalists. Denys Turner, commenting first on McCabe’s methods and interests, states, “He’d been deeply influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Somehow or other Wittgenstein came into the mix as well; though quite when it was Wittgenstein, when it was Thomas Aquinas, and when it was Herbert, was an entire mystery to me, and it didn’t seem to matter.

I want to look at three examples of writing under the category “Wittgensteinian Thomism”. The first is chapter 7 of Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein. The second David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action, particularly chapter 6 “An Objection: Process Theology”.  The third is Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language” (Modern Theology 15:2 April 1999).


Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

For Fergus Kerr the key to the relationship between Wittgenstein and Aquinas is Wittgenstein’s phrase in the Philosophical Investigations, “theology as grammar” which he  apparently borrowed from Luther.

Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar).”

Wittgenstein reflects that we want to know what kind of language is being used, how the language is taken by its speakers, and the rules of the conversation.  We cannot get straight to the “thing itself” without going through words. Applying this to theology, we must realize that faith is embedded in human life and stop viewing it as some inward and invisible mental-spiritual state. It follows, then, that one cannot take words out of their original religio-cultural context without altering their meaning.

“Whether I mean the same thing by saying ‘I believe in God’ as other people do when they say the same thing will come out a various places in our lives: our practices, aspirations, hopes, virtues, and so on. It will show in the rest of what we do whether we have faith in God. It will not be settled by our finding that we make the same correlation between our words and some item of metaphysical reality…Faith, in appropriate circumstances, is visible in one’s behavior; it is not some undetectable inner object.” — Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

The fact that religious belief is intwined with our history means that we are also not going to be able to criticize belief from some neutral, scientific perspective. Here Kerr gives an account of Wittgenstein’s reading of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It reminded me of Girard’s views on myth in comparison with Joseph Campbell’s in our day.

“In effect, Frazer’s theorizing conceals our kingship with his savages by assuming that their customs can be made intelligible to modern civilized men round Cambridge college dinner table only by dispassionate observation – as if these tables were not occupied by beings at least as sinister as any dancing savage. By resorting to scientific objectivity we have a method of disowning biological and historical continuity with our ancestors…We prefer a certain interpretation of other people’s behavior to understanding what is deep and sinister in ourselves…That considering the execution of an innocent man is a more promising starting point for sustaining Christian theology than proving that God exists might be one unsurprising conclusion.” — Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

This leads me to another Wittgensteinian Thomist, David Burrell. What is the nature of this God we believe in? In recent years, the classical paradigm has been challenged by process thought that claims a new and better metaphysic. Are the classical concepts hopelessly contaminated with substantialist metaphysics? Is Thomas’ concept of God static? David Burrell responds to the objections of process theology with an explanation of Aquinas intentions. In short, Burrell shows, onc again, the usefulness of the idea of “theology as grammar”. He believes that Hartshorne and others are not attentive enough to the specific context and grammar of Aquinas’ system:

“...the fault lies no so much with Aquinas as with those who neglect his warning signals and mistake his inquiry into what God is not for a treatment of the divine nature. More specifically, the crucial oversight consists in failing to appreciate the philosophic virtue of the ‘linguistic turn’.” (Burrell, 91)

Aquinas had two central concerns when speaking of God.  Th first was that he didn’t want Christians to think of God as one more thing in the world. The second was that he didn’t want them to think of God as having anything we might describe as lack (i.e. needing something in order to be complete). These two concerns function as limiters to speech, not positive statements.

Nothing is learned directly about God by insisting that he must be good, limitless, unchangeable, and one. Rather, Aquinas shows how these predicates are equivalent to the key predicate simple, which in turn serves as a systematic reminder that nothing can be said of God. Many have overlooked the explicitly grammatical cast of these question, of course, and confused such predicates with divine attributes like loving, merciful, just, and faithful…If ‘unchangeable’, for example, is taken as a descriptive term rather than a proscription, we can only regard it as characterizing a situation. And ‘static’ means ‘zero motion’. Aquinas, however, derives unchangeableness from simpleness. As we have already noted, he makes that derivation precisely to remind us that God is beyond the very category of motion (with its contraries of movement and rest). — David Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Of course, we still have a need for direct statements (what we should say about God). According to Burrell, each limiter (Burrell calls them prescriptive rubrics) is followed by a related observation on a different level of discourse:

After remarking on God’s simpleness, Aquinas affirms his perfection; after showing good to be equivalent to being, he can speak of God’s goodness. Having derived limitlessness from simpleness, he speaks of God’s existence in things, and after showing how unchangeableness follows from limitlessness, Aquinas talks about the eternity of God. Unity carries two dimensions within itself: on the one hand, whatever is one; on the other hand, oneness suggests wholeness. — Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Aquinas does get around to using traditional religious language, but he wants to make it clear that we are dealing with analogous language at this level. The guiding paradigm for Aquinas are living things. Goodness, for example, is seen as bounty. God is like an agent in an action (actus), possibly more like a verb than a noun. This is hard to communicate using our language with its subject/predicate structure. If there is no distinguishing between being and activity, Aquinas says, then God more like a process, not a passive having these qualities.

Here is another example. In our ordinary language we naturally (it’s a temptation for each of us according to Kerr) think of God as a person who happens to be a father. In normal discourse about God this will occur, but this is to speak, in a different register, of the relationship and process of “fathering”. This is what we mean by “the Father”.

Aquinas’ esse (which I haven’t mentioned) is not static in the sense of being a motionless substance. For Aquinas, esse=being/existence, not unmoving, but as in “an ocean of being” derived from John of Damascus, who in medieval thought was seen as bearer of the theology of the ancient church. Juxtaposing being and becoming as dialectical opposites is the wrong move in seeking to understand Aquinas.

One final thought before we leave David Burrell’s work: in response to an objection by process theologians that classical  theism is somehow still too remote or apophatic, particularly in light of the anthropomorphic language of scriptural revelation, Burrell counters that “the God they [process theologians] propose, while inspired by the Gospels, would not need to have been the agent of such a revelation. Appearing more Christian in spirit, this God of process theology could also dispense with his self-revelation in Jesus.

Finally, what can “theology as grammar” tell us about the central rite of the Christian church – the Eucharist? To answer that question I looked at Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language”. McCabe, a Roman Catholic, uses the language of transubstantiation when speaking of the Eucharist. This is language that he knows is easily caricatured as a thinly veiled miracle made possible by misleading appearances hiding a chemical process by both supporters and detractors alike. McCabe assures us that this is not what Aquinas meant. In brief, we might define it as “the real presence of Christ shown by means of a sign on two levels–one present and one future.” Yet, the important fact is that, whatever language we use to describe it, whether using Aristotelian substance and accident, or a more contemporary term such as meaning, the language will not, in this particular case, be adequate. Or perhaps we could say that our language is even less adequate than is normally the case. The difference between this and other human activities is that the initiative, the ‘deeming so’, comes from God. Whatever is deemed so by God, according to McCabe, is actualized, i.e. comes into existence ex nihilo, like creation.

[T]he Eucharist is the Word of God and not the word of man. We make, as well as being made by our human language, but we do not make the meaning of the Eucharist; if it is anything of interest it is the Word of God and thus a word of power: the creative word that says “light be”—and there was light. The re-creative word says “this is my body and my blood”—and so it is. What the bread and wine have become is clearly not an icon, picture, reminder of Christ but Christ himself, and him crucified, the only one who can reconcile the opposites, who can bring life out of death. –Herbert McCabe, “Eucharist as Language”


Something happens in the Eucharist that relates to a system of meanings that is only partially present in our world – the Kingdom of God understood as the complete presence of Christ. In this world, this reality can only be manifest through signs. The sign of the elements becomes the language God speaks to us in. Using the paradoxical language of Orthodox writer, John Zizioulas, it is ‘the memory of the future’.

If I understand McCabe correctly, it might be helpful to think of the Eucharist as taking place in three tenses: past, present, and future. It participates in, has a part to play in the meaning of, a future event that is also a present reality for the church. It is also, of course, an historical memory. Accordingly, if “meaning can only be understood in terms of the larger notion of structure“, the ultimate structure of which the Eucharist has a role is the full presence of Christ/the Kingdom and the eternal love of the Trinity– that point when God will become “all in all” (as Moltmann never tires of saying).  When we use language more precisely, or better, fully, we actually don’t whittle it down to dictionary definitions, or flatten it out into a single level, but instead speak as broadly as possible. This often involves metaphor and poetry, by which we stretch our language. The medievals therefore spoke of three different levels regarding the Eucharist in order to do that:

  1. sign (sacramentum tantrum) — in this case, the visible meal.
  2. what is signified in this world (res et sacramentum) — our human word of friendship and reconciliation (the real presence of Christ).
  3. what is signified at the deepest level (res tantum) — the ultimate mystery, the agape of the Godhead.

McCabe’s point again, isn’t that we must use the language of transubstantiation, but that it is a useful (Trent would say ‘appropriate’) way of talking about such matters.

Is God a French, Hippie, Karate Master?

After listening to an interview with Richard Rohr on the Deconstructionists podcast, it got me thinking about the idea of a “vulnerable” God, and I decided to revisit a recent discussion of various definitions of deity found in Eric Hall’s recent (November 2016 Fortress Press) book cheekily entitled God: Everything You Need to Know About the Almighty. Hall, a professor of theology and philosophy at Carroll College in Montana, wrote his book primarily for a younger podcast audience as it belongs to the Homebrewed Christianity series. I think his examination of the options and his peculiar way of imagining the issues is enlightening. He uses some clever and humorous images to draw out the parameters of the discussion. In summary, here are the key ones.

Karate Master—Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is the  representative image of the stable god of Classical Theism. This God, like Miyagi is not easily provoked or moved, but don’t start messing with him. However, God’s power is also in line with his character. This power, character, and order underlies all existence since God is the Creator. As a philosophical explanation, Miyagi seems unavoidable as an explanation and ground of all that is, but, in Hall’s appraisal, he appears to lack the theology of the cross, the vulnerability, that is distinctive to Christianity. The creation has a certain autonomy to go its own way, but the relationship (in the familiar meaning of the word) between God and creation is a bit hard to understand. This is the basic conception of God that you can find among many Jews, Muslims, and Christians prior to the late middle ages.

Hippie—imagine having a fun-loving, Tai Chi practicing, drum-beating hippie aunt, if you don’t already. The God of process theology would be like her. The world is free to be whatever it wants to be. She will give you advice and try to call out your best self, but you are completely free. She is alongside you, not above you. The element that matters the most in this conception is relationality, the one that appears to be missing from Miyagi.

French—No one ever expected a young peasant girl to be leading the French armies, likewise, the God of Hermeneutics (think Caputo) upsets our expectations. The Joan of Arc God is a deconstructive self-revelation under the theology of the cross. The God of Hermeneutics/Deconstruction reminds us that the world can be other than it is at the moment and that God is not tame or even easily assumable into human language. It’s focus is the constant breaking open of our language. She keeps you off balance.

Hall argues that the Classical Theism, specifically in its Thomistic form, is where we need to begin. It is ontologically primary. He cautions that it’s important to not get this conception mixed up with what he calls the God of Voluntarism (what he calls the “Jersey Shore” view of omnipotence). But is a God who lacks any kind of vulnerability acceptable as an object of worship within the Christian faith? Can this God engage in a relational way? Can the insights of Process Theology and Deconstructive/Hermeneutic Theology be incorporated into the Classical schema? Part of the problem is that the stable grounding provided by the classical view is thought of as unrelated, when it is, in fact, deeply related.

Here is the summative quote for the chapter:

While Miyagi works perfectly well in a philosophical context, he won’t be able to do full justice to Christian theology and it’s biblical underpinnings, not without incorporating these important ideas from Hippie Aunt and Joan of Arc. If God is one who saves, God most be able to draw out of us our best, most unselfish possibilities, which means God must relate to us. So while God’s primary philosophical meaning has to do with the identity undergirding all things in the world, God’s biblical identity pertains to relating to this world and calling it back to the divinely pulsating melody not merely its own. The incomprehensible God is one who actively beckons this world, one who calls us to reject the disharmonies within the world as we’ve become familiar and even enhance, and stand once more in cosmic solidarity with both God and all of creation as God shines light on these things anew.

To my mind, this is a restatement of Classical Theism with reference to the criticism of the followers of Whitehead and Derrida. Much depends on how you interpret ‘biblical identity’. For some conservative process-relational thinkers, the descriptions of God in the scriptures are taken quite literally. If you’ve been around the block in these discussions, you know that the term ‘biblical identity’ does not have a fixed meaning for all parties. The anthropomorphism in the Bible can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Additionally, take even a term like ‘Almighty’, which is an expression that is not as obviously anthropomorphic. What does having all power, being the ruler of everything, mean? Does it refer to a voluntarist view of God ? Or does it refer to the view that God is the trustworthy and stable center of everything?

I believe that the classical definitions of omnipotence, immutability, etc. still hold, but certainly need to be invested with Christocentric meanings. If I’m reading Hall correctly, I imagine he would agree. In the podcast interview below, Hall makes the statement, “We can have this relational expression without saying that this defines the ontology of God.” Another set of questions revolves around how deep the vulnerability of God goes. Jesus on the cross is God in vulnerability, but is the Cosmic Christ, the Logos, the Word essentially vulnerable (Rohr)? Can a deep vulnerability coexist with an equally deep stability?51qcyri3hil-_sx294_bo1204203200_

To listen to Eric Hall discuss his book click on Episode 40 of Crackers and Grape Juice.


Annie Dillard’s God

I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about ten years after it was published and wished I had read it earlier. She was one of few writers I felt an immediate connection with. I was hooked by her ambling curiosity and observations about nature coupled with witty, aphoristic reflections about life, death, and the divine. The writing was earthy and alive, not soaring or remote.  I hadn’t read enough at the time to know that she had pretty much single-handedly revived a literary form that had all but gone extinct–the personal essay. Since then, I’ve always wished that she would write more frequently, but the works that we do have are gems.

Pilgrim cont48ains a number of the themes and characters that have preoccupied Annie for a while. Julian of Norwich and the Kabbalists are there. Also present is the often terrifying engine of evolution that provides a counterpoint to easy claims to the goodness or power of God. Fecundity and death, both together, give us the impression that “…something is everywhere and always amiss.” The existential dilemma of the blindness of the natural world that plagued Darwin is taken up in many of her writings. Darwin had written about the strange fact that the “endless forms most beautiful” often were born from misery:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” (Origin of Species)

Annie similarly took up the problem of pain and has wrestled urgently with it for decades. Life as a whole is beautiful and grand, but the individual suffers and dies for apparently no reason. In fact, the individual seems to have little value. There is so much waste. Babies born with hideous deformities, parasitic wasps,…

“For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.” (For the Time Being)

And there is a lot of bad news we turn our heads from. Mostly because it isn’t happening to us or to people we know well. She claims that we cannot have it both ways. Either the individual is always at at all times infinitely valuable, or they have no worth at all. It messes with your mind to try to think this in relation to God, and Annie seems convinced that most religious answers throughout history have ended up talking pious nonsense.

“Rabbi Akiva taught a curious solution to the ever-galling problem that while many good people and their children suffer enormously, many louses and their children prosper and thrive in the pink of health. God punishes the good, he proposed, in this short life, for their few sins, and rewards them eternally in the world to come. Similarly, God rewards the evil-doers in this short life for their few good deeds, and punishes them eternally in the world to come. I do not know how that sat with people. It is, like every ingenious, Godfearing explanation of natural calamity, harsh all around.” (For the Time Being)

So what is Annie Dillard’s god like? Getting answers to this is a difficult task. Not wanting to be known as religious writer, she has consistently refused to interpret her own books regarding God. However, I believe that she has left us enough hints to piece together a coherent-enough picture. First, I think it is fair to say that the problem of suffering and pain is the landscape in which she stalks God. Jürgen Moltmann, in the post-WWII era, recognized that theology cannot be done any longer without taking into account the Shoah. Similarly, Annie cannot think about God without heeding the silences of creation in the face of suffering. “The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; the whine of wings” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Her biographical work, An American Childhood, and various interviews, inform us that this was an early concern of hers. A pastor had once lent her C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, in an effort to help answer her questions. In at least two separate works she quotes or mentions Lewis’ observation that no one individual ever suffers the sum total of pain in the world. For Annie, this served, to reduce the problem to a slightly more manageable size. Yet, this was only true to a point. The theodicy problem seemed to grow.

Probably the strongest clue to Dillard’s conception of God comes from her last true book, For the Time Being. There are no new pieces and only one unpublished essay in the upcoming 2016 publication. More than any other work, this addresses suffering as one of its primary themes and pulls together her thoughts on the subject.

In the book she quotes Augustine. “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.” This apophatic principle is echoed throughout the Christian tradition, but is an especially foundational concept for those from the mystic and existentialist inheritance.  One can find it in Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil, for example, two thinkers that Dillard is fond of. This is a perspective that claims an answer to the problem without resorting to mental contortions. God is not a being among beings, an actor in the play. God is, rather, in Paul Tillich’s memorable terminology, “The Ground of Being”.

Another view that has some appeal to Dillard is the narrative of Kabbalistic /Hassidic mythology, particularly as expressed by Isaac Luria. She characterizes it as panentheism (the presence of God in all creation), and she notes (in 1999) that it is the secret belief of a good many theologians. Today, in 2016, it isn’t much of a secret. However, panentheism is a broad term that can mean many different things. Specifically, for Kabbalism, it is interpreted as the necccesity of God ‘withdrawing’ some of god’s self in order to create; a poetic and spatial way of describing the autonomy of creation. Yet, deep within the structure of the world are order and life (imaged as divine ‘sparks’), waiting to be released by humanity in the process of restoration (tikkun). In Luria’s imagery, God obliterates himself to achieve this.  The metaphors are beautiful and bold.

In the end these two views are voicing one related proposition that can be summarized:

“God is—for the most part—out of the physical loop of the fallen world he created, let us say. Or God is the loop, or pervades the loop, or the loop runs in God like a hole in his side he never fingers. Certainly God is not a member of the loop like the rest of us, passing the water bucket to splash the fire, kicking the bucket, passing the buck.”

Or put another way:

“It is fatal, Teilhard [de Chardin] said of the old belief that we suffer at the hands of God omnipotent. It is fatal to reason. It does not work. The omnipotence of God makes no sense if it requires the all-causingness of God.”

This is about all that can be said. There is a healthy dose of agnosticism in Annie Dillard’s definition of God. Although she ultimately differs from Emil Brunner on a number of issues, his insistence that “God remains a mystery [Geheimnis] to us even in revelation” is not too far from her emphasis. As a result, she is reluctant to give much to another group you might expect her to agree with, the Whiteheadians. The attempt, according to her, to subject “our partial knowledge of God to the rigors of philosophical inquiry…is an absurd but well-meaning exercise.” 

Annie Dillard’s idea of God may be informed by a variety of sources, but it is profoundly in harmony with traditional Christian belief and practice. I leave you with what I see as the clearest statement of her view concerning God

 from the same book. Judge for yourself.

“Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning. God is, oddly, personal; this God knows. Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves. He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time. He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears. Such experiences are gifts to beginners….”

“Does God budge, nudge, hear, twitch, help? Is heaven pliable? Or is praying eudaemonistically—praying for things and events, for rain and healing—delusional? …True prayer surrenders to God; that willing surrender itself changes the situation a jot or two by adding power which God can use. Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power—mechanism unknown—to tilt the balance. Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quiet cancer or quell pneumonia. For Tillich, God’s activity is by no means interference, but instead divine creativity—the ongoing creation of life with all its greatness and danger. I don’t know. I don’t know beans about God.
Nature works out its complexities. God suffers the world’s necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile. Christians might add that Christ hangs, as it were, on the cross forever, always incarnate, and always nailed.”


Praying Mantis

The praying mantis: beloved by gardeners, but not her mate.






The Glass of Vision Lecture 5: The Rational Theologian’s Analogy

If the heavens declare the glory of God, then they do so in a natural voice, not an angelic one. For a religious person, however, “God” is not simply a name for some feature of the natural world. “For God appears in our thoughts as the name of a real being we attempt to desSpider_web_necklace_with_pearls_of_dew-1.jpgcribe, not as a convenient analogical term used by us in describing something else, in describing the moral conscience, for example.” Yet, if we cannot directly point to God, how can we know that our idea is not simply one of those “superstitions that die extremely hard“?

Part of Austin Farrer’s answer is to point to the persistence of our ideas about God across time and cultures. He is convinced, additionally, that the various mysteries, not problems (see the previous lecture), of life all draw together in our lives. Our whole conscious existence is a mystery that is at once a given, but, as we take a step back to examine it, also the point on which the other mysteries seem to converge like lines of a spider’s web toward the center. We feel the tremors of something on the edges if we are attentive. Our sensitivity to these ‘disturbances’ may vary, but in “such a knowledge of our own existence there is some knowledge of God involved.” [emphasis mine]

Farrer uses another analogy, that of a shadow which is imperceptible until it falls on a certain kind of material.

…the vast shadow of my Creator himself might fall over my shoulder into the field of finite things before my eyes. Then the visibility of the shadow to me would depend on the substance it found on which to print its figure. A shadow may fall for ever imperceptible through empty air, but even mist or smoke on the motes in the sunbeam will embody it, better still a solid surface, a shining surface best of all. So perhaps our awareness of the infinite Act depends on the materials for a shadow of him presented by finite existence: perhaps that sheerly given metaphysical mystery with which rational theology wrestles is the shadow of the Infinite in finite being.

Whether these metaphors are wishful thinking or the dawning of the awareness of God is hard to decide unless there is something else to add to the picture. I’m reminded of a quote from the poet, Christian Wiman, who said, “Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.” Altogether, Farrer thinks similarly. Natural (rational) theology lacks the important initiative of God which breaks into our color-box of analogies. “If the mind begins to perceive God involuntarily, it must be that acts of discourse about God are forced upon the mind.” God is known through divine actions in the world which are veiled in the finite. We cannot bypass metaphors, analogies, or images to acquire some sort of imageless truth. Rationally speaking, we are at something like an impasse. God must reveal more of himself to us in the mode of the finite. That revelation is the life and, more importantly, the person of Jesus. We should not confuse this, however, with a narrowing of revelation at this point, although it is true that critics of Farrer frequently point out that he does seem to restrict the interpretation of this revelation to the apostolic witness. I will leave the discussion of whether or not this constitutes a historical clamp on revelation and simply note that I believe the debate originates in the differences between saying scripture is “uniquely inspired” vs. “uniquely normative”. For more discussion of the implications of Austin Farrer’s supernatural/natural distinction for Christology, see Rowan William’s 2016 Hulsean Lectures, especially the first and final lectures of the six-part series.

In any case, Farrer stands in the broad, classical tradition of fides quaerens intellectum, faith reflecting on itself and the intelligible patterns in the world. Rational theology may not be an impossibility from the standpoint of unbelief, but it’s hard to imagine. Yet, once we have a living faith, that faith illuminates the reasoning process. Without the overarching narrative in which to place the clues, they remain isolated facts. Essentially faith and reason are unified, but the order in which we arrive at this harmony is what is in question here. The framing of this all in terms, which the lectures began with, of the knowledge of the infinite only through the finite, continues to illuminate the choices that Farrer makes.

The Glass of Vision Lecture 2: The Supernatural and the Weird

Building on the argument of the last lecture, Farrer works to distinguish the truly supernatural from the merely strange, things that “make our flesh creep” as he puts it. There are a variety of curiosities that his age seemed to give more credibility to than seems warranted to us now. The number of research studies, for example, in the 1950s and 60s that dreamed of finding evidence for ESP or telepathy seems silly to us now. Farrer, as a child of the times, feels compelled to ask how we might explain something like the miracles of Jesus as somehow different from these psychic feats. At least he doesn’t directly challenge their reality in this lecture, and, in any case, thinking through these concerns is instructive. To do this he uses the same distinction as before–the difference between natural (or more precisely, preternatural) abilities and the movement of something above our human nature. Farrer begins by placing ‘the weird’ on the side of the natural.

Now psychical research may have left us less clear than we were as to the sideways and downward limits of our natural powers; but it has done nothing, so far as I can see, to raise or unfix the ceiling.

To illustrate, he asks us to imagine a cone which has a clearly defined apex, but where the bottom and side fade into shadow. Things like telepathy or clairvoyance (whether we find them to be real or imaginary) are, in fact, no more amazing than the normal, natural operations of minds which “touch each other without bodily intervention.” They might be a hidden part of the cone, but what is of importance is not the mechanics, but the meaning. What is the intention behind the contact? This is the central feature of demarcation. The weird, “loose”, experience does not have wit, inspiration, or intelligence. If anything, Farrer suggests, it may be a more primitive element of our nature rather than something above or beyond it.

Now those activities we might call want to call supernatural, as opposed to weird, run into the same type of paradox that we’ve met before. Are the miracles of Jesus a natural act (“below the ceiling”) or a supernatural one? Farrer asks us once again if we need to set up a mutually exclusive opposition. He states, “…it is by no means clear that the finite excludes the infinite in the sense in which one finite excludes another.” Of course, there must be some limit to this, otherwise absorption of the natural into the supernatural would result, so according to Farrer, there is …

“…a point beyond which infinite God could not divinize his creature without removing its distinct creaturely nature, and as it were merging it in himself: an act which would be exactly equivalent to its annihilation.

He seems to be agnostic about exactly where that point lies. What we do know is that the mystery of the supernatural must fit into the realm of the natural, that it will not appear as something “tacked on” to the natural. Recall the term ‘supernaturalized’ from the previous lecture. The Creator, who gave life initially, continues to create through and in the creature, or as he pithily states, “in the second cause the first cause operates.” This principle of double agency, for Farrer, stands behind many riddles of the faith from the Chalcedonian formula of God-man, to the efficacy of prayer. He goes so far as to state that “there is no issue that theologians discuss that is not conditioned by it.

**Update: For more on the Christological implications of this, listen to Rowan William’s Hulsean lectures of 2016 which began concurrently with these posts. Williams also comments on Farrer at the 2017 de Lubac lectures at St. Louis. I particularly liked his suggestion that “What God is doing is us.” as a summary of Farrer’s thrust throughout the Glass of Vision.**

One underlying question that I kept having was whether or not the terms ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ were needed. Perhaps they get in the way. ‘Supernatural’ is a term that has often implied a realm that overpowers the creaturely. Farrer seems to be groping for a way to keep the two orders separate, in keeping with a long tradition that has used the term ‘supernatural’, while also subverting the implication of coercion or force that tends to go with it. This is one of the reasons he uses the vocabulary of ‘supernaturalized’. The contemporary reader should also hear intimations of more recent discussions in this work such as the search for a scientifically valid point of contact between God and nature, or the meaning of intelligence and consciousness as a way into a religious view of the world.


Anthony McCall, “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). The fifth minute. Photograph by Freddy Le Saux

In the next lecture, we turn to Farrer’s concept of divine revelation in scripture.

Rowan Williams on Creatio ex Nihilo

In the essay “On Being Creatures”, Williams tackles various misunderstandings of the doctrine that he claims was “unquestionably a distinctive Jewish and Christian view in the late antique world.” This clarity was muddied by tendencies toward Neoplatonism and now, in more recent years, by Process and feminist critiques. Williams surmises that the doctrine emerged around the time of Israel’s unexpected return from exile. “…this act is not a process by which shape is imposed on chaos: it is a summons, a call which establishes the very possibility of an answer. It is a short step to the conclusion that God’s relation to the whole world is like this: not a struggle with pre-existing disorder that is then moulded into shape, but a pure summons.”  One of the most common arguments against ex nihilo from the perspective of Process and Relational theologies is the argument that the doctrine implies a despotic view of God in which human freedom cannot exist.* Thomas Oord, for example, has written, “The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, which is based upon unilateral force and control of others.” Are we locked into an infantile, or even diseased, dependence? Williams distinguishes here the typical human dependencies that we are involved in from the fundamental dependence on God.

“‘Limitless dependence’, in the sense of accumulating dependent relationships to things, persons, institutions, is something quite other than the fundamental dependence we cannot avoid, dependence on whatever it is that enables our sense of being an agent, a giver. And perhaps it is how we can conceive that primary dependence that determines how vulnerable or how destructive our ‘illusion’ of agency is — how much of an ‘illusion’ in the ordinary sense of the word rather than the subtler Freudian sense of a belief constructed to meet or cope with the demands of what lies beyond the psyche. Sebastian Moore, in The Inner Loneliness, identifies our need to imagine ourselves as agents by imagining ourselves as self-regulating individuals is to misconceive our fundamental need, which is for identity in relation, conversation, mutual recognition … We cannot, as it were, get behind this and conceive a human identity that is primitively and only an object to itself…When I think I am imagining myself ‘for myself’, I am actually taking up the position of someone who looks at or speaks to me; and I couldn’t do this if I did not know what it is to be looked at or spoken to.”

It would seem possible to keep alive the best impulses of the doctrine while rescuing many of the concerns about it. The move made here is to remind us that our language about God is often insufficiently apophatic. When we are speaking of God “feeling”, “changing his mind”, or “creating”, we ultimately have to remember that God is not like us. But we also need to recall that we are frequently not like our own images of ourselves.

A recent symposium that features creatio ex nihilo defenders can be found in the 2015 Notre Dame lecture series: Dr. Gary Anderson “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo Biblical?”David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil”John Cavadini “Where Do Stories Come From? Augustine on Creation ex Nihilo”

Ian McFarland’s comprehensive book From Nothing: A theology of creation (2014) is one of the better surveys of the doctrine available. McFarland separates the t=0 “Big Bang” from the doctrine, declaring that the issue revolves around a particular relationship between God and the world rather than an explanation of how that relationship came to be.

* It is important to point out that definitional problems abound in these discussions. It may be possible for Process thought to affirm the doctrine. See for an examination of Whitehead, oscillationism, and ex nihilo, for example.