Last post I dealt with the topic of how one might come to know God. Specifically, I sketched two positions on the issue; the first position would argue that one could know God by reasoning from the bottom-up; that is, the way to construct an accurate theology is by means of self-reflection, whereas the second view holds that one could only know God by way of divine revelation. I endorse the second position. Theology, I argue, can only be done in dependence on the initiative of God, and he has done so most definitively in Scripture. Theology must come from the top-down. The former position holds that one could engage in univocal reasoning, whereas the latter position would argue that divine revelation requires voluntary condescension, which entails an affirmation of analogical reasoning; God reveals himself to us in human language, therefore talk of God presupposes the limitation of that language to express who he is. We can know him truly, though not exhaustively. So far, so good.
But there is a third position. For lack of a better term, I dub it simply:
3. Mystical Reasoning: Well, this is a bit misleading, because this position really denies that one could properly reason at all about God. God is so aloof, so transcendent, that all attempts of talking about God is really a hindrance to coming to know him. God is unlike us, after all, and we cannot contain him by what we say or know. In this position, it would be unwise to say anything definitively about God – to say that God is x, y, z and not p, q, or v would be exercising inappropriate epistemic license – we would be going beyond the bounds of our epistemic jurisdiction; that is – we would be trying to extend ourselves beyond what we could know, wrongly thinking that we could say anything accurate about God. Trying to talk about God is presumptive at best, and prideful at worst.
This view, then, upholds equivocal reasoning with respect to theology. Human language is incapable of saying anything true of God. Words that apply to us and utilized by us cannot apply in any way to God. Let’s use the examples from the previous post and apply equivocal reasoning: think about the word love again. From the univocal perspective, God’s love is defined by self-reflection – what we say must be the case about love would apply to how God must be like when we say that he is love. From the analogical perspective, God’s love is defined by his own self-revelation – what he says about love must be the means by which we define his love. Now, from the equivocal perspective, God’s love is so different, so beyond our categories of thought such that we cannot really know what his love means.
Does that mean we should simply throw the towel and give up on the enterprise of knowing God? Not so quickly. The mystic would say, presumably, that we must access God not by means of human language, or by means of thinking about who he is, but by feeling him. Talking about God would necessarily, for the mystic, be encapsulating God in a box. To know God we have to feel who he is – stop talking about him, they would say, for that would ruin the relationship. You can talk about God all you want, but that would miss the point: put your bibles down, and let the fuzziness consume you, so they might say.
This position is mystical precisely for that reason: access to God is by way of feeling and not by way of knowing.
Well this position doesn’t have much going for it. If we cannot say anything accurate about God, then how does one know that the proper access to God is by way of feeling? After all, the mystic seems to know quite a lot of things about God – the mystic knows that God is not knowable by way of human language (interestingly enough the mystic is already using human language to say that human language is incapable of saying anything proper about God!), that God is transcendent and beyond our comprehension – how did he come to these conclusions, and why is he so sure about them if human language is so incapable of capturing the truths of God? While he may sound quite humble, at least initially, he is really quite the opposite: he knows definitively that God is unknowable, and that us theologians who try to speak meaningfully of God are naive, mistaken, and foolhardy.
Furthermore, why assume that a transcendent God would be incapable of making himself known? Indeed, the God who is transcendent is also the God who is free, and in being free he is free to condescend, to make himself imminent, to make himself known in human language, without at all compromising his transcendence. Human language is capable of addressing God not because we assume that God is not distinct from us (this would be the functional position of those who endorse bottom-up reasoning); rather, we can know God in human language because the God who is distinct from us has used human language to describe himself. Talk of God is appropriate because God talks. We speak of God because God speaks of God. I submit, therefore, that there is no reason to hold the mystical position, and that in fact there are good reasons against that position. It is incoherent.
The Three Positions (Again) and the Use of Human Reason
So there are the three positions: bottom-up reasoning, top-down reasoning, and mystical reasoning. I shall simply dub them: the rationalist, the receptionist, and the mystic.
The rationalist will use reason as an authority in order to know God.
The receptionist will use reason as a tool which receives divine revelation (the Scriptures) in order to know God.
The mystic will see reason as a hindrance in the attempt to access God.
I happily endorse the receptionist position as the most consistent Christian position. Of course in this life none of us would ever be consistent – though I have the inkling to think that unless we self-consciously adopt the receptionist position we would always go back and forth between rationalism and mysticism.
“Christian-theism says that there are two levels of thought, the absolute and the derivative. Christian theism says that there are two levels of interpreters, God who interprets absolutely and man who must be the interpreter of God’s interpretation. Christian-theism says that human thought is therefore analogical of God’s thought. In opposition to all this, non-Christian thought holds in effect that the distinction between absolute and derivative thought must be wiped out. To be sure, God’s thoughts may be more comprehensive than ours, but it is not self-complete without ours. This means that as all being was thought of as equally ultimate, so now all thought is thought of as equally ultimate. There is only one level of interpreters; if God comes into the picture at all, it is as a collaborator with man. We do not think God’s thoughts after him, but together with God we think our thoughts that have never been thought either by God or by man. Non-Christian philosophies hold that human thought is univocal instead of analogical.” – Cornelius Van Til (Defense of the Faith, 4th Ed.), 70-71.