August 24, 2021

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Apophaticism and Religious Pluralism

Many world religions include some tendency toward, or tradition of, apophaticism, the view that the divine (or ultimate, or absolute, the object of our religious devotion) defies description in human language, and we must therefore restrict ourselves to saying what the divine is not. However, most of these religions are also committed to texts or traditions which appear to describe the divine in various positive ways. Puzzles arise when we attempt to combine these traditions of negative (or apophatic) theology and positive (or kataphatic) theology. If we can speak truly of God only by negation, what are we to make of traditional affirmations such as "God is wise," "God is powerful," and so on?

A simplistic approach is to suppose that all of our affirmations about God are metaphorical, or allegorical, or symbolic. This approach has an interesting consequence: very different, even conflicting, metaphors can be appropriate ways of talking about the very same reality. Indeed, the Bible itself frequently calls God a rock, yet also insists that, unlike idols, the true God is not "mute stone". If all affirmations about God are just as metaphorical as the statement that God is a rock, then apparently conflicting theological doctrines may well both be correct, just as the Biblical statement that God is a rock and that God is not mute stone can both be correct.

Some philosophers and theologians have thought this was a desirable result, because of the possibilities it raises for peacemaking in religious conflicts. An early example of this kind of approach can be found in the 1709 Sermon on Predestination by William King, Archbishop of Dublin. In this sermon, King is addressing two different debates: a debate between Christians and atheists and a debate between Calvinists and Arminians. In the first debate, the atheist argues that the doctrines of predestination and foreknowledge (essential parts of Christianity) are incompatible with the doctrine that we humans can be justly rewarded or punished for our actions (also an essential part of Christianity). In the second debate, one might say, to a first approximation, that Calvinists begin from a doctrine of predestination and hold that our doctrine of human free will or moral responsibility must be limited by the doctrine of predestination. The Arminians (again, to a first approximation) say just the reverse: human free will and moral responsibility come first, and God's predestination has to be understood in a way compatible with that. Alternatively, one could say that the Calvinists start from divine power while the Arminians start from divine goodness or justice (which they assume to be inconsistent with predestining people to sin and then punishing them for it).

The dispute between Calvinists and Arminians in the second debate is a dispute about how Christians should respond to the objection raised by the atheists in the first debate. In seeing this kind of conflict between predestination and free will, does the atheist have too strong a notion of predestination or too strong a notion of free will?

King aims to cut the Gordian knot here by means of the kind of simplistic apophaticism mentioned above: all Christians—including both Calvinists and Arminians—are really speaking in symbols and metaphors, whether they know it or not. Thus, King says,

for us to conclude that what is represented by [divine foreknowledge and predestination] is inconsistent with the Contingency of Events or Free Will because the things representing (I mean our Foreknowledg and Decrees) are so is the fame Absurdity as it is to conclude that China is no bigger than a Sheet of Paper because the Map that represents it is contain'd in that Compass. (§8)

However, not just any metaphor is apt! What are these metaphorical ways of thinking and speaking doing, according to King, such that the Calvinist and Arminian metaphors can work together? The metaphors serve to shape our practical and emotional attitudes toward God and one another. In the Christian life, according to King, we need both the Calvinist and the Arminian attitude, and both attitudes can peacefully coexist in the same life, even if they are expressed by statements that, taken literally, conflict. Thus, the Calvinist picture emphasises our absolute dependence on God and our correlative absolute duty to God, while the Arminian picture emphasises our responsibility for our own actions (§28).

More recently, John Hick has made a more radical use of this doctrine. According to Hick, this approach can be used to reconcile, not just different versions of Christianity, but all the major world religions. Each of the major world religions, Hick claims, has a similar apophatic tradition. If we take these traditions seriously, then we can see that each religion strives toward the ineffable Real (Hick's preferred term), but does so through a culturally conditioned set of symbols. The symbols conflict only if they are taken literally—that is, only if we forget that they are only symbols. This is meant to support Hick's broader doctrine of religious pluralism: that all religions are equally paths to the Real.

Anthony Collins, an early critic of King, draws a consequence even more radical than Hick's. According to Collins, if this approach is correct, it doesn't just collapse the distinction between various religions, it even collapses the distinction between theism and atheism! According to Collins, King's account makes religious language a metaphorical way of talking about what is, speaking literally, just "a general cause of effects," but atheists believe in that too! (pp. 13-14)

Both King and Hick want to claim that they are only drawing out a consequence of a view that is already entrenched in the tradition. King even says the view he's employing "is in effect agreed on all hands" (§3). Are they right?

King does not mention his sources. I've suggested that King may be influenced by Maimonides, who was indeed on of the most radical apophatic philosopher-theologians in the Abrahamic traditions. In some work in progress (not yet published), I am making a more detailed case for this influence. Other sources frequently referenced in the ensuing controversy include Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas. Hick explicitly discusses Dionysius.

The trouble is that these sources in the tradition went to great lengths to avoid exactly the consequences that King and Hick want to embrace.

We can distinguish four classes of theological statements. Consider the following examples:

  1. "God is foolish."

  2. "God is a rock."

  3. "God is wise."

  4. "God is immaterial."

Sentence 1 is simply incorrect, period. Sentence 2 is metaphorically correct (in some contexts). Sentence 4 is true in a literal and univocal sense. That is, using 'material' in its ordinary everyday sense, 4 correctly denies that that attribute belongs to God. 3 is the tricky case.

Hick wants to collapse 3 into 2. Maimonides and King both seem to do this, but it's not clear they want to. Maimonides certainly thinks that anthropomorphites, who hold that God literally has a body, are making a much bigger mistake than those who think God possesses the attribute of wisdom in the ordinary everyday sense. Indeed, he thinks that if non-philosophers make the latter mistake we should leave them be, but if they make the former mistake they are in urgent need of correction (see The Guide of the Perplexed, book 1, ch. 35). King, late in his sermon (§§21-22), tries to distinguish the kind of symbolic theology he's talking about from merely figurative language. So both want some kind of distinction between 3 and 2. But it's not clear to me whether either succeeds in drawing this distinction.* Further, the central argument of King's sermon—which, as we've seen, employs the same basic strategy as Hick—appears to depend on the collapse of this distinction.

As for Dionysius and Aquinas, both of them draw the distinction between 2 and 3 quite explicitly. Dionysius says that statement 2 is part of 'symbolic' theology, while 3 is part of 'intellectual' or 'conceptual' (Greek, noētos) theology. Aquinas says that 2 is metaphorical while 3 is analogical. And both observe this distinction consistently, though this is not necessarily to say that either has a successful theory of how these different types of predication work.

What does this mean for the connection between apophaticism and pluralism? First, apophaticism does not mean that there are no objective standards for correctness of theological predications. Neither King nor Hick ever said that it did. They said that, once we understand how this language works, we can see that some statements that looked contradictory really aren't. But King thinks that what this language is doing is cultivating the correct moral and religious attitudes, and what Hick thinks it is doing is leading us in our ascent to the Real. Presumably not just any language would do these things!

Second, though, the particular ways in which King and Hick try to do this really depends on all such language being metaphorical or symbolic—the simplistic approach to apophaticism I mentioned at the beginning. A Timothy Knepper has shown, Hick is able to use Dionysius for his purposes only because he has completely failed to notice Dionysius's category of conceptual theology.

But what are the standards of correctness for statements like 3? For most of the philosopher-theologians mentioned, it appears to have something to do with God's role as either source/creator or exemplar. Not much more than this can be said without diving into one philosopher's particular theory. But, in any event, these analyses usually build in some quite complex accounts of how the created world depends on God, which are supposed to help single out some predicates as more appropriately applied to God than others (although no positive predicates apply in their ordinary everyday senses).

It will still be true, on such a view, that attention to the function of religious language will deflate some theological disagreements. After all, it would be a mistake for people looking at different Biblical texts to get into an argument about whether God is a rock—this is a metaphor appropriate in some contexts and inappropriate in others.

Perhaps, then, it will turn out that there is more common ground between religions than we thought. For instance, it is plausible that the proponents of personal and impersonal conceptions of the divine disagree less than first appears, if the personalists are also proponents of apophaticism. Still, this is a matter that requires careful, detailed attention to specific apparent disagreements. An ancient metaphor for the apophatic approach says that the apophatic theologian is like a sculptor working in stone: Michelangelo's task is to remove everything that's not David. But, to extend this metaphor, traditional apophaticism is a finely pointed chisel for detail work. King and Hick have turned it into a sledge hammer.


* This is unclear to me after careful and detailed study of King and rather cursory study of Maimonides, so I suspect my unclarity about King is King's fault, while my unclarity about Maimonides is probably my fault!

Posted by Kenny at August 24, 2021 5:36 PM
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