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Can We Trust the Theologians?

Alexander J. McKelway. The Freedom of God and Human Liberation. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

Alexander J. McKelway’s lectures on The Freedom of God and Human Liberation have challenged me to think and work through the implications of his argument more closely. [An earlier reflection is here.]

Cover of Alexander J. McKelway The Freedom of God and Human Liberation

In chapter 3 of his book, “Thinking About God,” he analyzes a central problem of theology: how can human beings possibly think about God?

It’s not obvious we can, as a matter of fact. (As Qohelet said, “for God is in heaven, and you upon the earth. Therefore let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5:2)

Indeed, it’s not obvious that humans can think validly about anything.

Of course we human beings know that we think. Since we do it, we must be able to do it. But we also know that sometimes we’re mistaken. Sometimes we just make things up. Sometimes we confuse our wishes about reality with reality itself. So the more pressing question about thinking is whether our thinking can ever be valid, and when – under what circumstances – will that be?

Answering that question has taken up a lot of the time and energy of generations of western philosophers. McKelway reviews some of the highlights: Platonic idealism, medieval nominalism à la William of Occam, David Hume, Kant.

Kant’s answer was that, while we can’t think about things in themselves, we can think pretty reasonably about things as they appear to us, in the categories of finite, contingent human experience (like quantity: unity, plurality, and totality). That answer has proved pretty darn good. Good enough to have the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, anyhow. (Way to go, Kant!)

Unfortunately for theology, thinking about God is different.

If ‘thinking’ deals with things finite and contingent, how are we to ‘think’ authentically about God who is infinite and absolute – who is radically free from and other than all the conditions and categories in terms of which we think? If the cause of human liberation requires a faith in (and thus thinking about) the freedom of God, this question cannot be avoided (36).

For McKelway, thought about God involves an “apophatic” moment (in which humans stop speaking), and a “theophanic” moment (in which GOD appears, and speaks). In the apophatic moment, the human thinker recognizes that all her thoughts about God are inadequate, and rejects them as such. In the theophanic moment, assuming there is one, the human thinker recognizes herself as the object of God’s thinking. There’s a kind of reversal of the subject-object position. In that reversal, the thinking [human] subject becomes the thought-about object, while the formerly thought-about object becomes the divine subject, now considering the human thinker.

In a sense, the human thinker now sees himself through God’s eyes. There are examples of this apophatic-theophanic moment in the Bible. For instance, at the end of Job (“Who is this that darkens counsel with words without knowledge??” Job 38:1), or in Isaiah’s vision of God (“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…” Isaiah 6:5).

On this basis, McKelway advances the thesis that:

Thinking about God is possible only upon the basis of God’s own action, and it involves human thought in a metacritical movement. This movement calls into question not only thought about God, but also the thinker, who thereby is led into a new relationship in which thought and language about God becomes authentic (38).

McKelway proceeds to make clear what he means by a “metacritical” movement by discussing a couple of “critical” movements, and then going on to talk about what might be beyond those.

Although there is a lot of angst in Christian circles about Feuerbach, and about Derrida’s deconstruction, McKelway sees value in both of these critical enterprises. Feuerbach is right, he points out, that a lot of human thought about God is projection. Recognizing that is precisely the kind of apophatic moment he was talking about earlier. Feuerbach’s problem, from McKelway’s point of view, is that he doesn’t go far enough; Feuerbach resolves the crisis that faces the human subject too quickly, in favor of just accepting thought about humanity’s highest possibilities as thought about what’s “divine.”

Similarly, he sees something valuable in deconstructionist thought. He has philosophical issues with deconstruction’s linguistic premises: that language is always everywhere only self-referential, making meaning out of differences in a way that makes absence the only thing that’s ever really present. But with his philosophical objections in mind, he points out that

… deconstruction from the perspective of theology may reflect a great and necessary truth. If language about the world does not function as deconstruction claims, language about God does. When applied to God, words can only remind us of ‘difference.’ This was the fundamental claim of Barth’s first work, The Epistle to the Romans. … As witness to the self-revelation of God, scripture can be understood only in terms of what it is not – ‘not right human thoughts … not the history of man … not the virtues of men … not [even] human standpoints (42).

There’s some of the “crisis” of Barth’s famous “theology of crisis.” Once again, McKelway faults contemporary theologians, like Mark C. Taylor, for not sticking with this legitimate critical point far enough. He charges Taylor’s a/theology with ultimately equating God with the human self. A bourgeois God like that will not be the kind of God who can liberate anyone.

McKelway has a more favorable assessment of Robert Scharlemann’s essay “Onto- and Theo-logical Thinking,” in which Scharlemann analyzes different types of thinking (objective, reflective, reflexive), and advances the proposal that “to think theologically is to think of the thinking of being (ontology) not as our thinking of being, but as the being of God when God is not being God (46).”

This would be clearer in context, no doubt. McKelway elucidates it, I think, by pointing out that (a) it’s still apophatic – that is, there is still a recognition that the words in which we think our thoughts about God are inadequate and (b) it doesn’t let the thinker off the hook – instead “it places the thinker at the critical juncture where there can be no question of simply inserting one’s own possibilities in the place of God” (46).

Authentic thought about God depends upon an act of God ‘when God is not being God.’ That is to say, when God reveals himself, he necessarily employs finitude which, as such, is inappropriate for the infinite being of God. Authentic thinking about God does not dissolve this contradiction. The metacritical situation does not change. The reality of God available to thought in such a way that it becomes our thought, is at the same time both a disclosure of that reality and a reminder that it is not our reality (46).

So, God appears to our thought as what God is not. How can this be “authentic” thought about God?

McKelway, following Barth here, claims that “in the event of revelation” this thought that is obviously about what God is not (e.g., “rock,” “shepherd,” and so on) is “replaced and inverted” by God “which negates the negative and produces the thought of God as what God is” (47).

Right about here, where McKelway begins to talk somewhat optimistically about “negating the negative,” I cannot help thinking about Theodor Adorno and Negative Dialectics. Does “negating the negative” ever really work? For Adorno, if I understand what he’s saying at the end of Negative Dialectics, which is not certain, it doesn’t – because it invariably leads backwards, into positing an indefensible unity between thought and its object. It’s vital to keep making that “negative turn,” remembering the “not” in all our thought about “is.”

Barth’s own thought, however, seems to have been consistently more “negative,” in Adorno’s sense, than McKelway suggests. Granted, it was positive enough for him to write thirteen volumes of Church Dogmatics. But as McKelway discusses Barth here, there are always limits on how much confidence we can have about what we say and think about God, even on the basis of God’s self-revelation.

The experience of God in revelation is immediate and momentary … Revelation does not product an epistemology … For Barth, no ontological connection between divine and human being could provide the possibility of thinking and speaking about God (48).

To the extent that we can think about God in such a way that “the thought of faith can actually correspond to its object” we depend, according to Barth, according to McKelway, on two conditions: that thinking about God “as God” presupposes thinking about a reality, and on “the perception that the positive content of our thoughts about God are products of God’s own action toward us” (49).

The first condition is established by Anselm’s ontological proof of God. Which, according to Barth, is mostly misunderstood. It’s not really a proof of God’s existence. Instead, it’s a kind of warrant for faith that, if one is thinking about God, one is allowed – indeed, compelled – to think about God as real. This presupposes that you are trying to think about the mysterious reality that lies behind the term “God,” understood to mean “that than which no greater can be thought.” In that case, the reality is inseparable from the thinking itself.

Anselm’s “proof” doesn’t mean a person can’t continue to insist that whatever one’s particular concept of “God” includes is imaginary or faulty. (Like the concept “unicorn” or “spontaneous generation” – which, by the way, if we’re thinking of, we also seem to be thinking of as existing or happening, in some sense. It seems worth asking whether this could be a feature of thought about anything.) It just means that, if you’re longing to think about “that than which no greater can be thought,” you can only be thinking about what is, not about what isn’t.

The second condition seems to be secured by what Barth called the analogia fidei, in revelation. In the case of revelation, the analogical thought is underwritten by God, in that metacritical movement McKelway described earlier. “In the analogies made possible by faith we may think and speak of God, clothing the divine in human garment” (51).

The question for me on the basis of all of this is whether, when revelation takes place, it can be communicated to other human beings in a way that remains “authentic,” to use McKelway’s word.

The answer to this question does not seem obvious.

If the “metacritical” moment McKelway talks about is “immediate and momentary,” and if revelation doesn’t “produce an epistemology,” and if the human words used to communicate revelation always remain human words, which have been acknowledged as, in themselves and intrinsically, inadequate to the communication of divine reality, then, it seems to me, this line of thinking must raise questions about whether, and how, other people can come to share a person’s “authentic” thinking about God.

Barth was the theologian who talked about the Bible “becoming” the Word of God, which makes sense, especially in light of McKelway’s discussion here. (“Revelation is immediate and momentary …”) And Barth was heir to the doctrine of the “witness of the Holy Spirit,” the idea that it’s the activity of the Spirit that makes it possible for a person or people to read Scripture and receive it as revelation. That, too, fits this discussion.

But this line of thinking seems to imply that the “same” concept or word about God could be “authentic” in one time and place, in one sense, in one immediate and momentary event of revelation, and inauthentic in another. The authenticity established in Barth’s analogia fidei depends on the gracious activity of God, which is free, and not confined or restricted by “God’s way of being for us” (as McKelway argued earlier in an earlier lecture), which presumably includes the contingencies and vicissitudes of language.

That is, it seems that this way of thinking does not give us a warrant to treat “the language of revelation” in an automatic or mechanical sense as “true.” The “human garment” of language remains inadequate. It seems to me this leaves open the possibility that we could think thoughts other people have rightly thought, in words other people have rightly used, and not ourselves be getting it “right.”

The problem with the ineffable is that it’s … ineffable. Still.

And that, in turn, leaves open the perennial problem of needing to ascertain which human beings who are speaking and thinking about God are speaking and thinking about God in a trustworthy way – assuming, as we probably must, that we won’t all always have our own immediate, momentary events of revelation to go by to make that call.

Seeing this problem does not mean that I don’t appreciate McKelway’s work. I do, very much. It doesn’t mean I disagree with his argument, or his conclusions. I think I do, honestly, agree with everything or almost everything he says.

In other words, what I perceive as his theological problem here is my own.

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Now what?

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