God is Not a Predicate

This was a running theme in all the Barth-related sessions I went to this AAR—even Alan Torrance's crypto-Barthian "Second Annual Analytic Theology Lecture," to whose characterizations of their project Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp nodded, even when perhaps they were simply being polite. But the official Barth materials were better than this. Frankly, the whole conference was quite genuinely theological, for AAR. But no insight I got from the conference was more important than the angles on the simple fact that God is not a predicate. God is not a conclusion, a result from data, something that can be rationally reached second from some first thing.

Katherine Sonderegger's presentation on the divine attributes and "equivocal univocity," pitting Barth against Gunton's Act and Being, was heavy but solid, except perhaps on the point that Hunsinger called out: the meaning of "univocity" as a word genuinely implying the same things for both creatures and Creator. That opened the flood, for me. We speak (univocally) of Christ and therefore (equivocally) of everything else. The trouble is that the common use of "univocal" is that a term predicated on the world is therefore used of God as though it meant of God what it means in the world. This is what gives us what Barth calls an "unbegreifbar Gleichheit," an incomprehensible likeness, if we attempt to speak univocally of divine attributes in human terms. Which I took in the following direction: if we are to speak of the divine attributes univocally, we must then equivocate in every other case—or actually call human un-love, in-justice, and non-mercy what it is, and permit the univocity of the term from its divine context to stand as a judgment against all things that we call "love," "justice," "mercy," etc. God is not a predicate, let alone a deficient one—but the creature is. True speech about God redefines the "normal," "natural" case in the world. True speech about Christ redefines the "normal," "natural" situation of humanity.

Paul Dafydd Jones followed her with a discussion of divine patience beginning in §30 of II.1, attempting to reach past Jüngel toward liberation theology (closing therefore with Marcella Althaus-Reid, I think—I didn't write it down because it was familiar). He used this concept of divine patience as what provides space for our existence, our action, and the freedom thereof as predicates of God's own. Creaturely being-in-becoming is the image of God's being-in-becoming, the space for which is granted by God's patience in permitting all that is not God (namely, creation) to continue to exist. And yet Jones kept the properly eschatological demand that, dwelling within God's patience, we not become lazy, rather making the best use of time—there being none to waste within the providential limitations given us. I believe the exact words were that we must "buy up" time with our actions, for the sake of those without. I can see how true moral action in Barth's sense could actually make time exist—perhaps better, recover providentially given time—for those whose time society actively steals.

And then there was the Barth ethics book panel. [Without intending to, David Congdon later gave me a reason to respect the thrust of David Haddorff's book more than I respect its approach: because the replacement of the question of restriction of salvation in Barth is the ethics of the community of witness. Otherwise, Haddorff's book is a sermon preached to a different audience; while I take the gospel point, the illustration loses me.] Anyhow, Arne Rasmussen discussed Haddorff's Christian Ethics as Witness: Barth's Ethics for a World at Risk largely in terms of Milbank and Hauerwas, with honorable mention for Lakoff and Haidt, and in terms therefore of humanocentric approaches to the nature of the moral subject. Haddorff, instead, works in terms of God's act and speech as the moral basis, because otherwise we wind up making a fictive moral ground, acting as though something else were true. We can only affirm human values to the extent that they do not impinge upon God.

I would take this to mean that we simply cannot affirm them at all, as values—only as phenomena. And here again is the predication issue. Rasmussen goes on to discuss what I can only take to be descriptions of the "Is," the phenomenology of the human as it appears, even and especially when it resorts to psychology and interior constructs. He then acknowledges that Haddorff doesn't critique Milbank for integrating this—quite right, too; one would then have to critique Barth for integrating the phenomena of the human—but rather for his anti-secularity. Which is also right, because sin is not a factor that respects "church," not a matter effective only in parts of the world, but a matter basic to post-Fall humanity in its difference from its correspondence to God. The church is not the instrument of resolution in Barth, but the situation in which we find the expectation of moral action because of the universally resolved and therefore real situation in God's act.

Haddorff's response pursued points about the unity of ethics (there being no recognizable divisions of sphere between Christian and non-Christian) and the failure of the move from descriptive to normative ethics. Once more, if we get the predication right, if God is logically prior, we will rightly order and evaluate the phenomenological data of the world.

[At the end, Haddorff also pursued a final human affirmation that I can't see as eschatologically justified if there is such a Yes-No-Yes pattern as he describes. On this front, I tend to insist on a Yes-No-No-Yes pattern as closer to Barth's own: the divine affirmation of the creation; our negation of relationship with God that comes in human sin; the negation of that negation that is God's dialectical "No"; and the affirmation of the creature that is God's dialectical "Yes."]

McKenny's project, and Nimmo's analysis of it, I will leave for another time—mostly because I'm so close to it right now. I find my own project so similar to McKenny's approach in The Analogy of Grace at this point in time that I could reasonably characterize it as enlarging the data set to account better for the impact of Barth's earlier ethics work and the full impact of volume III on creation, and then tweaking the model appropriately to compensate. The present excess of emphasis in the field on Barth's election and volume II has to be balanced. But anyways, I appreciated the "errata" for McKenny's book hashed out between these two excellent scholars of Barth's ethics.

And the cap to the thread, on Sunday evening, was the aforementioned Analytic Theology Lecture by Alan Torrance, very Barthian and Kierkegaardian, and much more of a demonstration of doing theology with analytic tools, than what seems more commonly grasped as analytic theology proper by the majority of its participants. Which is to say I see Alan Torrance doing much of what I do with analytics, which is borrow their toys and play my own games with them. And this is precisely how Torrance stands to cap this thread on God as absolutely prior subject: with an emphasis on the sovereignty of this particular God, in this particular history, in these particular acts, all contingent and not rationally ideal—in other words, on the real—as the determinant of truth in analytic theology. Otherwise, we may measure intrasystematic validity, in the postliberal comparative-religions fashion, but one simply cannot do objective validation without respecting the objective ground, which is not universal and rational, but absolute and particular.

The best bit of Torrance's presentation, for me, was his opposition of the Socratic idea of knowledge intrinsic to the learner, which must simply be brought forth from the mind by questioning, to the necessary Christian concept that the ground of our truth is extrinsic, and that our minds must be reconciled to that truth—that we must actually be taught. Not just shown illustrations about which we can reason—we must have created in us, by the reconciliation of our minds to extrinsic truth, the very faculties by which we may then learn. The naïf is in error, misdirected and not capable of self-direction—and the human pedagogue is no less naïve. Which is phenomenology again. The Greek concept of metanoia thus serves as the turning of the mind toward the ability to learn, toward dianoia and thus noësis as such.

It is only, therefore, by making sure that we account for God as the absolute prior subject of all predication, that we will account the world correctly in our human understanding. We may do phenomenology—and we must!—but we should never deceive ourselves that the phenomena show us the rationality of the real. They only give us ground to rationalize it in every arbitrary way that may fit the given data.