Monday, September 17, 2012

Rain on the Apophatic Parade

Unless God the Father has feathers and fingers, revealed language for God is not necessarily literal.  But nor, contra some feminist claims, is it interchangeably metaphorical.  But between the literal and metaphorical is the language of - you guessed it - analogy.  Or so claims Robert Jenson, glossing that indispensable and enlightening stretch of the Summa: 1:13:3.  Jenson continues:
Both Christianity and gnostic religion know that God is beyond our manipulation, by language or by any other means.  Both know that therefore all true speech about God must be "apophatic," must deny the rules by which we wield the language spoken.  The difference between Christianity and the gnostic spirit is then simple and straightforward: for the latter, apophaticism means that we have continuously to make up language in which to speak of God, since all speech fails as soon as it is used; for Christianity, apophaticism means that we are given language that is immune to our manipulating, that is 'sacramental' in its density (109).
A bit more on the technical side, here's how Thomas Hopko articulates the same paradox:
God is said to be essentially beyond being, divinity, paternity, sonship, spirithood, goodness, wisdom, power, and so on.  But God is never said to be hypostatically beyond Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For God is supraessential and even nonessential.  But God is not suprahypostatic or nonhypostatic, suprapersonal or nonpersonal (160).
The volume from which I'm quoting, intended as a corrective to an earlier wave of feminism, could not foresee just how many feminists would be prepared to work within those revealed limitations (but that's another post).  In the meantime, it is interesting that the Lutheran Jenson, not the Orthodox Hopko, applies this insight to liturgical art (at least in this particular publication).  Because of the revealed nature of God, “Our icons and rhetoric must either be misrepresentations or be a mimesis guided by their [the saints'] sight rather than by our own."  It's wonderful that Jenson mentions icons, and mentions them first.  But it's disconcerting how few have ever stopped to consider that icons might actually be wrong - dangerously so.  Imposing such creative limitations might damper some of the widespread enthusiasm for carefree dabbling into Christianity and art.

And that might be a good thing.