Aquinas: Speaking about God

Last week we talked about how we can know God – or at least how Aquinas theorises that knowledge of God works. This week, we’re talking about his next question: how we can speak of God. He’s already established how God is infinite and all-powerful, and (drawing back to Dionysus) there aren’t really any words that are suitable as containers of meaning when we talk about God. This is the beginning of 1a.13.1 then: 

“It seems that we can use no words at all to refer to God. For Dionysus says, ‘Of Him there is no naming nor any opinion,’…”

Aquinas’s reply is that our words don’t refer to God in and of Himself, but rather God as we understand Him. So no, the words aren’t quote-unquote accurate, in the sense that they “do not express the divine essence as it is in itself.” This is harking back to the theories about knowledge that we discussed: the idea is that when you’re talking about a rock, say, the word ‘rock’ communicates the true essence of the object. The definition of the word, for Aquinas, should ideally be the essence of the object, so that when we talk about things we’re talking about what they quote-unquote really are. So when we use words that are based in our perspective, they aren’t necessarily capturing the essence of God. They’re subjective, rather than capturing an objective reality. The argument is that we can still use language to talk about God, but “God is said to have no name, or to be beyond naming because His essence is beyond what we understand of Him”. 

Alright, well, if His essence is beyond what we understand of Him, do our words actually correlate to any objective reality? Are we just pissing in the dark when we’re talking about God? This is Aquinas’s next article: “Do any of the words we use of God express something of what He is?” (1a.13.2) If we haven’t captured the essence of God in our words, do they even point towards Him at all? How can we be assured of their accuracy? Inevitably this leads to one conclusion:

“We speak of things as we understand them. But in this life we do not understand what God is, and so we can use no words to say what He is.” 

There are a few different people who’ve approached this problem, and Aquinas covers some of them in his reply. Maybe we can talk about the acts of God, and use those as indirect ways to imply what He must be like. Alternately, maybe when we say that God is good, we’re really saying that God is the cause of goodness in things. Aquinas points out that God is also the cause of bodies, so if that second argument is true we might as well also say that God is a body. It’s a rebuttal which a) is hilarious and b) makes you wonder if Aquinas has heard about Jesus.

The solution eventually put forward by Aquinas is basically to assume that our words are more or less pointing in the right direction:

“…words do say what God is; they are predicated of Him in the category of substance, but fail to represent adequately what He is.” 

So we can say that God is kind, and that’s correct, but the kindness that is a characteristic of God is more perfect than whatever we mean by the word. Our linguistic insufficiency, by this argument, is an issue of degree rather than type. Our kindness is not kind enough, but we’re basically on the right track. To hear it from Aquinas:

“‘God is good’ therefore does not mean the same as ‘God is the cause of goodness’… it means that what we call ‘goodness’ in creatures pre-exists in God in a higher way.”

The whole thing stems from a discussion way back in Question 4, where Aquinas argues that insofar as any creature possesses any perfection, that perfection is representative of God’s perfection, “for He, being simply and universally perfect, has pre-existing in Himself the perfections of all His creatures.” So no, we don’t have one word that expresses the entirety of God, but we have a bunch of different words that represent various positive qualities that can be found imperfectly in the created world and point back towards their perfect point of origin in God.

The next article, article 3, is where things start heating up a bit. Okay, so we can talk about God, and maybe our words can be used to describe things about God, even if they are imperfect. But can we say anything literal about God, or is it all just degrees of metaphor? When we call God a rock, or a lion, that’s metaphorical language. In fact, every word that’s tied to our physical bodies, our material world – all of that’s metaphorical, because God’s incorporeal (well, except for Jesus, but I’m still not sure if Aquinas is familiar with him). We can’t talk about God’s hand over our lives – that’s a metaphor, because God doesn’t have a body, so He can’t literally have hands. Aquinas argues that every word that we use has a material context, “for all imply such conditions as temporal succession and composition of matter and form which belong to the material world.” If all words have a material context, then none of them are appropriate to God – because God has no material form (except Jesus but shhhhhh.)

So Aquinas deals with this problem by suggesting that the materialist way in which we use all these words is part of their imperfection, and in order to understand them properly (or perfectly) we have to deprive them of their materialist context and rethink them in spiritual transcendent terms more appropriate to the God from whom they originate. In that sense, once we deprive them of their materialist context, we can apply them literally to God. God is literally good, but ‘goodness’ in its pure perfect Godly form has no material form.

Ultimately this justification dissolves when (here we go) you consider Jesus. Christian doctrine states that Jesus was fully human and fully God. He was God in flesh – which is not to say that he was the perfect divinity just sort of adopting a skin suit for 30 years. That would imply that he’s not fully God – he’s only God up until you consider his physical form at which point it’s just human. Nope – he’s fully God, including his physical body. So the argument that goodness is most perfectly understood as having no material form is unsustainable – either Jesus was fully God and possessed the full perfect quality of goodness even in the physical material nature of his body, or he wasn’t and, uh, he didn’t, and also our faith is invalid. Hard choice.

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