Tuesday, July 11, 2006

'Esse' and Negative Theology

What is the meaning of the famous statement in the Mysticae Theologiae of Pseudo-Dionysius that God is “beyond being”? Does it mean that God does not exist in any sense? Some have interpreted negative theology as cutting across even the dialectical opposition between being and non-being – the final frontier of philosophical knowledge – placing God beyond both.

But is there truly a dialectical opposition between being and nonbeing? Is the subject of negative theology esse as such? The following is an attempt to answer these questions in the negative and clarify the proper subject of negative theology.

Being and Nonbeing

I propose that the dialectical opposition between being and nonbeing is a chimera. If ‘being’ is a thesis, it must have ‘nonbeing’ as its antitheses. However, can ‘nothing’ be an antitheses? It seems not. A thesis is a concept. Concepts ultimately are derived from the essences of existing things. For example, ‘whole’ is a thesis the antithesis of which is ‘part’. Things must either be parts or wholes. They can be one or the other but not both nor neither. Negative theology places God beyond both whole and part. The situation is different with being and nonbeing. Neither are – strictly speaking – concepts. They are the act-of-being or its absence attributable in a sense to concepts: men exist/men do not exist, but they do not add anything in the order of essences to them. The proper subject of dialectic is essence. Esse (which is the sense in which I am using ens here) is not the subject of dialectic and as such is no thesis to be opposed. At the same time, nonbeing cannot be the term of a relation (real or logical) since it is nothing (real or logical) and as such cannot be an antithesis. The error made by those who say that God is beyond being in the sense of without His own act-of-being is thinking of esse as the ultimate essence, the ultimate concept derived from created being to be negated, and thus also its antithesis. Negative theology, however, is a kind of purgation with respect to dialectic. Thus its subject is that of dialectic. Esse is not the subject of dialectic. Thus, esse is not the subject of negative theology.

The Two Meanings of Ens

The statement “God is beyond being” or “God is not being” takes ens according to what Thomas Aquinas calls its essential mode, i.e. what it is. It does not take ens in the mode of esse or act-of-existing, i.e. that it is. Were it to mean the latter, it would amount to a judgment that, strictly speaking, there is no God.

Any attempt to avoid this conclusion by saying that there is a God – albeit one beyond an act-of-existing (esse) – would be purely equivocal speech.

If the objection is made that being (ens) is just one more concept to be purged from our thoughts about God by negative theology, it must be said that esse is not a concept nor is it conceivable. It is not an essence or an essential accident. It is outside the essence and as such is predicated like an accident, but is not like an accident in that it has no essential form of its own. It is thus not a predicate in the proper sense of a predicamental. And since the subject of negative theology is all predicamentals attributed to the divine nature in a univocal sense, esse is not the subject of negative theology.

Analogicity no Impediment to a Perfect Negative Theology

“God exists” is a meaningful statement. “God does not exist” is also a meaningful statement. Predicated analogically, the former is Christianity the latter atheism. Predicated equivocally both are meaningless. Predicated univocally the first is false the second true.

If the goal of negative theology is to strip us of all our concepts of God, analogical predication preserves its essential aim. Analogical predication attributes the essence of no created being to the uncreated divine essence. By it our concepts do not define the divine essence. They attribute no concept as such to it. It is not the positive theology to which the Mysticae Theologiae opposes negative theology. Rather, analogical predication posits an inconceivable likeness (a link in the order of esse) between God and creatures which serves to make theologiae meaningful as opposed to nonsense.

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