Less Negative Theology, More Negative Anthropology

At some point (on the off chance they'd be of interest to anyone) I'm going to try and write a series of posts laying out my very specific objection to a small point I found in Edward Brooks' recent piece exploring what the end of theology might be- though it's an open question whether the point was actually there. Before doing so, however, I would like to flesh out a particular approach to questions of Christian anthropology; that is to say, what Christianity has to say about human existence. As usual, nothing original or profound to see here: I hope it is interesting nonetheless!

My reason for doing so is this: the first few posts I would like to write focus on how particular accounts of human nature might impact our understanding of such things as grace and justification. I'd also like to try and stay true to the thought that we cannot derive our understanding of God from our understanding of creation (though this is not to say that nature can play no part in theology; regarding which, I'd point to a post Alec wrote a few months back). This includes an understanding of creation in its finitude: I do not think I could consistently argue from the finitude and contingency of creation to the eternity and absoluteness of God. Nor do I think I can consistently argue from observations about the vanity of nature, such as one might find in Hobbes, Nietzsche, Derrida, or the later Wittgenstein, to a particular account of what the effects of grace must be.

One of the main reasons for this is the belief that to argue from any human quality- even qualities such as finitude, insufficiency, and the like- to divine qualities is to determine one's understanding of God according to human measures (although, by the way, I think Edward is quite right right in his post when he says that analytic clarification regarding the nature of divine mystery does not necessarily do this). To try and discern God's nature according to our apparent weaknesses, meanwhile, is to anthropomorphise the divine just as surely as if we were to try and discern God's nature according to our apparent strengths.

Now, it is obviously (I think) impossible to try and speak about God without anthropomorphism: there is to be no intrinsically pure doctrine here. This is for no reason other than the fact that the human language with which we speak is, well, human- our words for abstract concepts such as love, justice, beauty, and the like are just as anthropomorphic as our words for limbs (Rowan Williams puts this especially well in The Edge of Words, p150- though it should be said that this book could be accurately described as doing the precise thing I'm trying to avoid). We cannot find a way of speaking about God which intrinsically frees itself from the risk of this natural imposition- even Barth concedes that we can always be doing natural theology, no matter what we say and why. The flip side of this is not, however, to therefore say anything goes; it is still important to try and avoid imagining what we would look like if we were perfect then calling the image 'God'.

Our problem is not, moreover, limited to our ability to speak of God- there is also the problem of how we are to speak of ourselves. After all, if what we truly are is revealed to us by God, how can we know ourselves apart from a God of whom we cannot speak without speaking of ourselves first? The problem here is a similar to one of the motivating thoughts behind negative theology: it's not just that we cannot say what God is; its that insofar as we cannot say this, we cannot say what we are either. So, what's to be done?

Here is one potential approach, one which rears its head repeatedly in Barth's Church Dogmatics: we begin with the assumption that though we cannot speak of God in virtue of our own power, God has revealed Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ. We also assume that the witness to this revelation is Scripture (both Old and New Testaments), which whilst not intrinsically revelatory (c.f. this older piece on Biblical literalism) can speak positively of God in human terms insofar as it serves as witness to His revelation.

Now, Scripture doesn't just speak positively of God- it also identifies God as utterly unique, as the only One to have the qualities He has. These qualities are borne witness to by human concepts, not in order that those concepts might give us a general picture of God's nature, but so that the particular nature of God's self-revelation might unsettle any claim we might think our general concepts have to ultimacy (in Barth's terminology- God remains hidden even is His revelation). And in this revelation and this unsettling, we ourselves are told what we are not- specifically, that we are not God, in any possible sense.

From here, we might be able to broach the question of what Christianity has to say about human existence in terms of a negative anthropology (a quick google search shows that this is not a new term, not in the least- though its theological use seems far from standard). Such an anthropology tries to flip the thought of negative theology, saying that though God has revealed himself, still we cannot first say what we are, only what we are not. This does not work by perfectly identifying definitions of different aspects of God's nature, then interpreting humanity as lacking those aspects- after all, though scripture uses human words to speak positively of God, this does not entail that we therefore definitively know what those words mean when they speak thus. Instead, we begin by saying that we don't entirely know what the term 'almighty' means when applied to God (except insofar as it is given content by His revelation in Christ, and even then, we do not have anything more than a provisional definition). We also say, however, that God allows a partial analogy between our terms and His nature by setting them in the context of His revelation and allowing them to function in a particular way in that context, such that we are not completely ignorant of what is being said (the specific character of this analogy being the main point of contention over the possibility of a valid natural theology). We then say that whatever 'almighty' means definitively, we are not it- and so we look to what account scripture gives us of God's power, then give an account of human nature in contradistinction to that account.

Such an account could never be final, of course, no more than our positive account of what 'almighty' means when it is applied to God could be definitive in an absolute sense. Nor could it claim to be beyond the necessary risk of anthropomorphism. But it does seem to be a quite decent way of trying to approach Christian anthropology in a way which follows from Christian theology, as opposed to the other way round.

Two final things to say: first, that a negative anthropology of this sort would not make sense apart from a positive theology. Positive theology does not here mean a theology which seeks to give a definitive positive account of God's nature- it means a theology which seeks to give a positive account of God's action in the world through Christ. This means that a negative anthropology could only be developed in the service and context of the broader narrative of grace and redemption. It cannot be an end in itself, seeking to talk about humanity for its own sake- rather, it must seek to add to our understanding of grace in terms of what God tells us about ourselves. Second, it is worth saying that such an approach need not lay any exclusive claim on Christian anthropology, and so should not presume to absolutely exclude a Christian account of humanity which begins with the fact that whatever we are, we are created to be God's children, and that evidence of this fact is not entirely lacking in the world today.

Such an account would of course be the anthropological aspect of a positive theology- for God's work in the world is in fact the work which creates us in this way. The task now is to try and argue that there are pertinent considerations grounded in our negative accounts of ourselves which count against this creation being constituted by the moral transformation of the individual.

 

 

 

 

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