How to Cultivate Your Hedgerow

‘There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference’

– T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding.

Someone walks down a road in winter: a broken king, let us say, taking the way to Little Gidding during midwinter spring, which is its own season. Amid the transitory blossom of the snow, one live flower flourishes in the hedgerow. Here are three responses our king might make. In the first case, he turns aside to admire the flower, and then decides to pluck it and keep it for himself. In the second case, he still turns aside, but only to admire. He examines it carefully, delights in its colour and fragrance, but then leaves it behind, perhaps with a smile and a wistful sigh.  In the third case, the king does not turn aside. He glances towards it momentarily, registers its existence and its most obvious features, and then walks on unmoved. These, in ideally simplified form, are the three conditions of which the poet speaks: the first case is one of attachment, the second one of detachment, and the third one of indifference.

The right attitude, of course, is detachment.  ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ as Jesus puts the point most starkly in Luke 14:26. Detachment is the second step of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written in the 7th Century by a monk of Sinai: ‘The man who really loves the Lord…will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth’. We are not, of course, commanded literally to hate, or even to refrain from loving, our parents. But the love we ought to hold for them is not the sort of love we find it easy to feel. The love we feel most easily is the love that would pluck the flower: it is attachment. The love to which we are called is the love that delights in the flower without needing to pluck it: it is detachment.

It’s all very easy to advocate detachment in the abstract, or to illustrate it with an example as neat as that drawn at the beginning. But the poet puts his feet upon a problem: the three conditions ‘often look alike’. Just what difference is there between loving your parents in the ordinary way, and loving as we are called to?  If the difference is small, why are we so called, and so sharply? If the difference is great, how doesn’t detachment collapse into mere indifference?

In practice, I admit that it’s very hard to say. That is partly why this call is so demanding. Though I will consider further examples, my main aim is provide a more theoretical account: what exactly is detachment, and why does it matter? I’m thinking of things like this. We have all our attitudes: our beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. Together, they represent the world as being certain ways. Specifically, they represent the value of things. The way we think and feel about a thing represents it as good or bad. The valuable world we represent to ourselves, however, is a centred world: it is necessarily focussed on us. The value we see in things is first of all value to us.

And that’s it. We are first of all, and most easily, attached: the value we see in things is first of all value to us. For me to be attached to something – a MacGuffin, let’s say – is for me to represent it as a good-for-me. My joy is bound up with it, and its goodness is bound up with the joy it offers me. Now it is unlikely that I would be completely attached to my MacGuffin in this way. On reflection, I would surely admit that, actually, I would probably be fine without the MacGuffin, and it would be just as well for the MacGuffin to MacGuff for someone else. But my habitual modes of thinking and feeling about the MacGuffin may nonetheless obscure this from me. I tend to represent it as a good-for-me, such that its goodness and my joy are bound inextricably together. Thus was our king moved to pluck the flower for himself.

The most radical alternative is not to represent the MacGuffin as good at all, not to think or feel anything in respect of it. This is the condition of indifference, and thus did our king pass the flower by. One could not maintain complete difference towards all things without soon dying of thirst, but it is still possible, though not at all desirable, to hold a deep and general stance of indifference. A further theoretical possibility also suggests itself: one could refuse absolutely to centre one’s world of value,: seeing things as good, but never relating that good to oneself. This is surely some moral advance on the case of pure indifference, but it is at least undesirable on the same practical basis: we need to think of water as good for us in order to survive. Nonetheless, one can imagine some approximation of this  attitude resulting from an over-zealous attempt to cultivate detachment.

What, then, is true detachment? It is see good things as good, and to relate their goodness to oneself, without seeing them as essentially related to oneself. I am detached from my MacGuffin if I really act and think and feel as if my joy does not depend on the MacGuffin, and the MacGuffin can be good without my enjoying it. This is quite compatible with wanting to enjoy it, with loving and desiring the MacGuffin. My love, however, is thoroughly sensitive to the fact that, if necessary, I can do without it, and it without me. Thus the king admires the flower, and leaves it be.

Here are some more concrete cases to consider. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood loves Edward Ferrars, and Marianne Dashwood loves Willoughby. Elinor is grieved to discover that her beloved is engaged to another woman, but she gets on with little difficulty. She is patient with the fiancée (who would try the patience of anyone less painfully connected with her) and attentive to her sister (of whom much the same could be said). Her love is true, but detached. She does not represent Edward’s goodness as essentially connected to her enjoyment of it in the least. Marianne, meanwhile, is utterly desolate to learn that her love is unrequited. For days afterwards, she does little but mope. She is attached to Willoughby. She cannot think of her joy and his goodness (such as it is) as independent of one another. I rather think that the novel would have been better had Elinor been less perfect at the outset, instead meeting Marianne halfway. We can imagine the plot going differently, such that Elinor begins by burying her feelings out of caution and timidity. She fails properly to represent Edward as good, and his goodness as related to her. Frustrated by her coolness, Edward makes a foolish engagement elsewhere, and the plot as it stands is set in motion. Thus would Elinor start as indifferent, and move towards detachment, as eventually Marianne does.

A further case is Der Rosenkavalier. The basic plot is this: a married woman takes a younger lover, who then leaves her for someone his own age. This could play out in one of three ways. In one case, the woman enjoys the sport of the affair, but does not really care about her lover or who he might turn to next. She is indifferent. In another case, she cares enormously about her lover, and cannot cope with his leaving her. Perhaps, in true operatic fashion, she plots to kill one or more of herself, her lover, and his new beloved. Or perhaps she simply despairs, unable to see a future without him, or to reconcile herself to his future without her. Finally, she could care about him while still accepting his decision. She does not despair, but feels joy for his new joy. Apparently, Strauss and his librettist originally intended to write the Marschallin as indifferent. The result would surely have been an indifferent opera. Fortunately, they were driven instead to create something of surpassing beauty. ‘With light heart and light hands, hold and take, hold and let go’ she sings in the first act; and so she does, splendidly singing, in the last. The Marschallin is marvellously detached.

So, how does one attain detachment? The most obvious way is also the hardest: go through the anguish of attachment and loss. Considerably easier is to do what I have been doing, and reflect on examples of attachment and detachment. But here are some more direct suggestions. First, concentrate on the whole range of what is actually good, and which one actually enjoys. The MacGuffin, whatever it may be, will only be a small part of it.I haven’t brought God in for a while. The mistake of attachment, from a Christian point of view, is this: the only good that is necessary for our joy is God, and everything that is good is ultimately so not because it brings us joy, but because it reflects God’s goodness. So the best solution to attachment is to remember the goodness of God. Remembering the goodness of cool water and birdsong and flowers wouldn’t go amiss, either, unless you happen to be a broken king. You can also try to change the way you think about the MacGuffin. Instead of concentrating on actual goodness and our actual enjoyment of it, we have a dangerous tendency to dwell on merely possible enjoyment, or lack thereof. We think of the good scenarios there might be with the MacGuffin, and the bad scenarios there might be without it. Now sometimes it is worthwhile to rehearse possible scenarios, but that is best done consciously and carefully. It is all to easy to slip into mere fantasy, and use those fantasies to fuel our feelings. Watch your thoughts, and try to keep yourself from getting lost in such fantasies. Those are the best strategies I know of for cultivating detachment.

I close with the trio from Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin’s song is as sad as that of any more conventionally tragic heroine, yet it also radiant. True, detached love is set forth for us in tones of lustrous renunciation. It is our part to love it and to imitate it. Whatever I should suffer, Lord, whatever I should lose, may my cry be as her cry: in Gottes Namen. With that same sorrow, and with that same strength. Let us all love like the Marschallin.

Kneeledge

John Ritzema and Bill Wood replied to my Aquinas homily by asking me to share some thoughts on the relationship between College, Christian worship, and the academic study of theology. On Friday the 18th of March, meanwhile, I was due to discuss the relationship between philosophy and faith at the upcoming Developing a Christian Mind conference. Instead, I will be praying for the repose of Graham Pechey at St. Bene’t’s Church in Cambridge. I write in response to all three stimuli.

What it is to lay down a life of the mind in love? This, it seems, is what Graham did. He was a man of deep thought, and faith as deep. He was curious about my own studies, and wanted to learn all about the ascent of analytic metaphysics, foreign as the idea struck him at first. I doubt he ever got round to reading the ramblings I sent him over Christmas, but I am sure he read his Daily Office till the end. He did not accrue a great deal by way of accolade or esteem, but he kept on seeking after understanding. Even in his last illness the national press was picking up articles he had edited  for The Journal of the T.S. Eliot Society.

Graham was a late convert, having been earlier an atheist and communist (as indeed my grandfather was throughout his life). He had been catechised personally by some of the senior clergy at St. Alban’s Cathedral. He recalled neglecting the basics in favour of abstruser doctrinal tangles. This neglect was no loss, since he still came to acquire what he called ‘the kneeledge’: that knowledge which can only be acquired by bending one’s whole being before the altar of the Lord. For Graham, as for the great Anglican poets he so admired, such puns were a sign of God’s providential ordering of all things, even the peculiarities of human language.

Life continues after the reception of communion, however, and indeed immediately after communion we pray to consecrate our lives, and all we do with them, to God’s service. And so there arises a question for me, as companion questions surely arose for Graham: how do I offer my enquiries into the nature of analytic metaphysics up to God’s praise and glory? What connects the knowledge won in libraries with the kneeling done in sanctuaries?

‘O Sapientia’, the Church cries in Advent (not to mention Graham’s beloved Laurie, protagonist of The Towers of Trebizond), ‘fortiter suaviterque disponsens omnia’. Christ the Wisdom of God orders all things: the peculiarities of human language; the metaphysical structure of reality; even, in Graham’s case, the thought of Soviet literary critics. In turning our minds to understand such things, we do reverence to that Wisdom. To labour over or delight in that understanding is to labour over or delight in God. As I preached in January, it is to follow the way of causation: we know God better the better we know what God has done. And to love God, we must first know Him. Strange as it may sound, when I consider what’s at stake when metaphysicians ask whether there are really chairs, or only sub-atomic particles arranged chair-wise, I really do believe I am thus drawing closer to the Arranger of all particles (or gunk?).

That, I think, is how knowing connects with kneeling. What has kneeling to do with knowing? Well, beside the way of causation, there is also the way of remotion: we know God better the better we know how far God differs from even the best of what God has done. As Graham was no doubt forcefully reminded in his final days, in order to arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. We bow before bread to learn that God is so unlike the sun or the Queen. We pray for the dead to learn that, whatever human persons most fundamentally are, they persist through profound changes in the arrangement of their physical parts. To our surprise, they are held in the hands of God.

It is all one, to study Soviet literary critics or to receive the Sacrament. It is to be still moving into another intensity, for a further union and deeper communion with the end who is our beginning. It is to advance by inches in the knowledge of the God who is Truth. Let the splendour of that Truth shine perpetually on Graham, and may eternal rest be granted unto him.

 

Getting to Know God: A Homily for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

Why are we all gathered here tonight, not only in a place of Christian worship, but one attached to a scholarly institution? The answer, I assume, is at least in part that we seek to know God. St. Thomas Aquinas, to whose honour this Eucharist is dedicated, had rather a lot to say on the topic of the knowledge of God. It sometimes makes for sobering reading. In this life, according to Aquinas, we cannot know God as He is in Himself. Even the blessed will never comprehend Him. So much the worse for knowledge, some would say: let us concentrate on love. I will be returning to that idea later: stated thus baldly, however, it would meet with the scorn of St. Thomas, and it is not worthy of any one  of us. ‘Love’, Aquinas says, ‘demands apprehension of the good that is loved’.  Love and knowledge are thus inseparable.

Fortunately, Aquinas’s real views are not quite as pessimistic as they sound. When he says that the blessed will never comprehend God, he means that they will never know Him exactly as much as God is knowable in Himself. Since God is infinite, He is infinitely knowable. However well a finite mind might know, therefore, it will never exhaust all there is to know in God. When he says that we cannot know God as he in himself in this life, he means that no idea we possess of God will be adequate to His nature, as, for instance, our idea of red is adequate to the colour red. We can still have a pretty great idea of God: it’s just that none our creaturely ideas can do complete justice to the Creator. This being so, what we ought to be after, if we sincerely wish to know God, is a better idea of Him. According to Aquinas, there are three principal ways to improve our idea of God: the way of causation, the way of eminence, and the way of remotion.

First, the way of causation. Aquinas holds that every effect is like its cause. Since God is the primary cause of everything, everything, but everything, is in some sense like God. We will know God better the better we know his effects. How might we practice the way of causation? ‘Come and see the works of God’. Look around you. Pay attention. Feel the wood of the stalls against your body, smell the incense on the air, watch the light flicker from the candles. These are all from God, and all these will lead us to Him. This is the way of causation.

The way of eminence is like unto it. Some of God’s creatures are more noble than others. Those that are greater, more fully in being, are more like the Creator who is Being Itself. We will know God better if we come to know the better among His creatures. How do we do so? ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’.  Again, pay attention: this time to each other. Love demands apprehension of the good that is loved. As human persons, we are all among the noblest of God’s creatures, and we all show forth our own pattern of perfections. Appreciate them. Love Robert for his hospitality, love Benji for his genial spirit, love Claire for her tender heart. I could, but won’t, go on. Apologies to those omitted, but that is the way of eminence.

Finally, remotion. We will know God better if we know better how far he differs from even the greatest of His creatures. We could try to think through the way of remotion, denying of God all those attributed unworthy of Him, but if we want a truly lively sense of God’s strangeness, the traditional position is that we do better not to think at all. ‘Be still and know that I am God’. Withdraw from perception and cognition, the portals through which the rest of the created world rushes in to meet us, and wait in silence for the Creator who has awaited you from eternity. The most venerable means of waiting is perhaps to sit down and repeat the name of Jesus, our God among us. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us, sinners’. I like to say more simply ‘Jesus Christ’ as I exhale, ‘have mercy’ as I inhale. It sometimes brings a wonderful peace, sometimes frustration and fear, and often it is just dull. Fortunately, given the frequency of the latter case, the point of the exercise is neither to feel a delectable peace, nor thrill to a holy fear, but to grasp the fact of God’s remoteness. Turning towards God requires turning away from the thoughts and feelings than which he is so entirely other. That is the way of remotion.

So, how do we get to know God? The way of causation, the way of eminence, the way of remotion. Causation: ‘see the works of God’. Smell the incense, see the candles, attend to all the trivial points set forth by our liturgy. Eminence: ‘love one another’. Remember each other in the intercessions, reach out to each other in the peace. Remotion: ‘be still’. Kneel before the altar. Wrench the whole of your attention from the world around, and focus it on the little bit nothing that is the body of your God.

Divine Hiddenness as a Resource for Natural Theology, part 2

In the previous installment, I suggested two hypotheses the theist should accept, if she aims to be maximally concessive to the the argument from divine hiddenness:

1* (henceforth 1). If there is a perfectly loving God, God intends that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.

and 8 (henceforth 2). God’s intention (re creaturely participation in relationship) is thwarted because of creaturely free will.

So where should the theist go from here? How should we elaborate the thought that God’s intention for human beings to know him has been thwarted by our free will? Well the omnipotent God presumably took some kind of action in order to bring his intention towards fulfilment, falling short of simply willing human beings into relationship by divine fiat. What sort of action might be appropriate?

Some distinctive kinds of behaviour – indeed, distinctive kinds of relationship – appear to be nearly universal among human beings. We are very strongly disposed to form kinship bonds, acquire languages, engage in mathematical reasoning, etc. The species appears to have developed in such a way that these characteristics manifest themselves given almost any environmental conditions. Given God’s power over the created order, we might suppose that God guided human development in such that human beings are similarly disposed to enter into personal relationships with him. Given our concession that belief in God is prerequisite for such relationships, this would involve a disposition towards such a belief: just as our disposition towards forming kinship bonds involves dispositions to believe in other minds and the moral significance of kinship.

Clearly, however, this putative disposition is somehow widely obstructed. According to 2, the obstruction is furnished by human freewill. But we can say something more interesting than that. Suppose the manifestation of the relevant disposition was tied to the specific features of our evolutionary environment: on the standard view, what gets us into a relationship with God would be the peculiarities of hunter-gatherer life in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, some humans freely chose to leave sub-Saharan Africa, and, thus, on this story, to enter environments unsuited to cultivating a relationship with God. We have the right dispositions, and those dispositions are obstructed by human freedom, but something seems off about this picture. If God genuinely intends us to relate personally to him, we should expect the disposition to be much more robust, to manifest in a broader range of environmental conditions. It cannot plausibly be the effects of a single free choice, such as a decision to leave the savannah, that is obstructing the dispositions, but rather the continuous free choices of human beings.

Given our concession that some non-belief is non-resistant, the relevant free choices must be subtler than an explicit rejection of the idea of God. Here is a model that might illuminate the situation. As stated, human beings have a strong disposition to engage in mathematical reasoning, and acquire mathematical knowledge. Of course, the extent of mathematical knowledge acquired is highly sensitive to environmental and other factors. But even in excellent conditions, and where the subject does not resist, but seeks out, mathematical knowledge, human freedom can obstruct the manifestation of the relevant dispositions. A child in Bertie’s class has acquired a new iPhone. All the children choose to spend their breaks excitedly discussing this phone’s wonderful features. Even the sober and studious Bertie joins in a little. Now Bertie loves maths, and usually excels at it. When maths class comes around however, Bertie finds it difficult to concentrate. Thoughts about apps keep on entering his head when he is a halfway through a problem. Of course, Bertie fights as hard as he can against these thoughts. But this requires considerable effort, and so Bertie doesn’t make nearly as much progress as he ordinarily would. His dispositions to acquire mathematical knowledge have been disrupted by the free choice of he and his classmates to discuss technology at break time – even though Bertie is determinedly trying to acquire new mathematical knowledge in class.

Here are two hypotheses to summarise the picture that I have presented so far:

3. God so arranged human evolution as strongly to dispose us towards personal relationship with him.

4. The manifestation of this disposition is obstructed by the habitual patters of free human agency.

One final point. If we’re really being maximally concessive to the hiddenness argument, we can’t suppose that God is simply going to let this situation be. If his intention for human beings to enter into relationship is being obstruction, he will presumably act to overcome the obstruction. Now, again, God is clearly not interested in overcoming the problem by fiat – presumably because of the value we have supposed that God places on human freedom. The best hypothesis, then, is that

5. God plans to persuade us freely to abandon the relevant patterns of agency

– like the headmaster trying to persuade Bertie’s class to concentrate on their studies rather than the fancy new iPhone.

Reformed Epistemology Modified (abbreviate it)

Here is a thought I’ve had about altering the standard structure of Reformed Epistemology while remaining true to the view’s original spirit. Suppose that religious belief is never basic, and a fortiori, never properly basic. That is, suppose that religious beliefs are always and everywhere inferred from other beliefs. To employ some of Plantinga’s examples, suppose I read the Bible. Instead of simply acquiring the spontaneous conviction that God is speaking to me, suppose I go from my belief that I am reading the Bible (and maybe some other beliefs about how personally pertinent or emotionally powerful my reading is) to the conclusion that God is speaking to me: not via some suppressed premiss along the lines of ‘If I am reading the Bible and…, then God is speaking to me’, but just by a direct intellectual movement from one the belief to the other (much as one does not complete a modus ponens inference via the suppressed premiss that modus ponens is a valid argument schema). So too, I observe the stars, and instead of spontaneously thinking that the stars were made, I infer that the stars have a maker from the evidence that there are stars.

Of course, a religious sceptic will think that these are terrible inferences, much as she will think that basic religious beliefs are unwarranted. But supply some substantive religious assumptions, much as Plantinga supplies his Aquinas/Calvin model, and these inferences turn out to be pretty good. To undermine the inferences, the religious sceptic will have to undermine the assumptions – just as she would to undermine Plantinga’s putatively basic beliefs. So we have considerable parity between the original Reformed Epistemology and my modification.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to suggest that Reformed Epistemology took a wrong turn in getting all hung up on the question of whether religious beliefs require evidence. There are other ways to upset the sceptic’s epistemological assumptions than by invoking proper basicality.

A more schematic way to think about. We have the set of all the theist’s beliefs, S. Hold S fixed. Let’s think of it in terms of a processing system involving input, operation, and output. The inputs are the properly/justified basic beliefs, the operation is the totality of justification-preserving inferences, and the outputs are the justified beliefs. The Reformed Epistemologist’s central point is that what the outputs are depends upon what the world is like (holding S fixed). Plantinga gets to this conclusion by arguing that what the inputs are depends upon what the world is like. I am noting that there is an alternative route to that conclusion, namely, to argue that what the operation is depends upon what the world is like. Of course, to do so you would have to say a lot about what a justification-preserving inference is, just as Plantinga says a lot about what a properly basic belief is.

Divine Hiddenness as a Resource for Natural Theology, part 1

Here is a formulation of the argument from divine hiddenness:

1.If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.

2.No one can be in a position to participate in such relationships without believing that God exists.

3.If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists (from 1 and 2).

4.It is not the case that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists: there is nonresistant nonbelief; God is hidden.

5.It is not the case that there is a perfectly loving God (from 3 and 4).

6.If God exists, God is perfectly loving.

7.It is not the case that God exists (from 5 and 6).

Here’s the frame of mind from which I want to approach the argument. Let’s treat it as a paradox, much like the Sorites – a valid argument with plausible premisses but an implausible conclusion. Suppose you find all the premisses really compelling, but are entirely unprepared to grant the conclusion. I doubt anyone does think this way about the argument, but I think it’s an interesting angle to pursue.

My thought is that the motivations behind premiss 1. can be captured with a somewhat weaker version of the premiss. At a first pass, we have:

1*. If there is a perfectly loving God, God intends that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.

Apparently, this intention has been thwarted. What could thwart God’s intentions? Or, God being omnipotent, would would God allow to thwart his intentions?

Well, consider now a stronger variant of 1:

1+. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God participate in such relationships.

Why settle for 1 when you could have 1+? Presumably, because we think that God would be prepared to compromise on the good of personal relationship for the sake of the good of free will.

Perhaps we think that personal relationships freely entered into, rather than personal relationships per se, are the relevant good. But that seems dubious: we do not usually enter freely into personal relationship with our biological parents, but those relationships are good. And, at the very least, we would still be left with the conclusion that God takes creaturely free will into account when assessing goods.

Given that we’ve already preferred 1 over 1+ because God values creaturely free will, it seems appropriate to appeal to free will again to explain why 1* but not 1 is true: ie, it seems plausible that creaturely free will is what God allowed to thwart his intentions.

Return to the point from which we started. We were supposing that we found 1 really compelling: presumably, we believed that no other good could outweigh that of personal relationship. Further reflection showed that that wasn’t quite right, since it’s already built into 1. that the good of free will can potentially outweigh the good of relationship. We’ve come across no reason for thinking that there are goods apart from free will that can do this. So, if we are really conceding as much as possible to the original argument, we must suppose that it’s free will that thwarts God’s intentions.

So we have:

1*: If there is a perfectly loving God, God intends that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.

and 8. God’s intention (re creaturely participation in relationship) is thwarted because of creaturely free will.

A Proposed Rule for Theological Speech

Stop saying that various doctrines are rules for theological speech. I have in mind particularly the recent wave of Patristics scholarship to which an unnamed supervisor of an Oriel theologian has been central, but I think the phenomenon is wider than this. When this supervisor uses the term ‘grammar’, he means ‘a set of rules or principles intrinsic to theological discourse, whether or not they are formally articulated’ (Nicaea and Its Legacy, p 14). Thus another of his supervisees: ‘Simplicity and non-condradiction, then, are both rules for speaking about God’ (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity’, p 21). The theological doctrine of divine simplicity, not to mention the logical principle of non-contradiction, are both interpreted as rules for speaking.

This, I submit, is deeply mistaken. My point is not so much about realist foot-stomping; it’s not as if I’m complaining that the great saving truth is being exchanged for mere breath. The recent wave of Patristic scholarship is very obviously not committed to a general theological anti-realism. The relevant scholars just think it’s helpful to talk in terms of ‘grammar’; I disagree.

Here’s another proposed rule for speech. The milk is off. Just as ‘God is simple’ can be construed as meaning ‘Do not attribute parts to God’, so too can ‘The milk is off’ be construed as meaning ‘Do not attribute freshness to the milk’, ‘Do not say that there is milk for the tea’ etc. My comment about the milk is bound to regulate our discourse about breakfast. But it’s just bonkers to think that the statement is somehow part of our ‘grammar of breakfast’. It’s an ordinary, first-order comment on how it is with the milk. As it happens, the way it is with the milk is of great importance to our breakfast, and so for our breakfast discourse. Hence my comment’s regulative force. But to seize upon its tendency to regulate discourse and elevate that to the status of the comment’s meaning is confused and confusing.

I take it the same applies to, eg, ‘God is simple’. It’s a first-order comment on how it is with God: namely, that in God there is no complexity of any kind. Now this is a very important fact (if indeed it is a fact, that is, if there is no complexity of any kind in God) about God. So important that proper acknowledgement of it will tend to regulate our discourse about God, as well as various other of our practices. Of particular importance to Patristics scholarship, of course, is that it will tend to regulate the practice of Scriptural exegesis. Hence the temptation to think of such claims in terms of their linguistic role.

The temptation, however, should be resisted. Some theological claims have an especial tendency to regulate theological discourse. This is what people are getting at when they indulge in ‘grammar’ talk. But they regulate discourse not because they have any special grammatical or meta-lingustic status, but simply because they tell us particularly important truths about God. Instead of ‘grammar of divinity’, I would favour instead, eg, ‘core doctrine of God’; instead of talking about some doctrine’s role as a rule of theological speech, I would talk of its role as a hermeneutical key to some author’s theology (or of some author’s use of it as a key to Scriptural hermeneutics). Thus we still capture the important truths the current scholarly jargon is trying to articulate without the same sloppiness about object language and meta-language.