Musings on Language, Wittgenstein, Aquinas, and the Otherness of God

 

 

Language has limits – and it is limited, by virtue of being human language. It is simply not that great of a communication tool – Wittgenstein’s quip about the inability of language to describe the smell of a cup of coffee contains a surprising amount of truth.

How, then, can we talk about God? God is wholly other, to use Barth-ian terms. Totally transcendent, infinite and beyond our grasp – simply and totally beyond us in His essence.

‘God cannot be seen in His essence by a mere human being, except he be separated from this mortal life’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 12, 10)

How then, using our limited language, can we talk about God?

‘When we speak about God, we are not speaking the literal truth. Our language cannot be other than figurative and analogical. For God is no mere object in time and space. God breaks into our world: but… is above it. Nevertheless, Christian experience testifies to the fact that God reveals himself in a way that is comprehensible to men. Even though, in the nature of the case, divine truth has to be refracted and expressed in terms of human words and finite images, nevertheless it can be expressed in meaningful terms.’ (Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, IVP (1974)

Aquinas makes a similar point in his ‘Summa Theologica,’ that the created, finite mind can’t attain knowledge of the infinite.

‘It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power. For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature. If therefore the mode of anything’s being exceeds the mode of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of the object is above the nature of the knower.’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 12, 4)

If I, for example, talk about ‘the hand of God,’ I’m can’t literally mean God’s hand with fingers – this is called univocal language. The next kind of religious language is equivocal – this means that our words have no relationship with God at all. Neither of these two types of speech let us say anything meaningful about God.

Aquinas, however, has a third way, which has been mentioned above: analogical. This kind of speech recognizes both God’s ‘knowability,’ and His otherness – for example, if I say ‘the hand of God,’ I apply the ideas of hands, or of people ‘giving me a hand,’ to talk about and understand the idea of God helping me or assisting me. It’s a bridge, of sorts.

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5 thoughts on “Musings on Language, Wittgenstein, Aquinas, and the Otherness of God

  1. MisterDavid January 10, 2012 / 9:59 am

    I found your blog through Twitter (where I am TolkienProverbs) – a good find!
    I think that, in an era of Biblical fundamentalism finding an equal and opposite in secular rationalism, the fact that neither our brains nor our language can contain God could/should play a key part in our response.
    *Cue Chesterton quote about a logician trying to fit the ocean into his head*
    Your final paragraph seems to be taking us in the direction that Chesterton did, with ‘art’ as a method of engaging in the unknowable, avoiding logicalism and apophaticism. Is that where you were going?

    Like

    • whitefrozen January 10, 2012 / 1:59 pm

      I think it is, more or less. I’m with Tolkien/C.S. Lewis in that I do see our art/mythologies as both reflections of God and our way of trying to ‘get back’ to God.

      Like

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