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Nicholas of Cusa's Via Negativa: Returning to God after Giving up God Nicholas of Cusa's Via Negativa: Returning to God after Giving up God
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-08-13 10:39:30
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“Dedicated to all my atheist and agnostic friends”

To continue the dialogue with Professor Hunter as well as others who see the need for one, regarding God’s role in the universe, I’d like to take a brief look at a conversation between a pagan and a Christian written some five hundred years ago by Nicholas of Cusa, a Renaissance theologian and mystic who proposed that the only way to know God is by what he calls “via negativa.”

The dialogue is titled Dialogue On the Hidden God (A.D. 1444). In such a dialogue a Pagan comes across someone engaged in the act of worship, prostrate and weeping, and is curious. What is this person be possibly be doing? Is he worshipping? Who is he worshipping? Why is he worshipping? The Pagan finds out that this person is a Christian and begins to probe as to what sort of God this Christian worships.

Pagan. What are you worshipping?

Christian. God.

Pagan. Who is the God you worship?

Christian. I do not know.

The Pagan is now confused. How is it possible for someone to worship something they don’t know? Is this Christian an ignorant klutz?

Pagan. How can you so earnestly worship that which you do not know?

Christian. It is because I do not know that I worship.

This of course seems paradoxical. Normally, if we have a conversation with someone, we know something about them (even if it is the most basic fact of the other person being a human). We know what and who we are speaking to. If we don’t know what we’re speaking to, but we’re still speaking, we’re liable to be considered crazy.

Likewise, religion has as its subject (or object) of worship, some sort of Divine Being (who may or may not be human), a Life-Force, an Energy, or something supremely Other. But the Christian in this conversation apparently has no clue about who or what he is worshiping. This “God” that the Christian speaks of, is unknown, even to the Christian. The Pagan finds this Christian incredible.

But the Christian finds the opposite incredible. He turns the Pagan’s admiration on its head and states that “It is even more amazing to see a person devoted to that which he thinks he knows…Because one knows that which one thinks one knows less than that which one knows one does not know.” To simplify, the Christian is saying that if we claim to know something, we actually don’t know it (or at least, we don’t know as much of it as we thought we did). We believe we know something, but really, deep down, we have barely been able to even begin to grasp it. In fact, it is much wiser to say that we don’t know something because that is more true.

The question naturally arises in the Pagan’s mind: What does the Christian mean by knowledge?

Christian. By knowledge I understand the apprehension of truth. Whoever says that one knows is saying that one has apprehended the truth.

There is a sense of totality and finality in the Christian’s definition of knowledge. One has knowledge when they have grasped the truth in its totality, in all of its nitty-gritty details. The Pagan agrees to this. But then the Christian poses a problem:

Christian. How, therefore, can truth be apprehended other than through itself? Truth is not then apprehended when the ‘apprehending’ comes first and the ‘apprehended’ afterward.

What the Christian is saying is that the truth is not secondary. It is the cause of all things, including reason itself (our apprehension). Truth cannot be subordinated to reason, otherwise something greater than truth would exist. The apprehending (our intellect) does not surmount the apprehended (truth). When asked whether or not truth can be ascertained through something else, the Pagan replies ”perhaps.” But the Christian remarks that he is mistaken.

Christian. For outside of truth there is no truth; outside of circularity there is no circle; and outside of humanity there is no human being. Therefore, truth is not found outside truth neither in some other way or in something else.

Nicholas, via the Christian, is arguing that we cannot apprehend the truth through anything outside of the truth, in other words, through something like the truth (“likeness”). This would contradict the very indivisibility and totality of truth. Truth cannot be judged by anything that isn’t truth itself: “Just as a non-circle cannot measure a circle, for the being of a circle is indivisible.”  One circle can measure a circle, but a triangle cannot measure the circle. Nicholas states that “the intellect is related to truth as a polygon to a circle.” Or, the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. This leads Nicholas to conclude that “the intellect, which is not truth, never comprehends truth so precisely but that it could always be comprehended with infinitely more precision.”

Thus, the Christian in Nicholas’ dialogue is essentially arguing that our intellects are incapable of ascertaining truth in any perfect manner. We will always be in a position where there is more of the truth to apprehend. To say that we know the truth, then, is to speak incorrectly. “Consequently,” Nicholas writes, “we know of the truth only that we know that it cannot be comprehended precisely as it is.”

Then the Pagan asks a very good question in response to the Christian’s argument.

Pagan. But how, therefore, do I come to know what a human being is, or a stone, or anything else I know?

Christian. …You know nothing of these; you only think you know…

The Pagan, according to the Christian, is living with the illusion that he does know the essence of the human being or the stone.

Nicholas’ Christian character replies to the Pagan’s question regarding our ability to know what a human and a stone are.

Christian. …For if I ask you about the [essence] of what you think you know, you will affirm that you cannot express the truth of a human being or a stone…

It is as if to say, “What is a human? Can you define it for me?”

Christian. …That you know that a human is not a stone does not result from a knowledge by which you know a human and a stone and their difference, but it results from accident, from a difference in the ways of operating and their shapes, to which you discern them, you impose different names.

In short, our ability to differentiate between a stone and a human comes from our senses, not from our absolute comprehension of the essences of the human and the stone. Accident, by the way, is not a word that means something that happens unintentionally (like a car accident). Accident refers to the “incidental property of a thing.” We can say that something is a stone based on the way it looks, acts, feels, and sounds. We are observing the stone’s accidents. After we observe the accidents of a human and a stone, we can tell that they are not the same thing. We then apply words that will keep them differentiated.

The Christian is emphatic about the need to admit ignorance of the truth. This is not an ignorance born out of laziness or stubbornness, nor an unwillingness to submit oneself to the truth. This is an ignorance that is for the sake of preserving the truth, acknowledging its power and glory. One does not grasp the truth. One does not have the truth. One is brought to their knees because of the profundity of the truth. The Christian’s position is essentially summed up in the adage: “The more you learn, the more you learn that you don’t know.” The Christian adds, “one will easily discover that what one thinks one knows can be known even more truly.” Truth is infinitely deep and the finite intellect can never reach the bottom.

To illustrate this, the Christian tells the Pagan that when we look at an object, there is always the possibility of seeing that object more perfectly. If we don’t have 20/20 vision, then it’s obvious that someone who does have it will be able to see that thing better. What’s more is that when we look at an object, we typically see only parts of it or we see it from one perspective. To truly see an object would be to see it in all of its parts at once from all possible perspectives. Imagine being able to look at a basketball from every possible angle at once.

So it is with the truth. Our vision of the truth is limited to our finite perspective and there is always room for a better viewing of the truth. It would be right, then, to admit that we have not grasped the truth and that the truth is unknowable because of our limitations. This does not mean that there is no absolute truth. Rather, it means that the absolute cannot be comprehended absolutely by our limited intellects, experiences, beliefs, dogmas, and actions.

The above of course seems a paradox. The truth can only be known in truth. Truth does not exist outside of truth. Thus, one must participate in the truth so as to discover truth. The Christian asks, “Would not a blind man be judged out of his mind who thought he knew the differences between colors, when we has ignorant of color?” So how is it that we can know the truth without knowing it? But wait, isn’t the whole point to know the truth in the first place? And isn’t the Christian saying that we don’t actually know the truth? It seems contradictory. Yes, it is a paradox. The Pagan realizes this confusion and asks a similar question: “But if nothing can be known, who among human beings, therefore, is knowing?” The Christian replies that the one who knows the truth is the one who knows that they do not know the truth. The one who knows, knows that they are ignorant. To be in the truth, to participate in it, is to acknowledge that one does not know. Then one is in the truth. This has echoes of Socrates’ “I know that I don’t know.”

And if it were not for this ignorance, contemplation of the truth would be impossible, the Christian suggests: “One reveres truth who knows that without it one can attain nothing, whether being or living or understanding.”

The subject of the dialogue now turns to God. The Pagan asks the Christian whether or not the Christian worships because of the truth. “Yes,” the Christian replies. But there is a difference between the worship of the Pagan and the worship of the Christian. The Christian critiques the Pagan’s worship by saying that the Pagan thinks he knows God when he really doesn’t. The Christian, on the other hand, states that his God “is ineffable truth.” The Christian’s God is absolute truth, “unmixed, eternal, and ineffable truth itself.” The Pagan, all the more inquisitive  asks the Christian to tell him more about the God he worships. And here is where Christian epistemology comes into play.

Christian. I know that everything I know is not God and that everything I conceive is not like God, but rather God surpasses all these.

This is very different from philosophers’ insistence on certainty (“I think therefore I am”), rational proofs for the existence of God. The Pagan, of course, is still quite confused by this Christian who says he doesn’t know and yet he knows, but he doesn’t really know that he knows.

Pagan. Therefore, God is nothing.

The Pagan thinks that the Christian is just playing around with an illusory God who is in reality, nothing.

Christian. God is not nothing, for this nothing has the name “nothing.”

The Christian replies that nothing is still a concept. It is still a name!. Thus, to call God nothing is still to call God something. Calling God nothing is still putting God in a box.

Pagan. If God is not nothing, then God is something.

The Pagan believes God can fit into neat categories that are black and white. If it is nothing, then it doesn’t exist. But if it isn’t nothing, then it has to be something.

Christian. God is beyond nothing and beyond something…God cannot be called ‘this’ rather than ‘that,’ since all things are from God.

The Christian chooses his language about God to emphasize God’s transcendence. God is extends away from humanly constructed concepts to a realm which mere language and reason cannot penetrate. God’s transcendence is necessary because if God is something (or nothing) then God is not God because he would be subject to a principle greater than himself. Nothing and something are subject to God.

Christian. …for nothing obeys God in order that something may come into being. And this is God’s omnipotence, by which God surpasses everything that is or is not, so that thus that which is not obeys God just as that which is obeys God. For God causes not-being to enter into being and being to enter into not-being. Therefore, God is nothing of those things that are under God…

It is accurate then, the Christian says, to consider God neither nothing nor something. God is neither, nor, but beyond. Everything is subject to God so much so that concepts themselves are subject to God. Concepts cannot be formed about God; language cannot be spoken, because it did not exist prior to God. Moreover, God is not an object to be studied because that would presuppose the ability to get a view of God that only God possess.

Now the Pagan turns to the question of “What is God’s name?” The Christian replies “that whose magnitude cannot be conceived remains ineffable.” Once more, the Pagan is confronted with the paradox of the Christian’s view of God: God is not ineffable nor effable, but beyond effability. In other words, God is beyond language. Language does not even begin to scratch the surface when speaking about God. God does not have a name since that would imply names pre-existed God.

Christian. God is not ineffable but beyond everything that is effable, for God is the cause of all nameable things…

Simply put, naming God is like putting the cart before the horse.

God, the Christian later says, is “infinitely excellently prior to everything we conceive and name as ‘truth.’” By extension, to say something true about God is to acknowledge that God is infinitely excellently prior to everything we conceive or say about him. As long as we remain in orbit around our words, names, ideas, and experiences, we can never actually move toward God. We are stuck in a perpetual orbit.

The Pagan then poses another acute question: what about the word ‘God’? Isn’t that itself a name? And how can the Christian call God, God if God does not have a speakable name?

Pagan. Do you not name God ‘God’?

Christian. We do.

Pagan. Are you saying something true or something false?

Christian. Neither the one nor the other, nor both. For we are not saying that it is true that this is God’s name, nor are we saying that it is false, for it is not false that this is God’s name. Nor are we saying that it is true and false, for God’s simplicity precedes both all that can be named and all that cannot.

The Christian explains further that the word ‘God’ comes from ‘theoro,’ which is translated ‘to see.’ Very simply, the Christian uses the metaphor of colour and the relationship to sight. We see colour by our sight. But there is no colour that can be used to name sight. Concepts and ideas that refer to colour cannot be applied to sight. Sight is beyond colour itself and beyond all names for colours. Colour and sight are two different realities. But colour needs sight in order to be considered colour. Our ears cannot name colour. Likewise, God and Creation share a similar relationship. The names and concepts that exist in Creation cannot be applied to God who exists outside, above, and beyond Creation. God is beyond Creation as sight is beyond colour.

Pagan. …I now clearly understand that neither God nor God’s name is to be found in the realm of all creatures and that God flees from every concept rather than being asserted as something.

One final comment: Nicholas of Cusa’s dialogue on the hidden God is of course an idealized rational (even if it attempts to transcend reason in relation to God) civil, convivial conversation about God with passions and emotions bracketed. The more existential, less friendly, more realistic conversation about God is that found in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamozov wherein one brother (the atheist) asks the other (the seminarian) with anger and animosity: if your God is so good and all powerful, why does He allow children to suffer? That lands us smack in the problematic of evil vis a vis God; but that’s another issue altogether.


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Murray Hunter2012-08-14 20:03:18
To paraphase. The dialogue is between a Christian and a pagan. In the discussion the Christian is explaining to the pagan the Christian understanding of God, knowledge and truth. He argues that it is perfectly fine for a Christian to state that he/she does not "know". This state of ignorance is acceptable because god is not comprehensible to the rational mind. He went on the explain the Christian paradox. The Christian god transcends human knowledge. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite. He concluses that while the Christian position is paradoxical, intellectually it is reasonable. Philosophers and scholars can accept the Christian theological position, I guess within their cultural patterning.
In the seminary, this is called apologetics : the last defence of the Christian faith. Another intepretation is that this is part of humanity's mass defence mechanism against the fear of death and bringing certainty to uncertainty. Another perspective is that this passage shows that humankind is actually irrational.Thank you for the piece, it is certainly a good lesson on how people in the past attempted to create divinity and meaning within society. It also shows that the methods of repression of society arent too much different from today.

Emanuel Paparella2012-08-14 22:13:16
Thanks for the dialogue. Indeed, there are many ways to abuse religion and turn it into a manipulative pernicious cult; pari passu there are many ways to abuse science and turn it into a quest for raw power. Was it Einstein who said that when the scientist arrives at the summit of the unified theory that will allegedly explain everything he will be surprised to discover that the theologian is there already to welcome him. Who is to say that science is not another myth, another way to explain reality? Be that as it may, no scientist worthy of the name can claim to be able to answer a metaphysical question such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” which opens Being and Time of Heidegger. If he attempts it, he is not doing it as a scientist but as a philosopher. If Kant taught us anything at all it is that reason has its limitations. Reason can explain the phenomenon but not the neumenon. Considering the ecological disaster we seem to he heading for one wonders if the Enlightenment is still to enlighten itself. But let’s keep the dialogue going.

Murray Hunter2012-08-15 02:59:28
Remember there is no such thing as a single reality. What we are talking about is what could be.... So we will never know which reality exists. And actually is it really important to know the truth anyway? Einstein said something like what you see depends upon the framework or theories one utilizes. Also remember Margarat Mead the mother of enthnography got it wrong as she was conned by the teenage girls in Samoa about their rituals around pubity and there meaning. So maybe Fox Mulder of the X-Files got it right when he said "the truth is out there -I want to believe"

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