What Can and Can’t Be Said About God

Lent 2014: Readings from Augustine

For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we shall see light” (Ps 35:10). Here on earth, a fountain is one thing and light is another. When you’re thirsty, you look for a fountain, and to reach the fountain you look for a light; and if it’s not daytime, you light a lamp to get to the fountain. But that fountain is light itself; to the thirsty it’s a fountain, to the blind it’s a light. Open your eyes to see the light; open your heart’s mouth to drink from the fountain. What you drink is what you see, is what you hear. God becomes the whole of it for you, for he is the whole of all the things you love.

If you’re thinking about visible things, God is not bread, God is not water, God is not this light, nor is he a garment or a house. All these things are visible and separate things. What’s bread is not water; what’s a garment is not a house; and what they are God is not: they’re visible. God is all these things to you. If you’re hungry, he’s bread for you; if you’re thirsty, he’s water for you; if you’re in the dark, he’s light for you for he abides incorruptibly; if you’re naked, he’s your garment since this corruptible body will don incorruption and this mortal body immortality (1 Cor 15:53).

All these things can be said of God, and not one of them is said worthily of God. Nothing is wider than this poverty of words. You look for a fitting name for God, and you can’t find any. You look for some way at all of speaking of him, and you find everything. What do a lamb and a lion have in common? Yet both of them are said of Christ. “Behold the lamb of God” (Jn 1:29). “The lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed” (Rev 5:5). (In Ioannem Tr. 13, 5; PL 35, 1495)

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (Ps 85:8). Whatever it may be that a person thinks about, what is made is not similar to the one who made it. Apart from God, everything in nature was made by God. How great the difference is between the one who made it and the thing he made who can properly conceive? That’s why the Psalm says, “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord.” Pay attention, beloved: God is beyond our ability to speak him: it is easier to say what he is not than what he is. Think of the earth: God is not the earth; think of the sea: God is not the sea; all the things on earth, human beings and animals: God is not all that; all the things in the sea or flying through the air: God is not that; whatever shines in the sky, stars, sun and moon: God is not that; heaven: God is not that; think of the angels, the virtues, powers, archangels, thrones, principalities, dominations: God is not that.

Well, then, what is he? All I’ve been able to say is what he is not. You ask what he is. “What eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor 2:9). If it can’t enter into your heart, why do you think that it can enter into your tongue? (EnPs 85, 8; PL 37, 1090)

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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St. Augustine seems to be struggling here to express in one word or phrase the *whole* of God  -- both *that* He is (His existence) and *what* he is (His essence).  This is the problem which the medievals called "the problem of the names of God", and a humongous one it is, involving as it does some notions that weren't cleared up by logicians until the 19-20th century and which are still debated by some logicians.  But  Augustine does seem to anticipate some of those problems, though he admits he can't get past them.  


As I understand him, he does realize that a *name* of God is what the contemporary logicians say stands for the *referent* of the word "God".  In other words, a name of God stands for the *whole object*which is signified the term "God".  (Another name of God is "Jahweh" -- "I am who am".  Notice that it doesn't actually describe Him, but it does tell us something about Him.)  Augustine  doesn't say is the name "God" refers to the whole of God, but he *shows* that's what he's thinking by his very use of the term "God".  But it's also obvious that he realizes that "God" doesn't tell us everything about Him that can be said -- it doesn't *describe* what He is in Himself, i.e., His essence, *what* He is.


Still, Augustine also obviously appreciates that some terms *can* tell us something positive of what God is, though not everything.  These latter meanings are most basically expressed in "predicates", which are most often common nouns and adjectives.  We say He is "beautiful" and "Truth" and a "lion".  Each of those words is a predicate.  But the lion presents a problem.  We also know that though we can somehow truthfully say "God is the lion of Judah", we also know very definitely that God is NOT a lion, and "not bread" and "not water", "not light",  etc.  Says Augustine:  "Whatever it may be that a person thinks about, what is made is not similar to the one who made it", and "Pay attention, beloved: God is beyond our ability to speak him: it is easier to say what he is not than what he is."


So Augustine is left frustrated with his negative knowledge of God.  It wasn't until the medievals that some progress was made.  For instance, Aquinas held that we know God by means of our limited concepts of the positive perfections of His creatures, which we then assert exist in Him "without any limitation".  In other words, we know His nature by double negations:  God is truth without limitation, Goodness without limitation, etc. 


 We see that mere creatures have just so much reality and NOT-ANY-MORE..  For instance, "My soul is NO MORE than its own limited reality".  By contrast, God is  "NOT  NO-MORE-THAN my soul":  He is not limited to that finite being, though He does includes something like what I know positively about my own soul and the angels.  Given any creature, God is NOT NO-MORE-THAN any of them:  He is infinitely beyond them all.  This gives us a positive concept of Him, but only by double negation:  He is not finite (limited), He is infinite.  I think more needs to be added to this theory to make it complete, but the basic intuition seems sound.  


Claire might want to tell us something about Cantor's positive concept of God which utilizes his transfinite numbers.  I think it's related to all this.


I wish this series of Augustine quotes also appeared at dot.CWL.  I daresay there are others who could give us some other thoughts on this.  The infinity of God is endlessly (pun intended) intriguing.


Ann:   But doesn't Aquinas say that we cannot know what God is, only what He is not? Look at the introduction to the third question of the Summa theologica: "When the existence of a thing has been ascertained there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not."

I'll try to find some passages of Augustine where he discusses the difference between proper and metaphorical predications about God.

I don't see the lion as a problem at all, because it's just a way of saying that Christ shares some of the attributes of a lion. 

I hardly know anything about Cantor, sorry!

I don't understand why God would have a name[apart from Jesus Christ incarnate].I don't think of myself as a name;I just am. A name is what was given to me by others. I'm not a name, I am, named or not. God to me is or means  the equivelant to; being. Being that is underived,essential[ true] being from which all concrete[conditional] beings derive[because God/being  is expansive/generous in being].God IS ,meaning god is existence itself prior to the existence of everything created.Gramatically the words: is,IS Ra El, all, the ,AL,the the[all ah] all derive from this concept, being.Underived essential IS ness which  is one and from which all else derives conditionally[by the grace of God  whose being contains the boundless love of and for  all condtioned created beings.]This abstraction cannot be known or  loved but God in solidarity with us can.Hence Jesus Christ comes to reveal our seemingly constrained/futile   existence as partaking of  Being's boundless existence[life], as God with us.

JAK --

The way I learned it Aquinas maintained the notion of the gradation of being -- that things differ in the "amount" of being they are/have.  When we know lower levels of being we can know that they mirror God to some positive but limited extent.   God is the highest, infinite degree of being, but our finite minds are not adequate for knowing Him completely. 

 The knowledge that He possesses the finite spiritual perfections but to an infinite degree is a doubly negative knowledge of the rest of His reality.  This is called knowledge of Him by way of "pre-eminence".  Check the S.T. for God's "pre-eminence".  (You won't believe this, but I've misplaced my copy of the Summa, all three volumes!!)   Copleston considers this question in his History of Philosophy, vol. II, pt. 2, pp. 69 ff.  Copleston refers us to S.T. Ia, Q 66, Art. 1.

We can know that God includes the positive spiritual perfections of the lower beings (man and the separated substances -- the angels in common speech), but He possesses them in an infinite degree and as one simple Being.  He is thus the epitome of goodness, truth, beauty, etc., but we cannot know Him entirely  positively as such.  We can know what He is positively to the limited degree that we know the perfections of His creatures which possess limited degrees of being. 

rose-ellen --

I didn't say God IS a name.  God HAS many names, e.g., "God".

Oops -- that should have been:  We know him by the way of "eminence".  Not "pre-eminence.".

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