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The Critical Value of Negative Theology

  • John Peter Kenney (a1)

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If metaphysics seems today to have buried its undertakers, then negative theology may soon silence its critics. Having established a significant if sometimes recessive presence in Western theism, negative theology is again an important element in contemporary philosophical theology. While Anglo- American philosophy of religion remains dominated by analytic neoscholasticism, in the last decade a countercurrent has emerged that makes common cause with the apophatic tradition. The Gifford lectures of Stephen R. L. Clark are examples of this development, as are the works of Leszek Kolakowski. Each thinker has attempted to expand discussion beyond the scholastic parameters of the field and make connections with important historical figures who are often neglected in the literature. Neoplatonism has featured prominently this development; as the principal philosophical foundation for apophatic theology in the West, it has been invoked in both its original Greco-Roman guise and its subsequent manifestation within the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

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1 For example, Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame or Richard Swinbune of Oxford.

2 Clark, Stephen R. L., From Athens to Jerusalem: The Love of Wisdom and the Love of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984); see also idem, The Mysteries of Religion: An Introduction to Philosophy through Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).

3 Kolakowski, Leszek, Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); and idem, Metaphysical Horror (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). See also the recent volume of essays edited by Scharlemann, Robert P., Negation and Theology (Charlottesville/London: University Press of Virginia, 1992).

4 A. H. Armstrong's theological and historical essays are collected in two volumes: Plotinian and Christian Studies (London: Variorum Reprints, 1979); and idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies (London: Variorum Reprints, 1990). His scholarship also includes the Loeb edition of Plotinus, Plotinus: Enneads I-V (LCL; 7 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 19661988); editing The Cambridge History of Later Greek And Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967); and editing World Spirituality, vol. 15: Classical Mediterranean Spirituality: Egyptian, Greek, Roman (New York: Crossroads, 1986).

5 A. H. Armstrong, “Introduction,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, xi. He mentions the influence of Alexander Nairne, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in the 1920s, who was a Christian Platonist.

6 Ibid., xi.

7 A. H. Armstrong, “Negative Theology,” in idem, Plotinian and Christian Studies, no. 24 (1977) 185. Negative or apophatic theology (apophasis means denial or negation) is usually contrasted with affirmative or kataphatic theology (kataphasis means affirmation).

8 A. H. Armstrong, “The Negative Theology of Nous in Later Neoplatonism,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 3 (1983) 36.

9 A. H. Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” in idem, Plotinian and Christian Studies, no. 23 (1975) 77–89.

10 Armstrong, “Negative Theology,” 187.

11 Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” 83.

12 Armstrong stated (“The Negative Theology of Nous in Later Platonism,” 34–35), “Ancient philosophers hardly ever regarded their philosophy as simply the theoretical pursuit of conclusions by a process of abstract reasoning. It was rather a process of training, an exercise aiming at total self-transformation, at final enlightenment and liberation.”

13 Armstrong found this theme in the work of Jean Trouillard, the great French Catholic scholar of Neoplatonism; in particular see Trouillard, Jean, “Valeur critique de la mystique plotinienne,” Revue philosophique de Louvain 59 (1961) 431-44. Compare Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” 83–84.

14 Armstrong, “Negative Theology,” 185; compare idem, “The Hidden and the Open in Hellenic Thought,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 5 (1987) 81–117.

15 Armstrong, “Negative Theology,” 184.

16 Ibid., 185.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 188.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 185; compare idem, “The Escape of the One,” 87.

21 Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” 77–78. “Middle Platonism” is now conventionally employed to refer to the Platonists who were active prior to the school of Plotinus in the third century CE. These figures, from Philo of Alexandria through Numenius of Apamea, exhibit a less systematic commitment to negative theology, especially to an ultimate divine One beyond “being” and knowledge. The primary study of the period is that of Dillon, John, The Middle Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).

22 See Armstrong, “The Negative Theology of Nous in Later Neoplatonism,” 32–33.

23 Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” 77–78.

24 Ibid., 78. Eastern and Western Christianity have appropriated radical apophasis in different ways, however, and there are exceptional figures in each tradition.

25 Ibid., 85–86.

26 Ibid., 86.

27 A. H. Armstrong, “On Not Knowing Too Much About God,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 15 (1989) 136–37; compare idem, “Negative Theology, Myth, and Incarnation,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 7 (1981) 47–62.

28 Armstrong, “On Not Knowing Too Much About God,” 144.

29 Armstrong, “Negative Theology, Myth, and Incarnation,” 47–48.

30 Ibid., 49.

31 Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” 87.

32 Armstrong, “Negative Theology,” 185.

33 Armstrong, “The Escape of the One,” 88–89; idem, “Some Advantages of Polytheism,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 1 (1981) 186–87.

34 A. H. Armstrong, “The Way and the Ways: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in the Fourth Century A.D.,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 13 (1984) 1.

35 A. H. Armstrong, “Christianity and Other Religions,” (unpublished lecture) 16.

36 Armstrong, “On Not Knowing Too Much About God,” 130–31; idem, “Itineraries in Late Antiquity,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, no. 14 (1989) 127.

37 Armstrong, “Itineraries in Late Antiquity,” 110–11.

38 Armstrong, “Negative Theology, Myth, and Incarnation,” 53–54. Murray, Compare Gilbert, Greek Studies (Oxford: Clarendon, 1947) 66 ff; Dodds, E. R., The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkley: University of California Press, 1951) 179-80.

39 Armstrong, “Itineraries in Late Antiquity,” 123–31; idem, “On Not Knowing Too Much About God,” 144–45; and idem, “Introduction,” in idem, Hellenic and Christian Studies, xxi.

40 Armstrong remarked (“Elements in the Thought of Plotinus at Variance with Classical Intellectualism,” in idem, Plotinian and Christian Studies, no. 16 [1973] 22), “I hope I have made it sufficiently clear… that neither he nor many, perhaps most of his interpreters would approve of the way I have isolated certain passages in this paper and put them together to a picture of sorts of the “wild” Plotinus whom Plotinus himself could not altogether tame.” See also idem, “Negative Theology,” 185–86.

41 Armstrong, “The Hidden and the Open in Hellenic Thought,” 102; of Trouillard, Armstrong said: “He was sometimes accused of reading more than was ‘really there’ into the texts. This is, of course, a thoroughly Platonic thing to do, and something which anyone who is concerned to make an ancient way of thought alive and powerful in a later time must do.”

42 Findlay, J. N., Ascent to the Absolute (London: Allen & Unwin, 1970); idem, The Transcendence of the Cave (London: Allen & Unwin, 1967); I owe this point to Professor Findlay's comments in conversation at Boston University in 1977.

43 Armstrong, “On Not Knowing Too Much About God,” 137.

44 See Armstrong, “The Negative Theology of Nous in Later Neoplatonism.”

45 Kenney, John Peter, Mystical Monotheism: A Study in Ancient Platonic Theology (Hanover/London: Brown University Press, 1991); also idem, “Monotheistic and Polytheistic Elements in Classical Mediterranean Spirituality,” in Armstrong, Classical Mediterranean Spirituality.

46 See above, pp. 440–47.

47 Pierre Aubenque has suggested this point for the Plotinian One; the notion could be expanded to include the first principles of other apophatic theologians. See Aubenque, Pierre, “Plotin et le dépassement de l'ontologie grecque classique,” in Schuhl, Pierre Maxime and Hadot, Pierre, eds., Le Néoplatonisme (Paris: Editiones du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1971) 101-9.

48 Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology (2 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 1. 186–210.

49 For a discussion of the problem of “being” and “existence” in Greek philosophy and its implication for later Platonic theology, see Kenney, Mystical Monotheism, 3–15.

50 Although this has the appearance of a contemporary move, I believe such “contemplative pragmatism” has deep roots in ancient mystical theology, but this subject cannot be explored here.

51 Here the recent effort to focus on the conservative character of mysticism is apposite; see Katz, Stephen, ed., Mysticism and Religious Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

52 This paper was read at the “Platonism and Neoplatonism Group” of the American Academy of Religion during its annual meeting in November 1992 in San Francisco, CA. My thanks to the session participants, including Robert Berchman, Jay Bregman, Kevin Corrigan, and Huston Smith, for their observations. I am also grateful to Professor Armstrong for the opportunity to discuss these issues with him over more than a decade. Thanks are also due to both Jo Cannon and Kathy Stackhouse of Reed College, who have been very helpful with the production of this paper.

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The Critical Value of Negative Theology

  • John Peter Kenney (a1)

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