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11 - Dialectic and analogy: a theological legacy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2013

Rowan Williams
University of Cambridge
Nicholas Boyle
University of Cambridge
Liz Disley
University of Cambridge
Nicholas Adams
University of Edinburgh
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In his splendidly magisterial and opinionated lectures on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, Karl Barth picks up a throwaway parenthesis by Novalis on the concept of God:

Gott ist bald 1 × ∞ − bald 1/∞ − bald 0.

This gnomic formula is then used by Barth as the springboard for an eloquent reflection on the essence of the Romantic dilemma about the sacred: to say that God is the infinite multiplication or the infinite division of a ‘given quality of the ego or of life’ is to posit a divinity that is ultimately defined as a function of some pre-existing constant – infinite, we might say, but not finally different; but the characteristically Romantic sensibility constantly moves in the direction of an other not determined by the ego, an other that is the condition of possibility for the union of subject and object. So the divine may be figured as the ‘infinitisation’ of the ego's play, the ego's dance, the indefinite variety of the constant ego's relations to infinity; but this cannot be all. What then might it mean to say that God is ‘sometimes nought’? For Barth this is where we see a recognition of the irruption of an incalculable otherness into what had been merely a world of the immediate constant and a background indefiniteness – a recognition of the inescapable death of the ego. ‘For 0 is certainly not merely a harmless little point which is passed through between +1 and −1’: the God who is ‘sometimes 0’ is irreducibly opposed to the given life or ego presupposed in the first part of the formulation: this is a God who makes the entire dance of the ego either possible or impossible. And so the God who is an infinitising of something given and the God who both negates and affirms the entire system cannot be ‘God’ in the same sense.

The Impact of Idealism
The Legacy of Post-Kantian German Thought
, pp. 274 - 292
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2013

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