Academic journal article Theological Studies

Aquinas on God-Talk: Hovering over the Abyss

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Aquinas on God-Talk: Hovering over the Abyss

Article excerpt

Picture a deep, narrow abyss cleaving the face of the earth down to its core, where super-hot magma bubbles and percolates, gushing and spurting through the labyrinthine tunnels which are our planet's fiery arteries. Smoke gyres upward in widening spirals. Towering cliffs angle upwards and backwards from the chasm to left and right, so that one standing atop either cliff would be too high up and too far back to view the chasm's nucleus. To behold the depths, one would somehow have to hover below the canyon rim along the rocky wall on either side, without a secure hold and in constant danger of being buffeted by upwelling air currents. Even then, all an observer could see would be a mass of hazy, congealing clouds backlit and limned by a reddish glow--a dark blaze and a blazing darkness.

This image is an apt metaphor, I think, for the ways in which Christians have understood what goes on when they talk about God, that dark blaze and blazing darkness on top of Mount Sinai or at the bottom of the abyss. On the one hand, some Christians have taken the extreme agnostic position, that we cannot know or say anything positive about the mysterious Lord of heaven and earth. Many of these agnostics are mystics who have been plunged by God's grace into the very abyss itself and who, on being brought back to the land of clear air and bright sunshine, can only stammer and babble about what they have experienced of God's tenebrous fire. Human words and concepts can no longer express what they have learned of God by having "suffered" God experientially, and the apophatic discourse of negative theology is their natural home--if they want to talk at all. Negative theology is the only recourse for those who have been chosen by God for a descent into the abyss. There are other agnostics, however, often of a more academic bent, who may not be mystics but who hold, for various philosophical or theological reasons, that our knowledge and talk about God is only equivocal at best, that what we know and say about our world has no intrinsic relation to what we can know or say about the God who is "wholly Other." Of course, such academic agnostics show a surprising ability to be quite garrulous about God while still clinging to their perch on what we might call the left-hand Cliff of Equivocity.

On the other hand, there are Christians who have taken their stand on the right-hand Cliff of Univocity. For them, our worldly knowledge and speech apply to God in the same way as they apply to the realities of our world. There is nothing surprising or different about our knowledge and talk of God, for God is simply the most excellent reality among all the other realities of our world, different in degree but not in kind from all the other objects of our knowledge. They may acknowledge that God is mysterious, but all the while they press for clear conceptual distinctions and demand that God be conceived in human terms. For them, our knowledge and talk of God are as clear and bright as the air and sunshine which surround them on the Cliff of Univocity.

Still other Christians, however, would hold that talking about God is more like hovering dangerously between the Cliffs of Equivocity and Univocity while peering and pointing below toward the Dark Luminosity at the heart of the world. I hope to show in this article that Aquinas's understanding of God-talk--which involves a unique, complicated, and subtle weaving of negative and positive theology, of analogy and incomprehensibility--amounts to such a hovering over the abyss.


Aquinas the negative theologian stands in a long tradition reaching back to Hellenistic Judaism,(1) Middle Platonism, gnosticism,(2) and many patristic writers. I will focus on the one we call PseudoDionysius the Areopagite as the carrier of this tradition; for he not only is the major source for Aquinas's negative theology but also stands in contrast to Thomas as an apophatic theologian. …

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