Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pious agnosticism

This will be my third post in response to Nate Shannon.

Shannon’s basic objection to Welty and Anderson’s theistic model of logic goes back to the ancient debate regarding the (in)comprehensibility of God. This ranges along a continuum, from rationalism to apophaticism. Do we have any positive knowledge of God? Do we know what God is like? Or do we only know what God is unlike? Is God-talk univocal or analogical, literal or figurative?

And religious epistemology tends to track religious ontology. A continuum ranging from very anthropomorphic concepts of God (e.g. Mormonism, open theism, folk Hinduism) to very refined concepts which stress the alterity of God, such as we find in classic Christian theism (a la Thomism).

The more God is like us, the more we can know what God is like. That’s the theory.

It seems to me that Shannon is snared in a dilemma. On the one hand, he’s positioned himself closer to the apophatic end of the continuum, a la Maimonides, Aquinas. He accentuates the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God. That casts a veil over logic.

And to some extent this is grounded in his strong doctrine of divine simplicity, which he deploys against Welty and Anderson. He relies on Dolezal’s exposition and defense of divine simplicity.

A God who’s simple in the Thomistic sense is a God who’s very unlike human creatures. There’s nothing directly comparable in human experience. So that’s a way of grounding divine incomprehensibility.

On the other hand, if that’s the case, then how would we be in a position to know that God is simple in the first place? How can we present detailed explanations of divine simplicity? Doesn’t that exercise assume that God is fairly accessible to human reason? Doesn’t that push Shannon towards the rationalist end of the spectrum?

On the one hand, if God is simple, then he’s ineffable. On the other hand, if God is simple, how would we ever know that God is simple?

On a related note, it sounds very pious to stress God’s transcendence, incomprehensibility, and the Creator/creator distinction, but if we take that principle too far, it terminates in pious agnosticism. The less you know about God the better!

We start out by extolling the surpassing greatness of God. But when he becomes so great that he ceases to be an object of knowledge, then what is left to revere? How can God be worshipful if he is opaque to human reason? If God is unintelligible, what are we worshiping?

Also, that becomes a recipe for religious pluralism. A strong doctrine of divine incomprehensibility entails a strong doctrine of divine accommodation, so God-talk doesn’t reveal the true nature of God.

It reminds me of Maimonides. I wonder if it’s just coincidental that he’s a medieval Jew. Doesn’t his extreme doctrine of divine transcendence, of God as utterly other, preempt the Incarnation? Likewise, doesn’t his doctrine of divine simplicity preempt the Trinity?

Of course, Shannon would insist on the immanence as well as the transcendence of God. The problem, though, is not in what he says he believes, but in how he argues. He’s raising objections against Welty and Anderson which are difficult to render consistent with a counterbalancing affirmation of God’s immanence and knowability.


  1. Hey Steve,

    I think you've made some good challenges toward Shannon, and I'm hoping for some interaction on his part with what you've been saying, as I think it will help.

    I don't think (from what I've read from him) that Shannon would end the conversation about God in a pious agnosticism, and I "think" (I'm open to correction) that your reductio is missing his actual position. For instance, wouldn't he just go back to saying that we know God truly because of those things He has revealed in Scripture, on the one hand, but on the other, that our minds cannot fully comprehend God's Being as God fully comprehends His Being? How would that be pious agnosticism?

    I don't think he would want to take the route to say "we cannot know God truly". He would say that we have true knowledge of God in revealed categories. I think he would just want to say that we just cannot know Him comprehensively. (he might have indicated otherwise, but I haven't read him doing so, but I could be wrong on that). But if I happen to be correct about him on what I'm reading, how is this any different from what we've read in Reformed thought?

    Is Paul being a Pious Agnostic in Romans 11:33-34?

    Again, I'm very open to correction and/or clarification. I appreciate the work you do here!

    1. No, he can't simply appeal to God's revelation in Scripture, for his position commits him to a strong doctrine of divine accommodation. He'd have to heavily qualify God's revelation in Scripture. Indeed, that's exactly what he's done when he opposes analogical predication to univocal predication. The revealed categories are divinely accommodated categories. They don't reveal what God is like in himself.

      I'm not saying that no one can draw principled distinctions. But given his framework, it's hard to see how he can finesse that.

      Moreover, he can't play the incomprehensibility card and simultaneously champion divine simplicity, for how does he know that an incomprehensible God is metaphysically simple? Isn't that a claim about what God is like in himself?

    2. Do you think St. Paul subscribes to divine simplicity, a la Thomism?

    3. I think I see what you are saying now. I'm just going to have to do some more reading on him.

      I read this as you critiquing the distinctions that he drew between God's essence, and the characteristic that He takes on in accommodating. But now (if I understand you correctly) you are criticizing him for confusing the former with the latter and vice versa.

      It would be nice to have a clear response from him too. But afaik, he hasn't responded to anything you've said.

      As far as your question concerning the thomistic doctrine of simplicity, I would have to read Thomas on that again, because it's been a while!