Friday, June 16, 2017

Mulhall's riddle

Some questions that you might want to ask Stephen Mulhall when you read his new book:
  1. if talk about God is nonsense, why bother?
  2. if talk about God has a use, mustn't it thereby have a meaning after all?
  3. if you accept that nonsense is nonsense, that there is no significant nonsense, then how comfortable can you be, or should you be, with the idea of deliberate uses of certain kinds of nonsense? Even if you aren't guilty of chickening out, are you nevertheless sneaking around? 
Some answers to the first question can be found in the passage I quoted earlier. For one thing, "everything in creation is a potential source of imagery for the divine, and the more of it we activate in religious language the better, since only thus can we acknowledge God’s superabundant variety." If religious language is nonsense then I'm not sure how successfully it can acknowledge anything about God, but the superabundant variety of creation, and the excellence of what is so superabundantly various, I would add (although I think a sense of appreciative wonder is already implicit in Mulhall's words, so I'm not adding much), can certainly make you want to sing its praises. For another thing, the "transcendence of God is best acknowledged precisely by following out the consequences of attributing contradictory attributes to him; for if he is both male and female, and we know that no person can be both male and female, we thereby appreciate that our idea of him as a personal God is itself a misrepresentation—a necessarily unsuccessful attempt to delineate that which is beyond delineation." Wonder might leave us speechless, or mouthing something with obviously minimal content, such as "Wow!", but Mulhall argues that it is better to speak:
The best way to appreciate the transcendence of God to human language is [for the reason just quoted] not to fall into silence, avoiding even the assertion that nothing is assertable of him, or to attempt some inconceivable synthesis of affirmation and negation; it is rather endlessly to employ that language in relation to him, and endlessly to experience its inevitable collapse upon itself.  
Silence, I suppose, can too easily become mere silence, "There are no words" a thoughtless cliche. The surest sign of being "lost in wonder, love, and praise" is that you attempt to express this wonder, love, and praise, even if you are bound to fail. These attempts at expression, though, it seems to me, since they are bound to fail, have to be understood as something like symptoms rather than as ends worth pursuing in themselves or means worth choosing for the sake of some other end. As Wittgenstein says at the end of the Lecture on Ethics, they are "a document of a tendency in the human mind." This makes the question "why bother?" moot. It is like asking why anyone should laugh when they are amused. Mulhall does have an answer, though, to anyone who thinks we should actively try to stop talking like this.

His answer to the second question, about whether religious talk must have a meaning after all, since it has a use, is this: "It could only mislead to say that being shouldered out of our language-games is just one more language-game, or to declare that words have a grammar when they fail us just as they do when we effortlessly employ them to word the world." In other words, as I understand it, you could call the use of (nonsensical) religious language a language-game, but it isn't a good idea. That seems fair enough.

The third question is the one that bothers me the most, although I'm not sure how troubling it really ought to be. Involuntary babbling praise is obviously OK (or: there is no point in trying to rule it out as somehow 'illegitimate'), but it isn't theology. Nonsense can be used deliberately though, as satire or in a reductio, for instance. This doesn't sound like theology either, though, although here my ignorance of theology feels like a problem. Perhaps there could be theological anti-theology that deliberately used nonsense to burst balloons and bring its targets back to earth and/or God. Some of Kierkegaard's work might be thought of this way. But this would always be a negative, reactive project.

Mulhall apparently accepts something like this idea, although he focuses on theology as a reaction to philosophy rather than to other theology. As he sees it, "In short, theology discloses philosophy’s perennial aspiration to a God’s eye view as both essential to its nature and essentially beyond its own grasp—not exactly because there is no such perspective, but rather because that perspective is and can only be a ‘perspective’, hence belongs to God alone, and so is realizable only as and through faith." So, roughly, theology shows something even if it has nothing to say ("the linguistic constructions to which theology is driven do not constitute an intelligible language"). Mulhall doesn't put it this way, though, talking instead about theology's not knowing something that philosophy does not know and yet nevertheless having something to tell it.

Still, you might wonder whether Mulhall hasn't just claimed on theology's behalf to know (or say) the thing that he says theology can tell (or show) philosophy. You might also wonder what idea of nonsense is at work in the following passages:
This recalls the Thomist claim that the perfections apply to God, but do so more appropriately or fittingly than they do to us. For in giving expression to that semantic priority by knowingly violating the grammar of ordinary perfection talk (e.g. by saying that God is loving if and only if one says that he is Love), we maintain the appropriate theological balance between acknowledging scriptural authorization for characterizing our relations to God as personal whilst not characterizing God as a person (hence, as subsumable under categories, genus, and species). 
The only way of making sense of Abraham is to grasp the point of his not making sense—to see him as having a very particular use for a very specifically generated kind of nonsense.
As sophisticated as Mulhall's take on the story of Abraham and Isaac is, does he perhaps still (or thereby) come too close to making sense of what he says does not make sense? And is it really possible to maintain both that theology is nonsense and that one can maintain the appropriate theological balance between one thing and another by knowingly violating the grammar of ordinary perfection talk? That makes it sound as though there is a right way to violate these rules, and hence that such 'violation of grammar' is in fact an activity with rules of its own. I'm not sure what I think about these things. But this third question seems more serious than the first two.

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