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Posing a Question: On Analytic Theology and the Transcendentals

Monday 11 February 2019

By Euan Grant, Gifford Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at St. Mary’s College


At a party a couple of weeks ago, I overheard one philosopher of my acquaintance say to another, with some excitement, ‘I’ve found a continental philosopher, but he’s enlightened – he can talk analytic.’ I bustled off after these two, and the young man in question turned out not to be a philosopher at all but a student of theology, though in what one might call a cultural-critical mould. Think Charles Taylor and Alistair MacIntyre or, my suggestions to him for further reading, John Milbank and Cyril O’Regan. The conversation was spirited (in more than one sense), but tended to break down over a fundamental disagreement about what the point of ‘philosophy’ actually was. I spent a later part of the evening arguing with one of the analytic philosophers about the cogency of the convertibility of the transcendentals: the claim of the metaphysical identity of goodness, truth, and being.

This Friday, at the equally-exciting weekly Logos seminar, St Mary’s very own Kevin Nordby suggested to me, in a conversation over the suggestion that, as uncreated, God would not be directly perceptible in any created experience, that some sectors of analytic philosophy of religion tend towards a deliberate modesty in its understanding of God. This would lead to the sort of circumspection by which, before asking about perception or experience of God, one would have to ask about the possibility of there being a deity or deities at all.

Naturally analytic theology is not quite so circumspect, and we hear arguments reasonably often which concern the relatively developed idea of God called ‘classical theism’, a term which is somewhat variable in content, but would almost universally taken to imply claims that God is a perfect being; the triple-O of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence; and possibly a strong claim about divine simplicity to distinguish this as specifically classical theism, over against some suggested analytic reform.

It occurred to me, as these two conversations came together in my head, that my sense of classical theism, of the God of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, to make no grander claims, owes much more to the convertibility of the transcendentals than to the idea of ‘a deity’, or indeed, of a perfect being. God was not simply some existing thing of which some qualities might be truly predicated, even infinite or perfect qualities such as omnipotence and omniscience, but, as in Aquinas, being itself in which all other beings participate. Not simply truly infinite, but, as for Anselm, the truth itself by which all other truths are true. Not simply good, but, as for Augustine, the Good in person.

These identifications are all, of course, aspects of the theological tradition rather than, let’s say, the sort of direct assertions which one might find in the Bible and interpret by means of the methods of a New Testament scholar.  They are, furthermore, distinctly metaphysical claims, deeply embedded in the Platonic and Neoplatonic heritage of late antiquity and the Western Christian middle ages, and so we might think of them as the artifacts of a particular culture of reception, not necessary ingredients in the articulation of Christian truth. Certainly, some analytic approaches to classical theism, which sometimes seems to be made up of much less fulsome assertions than these, seems to suggest as much.

And yet, I would suggest both that these sorts of claims have obviously beneficial results for Christian theologians, and the metaphysics which underlies the convertibility of the transcendentals (and their identity with the God of the Bible, i.e., the Holy Trinity) provides a clear context of coherence and reasonability for the idea that the Bible, and the Lord, reveal the one, true God, beside whom there is no other.

To say that God is ‘the Good’, for example, that it is with reference to God that all things are good or otherwise, undermines the status of ‘Euthyphro problems’ arising from the limitation and anthropomorphism of a ‘merely personal’ God legislating by will or fiat. Equally, to say that God is not merely necessary over against possible or contingent beings, but that God founds the whole logical and ontological space of possibility closes off the suggestion that there are some things – logical possibilities, or perhaps Platonic numbers – which are neither God nor creatures. It affirms that God alone is creator and Lord, subject to no limitation but the divine being. If these obvious claims are not explicitly Christian, they at least cohere with the claim that Jesus Christ is final and definitive, the one Lord whom we cannot surpass.

Indeed, my sense is that this context of metaphysical ultimacy gives us reason for our interest in the question of God and revelation in Christ. It is because they are also questions about the good itself, about being, about truth, even about beauty, that questions about ‘whether there could be deity’ are of interest in a sense stronger than mere meta-cosmological curiosity. It provides a frame in which the ineliminable historicity of the Christian revelation, the story of God with Israel culminating in Jesus Christ, God dwelling on Earth, is of clear relevance not only to its own time, but to us and to all times past and future, founded ultimately and definitively in one and the same God.

My question, then, and my reason for writing this post in the first place, is to ask our analytic theologians what they make of this tradition. Is there a future for the convertibility of the transcendentals? Is this the sort of thing that the analytic method with its flair for specificity and problem-solving would revolt against as excessively ambitious system-building? Are the definitive metaphysical arguments ruling out the sort of place reserved, in the post-Augustinian tradition, for God both as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and also as Fount of Being? Are these questions not even of interest?

I look forward to hearing the thoughts of any of our analytically-trained colleagues on this question. I certainly wouldn’t turn down an invitation to a party convened for the purpose, but I would be more than happy to educate myself with a reading list!

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