When I was in graduate school in the eighties, negative theology was all the rage because it seemed like such a blessing. What better form could a theologian give to the confounding perplexities of deconstruction and the metaphysical obfuscations of postmodernism? Not willing to admit that radical theology was merely reactive, I wrote my dissertation on Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans to show that Barth was Derrida avant la lettre. I have since repented of such foolishness. Evangelism is the best retort to questions about our ability to speak about God. As St. Paul said, “I believed, and so I spoke” (2. Cor. 4:13). In the act of witnessing, ambivalence and indecision melt into air.
I still puzzle at why so many theologians back then were eager to embrace one form or another of postfoundationalism in philosophy. That philosophy has no foundation follows from and reinforces Paul’s insistence that “no one can lay any foundation other than” Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). Postfoundationalism can be a prelude, but never a substitute for the theological grounding of all the transcendental properties of being. I suspect that our reluctance to be metaphysically confident had more to do with the Christological weaknesses of our theology than the content of our philosophical arguments. We knew too much to base the unknowability of God on an analysis of the limits of our knowing, since knowing a limit constitutes its surpassing. No, we made unknowability one of God’s attributes, which we quite smartly, we thought, accepted by faith. Such were our intellectual efforts, when it would have been so much simpler to believe in Jesus!
To be fair, it was a fitful time. Theology in the seventies seesawed between an obsession with methodology (of the hermeneutical, not metaphysical kind) and the earnest quest to Christianize (and thus liberalize) the left. The time was ripe for Barth (of the Church Dogmatics) and Aquinas to save us from ourselves.
And saving we needed. We were too enamored, for one thing, by the adroitness by which European intellectuals were able to turn every defeat of reason into a victory for irrationality. Denial of the knowledge of God is surely the enemy of theology, but we embraced our destroyers and thereby set about betraying the very conditions that permitted our discourse to exist. Then we made a game of our cowardice, delighting in the ingenuity of our impotence.
Apophatic theology is not without its usefulness, of course. At its best, it is a positive reminder to keep theology humble. What is surprising to me, however, is just how long negative theology has survived. True, it is more historically grounded now than in the postmodern eighties. Today, it is defended as the foundation of classical theism and thus the sine qua non of the Christo-Platonic synthesis. The God that is known in Jesus Christ is not otherwise unknowable. Even in the Incarnation, God remains hidden; even in revelation, God is essentially concealed. And didn’t Heidegger teach us that the Greeks had already made this aletheia their truth?
The use of negative theology to defend the absolute otherness of God should not be surprising, since it has always been more rhetorically powerful than metaphysically defensible. At root it is an exaggeration of the mystery of God dressed up in the elaborate conceptuality of infinity. At its best it is a reminder, not a method, since it demonstrates how the intellect alone—absent the grace of moral transformation and beauty’s sublimation of desire—cannot even begin to fathom the reality of the divine. The rhetoric of negative theology is essentially romantic: every summit is but the bottom of a new and steeper gradient, every arrival yet the beginning of another departure, and so on. As long as it is not taken too seriously, how could any Christian be against it?
The problem is that when theologians try to make negative theology stand on its own, they make fools of us all. To see this point, take Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher who threw a wrench of self-reference into logic with his immortal statement, “All Cretans are liars.” A roughly equivalent statement made by a theologian is that, “All theological statements about God must be negated.” Just as it is impossible to establish if Epimenides spoke the truth about Cretans, it is impossible to accept that our theologian has spoken the truth about God. For our negative theologian not to be a liar, there must be at least one true statement about God, and this is his insistence that all (other) statements about God are not true and thus must be negated. But even if it can be shown that our negative theologian is not a liar, he still makes the faithful look foolish. He leaves us nothing to believe but himself.
Karl Barth’s turn away from his Romans period should have been enough to put negative theology in its humble place, but it continues to be a temptation, a retreat that looks like it is an attack. I wish I had known Erik Peterson’s 1925 essay, “What is Theology?” which was a response to the early Barth. Peterson’s work is being rediscovered, and there are many gems in this piece. Among them is this: “All dialectical knowing that is also always a not-knowing, is precisely in its not-knowing not to give God the glory.” Peterson would probably admit that this statement is an overly dialectical way of expressing the simpler truth that “a real speaking of God exists meaningfully only with Christ.”
Peterson is best known for his engagement with Carl Schmitt, so let me end by giving a Schmittean reading of my topic. Negative theology is a sign of a crisis in theological authority. It creates a state of exception that requires a sovereign authority to step in and make a decision. It is useful, then, precisely because it points to Christ as the only one who can restore order to our attempts to know God.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.