Tuesday, April 26, 2005

God just left-please leave a message

So, I’m skimming through a little essay by Robert Scharlemann on God as Not-Other: Nicholas of Cusa’s De li Non Aliud, because once you get started down that slippery slope of epistemology, ontology and dualism, its damned hard to get out. And, since I enjoy elegant logical arguments, I’m liking the discussion of definition and being, presented in the form of question-answer, used to such clarifying extent in Aquinas’ Summa. For example:

1) Discourse or reason is definition. But why is it called definition? [side note: this follows an extended discussion positing that to know something is to know what it is, and therefore, being is understood through defining] 2) It gets the name “definition” from the act of defining, which defines all things. What defines it in turn? 3) It defines itself, because it does not exclude anything (it excludes nothing). But what is it? 4) It is nothing else than (non aliud quam) what-is-defined (definitium) But what is the defined? 5) The defined is nothing else than nothing else (non aliud quam non aliud). But what is nothing else? 6) Nothing else is nothing else than nothing else (non aliud est non aliud quam non aliud).

The Undefined Definer.

Try this: Can you think or say the word “I” without understanding its meaning as your-self, your being? Cogito ergo sum, which has been understood to mean “I am a thinking thing.,” can perhaps be better translated “Thinking ‘I,’ I am.” Or as, Scharlemann muses: “To forget being [in the translation of Descartes] amounts, in this case, to overlooking that there is at least one word with respect to which one cannot separate essence and existence-the very word “I” is what brings into being the reality of selfhood or self- consciousness. In actual fact, the “I” is then beyond form and nonform, beyond existence and essence, because, strictly speaking, one cannot ascertain what it is without simultaneously ascertaining that it is and, furthermore, one cannot, strictly speaking, say “what” it is but only where and when it is.”

I love this. It reminds me of the Uncertainty Principle. And, of course, leads me to speculate on the “being” of God that is constrained by our use of language to attempt to define God at all. Nicholas winds up defining God as “Not other is not other than not other,” as every “other,” is defined by the “not other” (i.e.: a tree is not other than a tree). First principle, anyone? Very important for a thirteenth century academic, it demonstrates that the pure possibility of definition is Trinitarian in structure, no less.

But just try writing a hymn to the glory of the “Not other.” Doesn’t really sing, does it? I plowed through this essay, only to find my favorite part in the very last footnote on the very last page:

The God of which one thinks, to whom one prays, upon whom one calls, and in whose name one acts or speaks is, then always God-past (just as the self of which I think is a self-past, not the active “I”). Or, to put it more dramatically, the God of metaphysics and religion is always the God who has (just) gone. But the intention of the thought, prayer, adjuration, and invocation is to recall the one who was there when the name was really understood as it was spoken or thought and to expect that one to come again the next time. They are activities of the mean-time, between God-past and God-to-come.

Let us praise God, who is not here, unless we recognize that God is not here, in which case, God is here for us, but not as defined.

Or, maybe I’ll just come into God’s presence with gladness, trusting that God is as here as God was here and God will be here. Even if I can’t wrap my mind around God’s being, by seeking God with my being, I will know God when I know that God knows me. Just don’t ask me how I know…

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