the via negationis
Duns Scotus’ attack on the “way of negation” in knowing God, represents what must be recognized as the “majority opinion” that dominated Church practice throughout most of its history. It highlights the fundamental thrust of Western Christian religiosity (as opposed to Eastern): the West was invested in saying “God” was knowable. Aquinas taught that we can only say what God is not. Scotus’ demolition of this via negationis reduces any corrections in our statements about “God” to the mere acknowledgement of super-eminence. It’s either that, Duns says, or else we have to admit we don’t know God at all. He dismisses “the way of negation” as fundamentally an admission of no-knowledge … and then proceeds to reduce “analogy” to either super-eminence or no-knowledge. And by super-eminence he means that it is sufficient to say, for example, that “God is infinitely wise” and the word “infinitely” is enough to cover any scruples one may have about the inadequacy of applying “wise” to “God.” Of course, the possibility that “no-knowledge” might be the only right answer was not even considered, despite the mediaeval enthusiasm for the apophatic doctrines of Pseudo-Dionysius. This was, after all, the Church. What would happen if it could not speak about “God”?
The Western approach, laid out with relentless logic by Duns Scotus, minimizes concern for error and supports the claim that our ordinary notions of “God” are sufficiently accurate to put all qualms to rest. It has had the effect of preserving intact the seriously misleading anthropomorphisms found in “the Book,” especially the Old Testament. For the argumentation that supported the use of everyday terms like “good” and “wise” and “person” and that “God” has a “will,” issues commandments and is “provident,” encouraged confidence that all the everyday imagery that has been in use since time immemorial, was adequate. It made virtually no demand for correctives, except those that could have been as readily applied to superior humans, as in, for example, “the doctor knows infinitely more than you do … so shut up!” (… basically the “solution” offered by the Book of Job.)
The “God” of everyday imagery comes straight from the “Book.” That “God” has a character, a persona, established by the cultural beliefs held by ancient near-eastern peoples in the first millennium BCE. “Religion” then was a “national relationship” with a local “god,” a contract (the real meaning of the word “covenant,” or “testament”) binding both parties to clearly stated obligations: the “god” to protect and prosper the nation, and the nation to abandon other gods and glorify their “god” by obeying his commands. Yahweh was conceived in those terms. It eventually meant that obedience would occupy center-stage in the elaboration of western morality ― which has always included a poltical bias toward hieratic authority.
Western theology has permitted the solidification of the OT imagery portraying “God” as a powerful ruler giving commandments for the purposes of segregative sanctification, and therefore imagined a “God” who was personally insulted by sin because sin is an offense against him and his exclusive relationship with the tribe rather than humanly self-destructive behavior. “God” for the Hebrew scriptures is moral in a self-centered sense because his very “godhood,” as dependent on the contract, is at stake. His divinity, in this scheme of things, is not based on the universal relationship established by creation but rather on the particular god-to-nation relationship created by contract. Yahweh was not “god” for everyone, he was “god” only for the Hebrews because he was their protector, he brought them out of Egypt and made them a people, and received their obeisance and obedience in return. He could “beat up” the gods of other peoples like the Canaanites … and then demand their extermination for he was not their “god,” he had no contract with them. He was the “one” and only “god” of the Hebrews.
After the exile, the imagery about “God” began to universalize, but that incipient process froze about 250 BCE with the decisions establishing the OT canon (primarily the Pentateuch) occasioned by the writing of the Septuagint. Jesus inherited the ancient nationalist concept embedded in the cononical books, but he was part of the growing current (which included Philo) that was trying to denationalize it, depoliticize it, humanize it (hence Jesus’ “render unto Caesar …,” “God” as “Father” rather than “Yahweh,” and the “Good Samaritan” morality). It may not have been entirely universalized even for Jesus, but he was clearly moving in that direction (cf his visit to Tyre and the implications of the healing of the “Greek” woman’s daughter with suggestive commentary recorded in Mark 7 and Matthew 15)
The OT “covenant” (contract) was mediated by a “god-centered” rather than a “human-centered” morality honoring a “God” that guaranteed ethnic identity and national well-being. The archaic “theology” that believed the world was a battle-ground of national war gods whose ascendency was reflected in the poltical and military success of their associated states, is what necessarily rules the thinking that begins with any literal acceptance of the imagery in the “Book.” Biblical fundamentalism ineluctably includes the continued dominance of a primitive near-eastern mindset, whose adequacy was already being questioned in the later books of the Hebrew Bible itself. That mindset ultimately subordinated the message of Jesus, and of course all subsequent “Christian” categories, to the archaic thinking characteristic of the founding of the Hebrew “nation” a thousand years before the common era. The christian “membership” requirement, for example, which was crystalized in the claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” is a transparent reprise of the “chosen nation” theme that pervades the OT scriptures. All references to “God’s chosen people” were henceforth allegorically applied to the “Christian nation” and the old tribal imagery of the “Book” continued to dominate the relationship with “God.”
In the Mosaic tradition, morality and the obedience it demanded is not primarily derived from what is good for people, but what pleases “God.” If, in our times, we take the moral code to be “God’s will” metaphorically, we have to realize it is an anachronism: that’s not the way the ancients understood it. In their mind, it was only at another level down that what’s good or bad for people comes into play, because “God” rewards and punishes behavior. But please note: reward and punishment is always under the rubric of respect or insult to “God’s” person as a central feature of their nation-god relationship. In that view, all morality is simply determined by the “will of God” and all compliance as well as punishment for non-compliance is “for his glory.” (This may have been the original source of the absurd notion that suffering can glorify “God.” Thus was the character of “God” assassinated by the “Book.”) Traditional western Christian theology continued with that priority. The human significance of morality was secondary. There was no ultimacy given to “natural law,” for example; it was consulted only as a methodological device for determining the “will of God” in those cases where no “direct word” about the issue could be found in “the Book.” The “will of God” was always the ruling category.
The fact is, whatever universalist vision might have been percolating within the “Book” itself, moving away from that nationalistic, king-sheik imagery, was very inchoate and tenuous. There are clear intimations, but not much more than that ― in the Book of Job, the Prophets and the Wisdom books ― of a new current of thinking based on other premises. But they were fledgling and always remained subordinated to “Yahweh” the Hebrew warrior “God.” The message of Jesus and its extension with Paul (following Philo) represented that new current, growing within the Judaic tradition itself, whose vision of “God” transcended primitive nationalism and its associated authoritarianism and military power. Hence in Athens, Paul could confidently identify “God” as the unknown one whom all the peoples of the earth grope after, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” and in his letter to the Romans definitively declare the Jewish law abrogated. The law is abrogated because “God’s” contractual relationship with a limited group mediated by law no longer exists. He was really proclaiming a newly perceived “God,” one that was no longer a nation-god hawking an obedience-to-law contract. Not only was the “law” abrogated, but the whole archaic quid-pro-quo character of that kind of chartered relationship was declared obsolete. It not only freed us from a relationship in obedience to law, it also freed “God” from being tied and limited to any of our local tribal cultures and customs. The “anarchic” implications of such a re-conception were not lost on the political authorities. The early christians were persecuted with a vengeance that normally tolerant Rome had never before brought to bear on any religion.
Rome conquered early christian anti-imperialism, not by persecution, but by seduction. It made the Church an offer it could not refuse … partnership in the empire. As history has proven, christianity was quickly swallowed back up into the more primitive categories, drawn in by the authoritarian requirements of the Roman Empire and its later manifestations in the autocratic mediaeval papacy and equally autocratic european national states. The primitive categories of an authoritarian “personal” God, and a contract-morality based on obedience to law, were eminently suited for the maintenance of authoritarianism in all its forms. “God” was once again yoked to the “nation” and harnessed to the grinding-wheel of human exploitation. Thus are authoritarian politics and the archaic anthropomorphic notions of “God” the warp and woof of the same whole cloth.
A “god-oriented” morality, whose essential dynamic suffuses every page of the “Book,” necessarily implies the centrality of obedience (for without obedience there is no relationship) … and obedience implies compliance with a demand (for without a “law” there can be no obedience). A “human-centered” morality, on the other hand, is focused on what is good or bad for people; it necessarily implies that “God” leaves the judgment as to what is right and what is wrong to our own sense of responsibility toward ourselves and the earth matrix in which we live. Morality is a communitarian project of our principal tool of survival ― our intelligence. Effectively, it says there is no “God’s will” to discern or placate. And without a “will” there is no “person” as we understand the word. There are no membership requirements, no demands embedded in “laws” and, of course, no relationship of obedience. Without that kind of relationship what’s left? How could a “God” that wants nothing still be called a “person” in the everyday sense of that word. (And, let’s face it, there is no other sense!)
And finally, what could a “God” that wants nothing, possibly want with us?
… except the pleasure of our company!
 from a disputation with Henry of Ghent, c.1305, reproduced in Duns Scotus, Philosophical writings, Bobbs-Merril, NY 1964, tr.Alan Wolter OFM, pp 17-35