Before bringing this symposium to a close, I must express my gratitude: to the Theopolis Institute for hosting this conversation, and to my distinguished respondents for the gifts of their time and critical perspective.

I have chosen to focus my response on a theme which first surfaces in Radner’s response and is the unmistakable subtext in both predominantly critical interventions (namely Bauerschmidt and Gonzales).

This theme is the connection between “postliberalism”—fixated on “grammar,” “narrative,” and “practices” at the expense of a speculative grasp of doctrinal content—and contemporary theology’s uncritical embrace of modern apophaticism.

This conversation has deepened my awareness that my critique of popular forms of negative theology and the Neochalcedonian alternative I propose require a significant break with ingrained “postliberal” habits of theological reflection—especially reliance on “grammar” and “genealogy.” This is an immanent critique, indebted to the postliberal era but compelled by incarnational faith to move beyond it. Bauerschmidt and Gonzales, perceptively intuiting what is at stake, helpfully illustrate the contrast between the two visions of the theological task. Certain proposals from other interlocutors suggest, meanwhile, that a shift in the theological landscape may already be underway.

God and Man After Yale: A Reply to Radner

Most striking in Radner’s essay is a sustained dialogue with postliberal theology, highlighting both its promise and its limitations. Radner offers us an autobiographical reflection, describing his formation in the heady days of postliberal (or “Yale”) school, including many of the authors whose apophaticism I critique as unsustainable in Thesis #1. Radner insists that they “didn’t really believe in the exhaustive dissolution of revelatory substance implied by the ‘total’ aspect of their… apophaticism.” (This isn’t the first time I’ve been implored not to take the writings of Burrell, Lindbeck, etc. at face value; in general, I find a denial that an author truly means what they say a rather dubious defense).

Yet Radner ultimately agrees that their writings, though useful as “border-guards” against doctrinal erosion, are ultimately not adequate to God’s revelation in Christ. Ironically, the postliberal “cultural-linguistic” approach to religion (which emphasized “grammar” and “practices” in order to get beyond liberal “experience” and fundamentalist “propositions”), cannot support the actual “grammar” or “practices” of our transformation at the hands of the Word.

This admission is quite significant and parallels an intellectual conversion I have undergone in recent years. The same spirit that led me to fear (to a reactionary degree) a shackling of the Word by Enlightenment reason, now requires for that same Word’s freedom the surpassing of postliberal reason (and a revisitation, with Hegel, of the Enlightenment’s yield).

Yet Radner’s demand that my apophatic proposal be “embodied” in “discipled witness” is postliberalism at its best: the insistence that the matrix of Christian practice remain the context for all Christian thinking. If practice cannot substitute for speculative courage, the former must remain the soil from which the latter springs.

In passing, I still have worries about a lingering a symmetry in Radner’s use of terms like “unidirectional” and “occasionalistically,” which I see as a hesitation to affirm that divine linguistic facility truly inheres in us.[1] Does he fall back on a verbal transformation operating independently of its intelligibility to us (postliberal “grammar” by a different name)?

A Guide for the Perplexed: A Reply to Frederick Bauerschmidt

With Bauerschmidt, whose contribution enacts a postliberal style with consistency and admirable panache, we find the task of the theologian defined as part grammarian and part therapist.

As grammarian, Bauerschmidt clarifies that the apophaticism to which I object is nothing more (and nothing less) than a reflection of the rules of God-talk, standing unchanged “for the Christian tradition ancient, medieval, and modern.” McCabe and Marion simply follow Aquinas; to know God “through his effects” is “simply the way in which a creature knows the creator.” (Again, we are told that we must not take seriously McCabe’s “juvenile delight” in “shocking statements”). Similarly, everyone agrees with the claims of Chalcedon, and thus the “Neochalcedonian” specificity of my proposal fails to appear.

“Modern” apophaticists such as McCabe allegedly simply rehearse this unanimous grammar, and thus Bauerschmidt as postliberal therapist is “perplexed” by “the irascible and appetitive passions” that drive my essay. It must therefore be shown that my fears and my desires stem from pseudo-problems (presumably, in Wittgenstinian fashion, due to language “going on holiday”) which dissolve with proper perspective. To want “more” is simply not to comprehend the terms involved and the grammar of their use. This is the path to being “untroubled,” liberated by the “consoling” and “freeing” realization that all any theologian ever does is “map” “blind alleys.”

What Bauerschmidt’s “perplexity” illustrates is that if postliberalism is true, the Neochalcedonian period itself, like a critique of modern apophaticism, is necessarily unintelligible. For both rest on asking questions which a postliberal approach to dogma is intended to extinguish as ungrammatical (and ultimately pathological).

If Chalcedon and its four adverbs merely intended to establish a “grammar,” then centuries of fierce debate over miaphysitism and monotheletism (in which Maximus lost his tongue and right hand) could have been avoided as a tragic misunderstanding! Similarly, if authors like McCabe are simply elucidating the straightforward logic of the God-world relation, then there is nothing to be afraid of in “modern” apophaticism.

In response, a broadly Hegelian strategy is the only one available: one must show that the attempt to merely identify a given “grammar” always already involves one in the speculation one wishes to avoid. (Indeed, is not the restriction of theology to mapping blind alleys already a speculative and dogmatic foreclosure?)

First, when Bauerschmidt attempts to tell us what this apophatic grammar is, he tells us that to know God “through his effects” is merely to deny that we know him as a passive object rather than an active subject. This is simply not an accurate representation of the far more ambitious and specific claims made by Mulhall, McCabe, Preller, Burrell, etc. which I quoted and extensively footnoted. Bauerschmidt has actually given us a (speculative) answer which is not identical to any of theirs (also speculative).

Second, his brief proposal quickly requires him to elaborate further. For at first he wants to simply identify our way of knowing through God’s effects with “the way in which a creature knows the creator.” It is not, we are told, “some second-best sort of knowledge” or something other than “what God is like in himself.” Yet Bauerschmidt quickly wants to draw a contrast in the next paragraph between two sorts of knowing: 1) ours in status viatores, “from God’s created effects,” and 2) our eschatological knowing. Now he does want to say that what we have now in creaturely language is some second-best sort of knowledge, and that any knowledge of God in se is eschatologically deferred. So the Kantian problematic, briefly dispelled, is back in play—and we also land in difficult questions concerning the (created) light of glory and its difference from the (created) effects we have access to now. How quickly, once one enters the problems, does a simple grammar prove speculative!

Finally, Bauerschmidt perceptively notices McCabe’s rejection of a logos asarkos and confession of Christ as a human person as evidence of Christological agreement. But in reality, all this proves is that McCabe’s attempt to offer a grammatical Christology inevitably involved him in speculative questions, to some (but not all) of which he somewhat underdetermined yet vaguely Neochalcedonian answers.[2] Numerous divergences remain between McCabe and Maximus, and still more between Neochalcedonian and more conventionally Thomist Christologies. To name just a few of the latter: the individuation of Christ’s human nature, the issue of a composite hypostasis or supposit, the question of created esse in Christ, questions of subsistence as different from supposit, whether the hypostatic union is “in” God, etc. My proposed apophaticism relies on specifically Maximian answers to these questions—or in certain cases, a reformulation of the problem itself in non-Thomistic categories.

On (Not) Believing in Ghosts: A Response to Gonzales

I credit Gonzales for his careful attention to the figures I list as influences and for his lively sense of what is at stake in my narration. Yet when it comes to belief in ghosts, like Hegel’s, which are alleged to haunt modernity (to say nothing of my writings), I confess myself disenchanted.

If for Bauerschmidt, theology occurs at the intersection of grammar and therapy, for Gonzales, it seems to be defined by the twin roles of genealogist and ghostbuster. As genealogist, the theologian first traces the heresiological lineages which are taken to explain the deep grammar of a thinker like Hegel. In turn, as ghostbuster, the theologian uncovers and eradicates Hegel’s spectral influence wherever it haunts contemporary theology.

Yet there is an intimate link between the two strains of postliberal thinking. Gonzales, too, assumes that there is a theological grammar fixed once for all, accessible apart from the speculative labor incumbent upon a hermeneutics of dogma. This grammar can be expressed in simple shorthand, through phrases which apparently do not require much explanation: “analogy” (whose?), God-world “difference” (a tricky and dialectical notion if there ever was one), a (linearly temporal?) sequence of “fall, incarnation, redemption and apocalypse.”

The myth of such a grammar, once installed, makes it both vital and relatively straightforward for Gonzales to narrate the lineages of recurring deviations. Thus the reiteration of familiar family trees (Luther to Boehme to Hegel, etc.) and old accusations (pantheism, theogony, and so on).

What is occluded by this sort of approach, which is concerned almost exclusively with what is behind the text?

First and foremost, the problems the text itself (whether Hegel’s or my own) is attempting to answer. Hegel’s writings, as my second and third theses suggested, respond to a problem raised by Kant. If Kant is right (and he raises questions which the tradition has not previously asked), then the speculative proofs of God’s existence collapse and all knowledge of God, lacking a corresponding intuition, becomes impossible. I suggested that a similar radicalization of the apophatic tradition is at work in contemporary theology, and that the tradition itself may have an unthought remainder.

Gonzales does not like the solution I offer, any more than he likes Hegel’s earlier answer to Kant (although he does not evaluate Hegel’s response to charges of pantheism). Fair enough, I suppose. But how does he propose to address—in alternate fashion—either set of problems? After all, Kant’s problematic claims to undercut the meaningful use of analogy (Gonzales’ hastily sketched solution) beyond the scope of our intuition. My worry is that genealogy and ghostbusting can sometimes substitute for constructive theological thinking, while tying up those who do attempt it in endless historical debates. If Gonzales is right that theology in this mode comes to consists in finding Hegel’s ghostly contamination everywhere in twentieth-century thought (since even more friendly figures like Balthasar and Ulrich do not emerge “unscathed”), then one might begin to wonder whether the neoscholastics weren’t right to stick with Thomas and avoid engaging with modernity or speculative thought altogether!

Secondly, the multiplicity and messiness of “the tradition” is lost in an illusory grammatical consensus. Few Church fathers (not even, as John Behr has shown, Irenaeus) advocated a straightforwardly linear narrative of salvation history, and one looks in vain in figures like Maximus, Eriugena, and Eckhart for a grammar of God-world “difference” of the sort advocated by William Desmond. Rather than conclude from this realization that these figures are proto-Hegelian (as Balthasar might), perhaps it would be better to abandon the pretension that such features pick out a Christian “grammar” against which Hegel or myself can be measured.

The Word Made Strange: Responses to Leithart, Papanikolaou, and Haecker[3]

Each of our remaining interlocutors allows us to glimpse aspects of the “strangeness” of the Word which risk being obscured by postliberal habits of thought.

First, to Leithart’s proposed amendment: although I opt for the reverse formulation, my Neochalcedonian approach could be described just as well as “a kataphatic theology that incorporates an apophatic moment” or an “intertwining of the two modes.” I accept the emendation, so long as we comprehend its ground—Christ’s person as the ultimate identity of the apophatic and kataphatic ways. Neither negation nor affirmation have absolute primacy because they are mediated to one another in and as him. This is no mere “grammar” of their “balance” or “oscillation” but a speculative insight (and personal encounter) which sublates both.

Leithart then expresses his (Hegelian) preference for the concrete over the abstract. He asks: “What does [this] actually mean for our understanding and use of Scripture?” What he then models is the audacity of an exegesis which does not subject Scripture to the “grammatical” constraints postliberals like Simon Hewitt and Stephen Mulhall (especially) would attach to all theological speech. We need not simply negate all the connotations creaturely fire, for instance, brings with it, when following Scripture in comparing God to a living flame. The via eminentiae need not be emptied of all intelligible meaning.

Why not? And what does Neochalcedonianism have to do with the strangeness of the Scriptural w/Word? Briefly: if “the Word of God… wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment,” as Maximus tells us, then new light is shed on Scripture’s so-called cosmo- and anthropo-morphisms. The problem of idolatry (such as we read in Isaiah 44) is not that God does not have the determination and positive content of fire (or statues we make of wood). Indeed, their determination and positive content is a moment in his Incarnation in and as all things.

Rather, the problem is that the fire is not determinate enough, just as the statue is not human enough. We are praying to beings that “have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not” (Ps. 135:17). The true Man, Jesus Christ, sees and hears, uniting in his person the human form with the divine vision and responsiveness; he is in truth as Image what the idol merely pretends to be. His determinacy as concrete universal embraces within it all creaturely realities in an eminent way. Thus he can be depicted as “fiery” in John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation 1, for in him (and proleptically in itself) fire (like human form) is not something other than God. His Incarnation in and as all things is the ground of Scriptural symbolism in a way postliberal grammar cannot conceive, condemned as it is to mere attribution of analogical terms, emptied of all intelligible creaturely content. For Christ truly becomes “a type and symbol of himself” (Amb. 10.77).

Aristotle Papanikolaou fleshes out my suggestion that Kant and Hegel are at the crux of the problem of modern apophaticism, by following this controversy—with the Trinity as its crux—into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a revealed determination of God’s very life, the Trinity is an obstacle to a resolute apophaticism which draws an absolute epistemic barrier between creature and Creator. The great theologians of the Trinity (Barth, Balthasar, Jenson etc.) each pushed beyond such linguistic containment, and Papanikolaou offers them as guides—guides which take us beyond postliberalism. For at its worst, postliberalism treats the Trinity as the merely given yet unintelligible “grammar” of God-talk (the fact, as he puts it, “‘that’ God is Trinity”)—an insufficient response to Kant and Schleiermacher’s dismissal of its relevance.

Finally, Haecker champions the necessity of tarrying with negativity (and thus with the writings of Hegel). Coming to the defense of Neochalcedonian Christology, he insists that, properly understood, it does not require the abandonment of “analogy” or the “the creatio ex nihilo difference of creation from its creator.”

Haecker’s profoundest insight is that the negativity at work in Christian theology cannot remain merely the apophatic negation “from below” of our concepts, or even a sort of hyper-negation which attempts to get beyond both simple affirmation and negation.

On their own, as self-cancelling efforts from our side, both negation and hyper-negation (the apophatic and the hyperphatic) would remain empty of all divine content. Postliberalism’s apophatic version of “analogy,” once deflated by authors like McCabe to “a comment on our use of certain words,” threatens to enclose us within a linguistic prison of our own making. Our negations must be (always already) met from above by the infinite self-diremption and self-divestment which is the event of the Incarnation as God’s own “negativity.”

This movement, as Haecker writes, is one which in which our linguistic “negativity is immanently reversed and yet sustained,” restored to us as identical with positivity “by the kenotic descent of the Son into the most abyssal depths of the sign” and (I would add) the counterblow of the Spirit which realizes the Incarnation in his community, the totality of his Body.

A few clarifications remain: to be sure, as Haecker notes, there is no “unsurpassable opposition” between Neochalcedonian Christology and “analogy,” but only because the latter is subordinated to and suspended from a deeper Christo-logic of hypostatic “identity” and absolute natural “difference” between creature and Creator, neither of which “analogy” itself can sustain. Analogy can be saved by being only by being relativized. Similarly, Neochalcedonianism confesses creatio ex nihilo and concedes an (infinite!) natural difference between creator and Creator but refuses to interpret the latter as a gap or hiatus between them in concreto or the former as somehow opposed to creatio ex deo. Finally, are the narrative terms of Haecker’s presentation—such as his decrying of the “secular” and “liberal”—adequate once we have moved past postliberal thinking and come to terms with the necessity of grappling with Hegel and modernity?

In closing, I hope that this symposium has been as helpful for each of my interlocutors (and for readers) as it has been for enriching my own thinking. May it facilitate our never-ending conversion of the Word who echoes in our depths—and who can never wholly be eclipsed.

[1] This may reflect confessional differences regarding justification.

[2] McCabe’s Christology can be found scattered throughout his works. In particular, see Part II of both God Matters and God Still Matters. McCabe’s general approach is mirrored in the writings of a number of Grammatical Thomists and fellow travelers. In their writings on Christology, Simon Hewitt and Frank Manni explicitly draw from McCabe. See Negative Theology and Philosophical Analysis, 143-151; Simon Hewitt, “Herbert McCabe on God and Humanity,” New Blackfriars 102, no. 1101  (September 2021): 815–33; Recalling a Fragmented Legacy, 216-234; Frank Manni, “Herbert McCabe’s Christology,” Acta Theologica 39, no. 1 (June 24, 2019): 181–99. A chapter in my forthcoming dissertation will discuss McCabe’s Christology—which is complex and rather underdetermined—in far more detail. Suffice it to say that McCabe attempts to use a non-contrastive relationship between God and creatures to explain the Incarnation, but at the price of making Christ’s divinity empirically irrelevant and inaccessible, which threatens a Nestorian separation and raises questions of his humanity’s divinization. Yet there are moments when he helpfully rejects a logos asarkos and affirms that Christ is a human person, which many other Thomists are reluctant to do.

[3] The phrase is Milbank’s.

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