Placher on the Unknowable God | A Chapter from The Triune God

I paused this morning to read. I have been writing for the past two days and I needed a change of mode. Finding myself not able to return to sleep at 4:00am I went downstairs and picked up William Placher’s book The Triune God and read first chapter, “The Unknowable God.”

My Reflections

Placher was admittedly a huge fan of Karl Barth, calling him “the greatest theologian of the twentieth century,” (23) and therefore is building a case for revelation through Jesus as the only possible starting point for any theological discourse.1 His Barthian adoration aside, I found this chapter to be helpful for me at two levels.

First, it was another systematic, historical rehearsal of the arguments that have shaped the Western conversation around the Trinity. I am not a philosopher, nor am I a systematic theologian (I’m still not quite sure what I am), so every time I hear/read someone who can provide digestible synopses of key thinkers, I am indebted to that person.

Placher steps through the thought of Descartes, Locke, and Kant to describe how they each, for different reasons, came to the unknowability of God. They arrived here because they were using the modern notion of rational thought as the means to “know” God. To know God rationally–meaning to be able to explain God with human language and symbols–is impossible. This is what gave rise to atheism and secularism. Placher then revisits Anselm, Aquinas, and Eckhart and demonstrates how these theologians were not trying to explain God, but began with the faith that God exists outside of our ability to explain. Their pursuit was to understand/know God.

Placher’s point is to demonstrate that the modern philosophers and the Medieval theologians were not pursuing the same ends. The modern philosophers began with a subjective skepticism and sought to prove the existence of God through reason. The Medieval theologians began in a culture where faith in God was the norm, and pursued the understanding of that faith, not the explanation or defense of that faith.

Placher recognizes that today, in our postmodern context, we do not have the luxury of returning to the Medieval theological premise. He then names three late modern/postmodern philosophers: Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Wittgenstein who demonstrate how we must create space within our own experience to acknowledge the existence of the unknowable. We must, he argues, navigate the space between idolatry–creating a false god with our words–and secularity–believing there is nothing unknowable outside our physical experience.

The Second way I found this chapter helpful was in regard to my own writing. It helped me put my dissertation writing into perspective. I have been processing so much information for the past three years, and yet I feel like I don’t know anything. There are so many voices and so many perspectives that are using words to explain/describe/encounter that which is impossible to explain or even describe…and some would even say impossible to encounter. My advisor cautioned me last night to make sure that I stay attentive to the data–meaning the reflections of the people in my research team, and my interaction with the process–and to make sure that my framing structure of the dissertation is necessary to the emerging argument. I interpret that to mean that I may be trying to say too much. (I get that a lot)

Placher’s chapter helped me to remember that it is not possible for me to explain the Trinity. All of the words regarding Trinity continually run the risk of constructing another idol. This is not my desire. I seek to understand. I seek to know as I am known, to quote Parker Palmer, not to explain. May it ever be so.

The Triune GodPlacher, William C. The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.

My Highlights

“When philosophy textbooks gather under the same heading a range of texts from the Middle Ages to today, from Anselm and Aquinas through Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and Kant to contemporary writers, as if all these folks were doing the same thing–offering ‘proofs for the existence of God’–they mislead the students who read them. In fact, the medieval texts so cited were usually doing something like the opposite–giving an account of God that would render anything like ‘proof’ altogether inappropriate. Those who seek to reduce Christian faith to the arena of rational proof–whether liberal Deists trying to eliminate Christianity’s ‘irrational’ elements or conservative advocates of ‘intelligent design’ trying to make religion fit their own version of the ‘scientific’–are not preserving traditional Christianity but engaging in a particular and characteristically modern project that has diverged from the Christian tradition.

“Medieval authors lived in a biblically shaped word, and the God made known in the Bible is not the subject of rational proofs. Indeed, this God cannot be represented by any image; the divine name cannot even be pronounced. When the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem, he horrified the Jews by pushing into the Holy of Holies, the sacred space only the high priest could enter once a year. The story goes that Pompey was puzzled when, at the center of the Holy of Holies, where he expected to see the most valuable and sacred religious artifact, there was only empty space. As Jacques Derrida wrote:

This place and this figure have a singular structure: the structure encloses its void within itself, shelters only its own proper interiorized desert, opens onto nothing, confines nothing, contains as its treasure only nothingness: a hole, an empty spacing….Nothing behind the curtains. Hence the ingenious surprise of a non-Jew when he opens, is allowed to open or violates the tabernacle, when he enters the dwelling or the temple, and after so many ritual detours to gain access to the secret center, he discovers nothing–only nothingness.

No center, no heart, an empty space, nothing. (Jacques Derrida, Glas. 1986)

The closer you get to seeing God, Gregory of Nyssa said, the more you realize that God is invisible. (The Life of Moses)” (11)

“So the theological task becomes more difficult. If we try to talk about God in a way that fits God into human categories and systems, we end up not with God but with an idol (and our arguments for the existence of the idol do not work very well anyway). Idols are things we can control. In Isaiah the prophet appropriately ridicules those who take some wood, use part of it to roast meat and warm themselves, and make the rest into a god (Isa. 44:16-17)–as if we could make gods for ourselves as and when we needed them. But if we too quickly simply acknowledge the meaninglessness of all talk about God, we run the risk that our secular contemporaries will rest content in their unqualified secularity, have a beer, and go bowling–whether alone or not.

“A theology appropriate to our postmodern time, therefore, might ask whether there are permanently unanswerable questions that point beyond the realm of our experience and to which Christian revelation could provide a totally unexpected answer. A line of philosophers has been exploring such possibilities at least since Kant, but the task is tricky. On the one side lies the risk of falling back into the modern project and coming up with  some answer we can understand to ‘ultimate questions’–an answer that inevitably describes an idol. On the other side is the danger of pointing toward an answer so amorphous that it collapses into a vaguely poetic way of talking about what turns out in the end to be just ordinary experience.” (22)

Kierkegaard – “let his pseudonyms show from the inside the unsatisfactory character of various forms of life, without then claiming to offer any argument for a kind a religiousness that could come only by revelation. He left us, one might say, with an empty space into which God’s revelation might enter.” (40)

Levinas – “found in the face of another human being an infinite demand that deconstructed all totalities, though he could not quite decide whether that infinite demand pointed beyond the other human being.” (39)

Wittgenstein – “found himself haunted by questions that by his own rules it made no sense to ask. Answering the questions in clear language would give us idols; abandoning them would leave us with flat secularity.” He kept running against the boundaries of language, which indicated that there was something to run up against. (39)

“One of the great insights behind the doctrine of the Trinity was that such mediation does not work [the Plotinian emanations]. No matter how many rungs are in the ladder, the topmost rung is still on the ladder, and therefore not an utterly transcendent mystery. The only way we can be connected with the utterly transcendent is if it/he/she reaches out to us in love, overcoming all the intervening levels in one act of condescension. That is what happens in Jesus Christ, and explaining the logic of how that can be led Christian theologians to the Trinity.
“The issues discussed in this chapter invite in our time an analogous move in an epistemological mode. The world of our experience keeps pushing uncomfortably against its borders, but any effort on our part to see beyond those borders gets us into epistemological trouble–either the questions melt away or we answer them in ways that leave us holding idols within our control. In the face of certain kinds of questions we do not know how to answer and indeed scarcely know how to pose, we can come to knowledge only if it is revealed to us. And the logic of such revelation leads us, likewise, to the Trinity–that will be the argument of the rest of this book.

“Great religious texts from many traditions keep the questions alive while rejecting all our answers, in a dialectic that never comes to closure….Biblical texts claim to tell us more. It is God’s self-revelation, and that alone, that can get us beyond fumbling, unanswered questions, beyond, ‘not this, not this.’ ‘Every phenomenon of revelation,’ Marion has written, ‘would imply the radical anonymity of that which appeals.’ The one with whom Jacob wrestles never gives a name. We take the first step to controlling someone if we know their name, and a ‘revelation’ we can control comes from an idol of our own making. As Marion puts it, ‘Strictly speaking, an appeal which would say its name would no longer appeal, but instead presents the one who appeals, delivering it back to the simple visibility of an occupant of the world, stifling the world with the evidence of a spectacle.’ If God appeared as a man six yards tall, or as ‘a very rare and tremendously large green bird, with a red beak,…perhaps even whistling in an unheard of manner,’ Kierkegaard wrote, this would render faith impossible. We would simply have to account for one more object in the world.

“It is different when God comes among us as an ordinary human being, in the form of a servant. Nothing tempts us to say that we now understand God, yet God has been present among us. So, at the transfiguration, the apostles see a dazzling spectacle, but the voice form heaven calls them not to attend to the vision but to listen to the Son. Then all distinctive spectacle vanishes. ‘suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus’ (Mark 9:8).” (40-41)

  1. my professors at Luther would disagree. They would take a more phenomenological approach and acknowledge the reality that all knowledge must begin with our experience of the thing observed–in this case the revelation of God in Jesus–and must be bracketed before we can enter into communicative reason to understand the phenomenon of the Word became flesh. []