Metaphysical Univocity And Neti Neti: Going Too Far

One of Brad Gregory’s elegant arguments from Th Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society is that metaphysical univocity made possible the disenchantment of the modern world. Here is his summary:

Despite cascades of (post-)Enlightenment propaganda to the contrary, the mathematization of ordinary natural processes could entail no exclusion of God’s alleged, abiding, mysterious process in and through them. That required metaphysical univocity plus Occam’s razor: if a natural cause explained a natural event, it was thought, there was nothing supernatural about either. Therefore, as post-Newtonian believed, once the regularities of nature were understood to have natural causes, God could be no more than a remote first cause [cf. Deism–AT]. Nor, despite generations of (post-)Enlightenment polemics denouncing allegedly primitive superstitions, did the discovery of laws that explain natural regularities exclude the possibility of extraordinary actions by God. That, as we shall see, required a dogmatic, unverifiable belief that natural laws are necessarily and uniformly exceptionless, such that miracles as traditionally understood were impossible. But if, having absorbed and taken for granted metaphysical univocity, one imagined that God belonged to the same conceptual and causal order as his creation, and if natural regularities could be explained through natural causes without reference or recourse to God, then clearly the more that science explained, the less would God be necessary as causal or explanatory principle. In Funkenstein’s terms, “it is clear why a God describable in unequivocal terms, or even given physical features and functions, eventually became all the easier to discard.” (pp. 54-5)

What a beautiful argument! Understand that Gregory is a traditional Catholic theist. Here, he is insisting that metaphysical univocity is the crux of a massive historical and cultural mistake, the mistake being that God “belong[s] to the same conceptual and causal order as his creation.” Because of this mistake, God’s transcendence could be outright denied. But denying God’s transcendence, which is what happened as the modern science was making real, tangible, material progress, effectively meant that God, as a hypothesis, became not only unnecessary but also redundant. Hence, Occam’s razor.

Gregory’s, then, is a plea for, and defense of, God’s transcendence–and rightly so. Pure immanence cannot be defensible–surely not by any genuine mystic.

But then Gregory does not entertain the opposite tendency, one evident in Advaita Vedanta teacher Stephen Wolinsky’s approach to neti neti (“not this, not this”). The via negativa (the negative way) is a powerful tool in that it reveals to the spiritual aspirant that he or she is definitely not the mind, not the body, and not the doer. Yet, if taken on its own, this approach can also terminate in desiccation, in a feeling that things are, as it were, “dried out.”

How so?

Because while the negative way can take one all the way to the Nameless Absolute, or God, it can also, on its own, seem to “dry out” the arising of phenomenal experience. After all, sentient life is celebration, a dance, a great yawlp, a wonderful act of yea-saying. God, abiding as God-self in pure transcendence, must also shine and tumble forth in immanent creative potency, in the “ten thousand things” of which Daoists speak and sing. It is inexplicable, to the finite mine, why there is something rather than no-thing, but the essence of the nondual teaching states that God has a “natural tendency” to vibrate into form or to play Himself into beings.

Now, where nonduality departs from traditional theism is in its claim (which, I tell you, is more than a claim) that transcendence is in, is in-forming immanence and that what is immanently formed is none other than God. God is above and beyond, yes, but also completely in and through and around. And what is in and through is nothing but God’s being. Beings are Being and Being is beings.

Thereefore, yes, let us celebrate God’s transcendence but let us also celebrate God’s immanence. How can we not? And, come to that, who are we anyway?