Classical Theism Doesn’t Really Compete (tautologically)

  • Chance or necessity?
  • Chaos or order?
  • Paradox or pattern?
  • Random or systematic?
  • Asymmetric or symmetric?
  • Discontinuity or continuity?

We approach reality’s in/determinacies with no final analytical adjudication of how many & which of them arise from methodological or epistemic in/determinabilities versus various in-principle occultings of certain in/determined ontic realities.

Some tautologies imagine a wholesale indeterminedness, a thoroughgoing realm of merely ephemeral forms, a tehomic abyss of nominalistic turtles all the way across. Others, a pervasively determined reality of only eternal forms, a pantheon of essentialistic turtles all the way down.

Neither of these monistic tautologies requires mereological whole-part distinctions, although, ontologically, the former type usually admits materialist presuppositions, the latter – idealist. Explanatorily & causally, the former takes reality to be brute, the latter conceives it as ultimately explicable & absolutely caused.

Might there be more than turtles?

Could they be arranged with more than horizontal & vertical directionality, perhaps both? without

  • dichotomizing them into matter or mind, perhaps both?
  • imagining that turtlehood’s at least partly intelligible even if at bottom still wholly incomprehensible?
  • conceiving it as adequately determined & sufficiently reasoned rather than either absolutely so or pervasively indetermined?

What alternative tautology could accommodate that cluster of presuppositions?

None has presented.

Rather than formal, syllogistic arguments that employ root metaphors & metaphysical dichotomies between chance & necessity or advancing pure deductions, humankind has long taken refuge in common sense abductions, informal reasonings that rely heavily on reductiones ad absurdum.

Without root metaphors & exhaustive definitions, instead employing only vague & general phenomenological categories of meta-ontological significance, our reasoning must resort to a fallibilist triadic cycling of abductive hypothesizing, deductive clarifying & inductive testing, which will converge on the truth, even when we can only make successful references to reality.

Classical theism, Thomism, Scotism, Neo-platonism, Palamism, Augustinianism and such do not compete on tautological terms with either a materialist monism or pantheism, either a thoroughgoing nominalism or essentialism, both which take rather naïve a prioristic approaches with a pretense of comprehensively accounting for reality, mereologically, exhaustively defining its objects, epistemologically, neatly arranging its turtles, ontologically.

Rather, distinctions like being, reality & relations; essence, existent, act-potency; quiddity, haecceity, formal distinction; ousia, hypostasis, energeia; and so on, suffice to “meaningfully” relate realities via successful references & abductive inferences, even when successful definitions otherwise elude us.

As Christians encounter paradox, we don’t rush to closure, imagining a priori that it must necessarily be

  • resolved, dialectically in synthesis;
  • dissolved, paradigmatically via perspectival shift;
  • maintained, creatively in tension; or
  • evaded, practically, via reductiones.

Our abductive hypotheses regarding a putative Ens Necessarium tend to evade radically nominalistic & essentialistic tautologies, which devolve into atheological & pantheological stances that wreak conceptual havoc on our

  • common sense experience of a human free will,
  • common sense notions of causality,
  • common sense presuppositions of metaphysical reality & first principles of reasoning.

Our abductions regarding reality’s ultimates & reductiones regarding its proximates don’t a priori recommend themselves as metaphysical verities without having first proved themselves, a posteriori, as indispensable methodological stipulations.

A Dionysian-like approach gets to the point:

  1. God is | x | is true analogically and kataphatically.
  2. God is | not x | is true literally and apophatically.
  3. God’s neither | x | nor | not x | is true unitively.

When we approach classical theisms without this logic, we fall into confusion because we project onto them our own implicit nominalisms & essentialisms and materialisms & idealisms. We imagine we can

  • synthesize them in an Hegelian-like dialectic (like some dipolar theisms),
  • dissolve them paradigmatically through some Kuhnian-like shift (like some panentheisms), or
  • maintain their creative tensions (methodological principle of sufficient reason but a metaphysical materialism).

That’s not what classical theism does!

Instead, it evades such tensions altogether, refrains from proving too much, from saying more than can possibly be known, from telling untellable stories.

Some pejoratively caricature as an ad hoc mysterianism

  • such apophasis,
  • such reliance on successful references,
  • such bracketing of root metaphors,
  • such an inescapably fallibilist approach,
  • such a practical reasoning under speculative uncertainty.

Our defense, though, is robust.

This is no dissolvent mysterianism, but the exuberantly hopeful epistemic optimism of a nuanced, negative mysterianism, which posits that –

  • if our indispensable methodological stipulations derive from timeless metaphysical truths,
  • then, our acting as if these propositions, however tentative, are true,
  • will more likely provide us more beautiful, good, unitive & liberative value-realizations than alternative stances can.

Now, it may well be that, too many of us aren’t always the best exemplars of such transcendental imperatives, piously voicing firm beliefs, while practically responding to life with nihilistic tendencies. Mea maxima culpa!But that’s why we so fulsomely celebrate our hagiographic traditions, taking account of how other persons, once similarly situated and as flawed as us, have nevertheless plumbed the depths of solidarity & scaled the heights of compassion, miraculously so, both in virtue and in visible signs like sanctifications, spectacular healings, unitive realizations & transformative liberations – all that remain otherwise inexplicable, both physically & psychologically.

The practical takeaway is that what can often seem rather meager, propositionally, can still impart enormous significance, dispositionally, normatively justifying an eminently actionable way of living, existentially.

As we reflect on the

  • primal emptiness at the Father’s origination of the Trinity,
  • empty manger of the Advent at the Incarnation,
  • empty tomb of the Resurrection,
  • empty space of the Ascension
  • all now filled with the utter fullness of Pentecost …

Let us hope that, whenever we encounter that much beauty, that much goodness, that much unity & love, that much freedom, the Truth will, more likely than otherwise, at least, be nearby.

The kerygma doesn’t finally lend itself, propositionally & with complete definitions, to a competing tautology. It’s a category error to approach our Creeds, Scriptures & Traditions that way. It accommodates itself, rather, to a practical reasoning under speculative uncertainties, where successful references must suffice, commensurate with the Subjects on both Hands of the Father.

If we open ourselves, dispositionally, follow through, existentially, then our abductive propositional apprehensions will grow ever more comprehensive until our vision is Beatific.

Natural Theology & Natural Law -however otherwise weak, at least- defeat Nihilism

In science, faith & quotidian life, epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can normatively adjudicate any competing responses using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty.

The hermeneutical spiral, above, recapitulates Lonergan’s transcendental imperatives & functional specialties.


To wit:

De-liberatively, regarding our references, descriptively & interpretively, epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can adjudicate, normatively, any competing responses, using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty, evaluatively.

De-liberatively (cosmos & mythos – be free, be loving, be-loved per both temporal & ultimate teloi) …

regarding our references …

descriptively (logos or perceptionbe aware in research & communications) & …

interpretively (topos or understandingbe intelligent in interpretation & systematics) …

epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can adjudicate …

normatively (ethos or actingbe responsible in dialectics & foundations), any competing responses, using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty

evaluatively,(pathos or judging & decidingbe reasonable in history & doctrines).

I must stipulate with Hart & Milbank that any rivalry between ultimate worldviews, say nihilist vs theological, cannot be logically coerced. Reality remains far too ambiguous for us & way too ambivalent toward us to compel belief through speculative reason, alone.

With the Thomists, I would insist that, even stipulating that nihilism has not thus been refuted, philosophy well demonstrates the reasonableness of natural theology as an equiplausible competing worldview.

For me, Thomism’s reasonableness remains indispensable over against any thoroughgoing fideism, much less, nominalism, idealism, voluntarism or relativism.

I do not receive Milbank as coming from some Thoroughly [Post]Modern Millie, but, instead, take (eisegetically) his postmodern critique as an admonition to avoid the temptations of dueling hyper-formalisms in countering those insidious –isms.

This is to recognize that —

no essentialistic framing will finally foreclose nominalism, descriptively;

no naïve realism will convincingly defeat idealism, interpretively;

no intellectualistic speculation will logically overcome voluntarism, evaluatively;

no absolutistic insistence will compellingly obviate relativism, normatively; and

no rationalistic appeals will definitively refute fideism, existentially.

But what amount to epistemic misfires for some are but caricatures for others, whose

1) descriptive probes include semiotic & moderate critical realisms;

2) interpretive heuristics employ a metaphysical fallibilism;

3) evaluative dispositions engage an irreducible triad of logos-pathos-ethos, e.g. Aristotelian eudaimonia, Augustinian beatitudo or Thomist summum bonum;

4) normative propositions allow some degree of ethical pluralism grounded – not in an insidious relativism or vulgar pragmatism, but — suitable epistemic humility, metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism ; and

5) philosophical preambula vault fidei past the threshold of equiplausibility.

Thomism’s reasonableness thus gets vaulted philosophically past the threshold of equiplausibility by the valid & coherent arguments of natural theology & natural law. (And its deontological conclusions should be considered at least as modest as its ontological commitments are tentative). There, philosophy culminates in either the theological preambula fidei & its general precepts or a nihilistic cosmogony.

Any “competing” theological or nihilistic mythos would come after a normatively justified existential leap.

Past this threshold of epistemic warrant, speculative reason yields to practical reasoning under uncertainty. The speculative arguments between essentialism & nominalism, realism & idealism, intellectualism & voluntarism, absolutism & relativism and fideism & rationalism have previously been transcended by a fallibilist, critical realism.

Normative justifications commence and can lead either to the fideistic, voluntaristic dichotomy of a theological versus nihilistic mythos or to an existential disjunction, where rational equiplausibility principles, albeit often implicit, adjudicate a decision to “live as if” that which is (more so, perhaps, they who are) the most life-giving & relationship-enhancing, the most beautiful & good, the most unitive & liberative, will — first & proleptically, i.e. proximately & temporally, as well as eventually & eschatologically, i.e. ultimately & eternally — also happen to be the most true.

This constitutes meta-discourse, however inchoate or implicit, whether variously held provisionally or confidently, yes, prior to special revelations, and yes, on tradition-transcendent grounds. Importantly, this needn’t be formal discourse or what can sometimes devolve into sylly syllogisms, but more often, via our participatory imaginations, comes from our common sense & common sensibilities, from connaturality, an illative sense, a tacit dimension, intuitions & informal abductions.

The most problematical arguments of natural theology are rationalistically grounded in naïve rather than critical realisms. The most problematical arguments of the natural law are a prioristic, rationalistic, deductivistic, biologistic, physicalistic & infallibilistic, especially as they move from general precepts to specific concrete norms, particularly because of epistemic hubris and the lack of a more inductive, personalist relationality-responsibility approach. But the abuse of natural theology & natural law is no argument against their proper use.

The questions that beg?

What constitutes the most life-giving, existentially?

How do we define & measure the most relationship-enhancing? The most unitive, interpretively & orthocommunally?

Where’s the most beautiful instantiated, evaluatively & orthopathically?

And the most good realized, normatively & orthopraxically?

And the most liberative, metanoetically & orthotheotically?

These are not questions that yield to an armchair cognitive map-making but which must actively engage participative imaginations that are naturally embodied, historically situated, socially embedded, culturally bound, politically immersed & transcendentally horizoned.

Of course it’s incredibly problematical to apply our ortho-metrics to competing worldviews, precisely because their instantiations are so very particular & traditioned.

But I wouldn’t want to defend the notion that nihilism remains in that competition?

Finally, Between an overly pessimistic Augustinian interpretation & overly optimistic transcendental Thomism, perhaps a Goldilocks theological anthropology can be articulated:


Gelpi recognized both as donative realities – a gratuity of creation & gratuity of grace, the Spirit’s universal presence (e.g. nomicities) & particular presence, where Grace is mediated via transmuted experience, where, for example, Kerygma matter immensely.

This discussion continues here:

Where in the World is Sophia? —a Sophiological footnote

The created grace Gelpi refers to would be constituted by reality’s actualized potencies, eternalized teloi (both temporal & ultimate teloi) of Peircean thirdness, efficient materialities of secondness, connaturalized indeterminacies of firstness, existentialized essences, formalized finalities, participatory intimacizations eternalized, all temporal realities coaxed forth Pneumatologically, Christologically & Paterologically via Divine Energies as would account for effects as would be proper to no known causes.

Every trace of human goodness, for example, eternalized, i.e. every beginning of a smile & all wholesome trivialities!

Whether interpreted in Platonic, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, Thomist, Scotist, Palamitic or Peircean categories (and I cross hermeneutical bridges between them all), collectively & dynamically, these cumulative actualized potencies or eternally realized divine teloi may represent Sophia, who participates in the Divine Energies in a perichoretic Divine Dance.

In The Wisdom of God, Bulgakov spoke of two Sophias, one created and the other uncreated. She to whom I refer above would be the created Sophia in her participatedness. While I affirm the Divine Energies per a formal distinction, I must defer to others regarding the manner of viewing Sophia in Orthodoxy. And still wonder just how we might best account for ecstatic visions of Sophia.

See more re this theophany:


This body of work largely comprises my project, which I refer to as Pan-semio-entheism, because, as a systematic theology, while it is metaphysically realist, it prescinds from any given metaphysical root metaphor (substance, relational, process, experience, etc) to a phenomenological meta-heuristic.

See: Amos Yong With John Sobert Sylvest, “Reasons and Values of the Heart in a Pluralistic World: Toward a Contemplative Phenomenology for Interreligious Dialogue,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 20:2 (2010): 170-93

A Defense of Metaphysics: “To Be or Not To Be?” or “To E-Prime or Not?”

Some use E-Prime to eliminate the passive voice but, in so doing, will then write even more passive sentences.

Some nominalists might prescribe the exclusive use of E-prime in an attempt to do away with metaphysics, but that strategy sacrifices – not only common sense, but – probabilistic approaches like, ahem, natural science!

For example, when discussing modal realities, forms of the verb “to be” might better (sometimes even indispensably) express degrees of vagueness & convey meanings about various states of an entity & its dynamical causes (even apart from predication or identity), i.e. continuous & progressive aspects.

For modal realities, then, in both physics & metaphysics, successful references remain indispensable even when successful descriptions elude us. For example, effects as remain proper to no known causes (variously over/under-determined) can refer to putative entities.

Some essentialists might thus proscribe E-Prime.

Not so fast!

Those same indispensable aspects, which they aspire to preserve (continuous, progressive & vague) in their Aristotelian sense, can implicate some forms, entities & identities that are – not just static, but – dynamical, emergent & nonstrict.

If, as moderate realists, we properly evade the tensions as present between nominalism & essentialism, we can discover some deep resonances between Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomist, Scotist, Palamitic & Peircean approaches, particularly in the subtle distinctions they apply to formal realities.

For starters, they all recognize & affirm the formal as real ( even if variously). At a deeper level, they emphasize the centrality of becoming, whether metaphysically or theologically. Those stances, when taken together, will inevitably lead to other salient convergences, which I’ve addressed elsewhere.

This consideration of the rhetorical virtues & vices of E-Prime is not wholly unrelated to the old Kantian saw that one can’t take existence as a predicate of being. Of course we can, only it’s tautological. That doesn’t mean our proposition is necessarily untrue, only that we haven’t added new information to our system.

Tautologies, however, can have tremendous heuristic value, especially when associated with a host of other epistemic virtues, thereby enhancing our modeling power of reality.

This is to say, too, that not all tautologies are equally taut. When further associated with axiological virtues, even when not providing new information, they can foster deeper meanings.

When we thus prescind from the necessary to the probable in our phenomenology, bracketing the root metaphors of competing metaphysics, we resist a prioristic rushes to closure regarding reality’s indeterminacies.

Specifically, we refrain from a priori categorizing in/determinacies as necessarily derived from either a methodologically in/determinable reality, epistemologically, or a metaphysically in/determined reality, ontologically.

Also, in a plain vanilla emergentism, we eschew the distinctions between weak & strong emergence, strong & weak supervenience, because, on one extreme, they’re question begging, on the other, trivial.

So, rather than prove too much, say way more than we could possibly know, tell untellable stories, yet without ignoring ontological implications, we traffic in – not the metaphysically decisive, but – the ontologically suggestive.

One take-away is that any deontologies should be at least as modest as our ontologies are tentative.