“Theos” as Conceptual Idol? (a 3-fold response)

This little essay, a practice exercise for my upcoming PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy & theology geeks, and for them alone!

For at least four decades now, one strain or type of “postmodern” theologian (such as Jack Caputo) has been arguing, following Martin Heidegger, that any purported conception of God, but especially any used by the (western) metaphysical tradition, are inherently idolatrous. In this regard, Caputo is also channeling the spirit of his friend Jacques Derrida (d. 2004), insofar as both the Gentile Catholic Caputo and the Jewish Derrida root their critiques in an allegedly biblical “idoloclasm.”

As I see it, there are three valid responses to this criticism, which show that our intellectual conceptions of God are not necessarily idolatrous.

  1. First one can argue that the best renditions of philosophico-theological accounts of God proceed on the basis of a kind of Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism. That is, when thinkers from Augustine to Thomas (and one could possibly throw Aristotle into this list, albeit anachronistically, perhaps) develop their accounts of God in a philosophical or theological register, they are essentially saying what God is not. They are making denials about God. For example, with regard to the Aristotelian (and neoplatonist) point that God is “pure act,” one could argue that this is really another way of saying that God does not at all admit of any kind of potentiality, including and especially the potentiality of materiality.
  2. Second one could appeal to biblical revelation, which does two relevant things. First, it claims that God is being or “has” being (Exodus 3:15, inter alia), a claim which then gives license to the interpreter to imagine God, to describe God, to think God (conceptually). Second, though, Scripture itself develops multiple images of God which no one, not even the most hard core iconoclast, has regarded as idolatrous. Examples: God as a pillar of fire in the Old Testament; God as a dove descending on Jesus in the New Testament. I suppose one could even place Christ himself in this context: the incarnation establishes a new economy of images.
  3. Third one can appeal Thomas Aquinas’ the logic of divine naming, which he includes in his “Five Ways” in Summa Theologiae (prima pars, Question II). On this view, God’s naming works such that even terms or concepts such as “first mover” or “first cause” do actually refer to God. This position is ably represented by Denis Turner, for example here. (That Thomas thinks this, it seems to me, indicates something inscrutably profound about his thinking about God. Somehow, God is accessible both to natural human reason and to divinely bequeathed faith.)

In conclusion, however, one should also respond to this Derridian / Heideggerian point with salutary gratitude. Idolatry, for anyone purporting to stand within a biblical or theological tradition, is a real thing, and a pernicious problem. One must repent; one must be on guard. And yet, on the basis of the three responses above, I think we can legitimately disagree with Caputo / Derrida / Heidegger.