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Thomas International Center
November 2006


Ralph McInerny


Learned Ignorance



The fact that we need a plurality of divine names is one sign of the imperfect way we know God. Of course any creature has many names as well, but apart from his proper name, these dub him from some perfection he shares in, participates in. But of God we not only say that He is just, but that He is justice, and so with wise and wisdom, good and goodness, and the other affirmative names. For such names do affirm things of God; they tell us something true about Him.

Negative theology is much in vogue at the present, sometimes taking its cue from St. Thomas's remark that in the end we know what God is not rather than what he is. Is this tantamount to the statement that we know nothing of God? Hardly. It refers to our way of knowing Him, which is inadequate and imperfect but, for all that, knowledge of Him. The perfections attributed to God are found first in creatures, but such created perfections truly indicate their causal source. Omne agens agit sibi simile.  It would be odd to suggest that the whole purpose of our having a mind is ultimately thwarted, if only in this life.

Students of Thomas will find a fine feast of a book in Thierry-Dominique Humbrecht's Théologie négative et noms divins chez saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris: Vrin, 2006). It would be too much, or too little, to say of this magnificent book that it turns on the truism that any negation presupposes an affirmation. We do well to acknowledge the vastly imperfect way in which we know God, but it seems a species of false humility - and perhaps a want of pietas - to say that the one who revealed himself in Jesus as well as in the world around us is wholly unknown to us.

Kierkegaard's Johannes Climacus held that the human mind desires its own downfall, seeking an object it cannot think, the absolute unknown. It seems better to say that the human mind seeks an object that will completely assuage its desire, Truth itself. Meanwhile our knowledge of God, however imperfect, is indeed knowledge of Him. Call it a learned ignorance, an imperfect knowledge, but let us not let the negative mode obscure the fact that in knowing that God is wise, for example, we know something real of Him. Nor let us think of Him as a coincidentia oppositorum, as if He were a bundle of incompatible attributes. Hence the magnificent quasi-proper name of God: Ipsum Esse Subsistens.


Ralph McInerny