God and the Limits of Thought: Zuidervaart on Hart

How does one think about God? That this question begins with a “how” and not a “what” is worth highlighting. Despite what is often a reasonable objection to the mixture of philosophy and Christianity, there is simply no denying that all religious persons have plenty of “whats” to posit about God—the question is how we get there. The problem is especially pertinent for Christians who study philosophy, which so often finds itself in the business of predicating particular “whats” to particular things, often (perhaps even usually) unfairly. The motivation for treating philosophy with suspicion when it comes to “God-talk” is understandable; Pascal’s famous commitment to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as distinctly opposed to the god of the philosophers has distinct merit, and is even heroic and admirable. Philosophy has time and again done its best to tame God and force God to become a victim of a theoretical Procrustean box, and as a Christian who has devoted considerable time and energy to understanding both my faith and philosophy I have to admit I find myself caught in this historical tension.

Hendrik Hart, in an appendix to his book Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology, attempts to deal with this problem as he articulates a Christian ontology. Though he treats traditional problems in ontology such as order, universality, individuality, etc., he suggests in the end that one cannot give a philosophical treatment of God. God, Hart suggests, transcends philosophical categories. Being the origin of all things, God is unable to be contained by argumentation (for or against his existence), as argumentation (logical or philosophical thought) thereby becomes something which God is subject to. Given God’s sovereignty, Hart throws up his philosophical hands in the end and suggests God can indeed be known, but only via confessional belief.

In contrast to this, Lambert Zuidervaart, in an essay entitled “Existence, Nomic Conditions, and God: Issues in Hendrik Hart’s Ontology,”* criticizes Hart for being too loose in his discussion of God and philosophy. Suggesting Hart presents a Kantian limit, placing God beyond the reachable realm of theoretical thought, Zuidervaart suggests with Hegel that such a move encourages thought to transcend its own limits. One is reminded, too, of the simple critique from Jacobi, that Kant’s suggestion that the noumenal cannot be known is itself a statement of knowledge about the noumenal. Zuidervaart further presses Hart’s analysis suggesting that all his efforts to limit philosophy’s talk of God are themselves philosophical, and thus the problem collapses on itself. Though Zuidervaart shares Hart’s anxieties about opening the doors to unbridled speculation about God (such as it has been for most of western philosophy’s history), he wonders (rightly) about the possibility that we ever escape speculation, and further what the implications for such a view would have for theological discourse. Perhaps most convincing, however, is Zuidervaart’s explanation that God does indeed reveal himself in understandable and certitudinal ways for human beings, such that we are able to trust and love God. In this way, perhaps God is subject to certain normative constraints (which are not necessarily negative) after all.**

I find myself situated uncomfortably between these two Reformational thinkers. On the one hand, Hart is undeniably correct when he chastises philosophy’s presumptions to contain God in a conceptual apparatus. Philosophy regularly attempts to diffuse God’s eruptive power by attempting to manage God via constructed systems. At the same time, Zuidervaart’s question as to whether or not this is avoidable is important. Though I find myself convinced by Zuidervaart’s critique, I cannot seem to shed my anxieties about philosophy’s nasty habit of colonizing religious belief. This is, of course, the limit which philosophy must think beyond, according to Zuidervaart–but I would prefer (and I think Zuidervaart would agree) to situate this limit ethically rather than epistemologically. In other words, predicating something about God (or, for that matter, almost anything else–consider Kierkegaard’s aphorism “Once you label me you negate me”) must be done recognizing an ethical limit, wherein one’s speculations are always relative to allowing God the space to overwhelm one’s conceptual categories. Thus speculation is affirmed as something unavoidable, but such speculation is done with fear and trembling.

*Philosophia Reformata. 50 (1985): 47-65.

**This notion is not without further critique in the Reformational tradition, perhaps most notably from Nik Ansell, who suggests starting with normativity, rather than a primordial and originary blessing, is problematic.

This entry was posted in G. W. F. Hegel, Hendrik Hart, Immanuel Kant, Institute for Christian Studies, Lambert Zuidervaart, Reformational Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to God and the Limits of Thought: Zuidervaart on Hart

  1. Josh says:


    You might be interested in objection 2 and Thomas’ reply.

  2. cratzlaff says:

    Great post a usual Dean. You have an uncanny ability to navigate reformational terrain.

    How would you suggest your final claim (regarding the ethical limit) is similar or different from deconstruction? Could deconstruction serve to describe how we speak of God, in the sense that although necessary, particular attempts to name a universal principle (God, justice, truth etc) are always overwhelmed by the universal principle they proclaim? For this reason, one might say that particular names always need to be given in fear and trembling.

    Perhaps one might object, pointing out that Derrida seems to want to posit a mutual dependency between the conditional act and the unconditional principle and therefore can’t be describing God talk. Such an objection is based on the assumption that God is completely autonomous. How would Thomas address this issue Josh?

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