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Speaking the Incomprehensible God [Paperback]

Gregory P. Rocca

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Book Description

15 Feb 2009
How can the Church speak of the God who transcends all thought and speech? This book is a comprehensive retrieval of Thomas Aquinas's theological epistemology of the divine names, which is his profound contribution to that perennial question. His theology of the divine names is a rich and complex tapestry that weaves together the twin themes of negative and positive theology. Tempering any extreme agnosticism, Aquinas sets out a multi-layered negative theology respectful of God's incomprehensibility, while he also proposes a view of theological analogy that places it at the heart of his positive theology. Finally, he grounds his epistemology in the fundamental theological truth that God is the infinitely perfect and self-subsistent Creator.
Gregory Rocca's nuanced discussion prevents Aquinas's thought from being capsulized in familiar slogans and is an antidote to unilateralist or monochrome views about God-talk. Rocca laces Aquinas's negative and positive theology together, because only that intertwining can do justice to the mystery of God. This study finds that, contrary to the views of some, Aquinas's analogy is more a matter of judgment and truth than of concept and meaning; despite his own presuppositions, Aquinas bases his theological analogy more on the insights of faith than those of reason.
Aquinas's theology of the divine names encourages contemporary dialogue to keep the tensioned truth of God in view and to remember that only a fruitful interplay of positive and negative theology can do justice to the Elusive One who evades our linguistic capture and yet desires to be acknowledged and worshiped as Creator and Sustainer. The book will prove helpful to specialists inAquinas and to others who are interested in the God-talk dialogue and can profit from an in-depth retrieval of Aquinas.
Gregory P. Rocca, O.P., is Professor of Philosophy and Theology and currently President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

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"GREGORY ROCCA'S BOOK is a uniquely valuable contribution to the literature of Thomism. It is at present the most complete and careful coverage we have of St. Thomas's position on how we can speak intelligibly, philosophically, about God.... The author has the balance between positive and negative theology in St. Thomas exactly right.... In a very rich and eloquent conclusion the author sums up what he considers the unique contribution of St. Thomas: namely, his carefully balanced interweaving of positive and negative theology that reveals 'the tensioned structure of any truth about God' (a beautifully terse and insightful phrase!)." - The Thomist"

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Since Aquinas' chief source for his understanding of negative theology and God's incomprehensibility in the Christian tradition is indisputably Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite-with John Damascene playing a supporting role-and since these two writers, as well as the earlier authors that paved the way for them, both Christian and non-Christian, come largely from the Hellenistic world on the border between East and West, it is important to become familiar with the terminology and traits of that world's understanding of God's incomprehensibility and negative theology. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magisterial achievement 4 Jun 2005
By Philip Blosser - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The question addressed in this magisterial volume is: "How can we speak of God, who transcends all human thought and speech?" In this remarkably well-written book, Rocca, a Dominican philosopher at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, gives us a comprehensive retrieval of Aquinas' answer to this question. No comparable work demonstrates such a complete mastery of Aquinas' writings and of the secondary literature on the subject. Although Aquinas's theological epistemology has often been read in ways that detach it from its properly theological moorings, Rocca avoids this pitfall. Through careful exegesis, he shows how Aquinas tempers the agnosticism of his negative theology, respectful of God's incomprehensibility, with his positive theology of analogical judgments about God, grounded in the theological truth of God's infinite perfection as self-subsistent Creator. Responding to those, such as Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg, who reject Aquinas' theory of analogy on the ground that it allegedly assumes a tacit univocity of conceptual meaning (a view stemming from Scotus and Cajetan), Rocca argues that analogy is more a matter of judgment and truth than concept and meaning, and that Aquinas bases his theological analogy more on the insights of faith than those of reason alone. If you want a masterful review of Aquinas' theological epistemology, get this book.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable study on the theological language of Aquinas 24 Feb 2007
By Greg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A recurring problem in the Philosophy of Religion is how do we talk about God or Transcendant Reality? If God/Transcendant Reality are ineffable, incomprehensible and unknowable as they are in their own essence, how is it possible to talk about God at all? After all, don't holy scriptures often liken God to a human being with a body and emotions and a mind that changes? Doesn't this make religious belief (as atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Bertrand Russell have argued) nonsensical and meaningless?

Aquinas considered these sorts of questions in great depth and subtlety. Rocca, a Dominican with a Doctorate in Philosophy, outlines how Aquinas believed it was possible to talk about God in a way that made sense, without compromising God's mystery and inscrutability. The most interesting sections of the book deal with Aquinas's apophatic theology (which traditionally has been neglected by philosophers examining the God question) and also how we can apply concepts and language in discussing God and his attributes and our relations to us.

This book is a must read for any theologian or philosopher of religion interested in how humans can talk meaningfully and clearly about God in an age when members of religions are often faced with biting criticisms from skeptics and atheists, who often have very brilliant arguments and minds.
3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars very impressive 3 Dec 2006
By theskeptic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I just started this book, and it appears to be a genuine scholarly tour-de-force. This is not a layperson's book, but it may just be the most complete book on the subject of the Unknowable God in the Christian tradition. The footnotes thick and frequent. Just in the introduction, I already leaned quite a bit about the origins of this concept in Greek and early Christian thought. I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.

I am somewhat bothered that there appears to be no mention of Maimonides, (at least his name is omitted from the Index). I realize that this book is written by a Christian clergyman about the Christian conception of God, but is it really possible to completely avoid even a comparison with the negative theology of Maimonides, who worked just a generation prior to Aquinas? This perplexes me, since the author did devote some (minimal) space to Philo. I hope it's not the usual case of neglecting the "primitive theology" of the Jews, because, frankly, I don't think Maimonides or Gersonides are any more primitive than Aquinas. Hopefully this is not the reason.
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