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You can have an actual infinity outside the realm of possibility. You can locate a First Cause of infinite duration there. But “locate” must not be taken in the literal sense of the word. That First Cause, which, for the sake of convenience I’ll call God, cannot be located in space or time or, as it turns out, possibility. Even if God cannot be spatially or temporally located, however, He can be conceptually located. He can be conceptually located outside the realm of possibility. Now the “realm of possibility” sounds rather like a Disney Kingdom. But in truth it’s the most comprehensive logical category. The realm of possibility is broader than the physical world—that is, the totality of stuff—for it encompasses not only whatever is but also whatever can be. Indeed, the realm of possibility extends as far as the verb to be, as far as predicates attach to their subjects, as far as what’s possible can be distinguished what’s not possible.
The point is that an infinite accumulation of temporal units, an infinite accumulation of any sort, constitutes an actual infinity—which is not possible. It therefore cannot be since it would introduce an impossibility into the realm of possibility. However, there’s no need to locate (again, so to speak) this singular case of an actual infinity within the realm of possibility. If we locate the Cause of the world outside the realm of possibility, that Cause becomes the Impossibility that accounts for possibility, the Nothing by which and out of which all things emerged.
Nothing, as in no thing.
However, to recognize (another inconvenient word) the Cause of the world as a logical impossibility, or rather to absent Him from the realm of possibility, is also to detach Him from rational language. We cannot speak of an actual infinity as if it were bound by the laws of thought. Actual infinity by definition defies the laws of thought. It is impossible. If the realm of possibility includes whatever is or can be, impossibility includes only whatever is not and cannot be. The latter qualification, that which “cannot be,” is crucial. Impossibility consists entirely of non-being, of the impossible reconciliation of contradictories. Impossibility, in short, consists of nothing.
Here, then, is what atheism got right: God is nothing.
That is, God is no thing in the narrow sense that “thing-ness,” the starting point of every rationally meaningful statement, and the baseline quality of existence, cannot be stipulated of Him. So He must be conceived as inconceivable. Posited as impossible. God, in short, does not exist. That which is no thing is not and cannot be. The realm of possibility excludes nothing—literally. Nothing is beyond the laws of thought, which circumscribe possibility, and which are invoked in every assertion or denial. Thus: God.
But without the law of non-contradiction, you cannot make true (or untrue) statements about God; they have no logical traction. You can neither assert nor deny. This was the insight that Cusa intuited but did not, and perhaps could not, confront. If I assert that God is just, I must also deny that God is unjust—or else the initial assertion was empty. But once a subject has been absented from the realm of possibility, any assertion can be simultaneously denied; whatever God is, He is not. Just and unjust. Loving and unloving. Eternal and not eternal, since God’s eternality is reconcilable with its logical contradiction. God, in essence, can “be” both eternal and not eternal at once—which effectively voids the initial assertion that He is eternal. Whatever is said is simultaneously unsaid. That “is” (and even the word is here must be qualified) the nature of the non-being that precedes being, the Nothing or Nihil that caused the world.
Here, then, is what atheism got wrong: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
That is, the first line of Genesis can be deduced from the laws
of thought. The world cannot be infinitely old; therefore, it must
have come into existence at a definite point in the past. The world
cannot have come into existence without a cause; therefore, it
requires an infinite Cause to account for its existence. But an
actual infinity violates the laws of thought and cannot exist;
therefore, even though God does not exist, God created the
Wrestle, for a moment, with that paradox: God does not exist . . . and God created the world. The two propositions seem irreconcilable; indeed, they seem mutually exclusive. But each one is dead certain, as dead certain as the laws of thought themselves.
It is a paradox that tells us as much about the limits of human reason and rational language as it does about God. Just as a sentient stone is not a thing because its definition asserts what it denies, so too God, absented from the realm of possibility, is not a thing. God's nothingness would permit the simultaneous assertion and denial of any predicate—for example, His “omniscient ignorance” or “omnipotent powerlessness” or “omnipresent absence.”
That doesn’t mean that thinking and talking about God, as human beings have been doing for millennia, is pointless. It’s just not logically binding. Reason must continue to regard God as a thing—though, again, thing-ness supposes possibility. As Aquinas himself notes, in the relationship between being and non-being, human reason “apprehends non-being as an extreme.” That’s another way of saying that the mind attributes being to non-being (or, if you prefer, thing-ness to nothingness) in the process of thinking and talking about it; we superimpose possibility on impossibility. Logically, this is illegitimate. Practically, it’s unavoidable. The instant we begin to speak about God, the instant the word “is” enters the discussion, we engage absurdities. Assertions blur into their own denials. Whatever God is, He isn’t. The verb “to be” has been stretched too far.
That isn’t where theology ends, of course.
But it is where rational theology ends.
Mark Goldblatt teaches religious history at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. His latest novel, Sloth, was published by Greenpoint Press last year.