D. Stephen Long. Speaking of God: Theology, Language, and Truth. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009. 352 pages.$21.12 paperback. Click on the image to purchase Speaking of God from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
Modern philosophers and historians were convinced of the death of metaphysics; they buried questions of existence and being deep in the grave. But according to D. Stephen Long, author of Speaking of God, even their proofs for this death borrowed from clear metaphysical assumptions, and so Long is neither surprised by the resurgence of metaphysics nor unprepared to explore its many relationships with other disciplines, particularly language, philosophy, theology, and politics. In Speaking of God, Long has fashioned a refreshing examination of these subject matters, specifically addressing reason and faith, philosophy and theology, power and truth, and metaphysics and politics. He pursues questions of reason and faith, and then, in the face of a hermeneutics of pure negation and a flat metaphysics, he argues for a richer, deeper Christian life, a flourishing life nourished by the search for truth.
To better understand this work, it is necessary to understand Long’s overall project. He happily identifies himself as a generalist, as someone who curiously explores the connective links between specialties. This broad focus and desire for cohesion is evident in Speaking of God, where he not only seeks to bridge the gap between disciplines, but also attempts to find connections within his own work. As Long notes in his introduction, the book is meant to ground his previous work. Thus, if one has read The Divine Economy or The Goodness of God, this book may answer those questions that were initially left unanswered. Thankfully, the prose is readable, considering the topics at hand. In fact, in some ways, this book could serve as a semi-introduction to the relationships between metaphysics, language, and politics through theology. Readers may at times feel lost in the details, but despite its generalist vision and the sprawling nature of any discussion of God-talk and its implications, Long has largely shown restraint and focus while making his arguments. The daunting nature of the book arises not because of his writing, but because of his intense focus on the relationship between reason and faith.
The book begins by identifying and responding to four Modernist ills and arguing against the polarizing extremes of fideism and rationalism. To construct what he believes to be the proper relationship between faith and reason, Long draws heavily upon Aquinas’s five ways and theology of the divine names. He then justifies his understanding of the language/metaphysics relationship by showing how Wittgenstein, Aquinas, and Charles Taylor all more than allow—they perhaps even demand—God talk. The last move of the book relates language to truth. Because for Long, politics is the actualization of metaphysics, this discussion culminates in an examination of the political implications of his views and a fitting meditation on Pilate’s political and metaphysical question to the Incarnation: quod est veritas?
Chapter one identifies four problematic characteristics in the modernist project: fideism, which he suggests is the result of liberalism’s bracketing and marginalizing of religion; projectionism, in which Luther’s Christology opens the way for Feuerbach’s definition of religion; ontotheology, where poor God-talk results in theological narcissism; and an improper understanding of analogia entis. For Long, a rehabilitation of the analogia entis provokes the crucial question: how does Christ relate to the world, and specifically, natural theology?
Chapter two takes up the question of faith and reason. The chapter begins by discussing the relationship between philosophy and theology. Long illustrates that when theology, or God talk, is rightly done, philosophy, or seeking wisdom, is properly situated within theology. More specifically, he finds within de Lubac, Milbank, Hauerwas, Preller, Barth, John Paul II, and others, that the hypostatic union “provides the means to relate faith and reason, theology and philosophy.” After noting the Incarnation as a hermeneutical map, Long attempts to set the boundaries for faith and reason: the answer to the ills in modernism lies between a Barthian fideism and a neoscholastic rationalism. The answer that Long finds to Barthian fideism is in Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures, where Hauerwas names Barth a natural theologian—Hauerwas suggests that because nature cannot be divorced from God or self-determined, it always points to Christ and God as creator and is therefore linked with Christology. Long finds further support for this view in von Balthasar, who asserts that when natural theology separates potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, something has gone very wrong. At the other polarity, the neoscholastic rationalism of de Lubac and Denys Turner, Long shows that reason situated within faith reveals the inadequacy of “pure” reason. Then, with the help of Aquinas and the criticism of Victor Preller, he discusses the formal and material characteristics of faith and reason; using their explication of faith’s first statement—God exists, which is then to say, God is triune—he moves beyond Feuerbach’s projectionist God and reasserts the Christo-natural theological talk of God.
Chapter three is Long’s constructive theological section in which he explores the interplay of metaphysics and God-talk by combining Aquinas’s five ways—his proofs of God’s existence, which are not actually proofs—with the tradition of the divine names, in which God is known as Simple, Perfect, Infinite, Eternal, Impassible, and Unchangeable. Long describes the tradition around the divine names, including how Aquinas appropriated such a tradition, how the five ways have been understood by contemporary theologians, and how von Rad and Harnack failed to rightly understand the divine names and therefore improperly evaluated and rejected metaphysics. Long concludes the third chapter by examining Rudi te Velde’s proclamation of a rift between Aquinas and Wittgenstein.
Chapter four then attempts to correct two of the modern problems—ontotheology and a poorly done analogia entis—by way of an alliance between Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Primary to Long’s reading of Wittgenstein is the distinction between metaphysics and metaphysical use: Wittgenstein opposed questions “constructed out of pure air” because “Wittgenstein reestablished proper limits to philosophy by teaching us to ask whether language could be used in everyday life to question what the philosophers sought to question.” For Long, Wittgenstein supports metaphysics but not the problematic use of metaphysics. Contrary to David Bentley Hart’s distain for the analytics and R. R. Reno’s suspicion of the continentals, Long uses David Pears’s and Charles Taylor’s readings of Wittgenstein to suggest value in both analytic and continental philosophy and to align Wittgenstein and Aquinas. He shows how the divine names function as surface grammar, among other things, and as part of an expressivist metaphysics that speaks of God. The bringing together of Wittgenstein and Aquinas also allows for a methodology other than nominalism. Against Hobbes, Locke, (partially) Hart, and (strongly) Richard Rorty, Long notes the poverty of a nominalist metaphysic—simply negation—and introduces the next chapter and overarching point of the book by suggesting that truth is best understood within the phrase: the way, the truth, and the life.
Chapter five, which is concerned with truth and making positive contributions to life rather than pure negation, first notes the political character of truth. Addressing both “the politics of truth” and “the truth of politics,” Long shows truth as determinative of power and politics, rather than truth made servant to authoritarian force, and thereby exposes the flaws in Jeffery Stout’s pragmatic account of truth. For the curious, it is here where Long addresses Stout’s critique of Hauerwas. For Long, pragmatism not only has a fatal difficulty with truth, but because of its introduction of the scientific method into theology (i.e., scientism), it also gives way to fallibilism. The rest of the chapter—Long’s answer to the previously named modernist ills—meditates on the way, the truth, and the life. Long uses the Incarnation and the Marian response in the Magnificant as a gateway to describing the characteristics of truth: gift, acceptance, participation, love, public or universal, accessible, active, et cetera. But truth is not alone; in the phrase, it is nestled between the way and the life. Long is very specific; the order to the list is important: “Following the way comes before discerning the truth, which culminates in life. But we cannot follow the way without a commitment to pursue truth. We cannot walk away from it. Truth both presupposes and emerges from a ‘form of life,’ as Wittgenstein would put it, or from the activity of the human intellect ‘composing, dividing,’ and forming ‘quidditates,’ or definitions of things, as Thomas presented it.” It is with this understanding of truth that Long finishes the book by examining the cryptic, or controlling, question of Pilate to Jesus: “What is truth?”
In the course of reading Speaking of God, readers may notice that some connections are not made satisfactorily. One wonders, for example, why in a work on one of the three transcendentals (truth) preceded by a work on another of the transcendentals (goodness), the third transcendental (beauty) seems largely absent. Long provides beauty some space near the very end of the book, but stronger connections between truth and beauty, especially in a work that pulls so much from von Balthasar (although never touching on the Christ-form), would have been helpful. Long has plans to finish his trilogy on the transcendentals, but we will have to wait a long time before hearing more about beauty.
The second problem one encounters is Long’s limited treatment of the Incarnation. Long provides an excellent account of Mary in relation to the Incarnation and briefly speaks of the Incarnation as the model for the relationship between reason and faith, yet while he intimates a variety of implications, he largely leaves the interpretation of the Incarnation to the reader. Why not devote more time? The book would have fared better with a section devoted to the Incarnation, not only because it would have served as an explicit Christological grounding for the divine names, but also because it also would have acted as a sort of speech-act within the manuscript, actually doing what Long desires for the relationship between philosophy and theology. The Incarnation is, after all, a public truth that speaks beyond our context; quite literally, if the book is right, the Incarnation is metaphysics embodied. In short, Long’s work on the Incarnation is tantalizing, but leaves us unsatisfied, waiting expectantly for a future book to explore the Incarnation in more depth—and we may be in luck, Long has plans for a future book on the Incarnation, but it isn’t yet next on his list.
Lastly, many questions surround Long’s use of the divine names. It is not that his account is false, nor that his use of the divine names is inconsistent throughout the book; it is that there seems to be no clear answer to the question: “So what?” If Long is right in his assertion that metaphysics is so intricately and immediately tied to politics, how do the divine names function politically? Clearly, they constitute a metaphysics and relate to the Incarnation, helping us to address the question of natural theology, among other things, but is that all?
In conclusion, Speaking of God is an incredibly helpful read; it is a book of which I am skeptically appreciative. And although it may dissatisfy us with several of its undeveloped implications, it is convincing in its primary aim, which is to make readers of theology take metaphysics more seriously. This is especially an important work for readers interested in metaphysics, language, theology, and politics. And one thing is certain, the seemingly myriad critiques of contemporary postliberalism must now go through this work. But, however, the book goes beyond the boundaries of an apologetic for postliberalism. Indeed, if Long is right about the return to metaphysics and about the close link between metaphysics and politics, this book will be vital for much of contemporary theology, and as such it merits a wide reading.
1. D. Stephen Long, Speaking of God: Theology, Language, and Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 83.
2. Ibid., 92.
3. Ibid., 217.
4. Ibid., 323.
5. Ibid., 226.