God and Grammar – Giorgio Agamben

The link between grammar and theology is so strong in medieval thought that the treatment of the problem of the Supreme Being cannot be understood without reference to grammatical categories. In this sense, despite the occasional polemics of theologians opposed to the application of grammatical methods to sacred scripture (Donatum non sequimur), theological thought is also grammatical thought, and the God of the theologians is also the God of the grammarians.

This has its greatest effect on the problem regarding the name of God, or, more generally, on what the theologians define as the “translation of the parts of speech of God.”

As we have seen, the grammarians suppose that the noun signifies substantiam – cum qualitate, that is, the essence determined according to a certain quality. What happens – the theologians ask themselves – when a noun must be transferred to designate the divine essence, pure being? And what is the name of God, that is, of he who is his very being?

In the Regulae theologicae of Alain de Lille, whenever a noun is used to predicate the divine substance it is transformed into a pronoun, and it becomes formless:

[Rule XVII: Every noun, given by the form, said by the form, falls away from the form.

Since every noun following first institution has been given by property or form…when it is translated to signify the divine form, it falls away from the form from which it was given. And thus in some way it becomes formless. A noun is transferred into a pronoun when it signifies the divine. It signifies pure substance and when it seems to signify its own form or quality it does not signify that, but rather signifies divine form, i.e., the just and good God.]

The noun – referring to the divine substance and “most formal form” – falls away from meaning and ceases to signify, or rather, it is transformed into a pronoun (that is, it passes from signification to indication). Similarly, if the pronoun is used to predicate God, it “falls away from indication”:

[Rule XXXVI: Whenever a demonstrative pronoun refers to God, it falls away from demonstration.

Every demonstration refers either to the senses or the intellect, but God cannot be comprehended by the senses because he is incorporeal, nor can he be comprehended by the intellect because he lacks form. We have understood more of what is not than of what is.]

Nevertheless, the ostensive function of the pronoun is maintained here through recourse to that particular experience of the word that is faith, conceived as the place of an indication that is neither sensible nor intellectual.

It is important to observe that faith is defined here as a particular dimension of meaning, a particular “grammar” of the demonstrative pronoun, whose ostensive realization no longer refers to the senses or the intellect, but to an experience that takes place solely in the instance of discourse as such.

Referring to the biblical passage (Exod. 3:13) in which God, urged by Moses to reveal his name, answers, “sic dices eis: qui est misit me ad vos,” the theologians define the noun qui est, formed from a pronoun and the verb “to be,” as the most congruous and “absolute” name of God. In a decisive passage, Saint Thomas defines the field of meaning of this name as that in which no determinate being is named, but, paraphrasing an expression of Saint John of Damascus, is simply known as “the infinite and indeterminate sea of substance”:

[In the fourth place, one must say that the other names say being according to some other determination; thus, the word “wise” names some certain being; but this name “who is” says absolute and nondeterminate being by means of some other added specification; hence, Saint John of Damascus says that this does not signify what is God (the “what is” of God), but rather, in some way, the infinite and almost indeterminate sea of substance. Therefore, when we proceed in God by means of the path of negation, e first negate from him the names and the other corporeal attributes; second, we also negate the intellectual attributes, with respect to the mode in which they are found in creatures, such as goodness and wisdom; and so what remains in our intellect is only the fact that God is, and nothing else: and this remains in some confusion. Finally, however, we take away from God also this being itself, insofar as it pertains to creatures and thus remains in the shadows of ignorance; by means of this ignorance, as far as earthly existence is concerned, we unite with God very well, as Dionysus says. And this is that certain shadowy realm said to be inhabited by God.]

In the final lines of this passage, even the most universal field of meaning for the name qui est is cast aside. Even the indeterminate being is removed to make room for the pure negativity of “a shadowy realm said to be inhabited by God.” The dimension of meaning at stake here goes beyond the vagueness normally attributed to mystical theology (which is on the contrary, a particular but perfectly coherent grammar). In order to understand this, we must take into account the fact that, at this extreme fringe of ontological thought where the taking-place of being is grasped as shadow, Christian theological reflection incorporates Hebrew mystical notions of the nomen tetragrammaton, the secret and unpronounceable name of God.

In Hebrew as in other Semitic languages, only the consonants were written down, and so the name of God was transcribed in the tetragram IHVH (yod, he, vav, he). We do not know the vowels that were used in the pronunciation of this name, because, at least during the last centuries of their existence as a nation, the Israelites were rigorously forbidden to  pronounce the name of God. For rituals the name Adonai, or Lord, was used, even before the translation of the Seventy, which always refers to Kyrios, the Lord. When the Masoretes introduced vowels into writing during the sixth century, the vowels of the name Adonai were added to the tetragram in place of the original vowels, which were already obscure (and so for Renaissance Hebraicists, the tetragram assumed the form of Jehova, with a softening of the first “a”).

According to ancient mystical interpretation – already recorded in Meister Eckhart – the four-letter name was identified with the name qui est (or qui sum):

[Once again…we should note what Rabbi Moses said regarding this word: I am who I am seems to be what the four-letter name means, or something like that, which is sacred and separate which is written and not spoken and that thing alone signifies the pure and naked substance of the creator.]

That which is construed as the supreme mystical experience of being and as the perfect name of God (the “grammar” of the verb to be that is at stake in mystical theology) is the experience of the meaning of the gramma itself, of the letter as the negation and exclusion of voice (nomen innominabile, “which is written but not read”). As the unnameable name of God, the gramma is the final and negative dimension of meaning, no longer an experience of language but language itself, that is, its taking place in the removal of the voice. There is, thus, even a “grammar” of the ineffable; or, rather, the ineffable is simply the dimension of meaning of the gramma, of the letter as the ultimate negative foundation of human discourse.


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2 Responses to God and Grammar – Giorgio Agamben

  1. Brian K. says:

    God as oikonomohegemonologotheos. Makes sense.

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