Volume 6: Effing the Ineffable: Existential Mumblings at the Limits of Language


Our species is obsessed with trying to eff the ineffable—to limn the liminal, to conceive the inconceivable, to speak the unspeakable, to say the unsayable. This obsession shoots colorful threads through the tapestry of human language, and especially religious language. The primary aim of this book is to trace some of those threads. It’s one of the ways religious philosophers (philosophers of religion, philosophical theologians) eff the ineffable: they follow those linguistic threads, seeing where they lead and how they work their aesthetic and conceptual magic. I hope to do this in suitably colorful ways, with some emotion and fun. Serious religious philosophy need not be tedious!

Each chapter of the book traces a thread, or a cluster of related threads, seeking insight into the act of effing the ineffable, and into the ineffable itself. Each thread wraps around an existentially potent aspect of life, one loaded with spiritual significance for most human beings, regardless of their specific religious contexts. Dreaming, suffering, creating, slipping, balancing, eclipsing, loneliness, intensity, bliss: these are the life situations that drive religious questioning and inspire commitment to a spiritual outlook on life—sometimes even to a particular religious community.

When these situations are liminal and extreme, as they often are, they drive us to the very limits of language in search of ways to say what ultimately matters to us and to surface the ultimate reality submerged within those experientially rooted linguistic exertions. When those situations are mundane, language seems less stressed but entire language systems can invisibly work a kind of transformative magic in us, and in the groups navigating those systems with us. The language games of religion are astonishing! They are a lot more complex than most people—and even many religious philosophers—realize. This book will uncover that complexity, manifesting some of the hidden dynamics of religious language and revealing how symbol systems do some of what they do.

This collection of unusual essays demonstrates the various styles of religious philosophy (thought of as multidisciplinary inquiry, as articulated in the book by that name). It also explores the irony of apophaticism, as each essay attempts to say something about ultimacy, while also deconstructing the basis for the adequacy of such talk.

The primary aim of this book is to present philosophical insights into the profoundly spiritual character of human life. The secondary aim is to show that serious religious philosophy need not be tedious; it has a colorful side. Those who plow the trenches of religious philosophy know that this is partly why they love what they do, yet even they can forget from time to time.

Each chapter of the book is a self-standing philosophical essay on an existentially potent aspect of life that is loaded with spiritual significance, regardless of the religious context imagined. These are the sorts of issues that drive religious questioning and inspire commitment to a spiritual outlook on life and sometimes even to a particular religious community. They are features of human life widely shared across cultures and eras, even though the treatment they receive here betrays (and benefits from) the author’s training as a western religious philosopher reaching out to other religious and philosophical wisdom traditions. Most importantly, these essays show that there is room for emotion and for fun even in demanding religious philosophy.

Styles of inquiry in religious philosophy include the phenomenological, the comparative, the historical, the analytical, the theoretical, the literary, and the evaluative, as described in my Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion (State University of New York Press, 2010). Most of these styles are illustrated in the chapters of this book, sometimes combined in a single chapter. This serves as a reminder that religious philosophy is not stylistically monochrome. Indeed, religious philosophy needs to work in different styles and from different interpretative angles in order to develop a satisfying philosophical portrayal of the religious potency of the half-hidden depths of the human condition and of the natural environment within which we emerge.

In the scientific study of the world of nature, the relative simplicity of the subject matter allows a strong case to be made for a “best” interpretation at any given stage of scientific progress. This is not true in the philosophical study of the human condition. Human life is dense with meanings to the point of bursting apart at the seams. This superfluity of significance calls for creative and interactive engagement from numerous angles in order to surface the tangle of meanings. A unified philosophical account of the single best meaning in human life would be a disappointing empirical disaster in a way that the one best scientific account of protein expression from DNA would not be. Thus, there is reason to embrace the varied styles of religious philosophy even as we continue to expect that philosophical argumentation will sometimes eliminate certain interpretations as deficient, thereby drawing our attention to the superior interpretations.

The book presents three clusters of essays reflecting different traditions of philosophical theology. The first cluster (“Ultimacy Talk”) expresses the style and commitments of the American pragmatist tradition of philosophical theology, especially in its epistemic post-foundationalism, its thoroughgoing fallibilism, and its post-Kantian embrace of hypothetical comparative metaphysics. The second cluster (“Ultimacy Systems”) resonates most strongly with the analytical tradition of philosophical theology, with the focus on linguistic analysis and conceptual micro-moves. The third cluster (“Ultimacy Manifestations”) is truest to the continental tradition of philosophical theology, with the emphasis on phenomenology and indirect manifestation of ultimacy in liminal life situations.

I feel at home in all three traditions of philosophical theology. I have been trained in all three and never felt the need to choose one over the others. Holding them together in this way is my indirect testimony to the special virtues, as well as the peculiar limitations, typical of each tradition.

Distinctive Features

  • This book employs the wide diversity of types of religious philosophy, and engages a variety of traditions of religious philosophy, which is uncommon.
  • The book exhibits what religious philosophy can do when informed by the emerging fields of comparative theology and comparative philosophy.
  • The book is subversive, in that it conducts philosophical inquiries in ways that ignore or confound the conventions of traditional philosophy of religion.
  • The book is much more entertaining than most philosophy books, and the essays are sometimes quite moving.

Table of Contents



Part 1: Ultimacy Talk

The first three chapters focus on the linguistic techniques that arise when philosophical theologians try to speak as directly as possible about ultimate reality. This way of effing the ineffable is magnificently bold, intellectually questionable, and extraordinarily creative. I think it’s at its best when operating comparatively, which is how all three chapters proceed.

Chapter 1 on “Dreaming” is religious philosophy in a decidedly comparative and evaluative mode. This chapter argues that it is exceptionally difficult for human beings to feel attracted to, and properly to appreciate the theoretical virtues of, theories of ultimacy that keep anthropomorphic modeling impulses in check. Such theoretical discipline interferes with human dreaming. Nevertheless, there is a kind of disciplined inquiry that keeps anthropomorphic dreaming at bay and opens up mystical-theological vistas that I argue are truer to the nature of ultimate reality.

Chapter 2 on “Suffering” shows how comparative and theoretical styles of religious philosophy can be bent to an evaluative end. The essay uses the reality of suffering in nature as a source of selective pressure on ideas of ultimate reality. This approach is quite contrary to those theological strategies that defend or elaborate an existing idea of ultimacy, and it rather seeks to determine which of a wide range of ultimacy theories can best handle the selective pressure. I explain why I think that ground-of-being models of ultimate reality survive the ordeal in better shape than personalist models of ultimate reality, and also why I think there are no decisive knock-down arguments to be made here. The competitors in this comparative argument are all logically consistent and conceptually coherent; they differ only in the relative plausibility of their accounts of suffering.

Chapter 3 on “Creating” is an analysis of two idealized interpretations of the ultimate ontological basis of nature that traditional metaphysical analyses have not emphasized. The symmetric view pictures ultimate reality as morally neutral while replete with valuational possibilities, fundamentally indeterminate while abysmally fecund, and in balance with created reality. The asymmetric view is opposed on each of these characteristics. The contrast between symmetry and asymmetry is modeled on the meaning of symmetry-breaking in the mathematical analysis of the early universe within fundamental physics. This analogy is surprisingly useful for conceiving a dynamic process of symmetry-breaking in ontology. It’s a minimalist kind of theogony, in fact, and it indicates how symmetric and asymmetric perspectives on nature’s ontological ground can be causally and historically related to one another.

Part 2: Ultimacy Systems

The second cluster of three chapters (Part 2, “Ultimacy Systems”) meditates on systems of religious symbols. Here the thought is less on directly effing the ineffable and more on analyzing the way ordinary religious and theological symbol systems indirectly engage people with their ultimate concerns. All three essays in this cluster express wonder at the reflexive genius of religious symbol systems and document the techniques and strategies that spontaneously arise within them, as well as the seemingly magical social functions that those techniques and strategies facilitate.

Chapter 4 on “Slipping” exhibits religious philosophy in the analytical and comparative modes, using an informal kind of literary criticism as the main tool. The essay shows how the narrative device of a vanishingly small slip recurs in mythic narratives of several traditions and is used to deal with the problem of evil without attributing undue responsibility to any of the involved parties. I trace out the main existential and social functions of this way of effing the ineffable.

Chapter 5 on “Balancing” discusses techniques that spontaneously emerge within religious discourse systems for managing consonance and dissonance among religious symbols, and for trying to express what seems inexpressible. The focus is on systemic mechanisms for balancing personal and impersonal metaphors for ultimate reality. Here again, I describe the existential and social functions of such balancing techniques. This work is primarily religious philosophy in the analytical style with nods in the direction of the comparative and theoretical styles.

Chapter 6 on “Eclipsing” considers an entire symbol system rather than strategic mechanisms within a symbol system. The system in question is that associated with liberal theology and religion. Analyzing this system draws attention to a distinction between the brightly lit topsides of religious traditions that nurture and reform civilizational projects and their shady undersides that power the deconstruction of the human manufacture of social reality. I draw out the way liberal theology hints at the dark and fecund undersides of religion but perpetually fails to follow through in its articulation of this place of shady silence because of its implacable and commendable commitment to institutional maintenance. The irony here is familiar in other chapters of this book: speech about ineffable ultimacy often interferes with fully engaging ultimacy.

Part 3: Ultimacy Manifestations

The three essays in the final cluster (Part 3, “Ultimacy Manifestations”) are phenomenological in character. Each picks out a slice of life—loneliness, intensity, bliss—and describes how these liminal situations conjure ultimate reality in our experience and thereby engage us with it. The shared claim is that such liminal experiences manifest the character of ultimacy, so these are yet other ways to eff the ineffable.

Chapter 7 on “Loneliness” is a literary and philosophical exploration of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It explores the theme of loneliness as it bears on religious perceptions of ultimacy, arguing that the ability to experience unmediated and undeflected loneliness is a kind of virtue that we can both cultivate and encounter in the depth structures of reality. This is an authentic alternative to more “pleasant” depictions of reality as such, and it is readily available for spiritual exploration.

Chapter 8 on “Intensity” is a description of key qualities of intense experiences, and it illustrates religious philosophy in the phenomenological and analytical modes. The capacity for intensity is very likely an evolutionarily basic dimension of human experience and thus a primal aspect of religious behavior and belief. For understandable reasons, the presence and roles of intensity are often masked by the proprietary ritual and doctrinal organization of religious life, and thus intensity receives less attention than it should. Yet intensity marks the life experiences that we value most highly, that we describe with most difficulty, and that exercise the largest impact on our decisions and character. The spiritual potency of intensity is the axiological birthright of our species and no religious tradition, not even all religious traditions combined, corrals or controls it.

Chapter 9 on “Bliss” illustrates religious philosophy at the junction of the phenomenological and analytical modes. It depicts the emotionally multivalent, comprehension-defying, morality-transcending, language-stressing character of bliss when we encounter it unfiltered by buffering social conventions and handy psychological defenses. This has implications in two directions. On the one hand, it generates insights into the character of ultimacy itself, which is framed throughout the book as the apophatic mystical philosopher’s God beyond God. On the other hand, it unmasks the anthropomorphic, linguistically structured, existential and social coping strategies we deploy to protect ourselves from the full glory of ultimate reality as such.

The Treachery of Words (This Is Not a Conclusion)