Hartian Illuminations: Transcendence Beyond Negation and the Analogy of Being

In this series of “illuminations” I will be citing passages that I have found particularly instructive from the essays collected in The Hidden and the Manifest, followed by a question or brief comment. I hope they will generate good discussion.

“I regard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist,” Karl Barth famously pronounced in 1932, “and I believe that because of it it is impossible ever to become a Roman Catholic, all other reasons for not doing so being to my mind shortsighted and trivial” (Church Dogmatics I/1). David Bentley Hart, however, believes that Barth has misunderstood the point of the analogy of being and has sought in his writings to retrieve it from the metaphysical abyss into which Protestant (as well as some Orthodox)  theologians have cast it. So what is the point of this controversial teaching?

At its most elementary, what [Erich] Przywara calls the analogia entis is simply the scrupulous and necessary rejection of two opposed errors, each the mirror inversion of the other: the equally reductive and equally “metaphysical” alternatives of pure identity and pure dialectic. For neither approach to the mystery of God—neither the discourse of God as the absolute One nor the discourse of God as the absolute “Wholly Other”—can by itself truly express the logic of divine transcendence; both resolve the interval between God and creation into a kind of pure and neutral equivalence, somehow more original and comprehensive than that difference, and so more original and comprehensive than God in himself as God (though this is perhaps easier to see in the case of the metaphysics of identity).

As Przywara understands the analogy, it is first and foremost an affirmation that creation comes about ex nihilo, and that God therefore is not merely some “supreme being,” but is at once utterly transcendent of all beings and also the only source of all beings. Thus the analogy presumes what no self-sufficient and perfectly systematic metaphysics could ever properly admit into its speculations: the radical contingency and nonnecessity of the created order. One cannot begin to understand the principle of the analogia entis unless one first grasps that, before all else, it is the delightful and terrible principle of the creature’s utter groundlessness; it is the realization that we possess no essence, no being, no foundation that is not always, in every moment, imparted to us from beyond ourselves, and that does not therefore always exceed everything that we are in any moment of our existence. Or, said differently, essence and existence never coincide in us as they do in God, but subsist, from our perspective, only in an altogether fortuitous synthesis, and are given to us at once, separately and together, in a movement of purest gratuity, from a transcendent source upon which we have no “natural” claim. Thus the sheer dynamism of creaturely existence … can never be resolved into the stability of any ground of identity belonging to us; only in him do we live, and move, and have our being. … Before all else, one must grasp that, for Przywara, the ontological analogy does not treat “being” as some genus under which God and the creature—of the infinite and the finite—are placed as distinct instances. Quite the reverse, in fact: it is precisely being that is to be understood as analogous; and it is precisely any univocal concept of being—any notion that God and creatures alike are “beings” comprehended by “being as such”—that the analogia entis, as a principle, denies. The proper proportion of the analogy, after all, is that of the maior dissimilitudo (or as Przwara would prefer, the semper maior dissimilitudo) that separates God from any creature. So, transcendence is God, one might say, that even being—that barest, most basic, most primordial of attributions—is only analogous between him and his creation….

Nevertheless—and this touches upon the other “false path” to transcendence—the being of the creature must indeed be analogous to God’s pure act of being; otherwise, all talk of God would be confined within an arid dialectical theology of the “Wholly Other” so extreme as to posit—even if only tacitly—a logically absurd equivocity of being. Absolute otherness is not transcendence, but merely a kind of “negative immanence”; for true transcendence must be beyond all negation. If creation were somehow something simply “outside of” or “other than” God, like one object outside another, then logically one would have to say that there is something more than—something in addition to—God; God, thus conceived within whatever wider abstract category is capacious enough to contain both him and his creatures under its canopy, without confusing their several essences (and inevitably that category will be called “being,” in the barren univocal sense). It is one of the great oddities of most debates concerning the analogia entis that those who reject the principle in order to defend God’s sovereign transcendence against the encroachments of human reason are in fact effectively denying God’s full ontological transcendence and replacing it with a concept of mere ontic supremacy. If being is not susceptible of the interval of analogy (even though it is an interval of ever greater unlikeness), then God and creation exist in a reciprocal real relation to one another, which means an extrinsic relation between two mutually delimiting objects; not only is this a degrading concept of God, but inevitably it must presuppose the mediations of some tertium quid, some broader context of “reality” that somehow exceeds the difference between God and creatures. Nor is it enough to answer such concerns with the essentially magical claim that the “divine will” alone mediates between God and world; for, unless God is understood as the ontological source and ground of creation, creation itself must be understood as a thing separate from God, founded upon its own potentiality, and the creative will of God must then be understood simply as the spontaneous and arbitrary power of conjuration possessed by a very impressive—but still finite—divine sorcerer. (“The Destiny of Metaphysics,” pp. 98-100)

Why an analogy of being? Because of the radical difference between that absolute reality in whom existence and essence coincide and the contingent beings he has made from out of nothing.

(Go to “‘Being’ or ‘Beyond Being’?”)

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12 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: Transcendence Beyond Negation and the Analogy of Being

  1. brian says:

    I’ll attempt a reflective paraphrase/riff:

    The transcendence of the Living God is false if it does not also found the intimate, agapeic giftedness of creaturely being. Univocal being places God and creatures as equally members of the larger set, being. The consequences of this are dialectical opposition and zero sum game equations in which one side’s “gain” is always at the expense of the other. Such calculations result in a misreading of God’s “jealousy” that utterly misses the unswerving generosity and nobility of agapeic giving. Mystical theologies that suppose a “HIdden Father” or “Abyss of Darkness” radically kept from “cataphatic” energies or the revelatory power of the Son are crypto-subordinationist and logically render revelation penultimate and subject to a “nihilism” whereby the positive attributions of God made known in revelation are radically put in question by the agnosticism accompanying a genuinely “Wholly Other.”

    Only the analogy of being properly guages the manner in which creatures “from nothing” nevertheless participate in Being, which is not an abstract concept, but the loving Gift of the absolutely unique Divinity where alone essence and existence coincide. Analogy recognizes both the irreducible, “ever greater” difference between God and creatures along with the likeness founded upon a participation metaphysics. The good of creatures is necessarily rooted in a gift from the Good, so one need not despair at the possibility that “creaturely good” is so different from Divine Good as to entertain radically different meanings. The latter is a notion rendered thinkable in the context of voluntarist conceptions where the will of God is an absolute will to power, naked and arbitrary. Here, again, advocates for a mysticism whereby some abyssal Unknown perdures “beyond revelation” must explain how such a view is immune to the “theological nihilism” that encroaches logically from voluntarist conceptions. The irony is that some arch-conservative Orthodox appear to discover similar idols of horrendous gods as the onto-theological monsters of the West that they abhor and resist.

    And as I often do, I recommend William Desmond’s metaxological metaphysics as a contemporary engagement with Being that most closely approximates the subtle thoughfulness of Przywara. Such a metaphysics consciously goes beyond the univocal, and erotic attempts at mastery rooted in a Subject and objects made obedient through method. Dialectic gives some due to the Other, but remains locked into an eros of control. Only the dialogic founded by Agapeic gift moves past a systematic Whole or a nihilist despair of mere flux. The victory of God is the constancy of love. Impassability is not the invulnerability of a rock, but the ever creative, ever kenotic humility of the God who never gives up on his creatures. Our poverty as creatures is also our wealth, for we come from nothing, possess not “the rights of essences,” but rather, enjoy “hidden depths” which are a continual gift from a Loving Father. The Night of death and hell is itself met by the compassionate patience of Being that is Love that is Life whose light exceeds the darkness of every possible horror.

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  2. I wonder if Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis isn’t bound up in his dialectical program in general. His rejection of anything remotely resembling Natural Theology seems to be part of the same constellation of philosophical/theological commitments. James Barr gave a devastating critique of this in his adaptation of his Gifford Lectures in Biblical Faith and Natural Theology as well as in certain portions of his large volume Biblical Theology. I don’t think that Barr is advocating the overcooked Natural Theology that some Thomists offer, but he shows that NT is clearly countenanced in the Scriptural corpus both in the Old and New Testaments. I am not a philosopher or the son of a philosopher (I’m actually the son of a plumber), but at an intuitive level I can’t help but think that a commitment to anologia entis also entails some kind of sympathy to Natural Theology.

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    • brian says:

      Jedidiah,

      John Betz (co-translator along with Hart of Przywara’s Analogia Entis) addressed Barth’s disaffection at length in the intro to the translated work. It’s complicated, but the pithy answer is that Barth never got past some fundamental misunderstanding, but also that when talking about analogy of being, like many other complicated concepts, one must distinguish who is teaching what. Just as there are numerous schools of Thomism, many of them quite dry and odious, but some wise and helpful, there are different modes of natural theology and different understandings of analogy of being. Betz writes that “one could reasonably wish that Przywara had distinguished more clearly between natural “relation” between God and creatures, i.e., a natural analogia entis, which obtains in spite of the Fall simply by virtue of the Creator-creature relation, and a saving “relationship” with God (and redemption of the original analogy) through Christ.” Betz than clarifies that for Przywara “while nature and grace are analogically distinct, as two different gifts, there is ultimately only one economy of salvation within which nature is ordered to grace.” In this, of course, Przywara and DeLubac are asserting the same understanding consistent with classical theism. In short, redemption is part of the culminating work of creation. Betz concludes, “it is clear that for Przywara the real bond, the real analogia entis, between God and world is no abstract analogy (based upon a merely metaphysical Logos and a merely philosophical doctrine of participation), but precisely the incarnate Logos, the Logos-made-Flesh: and not only the incarnate Logos, but the Logos who was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

      Hence, I think one can say that Barth was anxious to protect the novelty of revelation from a presumptive natural theology, but such a nature is more Aristotelian than Thomist. The Cosmos is “always already” Christological and therefore one need not properly worry that analogy of being will anticipate the liberty of God’s creative love.

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      • Brian, thank you for this. I’m in a state of theological flux, where I am moving out of a Confessional Reformed framework into something more in line with Barth and Torrance. As I continue in that direction, while staying true to my Reformed heritage, I have been incredibly enriched by my readings of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Nyssa, and contemporary theologians like Hart. In a strange way, I see tremendous lines of convergence, once the defects in the Reformed system are dispensed with. If there is one glaring defect in Barth, as I have interacted with him so far, it is in his rejection of the anologia entis and Natural Theology. I don’t see as much of this in Torrance though. My own theological interests are less ecclesial or philosophical, I am a novelist (or at least trying to become one), and I try to weave in some of the theological questions into my writings in a way that would be similar to a Tennyson, or and Eliot, or with certain differences admitted, to Lewis. So, these discussions are extraordinarily enlightening. Thanks for the mentioning Przywara and Betz, I’ll have to chase down their writings as time allows.

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        • brian says:

          I have similar interests in novel writing and have attachment to Lewis. My own influences are Lewis, MacDonald, Dostoevsky, Bernanos, Waugh, and recently, RA Lafferty. We need more Christian artists of depth, so keep at it.

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          • Dostoevsky, Steinbeck (I am a son of California after all), TS Eliot, and Marilynne Robinson are guiding lights for me. My manuscript is finished and on my editor’s desk, then back to my agent and then we’ll see where the Lord takes my work from there. Anyone who has been so unfortunate to have been gripped by the power of the written word and the possibilities of imagination will agree that the creative impulse is a compelling force – I write because I must. That said, I also am captivated by the beauty of giving our language to God, and this blog that Fr. Kimel has provided is a venerable temple of theological inquiry.

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        • Anthony says:

          Jedidiah,

          You and I are very much on similar theological journey’s. My concerns are more ecclesial as I am pursuing pastoral ministry (most likely ACNA), but I very much echo much of what you commented about. I would love to possibly correspond via email, more at length discussions on things we are wrestling with. Blessings!

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  3. Michelle says:

    I don’t have the philosophical or theological prowess as the rest of you guys here, so be gentle with me and speak slowely, lol.
    My question is this (and just so you know, I know very little about Barth); could a part of the reason why Barth rejects the analogy of being, even as clarified here by Hart, because of it’s apparently short jump to Pelagianism? God’s grace just isn’t “other” enough, is it? Even with God’s transdendance being beyong being, maybe the essence and existence of being still has an affinity with God that is just “too close for comfort” for Barth. So, if anyone wishes to enlighten me, how exactly does Hart’s clarification guard saving-grace from having “too natural” of an existence?

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  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    If you will pardon some internecine Eastern Orthodox quibbling.

    Grounding analogy in being rather than doing suggests that in God there is no real distinction between essence and energy. The analogical remove applies no less to what God does as it applies to what God is. To put it in Orthodox parlance, the energies are no less uncreated than God’s essence. More controversially, this does not mean that the energies are known and the essence is unknown. The analogy of being, the ontological grounding of analogy, indicates that both cataphatic and apophatic theology are equally analogically conditioned by the semper maior dissimilitudo as both speak of the divine adiastemic mode of being. Ironically, reifying difference as to the divine being and the divine processions is to conceive of God as creature.

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  5. Barth is just another example of the principle that it is much easier to ignore a tradition by demonizing it than it is to actually engage with its inner logic. I feel that if the various Christianities (Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, etc.) would stop resorting to demonizing the others, perhaps we might actually get somewhere in our more controversial discussions.

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