by Robert Fortuin
There’s an interesting post over at Tom Belt’s Open Orthodoxy blog—“Lost in Translation” (part 1 and part 2)—which developed into a conversation about a conversation. The post and the subsequent comments concern a topic of great importance. It is difficult to respond in a comment section beyond a few hastily put together sentences (and without the column width of replies to narrow to an inch—why? are we out of space??) so I thought it would be better to create a slightly more substantial contribution here (thank you Fr Kimel!). Let me briefly summarize the problematic of “Lost in Translation.”
Tom’s post presents a dialogue between himself and interlocutor “Webster” (who subsequently outed himself as Jeff, ha!) about what precisely is conveyed when we speak about God. How does theological language capture meaning? Can we claim to know anything at all about God, and if we can, then how do we come about such knowledge? The problem that confronts us is that the God of theism classically conceived is not an ordinary subject, a discrete object which can be defined, measured, conceptualized. God cannot be classified to belong to any genera. Yet to truly communicate, for words to convey meaning and value, we need to do just this—to define, measure, and compare, and thereby to communicate meaning and value. Jeff’s complaint is that analogy makes meaning so slippery that no explaining power is left in the words Tom uses to explicate meaning in regards to God. God “cares about” and “loves” people, but evidently not in the way we are ordinarily use these words (hence Tom’s use of quotation marks). But what then DO these words mean then? The objection Jeff raises strikes at the heart of analogy’s claim as to its ability to establish true knowledge about God. No trivial matter.
A secondary issue was raised by Tom as to how one goes about establishing meaning by way of analogy. Asks Tom, “What are the actual steps one takes to establish (for us creatures) the meaning of a term like “person” or “love” within a larger infinite distance?” The chief problem here is the issue of the ‘always larger dissimilarity’ by which any likeness is to be held in check. To state it in the words of the Fourth Lateran Council, “between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them.” This appears to denote that the greater (infinite no less!) unlikeness cancels out any notion of likeness. Silence is the only appropriate stance—under the immense weight of the infinite interval of dissimilarity our ability to affirm cataphatically has collapsed to ruin. Was this the beginning of an incipient nihilism, a consequence of what the likes of Aquinas and the bishops of the Lateran council meant by analogy?
Such a conclusion would only hold if the doctrine of analogy is taken out of its metaphysical context, and if analogy is understood to be primarily a method to provide us with knowledge about God. As important as theological language theory may be (and it is, don’t get me wrong), it is far too often imagined to be a discipline which creates its own picture of reality. But it makes a lot more sense to consider language as dependent upon and proceeding from metaphysics: that is to say that the question of the possibility of meaning depends in large on the nature of reality envisioned. Theological language of analogical predication can only function correctly insofar it is considered in the light of metaphysics, in particular a metaphysics of participation.
To that end here are few of the main tenets of the metaphysic of participation that must be brought to bear in any consideration of analogy, and in order to understand how and why analogy functions as a pillar of classical theism. Time does not permit to develop supporting arguments, so these will be presented in the form of assertions:
- Effect resembles its cause. The effect bears real similarity to its cause. The resemblance is real, however present in the creature proper to its mode as contingent, derivative, and finite. The created is like its creator, and not conversely.
- Existence and essence coincide in God who is self-existing and self-sufficient. Because existence and essence are identical in God, the divine perfections are not possessed. God does not have love, he is love.
- By way of perfections observed in creation (however fragmented and limited), perfections can be affirmed of God.
- While finite beings have real perfections in limited ways, the perfections exist super-eminently (formerly and eminently) in God. The presence of the perfections in creation, however real, are dissimilar to the perfections affirmed in God according to the mode they are attributed. The dissimilarity is in the mode, or manner, by which perfections are attributed, proper to God and creature respectively. This is the res/modus distinction.
- Analogy functions not as a way to provide knowledge, but as a way to describe how we have the knowledge already apprehended. To address Jeff’s concern about the meaning of words in analogous predication, we can affirm that God is (super eminently) love by the love observed in the creature.
- The analogy is an ontological analogy, an analogy of being, and not merely nor primarily a linguistic device.
- The analogization consists in the difference of being between God and creature, not between God and creature under a shared category of being. This is, in short, the meaning of the difference between Being and beings.
Tom proposes to begin with a univocal meaning of ‘love’ and then to qualify it by saying the essential meaning we associate with the term is infinitely, perfectly, transcendentally actual in God. My reply is that we begin with love not understood univocally (as both Tom and Jeff suggest) but analogously as follows: love as we know it is truly similar to God’s love (effect resembles its cause) but it is dissimilar in the manner it is attributed to God and to us (the res/modus distinction). For to God love is attributed super-eminently: God does not participate in nor acquire love—God is love. Yet it remains that the love we know is like God’s love (literally so, Aquinas posits); however, we possess love by participation in God: contingently, derivatively and in measure and degree. While perfections obtain to God literally, they are applied analogously rather than univocally due to the modal disjunction between God and creation. The distinction between the perfection attributed and the manner the perfection is attributed (perfectio significata vs modus significandi) proper to God and creature respectively, means that the dissimilarity does not cancel out the similarity. The likeness of the res signified persists in the mode it is signified. In this way of analogy classic theism stays clear of the equivocation suggested by John Stuart Mill, “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?”
God’s act of being is the plentitude of the good fully actualized, a foretaste of which we encounter in the good of creation. Creation’s teleos (perfection) is its perfection in the Good.