Lost in translation—Part 3


Best wind this down. The main substance of this post is from a comment I made that’s buried somewhere in the comments section of Part 1. I was summarizing my thoughts on the knotty issues that shape the Scotist-Thomist debate over theological language. I’m grateful to Jeff, Robert, John and Fr Aidan for giving us so much to think about. If you’re not familiar with the debate between Scotists (fans of John Duns Scotus, d. 1308 CE) and Thomists (interpreters of Thomas Aquinas, d. 1274) over the question of how our theological language captures the truth about God, Lee Faber’s blog is a great place to jump in. It’s deep at both ends of the pool, but I’m enjoying Lee’s stuff very much. The debate surrounds the difference between ‘univocal’ and ‘analogical’ predication, and part of the disagreement, it seems, includes how the two groups (mis)understand the terms ‘univocal’ and ‘analogical’ to begin with.

It seems to me that Scotists (rightly understood) make good points about the continuity of meaning for theological terms within the embrace of the infinite difference between God and Creation. Thomists (to the extent he was represented in the comments section of Part 1) make good points about the nature of divine transcendence and how this difference between God and creation renders God-talk unique and needing its own logic. Whether I use ‘univocal’ (associated with Scotus’ approach) or ‘analogical’ (with Thomas), would depend I suppose entirely upon what my conversation partner thought these terms meant. I confess I’m not entirely clear myself, since part of the debate between the two sides involves disagreement over what they mean, and each side seems to want its definitions to be operative for the other. (If you’re confused, welcome aboard.)

At this point I think I’d avoid introducing either word when. What I would do is:

(1) Point out the infinite difference between God and creatures. Both sides in the debate agree that God is the fullness of those perfections we call the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness, unity/diversity as such) which are present in all created realities as the end toward which they ‘become’ but which in God are perfectly convertible with his very being.

(2) Where creatures such as us are essentially a movement of temporal ‘becoming’ toward a telos/end outside ourselves and which end is never perfectly convertible with what we are, God’s existence is ‘being as such’. I like Hart’s suggestion that the ‘infinite difference’ between God and creation is like the difference between ‘truth as such’ and ‘truths’ or between ‘beauty as such’ and instances of beauty, ‘goodness as such’ as opposed to an instances of goodness. I find this a really helpful way to capture the ‘transcendent immediacy’ of God to all things, where transcendence is an excess of presence not of absence.

(3) The first and second points above have to shape how our language expresses the truth about God as it maintains both likeness and difference in our talk, so that our terms never equivocate into a despairing nihilism nor make God out to be just another being among beings by denying (1) and (2) above. We bear God’s image, and the original transcends the image within and as ‘difference within likeness’ (the way any image is reflected in a mirror). The original can’t be reduced without remainder to the image. So the trick is to respect the difference without falling into equivocation. After the extended discussions in Parts 1 and 2, my sense is that our God-talk is more poetic (i.e., meant to arouse desire that rests in God’s transcendent immediacy) than mathematical.


(4) This brings language to its cataphatic responsibilities (we must speak as much as we can about God, cf. Denys Turner here) and its apophatic limitations (respecting the final failure of language to comprehend God as an object), and thus to a “glorious and unspeakable joy” (1Pet 1; please note the biblical status of ineffability), to a “knowledge of love that is beyond knowing” (Eph 3), to “see him who is invisible” (Heb 11), and to a “transformation from glory to glory” (2Cor 3), etc. Language’s ultimate failure is its success inasmuch as it names (without traversing or owning) the inexpressible and transforming embrace of divine love in Christ.

(5) I should think Christology is where the solution to the tensions surrounding theological coherence are to be found, not in the sense that in Christ these tensions are resolved because in Christ language can finally come to rest in supervening upon God the way it supervenes upon any created object in the universe (Poof, mystery be gone), but because Christ is where those tensions cease to pose a threat. How so? Because Christ is where God reveals his benevolent opinion of us (and our language), where in uniting creation irrevocably to himself, God shows transcendence is not an absence that abandons us, but a presence and immediacy that fulfills and perfects us, where ‘love’ spoken of God cannot mean what we call ‘hate’ or ‘indifference’ because “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” So language can stop thrashing about in the presence of what it cannot finally ‘say’ and rest instead in saying what it must. Christ is the “image of the Invisible God,” says Paul (Col. 1). Hence any worries we have about language not properly reflecting its invisible/divine source and ground are laid to rest Christologically. Love, goodness, truth, beauty, unity/diversity as such are personally incarnate in Christ, God’s (theological) “word” to us – manifesting the being of the invisible (the transcendentals – truth, beauty, goodness as such) in the visible-creaturely without being reduced to it. We know our language works, that it can be trusted to describe God truthfully (as love, as goodness, as beauty) because in Christ God has become creation without denying himself, has spoken himself in our nature and language without ceasing to be what he naturally is as the uncreated God.


So then, I don’t know whether to call this ‘univocity’ or ‘analogy’. Some assure me it’s analogical predication. Others think it univocity (properly restrained in light of transcendence). A rose by any other name? For now I prefer: …means the same thing without making God out to be an infinite history of becoming who determines himself passibly within the world’s chaos.

2 comments on “Lost in translation—Part 3

  1. John Sobert Sylvest says:

    Tom, thanks, again, for that beautiful Christological hymn. It reminded me of why I so enjoy folks as different as Balthasar & DBH, not just as great synthesizers but as incredible poets.

    It did “naturally” occur to me that, insofar as we have used the Analogia to, in part, rehabilitate Natural Theology, what sort of hymn might one sing based on general revelation, prior to special?

    It first occurred to me that such a hymn would very much resemble – not so much the mad or sad, but – the glad psalms, which wax on about nature in praise of its Creator. I thought, too, of Job 38.

    I won’t hesitate to inject Peirce, once more, into our conversation. For, aside from any ontological, cosmological or other argumentation (deductive), he sets for a humble, neglected argument (abductive) for the reality of God. He proposes what, to my mind, is a Little Way, consonant with the practical virtues espoused by The Little Flower of Lisieux.

    I so resonate with Peirce in so many ways but perhaps his aesthetic primacy has most moved me, followed by his phenomenological heuristics.

    His argument can be found here:


    Below are excerpts on which I’ll briefly comment, eisegetically:

    1) This is the “humble” argument, the innermost of the nest. In the mind of a metaphysician it will have a metaphysical tinge; but that seems to me rather to detract from its force than to add anything to it. It is just as good an argument, if not better, in the form it takes in the mind of the clodhopper. <<<<<

    JSS: So, consider me a clodhopper. Since all the systematic theologian (or theoretic physicist or biologist) ultimately has are semi-formal heuristics, any appeal to the fast & frugal heuristics of human common sense & sensibilities will also capture my attention (for reasons I won't explicate here).


    2) There is a certain agreeable occupation of mind which, from its having no distinctive name, I infer is not as commonly practised as it deserves to be; for indulged in moderately—say through some five to six per cent. of one's waking time, perhaps during a stroll—it is refreshing enough more than to repay the expenditure. Because it involves no purpose save that of casting aside all serious purpose, I have sometimes been half-inclined to call it reverie, with some qualification; but for a frame of mind so antipodal to vacancy and dreaminess such a designation would be too excruciating a misfit. In fact, it is Pure Play. Now, Play, we all know, is a lively exercise of one's powers. Pure Play has no rules, except this very law of liberty. It bloweth where it listeth. It has no purpose, unless recreation. The particular occupation I mean—a petite bouchée with the Universes—may take either the form of esthetic contemplation, or that of distant castle-building (whether in Spain or within one's own moral training), or that of considering some wonder in one of the Universes, or some connection between two of the three, with speculation concerning its cause. It is this last kind—I will call it "Musement" on the whole—that I particularly recommend, because it will in time flower into the N.A. One who sits down with the purpose of becoming convinced of the truth of religion is plainly not inquiring in scientific singleness of heart, and must always suspect himself of reasoning unfairly. So he can never attain the entirety even of a physicist's belief in electrons, although this is avowedly but provisional. But let religious meditation be allowed to grow up spontaneously out of Pure Play without any breach of continuity, and the Muser will retain the perfect candour proper to Musement. <<<<

    JSS: I will only say that this reminds me of my daily strolls.


    3) Different people have such wonderfully different ways of thinking, that it would be far beyond my competence to say what courses Musements might not take; but a brain endowed with automatic control, as man's indirectly is, is so naturally and rightly interested in its own faculties that some psychological and semi-psychological questions would doubtless get touched; such, in the latter class, as this: Darwinians, with truly surprising ingenuity, have concocted, and with still more astonishing confidence have accepted as proved, one explanation for the diverse and delicate beauties of flowers, another for those of butterflies, and so on; but why is all nature—the forms of trees, the compositions of sunsets—suffused with such beauties throughout, and not nature only, but the other two Universes as well? <<<<<

    JSS: Our experience of the excess of meaning and gratuity of beauty.


    4) Let the Muser, for example, after well appreciating, in its breadth and depth, the unspeakable variety of each Universe, turn to those phenomena that are of the nature of homogeneities of connectedness in each; and what a spectacle will unroll itself! As a mere hint of them I may point out that every small part of space, however remote, is bounded by just such neighbouring parts as every other, without a single exception throughout immensity. The matter of Nature is in every star of the same elementary kinds, and (except for variations of circumstance) what is more wonderful still, throughout the whole visible universe, about the same proportions of the different chemical elements prevail. Though the mere catalogue of known carbon-compounds alone would fill an unwieldy volume, and perhaps, if the truth were known, the number of amido-acids alone is greater, yet it is unlikely that there are in all more than about 600 elements, of which 500 dart through space too swiftly to be held down by the earth's gravitation, coronium being the slowest-moving of these. This small number bespeaks comparative simplicity of structure. Yet no mathematician but will confess the present hopelessness of attempting to comprehend the constitution of the hydrogen-atom, the simplest of the elements that can be held to earth. <<<<<

    JSS: Our experiences of semantic univocity in the homogeneities, as well as of fallibility regarding & incomprehensibility of reality writ large.


    5) The hypothesis of God is a peculiar one, in that it supposes an infinitely incomprehensible object, although every hypothesis, as such, supposes its object to be truly conceived in the hypothesis. This leaves the hypothesis but one way of understanding itself; namely, as vague yet as true so far as it is definite, and as continually tending to define itself more and more, and without limit. The hypothesis, being thus itself inevitably subject to the law of growth, appears in its vagueness to represent God as so, albeit this is directly contradicted in the hypothesis from its very first phase. But this apparent attribution of growth to God, since it is ineradicable from the hypothesis, cannot, according to the hypothesis, be flatly false. Its implications concerning the Universes will be maintained in the hypothesis, while its implications concerning God will be partly disavowed, and yet held to be less false than their denial would be. 

    JSS: Enter the Analogy! Less false than pure denial. The One & the many.


    6) They are accustomed to make use of the principle that that which convinces a normal man must be presumed to be sound reasoning; and therefore they ought to say whatever can truly be advanced to show that the N.A., if sufficiently developed, will convince any normal man. Unfortunately, it happens that there is very little established fact to show that this is the case. I have not pretended to have any other ground for my belief that it is so than my assumption, which each one of us makes, that my own intellectual disposition is normal. I am forced to confess that no pessimist will agree with me. I do not admit that pessimists are, at the same time, thoroughly sane, and in addition are endowed in normal measure with intellectual vigour; and my reasons for thinking so are two. The first is, that the difference between a pessimistic and an optimistic mind is of such controlling importance in regard to every intellectual function, and especially for the conduct of life, that it is out of the question to admit that both are normal, and the great majority of mankind are naturally optimistic. Now, the majority of every race depart but little from the norm of that race. In order to present my other reason, I am obliged to recognise three types of pessimists. The first type is often found in exquisite and noble natures of great force of original intellect whose own lives are dreadful histories of torment due to some physical malady. Leopardi is a famous example. We cannot but believe, against their earnest protests, that if such men had had ordinary health, life would have worn for them the same colour as for the rest of us. Meantime, one meets too few pessimists of this type to affect the present question. The second is the misanthropical type, the type that makes itself heard. It suffices to call to mind the conduct of the famous pessimists of this kind, Diogenes the Cynic, Schopenhauer, Carlyle, and their kin with Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, to recognise them as diseased minds. The third is the philanthropical type, people whose lively sympathies, easily excited, become roused to anger at what they consider the stupid injustices of life. Being easily interested in everything, without being overloaded with exact thought of any kind, they are excellent raw material for littérateurs: witness Voltaire. No individual remotely approaching the calibre of a Leibniz is to be found among them. <<<<<

    JSS: This resonates with my Equiplausibility Principle re: how we vault past nihilism via practical reasoning under speculative uncertainties.


    Below are excerpts from a commentary on the Neglected Argument, which can be found here:


    7) Since God is not another spatio-temporal object, it amounts to fetishism, Peirce remarks, to say that God exists (6.495). Hence his argument, strictly speaking, is not an argument for God's existence, but for God's reality. <<<<

    JSS: It is a fetishism to approach God via an ontological univocity of being!

    8) As the ens necessarium God cannot change, grow or have a purpose. Yet God is discovered in musement to be the creator of change, growth and purpose. What are we to make of this situation? Peirce advises that the "implications concerning the Universes" be maintained in the hypothesis while its "implicatons concerning God be partly disavowed" by holding them "less false than their denial would be" (6.466). Peirce appears to be saying that it is "less false" to attribute change to God than to deny it. Yet the ens necessarium as been typically understood to be unchanging. Here Peirce stumbles into the same problem about the relationship between a changing world and an unchanging Creator that classical theology did. Starting with the abductive phase of musement has not given him enough leverage to get past the deductive phase of precise definition. <<<<

    JSS: Beyond our indispensable semantic univocity, Peirce, at least incohately, stumbles upon the necessity of analogical metaphysica predication?

    Thanks, again, Tom.


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