“The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘love’ to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.” (David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo.”)
I’d like to continue exploring questions related to theological language – how our language apprehends (or, as I prefer to say, is apprehended by) God. It’s a topic the currents of my own faith-journey circle me back round to with some regularity. I’ll continue my thoughts primarily in light of the earlier part of David Hart’s essay “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” which I’ve been reading and re-reading for the past few weeks. The essay is a call to remember the difference between “nomination” and “attribution,” that is, between the “theological enunciation of ‘divine names’,” on the one hand, and the “philosophical enumeration of the ‘attributes of deity’” on the other.
To begin with Hart’s description of the latter, a univocal ontology “understands being as nothing but the bare category of existence under which all substances (God no less than creatures) are severally placed.” It posits a “direct proportionate similitude between attributes inhering in discrete beings (albeit between finite and infinite instances,” which “allows the essences of our attributions to remain intact even when they are modified by the addition of the further attribute ‘infinite’.” In a metaphysics of participation, on the other hand, “all things are embraced in being as in the supereminent source of all their transcendental perfections.” This model asserts an “infinite qualitative difference between the coincidence in God’s simplicity and plenitude of all the transcendental moments that compose the creature (goodness, truth, beauty, unity, etc.) and the finite, multiplicit ‘prismation’ of being’s light in the creature.” This allows for “a continuity of eminence between those moments and the transcendent wellspring from which they flow,” a continuity which allows one to “in some sense name God from creatures” even though the “truth of such names is infinitely beyond the capacity of finite reason properly to grasp.” In this sense analogy, unlike univocal predication, is “a language of likeness chastened by the pious acknowledgement of an ever greater unlikeness.”
The danger inherent in attempting univocal predication, Hart argues, is that it necessarily commits one to a logical nonsense – i.e., God who is a “being among beings, who possesses the properties of his nature in a composite way,” a “mere supreme being, whose being and nature are in some sense distinct from one another,” who “receives his being from being as such,” and who “in some sense becomes the being he is by partaking of that prior unity (existence) that allows his nature to persist as that composite reality it is.” Such a univocal ontology fails properly to think “the difference between nomination and attribution.” It evacuates theology of transcendence, and plunges thought “into an absolute and self-sealing discourse of immanence” and finally nihilism. It seems to me that the notion of univocity operative in Hart’s critique is one in which terms used of God must mean everything they mean when describing us, i.e., no more and no less than what they mean when used of us, in which case the ontology in which love or goodness or justice is possessed by us is the ontology that grounds their manifestation in God. I agree this is disastrous.
A great deal more is said to clarify the distinction between these two ontologies and to argue why the later (metaphysics of participation) is Christianity’s genius transformation of its first world, but I’ll not get into that. It’s a wonderful essay. I’ll only embarrass myself as much as I have to here by wondering if there is not a slight equivocation hiding within Hart’s argument. To be precise, does not Hart end up agreeing that moral terms (like ‘love’, ‘goodness’, ‘justice’) mean pretty much what they mean when attributed to creatures? The term ‘love’, for example, names the self-giving pursuit of another’s highest good in God as opposed to seeking selfishly to harm or exploit others. That’s what it means for us to love. Semantically, that much is at least what it means for God to love us. To return to the opening quote of Hart, if we use the term of God as Hart advocates, “as if [it is] mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures” [emphasis mine], I don’t see how the term ‘love’ is much different in meaning from the univocal sense – unless of course by ‘univocal’ one means to gather up everything about the contingent mode of becoming by which creatures know and experience love and attribute this to God, which obviously we do not want to do. Still, that being the case doesn’t result in ‘love’ becoming an empty notion. Even understood analogically, that is, ‘love’ doesn’t seem to come out meaning something other than what it means for us (taking into account the difference between God’s mode of being and our mode of becoming).
God loves us in an uncreated, non-composit mode of being, a mode that is, as Hart says, as qualitatively different as the difference between ‘truth’ and truths, or ‘goodness’ as such and particular instances of goodness. We, unlike God, love God and others in a created, composit, essentially temporal mode of becoming. But the term in question (love) in both cases describes the same selfless pursuit of the highest good of another. The infinite qualitative distinction prevents us from attributing precisely those features of the ontic (the “composite becoming” that “receives its life from outside itself”) that Hart points out cannot logically describe God, but ‘love’ doesn’t thereby change its meaning to hate, say, or to what have you. Why not? What prevents us from wondering whether love in God’s transcendence is not what we call hate or indifference? Most would answer by saying that’s simply not what the word ‘love’ means and would encourage us to find another word (‘hate’ or ‘indifference’).
If all that’s meant by analogy is that the terms we derive from our mode of becoming are understood both to be fulfilled and infinitely exceeded in God’s mode of being, I have no qualms. But I suspect more is meant, I’m just not sure what. I wouldn’t think one need insist that the word ‘univocal’ be abandoned (because it entails ontological commitments not even Scotus tolerated) and ‘analogy’ be substituted. It seems easy enough simply to ask the one doing the talking: Do you think God is a composite God of becoming whose nature is, like all created natures, an endless oscillation between essence and existence? If the answer is no – what other complaint have we?
It is not like Scotus’s disagreeing on the semantic nature of attribution (univocal vs analogical) included his believing God was in fact a composite God of temporal becoming who received his life from outside himself. Scotus was no Process theist or Evangelical. When he says being is to be understood univocally, at the very least he does not mean to say God and creatures alike are assumed under a third reality (being as such) as something other than God, superior to both God and creation and in which both participate. But if Scotus managed a univocal model of theological language in which God was not believed to be a composite being of temporal becoming who derived his life from something greater than himself, how is such a model necessarily beholden to the mistakes Hart warns us of?
It also does not appear to be the case that agreeing entirely with an ontology of participation means one always rightly names God. As Hart notes (“God, Creation, and Evil”):
[D]own the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages— most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness…Nor am I speaking of a few marginal, eccentric sects within Christian history; I mean the broad mainstream….
This is interesting, because if Scotus can affirm a univocal predication of, say, love or goodness, to God while knowing God not to be a composite God of temporal becoming who derives his life by participating in some independent being as such which is greater than him, and if many in “the broad mainstream” of classical theism who agree God is not such “a” being, though their equivocations also “reduce the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness,” then we have to wonder where the danger really lies. What really opens the door to the nihilism Hart warns of? I’m just asking. Certainly the actual belief that God is a composite God of becoming would invite that nihilism. But the latter equivocators (with the right ontology in hand) lead us to the same nihilism. So I’m wondering if there is some other mistake hiding in the details which has nothing to do with whether one explicitly affirms God’s transcendent ontological otherness.
I don’t mean to deny the difference between the perfectio significato (the thing signified) and the modus significandi (mode of signification). Yes, ‘love’ is attributed to God differently (as different as ‘being as such’ is from beings, or ‘truth as such’ is from truths, or ‘beauty as such’ from instances of beauty – all Hartian examples of that difference). My point is that the meaning of ‘love’ (semantically, not ontologically – if the distinction is permitted) is the same, i.e., we’re talking about desiring and pursuing the highest good of another in God (not about hating or fishing or sailing, or whatever random meaning the quantum-semantic wave might collapse us into). The how is not the worry people generally have. It’s whether when we talk about God our terms mean something transparently different or contradictory to what they mean within our experience.
A last thought. Just this morning I was pondering Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (Eph 3). He prays “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Here is the intimacy of transcendency’s presence, not its absence, and yet its presence is no categorical reduction of God, for Paul prays (more literally) “that you know the knowledge-exceeding love of Christ.” Don’t miss the isomorphic affirmation/denial – what is in fact ‘known’ is in fact ‘beyond knowing’. One could throw in all one’s holdings (all one’s ‘categories’) on an ontological call to see what ‘in fact’ is hiding in love’s ‘knowledge-excelling’ hand, but one would lose everything in the wager. For surely here we have as explicit a description of the distance between cataphatic and apophatic, of the “epistemological caesura” one must tolerate between the two as one could ask for. And as long as it remains a propositional exchange, ‘toleration’ is what it will feel like, perhaps intoleration. But when it’s experienced (‘known’) as ‘knowledge-exceeding’ love (v. 19), toleration is transformed into the welcome sweetness of being’s inexhaustible goodness and we are, as Paul said, “filled unto all the fullness of God.”