Lost in translation—Part 2


“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.

lost2A 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?

lost3It 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.”


We are all wardrobes—Part 1


I wonder if the univocity insisted upon by advocates of “relational theologies” doesn’t actually suppress human aspirations for the relational by corralling it within the limits of what can be said determinately. The relational becomes a real experience only when we’re able to “say it” because we only really experience what we can describe given the laws of univocal apprehension. But I think we know the sequestering of experience to determinate language is impossible, and attempting it ends in despair, or perhaps it’s motivated by despair. We fear losing our identity, our very self, to an undomesticated infinite. So language domesticates God and we become happy the way a child addicted to playing the same pinball game again and again is happy with an endless repetition of the same – same game, same features, same distances. God will not – cannot – offer us this kind of happiness. There are no predictable borders to the ecstasy of knowing God, and I suspect that in our most honest moments of reflection, we realize that this is what we truly want. The indeterminacy of language is where and how that divine adventure calls to us. We are all Lewisian wardrobes, and only the childlike find Narnia.

Recent conversations I’m enjoying have focused on the well-worn problem of theological predication, which is shoptalk for how our language apprehends God, how it captures and expresses the truth about God. It’s a very old conversation that few master. Anyone remotely familiar with the conversation knows that it concerns the relationship between God’s transcendence and the reach of our concepts.

The standard options on the menu are three:

Univocity (in which “Being” is predicated of God and creatures in the same way. “Love,” for example, has the same sense predicated to God that it has when predicated of creatures.)
Equivocity (what is predicated of God and creatures is predicated with entirely different senses)
Analogy (what is predicated of God is predicated analogously to what is predicated of creatures)

Equivocity is yoked to univocity as its contrary mode of predication. Both represent options of a single all-inclusive understanding of predication that supervenes upon a single reality, ‘being’, whether we’re talking about divine or created being. Analogical predication (itself a slippery concept prone to endless qualification) represents the ancient and, say classical theists, only viable alternative to the facile reductions of a univocal theology. I’m assured by people who know better than I that these options exhaust the possibilities, and while I appreciate and agree with various concerns expressed by those who argue these approaches, I’d like to suggest a completely different way to approach these concerns – an approach that’s performative and functional.

On a recent out of town visit to my sister-in-law, she reminded me, “The water here is hard.” As we know, hard water is water that has a high mineral content. The phrase “hard water” lodged in my brain and set me thinking of how strange, almost illusive, language is that a word like “hard” can mean so many things. Take for example:

“Possesses high mineral content” used of water
“Dense or resistant to change” describing the mass of a physical object
“Intellectually challenging” of solving a math problem
“Stable in value” used of stocks or commodities
“Not prone to displays of sympathy or affection” describing a strict or severe father
“Potent or powerful in effect” of liquor
“Harsh or unpleasant” of a long and cold winter

272_-_words_as_artSome of these meanings are more closely related than others, but taken together they form the semantic field (the scope of possible meanings) of the word “hard.” Several interesting points this observation yields are that (1) there is no one meaning to the word “hard” (or to all but a small number of highly technical terms). There are only possibilities of meanings. And (2) the possibilities are contextually and socially determined, and they all describe aspects of our experience of the world. Language never escapes this existential grounding and social context. It is an attempt (and never more than an attempt) to map our experience of ourselves in the world we inhabit.

This grounding in experience is crucial to me because I’m going to suggest that existentially speaking, the distinctions between univocity/equivocity and analogy disappear (or it might be that they converge) in one and the same attempt to make sense of the experiences we have. Instead of assuming that language is our immediate reality and then adopting a deflationary view of our experience, let us explore the possibility that our experience is the more fundamental reality and that we should take a more deflationary or circumspect opinion about the adequacy of language to capture reality – whether the reality we’re talking about is God or the world. It seems to me that language fails at rendering both finally determinate.

I’d like to explore this debate and its subject (theological language and predication), then, from an entirely different approach, one that sidesteps the three standard options (univocity, equivocity, and analogy) and suggests a fourth, which I’ll call:


Or we might say that language predicates of God:


Theological predication is functionally related to theosis – to empowering, facilitating, and sharing the experience of God to the end that we become finally transformed in and – carefully said – into Christ. Christ-formation (in one’s self and the extent to which one is instrumental in empowering it in others) ought to be the measure of the success of our God-talk and not particularly which theory of reference one might adopt to express that transformation. Keeping this point central gives us a different vantage point than the standard options from which to think about our God-talk.

Let me state up front in this post a tentative conclusion and then explain in a Part 2 what reasons I think I have for taking this view. Simply stated, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as univocal predication when it comes to God-talk (and probably when it comes to talk of anything at all for that matter, but I’ll leave that for now), that analogy is probably the only thing we have but that as it is argued in the context of this debate, analogy also ends up failing. The chief reason I think these all fail is because they tend to excuse themselves from certain irreducible existential givens that define all human experience and end up becoming just theories of language and reference.

csm_asawa_bmc76_nd-1_7ffa4cfd83As strange as it may sound, I do mean to say that even univocal theories of theological language fail to take proper account of certain existential givens, which explains my opening paragraph. I mention this because proponents of univocity will appeal to the fact that we do experience God – not an analogy of God – for a view of reference that seeks to secure the integrity of this encounter but whicch ends up being very uncomfortable with the possibility that there is might be no conceptual horizon within which God can be circumscribed. I will agree we truly experience God within the givens of our finite, created capacities, but I’ll also agree (with Pryzwara) that all our experience has an irreducible transcendence about it to begin with which we never overcome or exhaust whether it’s the experience of God or the world around us that we’re describing. Because our capacities bear the image of God and are grounded and sustained in God, they remain irresistibly open to forever expanding our experience and enjoyment of God, an experience of one’s own self as unbounded and uncircumscribed.

Transcendence is experienced as an overwhelming presence to which our created natures answer with existential (never linguistic) fulfillment and ecstasy which at the same time perfectly anticipate the unknown the way awakened desire knows what it anticipates and anticipates what it doesn’t know. As far as one explores outwardly or inwardly, one finds no horizon that draws a final end to the possibilities of the ever-new, ever-surprising, and ever-enticing beauty of God which will not permit us to speak with finality. Language does what it can, and because we create our languages to map our shared experience, and new experiences (like the transforming ecstasy of experiencing God) will always stretch and exceed language.

The vantage point from which I’m suggesting we consider the purpose and function of theological language is a ‘functional’ view of language – functional relative to the “formation of Christ in us” (Gal. 4.19). The concern for language, then, ought to be about the success to which our language serves to increase conformity to Christ—period. From this vantage point, proponents of the standard alternatives – univocity and analogy – are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. Why do I say this? Because proponents of both agree that we truly experience God, not an analogy of God, and that our natures are fulfilled and perfected as Christ is truly formed in us. This agreement I believe makes irrelevant to a large extent theories of predication. Disagreements between these theories become a bit like arguing over whether the words “red” and “round” apprehending an apple univocally or analogically has anything to do with the experience of enjoying its sweetness when eaten. I’m suggesting the experience of the apple transcends (surprise) that entire disagreement.