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.