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Analogy universalized

I have just finished reading one of the best books I have read in a long while: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius, 1992; originally 1951).  What makes this book so enjoyable and intellectually satisfying?  A number of things.  First there is the treatment of Barth’s theology, which is sympathetic and yet not uncritical.  Second, there is Balthasar’s equally charitable and yet scrutinizing summary of the prevailing trends in Catholic theology at the time.  Finally, there is the brilliant rapprochement which he achieves between the two, without settling for easy irenicism.

Balthasar begins with Barth’s early “dialectical” period–focusing primarily on the first and second editions of the Letter to the Romans.  On the one hand, Balthasar respects Barth’s use of dialectics as a “corrective to remind theology that it is speaking of God in Christ” (76).  On the other hand, Balthasar worries that the dialectical approach, when taken as a comprehensive theological strategy, and hence as more than a corrective, may actually obscure the real content of Christian theology by unwittingly superimposing “a very unbiblical philosophical pantheism (or more precisely, theopanism)” (84).  Theopanism is a theory in which the whole of things are seen as constituted by means of an identity with God and anything that is not unified absolutely with God is understood strictly to be nothing, pure contradiction.  Barth’s dialectical phase tends in this direction by emphasising both that creaturely existence is dominated by the nothingness of sin and that grace means a return to union with God.

However, Balthasar is perceptive of the dynamism in Barth’s thought, which takes him beyond this early dialectical formula and ultimately (especially in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics) to a comprehensive theological vision, in which dialectics remains as a corrective, but the overarching paradigm is analogical: analogia fidei.  This is a wholly theological and Christocentric understanding of analogy, for it is the graciously revealed and faithfully received knowledge of God in Christ that, in order to be expressed, must be expressed analogically.  Balthasar’s assessment of this mature Barthian position is twofold.

(1) Balthasar affirms Barth’s theological use of analogy and the importance of its Christological event-character, arguing, however, that many (though not all) Catholic theologians have formulated something similiar (e.g., Aquinas, Rahner, Guardini, and Balthasar himself).  Nevertheless, he thinks Barth’s insistence on this point is something valuable for Catholics and Protestants to reflect upon.  Balthasar also affirms that there is room within this theological analogy to speak of being, and hence of an authentically theological analogia entis. This speech will be determined from the beginning and finally by faith/revelation but nevertheless include the creaturely experience of being among its terms.

(2) Balthasar holds on to the Catholic tendency to think, in addition to this theological analogy there is a legitimate philosophical version which the encounter with God in Christ necessarily presupposes, if only as a formal possibility not necessarily realizable in the concrete.  Concretely, the created world of being which philosophers study is already shaped by God’s gracious activity in Christ; hence, de facto, a philosophical analogia entis will be, at some level, crypto-theological; and yet, de jure, its possibility must be presupposed because although grace is not something owed to nature it is nevertheless meant for it and makes no sense without it.  In Balthasar’s mind, this idea of a presupposed formal concept of nature (analogically related to God) is something which Barth accepts in his doctrine of creation but which he does not think through to its logical (philosophy-affirming) conclusions.

Balthasar’s chapter on “The Concept of Nature in Catholic Theology” is a tour de force, which should probably be required reading for anyone interested in questions of nature and grace.  Essentially, it shows how the disciples of Przywara and Marechal who have pursued a philosophical account of the analogia entis nevertheless did so with theological ends in mind; whereas Henri de Lubac and his intellectual inheritors authentically express a theological sense of analogy closely in line with what Barth proposes.  The chapter also includes a very helpful account of the context and significance of Vatican I’s use of the term “nature,” in its decree that God can be known by the natural light of reason.  Balthasar contends, once again, that this possibility must be held on faith as a formal possibility, which does not imply that in the concrete world of sin and grace it is permissible to abstract oneself absolutely from the event-character of the human encounter with God in Christ and seek satisfaction in a self-sufficient philosophical system.

All in all, I am rather impressed by this text.  I suggest that its subtitle could have been “analogia omnis“–in the sense that, what Balthasar attempts to affirm is a maximally inclusive use of analogical thinking with reference to God, which could proceed from being (in explicitly theological terms or crypto-theological philosophical terms) or from relationality or faith or–and this is the point–really anything.  After all, everything in the created world reflects the glory of the triune God who created it.  So long as a Barthian dialectical corrective is included as part of any of these reflections, bringing us back into a concrete relationship with Christ, then every analogy is formally permissible and God may be sought in all things (Ignatius of Loyola).

All of this, it would seem, is nothing other than another way of expressing the authentic doctrine of Dionysius the Areopagite–who, despite some problematic ideas about necessary mediation!–does pass onto the church a very clear sense that everything in the created world has some (let’s say, analogical) capacity to lead us back to God.

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  1. December 8, 2009 at 11:44 am

    This is excellent; makes me eager to read this book sooner rather than later. It also reaffirms, though, my growing sense that for vB, dialectic is far too accidental for my taste. For him it’s simply a “corrective,” whereas for Dionysius—on one of the points I think he gets right—the dialectic is actually structural. It’s impossible to speak about God without speaking dialectically. And though I know too little about his development to say this with much confidence, but I’m also inclined to think that Barth retains his own kind of structural dialectic throughout his life. I confess I find some variety of “theopanism” quite attractive, and don’t understand what the point is in denying it.

  2. andrewlp
    December 8, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Interesting. I suppose everything depends on how your proposed theopanism would characterize the relation of unity/identity between God and anything other than God which is nothing apart from this unity/identity: VB likes nuptial union as a paradigm and is worried about the collapse of the interpersonal distance that comes with more “absorptive” accounts of union with God (in Eckhart, et al).

  3. December 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Yeah, that’s the right question. For what it’s worth, I have no interest in saying that the creature is nothing apart from her identity with God—but neither, I think, does Eckhart. I suppose my worry just runs the opposite direction: that the reification of “interpersonal distance” insists on the “person” metaphor to the point of ignoring the proper consequences of God’s infinity.

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