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Another Analogy for the Trinity

March 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Many analogies to the Trinity are to be found throughout the Christian tradition. Whether or not St. Patrick used a shamrock as an illustration of God’s triunity, it seems like a good day to call attention to a novel analogy from Balthasar. Balthasar develops a theatrical analogy for the Trinity within the economy of salvation as Author, Actor, and Director (see Theo-Drama, 1.268-305 for Balthasar’s primary exposition of this triad). The author has primacy in the drama as the one who brings unity to the drama: “[The author] stands at the point where the drama (which is to unfold between the individuals and their freedoms) comes into being as a unity” (268-269). As the origin and unifier of the drama, the author has “ontological primacy” over against the actor and director.

Yet, this primacy does not mean that the actor is the puppet of the author. The author and actor are mutually dependent upon one another: “There are not two things, the script (the idea) and the performance; the two are profoundly one” (284). The author’s work is potentially drama and needs the actor in order to become reality. Far from being a passive servant of the author, the actor’s job can be characterized as one of creative obedience. In consonance with the author’s unifying vision, the actor’s enactment of the drama is a creative task for which the author explicitly leaves room in his work.

The director has the essential and difficult role of bringing together the author, with his original, creative contribution, and the various actors and their differing abilities. The director has the task of maintaining the creative vision of the author and supporting the use of the actors’ own imagination and creativity in bringing about this vision. Thus, within this analogy, the Father is the playwright, the Son is the protagonist who carries out the heart of the drama, and the Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Son and brings other actors in the drama. While the Son is always receptive to the Spirit and is always fully one with his role on the stage, the Spirit must lead others through grace to becoming more closely identified with the role God gives them in the drama.

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Five important questions about the analogy of being

January 20, 2011 6 comments

1. First of all, what is it?  It is not so much a thing as it is a statement about everything creaturely.  It is Erich Przywara’s shorthand for his quite complex understanding of the formal structure of created existence.  As it tends to be used, it can refer not only to Przywara’s understanding of this structure but also to the structure itself.  Thus it is a name both for a theory and for that to which the theory refers. 

It has what one might call a horizontal and a vertical aspect.  In itself, creaturely existence is analogical.  That is to say, it is never identical with itself but is nevertheless not merely nothing.  Such is its incompleteness, its temporality, its provisionality.  Some of what it is definitively is always already present in it, and yet to a perhaps much greater extent what it is definitively still eludes or transcends it.  Przywara expresses this idea in the formula: Sosein in-und-ueber Dasein, essence in-and-beyond existence.  This is the horizontal aspect of the analogy of being.  Or, as Przywara says, it is the inner-creaturely analogy. 

The vertical aspect concerns the creature’s relation with God.  In this case, the transcendence is much more pronounced.  The being of God is infinitely above and yet nevertheless present within creation.  In the final analysis, to say that the creature is not merely nothing is to say that there is some likeness of God that is disclosed in the creature, however limited it may because of our finitude and however effaced it may be because of sin.  However, as soon as one posits such a likeness, Przywara believes it is necessary to remember the dictum of the Fourth Lateran Council, which is in continuity with the ancient Christian tradition of apophasis: namely, that every creaturely similarity with God is surpassed by a still greater–and, indeed, never bridgeable–dissimilarity.

2. What is the warrant for this theory?  Przywara grounds it both in his engagement with the philosophy of Greek antiquity (especially Plato and Aristotle) and also in his interpretation of creaturely existence as it is presented in Christian scripture and tradition (particularly in Augustine and Aquinas).  Thus he finds warrants for it in what have come to be called reason and revelation.  Suppose one rejects the former warrant, with the conviction that it illegitimately imports foreign elements into Christian theology, one must nevertheless contend with the second, which has a certain degree of independence.  One cannot dismiss the analogy of being by denouncing its philosophical foundation, for it is doubly founded, and also demands to be understood as an interpretation of that which God has revealed concerning creation.

3. What is the scope of this theory?  This is in some ways the trickiest question to answer.  For, on the one hand, the theory purports to apply to everything creaturely.  And yet, on the other hand, it says strikingly little.  What it says is precisely this: almost nothing.  To be a creature–in comparison with the fullness of being for which one strives, and especially in comparison with the God who is infinitely above and beyond all things–is to be almost nothing.  But it is necessary to take seriously both parts of this saying.  As radically distant, not only from that which is essential to our own being, but also from the hyperessential reality of God, it is as though–and this is barely an exaggeration–we are nothing at all, mere dust in the wind of the universe.  And yet, creation is precisely such that one can only almost negate it totally, for something remains present within it, even if one manages only to speak of it through a double negation: we are not not

So the analogy of being implicates everything but determines very little about it.  It is, therefore, far from sufficient as an account of what it means to be human, to be Christian, or–for that matter–to be Catholic.  Much more extensive use needs to be made of both reason and revelation to fill out a more adequate picture of things as a whole.  The analogy of being cannot claim any clear sense of priority over other kinds of questions, concerning, for instance, the Trinity, or Christology, the destructive effects of sin, or the life of the church.  It is a principle but not necessarily the first principle.     

4. Is the analogy of being toxic for ecumenical dialogue?  It could be.  To the extent that it tends to polarize groups of Christian thinkers who, otherwise, would have much about which they could agree, it is a dangerous bit of theorizing.  However, remembering its limited scope, its double foundation in reason and revelation, and its insistence on the radical alterity of God may help keep the conversation from veering off track. 

5. Is it possible to hold onto what is central to the analogy of being without recourse to the problematic discourse of being, which has become greatly destabilized in our postmodern age?  In a sense, this may be one of Jean-Luc Marion’s most stunning achievements, but I will have to say more on that later!

Lacoste on care and restlessness: or, the irreducible difference between phenomenology and theology

September 7, 2010 4 comments

Jean-Yves Lacoste draws an analogy in several of his works–including both Note sur le temps and Experience and the Absolute–between Heideggerian “care” and Augustinian “restlessness.”  The analogy identifies a similarity located within a greater dissimilarity.  On the one hand, both care and restlessness express the unavoidable unease that comes with living in a temporal world of transience and death (the similarity).  On the other hand, Heidegger’s concept of care presupposes that the meaning of being which is manifest in the structures of human experience is definitive, whereas Augustine’s account of restlessness aims at an ultimate horizon of divine freedom which subverts the hold of any supposedely manifest finality in the here-and-now (the greater dissimilarity). 

This analogy might help to explain the attraction which Christian thinkers have had to Heidegger’s philosophy and other similarly rich descriptions of human-being-in-the-world which have emerged from the phenomenological tradition.  For there is a common concern to acquire a more nuanced understanding of what might loosely be called the “human condition.”  And yet, the analogy also demonstrates why these dialogues, these relationships, will always be strained.  Ultimately, the relation between theology and phenomenology is more dissimilar than it is similar.  The address to God, the hope in God, the existence lived before God–these primary theological practices have their final significance in things not-yet seen, in realities beyond manifestation, in a future without the apparent definitiveness of death.  Theology’s concern are just different. 

I realize that this point may be obvious to some, perhaps to most.  But it is something which occurred to me with a sense of refreshing newness today.

Betz on Przywara

December 19, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve just finished reading John Betz’s two-part article called “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being” (Modern Theology 21.3 [2005]: 367-411 and 22.1 [2006]: 1-50).  Although it’s long for an article, it’s impressively short given what it accomplishes.  In the first place, Betz provides one of the clearest, most concise, and in my opinion most accurate interpretations and defenses of Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis (1932) that I have encountered.  Although Betz is perhaps a little more unsympathetic to Barth and Heidegger than one might hope (if one wants the most balanced possible assessment), nevertheless I think he does show clearly that Przywara’s position is much more subtle than these influential critics allow.

Secondly, Betz demonstrates Przywara’s relevance for today by deploying his theory of analogy in an argument against the (post-Kantian) conflict between the beautiful and the sublime and the totalizing (post-Heideggerian)  preference for the latter.  Essentially, Betz suggests that Przywara teaches us to see two things: (1) the analogical relationship between beauty and sublimity, in such a way that both are preserved, and (2) the greater theological analogy between the beauty/sublimity of the ever-greater God and the beauty/sublimity of creation.  In these two ways, Przywara corrects the modern and postmodern aesthetic preference for purely immanent secular sublimity which has excluded both beauty and transcendence.

Betz’s aesthetic reading of Przywara is an innovation, but one consistent with Przywara’s doctrine regarding the unity of the transcendentals (truth, goodness, and beauty).  The creativity of the argument does not, then, entail any eisegetical missteps.  On the contrary, it seems to attest to the astonishing pliability and yet usefulness of Przywara’s original concept, which he would have tended to express more generally in terms of (1) an inner-creaturely analogy in which essence is to be sought in-and-beyond existence and (2) a vertical analogy from God to creation (and only thereafter back to God) in which the divine mystery lives above-and-within creaturely being.  The only step that Betz needs to make is an interpretation of essence as sublime (precisely insofar as it remains beyond us) and existence as beautiful (precisely insofar as its essence really does become manifest within the particular forms of our experience).

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Analogy universalized

December 5, 2009 3 comments

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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