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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!

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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