Tag Archives: Analogy

Another “Way In” to Analogy

I’ve been working on some notes on Analogy–absorbing the Thomistic doctrine, on the one hand, but also working out a fresh answer to some contemporary problems that cut to the bottom of language and literature and rhetoric (not to mention metaphysical and philosophical discourse), on the other.  I’m pleased that the notes are making sense, and still working them out in enough detail that I’ll be ready to apply them clearly to the significant stack of critical and philosophical works I’m hoping to put these insights into conversation with.

I’ve already blogged a bit about this approach to Analogy, and hope as I go forward to keep being lucid without sacrificing translatability into various forms of rigorous language (and occasional jargon).

I wanted to pause, though, to jot down in brief paragraphs something that I put down on the first page in this fresh notebook I made notes on (not the first page, because I tend to jump back to the previous leaf’s verso after filling the recto in my notebooks, or to use the facing pages as text-and-notes; and not the first page I marked on, because I doodled on one page after writing “Analogy” at the top of it, too).  If your tolerance for language-theory jargon is very low, skip ahead to the John and Jim section!


Got that?  All, right, you don’t have to read it from the page.

One “way in” to understanding the basic form of analogy (this is what I am now calling “weak analogy,” not to be confused with what develops when we deal with the Being of God, which I’ll call “strong analogy” or “analogy proper”) is to look at a statement that would definitely make sense to us, and that we would assent to in its perfomative sense but also in that it expresses indirectly a claim we know can be true or false, but that we know is also false when taken literally–that is, when read according to the denotation of the words and in the indicative mode.

Before we go on, here’s one list of various ways a statement can “work”:


(Sorry for the verbiage, but follow the example and you’ll be fine–and if you spot an error in the verbiage, please let me know!)

So, then, John has a business associate named Jim that has become a personal friend.  John has mentored Jim and invited him home, and Jim has followed John through several jobs.  Introducing him, or asked to fire him, John says of Jim, “Jim is family.”

Now, if a very skeptical, naive, or curious interlocutor followed up, John would have to admit that Jim is not a relation by blood or by marriage.  And we, caring about the meaning of terms, would have to insist that “family” cannot properly denote “anyone I want to call family” or even “anyone I have strong bonds of loyalty and affection cultivated over years with,” though that last one starts to sound like a pretty plausible explanation of John’s usage.

In fact, being a sensible fellow, John would simply sidestep this conversation by saying, “Jim is like family.”

Now the ambiguity is resolved:  a probable metaphor that might have been literal classification [“Jim is related to me”], allusion (to the Mafia?), an attempt to assert an idiosyncratic definition of “family,” an obviously false assertion offered as a provocation, or some other things has been explicitly marked as a similitude. Metaphor gives way to simile, and we know that “Jim is like family” means “Jim is the kind of friend that is very much like a family member.”

Of course, if we know John and Jim even a little, we probably know they aren’t related; we would interpret “Jim is family” as a response to whatever circumstances prompted the statement–introducing Jim to someone who doesn’t know him well, asking not to be made responsible for firing Jim, etc.  But our point here wasn’t really to question whether reasonably well-informed people can navigate fairly simple conversations without much confusion; our point wasn’t even to underscore the need to keep basic terms grounded in reality, though that’s very much a reasonable concern.

No, the point is that at no point in any of this reasoning did we doubt that “family” and “friend” are analogous, that is, that at least some friends can be described truthfully and accurately with at least some significant language that also applies to family.  Friend and family are alike enough that we can learn something about a friend by hearing him called “like family.”

This gives us the rough definition of analogy that will guide us through the rest of the discussion:  an analogy is

  • a likeness of otherwise unlike things, that
  • can teach us about one or more of those things, or about the likenesses.

That is, Analogy is heuristic likeness-in-unlikeness.

Or, as I put it in some of my other notes:

“Weak Analogy” can be identified when a trope of similitude (simile, metaphor, etc.) evinces a principle; it is heuristic insofar as one may learn about the principle from the terms, or one may learn about one of the terms from observing that principle in the other.

Most important, though, it is the reality that things are analogically related–that friends can be like family because of what friends actually are and what families actually are, not by a merely subjective insistence or volitional decree–that makes it possible for metaphor and simile to be true.  The truth of tropes of similitude is underwritten by Analogy.

Without this understanding, not only learning but all of language is either meaningless, or impossible, or both.

Handy guide to Analogy

This is hardly the last word on the subject, but it seemed useful to provide a clear example, so that I wouldn’t confuse myself and everyone else when we talk about the distinction between analogical and univocal predication.


Key thing here:  as I hope you can see, this does not mean we resign clear definitions and prefer vague metaphors.  It does mean that we pay attention to the metaphysical “facts of life” that found and bound our ability to understand and discuss an intelligible universe.


brief excursus on modern and postmodern (from Analogy discussion)

Here is the terribly important point:  disregarding the fundamental role of analogy and insisting on univocal discourse generally leads us to equivocate, and we either end up pushing opposing “not…but…” statements whose opposition is founded in an equivocation; or we end up agreeing on apparently univocal utterances that are founded on an invisible equivocation that we all assume without examination.

The epistemological project common to most Enlightenment philosophy, most Protestant hermeneutics, Modernism (classical liberalism in theology), Fundamentalism, and almost all modern critical theory is founded on an assertion that univocal expression across all domains of knowledge is (or ought to be) possible and necessary for “truth” to be intelligible; the failure of that project is the foundation of the critical consensus commonly called “postmodern,” and is the true significance of conversations about “destruing” and “deconstruction” at Heidegger and Derrida (downstream from the European love affair with Hegel of the early 19C and the ugly breakup that led to movements as various the 1848 revolutions, modern anarchism/Satanism/nihilism, the Kulturkampf, the works of Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dialectical Theology, the search for the Historical Jesus, phenomenology, and a great deal more).

Whatever its faults, this postmodern line of critical thought has correctly insisted that the “not…but…” structures that are founded upon invisibly agreed-upon equivocations but purport to be foundations of wholly univocal systems of understanding and explanation are at the very least important and, where they betray such systems into harmful errors and violence, cry out to be re-examined.  Insofar as this is their project, our postmodern critical theorists are doing morally serious work.  Insofar as they insist that this problem is unavoidable, universal, and systemic and requires perpetual revolt against settled understandings as the only morally serious path, they are of course wrongheaded and destructive–they lead to harmful errors and violence, and so their own agreed-upon equivocations cry out to be examined.

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 4

So, we’ll need to review a bit, and then let’s talk about God.

Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures….Thus also this term “wise” applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God; but it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name. Hence it is evident that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.

Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.

(source: Summa Theologica I.13.5 respondeo)

Now, if this were a slightly different sort of philosophical journey, I might say, “And Zhaozhou achieved satori.”

But back in the real world….


This sounds difficult, I grant.  But remember what we’ve already seen:

  • When the child learns the word “Bug!” for a beetle, and applies it to insects, raisins, and the dog (but not the VW Beetle), the child is using language “analogously,” and will learn by specification which analogies are fit and which are not;
  • When the child learns to use “bug” for a range of insects, and to exclude butterflies and spiders, the child begins to use “bug” univocally;
  • When big sister teases the child by saying “Look out! there’s a bug in front of you!” when they stand in front of a VW Beetle, the child is confused because big sister has used “bug” equivocally.

In other words, we speak in analogies when we are learning; we discover the proper scope of terms, the fitness of certain common understandings across various applications in various contexts.  In the sense that our learning never ceases to be informed by how we learn it, that every body of knowledge (or clump of understanding, or field, or discipline, or science, or art) has its own coherence and purpose, its own “formal principle” derived from some more comprehensive and fundamental understanding, our learning and conversation are therefore always fundamentally analogous and only univocal or equivocal by specialization, derivation, or corruption (especially in the case of deluding equivocations).

We can speak univocally when and to the extent that we share a scope, context, and purpose with another, provided of course that the object of our discussion actually fits that scope, context, and purpose.  Any conversation about that fitness, however, would have to be conducted by analogy.

And here is the terribly important point:  disregarding the fundamental role of analogy and insisting on univocal discourse generally leads us to equivocate, and we either end up pushing opposing “not…but…” statements whose opposition is founded in an equivocation; or we end up agreeing on apparently univocal utterances that are founded on an invisible equivocation that we all assume without examination.  [Here read the brief excursus on modern and postmodern, if you like.]

So every understanding–every set of observations and claims, everything we are able to make some definite and univocal statements about–is bounded by certain judgments of fitness.  We can speak univocally about how one tree relates to another; we have learned what in each tree is analogous to every other tree, and are competent to make judgments of fitness about “how different is too different”–judgments we make by analogy, and which become definitions.  These definitions form the boundaries of sets of univocal claims, or particular “sciences.”  Because we are always, to some extent, learning, these judgments are always potentially reformable; yet each set of understandings contains some elements which must be true, or nothing else about them makes sense–and each contains some definite judgments without which that set of understandings fails to cohere.  The latter are called “formal principles,” and the former can have several names, depending on the kinds and sources of knowledge fitting to that science.  These include “intuitions,” “axioms,” “dogmas,” and the like.

Which brings us, at last, to the knowledge of God.

Like any other kind of learning, the learning that is involved in growing to understand God, getting to know Him well enough to become His friend, necessarily happens by analogy.  But with the knowledge of God, three related things happen to make it necessary to say that we can only speak of God by analogy.

First, and simplest, we are never going to have exhausted the knowledge of God.  True, if St. Thomas is right, there will come a time when we fully understand God’s relationships to all things–this is one way of describing the Beatific Vision, the ability to behold God as He really is, that is, to look upon God’s essence.  Yet St. Thomas also points out that even in this gazing upon God as He really is, we will not exhaustively comprehend God; there will always be more to His self-understanding than even our wholly perfected understanding can possibly keep in mind.  Therefore, even when we have the fullest possible capacity to make univocal statements about our knowledge of God, that knowledge itself will remain analogical in nature; those claims will be perfectly true claims about what can be known of God, but will always imply “and more” in a way that requires us to reason differently about those than we might about the cultivation of fruit trees.

Second, and only slightly more complex, the knowledge of God necessarily articulates with all our other understandings by analogy.  Remember that we discussed how each science, each set of understandings that we are able to state as univocal claims within a certain scope, context, and purpose, is necessarily bounded by judgments of the “fitness” that relate the scope, context, and purpose to the objects considered–that each body of knowledge is itself founded and bounded by analogy to other sciences, specifically to sciences that cover a broader scope at a higher level of explanation.

If there is any God, though, then God must be the Creator; the Creator’s intention and action must be the broadest scope, the inescapable context, the final purpose of every other object of our knowledge; and therefore the science of knowing God, that is, the set of univocal claims that we can make about what we can know of God’s intention, and action, must always stand in the relation of an analogy to every other kind of knowledge we have.

The only thing that could possibly found and bound such a set of claims would be knowledge of God; and having already used up all the other ways of knowing, we must acknowledge that here we enter upon a species of knowing which is both direct revelation and defined knowledge.  The sources of that definite knowledge, data of Creation and Redemption history, include the very words given to the prophets and apostles, the specific words of Christ, and what we have successfully learned from these in ways God has given humans the ability and authority to define.  The direct revelation stands behind these, and draws them forth, and also works in each of us who by God’s grace receive the infused theological virtue of faith, and continue in the obedience of faith, being drawn into friendship with God; this direct revelation is utterly inseparable from the definite knowledge, for only when they are conjoined do they provide us with a proper analogy–the analogy of Being upon which the analogy of Faith is built, and to which it refers.

Our claims about God can only be stated by analogy because it is knowledge of God that provides the analogies by which all learning, and therefore all systems of univocal claims, are possible.  Explicitly or tacitly, to understand God’s intentions and actions, to be drawn into friendship with Him, provides the scope, context, and purpose for all possible knowledge.  As the apex of all knowing, it is therefore pure analogy, insusceptible of reduction to univocal claims; all univocal claims about what we know of God cohere only under this analogy, as do all possible claims of any form about any other knowledge.


Third, and most complex, though hinted by the other two, our very condition as creatures who think in created brains and whose understanding is ordered to friendship with God requires that analogy, not univocal speech, be the apex of our knowledge of God, hence of all things.  As creatures, our understanding is built up according to rules encoded in Creation (like physical laws, changeability over time), in our metaphysically human being (our ability to conceive what our body cannot directly perceive or do, our capacity to intentionally reform our habits based on intentions conceived in the mind), or in our physical human being (like the relationship between brain structure and the nature of imagination, the variability of human senses, the pleasure/pain principle in our appetites and arousals, or our capacity for learning and repeating vocables).

Whatever capacity to understand God’s intentions and actions we have must, therefore, be a feature of our existence as human creatures who are physically and metaphysically continuous with the whole of Creation; the capacity of the Creation to participate in the life of the Creator is itself a manifestation of those intentions and actions which we are made to understand.  We cannot repudiate our creaturely being, in order to choose another; we cannot have a way of knowing that is unrelated to our manner of learning.  It is therefore impossible to think that our knowledge could be greater than our kind of being is capable of, though it is indeed possible that our capability in a graciously improved and in a perfected state is much greater than we naturally seem capable of.

The kind of knowledge we can have of God is, necessarily, the kind possible within the mind–let us focus on the brain itself, when we say that, though the principle holds for whatever is metaphysically “beyond the brain” about our knowing, too.  But this kind of knowledge must, itself, be an unfolding of the Creator’s intention that we come to know Him in an act of creating us such that we can know Him and actually continuing our existence as creatures who come to know Him (and intervening, too, but that is a separate matter for us, at a different level of explanation).  In other words, my being a human creature knowing God’s intentions and actions is, itself, a manifestation of those intentions and actions; my knowledge of those intentions and actions must necessarily stand in a relation of analogy, rather than a relation of univocal reduction, if that knowledge is to be thought possible.

Indeed, my understanding God can never be only my successful reduction of divine revelation to definitions, nor can it be an attempt to experience divine revelation as undefined:  Scylla gains me a univocal system but steal from me the necessary warrants for my belief, without which it will harden into despair and provoke unbelief in others; Charybdis gains me a moment’s freedom from the reductive habit, but steals from me the capacity to believe what I have learned, without which it will harden into unbelief and provoke despair in others.

My understanding God is always a divine revelation that what knowledge of God I have definitely gained is, itself, a manifestation of God’s intention and action in creating me; that I may “love God with my mind” as indeed with every other part of my creaturely being.

Anything less, in the end, is one kind or another of dualism, some kind of despairing of or striving after gnosis.

I hope, in a future post, to discuss the application of analogy to specific kinds of understanding God, and to language theory and allegory and poesis, the topics which engage my attention most fully.  But for now, we’ll mark this one concluded, and I hope somebody will ask good questions and provide sound criticisms to help me improve my understanding.

Because that would be a work of mercy, and an act of friendship, and a sign of the love of God being poured out in your heart.  Many thanks.

Further Interlude, still on Analogy, from the Ox

Just in case you did not, in fact, read it all:

Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures. The reason of this is that every effect which is not an adequate result of the power of the efficient cause, receives the similitude of the agent not in its full degree, but in a measure that falls short, so that what is divided and multiplied in the effects resides in the agent simply, and in the same manner; as for example the sun by exercise of its one power produces manifold and various forms in all inferior things. In the same way, as said in the preceding article, all perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly. Thus when any term expressing perfection is applied to a creature, it signifies that perfection distinct in idea from other perfections; as, for instance, by the term “wise” applied to man, we signify some perfection distinct from a man’s essence, and distinct from his power and existence, and from all similar things; whereas when we apply to it God, we do not mean to signify anything distinct from His essence, or power, or existence. Thus also this term “wise” applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God; but it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name. Hence it is evident that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.

Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.

Now names are thus used in two ways: either according as many things are proportionate to one, thus for example “healthy” predicated of medicine and urine in relation and in proportion to health of a body, of which the former is the sign and the latter the cause: or according as one thing is proportionate to another, thus “healthy” is said of medicine and animal, since medicine is the cause of health in the animal body. And in this way some things are said of God and creatures analogically, and not in a purely equivocal nor in a purely univocal sense. For we can name God only from creatures (Article 1). Thus whatever is said of God and creatures, is said according to the relation of a creature to God as its principle and cause, wherein all perfections of things pre-exist excellently. Now this mode of community of idea is a mean between pure equivocation and simple univocation. For in analogies the idea is not, as it is in univocals, one and the same, yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals; but a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing; thus “healthy” applied to urine signifies the sign of animal health, and applied to medicine signifies the cause of the same health.

(source: Summa Theologica I.13.5 respondeo)

Interlude, still on Analogy, from the Ox

Carefully read all of the Angelic Doctor’s words on the subject of the names of God before going on:

as regards absolute and affirmative names of God, as “good,” “wise,” and the like, various and many opinions have been given. For some have said that all such names, although they are applied to God affirmatively, nevertheless have been brought into use more to express some remotion from God, rather than to express anything that exists positively in Him. Hence they assert that when we say that God lives, we mean that God is not like an inanimate thing; and the same in like manner applies to other names; and this was taught by Rabbi Moses. Others say that these names applied to God signify His relationship towards creatures: thus in the words, “God is good,” we mean, God is the cause of goodness in things; and the same rule applies to other names.

Both of these opinions, however, seem to be untrue for three reasons.

First because in neither of them can a reason be assigned why some names more than others are applied to God. For He is assuredly the cause of bodies in the same way as He is the cause of good things; therefore if the words “God is good,” signified no more than, “God is the cause of good things,” it might in like manner be said that God is a body, inasmuch as He is the cause of bodies. So also to say that He is a body implies that He is not a mere potentiality, as is primary matter.

Secondly, because it would follow that all names applied to God would be said of Him by way of being taken in a secondary sense, as healthy is secondarily said of medicine, forasmuch as it signifies only the cause of the health in the animal which primarily is called healthy.

Thirdly, because this is against the intention of those who speak of God. For in saying that God lives, they assuredly mean more than to say the He is the cause of our life, or that He differs from inanimate bodies.

Therefore we must hold a different doctrine–viz. that these names signify the divine substance, and are predicated substantially of God, although they fall short of a full representation of Him. Which is proved thus. For these names express God, so far as our intellects know Him. Now since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows Him as far as creatures represent Him. Now it is shown above (I:4:2) that God prepossesses in Himself all the perfections of creatures, being Himself simply and universally perfect. Hence every creature represents Him, and is like Him so far as it possesses some perfection; yet it represents Him not as something of the same species or genus, but as the excelling principle of whose form the effects fall short, although they derive some kind of likeness thereto, even as the forms of inferior bodies represent the power of the sun. This was explained above (I:4:3), in treating of the divine perfection. Therefore the aforesaid names signify the divine substance, but in an imperfect manner, even as creatures represent it imperfectly. So when we say, “God is good,” the meaning is not, “God is the cause of goodness,” or “God is not evil”; but the meaning is, “Whatever good we attribute to creatures, pre-exists in God,” and in a more excellent and higher way. Hence it does not follow that God is good, because He causes goodness; but rather, on the contrary, He causes goodness in things because He is good; according to what Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. i, 32), “Because He is good, we are.”

(source: SUMMA THEOLOGIAE: The names of God (Prima Pars, Q. 13), emphasis added)

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 3

So all of our learning happens by analogy.  As we come to understand, we name things in two basic ways:  we give the same names to things which we see as “like,” though we know they are not necessarily “the same”; and we specify to find which ways an individual can vary and still be essentially “the same” (accidental differences, same genus, same species), which ways individuals can vary and still be “like” (same genus, different species), and which ways individuals cannot vary and be either “like” or “the same” except accidentally (different essences).  As our mental organization improves, we must frequently revise our understandings; the recognition of more and less “fit” analogies is a crucial skill for anyone who wants to reason skillfully.

And with many things–with almost all terrestrial things, things that we can observe with our senses, measure, manipulate, build, or participate in bodily in some way–we are able to specify our meaning so completely that there is no reason we cannot be confident that when we use the same name of two things, we mean they are “the same” (same genus, same species).

For example, when I say “those are both Shetland ponies” or “those are both triangles,” you would not think that one was a cute little baby quarter horse or that one was a parallelogram with a very short side.  You would understand that I am intend to use the name univocally.  “Univocal predication” happens when we use names in a way that assumes that whatever is so named is actually “the same” in essence as other things receiving that name.

In almost all things, then, we tend to place a very high value on univocal predication–on carefully stating our claims using only terms that the hearer can understand univocally, and arranging them so that the hearer can simply affirm or deny the entire claim.  Many philosophical conversations begin with a concern for whether and how it is possible to speak univocally about all things, but this is not only an abstract concern; every contract, and all laws, and almost every conversation between parents and six-year-olds, turns on the problem of avoiding equivocation, or the use of “equivocal predication.”

Let’s return to our example of the small child exclaiming “Bug!” at an insect, a raisin, and the dog (but not a VW Beetle).  The child is learning by analogy, and eventually learns to specify properly and to remove the raisin and the dog from the category; at this point the child seems prepared to use “bug” univocally, referring only to insects.  Whenever the child says “bug,” he now means a fly, a beetle, a mosquito, a roach, a cricket, a grasshopper, etc.  Of course, this takes a lot of learning, and continues to have gaps; the child will discover that a butterfly is usually not thought of as “a bug,” and neither is a spider; terms like “insect” and “beetle” will prove more useful for being more perfectly univocal.  He will learn, in short, that even the univocal sense of “bug” is a relatively fixed point in a larger field of learning and understanding; this univocal usage is built on analogies, and occupies a place in a larger web of more generic and more specific language.

When his big sister teases him by saying, “I see a bug!  It’s right in front of you!” so that the child searches the whole front of a VW Beetle for a cricket or moth or fly, though, the child will learn about equivocal predication properly so called.  We can simplify equivocation by talking about seemingly univocal claims that use terms that have one meaning for the speaker and another for the hearer, though that misses some of what’s happenning with regard to the analogies by which we learn and which also yield, in specific contexts, univocal or equivocal claims.

Big sister’s teasing turns on swapping analogies:  the VW Beetle is often called a “bug” because beetles (hard-carapaced insects) are among those we regularly refer to as “bugs”; the child who has just learned that “bug” does not mean raisin or dog, though, will look for anything except the car.

This teasing (like much teasing) turns on equivocation, and tends to help the child learn the limitations of his understanding.  Obviously, unintentional equivocation would be a failure; deliberate use of equivocation to deceive would be a lie, just like speaking a blatant falsehood.

So to speak analogously is to understand the name as having a general sense that must be specified before one can speak univocally; to speak equivocally is to use the name as though specified, but without specifying.  Because confusion and deception often enter our discourse through equivocation, we generally strive to speak univocally.  Because all the terms in univocal language are learned in analogy, and refined through analogous discourse, though, there can be no question of any particularly significant conversation proceeding solely in univocal terms.  As long as there is learning going on, or matters are being discussed in any terms beyond the most narrowly transactional and concrete, at least some terms in the discourse require interpretation based on the fitness of analogy after the univocality of all known terms is established.  

Nor is all equivocation bad:  all puns, and many other verbal effects, turn in part on equivocation, and draw our attention for humorous or significant effect to possibilities beyond those available in univocal discourse.  Such effects, however, depend on the univocal discourse for their truth, and refer through it to the analogical discourse that generates the univocal discourse.

Remember, then:

  • When the child learns the word “Bug!” for a beetle, and applies it to insects, raisins, and the dog (but not the VW Beetle), the child is using language “analogously,” and will learn by specification which analogies are fit and which are not;
  • When the child learns to use “bug” for a range of insects, and to exclude butterflies and spiders, the child begins to use “bug” univocally;
  • When big sister teases the child by saying “Look out!  there’s a bug in front of you!” when they stand in front of a VW Beetle, the child is confused because big sister has used “bug” equivocally.

Because this understanding is essential to your grasping why we say that we can only speak of God analogously.  [we’ll proceed there in Part 4]

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 2

It all begins with “that’s not true, it’s just metaphorical.”

And it ends badly, unless it gets converted into something like this:

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

What we need, then, is a proper term that expresses the basic movement of mind common to all learning, and especially important when learning about God:  “not only this, but definitely this.”

There are several ways to point out the necessity of this move–which is essential to what we mean by analogy–in all learning.  Consider a small child who is first learning to name things, who sees a small beetle and exclaims “bug!”  The child has heard his parents and others point to bugs, shoo bugs, stomp bugs, or pick up bugs and show them to curious eyes.  The child then, excited to have connected thing and name and flushed with praise, eager to dramatize the world and imitate and please the big people, exclaims “bug!” at the sight of a spider, a raisin, perhaps even the dog (but probably not a VW Beetle).  The child is not yet sufficiently familiar with bugs, spiders, raisins, or dogs to have a firm basis for distinguishing them (or for making the leap to an automobile), so siblings and parents and friends correct the names, “No, spider.”  “That’s a raisin.”  And so on.  Some of the candidates are easily distinguished; the dog was not very much like a bug, after all.

We can easily establish the basic movements, here, and they are the movements common to all thought, all education, all reasoning:  the recognition and assertion of similitude, and the recognition and assertion of difference.  Simplistic reductions of the arguments in language theory since Saussure often assign to language only the role of delimiting differences, but the existence of poetry and toddlers ought to be enough to suggest the poverty of such a reduction.  No, in both understanding and language, which are the interior and social manifestations of human rational soul, we proceed by discovering specifiable relationships of likeness-across-unlikeness and unlikeness-in-likeness that permit differentiation to occur within a unified field.


This can be described several ways.  Downstream from the Modern Western Philosophy tradition, I have long been accustomed to using the language preferred by Kant et al, of “synthesis” and “analysis.”  Like Coleridge, and similar to Pierce (who spoke of “prehension”), I am inclined to disagree with the general notion after Kant, that the “sensuous manifold” is essentially an undefined “given,” so that analysis (differentiating, delimiting) is the basic movement of thought, after which synthesis can begin.  We all agree, however, that there is an expansive movement of understanding that strives to “take it all in,” a movement that reciprocates with an effort to “sort it all out”; and that these movements of understanding are intimately related to the use of language to “name the beasts” and to remark their differences.  These are not manifested as discrete processes, but as reciprocating movements within every act of understanding and language.

Of course, we can also use a different way of speaking about this, if we hark back to the Thomistic and even the ancient tradition and accept the need to speak of “genus” and “species” in order to discover the “essence” of each thing we perceive and name.  Roughly, we need to know “what kind of thing” we are discussing, and we need to know “in what ways individuals of that kind can vary” in order to correctly understand and properly name that thing.  If we locate the individual by partially species characteristics and partly accidental characteristics (variations that do not distinguish individuals of that kind), then I am likely to have a confused understanding.  The obvious parallel is in zoological taxonomy, where creatures have sometimes been classified by characteristics which, upon further examination, may not sufficiently describe them.  A humble example is our child, who exclaims “bug!” at the dog because it crawls on the ground, at the raisin for its shape and color, etc.  The entire effort of careful description rests on this idea that there is an “essence” by which every properly named thing takes place and is made manifest, and that this “essence” is the ground of our hope for the intelligibility of that thing–our ability to properly understand and discuss it.

One can also imagine the problems that would arise by disregarding splashes or orange paint when identifying blackbirds, or spilling white paint on a cartoon cat in the vicinity of Pepe le Pew.

But this means that all learning proceeds by analogy, that is, by recognizing the similarity in dissimilar things, first looking at them “generically” and then attempting to “specify” them, correcting ourselves when we realize that our specification leaves no generic similarity:  Both koala and Kodiak are mammals, and for a variety of reasons we often call both “bear,” but upon careful specification we realize that there is no generic similarity between “bear” as used of koala and “bear” as used of Kodiak, because the shared meaning between them is almost exhausted in the higher orders of classification (vertebrate, mammal, etc.)–the koala does not share with the Kodiak what the brown and the black do; the koala’s differences from the Kodiak are not differences of species (in the philosophical sense) but of kind (genus).

So that’s the common form of analogy–the movement between unlikeness and likeness necessary to discover the generic and specific descriptions of each thing.  This movement continues as long as we continue to learn, but also bears the fruit of increasingly definite knowledge of increasingly many things in increasingly fit relations–that is, understanding.

And we’ll turn to understanding God, and to the problem of equivocation, next.

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 1

I want to try to help folks escape some boxes of bad reasoning we keep getting locked into. The classic form of the trap I’m going to describe sounds much like a verbal typo I made when talking to the RCIA last Sunday: referring to the perfect charity in which all three Persons of the Trinity dwell, I said, “And that’s why we say God is three, not just one.”

Now, in my case, I specifically did not mean to deny God’s unity and simplicity, and I instantly mocked and corrected myself. Obviously what I meant was that “we say God is three and one; we do not merely say that He is one.”

But many, even some of the best and most important teachers I hear around me, seem prone to use this “not…but…” structure systematically and under the impression they are helping people to go “deeper” by wedging them from a lesser to a greater.

A typical version of this is an exhortation I grew up hearing often with regard to letting the love of Christ draw us into friendship with God: “It’s not enough to have a head knowledge, you have to have a heart knowledge.” Obviously it is possible to rescue the sense of this statement (“Comprehending language about God is not the same as being God’s friend”), but in practical terms its force is almost always turned in the wrong direction (“Reasoning about God is not as important as having strong feelings about Him”).

And a helpful indicator of the pernicious cultural force of such “not…but…” structures is their frequent coexistence with their exact negations in the same belief systems, or as the equal and opposite axioms of rival systems. When such tendentious structures dominate a dispute, both sides become impervious to reason (and often unable to notice that they may be united in their failure to accept the same truth). For example, it would be very easy to find revival preachers from my youth who would plead, “It’s not enough to have a head belief, you have to have a heart belief!” shortly after expressing contempt for “sentimental religion that has no truth” or sorrow for those who are “sincere, but sincerely wrong.” Such a preacher may well be right on the merits, when given the most charitable possible construal by a very careful reader (for example, when saying that one must believe with firm faith that Jesus Christ was the God-Man sent to save us all from sin, then criticizing those who want to believe Jesus and Mary were special but deny the Virgin Birth as history); but he cites as truisms an incoherent arrangement of sayings in which the privileged term can swap as needed.

This is a fairly trivial example, but the history of Christian doctrine is littered with the shipwrecks of those who started with someone’s “not…but…” and noticed only when grave harm had been done to lives and reputations and teachings and the unity of the Body of Christ that the “not…but…” was an imprudent rhetorical gesture, not a reliable saying.

We’ll talk eventually about illegitimately converting intensive & extensive claims (a helpful critique I encountered in Stephen Prickett’s Words and The Word and have not seen many others explain), but for now just take two examples of “not…but…” that have caused serious problems in the Body of Christ: “not works but faith” and “not a religion but a relationship” (I’m open to your thinking of more, but be sure you don’t just pick the negation of your preferred “not…but…” as an erroneous “not…but…”!)

But, for now, to get us heading in the right direction, here’s a paper I gave at the Southwest Conference on Christianity & Literature in 2014 that deals with several things–not least the concept we need to revive to cure quite a few of our discursive ills:

“Can Poetry Matter?”—Definitely, and With Many Voices
Peter G. Epps
Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature
November 14, 2014


Now in earnest he means to honour the gods who have blessed him,
Now in truth and in deed all must re-echo their praise.
Nothing must see the light but what to those high ones is pleasing,
Idle and bungled work never for Aether was fit.
So, to be worthy and stand unashamed in the heavenly presence,
Nations rise up and soon, gloriously ordered, compete
One with the other in building beautiful temples and cities,
Noble and firm they tower high above river and sea—
Only, where are they? Where thrive those famed ones, the festival’s garlands?
Athens is withered, and Thebes; now do no weapons ring out
In Olympia, nor now those chariots, all golden, in games there,
And no longer are wreaths hung on Corinthian ships?
Why are they silent too, the theatres, ancient and hallowed?
Why not now does the dance celebrate, consecrate joy?
Why no more does a god imprint on the brow of a mortal
Struck, as by lightning, the mark, brand him, as once he would do?
Else he would come himself, assuming a shape that was human,
And, consoling the guests, crowned and concluded the feast.
But, my friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly there they act and, such is their kind wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we life or do not.
For not always a frail, a delicate vessel can hold them,
Only at times can our kind bear the full impact of gods.
Ever after our life is dream about them. But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep; Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.
Thundering then they come. But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?
But they are, you say, like those holy ones, priests of the wine-god
Who in holy Night roamed from one place to the next.
Holderlin “Bread and Wine” 6-7

This conference poses the question “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” I suggest that this question is roughly the same as that asked in the title of Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” If literature and literary study make any substantive contribution to the common good, it must be because both poetry and criticism are bound up with the active life in much the way teaching is, as a traditionary and culture-making work. The cultural moment that leads us to ask such questions as “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and “Can Poetry Matter?” is also the moment for which poems such as Holderlin’s “Bread and Wine” were written. As those who concern ourselves with poetry “in lean years”—also translated “the destitute time”—we will certainly want to take counsel in the matter. Beginning with the unlikely pairing of Martin Heidegger and Francis Schaeffer, and picking up some guidelines from St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope to identify some of the material conditions for a poetry that keeps faith and matters.

Heidegger famously wrestles with the nature of “the destitute time” in his essay “What Are Poets For?” and related works from late in his career. Heidegger expands on Holderlin’s image of the “lean years” during which the vatic stance of Romantic poets becomes anachronistic and poetry itself comes to be seen as a luxury product irrelevant to all but a narrow class of consumers. On Heidegger’s reading, “the destitute time” comes to characterize not just a seasonal dearth for poets, but an entire season of world history. Heidegger summarizes his view of the role art works play in the unfolding of history as follows in an earlier essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Art as poetry is founding, …instigation of the strife of truth: founding as beginning.…This foundation happened in the West for the first time in Greece….The realm of beings thus opened up was then transformed into a being in the sense of God’s creation. This happened in the Middle Ages. This kind of being was again transformed at the beginning and in the course of the modern age. Beings became objects that could be controlled and seen through by calculation. At each time a new and essential world arose. (74)

It would be easy to dispute Heidegger’s reading of the history of ideas, here, but his interpretation of the relation between the work of art and the world as a scene of human work is plain enough. When human working comes to be conspicuous enough to draw attention to itself as human working, it does so according to some available understanding of how the world comes to be as it is and of what materials and methods permit humans to work in a distinctively human manner. As a result, any work of art is most fully realized when it most wholly participates in the creation of the world in which humans can work creatively.

If Heidegger’s interpretation of the relationship between work and world is substantially accurate, then truly great art is most possible—and most recognizeable—when a great “beginning” is at hand. In “What Are Poets For?” Heidegger elaborates this understanding from Holderlin’s question about “the destitute time.” He begins by interpreting “Holderlin’s historical experience” in which “the appearance and sacrificial death of Christ mark the beginning of the end of the day of the gods” (89). If Christ’s Passion marks the demise of all other gods, then what Holderlin sees as Christ’s withdrawal from bodily presence within the world leaves humanity bereft of fresh material evidence of divine presence and action. Heidegger asserts that “the default of God which Holderlin experienced…means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it.” This time “becomes ever more destitute” until “it can no longer discern the default of God as a default” (89). “At this night’s midnight,” he says, “the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution” (90-91). It follows that to “be truly a poet in such an age,” one must first have survived experiences and thoughts that “have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him” (92). Such poets cannot readily rely on widely shared assumptions about the manner in which the world comes to be the scene of human work; rather, they “must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry” in order to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” It is to precisely such poets, Heidegger suggests, that “we others must learn to listen.”

This frequently repeated observation is the occasion of Francis Schaeffer’s critique of Heidegger’s views on art. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer argues that

When [Heidegger] says, “listen to the poet,” he does not mean that we are to listen to the content of what the poet says. Content is immaterial—one might have six poets all contradicting each other. It does not matter because the content is in the area of rationality, the lower story. What matters is that such a thing as poetry exists—and poetry is placed in the upper story. (Trilogy 246)

To clear away the brush, we must not fail to note that Schaeffer’s remark ignores exactly what we just heard from Heidegger—that “We others must learn to listen to what these poets say.” That is, particular poets who write in particular ways about particular things, and not anybody who happens to pen verse, can be judged to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” Heidegger does at least hint a framework for discrimination, so it is not in this sense accurate to say “Content is immaterial.”

More critically, Schaeffer depends on a reductive understanding of “rationality” (Trilogy 124). Like most of the modern thinkers he surveys, Schaeffer presupposes that only univocal true propositions are rational. Although the “whole personality is involved” in the intercourse of revelation, univocal speech is its sine qua non: Schaeffer’s “rational” Christian takes “A is A and A is not non-A” as “the basis” and subsequently engages all other elements of “personality” as a “response” to “what God has said.” If he does otherwise, the Christian “loses his way.” Schaeffer acknowledges that “to add things to rational verbalization” can “enrich it” in the sense that “poetry undoubtedly adds something to prose form.” In just the way some non-rational “personality” is part of a “response,” so some non-rational “something” can “enrich” the “prose form” of “what God has said.”

Schaeffer’s confrontation with Heidegger thus leaves the Christian seeking to make poetry matter with no very satisfying result. Schaeffer’s comment that “Content is immaterial” for Heidegger suggests that the content should be material, should make a concrete difference to the reader; and indeed Heidegger’s criteria for discrimination do not seem very concrete. Despite this, we have seen that Heidegger does not in fact commend “bare poetic form”; and Schaeffer’s reduction of “personality” and “poetry” to a non-rational “something” that can “enrich” univocal speech but also threatens it with irrationality seems to be an example of the thinking that marks “the destitute time.”

We turn, then, to Thomas Aquinas. Although after his time Scotus will persuade most metaphysicians that “being” is a univocal term, Thomas has a fully developed understanding of analogy. As the protégé of Albertus Magnus, Thomas seeks a unified field of knowledge; as a Dominican, Thomas is the paragon of that order’s effort to finally rid the Church of dualist heresy. When Heidegger asserts that the Middle Ages converted the world “into a being in the sense of God’s creation,” he is referring to the Aristotelian synthesis that completed Augustine’s Platonic hermeneutical efforts, a synthesis effected by Thomas. And when Schaeffer attempts to trace the bifurcation of modern thought into “upper” and “lower” registers back to its pre-modern roots, he starts from the basic nature/grace distinction found in Thomas.

Dana Gioia, whose 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” helped pose the question for this paper, suggests a key reason why we might listen to Thomas in his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today.” He points out that while “theology…is important” as expressed in “formal analytical thought,” such dialectical instruction does not address “the fullness of [people’s] humanity” (40). He continues by saying that

A great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry.

Gioia goes on to point out the problems that the Church has faced in calibrating its response to “the destitute time,” noting especially that it has sometimes succumbed to “the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies” that tend to exacerbate rather than heal the division between a secularizing culture and a world-changing Christianity (41). This division has been internalized when “eager, well-intentioned reformers” acted without “respectful understanding of art itself” because they “saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.” As we have seen, this reduction of works of art to “functional entities” is what both Heidegger and Schaeffer object to—and what they both seem to do themselves.

Thomas Aquinas, then, points us toward a vision of poetry that matters in two ways: by his teaching about the intelligibility of creation, and by his own poetry. Aquinas asserts that “man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason,” and that therefore divine revelation must be given so that humans may “direct their thoughts and actions to the end” (ST I.1.1). Because the Creator must necessarily exceed what unaided human reason would devise, and what we could communicate widely and accurately by merely dialectical means, Thomas says that “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely” there must be “a sacred science learned through revelation.” This “sacred science” is indeed intelligible and communicable, but its proper principles are spiritual and “obtained by revelation,” so that “we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation is made” (I.1.8). Nonetheless, “human reason” in the form of both dialectical procedure and appeals to secular wisdom are necessary to the “sacred science,” as Thomas says, “not, indeed, to prove faith…but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine.” Notice the relationship between the realities of creation and revelation, here, and the means of reasoning about them: the real is intelligible, and revelation is credible, but dialectical method serves in elaboration and definition, rather than as the foundation or sine qua non of faithful reason.

This, then, is the setting for the observation of Aquinas that “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” so that “natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ.’” In such a setting we can begin to see how poetry might have a serious cognitive role. I think of the ending George Herbert’s famous poem “The Collar”:

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.

Like so many of Herbert’s works, the poem represents an adjustment of speculative thought to a reality in which willingness to accept the condition of a creature is generally a precondition to understanding as well as to happiness. Thomas is everywhere concerned with the necessity of adjusting our whole being to a reality we did not create and which we are alienated from by original sin as well as our own actual sins.

In such a world, the Platonic objection that “Holy Scripture should not use metaphors” because “similitudes and figures [are] proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences” is met with the solidly Thomistic assertion that “it is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (ST I.1.9). Thomas argues that “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects,” and that it is especially important to do so when we consider those who do not have the time or aptitude for extended theological reflection: it is fitting “that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.” This use of concretely intelligible figural language does not threaten reasonable faith with irrationality because its sensuality is chaste; its end and scope are both more definite and more total than the poetry envisioned by the Platonic critic, as Thomas says: “Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful.” For poetry to matter, it must function within the horizon of intelligible reality; it must be more totally intelligible and responsive to the creaturely condition than dialectic, not less; and it may decorate, but must not distract from, the essentially human work of participating in creation.

In order to act in this way, a poetry that matters will require skillful use of plurivocal, rather than univocal, signification. Rather than oscillating between a flawed dialectic that insists that only univocal propositions are really intelligible and a self-defeating dalliance with unlimited equivocation, poets especially must re-learn the philosophical meaning of analogy and the proper sense of allegory. This follows from two basic insights specific to monotheistic revealed religions, and most fully developed in Catholic Christianity: first, that God is incomprehensible yet reveals Himself intelligibly; second, in the words of Thomas, that “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” The first insight tells us that we must understand analogical terms as an alternative to univocal and equivocal terms. Univocal terms always take their meaning from a comprehended prior experience of an object; even discounting the residue that escapes comprehension in such terms, the very idea of divine revelation means that some terms must use comprehended prior experience of one object to make intelligible to us what we cannot comprehend and have not yet experienced. Properly speaking, such terms are analogical: they trade on what we do know to sketch what we cannot yet know. As surely as all teaching involves dialectic, all learning begins with analogy.

The second insight tells us that history itself will already be laden with multiple significations when we come to formulate it in words, so that adjusting the whole person to reality will require language and art that can re-enact in the reader the simultaneous unfolding of multiple truths in one event or process. Thomas provides us a key reference point for the developed understanding of allegory, beginning with his Augustinian observation about “words” and “things themselves.” We may say, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”; and in so doing, we recognize that the double sense of “charged” as both “vitally filled” and “formally accused” is not an ornament or distraction, but a more completely true statement about world history than could be achieved in univocal terms. When the speaker of “God’s Grandeur” asks “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” we see “then” taking on both the sense of historical reference (“then [and] now”) and the sense of implication (“if…then”). On the one hand, ignoring the Creator’s authority is a perennial act of human culture; on the other, after “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” it seems especially contrary to reasonable expectation that people would not see the harm that follows from a refusal to adjust to their creaturely status. Far from involving a flight from the scandalously sensual into the safely abstract, then, proper allegorical reasoning develops the insight that the historical unfolding of creation is laden with significance even before human reason and divine revelation explicitly account for that significance. If dialectic serves to find the most definite and unmistakable expression currently available of certain truths about that unfolding, then poetry may well serve to protect dialectic from devolving into reductionism.

Poets armed with this understanding of human language’s role in an intelligible creation should find no lack of interesting and controversial subject matter, but should be able to set it in perspective. As Gioia says, “Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil…. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God” (35). Yet this pervasive “invisible presence” is by its very invisibility prone to become the “default of God” in the experience of a poet such as Holderlin or a philosopher such as Heidegger; we cannot finally distinguish on the basis of words between the verbal mysticism Schaeffer deplores and the complex participation in creation that poets seek. Reduction to univocal discourse only makes the problem worse, as dialectic replaces poetry. For poetry to matter in this way, then, divine revelation must occur “visibly and unequivocally” in the material world. Poets are powerless to conjure this, but they should attend to any proclamation of such an occurrence.

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

It is this reality which leads St. Thomas, as Gioia says, to put down the pen of scholarship and take up the pen of poetry, giving us the Corpus Christi liturgy which is still used for some of the most solemn celebrations in the Catholic faith: Pange Lingua; Adoro te Devote; Sacris Solemniis; Verbum Supernum; Lauda Sion. (sing a bit of Tantum Ergo if possible) In a culture experiencing “the destitute time,” poetry can matter when poets called into close contact with the definite and plurivocal nature of the sacraments wrestle with the implications of that understanding for every part of life. Our culture’s rapid political and epistemic pendulum swings merely perpetuate the “divided field” of human reason that Schaeffer correctly diagnoses, but cannot cure with univocal propositions. It ought to be possible, however, to engage in a poetics of adjustment to the status of creature that richly explores analogical language and the allegorical understanding of history and lived experience; this should be most possible for those richly engaged in the sacramental life of the Church. One model I might propose is Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, in which the dying man grapples with the existential sense of impending oblivion, aided by angels, ministers, and friends cooperating in prayer. For poets “in lean years,” and I suggest for poetry in general, the alternative to this obedient and unfolding vision is to live as Gerontius fears to die:

As though my very being had given way,
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on nought to be my stay,
And turn no whither, but must needs decay
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss

Works Cited
[paper written for oral delivery. Resource links follow.]
http://books.google.com/books?id=nskr-wgx_1kC [Schaeffer]
http://web.duke.edu/secmod/primarytexts/Holderlin-Poems.pdf [Holderlin]
http://www.ccel.org/print/aquinas/summa/FP.i.FP_Q1.FP_Q1_A9 [Summa]
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today [Gioia 2013]
http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html [Newman]
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173625 [Herbert]
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173660 [Hopkins]
http://www.theatlantic.com/past/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm [Gioia 1991]

Why You Must Understand Analogy (or, the misrule of bad metaphors)

In an impassioned (and there’s part of the problem) post, today, that raises some good questions about our sense of priority–do we rule grace, or does grace rule us?–and profoundly conflates basic realities, while ignoring some fairly basic principles of reading and reasoning, Elizabeth Scalia (“the Anchoress”) ends up flatly contradicting rock-bottom authority on the subject of receiving the Eucharist:

What I understand today is that we are all deeply in need of medicine, and none of us can defile the purity that is Christ, nor can the Holy Eucharist defile any one of us.

(source: Synod Fathers, Fellow Catholics: Do We Still Not Understand?)

Compare the straightforward language that is, in a real sense, the very clearest and purest expression of ecclesial authority as divine mercy:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if any one is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

(source: 1 Corinthians 11:27-34 RSVCE)

Notice the three specific things that Scalia gets flatly wrong, and which are of the essence of Paul’s point:

  1. God reveals, as essential to the character of the Eucharist, that to receive unworthily means to receive affliction, not grace.
  2. God, not humans, reveals and determines the fact and severity of this “judgment,” this “chastening,” this risk that we “come together to be condemned.”  We are warned that it is real, and to avoid it!
  3. “Weakness” as well as disease and moribundity are consequences of unworthy reception.  You cannot treat the disease with more disease, and sacrilegious reception is the disease.

Now, I do understand the desire to upbraid those who are excessively anxious–the sausage-making is ugly, and it is dispiriting, and people do get fatigued.

And I am painfully aware that, for those whose everyday state is not a known, public condition of choosing against divine command, natural law, and Church teaching, there is an invisible struggle often waged that is not one bit less serious, against a tendency to turn “culpability” into the avoid-uncomfortable-confessions card that lets us “write down” our sins from “mortal” to “grave but venial,” ignoring our responsibility to confess all grave sins (988), not all “fully culpable and definitely mortal” sins, before approaching for communion (916)–or to make an Act of Contrition, including an intention to confess at the first opportunity.

I am not saying this is easy–no, it is hard.  It is the hardness of it which shows us our weakness, our entanglement, our confusion.  It is made almost unbearably hard, though, when attempting this good thing is itself portrayed as wrongheaded–when those who seek to do it are treated as though they needed therapy, rather than as though they realized that, not being whole, they desperately need a Physician.  When people recognize a need, they help each other provide for that need–by providing the wide access to Confession that our Holy Father has so bountifully provided.  But dismissing the need, waving it away, does not make it go away.  Telling people they need not become stronger, because they can avoid doing the hard thing, does not make them stronger–it cripples them.  Helping people do hard things, things which make for strength and health even though we who are so weak and foolish and diseased and maimed find the painful and difficult, makes them stronger.

It is completely understandable that some of us are frustrated with those who say “wave away the sin and grace will abound,” and others are frustrated with those who say “become whole, and then we’ll see about an appointment with the Physician.”  But neither of these is the same as saying, “take the proper medicine at the proper time, as the Physician has ordered.”

In her understandable frustration, Scalia needs to watch out, lest in a “strike the rock twice” gesture, she fling up her hands in opposition not only to some excessively reactionary, excessively anxious people, but also to St. Paul and the whole of divine revelation that agrees with him!

And this is why it is so profoundly dangerous to speak constantly in transient, ungrounded metaphors, and to use sweeping subjective characterizations where one ought to preserve distinctions.

The Eucharist is “medicine” from the point of view of those who can receive it healingly, and the Church is led by the Great Physician to administer the correct medicine at the correct time.  The Catechumenate is the proper place for those not yet ready for Baptism; hasty baptism is not better than proper preparation, even though we know that God’s saving love is exhibited to those who die suddenly “in desire of baptism” yet without the benefit of the ceremony.

The Physician’s healing love is well exhibited to those who, desiring to live in the faith, are given the grace and help to choose between the “use of marriage” in what is not a true marriage, and full Communion.  They may well not be ready to accept this; here the Eucharist summons them to become ready by the regular use of all the other means of grace.

Underlying the errors, here, is a strange belief that the Eucharist is magic, that it has one kind of properties that always tend in only one way–flatly contradicting the potent antithesis of salvation and reprobation that St. Paul (and the other Apostles) plainly learned from the Jesus Christ who deployed it so frequently, as abundantly recorded in the Gospels.  In fact, this “medicine” metaphor, used out of bounds, is exactly the kind of mastering, Church-as-dispenser metaphor that Scalia rightly rejects.

Steady, friends, steady.  When you solidly pin down the foundations, you can become creative, by God’s grace, about how to help people.  But when you untether yourself from those foundations, it takes surprisingly little to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

Stay the course.  Hold fast to what is true.  Listen more to the careful and wise distinctions that have been tested by time than to the conflations that vent transient emotions and yield before wasteful passions.  Heed the Scriptures,

so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.

(source: Ephesians 4:14 RSVCE)

The Arrow of Allegory: final causes and deflationary readings

Certain teachers and homilists consistently rub me the wrong way, reading Biblical texts in ways that seem to mean less after their explications than before.

Maybe you know the kind I mean. They teach about the Resurrection, and they do so with utter conviction that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. But somehow it all turns out to “really be about” how believing in the Resurrection helps us to help each other and be open to new ideas.

the Gnostic Ogdoad, a manifestation of dualism--the only way from God to humans is through concepts untainted by material embodiment

the Gnostic Ogdoad, a manifestation of dualism–the only way from God to humans is through concepts untainted by material embodiment

And, if you’re listening often enough, you notice that the same conclusion follows from every passage. Sometimes it corrects a misapprehension: the account of the rich man and Lazarus really should be read more emphatically in terms of the identity of the rich man’s failure of charity (in ignoring Lazarus) with his failure of faith (along with his unbelieving brothers) and his lack of well-founded hope (“in hell he lifted up his eyes”). The tendency I grew up with, of looking at this account primarily as an exposition of the nature of Hell, was arguably less helpful.

Nonetheless, the parable of the Pearl of Great Price should surely not be read so that our joy in finding the Gospel is merely or most emphatically an example of our joy in finding any of the gifts God gives us, though certainly every gift of Creation is finds its ultimate goodness united to the Gospel purpose of the Creator who calls us together in one Body with His Son. Continue reading »