With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cracking Open the Nutshell

Brendan has raised some thought-provoking questions in response to my attempt to present- in a nutshell- what's at stake in the analogia entis. With a teaching this complex, doesn't any bare-bones presentation risk giving birth to a legion of mistaken reductions; allowing the "monsters of concision" to feed on precisely what is left unsaid, or perhaps on what is said without adequate explanation?

In truth, I think the issue of the analogia entis cannot be presented in a nutshell without being in danger of countless reductive conclusions. In my opinion this is the case because 1) analogy is one of the most complex and most fundamental around; and 2) because the univocal mind always has a certain seductive power over us, such that seeing things through a univocal lens will always be a strong temptation. In light of all this, it seems far more likely that any simple explanation of the issue demands a certain back-and-forth and supplementation, progressively sharpening our understanding of it with a certain dialectic. Without this, the way we use language of being will always be heard improperly, and thus nothing will really be said. It's something like a theoretical pendulum, always in need of a push back in the other direction until it finally balances out. In short, it demands that the nutshell be cracked open.

As it turns out, the discussion of whether being is adequate to God or to creatures (in the way I laid it out) presupposes quite a bit about how the terms under discussion are being conceived. Lacking these presuppositions, the dichotomy between God and creatures (as it were, fighting over being) tends to cloud the fact that here we should not, and, I think, ultimately cannot, use the language of being as if we had a definition of it. In other words, it clouds the fact that being is intrinsically analogical (really and notionally).

We might approach the issue, as so many thinkers have, by assuming that being is primarily what marks the difference between us and God: being is proper to God and therefore it cannot be proper to us (resulting in the devaluing of our finite substantiality); or being is proper to us and therefore God must be thought "without" being (ultimately threatening to obscure the relationship between God and creation). Scylla meets Charybdis, and both sides attempt to uphold their primary emphases while figuring ways around their potential flaws. However, the more foundational problem is that such a dichotomy already concedes ground to a univocal vision of being: as if here "being" were functioning like a universally common concept, a "quasi-essence," a grand category, a pure "quality" or the "greatest common denominator" of things, etc. The dynamics of being here are those of genus.

However, a fundamental aspect of metaphysics for Aristotle and Aquinas is the denial that being is a genus. Simply put, differentiating things that fall under the same genus requires the addition of a principle that is external to the genus (specific difference). But here we run into a metaphysical wall: the notion of "extrinsic principle" does not adequately map onto the notion of being, precisely because the only "thing" that can be extrinsic to being is nothing. But, as is obvious, "nothing" can't function as a separate, differentiating principle, thrown into the mix with being (because IT'S NOTHING!). Therefore the kind of differences relevant to the discussion of ontology cannot be thought "outside of" the notion of being, but must rather be intrinsic to it; they must be differences OF being. The unity of being is not like that of an abstract, univocal genus, but is inherently a unity-in-difference.

The denial that being is a genus, and the realization that it is intrinsically plurivocal, completely reorients how we use our ontological language. In this context, with this understanding of being, we can say things like "being is proper to both God and creatures," without presuming that we are talking about some quality they both share, or some generic category they are both lumped under (onto-theology). What our vision implies is not that univocity leads to one speaking too much about the difference between God and creatures; rather, it fails entirely to speak it at all. With a generic conception, if we attribute being to God, any space between equality and nothing disappears, and thus all difference is ultimately conceived nihilistically. Vice-versa, if man claims being as his domain, God can only be an abyss of nothing, and any space of relation to Him vanishes: we then have a kind of nihilistic god-talk, and seemingly Nietzsche's vindication.

Further, analogy is not the attempt to overcome difference, but precisely to speak that difference at all. Analogy is the only real form that the difference takes. Being is not generic, but transgeneric. And when we speak about transgeneric realities (also good, wisdom, life, etc.) as "common" to both God and creatures, an idolatrous equation is actually not implied in our utterance. This means that when we speak about God as the "only reality that fills-out what we mean by 'being'," we are not implicitly denying the being of creatures. In this context, the ways of expressing the difference between God and creatures (uncreated and created, pure act and limited act, simple and composite, Esse Ipsum Subsistens and entia, etc.) really do all the work that so many other thinkers want the language of “being” and “non-being” to do. In fact, they do so far more adequately by avoiding the extremes of obscuring the relationship between God and creatures.

Because of being's transgeneric, non-univocal character, statements like "God has a monopoly on being" don't make a whole lot of sense; being is not the kind of thing one could have a monopoly on (given the fact that there are more than one thing in the world). But if we do say such a thing in this metaphysical context, we are actually pointing toward that which most fully embodies being. Within analogy, claims of monopoly refer to the primal instance, the point of "focal meaning" which provides the intrinsic unity that holds between all the various instances of things that are. For instance, in the order of action, substance is more adequately called "being" than accident is, because accident only "is" derivatively of substance. Likewise, in the order of being (esse), the most adequate is that which exists through itself alone, in an entirely unlimited, unqualified manner: that which just....plain....IS...(God). Composite beings (creatures, by definition) only exist derivatively, dependent upon that which IS unconditionally. Thus the unity subsisting between all the different things that we call "being" derives from the fact that all are ordered to the most fundamental and primary "instance" of being: God. And only in this way, does my former talk about God as the only one "worthy" to be called "Being" have any meaning.

That is a little more of what I think is at stake in the analogy of being....in (or out) of a nutshell.

Pax Christi,


  • At 2/19/2009 10:01 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Pat -

    bloooooooody brilliant. You have mastered this most complicated of theological-philosophical issues more than most doctoral students - even profs - that I have encountered in my limited experience.
    Good start to a career, to say the least.

    Darn pity about your proclivity to that new heresy 'pistisism'....

  • At 2/20/2009 3:54 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    This is only as a secondary question -- since I stand with the analogia entis -- but also because I come to it with an Eastern mentality. My answer to it is that equivocation is going on, but I want to see what you think.

    How would you relate the theology of being, established here, with Dionysius in his God-beyond-being, and therefore, the source of being?

  • At 2/20/2009 10:12 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    As I understand the history of the analogia entis, there is a strong Dionysian influence.

    As I'm sure you know, part of his genius was to synthesize in harmony the two (or 9, depending on where one stands) Parmenidean hypotheses.

    In Plato's Parmenides, there is a long discussion about the One. Out of this emerges a few different views:
    1) that the One, in order to be the One, must be absolutely beyond anything it creates, since any indication of a relation would compromise its unity;
    2) that the One, is identical with what is created;
    3) that the One is part of what is created insofar as it is participated by all that is created...
    et al.

    There are other formulations of these, and the debate is much more complicated. Anyway, suffice it to say, out of this Dionysius develops the view that God always remains beyond even what He creates. Trinitarian thought, of course, contributes to this view since the Son, the person who proceeds, provides the possibility that the Father remains beyond all that is created.

    Non-being for Dionysius, as you well know, not only signifies an infinite surplus such that it surpasses even signification, but it initiates a whole new mode of thought. For now, the law of non-contradiction is no longer supreme. Instead a third - the excess of otherness - must be considered in every antinomy.

    So with respect to being and non-being, a third is recognize: hyperbeing, setting up the triad hyperbeing-being-nonbeing.

    This is precisely what analogy aspires to safeguard and convey. It is the only way to truly ground a doctrine of participation while simultaneously safeguarding divine transcendence, unity, and integrity.

  • At 2/27/2009 3:00 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Brendan has said pretty much everything I would have. Equivocation is indeed going on, because Denys and his Neoplatonic forefathers conceived of being as intrinsically finite, composite, and coterminous with knowledge. Thus in order to speak God's excess, considering Him as he "remains" in His primal unity even during creation and His ecstatic activities, the discourse naturally takes an apophatic tone with regard to being. However, I (and it seems Thomas) don't think there is inherent contradiction when the language is tweaked: Thomas simply internalizes this discourse within being itself, considered now as vertically transgeneric. In other words, it's possible for Thomas to include the differences Denys speaks to concerning unity, plurality, non-being, etc. INTO the notion of being, as differences OF being.

    Pax Christi,


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