Creative theology and the making of doctrine

It is not only the primary speech of religion—in revelation mediated through the Bible— that is ineradicably figurative, but also the language of theology and the doctrine that it articulates. Theology, as a second order critical reflection on the first order utterances of faith, finds it neither desirable nor possible to escape from the all-embracing realm of figurative language which is generated by the primary encounter of individuals and communities with the reality of the sacred. Sallie McFague, who favours the notion of 'model' rather than our preferred term 'symbol', points out that 'there is an intrinsic relationship between religious language and theological language suggested in the notion of model, since models have characteristics of both imagistic and conceptual language' (McFague, 1982, p.193). The metaphors of religious language and the models of theological discourse have a common semantic structure in their dependence on analogy (cf. Leatherdale, 1974, p.1; on models in theology and science, see Barbour, 1990, pp.41ff.). Though its language is shaped by reflection rather than spontaneity and by criticism rather than ecstasy, theology has no other tools with which to operate than those of metaphor, analogy, symbol and myth, for (as we shall see later in the argument) no significant, meaningful statement can be made without them.

Religion evokes reality

In two major works—Language and Reality (1939) and Humanity and Deity (1951)— W.M.Urban has explored the language of religion and theology. In the first of these, Urban insisted that the language of religion was not only 'evocative' but also 'invocative': 'It evokes feelings, but it also invokes objects' (Urban, 1939, p.573). This dictum is suggestive. Poetry also, of course, evokes feelings, but it does not invoke objects. That is not to claim (with D.G.James) that pure poetry is simply lyrical. Poetry evokes not only emotions but also perceptions. Furthermore, it may even elaborate the interpretation of those perceptions into the broad framework of a metaphysic: it may articulate a worldview. Wordsworth evokes the poet's emotions ('recollected in tranquillity'), but he also interprets the object of those emotions and articulates a metaphysical vision that celebrates divine immanence:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.

('Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey'; Wordsworth, 1920, p.207)

So poetry may describe objects and the poet's emotional response to them. It may also apostrophise them rhetorically, as Wordsworth did the skylark, Shelley the west wind and Keats the nightingale. Here the poet addresses the object of his muse as though it were a person. And sometimes poems are addressed to persons, as are love poems. But to invoke an invisible and transcendent reality as personal belongs peculiarly to religion. Poems that invoke God and call for an answer, such as Donne's 'Batter my heart, three-person'd God.' and Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Terrible Sonnets', bridge the distinction between poetry and religion. They speak the language of religion—of address to God or contemplation of God—in the form of poetry. Hymns do the same (and of course many hymns are originally religious poems that have been set to music); the music intensifies both their poetic and their religious character, creating the milieu of oblique, aesthetic assent to the realities presupposed or celebrated in the hymn. The distinction between poetry and religion is not clear-cut: they feed from each other; they illuminate each other. But Urban's assertion that it is invocation that distinguishes religion from poetry seems broadly valid. Urban suggests in this pre-war work that religious language is lyrical because it expresses emotion, dramatic because it rehearses narrative or myth, and theological because it contains propositions that are metaphysical and make assertions about the nature of the world. That is not to deny that the language of religion is fundamentally poetic: Urban suggests that religious expressions may be described as numinous poetry (Urban, 1939, pp.571-6). The invocative character of religious language points to the issue of realism.

In his post-war work Humanity and Deity, Urban continues to insist that the language of religion is poetic (even when it is expressed in prose) because it is emotional, intuitive and figurative. The lyrical and the dramatic are the primary forms of religious language, but instead of subsuming theological propositions under religion generally, Urban distinguishes the language of theology from the language of religion. While religious language is evocative and invocative, theological language is reflective and deals at second-hand with the feelings and objects that are the subjects of primary religious experience, mediated to us through language. But theology cannot avoid mythic and symbolic speech. It retains the dramatic character of the language of religion because it must discourse in the narrative mode. Even when formulating statements of a more metaphysical nature, theology is compelled to use symbolism and to reflect on the consequences of so doing. This raises the question of analogy which Urban regards as both more fundamental than symbol and its presupposition (Urban, 1951, pp.55-8, 225, 229, 246). This is our cue to discuss Aquinas, Earth and Pannenberg.

Analogy and metaphor

Thomas Aquinas believed that the metaphorical and symbolic language of scripture is perpetuated in the study of theology, the ministry of holy teaching (see Ernst, 1979, ch. 6: 'Metaphor and Ontology in Sacra Doctrina'). I want to argue that the doctrine of analogy—according to which attributes drawn from the realm of human experience are predicated of God neither univocally nor equivocally (that is neither in the same sense nor in a completely different sense) but analogically, incorporating both identity and difference—is a refinement of the more spontaneous metaphorical and symbolic language of the Bible and of Christian worship, and functions on a continuum with it.

In the cold light of logic nothing could be more inappropriate than to take qualities like love, justice, peace, mercy, kindness, faithfulness, compassion, purity, etc., drawn from mundane human experience, and to apply them without more ado to the ineffable God. There is an 'infinite qualitative distinction' that it seems analogy cannot bridge. The doctrine of analogy is peculiarly vulnerable to knock-down refutations (for an attack on the classical theological concept of analogy, from a linguistic analysis point of view, see Palmer, 1973), but it also needs to be protected from some of its would-be supporters.

The recent claim by W.P.Alston that there is not a problem here is absurd. Alston asks what all the fuss is about. By relabelling traditional attributes of God, such as knowledge, will and love, as psychological functions, Alston believes that he has overcome the great theological dilemma addressed by Aquinas: how can we speak truly of God if all we say is meant neither univocally nor equivocally? Alston believes that there is 'a significant commonality of meaning between psychological terms applicable to God and to man'. 'Even though there is no carry-over of the complete package from one side of the divide to the other,' he says, 'there is a core of meaning in common. And the distinctive features on the divine side simply consist in the dropping out of creaturely limitations.' This is surely no more than Aquinas' via negativa which discounts inappropriate creatureliness in analogical language: it does not itself remove all the problems of analogy. Thus, Alston triumphantly concludes, it is possible to 'create psychological concepts that literally [sic] apply to God, thus generating theological statements that unproblematically [sic] possess truth values' (Alston, in Morris, 1987, p.39).

The expressions 'literally' and 'unproblematically' cause loud alarm bells to ring immediately. The truth-claims of theology are actually intrinsically and incurably 'problematical'. It is thanks to the ambiguities inherent in analogy that all doctrinal statements about the divine nature, purpose and action (there are three analogies straight away!) remain tantalisingly elusive. That does not mean that we cannot attempt them: we are bound to do so in our faltering efforts to discern and interpret divine revelation. It does not mean that analogy is worthless: it is all we have and, sensitively handled, it is a useful tool. But we deceive ourselves if we believe that we can speak of God either literally or unproblematically.

We must reaffirm the insuperable principle of the ineffability of God who 'dwells in light unapproachable'. God is the all-transcending reality. Among other things this must mean that God infinitely transcends all human designations and descriptions. The First

Vatican Council (1869-70) insisted that 'divine mysteries by their very nature so excel the created intellect that, even when they have been communicated in faith, they remain covered by the veil of faith itself and shrouded as it were in darkness' (Neusner and Dupuis, 1983, pp.45f.). As Karl Rahner has emphasised, in revealing himself the hidden God becomes present 'as the abiding mystery', and that mystery—that hiddenness—will remain even in heaven (Rahner, 1965-92, vol. 16, p.238). Theology, with its inveterate tendency to domesticate God and to be comfortable with burning truths, needs reminding continually of the great dictum of the mystic Tersteegen: 'A God comprehended is no God.'

Pannenberg does well to preface his treatise on the Godhead in the first volume of his Systematic Theology with an acknowledgement of the surpassing majesty and mystery of God: 'Any intelligent attempt to talk about God—talk that is critically aware of its conditions and limitations—must begin and end with confession of the inconceivable majesty of God which transcends all our concepts.' Pannenberg concludes: 'Between this beginning and this end comes the attempt to give a rational account of our talk about God' (Pannenberg, 1991, p.337).

Because God is the all-transcending reality, there has always stood, alongside affirmative theology (via affirmativa), negative or apophatic theology. Whatever we want to say about God stands in its literal sense only to be negated and cancelled out. Analogy works dialectically, taking away with one hand what it first proffers with the other. God is love, says the New Testament, but we are immediately conscious that our most consuming experiences of love are shot through with ambiguity: the Freudian 'hidden agenda' in the love of a child for its parent or of a parent for its child, the mixed motives of mutual friendship, the tempestuous episodes of some erotic love. Human love at its noblest remains an unworthy and hopelessly inadequate analogy of the great 'fire of love' that is the 'heart' of God.

Again, God's wisdom is perfect and unerring—not as we humans become wise: learning from painful experience, piecemeal, by trial and error, by arduous study; 'older and wiser', 'a sadder and a wiser man' (Coleridge, 1969, p.209). And after all those qualifications, we are completely trumped by the biblical insight that 'the foolishness of God is wiser than [the wisdom of] men' (1 Corinthians 1.25).

From the fourteenth century, The Cloud of Unknowing insists: 'Of God himself can no man think.' 'Therefore,' the anonymous English mystic continues, 'I will leave on one side everything I can think and chose for my love that thing which I cannot think. Why? Because he may well be loved but not thought. By love he can be caught but by thinking never.' Then The Cloud instructs us: 'Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love' (Wolters, 1961, pp.59f.). But even this strategy—forceful as it is in bringing home once again the ineffability of God—cannot escape the ambiguities of analogy: what can it mean to 'love' or even 'think' God?

But, one might reply, God can be thought and loved in Jesus Christ. 'The light of the knowledge of the glory of God' shines out from the 'face of Christ' (2 Corinthians 4.6). However, this unveiling is at the same time a veiling, for God transcends even God's self-revelation. It is precisely the 'glory', that is to say the ineffable nature of God, that is revealed. As Von Balthasar puts it:

It is true that in Jesus Christ the mystery of the ground of the world burns out more brightly than anywhere else. But on the other hand, it is precisely in this light that for the first time and definitively we grasp the true incomprehensibility of God.

(Von Balthasar, 1975, p.22)

or, quoting Markus Barth, in The Glory of the Lord:

The full import of God's transcendence comes to light only on the basis of and in connection with his condescension.

The more we ponder on the holy child of Bethlehem and the stricken man of Calvary, the more we realise how little we know of God and God's counsels: 'O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!' (Romans 11.33). The Christian tradition has long known that theology is not an accumulation of positive knowledge, but a form of learned ignorance (docta ignorantia). Herbert McCabe, the translator of Aquinas' treatise on analogy in the Blackfriars edition of the Summa Theologiae, draws the sting of some tiresomely familiar criticisms of analogy when he remarks: 'Analogy is not a way of getting to know about God, nor is it a theory of the structure of the universe; it is a comment on our use of certain words' (Aquinas, 1964-81, vol. 3, p. 106).

This consideration alone justifies Barth's protest against any complacent or arrogant appeal to analogy. His great theological principle, that God can only be known through God, is well taken. It was this that led Barth to suggest that the direction of analogy was not from below to above but precisely from above to below. Analogies were selected in the sovereignty of God and graciously bestowed to enable us to speak of God at all meaningfully. Here, as so often, Barth had a point but overstated it. In spite of Barth's intentions as a dialectical theologian, his 'analogy of faith' (analogia fidei) is not dialectical enough: it lacks reciprocity. It actually distorts and misrepresents Aquinas and the 'analogy of being' (analogia entis). In Aquinas there is a satisfying symmetry and reciprocity in analogy. It is not at all an arrogant, idolatrous human attempt to scale the heights of infinite mystery, a theological Tower of Babel, a negation of God's ineffability or an attempt to bypass revelation. Analogy rests on the self-communication of God to the creation, God's impartation to it of being. 'Although philosophy ascends to the knowledge of God through creatures while sacred doctrine grounded in faith descends from God to man by the divine revelation, the way up and the way down are the same' (Gilson, 1964, p.39). Analogy is viable because it operates in a divinely ordained context of meanings bounded by the divine actions in creation and redemption. Aquinas brought out the ontological framework of analogy.

But there is an epistemological framework too. There is a context in human knowing that brings out the nature of analogy in theology, not as a logic-defying piece of metaphysical speculation but as a serviceable tool of unpretentious theological work—in preaching, catechising and biblical interpretation, for example. Of course Barth was not unaware of the epistemological aspects of analogy and its problems, but he did not achieve a satisfying resolution of them. Barth worked with an epistemological dualism. In the sphere of revelation he postulated an extreme realism. The import of revelation can be 'read off and the role of human construction and interpretation is minimal. There is a strong isomorphism between word and thing in this 'passive-copy' theory of language. But Barth, deeply versed in European culture as he was, understandably did not apply such a crude theory to the language of poets, visionaries and prophets outside of revelation. He could not allow divine revelation to be subjected to such open-ended mediation—to be at the mercy of human interpretation. Barth's dualism entails that the mind, through language, has the making of worldly reality but not of divine revelation.

Barth is content that the givenness and otherness of revelation rules out the possibility that there could be a humanly correct theory of how language works in such a context. As Graham Ward puts it:

There is no coherent account of the Word in words. It is Barth's Christology that bears the weight of any possible explanation or synthesis. A keystone analogy holds up the edifice of Barth's theology, the analogia Christi: the Word is to Jesus of Nazareth as the Word is to the words of human beings. 'The Word was made flesh: this is the first, original and controlling sign of all signs'.

Ward argues that Barth's gambit of bringing in Jesus Christ—a deus ex machina with a vengeance!—to solve his epistemological incoherence is deliberate: 'Theology for Barth takes place as a continual negotiation and renegotiation of a problematic that cannot be, cannot be allowed to be, resolved. The fact that it remains unsolved, unanswered and illogical is the very point' (ibid., p.239). Ward presents it as 'a rhetorical strategy presenting both the need to do and the impossibility of doing theology' (ibid., p.247). This dialectical deadlock or aporia will only be resolved eschatologically when God will vindicate the truth of his revelation.

Graham Ward seems to take that as a merit in Barth and believes that his equivocation about the language of revelation can be clarified by bringing in Derrida's concept of differance. But, as Ward himself admits, Barth does not distinguish metaphorical from other forms of language in theology. And Barth is not interested in distinguishing genres in biblical revelation. I see Barth as actually a virtuoso who makes free with the material of scripture and tradition (Avis, 1986c, pp.35ff.). He is not interested in playing the game by the rules. Having demolished all his predecessors and their methods in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (Barth, 1972), Barth is not lacking in the theological confidence—or rather bravado—to lay down his own rules. I must admit that I find this difficult to take in Earth. It is not a virtue to be so cavalier with the logic of language. Earth's concern for the integrity of revelation is misplaced. A proper discernment of such genres as metaphor, symbol and myth shows an appropriate respect for the authority of revelation.

Such a careful discernment of genre is the key to an understanding of analogy, one that does not, I believe, invite Earth's strictures on Aquinas or lapse into Barth's own lacunae. A whole series of post-war studies has attempted the justification of analogy both by bringing out its connection with metaphor and by insisting that all knowledge of what is more than merely empirical is actually analogical.

1 Dorothy Emmet, in her work The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (first published in 1945), asserted that metaphysics was an essentially analogical way of thinking about the world and attempted an analysis of various kinds of metaphysical analogy: 'It takes concepts drawn from some form of experience, and extends them either so as to say something about the nature of "reality", or so as to suggest a possible mode of coordinating other experiences of different types' (Emmet, 1966, p.5).

2 In The Glass of Vision, Austin Farrer linked images and analogies in his contention that theology is the analysis and criticism of revealed images and that analogy is only a refinement of appropriate images. He insisted that we cannot bypass thinking by images in order to seize hold of an imageless truth (Farrer, 1948, pp.44, 71, 110). Farrer believed that poetry, scripture and metaphysics (in that order) were united by the fact of working with inspired images, though the inspiration was of differing degrees:

Poetry and divine inspiration have this in common, that both are projected in images which cannot be decoded, but must be allowed to signify what they signify of the reality beyond them. [biblical] inspiration stands midway between the free irresponsibility of poetical images, and the sober and critical analogies of metaphysical discourse. For metaphysics can express its objects in no other way than by images, but it pulls its images to pieces and strips them down in the exact endeavour to conform to the realities. The subjective process of inspiration is essentially poetical, the content it communicates is metaphysical.

3 In 1953 Mary Hesse published Models and Analogies in Science, in which she explored the role of analogies in scientific exploration. She quoted with approval N.R. Campbell's claim that 'analogies are not "aids" to the establishment of theories; they are an essential part of theories' (Hesse, 1966, p.4). In a later edition, Hesse related analogies to metaphors by including her paper on 'The Explanatory Function of Metaphor'—the provocative combination of 'explanatory' and 'metaphor' already challenges the denigration of metaphor in the analytical tradition of Hobbes and Locke (Hesse, 1966, pp.157ff.).

4 In Ethics and Christianity (1970), Keith Ward pointed out that analogy is not unique to theology, but arises out of ordinary language. The difficulties of analysing a theological analogy, such as 'wise' or 'good', into univocal and equivocal meanings applies much more widely. Because language is built of metaphors, almost all uses of language are analogical to some extent. Keith Ward proposes, therefore, that 'it is the terms "univocal" and "equivocal" which are peculiar, and to be defined by contrast with the normal case of the "analogical"'. The vast majority of word-uses in ordinary language, he claims, are analogical 'in that they stress partial resemblances' and these resemblances depend on the associations and connections that are made by speakers and hearers between the various contexts in which the words are used. Analogical discursive concepts are required not just in theology but in the interpretation of all distinctive or unique kinds of human experience (Ward, 1970, pp.103f.).

5 In his work Analogy and Philosophical Language (1973), David Burrell admitted the deficiencies of analogy regarded as a formal syllogism or equation (a:b::c:d) and brought out its nature as the rationalisation of an insight—and thus its continuity with the way that we interpret the world spontaneously through the generation of metaphors. Burrell proposes, in essence, that analogy is a formal and reflective expression of that capacity of which metaphor is an informal and unreflective expression. The significance of any given analogy cannot simply be read off by anyone unversed in the Christian ethos: it needs a judgement that has become attuned to its nature through skill in using the analogy (Burrell, 1973, pp.215-67).

6 This insight, drawn from Ward and Burrell, which connects the analogy typical of theological statements with the metaphors that throng all meaningful discourse, has been developed by J.F.Ross in his rigorous analysis Portraying Analogy (1981) in the light of Wittgenstein's concept of 'forms of life' which have their own framework of meaning. Ross convincingly asserts that the central issues in the dispute about the cognitive content of Judaeo-Christian religious discourse are not peculiar to religion. Metaphysical, ethical, aesthetic, legal and scientific discourse raise genetically the same issues. They are all craftbound... skill in action is necessary for a full grasp of the discourse

Particular spheres of discourse generate their own ways of using words which are not transferable. They need to be learned, usually by participating either actually or empathetically in the practice of the craft, whether it be theology or motor mechanics, astronomy or law. As Ross puts it: 'You practice religion as you do law, medicine, or philosophy, through judgements, justified through one's construal of reality, and directed towards action' (ibid., p. 168). People who use religious language (especially analogy) are certainly 'cognitivists' and their discourse makes sense within their framework 'even if they talk nonsense'. It is the outsiders to these forms of life, these practices and linguistic conventions, who are actually the non-cognitivists, for they fail to make sense of the world of religion even when what they say is linguistically and logically faultless (ibid., p.177).

My argument here, then, is that there is a continuity between the ambiguities that metaphor imparts to ordinary language and the analogies of Christian theology. When in ordinary speech we want to make significant meaningful assertions, we do so in the form of metaphor. Metaphors can be unravelled into similes or expanded into symbols. Symbols and similes can be elaborated with some philosophical and theological sophistication into analogies. Analogies can be developed into models and these models become the building blocks of theology and doctrine.

Let us take, for example, the biblical idea of the kingdom or kingship of God. 'The LORD reigns!' is the basic, spontaneous metaphor, a triumphant insight into the personal rule of God in the world. Drawn out into a simile, this becomes 'God is like a king', which already implies a theological agenda because it raises the corollary 'How is God not like a king?'. Expanded into a symbol it becomes the theme of the Gospels: 'the kingdom of God'. This symbol both reveals and conceals its meaning, giving rise to a process of reflection, questioning and exploration that never comes to an end. The analogical form of this follows the pattern: 'As an earthly king rules his subjects, so God governs the world.' The analogical form will be developed to include other aspects of the rule of God by analogy with the authority of earthly rulers: protection, provision, compassion, example. This will be scrutinised critically, bringing out the idealised element as far as earthly rulers are concerned and also safeguarding divine perfection by specifying the differences between human and divine government. When this elaboration and refinement take place, we have a theological model—not just a suggestive or heuristic image (the basic metaphor), but an explanatory model with inbuilt self-criticism. This then forms a major component of theological construction and may give rise eventually to a monumental theological achievement that is held together by the theme of the sovereignty of God.

Iris Murdoch has suggested that Christianity is like a great work of art. It holds out to us a mythology, a store of imagery, stories and pictures, together with 'a dominant and attractive central character' (Murdoch, 1993, p.82). The sacred stories of creation and fall, exodus and pilgrimage, exile and return, incarnation and atonement, death and resurrection, second coming and final consummation are rich in metaphor, studded with symbols and bear all the marks of myth.

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