In my criticisms of the Christian appropriation of the visual arts, at least one commenter invoked “the analogy of being.” The reference sent me scurrying back to Thomas Aquinas. Although no centralized text states Aquinas’ doctrine directly and succinctly, Summa Theologiae, 1a.13.1-6 covers the central issues. (I will use the contemporary selection/translation by Timothy McDermott in the “World’s Classics” series by Oxford, Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings, pp. 214-228; the standard on-line source is here.)
According to Aquinas, there are two incorrect ways of understanding language about God. Here I summarize the discussion in Article 5 (=MacDermott, p. 224). Univocal language about God assumes that when we make a statement about God, e.g., “God is wise,” the attribute “wise” means the same thing when applied to God as when applied to the “creature” (in this case, human beings). But this is clearly not the case. The statement, “John Doe is wise” means something different from “God is wise.” John Doe may be wise or not; but God, if God, must be wise. Furthermore, to assert that “John Doe is wise” “delimits” Mr. Doe: I know him to be wise, insightful, the opposite of foolish or lacking in intellectual perception, etc. But God’s wisdom is unlimited. There is no such thing as a foolish God (although Doe may indeed be foolish). Therefore, we cannot use words to describe God in the same way or with the same meaning that we use words to describe creatures, specifically human beings.
On the other hand, we cannot say that language about God is totally equivocal: having two different meanings. We cannot say that God’s wisdom is utterly different from human wisdom. Both philosophy and the Bible teaches us we can know something about God, whether by logical demonstration (esp., Aristotle) or through the creation (Aquinas quotes Romans 1:20).
So how do we talk about God? Analogically. In Article 5, Aquinas connects analogy to proportionality. The standard metaphor, apparently drawn directly from Aristotle, is “health”. “Health” is a fundamental attribute of a human body. A body has health in a greater or lesser degree. Now the health of the body is “analogically” or “proportionately” expressed in other, lesser, forms of health. Aquinas knew that urine can be symptomatic of health or disease. “Healthy” urine is urine of a “healthy” body. To the extent the body is healthy, its urine has a health analogous to (the more fundamental) health of the body. In a sense, the urine “participates” (my word) in the underlying health of the body, and by linguistic extension, becomes “healthy.”
So likewise with “wisdom” of God and man. Only God is truly wise. The wisdom of a man “participates” analogically in the divine wisdom, without being identical to it. A man can be wise proportionate to his capability to partake of the attribute. When a man exercises wisdom, we recognize that his activity shares something of the trait, which God exercises fully and completely, without limit (without limitation or delimitation).
So far, so good. It seems that Aquinas has established a key and theologically necessary point: we must be able to talk about God, who is known, certainly (for Christians and Jews) through revelation, and perhaps through reason. On the other hand, it doesn’t take philosophy to know that God is more than a projection of human traits, writ large. God is greater than our conception of him.
But note that no where in this discussion does Aquinas refer to an analogy of being. (If anyone knows of a Thomistic text that refers explicitly to an analogia entis [or a phrase lexically equivalent], I would be happy to have it pointed out to me.) Even interpreters of Aquinas differ over what the analogy is an analogy of. According to William Witt, Ralph McInerny holds that the analogy is only “only a tool of logic, not an ontological ‘analogy of being.’” David Burrell agrees that Aquinas uses analogy as a “‘linguistic’” tool, but still thinks that this linguistic tool can somehow express something real about the world itself. (note 11) (Portions of the McInerny text are available here, but not, alas, most of the final chapter, which would appear to dispositive. But see p. 152.)
So the first conclusion is that even if one follows Aquinas in his analysis of analogy, or more specifically, analogical language, as a philosophical tool for interpreting “God-language,” we do not yet know whether it says anything about being, as such, or about God’s being in particular. Even less are we given any guidance about if or how being might be pictured, or visually expressed. Aquinas’ conclusion seems non-controvertible, almost self-evident. But by the same token, it is theologically “thin”: it does not tell us much more than...we can and should try to talk about God.
Even so, in my study I observed something odd, indeed (in my mind) startling, about Aquinas’ arguments. Question 13, Article 1, “Can we use words for God,” begins (as is the usual structure in the Summa Theologiae]) with the negative: “we have no words for God.” Two arguments for this opinion are drawn from the logic of names, but his primary authority is the Christian neo-Platonist pseudo-Dionysius, who is quoted as saying, “of him there is neither name nor opinion.” (The quote from Proverbs 30:4, even in his own version, does not say what the negative opinion would have it say: it does not say that there are no names for God, it says we don’t know them.) “But against that [those negative arguments]” (=”On the contrary”) then responds with a quote from Exodus 15: 3: “The Lord is a great warrior; Almighty is his name.” So apparently, based on the biblical authority, God does have a name.
The difficulty is that the biblical and non-biblical authorities are incommensurate (they cannot be compared or equated). The biblical text speaks of God in concrete, imaged terms (the mental picture of a great soldier, striding into the battlefield with flashing armor, hoisted spear, and swinging sword). The philosophical-theological authorities are abstract and conceptual. However, Aquinas does not use the two profoundly different forms of God-language to investigate the strengths and weaknesses of each, to interrogate each other. What is the significance of the concrete biblical imagery? Do we dispose of the imagery, or reinterpret it? If we interpret the biblical imagery by negating its specific content (it’s not this, not that...)—a via negativa—what is left of it? Etc. He simply uses the biblical language to shut down the discussion of the via negativa, which opens the door to his own neo-Aristotelian analysis. (The next paragraph begins: “Aristotle says....”)
He does the exact same thing in Article 6: does analogical language apply primarily to God or to the creatures? The negative position—to the creatures—is supported by one citation of Aristotle and two of pseudo-Dionysius. The positive position—to God—is supported by another biblical text, Ephesians 3:14-15: “I bow my knee to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named,... (emphasis added).” Once again, talking about the-God-who-is-father-of-Jesus-Christ being the source of the “name” of human fatherhood is fundamentally different from talking about God as Aristotle or pseudo-Dionysius do. He does not engage the two modes of God-language, the concrete/imaginistic versus the philosophical/via negativa. He does not allow them to interrogate each other. He uses biblical authority to slam the door on the via negativa, which leaves him free to remain untroubled in his neo-Aristotelian house, (“In reply,” second sentence: “And because, as Aristotle says,...”).
Aquinas knows very well that there is something philosophically odd about the God of the Bible. In the “reply” to Article 2, he defends the claim that at least some “of the words we use for God express what he essentially is” (New Advent reads “can be applied to God substantially”). In the course of his positive explanation, he responds to the position that names for God are simply a way of talking about “God’s relationship to creatures.” He counters: that “isn’t what people talking of God want to say. When we talk of the living God, we want to say something else than that he causes life in us or differs from non-living bodies (McDermott, p. 218, emphasis added; New Advent reads in part: “in saying that God lives...”).” To say that God is a living God is not simply to say that God causes life.
So Aquinas knows that the God of the Bible is a living God, and that to say, “God is a living God,” is essential to God’s identity. The life of the living God cannot be—must not be—evacuated by any via negativa. Unfortunately, in his own argument the God of the philosophers gets in the way of unpacking that insight.