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The new translation of Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis is a theological landmark that should go a long way toward clarifying the centuries-long debate about the relationship between analogy and metaphysics. Far from being a rhetorical trope or a philosophical tool, analogy for Przywara is the style of thought that best corresponds to the way in which being makes itself known. Not only is analogy, for Przywara, built into every level of Catholic theology. It is the glue that holds those levels together. The analogy of being is nothing more than the philosophical form that the Roman Catholic Church takes as it embodies God’s presence in the world.

Przywara (1889-1972) finds the formula for the analogical foundation of the Catholic Church in the Fourth Lateran Council 1215 decree that, “One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them.” This formula does not appear in the Doctrinal Decree of the Council (a profession of faith called the Lateran Creed), but in a second section devoted to the errors of Abbott Joachim. Still, Przywara treats it as a kind of “dogma of dogmas,” and thus the source of Catholicism’s truly universal authority. By its light, Roman Catholicism avoids being limited to “any single possible theology; rather, the language proper to the mind of the church is one of an aristocratic and sober distance from the enthusiasms of the Charismatic, Pneumatics, and so on.” Literary scholars often treat analogies as simply more complex versions of metaphors, but for Przywara, they take comparisons in opposite directions: what metaphors bring together, analogies keep far apart.

While David Tracy, in his celebrated book, The Analogical Imagination, treats analogy as a hermeneutical strategy grounded in theological convictions, Przywara treats it as a criterion for determining theological orthodoxy. Heresy is thus a name for theological projects that miss the mark of analogy, typically by falling into what Przywara calls “the pure similarity of identity.” Taking identity claims literally is the great error to be avoided at all costs, and only the proper metaphysics can prevent combustible mixtures of the supernatural with the natural. Such was the error that prompted the Council’s correction. Joachim was too intent on giving the Holy Spirit a particular form that would identify it too closely with historical processes.

The Fourth Lateran’s formula hinges on the meaning of “ever greater.” The “ever,” for Przywara, signifies an ongoing, never complete, and always expanding process. The analogy of being is not an analogy of inequality, as if God and creation could be compared even if only for the purpose of demonstrating how dissimilar they are. Instead, the “ever greater” denotes a dynamic disproportionality, so that whatever characteristics we attribute to God must be continually dis/qualified on the basis of a difference that has no limit or end.

The analogia entis has anthropological implications. Because being is analogically structured, we exist in a realm of epistemological instability. Those implications, however, are circumscribed by the guiding insight of God’s infinity. As Przywara writes in the preface to the first edition of his great book (1932), “I sought a formula that would do justice to the way the question of essence and existence appears in Thomas himself.” We exist here and now but have our essence still ahead of us, while God’s essence is existence. God is both in us and beyond us, but we can never understand the former without recognizing the latter. Faith does not diminish the necessity for the analogia entis, but neither does the beatific vision, which, even though it is the endpoint “intrinsic to the spiritual life,” still functions as “a defining end as far beyond every proportion as God in Himself is beyond the creation.”

In the thicket of Przywara’s dense prose, it can be hard to discern what exactly any analogy is, let alone the analogy of being. John R. Betz can be excused for assuming that there must be some kind of proportionality involved. He writes, in the translator’s introduction, that “there is an analogy between the unity of essence and existence in creatures and the unity of essence and existence in God.” Przywara actually believes just the opposite, namely, that our incomprehensibility to ourselves is the negative reflection of God’s infinitely rich being.

Betz is on safer ground when he suggests that “the ultimate point of the analogia entis, as employed by Przywara, is precisely not by philosophical means to close the gap between God and creatures, grace and nature, reason and revelation (as Barth seems to have feared), but rather to widen it.” That is half true. Barth too liked his gaps wide and open, but he didn’t want them philosophically managed or regulated. Still, Przywara and Barth look a lot alike from a distance. Barth famously called the analogia entis “the invention of the antichrist,” but it would be truer to say that it is the Catholic version of Barth’s dialectical theology. Przywara, however, should be compared to the early Barth of the Römerbrief, not the Barth of the Church Dogmatics. Przywara loves the theme of the night, which Barth also explored in his commentary on Romans, and Przywara’s writing style is every bit as exaggerated and distorted as Barth’s prose in his Romans period. What Hans Urs von Balthasar said of Przywara could just as easily be said of Barth—that he “like no other broke to pieces all the putative absolute formulas outside and in the Church as though they were nothing but toys.”

Barth grew out of his infatuation with Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative difference,” but he never became Przywara’s metaphysical equal. Przywara created a kind of theological infinity machine. Every step we take closer to God is shorter than the previous one, so that we move without making progress, while in fact the gap widens before us to give us a better view of how far we are getting behind. If that sounds harsh, I want to point out that there is actually no specific analogy of God to be found in this book, let alone any help in distinguishing between better and worse analogies. Perhaps that is to be expected, given how, in the analogia entis, “all commonality [between creator and creature] is exploded.” The ever greater dissimilarity threatens, by definition, to overwhelm, destabilize, and nullify the integrity, utility, and identity of any similarity. What we have in the end is, Przywara admits, a “silent analogy.” We must surrender to “an infinity of incomprehensibility”—and even in heaven we will never tire of counting the infinite number of ways that we do not know who God really is.  

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.

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