Speaking of God can be tricky. The first and rather obvious (to me, anyway) problem is that God is uncreated, while we are created. From this, it seems to follow that nothing that we experience in the created order can refer to God, since God’s existence would be unlike anything that we have experienced. Or, at least, nothing can refer to Him in an unqualified way. This is what I’ve believed for years, and still do, though I realize now that things are a bit more subtle than I’ve usually taken them to be.
The question here is just exactly how can our words refer to God? Do our words refer to God or have meaning in reference to God because, say, God ‘makes’ them (as Barth might say)? Do our words refer to God because there is some kind of similarity between God and creatures, as Aquinas might say? Do our words have an intrinsic ability to refer to God, as Katherine Sonderegger argues in her recent work?
Aquinas’ famous exposition and defence of analogy against the (then) competing views of eqivocity and univocity is one of the most well-known examples of religious language. He grounds this, more or less, in what the 4th Lateran Council affirmed is a real similarity between God and man (there is, of course, in the same affirmation, the insistence that there is no similarity without a greater dissimilarity). There is a likeness in nature, upon which grace works in order to lift up or to elevate language to God. Aquinas, very broadly speaking, sees this elevation of language as a restoration of an inherent likeness in nature. Perhaps we could say that grace perfects nature here.
Karl Barth, interestingly, sees a restoration as well, though characteristically, this restoration is not one of an initial capacity perfected but of a resurrection from death to life. On their own, our words can’t refer to God – they are lifted by grace from their death of non-reference to divine life by a free miracle of God. George Hunsinger makes the point well:
‘Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated – affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself…Analogical discourse was not grounded in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate.’ (‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed’, p. 70-71)
Inherently incapable and essentially inadequate. Karl Barth’s life motto when it came to human language about God. Katherine Sonderegger points to a difficulty here, however, which tilts towards a pure annulling of the creature in its entirety:
‘…this divine appropriation has been carried out at the very high price of creaturely upheaval, overthrow and destruction. The “similarity” Barth spies in theological predications of God stems not from any semantic role or range of these words of Perfection but, rather, starkly and wholly, from God’s declaring them true and fit and proper. This is a kind of “forensic righteousness” in the realm of creaturely predication. Indeed, this divine comandeering and declaring follows the stern pathways of Barth’s doctrine of atonement in CD IV.1: the sinful creature must be destroyed, pushed out of the way, killed and set aside, so that the New Creation can stand in its place and for its sake. We face here a form of the Euthyphro problem in the doctrine of God, and Barth has sided with those who say that the Attribute is true because it is willed by God to be so.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 103-104)
Thus, it appears that in spite of Barth’s seeming-affirmation, all that is left is a dead creature, killed for the sake of proper predication. Barth himself has something different to say on the matter, however, in his insistence that the ‘commandeering’ is not violent, by virtue of God’s proper claim on us:
‘With our views, concepts and words we have no claim on Him, that he should be their object. He Himself, however, has every – the best founded and most valid – claim on us and on all our views, concepts and words, that He should be their first and last and proper subject…He does not perform a violent miracle, but excercises a lawful claim and makes a restitution, when, in His omnipotence, He causes the miracle to happen by which we come to participate in the veracity of His revelation and by which our words become true descriptions of Himself.’ (CD II.1, p. 229)
Hunsinger notes how, for all their differences, on this issue, Barth and Aquinas are surprisingly close:
‘The differences between Aquinas and Barth, while not unimportant, should not therefore be overstressed. Both theologians would see the elevation of human language as very much a miracle of grace, and both would see it as mysterious in its modus significandi. For Aquinas, the miracle of grace was always relative or less drastic than for Barth, for whom it was always revolutionary and absolute. For Aquinas it occurred as grace worked with a metaphysical likeness already implanted, albeit deficiently, in nature by creation, whereas for Barth it occurred as grace operated on an original incapacity in nature that could be overcome only, so to speak, by redemption from death. For Aquinas the elevation of language was perhaps finally something more like a transition from illness to health, whereas for Barth it was more like being raised from death to life. Nevertheless, both theologians saw the elevation of human language as something that greatly perfected and exceeded its capacities in a way that would scarcely be possible without a new work of grace.’ (‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed’, p. 73)
Sonderegger’s critique loses much of its force when confronted by Barth here, though one still feels a sting at her metaphor of Euthyphro – perhaps the doorway to epistemic anxiety is opened here. If all that makes our words refer to God is God’s say-so, lawful though it may be, then it seems easy to imagine that any word could mean anything, if God should say so. The problems of Euthyphro here are not so easily dissolved.
Sonderegger provides her own account of the ability of words to reference God that differs from both Aquinas and Barth, though of the two, Aquinas would dispute it the least:
‘Now, for my part, I say that there is indeed a fittingness, intrinsic to the creaturely word, that allows our language to reach out and lay hold of its Divine Object: just this is the “negative” Attribute”, most especially, the Attribute of Divine Hiddenness and Invisibility. Now we do not expect too much of these negative terms. They point; they glimpse; they say in ordinary and rough-and-ready way the exceeding Mystery and Dark Light of Almighty God, his Nearness as the Unseen One. Or to echo Barth’s own idiom more closely: Divine Invisibility is revealed to us in Holy Scripture. But it is not in virtue of its being revealed – and only that – that the words Hidden and Invisible aptly draw near to the one, formless, and Unique God. It is indeed that the Lord wills that His very own Reality is compatible with our naming him; he makes the creature a fit home for himself. But God is the “most liberal giver”, as Thomas Aquinas famously says, and He has set up for Himself a temple, a house, in the land of creaturely words; He gives us this gift and settles there.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 105)
Sonderegger’s theological compatibilism clears the space for the coherence of this line of thought, though one wonders if by invoking God’s ‘willing His reality compatible’ with our language, she lands in the same spot she accuses Barth of landing. Perhaps, though, her insistence of the nature of theological language being that of gift is the most pertinent here. No formal mechanisms, such as Aquinas, and no actualist grace, such as Barth – simply a gift of a loving God. Perhaps that is all we should ask for in a doctrine of analogy.