Analogy and religious language

  • Talking about God is difficult.
  • Believers will always believe that full understanding of God is impossible, yet they want to talk about Him meaningfully; they want to pass their impressions and beliefs on.
  • So how do they do it?
  • Three possibilities with limited success are:
  • Negation: The John Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener highlights the problem of talking about God only in negatives:
  • A God who can only be described in terms of what He is not is as good as no God at all.
  • Univocal language: God’s goodness is not the same as John’s; nor is He a judge like a crown court judge, so words with only one meaning are insufficient. They don’t go far enough.
  • Equivocal language: is a better tool since words used here have more than one meaning and imply that God’s wisdom is different from Jane’s. Yet again this doesn’t go far enough. Believers want to be able to identify with His nature and character, to express a God who is so totally unlike anything else and yet who reaches out to his creation lovingly and forgivingly.
  • Thus a fourth option – Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy.
  • In his 5th way Aquinas draws attention to the ‘gradation to be found in all things.’ He notes that every species has a maximum: fire for example is the maximum of heat and the same can be said of qualities; thus God is the maximal goodness, love, wisdom etc and also of being itself. Anselm had already said this when he described God as ‘that than which no greater can be conceived.’
  • The key to the doctrine of analogy is that it highlights both difference and similarity. If God is the maximum of love and causes love in all other beings it is because he is love itself. The relationship is analogical; there is a relation between the two phenomena without complete identification.
  • Ian Ramsey adopted the principle of models and qualifiers. Thus we are able to recognise that God is the maximum of all wisdom whilst acknowledging that what we know of God’s wisdom is modelled on our regular understanding and use of the word.
  • Both God and humans stand in an analogical relationship to the quality of wisdom. However as the cause of all wisdom in all other beings, God is the primary analogate and humans the secondary, having their wisdom caused by God.
  • So what’s so useful about analogy?
  • It enables God’s distinctiveness to be preserved but also makes it possible to identify a relationship between God and humanity thus making God more accessible.
  • However as Patrick Sherry has observed there must be some reason for choosing the words which we apply to God…after all we would not say ‘God is green.’
  • It does succeed in making it reasonable to talk about God.
  • Although if believers insist God is so different and mysterious we can never know anything about him then we must sympathise with the atheist who asks, ‘Why bother?’
  • We don’t have to know exactly what something means in order to talk meaningfully about it – for example we don’t know what it is like to be a member of the Royal Family – but in this sense analogy makes a useful contribution to the religious language debate.

 


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