Saturday, August 27, 2005

Religious Language

Macht has pointed the way to a paper by Roy Clouser on religious language, called "Religious Language: A New Look at an Old Problem" (PDF). In it Clouser rejects the the theory of analogy. This is his reason:

For one thing, A, to be like another thing, B, they must have some element in common which is exactly the same for each. (And I do not merely mean that they have in common the property of being like one another.) There must be some respect in which they are alike. If A is red and B is green they are alike in being colors; neither is more truly a color than the other. If A is small and B is large, they are alike in having size; neither is more fully a size, or possesses the quality of size in a better way, than the other. It is simply impossible to conceive of two things being like one another, if it is supposed to be true that they have no property in common univocally. For that to be true, two things would have to be “alike’ although there is no respect in which they are the “same.” And, in fact, the analogy theory does not accomplish such a trick either.


But this is merely confused. Let us take divine and creaturely goodness. That there is something the same about the two is blatantly obvious; they are both such that they can be called goodness. But the theory of analogy doesn't deny this at all. What it denies is that this predicate is predicated of the two in the same way. And the reason for this is obvious: in every thing that God and creatures share, creatures will not share as equals, but as creatures: God is good without qualification, creatures are good with the qualifications that come with being a creature. That they are both alike truly good doesn't change anything; all that means is that they both have "reference to some one thing," which is the whole point of the theory of analogy. What distinguishes the theory of analogy is not a denial that God and creatures share something in common, in some sense; it is the denial that any such commonality is properly generic, i.e., that it suffices to put God in the same genus as creatures. This is why analogy theorists deny that the terms applied are exactly the same, and why they deny that the terms applied are completely different, viz., they aren't exactly the same, and they aren't completely different. Contrary to what Clouser later claims, it is the univocity theorist, not the analogy theorist, who holds that creatures have uncreated properties. The analogy theorist denies it, and quite plausibly. Certainly nothing Clouser says cuts against the reasons for denying it.

Indeed, Clouser's so-called new solution is just a weirdly formulated theory of analogy. This is obscured by the fact that Clouser formulates his solution in terms of the ambiguous and unclear term 'property' rather than in the clearer terms of the theory of analogy, which talks in terms of names, not properties -- rightly, because it is a theory of divine names, not a theory of divine properties. But it very clearly is a theory of analogy. When Clouser talks about 'created divine properties', this is just a clumsy and unfortunate way of saying what analogy theorists would say in clearer and cleaner terms like the following:

We know God from creatures as their principle, and also by way of excellence and remotion. In this way therefore He can be named by us from creatures, yet not so that the name which signifies Him expresses the divine essence in itself.


In other words, the only sense (relevant to religious language) in which God "takes on created properties" is the sense that, having created creatures, God can now be 'named by us from creatures'. The property-talk is unfortunate, since Clouser forgets that he's supposed to be giving a theory of religious language and not a theory of divine being, but if one regards it strictly as relevant to language, Clouser has said nothing new. And his saying that our religious language is just ordinary language is nothing new, either; analogical predication is a standard part of ordinary language, albeit one difficult to characterize clearly in rigorously philosophical terms. One doesn't need to know the theory of analogy in order to predicate analogically any more than one needs to know the theory of gravity in order to walk; which is a good thing, because a lot of ordinary language is analogical. Or consider when Clouser says:

This is not to say that God possesses these characteristics with the same incompleteness, inconsistency, or other faults that people do. His love and wisdom are complete and faultless. But they are still what we mean by love and wisdom in ordinary language. We would not say that God’s love is unlike what we ordinarily mean by “love” because his mode of loving is so extraordinary we cannot imagine it.


This is exactly what an analogy theorist would say (in fact, it is what Aquinas actually says, allowing for the fact that 'ordinarily mean' in the last sentence is ambiguous between 'what we ordinarily signify' and 'the ordinary way in which we signify what we signify'; the distinction is necessary to allow for even straightforward and common cases of religious language like "None but God is good"). Much of what Clouser says is hampered by the unfortunate attempt to charaterize language in terms of properties, which is unnecessary, and which is a pointless endeavor anyway without an appeal to a well-constructed theory of properties to prevent equivocations. But he really hasn't produced anything new as far as religious language goes; he has just re-invented in garbled form a theory that has been more cleanly stated before. The one significant deviation Clouser makes, is treating 'being' as equivocal; traditional analogy theory takes 'being' as a pre-eminent example of analogy. But this is very clearly just due to Clouser's equivocation between 'property' in the sense of that which a predicate supposes, and 'property' in some ontological sense that he never makes entirely clear. But we don't need an ontological theory of God to have a viable theory of how our language about God works; so 'property' in the latter sense is not even relevant. (And, indeed, Clouser's own 'limiting idea' exception clearly shows that whether we share properties with God in this unclear ontological sense is simply irrelevant to whether we can name God.)

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