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Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism by David Tracy and John B. Cobb, Jr.


David Tracy is Professor of Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is author of Blessed Rage for Order (Seabury). John B. Cobb, Jr. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. He is the author of many books, including The Structure of Christian Existence (Seabury). This book was published in 1983 by Seabury Press. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 3: Analogy and Dialectic: God-Language by David Tracy


The first two chapters argued for the public status of analogical and dialectical languages as the classical theological languages for speech about God. The present chapter will attempt to illustrate those languages more systematically by summary analyses of representative contemporary languages in the present pluralist situation. The chapter will have two main sections: a first section will continue the analysis of some significant differences and similarities between the two major representatives of analogical language for God: the neo-Thomist and the process traditions. The second section will analyze the development of analogical languages within Protestant neo-orthodoxy wherein the starting point is one of negative dialectics. A final, brief section will attempt to comment on where the substantive conversation might proceed from this point forward.

Analogical Languages for God: Neo-Thomism and Process

In the last chapter I attempted to sort out the five major types of neo-Thomism in the modern period of theology. For myself, the most serious candidates for an adequate public contemporary position on analogical language remain the last two forms of Thomism. For the peculiarity of both the transcendental Thomists and their linguistic successors is precisely that Marechal, Coreth, Rahner, Lonergan, Preller, and Burrell insist upon the need to take that turn to the subject distinctive of modernity before proceeding to develop adequate metaphysical and theological languages for the doctrine of God. This factor alone allows for the development of a substantive conversation with the process tradition whose own point of departure for metaphysics and theology is human experience, most appropriately expressed in Whitehead's reformed subjectivist principle.

If one grants the remarkable coincidence of a similar point of departure (human experience) and a similar language and imagination (analogy), it seems curious that the conversation to date between transcendental Thomism and process thought has been, with a few notable exceptions, frustrating to both sides.

The major reason for this frustration, I suggest, is that neither the real similarities nor the real differences between these two traditions have been analyzed with sufficient precision. The similarities have already been stated but are worth noting again: a similar point of departure for analysis (namely, human experience); a similar insistence on the need for metaphysical language directly related to that point of departure; a similar explicit employment of analogical language and thereby the implicit use of an analogical imagination for God-language.

The differences are, in fact, less easy to locate with technical precision. In one sense, of course, the major difference is obvious and all-important. For since Charles Hartshorne's magisterial, lifelong effort to explicate a dipolar conceptuality for God it is obvious that process panentheism and Thomist classical theism are logically, metaphysically, and theologically distinct positions.

Yet the discussion of the real differences has not been aided, I fear, by certain crucial mis-interpretations of the opposite position by the conversation partners. When Charles Hartshorne, for example, performs a fundamentally a historical interpretation of Thomas Aquinas' exact position on real and nominal relations between God and world, he assumes that Aquinas is responding to our contemporary question of whether God is really affected by our actions. In fact, Thomas is responding to a quite distinct question.

When a distinguished neo-Thomist like David Burrell correctly criticizes Hartshorne's hermeneutical error here, he does not follow that observation with a real neo-Thomist response to the crucial Hartshornian question, that is, is God really affected by our actions in time and history? On religious grounds, Burrell, with the Scriptures (and with Thomas and with the process tradition), assumes that God, as a loving God, is affected. On theological grounds, neither Thomas nor Lonergan nor Rahner nor Burrell, as far as I can see, develops new Thomist conceptualities for God-language in fidelity to that Christian religious insight. In this confusing situation, we seem left with something like armies clashing in the night whereby unguided missiles are hurled by each side (the charge of anthropomorphism to process thought; the charge that Thomas' God is Aristotle's "Unmoved Mover" to the Thomists) and a genuine conversation seems unlikely to occur.

The first significant question that each side should address on its own grounds, I suggest, is a purely logical one: namely, can we coherently conceive of the concept "future" in terms of actuality rather than possibility? If we cannot, then Hartshorne's major point must be accepted on purely logical grounds. The neo-Thomists, in turn, should be invited to develop, on their own philosophical and theological principles, a genuinely Thomist but genuinely new (neo-Thomist) set of concepts for God's real relation to the world by spelling out the exact meaning of "all-knowing" and "all-powerful" if the future, by definition, is always a possibility, never an actuality. Karl Rahner, in his more explicit systematic christological and Trinitarian reflections, seems to be developing systematic concepts in that direction yet also seems unwilling to make the same philosophical move in relationship to the concept of the nature of God.

If one grants, as Rahner does, that panentheism is not synonymous with pantheism and if one grants further, as I do, that Hartshorne's interpretations of Thomas on real and nominal relations are hermeneutical misinterpretations, then the context seems set for a new conversation on the central issues at stake. First, is God really affected by our actions as the Scriptures and Christian religious practice seem clearly to state? If God is, then do we not need dipolar conceptualities to express this religious insight? Second, is it any more logically coherent to speak of knowing an actual future than of a square circle? If it is not, then do we not have to develop more accurate analyses than Thomas provides for the crucial perfection-terms for God, "all-knowing" and "all-powerful"? I repeat that these questions, the first religious and the second purely logical, do not demand that the neo-Thomists abandon their own metaphysical and theological principles in order to respond to the dilemmas posed by Thomas' formulation. Yet they do demand that those principles be employed to rethink and perhaps retrieve the Thomist heritage in a manner faithful to the religious and logical issues at stake.

If these questions could be reopened between these two major analogical traditions in something like the manner suggested above, then a further line of real conversation could be initiated. If the argument of the last chapter on the focal-meaning character of all properly analogical language is accepted, then a new and genuinely promising line of discussion is available to all participants. It is important to recall that, at least on the basis of my analysis, both neo- Thomists and process thinkers share three crucial assumptions for articulating God-language: First, the character of all good analogical language consists in working out a set of ordered relationships between God, world, and humanity on the basis of some paradigm of human experience chosen as a focal meaning for understanding the character of the whole of reality. Second, if we are to speak intelli- gible God-language at all, then we must find some analogical way to speak perfection-language. In short, both Thomas and Hartshorne are admirable craftsmen of a language about God that is faithful to the peculiar logic of perfection-terms. Third, a major question for any speaker of analogical God-language as perfection-language be- comes, therefore, the question: what are the best candidates for the original focal meanings? Exactly here, I suggest, is where each tradition could learn much from the other and initiate important new developments of its own principles.

The fact is that both traditions employ anthropological candidates for the perfection-language to speak analogously about God. In the neo-Thomist tradition, for example, the sophisticated use of linguistic philosophy to analyze Thomist God-language has allowed us to see that the chief candidates for perfection-terms are those terms that embody human aspirations (appraisal terms -- good, just, holy, wise) as well as terms that cross categorical boundaries (the transcendentals -- the true and the good). A similar linguistic analysis of Hartshorne's candidates for perfection-terms, I suggest, would lead to the following conclusion: like the neo-Thomists, Hartshorne chooses as his chief candidates for perfection-language those terms expressive of human aspiration and desire. Unlike the Thomists, Hartshorne introduces a distinction between appraisal-terms. Some appraisal-terms (named by Hartshorne ethical perfection-terms) are exactly the same candidates as Thomas chooses (namely, good, just, holy, wise, etc.). These terms, when applied to God, should be employed exactly as Aquinas employed them. The terms good, just, holy, powerful, wise do allow for an absolute maximal case and thereby apply to God's essence as all-good, all-just, all-powerful, all-wise. In sum, the logic of perfection-language not only allows but demands that to speak coherently about the perfect one, we must call God, as the absolute maximal embodiment of all perfections, all-good, all-just, all-powerful and all-wise. On this issue the two traditions join.

Yet Hartshorne in fact proposes another set of candidates for perfection-terms; these candidates Hartshorne names aesthetic perfection-terms. These candidates (sociability, temporality, creative change, enjoyment of beauty, etc.) are also -- and this point is easily missed -- initially anthropological terms embodying human values and aspirations and, therefore, ought not to be ruled out of court as inappropriate candidates. Unlike ethical terms, however, aesthetic terms (for example, a maximal case of enjoyment of beauty) do not admit an absolute maximal case. This is the case because every new event of beauty would add to what was already enjoyed and the possibilities for variety, harmony, enrichment are thereby infinite.

Yet just because there is no absolute maximal case in these in- stances does not mean that such aesthetic terms are not candidates for perfection-language for God. For the logic of perfection does demand that God be unsurpassible by others but not by self, and thereby, in these aesthetic matters, capable of genuine self-enrichment. This distinction (overlooked, to my knowledge, in the neo- Thomist tradition) between unsurpassibility by others but not necessarily by self as involved in the concept of perfection is the crucial insight needed. For this appropriate logical move frees Hartshorne to agree fully with Thomas on perfection-language from ethical perfection-terms while adding concrete, aesthetic candidates for perfection-language about God without violating the divine transcendence articulated in the logic of perfection shared by both conversation partners.

If this analysis of the situation is accurate then a serious conversation between these two major analogical God-language traditions can be reopened, freed of polemics and on fully public terms that each party, in principle, can accept. Further discussion by both schools on the rubrics under which any anthropological term embodying human aspiration can serve as an appropriate or inappropriate candidate for a focal meaning for analogical God-language is precisely where the future discussion should move. If that occurs each tradition, in my judgment, will benefit. The neo-Thomist tradition will benefit by recognizing a possibility that it can accept without abandoning its own first principles or even its own meta- physics; in short, a genuine development of Thomas' own position is possible here on Thomist terms. The process tradition will benefit by becoming more aware of the properly analogical character of its God-language and thereby more concerned to articulate the more exact relationships between its somewhat inchoate distinction between the ethical and the aesthetic when the real discussion and the real need is to formulate with greater accuracy a fuller process anthropology. In the meantime, the alternative dialectical tradition on God-language may profitably enter this same discussion with its own resources.

From Dialectics to Analogy: Neo-Orthodoxy

Protestant neo-orthodox theologies comprise a spectrum of diverse and original proposals for theological language in general and God- language in particular. The most obvious linguistic feature of these positions has been their dialectical character. Although I cannot hope in this brief space to provide full analyses of the particularities of each position for a spectrum running from Kierkegaard to Moltmann, it will be profitable, I believe, to note the constancy of a theme of negative dialectics that operates in each and all of these positions.

To recall a central distinction: from a linguistic and logical view- point, negative dialectics involves a logic of contradiction that negates illusions, pretensions, and wishful thinking. In its secular form it consists of those major hermeneutics of suspicion about the illusions and pretensions of the claim of a rational Enlightenment consciousness to be able to understand and order the nature of reality through conscious rationality. This moment of negative dialectics can be seen when a Sigmund Freud unmasks the illusion of conscious rationality's self-control by analyzing the all-pervasive reality of the unconscious; when a Karl Marx exposes the illusion of the autonomy of the rational bourgeois thinker by explaining the economic conditions allowing, even enforcing, a prized and illusionary autonomy; when a Friedrich Nietzsche exposes the frenzied will-to-power driving the genteel and urbane value-system of the Enlightenment thinker.

In its theological form, the classic task of Protestant neo-orthodoxy is to expose the possible illusions of all liberal theologies through negative dialectics. In its most familiar forms, the neo-orthodox theologian first employs a retrieved and more realistic Christian doctrine of radical sinfulness to expose the self-deluding character of liberal theological belief in progress and pure, autonomous rationality. In a similar dialectical move, the neo-orthodox theologian casts a hermeneutics of suspicion upon all philosophical analogical languages for God-language by insisting upon the radically transcendent character of God and the infinitely qualitative distinction between God and humanity. For Soren Kierkegaard, the major inspirer of this Christian theological form of negative dialectics and suspicion, analogical God-language, in effect, can only recognize the problem of finitude and thereby work out ordered relationships between God and humanity. In short, at best, analogical God-language transcends the limitations of the aesthetic and the ethical stages of existence and reaches the genuinely religious -- but pagan, not Christian -- insights of "religiousness a." It cannot face the radical sin and guilt in the heart of every human being; it will not face the infinitely qualitative distinction between God and that sinful human being; it withdraws into ever more desperate attempts to ignore the absolute paradox of the God become man by building intellectual analogies from finitude to the infinite that are less and less successful in masking the emptiness at the heart of its tragic and comic dilemma.

This profoundly Christian negative dialectic, most clearly seen in Kierkegaard, is precisely what provides the real key -- the crucial constant -- to the genuinely dialectical moment, the hermeneutics of suspicion, in all forms of neo-orthodox theology.

On this view, the shattering impact of Karl Earth's Romans, that "bombshell in the playground of the theologians," is the impact of a profoundly Kierkegaardian negative dialectics exploding upon all analogical visions of God-language with the demand, "Let God be God!" The articulation of the Protestant principle by Paul Tillich remains his major and consistently employed principle of negative dialectics from his earliest formulations through his method of correlation, his lifelong attempt to reunite the radically separated human being with the transcendent and reuniting God. The Christian theological drive behind Rudolf Bultmann's program of radical de-mythologizing is not, as many still think, his desire to render Christianity meaningful to modernity but his insistence that the Christian gospel itself involves a negative dialectic upon all human achievement and pretension including the mythological expressions of the Scriptures themselves. When Jurgen Moltmann, faithful to this neo-orthodox program of negative dialectic, casts doubt upon any analogical language to speak rather of the Crucified God he reexpresses the central insight of negative dialectics for the contemporary setting.

If one grants, as I do, the central meaning and truth of the negative dialectics expressed in neo-orthodoxy, then what hope remains for any attempt -- whether neo-Thomist or process -- to articulate an analogical God-language? The answer to this question lies, I believe, in the unfolding of the neo-orthodox position itself. For the interesting fact is that, with the possible exception of Kierkegaard, all the major neo-orthodox theologians eventually developed analogical language for God-language without retreating from their original dialectical insights. Karl Earth's post-Romans turn against Kierkegaard is not, in fact, an expression of a simple fear that an existentialist philosophy will take over Christian theology. Rather, that attack is a more properly theological insistence, following upon his famous reinterpretation of Anselm, that negative dialectics alone leaves one literally no-where theologically by forcing the speaker into a mathematical point wherein Christian language for God becomes mute. As Earth works out his own "analogy of faith" language in his Dogmatics, he formulates his new position consistently and explicitly as an "analogy of faith" language for God-language with the focal meaning of Jesus Christ. When

Paul Tillich develops his method of correlation he does not abandon -- but does transform -- his earlier purely dialectical Protestant principle. For he too develops symbolic and non-symbolic (in a word, analogical) language for God as the power of Being and Being-Itself. That explication allows his Position, in principle, to articulate new symbolic/analogical language for God without retreating from the insistence upon negative dialectics. When Tillich later articulates the need for both Protestant principle and Catholic substance he makes a suggestion analogous to my own: that both negative dialectics and analog are needed for appropriate Christian God-language.

When Rudolf Bultmann insists that theology still needs properly analogical language to speak of God in a non-mythological manner, even though Christian theology must eliminate mythological language in fidelity to the presence of negative dialectics in the demand of the kerygma itself, then he too recognizes the same insistence. Unlike Barth and Tillich, it is true, Bultmann never actually developed such language as distinct from stating that it was needed. Still, Schubert Ogden's development via Hartshorne of just such analogical language seems, on this reading, an entirely appropriate development of Bultmann's own position.

My own constructive suggestion for the crucial role that the neo-orthodox theologians can play in the conversation outlined in section one can be stated in the following thesis: any Christian analogical language for God that ignores or does not incorporate the genuine anthropological and theistic insights of neo-orthodox negative dialectics is destined for failure. More exactly stated, such non-dialectical analogical language will eventually prove theologicallv sterile by becoming, in effect, univocal or dissipating into pure equivocality. The neo-Scholastic misreading of Aquinas' own dialectical moments in his analogical language, on this reading, was not a minor misinterpretation but one fraught with fatal consequences. In a similar manner, Charles Hartshorne's seeming lack of interest in more than a "tragic" element in existence seems to demand the more properly Christian theological insistence upon the presence of more radical negative dialectical moments incorporated in both Schubert Ogden's and John Cobb's anthropological developments of Hartshorne's position.

Karl Rahner's consistent use of a dialectic of identity-in-difference in his analogical language for God assures that his reading of Aquinas, whatever its other difficulties, remains more faithful to both Aquinas and the Christian Scriptures than does the sometimes univocal, sometimes equivocal, position of his neo-Scholastic critics. These chapters, therefore, have tried to reopen the crucial conversation about Christian theological language for God by reformulating the questions of analogy and dialectics. To recall the logic of the entire argument, the following steps are involved: the first chapter argued for the public character of theological language, including its classic systematic languages of analogy and dialectics; the second chapter outlined the character of the analogical imagination itself in order to clarify its real possibilities for discussion; the third chapter specified the major conversation partners in terms of the major similarities and differences among their finally analogical positions. If this argument is plausible, it follows that serious Christian theological speech about God will be ultimately analogical without abandoning the insights of negative dialectics. It also follows that the languages of analogy and dialectics, too long ignored of late by many Christian theologians, deserve their traditional central place in the genuinely theological discussion of God-language. For these two languages, I have come to believe, are the fully public, classic expressions of the Christian vision: a vision disclosing both the clarity and the radical mystery of our existence as grounded in and ordered to the disclosive and transformative presence of the God revealed in Christ Jesus.

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