05 June 2003

there is another king: iii

For pre-modern, medieval thought (which finds its highest expressions in Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure), the kinds of sharp distinctions drawn within the modern were unknown or drawn quite differently. Fundamental to this medieval conception of the world was a conception of language and thought (and, indeed, reality itself) as functioning analogically, grounded upon the doctrine of creation. Since the creation comes from God, is directed towards God, and stands in relation to God, it is like God and revelatory of God. Nevertheless, this revelatory likeness is only analogous—implying both likeness and unlikeness. Since everything is created by God it images him (supremely human beings); but since everything is created by God it images him only within the greater and absolute divide between Creator and creature. The Fourth Lateran Council had formulated this in the following way: for every similarity between God and the creature there is an even greater dissimilarity (maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine).

Thus, for example, when we say “God exists” and “creatures exist” we are using the term “exists” analogously, not univocally (and not equivocally either, since a real likeness is there). For God to “exist” is for him to exist non-derivatively, independently, originally, a se, and so on. For us to "exist" is to exist derivatively, dependently, createdly, in deus, and so on. In God, existence and essence are co-terminous and identical. In the creature, there is a real distinction between existence and essence (i.e., we don't have to exist) that gives primacy of act over form as the concrete and particular subsistence of things. Nevertheless, because of creation, there are real analogies between the divine existence and creaturely existence.

This analogical view of language has implications for many areas of thought and practice, including not only epistemology and metaphysics, but also (and more importantly for our present purposes) political theology and philosophy. But I begin with a metaphysical observation, that within this pre-modern perspective the “natural” is not the self-contained world of manipulable matter that is the opposite of “artificial” (as it became in later thought) and thus the “supernatural” is not conceived some second story of “stuff” that is somehow added on top of a more basic nature. On the contrary, natura has to do with kinds of things, their origins and ends, and what they do (including making “artificial” things), as they are organized in relation to one another in a single whole. All things within their fundamental relations to other things within this whole are “natural.” Those very same things, however, are equally conceived as “supernatural” in terms of their absolute origins (since all creation is ultimately pure gift, i.e., grace) and in terms of their final end (since life within God is the graciously given goal of all creation). “Natural” and “supernatural”, therefore, are adjectival or adverbial on such a conception and have no reference to a distinction in substance. They are also temporal, pointing backward and forward in the unfolding of time, rather than spatial. Nature, indeed, is always-already “graced.”

Let us turn now to another observation, this time epistemological. Given what we have already seen about the term “exists” and the relationship between nature and the supernatural, it is clear that on such a pre-modern doctrine of analogy, the question of “Being” cannot be raised apart from the question of created or uncreated being and so there is no possibility of a philosophical ontology that is prior to and unconstrained by theology. Indeed, all of created being must be seen as symbolically disclosing the divine, pointing to transcendent reality, not just as some undifferentiated “God of the Philosophers” but as the Triune God of Scripture. This is the case, in part, because all of the perfections of God (truth, being, goodness, beauty, etc.) are only manifest in the generation of the Logos in the Spirit. Thus our knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world is an analogous manifestation in us of God’s own Trinitarian knowledge of these things and thereby, as it were, our thinking God’s thoughts after him.

With regard to the political, there are significant implications following from these observations, foremost that it is impossible to construct some kind of “natural” or wholly “common grace” politics that remains neutral to and outside of theological concerns and the operation of grace in history. On the other hand, there can be no simplistic identification between the structures, role, and significance of the various overlapping organizations of, for instance, church and civil orders. Rather, their relationship must be conceived analogically, within the eschatological tension of creation’s origin and end. Thus the pre-modern notion of the “saeculum” was not that of the modern spatialized “secular.” Rather, it was temporal, referring to those aspects of the present order of things that will one day pass away when the telos of the creation is consummated.

This also implies that “politics” is not to be confined to the functioning of power within a secular realm, but must, first of all, refer very broadly to the whole organization of a “polis,” a way of life of a people who share a common life, including various analogous and overlapping structures of rule and authority (what one might see as an irreducibly “gothic” social space). These implications will be drawn out further below in relation to the Gospel, church, and sacraments.