Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Theological Necessity of Poetry

Francesca Murphy's feisty, film theory-infused cartography and critique of the last half-century's theological discourse, God is Not a Story, relates that Thomas' fourth proof for God's existence ("from the degrees that are found in things") is frequently understood to have the least contemporary relevance.  Murphy quotes Peter Geach: "I have sometimes suspected this 'proof' of being one of the least defensible remnants of Platonism in Aquinas."  But, Murphy reports, an anonymous commenter with very fine penmanship wrote in the margins of the book where she read Geach's statement:  "it [the fourth proof] is the basis of analogical predication." 

Taking off from this inspired scribble, Murphy explains how Balthasar recasts each of the five proofs, not embarrassed by the fourth, but, in a way, led by it.  Balthasar's cypto-Thomist argumentation (appearing in Glory V) is infused with a "metaphysical sense of the analogy of the created world to the Creator, and, in particular, the analogy of created freedom to divine freedom." Murphy continues:
Since Aristotle's Metaphysics, all authentic philosophies have begun in wonder; but presupposing, as they do, the perspective of an adult male, they tend to detemporalize it.  Von Balthasar gives us a 'genuine beginning', by setting out from what is, within each human life, the historically first act of amazed delight in existing, and showing how it goes on.
The effect is a dramatized, biographical account of the proofs, which "invites us to attend to reality rather than to our own reason or to our own act of faith."  (That good poetry or painting is a necessary adjunct to such a proof seems almost too obvious to mention.)  Beginning as it does not with male adulthood, but with infancy that necessitates a mother, Murphy dubs Balthasar's an argument from natality.  She quotes Wilhelmsen's The Metaphysics of Love, who boils Balthasar down:
The universe of being is simply because God caused it to be.  Why did God cause it?  Because he willed to.  Why did he so will?  The question... is lost in the mystery of Divine Freedom.. the answer to this question is not a 'reason' but something transcending all reasons: love.  There is being rather than nothign because there is love.  Love is not a reason but it is a cause.  ...What being-loved makes being do is precisely be.. the metaphysically ultimate explanation for the universe of finite being is the love of God rather than His power.
Balthasar's argument itself is hard going, and has the disadvantage of being, according to Murphy, a good deal more difficult to comprehend than Thomas' classic proofs; but after Hegel and Heidegger, such is our lot. Still, the proof is "bolder at both ends of the spectrum of reason and faith."  That is, Balthasar is both confident that the "acknowledgment of uncreated being proposed in the Fourth Way is available to non-Christian reason," yet at the same time "what Barth calls an 'analogy of faith' is present throughout the argument."  Which is to say, Balthasar spurs his readers to receive the gift of supernatural faith throughout, not simply before or after, the argument.  Accordingly, I'm not sure that tidy reason/faith distinctions will do, nor will attempts to present the gospel in Christianese.

As it happens, there are Protestant theologies that provide the pre-conditions for Balthasar's proof as well, such as the Presbyterian Jonathan Edwards or the Methodist Adam Clarke.  For a very recent Anglican endorsement of analogical reasoning, one that is profoundly aware of Barth's critiques, there's Ephraim Radner's The World in the Shadow of God (a book of poems with a meaty theological preface).  Building on Hauerwas' Gifford Lectures, Radner offers a welcome attempt to rehabilitate natural theology, offering a desperately needed historical overview of the issue.  Even the idea of an analogy of creation, according to Radner, is "already rooted in a Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian) metaphysic."
The very notion of "analogy" - of metaphysical "being" or of form or of reality - between creature and Creator orients the discussion in a way that Barth was perhaps not as sensitive to and even as appreciative of as he ought to have been.  Creature and Creator demand, in their very utterance and use as words and concepts, the application of presuppositions, at least, that assert fundamental relationships that are described only on the basis of "revelation."  Indeed, the words cannot be deployed even apart from some kind of grammar, even narrative grammar, that must appropriate particular claims, in the Christian case, of Scripture.  Why then the worry over their secularly imported status?
This is not far from Colin Gunton's hopeful suggestion, contra Barth and Jenson, that there may be concepts "that enable us to think our world...  inherent within certain words there lies the possibility of conceiving things as they are." But back to Radner:
Indeed, the analogy is "latent" in creation itself, and its imitative character is itself a part of the inspiring work of God, whose description and articulation are given particular form by artists, but hardly invented by them.  Indeed, the artist shares with his work the common Cause that draws them together, so that speech or crafted expression become bound up inextricably with the very nature of created analogy.
Radner's call to poetry (to which painting is easily appended) is a far cry from the idolatry of creativity: "Poetry is at its best when.. it works as the incisive catalogue of naturalism, for the sake of clear outlines, and then simply lays its forms at the precipice of its descriptions, within the roar of Scripture's cataracts."  This echoes Maritain's assertion that "Religion saves poetry from the absurdity of believing itself destined to transform ethics and life, saves it from its overweening arrogance."
Concisely summarizing over a century of Trinitarian debate, Francesca Murphy reminds us that the supposed distinction between "Greek" and Western Trinitarianism "was an unwise invention of late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century neo-Thomism" which "exiled crucial elements that are actually in the texts of Augustine and Thomas, expatriating them to the benighted 'East', thereby creating a false dilemma which had to be solved through Rahner's rule."  Similarly, Ephraim Radner argues that "the 'rupture' between nature and revelation that seems to have overwhelmed natural theology in the modern era is perhaps itself wrongheaded and in need of recovering." Perhaps we might call the solving of this equally pernicious false dilemma "Radner's rule."  That rule being Radner's formulation that makes the title of this post.