Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nominalism, Realism, and Paradox: A Dialogue with Dr. Mark Mattes- Part 2.

Here's part two.  In this line of discussion we debate the importance of the question of the analogy of being and the univocity of being for Lutheran theology.  I propose that both options are a form of the theology of glory.  Both also assume an ontology of legalism, which the gospel overcomes.

Mark Mattes: "This discussion with you is helping me to put my cards down on the table.  I’m hoping for any feedback you might have to offer.  Milbank in Theology and Social Theory has his famous either/or: either Catholic (Thomistic) analogy or Nihilsm.  Radical Orthodoxy, Richard M. Weaver, Gillespie (The Theological Origins of Modernity), and right wing Catholics (you’d know them better than me) situate Luther as a thorough-going Nominalist.  And from Nominalism springs the modern world, and from the modern world springs Nihilism.  So, for Troeltsch, Luther was all too medieval, but for these folks, Luther is the bane of contemporary nihilism.  If I understand Milbank and these others, what I hear them saying is that realism grounds human nature in the fulfillment of its telos.  The human is self-actualized by doing those virtues appropriate its nature and ultimately grace fulfills nature by allowing the creature to be deified and thus one with its creator.  The analogy of being—a greater dissimilarity in the midst of such great similarity—configures  our participation in such universals that move us forward towards our self-fulfillment.  By contrast, Nominalism claims that universals are only names we impose upon reality, breaking down the analogy of being.  Hence, ultimately the movement of the viator is evaluated only by arbitrary standards imposed by God and not especially intrinsic to the creature’s nature.  Even worse, God is defined from a univocity of being between the infinite and the finite, which, in this way of thinking makes God into a kind of glorified, finite personality, not truly being itself.  Hence, the divine-human relationship is that of humans conforming his will to God’s, even though it is ambiguous whether or not God’s will is actually good.  Is this true that apart from Thomistic realism that all leads to Nihilism?  It seems to me “Catholic analogy” fails to understand that coram deo we are wholly passive—what do you have that you haven’t received.  Likewise, it seems to me that Luther is far more eclectic as you point out and for which I want to say that he fits comfortably neither into Realism nor Nominalism.  More to the point, either catholic analogy or nihilism is a false dilemma.  For one thing Luther affirms that humans have a final or ultimate end (using Aristotle’s four-fold causality), and that this end is grounded in human nature.  Though here, I want to go with Forde’s language and say that grace primarily liberates nature (from incurvation) rather than elevates nature.  (Though it is true, Luther says in the Genesis commentary that we were originally created to be placed on earth for a time, and then we would be transferred to an immortal life—a kind of elevation, I suppose.)  Our telos is not in self-actualization coram deo but in faith which allows God to be God for us." 

 Jack Kilcrease: "I'm quite familiar with this line of reasoning and especially the work of Milbank, who I ultimately do not agree with but have profited by reading.  In many respects I think that the "Univocity of being" vs. "the analogy of being" offer two unappealing alternatives for Lutherans.  I don't think either really works with our theology, because both work from the assumption that created being stands on a scale with uncreated being (as wide as said scale may be!).  Both also assumes an account of God's being and creatures which is fundamentally rooted in legalism.  In the case of the analogy of being, God as superessential becomes the object of longing and correspondence.  Desire and activity are infinite and therefore are met the infinity of God's law and his nature as a desirable object.  God can only be interacted with on the basis of the striving of the law.  Also, there is a strangely covert Gnostic dimension to this as well (strange, insofar as Milbank claims that his project is anti-Gnostic).  If created being is an analogy for uncreated being, then when God made the world he simply made a worse version of himself.  This has two implications.  First, again, this works in the legal scheme because the act wasn't purely gratuitous, it was to make desirable objects that could become more desirable as they conformed to his reality.  Two, it has the ring of the Gnostic system's conflation of creation and the fall.  Being a worse version of God makes being a creature a reality fallen away from the perfection of the Godhead.  Hence the whole exitus-reditus scheme, wherein much like the redeemed in the Gnostic system, the creature fulfills his true nature as divine by ascending into the hidden divine life.  Of course, this happens by participation via grace, and not by a self-realization of one's hidden divine identity.  But I see little daylight between the two positions.

 The univocity of being also preserves the legalistic scheme because it calls for more self-justification and then ultimately the supreme act of self-justification, nihilism.  If God and I have the same quality of being and God is a big person, then we are in competition with one another.  He is a greater person trying to dominate my smaller personhood (hence Scotist's claim that ethics are rational because of the creature's rational will for self-preservation informed it that God could punishment them if they didn't do what he said!).  I suspect that there is much truth in the claims of Milbank and other that this is ontology of violence.  The reason why it is though is not because it is a deviation from Realism (which is equally legalistic), but because works from the assumption that God is my competitor and therefore that the divine-human relationship is fundamentally one of a superior person demanding obedience from a lesser one.  If anything leads to nihilism, it is the legalism present here.  Jungel I think was right to say that when Descartes used God to secure the self it was only a matter of time before Atheism resulted.  A God of this nature is one whom I must assert my autonomy against as an oppressor.  Eventually I must eliminate him completely.  That's why Richard Dawkins says he's doing what he's doing- because it's "liberating."  Atheism is just another form of self-justification.  It's not a very effective one either, since as Bayer notes, it means that you now have to justify yourself before yourself based on your autonomy.  Hence, postmodernism cannot even bear having a real "self" since even this concept becomes something which one must justify themselves against.

 In a word, I would argue (much as you did) that the problem is legalism, the hidden God, and self-justification evoked by both realities.  Both assume that God's being in relationship to human persons is fundamentally based on law and not on gospel.  This means that nihilism will ultimately result from either position, because both positions create a situation wherein the human creature must engage in a perpetual act of self-justification.  In either case, both will eventually wish to eliminate their oppressor to forego the burden of future self-justification." 

 Mark Mattes: "Nihilism is not a result of Luther but of the human self-deification that Humanism has attempted to affirm.  It coalesces with the modern attempt to make faith a private matter.  At some level, nihilism is a result of our dealing with a hidden God, and can be fueled by the retrieval of ancient Greek Epicureanism and atomism which was done in the High Enlightenment.  So, to give up Catholic analogy (as a process of deification) is not to open the floodgates of nihilism but to create space for grace.  After all, there is no analogy between death and life—they are opposite.  Nature is liberated to be as God intends man’s final end to be.  Hence, in creation we deal not such much with universals per se, but we definitely deal with God masked in all things—addressing us as law and gospel." "Though it is true, Luther says in the Genesis commentary that we were originally created to be placed on earth for a time, and then we would be transferred to an immortal life—a kind of elevation, I suppose.  Now—what do you think?  Am I totally off?  There is no doubt that Luther is deeply influenced by Nominalism—in numerous ways, not least of all aspects of his view of God, as you mention.  (See also Heiko Oberman’s “Luther and the Via Modern: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough.”)  But there are other aspects that tend to balance that out and even better, put him on a different trajectory.  I don’t think, for instance, that the Finns are wrong to affirm “union with Christ” as an ontic-real presence.  Instead, they are wrong to think that this presence, what the Lutheran Scholastics called the mystical union, would be grounded on something other than a verbum externum.  And, if anywhere, I think that you are right in claiming that Luther’s uniqueness is in fides ex auditu—not relying on any internal measure by which to evaluate our state as in either sin or grace, but instead an external evaluation and/or pardon."

 Jack Kilcrease: "I'm totally with you.  I would consider the use of the language of telos good if used for earthly things.  Though you are correct that Luther does use that language in a sense in the Genesis commentary, he doesn't in my reading think that heavenly existence (in the manner of Aquinas and the earlier tradition in general) as something that Adam and Eve could have moved toward with their actions.  Telos is always tied up with activity and not with receptivity. 

Bayer's use of the vita passiva has made me think that Lutheran should think about the divine-human relationship less in terms of a concept of being.  In fact, as Bayer also states, talking in terms of a comprehension description of being is an act of the theology of glory.  Knowing the whole (the wholeness of being) effectively makes one divine.  Rather, Luther theology should, I think, talk more in terms of the activity-passivity of created and uncreated being.  God, I would say, should be ontologically described as agent and giver, whereas created being is fundamentally receptive and derivatively active.  Activity and receptive are opposites, they do not possess an analogy.  I think this works with the doctrine of the Trinity well also.  The doctrine of the Trinity says that God is an eternal event of self-donation and giving.  Creation makes sense as his act of giving.  Incarnation then follows also.  God's fundamental reality is an eternal event of giving.  God gives and he gives again.  Therefore, humans enter into the legal relationship only when they become bad receivers, i.e., pretending that they are givers of the good and not receivers.  They fall away from giving and receiving and therefore demand comes in and says "correspond to the true relationship which you having fallen away from."  They are unable to because any action they take to correspond to the original relationship of passive receiving is self-justification through activity and therefore logically not the vita passiva.  

 From this perspective, the legal ontology of either "univocity" or "analogy" is reflective of the projection of the relationship of self-justification onto the fundamental ontic structures of reality.  It in effect does represent something real (the legal relationship of demand and condemnation under the God of law, hiddenness and wrath), but one that has only resulted from the entry of sin into the divine-human relationship.  In a sense, both "univocity" and "analogy" accurately represent something about human "nomological" (Elert) existence.  As sinners, we do not correspond to an ideal which is reflective of God (the loss of the imago dei).  We are also responsible to a person (God), whom our self-justifying will is intrinsically in competition with under the law.  Of course though, these concepts do not properly express the ontological basis of reality, God's giving and our receiving.  When the gospel comes to restore and fulfill all things, then these things cease to be true.  We do not aspire to an ideal by our self-justifying activity, since the effective Word of the gospel gives the ideal via the hearing of faith.  We are not in competition with a demanding and dominating infinite person, because the law has become a lex vacua." 


  1. I'm enjoying and appreciating this conversation. Excellent dialogue! Who knew modern theologians had something worthwhile to say... and worth listening to ;)

  2. Dr. Kilcrease,

    Thanks so much for sharing this; this is a thoroughly impressive and enlightening dialog.

    Are any of the articles listed in your bio available on the web? They sound fascinating, and I would love to read them.

  3. Only one is, and that's "Evangelical and Catholic." If you google it is on the LOGIA blog. You can see Hinlicky's response to my argument and how I'm a Fundamentalist and not really worth listening to on the same blog.