Analogy

A couple of weeks ago, a lady blogger had a bone to pick with me (on another blog) on account of my applying the famous image of the Industrial Revolution immortalised by William Blake in Jerusalemdark satanic mills – to churches. I have always found it strange that we would sing Jerusalem to the tune of Parry as something eminently patriotic and English, whilst we are struck by this reproach about the places where formerly country folk were brought to toil long hours for a pittance. Properly speaking, a dark satanic mill is one of those textile factories established in the late eighteenth century to mass produce fabrics, cotton weaving in particular. For Blake, it was the symbol of the Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of the poor. Conditions in those places were appalling, where children had to work for fourteen or fifteen hours a day in near-slavery. Accidents with the machinery were rife and the entire system created a new urban under-class as would be described decades later by Charles Dickens.

In other articles I have written, I have compared the development of centralisation in the Church to the Industrial Revolution, a process of dehumanisation and institutionalisation. Canon law and bureaucracy become mechanised and theoretically efficient, I say theoretically, because the Roman Curia, like anything in Italy (England too and other countries where discipline and rigour are not given priority in popular culture), is notorious for inefficiency and confusion. My reference to Blake’s satanic mill in reference to churches is by way of analogy.

What is analogy? It is a device of human language to overcome (to some extent) the inadequacy of human language when reflecting on matters that escape our understanding. The words used to discuss God, the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ and other mysteries of our faith are analogies. The analogy shows a partial similarity between things that are dissimilar. A certain comparison is possible, without complete assimilation. Thus a church is not a dark satanic mill, because it is not a factory for the production of textiles or other mass-produced things. It is not intentionally evil. A comparison is made on the basis of the background idea of the transformation of a traditional society into a mass of people exploited by those who have money and political clout. The analogy strikes the reader and makes him ask questions.

We compare the Church to a body with a head and members, but the Church is not a human or animal body. God does not have eyes or hands because he is pure spirit and has no body. Yet, many of our liturgical prayers ask God for things that are only possible for beings with bodies. The language is analogical.

Bloggers and others who write need to be aware of the different ways of using language. I remember finding literary analysis at school very boring, because I was not aware of these distinctions and believed language either to be literal or nonsense. I despised poetry and found much of the Bible to be nonsense, because I had no idea about the use of figurative language. Literal language uses words in accordance with their defined meanings. Figurative language uses words by altering their meanings. Speaking of God as a being with body parts is using words that do not express literal truth. Many passages of Scripture seem incoherent, because their language is allegorical and poetic. Truth is apprehended at a level other than that of the intellect.

How do we tell the difference? The only answer I can give is our human experience and intuition, our capacity for living by our senses and the spirit, not only our rational faculties. This is the genius of Romanticism!

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11 Responses to Analogy

  1. Stephen K says:

    Yes, Father! What a clear and concise exposition! Here are some analogies to illustrate what you mean:

    “God is One”. Actually what we mean generally by God is unbounded and beyond imagining or measure, so the quantity and perimeter of “one” hardly seems to fit. Yet what we mean is that God “covers the field” leaving “room” for no “other” God.

    “God is three persons in one divinity”. Actually we mean that we understand God in (at least) three modalities which Augustine (and others) called “persons”. We do not mean that we would ever be able to see “three” divine figures.

    “Jesus is the Son of God”. Actually what we mean is that in revealing God, Jesus is like unto a father’s image – a son. We do not mean that, despite Psalm 2, the Father literally begat Jesus.

    “This is My Body, This is My Blood”. Actually what seems to be meant primarily here is that in this symbol, this sacrament – in this bread, in this wine, and in this action – we “see” (and are reminded of) Jesus’ mission and sacrifice. We (1) do not mean that, despite the attempt to define the mystery by Aristotelian metaphysics, it is literally Jesus’ body and blood.

    “Jesus ascended into heaven”. Actually, we mean that Jesus went the way we hope all souls go upon death, into the very bosom or being of God. We do not mean that he floated up into the sky. We do not mean that he literally “sits” at God’s “right hand”.

    “Mary ever-Virgin”. Actually we mean that Mary’s motherhood of the man revered as God-revealed is like a whole and pure gift, such as the fresh female self a virgin gives to her very first true lover, not that she was physically untouched or unloved.

    “The Pope is the Vicar of Christ”. Actually we(2) mean that the Pope (i.e. anyone after Peter or Linus etc who claimed, or was accorded, such a nickname) claims to act in the spirit of Christ, and for the purposes of Christ, not that he (or she, if that ever eventuates) was appointed by Jesus himself.

    Well, these are just a few, for starters. The fact that we will probably have different understandings about them is itself prima facie evidence that where theology and the realm of faith is concerned, we cannot but speak in the language of analogy.

    ____________
    (1) By “we” I am not so audacious as to presume my dear co-readers agree with me, but simply mean that, a substantial body of Christians agreeing with me, it is a perfect example nonetheless of an “analogy”.
    (2) My “we” here is clearly at odds with the über-traditionellen Katholiken” who rely on a strained interpretation of Matt. 16:18

    • You sent two copies of this comment, perhaps a glitch. I have deleted the first and kept the second. Please let me know if you would prefer it the other way round. I can’t stop for long, as I have a big translating order on.

      Just a word, however. People need to see that if something is expressed by analogy, it doesn’t meant that truth goes out of the window. It just means that truth is deeper than epistemology and our intellectual categories. Fundamentalists (for whom human language can only be literal, nothing else) can only offer something that is nonsense, and other people reject it as such. The biggest enemy of religion is bad religion!

      • Stephen K says:

        truth is deeper than epistemology and our intellectual categories. Yes, this is what I believe, or is my instinct, although by the very force of the postulate itself I cannot prove or demonstrate it. It suffices that I use it to inform my religious intercourse.

    • ed pacht says:

      Ah Stephen,
      I’m afraid I find your explanations as difficult to swallow as the Aristotelianism of Aquinas or of the multitude of ‘Thomists’ who so systematically misunderstand him — or, for that matter of the literalism of the legion of Protestant Fundamentalists. There seems to be an almost irresistible urge to explain what it is that we believe or don’t believe about ultimate and thus incomprehensible realities — to do so in terms that our finite human minds can understand. Father Anthony is quite right in labeling most, if not all, of our theological discourse as analogy. An analogy is NOT a description nor is it an explanation: what it is, is a pointer. Analogic speech does not tell,but rather points. In matters theolgic, it points toward the incomprehensible, and is necessary because the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and thus indescribable.

      When I recite the words of the Creeds, or when I speak and write of traditional theology, I mean precisely what I am saying, with no weasel words and no necessity for precise explanation, fully aware that this latter is impossible. I mean precisely what I am saying with no hope of knowing what the words I am using truly point me toward. I can’t know. I can reason around the edges, searching to be pointed more ‘accurately’ toward the depth of these mysteries, but I can’t either overdefine them or explain them away. And in doing what I can, I will find myself faced with improbabilities and with what my mind can only see as contradictions. This is not bad. The Zen masters touched something truly vital in the concept of the koan, the unanswerable question as the gate to real meditation. Christian theology does exactly that: through contemplation of such imponderables as we have received, we learn the humility that a human must have, find ourselves in the presence of a God beyond our imaginings, and, yes, in an analogic sense, touch God.

      I’m sorry, but your explanations strike me as extremely arid, and leave me with a little god that can fit inside my mind. That’s exactly the same feeling I get from rigid Thomists and from literalistic Protestant Fundamentalists — and it is exactly the mind set that has produced so much wrangling and division among Christians. I don’t find a difference in spirit between Fundamentalists and rigid liberals, and sincerely want to be led above and beyond both. I do not strive to understand what I am saying when I recite the creeds or participate in the Mass or strive to practice my faith in any other way, but rather to enter into whatever lies behind these words and symbols and actions — to become a part of the very Mystery that I do not comprehend.

      • Stephen K says:

        Dear ed, despite your best efforts to disagree with – or to distance yourself from – me, you will hardly ever succeed because nearly every time you write I find something – indeed a lot – that I cannot or do not dispute and that I think moves what I was saying to a better plane: a newer synthesis to my antithesis, so to speak. That an analogy is a pointer rather than an explanation sounds completely right, although permit me the slight qualification that it must point to something, and some meaning must be perceived if it is not to be a mere rhetorical device. Whether this or that meaning is strained or arid is another question: we are, however, searching for meanings, that is, a truth that will inform our mind and heart and action. Words are only “weasel” if they are used to deceive others, not when they are understood to mean a truth that a person believes lies at the end of “the pointing”.

        However, you are yourself pointing to – and expressing something I also believe: that the mysteries of God etc are incomprehensible and beyond adequate description or understanding. Thus any meanings we construct or perceive may only have a strictly psychologically utilitarian value (although we may not even or always be able to reliably so restrict them). Nevertheless, the religious and spiritual yearning for God, for completion, for restoration – all the subject matter of the great Christian saga and of the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus preached – is not ultimately an exercise in philosophy or intellectual definition, but a psycho-emotive motivation for loving and constructing rather than their opposites. It may be that in the end, however our imaginations or rationalisations are clothed, the Spirit of God may carry or move us despite and not depend onour semantics. My antithesis opposes the literalist thesis but it is not – as if it ever could be – the final meaning. Our dialectic is a process for trying to explain elements within a meaning in a forum of exchange that inhabits a narrow space in one’s religio-social existence. Like you, I do not strive to understand what I am saying when I recite the creeds or participate in the Mass or strive to practice my faith in any other way, but rather to enter into whatever lies behind these words and symbols and actions — to become a part of the very Mystery that I do not comprehend.

        Indeed, ed, you and I may find ourselves in perfect and total agreement when we arrive at the contemplative silence nurtured in but going beyond the apophaticism to which I think we are both inclined. Thanks, ed. Our co-readers may wish to carry on the dialectic from your own thesis.

      • ed pacht says:

        Actually, Stephen, I don’t think I’ve ever really attempted to disagree with you or to distance myself from you. I am quite consciously reaching for that mystery we both are seeking, and, in doing so am quite consciously attempting to distance myself from both literalistic orthodoxy and literalistic liberalism, both of which operate on the same assumption: that explanation is either desirable or even possible. Both thesis and antithesis fail miserably, and both tend to work against a real entry into mystery. In this case I don’t believe synthesis is going to get one anywhere at all — it is rather the humility to admit that one does not have answers.

      • Stephen K says:

        ed, see my final paragraph above. Perhaps, if by synthesis we mean a reconciling of two antitheses, you are right to say that, in rejecting all elements of both you are not synthesising them. However the way you put it is by way of antithesis to the proposition that extremes can ever be reconciled. That’s a thesis, and you can’t escape from a dialectic if it is taken up. In a way much conversation is a dialectic.

        This is not to say that I do not agree with your position that effectively none of us have answers to Mystery, particularly, in this case, the mysteries proposed by our religion(s). As I indicated in my reply to Father’s post above, that is indeed my instinct, though one that I do not think we can prove definitively, which leads inexorably to your own conclusion.

        Nevertheless, here we are in a process of exchanging ideas or feelings about what we find of value in the Mysteries, and the postulation of meaning or perspective is inescapable. Even the incomprehension of a particular meaning is a kind of meaning, so to speak. Your own posts have rich meaning for me. And I suggest that if we attempt to direct our lives, it is because of particular meanings inspiring such direction. We cease activity often when meaning evaporates. To that extent, it seems we must either attempt to give verbal form to the mental and emotional reality we think and live by, or refrain from discourse on the Unknown altogether. I’m afraid I like the Orbital Sun’s core company – especially yours – too much to do the latter!

      • ed pacht says:

        True, I posit that extremes cannot be resolved, as the application of logic inexorably puts them in opposition to one another. However, I posit just as strongly that they cannot NOT be resolved either, as in the face of the mystery these necessarily apparent incompatibles are equally true. Therein lies the mystery our finite minds are insufficient to comprehend.

  2. Hmmm – methinks there are two kinds of fundamentalists who say that there are things that God cannot do: the “literalists” who say that God cannot use poetry, symbol and “myth” when speaking to us; and those who say that God cannot involve himself in startling ways in the flow of real history (i.e. hard core liberals). Both kinds of fundamentalists have done their bit to harm the Christian community. The former are bent on turning poetry into history; the latter are bent on turning history into poetry. The religion of the incarnation holds poetry and history together.

    • ed pacht says:

      Are history and poetry really all that separate? I don’t think so. History is far more than mere facts. Facts in themselves communicate nothing. They merely sit there as single and mute things. It requires insight and imagination to assemble them into a story that may have significance — and even when the facts are agreed upon (as they so often are not), the significance of those facts continues to be debated endlessly. Poetry, on the other hand, is merely so much noise if it is not grounded in or connected with the facts of the hearers’ lives. However fanciful it might be, it is an application of imagination to a world the poet and his audience knows. Only then does it communicate anything, and what it does communicate ultimately is the poet’s vision of what the real world is or could be. The word was made flesh — a concrete expression that reality is neither in the realm of unembodied ideas nor in the realm of mere hard fact, but in both together. The Creator becomes part of His own creation and brings it into full reality. The historian, the poet, and, yes, the theologian, as what Tolkien called “subcreators” imperfectly replicate this incarnation, and through their work our experience of this world (and the next) takes on flesh,

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