On Tuesday, the Covenant blog of The Living Church magazine published a wonderful piece which contained a reading from E.L. Mascall’s work on Mary. Mascall has long been one of my favorite modern Anglican theologians. Several years ago, I went to a priest of mine exasperated at the apparent dearth of Anglican theologians from the early to mid 20th Century, at least in comparison to the theological giants of that era from the Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions (where was an Anglican of the likes of Barth or Rahner, for instance?). He confirmed that we didn’t really produce someone of that stature or impact in that time, but he nevertheless told me to check out E.L. Mascall who was probably the closest thing. I eventually acquired a few of his works over the years and have always found him profound and stimulating. And reading through the Covenant piece made me want to revisit him.
So for today, I thought I’d engage in some straight-up theology — as Mascall usually does — and offer a brief sketch of his discussion of analogy and how we speak about God. Specifically, I’m engaging his book He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism which I heartily recommend if you can find a copy (it’s long out of print, unfortunately).
First, Mascall points out that our normal ways of naming things simply do not work when it comes to God. Normally, we work with some kind of taxonomy — think genus and species from biology class — when classifying the things around us. For instance, when we define a human being as a “rational animal,” we first include her together with all other members of the category “animal” given humanity’s many shared traits with other animals. But then, noticing how the peculiar difference of a human’s rationality sets her apart from all other animals, we qualify her membership with the distinction of “rational.” Whether it’s a red ball, a large hammer, or a thorny bush, this is always how we go about designating and specifying the objects around us.
But again, this process simply does not work with God because God cannot be placed within an overarching category like “animal” nor can he be properly designated by applying some qualification such as “rational.” Neither are sufficient. But why not? Do we not refer to God as “Supreme Being” or “Heavenly Father?” To quote Mascall’s response to such a question:
We cannot lump together in one genus God and everything else, as if the word “being” applied to them all in precisely the same sense, and then pick out God as the supreme one. For if God is the Supreme Being, in the sense in which Christian theology uses the term, “being” as applied to him is not just one more instance of what “being” means when applied to anything else. So far from being just one item, albeit the supreme one, in a class of beings, he is the source from which their being is derived; he is not in their class but above it. Nor, to take the other example, can we lump together in one class God and all other fathers, and then pick out God from among them as the one who happens to be heavenly. (9)
Because God transcends all classes of beings, that means that he is not merely one being among others. He is not even the biggest or most powerful being among others. Therefore, it is false to suppose that a finite term of human language such as “father” could fully designate a feature of God’s infinite nature in the same way that it would designate a feature of some finite being’s nature. For Mascall, this principle is the principle of analogy “according to which the terms of human speech when applied to God neither mean precisely what they mean when applied to finite beings nor are completely meaningless” (13).
Who is God, then? God is Being itself, which is what is captured by God’s response to Moses from the burning bush: “I am that I am.” According to Mascall, “[God] is not merely the ens maximum, the greatest being that exists, but the maxime ens, that which completely is” (13). And because God is Being itself, and therefore the source from which we finite and contingent beings derive our existence, we can reasonably think upon his nature and describe it in a meaningful way. However, as Being itself, God infinitely transcends all categories of our logical definitions and therefore can only be described analogously by the finite terms of our language.
Now, this may all seem to be a bunch of purely academic concerns — and there’s no doubt that these are extremely complex and sophisticated matters — but this nevertheless has a great deal of practical import in our spiritual lives. Because while it may appear that Mascall’s treatment of analogy makes God completely inaccessible to us, the opposite is actually the case. This is paradoxical, but it is precisely because God transcends all of our finite categories that he is the kind of God who is intimately related to us as the fount of our very being. Again, as Mascall reminds us, God is Being itself and it is only because God is God in this way that, to paraphrase Augustine, our hearts can find their true rest in him. Otherwise, if we could classify God as one being among others, regardless of how infinitely powerful he might remain, then it would inevitably set God over against the world. The world, along with us who live in it, would become closed off to God as he would now be “outside” of the world, rather than present from its deepest, most mysterious registers.
So when we pray, we don’t pray to a God who’s “out there somewhere” — a God who we only bother petitioning because of some infinite degree of power that he possesses with which to fulfill our prayers and supplications — but rather we pray to a God who is paradoxically nearer to us than we are to ourselves precisely because he infinitely transcends any and all categories of created being. He simply is that he is.
E.L. Mascall, He Who Is: A Study in Traditional Theism, 8-13