Category: Anglicans

I was glad to see the increased interest in last Friday’s post on E.L. Mascall and analogy, but as complex a topic as it was, I think it’s worth dwelling a moment on such things.  This passage from the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey‘s Sacred and Secular is a great extension of what Mascall was getting at:

If God is indeed the creator of the world and of man, and if man’s relation to God is intrinsically both within the world and beyond it, it is not surprising that when the Messiah proclaims the breaking of the reign of God into history it will at once appear as a reign both within the world and beyond it.  And this is what Jesus brings home to his hearers, not with the delicate synthesis of a philosopher but with prophetic vehemence and paradox.  Here in the midst of the world and its processes is the presence of God, and here must man find him.  But to be near to God as one who receives his reign is to be already in a relationship “out of the world”; and the man or woman who stands childlike in that relationship is already entering beyond the world as well as within it. (10-11)

Note that for Ramsey it is “in the midst of the world and its processes” that the presence of God is to be found.  But paradoxically, he says that to encounter God in and through those processes is to already tap into a relationship that is beyond those processes.  How can one be within the world and yet beyond it?

For Ramsey, the only reason any of this makes sense is that the world is porous to the divine.  Because God is Being itself, anything that has being only has it by virtue of participating in God, which means that the universe is in a way permeated with God.

It’s important to note that this has nothing to do with any kind of blurring of the Creator-creature distinction, for as Mascall emphasized, God transcends any and every category of created being.  Rather, it is to point out with Ramsey that the world is iconic; it is the glass through which we see darkly.

It’s why the sacraments are not just related to the Christian life by some accident, as if they were mere appendages to a religion that was otherwise sufficient without them.  On the contrary, the water of Holy Baptism and the bread and the wine of the Eucharist show forth the truth by which the whole universe is governed, that is, that God meets us in and through the material.

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

I was reading through The Parish Communion, a book of essays edited by the Anglican monk A.G. Hebert in 1937, when I came across the contribution of the priest C. Patrick Hankey.  As with V.A. Demant from my last post, I’d never heard of Hankey, but his essay “Liturgy and Personal Devotion” struck me as quite profound.  He notes that in modern times, private prayer has effectively become the only mode of prayer that most Christians are aware of.  This is regrettably to the neglect of common prayer, which for Hankey, should actually precede private prayer in terms of priority.  As he puts it:

We are to learn, then, how to make prayer in private by having learnt first how to join in common prayer: we do not learn how to take our part in common prayer by learning first how to pray as individuals.  Common prayer provides the visible setting of the earthly Church and its earthliness, which we have to make ourselves remember when we are praying by ourselves.  That is why the churchman finds corporate prayer so great a means of grace; but when we use prayer as a means of self-perfection — praying, in order to make ourselves better — we find common prayer tiresome.  We have forgotten then that ‘being made better’ is a by-product of prayer, not its purpose. (153)

What stands out here is the “earthliness” of the earthly Church that common prayer represents.  This may seem odd at first glance, since “earthly” is not usually what comes to mind when one thinks of prayer.  But common prayer places one in an intimate fellowship with other worshipers, that is, other embodied people.  And in the midst of one another, we are situated within a proper understanding of ourselves as embodied people.  We are reminded of who we are in common prayer.  So common prayer shows forth not only the true nature of the Church on earth, but also the true nature of those who prayer within it.

This is why despite the riches of private prayer, it does not take precedent over common prayer, for by ourselves, it is easier for our earthliness to be obscured.  It becomes easier for us to begin seeing prayer “as a means of self-perfection” since we’re the only ones around when in private.  So the primary orientation of prayer is found in its commonality, its earthliness, which is where grace is always most present.  All of our private devotions thus serve to point us back to that source which alone can lift us in holiness.

I only recently discovered the Anglican priest and theologian V.A. Demant when I saw his name referenced in the acknowledgements of John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory.  Always intrigued by the prospect of another obscure Anglican to explore, particularly one who gets a shout-out from the likes of John Milbank, I set out to procure any works of his that I could and finally acquired a small copy of two radio talks he gave titled A Two-Way Religion.

Demant begins by suggesting that our common understanding of spirituality doesn’t fully grasp the nature of who we are as creatures of God.  We think of spirituality as something that is begins with our conscious devotion to God and therefore that “to be spiritual is to be godly.”  But Demant wants to go underneath the consciousness of spirituality down to its very foundation.  Before we ever have a conscious thought of God, before we utter so much as a prayer, we are already inextricably bound up in an existential relationship to God simply by being his creatures.  God is the ground of our being and it is this relation that underlies any other relation that we might have with God.  And since it does not stem from any direct activity on our part, there is an unyielding certainty to this primary relation to God because it consists in nothing less than our existence itself.

As Demant expounds:

The essence of this kind of certainty is that the relation of the human creature to God is one of existence, not primarily one of consciousness in the ordinary meaning of consciousness.  Of course, in a very special sense it can become an experience with a kind of awareness of its own.  It is the purpose of discipline in the prayer life — with its phases of meditation, contemplation, and the way of union — to reach this kind of knowing God as the ground of existence; and we find that it can be reached only by the eventual breakdown of the more familiar processes of knowing.

These more familiar processes of knowing are usually the processes that we are conscious of; they are the kinds of knowing by which we get ourselves through the day.  As such, they are necessarily bound up with all the cares and occupations of our lives along with all of our flawed responses to them.  So in seeking to know God as the ground of our being, “the achievements of the human spirit’s self-expressive powers are therefore broken down over and over again, precisely in order that the man of faith may know God and not mistake his own spiritual vibrations for the divine action.”  We are in the way of ourselves, in short.  And this is a paradox, for while we are bound up in an existential relation to God, we nevertheless have to seek him.

Fortunately, our tradition offers a wealth of wisdom for such an endeavor, for the discipline it cultivates in us through the Daily Office, seasons of feast and fast, and good works just so happen to be extremely effective methods for setting ourselves in proper alignment so as to perceive more clearly our union with God down at our very depths.

V.A. Demant, A Two-Way Religion, 9-17.

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