Friday, December 3, 2010

Steven Shakespeare on RO's "Scotus"

From Steven Shakespeare, Radical Orthodoxy: A Critical Introduction, by way of this blog

Apparently that's his real name.

"[...] Perhaps more significant still for Radical Orthodoxy is the belief that the seeds of secular decadence are sown by developments within Christian theology itself. The key villain of the piece is Duns Scotus, a medieval Franciscan theologian who died in the early fourteenth century. Scotus is accused of playing a major part in the breakdown of the 'analogical' world-view associated particularly with Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74). According to Aquinas, analogy was a way of talking about God which offered a middle way between two extremes. One extreme was univocal language, which assumed that words were used in exactly the same way when applied to God as they were when applied to anything else. This meant that God could only ever be different in degree (bigger and better) rather than different in kind from us and from the world. The other extreme was equivocal language, which held that words used of God meant something entirely different to their ordinary meaning. On this view, God was a blank, so utterly other to us that anything we said about God was empty and meaningless - hardly a promising prospect for for religious practice!

Analogy tried to avoid these dead ends by saying that some language (like 'God is love' or 'God is truth') could be properly used of God, as God was the source and perfect end of such qualities. However, there was still a high degree of unknowing in this account, as we could not tell exactly how such words and expressions applied to God.

Ideas of analogy can be involved and sophisticated. But the important thing to hold onto is that they try to keep open a possibility for true speech about God which doesn't either reduce God to being just one more thing (however exalted) among many in the universe, or make God into a black hole eternally irrelevant to us.

Duns Scotus is blamed with distorting this authentically Christian understanding of God and truth, because he said that 'being' is a univocal concept. In other words, there is no difference between the way in which God 'is' and the way in which a person or anything else 'is'. To be is the same thing in each case. God is different from us because of the infinite nature of his power. But this has just the consequences which analogy tried to guard against. It makes God the same kind of being as us, just (infinitely) bigger and better. The irony is that Duns Scotus' univocal view doesn't make God any closer to us, because to preserve God's uniqueness, he has to emphasize God's exalted difference from all creatures. God becomes almost identified with pure power.

A further consequence is that, as God is no longer related to us by a living chain of analogy, God becomes ever more hidden and dark to us. God retreats into the heavens, exercising his will from afar. And God's will becomes the arbitrary exercise of power. It has no inner relationship to human worth and fulfillment. God becomes the Law, imposed upon an essentially Godless world.

This account of Duns Scotus is highly controversial ...."


I don't have much time or energy for a full-blown Cambridge Phantasist rant today, so I'll just point out a few things. None of this new, just a rehash of their ideas. But I like to be up-to-date. Note that implication that Scotus is not authentically christian, since he challenged the "analogical worldview". And don't ask me what a "living chain of analogy" is supposed to be. We find here the usual errors: Scotus' univocal concept is interpreted as if he meant it to be applied to the thomistic act of being, univocity paradoxically both makes God just like us but at the same time he is so otherly other that we can't reach him at all. Note also this curious emphasis on omnipotence, which has no basis in any text of Scotus. All divine attributes have the intrinsic mode of infinity. There is nothing special about omnipotence in this respect to make it somehow prior to goodness, will, intellect, and so on. Omnipotence is kind of a bust in Scotus, as all he really wants to discuss is whether it can be proven to be a divine attribute apart from divine revelation. So where this claim that power is identified with God comes from beats me. But texts were never the strength of the movement.

Walter Kauffman, in his introduction to the Portable Nietzsche, quoted a quip from Maritain (whose Thomistic credentials should be beyond reproof) that is relevant here: "If books were judged by the bad uses man can put them to, what book has been more misused than the Bible?"


crystal said...

Thanks for the mention.

Lee Faber said...

Thanks for bringing the book to our attention.