God's Omnipotence: Part 5, Power, Causality, and the Grammar of God

In her Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God Katherine Sonderegger leans heavily upon Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic tradition as she seeks to set out a new framework for speaking about God's power.

Many of our problems, when it comes to these debates about power and causality, stem from a literalness that infects our conversations about God. That same literalness would doom Sonderegger's own proposals, so she's keen to spend time revisiting the grammar of God, how we can properly speak about God, as set forth by Aquinas.

And so, before we can go forward, we need to talk about univocity, equivocity, and analogical language about God.

Because of God's radical Otherness in relation to creation, we cannot use language univocally in relation to God. That is to say, words cannot mean the same thing when we apply them to both humans and to God. Our language about God cannot be literal.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example. We call God "Father." But we cannot mean that in a univocal way. God isn't male. Plus, human fathers only contribute half of their DNA to their offspring, whereas God is 100% our Father. In short, the word "Father" means something different when applied to God.

Now, let's move to a more abstract example, one that we'll need going forward.

Christians claim that God "exists." But again, the word "existence" cannot be used univocally. God doesn't exist the way we exist. Whatever God's "existence" entails, God isn't a noun, a part of the furniture of the universe. You can't "find" God in the cosmos the way you'd locate your lost car keys or Star Trek exploring alien civilizations. You can't spot God in a microscope or telescope. God doesn't sit on Mt. Olympus like Zeus. God doesn't "exist" like that. 

In short, God is our Father and God exists, but God is unlike our human fathers and doesn't exist like physical objects exist.

So we can't be too literal when we use words about God. Words about God cannot be used univocally. There's always a difference between God and us. And yet, the gap between God and our words can't become so radically dislocated that our words lose all meaning, all ability to communicate truths about God. Our language about God can't be univocal, but neither can it be equivocal, where words come to mean such radically different things they lose all coherence.

[Big random side note. This issue of equivocity is a big part of David Bentley Hart's arguments against hell in That All Shall Be Saved. Hart's point is that if we use the words "loving" and "just" to describe God eternally tormenting souls in hell, the words "loving" and "just" become equivocal, so radically removed from our normal conceptions of love and justice that the words become meaningless. That is, if we use the word "good" to describe something most of us would normally describe as "evil" we do catastrophic damage to our language about God.]

And so we face a challenge in talking about God. We need to avoid both univocity and equivocity. Our words about God can't be literal, but neither can they be used in such radically different ways so as to lose all meaning. Words have to protect God's difference, but also keep tethered to reality. How can we perform this balancing act?

Enter Thomas Aquinas. We find the solution, says the Angelic Doctor, by using our language about God analogically. God is a Father, analogically. Properly, God is like a father. And we can explore these likenesses knowing that, at root, an analogy is always based upon comparing two dissimilar things. Consequently, analogies always break down and can be pushed too far. Theological exploration, therefore, is exploring these analogies while keeping perpetually vigilant and alert to moments when the analogy has been pushed too far. You can say too much about God, so at some point you just have to stop. The analogy has broken down. Theology is largely about paying attention to when you've crossed that line.

This may be one of the biggest problems affecting how most Christians talk about God in churches and on social media. Our words about God tend toward the literal, toward the univocal. And it's this literalness that creates much of our trouble in our debates about God.

Consider the topics of this series, the issues of power and causality.

What does it mean to say God "causes" something?

Again, the temptation is to get too literal. When we hear the word "cause" we know exactly what we mean. We think of all the cause/effect relationships in our world. And then we try to locate God among those causes in a quite literal, univocal way. God becomes one cause among other causes. Perhaps God is the Biggest Cause, but still, a Cause alongside causes. Much of our imagination about God's omnipotence is governed by this literal, univocal understanding of God's power, God as the Biggest Cause in the universe.

But just like God doesn't exist alongside objects within the universe, neither does God's "causes" exist alongside or compete with natural causes. God's causality isn't "locatable" among created causes, the same way God's "existence" isn't "locatable" within creation.

Now, admittedly, all this is very abstract. We are, after all, talking about the Mystery. But if you soak in it and try to wrap your head around it, how might this properly analogically approach to God's omnipotence change how we think and talk about God's power? And how might it change all the puzzles we've been thinking about, like God's omnicontrol over every atom to the "Lord's will" dipping in and out of the causal flux to answer this prayer but not that prayer?

I want you to ponder this. Is it possible that all of these puzzles are ultimately due to an excessive literalness in how we talk about God's power?

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