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God and Analogy

September 3, 2010

Theology, basically, seeks to explore and understand the nature of God and religious belief. In doing this, theologians have to figure out how best to talk about God and his attributes without diminishing Him in any way, and while still making Him comprehensible to limited human minds. There are many ways in which this might be done, of course. Often, God is spoken of in metaphor, simile, analogy or some other device used to draw conclusions and understanding based on what we already know and have experienced. One particular example of this is Mark Wynn’s recent book Faith and Place. Here, Wynn constructs a religious epistemology based on place, where he makes knowledge of place analogous with knowledge of God. He says that we can understand something of the nature of God through the knowledge we have of particular places in the material world.

There are three main points to his analogy between God and place:

  1. God and place are supra-individual. Both place and God, he says, can be understood in terms of parts that represent a whole. He identifies God with the genius loci, or “spirit of the place,” and suggests that just as places have an atmosphere that each of its parts reflects individually and together as a whole, parts of the created world can be seen to individually and collaboratively reflect the spirit of God.
  2. God and place have narratively mediated agency. Both places and God exercise influence and can be understood based on previous narrative and story.
  3. God and place ground our identity. Our personal feelings and behavior, habits of life, and memory and stories are grounded in places in the world and in God. Here, he goes one step further than the genius loci, and identifies God with the genius mundi, or “spirit of the world.” Our identity, which is grounded in places n the world, are ultimately grounded in God whose spirit inhabits the world.

Now, it seems that some of these comparisons can be quite helpful. Understanding various aspects of our relationship to particular places might help us gain knowledge about God’s relationship with His Creation. Furthermore, we might understand how our actions in places are significant to our relationship with God.

On the other hand, talking in terms of analogy can often lead to wrong conclusions about one or both of the subjects in question. God is not identical to place, and so to draw such specific comparisons could lead to less clear understanding, which misses the whole point of making the analogy in the first place! Furthermore, we don’t want to go too far—in this case, it’s easy to become panentheistic in talk about God as place.

Obviously, there are far too many issues surrounding this topic to go far in depth with the subject here. My question for now is simple: Do you think analogical models like this are helpful to think about God? How far is too far when drawing analogies? Should we, rather, keep to abstractions rather than drawing comparisons with such concrete human issues, like place?

Photo Credit: “God as Architect of the World”–  http://www.alamo.edu/sac/vat/arthistory/arts1303/goth2.htm

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2010 9:26 pm

    Analogy is the tool used by most art to bring out spiritual truths. I think often it is more effective at getting to the spirit of the matter. I fear theologians tend to be caught up in the minutiae. The comparison between the two approaches, I believe, is simply one of denotative vs. conotative meaning of the theological or religious terminology being used.

  2. September 3, 2010 11:55 pm

    I agree with Dave–analogy is a useful tool in this instance. However, I prefer Abraham Joshua Heschel’s connection of God to time, rather than place. Place–specific tangible locations–change, erode, or are destroyed. Time is immaterial and eternal. Heschel wrote, “It is a day on which we are called to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

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