Analogy – What is an Analogy?

What is an Analogy?

An analogy is a tool that is used to help us describe something that is difficult to explain. This is done through comparing it to something simpler. We might make an analogical bridge between the human brain and a computer. Some examples of analogy are similies and some examples are metaphors. An example of an analogy might be:

“Her feelings for him began to thaw.”

“Thaw” refers to ice or snow melting, but now it refers to a change in the woman’s feelings for the man. They have become warmer.

What is an Analogy in Terms of Religious Language?

In terms of religious language, the analogy might be:

“God is just.”

For an analogy to be strong, the point of comparison must be close. Hume has argued that it makes no sense to compare God to anything in the world as the difference is too vast. However, Aquinas claimed that God is constantly revealed a posteriori through the world that he created and continues to sustain. Therefore, we can come to understand God through the world. For Aquinas univocal language is too reductionist – it reduces God. However, equivocal language is useless – it tells us nothing about God. For him, analogy is the only way in which we can apply our everyday language to meaningful discussions about God.


Aquinas and his two Types of Analogy

Aquinas claimed that are two types of analogy that can be used for discussions about God:

Analogy of Proportion

All objects or beings possess qualities that are in proportion to themselves. A dog can only be good in the way of a dog and a cake can only be good in the way of a cake. Though the word good is used in both cases, it does have different meanings – but this does not mean it cannot be understood. When we are saying that God is good, we are saying that God is good in a divine way – i.e. in a more superior sense than the dog, the cake or even a human. For Aquinas, to say that God is good is to say that God is simply being God, as he is undoubtedly the best at being anything. While we cannot express how God is good or powerful or wise, we can use the term meaningfully to describe God’s wisdom as proportional to his divine nature.

John Hick used the example of the faithful dog and the faithful human to explain the Analogy of Proportion:

Both a man and a dog can be called faithful.
There is a difference between canine and human faithfulness, though there must also be a similarity for us to make the comparison.
We can understand faithfulness in ourselves so we can begin to comprehend the lesser form of faithfulness that is within a dog.
By knowing a quality in ourselves, we can apply this upwards towards God (who has the quality in perfect proportion) or downwards to other things (which may have it in lesser proportion).

Analogy of Attribution

This argument focuses on how a being or object possesses a quality. Aquinas argued that we possess qualities such as wisdom or goodness res significata (we have them) or modus significandi (we demonstrate them) – in humans, perfections are accidental to our substance. God, on the other hand, is his qualities. Simply put God IS wisdom, whereas humans might possess wisdom or act wisely. God’s goodness can be understood a posteriori – it is known through his creation.

Aquinas used the example of medicine and urine (in mediaeval times health was often tested by examining the patient’s urine). Both the medicine and the urine could be healthy, though they are ‘healthy’ in different ways. The urine is healthy because of the medicine, while the medicine is healthy in of itself. In the same way, the world is good because of God, while God is good because he is God. Aquinas argues that God is the source of all goodness in the world, and through observing the world we can come to some understanding of him as the originator of all that is good.

Models and Qualifiers

Aquinas is then arguing that we can understand the goodness of God analogically through our human understanding of the term. This analogy can be through proportion (God possess this quality in greater proportion than any human because he is perfect) or through attribution (God’s attributes are shown through his creation). Importantly for Aquinas, while our initial understanding of a word’s meaning comes through our everyday experience of it (its order of use), the word’s true meaning flows from God himself (order of meaning).

This view was later developed by Ian Ramsey (1915-1972), Professor of Philosophy at Oxford and then Bishop of Durham), who distinguished between models and qualifiers. Ramsey claimed that religious language acts like models. A model car tells us about a car without expressing its full nature. The model has to be simpler than the real thing. Models therefore need to be qualified – a statement needs to be made that the model is not identical to the subject being modelled. In the case of religious language we might say:

1.God is good = a model
2.But not in quite the same way as a human being = the qualifier

Though the analogy cannot be perfect, it can still tell us about the subject being discussed. Use of models can lead to understanding. Ramsey called this moment of understanding “disclosure.” A model can give us a means of thinking about God that can lead to this understanding. The qualifiers remind us that the model itself is not (and cannot be) perfect.

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