Anastasia WENDLINDER, Speaking of God in Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart: Beyond Analogy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. pp. 217. $109. 95 hc. ISBN 978-1-4094-6916-2. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN. Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057.
Originally a doctoral dissertation at the University of Notre Dame under the supervision of David Burrell, CSC, the work does exactly what its title announces: a study of how Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart talk about God. Its subtitle Beyond Analogy specifies its own interpretation of the two Dominican theologians’ doctrine of analogical language-use.
It is hard to imagine how original work can be still done on Aquinas’s doctrine of analogy; the field has been so often and so thoroughly ploughed that it is unlikely that another digging would yield new and interesting findings. Less studied is Meister Eckhart, perhaps because of his condemnation for alleged heterodoxy. Wendlinder is aware that contradictory interpretations have been offered of the teaching of both Aquinas and Eckhart on human language about God. True to form, the dissertation does a good overview of the current scholarship on the issue (8-14) The merit−and a substantial one−of Wendlinder’s work does not lie so much in ground-breaking research on the teaching of Aquinas and Eckhart on our speaking about God as in providing, by means of a judicious use of existing scholarship, the historical and theological contexts for a fruitful understanding of the doctrine of analogy, better still, the analogical language-use, as espoused by the two Dominican masters, and in the process, demonstrating the theological continuity between them.
Wendlinder’s central thesis is that for Aquinas and Eckhart analogy is not the middle point between, much less a combination of, univocity and equivocity. This is a rather common misunderstanding, and the unfortunately ambiguous Beyond in the subtitle of the book serves to reject this misinterpretation of analogy and not analogy per se. Both univocal and equivocal languages about God are false, for opposite reasons. The former affirms only God’s immanence in the world, and therefore speaks of God as one being among others in the world and totally similar to them; the latter affirms only God’s transcendence over the world and therefore speaks of God as abeing above the world. In both cases however God is conceived as a being, albeit the greatest, among other beings and in competition with them. By contrast, both for Aquinas and Eckhart, Wendlinder argues, analogy affirms both the transcendence and immanence of God, better still, God’s transcendence-in-immanence. Adopting Kathryn Tanner’s expression, Wendlinder says that both Dominicans’ analogical language-use is “non-contrasting,” meaning that they make a distinction but not a separation, much less opposition, between God the Creator and the created world. This type of relation is unique as it applies exclusively to God and the world, one in which God is not thought of as a part of the world, one being over-and-against other beings constituting the world. Another thesis of Wendlinder’s work is that this analogical language-use is not intended to define the nature of God since according to Aquinas, we cannot know what God is but only what God is not. Rather it is a kind of spiritual exercise to move students of theology from speaking about God to speaking to God.
Wendlinder elaborates these two basic theses about Aquinas and Eckhart by first highlighting their common heritage as members of the Order of Preachers. Relying heavily on M. Michèle Mulchahey’s research, Wendlinder describes the origin and mission of the Dominican order as reflected in Dominican education and the formation of novices, the development of the Dominican educational system and the role of Aristotle within it, and the adoption of Aquinas’s writings into the theological curriculum of the order. In this way, she also demonstrates the influence of Aquinas on Eckhart (chapter 2).
Chapters 3 and 4 expound the first 13 Questions of the Summa to substantiate the two theses mentioned above. Chapter 3 focuses on Question 2 with its 13 articles on the necessity, scope, and nature of sacra doctrina and theological language as a “pedagogy for speaking about God.” Chapter 4 discusses the Five Ways and argues that they are not metaphysical “proofs” for the existence of God but instantiations of the analogical language-use to train the mind to think about God’s transcendence-in-immanence non-contrastingly. Their purpose is to move theology students from speaking about God to speaking to God to help them fulfill the Dominican mission of contemplation and preaching, encapsulated in the motto contemplata aliis tradere.
Chapter 5 expounds Eckhart’s original appropriation of Aquinas’s teaching on analogy as a non-contrastive way of speaking about God that ends in “silence.” Wendlinder shows that Eckhart extends Aquinas’s Neoplatonic scheme of God’s creative act as exitus-reditus by interpreting it as a process of emanation of the world from God. Eckhart’s use of this term for creation, as well as of “nothing” to characterize creatures, is intended to show that the “return” of the creatures to God is ultimately not just divine “adoption” but “deification,” that is, identification with God. In using these potentially misleading terms to describe the relation between God and creatures, Eckhart invites believers leave behind concepts and words about God, to carry out a sort of “detached intellection,” an “unknowing” of knowing God, or to put it in psychological jargon, to practice “cognitive behavioral therapy” in order to achieve a non-contrastive language about God. Such a process of unknowing God leads to silence before God, a “living without a why.”
The concluding chapter seeks to apply the teachings of Aquinas and Eckhart on analogy to contemporary Christian life. While deeply aware of the vast differences between their medieval world and ours, Wendlinder believes that non-contrasting analogical language-use contains relevant lessons for our contemporary liturgical practice (even for the English translation of the Latin missal!), for ecumenical relations, and interreligious dialogue.
By the nature of the genre, dissertations focus on a very narrow topic and dig deep to produce something “original” to the satisfaction of the examining board. In this respect Wendlinder’s dissertation is highly successful. Her thesis about the non-contrastive character of Aquinas’s and Eckhart’s language about God and its pedagogical orientation toward mysticism, while not new (Karl Rahner has said the same thing a long time ago) is well argued. What readers are really excited about are the hints (and not much more than hints) that Wendlinder offers in the concluding chapter about the implications of the two Dominicans’ analogical language-use for contemporary Christian life, and for people who live and move and have their being in religious pluralism, for interreligious dialogue. Reading the doctrines of Aquinas, and more so, Meister Eckhart on analogy constantly brings to mind among many things the Hindu notion of atman-Brahman (divine “transcendence-in-immanence” and human “deification”), the Buddhist concepts of no-self (“nothing”), nirvana (“identification”), skillful means (“detached intellection” and “unknowing”), and so on. Not that these are equivalent, much less identical concepts but they are homologues that open up an unexpected common clearing where followers of different religious traditions, sometimes considered incompatible or worse, demonic, can live together, work together, reflect together, and pray together. We owe Wendlinder a great debt for pointing the way forward in this exciting adventure that will end in worshipful silence.