Although he is considered a nouveau theologian, Balthasar’s work reserves a central place for Scholastic teachings (or “doctrines”). Chief among these is Aquinas’ “analogy of being” or analogia entis. “Analogia Entis” is a latin term meaning “the analogy of being.” In the Scholastic understanding, analogia is a technical term describing a phenomenon that is found both in language and in life. Medievals thought our linguistic patterns can teach us something about reality in general; in this way, they were closer to contemporary linguistic philosophers, even deconstructionists, than many people realize.
Analogy is defined in opposition to two extremes, univocity and equivocity. Words referring to only one meaning are univocal, like “animal,” which has one meaning which can be said of many different things. When the same word has multiple meanings, referring to completely different things, it is equivocal, like the word “bear,” which can be either an animal or the act of carrying something. Analogous concepts apply to things that have some similarities and some differences, but are related by a proportion. In the Summa Theologiae question 13, article 5, Aquinas writes that we say an animal is “healthy,” but “healthy” is also said of medicine “as the cause of health in the animal body.”
The term “analogia” has a theological application because when we speak about God, we are talking about someone so far beyond us that our words are not really adequate to the task. The medievals were careful to acknowledge that words like “good” or “wise” are related to God and creatures analogically, not univocally or equivocally. Both God and man are “good” in some sense, but not in the same sense; God’s goodness is infinitely greater than, but related to, the goodness of human beings.
I think the concept of analogy would be helpful for many people struggling with the idea of God today. Sometimes people who identify as atheist or agnostic talk about how they can’t understand a god who “does” or “allows” certain evils. I also hear people judging God, questioning his love or his goodness. It is really wonderful for people to think about the nature of God and to realize that common conceptions of God are often weak projections of our own humanity. The god-objectors are on the right track. If the idea of analogy were better known, it would give people a tool for speaking about God and his actions in a fairer light.
Aquinas’ contribution was a special application of analogia. “Analogia entis” refers to how earthly “being” in a general way is differentiated from the “being” of God. Reality includes this thing and that thing: you, me, rocks, cats. Aquinas called this “ens commune” or common being. God’s “I am who am” kind of being is analogically related, but different. Here Balthasar articulates Aquinas’ insight about the difference between God and being:
“the first created reality proceeding from God, by participating in which all beings really are, something ‘abundant, simple, not-subsisting’, ‘universal’, ‘flowing’, participating in an infinite manner and thence in itself infinite, lending form inexhaustibly, which however is distinguished from God by the fact that God subsists in himself, while being only subsists in finite beings. This being which Thomas uniquely discerned with his sharp sight and comprehensively defended . . . this being is creaturely reality in so far as it is seen and conceived as the all-embracing manifestation of God.” (GL IV, 374)
Aquinas recognizes the analogical relation between “Being” in this more inclusive sense and the specific “beings” we encounter daily. This distinction is directly related to aesthetic experience:
“It [esse or being] is therefore a theophanic being, in the classical but also in a thoroughly Pauline sense (Rom 1.18-21; Acts 17.22-29), to which unity, truth, goodness and beauty do not belong as properties possessed at one’s own disposal—how could they, since this being does not subsist as such?—but with which it rather, in so far as they adhere to it, refers to the primordial ground of being which replicates itself in it like an image.” (GL IV, 374)
Since esse, created being, is a true image of God, it is beautiful, good, true, and one. Insofar as it is God’s image, it is the transcendentals (rather than a being with some property of goodness or beauty). Balthasar loves this insight because it secures a certain “objectivity” for beauty, placing it on a theological plane: beauty is important because it directly reflects God’s glory.