Post-Nominalist Theology
April 9, 2015

John Milbank is no nominalist, yet in Beyond Secular Order he insists that the nominalists raised questions that could not simply be answered by a return to Thomas. He points to four questions: Do creatures stand “outside” God in any sense? Does analogy violate the law of non-contradiction (2 things are simultaneously same and different)? Can God communicate creative causality to creatures? What role does language, which is a human construct, play in understanding? (103-4).

Nominalists had their own answer: Finish being stands in being, without remainder; denial of analogy, universals, real relations; God has the arbitrary power to transfer His power to creatures; cognitive generaalizations are necessarily arbitrary because they are dependent on linguistic constructions.

According to Milbank, Eckhart, Cusa, Mirandola and other thinkers responded to the nominalist challenge, but without reverting to the Thomism that had thrown up the problems in the first place. Milbank summarizes the response under four heads:

“1. A paradoxical reading of the creation as equally inside and outside the Godhead. 

“2. A new thinking of analogy, universal and real relation as exceeding the terms of non -contradiction, by virtue of the character of the infinite and its impinging on the finite. 

“3. The idea that human creative activity is itself a participation in the inner-Trinitarian generation of the Logos and therefore that our making is teleologically constrained, not arbitrary, since (as supremely in God himself) facere fully coincides with intellegere

“4. A greater association of the reasoning process with word, image and emblem. This involves . . . a drastic effort to restore and renew high medieval symbolic realism by now showing that the most seemingly ordinary and also artificial objects - a spoon, a triangle, a map, a ball game, an astrolabe etc. - can be made to yield the full height of mystical significance. The consequence of this is a more ‘figured' and exotic discourse that is sustained by the Baroque and especially the later Anglican Baroque, as is most familiar from so-called ‘metaphysical' poetry and was already promoted against the stripped-down logic and grammar of the Puritan Ramists by the Cambridge and East Anglican renegade Thomas Nashe. Against an already arriving ‘dissociation of sensibility' (of reasoning from embodiment and sensation), the post-Cusan writers reasserted association in a hyperbolic and pan-sacramental fashion” (104-5).

This set the stage, he argues, for “a saving of participatory reason and of symbolic realism by a greater invocation of the transrational: of the emotively led, the aesthetic, the imaginative and the poetic,” a saving of participation that flowered in the Romanticism of Jacobi, Hamann, and Schlegel.

This, it seems to me, provides a more promising direction for reconsideration of “participation” than more Platonically-inspired models of participation, which can wriggle loose of history, language, making. Participation, yes; but let's keep it close to the ground.

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