Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mind of the Maker Book Discussion

OK, I love a good online book discussion, and happened to see that Cindy at Ordo Amoris was discussing Dorothy Sayer's Mind of the Maker.  I have read all of Sayers' mysteries quite a few years ago, but little of her nonfiction besides the classic (and controversial) Lost Tools of Learning.   Which I like, by the way.

Mind of the Maker is available online at World Invisible.    I made a Readlist of the book so I could download and read offline on my ereader.

I have been reading alongside the book club, but haven't had a chance to post yet.   I am finally jumping in with Chapter 2.    That link will take you to Cindy's post and linky, in case you want to join in.    You can read the chapter online here

The chapter opens with an Aquinas quote:

Those things which are said of God and other things are predicated neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically... . Accordingly, since we arrive at the knowledge of God from other things, the reality of the names predicated of God and other things is first in God according to His mode, but the meaning of the name is in Him afterwards. Wherefore He is said to be named from His effects. - ST. THOMAS AQUINAS: Summa contra Gentiles.
I first came upon those terms "univocal" and "equivocal" in beginning logic texts.   Univocal refers to words that mean only one thing.   Glaucomys sabrinus is a univocal term referring to the northern flying squirrel.  Equivocal terms have more than one possible meaning.   Many, many English words are equivocal in meaning.   "Port" can mean a harbor city, the left of a ship, or a kind of wine.   The problem with equivocal terms is when they are interchanged accidentally, from confusion, or deliberately, in order to deceive, in a train of reasoning.   Many errors arise when terms are not carefully defined.  In chapter 1, for example, Sayers talks about the different kinds of "laws" and the confusion that arises when a moral law is mistaken for a moral code.

From what I've read, medievals thought of analogy as a certain kind of equivocation, a deliberate one, but for the purposes of clarification, not deception.   Certainly that would often be true of metaphor in poetry (literature), which is a kind of analogy that compares one type of thing to another by means of a common relationship.   When Jesus says:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. and you were not willing. 
he is not saying God is a hen.  He is comparing what God wants to do with what a hen does to shelter her chicks.    In this sense, I suppose parables are a kind of extended metaphor or simile. 

Something that we say of ourselves as creatures, that we have being or are "good", is said by means of a different kind of analogy, from what I understand.   It's not quite the same as a metaphor.  We have being or existence in a different way from God.  His Being is primary, where ours is secondary, derived,  participatory, like the difference between the Sun's light and that of the moon.  It is in a similar way that things were created "good".  God's goodness is primary, where the goodness of his creation is a participation, a reflection of His Goodness.   But it is by participation the same thing, but imperfect and limited and derived. 

Aquinas is pointing out that while all goodness or being derives from God's nature, we perceive God from His effects, not directly.   "Now we see through a glass darkly".   However, God, the Cause, comes first, and the things we see are participations.    Our modern world gets it backwards and in fact, as with the Green Lady's persuasion in CS Lewis's The Silver Chair, it would try to convince us that the reflections are the only realities.    To see things truly would be to see it the other way.  As material beings limited by our materiality, we can't in fact "see", except by the indirect route of tracing from our sensory input and reasoning to the truth of things.

Or at least, that is what I get from it.     Augustine says that God is, properly speaking, unspeakable.  Yet we are permitted, instructed in fact, to speak of Him.

And so God is not even to be called "unspeakable," because to say even this is to speak of Him. Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable. And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech. And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men's mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise.
I could have written this post without pulling in Augustine, but I dragged it in because it is so typical of his style, and I like the way he says it so much.   It seems to me that one of the key features of human beings is that we can't help speaking of God.   The pastors do it, atheists do it, even silly internet trolls and bad fiction writers do it (if only by having their characters use God's name in vain every other page). 

But Sayers doesn't say that the primary feature distinguishing humans from other animals is their tendency to speak of the unspeakable (in fact, no one has said that, that I know of).  Rather, Sayers makes the point that in Genesis, when we find that man is made "in the image of God", what we've heard of God is that He is the Creator, the Maker.    We understand God as Creator analogically, because by our limited nature as human beings, we need analogy, mind pictures, in order to make sense of what is unknown. 

We use the word "create" to convey an extension and amplification of something that we do know, and we limit the application of the metaphor precisely as we limit the application of the metaphor of fatherhood. We know a father and picture to ourselves an ideal Father; similarly, we know a human "maker" and picture to ourselves an ideal "Maker". If the word "Maker" does not mean something related to our human experience of making, then it has no meaning at all. We extend it to the concept of a Maker who can make something out of nothing; we limit it to exclude the concept of employing material tools. It is analogical language simply because it is human language, and it is related to human experience for the same reason.
(In fact, this is a side tack, but Aquinas says we are taught by this process of coming to know the unknown by the means of the known.   We learn by perceiving likenesses and differences in experiences, and we are taught very often by analogy, or relations between one thing and another thing).

The second point, besides that we partially understand Creation by analogy to human creation, is that when we as humans create or make something, we are participating in something of God's nature.    To be a maker is to show oneself as made in God's image.

Human fathers in some way participate in God's Fatherhood; human "makers" (artists, cooks, poets) participate in God's creativity (though that word seems out of place somehow, maybe because it has become somewhat equivocal; I wish I could think of a better way to say it).

Sayers writes:
I have put down these very elementary notes on the limitations of metaphor, because this book is an examination of metaphors about God, and because it is well to remind ourselves before we begin of the way in which metaphorical language-that is to say, all language-is properly used. It is an expression of experience and of the relation of one experience to the other. Further, its meaning is realised only in experience. We frequently say, "Until I had that experience, I never knew what the word fear (or love, or anger or whatever it is) meant." The language, which had been merely pictorial, is transmuted into experience and we then have immediate knowledge of the reality behind the picture.
I like this passage, but don't entirely understand it.    Maybe it's the difference between me reading Jesus's words about the mother hen, and mentally comparing God's care with that of an animal mother whose whole being is focused on protection and nurture, and then later, perhaps, experiencing God's care for me in just that way, or perhaps, when I become a mother, analogically experiencing the whole thing from God's perspective, as I commit everything I have even to death for a precious being who doesn't seem to completely acknowledge what I am doing for him : ).

I don't know where Sayers is going with this, since I'm trying not to read ahead, but I think Story is a way of experiencing internally without actually going through the external event itself.    When I read a good story, I go through some of what the protagonist goes through, though not in the same way that I do when I live through it personally.   I read The Silver Chair so many times as a child that I practically have it memorized, and I can almost smell the Marshwiggle's burnt foot as he stomps out the Green Lady's enchanted fire, and I have felt that dazed, hypnotized state which the children had been lulled into by her lying words and unwholesome green powders.   I learned it well enough to recognize the times it was in danger of happening to me, though not quite in the same way as it did to Scrubb and Pole.

So much fun to think about this!   Sayers closes the chapter by noting that in the modern world, the scientist's and the poet's paths have diverged widely, as have the theologian's and the poet's.    There is so much information that we tend to have to specialize, to the point where everyone almost speaks a different language (beyond the pragmatic common language).

I tend to synthesize a lot, so I probably mostly head for the territory where the different spheres converge, sometimes to the point where I don't make proper distinctions, or spin off into doubtful parallels.  It is something I have to watch in myself.  However, on a broader note, it seems like Sayers is saying a proper employment of this tendency is a good thing.    The Tower of Babel, the technological monstrosity of its time, divided our languages; nowadays, information overload and conflicting ideologies do the same thing.   -Pentecost, among other things, re-unified language, and we are supposed to do our bit to be messengers of the Good News, which means at the very least speaking in language that can be understood, where by the known we help others come to the understanding of the unknown.


  1. I really appreciate your deep thoughts, Willa. Something particularly struck me--the idea about poets using analogy to reach a meaning. I think sometimes they purposely use an equivocal image because the different possibilities delight them. Some of the delight is in the ambiguity.

    I have family members eager for me to do something, so I'd best just stop there, but I look forward to your future posts!

    1. Thanks, Cindy!
      That is a good point about the poets using ambiguity intentionally. I hadn't thought of it that way.... it sounds like you are saying that a certain kind of equivocation can be a good thing if you are trying to open a meaning up rather than simply clarify it. In that way, ambiguity might be a verbal representation of mystery. And mystery is delightful.

  2. Exactly! Did you ever think that "dog" is "God" spelled backwards, and man is made in the image of God, and the dog is man's best friend? Gets ya thinkin', doesn't it?! ;-)

  3. Dear Willa,
    I am delighted that you will blogging through the book as your thoughts are so clear. It took me a while to catch up on things this week but I decided to take the time to read through all of last week's posts before starting the next chapter and I am so happy I did.

    Shakespeare has made a whole career out of pulling equivocal meanings from words. It is as if his mind always searches for the double meaning.

  4. Wow. Such a clear, well-thought out post. Thanks, Willa. I think your thoughts on how experience helps us more fully understand metaphorical language are spot on. Our children are adopted. I understood the idea of adoption (God's adoption of us) before that, but since adopting our own children, my understanding has deepened. I think that's what she's saying, too.

    Thanks for clarifying univocal and equivocal! That helped. I think, like Cindy M., that poets and other writers sometimes revel in the ambiguity of language. I know I do. I've read that making puns requires one of the highest forms of language understanding and I can see that. In order to play with words, we need to understand all the various ways they can be interpreted.

    I don't know where Sayers is headed either,(won't it be fun to find out?!) but like your point about Story.

    And I so agree with your last sentence: "we are supposed to do our bit to be messengers of the Good News, which means at the very least speaking in language that can be understood, where by the known we help others come to the understanding of the unknown." Amen! Becky

  5. Willa, I am so glad you are participating. I have missed you the last couple times! :) favorite things you said here...where do I start? :)

    First, I adored you saying that metaphor was once considered a form of equivocation, but a positive one. Something about that contrast really helped deepen my own understanding. I always *despise* equivocation, but I think it is because my experience with it tends to be solely in purposeful deception. But to think of metaphor as an equivocation meant to enlighten rather than harm--that, my friend, is a beautiful thought!

    I love what you said about The Silver Chair. I have seen this in my children. They see their catechism somewhere, or my son once saw The Flatterer from Pilgrim's Progress. He even skipped the metaphor and went straight to simile! I think this is possibly what N.D. Wilson meant when he said that stories were catechisms with flesh on.


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