Excedens et excessum

analogyI’ve added The Syndicate to my blog roll. The have such helpful reviews and conversations. Check them out. You’ll find books addressing a wide range of topics that are team-reviewed, so you get alternative perspectives. I love the approach. One particularly interesting review-conversation I’m enjoying addresses Johannes Hoff’s book The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa. Among the reviewers, I was especially challenged by John Betz’s review which I thought I’d share here. Read his review got me thinking of ways to imagine the God-World relation as “mirror” (as Divine Mångata). The italics are original to Betz. The bold emphasis is added by me.

In his most recent book, The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, Johannes Hoff describes Cusa’s body of writings as “a seriature (in the sense of Jacques Derrida): a cord, rope, or series of unique gestures designed to approximate the apocalyptic turning-point at which God comes to mind” (189). Something similar could be said here. The Analogical Turn is a work that defies—perhaps intentionally (see 56!)—linear analysis, exposition, or summary. Indeed, on a first reading the chapters appear to lack, as Hamann once said of Socrates’s maxims, “the bridges and ferries of method that would have established a community among them.” Upon closer inspection, however, one discovers a method that bears some analogy to the “bowling game” that Cusa invented and is the subject of his first book—a game in which “skillful players might be able to move their bowl in a helicoidal circle around the target point” (157). In other words, though the development of Hoff’s argument is not linear, and anyone looking for a straightforward exposition may very well be frustrated, each chapter nevertheless brings us closer to the target of seeing what Hoff sees in Nicholas of Cusa: a pre-modern visionary whose thought has the post-modern potential to lead us beyond the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, and back to an alternative, pre-modern analogical vision of the age to come (xv).

The basic argument here, accordingly, is that modern dialectics have blinded us to reality—either in the way that modern scientific rationalism tries to extort from creatures a univocal meaning they have never had, or in the way that postmodernism denies that creatures have any intrinsic meaning at all that is not a function of culture, the will to power, or the play of différance. In short, both of these extremes—“the univocity of modern scientific rationality and the ambiguous equivocity of post-modern pop culture” (xv)—have rendered reality opaque. And so we need to go back to Cusa’s analogical rationality if we are to go forward into an apocalyptic future in which the world will be seen for what it is, a transparency of divine things, and one can “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas (206). Fittingly, therefore, the work concludes with a mystagogical ascent to a Cusa-inspired vision of God. Given the richness of this work and the limitations of the present review, however, some delimiting and focusing of perspective will be necessary. In the following, therefore, I will limit my comments to those aspects of this work that I found most interesting, but also integral to the kind of perspective Hoff wants to provide.

The Analogical Turn turns on Cusa’s overturning of modern perspective, which Hoff traces back to the work of Cusa’s contemporary and fellow priest, Leon Battista Alberti (1406–72), who “applied the mathematical methods of Euclid to the art of painting” (47). On the face of it, there does not seem to be anything problematic here: Alberti’s mathematical mapping of perspective can subsequently be seen in the geometrical art of Piero della Francesca, who is best known and admired for his paintings of gospel scenes (e.g., The Baptism of Christ from 1450). Nevertheless, Hoff sees a problematic turning point here that will subsequently define the “world picture” (in the Heideggerian sense) of the modern age. The problem, as he sees it, is that the vanishing point of the work of art mirrors that of the viewer, eo ipso “putting the latter in the position of a sovereign observer who can control the space of his perception as if it were nothing but a mirror image of his subjective position” (48). In other words, from this point on, Hoff argues, modern perspective is defined not by a “being seen” (as one is seen by the gaze of an icon) or by a misty seeing of the invisible through the visible—one could just as well say, of the infinite through the finite—but by the dominant viewer (the new and only topos noetos) and this viewer’s imaging of reality in narcissistic terms, according to his conception of it. In short, reality is now configured in my image and according to my representation of it. Thus, according to Hoff’s genealogy, the “winged eye” of Alberti (which appears on the flipside of his portrait medallion) leads directly to the “thinking I” of Descartes’s cogito (57)—and thence, one might add, to the synoptic transcendental ego of Kant.

At this specular point a distinctly modern perspective is established (which for Hoff is also the presupposition of modern individualism). For once the artist no longer sees his or her task as a mimesis of the Creative Art, as an iconic rendering of the invisible through the visible—as Alberti insisted, “the invisible is not the business of painters” (57)—the symbolic universe of the Middle Ages gives way to the “digital universe of Descartes and Leibniz” (69). Corporeal entities, as for Descartes, come to be regarded as “nothing but ‘extended things’ (res extensae) that can be represented analytically, based on functions and equations, without remainder” (64); and so, inspired by visions of a mathesis universalis, matters of symbolic concern are “pushed aside in favor of simpler strategies of scientific progress” (65). Thus, as Hoff keenly observes, it was ironically modern artistic innovation—initially its obsession with geometrical “truth-likeness,” but then its dialectical flight into the dreamy, illusionary world of the Baroque (57)—that led to scientific contempt for art (as irrelevant to the search for truth); and, more generally, for the “symbolic sensitivities of theologians, artists, and poets” (65)—in short, for any metaphysical sensibility that sees in the world more than modern science, even in its wildest dreams of progress, can contain. To be sure, there were some things that did not fit the mathematical model perfectly, such as the “squared circle”; but Leibniz proffered a solution even to this seemingly insuperable problem by defining the mathematical constant as an “irrational number” (65), thereby making it possible to disregard “every deviation in mathematical space as a quantité négligeable” (65).

Now, turning to Cusa, what Hoff finds so interesting about the German cardinal, and why he finds him so important for us to consider today, is that Cusa understood Alberti’s vision of reality (its epistemology and corresponding ontology) and decidedly rejected it. Without denying “the possibility of representing a circle, for example, with a polygon composed of a potentially infinite number of sides and internal angles,” he nevertheless maintained that “mathematical comparisons can only provide us with conjectures and not precise descriptions of our analogical world” (67). In other words, anticipating Kurt Gödel mutatis mutandis by nearly half a millennium, Cusa argued that because the world is structurally analogical, and opposites coincide in God alone, an exhaustive mathematical account of reality is impossible (66). In short, nothing can be pinned down and mastered; the Continental, Hegelian desideratum of a complete system and the Anglo-American desideratum of a final analysis are equally impossible. For in our world, in which everything is “enmeshed in the comparative logic of excedens (exceeding) and excessum (exceeded), of larger and smaller” (68), “nothing has the analytic ‘property’ [of being] one with itself. We may make rational conjectures about the identity of individual substances, but they are never analytically precise” (164).

For this reason, as Hoff observes, “Cusa had no use for Leibniz’s ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason.’ He felt no need to contort his mind in order to justify the uniqueness of our being in the world as ‘inalienable property’ by means of rational calculations” (165). On the contrary, Cusa saw in the modern dream of a mathesis universalis (insofar as this entailed the presumption of completeness) a distortion and flattening of reality, a reduction of its mystery to a deceptive mastery, moreover, a premature grasping (patterned on the story of Genesis 3) after godlike knowledge of all mysteries—and, as such, an obstacle to our mystagogical ascent through kenotic abasement (following the contrasting pattern of Christ, who did not cling to his “own” or to any “inalienable property,” but emptied himself, according to Phil 2:6f.). Thus, just as Heidegger once did for his own purposes, Hoff can summarize Cusa’s metaphysical vision in the words of Angelus Silesius’s famous poem, “Die Ros ist ohn warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet. Sie acht nicht ihrer selbst, fragt nicht, ob man sie siehet” (165).

What gradually comes to light here has enormous metaphysical, existential, and even political consequences; for even one’s politics is invariably a reflection of one’s implicit or explicit metaphysical commitments. Whereas, on the modern model, which funds “the liberal societies of the modern age,” “every singularity is identical with its essence” (165) and thus a “one” unto itself, for Cusa “nothing but God is One and identical with itself” (164). This is not to deny that creatures possess an analogical “oneness” as images of the “divine simplicity” (162); but, as Hoff notes, as analogical singularities, “the uniqueness of created individuals is neither analytically accountable nor conceivable as a ‘property’ that creatures ‘have’” (162). Rather, “the miracle is that every creature and every person is a singularity, not despite, but exactly because it owes everything it is to a giver whose perfections cannot be owned” (163). Indeed, rather than being one’s own property, according to Hoff’s Cusa-inspired metaphysics I cannot but “receive the gift to be one with myself (165).


Just how different this Christian-Neo-Platonic vision is from that of modern Western liberalism (for which the individual is his or her own inalienable property) goes without saying. In the language of Paul, “You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19); in the language of James, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas 1:17). In other words, in an image of the triune simplicity, to be one is to be related (which is also why the sexes cannot be understood in isolation but refer to one another). Or, to put it in the paradoxical words of the gospel, one finds one-self precisely by losing one-self in love (Matt 16:26)—as with marriage, which is therefore an icon of human completeness (Mark 10:8), pointing to the perichoretic completeness of the Trinity. Such, in any event, is the paradoxical precision of the gospel, which gives the lie to rationalistic dreams of a final analysis: nothing created can be itself by itself. But as Cusa and Plato before him realized, seeing things for what they are, as unique images of the divine “oneness,” is not something everyone can see. As Hoff puts it, “For the same reason that the believer has to lose herself in order to find herself, she has to lose the world in order to see it as it actually is” (206). Indeed, contra the myth of the Enlightenment, which is arguably an ignis fatuus, even a kind of darkness, it requires a conversion away from oneself to the light, which one does not by rights possess in oneself. In the memorable words of Augustine, arguably the greatest of Christian Platonists, “si ergo accedendo illuminamini et recedendo tenebra mini: non erat in vobis lumen vestrum, sed in Deo vestro” (In Joh. Tract. XIX, xii).

Here is not the place to debate the extent of Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, or, for that matter, his criticism of the Platonists (e.g., in book VII of the Confessions, where the emphasis begins to shift toward divine humility and the necessity of the church and of sensible, sacramental mediation as a remedy for intellectual pride). It would be safe to say, though, that Cusa’s doctrine of divine simplicity as a coincidence of opposites makes it easier for him to say why this turning toward the divine light is not simply a Platonic epistrophē but precisely a turning toward Christ in humility and learned ignorance as the One in whom maximum and minimum incomprehensibly coincide. Indeed, for Cusa, the Platonic epistrophē, which demands a turning away from the mundus intelligibilis toward the mundus intelligibilis, is actually accomplished in no other way than by turning to the incarnate Word—in whom alone we face the One who is otherwise invisible and unknown. As Hoff wonderfully puts it, “Whoever turns his face to God turns his face to the face of Jesus” (213).

Thus, precisely at the height of the influx of Platonism into Western Christianity, in the wake of the Council of Florence (1438–39) and the subsequent establishment of the Platonic Academy under the leadership of Ficino, Cusa radically transformed Platonism by centering it not simply in an ad hoc way, but now with metaphysical justification, on the person of Christ. For “he is both uncontracted qua his divine nature and contracted qua his human nature; and this enable us to redirect our attention: whoever calls his name and turns his face to his face is facing the invisible gaze of the Father who sent him (Jn 12:45)” (213). Moreover, “Christ is not only the light of truth that manifests itself in the darkness of his creation. He is also the way to this truth (Jn 14:6); and this way can only be found in the ‘body of the faithful (corpus fidelium) . . . called the Christ-formed universal gathering (Christiforme ecclesia catholica) . . . and made up of all rational spirits adhering to Christ’” (219). For, as the one in whom the uncontracted and the contracted, the infinite and the finite, coincide, Christ is the one who “enfolds within [himself] (in se complicare) all multitude and, thus, is unreplicable, since it is the enfolding of all multiplication, or multitude” (161).

Cusa thus provides a remarkable metaphysical justification for the church in that here, in the one body of Christ, we see the manifestation of metaphysical reality: that multitude is nothing other than the unfolding and explication of oneness; that individuals are therefore metaphysically referred not to themselves, but to him. For metaphysically, “I am an image of the divine ‘one’ that owes everything it is to its participation in the divine oneness” (161). Indeed, in keeping with Cusa’s analogical metaphysics, for which nothing but God is by nature one with itself, it is in turning toward Christ that we are made whole and become by grace the “ones,” the unique individuals and—by incorporation into Christ—members of the one body that we really, metaphysically are. This is why at various points Hoff notes that, in our fallen state, “we are not what we are” (212), and that, picking up on a cue from Augustine (sermon 272), we must therefore become what we are, which is to say, that we must become what we are in Christ (13, 211). As Cusa writes in De docta ignorantia (before Luther!),

Our justification is not from ourselves, but from Christ. Since He is the complete fullness (omnis plenitudo), in Him we obtain all things . . . Therefore, the higher a man ascends in the immortal virtues, the more Christlike he becomes. For minimum things coincide with maximum things. For example, maximum humiliation (humilitatio) coincides with exaltation (cum exaltatione): the most shameful death of a virtuous man coincides with his glorious life, and so on—as Christ’s life, suffering, and death manifest all these points to us (185).

There is thus for Cusa, following Paul, no higher (Platonic) term of contemplation or speculation than what one can see in Christ and him crucified: “Sunt igitur omnia mysteriain crucifixione innocentis Christi complicate” [all mysteries are enfolded in the crucifixion of the innocent Christ] (181). Indeed, as Hoff notes, “the crucifixion is the key to Cusa’s ‘hunt for wisdom’” (181). For not only is Christ the real and symbolic center of the universe in that he manifests the oneness of God (as the coincidence of the infinite and finite, the absolute maximum and the minimum); he also invites us into his oneness with the Father as members of his one body: “That they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one” (John 17:23).

What is arguably most striking about Cusa’s re-vision of the Platonic tradition, however, is that this invitation to share in the oneness of God (at which point of self-abandonment it becomes possible to see God as the non aliud, as the “non-other” than every creature) is less an invitation to a Platonic-mystagogical ascent as it is an invitation to a Christian-mystagogical descent (to the point of conformity to the Cross of Christ). For “unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Thus, to employ that most precise trope of paradox, whose mysterious form is a sign of a greater precision than anything modern analytic method could attain, we come to see that, as Heraclitus prophetically intimated, “the way up and the way down are one and the same” (Diels B60): we come to see that the ascent occurs by way of a descent, by way of a following of Christ (to his cross) in order to rise with Christ (in his resurrection).

But, once again, such a metaphysical vision is inaccessible to the modern man, who is immured in his modern perspective—the perspective of “the modern Narcissus,” who puts himself “in the position of the eye point of a mathematically generated picture” (151), and precisely thereby makes his eye unreceptive to the light of the vision of God. As Hoff puts it, quoting Kleist, “nur schade dass das Auge modert, das die Herrlichkeit erblicken soll” [it’s just a pity that the eye molders that is called to the vision of glory] (167). As much as this book is about ontology, it is therefore also—and perhaps even more so—about conversion, metanoia: for it is only when one actually becomes “an image of divine simplicity” (169) by becoming one with Christ that one can see the world for what it most truly and most precisely is: an analogy of the One who is manifest in Christ. As Cusa puts it, “Created things . . . are not seen perfectly unless their Creator is seen” (207), which, in turn, is possible only when Christ their archetype is seen, and in him all things (John 1:3). Indeed, only then, as we are turned toward Christ (213), and the “incomprehensible light of the creator shines forth in our desire” (206), does the universe (uni-versum) in all its splendor come into view: only then are we able to see “in the real space of face-to-face encounters” (99) the “invisible in the visible” (203), and “see in every creature an image of the divine amabilitas” (206).

There is much more to be said about this admirable book, which is itself like a beryl stone—to advert to the title of Cusa’s little book from 1458—in that it furnishes material suitable for a new perspective. I have not mentioned, for example, the importance of the vera icona (or, in this case, its replica) to Cusa’s inversion of the modern perspective (215). Nor have I drawn out the important political implications of the Analogical Turn, which seeks to overturn not only the modern dialectic between univocity and equivocity, but also its corresponding political dialectic between “individualism and totalitarianism” (227). All of this stands in need of development. In the meantime, given the richness of Cusa’s vision, we can be grateful to Johannes Hoff for having opened our eyes a littler wider to it—and to seeing just how important Cusa is to the recovery of the kind of metaphysical vision that the Church so desperately needs. Now is not the time to shrink back from metaphysics, as some are wont to do, but rather to give the Christian faith the kind of metaphysics it deserves and, in fact, implies—not an alien metaphysics, to which the faith must conform, but a metaphysics which the faith itself, as its proper articulation and explication, demands. One of the greatest attempts in this direction was made in the twentieth century by Erich Przywara, SJ, most famously in his Analogia Entis; and, given what Hoff has shown us in this book, we may not be surprised to learn that, in an interview from 1954, Przywara admitted that his own thought coincides most nearly not with that of Plato, or even Augustine, but with that of Nicholas of Cusa.

Off the Richter


It’s a party bumpin’,
Chris Brown, no invitations,
Lyrics thumpin’ to the chest,
Give your heart some palpitations,
Flowin’ like libations,
Growin’ in my patience,
Knowing’ indications
of Divine Self-Revelations.
Whew! Feelin’ like the days of Noah,
But I got the Tiger’s Eye like I’m Rocky Balboa.
Boa. Constrictor. Holy Covictor.
Shakin’ the world with a force off the Richter.

(Dwayne Polk)

Memory lane

lib3-3a1I apologize for my absence. New job. Learning curve has me pretty busy. I’ve been reflecting on some previous thoughts regarding the ‘will’, ‘freedom’, issues related to ‘libertarian’ choice, and – no surprise – Incarnation. If such questions interest you, here are a few previous  posts (teasers included) you might enjoy

Creation ex nihilo
“In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from us.”

God’s creative options
“God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.”

God wills our improvisation
“God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.”

God at the improv
“…so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others — viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.”

Freedom as creative liberty among loving options
“Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom.”

Incarnation or nothing at all
“…theologians feel themselves forced to give an account of the faith in terms of innumerable ‘logically’ possible worlds, worlds the possibility of which have to be accounted for theologically so long as they generate no logical contradiction (strictly speaking) but which are unthinkable Christologically.”

Look at the stars

4d025d9df94433c3bff094fa9bc179eb“As for what always turns out to be beyond any impression that can reveal it, how could it ever be understood by means of an indication included in this or that name? This is why the soul excogitates every meaning of names, in order to indicate that inexpressible Good, but every discursive capacity of reasoning is always defeated and declared inferior to the object that it is looking for. This is why the soul says: ‘I have called him as I could, excogitating words that indicate its inexpressible beatitude, but he was always superior to the indication suggested by their meanings’.” (Gregory of Nyssa)

We are all wardrobes—Part 1


I wonder if the univocity insisted upon by advocates of “relational theologies” doesn’t actually suppress human aspirations for the relational by corralling it within the limits of what can be said determinately. The relational becomes a real experience only when we’re able to “say it” because we only really experience what we can describe given the laws of univocal apprehension. But I think we know the sequestering of experience to determinate language is impossible, and attempting it ends in despair, or perhaps it’s motivated by despair. We fear losing our identity, our very self, to an undomesticated infinite. So language domesticates God and we become happy the way a child addicted to playing the same pinball game again and again is happy with an endless repetition of the same – same game, same features, same distances. God will not – cannot – offer us this kind of happiness. There are no predictable borders to the ecstasy of knowing God, and I suspect that in our most honest moments of reflection, we realize that this is what we truly want. The indeterminacy of language is where and how that divine adventure calls to us. We are all Lewisian wardrobes, and only the childlike find Narnia.

Recent conversations I’m enjoying have focused on the well-worn problem of theological predication, which is shoptalk for how our language apprehends God, how it captures and expresses the truth about God. It’s a very old conversation that few master. Anyone remotely familiar with the conversation knows that it concerns the relationship between God’s transcendence and the reach of our concepts.

The standard options on the menu are three:

Univocity (in which “Being” is predicated of God and creatures in the same way. “Love,” for example, has the same sense predicated to God that it has when predicated of creatures.)
Equivocity (what is predicated of God and creatures is predicated with entirely different senses)
Analogy (what is predicated of God is predicated analogously to what is predicated of creatures)

Equivocity is yoked to univocity as its contrary mode of predication. Both represent options of a single all-inclusive understanding of predication that supervenes upon a single reality, ‘being’, whether we’re talking about divine or created being. Analogical predication (itself a slippery concept prone to endless qualification) represents the ancient and, say classical theists, only viable alternative to the facile reductions of a univocal theology. I’m assured by people who know better than I that these options exhaust the possibilities, and while I appreciate and agree with various concerns expressed by those who argue these approaches, I’d like to suggest a completely different way to approach these concerns – an approach that’s performative and functional.

On a recent out of town visit to my sister-in-law, she reminded me, “The water here is hard.” As we know, hard water is water that has a high mineral content. The phrase “hard water” lodged in my brain and set me thinking of how strange, almost illusive, language is that a word like “hard” can mean so many things. Take for example:

“Possesses high mineral content” used of water
“Dense or resistant to change” describing the mass of a physical object
“Intellectually challenging” of solving a math problem
“Stable in value” used of stocks or commodities
“Not prone to displays of sympathy or affection” describing a strict or severe father
“Potent or powerful in effect” of liquor
“Harsh or unpleasant” of a long and cold winter

272_-_words_as_artSome of these meanings are more closely related than others, but taken together they form the semantic field (the scope of possible meanings) of the word “hard.” Several interesting points this observation yields are that (1) there is no one meaning to the word “hard” (or to all but a small number of highly technical terms). There are only possibilities of meanings. And (2) the possibilities are contextually and socially determined, and they all describe aspects of our experience of the world. Language never escapes this existential grounding and social context. It is an attempt (and never more than an attempt) to map our experience of ourselves in the world we inhabit.

This grounding in experience is crucial to me because I’m going to suggest that existentially speaking, the distinctions between univocity/equivocity and analogy disappear (or it might be that they converge) in one and the same attempt to make sense of the experiences we have. Instead of assuming that language is our immediate reality and then adopting a deflationary view of our experience, let us explore the possibility that our experience is the more fundamental reality and that we should take a more deflationary or circumspect opinion about the adequacy of language to capture reality – whether the reality we’re talking about is God or the world. It seems to me that language fails at rendering both finally determinate.

I’d like to explore this debate and its subject (theological language and predication), then, from an entirely different approach, one that sidesteps the three standard options (univocity, equivocity, and analogy) and suggests a fourth, which I’ll call:


Or we might say that language predicates of God:


Theological predication is functionally related to theosis – to empowering, facilitating, and sharing the experience of God to the end that we become finally transformed in and – carefully said – into Christ. Christ-formation (in one’s self and the extent to which one is instrumental in empowering it in others) ought to be the measure of the success of our God-talk and not particularly which theory of reference one might adopt to express that transformation. Keeping this point central gives us a different vantage point than the standard options from which to think about our God-talk.

Let me state up front in this post a tentative conclusion and then explain in a Part 2 what reasons I think I have for taking this view. Simply stated, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as univocal predication when it comes to God-talk (and probably when it comes to talk of anything at all for that matter, but I’ll leave that for now), that analogy is probably the only thing we have but that as it is argued in the context of this debate, analogy also ends up failing. The chief reason I think these all fail is because they tend to excuse themselves from certain irreducible existential givens that define all human experience and end up becoming just theories of language and reference.

csm_asawa_bmc76_nd-1_7ffa4cfd83As strange as it may sound, I do mean to say that even univocal theories of theological language fail to take proper account of certain existential givens, which explains my opening paragraph. I mention this because proponents of univocity will appeal to the fact that we do experience God – not an analogy of God – for a view of reference that seeks to secure the integrity of this encounter but whicch ends up being very uncomfortable with the possibility that there is might be no conceptual horizon within which God can be circumscribed. I will agree we truly experience God within the givens of our finite, created capacities, but I’ll also agree (with Pryzwara) that all our experience has an irreducible transcendence about it to begin with which we never overcome or exhaust whether it’s the experience of God or the world around us that we’re describing. Because our capacities bear the image of God and are grounded and sustained in God, they remain irresistibly open to forever expanding our experience and enjoyment of God, an experience of one’s own self as unbounded and uncircumscribed.

Transcendence is experienced as an overwhelming presence to which our created natures answer with existential (never linguistic) fulfillment and ecstasy which at the same time perfectly anticipate the unknown the way awakened desire knows what it anticipates and anticipates what it doesn’t know. As far as one explores outwardly or inwardly, one finds no horizon that draws a final end to the possibilities of the ever-new, ever-surprising, and ever-enticing beauty of God which will not permit us to speak with finality. Language does what it can, and because we create our languages to map our shared experience, and new experiences (like the transforming ecstasy of experiencing God) will always stretch and exceed language.

The vantage point from which I’m suggesting we consider the purpose and function of theological language is a ‘functional’ view of language – functional relative to the “formation of Christ in us” (Gal. 4.19). The concern for language, then, ought to be about the success to which our language serves to increase conformity to Christ—period. From this vantage point, proponents of the standard alternatives – univocity and analogy – are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. Why do I say this? Because proponents of both agree that we truly experience God, not an analogy of God, and that our natures are fulfilled and perfected as Christ is truly formed in us. This agreement I believe makes irrelevant to a large extent theories of predication. Disagreements between these theories become a bit like arguing over whether the words “red” and “round” apprehending an apple univocally or analogically has anything to do with the experience of enjoying its sweetness when eaten. I’m suggesting the experience of the apple transcends (surprise) that entire disagreement.

Has Tom Oord solved the problem of evil?—Part 2


A quick thank you to friends and family who have supported Anita and me in our recent move from Minnesota to California. I’m settling into a new job which promises to be a wonderful experience as general manager for an Arabic language non-prof dedicated to translating and publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. More on that latter perhaps.

Moving to California hasn’t left me time for blogging, but I’d like to get back in the saddle. To begin with I’m here offering Part 2 of my reflections on Tom Oord (see Part 1). I also have simmering some thoughts on a couple of Greg Boyd’s latest posts (Cross Shaped Transcendence and The Cross and the Trinity) that address topics of special interest to me.

For now, let’s return to Tom Oord’s work on God’s essential kenosis. I see John Sanders has posted a second reply to Oord in their exchange over whether the way Oord unpacks this essential kenosis solves the problems Oord claims it does or whether it creates other insurmountable problems. (See John’s first post here and Oord’s reply here).

I’d like to approach an aspect of Oord’s views that perhaps isn’t discussed much. Those unfamiliar with Process theology might find this post a bit tedious. I apologize. It’s important, however, because it brings us round to the fundamental importance of the question of the necessity vs the contingency of God’s creating which is bound up in the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing (the rejection of which is a cornerstone of Oord’s project). I shared these thoughts in email conversations and other online venues, but I’m dusting them off here in light of Sanders and Oord’s conversations.

Those familiar with Tom Oord will know he qualifies the standard Process belief that God is essentially related to the world. Supposing there to be a single world as such presents problems which Oord wishes to avoid by holding that God eternally creates world after world after world, an infinite series of contingent creations, each of which is created out of the previous. God alone, Oord agrees, is that eternal, necessary self-sufficient reality unlike every individual world in the infinite series of worlds. It may be that some entities survive in several of these worlds, but only God inhabits them all.

What I’d wish to show here is that in the end there’s no real departure from or advantage over Process here because given Oord’s metaphysics, his infinite series of worlds reduces to a single world order in process and circles Oord round to the standard Process view he wishes to avoid on this point. Why think his worlds all collapse into a single world?

First, keep in mind Oord’s process (or quasi-process, whatever is more accurate) metaphysics on this point: God and the world, essentially related and in process, creatively bring about novel states in a mutual process of becoming. God supplies “initial aims” to created entities for their becoming, and the world creatively synthesizes past, objectified data in freely determining what it becomes next. Whatever the world (any world) becomes is always a creative achievement between God and the world, given antecedent data and divine subjective aims informing the present. Keep that in mind.

Second, then, consider Oord’s infinite series of worlds, each created out of the previous. Each world in the series is supposed to be sufficiently distinct from preceding worlds such that the entire series doesn’t constitute a single world or world order. But there’s nothing in Oord’s metaphysics to secure this distinction between worlds and stop it from collapsing into a single world order in process. Some time ago I suggested to Oord that if each world is made out of the previous world, as he claims, then given his metaphysics (i.e., the process doctrine of actual occasions being the concrescence of antecedent data that form new occasions, and so forth), his infinite series must constitute a single world order because each world is ontologically continuous with the previous world. There must be, I said, some abiding “material substrate” that is continuous throughout the series. Oord said this wasn’t the case. The example he gave was the distinction between the material which is my body today and the material which made up my body ten years ago. They’re not the same material. So there’s no material substrate throughout.

Quite right. So let me concede that there’s no “material” substrate throughout Oord’s infinite series and make my point in different terms. I grant that my body today isn’t the “same material” as my body ten years ago. But this example establishes my essential point that Oord’s infinite series of worlds (each made out of the previous) constitutes a single, indivisible world-process. What constitutes the collapse of the series in to a single world is simply the continuity of the worlds (and the transitions between them) define and governed by Oord’s (Process) metaphysics.

How so? Given that governing metaphysics (no ex nihilo creation, no unilateral divine action, only joint God-World creative synthesis occurring as actual occasions), none of Oord’s worlds is any more distinct from its previous world than one actual occasion is from its antecedent actual occasions within a single world. The metaphysics forbids the kind of distinction between his successive worlds that he needs in order for the series to advance his project beyond standard Process cosmologies at this point. Oord’s worlds are just consecutive, novel moments within a single process of becoming governed by unifrom laws that define and guide that process.

turtlesWe can divide this eternal process of becoming by assigning different names (world-a, world-b, world-c) to each division, but there’s nothing new metaphysically speaking in this. We’re not naming a distinction between worlds that isn’t just convertible with the distinction between actual occasions within any one world. So Oord’s infinite multiplicity of worlds, each created out of the previous and all governed by the abiding laws of (quasi-)Process metaphysics, reduces to a single world, a single process of becoming that defines the series throughout.

Third, we could suppose that each of Oord’s distinct worlds in the series begins as a novel reconfiguration of all non-divine reality on a grand universal scale. But it would still the case that this change, as universal as it would be, follows the same Process laws of becoming (i.e., actual occasions as the concrescence of antecedent data creatively synthesized). Such a grand reconfiguration would not be ontologically distinct from each other. The entirety of a world’s process of becoming would swell in scope or consequence as a kind of universal, epochal event, but metaphysically speaking we still have a single, seamless continuum of process in which antecedent (past) data and divine subjective aims inform creative synthesis (present) and the concrescence of new occasions. “New” in Oord’s “new worlds” cannot mean anything essentially different than “new” understood on the level of a single new occasion within any one world. So we’re talking about a single world in the end.

Remember too that God only creates (co-creates) a new world via Process through antecedent data provided by previous occasions and in cooperation with the creative dispositions of existing occasions. So whatever comes to be is the creative achievement of both God and whatever state of process God is in relation to. This holds for every moment within worlds as well as the becoming that defines each world’s emergence “out of” its previous world. So there’s no way any “new world” in Oord’s model is uniquely distinct from its previous world any more than one actual occasion is distinct from its own antecedent occasion in any single world of the series. There might be other arguments Oord can make that set his view apart from Process in this regard, but positing an infinite series of worlds doesn’t achieve it.

Lastly, the eschatological consequences are fatal. As I understand this cosmology, no discrete entity within any world survives permanently, or, at least, there’s no assurance that any individual member in a world will endure permanently into the future. That’s a significant consequence of Oord’s model that I think ought to be discussed much more, because it exacerbates the problem of evil.

If each world is created “out of” its previous world in a universal reorganization so radical as to constitute a “new world,” the relative question is what endures? The cosmology becomes dicey and extremely troublesome at this point and is, I confess, difficult to describe as a “Christian” view of creation at all. Will we endure forever subjectively in relationship to God as this world, redeemed and consummated? When Oord was asked this by a conversation partner some time ago, I didn’t get the feeling that Oord did not in fact hold to the Process doctrine of objective immortality – the belief that we do not permanently endure subjectively-personally but persist objectified in the divine mind. Our permanent existence is thus our contribution to enriching the divine life. I’m unsure what Oord’s specific eschatology is on this crucial point, and I’d be happy to understand it better, but the problem is inherent in his project as one can see.

Why is it a problem? Because it would apply to Christ and his Church and so the entirety of the New Testament’s eschatological vision. The discussion isn’t a private one either. Oord has made it clear when pressed on the eschatological question that he could not affirm with any confidence that the risen Christ or any other created being from our present world shall endure permanently. This is troubling. I’d be willing to give up a lot to purchase a final solution to the problem of evil, but the cost here is too extravagant.

Tradition and orthodoxy aside, what are we getting in exchange for the price paid? The essential reason Oord develops this model is to ground our confidence that God will not cease loving us. It is one of Oord’s main complaints against God’s creating gratuitously “out of nothing” that God ends up being as free to stop loving us and begin hating us as he is free to create and not create. God’s love would be arbitrary, Oord maintains, were he to create gratuitously ex nihilo.

I’ll leave for another post the logical question of whether that last conclusion follows (it doesn’t) and simply ask whether Oord’s model on its own terms secures the confidence he seeks. It’s fair to ask: What happened to the infinite number of previous worlds in Oord’s series? They existed as expressions of God’s essential love too, just like ours does. Indeed, Oord argues we cannot consistently say “God is love” apart from this infinite multiplicity of worlds. Where are they now?

The whole infinite series is recognized, Oord holds, so that we can know for certain that God loves us and will never cease to love us. But nothing of any of the infinite number of worlds that preceded or own has endured. Just how safe or loved, then, are we supposed to feel? What about an infinite series of worlds makes Oord feel that God’s love for us secures our destiny if we have no confidence that we shall not also be eventually recycled in the production of a new world? I don’t see an answer in any of this. An infinite number of worlds created out of love by God and no particular from a single one of them endures into our present world, and yet the mere fact that God co-creates this infinite series out of love and will continue to co-create a world out of ours to succeed our own, is supposed to ground our confidence in our own enduring enjoyment of his love? The math doesn’t work.


The Scriptures I think have a different answer to the worry about what grounds our confidence in the unchanging nature of God’s love. One thing: the Incarnation, God’s own irrevocable assumption of human nature, the union of divine and created being in the God-Man. Humanity is now forever united to God in the victory of God’s own incarnate life and resurrection. That tells us what God thinks of what he creates. The Incarnation assures us that God will love us as unfailingly as he loves himself. Positing an eternal infinite series of worlds nothing in any one of which we can be assured will endure forever cannot tell us that we shall never be separated from the love of God. Only God’s own incarnation can do that. Nothing shall ever separate us, St. Paul assures us, from the love of God “in Christ.” You have to finish the sentence. Once we have that, we don’t need an infinite multiplicity of worlds. We have God’s own infinite life personally present in the Incarnate One who embodies the permanence and so the assurance that God will never cease loving us.

I could close with St. Paul, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, or any of the Cappadocians, but let me end with open theist (irony of ironies) Clark Pinnock:

By his resurrection, Christ pre-actualized the consummation of the world. Its transformation is anticipated, and all things are sure to be made new. The Risen One is the vanguard and embodiment of the new order. Jesus prefigures what will be true for us also in the new creation. It is the seminal event, the seed from which the new reality grows.

The Lord’s human body was not discarded but shared in resurrection, pointing to the salvation of the whole person…The incarnation is an event within history pointing to the goal and moving humanity toward union with God. In Christ, the world has entered its final phase, and its redemption in that sense is clear. In Karl Rahner’s words, the incarnation and resurrection enacted “the irreversible beginning of the coming of God as the absolute future of the world.” As the first-fruits of the new humanity, Jesus says, “Because I live, you also will live” (JN 14:19). (Flame of Love)

God giver not seeker of value

william-sloane-coffin1I come back to William Coffin (pastor, Yale Chaplain, peace activist, writer) every year. Some writers spray buckshot and hope to hit something. Coffin was a sniper – every sentence a focused truth that strikes the center. He writes:

Of God’s love we can say two things: it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift…Because our value is a gift, we don’t have to prove ourselves, only to express ourselves, and what a world of difference there is between proving ourselves and expressing ourselves. (Emphasis mine)

That God’s love doesn’t seek our value but create it (and unconditionally so) may be the single most important truth I’ve been learning and growing in the past few years. The theological implications are profound, for what one must supposes God to be for it to be the case that he creates or gives all created things their value as opposed to seeking their value. It may be the deepest flaw and weakness of Process theology (and other ‘relational’ theologies, open and otherwise, of a passibilist persuasion) that they view God as enriching himself through the pursuit and realization of value that exists outside himself.

Happy New Year.