God enters our nightmare

MarkChagallIt’s a scene you’ve experienced if you have children. Your young daughter screams out in the night. You rush to her side and find her semi-awake, still trapped inside a nightmare, and crying out, “Daddy! There’s a monster chasing me!” What do you say? Do you say, “Run faster, Hunny, faster!” or perhaps “Hide behind a tree or under the staircase!”? Do you confirm the reality of her nightmare this way? Or perhaps you let her nightmare define you as well and pace the floor feeling as desperately forsaken as she does.

Here’s what you do. You hold her in your arms and say, “It’s alright my love, Daddy is here! Don’t be afraid; Daddy’s here,” and you gently rock her in your arms until her reality conforms to your reality, that is, until your reality defines her reality by putting the lie to her nightmare. You save her from her nightmare by exposing it as false, not by letting it falsify in you the truth that contradicts the nightmare. That’s a rough analogy, we believe, for how it is that God awakens us from our nightmare through incarnate suffering.

“But this doesn’t require incarnation,” you say. “To save us,” you insist, “God didn’t speak into our world from outside.” Quite right. To save us from our nightmare, God enters our nightmare. Or if we’re talking about my daughter who is stuck in a bad dream, then I enter her nightmare to rescue her. So let’s extend our analogy of the dream to include this. How might some such model be possible and maintain anything like an Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology?

Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomenon. A lucid dream is a dream you have in which you’re aware that you’re dreaming but you don’t awaken from the dream, and the dreamer even has a measure of control over her participation in the dream. Lucid dreams can be extremely vivid. Just because the dreamer is aware she’s dreaming doesn’t empty the dream-world of its vividness or the experienced, first-person perspective of the dreamer from within the dream. Lucid dreaming has even been used to treat persons who suffer from nightmares. It’s not yet known how it is that the technique of lucid dreaming and lucidity exercises address the problem of repetitive nightmares, but it has been documented to work.

Analogy time. Let us offer lucid dreaming as an analogy or model for understanding an Orthodox two-minds Christology. Tom Morris described this back in 1986 in The Logic of God Incarnate. In this lucid dream analogy of the Incarnation, the dreamer (the divine Son/Logos) is aware — outside of his own incarnate participation in the dream — that he’s having this dream. That places him both outside and inside the dream (of creation). You might say he transcends the dream. There’s more to ‘him’ than there is to ‘him-in-the-dream’. He’s in the dream, he’s just not exhausted by it. Applied to my daughter, I choose to enter incarnationally into her nightmare. I’m in the bedroom holding her in my contented, peaceful embrace and I’m also in her dream being crucified by monsters.

Cross3But what about that cry of dereliction? “Why? Why have you forsaken me?” Surely there’s no way I could be on the Cross feeling forsaken, inside the dream asking this particular question, and yet also be outside this cry holding it all in existence, sustaining it in triune joy and contentment as its dreamer. Surely with this cry of dereliction the knife is plunged into God’s heart and there’s no transcendent space for God to hide from it.

To this we reply, Why think that? In lucid dreams the dreamer transcends the dreamt. The dreamt does not, within the constraints of the dream, transcend the dreamer. This is just an analogy, of course, but it does what analogies are supposed to do, and that is to make claims conceivable. We are able to conceive of the Son’s experiencing the Cross and also having an experience outside the Cross. The Son was born, named Jesus, ate, got tired, became hungry, and finally was hung on the Cross. But the Son need not be reduced to this finite history. He is in the nightmare, but the nightmare does not exhaust who and what he is.

Even when the epistemic distance (to borrow Hick’s term) inherent to the context of the nightmare is increased so greatly and the absence of the Father’s felt presence presses him so intently to despair, to sin, to embrace the nightmare as the truest thing about who he is, Jesus refuses. He refuses to step outside his relationship to his Father as the Son. As far as Jesus is concerned, he is still his Father’s son, and he self-identifies as the Father’s son all the way though the Cross until he dies with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

We are meant to view this, to see it, to see human nature put to the test again, to again entertain those doubts born of the epistemic distance inherent to our finitude (as in the Garden) or born of suffering, to wonder and question again, to be in a context void of every evidence of the Father’s love and presence but – this time – love in return. In Christ, humanity trusts in the face of all evidence to despair. There is only unquestioning obedience and trust: “I am my Father’s Son right here, right now, on this Cross, no matter what this nightmare says I am.” Thus it is in Christ’s filial self-identification on the Cross that the absence and rejection of God are revealed to be myths of a false and despairing perception, not the truth that saves us.

Question. By whom is Christ empowered not to step outside his identity as the Father’s Son? If the Father has decided, as some say, to absolutely abandon his Son on the Cross thus withdrawing from him every spiritual resource, by what means was Jesus then empowered to self-identify as his Father’s Son, so contrary to his pain? By the Spirit of God of course. If the Son is forsaken by the Father as absolutely as some think, apparently the Spirit refused to go along with the program, for the Spirit is present empowering Jesus on the Cross to self-identify as Son, as beloved and begotten of his Father, within the pain of his circumstances and contrary to them. The Spirit empowers Jesus to reject that interpretation of his circumstance which concludes he is no longer beloved of his Father. THAT is how his coming into our nightmare sets us free. Christ’s transcendent choice to self-identify as the Father’s Son (and thus to identify God as his Father) on the Cross tells us that the nightmare is not the truth about us. We are not rejected. We couldn’t possibly be. To “wake up” from the nightmare of our sinful misrelating and despair is just to perceive that nothing about the nightmares that define our despair is ultimately true about us.

Welcome to the truth of apatheia.

(On the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ see Not what you suppose and A cry of dereliction?.)

Change you can believe in

442px-Nicaea_iconGood friend TC Moore over at Theological Graffiti has asked some good questions that will get us into an important follow-up to our response to Boyd’s recent comments about the Son’s separation from the Father on the Cross. We wanted a third post to explore the question of why any of this matters. Why care about whether or not the Father and Son were separated on the Cross or whether the event of their eternal enjoyment of each other is unbreakable? What’s it matter if the eternal Logos was still personally present throughout the universe upholding it when Jesus was a zygote in Mary’s womb? Some might wonder how these issues are relevant to the everyday concerns of struggling Christian believers.

These questions lead naturally to questions TC poses regarding the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: How are these to be understood and related? Can a person truly possess one (either orthodoxy or orthopraxy) without the other? And perhaps more interestingly, Can a heterodox belief bring about right praxis in a person’s life? If so, wouldn’t that belief be orthodox for that person?

It seems unnecessary to have to justify the claim that ‘what we believe’ and ‘how we live’ are intimately (causally) related. We don’t think anyone would question the relationship, so we won’t question it either. But we will ask which takes precedence and why? We’d like to suggest that while they shape and are shaped each another, it is ‘believing’ (orthodoxy) which is primary in the sense that it is the gateway to the intentional and responsible transforming of our ‘behavior’. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” said Jesus. That’s the proper order. And Prov. 27.3 reminds us that “as a person thinks, so is he.” Orthodoxy (“right believing”) matters to orthopraxy (“right living”) by identifying those belief states that motivate and shape behavior to the fullest extent possible. Given that, orthopraxy is the true test of whether one truly believes the relevant truths.

Ultimately the truth cannot be the enemy of our best and highest good. On a Christian account of things in which the God creates, sustains and knows the world he loves in its entirety, truth is both singular (no ultimate contradictions in God) and empowering. Empowering? Yes. By that we mean that it can’t be the case ultimately that what is false better empowers us to become the persons God intends. Orthodoxy (right believing) is a truth designed for our living (orthopraxy) and to which our living best conforms. So we can’t see how somebody’s orthopraxy (their transformation in love to Christlikeness) is better served by heterodox beliefs (believing what is in fact false about God, the world, and themselves).

Of course, we need not possess perfect beliefs about everything in order to progress spiritually at all. We don’t see how being wrong about geography, a cake recipe, or the truth of quantum mechanics will diminish our spiritual development. Not everything matters equally. The challenge for the Church has always been to define that kind of life we’re created for and then identify those beliefs that best explain, protect, defend, promote and empower transformation into that life. Believe it or not, that’s what the early Creeds intend. They are not speculative philosophical meanderings unrelated to the experience of the transforming power of the gospel. It was because Arianism could not properly articulate our salvation and perfection in Christ that it was opposed so vehemently. The point was that ‘who’ Jesus is and ‘how’ Jesus saves are intimately related. And one couldn’t tamper with the former without affecting the latter.

What about the Trinity? More specifically, what about Greg Boyd’s specific claim that the divine persons may severe their own experience of one another? Isn’t this so speculative as to make any opinion on it beside the point and irrelevant to Christian living? Greg doesn’t think so. Otherwise he wouldn’t advocate his position as passionately as he does. He believes that our perception of (or belief about) God’s love of us has the power to radically transform us. We agree. But Greg also thinks that this love is best accounted for in terms of imagining the consequence of God’s love for us to be the cessation of God’s own triune happiness.

It sounds wonderful to think God would give that much on that level. We applaud the kind of love that “gives its life” for another. It’s thoroughly biblical. Greater love hath no man than that, and so forth. But does it really best account for what it is about God that saves us? Might there be unpleasant fallout to the belief that the experienced fullness of God’s triune life cannot transcend the suffering of the Cross? Might we be giving up something which our salvation requires by supposing that God, in the triune fullness of his own experience as Father, Son and Spirit, does not in fact transcend the world’s evil and ugliness? Even now, how we are expected to experientially transcend our own suffering (in the way Greg surprisingly describes in the first 30 seconds of his most recent video blog here) if God is unable experientially to transcend his suffering? How does believing that the Triune God remains the fullest, most complete experience of the divine persons-in-relation while the Son suffers empower us in that kind of transcendence? It’s worth exploring.

A Friend

(Lebanon, 2000)

A friend will tell you to your face
When you’ve gotten out of place
Without fear he will confront
When others think it far too blunt
Address the sin that quietly lies
Beneath the notice of your eyes
Will not refuse to bare the load
When in your anger you explode
So whether few or many be thy crimes
A true friend loveth at all times.
(Tom Belt)

(Picture from here.)

Trinity and Process

Video1 Now is as good a time as any to throw up some more quotes from Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process to demonstrate how incompatible this work is with his present belief in the dissolution (on the Cross and in the womb of Mary) of God’s triune experience. Enjoy.

“…this modification of Hartshorne’s system shall allow us to conceive of God as essentially constituted by an unsurpassable aesthetic experience of God’s own self-relationality….God is best conceived as being at once unsurpassable in God’s definitional aesthetic disposition and actual eternal enjoyment of what this disposition produces within Godself….” (p. 176, emphasis ours)

“Once we have determined that God is to be conceived of as antecedently actual, internally relational, and ‘more than’ self-sufficient, there is no longer any need to postulate an eternal world to provide the ground and the material for God’s concrete experience of goodness. God is, in this view, good within Godself, and this means that God can experience goodness within Godself—apart from the world…. In contrast to all possible and actual evil, God experiences God’s own triune sociality as unsurpassably good.” (p. 375, emphasis ours)

“…God’s essential and necessary existence is…most basically defined by the unsurpassable intensity of aesthetic enjoyment which characterizes the triune sociality of God. God experiences Godself with an intensity which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon. As with Hartshorne, we are here most fundamentally defining God’s transcendence in terms of God’s aesthetic satisfaction.” (p. 377, emphasis ours) [Tom here: Draw a line from “existence” to “enjoyment” in the first sentence of this quote and ask yourself what Greg might mean now by suggesting that this “enjoyment” ceases while God’s essential and necessary “existence” does not.]

“If we may now utilize the language of Scripture, we may, in light of our reconstruction, view God’s essential being as eternally consisting in the event of the perfect knowing and loving of the Father and Son in the power of the Spirit.”

“The One whose power is this One’s love, and whose love is this One’s knowledge, is the necessary and eternal divine event which structures and internally satisfies, in and of itself, all rationality and which further grounds all contingent being.”

“But, we further hold, this God-defining zenith of aesthetic intensity has been constituted in the triune sociality of God from eternity. This is necessary, and as such it is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of the world.” (p. 378, emphasis ours)

We say “Amen” to all this. It’s in line with Orthodoxy in expressing the infinite beauty of God’s triune experience of knowing and loving as Father, Son and Spirit. This is what’s leaving people confused about Greg’s present position that this very God-definining experience is now no longer necessary to God.

(Picture here.)

Bridging the ontological divide?

bridge-to-nowhereFr Aidan’s comments about open theism’s inherent tendency to collapse the distinction between the immanent and economic trinities is well taken. If we express his concern in terms of distinctions we’ve already made, it would be the distinction between Process and Classical approaches — viz., the Process insistence that divine and created being constitute between them a ‘single order of content and explication’, that is, both are embraced categorically and univocally (in which case God is one being (even if an exemplary and all-inclusive one) in the inventory of beings), and the Classical insistence that God ontologically transcends created being.

Open theists, we noted, pretty much all stand within the Process camp on this question, and in that case Fr Aidan’s comments are spot on. Process theism doesn’t just entail the collapse of the ontological distinction between divine and created being; it aims at and argues for this collapse. But must it be the case that open theism also stand within this Process tradition? We think not. Recall what we posted earlier from Denys Turner regarding the apophatic/cataphatic dialectic. Turner comments that:

“You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God.”

And again:

“The way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible….”

Allow us two important comments, then a suggestion.

First, apophaticism isn’t the attribution to God of every irrationality (logical or moral) conceivable. For example, we are not to attribute evil to God just to demonstrate God’s transcendence of the world. Such an affirmation is not admissibly cataphatic. We shouldn’t say it. Second, as Pseudo-Denys said, even with regard to those things we can and must say about God, apophaticism isn’t simply placing the logical operator for ‘negation’ (the sign ~) in front of all our affirmations. “We should not conclude,” says Pseudo-Denys, “that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations.” Apophatic negation is not mere ‘contradiction’. Why? Because eadem est scientia oppositorum (affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge). To “merely contradict” is to collapse the ontological distinction as well, because affirmation and mere contradiction both leave God embraced entirely within the categories of the created “cognitively possessed” by us and at our disposal.

What’s our suggestion? The suggestion we want to explore is to conceive of open theism’s defining claim and three core convictions expressed by us here as part of that “prolixity” which Denys Turner insists defines the cataphatic/apophatic dialectic, part of what he claims “we must say about God,” the true negation of which is not mere contradiction but is rather, as with all human claims and categories, an admission of its inadequacy (because its affirmation fails to render God unqualifiedly possessed by us cognitively). As Merold Westphall says, “God never becomes our cognitive property.” And as part of what must be said about God cataphatically, open theism would be appropriate to affirm and inappropriate to contradict (following Pseudo-Denys line of thought).

So can one affirm open theism cataphatically and negate it apophatically in this Dionysian sense (as we must all such statements)? We think so. But in this case open theism is no more or less transcended by God than any other Orthodox belief which is expressed cataphatically and negated appropriately.

The problem this creates for Dwayne and me with our open theist friends is that we do not share the reigning metaphysical (Process) assumption that “God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication,” and this makes us appear too “classical” and “orthodox” (words that open theists have invested a lot of energy to expose as perversions of biblical faith). On the other hand, the problem this creates for us with our Orthodox friends is that we are tampering with that list of affirmations believed to constitute “that which we must say about God” in order to be led, apophatically, to the truest sense of our finitude and thus to the truest experience of our salvation.

(Picture from here).

Boyd steps off the edge — Part 2


We need one more post to respond a bit to Greg Boyd’s kenoticism, and we’ll assume our readers are somewhat familiar with the term (from Phil. 2.6-8) and the debates surrounding the idea that the Son “being in the form of God…emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…became obedient to the point of death on a cross.” Kenotic Christologies, as they are called, variously understand the “emptying” Paul speaks of as a reference to the Son’s emptying himself of the possession or exercise of certain divine attributes for the sake of incarnation. The debate has a long and involved history and we couldn’t possibly canvas them here.

It’s our view that kenotic Christologies are unorthodox because they all involve a denial of the confession of the Council of Chalcedonian (451 CE), that is, they all deny that throughout his earthly career the divine person of the Son remained his Father’s Logos, sustaining the universe personally and in fellowship with the Father as ever he was prior to his incarnation—all of this in addition to taking a human nature to himself. We’re not sure what understanding of “orthodox” Greg is working with, but it’s no secret that Greg’s understanding isn’t orthodox in any historical or creedal sense.

Greg believes the person of the Son was reduced without remainder to the constraints of his human nature throughout his earthly career. Thus, when Christ was on earth (from conception onward) there was no divine person of the Son to speak of outside the constraints of Jesus’ embodied existence and subjective experience, for the Son “emptied” himself of all attributes incompatible with such human being. This view is part of Greg’s larger assertion that the Father and the Son suffer the cessation of their mutual enjoyment of each other on the Cross. Kenosis, for Greg, is just equivalent to incarnation. It’s how the divine Son becomes the human Jesus. Kenotic Christologies assert an incarnation by subtraction. Orthodoxy on the other hand affirms incarnation by addition.

What makes Jesus divine then? Only one thing in Greg’s view: Jesus loved unconditionally and unfailingly. “God is love,” so love is all Jesus needed to be divine. That’s it. It’s a very popular position to be sure. We suspect it’s the reigning Evangelical view, and many well-known Evangelical thinkers hold to it.

We thought we’d express what our issues are with the idea that the incarnation involved a reduction without remainder of the divine person of the Son to the constraints of the human nature of Jesus. We agree that we’re dealing with deep mysteries here. After we lay out our thoughts we hope to follow up with a Part 3 in which we’ll describe why this debate is not an insignificant relic of speculative philosophy.

(1) As we just mentioned, kenoticism at least affirms that the presence, knowledge and capacities which the uncreated Son naturally possesses as divine become limited to the context of his human nature. Many kenoticists concede that the Son still possesses these attributes (all-present, all-knowing, etc.) but forgoes the exercise of them during his earthly career. But either way, it remains the case that immediately after the conception of Jesus in Mary by the Spirit, the presence, power, and knowledge of the uncreated Son were reduced without remainder to the human limitations of Jesus’s human context and subjective experience. There simply is no divine Son to speak of outside of, or transcendent of, Jesus.

(2) It would follow, then, that immediately post-incarnation, the only location, power, and knowledge constitutive of the uncreated Son would be that of a human zygote in Mary’s womb. The uncreated Son would not exercise any power of self-referential rationality or volition not inherently and naturally available to that human zygote. Think about the consequences of this for the Trinity. Given Orthodoxy (and TP), the Father’s own personal existence is defined by his own self-relation, and the Father’s Logos (the Son) constitutes the content of that self-relation. Were the Father and the Son to suffer the cessation of this relation, the Father would cease to be a self-perceiving subject. That’s what Greg is content to let go of now.

(3) There is no way a human zygote has the capacities for continuing the uncreated, conscious, interpersonal love exchange/communication with God the Father in the Holy Spirit that had eternally been his experience prior to the incarnation. Even if one wanted to say that a developed baby can give and receive love to some measure, it’s impossible to see how Jesus as a zygot in Mary’s womb could consciously reciprocate God the Father’s communicated nature and love in the Holy Spirit definitive of God essentially. What do we do? Greg is now suggesting that we no longer understand such conscious reciprocation to be necessary to God.

(4) Given the above, not only is Greg now advocating that on the Cross the experience of loving relation between Father and Son ceased, his kenoticism also commits him to saying that their relationship was equally not experienced in Mary’s womb, indeed from the conception of Jesus until such a time as the personal identity of the divine Son re-emerges in the mature Jesus. However long this may be, this still posits a time period where there are effectively only two divine persons who commune with one another, the Father and the Spirit.

(5) We have reason to believe that Greg will concede 1-4 above and simply apply his thinking from the Cross here. He will doubtless propose his distinction between God’s essential experience of mutual love (on the one hand) from God’s essential existence (on the other) as mutual love, such that even though the experience is contingent (because it fails on occasion to obtain), God mysteriously exists as triune.

(Picture from here.)

Boyd steps off the edge — Part 1

We posted previously our thoughts on Greg Boyd’s recent articulations (here and here and here) regarding the nature of the separation between the Father and the Son that occurs on the Cross. There are two separate issues here. The lesser issue is whether Greg’s present position is compatible with his view of God argued in Trinity and Process (hereafter ‘TP’). Greg feels his present view is a “deepening” of beliefs he held in TP. We know it might come across as a bit bizarre for us to disagree with Greg about what’s in his PhD dissertation, but demonstrating that Greg’s present views are in fact an abandonment of TP is pretty easy to do.

The greater issue of concern for us, however, is whether his recent views are remotely orthodox and whether they avoid an inherent tritheism and err as well regarding just how it is that Christ’s sufferings accomplish our salvation. Greg is a brilliant guy whose head and heart are always fully engaged. He keeps us all on our toes. We want to make sure, however, that people don’t uncritically embrace what Greg says and that we keep him on his toes too, and we know Greg appreciates this.

Strap yourself in for a bumpy road.

Check this out. Greg wants us to believe that on the Cross the divine persons of the Father and Son temporarily sacrificed their mutually defining experience of each other. Now, stop right there and read that again, slowly and carefully: the Father and his own eternal image, the Logos (John 1:1), severed their eternal and unbroken enjoyment of each other as the Son/Logos was rejected and forsaken by the Father. It’s important to emphasize the real, actual “experienced” nature of this dissolution between the Father and the Son, Greg argues, because our salvation depends upon it. God had to suffer the actual consequence of our sin (in the divine nature and not just in embodied humanity), and that consequence is spiritual death and rejection by God. So the Son, the Father’s very Logos, had to become this, experience this, had to in fact be forsaken by the Father. But this dissolution of experienced personal union between the Father and the Son is possible, Greg argues — and here we reach the heart the matter — because such mutually enjoyed love is not necessary to God. Stop and read that again carefully: the conscious, experienced love which the Father, Son and Spirit enjoy as God, Greg argues, is not essential or necessary to God’s existence. That experience is contingent. It can come and go. And on the Cross, Greg says, it went.

The question we’re asking is, What happens to God as Trinity if the triune relations cease in the way Greg claims? If God is essentially and necessarily triune (something Greg presumably wants to say), then how can the persons who constitute this trinity cease to experience one another? Greg offers an analogy to illustrate an important distinction that explains how this is possible. This distinction is the defining center of Greg’s abandonment both of his views in TP and of orthodox Christianity. In his most recent blog he asks us to:

“…distinguish between the love and unity that the three divine persons experience, on the one hand, and the love and unity that defines God’s eternal essence, on the other. We could say that on the cross, the former was momentarily sacrificed as an expression of the latter. That is, the three divine Person’s sacrificed their previously uninterrupted experience of perfect love and union in order to express the perfect love and union that defines them as God.” (emphasis ours)

So, there is a love and unity that defines God’s existence necessarily but does not define God’s experience necessarily. If Greg thinks this is a “deepening” of his views in TP, then he’s forgotten what’s in TP. The muddled thinking is entirely his, not ours. We’ve been begging him for five years to pull TP off the shelf and get back into it.

So what’s in TP? Well, its central and often repeated claim is in fact the denial of the very distinction Greg is now making between God’s ‘experience’ and God’s ‘existence’. In TP, Greg argues that a certain kind of experience constitutes God’s necessary existence; that is, God’s experience of Godself as triune and God’s very existence are one and the same. What kind of experience? The experience of the unsurpassable enjoyment of his own beauty perceived in and as fully given and received love definitive of the divine persons (Father, Son and Spirit). In other words, this One’s triune essential ‘experience’ is this One’s essential triune ‘existence’. Don’t take our word for it. Here’s Greg circa 1992 in TP:

“God’s being is defined by God’s eternal disposition to delight in Godself and the eternal actualization of this disposition within the triune life of God. It is the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality – their shared love ‘to an infinite degree’ – and God’s eternal inclination to eternally be such, which defines God as God….” (p. 386, emphasis ours)

Or this:

“If in fact a non-divine world is not a metaphysical necessity, and if in fact God is a metaphysical necessity — and with God, God’s knowledge and God’s love — then it is necessary that God be conceived of as being self-differentiated and that this self-differentiation consists of God’s social knowledge and love. As necessary, the God-defining social action within Godself must be in need of (contingent upon) no other, but must be sufficient unto itself. God must then be metaphysically defined as just the event of this eternal, divine, self-sufficient knowledge and love.” (p. 331, emphasis ours)

slsq_woman_stepping_off_red_cliffIf, however, it’s possible for God’s experience to be other than triune when Christ is on the Cross (i.e., if “the event of this eternal, divine, self-sufficient knowledge and love” can cease, as Greg is now claiming) and God remain triune, then there has to be for Greg something other than experienced relationality that defines God’s necessary existence. If the three divine persons continue to be God when they are not experiencing each other in loving, mutually constituting relationship, then Greg is committed to the proposition that something other than God’s experience of Godself accounts for God’s being three persons. And just what that something is Greg hasn’t said. But two things are certain about whatever he might suggest it is. First, it is not the view he championed in TP, and second, whatever it is it’s something more fundamental to God than God’s own experience of Godself.

To get the kind of severed or cessation of relationship between the divine persons that Greg is arguing for, you have to treat the persons as sufficiently discrete individuals the way the husband and wife are in his analogy, and that entails tritheism. Again, here’s Greg in TP:

“The unity of God is precisely the social relationality which constitutes this One’s being. And the multiplicity of God is precisely the divine Persons who are knowingly and lovingly encompassed and mutually defined by this unity. The “Persons,” in this view, are not first distinct and only secondly related, for in this case the relationality would be contingent. Rather, the Persons and the relation are both necessary, and hence the Persons are inconceivable apart from the relationality. The ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ which define the reciprocal eternal loving event of the Trinity is inseparable from the relationality which unites and defines them. (p. 339f, emphasis ours)

There are dozens of such clear statements by Greg in TP, a work that argues (successfully we believe) that God’s necessary existence is defined by the necessary event of the relating of the divine ‘I’ and the divine ‘Thou’. But in now positing the separation in God between the divine persons as he does, he imagines the cessation of the very God-defining event of the relating of the divine ‘I’ and the divine ‘Thou’, a relating which is the love that is God’s existence. And thus Greg abandons his previous belief that this One’s triune existence is constituted as this One’s triune experience.

If in fact Greg thinks the three persons continue to exist as divine apart from their mutually defining enjoyment of each other, like the husband and wife who agree to a cessation of experienced union, then let it be known that he has stepped off the ledge into tritheism.

(Pictures from here and here.)

Mapping the Divine

Following-up on our previous post regarding apophaticism, let me say that I think Turner’s description of the apophatic-cataphatic ‘dialectic’ (and the two have to be exercised together as a dialectic, that’s the point) as “the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God” is the best phrase I’ve seen which gets at what apophatic theology is about. We’ll certainly explore this more in time, but I wanted to emphasize again that this “way of negation” isn’t merely glorying in contradiction and irrationality, nor is it going out of one’s way to ascribe incomprehensibilities to God. It is, as Turner says, an exercise meant to demonstrate to us “the failure of what we must say about God.”

As such this dialectic is a particular kind of failing, carefully approached and constructed since there are things to say of God and other things which cannot be said of God. Not just any failure of rationality will do. Apophasis isn’t attributing to God every nonsensical proposition one can imagine and then taking comfort in having faithfully demonstrated the infinity of God, nor is it simply prefixing every positive truth about God with the negating “It is not the case that….” It is rather ‘experiencing’, not just ‘saying’ (though saying it is the discipline by which one brings oneself to the experience of it), the inadequacy of human categories to ‘define’ God. God always exceeds, as it were, even that which we must say about God, and the saying aids us in approaching just the right ledge, the right precipice, from where the Spirit takes us off the map.

To assure you we’re not making this up or violating what the Fathers mean by apophaticism, check out this very interesting comment by Pseudo-Dionysius (5th/6th century CE). In The Mystical Theology, he explains:

What has actually to be said about the Cause of everything is this—Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more importantly we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.

48bed5e8ad0c5_58263bThere you are. Pseudo-Denys clearly explains that apophatic negations are not simply contradictions of affirmations. We are not simply placing the logical operator (~) for negation in front of all we affirm about God.

Let me suggest an analogy for the sense in which God transcends all that we must say about him. Think of the similarities and dissimilarities between ‘maps’ and the ‘territories’ they describe. Are maps good and useful? Most certainly. Do they speak accurately so far as they are able? Yes. Can just any lines or circles be drawn on a map and it remain a good and useful map? Certainly not. But is the map the territory? No. Can any map of the Grand Canyon be the Grand Canyon? Can even the best map of the Grand Canyon ‘say’ (because ‘saying’ is what maps do) the Grand Canyon, that is, say ‘what’ the actual terrain of the Grand Canyon is (so that the ‘saying’ and the ‘being’ of the Canyon are the same)? Most certainly not. In this sense it may be helpful to conceive of the cataphatic/apophatic dialectic as an aid in experiencing the transcendent. And that’s the good news in this — we do experience the ‘territory’ we call God.

(Picture from here.)

Eadem est scientia oppositorum

marco4The phrase was used by Aquinas, following Aristotle, meaning that affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge and it’s theological application is the affirmation of Aquinas’ apophatic theology. Apophatic theology, or the “way of negation,” is resoundingly rejected by open theists as a virtual blasphemy. It’s believed to represent the core methodological error that lands one ultimately in the mistaken belief of classical theism’s actus purus.

This is so among open theists because, as we said earlier, methodologically speaking open theists stand squarely within that Process assumption that God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication, that is, God is not to be thought of as the exception to (nor an apophatic negation of) our metaphysical principles but as their chief exemplification. Open theists embrace this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology that embraces and explains both divine and created being. And just so you remember, to challenge the necessity of this methodology to open theism is one of the goals of this blog.

Ask open theists what ‘negative’ or ‘apophatic’ theology is and you’ll likely be told that it means “taking back everything you say about God” or “negating by way of contradiction everything you affirm about God” or worse yet that it means “attributing the most nonsense possible to God.” This is not the kind of apophaticism one finds in, say, the Orthodox thinker Pseudo-Denys who is much more thoughtful and complicated.

For the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly returned to the scrumptious provocations of British philosopher/theologian Denys Turner. I keep returning, in particular, to his chapter “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (eds Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, 2002). I’d like to share several quotes I think shed light on our understanding of the proper limits of theological language.

…all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure. But this is because an adequate cataphatic theology has to be unremitting in its affirmations of theological language, for everything about the world tells us something about the creator. You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God. And the reason for this, as I see it, logical interdependence of the negative and the affirmative ways is not the true but trivial reason that logically until you have something to affirm you have nothing to negate. The reason is the more dialectically interesting one that it is in and through the very excess, the proliferation, of discourse about God that we discover its failure as a whole.


…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….


So it is not that, first, we are permitted the naïve and unself-critical indulgence of affirmation, subsequently to submit that affirmation to a separate critique of negation. Nor is the ‘way of negation’ the way of simply saying nothing about God, nor yet is it the way simply of saying that God is ‘nothing’: it is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

(Picture from here.)

Virginia Mayo and the Transcendent God

virginia-mayo-c-1945In the late 1940’s the Sultan of Morocco Muhammad V said American actress Virginia Mayo was tangible proof of the existence of God. Maybe he was right. It’s understandable if you agree. After all, Dostoyevsky wrote that “beauty will save the world.” And though we think he had something else in mind, we’d agree up front to the presence of God in the perceivable beauty of the world—Virginia Mayo included. But we’d like to begin exploring transcendence, and to that end we’ll share those objections we have to the two competing theisms we’ve been considering—classical and Process theism.

We’ve said classical theism’s defining claim is that God is actus purus (in whom there is no potentiality), while Process theism stands on the other end of the spectrum viewing God as processu operis (a “work in progress”), that is, as One whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as his unending ‘becoming’ via relationship with the created order. We’re convinced both of these views are wrong.

As for our objections to the classical position of actus purus, we find the belief that there is absolutely no potentiality in God—

  • Difficult at best to reconcile with authentic God/World interactivity as described in Scripture.
  • Difficult at best to reconcile with any genuine ‘becoming’ within the world; that is, the distinction in God between ‘actuality’ and ‘possibility’ is lost and all becomes actual.
  • This arguably entails a necessity that undermines the gratuity of the world expressed in the belief that God created the world unnecessarily.

There are also we think problems with the Process view of God as processu operis (a “work in progress”). Given this view—

  • God is in a necessary relation of becoming with the created order.
  • God is not self-sufficient.
  • Unilateral exercise of divine power is impossible, making other orthodox beliefs (incarnation for example) either impossible or extremely implausible.
  • The Trinity is either unnecessary or, if believed, ill-conceived.
  • Unorthodox Christologies ensue.
  • The Christian hope (Eschatology) of certain, final victory is impossible to ground.

the-truman-show-final-sceneWe’d like to suggest that behind these two competing views of God lies the more fundamental question of ‘divine transcendence’. Process lacks a proper sense of divine transcendence while the classical view lacks a proper sense of divine relatedness to the world. Hence it is with respect to transcendence that we feel the most fundamental theological errors derive. Either God is so related to the world’s process and becoming that his own essential, necessary attributes are identified with this process, in which case there is no God apart from God related to and in process with some world, or God is so independently actual in his self-sufficient fullness that no room remains within God for unactualized potential, for free and contingent expression. Open theism in our modern day emerged as a debate over divine foreknowledge. But John Sanders immediately suggested that the real debate wasn’t about foreknowledge at all but rather about competing views of providence (risky or risk-free). We’d like to suggest that open theism now develop along a third more fundamental front, transcendence. It’s clearer now that this is the more fundamental issue at stake between classical and Process theisms, and it’s our conviction that what stands behind the relevant disagreements between classical and Process theisms, and open theism and Orthodoxy (to the extent Orthodoxy rejects actus purus) has to do with one’s understanding of and motivation for embracing or rejecting the reality one believes is named by the word “transcendence.”

The question is how to preserve a necessary, orthodox sense of divine transcendence from the world (including self-sufficiency) while preserving a theologically workable sense of divine/human synergy and interpersonal relationality. We think an open worldview exists that avoids the problems of standard Process and classical theisms while preserving the advantages of both. Our objections to actus purus get at the ‘synergy’ aspect while our objections to Process get at the ‘transcendence’ aspect.

(Pictures here and here.)