Christ & Horrors—Part 3

4871279What a challenging and insightful book Marilyn McCord Adams has given us. She opens (in “Posing the Problems”) by arguing that human existence involves “inevitable vulnerability to horrors” (“horrors” being “crises in personal meaning-making” precipitated by intentional acts of violence, innocently through unintended choices or by natural evils). Adams is a believer in free will (of the libertarian sort) though she says standard free-will explanations of our predicament don’t account for all horrors. Apart from our being free, the fact is that “human psycho-spiritual powers are not reliably great enough to achieve and sustain an appropriate functional coordination….” Given the natural contingencies and mismatches (mismatches described in Part 2) that define our life, horrors are inevitable, which leads Adams (as it does us all) to wonder why God would decide to include such inevitability. In this Part 3 I’d like to explore her answer, what she calls her “cosmological hypothesis.”

“…God must love material creation with a love that dual-drives towards assimilation and union. On the one hand, God wants matter to be as Godlike as possible while still being itself…Human nature crowns God’s efforts to make material creation – while yet material – more and more like God. On the other hand, God’s passion for material creation expresses itself in a Divine desire to unite with it, not only to enter into personal intimacy, but to “go all the way” and share its nature in hypostatic union.” (Emphasis mine)

The first assimilative aim goes a short way in explaining why God would create us in our sort of material world: we need room to grow into Godlikeness. But letting creation go to “do its thing” makes us radically vulnerable to horrors. Why, Adams wonders, wouldn’t God “settle for natural kinds that exhibit lower grades of Godlikeness but whose specimens are not so vulnerable to functional ruin” (e.g., pebbles and streams, mountains and frogs)? The answer for her comes in God’s unitive aim wherein God aims to share created nature in the most intimate way possible — hypostatic union. God’s assimilative aim entails a certain “letting go” of creation so that it can “be itself”  in its Godlikeness while God’s unitive aim drives toward personal intimacy via hypostatic union. Personally I see these two as a single purpose at work in all that God creates but reaching its peak in divine-human hypostatic union in Christ. Ultimately it’s the Incarnation that fulfills God’s purpose for creation.


“[B]ecause God this aim is prima facie self-defeating, Divine intimacy with human persons – among other things – takes the distinctive form of identification with us in horror-participation, which prima facie defeats the positive meaning of God’s human career. Divine solidarity with us in horror-participation weaves our own horror-participation into the warp and woof of our own witting or unwitting intimate personal relationship with God.”


“Because Divinity so mismatches creatures that a metaphysical size-gap yawns between us, Divinity is a good incommensurate with both created good and created evils. Likewise, personal intimacy with God that is on the whole and in the end beatific is incommensurately good for created persons. By catching up our horror-participation into a relationship that is incommensurately good for us, Divine participation in horrors defeats their prima facie life-ruining powers.” (Emphasis mine)


“…God – metaphysically speaking, what God is – is the incommensurate good, radically outclassing any created goods or evils. Generally speaking appropriate relationship to good things is good-for us. We are good to children when we feed them nourishing food, provide them with a stimulating education, give them opportunities to view the world’s great art. Likewise, appropriately relating us to the right goods is one way for God to be good-to us. Christian tradition affirms that intimate relationship with God which is on the whole and in the end beatific is incommensurately good-for created persons. My conclusion is that the only currency valuable enough to make good on horrors is God, and the horror-participation’s overall and eventual beatific intimacy with God.” (Emphasis mine)

This beatific effect of the divine incommensurate good is made available to humankind through the Incarnation, though given our vulnerability to horrors this means God in Christ also becomes vulnerable to horrors; and his horror-defeating work is our salvation.


Adams describes:

“To defeat horror-participation within the individual created person’s life, God must weave it into the fabric of that individual’s intimate and (overall in the end) beatific personal relationship with God.”

Horror-defeat takes place in three stages:

  • Stage-I Horror-defeat: Divine intimacy between God and Creation via incarnation/hypostatic union becomes the occasion of divine horror-participation. Here the “materials for lending positive meaning to any and all horror-participation” are made available within history.
  • Stage-2 Horror-defeat: Because meaning-making is a personal activity, and because our meaning-making capacities are so often distorted, these capacities require healing and coaching.
  • Stage-3 Horror-defeat: The relation of embodied persons to their material environment must be renegotiated so that we are no longer vulnerable to horrors.

Stage-I horror-defeat is achieved in Christ’s facing-down and defeating our horrors on the Cross. Stage-II horror-defeat describes the life-long incorporation of Stage-I truths into our experience (privately and in the Church as that community where “healing” and “coaching” occur). Stage-III horror-defeat is the future glorification (“renegotiation”) of the material cosmos rendering it void of vulnerability to horrors.

She ends this chapter with the only question worth asking at this point: Who would Christ have to be, what relationship to God and humankind would Christ have to have, to accomplish this saving work?

Now we’re talkin’.

(Pictures here and here.)

9 comments on “Christ & Horrors—Part 3

  1. Great job again, Tom!
    For clarification, is the author suggestion all material things in creation are undergoing a form theosis/deification and not just image bearers?
    If true, do you know if the author also hold to some form of theistic evolution? If so, it would certainly be a unique thought to propose that all of creation has been engaged in a process of theistic evolution with God’s end goal to be “restoration of all things” in to some kind of hypostasis.
    I think this would be a bit of a departure from the patristic notion of deification, which from my reading seems to be a unique process to image bearers thru Christ. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but some of these ideas seem a little bit eastern (and I don’t mean Eastern Orth).
    Some other follow up thoughts:
    If I’m understanding this correctly, would author be more inclined to see human adaptations in technology, communication, medicine, as inspired progress in God-likeness ?
    Would her vision of the future 100 years from now be more utopian or dystopian?


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Paul!

      This is my first exposure to Marilyn Adams. I’m loving her. Now I wanna go back and read her Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (written before this one I’m reviewing).

      Yes, she’d say all created things (from higher forms that consciously self-reflect like us to lower forms) get “glorified.” It’s the Rm 8 “creation groaning” thing. The created order gets released to be all it was meant to be only when human being is finally glorified. In Orthodox terms it’s just the idea that humankind is a microcosm of the entire created order. As in Beauty and the Beast, when the Beast is released form his curse and restored, the effect ripples out and everything else is gets restored/implicated. It’s pretty much the Patristic approach (Maximus especially on ‘man as microcosm’).

      And she definitely holds to an evolutionary theory of human origins. An increasing number of Evangelicals are comfortable with that. Unless some scientific breakthrough is around the corner, I suspect to see the day when evolution is as commonly held by Evangelicals as not.

      Not sure how she’d view human technological advancements in theological terms as indicative of progress in Godlikeness. There’s a base likeness in human beings as ‘image bearers’ that rocks and cows don’t have, but I’m not sure the amazing things that human beings do (technologically) is an advancement of human being per se. It might just be an expression of our fundamental hard-wiring. Less technologically advanced persons could be beyond us in terms of spiritual transformation. So I imagine technological advances aren’t automatically an advancement in ‘Godlikeness’. But they could be employed and understood from a more Godlike point of view. Perhaps that would be her take—that Godlikeness for the higher forms (like us self-reflecting kinds) means perceiving lower forms in new ways and so relating to and using those forms in new ways (i.e., non-horror-inducing, Christ-centered ways). No doubt, the more widespread and corporate this is experience the more impact socially it’s bound to have.

      Let’s hope we’re around in 100 years!


      • Thanks for the clarification, Tom. Really intriguing ideas. To clarify my question, I wasn’t saying that a belief in theistic evolution would be unique, but to hear someone articulate theistic evolution as not merely a God directed “natural process” but part of a massive sweeping plan directed at complete “horror-defeat” and not just a glorified/restoration of all creation, but a hypostasis (like a John 17/ 2 Peter 1:4 union) of all creation would be a new perspective to me.

        As long as we’re not saying a tree or a flower will enjoy the same kind of union and glorification with the divine energies of the Godhead as man then I’d think we would be well within the bounds of orthodoxy and clearly distinct from a kind of Spinoza-like “pantheism” (though I’m not a Spinoza expert by any means).
        I think the Beauty and the Beast analogy is great. My inclinations are to really emphasize the incarnation being about the restoration and healing of man as expressed by Athanasius. (and a subsequent of effect of man’s healing would be the healing of the dominion of man- earth)
        Maybe I just really like us getting all of God’s attention 🙂


      • tgbelt says:

        Yes, yes. and yes!


  2. Jacob says:

    So, Boyd’s move regarding “natural” evil is to say that, like “moral” evil, it comes from morally responsible agents other than God. In his case, he invokes the angelic/demonic.

    If somebody doesn’t like his response, you could take a tip from him and still locate the evil outside of God, but invoke agents other than the angelic/demonic.

    I’ve been thinking that one could do so by adopting panpsychism. Seems like Adams is doing something similar by talking about creation in a similar way… by treating it as you would morally responsible agents. i.e. they need autonomy and reconciliation. One wonders how close she is to panpsychism here.


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Jacob!

      Just going on what she’s said thus far, that isn’t in her view. She’s pretty explicit in disagreeing with the idea that all suffering (her “horrors”) has a misuse of free will behind it.


    • tgbelt says:


      Ran across this interesting footnote (to comments she was making in favor of Aristotle’s metaphysics):

      Incidentally, it is amusing to find the American theologian Shubert Ogden dismissing Greek philosophical categories as “incredible” while replacing it confidently with process philosophy…At the superficial level this is remarkable. Aristotle’s metaphysics of substance and accidents – of things that have some losable and other unlosable features – is virtually a commonsense position, by comparison with pan-psychism, much less the view that everything is a society of actual occasions, which are mini-minds that receive data and respond with an integration of it, and do so instantaneously!

      Doesn’t look like she thinks much of Process (or pan-psychism).


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