Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 2

In Part 1 I picked up on Paul’s thought in 1Cor 4.7 that the vessel is fragile and vulnerable — the treasure is not. Today I’ve just finished Kristine Culp’s wonderful book Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account in which she focuses on how devastation and transformation are related in creaturely existence and before God. She describes vulnerability as finitude’s capacity to bear the glory of God. Early on in the book Culp tracks how early Christians related to and integrated suffering and martyrdom into their faith and self-understanding, how suffering manifested both their weakness as earthen vessels and their God-given resiliency as possessing and possessed by the treasure of God’s transforming presence and power to bear the glory of God. I hope you enjoy the following passage (pp 18-20):

Irenaeus insisted that Christians “gradually become accustomed to receive and to bear God.” The martyrs of Lyon, especially the young slave woman Blandina, received and bore the glory of God in an exemplary manner. Note that glory was associated with luminosity and vitality, with an evident life-giving power. For Paul, God’s power was manifest particularly in creation and new creation; here Blandina’s luminous endurance attested to God’s transcendent power over against the empire’s prosecution of death, “Blandina was filled with such power that even those who were taking turns to torture her in every way from dawn to dusk were weary and exhausted.” The crowd was “bloodthirsty” and the Roman governor eager “to please the mob.” Blandina survived ordeals of whipping, being mauled by wild animals, and being seared by fire, before dying in a ring with a bull, “while the pagans themselves admitted that no woman had ever suffered so much in their experience.” After being tortured to death, the martyrs’ dead bodies were guarded and denied burial for several days, presumably also to deny them resurrection. In effect, imperial authorities claimed power to determine life and death and also to obliterate everlasting existence in God. In response, Christian testimony about the martyrs of Lyon circumscribed the limits of imperial power with the power of God and also with the powers of language and communal faith. Attestations to the martyrs’ exemplary power rose in the memory of communities of believers.

If we turn for a moment to the word of contemporary theorist Elaine Scarry, we can develop another perspective on persecution and the inversion of power that will eventually return us to Irenaeus’ concern with strengthening Christians “to receive and bear God.” Scarry’s book, The Body in Pain, begins with the observation that intense pain not only resists expression—how does one convey the pain that one has?—but that it “actively destroys” language. Pain is certain to the person suffering it, even if it cannot easily be shared with another. “For the other person,” she explains, “it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt’….”

In the account of the martyrs of Lyon, there is no doubt that Blandina suffers intensely: “the pagans themselves” admitted the extremity of it. Her pain traverses the gap of unreality to find expression in Christian testimony. According to Scarry, torture involves an inversion whereby an increase in the prisoner’s pain diminishes the prisoner’s world and thus increases the torturer’s power. The torturer not only gains control over the prisoner’s physical and mental state and survival, but also power to describe “reality” and circumscribe the prisoner’s world. Interestingly, the early church recounts that “Blandina was filled with such power” that her torturers “were weary and exhausted.” Their exhaustion foreshadows how God’s transcendent power, attested in Blandina’s endurance, and the power of her testimony and that of other martyrs will ultimately be increased, not diminished, in response to persecution. Through the martyrs’ testimony, the glory and power of God will rise in the faith of the early church.

The account of the martyrs’ ordeal and endurance is preserved against the language-destroying, world-destroying power of torture. Scarry observes that torturers deconstruct their prisoner’s world by turning ordinary domestic acts and objects—a chair, water, “ovens”—into weapons of torture. Early Christians, by contrast, transmuted torturer’s weapons into domestic utensils that produce testimony and community. For example, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch after the turn of the second century, wrote while he was on his way to Rome to face execution, “I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” In this Christian “domestication” of torture’s weapons, the horror of being mauled to death and the deconstructive power of torture are not minimized. Rather, their terrible reality makes all the more powerful the inversion that takes place in the domestication of weapons of torture. Acts of torture that unmake the world become acts that create symbols of bread and water and voice; these, in turn, build up the church. The church becomes the artifact made by articulating and confessing the unmaking that reigns in torture, by preserving the agency of victims of torture, and by preserving in them the agency of the church against the Roman authorities. The world-creating power of God is affirmed over against the claims of empire to determine life and death. This affirmation is also at the heart of early Christians’ confession that God has repaired the world in the resurrection of a tortured Savior.

When Blandina is executed, the narrator interprets, “She too was sacrificed.” She too is placed with Jesus and others as a victim of imperial power and as a witness to the sovereign power of God. Historian Elizabeth Castelli notes that “martyrdom and sacrifice are integrally linked” in these and other early Christian texts. The experience of persecution was interpreted “within a framework of meaning that drew upon broader metanarratives about temporality, suffering and sacrifice, and identity.” (emphases mine)

blandina_000There are so many points of departure here for profitable discussion. I think the bold portions (sorry there are so many!) provide a way to express how it is we (here at An Open Orthodoxy) conceive of apatheia’s transformative power in human experience, i.e., as that experience of God’s defining presence in the present moment which releases the glory of God within earthen vessels and which empowers vulnerability to bear the glory of God (as we’ve addressed in the case of Juilia de Beausobre and Richard Wurmbrand) — all without suffering the diminishing of joy centered in the possession of an identity shaped by a Christ-centered narrative which transcends the powers of empire and all manner of created attempts to deconstruct. What is apatheia? It is the gospel’s power to define our circumstances and not be defined by them at the deepest core of our identity, the gift of divine identity itself which cannot be deconstructed by worldly suffering, powers or tortures since it does not derive from these in the first place (Rm 8.15). It is, to borrow Culp’s phrase, the “itinerary of delight”’s journey in and through a fallen world. It is what transforms the world as a vessel for bearing the presence of God’s glory and goodness. It is that about God, given to us and which we bear as earthen vessels, which makes true Dostoevsky’s claim that “beauty will save the world.” (2nd picture here.)

On Receipt Of My Mother’s Picture

6300_211458020693_8353705_nHappy Mother’s Day. I’ve shared my own rhymes about my Mom (she and my Dad appear in the picture here), but today I wanted to share my all-time favorite verse about a man’s love for his mother, William Cowper’s “On the Receipt of My Mother’s Picture” (1790). Cowper is one of my favorite poets, and this is an example of one of his best (for me). Cowper’s own mother died when she was thirty-six and he just six (in 1737). When a cousin found and gave Cowper a picture of his mother when he was 58, he expressed his feelings in this poem. Enjoy; and if you’re able, find your Mom today and love her with everything you have.


On Receipt Of My Mother’s Picture

Oh that those lips had language! Life has pass’d
With me but roughly since I heard thee last.
Those lips are thine—thy own sweet smiles I see,
The same that oft in childhood solaced me;
Voice only fails, else, how distinct they say,
“Grieve not, my child, chase all thy fears away!”
The meek intelligence of those dear eyes
(Blest be the art that can immortalize,
The art that baffles time’s tyrannic claim
To quench it) here shines on me still the same.

Faithful remembrancer of one so dear,
Oh welcome guest, though unexpected, here!
Who bidd’st me honour with an artless song,
Affectionate, a mother lost so long,
I will obey, not willingly alone,
But gladly, as the precept were her own;
And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief—
Shall steep me in Elysian reverie,
A momentary dream, that thou art she.

My mother! when I learn’d that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hover’d thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun?
Perhaps thou gav’st me, though unseen, a kiss;
Perhaps a tear, if souls can weep in bliss—
Ah that maternal smile! it answers—Yes.
I heard the bell toll’d on thy burial day,
I saw the hearse that bore thee slow away,
And, turning from my nurs’ry window, drew
A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu!
But was it such?—It was.—Where thou art gone
Adieus and farewells are a sound unknown.
May I but meet thee on that peaceful shore,
The parting sound shall pass my lips no more!
Thy maidens griev’d themselves at my concern,
Oft gave me promise of a quick return.
What ardently I wish’d, I long believ’d,
And, disappointed still, was still deceiv’d;
By disappointment every day beguil’d,
Dupe of to-morrow even from a child.
Thus many a sad to-morrow came and went,
Till, all my stock of infant sorrow spent,
I learn’d at last submission to my lot;
But, though I less deplor’d thee, ne’er forgot.

Where once we dwelt our name is heard no more,
Children not thine have trod my nurs’ry floor;
And where the gard’ner Robin, day by day,
Drew me to school along the public way,
Delighted with my bauble coach, and wrapt
In scarlet mantle warm, and velvet capt,
’Tis now become a history little known,
That once we call’d the past’ral house our own.
Short-liv’d possession! but the record fair
That mem’ry keeps of all thy kindness there,
Still outlives many a storm that has effac’d
A thousand other themes less deeply trac’d.
Thy nightly visits to my chamber made,
That thou might’st know me safe and warmly laid;
Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,
The biscuit, or confectionary plum;
The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestow’d
By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glow’d;
All this, and more endearing still than all,
Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall,
Ne’er roughen’d by those cataracts and brakes
That humour interpos’d too often makes;
All this still legible in mem’ry’s page,
And still to be so, to my latest age,
Adds joy to duty, makes me glad to pay
Such honours to thee as my numbers may;
Perhaps a frail memorial, but sincere,
Not scorn’d in heav’n, though little notic’d here.

Could time, his flight revers’d, restore the hours,
When, playing with thy vesture’s tissued flow’rs,
The violet, the pink, and jessamine,
I prick’d them into paper with a pin,
(And thou wast happier than myself the while,
Would’st softly speak, and stroke my head and smile)
Could those few pleasant hours again appear,
Might one wish bring them, would I wish them here?
I would not trust my heart—the dear delight
Seems so to be desir’d, perhaps I might.—
But no—what here we call our life is such,
So little to be lov’d, and thou so much,
That I should ill requite thee to constrain
Thy unbound spirit into bonds again.

Thou, as a gallant bark from Albion’s coast
(The storms all weather’d and the ocean cross’d)
Shoots into port at some well-haven’d isle,
Where spices breathe and brighter seasons smile,
There sits quiescent on the floods that show
Her beauteous form reflected clear below,
While airs impregnated with incense play
Around her, fanning light her streamers gay;
So thou, with sails how swift! hast reach’d the shore
“Where tempests never beat nor billows roar,”
And thy lov’d consort on the dang’rous tide
Of life, long since, has anchor’d at thy side.
But me, scarce hoping to attain that rest,
Always from port withheld, always distress’d—
Me howling winds drive devious, tempest toss’d,
Sails ript, seams op’ning wide, and compass lost,
And day by day some current’s thwarting force
Sets me more distant from a prosp’rous course.
But oh the thought, that thou art safe, and he!
That thought is joy, arrive what may to me.
My boast is not that I deduce my birth
From loins enthron’d, and rulers of the earth;
But higher far my proud pretensions rise—
The son of parents pass’d into the skies.
And now, farewell—time, unrevok’d, has run
His wonted course, yet what I wish’d is done.
By contemplation’s help, not sought in vain,
I seem t’ have liv’d my childhood o’er again;
To have renew’d the joys that once were mine,
Without the sin of violating thine:
And, while the wings of fancy still are free,
And I can view this mimic shew of thee,
Time has but half succeeded in his theft—
Thyself remov’d, thy power to sooth me left.

The Power of Art

Speaking of aesthetics, if you haven’t watched the BBC series “Simon Schama’s The Power of Art” you should. It’s wonderful. My favorite episode, which you have here, is on Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). I was very much into art when I was young. In high school I was intended for a career in animation and half my high school years were spent at a vocational technical college (in addition to my regular high school classes) studying commercial and advertising art. I remember thinking as a young teenager that Michelangelo was surely the greatest sculptor of all time. After all, there’s nothing like his Pieta. But then I met Bernini and the transfer of my affections and opinion from Michelangelo to Bernini was instantaneous. Call it a conversion experience if you want. Call it a beatific vision. But there was no going back. I remember staring at Bernini’s work for long periods of time, drawing them myself over and over. (I was interested in theology even then!)

The 11 minutes he spends on Teresa of Avila in Part 4 worth listening through the entire four episodes.

Whatcha reading? 8

2185888The Community of the Beautiful, by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera (teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley), is a wonderful and thoughtfully composed thesis. He takes the transcendentals (the True, the Good, and the Beautiful), explicates the dynamic relationship between them in terms of von Balthasar (the Beautiful), Josiah Roice (the Good), and Charles Sanders Pierce (the True) and gives us a fresh and innovative theological aesthetics. Who would imagine putting these three thinkers into dialogue with Hispanic experience? It’s a wide-ranging book, pulling from the sciences, poetics, liberation theology, sociology, Pseudo-Dionysius, Christian mystics, ethics, pragmatism and much more to define what moves the human heart.

Here’s a sampling:

The role of mystery, however, reveals the inadequacy of describing apophatic Beauty and the kataphatic beautiful solely in terms of the “quarrel” between the senses and the intellect. If we were to follow analogy of the quarrel to its logical conclusion, then like the senses and the intellect, beauty and the beautiful, the apophatic and the kataphatic would find themselves opposed to one another. Mystery opposes such opposition. The apophatic and the kataphatic are not opposites in the context of mystery but complement one another. The inadequacy of the argument between the senses and the intellect to address mystery reveals a boundary, a place-between that neither senses nor the intellect wish to claim, yet a place where both find their unity. This place-between has been known in the philosophical tradition as the imagination. Universally seen as “mediator” between the senses and the intellect, its various descriptions bear a striking resemblance to aesthetic theory. As “imitator” of sensual reality, crafting an image for the abstractive intellect to “appreciate,” this view of the imagination resembles the objective pole of aesthetics. As inventive “expressor” of images from within the human spirit, the imagination resembles the subjective pole of aesthetic. There exists, however, another view.

Lawrence Sullivan discovered anew the religious nature of the imagination through his study of the various indigenous societies living in the Amazon river basis. Sullivan in his ground-breaking work Icanchu’s Drum defined the religious dimension of the imagination through his empirical study of myth:

“Myth does not simply denote a species of narrative; literary or oral genres are only symptoms of myth. Myth is not a form of lore but a quality of imaginal existence. Myth is the imagination beholding its own reality and plumbing the sources of its own creativity as it relates to creativity in every form (plant and planetary life, animal fertility, intelligence, art). Myth reveals the sacred foundations and religious character of the imagination. Myths are…significations that reveal the nature of significance, they make effective metastatements about imaginal existence (emphases mine).”

Sullivan’s key sense of the religious as “significations that reveal the nature of significance” is hard to grasp but it expresses Sullivan’s conclusion that for the religious imagination “understanding a reality requires that it has a beginning.” What Sullivan is proposing is that the imagination concerns the perceptibility of the different structures of reality as coming from an origin of differences. In other words, the imagination ministers to that place where differences begin and end.

As such, the imagination has its proper role not as artist to the senses or the intellect but as artist to Original Mystery. Imagination’s artistry makes mystery manifest both to the senses and the intellect. This affirmation, however, is not philosophical but theological. The understanding of imagination proposed here is not an epistemology but a theological aesthetics. Imagination is not so much a servant of knowledge as it is an aesthetics of mystery. This has an important corollary. If the imagination allows mystery to be made manifest to our senses and our intellect, then imagination also allows our senses and intellect to respond to mystery. In other words, the imagination is the prime mover and movement of the human heart. It allows Beauty to be appropriated by the human heart, and, as well, allows the human heart to respond to Beauty…The imagination allows apophatic Beauty and the kataphatic beautiful to have an organic connection within the human heart.

I’m a Trinitarian, Yo!


No, not that Dwayne. Wade out a bit deeper. Our Dwayne takes us for a ride—

I take a beat and I ride it like Godiva
Get grimy and slimy, like heavy saliva
You got confessions? I’ll be your confidah
Heavy in the faith, Lord knows I’m a ridah

I’m with Creator so I call on the Name
If you ask him yourself, I bet he tell you the same
And I’m Leaving all the craziness, I’m tryin’ to get sane
Only pain to lose, Eternal life is to gain. (Uh)

Rappers questing, lookin’ to be glorious
Listen to the music, though. It sounds so laborious
Thinkin’ that they warriors, slaves to the self
That must be why they albums be dusty on the shelf.

Never mind that, I’m deep in the vicinity
Speaking on the Holy One-in-Three, that’s the Trinity
Dancing with the tri-part-ite, in the best groove
To understand, betta ponder like a chess move.

The Triune is the summit of all mystery
Father, Son, and Spirit: Ruler of all History
One God…in Three Hypostases
Get the right angles…isosceles

I’m a monotheist, but I’m trinitarian
Healthy in my soul, like a brand new vegetarian
The Father is the Primal and the Son is in me
With the Spirit, I have the Presence of all three.

But it’s one God, don’t get it twisted.
Oops, I went too fast. Yo, I guess you missed it.
Just talk to the Creator, He’ll bring it back
I’ll just sit back and kick it like a hacky sack.

Schrodinger’s God

tumblr_mqj8e2rQV21sti3zno1_1280I’d like to qualify the analogy we shared at the end of the previous post. It was a favorite of James Loder. I’m a fan, but Dwayne is a real student of his thought. So the qualification on the use of quantum mechanics (QM) I’d like to make is to remind readers that for us QM is definitely not any kind of analogy of the Trinity. It is instead an instance of the kind of epistemic humility we think belief in the Trinity occasions. As predictable as the behavior of the quantum world is, its behavior continues to surprise and baffle all accounts of its ultimate treasure. Ask a particle-like question and the quantum world provides a particle-like answer. Ask a wave-like question and you get a wave-like answer. We’ve even invented new words (combining elements of both ‘particle’ and ‘wave’) to posit ‘that which is’ the quantum reality itself, even though these terms are ‘off the map’; that is, they exist only as descriptions of a reality we are forced to recognize but unable to capture in terms of any concept we have. It’s not like these new terms are categorically parallel to a general experience or manifest instance of a general kind of thing. They are unique.

The sort of epistemic humility we’re trying to express and advocate theologically for is forced upon us by the failure of language to account finally for the manifest experience of God (in Christ via the Spirit) in ways that simultaneously affirm and defy the given categories of our created contexts. As we’ve urged previously, this humility is palpable. It is felt and lived every time we open our mouths to speak of God or sing his praise (as opposed to its being just affirmed as a proposition and set on the shelf until we need to be reminded of it again). It is a kind of learned ignorance that journeys with you, the linguistic effects of God’s transcendence, and it is humbling. The experience of it can be surprising, upsetting, or chaotic. Again, as Denys Turner reminds us (Silence of the Word):

“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.”

In a similar vein, Karen Kilby advocates for many analogies of the Trinity because no one category will bear the weight of explaining the divine reality behind our experience of the full, manifest, transcendent treasure of salvation. The QM analogy is brought in simply to demonstrate that we are not entirely incapable of embracing such failure of our language. Even within the context of created things (i.e., QM) our language and categories collapse under the weight of experience and evidence. How much more humble ought we to be when speaking of the divine mystery of uncreated being? Particle and wave explanations of quantum behavior are both true so far as our language functions to describe things from a particular context under which we encounter the mystery in question. But each explanation also fails, even contradicts, other explanations when contexts are compared to one another. And all the while we admit, for good reason, that the final, ultimate reality in question, that which we name the “quantum world,” is not in fact self-contradictory but is an indivisible and meaningful unity. Even where apprehending the ‘essence’ of any created entity is concerned there is genuine ‘ineffability’ to be confessed (something Gregory of Nyssa knew centuries ago).

We’re advocating for a similar epistemic humility not just regarding how far our language and categories are able to take us in accounting for God as triune, but for how conflicted our explanations may often be in terms of their own semantic reach. The question is, have trinitarians successfully justified the claim that the Trinity is in fact a case in point were Christian faith must humbly embrace a transcendent triune mystery? In the case of QM, we have clear experimental evidence in ‘particle’ behavior to justify a particle explanation (so far as it goes), and we also have ‘wave’ behavior to justify a wave explanation (so far as it goes). Perhaps the challenge for Trinitarians is to show that there is, equivalently, divine behavior which justifies a ‘monotheist’ explanation as well as divine behavior that justifies a fully ‘trinitarian’(in terms of three ‘persons’) explanation. But it can’t be an argument against trinitarianism per se that it involves us in strange or contrary explanations of divine behavior taken as a whole (any more than the explanations of QM as ‘particle’ and as ‘wave’ are evidence that there isn’t a quantum world whose integrity isn’t truthfully described by both).

(Pictures here ).

Toward the Trinity

warning-analogies13If we had to go with Dale Tuggy’s categories for the moment, we’d liken orthodox trinitarianism to what Dale calls “noumenal concurrent modalism” as opposed to his “phenomenological modalism.” The latter form of modalism posits ‘modes’ adopted by God as means of representing himself to the world. As such they’re not self-constituting; God relates only to us now as Father, now as Son, etc., and the distinction between these is merely formal. Modalism of this sort was condemned historically because the divine relations were believed to be definitive of God in more than a merely formal sense.

If the divine relations are forms of self-relation, then we’re not talking about a merely formal distinction between modes or roles God adopts in representing himself to the world. Instead, we’re imagining relations (perspectives? Language strains!) as constitutive of divine being per se (as far as we’re able to speak of these relations analogously).

What might such an analogy look like? In our view it could extend from human being as an analogy of God. As sentient beings, conscious subjects, we self-perceive or self-relate, and in self-relating are able to objectify ourselves; we image ourselves. We exist as persons minimally as this self-constituting conversation. We also reflect upon this conversation and observe it. This may not conform nicely to the options which Dale specifies as being our only trinitarian options in, say, his Stanford article (i.e., “She’s a three-selfer,” or “He’s a one-selfer”). Dale may need some new boxes. But it seems to us that the concern to regard YHWH as being the One God can be adequately accounted for in terms of the (Orthodox belief in the) ‘monarchia’ of the Father. As Nicaea begins, “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty….” No ambiguity there.

Imagine (analogously) a self-relationality (that which defines us as personal/relational beings) that obtains perfectly and paradigmatically in God (as he whose image we bear). Edwards’ approach expresses it nicely. Just as I self-contemplate or self-perceive and in this self-defining act generate an ‘image’ of myself as the objectified content of my self-perception, so God can be thought. Every conscious self objectifies itself and in this act self-relates. Kierkegaard would help here.

One concern is that even if this were true of God (such that the divine relations could be viewed as God’s self-existent act) these ‘perspectives’ don’t seem sufficiently independent or concrete. These ‘perspectives’ within us aren’t distinct ‘persons’ (and this is where our term ‘person’ fails). Hence at best we get what Dale calls a “noumenal concurrent modalism” — three ‘perspectives’ that define God essentially but which can’t bear the weight of the additional claim that these perspectives are ‘persons’. What to do?

It may be that Edwards can help us here. He suggests that where our powers to perceive (and in perceiving to reproduce or represent to ourselves, i.e., to have a perspective on ourselves) the truth about ourselves (thus generating our own image and self-relation) are inherently limited, God is not so constrained. I cannot consciously contemplate all that is in fact true about myself without remainder, and what I contemplate cannot reproduce the contemplated in its actuality. In addition, as a finite being whose ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are in no way identical, this distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ is not the case with God. As a created being who exists contingently in the perpetual movement from potency to actuality, my existence and essence are never coterminous. This could not be the case with a necessarily existing self-existent God. In God’s case, all that is in fact true and actual about God the Father (YHWH) becomes true of his self-contemplated image. Nothing that ‘is’ in the case of the Father could fail ‘to be’ in the case of his own self-perceived image, with the exception of course that the ‘image’ (as the word suggests) is ‘derived’ whereas the Father is not so derived (i.e., the Father is not an image of anything else). This distinction is Athanasian.


Is my own ‘image’ me? Well, yes. And “I” wouldn’t ‘be’ apart from this self-relation. Are both numerically identical? Well, no; though where this relation is constitutive essentially of God’s self-defining actuality, both would share a single ‘nature’. But they are different self-constituting ‘perspectives’. This dialogue, this address and response, constitutes God’s undivided existence. (We’re definitely not thinking of a social trinitarian model.)

As an analogy, we’d like to extend a thought James Loder used to explain how ‘reason’ and ‘language’ map our experience of quantum mechanics (QM) as a means to imagine our shortcomings along theological lines. QM defines itself in terms of the question put to it. The answer you get (‘location’ or ‘velocity’) depends on the question you ask (Where are you? vs What’s your velocity?) But scientists and philosophers suppose reality — that which the world ‘is’ — not to be ultimately contradictory, and that ultimately how our experience of the world requires us to describe things is transcended by what is in fact the case. Whatever reality truly is (at the subatomic level), it is in fact a unity whose indivisibility just is the different answers it yields on the level of our perception and description re: relation and identity. We are led by our reason to posit that which ‘cannot be said’. The shape and form of our saying it at once involves us in paradox, though we must say it as we do.

In terms of one articulation of things, yes, Dale’s right, the truth of God certainly appears ‘modalistic’ in light of every attempt to possess the relations in terms of their unity. Similarly, the truth of God will appear ‘polytheistic’ in light of attempts to possess the relations in terms of their diversity. But — returning to QM for the moment — the math which describes reality achieves a sort of ‘creedal’ status and affirms both unity and diversity. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Planck’s constant are the Nicaea and Chalcedon of QM — we might say. We comprehend their terms and we must ‘say it’ so, but we can’t help but complain that they posit a world which defies final explanation and which the categories we have to deploy balk at in their own way.

Having offered a psychological analogy of the trinity, we want to make it clear that (a) this is an analogy and not a claim to have univocally described ‘what’ God is, and that (b) other analogies are needed to expresses other aspects of the biblical narrative, and that (c) all these analogies together fail, as all analogies must, to reduce triune being to their respective truth. Karen Kilby is right to warn us against too confidently reducing God to any one analogy (cf. her “Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 65–77). We don’t assume God is simply a blown-up version of what human ‘personal’ existence is. However, it is our personal existence (as opposed to that of rocks, trees or cows) which by virtue of bearing the divine image is an analogy of God.

(Pictures here and here.)

McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 3

Some final thoughts in response to Bruce McCormack’s Ch. 10 re: open theism. Remember that McCormack locates open theism and classical theism as “occupying a shared metaphysical ground” (viz., “essentialism”). Though both open theism and classical theism have valuable contributions to make, in the end neither can adequately express the values of both in a unified concept. The fundamental methodological flaw shared by both was the commitment to incorporate metaphysical conclusions based on a priori philosophical reflection (as opposed to basing one’s doctrine of God exclusively upon the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection).

This dependency upon philosophical reflection led both open and classical theology into an essentialist ontology wherein the key concepts used to describe God (‘nature’, ‘person’, ‘being’, etc.) were all filled with content before any consideration of God’s concrete self-revealing act in Christ, and so Christ gets accommodated to metaphysics rather than the other way around.

Let us agree for the sake of brevity that “essentialism” is the doctrine that essence precedes existence. I would like to suggest that open theism is not in fact committed to an essentialist ontology even if many or most open theists are essentialists. I see no reason why an open theist could not, for example, agree to McCormack’s/Barth’s “actualism.” What is actualism? It’s not possible to reduce Barth’s doctrine to a summary statement, but for the sake of space we shall have to. As I understand it, Barth’s “actualism” is the doctrine that God is what God does. This can indeed be expressed as meaning God’s essence and his existence are identical, but not in the sense classical theists mean. For Barth God’s existence defines his essence (i.e., God just is, essentially, what God does) and there’s no getting behind what God has done in the event of God’s self-revelation in Christ to speculate on what God is independent of this act (or the determination to act thus).

The question an open theist might ask is why think either that such a methodology (viz., Christ alone reveals God and is thus the exclusive source of truth about God) could not be pursued by an open theist (which we partly addressed in Part 2) or, furthermore, that actualism in principle requires the divine determination of all things? Unless actualism entails the B-series view of time (‘eternalism’ or the ‘block universe’) — which I have not heard anyone argue — there’s no obvious reason why an open theist couldn’t embrace an actualist understanding of God’s existence/essence (God’s being-in-act). It would be interesting to know (from informed Barthians) if, and if so why, actualism entails the divine determination of all creaturely occurrence. Along this line of questioning, Peter Leithart wonders what the implications of actualism are in response to George Hunsinger’s summary of Barth’s actualism (Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth, p. 31). Hunsinger writes:

“Negatively [actualism] means that we human beings have no ahistorical relationship to God, and that we also have no capacity in and of ourselves to enter into fellowship with God. An a historical relationship would be a denial of God’s activity, and an innate capacity for fellowship would be a denial of God’s sovereignty. Positively, therefore, our relationship with God must be understood in active, historical terms, and it must be a relationship given to us strictly from the outside.”

This can be read as implying divine determination of the content and course of history, but such determinism isn’t obviously entailed in belief that God is what God does or that God’s self-revealing act in Christ is the exclusive source of truth about God. On the other hand, there’s nothing in Hunsinger’s summary of Barth’s actualism an open theist couldn’t agree to in principle.

It seems perfectly plausible to suppose that an open theist could work strictly within the methodological commitments McCormack advocates (i.e., that God reveals himself in Christ and not in the deliverances of a priori philosophical reflection) as well as agree that the Son is eternally the Father’s electing act by which God determines to be God-for-us in covenant relation in/through Christ (and no other God) without having to suppose that God’s predetermining will embraces all creaturely occurrence constituting the unfolding of history. Nothing necessary to the open view of the future or God’s knowledge of actual (temporal) realities (in a manner consistent with the future’s being ‘open’) requires an essentialist ontology or prevents an exclusively Christocentric epistemology/methodology. We are of course not advocating for Barth’s actualism or his (theological) epistemology. We’re only arguing that an open theist could adopt these without having to abandon her open theism.

McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 2

We’d like to offer an initial response to Bruce McCormack’s Barthian critique of open theism and invite those very familiar with McCormack’s chapter to chime in if they’d like. We previously boiled the chapter down to 21 core points which as we understand them essentially reduce to the claim that Christology is why open theism is false. We’ll consider McCormack’s essential argument in the following 8 points (if proponents of McCormack’s chapter feel we’re missing his point, by all means, let us know):

(1) Christology: The proper methodological starting point. Our understanding of God (and creation, providence, human freedom, etc.) is to be derived from Christ alone (his life, death, and resurrection) independent of any a priori philosophical reflections. Such a Christological methodology entails the following:

(2) God is triune only in his free determination to create and incarnate and thus be God-for-us.
(3) God predetermines all things (and thus foreknows all that will occur).
(4) God’s predetermination of all things is his willing all things within the covenant of grace in Christ.
(5) God is not timeless but temporal.
(6) God is not impassible but passible.
(7) God makes his predetermination of all things effective via divine ‘concursus’ (the ‘cooperation’ by which God’s ‘Word’ and ‘Spirit’ bring about God’s will in/through creaturely occurrence).

One further claim McCormack makes (along purely philosophical and not Christological lines in agreement with Bill Craig’s well-known arguments) is:

(8) Free choice isn’t incompatible with foreknowledge (because knowledge of X doesn’t cause X).

As we understand the flow of his argument, McCormack’s presentation of Barth’s position doesn’t constitute an argument per se against open theism as much as it seeks to demonstrate that open theism isn’t needed because all it seeks to achieve (a relational God passibly engaging a genuinely free world) is secured by Barth’s doctrine of God’s predetermination of all things in the pre-creational election of Christ as the self-constituting act by which God determines to be (the triune) God-for-us. All that open theists seek in their rejection of classical theism can be had in Barth without having to deny exhaustive(ly definite) foreknowledge.

What might open theists say in response? First, let’s grant (5) and (6) for the sake of argument and get them out of the way. Open theists can certainly grant the truth of (5) (even if in a carefully qualified sense) and can grant the passibilism of (6) as fully as any passiblist on the planet (even if an open theist need not endorse divine passibilism).

Second, for the sake of argument we will set aside our personal disagreement with (2) as well as with McCormack’s methodological position regarding natural theology or appeal to a priori philosophical reflection in (1). So we’ll grant (1) and (2). But here there’s nothing obviously incompatible with, or entailed by, (1) and (2) that is incompatible with open theism. With (2) an open theist could agree that God is triune only in his free self-determination to be God-for-us in Christ (i.e., the open theist could deny or qualify belief in the ‘logos asarkos’ in all the ways McCormack/Barth complain that this concept relies upon illegitimate a priori philosophical reflection). Indeed, we can think of a few open theists we know who are inclined to express their doctrine of God in precisely such terms. Furthermore, with (1) an open theist could agree to a strictly Christological methodology (McCormack’s main beef with open theists — it’s not Christological enough) without obviously having to deny her open theism or run into implications of this methodology which are incompatible with open theism.

McCormack-B-EJDbooks-473x314Third, what McCormack does not do in his chapter — the one thing we were expecting him to do — is show us precisely how it is that making Christ (the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection) one’s methodology for assessing the claims at stake in this debate leads to the truth of (3) (which obviously contradicts open theism). As far as we can tell, (3), (4) and (7) don’t follow necessarily from (1) and (2). How does one get the truth of (3) (God’s predetermination of all things) from the commitment to make Christ one’s sole methodology? What is there in the event of Christ’s life or his teachings that demonstrates the truth of (3)? Or how is (3) entailed in anything one commits to in committing to such a Christ-centered methodology? McCormack never says. Our suspicion is that the truth of (3) is incorporated from elsewhere. And (4) and (7) are only true if (3) is true.

That leaves us, lastly, with (8). And the surprise here is that in discussing the compatibility of free acts with foreknowledge of those acts, McCormack doesn’t assess the debate over this question exclusively in terms of anything uniquely Christological. He simply buys Craig’s arguments re: compatibility (never mind that Craig grants this compatibility only with respect to libertarian choices and as a Molinist, not choices predetermined by the will of God—but let that go). Point is, the truth of (8) doesn’t follow from (1); that is, (8) isn’t a Christological given. McCormack in fact adopts the “irrefutability” of (8) as a matter of philosophical reflection (following Craig)!

Of course open theists have had much to say about this logic (as have many non-open theists, even Calvinists who, though not libertarian, agree that foreknowledge of libertarian choices is not possible). We won’t offer a defense of incompatibilism here, except to say (in response to Craig) that no incompatiblist has ever objected to the compatibility of foreknowledge and free acts on the grounds that a ‘causal’ relationship would therefore exist between the ‘foreknowing’ of free choices and the actual choices in question. But conceding this much unfortunately does nothing to demonstrate the truth of the compatibilist’s claim or obviate the issue pressed by the incompatibilist.

McCormack can disagree with the incompatibilist philosophically if he wishes, but there’s nothing uniquely Christological on his side, and Christology was supposed to be what his chapter was about. Of course, if (8) is true, then as McCormack says the case for open theism is dead in the water independent of Christology. But if one has reasons to hold to incompatibilism, then (3), (4) and (7) are equally false however true (1) and (2) may be. And an open theist could of course disagree with McCormack on (1) and (2), but she doesn’t need to do so in order to maintain open theism against (3), (4), (7) and (8). What McCormack needed to show but didn’t is how (3) is entailed in (1) or (2).

In the end, it may be true that open theists are not adequately mindful of Christology and so have not grounded their claims in a commitment to build their doctrine of God Christologically from the inside out. But it doesn’t follow from this that the determinism of McCormack’s/Barth’s Christology is the only valid shape which such a methodology must take.

Open for business.