Faith and Violence

Muhammad_PBUH_by_SoulFlamerGreg has an interesting piece answering the question: Is Islam inherently violent? Definitely something to ponder. I’ve never ventured into social or political issues here on our blog. Maybe we should do more of it. I’m disinclined. But I’d like to chime in on this question because the Muslim world was my world for half my life.

I’d answer Greg’s question in terms of Islam’s normative founder(s) and its formative history, precisely those aspects Greg doesn’t talk about. It’s possible to argue that what Islam and Christianity inherently are has nothing to do with what Christians and Muslims today do or what they did during the Crusades or Inquisition centuries after the formative history and texts in question. The foundational question to ask, it seems to me, is not:

Can we find both violent and non-violent people who call themselves Christians or Muslims and shouldn’t we just then identify what these respective faiths “inherently” are with those non-violent adherents and dismiss the violent ones as perversions?

That’s certainly an easier way to go about it. But it would not be to carefully engage the issues that matter in determining what a major world-faith inherently is. Surely what ought to be in view here are the:

  • normative persons/examples of the faith in question

and the

  • formative history of that faith in light of those examples.

These reveal the inner vision, values, resources and disposition to violence inherent in these religious worldviews.

I don’t think it’s possible to argue that Christianity and Islam are simply equivalent examples of equally, inherently non-violent worldviews each of which just happen to have been misinterpreted at different times as justifying violence. I think we have to examine the behavior of those persons who in each faith’s case are believed to function in a normative and definitive way for that faith. There are other concerns too (what the religious texts command). But for now I’d like to engage only the question of what the relationship is between the founder(s) of these faiths and what those faiths can be said ‘inherently’ to be.

Where do we go to define what a faith inherently is? Greg will argue that in the case of Christianity we go to Jesus who is the normative, defining instance of the Christian faith. I suppose then we investigate to see if his example is really livable, i.e., does it describe what Christianity was for his immediate followers and earliest believers? Can Christ’s example really be normative for a world-wide community? Or, was Jesus violent? Well, no. Where his disciples and immediate followers violent? Did the earliest believers resort to violence against Jews or Romans. We can safely answer, no. Can Christianity’s early growth be attributed to violence? No. In fact, for generations, even when sorely persecuted, followers of Christ were (with exceptions that only prove the rule) not violent. What do I mean by not violent? I mean:

  • they didn’t view violence as a valid expression of their faith,  a way to practice their faith, a means of propagating it, or a means of securing its future against threats and opposition.

Ask the same questions of Islam (i.e., Muhammad, his companions and successors and the earliest generations of followers) and you’ll get, I think, a ‘Yes’ across the board (with non-violent exceptions proving the rule). Muhammad resorted to violence. He wasn’t, arguably, non-violent in an exemplary way, i.e., only violent in extremely rare and unique situations that establish a more normative and widespread non-violent rule. On the contrary, violence accompanies Islam’s formative persons and history. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine Islam’s survival apart from violence. Even Gandhi, in his great admiration for Muhammad, can only claim that the sword wasn’t the fundamental draw or appeal that explains Islam’s expansion. But the sword is there. This is not to suggest Muhammad wasn’t an admirable social and religious reformer in many very important ways. It’s simply to base our answer to Greg’s question on the relevant evidence about how violence relates (or doesn’t relate) to Muhammad’s worldview and the faith he shaped. And here there’s simply no comparison between Christianity and Islam on the question of violence viewed from observing the normative persons and formative histories involved. My point is that these persons and this history ought to be taken into account when attempting to describe what a world-faith inherently is, and Greg completely ignores this.

To the extent that Jesus functions as the paradigmatic Christian, the definitive-normative example of the faith which Christianity is, then Christianity is inherently non-violent. In fact, it’s precisely this normative-definitive role of Christ’s example that Greg elsewhere argues ought to be the measure against which we admit as valid or dismiss as perverse the individual or institutional behaviors of people who claim to be Christian.

However, the normative examples in the case of Islam with respect to violence (i.e., Muhammad and his successors) simply don’t support a view of Islam as not inherently—what’s the word?—accessible to violence, expressible by violence, or compatible with violence. I don’t want to say “inherently violent” without qualification because that may suggest all Muslims must be violent to be faithful Muslims (although this is, arguably, the Orthodox Muslim view where the defense and survival of the Ummah are concerned). What I’m suggesting is that violence is inseparable from the paradigmatic, normative examples of Islam as embodied authoritatively in Muhammad’s life as قدوة (“qidwa” = “paradigm/example”) and exemplified in his successors and the earliest generations of Muslims.

I’m happy to concede that “inherently violent” is an unhelpful way to describe what it is about violence in the case of Muhammad and the worldview that holds him to be the definitive, normative Muslim that differentiates him from Jesus and the worldview that holds him to be the definitive, normative Christian. But from where I sit (after living in the Middle East for roughly half my life), I wouldn’t at all view violence in Islam (as defined by Muhammad) as comparably equivalent to violence in Christianity (as defined by Christ), which is precisely the kind of comparison Greg makes, i.e., Islam and Christianity as compared throughout their histories in the behavior of Christians and Muslims are equally violent and equally non-violent, which leads Greg to answer the question ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’ with ‘No’. But it’s not at all that simple. My point is that the founding persons (Jesus and Muhammad), their successors (the Apostles of Christ and the Caliphs and Companions of the Prophet), and the earliest generations of followers ought to be what we examine in attempting to say what Christianity and Islam inherently are. Perhaps the question we ought to be asking is:

  • Would Islam as practiced by Muhammad and the earliest Muslims make the world a more peaceful place to live or not?

And the same question can be put to Christians:

  • Would Christianity as practiced by Jesus and his earliest followers make the world a more peaceful place or not?

(The Arabic name Muhammad)

Why can’t we all be one?

Warning: Speculations ahead! Dwayne and I have been going back and forth over the question of the interpretation of Paul’s view of Christ as the “firstborn of creation” and the related question of Paul’s possible awareness of Philo’s use of the same term in describing God’s Logos as a created, non-divine means or archetype of creation.

Very briefly, Philo (25 BCE to 50 CE), an educated Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, sought to express his Jewish (biblically informed) faith in Hellenistic-philosophical terms. One might argue that he sought more than to faithfully express his Jewish faith in Hellenistic terms, but that he aimed at integrating the two. In any case, our discussion the past few days has focused just on his view of the Logos, its relation to creation, and in turn the possibility of Paul’s awareness of this. Philo believed God’s Logos is “the man of God,” God’s “image,” his “firstborn son” and the first of all God’s creations. The Logos for Philo is a kind of shadow or archetype of God in his creative intentions used to bring the world into existence. As such, the Logos is the intelligible form of things and thus the ground of universal intelligibility, the principle of unity within creation. While Philo rejected Aristotle’s crude version of an eternal creation, he nevertheless held God to create eternally, not at some point in time.

All this bears a resemblance to NT ideas (esp. Paul) of Christ as the Logos, the means by which God creates, of Christ as the “image of God,” the “heavenly man,” in whom all things hold together. These terms and their function in expressing a doctrine of divine creation are not made up on the spot by John or Paul in the NT. They’re writing within a tradition—some of it Hebrew and some of it unquestionably Hellenistic. Forget the question of the Greek influence of the post-apostolic church and councils. This is older, in the biblical texts themselves. And apart from this influence, we wouldn’t even have a New Testament. And never mind the Greek and pagan influence upon Judaism and its beliefs during the second Temple period (the Septuagint being a case in point). Purge Christianity of its pagan, Hellenistic, Zoroastrian influences? Good luck.

Anyhow, how are we to understand Paul’s use of this tradition? Dwayne (he can explain more on his own if he’d like) favors a Pauline doctrine of creation that takes Paul’s use of Philo and the Alexandrian tradition pretty seriously. In other words, Dwayne follows those who argue that when Paul describes Christ in Colossians 1 as the “firstborn of creation,” he has that tradition in mind which holds God to have created via his Logos/Image in its function as the archetype of creation, the ‘heavenly man’, the (later) ‘Adam Kadmon’ (if you want to explore Kabbalah thought). Dwayne wouldn’t agree with Philo that the Logos is ‘created’ of course. However, he does agree with this wider tradition that there has to be a created reality (Oversoul, Consciousness, Plenum, whatever you wanna call it) which belongs to the Logos but which is a kind of first-step in creating which makes creation in its diverse fullness possible.

What’s incarnation God to do with it? We argued (with many others) for an Incarnation-anyway view of the universe. God creates because he wants to unite creation to himself incarnationally. But it’s Incarnation that is the primary end of creation. We get implicated (and so perfected and brought into union with God) in the Incarnation. Incarnation isn’t just (or even primarily) about fixing what’s wrong with the world on account of sin. Incarnation was always God’s plan and means of bringing creation to fulfillment.

That said, this primal ‘first-act’ of creation, this diffusing of divine energies (I’m grabbing what terms I can), this collective soul or archetype of creation, this ‘Adam Kadmon’ (the original Adam) or as Philo described it, this “[immaterial] man of God,” is the first and foremost act by which creation is made a suitable context for Incarnation. Christ is the “firstborn of creation” not only in the commonly held sense of his having “preeminence” within the created order, as true as that is. In addition to preeminence, as “firstborn of creation” Christ is the archetype of creation through whom all things are created and in whom they have their being and find their final fulfillment (cf. Rom 8.19-21). Creation from its beginning is a kind of Incarnation in as much as it is a step toward eventual Incarnation, an act of incarnational intention and preparation. It starts out by being that which is a suitable context for Incarnation.

I’ve balked at Dwayne’s idea here because Paul would never have agreed with Philo that the Logos is created. So there’s no need for a “created” principle of unity within the created order. What would it even be? I still don’t know. But let me offer two reasons for thinking something like this is the case.

The first question has to do with creation’s unity. The “principle of unity” in creation is that which makes the universe ‘one’ as opposed to a collection of self-contained realities each of which is a kind of universe to itself. What accounts for this unity? Just the truth that all things have their source in the Logos?

Can the uncreated Logos itself be the principle of unity? Or must we posit a created archetype or principle of unity? True, everything is in the Logos, was created by him and is sustained by him, and that provides a unity “of source” or “origin.” But I’m inclined to think (with Bulgakov actually) that creation itself has to be ‘one’ in its createdness. Otherwise what you have is not God related to a single creation but to an innumerable number of creations each of which is a stand-alone world (so to speak) that just happens to be related to God as its creator. There would be a “vertical” unity of all things (by virtue of their having God as their source), but no “horizontal” unity that constitutes that about created being per se which accounts for its integrity as a single creation. How is such unity to be gotten? My feeling is that it’s found in some created context (whatever it is — Oversoul, Plenum [cf. Richard Creel], Adam Kadmon, a universal consciousness, perhaps Bulgakov’s ‘World Soul’|Created Sophia — words fail).

The second question asks what the above unity of creation has to do with Incarnation and theosis (the perfection and consummation of creation via Incarnation). If the kind of unity within creation described above isn’t the case and creation is in fact an innumerable number of discrete universes related only in the mind of God (i.e., their unity is JUST an abstraction deriving from the shared source which all things have in God), then God incarnate is just one of these innumerable universes/worlds alongside others and there’s no ground within creation upon which the Incarnation redeems all created worlds by implication. Christ would have to be incarnate in every discrete reality to redeem it. It’s because the Incarnation (God’s becoming “a” human being) redeems all creation that I’m inclined to argue for a horizontal unity of the created order. This unity is how the one, finite human being can have universal implications for all things by virtue of also being the Logos. In other words, redemption via incarnation is efficacious not only vertically by virtue of Christ’s being the Logos, though that’s got to be true. It also has to be efficacious horizontally within creation. But if creation isn’t one in its concrete being as created, then there’s no concrete reality, no “way the world is,” that mediates the saving effects of Christ incarnate to all things.

I think I can get with a lot of this. I’m still processing it. But I have annoying questions about the notion of an ‘Oversoul’ as a “field of consciousness” or Kabbalah’s “Adam Kadmon” that aren’t going away. And I find it very easy to hold positions in a sort of suspended animation without feeling the need to render a final verdict. Dwayne is more a final verdict kind a guy.

(Picture here).

Taking time for space or making space for time?

Fr Aidan asks an important question on this post and I don’t want my attempt at an answer to stay buried in the comments section, even if my attempt ends up embarrassing me. But I’d be interested in what others think, so here we are. Fr Aidan asks:

Why the “ouch” regarding the claim that God transcends time (is “outside” of time)? Is this any different than saying that God transcends space (is “outside” space)? This “outside” allows him to be radically present and active “inside.”

As much as a scientific perspective on space is way beyond my pay grade, I still love thinking about this issue. I’ll try my hand at an answer because I do think God transcends space and time, though I think immanence requires our saying a bit more about God than some understandings of transcendence will want to commit to. So let me stumble around a bit and try to say what I understand God’s transcending space to mean.

To say you and I are at different locations in the universe is to say you and I are distinct and finite frames of reference within the universe. You have a perspective on the world that’s limited and relative to your location (your ‘frame of reference’). All finite frames of reference are defined relative to other frames of reference (i.e., they’re finite perspectives on other frames of reference within the world). Nothing controversial so far.

Everybody (who is sane) knows that when they look at the night sky they’re seeing light that has taken a very long time to reach their eyes. Light leaves some distant dying star and takes, say, 100 million light years to reach us. In our universe, information can travel no faster than the speed of light (never mind quantum entanglement). We finally know about that star’s death 100 million years after it occurs. Point is, our experience of the world is just our very limited first person perspective on the world, a perspective that depends upon the finite speed of light to bring the world into reach and so constitute our experience of it.

None of this could be true of God. God is everywhere fully present. He’s not a finite frame of reference within the world. There is no distance between God and any event in the universe or any finite frame of reference. All God is is fully and indivisibly present in/to/with every finite frame of reference in the universe. So God’s perspective on the world (his knowledge of the world) would include all other finite perspectives. He’d have a perspective on my perspective — see things from my point of view so to speak. But he’d also take in the whole. His would be the one all-inclusive perspective that defines absolute simultaneity. When light from a distant star leaves the star, God fully present here with us doesn’t have to wait 100 million years to know what happened. God is sustaining the star’s death and he’s present in sustaining its journey between its source and our eyes.

So God would certainly transcend space in this sense while being fully present in/with us. He’s not a finite frame of reference within it, but his all-inclusive perspective on the universe would include all other finite perspectives. Where our past, present and future are determined by a finite dependence upon the world’s capacity to share itself with us, God would not be so constrained. If his knowledge of the world in fact has a past, present and future to it, it’s not because God depends (like us) upon anything in the world to share itself with him. God doesn’t wait for light to speed it’s delivery of the world to him. Rather, the temporal nature of God’s knowledge of the world flows from what he imparts to the world; time flows from God. And then in addition, and most importantly, nothing about God’s sustaining any of this, or his presence in/with/to it, would ‘define’ God in the sense of constituting his eternally abiding identity and beatitude as Father, Son and Spirit.

As amazing as it is to imagine having an all-inclusive perspective on the universe (i.e., not depending upon the speed of light for the transfer of information, being the unmediated presence that grounds and sustains of all finite perspectives; basically having the entire universe within your undivided mind), I do find it conceivable. No obvious contradictions jump out at me.

What about time? Well, we know no two finite frames of reference share the same “now.” (Thus Einstein’s denial of absolute simultaneity.) But this applies to finite frames of reference only. It wouldn’t apply to an infinite mind not limited to any finite frame of reference (as Lorentz observed). Since God is indivisible and fully present at every finite location, God’s perspective would constitute an absolute simultaneity for the world or creation’s ‘present’.

But though God is everywhere fully present and not limited to any finite frame of reference, and though this means there is no space between God and anything in the world, that doesn’t mean everything God is doing in sustaining the cosmos he’s doing at all finite locations within creation. There’s no space between God sustaining Alpha Centauri and God sustaining me, but that doesn’t mean God is sustaining Alpha Centauri in me or at my location. Alpha Centauri and I don’t occupy the same space (or perspective) within the world. There is a distinction between the two because God makes the distinction. And that, I think, means the distinction obtains in God. Even if God transcends space in the sense of being fully present throughout and not reducible to any finite frame of reference, that doesn’t mean God identifies every space with every other space or that whatever God is doing ‘here’ God is also doing ‘there’. On the contrary, finite perspectives (which are all creation is) only exist at all because God sustains and knows the difference between them.

What is relevant here for Fr Aidan’s question perhaps is the fact that God’s transcendence of space wouldn’t imply there being no absolute or objective distinction between past, present and future. It would mean no two finite frames of reference share the same past, present or future. But it wouldn’t mean there would be no past, present or future to a transcendent, all-inclusive perspective on the physical universe. On the contrary, I think God’s transcendent perspective on the world’s finite perspectives would have its own past, present, and future. It just wouldn’t be identifiable with the past, present, and future of any particular, finite perspective. Nor, more importantly, would it be identifiable with that self-constituting perspective God has upon Godself which is his triune beatitude. But to the extent that God (and not some mediating agency) sustains the world’s temporal becoming and has an all-inclusive perspective on its becoming, God would be temporal; i.e., there exist past realities God knows he is ‘no longer sustaining’, present realities God knows he ‘is’ sustaining, and future possibilities God knows he might/might not actually sustain.

Point is, the actuality of created entities is one and the same with the actuality of God’s sustaining them. You can’t make the latter eternal without making the former eternal (I don’t think). I hold the former not to be eternal, and that is why I advocate for a qualified sense of God’s being temporal. To not do so would, I think, mean holding it to be the case that every temporal event within what we describe as the world’s timeline or history eternally abides in its actuality in God’s unchanging perspective or act of knowing, a kind of “unblinking cosmic stare.” This would mean God doesn’t make (i.e., doesn’t know) the (presentist) distinction between

•  possible-but-not-actual Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon,
 actual Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or
 formerly-but-no-longer-actual Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon

I’m not sure what advocates of divine timelessness would hold about the distinction between these in God. Perhaps all three are distinctly present in God. But that sure looks like the ‘block view’ of the universe to me. It would then be the case for that:

  The Sun eternally has never existed (because there are slices of the block universe we call “times at which” wherein the Sun isn’t located),
  The Sun eternally exists in every stage of its formation and expiration (because there are slices of the block at which the stages of the Sun’s formation and decline are located),
  The Sun is eternally expired (because there are slices of the block at which it “no longer exists”).

All these would be equally, eternally ‘actual’ to God. Even if it derives its being from God, it does so eternally. That’s what I’m hearing in the claim that God’s perspective on and sustaining/conserving of the cosmos doesn’t have a past, present, and future. And it’s here that the “Tilt” lights go on in my head—unlike anything relative to God’s transcendence of space.

[All I’ve said presumes a view of time known as ‘presentism’ (or the A-series of time). If presentism is fundamentally false and the block view is correct, then we can say good-bye to the open view of the future (and with it other valuable things the Orthodox wish to maintain, like free will, but that’s another conversation).]

(Picture here.)

Naming God

7burning bushI’m always intrigued by readings of Exodus 3 that see the divine name “I am” as revealing God to be timeless. God, so I’m told, didn’t reveal himself as “I was” or “I will be.” He is the “I am,” meaning, among other things, the timeless One. That God is self-existent can’t be reasonably doubted. That God is the source, ground and sustainer of all things is, also, just the Christian view of things. But that Scripture offers us a ‘timeless’ God seems much less certain. That said, I’d like to offer a couple of comments on Ex 3.

You know the context. Moses. Burning bush. God commissions Moses to return to Egypt. Moses is disinclined to accept the job offer. He wants to know who he’s working for, so he asks (Ex 3.13-15):

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you’. Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you’. This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

Precisely what does the name “I am” tell us about God? What’s it tell us about God that he gives himself to us to be named? And what specifically is revealed about God in his answer (“I am”)? I confess I simply don’t see what exegetical or other contextual clues the Orthodox and other advocates of divine timelessness see here that convince them we here have the timelessness of God being revealed in the name “I am.”

Moses: “If they ask me ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?”
God: Tell them, “I’m timeless” sent you.
Moses: “What?”

I don’t see it. And contextually I don’t know how others see it. It looks like a classic case of eisogesis, but I could be wrong. In one recent conversation it was suggested that Ex 3.14 settles the question of the temporal status of God’s existence (as timeless) since God is always “I am” (never “I was” or “I shall be”). And this is bolstered by Ex 3.15’s “…this is my name ‘forever’ (the Hebrew supposedly implying timeless eternity). The logic escapes me, that is, if we’re just attempting at this point to understand the text on its own terms. “I am” is as ‘temporal’ as “I was” and “I will be.” The Hebrews ‘olam’ doesn’t inherently imply timeless eternity. Things that come into being and pass out of being are called ‘olam’.

Why couldn’t a (qualifiedly) temporal God always be “I am”? And what of Rev. 1.8’s “the one who is [“ho on”], who was, and who is to come.” I’m told this is easily reconciled to divine timelessness because in context, Ex 3 is describing God’s being as God (and thus timeless), while in Rev 1 we have Jesus who is God in his incarnate (and thus temporal) state as the subject of “is, was, is to come.”

I still don’t see it. I can see how somebody already committed to the belief that God is timeless can construe these passages to confirm a view they already hold. But to argue these passages inform such a belief? That’s my struggle.

However, it doesn’t seem a stretch to me to read Ex 3 as having nothing whatsoever to do with an ontology of time or the temporal status of God’s being/existence per se. Indeed, it’s hard to see how the ‘timeless’ interpretation of the name “I am” would be a relevant piece of information to share with Moses and Israel given their context. Names in ancient Israel weren’t just place-holders or means of commanding someone’s attention. I’m “Tom” because that’s just what you ‘say’ when you want to get my attention. In English that’s all names are. We don’t really invest names with any significance beyond that minimal utility.

In ancient Israel a name was more than just a thing to say to get somebody’s attention (though undoubtedly in non-religious contexts names take on that function too). And when it came to God, names were all the more important. But what’s evident from looking at the names themselves is that they describe an event or an experience that reveals who God is and what his character and intentions are. The divine names name a place and a time where God acted on someone’s behalf. It makes perfect contextual sense to read “I am” simply as God declaring this truth about himself, namely (no pun intended): God gives himself to us to be named as the one who is _______, and the blank is God’s invitation (and promise) to discover him in the specific terms of our finite needs. This truth stands behind a dozen or so extensions of the name in such terms: Jehovah-Heals, Jehovah-Hears, Jehovah-Sees, Jehovah-Justifies, Jehovah-Provides, Jehovah-Defends Us, Jehovah-Our Banner. These all describe our experience of God.

One can go through the “Jehovah-Present-tense verb” names and discover who God is and what kind of God God is. The names of God name the place and conditions upon which God is experienced. That makes sense of the function of names in Israel’s ancient Semitic culture and the more specific context of Moses’s question and Israel’s needs. But the divine names also reveal us within that relationship. When we learn something about God we see the truth about ourselves. When we get clear on who he is, we see ourselves in proper perspective. If God is Jehovah-Provides, for example, what’s that make me? It makes me dependent upon him, in need of him. I come to see the truth of my finitude and need. If God’s name is Jehovah-Sees, what’s that make us? It means we are not alone. We are known to God. We’re not abandoned, not forsaken.

Another interesting way to approach the “I am” of Ex 3 is to consider the religious Canaanite and Egyptian context. It helps us understand why Moses even asks God what his name is. The Canaanites had Anat (virgin goddess of war), Dagon (god of crop fertility), Molech (god of fire), Resheph (god of plagues/healing), Baal-Haddad (storm god), and a dozen others, including El (the most high god) who is shared by Israel. The same thing can be said for the Egyptian gods. The function of naming among pagans identified finite deities with limited responsibilities within the cosmos. You might say pagan deities derived their identities from the cosmos through their roles in maintaining it. This undoubtedly lies behind Moses’ question. “What’s your name?” essentially means “Which god are you? Where do you fit in the scale of deities? What’s your rank? Which part of the cycle of life and death are you responsible for?” That, I suggest, is what’s going on in Ex 3, and it has nothing to do with speculations about God and time. “I am that I am” is well-suited as an answer to Moses’ question as revealing the categorical difference between the One who is addressing Moses and all the other pagan deities. That difference isn’t that they’re all temporal while this One is timeless. What is Moses supposed to do with that? But there’s great benefit in being told that this One does not derive his identity from any earthly function, or even all of them together, that this One isn’t to be found in a police-like line-up of local deities who just are their relationship with the world’s cycle of seasons, births, deaths, marriages, fertility, etc. Unlike these deities, this One’s identity is not reducible to a function within the finitude of the world. That, I suggest, is grounds for a covenant relationship to build a nation upon. But “I’m timeless”?

I’m suggesting that in Ex 3 God grounds future covenant with Israel by stepping out and away from membership in the rank and file deities of Canaan and Egypt and how people related to deity per se. God (“I am that I am”) names the place and time where he is experienced and worshiped and is categorically unique in possessing the fullness and freedom of his own existence and identity in himself, not deriving from nor reduced to any function within the cosmos—unlike the competition. But none of this says anything about time.

But if the covenant name of God just means “I’m timeless,” I don’t see any easy way to connect this meaning to how the name is actually used in Scripture to describe God acting in concrete ways to speak, call, heal, save, etc. I don’t doubt that advocates of divine timeless believe God acts on our behalf. I’m saying I can’t see the logic that requires us to understand the name as asserting ‘timeless existence’ to get into the concrete world of the names.

(Picture here.)

God at War in Ithilien, Part 4

Following on our previous comments regarding time, we’ll draw our series on Tait’s review of Greg’s warfare theodicy to an end with two concluding comments. They have to do with (a) the supposed providential use of God’s (timeless) (fore)knowledge and (b) how we’re to understand providence in general.

The providential uselessness of simple foreknowledge
In his Post 5 on Greg’s open theism, Tait acknowledges the force of the argument Greg and other open theists make for the providential uselessness of simple foreknowledge (of the sort defended by David Hunt and Bruce Reichenbach). This view of foreknowledge claims God “simply” (i.e., without the complication of qualifications, exceptions, speculations, etc.) knows the future. Such knowledge would be of no providential use. Hunt attempts (unsuccessfully) to avoid this consequence. I won’t repeat the arguments here.

A view not (in our opinion) significantly different is divine timelessness (and so the timelessness of God’s knowing), the view Tait prefers. But the same criticism of simple foreknowledge applies. A timeless God, i.e., a God whose knowledge of the world is eternal/timeless, would of course be timelessly, not temporally, related to all created events in their actuality. Leaving aside the question of whether this is even coherent and the implications this might have for the question of the temporal nature of creation (A-Series vs B-Series, presentism vs a block universe), it nevertheless follows that timeless knowledge of created events is also providentially useless to God. A timeless God would be eternally and unchangingly present to all events within the created order. What could providentially be done on the basis of such knowledge which is not already timelessly known? To act “on the basis of” some knowledge is to act in an “informed” way. But this presupposes an order in knowing and acting precluded by timeless existence. All events in creation would be (if I could risk using the word) simultaneously present to God and by definition already the result of whatever God did or didn’t do to prevent or bring them about.

One Orthodox attempt to defend the providential use of such timeless knowledge is Gregory of Nyssa’s On Infants’ Early Deaths in which Gregory argues that infants who die are brought to death by divine mercy based on God’s (timeless) (fore)knowledge of the great evil these infants commit in adulthood. So (and the “so” is important; it expresses the sense in which Gregory holds God’s foreknowledge of their evils to inform his providential choice to foreclose upon these infants reaching adulthood) God determines to prevent their actualizing such evil. Don’t rush by Gregory’s arguments. Let them soak in.

Timeless knowledge of the world would already eternally be knowledge of a world in which the infants in question die (not live to do great evil). How is the death of infants the providential outcomes of God acting in response to foreknown evil those same infants do in adulthood? In what world do they commit their evils? A Molinist might be interested in exploring Gregory’s proposal, but it doesn’t seem compatible with timeless knowledge.

However, Fr Aidan and I were chatting about this recently, and he brought up a point he makes via McCabe re: God and time. The point is that divine transcendence of the world means that God transcends both contradictory positions—temporality and atemporality. To say God is ‘timeless’ (used apophatically) is just a way to say, “Look, God’s reality can’t be reduced to these contradictory positions, as if God is either one or the other.” So not only should we not conclude God is ‘temporal’, we ought also to avoid saying God is ‘timeless’. God transcends the contradiction; i.e., the reality we call ‘God’ isn’t reducible to a single option among contradictories within the scope of our categories.

We tried to explore this here, here and here.

I think there’s something importantly true in saying God isn’t exhausted by the truth of a single of contradictory options. At the same time, we’ve suggested that while this apophatic qualification may be true, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t cataphatic truths we ought to affirm and their contradictories we ought to deny. For example, cataphatically speaking “God exists” is true and “God does not exist” is false. But God, we’d like to say as well, transcends the disjunct. God’s existence isn’t just a grand instance of our existence, as if he is another being alongside all the other instances of being, just a very large and perfect occasion of it. But he also transcends the falsehood of “God does not exist” since the sense in which God doesn’t exist is not just another instance of the failure of some created being to exist.

I’ve wondered for some time whether this strategy wouldn’t apply equally to the sense in which we use temporal/atemporal language of God. That is, there is a truth to be affirmed cataphatically here which marks God’s positive reflection in the created order (e.g., “God is temporal”). And the contradictory of this (“God is timeless”) would in this sense be false. However, God isn’t an instance of temporal becoming in the way created entities have their being temporally. Nor is his ‘not being timeless’ just an instance of what atemporality is on our scale of being (which is what I tend to hear from advocates of divine timelessness). In this sense, God’s reality would transcend the disjunct between ‘temporal’ and ‘timeless’ by virtue of necessary being, infinite beatitude, etc.

So what about divine foreknowledge then? Well, if God is (qualifiedly) temporal he would relate to the world’s past as past and to its future as future—but not in anything like the derivative, dependent sense in which created things lose something of themselves to the past or in which they derive something of themselves in a future becoming. None of that kind of experience could be the case with God. And that’s different enough in my book to use these terms very carefully. But what typically happens is this apophatic qualified sense of temporal language gets used as a means of defending God’s eternal knowledge of all events within the temporal world. I see this as problematic. If it’s transcendence, why assume the knowledge of the world would be unchanging knowledge of the world’s actualities? Why should transcendence default to the assumption of timelessness? If God creates freely, and if the scope of all creaturely choice remains within the embrace of providence, and if there’s no providential advantage to be gained from simple or timeless knowledge, then there’s nothing a timeless God (traditionally conceived) can do that a qualifiedly temporal God cannot also do with respect to bringing about his final ends for creation.

If God truly foreknows future possibilities as possibilities, the sense in which this is different from our foreknowing is as important as is the sense in which it’s similar. Future possibilities aren’t apprehended by God via third party mediation (as with us). God is the sustaining ground of all possibility. God can foreknow creation’s possibilities by knowing himself. There’s no guess work per se. No unforeseen surprises. No shocks. God doesn’t “learn” truths he was formerly “ignorant” of. My point is, there are ways to articulate a temporal apprehension of the world’s actualities and becoming that don’t assume God is just another temporal item on the inventory of things that have their being temporally.

Providence as God-given desire
Over time I’ve been drawn to aspects of the Orthodox tradition. I’m still in process on a lot of things, but I tend presently to view providence first and fundamentally as the scope of possibilities for created beings established by our God-give, natural desire for the Good. That is, God can know that humanity will reach its end because the dispositional essence of human beings is irreducibly oriented in an appetite for the Good, even if only implicitly (as Hart describes). The same is true of Boyd’s metaphysics in Trinity & Process which we’ve discussed at great length on this site.

We suspect this can be integrated as well with Maximus’ own view of the logoi of created things (minus timeless actus purus of course). The logoi of created things can be viewed as God’s providential governance of creation. Providence, I’m suggesting, is hardwired into our dispositions (grounded in our logoi as divine subjective aims) by virtue of their aesthetic orientation. We may have freedom to contradict our telos on occasion. We do not have freedom to redefine our telos or dispose ourselves out of all possibility of achieving it. Ultimately, that’s the providence that matters, because it means nothing God creates and invites into union with himself can possibly find a permanent end anywhere else. There are no other teloi (ends) which created beings can land in irrevocably. That’s providence enough to guarantee the final end of things.

And as far as we may stray from God’s good intentions for us (from our logoi) we nevertheless remain in God, grounded in the inescapable gravity which both grants us a measure of say-so and defines itself into all our options. As David Bentley Hart says (“Providence and Causality: On Divine Innocence”), “Nothing the creature does exceeds those potentialities God has created….” We may contradict our dispositional essences on occasions or for a season. That essence is just the God-defined limits of desire which, like magnetic north, attract all things toward it—not with irresistibly Calvinistic force, but as the inescapable truth of our ground. True, there is more to discuss about God’s action within the world to prevent or bring about specific outcomes and that’s to be conceived alongside creaturely agency. For now, however, we thought the question of ultimate ends might provide a way to back into the question of more immediate actions.

(Picture here.)

It’s that time again

god-in-time-3-001Tait’s series on Greg and Fr Aidan’s recent post prompted some thoughts on God and time. I can’t think of a more mind-bending and frustrating topic. My thoughts are entirely those of a novice. I am neither professional philosopher nor professional theologian, but here are my musings nevertheless. I’ll present these in the form of conclusions, though there is reasoning behind them, much of it discussed on our blog over the past three years. But for brevity’s sake I’d like to offer them as is.

Let’s start with something non-controversial: God is uncreated and as such exists necessarily. By necessary I don’t mean that God’s existing is the ‘product of necessity’ or even that God ‘fulfills’ or ‘conforms to’ some metaphysical principle of necessity that ‘prescribes’ existence for God. I simply mean God is self-existent. He did not come into existence, cannot fail to exist, and alone is that without which nothing else would exist.

If God were temporal (in some sense—not speculating right now), what might that not mean? Well, God would certainly be unlike created-temporal beings in that God wouldn’t suffer the ravages of time as we do. God would not age or forget. In addition, we’ve argued here that God cannot suffer ‘existential loss’ in the sense of pining for the good of some ‘past’ experience or, for that matter, with respect to some future good. Why not? Because “every good and perfect gift comes from God.” Whatever past goods there may be to God (on the assumption the creation’s past is past in some sense for God as well), God remains the goodness they were, and whatever good is to be redeemed for the created bearer of such goodness, God is always already the source and fullness of it. Hence, there can be no loss of experienced goodness for him whose necessary life is the fullness of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In short, the passage of time (assuming for the moment some such passage for God) could mean nothing to the existential fullness or beatitude of God’s being. Here I don’t mind Boethius’ phrase: “Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life” by which all I would mean is a fullness of life which is not a temporal achievement. That is, I wouldn’t historicize the fullness of God’s triune being as if that fullness is ‘temporally derived’. That just seems to follow from necessary existence.

I also don’t see how God could relate to time (as we must) as an ontological presupposition for his existence. Indeed, I don’t see how in the case of necessary existence there can be any ontological presuppositions at all. God’s existence doesn’t require time as we do. God is the presupposition for all else. So I’m happy to say God transcends time in this sense.

I don’t know this with any certainty, but I suspect that if just this much were contemplatively engaged by open theists, they might have built more bridges and be enjoying fruitful conversation with folks on the Orthodox side of things. And let me just say that if there’s any desire to employ ‘timeless’ language apophatically to prevent uncritical, crude, or extravagant projections onto God of whatever we find to be the case with our own existence, to encourage us to a greater humility and epistemic reservation—count me in.

That said, however, I disagree that any of this implies that God is actus purus (pure act) in the classical sense, i.e., absolutely void of all potential. Obviously it would rule out the potential of aesthetic or existential improvement achieved or derived temporally. God’s self-constituting beatitude as such is infinite and unsurpassable. But it doesn’t follow so far as I can tell that this implies God cannot be a subject of temporal experience in ways that are not self-constituting (but which are, for example, contingently self-expressive).

How then might we say God is temporal (in a qualified sense that doesn’t hold him to “becoming” in any of the objectionable ways referred to above)? One simple way we might begin thinking of God as temporal would be to consider what it means to say God knows (indeed, God sustains) the distinction between possibility and actuality within creation. How would a God who is pure actuality (in whom there is no potentiality even in states of knowledge) know when something merely possible becomes actual? And wouldn’t knowing things in their temporal becoming at least suggest a temporal knowing? On the assumption that the world’s temporal becoming is real (in an A-Series sense), the distinction between merely possible-Tom and actual-Tom would be objective. Surely an omniscient God would know the difference between the two. But while the former (possible-Tom) can arguably be said to be eternal (as a possibility grounded in and always known by God), the latter cannot be said to be so. Actual-Tom is an irreducibly temporal actuality. How is God’s knowledge ‘that Tom is actual’ eternal? I don’t want to suggest that just because I don’t get it, it can’t be true, but to suggest that contingencies which “become actual” are eternally known to God “as actual” (i.e., God does not “come to know” as they “come to be”) is, as far as I can tell, just self-contradictory. And I further suspect this is not the sort of apophatic mystery that God’s being uncreated and necessary asks us to embrace.

Why cannot God experience changing states of knowledge of contingent events and truths without jeopardizing his self-constituting perfections and fullness? This is not to make God an ‘item’ within the inventory of created things, to uncritically project anthropomorphism onto God or to trap God “within time” (any more than it is to trap God “outside of time” by denying his temporal experience of the world). It is simply to say that the truth of the world’s non-eternal/temporal actualities are known to God in their non-eternal/temporal truth. Things don’t become other than they are just because God is the one knowing them.

(Picture here).

I Have Four Children








I Have Four Children
(Iraq, 2009)

Talker-Healer, Beauty-Maker,
Piano-Player, Earth-Shaker;
Leader, Reconciler,
Etch-a-Sketcher, Praise-Compiler;
Caregiver and Traveler,
Move-Maker, Song-Writer;
Analyzer, Palletizer,
Synthesizer, Equalizer.
Each is a child of mine so able,
It’s their parents who are less than stable!

Once upon a funeral

lazarus-by-anna-cuypersJesus attended funerals. He mourned the death of friends and family just like we do. In John’s Gospel we find Jesus attending the funeral of his close friend Lazarus. Upon hearing Lazarus was sick, Jesus postponed returning to Bethany, and when he finally arrived Lazarus had been dead for several days, survived by his sisters Mary and Martha. I’d like to recall part of the story for you from John 11.19-26:

Many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

What’s astounding here is the claim Jesus makes about himself:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

Think about that for just a moment. Think about what it even means for Jesus to say he is the resurrection and the life. And what an insensitive thing to say at a funeral — unless of course it’s true. Point is, Lazarus isn’t dead. His body lies in the tomb, yes, but ‘he’ is not dead. Why? Because “whoever believes in me lives.”

Martha thinks she understands. “Yes of course,” out spilled her correct doctrine. “He’ll live again at the last day. I learned my catechism. Satisfied?” But Jesus isn’t saying that. He’s saying something far more radical. He’s saying that Lazarus lives now, as he and Martha speak, even though the grave holds his body. And Lazarus lives now because of who and what Jesus now is — resurrection and life in himself.

The resurrection isn’t out there somewhere, an event in the future, as Martha thought. It’s right here, Jesus says. “It’s where I am. It’s who and what I am. Life, real life, indestructible life, is right here, Martha, speaking with you. I am where Lazarus is.”

The life we dream of, the joys we chase, the hopes we sacrifice so much for, the fears and pain we medicate with drink or success or religion, all the pleasures and fulfillment and assurance we try to squeeze out of the few moments we have in this fleeting thing we call a lifetime — that life isn’t out there in our future, Jesus says (I must use the present tense to honor his meaning). Nor are those dreams fulfilled in what we think fulfill them. Those moments, those achievements, the good times, the parties, the friendships and pleasures we pursue — “All of it,” Jesus says, “is standing right here in front of you. I am what you’re dreaming of. I am that pleasure you’re chasing. I am the success you seek. I am the fulfillment you long for. I am the refuge you’re searching for. I am the resurrection and the life.”

The implication of Christ’s words will kick your kenotic rear-end, because the person of Christ, the Son, is presently responsible for Lazarus’s living, his existing, while his body lay in the tomb. What actively sustains all those who believe in Christ though their bodies lie in the grave isn’t a Star Wars ‘Force’ or metaphysical principle or eschatological event. It is the Son. Christ — not the grave — is where Lazarus is.

Just let it simmer.

(Lazarus by Anna Cuypers here.)

Open theism not essentially essentialist

barthcigarAn offline conversation took me back to check out our earlier response to McCormack’s essay on open theism. Thought I’d repost the links to annoy you all.

McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 1 (Summary of McCormack’s essay)

McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 2 (Response to McCormack’s arguments)

McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 3 (Actualisism doesn’t preclude the open view)

(Picture here.)

God at War in Ithilien, Part 3

angel_of_entropy_by_jflaxman-d6iz278My thoughts here aren’t directly related to comments Tait makes in his series on Greg’s warfare worldview though I’m posting them underneath our series interacting with Tait’s review of Greg’s proposal because they have to do with Greg’s view. We’ll have some closing thoughts to make with respect to Tait’s series in a subsequent post.

Just today Greg posted an abbreviated version of a longer 2008 essay. There’s a lot to the essay, but I’d like here just to respond the following comments from it:

“A fourth possibility is the one I at present find most plausible. In his book Genesis Unbound (Multnomah, 1996) John Sailhamer presents a compelling interpretation of Genesis 1 that sees it as a historical narrative (viz. not mythic poetry) but that is nevertheless compatible with the standard scientific understanding that nature was full of violence and suffering for millions of years before humans arrived on the scene.

“To put the matter succinctly, Sailhamer argues that when people read the Genesis account as though it were an account of creation as a whole, they are reading the account anachronistically. When ancient people thought of the earth (eretz), they thought of the land they knew or of a particular parcel of land that was under consideration. They had no concept of the earth as a planet. Sailhammer further argues that the various things that are formed over six days of creation (light, sun, stars, vegetation, etc.) are spoken of phenomenologically – that is, from the perspective of one situated in this land. And it is the finished production of this specific land– not the whole of the cosmos –that is declared “good” by God. [Interestingly enough, a number of earlier conservative Bible commentators, such as Merill Unger, held this view].

“If this interpretation is accepted, we should see Eden as a newly formed beachhead of God’s rule on an otherwise corrupted planet. God populated Eden with newly created, non-carnivorous animals (Gen. 1:31) that reflect his creational ideal of non-violence. As his intended viceroys, he put humans in charge, commanding them to guard (samar) the garden (Gen. 2:15) and subdue (kabas) the earth. The goal was to gradually advance their rule by overcoming forces of evil and restoring creation. Our commission was, and yet is, to carry out God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). When the earliest humans rebelled, however, they opened the floodgates of demonic forces into Eden and it quickly became part of the corrupted creation. On this interpretation, this is what Paul refers to when he says sin and death entered the world (eretiz) through Adam.”

At this point I’m just thinking out loud to voice questions and problems I have with this:

(1) Greg holds to an evolutionary view of human origins. Given this much, he knows there is no single, historical pair Adam and Eve. The evolutionary origins of our race mean things are a bit more spread out (geographically and temporally). So the creation of human beings can’t be viewed as insulated from its violent/fallen context in a way that his proposal seems to ask us to imagine. So it’s difficult to see how this “beachhead” gets fashioned by God within and materially continuous with the fallen, infected world.

(2) Is not God in Greg’s (via Sailhamer) view as clumsy and bumbling a fashioner of the world and its creative capacities as is God in the views Greg levels this same criticism against? Eons of violent, predatory flesh-eating animals are a clumsy and unbenevolent way to go about it, but quarantining Adam and Eve and some non-violent animals in a garden in the midst of a violent planet confronting a cosmic intelligence of unspeakable powers who, in spite of the quarantined safety of the beachhead, has full access to Adam and Eve—this is not clumsy and inefficient? We’re supposed to believe that two pre-modern human beings in a garden in Mesopotamia had a fighting chance against a cosmic warring intelligence whose powers shape matter?

(3) Exactly how were human beings without powers at all equal to Satan’s supposed to subdue Satan’s powers and reverse its effects outside the garden? Just grow the garden? Expand the garden outwards into the violence and death that surrounded while always remaining within the protection of the garden? By what means, seeing that human beings don’t possess the power to “affect matter” on a molecular or quantum level in an abiding and permanent way as Satan supposedly does?

Consider the nature of Satan’s powers on Greg’s view. They extend to the molecular and even sub-atomic world. The 2nd law of thermodynamics itself is Satan’s work. He has the power to pervert nature’s God-given capacities for creative becoming on an evolutionary scale. Humans have only very recently discovered the molecular world and DNA, and even now our genetically modified organisms and cross-bred animal species don’t have the inherent power to procreate their changes naturally to the next generation. Exactly how were Adam and Eve and their children to arrest and subdue the decaying effects of Satan’s misused powers without equal or greater powers? By what natural endowments does Greg suppose human beings had the power to reverse entropy?

(4) Is there not an internal contradiction within Greg’s own premises? Consider—Satan was originally contracted to be CEO of all matter. And this covenant is inviolable (presumably) until the eschaton. And per Greg’s arguments, Satan’s contract extends to all matter, not just planet Earth. That’s how (Rom 8) “all creation” falls into decay and death with Satan when he falls. The problem here emerges in supposing God then refashions part of this fallen created order to exclude everything violent and all death and entropy into which he places Adam and Eve. On what contractual grounds did God wrest matter from Satan—the same matter whose maintenance God gave Satan in a covenant not even God can rescind before the end? And if God can refashion matter to its original goodness (i.e., void of violence, death, disease, decay and even free from the 2nd law of thermodynamics) without violating his covenant with Satan, then that covenant obviously has some major loopholes. God may intervene and restore matter, as he does in Genesis 1-2. But in that case the whole value of Greg’s proposal for theodicy (and theodicy is what this is all about) fails. Why not a bigger garden? Why not quarantine Satan (death, decay, etc.) and give humanity the main lot to work with? At least even the odds. There are conceivable scenarios that render Greg’s proposal implausible without having to abandon freedom and responsibility to embrace the Blueprint worldview.

(5) Lastly, the whole notion of an original blissful state which it was our job to ‘return to’ and which redemption ultimately ‘restores’ is, I think, a mistaken starting point. Creation was from the get-go not what it was intended to finally become. Our original primeval goodness was supposed to go somewhere, to become something. Our destiny, apart from sin and evil, was always in our future and always dependent upon the ultimate incarnation of the Creator. If creation is for incarnation, as we’ve argued, then only the Incarnate One could both be and fulfill creation’s telos. This rather weakens the appeal of Greg’s proposal which asks us to imagine human beings in their natural state endowed with inherent powers capable of healing the world and fulfilling it but falling into incompetency. On the contrary, even apart from our being sinful, we’ve always been a part of the world needing to be fulfilled.

There’s more to discuss, but we’ll have to leave it there for now.

(Angel of Entropy by jflaxman)