Death and Desire, Part 1

I think about death a lot. I contemplate my death intentionally pretty much every day. I drop what I’m doing, silence the clamor of responsibilities and the pressing demands of life, and stare at the inevitability of my own death square in its cold dead face. It’s an exercise with me. You’ll find me regularly, at some point in my day, sitting quietly and alone suspended over the Void.

The Void is our non-existence. It’s the thing we humans fear the most. Actually it’s our only fear, a fear implicit in every other fear, dressed now as anger, then as anxiety, now as some phobia or then as fear of failure or rejection. St. Paul and others zero in on this one fear as the root cause of humanity’s existential predicament, the despair implicit in every addiction and dysfunctional pattern of behavior stemming from our inability to make-meaning (I’m thinking of Marilyn McCord Adams) in the face of our mortality.

Stanford Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry Irvin Yalom has written on ‘Death Anxiety’ in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death). He describes this anxiety as the underlying fear behind our psychoses. Some therapists don’t recognize this. They ignore the more fundamental problem (our inability to construct an enduring meaningful experience for ourselves in the face of our mortality) and end up treating symptoms. For the record, Yalom is an atheist, so we won’t agree on the remedy to the problem. But we agree that the fear of death is the root cause of our existential despair and other psychoses.

I’d like to contrast how atheists/materialists and Christian theists (but any theism that viewed divine reality in benevolent terms will do) employ their respective resources to address the problem of death anxiety. Part of my motivation for exploring this is my own interest in death and death rehearsal (as I’ve practiced it for years). Another part of my interest is an ongoing conversation I enjoy with my brilliant daughter who is both atheist existentialist, licensed therapist and Yalom fan.

What is the Christian theist’s answer to the problem of death anxiety? I can summarize it in a single phrase: Death is overcome in Christ’s resurrection and in unending life in him. Consider two brief biblical passages:

Hebrews 2.14-15: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

1 Corinthians 15.51-54: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.”

In the end, the assurance of an enduring meaningful existence in the risen Christ is the Christian theist’s answer to death anxiety. St. Paul goes so far as to argue that if there is no resurrection, Christians are most grievously to be pitted. Why does death not enslave us in fear and empower all manner of psychoses? Because the power of death is just the threat it poses to our desire for enduring existence, and in Christ (for those who perceive it) this threat is disarmed. Hence, Christ grounds our confidence in our own enduring personal existence. What’s the logic of this consolation? Simply this—that who the risen Christ is is on the inside of who I am. And we can express the same reality conversely: Who I am is on the inside of who the risen Christ is. As St. Paul said, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)

How might a materialist advise someone struggling with death anxiety? To begin with, materialism can offer no hope of enduring personal existence. When we die, we’re gone. We cease to ‘be’. That is the materialist eschatology. This fact gives rise to our death anxiety. What might the materialist offer to remedy this dread?

One possible approach would be to convince us to dismiss death anxiety as irrational, i.e., a fear not based in any real threat to our meaning or existence. But this is not possible on materialist grounds. Death is a real, not an imagined, threat to our meaning and existence. So there’s no dismissing death anxiety as irrational on materialist grounds.

But a materialist might suggest (as some have to me) that we reform desire, namely reform the desire that empowers death anxiety in the first place, viz., the desire for permanence. The answer to death anxiety is to teach ourselves not to desire more than this life can offer. On what basis would we accomplish this? It is accomplished by exposing the desire for permanence as a survival mechanism required by pre-modern, less evolved unenlightened minds. In our distant past, our survival depended upon crude technologies that exposed us to greater risks (say, when hunting), the desire for permanence grounded a fear of dying sufficient to motivate our taking the needed risks to survive. But this same desire today is irrational in light of the technological advances of modern, enlightened society. Death anxiety is the left over residue in our pre-modern, less evolved brains. But today we have it in our power to dispel the fear associated with our more animalistic selves and to not be threatened by the truth that this life is all we have.

A third materialist strategy recognizes something legitimate about the desire to endure beyond our own deaths, and so it offers (as Yalom does) the present consolation to be had from the knowledge that our lives will in fact endure in their effects, what Yolam calls ‘rippling’. Our contributions to the lives of those who survive us and their difference to the world (however large or small) is sufficient to assuage any anxiety we might feel over the inevitability of our non-existence. We may not personally endure in any subjective sense, but we shall endure objectively in the minds of loved ones and in the significance of the contributions which our having lived made to the world. On a materialist view, this is all we have, but it’s sufficient grounds upon which to live a fulfilled existence free from the fear of death as the experience of many a materialist testifies.

This may seem bold, but I think we must dismiss this third materialist strategy. Why? For the simple reason that cosmically speaking, the entire universe (all our enduring effects included) has a life expectancy as well. It all ends in a big freeze or heat death. But it ends all the same. To suggest that death anxiety can be alleviated by contemplating the abiding effects of our having lived in the lives of those who survive us is just to ignore the material (no pun intended) point. Those effects die just the same as we do. The consolation in this case is utterly vacuous. It does nothing to relieve our fear of death to know that our memory will endure for a few generations before eventually dying the same death we die.

This leaves us with what seems to me to be the only consistent materialist strategy for dealing with death anxiety—abandon the desire for permanence which is the root cause of death anxiety to begin with.

I’ll leave it there for now.

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Toward a theology of violence

I’m just thinking out loud here. I don’t have many certainties on this subject apart from God being the summum bonum (the highest good) and our being in God to be our highest good and final/proper end. I define violence completely in those terms. I hope these scattered thoughts will explain why. I invite comments and insights.

1) The first and most fundamental conviction of ours is God as summum bonum: the highest good from which all goods derive, the first truth presupposed in all truths, the truest beauty which all things reflect in different degrees, and the worth and delight toward which all desire tends.

We think this the only basis upon which to view violence (or anything else for that matter). For us, violence is defined in light of God’s as summum bonum, as ontological peace, a peace no violence can negate or falsify, whose existence is its fullest reality, not achieved within any history of violence or becoming. God as summum bonum is the truly non-violent beginning and end of all things.

2) What is violence? Condemnations of it abound. Definitions of a theological nature are more scarce. Consider the following:

First, violence cannot simply be equated with causing physical or psychological pain or discomfort. If I amputate a man’s leg without anesthesia, am I doing him violence? Not if his leg is gangrenous and we’re in a remote location. In this case not to amputate would be to do him violence. We can easily change the circumstances of such an action to make it an obvious act of violence. And the same distinction applies to psychological pain/discomfort.

Second, violence cannot simply be equated as coercive action. The above example holds regardless of the man’s willing cooperation. He may be unwilling to have his leg amputated. Similarly, a person threatening suicide may not wish to be pulled from the ledge against her will, but surely it is no violence to violate her preference in this case. Violating the will of another cannot by itself constitute a violent act.

Third, at the very least violence entails “ill-will” or “the will to harm.” But what sort of harm constitutes violence? Some understanding of the ‘end’ or ‘good’ against which an action is measured is implicit in the notion of harm as violence. We only harm others with respect to this ‘good’, a ‘good’ that is assumed and operative even if not consciously examined.

Fourth, ‘good’ and ‘well-being’ as defined by whom? What constitutes the good, then, which functions as the ‘end’ or ‘measure’ against which actions may be considered violent? As noted above, it cannot be the desires or preferences of the person who is the object of some action. The man may not want his leg amputated. A child may demand a diet exclusively comprised of sugar. And so they may falsely view amputation or having to eat vegetables as a violation of their ‘good’ and thus as acts of violence against them. But surely the parent does violence to a child by indulging his/her preferences. Violence cannot be equated in any simplistic way with violating the desires or preferences of another.

What about the end desired or intended by the subject of some act? Is the subject an infallible guide to that good which defines violence? This too is unlikely. If the receiver of some action may falsely perceive her own ‘good’ (previous paragraph), so also may the doer/subject of some action falsely perceive the good of another for whose sake he believes himself to be acting. This makes knowing the precise form of the good in many circumstances a complex and frustrating affair. But – and this is crucial – it does imply some transcendent good, some good against which personal preferences are themselves measured. Hence, violence is as relative as the morality informing the perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ used to define actions as violent or not. To the extent morality is relative to individual perceptions and tastes, violence is equally relative. Point is: Violence is (at least) a perspective on behavior viewed relative to one’s understanding of some desired good. And as stated above, not all violations of the desires of others constitute violence against them. Hence, some transcendent good has to be assumed for it to be the case that violence even exists (even if no individual can claim to have an infallible perspective on that good), for…

…the very notion of violence against another presumes a relation between subject and object that is embraced by a good not itself reducible to the perspective of either but by which they are embraced. And this transcendent good must embrace all that exists since all that exists is related* and implicated in the actions of all its parts.

3) Can God as transcendent good and proper end of all created being be known infallibly? Perhaps not. But some understanding of ‘the Good’ as transcendent and universally available must be assumed before any notion of violence and well-being can consistently be employed.

4) Christ is the incarnation of the transcendent good and proper end of all things.

5) Christ did no real violence to anyone. He always willed God (and, indeed, himself) as the highest good and proper end of all persons and all things. But given our opening observations, this did not mean he always sought to maximize the physical or psychological comfort of others.

6) Violence is born in a failure to see one’s self in the other and the other in one’s self (Cain’s first error) and then in the failure to ground one’s own value in that which grounds the value of the other. Hence, all violence begins with a failure to embrace a transcendent good that embraces all things but is not reducible to the perspective of any one thing. Every individual’s value is an equal share in the value of the entire universe. This unity in the shared (transcendent) good grounds all values and is itself the presupposition of true empathy. It is the “as” which unites ‘self’ and ‘other’ in every version of the Golden Rule that directs us to do unto others “as” we would have them to unto us. Willing violence, we might then say, is willing something other than God (or whatever name one gives to the transcendent Good that grounds all beings) as another’s end. Doing violence would be to seek to bring another to some end other than his/her fullness in this Good.

7) Whole vs Part | Individual vs Communal.

First, might there be cases when the truest/ultimate good of the one is in conflict with the truest/ultimate good of the whole? We think not. For no individual’s good in God can be threatened by another individual’s good in God or by a community’s shared/experienced good in God. God would not be the transcendent summum bonum if the ‘good in God’ of any one was threatened by the ‘good in God’ of any other(s).

Second, what may be are cases in which the physical or psychological comfort/discomfort of one is temporarily jeopardized by their own good or the good of another. Violence can only be conceived as failing to intend another’s good in God, but this good cannot be collapsed into the other’s material or psychological comfort or pleasure.

Third, since God as summum bonum alone is the highest good of all things, no human being can stand between a person (even one’s own self) and his/her ultimate good in God. That is, no human being can do ultimate violence to another since it cannot lie within the powers of any person to determine another person’s ultimate relationship to God. All violence within this world can be viewed in terms of its limited, finite consequences. All violence is constrained by fundamental metaphysics. God’s being the ground of all things and the highest good and final end of human beings insures human beings have only limited, temporary influence over how others come to see themselves as grounded in God as their highest good and truest end.

8) The greatest violence one can do to another, then, is to direct his/her desires toward some good other than God. The second greatest violence is to foster in another the belief that one’s good in God is equivalent to one’s material/psychological comfort in this world. (Some failure to appreciate this seems to us to be behind Greg Boyd’s work with respect to non-violence. It seems to us that Greg often conflates our “good” with our “present comfort” and only then defines violence accordingly.)

9) Causing another physical and psychological pain may or may not be consistent with willing that person’s highest good in God and directing their desires and affections toward God. How might this influence how we approach more benign examples (i.e., non-genocidal OT texts) of violence in the NT? Take two common examples: Ananias & Sapphira’s deaths in Acts 5 and the blinding of Elymas in Acts 13. (Greg Boyd, for example, suggests that Peter and Paul each retain a power to bring such judgments to pass as unloving, violent alternatives to God’s love. God, being love, would not, indeed, could not, bring about a person’s blindness or take someone’s life from them. Indeed, Greg holds that God was doing all God could do given the constraints of creaturely agency to convince Peter and Paul not to pronounce these judgments since they are violent. We have to say, for example, that Peter was simply guilty of murder. But both Peter and Paul were operating either within their own inherent spiritual capacities independently of God or were empowered by malevolent spiritual/demonic forces.)

But must a ‘divine ontology of peace’ or ‘willing another’s participation in God as his/her highest good’ (i.e., ‘loving’ another) require us to dissociate God as empowering the death and blindness that occur in these examples? Does willing the highest good of Ananias and Sapphira preclude their deaths as compatible with their highest good? Does willing the highest good of Elymas preclude rendering him blind? I don’t see why we must answer ‘yes’ in these cases (as the above points show).

10) Divine intention and the accomplishing of divine judgment. Granting the compatibility of divine judgment (as in the examples above) accomplished by divine agency, it doesn’t follow that that every instance of death, plague or genocide attributed to God in the Bible is in fact accomplished by God. But neither does it mean God is directly behind none of any of the instances of judgement attributed to him in the Bible.

11) Lastly, and more pastoral, what relationship might there be between God experienced as summum bonum and the enduring of violence? Can there be a peace which is infinite regard for the other, a place of participation in the immeasurable peace of God as the summum bonum, where all measurable losses are comparably meaningless? (Rom 8) What would this have to do with overcoming violence?


* That ‘everything is related’ (or ‘all things are connected’) is not much doubted today, whether in material or metaphysical terms. Thomas Traherne’s line comes to mind: “He who plucks a flower disturbs the farthest start.” 

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Creatio ex nihilo

“Creation out of nothing.” I love this doctrine and I think the hope of the gospel requires it, for the gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But, as we’ve argued here a lot, you only get that kind of absolute gratuity (and grace) if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. So far so good.

But we also think this is true only because the corresponding divine fullness is a concrete, lived, experienced fullness, an existential fullness (to use what words we have). That is, what grounds creation’s gratuity is what God actually is apart from creation (or any determination to create). But such an actuality is ruled out by Protestants and classical theists for whom God isn’t actually anything apart from creating because there is no actual God who has not determined to create. On the Orthodox side this is gotten at by viewing God as absolutely, timelessly immutable (in terms of God’s being actus purus or ‘pure act’). But in this case the freedom and fullness of God’s life independent of creation (which actual freedom ought to ground creation’s own freedom) reduces to mere abstraction. And that’s the problem, because no abstraction has the power to save. On the Protestant side this is gotten at (variously by Jenson or some readings of Barth’s actualism) by barring the door to speculating what God is or isn’t independent of his determination to create.

In making God absolutely timeless and immutable, everything that is ever true of God in relationship to creation is timelessly/eternally true of God, and everything God ever experiences in relationship to creation is timelessly/eternally known to (and thus experienced by) God, in which case God has no experience of himself that doesn’t include us (via his determination to create). For us this poses a real problem, because it forces us (to borrow a phrase from Robert Jenson, though not to engage his related arguments for the same conclusion) to “perform an abstraction upon the living/biblical God.” Jenson doesn’t perform the abstraction. For us, however, the grace of the gospel just is the concrete, lived/experienced fullness of God’s triune being as God, and this grace (in turn) is grounded in the gratuity of creation, which is what CEN is about. But this life is never an actuality for God classically understood, nor as understood by many Protestants who reject classical metaphysics, because in either case God never knows himself without knowing himself as the God determined to create. God has no knowledge of himself, no actual experience of himself as God, in terms of any concrete freedom from the determination to create (which determination is one and the same with creation’s ‘actual being’). In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from being determined to create us. And what he is not he cannot offer.

One last thought. David Hart (representing the Orthodox tradition) rejects understanding God’s freedom from creation in any crude libertarian manner, conceived as God being free to choose from among a menu of “possible words” given to him. But whatever crudeness needs to be avoided can be avoided without depriving God’s self-sufficient fullness of its actuality as ground of the gratuity of creation and the grace of the gospel. If we need to, let’s not suppose there to be an infinite number of ‘possible worlds’ that God deliberates over to finally settle on this world. Let this world, or the initial created state from which this world evolves, be the only contingent creation conceivable. Fine. Just conceive this one possibility as contingent, grounded in the fullness of God’s life as actual apart from any determination to create. This is no abstraction performed upon the living God. It is the truth of God’s actual freedom and our freedom in God.

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Who wrote 1 Corinthians 13?

Start with 2 Corinthians 5.17. Who’s been in the faith very long and doesn’t know it?

“Therefore, if any person is in Christ, she is a new creation.
The old has gone, the new has come.”

You might rush to the words “new creation” or the famous Pauline phrase “in Christ” and begin to contemplate the deep realities that lie behind them. I’m captivated on the other hand by what reality must lie behind the small and seemingly insignificant word “any.” Who really notices it, that little three-letter word? And yet it contains the entire gospel. Anybody — Jew, Greek, Roman, Barbarian, man or woman, Republican or Democrat, Evangelical, Muslim or Pagan. If you come to be in Christ, then you’re something today you were not yesterday — a new creation.

This goes for people who typically don’t even make it on our radar of candidates for change. I traveled for more than twenty years speaking in churches about the Middle East and still today recall the surprise and sometimes astonishment on the faces of American Christians when they heard I lived among Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims, Lebanese, whatever. I could see the red flags go up. To most these words all refer to the same violent images they see on the evening news. And those images shape peoples’ feelings and beliefs about whole people groups and cultures. What people most often thought about when they heard the word “Arab” or “Palestinian” or “Muslim” were violent images portraying teens dressed in army fatigues carrying guns, beheadings, kidnappings, and the list goes on. Of course, similar violent images can be retrieved from non-Muslim lands and developed western cultures too.

Who can deny the horror of today’s violence in the Middle East? But I could argue there’s a pace-loving Middle East most know nothing about and which doesn’t make the evening news. But let’s just go with the violent stereotypes since that’s what has so many western Christians concerned or paralyzed with fear. I know. They’ve sat in my office confessing it. But it’s our gospel we pretend to believe in. So do we? Do we believe “any” person — no matter their criminal involvement or intentions, history of violence or perversion, can be recreated in Christ? It might be helpful to ask ourselves why Paul believed that. After all, his Jewish cultural/religious affiliation drew a hard line between Jews and everybody else in the world. The entire world was a single thing, namely, not what they were. But here is Paul basically dismissing the distinctions he grew up with. Of course, he admits that he was only able to dismiss those distinctions as irrelevant “in Christ.” Why?

I’d like to suggest that it was because of v. 16 of 2 Cor 5. The real treasure isn’t in v. 17. It’s in v. 16, where Paul says:

“We regard no one from a worldly point of view.
Although we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.”

Only then does Paul in v. 17 say, “Therefore, if any man….” It’s v. 16. It’s what you see when you see people. What’s it mean to regard someone “from a worldly point of view” (lit, “according to the flesh”)? It means evaluating people according to the customary distinctions that divide us, even ascribing them worth on the basis of their skin color, their gender, their sexual orientation, their political affiliation, their religious and cultural heritage, their economic status, etc. To “regard someone form a worldly point of view” is to define and ground their worth, significance and relevance in terms of such distinctions, to reduce the person to them, to say there are just the sum total of these distinctions and so fail to see what there is about us that transcends these distinctions, unites us all and gives us value.

St. Paul used to see people that way. In fact, he used to see Christ that way. He once saw Christ as a threat to Judaism, to his faith, a threat that had to be silenced. And so Paul became the early Church’s Osama bin Laden, the one person they knew hated them with a passion and who was committed (and indeed, Paul was) to wiping them off the face of the earth. He sought them out, stood approvingly over their stoning, and cooperated with religious authorities in hunting Christians down in foreign cities to arrest them. He was, to put it today’s language, a religious fanatic, a card-carrying extremist Jihadist.

When Paul finally came to faith, who believed it? Nobody. God had trouble convincing Ananias to be the first to risk approaching Paul after his conversion experience. Ananias actually reminded God of what a violent not-to-be-trusted sort of Jihadist Paul was. “You know who this guy is, right God?” Nobody could believe he had converted. People like that don’t change. Paul was the Saddam Hussein of the New Testament Church; their Zarqawi, their al-Baghdadi. Barnabas (that wonderful man of grace) finally had to take Paul by the hand, escort him to Jerusalem and introduce him to the Apostles privately to convince them. Only then, when the Apostolic office sent out a mass email to all the Christian churches confirming the genuineness of Paul’s faith, did people open up to the idea.

Even then people had trouble believing that little three-letter word “any.” It’s really a huge word, because it embraces ‘everyone’, excludes ‘nobody’. It’s too generous for some and too risky for others. But Paul knew were he had come from. He once regarded Christ “from a worldly point of view.” But no more. And because he saw Christ differently, he saw in Christ every human being differently.

Can you imagine Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden writing 1 Corinthians 13? “Love is patient, love is kind, is not jealous or boastful or proud,” or “If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, but didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” Can you see one of them writing those words? I have news for you. An Osama bin Laden did write those words. That’s the point. Our inability to imagine it is the problem. We have no imagination. And that’s exactly what Christ unlocks and unleashes — our imaginations:

“Anyone in Christ is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

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Bulgakov: Open Orthodoxy?


I ran across a piece on Bulgakov (SJT 58[3] 2005) this week by Orthodox theologian/philosopher Paul Gavrilyuk (here at St. Thomas U in the Twin Cities). I read the paper some time ago and still don’t know how I missed this particular aspect of Bulgakov’s views. Gavrilyuk explores Bulgakov’s very complex kenoticism, not your crude Protestant versions, but what looks to be a kenotic view of the Incarnation nonetheless. However, it’s something Gavrilyuk says unrelated to Bulgakov’s kenoticism that I find interesting (pp 258f). Bulgakov (d. 1944), by the way, was a Russian Orthodox priest/theologian/philosopher. Gavrilyuk writes:

In addition, Bulgakov maintains that God also limits his knowledge of the future in order to enable genuinely free human choices. In his eternal being God is and remains omniscient, knowing himself and all things in eternity in one supratemporal act. This eternal and perfect knowledge must not be confused with foreknowledge. Bulgakov criticises the claim that God knows all things ‘before’ they come to pass for providing a misleading idea of the relationship between eternity and temporality. Eternity, Bulgakov rightly points out, cannot be ‘before’ time in a temporal sense, as the prefix ‘pre’ seems to suggest, but rather eternity is the very foundation of temporality.

God knows all things in eternity and all future possibilities. For example, God foreknew the possibility of the fall, but God did not know that the fall was bound to happen, for this would entail that God caused the fall. God chooses not to know what exactly will come to pass in any temporal sequence ahead of time, because this would entail, Bulgakov believes, a strong doctrine of the divine causation of all things, which in turn would undo human freedom. To put it briefly, God chooses not to know future contingents in order not to determine the future and take away human freedom.

Wanting to find out for myself, I opened up Bulgakov. There are several passages in his chapter “God and Creaturely Freedom” from The Bride of the Lamb. You’ll see the relevant comments in the following passage (pp. 237f):

All this brings us to the central question of God’s omniscience in relation to creaturely freedom and its works. Does God know the works of our freedom “before” they are accomplished on the basis of His omniscience? The question is answered in the affirmative by predestinationism in its various forms…But to say that God knows in advance the works of freedom is a de facto annulment of freedom, its transformation into a subjective illusion. The acceptance of this supposition therefore places all the difficulties of predestination before us…

If God created man in freedom, in His own image, as a son of God and a friend of God, a god according to grace, then the reality of this creation includes his freedom as creative self-determination not only in relation to the world but also in relation to God. To admit the contrary would be to introduce a contradiction in God, who would then be considered as having posited only a fictitious, illusory freedom. And then one would inevitably have to accept Calvin’s conclusion that man fell not freely but because God desired it, for only God’s will and freedom exist. In other words, God could not or did not wish to create creaturely freedom or, more precisely, its subjects or bearers who presuppose it. Therefore, to unite creaturely freedom with divine omniscience, one must say not that God foresaw and therefore predestined the fall of man (a statement that is something encountered in handbooks of dogma) but that God, knowing His creation with all the possibilities contained therein, knows also the possibility of the fall, which, however, did not have to occur and can occur only by human freedom. Otherwise, the contrary assertion of Calvinism would be right…

Let us repeat, all the possibilities of creaturely being, having their roots in the Creator’s knowledge, are open to this knowledge, since they belong to the world created by Him and are included in this world’s composition, not only in the form of “integral wisdom” but also in the form of a distributed multiplicity. In this sense, creation – in both the spiritual and the human world – cannot bring anything ontologically new into this world; it cannot surprise or enrich the Creator Himself. But the very choice and creative actualization of these possibilities, that is, the domain of modal freedom, remain entrusted to creation and to this extent are its creative contribution. Although creation cannot be absolutely unexpected and new for God in the ontological sense, nevertheless in empirical (“contingent”) being, it represents a new manifestation for God Himself, who is waiting to see whether man will open or not open the doors of his heart. God Himself will know this only when it happens.

The synergism here is a mutual self-determination that has an element of novelty, actualized in different modes for the two sides in the interaction. The ways of the world are therefore not predetermined as a single causal connection in which there is no place for contingent causes…On the contrary, the determination of creaturely freedom must be understood according to a series of infinite variations, actually as non determinatum ad unum, but with these variations remaining subordinate to one plan, to one ontological possibility, multiply actualized. To creaturely freedom it is given to participate in the destinies of all of creation and, first of all, in the proper ways of man. If, in God’s eternity, the world’s being is uniquely and totally determined, on the contrary, we have the incompleteness, the under-determinedness, the still-continuing self-determination of the world. Veiling His face, God remains ignorant of the actions of human freedom. Otherwise, these actions would not have their own reality, but would only be a function of a certain divine mechanism of things. (Bold emphasis mine.)

There is more. For example, Bulgakov addresses the question of prophetic prevision and the conditional nature of prophetic fulfillment, appealing to Jer. 18.7-10; 26. 3, 13 in precisely the way open theists have; that is, the conditionality described in Jer. 18 entails divine epistemic openness with respect to future contingencies. In objecting to his Sophiology, Lossky and others (so I’m told) commented on Bulgakov’s position regarding divine foreknowledge as well, which leads me to believe I’m not misunderstanding him here. He makes the same core claim as the open view makes: divine epistemic openness with regard to future contingents. He seems to believe this by supposing God ‘chooses not to know future contingents’, which itself is a contradiction of the indeterminate, unformed nature of the future which Bulgakov insists upon earlier in the passage. But that aside, I thought it interesting to see the open view advocated by an Orthodox theologian.

On a mission from God


This month OpenOrthodoxy turns two. Happy birthday to us. Thank you Dwayne for staying on this journey. Thank you readers here and there for following and chiming in from time to time. Thank you Jesus for your relentless love and unyielding embrace that will never let us go.

We’ll leave you with a favorite quote:

“The gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But you only get that kind of absolute gratuity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. And grace that is this gracious, absolutely gracious, is hard because we want to be needed, not just wanted, and the only kind of wanting we know (despairing creatures that we are) is that wanting which is needing to possess what we do not have. That’s how we want. So imagine the existential rush that follows from believing that God wants you this way, i.e., because your existence fulfills him. Your existence can’t mean anything better than that you improve and complete God. And so we weave into our narratives of redemption the fiction that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, or ultimately perfected by our final glorification. But in recognizing God as a delighting love we can neither diminish nor improve, these self-serving narratives are deconstructed and in their place we experience ‘his joy as our strength’ (Neh. 8.10) and come to possess ourselves in ‘an unspeakable and glorious joy’ as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), ‘receiving the salvation of our souls’.”

(Picture by Amy Donkey.)

The violence inheres in us

cain-and-able_1Greg’s ReKnew post on Islam has prompted some conversation on ReKnew’s Facebook page (March 31, 2015). Greg returned to clarify a couple of points:

• Greg makes a distinction between the “religion of Christianity” and the “Kingdom of God.” The former tends to “Christendom.” The latter always looks like Jesus (loves its enemies and never engages in violence). Insofar as Christianity is violent, it has nothing to do with the Kingdom.

• The Quran does advocate violence in certain situations, but so does the Old Testament (and on a much greater and vicious scale). Christians have plausible ways of explaining this. Muslims also have ways of explaining their violent passages. At the very least, the vast majority of Muslims don’t interpret the Quranic injunctions to violence as anything like a general pogrom against the non-violent world.

That said, Greg stands by his claim:

  • If one concludes Islam is inherently violent, he should also conclude Christianity is inherently violent. Neither has anything to do with the Kingdom of God, and both are open to the possibility of violence.

Having spent half my life in the Middle East and talked at length with Muslims about this very question, I’d like to offer several comments to follow up, because as helpful as a few of Greg’s points are, he misses an opportunity to address the more important issue regarding the debate over the question of Islam and violence.

First, if we answer the question “Is religion X inherently violent?” by defining “Christianity” and “Islam” in the way Greg does, then both Christianity and Islam are inherently violent (because both are, as he admits, inherently open to violence). But once you define the “Christianity” in view as “Christendom” and the “Islam” in view as Christendom’s this-worldly Islamic equivalent, Greg’s conclusions follow by definition. This is news? These are not the things we want to compare, because they don’t take us to the heart of the matter. The two faiths Greg describes are just religious versions of an unredeemed and despairing narrative. But besides being true, it’s uninteresting and pretty much irrelevant to what we ought to be exploring in response to the question ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’

Second, if we focus on that version of each of these faiths as taught and embodied authoritatively/normatively by their founders (Jesus and Muhammad) and as lived and embodied by their earliest followers in the formative years of these faiths (which is the comparison people are asking this question of in the first place), then we have a far more interesting conversation than the one Greg is in. In other words, when we ask ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’ we’re not asking about the behavior of Muslims around the world today. We’re asking whether there is something definitive and authoritative about Islam against which we may measure the behavior of Muslims. What is that? For Muslims, it is Muhammad himself, just like for Christians it is Jesus himself (not Christendom).

Third, the violence worth being concerned about here doesn’t inhere in ‘narratives’ or ‘worldviews’ anyhow. That’s the first mistake assumed by the question ‘Is Islam inherently violent?’ Violence gets written into our worldviews by violent human beings. We are what is inherently violent. Our “faiths” or “worldviews” just express who and what we believe ourselves to be. So if I were to say of some worldview that it’s ‘inherently violent’ (which isn’t a phrase I’d default to), all I’d mean is that worldview doesn’t have the resources needed to transform violent human beings on a vast scale. It lets the violence that inheres in us express itself without contradiction to the faith in question. That is where these questions ought to take us.

“Is Islam inherently violent?” ought to be read as:

  • Does the overall worldview of Muhammad—his vision, values and faith as he embodied them and which define Islam normatively—have the resources to transform violent human beings and human society on a vast scale?

The parallel question put to Christians is not the one implied in Greg’s post, namely, Can ‘Christendom’ transform violent human beings on a vast scale? We know the disappointing answer to that. Rather, the question he should ask is the one he isn’t asking in this context, namely:

  • Does the overall worldview of Jesus—his vision, values and faith as he embodied them and which define Christian faith normatively—have the resources to transform violent human beings and human society on a vast scale?

Those are the questions to address, Greg.

Fourth, no faith/worldview is utterly void of resources to address violence on some scale. All faiths say something about being benevolent, non-violent, etc. Some worldviews have more redemptive power than others. Some religious worldviews define their value and vision in terms of addressing violence absolutely. Greg believes the Christian worldview (i.e., Christ’s own worldview in its normative function for Christians) is violence-free in this sense. It perfectly expresses/embodies the Kingdom of God within our fallen world.

Whether or not one thinks Jesus compels an absolutely non-violent ethic for today, it certainly is the case that Jesus’ worldview addresses violence on a scale sufficient to reform/redeem violent human society. It can save the world from its violence without recourse to violence. It offers the world a way to be human that doesn’t require violence to define itself, express itself or defend itself. This cannot be seriously doubted. In spite of what Christians became when they gained political power under Constantine, and latter still in Europe, and in American Christianity’s affair with political power, we know that for centuries Christians by and large (with very few exceptions that only prove the rule) didn’t define themselves or their faith in terms of any recourse to violence whatsoever. In other words, it worked. It actually redeemed violent human beings on a wide scale and did so for centuries.

The questions I’m asking Greg to address, then, are: Can you make the case that Muhammad’s own worldview, as he lived it, addresses violence in a way sufficient to reform/redeem human society on a wide scale? To the extent it fails at this (and I’m not saying it fails absolutely), Islam is inherently violent, that is, it allows the violence that inheres in human beings to express itself without contradiction to Islam. Conversely, Can you make the case that Jesus’ own worldview, as he lived it, addresses violence in a way sufficient to reform/redeem human society on a wide scale? And to the extent Jesus’ worldview/life fails at this, Christianity is inherently violent. My own view is that Christianity thus understood does not allow the violence that inheres in human beings to express itself without contradiction to Christianity.

(Picture here.)