God’s creative options

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Just thinking out loud here. No commitments. Just speculating.

In the immediately preceding post I noted Hart’s criticism of those who imagine God’s choice to create in terms of a deliberation among infinite options. There are some, for example, those of a more analytic bent, who revel in talk of ‘possible worlds’, logical constructs depicting God’s creational ‘options’. Most suppose these to be infinite, since God is infinite. But certainly they’re innumerable. God could have created, say, a world with no sentient beings in it at all. Or he might have created a world populated with beings programmed to do only his bidding, or he might have — and on and on the possibilities go.

I think talk of an infinite number of possible worlds other than this one, possible worlds God deliberated and from which he picked this world to create, is mistaken. I do think there are innumerable possibilities this world faces, possible futures this world’s own inherent dispositions and capacities might or might not realize in time. So talk of possible ways this world can become is certainly meaningful. But other initial states, i.e., a number of other beginnings or fundamentally different original orders, a pre-creational slate of infinite and contrary ‘options’ of which our world was but one? This all seems impossible talk to me now. I think Hart is right. God doesn’t choose from a menu of innumerable possible worlds he deliberates, because there are not an infinite number of worlds God could have created, and certainly no ‘best of all possible worlds’ debate to have in Leibnizian fashion.

I know this is a big claim. So why make it? The main reason to think God either creates this world or none at all lies in an Incarnational metaphysics of participation. Consider non-human (specifically, non-hypostatic or non-personal) creatures and entities. How do they achieve their end or telos in God? How is God “all in all” (1Cor 15.28) in them? Paul taught (Rom 8.22) that all creation groans “waiting for” the children of God to be revealed, that creation is only finally liberated when it is “brought into the freedom and glory” of humankind. Non-hypostatic realities find their telos not immediately in God, but mediately through human beings. That is to say that creation’s perfection is implicated in humanity’s perfection. I take this to be a fundamental metaphysical principle definitive of created being per se. I don’t know how to prove this, but my hunch is that Romans 8 is best understood as describing a kind of mediated teleology: all things other than human beings are implicated in humanity’s perfection, and all humankind is implicated in the perfection of the Incarnate One. This defines the scope of possible worlds because it defines the path of perfection which any creation must take.

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Certainly no creation is conceivable that is not loved. And nothing is loved by God that is not intended for the greatest possible union with God, i.e., that does not have its end in God, its share in and contribution to God’s being “all in all.” For if God is the summum bonum, all possible worlds end in God’s being “all in all.” But none of this is possible apart from Incarnation. That is basically what I wanted to say. God would not create that for which he would not will himself as end, and as no non-hypostatic reality has its end in God immediately but only through implication as an aspect of the hypostatic existence of another (Rom 8), such created hypostatic reality becomes essential to any conceivable creation as the means by which God brings that order in its entirety to fulfillment in himself. Essentially then,

…there’s only one possible creation—Incarnation. Creation and Incarnation are one and the same possibility in God.

God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.

What of Leibniz? We talk of the logic of infinite possible worlds and whether there is a “best of all possible worlds.” But God is the best possible world and whatever God creates has its best possible end in him. When God is viewed as summum bonum defining the end of every world (which must be the case), there can be no one best possible world among an infinite number of possible worlds (if we multiply worlds for the sake of argument) since every candidate possibility has God as its end. And thus,

as the value of anything created ex nihilo derives entirely from God and has its end in God, no world-order God brings into being can be better or worse than any other order God brings to be. Hence, there is no ‘best possible world’. Anything God does is as good as anything else God does.

In the end, there is in fact only one possible world to create—an initial state suitably fitted and sustained for the emergence of sentient-hypostatic/personal life for the sole purpose of Incarnation.

Prayer: Be all in all in me today, Incarnate One. May all I do—my seeing, my thinking, my touching, my speaking be your home.

Motivation for creation

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Nobody emphasizes the doctrine of ‘creation from nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo) more passionately than the Orthodox. However, while exploring this beautiful and frustrating doctrine through reading and in conversation with Orthodox friends, I have moments of confusion about the consistency with which they articulate the position.

One of the best pieces I read last year was David Bentley Hart’s Notre Dame (July, 2015) paper “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of the creation ex nihilho [sic].” Getting into his introduction, Hart says:

“…while one has to avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after a deliberation among options, one still has to affirm that it’s free; that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent upon the world, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is in the impossibility of any hindrance upon the ability of God’s expression of his goodness.”

Everything but that God is actually free to refrain from creating. I may be nit-picking, sorry. I’ve expressed my concerns over how it is to be consistently maintained that God’s determination to create is both free and an eternal and unchanging aspect of his nature. Today I had one of those moments of confusion while reading Fr Aidan Nichols (Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov, pp. 33f) on Bulgakov’s view of God’s “motivation to create.” Nichols summarizes:

“Bulgakov begins his account by pointing out that the God who creates from nothing does not do so because he needs the world – meaning by that, through some hypostatic or natural necessity to complete himself in thus creating. God does not need the world in order to be the Trinity. He does not need the world in order to be divine. As we have seen, he is already the fullness of personhood by being the tri-hypostatic God who in his existence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit exhausts all the modes of personhood there are – I, thou, he, we, you. And in his divine nature he is already plenitude, than which nothing greater is possible. No, the world issues from God’s creative freedom.”

So far so good. Nichols continues:

“This said, however, Bulgakov is very keen to emphasize that the world’s creation was in no sense an arbitrary act, the result of a vast divine caprice. The creation is not just a manifestation of God’s power. He calls such an idea blasphemous, an impiety. And the reason is that the God who in no ordinary sense needed the world still in his love longed for it, desired to bring it about from nothing. Here the love of God is the key.”

Not arbitrary. Not the result of caprice. Not just a manifestation of power. No complaint here. Even “longed for and desired,” yes. At this point, however, a slight transition is made to a more positive articulation of God’s motivation to create. Nichol’s quotes Bulgakov (Lamb of God) directly:

“God is love and it is the property of love to love, and to enlarge oneself by love. It is proper to the divine love not only to realise itself within the limits of divinity but to overflow those limits … It is proper to the ocean of divine love to spread beyond its shores….”

This becomes for Bulgakov the motivation in God for creation, that which makes it not arbitrary. The problem, of course, is that God’s being “free” in creating presumably means that it is as proper for God not to create as it is proper that he create. So arguing for a divine motivation to create from its being proper to God’s loving nature is problematic. Otherwise we are in the very difficult position of asserting God’s freedom to do what is not proper to him, i.e., refrain from creating. As it stands, the Bulgakov quote could be construed in Process terms, which I’m guessing the Orthodox don’t want to do. And while it is indeed “the property of love to love,” Bulgakov has already insisted that all the ‘proper’ modes of love are fulfilled in the plenitude of the divine relations. So in grounding God’s creating over not creating in what is proper to his nature as love, Bulgakov implicitly renders the notion of God’s not creating improper, and that’s a problem.

I’m coming to see the Orthodox position on God’s “freedom from creation” as God’s freedom merely from any external constraint of necessity preventing God from doing what God wants. But this is perfectly consistent with a Process view of God and creation as necessarily related where the necessity is construed as the inherent necessity of God’s being as love and not as an outward compulsion. Tom Oord claims that much. But surely the Orthodox want to say something more about God that Process theologians would disagree with, namely, that God’s freedom is a freedom from an internal disposition or orientation of nature that makes creating any more proper than not creating.

But the passage isn’t done. Immediately after the above quote from Bulgakov, Nichols continues:

“Granted the possibility of creation, the divine love by its own inner character must take up that possibility. God’s ‘insatiable’ love moves him to go out of himself, to love elsewhere than himself, to love beyond himself, in the world. So there is a sense in which God ‘had to’ create, after all. But this is an altogether sui generis kind of necessity and freedom.” (emphasis mine)

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Sui generis. It’s hard to argue against someone’s position when what they say about God appeals for its intelligibility to the terms applying sui generis. I suppose one could push back here and posit the sort of libertarian choice Hart feels is a “pathetic anthropomorphism” and then save the notion by qualifying it as a sui generis kind of libertarianism, a sui generis kind of deliberation, a sui generis kind of power to the contrary, etc.

Let me finish with Nichols’ summary of Bulgakov at this point:

“The ‘necessity’ of love is really, writes Bulgakov, a ‘fusion of necessity and freedom’. The Absolute need have no relations. But in fact as we know from revelation, the Absolute is God. And God can only be understood not in himself alone, but in his relation with the world as well. If God were simply the Absolute all our theology would be negative theology, saying what God is not. But God is not just the Absolute. He is God, related by his love to the world. And so our theology can be affirmative theology, saying what God is. God is the Absolute who is also the relative or relational, and this makes him a mystery of whom we can only speak in apparent contradictions, statements with two sides either of which, if pressed to its conclusion, would tend to contradict the other. For Bulgakov the most important of these ‘antinomies’ or seeming contradictions is found in the very statement of what the word ‘God’ means. It means ‘the Absolute existing for another: existing for the world’.”

I’m both inspired and troubled.

Prayer: Needing nothing, you create me. Wanting nothing, you desire me. Full beyond measure, you pursue me. Absolute, you invite me into relationship, that you may be all in all. Be all in all in me today.

The Logic of Assumption

41L7HQI9NJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve mentioned Sarah Coakley’s chapter “Does Kenosis Rest on a Mistake? Three Kenotic Models in Patristic Exegesis?” in Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God (ed. C. Stephen Evans). A second excellent contribution to that volume is Van Driel’s “The Logic of Assumption.” Coakley and Van Driel’s chapters are the two contributions in the volume critical of standard kenotic models. They’re worth the price of the book. Van Driel has his piece uploaded here or you can read and/or download it below as well.

Prayer: Incarnate God of love, thank you for forever uniting our humanity to your divinity. Teach me to live in the healing power of the truth of the union, perfectly and forever fulfilled in the Son.

Abstraction & the normativity of the transcendentals

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If you’re not familiar with Process theology’s categories (in Hartshorne/Whitehead) regarding divine actuality and contingency, you may want to ignore this. But I want to post a few paragraphs from Greg Boyd (paragraphs from Trinity & Process [1994], pp. 211-217, pace Process) on the problem of abstraction in God and then comment at the end:

We earlier criticized Hartshorne’s theology of abstraction on the grounds that it cannot account for the normativity of transcendentals over concrete reality. If, as Hartshorne contends, abstractions are “contained in” the concrete, if they have no abiding reality in any sense independent of the concrete, then, it was argued, they can be descriptive only. They have no prescriptive (and thus explanatory) value whatsoever. They are simply the abstract feature which contingent reality happens to exemplify. But a priori truths, which constitute the highest level of abstraction, cannot be rendered intelligible in this fashion. They prescribe what reality must be, and thus cannot be contingent upon what contingent reality happens to be.

This problem becomes the most acute when we consider Hartshorne’s understanding of God’s abstract character. The problem, in a nutshell, is that there seems to be no way within Hartshorne’s system for rendering intelligible the necessity of God’s character. Character, we have already seen, is for Hartshorne merely the de facto abstract characteristics of the past spontaneity of a nexus of actual occasions. It is nothing in and of itself.

Our argument shall be that without the postulation of a necessary divine actuality, without the supposition that God’s essential actuality is identical with God’s “abstract” character, the a priori necessities which define God’s eternal character are unintelligible.

Whitehead, we believe, saw something which Hartshorne overlooked; he understood that the intelligibility of God’s stable character amidst God’s contingent interaction with the contingent world requires the view that God be, in some degree (at least), antecedently actual. What Hartshorne has understood as God’s “abstract” character, Whitehead took to be “God’s primordial pole.” And in Whitehead’s system, this “pole” is no mere abstraction. God’s subjective aim to be Godself concretely in response to the world is, pace Hartshorne, grounded in something: it is “wholly derivative from [God’s] all-inclusive primordial valuation.” The “perfection of this subjective aim” is not abstracted from the consequent nature of God, but rather issues from “the completeness of [God’s]…primordial nature.”

Unfortunately, however, Whitehead largely takes back with one hand what he gave with the other when he describes this primordial nature as being “actually deficient” and “unconscious.” For now the nature of God’s primordial “feeling,” “valuation,” and “action”—the very things which render intelligible God’s contingent feeling, valuation and action—are rendered problematic. The very “completeness” of the primordial pole which would have rendered the consequent nature of God intelligible itself becomes unintelligible when it is now described in terms which render it “less conscious” and “less actual” than the consequent nature it explains. Hence, all of the personal attributes and activities which Whitehead otherwise gives to this primordial pole, attributes and activities which would render his conception advantageous to rendering God’s contingent activity intelligible, are hereby qualified to an extent that they are rendered philosophically useless. It becomes, for example, extremely difficult to understand how God can make the decisions and valuations which God must make in this One’s primordial pole when God is, in this pole, unconscious.

Once the Process requirement that each occasion must creatively synthesize antecedent data is rejected, however, and once the Process view that an entity is nothing over and above an experience is rejected, we are, I believe, free to go all the way with Whitehead’s insight. The perfection of God, that which defines God’s self apart from all interaction with a non-divine reality (viz., is “unconditioned”) must be identical with a necessary and actually abiding reality. As to God’s necessary existence, God does not have the abstract features of goodness, love, awareness, etc. God is—actually—goodness, love, awareness, etc.

To use traditional terminology, God’s “abstract” essence is God’s necessary concrete existence. The a priori features which “abstractly” identify God as God constitute God’s essential actuality. God’s actuality is not, therefore, simply a contingent exemplification of divine attributes. The “abstract” attributes of God are, on this account, given an intelligible normative status over all of God’s contingent activity. The “absolutely fixed” and “ungenerated style” of God, the “law” of God’s concrete contingent activity, is simply the aseity of God’s eternal actuality. God’s necessary character is not paradoxically “contained in” God’s contingent actuality: it is, rather, identical with God’s eternal actuality.

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Greg approaches the point and works through the implications in a way I generally like. Briefly, Greg is arguing that the transcendentals (Goodness, Beauty, Truth, to begin with) cannot be merely “abstract” perfections. They must be viewed as fully “concrete,” as God’s own essential, concrete actuality. God doesn’t “have” the abstract features of goodness, love, truth, beauty, etc. God “is” these things, and he is this in the undivided fullness of his actuality. That’s a mouthful, but it’s an important thing to say.

Whitehead agreed (pace Hartshorne). Well, to an extent. The divine perfections (Goodness, Truth, Beauty as such) must be independent of the world (since they prescribe for the world what its end/purpose is. In Process terms, they constitute the “lure” to which the world is drawn). That said, notice Greg’s criticism of Whitehead for holding this antecedent divine actuality (i.e., those transcendental perfections which are antecedent to and the ground of creation) to be “unconscious.” Why would Whitehead say such a thing? Because despite seeing the logic of requiring the transcendentals to be world-independent, Whitehead couldn’t posit any divine “actuality” that is not shaped or determined by Creation. For Greg (1994), an “unconscious” divine actuality is a problem, because the concrete actuality which is God’s existence as “love” cannot be unconscious or dormant, i.e., it cannot have or possess its essential, necessary being as an unrealized potential. God’s antecedent character as “love” (the diversified truth of which we name the transcendentals Goodness, Beauty, and Truth) can only be the concrete, lived experience of God, the fully determinate plenitude of the triune experience.

Prayer: Open my eyes, God, to the unchanging, fully realized beauty that you are. May its healing powers restore my fallen heart to you.

God and red carpets

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“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)

Part of Luke’s point here is just to locate the beginnings of the story of Jesus. When and where did it begin? When this guy was in charge. What that guy was High Priest. But there’s more here than that. There’s something here to see about who God talks to, who God shares himself with.

Begin with the Who’s Who from the first-century, a red carpet line up of Israel’s power-brokers, influencers, cultural and religious authorities. Her shakers and movers.

– Tiberius Caesar – ruler of the world,
– Pontius Pilate, in charge of Caesar’s occupation of Palestine,
– Herod, son of King Herod (member of a powerful ruling family, favored by Rome), in charge of Galilee,
– Philip, Herod’s brother, and Lysanias, each holding a political position of his own.
– Lastly, Annas and Caiaphas, in charge of the Temple and managers of its power.

That’s the ‘who’. Now for the ‘what’. There’s an event here, and occurrence of cosmic proportions not to be missed. Luke describes it: “The word of God came.” God spoke, just not to whom one might expect. So while the naming of known leaders is just a way to locate the story. On the other hand Luke’s drive-by tells us something about God.

Surely the word of God would come to one of the established power-brokers. Surely if God had something to say to the whole world, he’d get his message to and through Caesar or Pilate. They’re the political powers of the day. They control the news media. But if not them, surely the God of Israel would go to Annas or Caiaphas, Israel’s religious leaders. They are the gatekeepers. They own the synagogues, run the houses of Scripture, control the seminaries, write the curricula, control the process of ordination and decide what the religious publishing houses put out. Managing and distributing “the word of God” is their business. It’s their whole reason for being. So surely “the word of God” would come to them. But God doesn’t talk to them either. He passes by the high priest. What about the elite, the rich and the famous, and the celebrities of the day? Surely God would consult Forbes, or People Magazine, or US Weekly; surely he’d ride the wave of popular personalities who are listened to and followed by millions. Makes sense—get your word out through the most connected people on the planet, right? Only the best for God. No. God passes them all by.

Who’s the word of God come to? It comes to “John the Son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

You should be laughing. You’re meant to laugh. Everybody else laughed.

If this were today, it might include bits and pieces of this:

– When Barak Obama was President of the most powerful nation on earth,
– When Bill Gates was the richest man in the world,
– When Donald Trump was buying his way to a seat of international power,
– When Eminem was shocking the world with his raps,
– Adele was singing “Hello!” and Drake was “Summer Sixteen,”
– Justin Bieber ‘never said never’ and Lady Gaga was singing her own “Applause,”
– Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon,
– Albert Einstein redefined what the Moon was,
– Pope Francis and Oprah were the spiritual authorities of the day—
– the word of God came to ___________ .

Put your name in.

“Dear friends, remember what you were when God chose you. Not many of you were wise by human standards. Not many of you were powerful or influential, and not many of you came from important families. But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important. God did all this to keep anyone from bragging.” (1Corinthians 1:26-29)

Prayer: Father, let me hear your voice. Plant your word in my heart. Involve me in your work. Employ me in your service.