God’s infinite “specious present”

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This is one of those freely speculating posts where I just think out loud. I know some think that’s pretty much all I do anyhow. If that’s you, then this won’t be any different. Why I’ve chosen Bernini’s (the greatest sculptor of all time) Blessed Ludovica Albertoni is something I’ll let the post explain (or not). (Hint: it has something to do with the immediacy and ecstasy of fulfilled desire relative to temporal becoming.) Bernini dedicated this work to a wealthy Roman widow who devoted herself to the poor and who (like his The Ecstasy of St. Teresa that pursues the same theme) testified to having unusual spiritual ecstasies. Both works are a kind of perichoretic embodiment of the rapturous experience of mystical union with God. This is no doubt a strange introduction to thoughts about God and time, but let’s see where it takes us.

In Trinity & Process (a work we’ve discussed a great deal), Greg Boyd constructively critiques Process theism (PT). Much of his criticism parallels criticisms that Fr Tom Hopko made in his doctoral dissertation on PT. More interestingly, Greg’s conclusions at points end up articulating Orthodox insights without having any real knowledge of or appreciation for Orthodoxy as such. That said, one critique of PT that Greg engages is PT’s thoroughly dipolar doctrine of God with respect to divine temporal becoming. I’d like to think aloud on this aspect of Greg’s thought and make a suggestion that takes Greg’s thought in a direction that he perhaps didn’t intend.

Dipolar theism is a complicated philosophical project which has since Whitehead diverged into a variety of conflicting views. I wish only to pick up on Greg’s treatment of God and time through his use of the concept of the “specious present.” By “specious” I don’t mean “misleading” or “false” in appearance. The term “specious present” was coined in the late 19th century by E. Robert Kelly (known under the pseudonym E. R. Clay) and popularized by William James. It roughly describes the time duration wherein one’s perceptions are considered to be in the present, one’s “intuited duration” (Pringle-Pattison, 1913). It’s a concept that I think helps us imagine God as temporally immutable and open to the temporal world. By temporally immutable I mean experience having neither beginning, end, nor succession, an extended interval without becoming. Can such an experience nevertheless be open to contingent relations with the changing world?

The life and experience of finite creatures who derive their existence from God is one of irreducible “becoming.” We know that much. Our experience is temporal in the sense that it is always mediated within the given restrictions of material existence. In particular:

…we possess our life as “becoming,” as an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not (i.e., more than we are). We just are this ever-moving act of becoming, a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

Let me say unequivocally here that I don’t see how God can be reduced to such “becoming” even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” Giving such “becoming” the status of necessity doesn’t make this concept of God fundamentally unlike that of Zeus or other members of the Greek pantheon.

clock_silhouette_by_ginnyhahaThat said, by “specious present” I am not talking about a totum simul, which is how Bill Craig takes it in his criticism of the idea. And I don’t particularly have in mind Robert Jenson’s curious description of Jesus as God’s “specious present,” but I agree with Jenson’s pursuit of a divine temporality of which he says, “God’s duration is without loss.” I say yes to this. And so I’m asking if it’s possible to conceive of an infinite “specious present,” an experience not divisible into or reducible to more fundamental experiences, having neither beginning, end, nor succession; i.e., an “experience” which is not an experience of “becoming.” Can we conceive of God’s eternity, his essential, triune plenitude, as such a “specious present” but which is not intolerant of or incompatible with the possibility of relations with the finite “specious presents” of created entities that occur within it?

An infinite “specious present” not a moment of “becoming” would encompass rather than preclude specious presents of finite duration and accommodate real relations with the world. All creation’s possibilities would be tacitly enfolded within its fullness. All our “specious presents” would have the movement of their temporal becoming—their past, present, and future as they contingently and freely unfold—within the embrace of God’s single, indivisible “specious present.” And the world’s finite becoming would freely self-determine itself within the all-encompassing fullness of God’s accomplished beatitude. Time would “flow from” God as God flowed to and within the world. This would (I think) roughly parallel the sense in which Bulgakov suggested that God “posits himself outside himself.”

God’s eternity, we’re suggesting, is an infinite “specious present”—a “moment” (just to go with the analogy for now) analogous to our “moments” of experience but which, unlike our “specious presents,” does not exist as ‘memory informing a present resolve to become what one is not in light of future possibilities’. We’re thinking of a “moment” of experience as such, a simple act not composed of beginning, end, and succession (i.e., it does not “become”) because it does not possess itself as ‘memory informing a present resolve in light of future possibilities’. God’s specious present does not “take time” to “become” in this way, but it does not negate created ‘becoming’ or relations to created entities. It is becoming’s possibility and so compatible with it without being an instance of it. As such God’s specious present is the infinite ground of every created specious present of finite duration (i.e., experiences of finite perspective and surpassable beauty which have beginning, end, and succession—i.e. they ‘become’).

One specious present may contain other specious presents. To unpack this a bit, here’s Greg Boyd in TP:

Self-identity [for Hartshorne], therefore, whether at a human or sub-atomic level, is abstract, partial and relative. It is, in contrast, the present moment of becoming which is concrete, complete, and absolute, as we have seen. There can, for Hartshorne, therefore be no concrete self-identity which preserves over time. The only concrete reality is in the “specious present,” the present momentary experience of becoming. For human beings, for example, the concrete self becomes anew “every tenth of a second or so.” This alone constitutes truly concrete reality. Everything else concerning human self-identity is an abstract feature of this.

This means, clearly, that one’s self-now is not the same as the self of one’s childhood, or even one’s self an instant ago. To be sure, the self-now must relate to (prehend) the self-past. But it must also prehend other past occasions. And it is, strictly speaking, no more concretely identical with the past self than it is with any other past occasion.

a9818396559c4039e0998b5ce79f128aHartshorne defines finite, temporal “becoming” as the prehension of immediately past data via creative synthesis. One’s “identity” supervenes upon and is derived from this process. But this sort of becoming could not describe God’s essential-necessary actuality. God’s identity as God could not supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which his actual ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not now. That’s very important (for Dwayne and me) to say.

To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it, since he rejects creatio ex nihilo): God’s essential triune act would be the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity.” Our suggestion is that God be understood as an infinite such occasion. Moving on with Greg in TP:

Beyond the already discussed difficulties with this understanding of the dipolarity of God, one must wonder what is intrinsically contradictory about saying that a being can be actual in different respects? Why cannot one aspect of the divine actuality be necessary and eternal, and another aspect of God’s actuality contingent? It seems that, in at least one sense, even Process thought must admit that this is possible in terms of its own categories.

According to Process thought, any given “society of actual occasions” can be made up of entities whose “living immediacy” and “specious present” varies from one another considerably. A “specious present,” according to Hartshorne, can vary about as far as the imagination can stretch: from less than one millionth of a second to more than a century is one suggestion Hartshorne toys with.

Now it seems that there is no a priori reason why a “specious moment” may not be eternal, though the society which it “dominates over” includes occasions whose “specious present” is finite. Just as the mind, the dominate occasion of the human person, consists of “specious presents” whose durations vary from those occasions which it rules over, so too we might conceive of God’s essential self as an eternal specious present which encompasses other “specious presents” of finite duration within itself. (emphasis mine)

…So far as I can see, then, there are no grounds for supposing a priori that the “specious present” of an experiencing actuality could not be both definite and actual, while being, at the same time, endless in its duration.

After some discussion, Greg continues:

The only remaining question, then, is whether or not one subject could be both infinitely and finitely, both necessarily and contingently, actual at the same time. Here again I see no reason to deny this. One subject can, in Process terms, be constituted by numerous occasions of varying duration of subjective immediacy, as we have said. But then what in principle is there from disallowing the possibility of a subject who is necessarily constituted by an everlasting…experience, on the one hand, and yet who has finite contingent experiences on the other?

We can render this point clearer by appealing to the analogy of human experiences. We have, it seems, the ability (however limited) to be aware of different things in relatively different modes of consciousness at the same time. If, for example, I go to the art museum and become absorbed in (say) Munck’s painting “The Scream,” I do not completely block out the noise around me; I am not completely oblivious to the people around me. If a person next to me faints, I will no doubt notice it and turn to help him or her. But clearly my awareness of my surroundings is relatively tacit in relation to my awareness of the painting.

I thus pick up, in a relatively tacit manner, the moment by moment changes in my environment, but my dominant sense of time is measured not by these changes, but by my experience of the work of art. What constitutes my consciousness-now are many experiences had at differing levels of distinctness, but all are now conditioned by the dominant experience of Munck’s painting.

My “specious present,” then, is in one respect very long—hence my “ordinary” sense of time is distorted in such experiences. Yet the fact that I am at least tacitly conscious of the bustle around me shows that I also have, at the same time, occasions whose “specious present” is much shorter. Every sensed alteration in my environment is, in Hartshorne’s view, a new “specious present” for some actual occasion(s) I am composed of.

Or again, when listening to a symphony, one is aware of the minute moment by moment tonal changes of the many different instruments, and yet it is the over-all musical piece, not the individual contributions, which is enjoyed. One could not enjoy the wholeness of the piece without, in some sense, attending to each of the individual instruments, and indeed to each tonal change that was made every fraction of a second or so. But the “mode of consciousness” is quite different with respect to the individual changes than it is with respect to our appreciation of the whole.

Thus experience, including the experience of consciousness, can be multifarious and multidimensional. Indeed, at a human level it always is. Hartshorne, of course, argues that it is only the “lowest” dimension of consciousness the minute alterations in our experience, which are “truly concrete.” Our experience of wholes, whether they be of art, music, or the world around us, is “abstract.” But this supposition we have already shown to be the result of an arbitrary reductionistic presupposition. Once the definition of “concrete” and “abstract” are recognized are being perspectivally contingent, the actuality (concreteness) of our phenomenological experiences, as well as (from a different perspective) the actuality of the minute alterations which, in one sense, comprise these experiences, can be admitted. To say that our normal sense of consciousness is multifarious is thus to say that our dominant perspective always encompasses relatively tacit perspectives.

Prima facie, then, no obvious absurdity is committed in maintaining that God can be, in one sense, necessarily actually infinite while further maintaining that God can also be, at the same time but in another sense, contingently actually infinite. This is, from another angle, simply to say that God can have a necessary eternal perspective on Godself which may include a perspective which encompasses non-divine perspectives. God is eternally and necessarily defined by this one’s eternal experience of Godself, and this experience may encompass, and find expression in, the interaction of non-divine creatures.

When we say that God might be actually eternal and actually contingent, therefore, we do not mean to suggest that God is essentially defined by both an eternal and contingent actuality. God is essentially defined only by this One’s necessary actuality. Thus we have not in the preceding said simply that “God’s essence is God’s existence,” but rather, “God’s essence is God’s essential existence.” For if there can be contingency in God, then God’s existence can encompass more than what this One essentially and necessarily is. God can be “more than necessary.” (emphasis mine)

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www-St-Takla-org--Moses-Prophet-05-Burning-Bush-CopticThere is much to question in Greg’s project when it comes to how theological language functions, and I don’t mean to endorse every point he makes. But I don’t think our differences undermine the helpfulness of his main thought here. We believe it’s possible to conceive of God’s essential-necessary triune fullness as the living immediacy of a ‘specious present’, an experienced plenitude which is not an instance of temporal becoming (i.e., it has neither past nor future). But neither is it the negation of such becoming. On the contrary, it is free and able to open itself to ‘specious presents’ of finite duration which aim at contingently expressing (not constituting) the beatitude of God’s abiding present.

An immutable temporal interval that does not “become” (i.e., has no past or future or the kind of present which negotiates the two)? I think so, yes. It’s the temporal equivalent of a ‘burning bush’. I call it a ‘temporal’ interval because I believe it has living-loving content and that leads me to default analogically to ‘temporal’ (as opposed to ‘atemporal’). I’d rather say ‘temporal’ and then qualify it (i.e., it isn’t an instance of temporal becoming). That is—it’s a bush. And it’s on fire without being consumed. Doesn’t make sense, but there it is. At the same time it’s is not the experience of a “becoming” subject (viz., a subject in temporal pursuit of personal realization). We have to say this also, because it’s fire that does not need the bush for fuel. It’s an off-the-map sort of experience.

The controversial claim we make here is that God’s infinite specious present would not preclude real relations with finite creatures and changing states of knowledge with respect to the world. Created realities do indeed come to be and pass out of being. These are possibilities immutably contained in God. However, which particular possibilities come to be the actual world (and, for my Orthodox friends, the relevant point here is that not all possibilities pre-contained in God come to be) is not something immutably pre-contained in God. God would know the ‘actually contingent’ contingently, i.e., in its contingent actuality, without suffering any negation of the living immediacy of his immutable specious present. That is to say, the world “lives and moves and has its being” in God. It is then not the case that God lives and moves and has his being in the world (viz., PT).

Does this make God just another finite subject of “becoming,” one who possesses his identity and full beatitude in the realizing of possibilities given him under the constraints of past experience negotiating his way toward some unfulfilled desire? I don’t see that it does. If God were to know the changing contingencies of the actual world with a knowledge that changes as well, this “as well” needn’t be understood as introducing “loss” into God’s special present. God’s duration is without loss (Jenson).Surely we are not confined to an occasionalism in which God’s sustaining of the world reduces the world to divine will, nor to an opposite occasionalism which views God as reduced to the world’s becoming (viz., Process theism) simply for holding that God’s knowledge of the changing world changes.

Prayer

Always fulfilled, always at rest,
You never wait to be your best;
And yet you can take time to be,
To stoop in partnership with me.
You know me within my own time,
And yet remain wholly sublime.
Give me a heart to give myself
In poverty to your own wealth.

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God always the same

Dali2

Aidan Nichols, O.P. has the wonderful ability to condense the complex works of brilliant thinkers into simpler terms that make those works accessible to non-experts like me. Besides his primer on Bulgakov from which I quote below, Nichols has similar introductions on von Balthasar, Aquinas, Pope Benedict (to name a few) as well as primers on the Catholic Church, the Byzantine Church, Anglicanism, and other helpful guides. Thank God for original, pioneering thinkers who stretch tradition in new ways, but thank God also for gifted people who can re-present that thinking in more accessible terms for the rest of us.

In light of conversations about God and time we’ve been enjoying, I wanted to share a passage from Nichols’ primer on Bulgakov. Bulgakov (1871-1944) was a brilliant Orthodox priest-scholar whose career began in Russia and, after a short stint in Prague, ended in Paris. Anathematized by some Orthodox and tolerated by others, Bulgakov continues to be a controversial figure within Orthodox circles. Some offer high praise of aspects of his work. David Bentley Hart, for example, praises the Christoloy of The Lamb of God as “the most remarkable and impressive work of Christology produced in the twentieth century.” I think of Bulgakov as an example of the kind of synthesis Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) recommended when he wrote:

Orthodox theology must keep its patristic foundation, but it must also go ‘beyond’ the Fathers if it is to respond to a new situation created by centuries of philosophical development. And in this new synthesis or reconstruction, the Western philosophical tradition…rather than the Hellenic, must supply theology with its conceptual framework. An attempt is thus made to ‘transpose’ theology into a new ‘key’….

Among Bulgakov’s more controversial speculations are his thoughts on God and time. Consider this Nichols passage (from his primer):

Eternity and time
Time is not of course eternity. In one sense, it is opposed to eternity, and this is how we commonly think of it. But in another sense time is put in place by eternity, has eternity as its foundation and its final cause, the goal to which it is moving. And in this second sense, time only has coherence because it reflects eternity. Bulgakov compares it to a mosaic, where individual moments are like so many individual pieces of coloured glass that, taken together, nonetheless make up a whole. It becomes easier to grasp this this is we realize that what we are talking about is creaturely wisdom—which is in time—on the one hand, and divine Wisdom—which is eternal—on the other. Time is full of eternity, and tends to approach eternity while never becoming eternity, precisely because these two wisdoms are one. They have one content.

Of the two, however, only divine Wisdom exists in God. Shall we say, then, that for God time has no reality, that he is not engaged with temporal realities as such? Is it true to say that for God only eternity exists? Bulgakov answers with a resounding ‘No’.

The entire Christian religion presupposes for its truth-value the reality of time not only for the world but also for God, and the one conditions the other.

To treat God’s relations with the temporal as merely a human way of speaking would be to “shake the entire content of our faith.” It would mean transforming the biblical God, the “Creator, all-might, living, merciful, saving,” into the “immobile Absolute of Hinduism in which all concrete being is snuffed out and the whole world becomes illusion.” It would make nonsense of the Incarnation where earthly events happen to One who was God. But what about the way that Scripture and the doctrinal tradition speak of God’s immutability, his unchangingness? Bulgakov replies by drawing a distinction which we also find in such modern Western Catholic theologians as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984). He [Bulgakov, not Rahner] distinguishes between God as he who is changeless in himself, in eternity, and he who can be involved in change in another, in time. He writes:

In himself, God is eternal by virtue of the divine everlastingness, the plenitude of his life, by virtue of immutability, and total happiness. In himself, God is eternal by virtue of the divine everlastingness of his tri-personhood which is the eternal act of love of the Three in their reciprocal relations.

That is certainly a plain statement. But there is another side to the question which also requires stating. Bulgakov says:

God is also the Creator, creating life outside himself and himself living there outside himself. The reality of this world is determined by God. The reality of this world is determined by God. The reality of the time of this world is also valid therefore for God, since it is his own work, and, taken as a whole, his own ‘placing’ of himself. Going out of himself in the kenosis of the creation of the world, the love of God puts time in position even for God himself. It brings it about that God also lives in history and shares in this sense in the world’s becoming, for the sake of the world.

…Bulgakov emphasizes that in no way does the Creator’s relation with time in the creation lessen or limit his eternity. Temporality—the time dimension—is on a different ontological level from eternity, so the two are not in any kind of conflict. Time has its roots in eternity, is nourished by eternity, and penetrated by it.

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I’m no Bulgakov expert, but some who know him well agree that his position on the qualified sense in which God experiences and knows the temporal world is not merely a restatement or re-presentation of traditional Orthodox views. That is, Bulgakov makes novel and controversial claims about God and time. Personally, I think there is room here for the sort of qualified sense in which I think we can say God ‘temporally’ knows and experiences the world. And though I want to spend more time in Bulgakov before resolving on a firm opinion, I suspect I could agree to what Bulgakov is here describing. For example, I recently speculated with a friend:

There is neither ‘past’ nor ‘future’ to the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Spirit’s proceeding. It cannot “take time” for God to be the triune, self-existent, God. And without such a past and future, there can be no corresponding ‘present’ if by present we mean the metaphysical sibling of the sort of past and future just ruled out, an instant where the past as ‘what was’ and the future as ‘what might be’ meet and dialectically constitute God’s being as ever-becoming. With respect to God’s self-existent trine reality and beatitude, I don’t see how there can be beginning, end, or succession in God, not in the sense of it ‘taking time’ for God to be God.

And I earlier suggested:

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 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 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. (emphasis mine)

Or again, more explicitly:

What would ‘past’ and ‘future’ be for [God] whose very existence is satisfied in every self-constituting way? The ‘past’ couldn’t be remembered with any sense of regret, longing, or pinning for what was or what might have been. The past would cast no shadow upon the present by suggesting a correction or alternative to it that would increase God…Likewise the future could not interpose itself into the satisfaction of the present by casting upon its bliss any expectation or desire for a satisfaction not present. The future (so far as it might be conceived in the present) would be entirely the product of present bliss, a realm of possibilities that express (but do not constitute an improvement upon) the present. (my emphasis)

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daliThis all agrees, it seems to me, with Bulgakov’s concern that time not “lessen or limit his eternity.” God’s “eternity,” as Bulgakov describes it, is God’s self-constituting fullness. That fullness has neither beginning, end, nor succession. I not only have no problem (as one who advocates the ‘open view’) affirming this, I view it as essential. My problem is with thinking this precludes there being succession in God’s knowledge and experience of that which does not constitute God in this essential way, that all the world’s temporal realities are, in their actuality, eternally-immutably known by God. I think Bulgakov saw this problem as well and attempted to stretch our thinking in this regard. I could be wrong, but I don’t know how else to take his statements in this regard in The Bride of the Lamb.

Denys Turner suggests that our understanding of God can’t be reduced to the scope of the contradiction held out to us in the either/or of conventional ‘temporal’ vs ‘atemporal’ options. Both terms (David Bradshaw suggests) should reveal God, say something truthful about God, without either negating the other. An analogy of this, as I recently shared, is Moses’ encounter with God in the Burning Bush. We have established understanding of both ‘fire’ and ‘bush’. We know what they are and what the do. We know that fire depends upon what it consumes for fuel. We know that bushes are consumed by fire. But we have no concept of ‘fire’ or ‘bush’ or the possibilities of their meeting that explains bushes on fire without being consumed. And yet there before us is the burning bush.

Now, some Orthodox urge such transcendence upon me as a reason to hold that God cannot change in his knowledge of and relationship to the changing world. They might take the ‘burning bush’ to be the analogical equivalent to God eternally-immutably knowing the world’s actualities in their temporal, free, self-determined becoming. As far as I can tell, this is indistinguishable from the sort of negating ‘timelessness’ one gets with the either/or option thinking. But why should transcendence not as obviously incline us to suppose God may change in his knowledge of and relationship to the world without compromising his essential, immutable beatitude and triune identity? That is, we are not only to suppose God is not reduced to the world; we also suppose that the world is not reduced to God; nor that God’s knowledge of and intimacy to the world undermines the world’s becoming. It seems to me that to think that any change in God’s knowledge of the changing world would turn God into a temporal, finite ‘being among beings’ is perhaps to forget that God is transcendent; i.e., perhaps transcendence can embrace such change without undermining God’s ‘eternity’ (as triune fullness of beatitude).

She is the place where family happens

juliaWherever children are admired like prize flowers, there standing in the shadows is a mother who tended and protected the garden they grew in. And where children who have no mother are nevertheless admired, it’s because some father or caring individual toiled in providing a mother’s care.

Having shared four poems I wrote for our kids, I can’t leave unsaid what place their mother has had in it all. Anita is in every line I write, a part of every memory, a reason for anything beautiful and praiseworthy in our children as well as anything of value and honor in me. That captures the effect Anita has on things. It could be something as mundane as a meal, as simple as a load of laundry, or as consequential as singing a solo, helping a youngster learn to love the piano, or shaping a husband’s character. If Anita becomes a part of it, she becomes the better part of it.

I distinctly remember the first time Anita caught my eye. I was sitting in class during my second year of college while the professor waxed eloquent about a few lines from St. Paul. My attention was drawn to some other ‘fine lines’ as they recited themselves across the campus lawn outside my window. I remember other ‘firsts’ as well—our first date, the first gift she bought me, first kiss, first Christmas present I got her, first argument, and I could go on.

All the best memories I enjoy have Anita in them. Her imprint is even upon those happy memories I have of my childhood and youth before I knew her. She becomes part of my enjoyment of them. Her enjoyment of them increases my enjoyment of them. It’s like they lose a bit of existence on account of not having been perceived and enjoyed by her. Anita is a part of my enjoyment of the whole world. She’s literally woven herself into every stitch of the fabric that makes up our home and placed herself on every line and space of musical notation which is the score that I and our children have come to call our life.

I’ve placed a picture of Julia Childs at the head of these reflections not because Anita is a wonderful cook (though she is that) but because Julia broadly represents what I’m trying to describe about Anita, and that is how Anita brings out what is best in things. The same ingredients in just any pot might turn out to be an average or even subpar meal. But in Julia’s pot, with her involvement, her ‘touch’ and attention, those ingredients achieve something wonderful, unforgettable even. With just the right combination of spices, temperature, pressure, and a good sense of taste, ingredients find themselves in relation to one another and only then yield up their very best.

In the same way, when you take all I’ve alluded to in poems about our children—their energies, creativity, education, development, training, all of it— you’ll find Anita has been the manager of it all, standing over it watchfully like Julia overtop a pot of Beef Bourguignon, never disconnected from the smallest divergence or progress, always taste-testing to insure that things are on track, always involved. That’s who my wife is and the sort of affect she has on the world.

Anita hasn’t just kept or managed whatever house we happen to have lived in, she herself became where we’ve lived and where the kids grew up. She is the place we call home, the space that has made possible all the events we call our family. She works and labors—no, more like lives—for those special, intangible ‘moments’ when the enjoyment peaks, like the peaks of a mountain range, in the words, touches, smiles and glances of loved ones and friends gathered. There is nothing more beyond those moments for which she toils or about which she cares. They are that for which she toils, the summits from which she views the world below.

Prayer: To be a mother is to reflect your image, God. You are everything good in our reflection of you—father, mother, lover, brother, sister, friend. And you have loved me unconditionally through your handmaiden, Anita, for more than 30 years now. Love her through me in return. Lord. 

What mysteries lie within your name concealed

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All children are unique in their own way. Ours are no different. Jamila is unique in her passion to help others find their true selves. Jessica defaults to beautifying the world and reconciling people. David composes melodies and lyrics that heal the soul. Then there’s Daniel. Of his repertoire of talents, Daniel has the ability to focus his powers of attention on the moment, and that in turn means he lives—and I mean pours life into and draws life out of—“the moment.”

When he becomes engrossed in something and locks his attention on it, it doesn’t matter what mayhem is transpiring around him, he’s oblivious to it. Nothing matters so long as he’s fixated on an object that captures his interest. He doesn’t need to eat or drink or go to the bathroom when he’s in ‘the moment’. He doesn’t hear people speaking or notice what else is going on in the world.

Daniel inherited a diverse set of natural capacities and a wild imagination. When he was young there was no telling what his imagination was up to. It might be art. It might be constructing some amazing contraption from Lego pieces. It might be music.

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I remember giving him his first Etch-a-Sketch. Your typical youngster with his first Etch-a-Sketch might draw a smiling sun with a straight line horizon and stick figure people with x’s for eyes. Daniel managed medieval castles with moats, drawbridges, towers with knights in armor firing arrows from their crossbows at fire-breathing dragons flying overhead. As a toddler he was almost always dressed up for some role—a famous Cowboy fighting “wabbos” (robbers), or a Knight with sword and armor, or perhaps Superman flying off the top bunk. You never knew what he was recreating the outside world to be inside his head. As he grew he got into disciplined piano lessons, singing, teaching voice and piano, and right up to the present day there’s a steady stream of beautifully haunting piano melodies that flows from him.

I hope you enjoy the final poem, for our final Daniel.

 

What Mysteries Lie Within Your Name Concealed
Daniel, what mysteries lie within your name concealed,
And what history therein yet to be revealed—
Playful were all your steps when first they led you on your way,
And bold the dreams you dreamt ‘ere on cartooned sheets you lay.
Every floor beneath your feet a path of war became,
Where playful toys and brandished steel, transformed into the same,
Slew enemies who, dressed for war, leapt from your mind’s own page,
Fell beneath your conquering will and bowed to sooth your rage,
Where at last you stood, though scarred and bruised, the winner,
Held out your sword to speak just as Mother called for dinner.
And thus your years have been a mixture of the two, each a side of the same:
Unyielding fantasies your art—realities of daily life the frame.
And as the two converge in you neither denies the other,
And none can boast delight in this affair more than your father.
But to what more do you compare? To oceans far from home,
Whose currents deep and unaware flow quiet and alone;
Their steady force secrets bear and in their depths they hide
Mysteries of both form and light which few have ever spied,
Where they beneath the currents of your deepest dreams do rest,
And there await the sunlit sky to see at your request.
From your first days imaginations filled your every thought
Of treasures to be found which others had not sought;
And as you grew ‘neath shadows which your older siblings cast,
You sought a place under the sun so as not to be thought last;
But last you never were, nor shall you ever be,
So long as ‘neath the Son’s warm rays you stand and let all see
You cast shadows of your own, my son, and lead us out of sorrow.
Release the sea’s deep mysteries and take us to tomorrow.
And when the sun at last is set, and when the world is healed,
All will see what mysteries lie within your name concealed.

Payless Theologies

knippersmoses-and-the-burning-bush

Moses’ encounters with God are the source of some of my favorite biblical stories. They’re honest and down to earth, and they reveal a brokenness and vulnerability common to us all. Though I’ve never identified with Moses in his achievements, I certainly identify with him in his earlier objections to being used of God and his self-deprecation. His early formative encounters with God shed light on interesting aspects of experiencing God which I think apply to us all. And of all Moses’ encounters with God, the Burning Bush episode (Ex 3) has to be my favorite, perhaps because it’s the most revealing. I come back to it often, and here I’d like to share a couple of thoughts I’m processing.

God met in the mundane
The first interesting thing about this encounter is that Moses meets God while tending to his father-in-law’s flocks. At this point in his life he’s a shepherd in an uncharted landscape. Once known. Once popular. Once in the headlines. Once a man of power and means. But that’s not where Moses meets God, who shows up elsewhere.

Moses encounters God in the mundane. He doesn’t remove himself from the common, daily, mundane activities of secular life. Same is true of us. We are not required to leave such spaces to meet God “at Court” the way a British subject might be presented to the Crown. God’s court is creation—all of it, everywhere, all the time.

God’s court—the desert.
God’s crown—a bush.

Bushes are here today and gone tomorrow. Lilies of the field. God is at home in the most mundane, transient, throw-away spaces and moments of our lives. We don’t have to “leave” wherever we might be and travel to some sacred space to meet God.

Where’er you trod the sky is a cathedral made,
The ground beneath your feet a pew within its shade.

Wherever God is, and God is fully present everywhere, there God renders space “holy ground.” Nor does God abandon the cosmic, all-encompassing realities of his relationship to creation to be completely, fully present and invested in a bush in the desert of Moses’ exile.

On fire but not consumed
A second element of this event that must grab our attention is the strange and inexplicable fact of the bush’s being on fire but not consumed. This strange occurrence is what arrests Moses’ full attention. The bush is on fire but not consumed. Fire present in/with the bush, inseparable from it, its flames both following the form and path of the bush’s own branches and leaves but not fueled by the bush. The fire doesn’t need the bush for fuel, and that is why the bush is not consumed. This would get my attention as well.

This is transcendence. This is the myth of the secular, pure and simple.

Divine fire,
Both touching and touched by the world, neither needing nor negating it
Temporal and timeless
Burning without consuming
Located and uncircumscribed
“In but not of” the world

A ‘what’ cannot be this, cannot ‘do’ this. Only a ‘who’ is capable of such presence. A ‘what’ is a part of a whole, a slice of something, a species of a genus, a class of a phylum. But Moses doesn’t meet a ‘what’. He meets a ‘who’.

He sees the contradiction but cannot explain it
He experiences it but cannot account for it
He says it but must unsay it

It is in him (because he’s really taking it in as an experience of something) and yet he is in it (because he experiences this One as not confined to this bush, not needing it as fuel). This bush is a microcosm of the world itself. It is every bush, every tree, every flower, every human being. And we each can come to know ourselves aflame with God without being consumed by him. Less than transcendent gods consume the world, feed off it, are dependent upon its religious economies.

The burning bush is ‘categorically inexplicable’. It is ‘given’ and so undeniable, but it is only known in the combining of otherwise contradictory modes of being. Burning bushes are consumed. That’s what bushes are and that’s what fire does to bushes. And yet this fire doesn’t need the bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire.

“And yet” is that moment when you connect to something you don’t have categories to possess, something you cannot turn into your cognitive property. You experience yourself as someone else’s, as ‘thought’, as ‘written’, as ‘authored’. Not other than free, of course, but ‘given’ to be free. I don’t know how to express it. It seems to me that the more analytically regimented, categorized, or logically policed a theological worldview becomes (all phrases I’m trying offering to get at our intolerance for the categorically inexplicable) the more existentially inert it becomes. Of course I can only speak for myself, but some notion of transcendence is the one thing that animates our desire for the world as a longing to know it as more than merely bushes, trees, i.e., as complex physical systems operating under the laws of physics. But without a healthy transcendence, our theologies become mere complex systems operating under the laws of created taxonomies. And by transcendence I don’t mean just a word that describes elements of the world we in principle possess but which our analysis has not yet tamed though we expect it one day shall. I mean something more. I mean the categorical inexplicability of a burning bush.

Take your shoes off
Why the shoes? (Joshua had the same experience; Joshua 5.15) If it’s true that God burns in and through all things, if God is not offended by any created thing or place, either ‘bush’ or the ‘dirt’ out which we are made, what’s the problem with shoes? I had my suspicions, and a brief search of a few resources confirmed it sufficiently for me. A few suggest that removing shoes here is a token of recognition and respect, like standing when a lady approaches or leaves your table, or tipping your hat to a lady. No doubt we recognize and respect God, but that’s not the point here. Something far more profound is at work.

paylessWhat are shoes? Why do we make them? What’s their purpose? We make shoes to protect our feet from the dangers of traveling barefoot upon rough ground. Shoes are a layer of protection between us and the world, a man-made technology that separates us from dangers to our feet. Shoes mediate the world to our feet, but only by first screening out threats. You get the idea.

True, we perform formalities of token significance in the presence of earthly royalties. You don’t sit in the presence of the Queen of England unless she gives you leave to sit down. You don’t extend a handshake to her unless she initiates. You certainly wouldn’t take your shoes off in her presence. But you would take your shoes off in your home, or in the presence of family and close friends, where you feel safest and ‘at home’. But God is no earthly royalty. And where we observe formalities for kings and queens when in their presence, God commands no such division of behavior into formalities we perform to honor him on occasion and our most ‘at home’ behavior. He’s no less God, and we are no less ‘at court’ in his presence, in our most relaxed, dressed-down moments in our homes than we are in Church before the altar or partaking of the Eucharist. Moses takes his shoes off not to divide life into places where formalities are to be performed which honor God and other places we let our hair down. He takes his shoes off because God invites him to be at home in him. Welcoming him into the ease and rhythm of the mundane is the formality God seeks.

When we come into an experience of God, then, we take our shoes off. We expose ourselves. We strip. We become vulnerable to divine fire. Nothing of our making stands between God and us to mediate God to us. God is not to be managed by us, mediated to us by us, screened and vetted by us for our safe travel. God is not sifted through filters—physical or conceptual—that secure our well-being from dangers posed by walking barefoot through the terrain of the divine. We must be vulnerable before a transcendent God, for being aflame with divine fire is our most natural state. The bush was more, not less, itself when manifesting the divine presence explicitly. Moses saw not an exception to the rule. He saw the rule. That he ‘saw’ it is exceptional.

Theology should be about this—pursuing it, articulating it, encouraging it. Theology should be shoe-removing. But much of our theology is so much shoe-making and shoe-selling, and so ‘Payless’ theologies.

Prayer: O fire who does not consume, “Here I am.” Take my shoes. I remove them. Burn in and through me. Let me occasion you in the world, as the world.

And now, the immorality of passibility

N31-960x727This could be Part 5 in our response to Sirvent (responses in Part 3 and Part 4). But I intentionally want to rephrase things and turn Sirvent’s logic on his own thesis. And thus the title “immorality of passibility” pace his “immorality of impassibility.” For on its own terms Sirvent’s thesis devours itself. Once his view is considered in light of the integrity of God’s experience of a world full of diverse aesthetic experiences, some of inexpressible joy and others of unspeakable torment, fatal problems emerge for Sirvent. One absolutely must work any imitatio dei out in light of the competing emotional demands which make up the world’s diverse experiences. Specifically, is God’s experience of such a world to be understood as non-integrated or integrated? And once one does this, one can easily see how, on Sirvent’s own view, a passibilist God is as morally bankrupt as Sirvent thinks an impassibilist God is. Given Sirvent’s own line of argument, no version of a passibilist God is worth imitating either, but to see this you have to ponder the question of the integrity of God’s experience of the world’s diverse experiences. We cannot define whether God is worth imitating based on what God feels in response to an isolated, single individual’s pain. We should assess things in light of God’s experience of the whole.

I thought of posting a short clip from a former post of ours in which I follow the logic out, but I’d rather those interested read the whole post and follow the argument for themselves: What difference can passibilism really make?

Prayer: God, you see all, know all, love all, pursue all, redeem all, invite all and give all yourself to all of us without having to divide yourself among us. We need you so desperately. Teach me to rest my weary and anxious wandering in you.

What time is it?

the_illusion_of_time

Down in the comments section of creatio ex nihilo we’re having a wonderful and challenging conversation about God and time. At least once a year (pun intended) I jump into the deep of this particular pool, try to swim impressively, then quickly dog-paddle to the side ladder where I can climb out. But since in this conversation I found myself referring back to things we’ve said here in the past (or, if you’re the Orthodox God, things we’re saying eternally), so I thought it would be helpful to provide links and a couple of lines from those past posts in the hopes of shedding light on my view and journey:

From a reply of mine to Fr Aidan:

In fact, it’s because we affirm God’s freedom from the world that we think God should be conceived of as ‘actually’ free from creation and not merely ‘formally’ (‘abstractly’) free from the world.

It’s our conviction that the divine actuality (as the plenitude of being, as unimprovable aesthetic satisfaction, as the utterly complete and imperturbable divine relations) is free from creation and this encourages us to conclude God is ‘actually’ free from creation, not just free on paper (‘formally’ free, as it were). But in the classical view of God as actus purus, God is never ‘actually’ free from his determination to create (viz., God’s actuality is never not defined by God’s determination to create). On the contrary, God actually just is his determination to create and that determination defines him essentially, eternally, etc. (as McCabe shows — there is no God apart from the God who creates), which to us denies that God is free from creation. We think a qualified view of divine temporality can better affirm both the essential divine freedom and triune fullness and creation’s absolute gratuity without historicizing that transcendent fullness by assuming God becomes God in all the objectionable ways process theology (on the one hand) and Jenson and McCormack (on the other) advocate.

From It’s that time again:

If God were temporal (in some, very qualified 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.

From Taking time for space or making space for time?:

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 that each of the following would be equally true for God:

• The Sun has never existed (because there are slices of the block universe we call “times at which” wherein the Sun isn’t located),
• The Sun 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 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.

From The future becoming the present:

What would ‘past’ and ‘future’ be for someone whose ‘present’ experience was existentially satisfied in every self-constituting way (that is, in every way important to and definitive for personal identity and existential fulfillment)? The ‘past’ couldn’t be remembered with any sense of regret, longing, or pinning for what was or what might have been. It would cast no shadow upon the present, nor could it suggest any correction or alternative to it. Whatever the past would be to the present, however one’s ‘memory’ might figure into the satisfaction of the present, it would not define the present by means of contrasting it to unfulfilled desire or counterfactual reasoning (what ‘might have’ been but is not). (Rom 8.18 comes to mind.)

Likewise the future could not interpose itself into the satisfaction of the present by casting upon its bliss any expectation or desire for a satisfaction not present. The future (so far as it might be conceived in the present) would be entirely the product of present bliss, a realm of possibilities that express (but do not constitute an improvement upon) the present. The future would become the present, as opposed to the present becoming the future.

I think of God’s relationship to ‘time’ along such lines. Where time constitutes a kind of metaphysical presupposition for our existence (we’re temporal in a prerequisite sort of way), God (being necessary) could not sustain that kind of relationship to time. There are no metaphysical presuppositions to uncreated being. That goes without saying. In that sense time flows from God.

Prayer: Help me keep the crucial things crucial, the important things important, the relatively interesting things relatively interesting, and the unimportant things unimportant.