Becoming our true self—Part 1


While getting clear on James Loder’s thought, I’m enjoying several good reads right now, one of which is David Benner’s Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He has excellent insights, though I think I better appreciate Loder’s (and even Donald Alexander’s) way of understanding the nature and function of the human ‘spirit’. Not that there are real disagreements between them; just a matter of emphasis. But I do appreciate Benner’s description of varieties of the false self in human development (‘awakening’) toward the true self, though I always get a bit uncomfortable when the final levels (upcoming in Part 2) approach over-identifying the human and divine (typical of all mystical experience, which Benner relies heavily upon). His book also has helpful case studies and Q&A sections in each chapter that help process and apply his points.

I thought I’d briefly present (or let Benner present) his developmental stages of personal becoming under four main categories, each having distinct stages of its own. Benner begins:

The human self is a vaporous and insubstantial thing. Unlike the body, the self lacks form, and its substance can be shaped in a great variety of ways. It is no wonder that it is so hard to define and so elusive when we search for it. This insubstantiality makes it easy to lose the true and authentic self by confusing it with imitations of our own creation. Thus false selves are simply proxies for our true self, poor imitations of the authentic original. In some deep part of our knowing, we sense that we are a unique reflection of our Source, but we are easily seduced by the urge to be our own source.

The varieties of false self are then described in terms of their fundamental framework for self organization. Each is dysfunctional when seen as “source” of the true self, though each level does reflect a broadening or awakening of consciousness. The four frameworks are:

  • The Body-Centered Self
  • The Mind-Centered Self
  • The Soul-Centered Self
  • The Spirit-Centered Self

We’ll outline the first two here and the second two in Part 2 forthcoming.

The Body-Centered Self
The Body Self: “I am my body”
The first option for an organization of consciousness of self is expressed in the sense of being my body. At this earliest level of organization of the self, this means that there is no room for any other competing identifications because at this stage “my self” is synonymous with “my body.” As long as my body remains the framework for the organization of my self, any other identifications that may develop over time will be relatively minor.

Two quite different body experiences seem to be associated with this level of self-organization: the body as a source of pleasure, and the body as a source of pain. In both, that pleasure [e.g., with sexual additions, and Brenner’s comments here are insightful] or pain [as with cases of childhood abuse and neglect] is the person’s primary identification and strongest attachment. It is the experience that is most characteristically “mine.” It therefore becomes “me.”

The Public Self: “I am my image”
The way of relating to our body that usually emerges next involves the adoption of an external perspective on our self. No longer is it simply a matter of me identifying with my body but, while my body remains the primary focus, I now view it from the perspective of others. Now my primary identification becomes my image: how I am seen from that external perspective.

…All of us know how easily we can be drawn into compromising our authenticity by worrying about what others think about us. This is just another potential false way of being my true self. For, while it is a developmental gain to be able to view my self from an external perspective, I am not reducible to my image or my performance. Sadly, however, those at this level of development do not know what. Their identity is their image, and their consciousness is now filled with the anxiety that is associated with any performance before an audience that they seek to please.

The Material Self: “I am my possessions”
The thing many people most closely identify with is their possessions. No attachment to anything or anyone is as strong as their attachment to the things they assume they possess but that in reality possess them. And, not surprisingly, there is nothing they think about more than these same things.

The Role Self: I am my role”
There is one other major form of self organization that also serves as a potential transitional place between the body-centered self and the mind-centered self. We see this in those whose identity and consciousness are centered on what they do (vocationally) or can do (by virtue of talent, training, or role). Think, for example, of the way one’s identity can easily be organized around being a mother, physician, poet, or comic. While identities based in what we can do leave us vulnerable when we can no longer perform at our peak, overall the transition into the role self represents another quantum expansion of consciousness and identity. Now we shift from identifying our selves with how we look to identifying our selves with what we can do. The center of consciousness is still the body because our roles, at least initially, are still body based. But movement from the public or material self to the role self involves broadening the perspective we take on the world and ourselves.

The Mind-Centered Self
The Mental Self: “I am my thoughts”
The first expression of the mental self is our attachment to our thoughts. Speaking for all who know this attachment, Descartes famously asserted cogito ego sum—“I think therefore I am.” Just as I previously attached to my body, and it became the center of my identity, so now I attach to my thoughts, and they define me. They now become my most treasured and wonderfully private possession. I examine my thoughts, review them, and feel the pleasure of identification with them. They are me, and my identity shifts from the public sphere of my role self to this more introspective sphere of my thoughts.

…The mental self can take many forms because there is such a broad range of mental processes and products with which we can identify. Consequently, people at this level of consciousness development can appear quite different from each other—and are quite different from each other. The identity of one may be based on his excellent memory, penetrating analytical skills, or seemingly flawless intuition; that of another may be based on her strategic planning abilities, creative writing, or well-informed opinions and beliefs. The common core is identification with what I can do with my mind. For many people, this provides such a powerful grounding of identity that it remains the organizing center of their self for the rest of their life.

The Ideological Self: “I am my beliefs”
Eventually, thoughts, judgments, feelings, and understandings coalesce into opinions, opinions become beliefs, and, for many people, beliefs begin to form a stable core of a personal framework of meaning. Once again, the nature of their ultimate treasure shifts as they invest their primary attachment to their beliefs. And once again, this becomes the core of their identity. Who am I? I am now my beliefs, not merely my thoughts, imagination, or other mental process or products.

…Christians sometimes find their spirituality reinforcing a mind-centered self when their faith has been reduced to beliefs. This has potentially very costly implications since it can impede further unfolding of consciousness and compromise development of important dimensions of self…I know personally about the way in which beliefs form a small platform for identify and self. For years I defined myself by my theology and clutched my beliefs in a manner that represented an idolatrous substitute for God.

The Communal Self: “I am my community”
Although beliefs can be private, once we make them the center of our identity, we generally seek out others who share them. This in turn strengthens and refines our beliefs and opens a portal to a transition from the mental self to the communal self. Passing through this portal, I am no longer simply my beliefs: I am my community.

The Individual Self: “I am myself”
The Spirit is always wooing us to further development. For someone with consciousness and identity organized around a communal self, this might take the form of a growing sense that while I am my community, I am not just my community. Increasingly I may have the sense that there are other parts of me that can’t be easily explored within my primary community—parts of self that might, for example, be rejected or experienced as a threat. This is one of the reasons why many who sense an invitation to notice and respond to the way in which their community may be curtailing their future development often hold back from exploring this territory out of fear about where it might lead them.

Yet some feel no option but to walk through the next portal. The parts of them that seem more than their community-based identity press so hard for exploration and expression that they know they must discover what they represent. As they pass through this portal, they discover not a single identity but a seemingly endless range of possibilities. It is dizzying to contemplate all the ways in which I might be myself. And yet I know that I am myself and that my challenge is to live the uniqueness of that self in community and in the world. And so I launch forward on the next great adventure.

…this level also has its land mines. That dizzying array of possibilities for my unique self represents a vast range of ways in which I can lose the truth of my being and confuse the truth of my created self, being allured by a self of my own creation. And so in the quest to become my individual self—not define by family, community, culture, race, or religion—it is almost inevitable that I become seduced by false ways of being. The risks of loss of authenticity are great, but so is the call of the Spirit to discover and be the truth of my self.


You are who and what you are,
Fount of all things, near and far;
In you all things come to be,
And being, come in you to see
Their ‘who’ and ‘what’ and ‘why’ as one—
To be sons in the Son;
“Person,” “Self,” and other terms,
All say what the one heart yearns,
To know one’s self as known by you,
As known, and loved, and lived by you.

Just a comma


Wit, a Margaret Edson play written for film by and starring Emma Thompson, is one of my favorite movies. It’s not easy to watch, however. It is about death, something I think about regularly.

Thompson plays a tough English professor specializing in John Donne and who is diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer at the beginning of the movie. She narrates her journey through treatment. The video here is one of the more poignant moments in the movie for me. A beautifully made and acted film. The only mistake in the conversation below is that Professor Ashford refers to the Donne Sonnet in question (“Death be not proud”) as Sonnet VI. I believe it’s Sonnet X.

There was a bird who flew the skies


There was this bird who flew the skies,
Her song a clear and bold reprise,
She won my heart, and chased her true I did,
To have her and to hold
Without compromise.

Her voice my only concert then,
Her shape my only stage and pen,
Playful and free, none else in all my sky,
My partner and my theme,
My best and truest friend.

But compromise I did and set
My heart adrift, my passions let,
Chased phantoms of the night and danced upon
Stages not my own,
And soon came to forget…

…That phantoms cannot give embrace,
Cannot love and have no face,
Though this I knew, yet driven off my course
By phantoms of the night,
Out of love’s true space.

And now return to my own stage,
Seek love’s first script but find no page,
Her song I crushed, wings clipped and left to die,
I left my song and joy,
And locked her in a cage.

Now phantoms false and empty shown,
My truest love, that bird, now known,
I pray her sing again and leave behind
All else to seek her true,
I’m to her refuge flown.

Oh bind my heart again and sing
Enchanting songs of love that bring
And tie my heart to yours I pray and beg;
Your tender voice now raised and
Me hid beneath your wing.

Consecrated vs desacralized thought



Kudos to Fr Kimel for the head’s up on this very interesting article by William Desmond, whose writings I’ve been acquainting myself with since hearing him recommended last summer. Here he discusses the anxious relationship between ‘Priest’ and ‘Philosopher’ (that is, between faith as embodied in a community’s tradition and the authority that naturally attaches to that, on the one hand, and the need to think freely and creatively in renewing or challenging tradition on the other. Both are necessary vocations.

Transforming Moment, Intro 2

saint-paul-the-apostle-07Here’s the second part of Loder’s Introduction to the first of his works we’ll explore, The Transforming Moment (TM). I thought of apologizing for his heavy emphasis upon Kierkegaard, but then I thought of how often Kierkegaard is discussed in Loder’s work and how very indebted Loder is to him. So there’s no avoiding Kierkegaard. If you don’t like Kierkegaard at all, you won’t like Loder.

Enjoy this last portion of the Introduction. I’ll follow this with a short description of his main themes and vision and then we’ll jump into TM.

The Transforming Power of Spiritus Creator

To illustrate this transformation, return to Kierkegaard’s description of indescribable joy. Note first that he himself did not explicitly connect this stunning moment to anything past or future. In fact he does not refer to it anywhere else except here in his journals. However, through the lenses of his life and authorship, it can be seen as a highly condensed, transfigured resolution of conflicted forces which lie behind the immense influence of this solitary individual.

This account is an in-breaking insight coming upon young Soren before he himself was fully aware of the depth of his own conflicts. It represents what he would later call a “transparent” grounding in “the Power that posits the self” (Sickness Unto Death), and proleptically this anticipates a transformation of all registers of behavior that issue from the self—particularly imagination, which yields to “transparency” or imageless images; reason, which yields to the supra rationem expressed in “Absolute Paradox”: and passion, which becomes “the happy passion of faith.”

Specifically, the journal entry is extremely rich in imagery, but this is mainly an account in which imagery is inherently insufficient. Like Paul’s experience (2 Cor. 12:4) when he was “caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words…,” Soren’s experience essentially exceeds all language or metaphor. Although Kierkegaard was not a mystic, this is very like a direct knowledge of God in the classical mystical tradition. The transparen[t] relationship of the human self to the Divine Presence temporarily bursts the limits of the imagination, but imagination recoils and images rush like a torrent into the pure light of the transparency as one shields one’s eyes when surprised by a sudden burst of sunlight. Imagination, Kierkegaard later wrote, is the faculty instar omnium (for all other faculties), but it never supersedes transparency.

What the imagination does accomplish, however, is illuminating. The dominant theme is the rush of joy, expressed a the “glow” of light to which one awakens. To place himself somehow in this joy, Kierkegaard identifies with St. Paul, and joy, like light, pulsates back and forth through his soul, “over…of, in, by, at, on, through, with….” Each additional preposition catches some new facet of the ineffable Source, and then, as if each preposition were still not enough, it is immediately superseded by a new surge of illumination. Then glowing joy shift to singing, and song gives way to a breeze that cools and refreshes. From the glow that bursts with joy to the breeze that cools, a full range of ecstatic experience is covered. Clearly, this experience is not a product of Kierkegaard’s imagination: it is an ineffable experience for which his imagination tries to provide a cognitive shape that will unite conscious and unconscious in a new horizon of meaning for a radically transformed personal existence.

The crowning image alluding to Abraham transforms the depth of unconscious despair in Kierkegaard and metaphorically unites him to the transcendent holiness of God. Thus, the One who comes to young Soren is the One (in three) who comes to Abraham in Genesis 18:1…The fundamental incoherence that lies behind this master imagine in Kierkegaard is the personally devastating relationship that Soren had with his father, and the alienation they both had from God. This was a desperate separation which both took extremely seriously, and it was the curse under which they lived. The reference to Abraham puts this and Soren’s recent reconciliation to his father in startling new focus as follows.

On Soren’s twenty-fifth birthday, just two weeks before this experience, his father, a very old eighty-two, confessed the sins of his youth (his cursing of God and his sensuality) to his son. He asked his forgiveness for them and for all the negative consequences they had brought on the family…This brought him to himself, and when father and son had forgiven and blessed each other, Soren could return home. This is the most significant human occasion behind the higher order, spiritual reconciliation, which his experience of joy displays.

As a human reconciliation, it is immensely satisfying, as in the joy between Cordelia and King Lear when they are reconciled (a parallel to which Kierkegaard refers), but it is at the same time theologically and existentially deficient. The power of the Spirit under which this experience occurs negates all the negations of human kinship; the human bloodline must be negated and transformed into the blood of Christ if eternal death is to be overcome. Young Soren had to be transformed from an illegitimate child of the flesh, Ishmael, to the child of promise and of God. The message of the cooling “trade wind” was that this had been accomplished. Less than two months after this indescribable experience, Soren went to confession to prepare himself for receiving Communion. When he took Communion, he went alone without his father or his brother, an ordained clergyman. On August 8 of that same year, his father died.

By the transformative power of the Spirit…the double conflict between father and son, and between them both and God, was resolved in a stunning moment of participation in the joyful holiness of God. The biblical image that transforms kinship and alienation into reconciliation to God is aged Abraham, who runs from his tent in the heat of the day to receive from God the promise of the son who will be conceived in Sarah’s womb. Thus an aged father of eighty-two reaching out to his estranged son becomes young Soren’s prototype for the master image of Abraham, in whom the father-son relationship is transfigured into a relationship constituted and sustained not by kinship but by grace alone. This God made plain to Abraham on Mt. Moriah many years later, and Kierkegaard dramatically restated the point in his famous “Panergyric on Abraham” in Fear and Trembling, all in anticipation of Calvary.

If Lowrie was correct, the experience of inexpressible joy “was…super real, and it preoccupied him all his life long.” If the joy here is Kierkegaard’s “Hosanna,” then verification and confirmation can be found in his “prodigious authorship,” which has been perpetuated around the globe from West to East and portrayed in every medium of the modern world from literature and drama to television and film. Most profoundly, of course, he altered the course of modern philosophy and theology though he had no institutional connections in church or university to promote his thought. It should not be forgotten, however, that his own assessment of his influence, which knowledge of subsequent history would not have changed, was that he “was just a little bit of spice.”

Finally, Kierkegaard’s identification with St. Paul is not incidental. For him, his authorship was in the last analysis like St. Paul’s gospel, from God alone (Gal. 1:12). Although there were human prototypes, he “did not receive it from man, nor was [he] taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” For those aware of Kierkegaardian stereotypes, it comes as an irony that joy, not melancholy; relationship, not individualism; transparent union with God, not despairing alienation; have generated this incredible authorship.

Of course, this is only to suggest for the case of Soren Kierkegaard some of the aspects of human existence that are taken up in the power of the Creator Spirit and transformed through an experience of indescribable joy. Clearly we have just begun to explore the dimensions of the dynamic reality that lies behind such convictional experience as this, the gracious complementarity between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit, and the impact they may have upon individual and corporate life. These matters will be taken up in the following chapters.

(By the way, the picture depicts Paul’s confrontation with Jesus in which Paul was blinded, in case you were wondering.)

Transforming Moment, Intro 1

william_blake_the_conversion_of_saul_printAs 2014 ended Dwayne and I announced our intention to get into James Loder’s work in 2015, beginning with his The Transforming Moment (TM). We never got around to Loder, temporarily discontinuing our posts instead. But as we get back into blogging, we’d like to make good on those earlier plans. I think the way to go about getting into TM would be to post a couple of passages from his own introduction and then summarize and comment on subsequent chapters. Loder has profound insights into the nature of human development as a spiritual enterprise in general and of spiritual formation in Christ in particular.

So, from the Introduction under the subtitle Logic of Transformation

[T]he generative sources of human intelligence abhor a vacuum. Beneath our educated and scholarly ways of knowing, another dynamic moves to explore “the deep things of the person,” and to generate from hidden resources new, and sometimes powerful, insights that transform the horizons of intelligibility…Kierkegaard called this generative I the human spirit.

Much more must be said about this dynamic, but here let me introduce the human spirit, the uninvited guest in every meaningful knowing event and the dynamic that unobtrusively directs and shapes them all. This dynamic can be characterized as a coherent pattern of knowing which draws into a different whole the many splintered ways we are taught to think. Although this pattern does not emphasize cognitive behavior, its power to shape cognition is familiar to us in acts of creativity and scientific discovery. It is not predominantly a passionate, Dionysian way of knowing, but it is profoundly evident in the intuition and affective ways we know each other in acts of love and compassion. It does not stress either the transcendent self or the immanent self at the expense of the other, but tends to accentuate the dual unity of the self by holding transcendence and immanence together and apart at the same time (as discussed in Chapter 3).

Essential to the spirit’s nature is its wind-like quality; it often takes us by surprise and leads us where we would not otherwise go. Its deeper characteristic, however, is its integrity in driving toward meaning and wholeness in every complex and variegated context. Thus, in an understanding of the spirit, continuity and discontinuity must be combined in a patterned process that does justice to both in the context of a single act of event. This study proposes to show how they are combined in what will be called the logic of transformation.

The steps of this logic are as follows:

oie_deep_breath(1) Confict-in-context. In a given context, the deep movement of the human spirit begins in restless incoherence, dichotomy, or fragmented situations…which defy our elemental longings for coherence. The spirit’s movement is “deep” because often the basic incoherence is more unconscious than conscious. Furthermore, the generative powers of the spirit are not sufficiently engaged until unconscious resources become involved in resolving the incoherence.

(2) Interlude for scanning. Whether conscious or unconscious, the spirit in the psyche cannot rest with incoherence. Although much of human activity, intellectual as well as experiential, is random and inconsistent, the inner drive toward consistency and the resolution of dissonance is a persistent force in psychic life. Thus once a conflict is engaged, the spirit begins the search for resolution. It scans inward and outward for relevant possibilities and prototypes beyond the frame of the problem…that can overcome the discrepancies which are not consistent with the integrity of our research or of our souls.

(3) Insight felt with intuitive force. Sooner or later the ingenuity of the spirit will surprise and often delight us with a constructive resolution that reconstellates the elements of the incoherence and creates a new, more comprehensive context of meaning. This new context transforms the previously conflicted elements or frames of reference, yet without distorting their integrity.

(4) Release and repattering. It is a basic principle of the spirit that energy is invested in and bound by the incoherence, holding on to the conflicted elements so as to effect, if possible, a transformation. Consequently, when the constructive resolution appears, there is a release of energy bound up with the conflict. This “aha,” “Eureka,” or “Hosana” effect is not an incidental byproduct of an otherwise clear-cut logical sequence; it is the usually necessary but not sufficient evidence that the resolution fits. Energy is now available for testing and repattering the original situation in light of the new resolution.

(5) Interpretation and verification. In keeping with this drive toward completion and continuity, the spirit eventually seeks confirmation and verification by interpreting the insight back into the incoherence to see whether its conditions have been met. Finally, the resolution must be submitted to a public test.

These five steps, in their systemic interconnectedness, constitute the logic of transformation inherent in the human spirit. Here it is important to understand that transformation is not merely a synonym for positive change. Rather it occurs whenever, within a given frame of reference or experience, hidden order of coherence and meaning emerge to alter the axioms of the given frame and reorder its elements accordingly.

The pattern described above is easily recognized in common acts of constructive experience…in acts of scientific discovery, and in creative work in the arts or literature. However, in such examples the human spirit is operating largely under the agency of the human ago, which does not itself undergo transformation. Let us suppose that the conflicted situation, vacuum, or void was endemic to the ego itself. Then, would this pattered process still pertain? The basic answer of this study will be “yes,” but in such cases the logic of transformation is transposed to the level of divine action. In this the Holy Spirit as Spiritus Creator, whose mission beings and ends in the inner life of God, transforms the human ego—and by implication, then, all human transformations which issue from the ego are themselves transformed.

Creation at the Improv


I’m grateful to Brian who in a comment recommended Antonio Lopez’s very interesting “Eternal Happening: God as an Event of Love” (Communio: International Catholic Review 32, Summer 2005). Lopez is a priest and assistant professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In the article he explores Balthasar’s understanding of God’s “super-time.” I was about to process an initial response to it in the comments section to Brian but decided I’d rather embarrass myself before a slightly larger audience.

Balthasar uses the term “super-time” to denote the living fullness of the divine relations without the “fleeting” loss involved in temporal becoming characteristic of creaturely existence. Those relations, argues Balthasar, obtain in “the perpetual immediacy of this sudden moment without limits of time, without sequence in their reciprocal vision.” It is a single, perfect moment, an ever-newer “happening.” This is “not simply timeless but a present that always was and is always coming.”

All very intriguing, if somewhat ambiguous, but curiously similar in my mind to what I’ve been trying to express via the notion of God’s “specious present,” something which is neither of the two contradictory options typically considered in debates, i.e., divine temporality understood along Process lines which views God’s actuality as a processu opiris (“work in progress”), and actus purus understood as incompatible with all conceivable unrealized potential. Balthasar’s “super-time” is neither of these (as far as I can tell). So if we can conceive of God neither as processu operis nor as actus purus in the “hard” sense, then might the truth be some third option which each of these options reflects in part but not in whole?

For example, Lopez says, “…one could describe…historical occurrences and phenomena as ‘events’…on the other hand, one could rightly claim that Christianity itself is most adequately understood as an event,” and asks, “Can this term also refer to divine love itself?” Then he seems to work out the ‘event’ of God’s triune being as the over-arching ‘moment’ (specious present) in which other created ‘moments’ may come and go but without the latter involving a “confusi[on of divine] ‘happening’ with ‘becoming’.” Lopez goes on to describe Balthasar’s view of God’s ‘eternity’ as “consist[ing] of an immemorial past that is always poured forth in the present, a present that is receptivity and grateful giving in return, and a future that is both eternal confirmation of the gift of love and ever-new response. Divine communion is both from eternity and ‘created afresh’ at every instant.” This is not your standard atemporal Godhead.

Without understanding talk of ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ to the triune fullness in terms of “becoming,” it nevertheless yields an understanding of Balthasar’s notiong of divine infinity as involving surprise and wonderment (to which I reacted with surprise and wonderment): “There is no absolute love if it does not exceed the ‘wildest expectations’, and there is no true plenitude if it ‘contains itself’, that is to say, if it does not exceed itself in giving itself over without any limitation, only to receive itself back over-abundantly in an excess of love.”


hqdefaultPermit me a slight detour. If one attempts to boil such talk down analytically into a mathematical proposition, one’s bound to be disappointed, which is why I find poetic, musical analogies more persuasive, like that of ‘improvisation’. (Fernando Sor’s “Variations on a theme of Mozart” comes to mind.) Poetic language and aesthetic sensibilities can sometimes take us farther than strict analysis can. I don’t know how else to say it. God-talk is like music notation. Even when correct, it’s still an long way from the experience of music. Something of aesthetic encounters can never be reduced to notation. I remember the amazing Andres Segovia (playing the above Sor variation on Mozart) rebuking a student in a master’s class for playing too obedient to the time signature. Keeping so strictly to the prescribed rhythm, Segovia said, was “contrary to aesthetics.” One such instance of this can be seen here (at minute 5:00 onward) where he says “The nuance in the rhythm is the result of the delicate lack of respect that we have for the rhythm.” A kind of musical apophaticism. Music as experience, as aesthetics, must in a real sense say “not this” to its own language. And “in this lack of respect,” Segovia says, “you can define the good artist from the bad artist.”


Perhaps most interesting to me was a line about how Balthasar understood omniscience not as synonymous with “having been exhausted.” I see room here for construing God’s grounding of creation’s possibilities (on the one hand) and his knowing their free (actual) becoming (on the other) in ‘open view’ terms. That is, creation’s possibilities are ‘exhaustively known’ in God as their ground. That much is self-knowledge. But God truly ‘comes to know’ the actual coming to be (of some possibilities and not of other possibilities) of the world’s events, a divine knowing which is as open as we say the world is and which manifests rather than contradicts the surprise and wonderment of God’s eternal specious moment (viewed, as Balthasar repeatedly says, not as a nunc stans). God’s eternity (the absolute, kenotic, self-surrender of the persons to each other in perpetual, over-abundant astonishment) could only manifest in created time in a truly “open” manner which is known to God in its created openness and not as the unfolding in time of a blueprint “having been exhausted” in eternity, but—and I need to say this carefully—

…just as Balthasar says the divine persons give themselves to each other without reservation or expectation of response (such ‘expectation’ could only be that portion of one’s self withheld from the other), so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others—viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.

You might say that in the open view, God ‘over-knows’ rather than ‘under-knows’ the future. I suggest (boldly, yes) that the ‘open view’ is the best way to work out an understanding of divine triune fullness that creates freely and endows creatures with a measure of ‘improvisational’ say-so in its return to God.

God wills our improvisation


American pianist Keith Jarrett. It might not be your thing, but I promise, if you set time aside to sit, quietly and alone, and listen to his 1997 CD “Las Scala” (named after its venue, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan), you shall be transfigured.  Well, not literally. But “La Scala” is a musical Mt. Tabor, an unveiling within finite human capacity of God’s creative design. Now, as you listen, keep in mind that Parts 1 and 2 are live improvisations. He’s on stage—creating. Yeah. The final rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is an equally beautiful improvisation upon that wonderful piece.

Improvisation. What’s it have to do with God and us? Everything, I think.

I seem to find myself in conversations about created freedom and divine will these days. And part of what often creeps up in these conversations is a certain fear of occasionalism that attends the claim that God knows creation only by knowing himself (i.e., his own sustaining acts within creation). It can’t be, so I’m told, the case that God knows I’m typing these words “because” I’m typing these words. That would suggest God is being “acted upon” by my typing, and that can’t be. God’s knowledge of the world cannot be the effect in God of our doing that which he knows we’re doing. So God doesn’t “get” his knowledge of the world “from” the world. This does seem to reduce creation to the divine will as a mere ‘occasion’ for the latter. The answer I seem to get from my Orthodox friends on this is, not surprisingly, “It’s a mystery.” I’ll leave that as it is. I think there’s plenty of mystery in a certain sense of “mutuality” too, but I don’t want to get into a dispute over that here. Rather, I wanted to share a question I asked David Bentley Hart (regarding God’s will for human being as such) last Spring. Let me share the question and then come back at the end to make a suggestion regarding this whole debate over God’s will and created freedom.

My question to Hart:

On p. 320 of Beauty of the Infinite, with reference to Michel de Certeau’s “Autorités Chrétiennes et Structures Sociales,” you concede the possibility that in our final fulfilled form Christ offers (in Certeau’s words) “a style of existence that ‘allows’ for a certain kind of creativity and that opens a new series of experiences” as opposed to, say, Christ specifying every particular of our continuing existence without remainder (even if, as you say, Christ comprises the fullness of every contingent expression).

My question has to do with created agency as fulfilled in Christ and enjoying a ‘scope of loving possibilities’ within which to freely/creatively determine how it shall reflect divine beauties. Going with Certeau’s suggestion, might we imagine the logoi of created beings as embodying or specifying a “range” or “scope” of beautiful expression and not the particular of every form? The divine will (or logoi) would terminate not in the final form of creaturely expression but in the range of creative possibilities offered to creatures to uniquely shape their expressive form (unique not in the creation of beauties not already comprised in Christ as the summum bonum, but simply as the creature’s contribution to the consummate beauty of ends synergistically achieved). Would the gnomic will retain a unique function in this case?

Hart’s reply:

Sure, works for me. I know that Maximus often speaks of the gnomic will as simply the sinful and deviating will. Something tells me–more a phenomenology of consciousness than a moral metaphysics–that it might be better to think of it as the “third moment” of the conscious act, so to speak, the first two being the primordial intention of the natural will and the power of intellect (both being rational). Then the gnomic will is that supremely rational moment of (ideally) assent or love or creative liberty that completes the “trinitarian” movement of the mind and makes it genuinely rationally free. That is obscure. Sorry. But, yes, I prefer to think that, healed, [the gnomic will] remains, and that it makes each soul’s reflection of and participation in divine beauty a unique inflection or modulation of the whole, which makes each individual indispensable, of course, to that glory. (emphasis mine)

The conversation was generally about the gnomic will. But the relevant point is the terminus of the divine will being the provision of a ‘scope’ or ‘range’ of beautiful expression, not the specific form that expression finally takes in created particulars. I hope you see how consequential this is for the question of God’s will in its immediate sustaining of creation as such, on the one hand, and the determination of creation’s actual expressive forms, on the other hand. These are not convertible ‘ends’. That is, God’s will in sustaining is assymetrical (we don’t share in sustaining our existence, we are given being), but what God gives is itself a “scope” of possibilities whose particular determined forms are not asymmetrically willed by God; they are left to created agency to decide. (I see some squirming going on as some read this.)

keith-jarrett3I’d like to suggest that this should shape how we understand God’s relationship to creation as qualifiedly mutual—that is, asymmetrical (non-mutual) in the giftedness of life because the logoi are God asymmetrically present in us, but truly mutual in the gift’s improvisational return to God. A Bach composition or a Gershwin piece offers a scope or range of interpretive expression. These are never played twice the same way, nor can they be performed at all apart from some interpretive license. This is not due to any limitation in those who play either composer. It is what Bach and Gershwin wanted. It was their will to be so improvised upon. But apart from that, improvisational license is inherent in any creative act.

If the logoi of created beings can be analogously understood, then the divine will ends in defining the ‘scope’ without prescribing or determining the actual creative expressive ‘form’ which Truth, Beauty, and Goodness take in us—as us. But this means, I believe, that God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.


You are the themes, the scope, the rhyme
We improvise upon in time,
Are not made less giving away
Your temporal form to what we say;
These forms are what you will to be,
A mirror of your Trinity.