From Nothing—Part 2

011Moving on, the immediately next section of Ian McFarland’s Intro (see Part 1 in the immediately preceding post) summarizes the contemporary challenge to creation from nothing posed by process theology.

In response to these problems, proponents of process theology have argued that Christians would do better to abandon the doctrine of creation from nothing. Working with the metaphysics introduced by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, process theologians effectively reclaim the doctrine of creation proposed by Hermogenes, arguing that creation ex nihilo creates insuperable problems for Christian theodicy and defending instead a mode of creation from chaos, in which God’s role is that of bringing order to reality. Going beyond what we know of Hermogenes’ theological commitments, they also object to the model of divine omnipotence associated with creation from nothing as morally problematic (since it renders God’s decisions to intervene in some situations rather than others arbitrary), scientifically incredible (since it makes no sense to suppose that a God who could bring into existence any state of affairs immediately would instead take billions of years to do so by means of the slow processes of cosmic and biological evolution), and incompatible with creaturely freedom (since a God who effects all states of affairs is necessarily the only free agent).

Especially given some process theologians’ enthusiasm for Hermogenes’ cosmology, it is tempting to view them as latter-day Platonists. But although Whitehead was a great admirer of Plato (he famously characterized the whole of the Western philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to the latter’s work), process thought also makes a break with Platonist metaphysics. For as much as process theologians endorse the model of creation from chaos, their underlying metaphysical framework is different from Plato’s. In all its various forms, Platonism is marked by a sharp distinction between the eternal, changeless world of Being and the temporal, mutable realm of Becoming. Especially for the later forms of Platonism that influenced early Christians like Justin, God belongs squarely in the realm of Being and is for that reason precluded from direct engagement with the material sphere of Becoming. As we have seen, one of the theologically appealing features of creation from nothing for thinkers like Theophilus and Irenaeus was that it raised no such metaphysical barriers to God’s interacting with the world: because matter is God’s own creation, its difference from God does not imply a distance from God, the crossing of which would compromise the immutable perfection of divine Being.

Process theologians, too, highlight God’s ability to interact with matter. Whereas proponents of creation from nothing make this point by stressing God’s absolute sovereignty over the material realm, however, process thinkers stress rather the interdependence of God and creation. Behind this process understanding of God lies a rejection of the classical Platonist dichotomy between Being and Becoming in favor of a metaphysic in which reality is defined as Becoming (“process”), in relation to which the idea of a changeless realm of Being is an unreal abstraction. Becoming is not conceived as a defective form of existence that at best can only approximate the timeless and immutable perfection of Being, but rather as the most metaphysically fundamental principle, such that in process thought an entity is constituted by its becoming, not by a changeless substrate that underlines and is unaffected by the process of becoming. And because becoming means change, every entity can be characterized in terms of two dimensions (or “poles”) that condition the change it undergoes at any given moment: the accumulated effects of its past history (the “physical pole”) and its openness to new possibilities (the “conceptual pole”). Both are necessary since absent a physical pole, there is no identifiable entity of which “becoming” can be predicated, and without a conceptual pole an entity is incapable of becoming (i.e., of moving beyond its past) and so ceases to exist. This framework, in turn, highlights the fundamentally relational character of process metaphysics. Where becoming is central, an entity’s being is defined by its relationships with other entities. The physical pole is the precipitate of past relationships, while the conceptual pole encapsulates an entity’s sphere of freedom for new relationships. Becoming is the result of the interaction of these two poles from moment to moment, as present possibility builds on past history to produce a new configuration that, in turn, generates a new set of possibilities for further development.

intro-to-process-theology-evil-9-728This dipolar metaphysics constitutes a significant shift from classical Platonist understandings of God and matter alike. On the one hand, matter is no longer the purely passive object of external forces, but possesses its own irreducible integrity as a locus of spontaneous activity—although the scope of freedom exhibited by any particular material entity will vary enormously depending on its organizational complexity (so that, for example, a dog has a much wider range of possibilities associated with its conceptual pole than does an electron). On the other hand, God is not defined by contrast with the realm of becoming as an utterly impassive being who exists independently of all external relationships, but rather as that entity whose range and richness of relationships is unsurpassable. In this way, God is not an exception to, but the supreme exemplification of, the metaphysics of becoming, immediately related to all other entities in the universe, knowing their past histories and present possibilities with a depth that goes beyond the bare facts of their existence to include their experience of joy and pain. This radical intimacy with all other entities makes God supremely responsive to them, seeking at every point to influence their becoming in a way that maximizes the flourishing of all.

Because all entities have range of freedom that is irreducible to past determination and thus escapes external control, God cannot guarantee that they will follow the divine lead. The God of process thought is therefore not omnipotent. All things do not yield to God’s will; indeed, in important respects God’s will is determined by creaturely willing. For although God’s goodness means that God always wills all creature’ maximum enjoyment, the fact that creatures’ decisions are not under God’s control means that the particular content of God’s will (i.e., the concrete possibilities that God presents to creatures for their actualization at any given moment) constantly shifts to reflect changing circumstances, in which the decisions creatures make (decisions God’s power can neither predict nor prevent) open up new possibilities and preclude others. Because the conceptual pole of every individual entity is fundamental, God’s power is not absolute and controlling, but relative and persuasive. It is both present to and directly affects all other entities, but does not determine their future, which thus remains radically open—for good or for ill.

With its stress on God’s intimacy with every creature, process thought thus shares, with the doctrine of creation from nothing, a refusal to distance God from the world. Yet process theologians do not simply view their perspective as a neutral alternative to creation from nothing, but as superior to it. One important reason for this judgment is exegetical: process theologians claim that their model of creation from chaos more accurately reflects biblical depictions of God’s creative activity. As already noted, however, they also cite a range of other reasons for the superiority of their position, all of which are correlates of process theology’s rejection of divine omnipotence. While these objections include concerns about theodicy, human freedom, and scientific credibility, they share a common core: the claim that creation from nothing renders God arbitrary. An omnipotent God could prevent evil but doesn’t, could have made creation perfect but didn’t, could bring everyone to glory but won’t. Even the worry that the model of divine omnipotence underlying creatio ex nihilo is inconsistent with human beings reduces to that of a puppet-master and thus lacks the basic conditions of personal relationship. In short, history under ex nihilo lacks the possibility of genuine drama and reduces to a capricious, and thus ultimately lifeless, game of divine charades.


McFarland’s review of process thought is good. I imagine that given his own purposes, he couldn’t get into all the shades of grey and the various competing views within process thought which have developed since Whitehead’s day. For example, all process theologians do not speak of creation out of “chaos.” Some speak of creation “out of God” or “out of divine love.” Nor is it the case the process theism is a “Christian” project at all, though some Christians seek to accommodate biblical faith to a process framework. So also do some non-Christian theists (Muhammad Iqbal is a Muslim example that comes to mind). Process thought didn’t begin with Whitehead as, nor did it evolve with his student Charles Hartshorne into, a “Christian” theology. It is a purely rational, a priori philosophical project. But it has captured the minds of many who grew up within Christianity (within traditional Protestantism at least, though Joseph Bracken is a Catholic theologian who works in process terms, though without denying creation ex nihilo or the Trinity). In the end, it’s nearly impossible to get process thinkers to define a set of non-negotiable doctrines essential to process theology.

From Nothing—Part 1

51jlih1UctL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_It just dawned on my a few weeks ago when I finally picked up Robert Jenson’s SysTheo (vol 1) that I hadn’t touched a Protestant author in a few years. And Jenson was my re-entry welcome. I’m still recovering (and still reading him).

I’ve also just picked up and am enjoying another Lutheran, Ian McFarland, his From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (2014). McFarland is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge (Emory prior to that and Aberdeen before that). From Nothing is a re-presentation of the traditional understanding of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) in light of contemporary objections and problems. There are three important passages from his Introduction which nicely summarize where he’s headed, and I’d like to present those here as Parts 1, 2, and 3. Enjoy.

In deciding for creation from nothing, Theophilus pays a conceptual price. If Tertullian is to be believed, Hermogenes rejected ex nilhilo because it implied that God was responsible for the evident imperfections in the created order, thereby undermining Christian convictions regarding God’s goodness and wisdom. For him (like the gnostics) the doctrine of creation provided a solution to the problem of evil: if God is not responsible for the existence of matter, then the evils that attend material existence cannot be blamed on God; to put it colloquially, God cannot be expected to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In short, while the gnostics used the doctrine of creation as a theodicy, for Theophilus it no longer plays this role. Evil cannot be explained as a natural consequence of creation. It is rather a deeply irrational perversion of creation that emerges as the result of the inexplicable fact that creatures reject God’s will for them.

Instead of using the doctrine of creation to generate a theodicy, Theophilus turns it to the service of soteriology. This is not to say that for Theophilus creation is salvation, as though making the world were itself God’s means of defeating evil. Such a perspective would only reaffirm the basic structure of Platonist cosmology, because treating God’s creative work as a form of resistance to evil implies some (evil) reality existing alongside of God “in the beginning.” The soteriological cast of Theophilus’s account of creation from nothing is more indirect. It is not that creation is itself salvific (since only what already exists can be saved, and creation from nothing means precisely that things exist only after they have been created), but that creation from nothing is a necessary implication of Christian confidence in God’s ability to save. In Theophilus’s work this is revealed in the following attempt to explain the origins of the word “God”: “‘God’ [theos] is so named because he has placed [tetheikenai] all things in dependence on the security he provides; and because he runs [theein], and this running means giving all things power, motion, activity, nourishment, ends, direction, and life.”

The novelty of this perspective cannot be underestimated. The difference from Platonist views is evident from comparison with Justin, who is led by his belief in the ontological independence of matter to argue that God is unable to act directly on or be immediately present to creation: God is and remains outside of the phenomenal world. No less striking, however, is the difference from the vision of creation from nothing developed by Basilides, who also argues (albeit on different metaphysical grounds) against the possibility of direct divine involvement with the created order. Over against both these positions, Theophilus refuses to equate God’s transcendence of creation with remoteness or disconnection from the material order. Although God’s immensity means that God cannot be confined to a particular place, this does not signal divine absence but rather points to the fact that “the heights of heaven, the depths of hell, and the ends of the earth are in [God’s] hands.”

This feature of the catholic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is even more prominent in the slightly later writing of Irenaeus of Lyons. He, too, describes the whole of the created order as in God’s hand, arguing that God’s power as Creator means that God contains the whole of creation: “There is nothing either above [God] nor after [God]; not…[was God] influenced by anyone, but of his own free will he created all things, since he is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and himself commanding them into existence.”

For Irenaeus, a crucial corollary of this all-containing immensity is God’s incomprehensibility: because nothing is outside of God, the divine cannot be encompassed by human thought. And yet far from placing God at a distance from the world, this divine fullness establishes the most profound intimacy between Creator and creature: the same God “who fills the heavens and views the depths…is also present with everyone [sic] of us…For his hand lays hold of all things…is present in our hidden and secret parts, and publicly nourishes and preserves us.” God’s transcendence does not imply distance from creatures, but is rather the ground for God’s engagement with them.

This intimacy is central to the way in which, for both Theophilus and Irenaeus, the idea of creation from nothing turns the focus of the doctrine of creation from theodicy to soteriology. At one level this leads to a profoundly free act of God’s will, the question naturally arises as to the purpose for which God willed it, and Theophilus has no doubts here: God made the world so that through it God might come to be known by human beings, a view in which Irenaeus concurs. Crucially, however, the fulfillment of this purpose is dependent on God’s presence and power within the created order…

All this is not is not to claim that appreciation for God’s power to save emerged only after Christians formulated the doctrine of creation from nothing. Justin, for example, was no less able than Theophilus or Irenaeus to cite Jesus’ claim that “for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26) and thus to affirm the principle that God’s power exceeds all human expectation. Yet as much as a theologian like Justin could stress God’s power as a matter of piety, his emphasis on matter’s ontological independence of God rendered him conceptually incapable of viewing God as directly active in Creation-Day1creation. Like Hermogenes (even if not as explicitly), he sees the character of matter as fundamentally incompatible with God’s unmediated presence to it, even though he affirms God’s lordship over it. By contrast, Irenaeus’s defense of creation from nothing makes it easier for him to affirm, as a matter of logic (and not simply of piety), that nothing constrains God’s ability to effect what God wills. For him, as for Theophilus, it is not simply that God’s power is greater than human imagination, but that there simply is no factor independent of God that might limit that power.

Irenaeus goes on to explore some of the implications of this position, and in the process effectively answers Hermogenes’ primary objection to creation from nothing: How is it, if God is both good and omnipotent, that creation is so obviously imperfect? For Irenaeus the world’s imperfection in no way impugns God’s benevolence or power, but is simply a corollary of its having been created: “Created things must fall short of the one who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things only just created to have been uncreated. And because they are not uncreated, for this very reason they fall short of the perfect.”

Irenaeus acknowledges the imperfection of the created order, but he does not attribute this to matter’s ontological independence, as Hermogenes thought had to be done in order to avoid tracing the world’s imperfections back to some deficiency in God. For Irenaeus, the world’s imperfection is simply a matter of logic: tat which is created cannot by definition possess the property of being uncreated. Nevertheless, creatures can acquire something of God’s perfection as the result of subsequent modification of their created status over time. According to Irenaeus, creatures come to participate in God’s uncreated being through God’s commitment to perfect their created existence—something that can only happen after God has first brought them into being, when God, through God’s utterly gracious love for creatures, gives them the glory of uncreated existence through God’s own loving presence to them.

In this way, Irenaeus understands the world’s present imperfection as a function of its subjection to God’s will rather than evidence that matter lies outside the scope of that will. Given God’s own perfection, moreover, for Irenaeus it is integral to God’s ongoing work in and with the world that creation’s imperfection will ultimately be overcome: God will act so that human beings will be “accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature,” and since human beings subsist as creatures within and dependent on the wider panorama of the created being, this work of perfecting will include the whole of the created order. At one level, the result is a remarkably confident and optimistic cosmology, in which God’s power ensures not only the existence, but also the ultimate well-being of all things. At the same time, this stress on God’s power can also be viewed as problematic in at least two respects: first, it raises the specter of divine despotism, in which God’s sovereignty is so uncompromising that it threatens to undermine belief in creaturely freedom; and second, it fails to fully confront the problem of evil, since creation’s present imperfection is not simply a matter of immaturity, but of extraordinary pain and suffering, which is capable of inflicting apparently irrevocable damage to creatures’ well-being. Admittedly, neither of these problems seems to worry either Theophilus or Irenaeus, both of whom go out of their way to insist on creaturely freedom before God as a defining feature of rational creatures in particular and as the source of evil in the world. But it is certainly possible to question whether this position is finally coherent, whether the emphasis on divine sovereignty that attends these two theologians’ support of creation from nothing is consistent with their emphasis on human freedom. Similarly, if one follows them in tracing the origin of evil to the necessary imperfection (and thus mutability) of created beings, this naturally raises the question of whether or not evil is to be viewed as somehow “natural” and therefore ultimately good. Although the doctrine of creation from nothing triumphed in the wider church, these questions have continued to generate problems for its defenders.

Prayer: Who really knows his own nothingness? Who isn’t thrown into panic and despair at the slightest realization of it? But drag me through it in your mercy, Jesus. It is the death of every false self. May I suffer their burial joyfully for you. For only on the other side of nothingness is the light and freedom of groundedness in you, my everything, my all, my only.

She was born in Fall

On this Mother’s Day, you are in my heart, Mom.

An Open Orthodoxy


I can’t let the day go without giving a shout out to my mother, Gertrude Marie (b. 11/1925, d. 04/2010). Here are Mom and Dad (David and Trudy), in Baltimore in 1942, the year they were married. And here are my thoughts of her on the occasion of her death in April 2010.

She was born in fall when leaves do turn,
When winter calls and colors burn,
Then fell in spring when new leaves yearn,
And baby flowers sang.

Her course was set against the flow,
Her progress made with kids in tow,
The world did small affection show,
And little comfort share.

But faith she found, and passed it on,
And this past spring tried on her crown,
And with a regal saintly gown
Entered upon her rest.

My mind appoints fond memories,
Renews her presence here with ease,
Her alto voice and melodies,

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Heart-Shaped Becoming

Being-Becomming-Cover-662x1024I’ve already summarized David Benner’s main points in Spirituality and the Awakening Self (2012), my first Benner read. I’m reading a couple of other books by Benner and enjoy his style and insights into spiritual formation/transformation and human development. I thought I’d share here a few of his thoughts from Human Being and Becoming (2016), ch. 6 (“Heart-Based Becoming”). Enjoy:

The reason I speak of heart-shaped becoming is that the heart has a particularly important role to play in our becoming more than we are. It offers us an alternative to the default human operating system that I described as the egoic self in chapter 5. Like any upgraded operating system, it has to be downloaded to be accessed…

In the wisdom tradition the heart, not the brain, connects us to what exists beyond us. The heart has the bigger perspective. It can see further [sic] than the mind because it draws its data from all levels of reality, including but never limited to the mind. The heart is our spiritual center because it is the seat of imagination and intuition. It is the heart that dreams and, though our deepest desires, leads us forward on our journey of unfolding. It is the heart that senses wholes, “gets” poetry and art, and gives us our expansiveness—stretching out beyond our individuality to connect us to the very heart of the universe. Unlike ego, the heart doesn’t perceive by differentiation but by means of its inherent resonance with wholeness, alignment, oneness, harmony, proportion, and beauty. Is it any surprise that this heart has long been recognized in spiritual teaching as the core of our being? This is the heart that holds both the mysteries and potentialities of human personhood…

The heart is the threshold of the transcendent…

While the heart is the doorway to the self-transcendent, it is a doorway through which we cannot pass without bringing the mind along. The heart is, as I have said, the fullness of the mind. It simply cannot do its job without the mind…

Nothing arising from within the egoic self or the binary brain can be of any help in moving the mind down into the heart. As Einstein said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Typically, however, when we become frustrated by the smallness of our egoic self and tired of its petty games, the easiest thing to do is to use the tools at hand. If, for example, we determine that we would like to be less judgmental, we try to be less judgmental. Or if we feel exhausted by the effort demanded to keep up with the games of the false self, we try to fix the false self. But the will is at the core of these efforts to try to fix things that we think need fixing, and the will is a faculty of the ego. Our effort only strengthens the egoic self. This is the great problem with the self-improvement projects undertaken under the direction of the ego. They only reinforce the root of the problem.

Anything that feels like a default strategy in life always arises from the default egoic operating system. The ease with which we slip into these automatic ways of responding should be a warning signal to us that we are using the tools of the ego to attempt to transcend the limitations of the ego. The only tools that can help the mind find its way to its home in the heart are those that come from the heart. From the perspective of the mind, they seem utterly useless and totally trivial. What the heart offers is an invitation to let go and let be. It bids us to step back from the striving that has characterized our lives and risk, allowing our lives to emerge unshaped by our willful egoic manipulations…

While there may be other ways to replace the egoic self with the heart-shaped self, the one that has been most prized by the wisdom tradition—and the one I can recommend with the most confidence—is the practice of meditation, or, as it is commonly described I the Christian tradition, contemplation. This practice is the access key that allows us to download the upgraded operating system for the egoic self. It couldn’t be designed better as a way to help the mind find its way back into the next of the heart.

The unique leverage mediation offers in this transformational process comes from the fact that it engages the mind through the heart, not the ego. Rather than activating normal mental processes, it sidelines them. Rather than either using or trying to manage thoughts, it simply disregards them. And by doing so, it moves us to a place much deeper than thoughts. It shifts us into the region of the heart.

All forms of meditation pull the plug on the constant self-reflexive activity of the egoic mind by teaching us to detach ourselves from thoughts. But this practice in detachment pays dividends that extend far beyond thoughts.

The human heart has infinite spaciousness. However, each time we cling to something, the heart’s spaciousness is reduced. The more we cling, the more the heart is constricted. And the more things we cling to, the more chronic and life-strangling the constrictions become. Meditation addresses this by teaching us gentle release of the things we are clinging to. This starts with thoughts, but over time we get into the flow of release and begin to notice other attachments that are strangling the heart and limiting freedom. One by one, we release them. Whatever we cling to we can learn to hold lightly by practicing the simple action of release. Doing so unblocks the clogged arteries of the spiritual heart and lets life start to flow freely again through us.

Detachment involves learning to hold things lightly. Non-attachment isn’t indifference or drifting through life without engagement but rather freedom from grasping and clinging—two hallmarks of the ego. Grasping and clinging shut down the heart. Detachment opens it up, and non-attachment keeps it open. The detached heart is free to feel most fully, love most passionately, and guide most dependably as we seek to translate concern into constructive action…

You will begin to see differently as your shift from a preoccupation with uniqueness to a sense of amazement at connections and similarities. As you bypass categorization you will be struck by the larger whole that contains and supersedes all categories. You will also notice yourself moving beyond either/or to both/and, from grasping and clinging to the freedom to release all things. Increasingly, you will intuitively sense the harmony of the larger whole. In the depths of your being, you will begin to know the divine coherence of life and the way in which you and everything else belong within this wholeness. These changes are the firstfruits of what has classically been described as “unitive” or “non-dual” consciousness. But it is important to remember that these things are not achievements. They are gifts. You didn’t engineer them. Your part was simply to access your heart; the rest unfolds as you continue to release the stranglehold that ego previously had on it…

Make it [contemplation/meditation] a life practice, in all senses of the term. Recognize that you are doing it for the rest of your life, and allow it to become a lifestyle, not a fad spiritual diet. Treat it as a way to practice life. Meditation isn’t preparation for life—it is life itself. Notice how you become aware of that fact that rather than meditation giving you a pace to go to, it becomes the place you go from….


Given that I share Benner’s main interest—the why and how of spiritual formation within the context of human development—and my own experience has led to the same conclusions (and fits with Loder’s main insights), I hope to work through several other of his books. The next to read, Presence and Encounter (2014), is sitting beside me as I write. It looks excellent.

Benner is a psychologist, author and speaker. He has held faculty positions and been visiting lecturer at several universities, has held clinical appointments at several institutions, and was the founder and chair of professional organizations and institutes devoted to the study spirituality and psychology. He began his life within an Evangelical Christian context, widened his associations through study and subsequent experiences, and today worships as an Anglican (in Canada).

He does ground his spirituality in Christian beliefs, but his books aren’t overtly “Christian.” The book I just finished (quoted above) never mentions Jesus (though Benner promotes and practices the Jesus Prayer he learned from Orthodoxy) or specifically associates his claims about spiritual health and transformation with specific Christian beliefs. This seems to be a conscious choice to make his insights available to people who aren’t Christians. I can appreciate a certain anonymity or emphasis upon generic insights (for example, Benner grounds his points in perennial wisdom and the transcendentals as variously expressed in all the main theistic traditions). But at times I struggled with the absence of any explicit identification of or with Christ. I couldn’t keep Christ out of my articulation of things the way Benner does.