Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2

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I don’t intend to respond to each of the seven theodicies Richard Rice surveys and which I briefly summarized in Part 1. There are, however, a couple of interesting points that Rice himself raises which I’d like comment on before I add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven.

As I emphasized this summer in reviewing existential arguments for (im)passibility (Parts 1-6), it’s difficult to evaluate how well particular beliefs help a person world-construct in healthy and transformative ways, particularly because what counts as ‘healthy’ is part of what is in dispute in existential arguments. At the same time, however, there’s no avoiding existential questions. Christianity is ultimately a life to be lived. As ubiquitous as evil and suffering are, it is precisely our living that throws us into the path of questions about the relationship between God’s goodness and providence (on the one hand) and evil and suffering (on the other). We are incurable meaning-makers who must integrate life’s experiences into a narrative that satisfies both heart and mind. Everybody has to sort this out for him/herself, of course, and Rice recognizes this.

We should distinguish between one of Rice’s seven theodicies and all the rest. The first approach he mentions (Perfect Plan Theodicy) maintains that all evil and suffering are unconditionally decreed by God. No other theodicy Rice lists takes this particular view of God’s relationship to evil, and for that reason I think we can draw our first distinction between Perfect Plan theodicies and every other theodicy that at least attempts to take creaturely freedom seriously. I respect the experience of those who find the Perfect Plan model meaningful and satisfying, but I don’t find it existentially viable on any level. There’s just no making sense of a God whose being is pure beatitude and holy delight exhaustively and unconditionally determining the evil and suffering of our world in the sense this theodicy maintains.

Of the other six approaches Rice describes, there are features I resonate with, so let me describe those features briefly.

First, there’s the integrity of the agency or ‘say-so’ God endows us with to determine ourselves in morally responsible ways. Whatever the extent to which one views created ‘say-so’ as having the power to realize evils not willed by God, it remains the case that created causes are real and do not collapse into mere occasions whose evil and suffering unfold in time the timeless will of God. This view of agency, or libertarian free will (not as the absolute unconstrained freedom to determine oneself without reference to transcendent goods and orientations), is an abiding feature throughout all the options Rice summarizes other than Perfect Plan theodicy.

Second, it was interesting to see Rice introduce the traditional understanding of evil as a privatio boni (privation of the good). Evil has no being or substance of its own but exists merely in a negative sense as a failure of what is to be all it was created to be. It is thus a diminished experience of the Good. It seems to me (as I’ve much argued the point on this blog) that the implications of this view of evil are vastly underappreciated, for once one admits evil as privation of the good, one admits a Supreme Good (viz., God) incapable of privation. And once this is admitted, it fundamentally guides and empowers meaning-making in a fallen and suffering world.

Burning Fiery FurnaceHowever we integrate our experiences of evil and suffering into a meaningful narrative that satisfies the mind and empowers our living for God, God cannot be viewed as willing evil or as willing his own privated forms of reflection within the world. Such willing would itself be privation. The essential point is that if there is privation of the good, there must be an undiminished and absolute Supreme Good. This has huge implications for meaning-making. Not only is evil not itself willed by God, but neither can the evil willed by us through our free choice manufacture within God or within our perfected forms (as contingent, embodied reflections of God) any sort of positive moment or contribution of beauty. Evil is in the strictest sense meaningless (or meaninglessness itself).

Interestingly, this understanding of God as the summum bonum becomes part of Rice’s argument against Protest theodicies (though it never takes center stage in his own understanding of how we meaning-make in the face of suffering). On what basis, Rice argues, does one ‘protest’ believing in the good in the face of horrendous evil if the conclusion of such protest is the eradication of the good needed to get the protest off the ground in the first place? Protest theodicies are self-contradictory because they seek to deny what their principled protest requires, namely, an undiminished and absolute Good to which the goodness of all things is related, from which all things derive their goodness, and by which all finite goods and claims are measured.

On a somewhat related note, I think the failure to understand the undiminished nature of the Good along concrete, existential lines is the fundamental mistake of all passibilisms. This has enormous implications for how we find meaning in suffering as well.

Lastly, I want to register my interest in soul-making approaches. While I don’t agree that actual evils contribute positively to God’s purposes, I do think there’s something worth affirming in the claim that we cannot become all God designs and calls us to be apart from certain challenges. I suggest that there’s no getting around having to world-construct (toward full, hypostatic-personal being) in the face of the truth about our createdness, and that truth includes our finitude as created ex nihilo, and in my view that means mortality. Apart from the experience of mortality we have no way to comprehend the truth of such radical finitude and contingency. Our fullest personal being is our truest being, and the truth of our being includes the truth of our being created ex nihilo. That ‘nothingness’ is the one truth we have to world-construct in light of if we’re going to live a meaningful life. So in our view mortality is a grace when seen as an embodiment of the truth of our finitude, a way to experience ourselves as created ex nihilo.

This is not to say misrelating to mortality in despairing ways (when ‘mortality’ becomes ‘death’ as viewed theologically) is necessary. One has only to embrace the truth of one’s existence as unconditionally given freely and ex nihilo. As much as we talk about creation ex nihilo, I think we forget to figure it into our understanding of the structure of human becoming and perfection. We talk about creation ex nihilo a lot. We experience it very little. So while I don’t affirm soul-making in the sense that I think who we finally become is positively shaped by evil or that we come to embody a goodness that is inconceivable apart from evil, I do think who we are meant by God to become cannot be embraced by us apart from our perceiving and embracing the truth of the nihil out of which God unconditionally called us into being. I’m happy to describe seeing and embracing that truth as a “soul making” moment. But I don’t see anything evil about finitude or mortality per se, though it can occasion suffering.

390.-The-Three-Holy-Youths

In summary then, the key meaning-making resources I gather from the seven approaches Rice describes are as follows:

(1) The necessity of libertarian free will for human being. Properly understood, such exercise of the will is fundamental to our achieving God’s ends for us even if it is not the fullest expression of our freedom in Christ. However God is ultimately responsible for creating a world facing possibilities for both good and evil, he does not will evil and suffering as such, so the popular “there’s a purpose for everything that happens” isn’t a viable truth for meaning-making.

(2) Evil as privation. Understanding evil as privation of the good is inseparable from understanding God as the summum bonum (the Supreme Good) as well as inseparable from understanding the rational structure of aesthetic perception and volition as irrevocably oriented toward the Good. So if there isn’t a specific divine purpose for every evil that occurs, there nevertheless is divine purpose in or available to everything that occurs. Simply stated, no privation of evil can so diminish our lives that we become inseparable from God’s purposes. We may suffer evils God does not will, evil that does not lie within the scope of his purposes for us, but these evils cannot permanently foreclose on us all possibility of realizing our truest purpose and meaning. Again, this radically shapes how we perceive the meaning of our lives relative to suffering.

(3) Qualified soul-making. Soul-making approaches are right to emphasize that perfection is the end of human being, not its beginning. And the ends for which we are created have to be chosen, learned, and acquired. Human fulfillment is a creative achievement. Such choice requires a context in which we can responsibly choose in light of the truth of our finitude and the nothingness from which God calls us to be. Finitude must embrace the truth about itself, and that is a painful journey – though not necessarily an evil one.

To which I’d add:

(4) God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum. A qualified sense of apatheia, or God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum, is a fundamental truth for human meaning-making. Believing God’s triune beatitude is undiminished by evil and suffering provides a radically different framework within which we world-construct and process meaning. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my difference with all the models Rice surveys. None of them takes time to contemplate God’s experienced triune beatitude as that about God which constitutes his being the summum bonum (the highest good and supreme value). But once the link between God’s experienced beatitude and God as the highest good and greatest value is made, one then finds meaning in suffering quite differently than any of the approaches Rice discusses. Evil does not come to mean anything. As I’ve argued often, our meaning is not the difference we make to God (i.e., the difference our suffering makes to God as he suffers as we suffer), but the difference God makes to us (i.e., the transcendent healing which God’s joy and delight provide in our suffering).

If I boil down points 1 through 4 into an eighth approach to suffering, I wouldn’t know what to call it. Perhaps:

Undiminished divine delight | Therapeutic theodicy
or
Participation in God | Theosis theodicy

I’ll end with a passage from Daniel 3 which should explain my choice of pictures attending this post, all depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s throwing the three Jewish men into the consuming fires of a furnace:

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Were not there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’.” (Daniel Ch 3)

What’s the powerful imagery of this story have to do with the points I’ve here tried to express regarding suffering within the framework of God’s undiminished beatitude? If you have to ask, I’ve done a lousy job of explaining myself.

Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 1

suffer3I first met Richard Rice in Boston nearly ten years ago. He’s a brilliant thinker and a kind and generous conversation partner. I circle back around to his contributions in Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (2009), especially Ch. 4 “Process Theism and the Open View of God: The Crucial Difference,” from time to time. He understands and appreciates Hartshorne but clearly sees the inadequacies of process theism. Just today I reread (I’m in reread mode this week) his Suffering and the Search for Meaning (2014), a book he published to summarize conversations and conclusions reached from having taught a class on suffering and theodicy to graduate students in the field of health sciences.

There are three reasons why I like this book:

The first is it seeks to explore the practical consequences our beliefs in God have for informing and sustaining us during times of suffering. The question it tries to answer is: How do we find meaning in suffering? And whenever someone honestly sets himself to address that question, count me in the conversation. Rice recognizes the value of purely philosophical arguments. They have their place. But in the end their usefulness is for life, for living well and meaningfully in and through suffering. So the practical-existential challenge of living is why we are even philosophically interested in such questions. A nice feature of his attempt to deal with the practical, ‘lived’, dimension of our beliefs is that each approach to suffering is worked out in terms of people’s actual stories. So you get to observe how somebody holding that particular view of God ‘world constructs’ or ‘makes meaning’ within the constraints of and resources provided by his/her view of God’s relationship to their suffering.

The second reason I like this book is that it gathers into a short volume helpful summaries of popular approaches to the question of suffering. Separate books have been written on each approach, but it’s nice to have the main options in a single volume.

The third reason I appreciate Rice here is that he doesn’t take a narrow, fundamentalist posture about the options. He has definite convictions, sure. But he recognizes there is something of value in each approach, something good that each approach recognizes and seeks to protect. He also recognizes the integrity of every person’s honest attempt to integrate suffering in a meaningfully and purposeful way. He is never condescending, insulting, or dismissive.

I’d like to briefly summarize the approaches Rice presents and then come back in Part 2 with some responses. I’ll also add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven. Here are his seven theodicies:

God Never Makes Mistakes | Perfect Plan Theodicy
Perfect plan theodicy is essentially that deterministic view of the world that sees every event of life as unconditionally determined by God. Whatever happens to us, however heinous the evil or devastating the loss, God specifically wills it, and nothing occurs outside God’s meticulous determination of things. Obviously how a person world-constructs within the framework of such a view is dependent upon the meaning-making options this view provides. One’s attempt to construct meaning and purpose, regardless of the suffering experienced or the nature of the evil behind it, can never step outside viewing such evil as unconditionally determined by God. There is no gratuitous evil, and whatever purpose God may have in determining suffering and evil for me, the fundamental truth that shapes my ‘meaning-making’ process in suffering is simply the conviction that nothing happens to me that is not meticulously decreed for me purposefully by God. There is, Rice notes, a certain appeal to this view of things. It appeals to our innate desire for order. We naturally want to fit the events of our lives into a purposeful narrative, and the ‘perfect plan theodicy’ eliminates all talk of risk, change occurrence, and capriciousness.

Let Freedom Ring | The Free Will Defense
The second theodicy Rice summarizes is the Free Will defense. It’s an explanation with a long tradition with different versions. From this view, God does not decree or will evil and suffering and so is not responsible for it. Rather, God has endowed us with a certain measure of ‘say-so’ or free will. And that, not some divine decree, explain the origin of evil and suffering.

Rice is aware that this brings up the question (for those views that view creation as a free act of God) of whether giving human beings such freedom to self-dispose is good and wise. It also leaves unaddressed (or very awkwardly addressed) the question of natural evil (animal suffering and suffering caused by natural catastrophes unrelated to any human moral agency). Nevertheless, a person seeking meaning and purpose in suffering within this view would world-construct very differently that the above ‘perfect plan’ perspective. One populates the world with agents exercising their wills in ways God does not determine or decree that they should, what suffering means to my life and purpose is viewed quite differently. I don’t look for some specific purpose in and behind every evil. Whatever meaning and purpose I construct within the context of my suffering, I do not begin with the assumption that God has decreed my suffering for me. God is responsible for the possibility of evil, but not the actuality of evil. For the perfect plan theodicy, suffering fulfills God’s purposes and designs. For the free will defense, suffering conflicts with God’s objectives.

No Pain, No Gain | Soul Making Theodicy
Soul making theodicies resemble perfect plan theodicies in some ways and the free will defense in other ways. Proponents of the “soul making” theodicy agree that we are free in a non-determinisitc way, but they integrate suffering purposefully in ways free will theists often deny. They believe evil and suffering have positive roles to play in shaping or ‘making’ us, but they don’t necessarily see God’s will behind every evil. John Hick is largely responsible for the use of the term “soul making.” Hick grounds his arguments in the views of the Church father Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 AD) who argued that human perfection was the ‘end’ and not the ‘beginning’ of human existence. We were meant to ‘become’ mature, responsible, loyal, obedient, good, etc., and becoming this requires pain and suffering. No pain, no gain.

jobWhile there is a certain appeal to this approach as well, Rice questions its stand along adequacy. Do evil and suffering always achieve their ‘soul making’ objectives? It seems they do not. If the purpose of suffering is to perfect our character, where are the perfect people? So the question arises as to whether or not the benefits that come from suffering a worth the costs, particularly in the case of “horrendous evils” (Rice brings in Marilyn McCord-Adams work here). Some evil is so horrendous, so overwhelmingly definitive of one’s experience, leaving many permanently damaged for life, it’s hard to imagine benefits that would justify a divine soul making policy which exposes innocent children to evils far greater than their capacities to integrate.

An Enemy Hath Done This | Cosmic Conflict Theodicy
With this explanation of evil and suffering, the material created order is viewed as the stage upon which a cosmic war is being waged between God and fallen angelic agencies led by Lucifer (Satan, the devil) who are in active rebellion against God’s creative purposes. Rice develops the main lines of this view nicely and notes the relevant proponents, focusing on Greg Boyd’s work (in addition to Ellen White) as a recent good example of this worldview.

This view has certain advantages. It’s able to take the biblical narrative about spiritual agencies working at cross purposes with God seriously without dismissing it as so much mythology. Very little of the serious work being done on theodicy even takes time to mention the reality and role of malevolent spiritual forces. Cosmic conflict theodicies essentially do away with the distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘nature’ evil (moral evil being evil brought about through the moral choices of responsible moral agents; natural evil refers to suffering caused by natural evils – tornadoes, tsunamis, mud slides, earthquakes, tree limbs falling on passers-by, etc.) presumably unrelated to the choices of any moral agent. Boyd argues it’s false to view natural evil this way, that in fact all such events are ‘moral’ in the sense that they are caused by the choices of malevolent spiritual agencies perverting the natural order and orchestrating matter toward destructive ends.

A proponent of cosmic conflict theodicy like Boyd would of course make use of the resources within the free will defense and open theism. But cosmic warfare theodicy adds an element not explicitly a part of these other approaches, for now even natural events are to be viewed as the effects of choices being made by innumerable spiritual agencies (causing tornadoes, pushing tectonic plates, orchestrating mud slides and forcing lava from volcanoes). This would certain redefine the explanatory resources a person suffering from natural disasters would have. If I suffer the loss of someone I love due to a flash flood or a tornado, I needn’t suffer the additional pain of wondering why an omnipotent, loving God would not stop such events if doing so would interfere with no one’s free will. On this view, all events in the nature order are the consequence of a host of competing wills (divine, angelic, human). Spiritual agencies promoting and contesting God’s will are at work behind all natural events. Everything is contested.

Love Makes the World Go Round | Openness of God Theodicy
Open theists argues that the relationship between God and the world, as it regards providence and outcomes, is very interactive. They share the essential commitments of the free will defense and may enjoy the perceived benefits of both the soul making and cosmic conflict theodicies. The unique contribution that open theism makes to a person’s ability to explain evil and integrate pain and suffering into a meaningful and healthy narrative for living is its claim that God does not eternally foreknow future contingencies, that is, divine providence is not the unfolding in time of an absolute blueprint of precisely how the world’s events occur. Whether the blueprint is conceived as determined by the will of God (perfect plan theodicy) or simply foreknown (timelessly or otherwise, along classical Arminian and even Orthodox lines), open theism argues there is no one blueprint in God’s mind or will that maps out exactly how the world’s possibilities will as a matter of fact unfold, certainly nothing that would be providentially useful.

The perceived existential benefit here is that a person suffering from some evil isn’t attempting to reconcile their suffering with the fact that God eternally knows this specific evil shall occur as it does and that God determined to permit such evil on the basis of such foreknowledge (as some traditions argue). That explanation of my suffering isn’t available to the open theist. I may seek to integrate evil and suffering in the construction of an existentially viable worldview based on God’s foreknowing such evils as a possibility, but there’s no place for an understanding of providence that includes a blueprint worldview.

Even God Can’t Do Everything | Finite God Theodicy
Process theism offers resources for world-construction and meaning-making which are radically different from other approaches here described. On the immediate surface of things, Process affirms generally what other Christian approaches affirm, i.e., that God cares deeply about the world, that God involved in and responsive to the world, that he wisely and lovingly pursue the world’s highest good. “But,” Rice summarizes, “there is only so much God can do. God doesn’t have the sort of power that enables God to achieve everything God wants just by willing it to be so, or by directly, unilaterally, acting within the world to accomplish it.”

From the Process view, the idea that God wills or permits all events and omnipotently brings all things to pass is mistaken. Power as coercion, or as unilateral determination, of any created entity is out of the question on the Process view. God lures, convinces, draws, influences, yes. God cannot determine things. This is so because some measure of creative self-determination is the sine qua non of creation’s integrity as non-divine. But as clearly as Process theists insist upon the reality of every Created entity’s distinction from God, they are as passionately committed to the belief that the God-World relationship is necessary and mutually determining of both God and the world. God suffers fully and essentially in and with the world and both God and world are in a process of mutual becoming.

Obviously theodicy follows the contours of such a view of God, the most serious considerations (in my view) here are eschatological in nature. With few (vague) exceptions, Process theologians do not hope for the permanent survival of personal existence beyond the grave, nor are no ultimate or final guarantees regarding temporal outcomes in the near future nor for the defeat of evil in the long run. God is present suffering with us, grieving as we grieve, and always offering the world creative aims for future possibilities, but we are “on our own” outside of these provisions. God cannot offer metaphysical closure to the question of evil.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light | Protest Theodicies
Protest theologies, as the name suggest, represent a fundamental rage against attempts to reconcile the world as it is with the existence of a loving and competent Creator. These needn’t be thoughtless or uninformed viewpoints. Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov represents as thoughtful and penetrating a protest imaginable (perhaps the only protest really imaginable). But one can find a range of less carefully thought out reasons for protest. Rice has some very good observations in this chapter about the weak foundations upon which atheism and protest theodicies are built, but since they don’t represent a version of faith enduring suffering, I’ll leave things there.

Back in a few with Part 2.

Chasing the scream

drugI had to share this short Youtube video that summarizes essential points argued by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015). I’ve got the book on order and am looking forward to reading it. But I’ve listened to Hari outline his points and I think he’s spot on. Having worked with/in the Recovery community the past five years, I’ve seen the healing power of healthy connections as the greatest single influence for healing in the lives of the addicted. Addictions are formed as our response to some form of despair and failure to find fulfillment in existing relationships. They’re healed through the provision of what was lacking in that respect, not through incarceration, punishment, social branding. That’s not to say drug addiction has no chemical basis of course. It’s just to prioritize things. I’ll review Hari later, but for now I thought I’d post the video.

Spirit as capacity for self-relationality

reflection_card_small_05I had time today to reread Don Alexander’s The Humanity of Christ and the Healing of the Dysfunction of the Human Spirit, a helpful book that focuses on the inherent relational structure of human being as ‘spirit’. He connects to James Loder at various points, and there’s no talking about Loder without exploring Kierkegaard. This is a helpful book that discusses the healing of humanity in ‘relational’ terms. Here’s a portion of Ch. 2, “The Nature and Function of the Human Spirit”:

Characteristics of the Human Spirit
Kierkegaard: The Spiritual Self as a Relational Self

In an opaque passage in his book Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard designates the human person as essentially spirit. As quoted above, Kierkegaard writes,

The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.

In this complex passage Kierkegaard views the human person as spirit, which is the human dimension that embodies the capacity for self-relational encounters. This self-relational capacity constitutes an essential component of being a human person. The human person, therefore, is not understood simply as an entity independent of relationality; that is, as an isolated being. Rather, the human person by constitution is a relational being right down to the core of human personhood. As a spiritual self, the human person actualizes itself in and through its relational capacity, enabling reflection upon itself both as a subject as well as an object of its own self-reflective thought.

The human self as spirit, however, is not simply a self-interacting being. This self-relational capacity also constitutes the ontological ground for relational interaction outside oneself; that is, with others. Kierkegaard writes, “The human self is…a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another.” In a different, yet complementary, context, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, makes a similar observation, “A person cannot be humane [virtuous] apart from his/her neighbor.” In other words, the human person cannot be understood fully in isolation or a lack of interaction with others since the individual self is not a simple entity but entails a complex capacity for relationship between two disparate things. James Loder expresses a complementary understanding of the human spirit when he writes “The human spirit is a quality of relationality; it is a way to conceptualize the dynamic interactive unity by which two disparate things are held together without loss of their diversity.”

While Loder interprets the human spirit as a quality of relationality, I prefer capacity for personal relationality. The change of phrase is intended to reinforce a particular perspective. I want to ascribe an ontological dimension to the human spirit. Perhaps the term ontology is a little too precise. Nevertheless, I want to contend that the human spirit is really something rather than a mere relationship or an emergent property of brain function. The human person is a self that in relating to the self relates to something: namely, the self that is spirit. If the human person is spirit, the human person as spirit, then, understands itself principally, though not exclusively, through relation with others. The human spirit is not simply an independent autonomous self, but is a self-relating self…

To assert, then, that the core of human personhood is essentially spirit means that the human spirit exists ontologically as the ground for relationality and existentially as the experience of self-relatedness with others. It is, however, in the interaction with other that the functional nature of the human person as spirit is revealed.

This interactive-relational capacity of the human spirit, argues Kierkegaard, functions in a context of opposites since the human self is “a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” Consequently, the decisive matter for becoming a self lies in the nature of the opposites. The opposites, argues Kierkegaard, form the ground for relationality in that they provide the context for a potential shift from being negative, i.e., “a relation that exists primarily through opposition,” to a positive one, i.e., “one that has power in its own right to define the polarities and their relationship.” James Loder illustrates the significance of this relational movement between opposites by noting, “The quality of opposition that pertains between male and female and of their love relationship which completes each in, with, and for the other, and is itself transcendent with respect to the opposition [difference] between them.”

At first, notes Loder, the opposition or distance of identity appears, but the opposition changes as male and female come to enjoy other’s company and a love relationship develops. The relationship, states Loder, “which was first established on a premise of opposition becomes positive, even a dominant force in the interaction between the two: each increasingly begins to define him/herself in terms of the relationship, per se. In this relationship the polarities of male and female are not lost; rather mutuality hightens individuality. The point of the illustration is that “mutuality becomes a positive third term, not obliterating but intensifying the polarities.” Here the pattern of relationality governing “the self as spirit,” suggests James Loder, “is perichoretic; that is, inter-penetrating,” a theologicall insightful and helpful concept in grasping the relationality between creaturely existence and the human spirit illustrated by the male/female relationship…

reflection_card_small_08

If I understand Kierkegaard correctly, it is only when “the self-transcendent agency [the human spirit] of the self finds its ground outside and beyond the pattern of self-relatedness can self-relatedness be sustained.” “When the self is ‘transparently grounded in the power that posits it’,” writes Loder, “it is, then, spirit.” What is central here is a relationship of mutual coinherence; that is “opposites are coinherent in and through this relatedness, and the relatedness is coinherent with itself.” This entails the interpretation that “the self cannot be itself without its centered grounding beyond itself, but must be a participant in the ground such that its life is preserved and its integrity as spirit is sustained by that ground.” Kierkegaard, then, will place the self-relationality of the human person in a unique position between the nature of God and the nature of the human person as spirit.

At this juncture an important element in the understanding of the relational nature of human persons as spirit enters; namely, “that the self measures itself by the ideal to which it relates itself.” C. Stephen Evans comments on this Kierkegaardian perspective. To be a self is to be “a being who is striving toward a certain ideal; this ideal provides the measure or criterion for the self that is derived from the conscious relationships that have formed the self.” While many factors contribute to the person we are and will become (parents, friends, social influences, etc.), genuine selfhood, in the Kierkegaardian perspective, “requires that I stand before God, accepting the self I am as a gift from God and the self I should become as a talk God has set for me.” Hence, the person that I become emerges from the relational character of the self as the result of the conscious decisions made with reference to the ideal I choose to follow…

Hence the self is always formed in relation to some ideal. Thus, “the self that lacks God as a conscious ideal will reflect the defective ideal that has replaced God.” “What an infinite accent falls on the self,” writes Kierkegaard, “by having God as the criterion.”

______________________________

Couple of quick thoughts—

  • Loder describes the human spirit as a quality of relationality. Alexander prefers to describe it as the capacity for such relationality. Alexander also calls this capacity an agency for self-relationality. These are all good terms. Let’s combine them and view the human spirit as an aesthetic disposition or an aesthetic appetite for personal existence. Sarah Coakley would describe this in terms of desire, which of course introduces desired ends, and that brings me to a second comment.
  • Alexander ends by noting that the self measures itself in terms of some ideal or end. This is the irreducibly teleological orientation of the human spirit. We constitute our spiritual existence as fulfilled desire for transcendent meaning as persons. The self is constituted in relation to this ideal. For Kierkegaard, any end or ideal other than God chosen by the self would only lead to existential despair. “The self that lacks God as a conscious ideal will reflect the defective ideal that has replaced God.” This is the false self. Alexander quotes Kierkegaard, “What an infinite accent falls on the self by having God as the criterion.” Indeed. God is the criterion. And that brings us to the inevitable question (which I never grow tired of mentioning) of what (if not God) constitutes that ideal, the summum bonum, the highest good, the greatest value, that criterion of relational existence by which all experience is measured? A consistent ‘relational theology’ (and what a buzz phrase that is among open theists) has to expound some transcendent ground of personal-relational being, i.e., some notion of the relational ideal for which all desire longs, from which all appetite is fulfilled, and in which the human spirit achieves its end but from which relations this Ideal cannot be thought to fulfill its own dispositional appetite for relationality (thus the asymmetrical nature of uncreated-created relationality).

Black holes and burning bushes

Burning-Bush

There are moments when you awaken to God’s presence as the simplest and truest thing about you, simple as in prior to everything else; not prior in the sense of it being something you leave behind when the drama of life demands you give your attention to worldly engagements. Rather, prior in the sense of always being true before anything else is true about you and so the measure by which the truth of every other experience is exposed and known.

What squeezes me into being reminded of this so explicitly is personal loss. I lost something dear to me last week. Never mind what or how. It doesn’t matter. But the loss presses in on my heart and mind without relent. In such times you discover yourself in the abiding truth I just described. And as I sit here contemplating my own loss, I feel as if I’m sitting in the eye of the storm.

Do I hurt? Sure. Am I in pain? Yes. I feel the wind. I’m soaked by rain. Things I cared for and helped to build are removed from view. But even on the inside of that, there’s a deeper and truer place where I sit typing this, a place that I didn’t build, a place that builds me, a space and presence that is purely ‘gifted’ by God and which only God and I can occupy. No one else. Nothing else. And there God tells you who you are. It’s where you experience yourself as being spoken into being out of nothing (ex nihilo) by love. I don’t know how else to describe it.

Few find this place, and the reason I suspect is that no false self can bare the truth of it, and we live so much of our lives under the direction of the false self. I know how many false selves can inhabit a heart. I continue to confront my own. But false selves cannot survive the journey to true space. In fact, their death is the way into the eye of the storm. Why can’t false selves occupy that eye of the storm? Because they are the storm.

I sit here in pain, and yet the laughter is on my side. The pain comes from all those ways my living is conditioned by a fallen world. That’s the world we inhabit. But the laughter comes from all those ways my living is unconditioned by that world, and that’s the world that inhabits us. We only get to enjoy the latter by painfully dying to the former. We have to leave the storming false selves behind to enjoy the peace of experiencing our very existence and well-being as graciously given, as spoken out of nothing and into being by God in love.

I love Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon.” A saturated phenomenon is an “excess of divine presence,” a presence that so overwhelms you, you’re “unable to objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it” within our powers of reasoning or our categories.

Also, I circle round time and time again to Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3. The burning bush is such powerful imagery. It communicates on so many levels. I explore them a bit here.

As I thought on the burning bush as an embodied form of transcendence, other less helpful ways of imagining transcendence came to mind. Strangely, black holes came to mind from recent conversations, and I ended up just contrasting the two: burning bushes vs black holes. I wonder how many are stuck thinking about divine transcendence as a black hole rather than as a burning bush.

Black holes devour, crush, and consume whatever ventures beyond their event horizon. The weight of created gravity disassembles, deconstructs, and devours. There are some who view God’s transcendence as a theological black hole. The idea that God is beyond or transcendent or not reducible to or circumscribed within the horizon of a certain kind of categorical predication makes God out in some minds to be a kind of black hole. The closer one gets to the truth of it, the more dismembered language becomes under the weight of such a consuming vision. In the end all is lost.

But transcendence as burning bush is different. It still evades certain kinds of capture. It still mystifies. It still leaves us speechless. But it is anything but consuming. Quite the opposite. Precisely because the fire doesn’t need the bush for fuel, it does not consume the bush. And precisely because of this the bush can be ablaze without losing itself. This is no consuming black hole. This is being fully alive.

From earlier thoughts on Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush:

Moses-and-the-Burning-Bush-from-In-the-Beginning-by-Abraham-RattnerMoses sees the contradiction but cannot explain it. He experiences it but cannot account for it. He says it (/bərniNG bo͝oSHē/) but must unsay it because the semantics disallow it. It contradicts the prevailing definitions of ‘fire’ and ‘bush’. We don’t have definitions for “fire” and “bush” that can meaningfully accommodate “burning bush.”

The burning bush is ‘categorically inexplicable’. It is ‘given’ – there it is – 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. All our textbooks say so. And yet this fire doesn’t need this bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire.

That “and yet” is the 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 by, as written by, as spoken into being. I don’t know how else to express it.

Burning bush transcendence is not black hole transcendence. Where the latter disassembles and devours, the former frees and fulfills. If burning bush transcendence represents the categorically inexplicable, it is not on account of that existentially inaccessible (the way black holes are). In a black hole there are neither bushes nor fire. In God both coexist. In God bushes can burn without being consumed. The event horizon of black hole transcendence represents an absolute intolerance of created diversities. Beyond that horizon waits the crushing gravity of a dialectic totality. But the horizon of a burning bush is an ever expanding horizon where all creation is set ablaze by God without diminishment to either.

Christ is my home

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“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.1-3)

Christ is my home

What’s a home provide?
For some a place just to abide,
An address where they silently reside,
Neither addressing nor being addressed—
Merely a place to hide.

For some home is war,
Daily casualties in store,
A fist, or maybe a head, pushed through a door,
Bruises on the outside and in by unnecessary sin—
Toys and blood on the floor.

For others home is striving,
Driven parents, driven kids trying,
Life a competition, achieving that ‘A’ and if not just crying,
Love and affirmation achieved as compensation—
Always climbing but never arriving.

Christ is my home,
The one place on earth I’m never alone,
Where irrevocable love is unconditionally shown,
Where I cannot die or fail to have light to see—
Where to be is to be fully loved and known.

(Tom Belt)

Minnesota flow

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I’m so gone
Flowin out to sea,
but believe that I float on,
Ain’t no rest for me;
Wanna quit, but I go on
Minnesota flow,
Betta put your coats on
And act like you know—here we go;
Pushin on the gas like a stunt driver
Leading the charge into battle,
I am the front rider,
Of the Calvary, buffalo soldier regiment
Lyrical layers on layers, piling like its sediment
It’s evident the game needs some foreign exchange,
I was married to the music, now things are worn and estranged,
Cuz in ignorance and insanity, they crown the deranged
But the Lyrical Doctor is in, getting minds rearranged
I could flow for days, but I’ll stop here at sixteen,
Seeing two visions of the world, like a split screen
Walking the world, but still living the Ethereal
High off the Spirit showing glory in the material.

(Dwayne Polk)