Vita ex nihilo

val-hammond-coeurFor a moment, think of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) as vita ex nihilo (“living out of nothing”). It might let some light in on the what I’ve been trying to get at in exploring the Void.

In a comment intended to clarify the relation between the ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ will (between our ‘will’ as given and sustained by God as its ‘natural’ end, on the one hand, and its ‘deliberative’ capacity to determine itself relative to God, on the other), David Bentley Hart writes:

In the interval between these two movements [natural and gnomic] – both of which are rational – the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with that glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us – through our [gnomic] refusal to submit to love – becomes the unnatural experience of reprobabtion. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace.” (emphasis mine)

All I want to pick out from this is its perspective on hell as the unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence from God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him. Hell is unwelcomed intimacy. (Think of Sartre’s play “No Exit” which tells the story of three people bereft of eyelids and condemned to spend eternity together in a single room, hence Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”) Similarly, hell is how those who refuse God’s beauty in this life experience the revelation of it within themselves in the next. Their posture with respect to God, not God’s with respect to them, is their self-determined agony.

I think this is a kind of general principle true of all our struggles and difficulties throughout life. I’m not interested here in the doctrine of hell per se. I’m more interested in the idea that we create torment for ourselves by misrelating “within” a certain truth of God’s glory and beauty. I’m wondering if some of the difficulty that my passibilist friends (those who believe we are in a position to diminish and improve God’s experienced beatitude) have with the notion of an undiminished divine beatitude might be a reluctance to embrace the Void, i.e., the truth of our nothingness and contingency. It’s a very peculiar sort of self-awareness that goes beyond any academic recognition that we are not eternal, or self-sufficient, and that we depend upon God as Creator.

We want to mean something, to be something permanent. Fair enough. That’s our ‘natural’ will/desire at work. But for passibilist believers, this natural desire precedes rather than follows the truth that grounds it, and when that happens we misconstrue our ‘meaning’ as the difference we make to God rather than the difference God makes to us and so misinterpret our God-given desire to make-meaning. We may recognize that we “live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17.28), but we live by construing our fullest meaning otherwise, partly at least, as the sense or measure in which God lives and moves and has his being in us. So to be in the presence of a beauty and delight that doesn’t need us, that isn’t improved upon or completed by us, ends up being viewed by passibilists not as the fulfillment of desire but as its denial and so as a kind of torment. Such was my own experience.

This all makes me think of hell as passibilism’s last stand, as the experience of wanting to mean something prior to and independent of what God means (to himself and to us), of wanting one’s meaning to be a meaning one introduces into the Meaning-Maker (God) who is source and giver of life, as opposed to an utterly receptive mode of meaning-making as vita ex nihilo, i.e., as accepting and celebrating one’s existence as a mode of divine self-expression. When this is thought not to be enough, glory and beauty become torment.

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20 comments on “Vita ex nihilo

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    I think one must be careful in portraying God-given life as if this denotes monergism, pure receptivity and which eliminates or marginalizes creation’s agency, contribution, consent, initiative, and so forth. This is what it appears when you describe life as ‘utterly receptive mode of meaning-making…. mode of divine self-expression.’ Such is neither Orthodox nor what DBH is describing.

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    • Tom says:

      Thanks Robert. Quite right. Of all people, I would never deny creaturely agency. You know me well enough to know that. 😛

      I meant to ground that creative agency as given and to say that when we do live creatively in it, what we give back to God is not on par with what he gives to us. Mozart composes the piece. We interpret it, riff upon it, and self-express within it. So creation is divine self-expression in the sense that we’re God’s artwork; he is already the fullness of the themes, melodies, colors, rhythms we live within.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Holding the two in tension, without collapsing one into another, this is the difficulty as you know. The fundamental antinomy of absolute/contingent transgresses all categories of creaturely existence, experience, knowledge. Is this part of the Void??

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      • Tom says:

        I’m less sure about how the absolute/contingent constitutes an “antinomy” or what “transgression” here means. I agree that an experience of the Void (as I’m understanding it – coming out of James Loder) is an experience of the failure and limitations of language, among other things. Mortality and finitude characterize our language as well. I’ve always taken a qualified apophaticism as a way to ‘say’ this.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        The antinomy of relation – Infinity within finitude, the Eternal within in time, the Causeless caused, and so forth. The Illimitable a such presents Himself as transgression of our boundaries of existence, language, thought, being. It manifests itself in our inability to use tenseless verbs, for instance. Impossible…but yet it is, yet it must.

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  2. I love it all Tom. Great stuff. What do you think about the possibility of God choosing to need us, choosing to become vulnerable, choosing to be passible? Do you think Kenoticism is simply false – or not even *possibly* true? It seems to me if it’s even possibly true it gives us a more plausible account of God’s relation to us.

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    • Tom says:

      Hi Malcolm,

      If ‘need’ just describes the ways in which God’s will for us is contingent upon us (i.e., ways that make God’s desired outcomes on occasion indeterministic), then yeah, I’m comfortable saying God needs us. This just means his will for us requires our free participation. It just posits synergy. God exposes the fulfillment of his purposes for us to some vulnerability by opening that fulfillment up to us (in a genuine way even if not finally/ultimately – depending on your eschatology).

      But you mean something more. You mean an existential vulnerability by which God opens his own divine being (the quality/beatitude of his triune experience or the “intensity of his aesthetic satisfaction” [to borrow Greg’s phrase]) up to determination by us.

      I confess, I no longer see a way to introduce contingency into the essential beatitude of the triune relations (the divine ‘nature’ I mean). Bulgakov attempts it (i.e., goes the kenotic route re: Incarnation), but in spite of his qualifications I don’t see how he frees himself of the problematic consequences involved in the standard Protestant versions. If we make the experienced oneness and beatitude of the triune relations contingent, in what sense do we suppose the divine nature is metaphysically necessary? If the personal-hypostatic reality/experience of the eternal Logos is reduced without remainder to the constraints of the embodied state, I don’t see how we don’t end up with a contingent trinity.

      Tom

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      • Tom. It seems to me we could say that God’s “aesthetic satisfaction” need not be a necessary attribute of his. Why can’t it be itself contingent on his own will? That is, God apart from creation (ad intra) could be absolutely aesthetically fulfilled. But why conclude that he is *necessarily* so, rather than that that fulfillment is itself dependent on his will? So if he so chooses he can choose to be vulnerable in the same way that he chooses to be, before creation, invulnerable?

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      • Tom says:

        It’s definitely a long conversation with several key steps, but yes, the aesthetic dimension of God’s triune beatitude would end up being contingent, as you say. But that’s just the issue for me. It divorces aesthetics from self-sufficiency in God, experienced beatitude from God as the summum bonum.

        We have to use the best words we have, so let me just use the terms I’m comfortable with (without supposing God is merely a blow-up version of all the component parts of our own human experience). To suppose the felt quality (the experienced beatitude) of God’s triune experience is not a necessary aspect of his experience is to suppose either that God can fail to appreciate-value his own triune beauty or that his beauty can be diminished and improved.

        More to the point, what is the summum bonum (that supreme and absolute good/value by which all other relative goods and values are measured)? As far as I can tell, passibilists are committed to locating the summum bonum outside the beatitude of God’s triune actuality since they admit this very actuality suffers deprivation (even if we suppose God freely “wills” himself vulnerable to us on this level), and it is good and beautiful and right that it suffer. But – this is the question for me, Malcolm – what makes it good and beautiful and right? See what I mean? What actual good measures the loss of divine beatitude to be good and beautiful? Indeed, what actual good can be the absolute value which establishes the relative value and goodness of all contingent experiences? As far as I see it can only be the non-contingent beatitude of God’s own triune actuality. This is precisely where passibilist kenoticists redefine the summum bonum as something other than God’s own triune actuality. See what I mean? Once you say God makes his ‘experienced beatitude’ contingent, you have to suppose the summum bonum, the greatest good and highest value, is something other than God’s own essential actuality.

        This brings me back to your suggestion that God “wills” freely to make himself vulnerable on an essential level. I’m inclined to see the divine will as expressive of divine beatitude (not the other way around). In other words, God’s goodness is the benevolence of his beatitude. He’s as good as he is (to us) because he’s as beautiful as he is to himself. So his undiminished beautitude (in my view) accounts for his unfailing goodness. How would he then “choose” to make that beatitude vulnerable? (I’m separating these out for discussion, but I don’t think God is “composed” of parts that shape and determine other parts in time as with us.)

        Tom

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        The short version of this is to suppose that God’s esse (act of being) is the source of all perfections. This, coincidental to the concerns regarding divine response expressed here, grounds activity as intentionality and relation in the divine nature.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Transcendence is the very condition for the possibility of creation-as-relation, for God’s relation to us. A good read on this is David Burrell’s Faith and Freedom in which the author explicates classical Christian theism. He addresses these and other concerns.

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  3. Tom says:

    LOL! I said “See what I mean?” to Malcolm like 10 times.

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  4. Tom, great stuff. Let me give this a shot.

    It seems to me you want to call God’s essential actuality a *particular conscious experience* – or in other words a single conscious feeling: aesthetic satisfaction. But this seems impossible to me for two reasons: i) Christ as God incarnate had different conscious experiences, and not all of them were without suffering; and ii) on your view God is in time, so his conscious experience, even if you believe that it never has positive suffering, nevertheless is still a changing conscious experience. But with respect to i) how can one hold Christ is God and not hold that God really experienced what Christ experienced; and with respect to ii) to ask yourself the same question: what changeless good – or changeless state of actuality – is itself the ground for uniting all God’s temporally changing conscious states into a single state of Goodness?

    It seems to me that God’s inner plenitude of being is not itself a single conscious state or experience. For again God has several of these. Obviously on passibilist accounts he has ones involving pain. But even on your own account where it’s just the *content* of God’s knowledge that changes, rather than the *degree* of experienced joy – nevertheless you still have God containing different states of consciousness. And this, it seems to me, really destroys the project you are defending in the first place – God’s impassibility.

    I don’t see a way of evading the Platonic argument that anything which changes in time must need to posit some unchanging, simple substance that unites all change. If God therefore has different conscious states, what unites or comprehends all these states cannot be a single conscious state – or at least not one that is in time.

    In other words when you say “What actual good measures the loss of divine beatitude to be good and beautiful?” I totally agree. But if that good for YOU is God’s “triune actuality” and by that you mean “a conscious state which in some way changes through time” – how does this question not circle back around? Replace the word “loss” with “change.” What actual good – i.e. what changeless and essential good – makes it good that God’s triune actuality be constantly changing in time? You must eventually posit something that itself is not changing, even in conscious content, don’t you? Don’t we need some timeless substance to ground the Summum Bonum?

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    • Tom says:

      Thanks Malcolm. Great points and questions.

      As you see, I’m in the position of needing to affirm both that which is unchanging about God (because so much about the changing world requires an explanation that is not, like the world, a subject of essential, temporal becoming) as well as that which does change about God (i.e., his knowledge of the changing world, a world whose truths are irreducibly temporal truths that cannot be known timelessly as true because they’re not timelessly true). But of course none of us in a position to explicate without remainder the whole truth about the dance between the two (between necessity and contingency).

      Some just exile all conceivable contingency from God and chalk up the relatedness of divine-human intimacy involved in things like prayer to mystery. Just say that this immediate relatedness or presence is real and known to God but without there being any conceivable change in God and attribute the dissonance to transcendence. I can’t do that.

      Others race to the other end and do the Process thing – God’s actuality is necessarily constituted in/through the temporal becoming of the world. His perfections are abstracted off of that.

      I’m dancing in the space between!

      More later,
      Tom

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    • Tom says:

      A quick (and totally insufficient) reply to your specific points:

      I don’t see the problem in God’s having the experience of being a subject of created, embodied finitude in Christ because I don’t think the Son ‘exchanges’ one mode of being (the divine triune beatitude) for another (embodied, created finitude). The one Son remains the subject of both experiences. And embracing a finite mode of existence has to be willed, sustained, acknowledge, known, etc., by the infinite Logos. One way of imagining this (analogously) that might help is the experience of lucid dreaming.

      On the question of God’s changing knowledge of the changing world, though I admit change in that respect, I do agree God’s self-constituting (triune) act cannot be an act of temporal becoming. The most helpful terms along which I can imagine this are God’s being an infinite specious present.

      What’s out of the question for me is the contingency of this act as triune. That act – the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit in its necessary fullness – cannot be an act of temporal becoming. That just is God’s necessary actuality (whatever else we might want to say about it). Now, I don’t want to just say that act is “conscious” in all the ways I’m conscious (because my consciousness is ‘essentially’ an act of temporal becoming and God’s isn’t ‘essentially’ so). But to say God’s essential, self-constituting triune act of being is *not* a supremely conscious act (an act of mutual knowing, perceiving, willing, loving)? How do we even imagine God’s necessary actuality as other than conscious?

      So I agree with classical theists that God can’t “take time” to be “self-sufficient.” That’s incoherent. But this triune fullness in itself doesn’t, I don’t think, preclude the possibility (and it still seems to me that I and the Orthodox just disagree on this point) of God’s taking time to express himself (in relating synergistically to what he creates, hearing prayer, etc.). I’ll play the mystery card at some point – we all do – but it will be at the point where God’s necessary, self-sufficient triune actuality meets God’s contingent relatedness to us. And I’ll play the card in saying the latter is real to/in God (such that his knowledge of the essentially temporal world changes as that world changes), not in denying that the latter is real in this sense.

      Tom

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      • Tom says:

        Malcolm,

        I think part of the difficulty comes in thinking of God’s necessary, self-sufficient triune actuality as static because it’s unchanging. This is one of the helpful things about Greg’s Trinity&Process. He thinks of the unchanging fullness of God’s actuality in dispositional terms, more like an unchanging dynamism. In the end, I don’t think that triune act is ‘another instance’ of any species of act we embody or can comprehend. But I do find it helpful to imagine it along dynamic, dispositional terms as opposed to static or fixed terms.

        I sometimes think of this along the lines of a kaleidoscope I bought my daughter years ago. Weird, but it helps. Some kaleidoscopes have fixed, static arrangements that simply repeat the same patterns (both designs and colors) over and over. What you see changes, but eventually it repeats. Other kaleidoscopes, like the one I bought my daughter, have non-repetitive chambers filled with oil, free floating colored rocks and beads, etc., that constantly move and never repeat, like an ecosystem of living colors and gems. They’re amazing to look into. The patterns of color are constantly changing as you turn the chamber, but the intensity of color, light, and just the beauty of what you see are all unchanging. It’s like you’re looking into a new kaleidoscope every time you pick it up. But it’s the same kaleidoscope, because the ever-novel, ever-fresh presentation IS what it IS. Necessity and contingency go hand in hand.

        I don’t want to say God creates ‘necessarily’, which, frankly, is all I can imagine within the classical framework. Though classical theists admit to divine freedom in this respect, it ends up being just a certain fittedness of ‘creating’ to the divine nature. But what God is necessarily (without choosing to be so) is equally fitted to that nature. In other words, God’s being “free” to create should mean more than simply that God faces no limitation to his creative will or that creation is fitted to or consonant with God’s essential perfections. It ought to mean that “not creating” is as consonant with the divine perfections as is “creating.” Both creating and not-creating are equally consonant, equally fitted for, equally express, the divine perfection. So saying that divine freedom to create is perfectly fitted for the divine nature doesn’t say anything to distinguish divine freedom from necessity with respect to creating.

        I’m getting off topic. My point, I think, is that though I want to posit a freedom to create that is more consistent than I think the classical approach is (I might be wrong), I do want to recognize a certain necessity to it, namely, that this freedom is a necessary disposition for creative self-expression. But by conceiving it in dispositional terms we have the advantage of imagining dispositions as a third term between possibility and actuality, a ‘way’ things are which can constitutes either what that thing is essentially-invariantly or non-essentially-contingently. One IS one’s dispositions, but not all dispositions are ‘exercised’ invariantly.

        Tom

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        It is helpful to make a distinction between God’s act of creation and the effects of God’s act of creation. The former is timeless (or better put ‘outside of time’) whereas the latter is ‘within’ time. This conditions Tom’s assertion that ‘God’s taking time to express himself’ and raises the question: is God’s ‘taking time’ understood to be as act of creation or within the effects of creation. If understood as act classical theism then would certainly deny such divine ‘taking time’ (there is no time in the eternal act of creation), whereas as within His effects, then such an understanding of divine agency would be less problematic.

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      • Tom says:

        Sacramento soon, Robert! First round (of Root Beer that is) on me!

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    • Tom says:

      Malcolm, when you get a chance, would you reflect on this and give me your thoughts? I think it all boils down to what we think we’re saying when we say God is the summum bonum (highest good or supreme value). I think it’s impossible to conceive of the highest good/value as other than an experience of value (thus ‘aesthetic experience), and that pretty much answers questions that come up farther down the road. But I’d appreciate your thoughts on it.

      Tom

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  5. I don’t think I agree, as I’m a Biblicist rather than a philosopher, but this is an interesting concept:

    “The unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence from God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him.”

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