O Magnum Mysterium

I’ve been falling to sleep each night this past week with Morten Lauriden’s rendition of “O Magnum Mysterium” playing on my laptop. So beautiful.

There are several amazing online versions you’ll want to catch. Start with the King’s College Cambridge 2009 Choir (search it on Youtube) and be transported. I’ve included here a clever multi-track version because the Latin pronunciation is clear and I’m trying to commit it to memory. You’ll complete it by minute 3:19. It repeats after that.

Latin text (adjusted to match the lyrical rendition of the song)
O magnum mysterium (2x)
Sacramentum et admirabile, et admirabile sacramentum
O magnum mysterium, O magnum mysterium
Viderent Dominum ut animalia, viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera me ruerunt
Beata Virgo, portare Dominum Christum
Alleluia!

English translation
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament
O great mystery
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger
Blessed Virgin whose womb was worthy,
Blessed Virgin, worthy to bear our Lord Christ.
Alleluia!

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“And death shall be no more” – comma

I’m ending 2016 with another viewing (’ve stopped counting how many) of one of my favorite films, favorite because of its sobering and ultimately simplifying effect, Margaret Edson’s play “Wit” produced and acted by Emma Thompson (2001). The film is built around Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (incorrectly referred to as Holy Sonnet VI in the movie, I’m sorry to say). It is a morbid film in all the right ways because it sobers and simplifies the way the Void is sobering and simplifying when faced honestly. The right questions about death are always about questions about life.

Holy Sonnet X
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppie, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 2

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Fr Aidan has a nice review of the (Thomistic) classical position on God’s relatedness to the world. I’d like to pick out a portion of it for comment. He summarizes:

Of every being and of the universe as a whole we may ask why? but of the One who is the answer to that question, why? may not be asked. It may not be asked because God can only be the answer if he lacks all the features of finite being that raises the question to begin with. And that, I think, is what actus purus effectively means. God is the infinite plenitude, fullness, and perfection of being and thus the ultimate and final explanation for why finite beings exist. He does not contain potentiality, because that potentiality would in turn evoke the metaphysical question. Potentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment. A rubber ball cannot realize its potency to bounce unless someone throws it against a wall; a stick of butter cannot realize its melting potential unless someone spreads it on a hot slice of toast. “Potency does not raise itself to act,” explains Thomas; “it must be raised to act by something that is in act” (SCG I.16.4). If God were not the infinite actualization of existence, then not only would we find ourselves wondering “Why does God exist instead of nothing?” but so would God! We might even imagine Deity as enduring an eternal existential crisis: “Why do I have all of this unfulfilled potential?”

There’s a lot to agree with here. I like the explanatory approach centered on asking ‘why?’ and seeking answers that explain our actual experience (including our finitude, temporal becoming, aesthetic appetite, consciousness, etc.). ‘Why’ is an intuitive and clarifying question, and Aquinas understood (as did all Christian thinkers before him) that neither any particular thing in the universe, nor the material cosmos as a whole, is sufficient to account for why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Given the nature of created becoming, some explanation is required – some reality that is its own reason for being, not requiring an explanation for its existence from outside itself, a self-sufficiently transcendent reality that explains both itself and all else – i.e., God.

We can and must ask ourselves ‘why?’ of God as well. But with God we get a different answer because a God capable of answering why the material-sentient universe exists without begging the question of his own existence is unlike the universe in profound ways. Where the ‘why?’ question asked of the universe derives its answer outside itself, God – properly understood – is the answer to his own ‘why?’. In this sense every sane theist agrees with Aquinas. It is a point I have urged open theists to explore at greater depth with seriousness and an open mind.

compassionOne could (and probably ought to) for the sake of argument ask whether the cosmos itself can be its own explanation. After all, if theists can posit God as uncreated and self-sustaining, let’s just suppose (as Carl Sagan asked us to) that the universe is self-sustaining and exists necessarily. Why multiply explanations beyond necessity?

By all means, one ought to explore this option. We won’t do that here, but it’s been done at great length by others, and we agree the cosmos does not give evidence of being self-sufficient/self-sustaining. My comments here are directed to theists who already grant this and who agree that God is the world’s transcendent creator.

The question that continues to be debated today by some, and which we here are most interested in, is: What sort of relations might a transcendently self-sufficient God have with the world he creates and knows? Certainly there would be a certain asymmetrical relation. That’s already entailed in God’s being the end-of-the-line sort of answer to our question ‘why?’. God explains why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Creation does not, however, explain why there is a God. Obviously, a non-mutual relation obtains: God creates and sustains the world, gives it being, and explains why it is at all. The world cannot explain God in any such respect.

For some, this is all there is to say about the manner of relations that might obtain between God and the world. However, while divine aseity (as self-sufficient transcendence) is true and essential, many don’t feel that it follows that God “does not contain [any conceivable] potentiality.” The reason some, like me, think this doesn’t follow is because it doesn’t seem that all potentiality evokes the specter of a mover other than the agent. We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself. In our view it is false, as Fr Aidan argues (following Aquinas), that “[all p]otentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment.” That rule would follow for created beings certainly, but it’s conceivable, we think, that some potentialities (namely, divine potentialities) may be self-sufficiently motivated and actualized from within, freely and contingently.

Examples that demonstrate Aquinas point with respect to creatures are innumerable. Fr Aidan describes a few – rubber balls, sticks of butter, etc. With respect to created entities, Aquinas has to be right when he says “Potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act.” But does it follow that a self-sufficient reality (God) – a reality whose essence is self-sufficient act – cannot be thought to have any unfulfilled potentiality since it must them be dependent upon something outside itself to raise any supposed potency to actuality?

It depends on the potency. If we mean a self-constituting potential, then God would require some reality already in act to bring his potential to fulfillment, and obviously we do not want to say that. But not all unfulfilled potentiality need be self-constituting. Potential may be self-expressive and not self-constituting. We think there are good reasons to suppose, given the existence of the kind of world we live in, that God is more than necessary (i.e., God transcends his own necessity), and as such his essential, antecedent, triune actuality both determines the scope and nature of his potential for self-expressive acts and that this antecedent actuality is the only realized ‘act’ we need to reference in explaining the movement of such potentiality to actuality.

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Such contingency in God would be of a peculiar kind. It would realize self-expressive, not self-constitutive, potential, and it would do so unlike created potentialities which require ‘being moved’ by some actuality other than God. There seems no a priori reason to suppose that a God self-sufficient to explain why the world is at all could not himself possess unrealized potentialities for a contingent expression extrinsic to the necessary plenitude of his essential triune act, and that these potentialities would require nothing outside this plenitude to raise them to actuality. Like the classical tradition, God would not be subject to finite, created becoming (he would not become a mere ‘god’ who requires a mover other than himself), but unlike the classical tradition God would possess potential for duration without loss, duration that includes contingent, gracious, wholly self-expressive relations.

Would those relations with the world be “real”? If ‘real’ relations are defined as relations that affect or determine what a thing is essentially, then I’m happy to say God is not so affected by his relations with the world, because I do not suppose God to be essentially affected by us. But if ‘real’ relations are defined simply as relations one truly has (i.e., relations that involve one in acts of mind and will vis-à-vis what one is related to) but which remain extrinsic to what one is essentially, then I’m fine with positing God’s real relations with the world. Does this commit me to a notion of divine simplicity unacceptable to classical theists? I’d be surprised if it did not. I know these terms (“real” for example) have long established meanings and many are loath to adjust/expand meanings and vocabulary to accommodate new insights. I don’t have any pretenses about affecting the conversation at that significant a level. I confess, I’m more interested in working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Jesus, Savior, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Christ El Dorado

pearl

Got more love in my heart than Lucy had for Ricardo,
My heart goes astray, He stops me cold like an embargo,
I am the Masked Monk, theological desperado,
Searchin’ till I found the Hidden Treasure, El Dorado.

Never gold, I’m ever bold, his story’s been told,
Never sold, staying cold, for the young and the old,
Preacher like a creature with the Word in his mouth, and his
Feature as teacher will remove any doubt—that the

Logos is reality, like death and taxes
People claim to know the Savior, but they don’t follow his praxis
So they wobble in the Faith, unstable axis
Using power instead of love, using unstable tactics.

It’s time to repent, come back to reality,
Transcend the animality, annihilate brutality;
Awaken. I am you and you are me, we are all one.
Unity in Zero, made relevant by the Holy One.

(Dwayne Polk)

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 1

insidegodsheartii2074pxI’m just thinking through the metaphysics of being and becoming. It’s not something I’ll ever finish (pun intended). For the moment I’d like to express temporal becoming in Process terms because I think in some respects PT articulates ‘becoming’ fairly well (even if Process has no real concept of transcendence).

We (irreducibly temporal creatures that we are) ‘become’ in that we possess our being and existence as an unending process of negotiating between the perceived data of past occasions (memory) and the perceived possibilities of the future. That determination, our present experience, is a “creative synthesis” (Hartshorne) between past occasions and future possibilities. In PT these future possibilities are God-given. They are “divine subjective aims” (Whitehead) for things – their ideal states of becoming. God provides all things (from the small, simplest ‘actual occasion’ to larger societies of occasions) an ideal state in light of which it freely determines itself. This process continues without end. (To briefly stand on the classical side of this conversation, Dwayne and I agree that God cannot be a subject of such becoming.)

Several thoughts come to mind.

(1) For beings that ‘become’ temporally in this way, as classical theism observes, their ‘essence’ is not their ‘existence’. That is, the actual existence of temporal beings is always changing. We are always a ‘becoming’ toward some end, whereas our ‘essence’ (to the extent process theists posit an ‘essence’ to things) is just an abstraction that supervenes upon the ever-changing process of becoming.

(2) Since the possibilities that ground our becoming are God’s “subjective aims” and do not derive from the actualities for which they are ‘ends’, in an important sense temporal becoming is asymmetrically related to God. Our existence as such, even the possibility of our becoming, are “given” to us. We do not generate or constitute the possibility of our existence, however free we are to determine ourselves within the range of God-given possibilities we enjoy. For us ‘possibility’ and ‘actuality’ are distinct, however inseparable they are.

(3) This distinction, in an important sense, cannot be the case for God as it is with us. Any necessary being has in some sense to be his own possibility and that possibility is convertible with an essential-necessary actuality. For God, the possibility of his existence and his actual, essential existence are identical, since (a) God is possible, (b) God is actual, and (c) God is self-sufficiently necessary. It follows that nothing other than God can give God the possibility of his own necessary existence. God’s essential actuality is not another instance of a temporal ‘process’ of becoming.

(4) We must, then, posit some antecedent necessary actuality (call it the divine ‘essence’) which is convertible with God’s essential existence, some divine experience not the subject of temporal becoming, not a process of creative synthesis which negotiates between its own past occasions and its perceived possibilities of becoming in the future what it presently is not. God cannot be reduced to such a process of temporal becoming, for there are no candidate possibilities for God to consider outside his own actuality which would fill the necessary role of “subjective aims” to define his future possibilities. Every act of ‘becoming’ requires a telos, and every telos is grounded in some actuality which does not itself become in this created sense. We’ve discussed before (from Greg’s Trinity & Process) why Whitehead & Hartshorne’s view of God failed in this sense – neither posited an antecedent divine actuality as the ground of the divine perfections, perfections which on their view were simply logically assumed abstractions that supervened upon the divine actuality (entirely a process of becoming).

ingod(5) Even if we posit a necessary God-world relationship in PT fashion, or even a necessary God-series/of/worlds relationship as Oord does (though his ‘series’ reduces to a single world), it’s still the case that non-divine reality cannot provide God subjective aims for God’s becoming, nor can a God who is irreducibly temporal provide himself his own subjective aims for his own future, for possibilities by definition are what a thing is not yet but which it may become. Thought through consistently, it follows that not only can nothing other than God provide an irreducibly temporal God of becoming the “subjective aims” or “end” for his own becoming, but neither can such a God be his own subjective aim, for no merely temporal God can be in the present an actuality sufficient to offer itself possibilities to become what it is not.

If God, like created things, is essentially subject to temporal becoming, then he determines himself in the present in light of past occasions and future possibilities, possibilities guided by subjective aims which, on Process terms, have no antecedent actuality in God. Whence these possibilities for divine becoming? Who or what can offer God the “aims” for his idea states of becoming? It seems that neither any created being nor God’s own process of becoming at any given ‘present’ moment of becoming can define the perfections in light of which God determines himself as creative synthesis. I’m being brief and to the point, but as our Christmas gift to those reading, we’ll just say that the Process view of God doesn’t make it to the end of the runway. God must in some essential sense be an antecedent actuality that is not subject to becoming. In this essential sense, we have to say God’s necessary essence and his essential actuality are one and the same.

(6) This brings up the most interesting question – What about contingency in God with respect to his knowledge of and relations to the contingent world he creates and sustains? If there can be no contingency intrinsic to a necessary being’s essential actuality, is it possible to conceive of God as capable of freely expressing himself in ways that are not constitutive of him essentially-intrinsically but merely expressive of him contingently, extrinsically?

Concluding uncataphatic postscript

fcf8887ec79f01f31a1b9dde88c120edThis Christmas I find myself pondering the wise men. The past few weeks have been a roller coaster ride of competing emotions as I’ve been closing up shop at one place of employment and preparing to take off in an entirely new direction the first of the year. Such changes, I now know, are processed very differently by a 20-something than by a 50-something. I’m the latter. Some time ago I passed the midlife mile marker, that place in life of which prisoner of war Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in one of the greatest films of all time, The Bridge on the River Kwai) said, “There are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents, what difference your being there at any time made to anything.” It’s a place that’s entered, not passed by, and it offers a unique and painful – but curiously freeing and empowering – perspective from which to live.

As if life wasn’t already intense enough a mystery to unravel the past couple of months, I managed during this time to land again upon the temporal status of God’s existence as my theological conundrum of choice to work on. All this brings me to a fabulous discovery I stumbled into last night while punching out my frustrations to a friend in an email. Ever get that feeling of being exhausted from thinking about a problem so incessantly you can’t disengage? You become stuck in it and obsessed with having to resolve it. It’s the drug of choice for theologians who can’t stop chasing white rabbits down holes. I feel that way about several theological issues – ‘God and time’, ‘necessity and contingency in God’, actus purus, ‘divine epistemic openness’.

As I was going through my list of theological interests, it dawned on me that most of them exhaust me. But there is one thing about God I never tire from contemplating, and as obsessed as I am with it, it never detracts from other things I have to give my attention to. What might this obsession be? Divine beauty, God as the Beautiful, and that beauty as the summum bonum. The more intensely I contemplate God as the Beautiful, the more inspired I feel and the lighter I become. Indeed, divine beauty isn’t really a ‘topic’ of discussion at all – though I can talk ‘about’ it with others on that level. Divine beauty is more like the sun’s warmth and light that make possible viewing and engaging everything else. I don’t always do a job of living in light of this reality, but last night I remembered, and theology is a kind of remembering.

The point of talking about God is to end up talking with God, to change the fundamental nature of the discussion from whatever it is you’re processing or debating with others to addressing and being addressed by God, from 3rd to 2nd person. No truth about God can reorient me this way like contemplating God as the Beautiful. I can discuss, say, ‘God and time’ for weeks and never make this switch. Same is true with almost any other aspect of theology. And it’s exhausting. You feel it after a few hours of trying to ‘figure things out’. But 5 minutes of contemplating God as the Beautiful changes and reorients the conversation. God steps in (or rather we wake up to his presence) and we find ourselves confronted with an invitation to talk with God, which of course is just prayer – theology’s truest form. And the perception of beauty is arresting. It will not remain objectified as 3rd degas_blue_dancersperson topic of discussion. It calls. It beckons. It transforms ineffably. You can sit in front of Degas’ chalky “Blue Dancers” and reduce its masterpiece to a competency of brush strokes, or the care taken in blending hues, or the perfect capture of light and shadow – or – you can lose your breath in ineffable rapture. Opening your mouth to ‘say it’ immediately dispels the experience of it because it is a territory, a landscape, that will always escape the cartographers (as necessary as having to talk about it may be).

My own experience is that this moment of aesthetic rapture is also inseparable from divine apatheia and our participation in it. There’s healing to be had in theology when it finally becomes a face to face conversation with God. I haven’t found the same thing to be true of investigating or debating whether or not there is contingency in God, or whether believing that God’s knowledge of things changes turns one’s faith into idolatry. But I can’t contemplate God as the Beautiful without actually engaging God as the Beautiful, i.e., without being drawn into an experience of ineffable beauty that is in some measure transforming and redeeming by the silence it bestows. Divine beauty is the one thing the sincere contemplation of which is inseparable from participating in.

Wise men, all ways of knowledge past,
To the shepherds’ wonder come at last:
To know can only wonder breed,
And not to know is wonder’s seed.

This Christmas I’m going to take my cue from those wise men and shelve every interest in me which tends to objectify God and look simply for the beauty – beauty in the condescension of Incarnation, in the trusting surrender of a teenage girl, in the risky choice of a Jewish man to marry that girl – instead of looking for beauty behind my having figured out some knotty perplexity (if I can just figure out divine necessity/contingency, or God’s relationship to time, or come up with a formula that explains evil). The healing power of beauty will find us if we want to be found. But part of wanting to be found means letting go the rush, nearly pornographic in its spell, that we get from having constructed the best ‘map’ around, in favor of the naked intimacy of the uncharted territory of being addressed by God.

Dancing debris

0320c07f49bcc209af673b9e6c210231I happened upon this portion of a David Bentley Hart interview and it brought me back to the center – to the truth of God’s immeasurable and undiminished delight accessible in and to all things.

Question to Hart: So where was God in the tsunami?

Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.

Almost all the reviews of The Doors of the Sea that I have read have recognized that, at the heart of the book, is a resolute insistence upon and adoration of the imperishable goodness of creation, an almost willfully naive assertion that it is the beauty and peace of the created world that truly reveal its original and ultimate nature, while the suffering and alienation and horror of mortal existence are, in an ultimate sense, fictions of fallen time, chains and veils and shadows and distortions, but no part of God’s will for his creatures. This is why, at one point in the book, I grant the Gnostics of old the validity of their questions, though I go on to revile the answers at which they arrived.

To see the world in the Christian way – which, as I say in the book, requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter – is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality (I almost sound Kierkegaardian when I say it that way). But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. I’m waxing quite Eastern here, I know, but that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.