What difference does Jesus really make?

CreationIconOW258-259webA friend shared a question he recently overheard:

“If Jesus quit having a relationship with you tomorrow, in what ways would you tell the difference?”

It’s an interesting question because it can open up to an important discovery. It’s a very bad question because it assumes a particularly mistaken view of things, namely, that Jesus could quit having a relationship with us and we be in a position to contemplate it after the fact. The question assumes Jesus is someone and something very different than the Jesus of the Church’s faith and experience, whom we have to deny in even attempting to answer the question on its own terms.

All the logical theistic arguments (properly conceived) that are so embedded in the nature of things make sense because they concern themselves with the existence of an infinite, benevolent, personal God who is both ground and end of all things. If this Ground “quits having a relationship with us,” then there’s literally no saying what the difference would be because “saying” involves rationality/intelligibility, meaningfulness, teleology, etc., and if God quits having a relationship with us, these self-evident features which define the very givenness of being would no longer shape our experience of ourselves and the world. So very literally, there is no “saying” what the difference would be because there would be no “saying” anything at all. God’s Logos is God’s “Saying” which makes all “saying” possible. If I wake up to tomorrow to an existence that is intelligible, that responded to rational inquiry, a life in which I continued to perceive and desire beauty, etc., then I’d have to say God had not quit on me. I know no way to logically ponder existence (mine or anyone else’s) apart from the truth of the openness of things to God. But this question asks us to consider precisely what is unintelligible, namely, what ‘being’ would be like without benevolent ground and end.

So the question can’t be asked about Jesus if the Jesus we’re talking about is the God-Man, the Incarnate One who is the created realm the abandonment of which this question asks us to consider. For Christ to quit on creation (or any part of it) is for Christ to quit on himself, for creation is united to himself through Incarnation, and the Cross and Resurrection declare such abandonment forever inconceivable. Of course, there may be other Jesuses out there who are compatible with the sort of “quitting” this question is based on. But in that case, these have already quit on us because they never existed to begin with.

‘Cessation of consciousness’ and ‘being’ constitute each other in God?

JensonChris Green’s “Robert Jenson” may be the truest representation of Jenson out there, better than photographs of him for capturing the colorful fire of his intellect and work; and my thanks to Caleb Sanchez for alerting me to this passage in Jenson (from On Thinking the Human). I’m traveling for the next few days and will have to wait to gather my thoughts in response to it, but I’d like to post it now and invite others to think through it in the meantime.

Regarding death, Jenson writes:

It has often been suggested that our immortality is in the mind of God, that although my death is simply my non-existence, this is not a sheer occurrence of non-being because the whole of my experience is preserved in his universal consciousness, because I am remembered by God. Such proposals do not work if we leave the matter where it is usually left, that is, if we presume with modernity that God is a monadic consciousness. Merely that I am remembered by you, even if you are God, does not help with the problem that presents itself to us, does not help my effort to think my own death. For me, the cessation of consciousness is exactly the same and remains exactly as unrepresentable whether you remain conscious of me or not; and we have seen that also “for me” must finally be dropped.

But the matter works out very differently if the Christian dogma just adduced is taken into account. It is a point belabored through all the centuries of Christian reflection: my existence as an actual other than God, my existence as “a” creature over against a God who is someone other than me…is enabled only by and within the otherness of the Son from the Father. But the Son’s death is integral to this otherness and so to this Sonship, and therefore to the relation within which my distinct being is enabled. And therefore the non-being to which I as creature return at death is integral to that relation within which my distinct being is enabled in the first place. The vanishing of being belongs to that relation between the Son and the Father which is the very life that is God, belongs to the Being that grounds all beings. The ‘mind of God’ is the reason and will lived between the Son and the Father in the Spirit, and to be remembered there is to live.

It may perhaps a little help understanding, if we recur to the analogy just used, of the created second-person. There is after all someone who sees me whole, and that is any of you. For to you I am an object, that is, you can and in some circumstances must deal with me as if I were an already known thing, and that is, as if I were dead. But you know the object I am as a presumed consciousness; I am for you a person-type object. Thus you, who know me as if I were dead, nevertheless can address me out of that very apprehension. And in hearkening and responding to that address, I too have myself as my object, that is, have my dead self as the content of my consciousness.

With these reflections we may seem to have undone my contention: we may seem to have found a way to think my death without invoking God. But of course this does not quite work. In the dialectic just described, you and I remain each partly aloof from the relation between us. Thus your consciousness of my dead self can indeed be communicated to me, but this consciousness that you enable in me cannot be wholly identical with my consciousness of my self, and so is not truly a consciousness of myself as dead.

But in God, according to standard trinitarian thinking, the persons Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the relations between them none of the three has any position aloof from his self-giving to or through the others. The Father knows the Son’s death as God’s own, and so as his own, suffered in the person of the Son. The Son knows the Father’s continuing consciousness of his dead self as God’s own, and so as his own consciousness of his dead self, active in the person of the Father.

Here we must again take a step taken before: my being is participation in his triune Being. Thus the cessation of my being for my consciousness is participation in a mutual consciousness in which cessation and being each constitute the other. And that is a thought which, however difficult, can be entertained.

Being where things are going

grayNot sure how to express this.

I sat quietly for a couple hours yesterday afternoon. I had an episode of Black Mirror (a sort of modern remake of The Twilight Zone) on. The episode got me into a kind of suspended frame of mind – a bit disconnected from the world but for that reason more connected to things that I usually am. I took a good 30 minute walk in a nearby park. It was a beautiful day here in CA, about 5 PM, sun was out but beginning to set, low 60’s, beautiful trees, lawn, flowers.

I saw everything clearly – blades of grass, hummingbirds nearby, dogs barking, children playing, Anita and I chatting. It was all equally present to me without any part of it competing for my attention. Everything (even my own body) manifested both an essential beauty and a complaining tragedy – beautiful for obvious reasons, tragic because temporary. But I didn’t feel any sense of regret or sorrow at knowing it would fade. Though they were fading, their beauty wasn’t threatened.

There was movement, obviously. Time didn’t literally stop, but it was a kind of timeless moment, like the whole walk I took, including the thoughts I had, all comprised a single unbroken present moment that didn’t suffer in coming to be or passing way, a fuller moment in which the individual parts of my walk all occurred, a fuller moment that was already there waiting for things to occur within it. It contained those moments but wasn’t comprised of them. Where my consciousness is typically locked into one particular location or event feeling its way through the passage of time from one event to the next, feeling some of the tragic loss of time’s passage, today I felt like my consciousness was one with a location, a perspective, that wasn’t my own (even though obviously I was experiencing it), a perspective that wasn’t coming to be and passing away, but instead it was a perspective from within the truth of all things – a truth all things reflect and toward which they tend. It’s like I was already where things were going.

A peculiar thought came to me. I thought that ‘time’ isn’t the front and center issue/problem that we often make it out to be. What mattered was simply how we situated ourselves within this all-embracing perspective that made room for things, welcomed them and gave them their beauty. I thought also that instead of giving ‘time’ the priority of place in how things are viewed and experienced, the ‘narrative’ of their being was more important. Our lives have meaning (or not) as ‘narrative’, where and how they belong in the connectedness of things. I felt as though my own personal conscious perspective was completely connected, or identified, with a perspective that already knew the story – where things came from, where they are, and where they’re going, a perspective (a fuller story) that wasn’t waiting for things to happen to figure out what the story would be, but rather a perspective that integrated and gave meaning to what was happening because it was where things were going. But this sense of the present in which I was totally at rest wasn’t itself also “on its way” to becoming something else. It wasn’t just another moment like the moments it was making room for. From this fuller place from which I was apparently taking things in (which seemed to me to contain every disconnected story – good or bad – as well as the happy resolution of every story and its integration into a single, all-embracing story which story was where I felt I was at the time) I thought to myself, “All stories get redeemed. No tragic remainders to be irredeemably lost, because everything happens within this.”

Probably losing my mind.

A beating Hart

the bodyI’m working my way through David Hart’s essays, more slowly than I’d like. But I happened upon his piece “The anti-Theology of the Body” (in The New Atlantis, Summer of 2005). It is a reflection, based upon a collection of John Paul’s sermons, referred to collectively as his Theology of the Body. Both Hart and Jenson were asked to reflect upon the implications that John Paul’s work might have for questions raised by the field of bioethics. Hart’s reflections can be found here, and Jenson’s here. I’m including a portion from the opening thoughts from each. I hope you’re challenged and stimulated.

David Bentley Hart
To ask what the legacy of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body might be for future debates in bioethics is implicitly to ask what relevance it has for current debates in bioethics. And this creates something of a problem, because there is a real sense in which it has none at all — at least, if by “relevance” one means discrete logical propositions or policy recommendations that might be extracted from the larger context of John Paul’s teachings so as to “advance the conversation” or “suggest a middle course” or “clarify ethical ambiguities.” Simply said, the book does not offer arguments, or propositions, or (thank God) “suggestions.” Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil. Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

Robert Jenson
I begin with four preliminary observations. First, the boundary between “bioethics” and “medical ethics” wavers in both public and more scholarly discussion. Thus research employing embryonic stem cells is regularly defended, like many other problematic biotechnical projects, by appealing to the possible medical benefits. And some allegedly medical interventions produce severe “bioethical” problems: in vitro fertilization, performed by doctors for infertile persons, has created a Pandora’s Box of bioethical quandaries — and indeed this technical means of lifting the burden of infertility is not really medical treatment of the patients at all. In the following, I will therefore push the boundary of what is usually called bioethics some distance into the conventional territory of medical ethics, since much of these catecheses’ impact is at the overlap between them.

Second, to display the significance of John Paul’s thought in this area without endless circumlocution, I propose that most questions conventionally bundled together as “bioethical,” together with some medical-ethical questions at the boundary, can be cast in the form: Should/may we do (x) with/to bodies that are human? Interpreting bioethical problems as problems about bodies, so as to bring them clearly within the field of the present texts, does assume that some entities — such as embryos or even cells — may be regarded as bodies that are human without necessarily insisting that they have the status of human persons. If this is allowed, John Paul’s catecheses indeed suggest general maxims that can be powerful warrants in bioethical deliberations.

The place of general maxims in moral deliberation is surely disputed, including in contemporary Catholic moral theology. For my third preliminary consideration, I must refer outside the book immediately before us. The late pope was clearly on one side of an inner-Catholic argument as an opponent of “proportionalism”: human acts, he believed, can be called good, bad, or indifferent according to their kinds, and those kinds can be sorted out by rational processes in which principles are invoked.

In any case, these catecheses themselves are not exercises in casuistry, but are rather specifically theological and indeed pastoral. They trace the “revelation” of the body, from discovery by “the man” of his own body, in the beginning, through the perverted but still wonderful experience of “historical man” with his body, to the body’s final glorification in God. And always they circle around Jesus’ saying and texts from the first chapters of Genesis.

Finally and fourth, in this collection the pope does not insistently query the sense of “body” itself, when used in reference to humans. Most of us assume without much analysis that my “body” is that organism I see when I look down, and that I feed and otherwise do or do not care for. John Paul seems to assume the same, and offers only one modifying consideration: I see my body as mine just when an other sees it so. That John Paul does not in these meditations further analyze the notion of “body” itself is in my judgment their one real shortcoming. The opportunity was there in a set of passages where he reflects on the role of the body in the resurrected life, in the course of which he makes much use of I Corinthians 15:35-50. But he does not ask: What is common to the “organic body” as which I die and the “spiritual body” as which I am raised and glorified? That is, he does not ask: What, in Paul’s thinking at this conceptually difficult and spiritually crucial juncture, makes a body a body? It seems that for Paul my body need not always be of the organic sort I now see when I look at myself, that a “spiritual” resurrection-body which is precisely not an organic body can nevertheless be my body, and indeed somehow the same body as the organic body that died. The profoundly evocative rhetoric with which John Paul wields “body” throughout his reflections on resurrection and eternal life would, I think, have contributed more to his general position had it been assisted by some more pedestrian analysis of the language.

I turn now to the more directly bioethical significance of John Paul’s meditations. Within these homilies, the turn to ethics is most clearly — if somewhat belatedly — marked by the notion of “reading the body in truth,” which means both “reading the body in the light of the Truth which is Christ” and “reading the body truly.” Only as we know what the body truly is, that is, when we read the meaning the triune Creator inscribes in it, can we know how to behave with it.

This of course supposes that the body can be read, that it has a truth inscribed in its being and that this inscription can be made known to us. Here we already come to a parting of the ways. Most recent “ethicists” presuppose no such thing about human bodies, or indeed about any entity which might in some way be called a body — the cosmos, an amoeba, a rock, or whatever. To be sure, human beings have mostly conducted their lives on the subliminal supposition that the various kinds of things we find about ourselves somehow have corresponding inherent significances for moral action. But the race of experts is now for the most part — at least overtly — of a different persuasion; and those labeled bioethicists usually line up with their fellow experts. Whatever the particular theory of moral judgment, it will be supposed that bodies are morally significant only if they fall within the field of some individual or corporate subject’s antecedent rights or interests or aspirations, and that their value is given them by those who “have” or claim title to them, or by the society or legislatures or courts that grant such titles.

Does a blastula have anything to tell us? That is its message and not that of a doctor or mother or father? Does even a despairing person’s body have its own claim on that person, which neither law nor society can authorize him or her to deny? Would a clone have the same moral significance as its original? Is the destruction of an embryo to “harvest” its cells or genes a killing? What is going on when a human cell divides on and on, not into a person but as a cell line? Are some of us right in feeling queasy? In academic society, such questions will be received with embarrassed silence — if not denounced as exhalations from the “religious right.” Just so, if John Paul’s method is right, our present academic society — including many official bioethicists — must from the start be simply incapable of deliberating the rights and wrongs of the body.

So how does John Paul himself read the body? We will take up his readings in the order in which the catecheses present them…

The Devil’s March—Part 1

famineThe opening paragraph of David Bentley Hart’s contribution (“The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a few Dostoyevskian Meditations”) to Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (eds. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl). I’m committed to slowly reading through everything this man writes.

Beginning and End
Within the bounds of our normal human experience of nature and history, no claim seems more evidently absurd than that creation is—in any but the most qualified, conditional, local, and inconstant sense—something good; and no piety seems more emptily saccharine than the one that exhorts us to regard our own existence as a blessing, or as a grace, or as anything more than a sheer brute event (and a preponderantly rather horrid one at that). Yes, lilacs are lovely, puppies delightful, sexual intercourse (ideally) ecstatic, and every pleasure of the flesh and mind an invitation to delirious dance of life. But all the things about the world that enchant us, viewed in proper proportion to the whole, are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness. The calculus of our existence is quite pitilessly exact in the end. Children die of monstrous diseases, in torment; nature is steeped in the blood of the weak, but then also of the strong; the logic of history is a gay romp through an endless abattoir, a succession of meaningless epochs delineated only by wars, conquests, enslavements, spoliations, mass murders, and all the empires of the merciless. The few happy savages among us whose lives pass in an unbroken flow of idyllic contentment and end in a final peaceful sleep are so rare that their good fortune, posed against the majestic immensity of the rest of humanity’s misery, looks like little more than one of fate’s more morbid jests. Everything we love vanishes, and so do we; every attachment is merely the transient prelude to an enduring bereavement; every accidental happiness terminates in an essential sorrow. And, if the teachings of most religions are correct, even death offers most of us no respite from our misery, but only new dimensions and amplitudes and ages of suffering—ceaseless karmic cycles of transmigration, interminable torments in hell, and so on. The conatus essendi [‘struggle of living’ or ‘struggle for life’] or tanha or whatever else it is that binds us to this world has plenty to feed upon, of course, as many good things are contained within the compass of the whole; but certainly the whole is nothing good. If, as Thomas [Aquinas] and countless others say, nature instructs us that we owe God our utmost gratitude for the gift of being, then this is no obvious truth of reason, but a truth more mysterious than almost any other—rather on the order of learning that one is one’s own father or that the essence of love is a certain shade of blue. Purely natural knowledge instructs us principally not only that we owe God nothing at all, but that really we should probably regard him with feelings situated somewhere along the continuum between resigned resentment and vehement hatred.

(“Famine” by Bernice Davies).

Virgin birth

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The same few friends I spoke of in a previous post (and I) have been trying to make sense of the virgin birth. You know, light-hearted stuff. Some see no special need for the virgin birth and feel no great loss were Christians to give it up completely. They view it as one of several myths the earliest believers created, I’m told, to promote their religious agenda. I’m aware, of course, that denying the virgin birth of Christ is standard for older liberal forms of Protestantism, but I’m surprised to see it denied by younger Evangelicals. I’m less and less surprised by what I run into among Evangelicals. Call me old fashion (or Orthodox, unless you’re Orthodox!), but I think this is a fatal move, theologically and existentially, when thought through in terms of the early Church’s understanding of salvation as participation in God via Incarnation (the union in Christ, of the divine and human natures). I realize the very question points to a mystery that infinitely exceeds our understanding, but it’s helpful to try to point in the right direction and to state why the virgin birth is (or is not) important. For the record, I approach this from the ancient, conciliar single-subject/two-natures Christology.

It’s helpful to imagine how Jesus, a fully human being subject to our development stages of ego formation within a family unit, might manage to come to embrace an utterly unique identity for himself relative to God – that of the ‘Son’ – an identity that informs his later mature convictions about the divine origins of this identity, his own pre-existence, his unity/equality with God, etc. For example, what must the earliest influences upon Jesus’ emerging sense of identity and mission have been for him to construct an identity within (or so connected to) the divine identity, or, at least, an identity convertible with prerogatives and experiences appropriate only to God? Only a dramatic narrative of origins could account for such a development. It certainly can’t be anything on par with the whole scope of divine activity in the world preceding Jesus (i.e., a vision, a dream, an angelic visit). Those acts, being common, aren’t sufficient to ground so unique an identity as Jesus adopts for himself. I imagine Mary and Joseph telling Jesus of the miracle of his birth and can appreciate the power of such a narrative: God, more literally than any other human could claim, was his Father, i.e., directly responsible for his conception.

At the same time, the eternal Son has to occupy this history, this journey – from conception to the grave, and not just share it with some other human individual born of natural generation. It’s harder to plum the metaphysical question on this second point, but I think it points to the divine side of the equation (if I can put it crudely) which is that free and creative act of conception, or origin. Gregory of Nazianzus’ line comes to mind: “Whatever has not been assumed has not been healed.” It’s not just that Jesus has to have a way to world-construct that makes his identity truly convertible with the divine identity (the virgin birth accomplishes that), it’s also that God truthfully relates to every aspect of this human journey personally as his own, making Jesus’ existence a genuine assumption of human nature by God. I think the virgin birth is where both sides of the equation open up to each other. Without it you don’t get an individual who can world-construct as God (or within the divine identity), nor do you get God who can relate to this human journey as his own.

Furthermore, it’s not enough for Jesus to be convinced. Mary and Joseph have to be convinced, for the young Jesus is not insulated against their influence. His sense of identity and mission isn’t downloaded into his consciousness in spite of the cultural influences that shape his development. Like every other human being, his sense of identity and mission emerge within a matrix of family relations. The formation of this identity in Jesus is, in large part, the work of his parents. They also require a narrative to pass on to Jesus regarding his origins, a narrative that unambiguously takes Jesus’ origins out of their hands and places it into God’s. With the miracle of a virgin birth, Joseph and Mary could not claim to have brought Jesus in to the world. The kind of relationship, or sense of ownership, that any parent might assume is simply not an option for Joseph and Mary. There could be no doubt in their minds that God was Jesus’ father, responsible for his very conception. That forms a powerful narrative for Joseph and Mary and Jesus inherits it.

Maria-1But if Joseph and Mary conceive in the normal course of procreation, there is no personal act by which God conceives himself within Mary, nothing about Jesus’ coming to be that embodies God’s unique act of owning this conception as his own – and thus no incarnation of God. Incarnation (as a truly hypostatic/personal union of the divine and human) is a fully interpersonal act of divine-human reciprocity from its first moment, including the act of conception. But if Jesus is the product of Joseph and Mary’s choice, then his conception is not the unique product of a divine-human reciprocity. I submit that both God and humanity must each have relevant say-so. God must personally offer himself in his own conception and birth; he must say ‘yes’. But this is absent if Joseph and Mary produce Jesus “naturally.”

Protestants don’t know what to do with Mary at this point, but this is where her faith comes in. If Abraham is the Father of our faith in the manner in which his risky act of faith opened up a pathway for God to act in the world, Mary is the Mother of our faith given her equally risky faith that opened up a pathway for God’s ‘yes’ to manifest itself concretely in the world. Mary’s ‘yes’ is where and how God’s ‘yes’ to Incarnation becomes materially realized in the world, and thus the fully interpersonal nature of incarnate divine-human reciprocity is established as the foundation of Jesus’ existence from conception onward. Mary (not Jesus) is the human ‘yes’ in response to God’s invitation at this point. She is a real part of the drama of divine incarnation. Jesus will step into this personally in due time, but only because her ‘yes’ to God makes it possible.

All of this evaporates if Jesus is the product of Joseph and Mary’s natural union. Such a view becomes ‘adoptionistic’. How so? Because God ‘adopts’ as himself (viz., as his own divine incarnate self) what Joseph and Mary determine and produce ‘naturally’. And it follows that were God not to adopt their act, Jesus would still be born. This is a problem, because if divine incarnation embraces and defines the human journey from its beginning (which it must do to avoid slipping into adoptionism), no part of its history (including conception) can occur merely ‘naturally’, that is, as a matter of course given the dispositions of nature’s causal structures, as the fruit of human wills doing what human wills naturally do. But this is what we have with a naturally born Jesus – somebody who was conceived naturally and who would live naturally like anyone apart from any unique act on God’s part making Jesus’ conception and existence possible; and a human life that is conceived apart from the necessity of God’s own free and personal creative act cannot be God in the womb.

I suppose one can see in Jesus a naturally born Jew who became God (‘bottom up’) and so choose to identify him as God-incarnate by theological fiat, but one can’t logically attribute every part of Jesus’ history (namely, his conception) to the necessity of a divine act by which his conception is made possible and becomes actual. So a helpful question to ask might be, How does created nature in this instance manifest the absolute impossibility of Jesus’ conception apart from the personal choice of God to unite with humanity in Mary’s womb? If you don’t have the union of the divine and the human here, in the full reciprocity of divine-human relations, then whatever you have, it’s not God taking the human journey up into himself, personally, in order to heal it.

Plato’s Cave


Straight from the straight-jacket, it’s the Clown Prince,
Fool for the Holy, making the whole town wince;
Betta know, baby, I am God’s Joker,
Watch ya facial expression, like it’s a game of poker.

I bring the laughter along with the mayhem,
Distribute theories of games and let you play them;
Escaped from Plato’s Cave and became super-sane,
But considered a waste of education, a super-lame.

But my smile is unchangeable, like divine nature,
Beautiful works of destruction, sublime glaciers;
Ridin with the Spirit, like I ride with Harley,
So death is absent its sting, no Fields of Barley.

I see the World as it is in its nothingness,
As I laugh that so-called Civilization be trustin this;
Call me mad, I see the Matrix like a CAT scan,
Why so serious? If you scared, call the Batman.

(Dwayne Polk)

The nearness of God is my good

Grey1I was listening to Dallas Willard this last week and the way he quoted Ps 73.28 sent me off to check out a few things. The relevant phrase is: “The nearness of God is my good.” I checked a few English translations:

KJV: “It is good for me to draw near to God.”
NIV: “It is good to be near God.
NLT: “How good it is to be near God!”
RSV: “It is good to be near God.”
TLB: “I get as close to him as I can!”

Is it that my drawing near to God is good for me, or is it the fact of God’s abiding presence, his nearness, which is my good? Other translations go with the latter:

YLT (Young’s Literal Translation): “Nearness of God to me is good.”
HCS (Holman Christian Standard): “God’s presence is my good.”
NAS (New American Standard): “The nearness of God is my good.”
ISV (International Standard Version): “How good for me it is that God is near!”
JPS (Jewish Publication Society): “The nearness of God is my good.”

The Hebrew is straightforward (lit., “And I [or “And as for me”] God’s nearness [is] to me good”).

ואני קרבת אלהים לי טוב

The relevant words are qi-ră-ḇaṯ ‘ĕ-lō-hîm (God’s nearness), a construct state of the noun “nearness” followed by “God.” There is no word for “of” in Hebrew (and no –’s to indicate possession). The relationship is generated by juxtaposing nouns, the first without the definite article and the second with it, or at least the second definite by virtue of identity as is the case with “God.” For example, “house” followed by “the king” is “The King’s house” or “book” followed immediately by “Tom” communicates “Tom’s book.” Here we simply have “nearness” followed by “God,” and it’s important to note that there is nothing in the noun “nearness” that suggests that our “drawing near to God” is meant. On the contrary, when movement toward an object is described, one typically finds the verb form followed by a preposition “to” (e.g., Gen 20.24, “But Abimelech did not come near to her” or Zeph 3.2, “She did not draw near to God” and many other examples which all include a preposition in Hebrew). But in Ps 73 we have simply the noun “nearness” in construct state with “God.” The nearness here is God’s nearness to me, his presence to/with me. That presence is the assumption, and its abiding truth is my good. The first translations above miss this point, I suggest, and assume the Psalmist is describing his drawing near to God.

I am not suggesting that since God is always immediately present there’s no sense in which we can intelligibly speak of our drawing near to God. On the contrary, even though we are inseparable from the immediate reality of God’s presence, we are not consistently aware of it. We must learn to realize its truth and live in its fullness. Anyone who consistently lifts their thought Godward knows it takes an investment of self-denying effort to awaken the mind to God’s presence. We draw near to God, move toward God, in the sense that we exercise our awareness, through contemplation, of God. But these efforts only seek to realize the truth of God’s abiding presence. There is no distance (metaphysical or otherwise) that is spanned. We do not close any real gap between ourselves and God when we draw near to God. In still other words, the only way to see God is to see him seeing you.

As important as it is, our part is not the point of Ps 73.28. Here we are encouraged to name the good we contemplate, not our efforts to realize it. God is already here, already present. His “nearness” is not something my moving in the right direction “achieves.” Only if this is kept in view do we make healthy (transformational) sense of what we do in “drawing near” to realize the truth of God’s abiding presence.

There’s a fountain flowing ‘deep and wide’

Rom,_Santa_Maria_della_Vittoria,_Die_Verzückung_der_Heiligen_Theresa_(Bernini)I have three friends, each in a different US State, with whom I’ve enjoyed a private online conversation that has run non-stop for several years. We discuss everything under the sun. A lot of the time we agree, but we often disagree passionately. Nobody’s been banished, and none has decided to leave. One recent topic – one we return to often – has to do with whether or not God actually can or does speak to us. If he does, what’s that say about divine freedom to act in the world? If he doesn’t, what’s that say about all the personal and specific ways religious believers attest to having heard/experienced God, not to mention the biblical descriptions of God “doing stuff”?

I’m probably not summarizing the dispute well. There is a concern among some that if God can act in the world outside the constraints of the finite laws of the material cosmos, then he ought to be able to do pretty much anything, including prevent every evil. By “outside the constraints” I mean to describe divine acts in the world which are not themselves a function of, or inherent in, the world’s causal structures. What God says and does is a natural product of dispositions inherent to nature. On this view, the idea of God’s “speaking” – freely, specifically, and personally (hypostatically) – in the immediate act of human consciousness and awareness, presents a problem for some.

Explaining to my buds why I think this is not the case, and why we ought to affirm as real those occasions in which believers testify to “hearing God,” has been an on-and-off conversation. One of our number recently mentioned “mysticism” (particularly the Christian mystical tradition) and asked about the criticisms of mysticism by some Christians who “believe” but have not “experienced” God. I offered some thoughts in reply which I thought I’d share here:

The relationship between “belief” and “experience” is too complicated to warrant an absolute divide between the two. Everything we ‘believe’, we believe based on ‘experience’. You mentioned William James. Well, that’s James straight up I think. We believe what we believe because of the difference that believing makes, and that difference is by definition a difference in experience. So, with James, I’d agree that “experience” is the reason why (or the mode in which) we believe anything at all. If anyone “believes” God exists, it’s because of their “experience” (of themselves, of the world, of the intelligibility of faith, of the explanatory value of God, etc.).

With that in mind – what about the mystics? Given my limited exposure and experience, I’d say that for the mystic it’s not that there are discrete moments or particular experiences that cannot be explained by the reasoning and categories that explain other things (mundane things outside those ‘special moments’), it’s that the experience of all those “other things” gets so inseparably mysticidentified with God that experience of those things becomes experience of God. All the world, all of being, becomes a venue and occasion in which God is experienced. That would follow from a proper understanding of standard theism, right? God creates, sustains, and is present in the immediacy of every act of being – every thought, every choice, etc. “Believing” this connection rationally may not blow one away with feelings of ecstasy, but the more truly one perceives it present in, as as the ground of, every truth – a ground not reducible to any one truth or the totality of truths – the all-encompassing beauty and truth that God is can, my experience suggests, translate simply and wonderfully into experiencing God.

Perhaps those Christians who “believe” but haven’t “experienced” God have not perceived the nature of what it is they “believe.” When I talk about “believing,” for example, I mean something more active and engaging, akin to “contemplating.” In the end, mysticism isn’t going deep at some particular point and that depth takes you farther away from other things. It’s going wide, redefining all particular points as equally constituting an experience of God. Mysticism is the show eradication from one’s horizon of all that is ‘mundane’ – God ‘in’ and (cautiously stated) ‘as’ all things (i.e., “God all in all“; 1Cor 15.28), and to see (viz., to believe as in contemplate) the world that way cannot but transform one’s experience. So to your friends who believe but have not experienced – I’d ask them to describe where God is relative to their beliefs. Maybe they’ll discover they’re missing the forest for the trees.