Bach to the Bible

I’ve been listening through Bach’s Six Cello Suites for weeks. The Suite No. 2 is my favorite. Can’t tell you what it is. You have to spend the 22 minutes to find out. Classical music might not be your thing. It is an acquired taste that you have to work on, but the rewards are worth it.

After you’ve enjoyed listening to Steuart Pincombe perform the piece, please listen to the shorter interview with him as well. The interview is why I’m posting this. As you listen to his interview, change the Cello to the Bible, take the music to be played as the biblical text, and take the performer/musician as you the reader/interpreter. Once you make those adjustments, Pincombe might as well be describing biblical interpretation. The notation Bach left is a definite something, a path to follow, not a textual free-for-all. But though the text never changes, no two performances are the same. The discovery (both for Bach and the Bible) is to realize you are being read and interpreted, you are being asked the questions, not the other way around. Reading the Bible is how the texts of our lives become interpreted by the Spirit.

I see the Bible these days more and more this way. Yes – it has a historical occasion to note, a language and grammar to respect, embedded intentions of the author(s) which define its voice. But you don’t hear any of it, haven’t read it, until you perform it, like a the text of Bach naturally longs to be performed. And it’s only performed when it addresses us, changes us, sends us searching not for the meaning of the text but for our meaning as determined by prayerfully listening to the text (staring into its transparency to see ourselves, James 1.23-25). We, not God, are the ones who get exegeted, expounded, and explained. Just a thought.

Infinite resignation


Still meandering about in Christopher Ben Simpson’s introduction to Kierkegaard, that genius of a Christian (Kierkegaard that is).

In 1972 Hal Lindsey (still alive today at 89) wrote Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth, having published two years earlier The Late, Great Planet Earth which the NY Times called the No. 1 non-fiction of the decade. It’s hard to over-emphasize how big a deal Lindsey and these two books where in the 70’s. I cut my teeth as a new believer on Lindsey, and I remember first running across the name of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (SK) in Lindsey’s Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. Lindsey argued there that SK (the “third bomb” after Kant and Hegel) was evidence that Satan was alive and well. Kierkegaard’s writings, he claimed, were “contrary to biblical principles,” were a “denial of the basic tenets of the Christian faith,” and they “launched a system of though in which despair was the underlying current.” Lindsey explained that one finds purpose in life by taking a leap which “has no rationality behind it at all” and suggested that SK introduced Hegel’s thoughts into the stream of Christian thought (not true, SK deplored Hegel). In the end SK’s account of the Christian faith amounted to “the doctrines of demons.” It’s no surprise that my first thoughts of SK were negative. SK was an evil enemy of Christianity.

Time corrects some mistakes, thankfully, and I’m only mentioning Lindsey as the context in which I first read the name of Kierkegaard whose account of Christianity is genius. In one, two, or five hundred years from now people will be still reading and discussing SK who will still be rescuing the faith of the truly hungry from the cheap subterfuge that Lindsey, whose writings no one will know in two or five hundred years, got famous selling.

Here’s a third and final clip from Simpson’s summary of SK. Enjoy!

For Kierkegaard, one relates to God as the eternal, transcendent other in faith. Our subjectively being true to our relationship with the transcendent God is to see him as ‘the eternal being, who is the object of faith (FT 51). The eternal, the absolute, is always ‘an occasion for offense’ for finite humans and our relation to the eternal God happens in the ‘supreme passion’ and ‘divine madness’ of faith (in the first movement of the double-movement of faith), we are faced with an ‘either/or’ decision to choose God over the finite, either to be devoted to God or to despise him, to seek God’s kingdom first, for ‘the person who does not seek God’s kingdom first is not seeking it at all’ (LFBA 19-22; MLW 233-6). This is faith difficult beginning, its leap – as dying to or ‘losing the temporal temporally’ in order to gain or grasp the eternal (UDVS 209; CD 72; 141-2). The resolution of faith – as the only way ‘in which God will involve himself with a human being’ – ‘joins a person with the eternal (EUD 347; TDIO 63). It is the relation to the eternal God in faith that then (in the second movement of faith) comes to structure and orient one’s existence in finitude, ‘express[ing] the sublime in the pedestrian’ (FT 41). Faith – as constantly, daily being acquired and repeated – works to join all of one’s life together with the eternal and so establish a continuity, a constancy in life given stability with the ballast of the unconditional (EUD 14; CUP 55, 535; SUD 105; PoV 19-2). The eternal grounds repetition. At the same time, as in the process of becoming, we encounter the eternal with fear and trembling; faith so challenges all our relative stabilities – as Anti-Climacus writes, ‘fear and trembling signify that there is a God – something every human being and every established order ought not to forget for a moment’ (PIC 88).

sk5We are lovingly created (as good, glorious, free) and sustained (in God’s presence) by God. We live as if this is true – we are religious – when we gratefully affirm and strive to be what we are created to be. We should relate to ourselves as we are in relation to God. In that we, for Kierkegaard, as human beings are created by God, this understanding should affect our self-understanding; it should found our way of existing (EUD 32; CUP 249). When one comes to understand and to choose oneself in God – ‘when’, as Judge Vilhelm writes, ‘in an eternal and unfailing sense one become aware of oneself as the person one is’ – ‘one receives oneself’ (EO 509). This is to choose oneself, to take possession of oneself, ‘in one’s eternal validity’ (EO 515). In this process – in which ‘it is as if his self is outside him and is to be taken possession of’ – a person comes ‘to relate himself to himself in his religious idea’ (EO 519; SLW 428). In choosing oneself as originated – in relation to ‘the originality that was his eternal source’ (CUP 153; EO 518) – one seeks to attain a ‘religious transparency’ in which ‘he has seen his self over against the eternal power, whose fire has permeated it without consuming it (SLW 428; EO 529). One ‘rests transparently in God’, in the changelessness of God’s love (SUD 30; UDVS 212; MLW 278). This transparency is a sober coming to oneself, to be oneself before God (UDVS 137; SUD 5; LFBA 17)…

God is the good that we desire, that we love, that we long to be in communion with in blessedness. We are true to this in our loving God – in our passionate concern, our worship, and our obedience. The God-relationship, for Kierkegaard, is a relating to God with an infinite passion – its ‘how’ is ‘the passion of the infinite’ (CUP 203). Having gone through infinite resignation (in the double-movement of faith), one is assured that what one relates to in truly infinite passion, in a desire for one’s eternal end beyond finite, is God (CUP 201). ‘The inspecting resignation’, Climacus writes, ‘discovers no irregularity, this shows that the individual at the time of inspection is relating himself to an eternal happiness’ (CUP 395). Such is the intimate connection between the form and content of religiousness – that ‘the person who in truth will only one thing can only will the good, and the person who wills only one thing when he will the good can will only the good in truth’ (UDVS 24). God is one’s eternal end, and so the God-relation at once ‘consists precisely in being religiously, infinitely concerned about oneself’ (CUP 200; SLW 486). One desires God as one’s own eternal happiness. One’s ‘eternal happiness’ is the ‘highest telos’ that is ‘willed for its own sake’ in ‘the moment of resignation, of collecting oneself, of choice’ (CUP 394, 400). Religiousness, for Kierkegaard, is for a person so ‘to relate himself with pathos to an eternal happiness’ – ‘simultaneously to relate oneself absolutely to the absolute telos and relatively to the relative ends’ – that his existence is transformed (CUP 393, 414). Kierkegaard describes this religious ‘pathos-filled transformation of existence’ as a ‘humble, obedient enthusiasm’, as ‘be[ing] shaken’, as being ‘infinitely, unconditionally engaged’ before God (CUP 581; UDVS 62; BoA 112-13; JFY 104). Yet this strenuous, passionate engagement brings ‘a tranquility and a restfulness’ for there is ‘no contradiction…to relate oneself absolutely to the absolute telos’ – in doing so one is acting in accord with reality, for God is the end of human being. To relate oneself absolutely to God is ‘the absolute reciprocity in like for like’, while it is ‘demented…for a being who is eternally structured to apply all his power to grasp the perishable’ (CUP 422). One God comports with our infinite passion….


BoA The Book of Adler
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
EO Either/Or
EUD Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses
FT Fear and Trembling
LFBA The Lily in the Field and the Bird of the Air
PIC Practice in Christianity
PoV The Point of View
SLW Stages on Life’s Way
SUD The Sickness Unto Death
TDIO Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits

Lost in translation—Part 3


Best wind this down. The main substance of this post is from a comment I made that’s buried somewhere in the comments section of Part 1. I was summarizing my thoughts on the knotty issues that shape the Scotist-Thomist debate over theological language. I’m grateful to Jeff, Robert, John and Fr Aidan for giving us so much to think about. If you’re not familiar with the debate between Scotists (fans of John Duns Scotus, d. 1308 CE) and Thomists (interpreters of Thomas Aquinas, d. 1274) over the question of how our theological language captures the truth about God, Lee Faber’s blog is a great place to jump in. It’s deep at both ends of the pool, but I’m enjoying Lee’s stuff very much. The debate surrounds the difference between ‘univocal’ and ‘analogical’ predication, and part of the disagreement, it seems, includes how the two groups (mis)understand the terms ‘univocal’ and ‘analogical’ to begin with.

It seems to me that Scotists (rightly understood) make good points about the continuity of meaning for theological terms within the embrace of the infinite difference between God and Creation. Thomists (to the extent he was represented in the comments section of Part 1) make good points about the nature of divine transcendence and how this difference between God and creation renders God-talk unique and needing its own logic. Whether I use ‘univocal’ (associated with Scotus’ approach) or ‘analogical’ (with Thomas), would depend I suppose entirely upon what my conversation partner thought these terms meant. I confess I’m not entirely clear myself, since part of the debate between the two sides involves disagreement over what they mean, and each side seems to want its definitions to be operative for the other. (If you’re confused, welcome aboard.)

At this point I think I’d avoid introducing either word when. What I would do is:

(1) Point out the infinite difference between God and creatures. Both sides in the debate agree that God is the fullness of those perfections we call the transcendentals (truth, beauty, goodness, unity/diversity as such) which are present in all created realities as the end toward which they ‘become’ but which in God are perfectly convertible with his very being.

(2) Where creatures such as us are essentially a movement of temporal ‘becoming’ toward a telos/end outside ourselves and which end is never perfectly convertible with what we are, God’s existence is ‘being as such’. I like Hart’s suggestion that the ‘infinite difference’ between God and creation is like the difference between ‘truth as such’ and ‘truths’ or between ‘beauty as such’ and instances of beauty, ‘goodness as such’ as opposed to an instances of goodness. I find this a really helpful way to capture the ‘transcendent immediacy’ of God to all things, where transcendence is an excess of presence not of absence.

(3) The first and second points above have to shape how our language expresses the truth about God as it maintains both likeness and difference in our talk, so that our terms never equivocate into a despairing nihilism nor make God out to be just another being among beings by denying (1) and (2) above. We bear God’s image, and the original transcends the image within and as ‘difference within likeness’ (the way any image is reflected in a mirror). The original can’t be reduced without remainder to the image. So the trick is to respect the difference without falling into equivocation. After the extended discussions in Parts 1 and 2, my sense is that our God-talk is more poetic (i.e., meant to arouse desire that rests in God’s transcendent immediacy) than mathematical.


(4) This brings language to its cataphatic responsibilities (we must speak as much as we can about God, cf. Denys Turner here) and its apophatic limitations (respecting the final failure of language to comprehend God as an object), and thus to a “glorious and unspeakable joy” (1Pet 1; please note the biblical status of ineffability), to a “knowledge of love that is beyond knowing” (Eph 3), to “see him who is invisible” (Heb 11), and to a “transformation from glory to glory” (2Cor 3), etc. Language’s ultimate failure is its success inasmuch as it names (without traversing or owning) the inexpressible and transforming embrace of divine love in Christ.

(5) I should think Christology is where the solution to the tensions surrounding theological coherence are to be found, not in the sense that in Christ these tensions are resolved because in Christ language can finally come to rest in supervening upon God the way it supervenes upon any created object in the universe (Poof, mystery be gone), but because Christ is where those tensions cease to pose a threat. How so? Because Christ is where God reveals his benevolent opinion of us (and our language), where in uniting creation irrevocably to himself, God shows transcendence is not an absence that abandons us, but a presence and immediacy that fulfills and perfects us, where ‘love’ spoken of God cannot mean what we call ‘hate’ or ‘indifference’ because “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” So language can stop thrashing about in the presence of what it cannot finally ‘say’ and rest instead in saying what it must. Christ is the “image of the Invisible God,” says Paul (Col. 1). Hence any worries we have about language not properly reflecting its invisible/divine source and ground are laid to rest Christologically. Love, goodness, truth, beauty, unity/diversity as such are personally incarnate in Christ, God’s (theological) “word” to us – manifesting the being of the invisible (the transcendentals – truth, beauty, goodness as such) in the visible-creaturely without being reduced to it. We know our language works, that it can be trusted to describe God truthfully (as love, as goodness, as beauty) because in Christ God has become creation without denying himself, has spoken himself in our nature and language without ceasing to be what he naturally is as the uncreated God.


So then, I don’t know whether to call this ‘univocity’ or ‘analogy’. Some assure me it’s analogical predication. Others think it univocity (properly restrained in light of transcendence). A rose by any other name? For now I prefer: …means the same thing without making God out to be an infinite history of becoming who determines himself passibly within the world’s chaos.

Lost in translation—Part 2


“The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘love’ to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.” (David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilo.”)

I’d like to continue exploring questions related to theological language – how our language apprehends (or, as I prefer to say, is apprehended by) God. It’s a topic the currents of my own faith-journey circle me back round to with some regularity. I’ll continue my thoughts primarily in light of the earlier part of David Hart’s essay “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” which I’ve been reading and re-reading for the past few weeks. The essay is a call to remember the difference between “nomination” and “attribution,” that is, between the “theological enunciation of ‘divine names’,” on the one hand, and the “philosophical enumeration of the ‘attributes of deity’” on the other.

To begin with Hart’s description of the latter, a univocal ontology “understands being as nothing but the bare category of existence under which all substances (God no less than creatures) are severally placed.” It posits a “direct proportionate similitude between attributes inhering in discrete beings (albeit between finite and infinite instances,” which “allows the essences of our attributions to remain intact even when they are modified by the addition of the further attribute ‘infinite’.” In a metaphysics of participation, on the other hand, “all things are embraced in being as in the supereminent source of all their transcendental perfections.” This model asserts an “infinite qualitative difference between the coincidence in God’s simplicity and plenitude of all the transcendental moments that compose the creature (goodness, truth, beauty, unity, etc.) and the finite, multiplicit ‘prismation’ of being’s light in the creature.” This allows for “a continuity of eminence between those moments and the transcendent wellspring from which they flow,” a continuity which allows one to “in some sense name God from creatures” even though the “truth of such names is infinitely beyond the capacity of finite reason properly to grasp.” In this sense analogy, unlike univocal predication, is “a language of likeness chastened by the pious acknowledgement of an ever greater unlikeness.”

The danger inherent in attempting univocal predication, Hart argues, is that it necessarily commits one to a logical nonsense – i.e., God who is a “being among beings, who possesses the properties of his nature in a composite way,” a “mere supreme being, whose being and nature are in some sense distinct from one another,” who “receives his being from being as such,” and who “in some sense becomes the being he is by partaking of that prior unity (existence) that allows his nature to persist as that composite reality it is.” Such a univocal ontology fails properly to think “the difference between nomination and attribution.” It evacuates theology of transcendence, and plunges thought “into an absolute and self-sealing discourse of immanence” and finally nihilism. It seems to me that the notion of univocity operative in Hart’s critique is one in which terms used of God must mean everything they mean when describing us, i.e., no more and no less than what they mean when used of us, in which case the ontology in which love or goodness or justice is possessed by us is the ontology that grounds their manifestation in God. I agree this is disastrous.

lost2A great deal more is said to clarify the distinction between these two ontologies and to argue why the later (metaphysics of participation) is Christianity’s genius transformation of its first world, but I’ll not get into that. It’s a wonderful essay. I’ll only embarrass myself as much as I have to here by wondering if there is not a slight equivocation hiding within Hart’s argument. To be precise, does not Hart end up agreeing that moral terms (like ‘love’, ‘goodness’, ‘justice’) mean pretty much what they mean when attributed to creatures? The term ‘love’, for example, names the self-giving pursuit of another’s highest good in God as opposed to seeking selfishly to harm or exploit others. That’s what it means for us to love. Semantically, that much is at least what it means for God to love us. To return to the opening quote of Hart, if we use the term of God as Hart advocates, “as if [it is] mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures” [emphasis mine], I don’t see how the term ‘love’ is much different in meaning from the univocal sense – unless of course by ‘univocal’ one means to gather up everything about the contingent mode of becoming by which creatures know and experience love and attribute this to God, which obviously we do not want to do. Still, that being the case doesn’t result in ‘love’ becoming an empty notion. Even understood analogically, that is, ‘love’ doesn’t seem to come out meaning something other than what it means for us (taking into account the difference between God’s mode of being and our mode of becoming).

God loves us in an uncreated, non-composit mode of being, a mode that is, as Hart says, as qualitatively different as the difference between ‘truth’ and truths, or ‘goodness’ as such and particular instances of goodness. We, unlike God, love God and others in a created, composit, essentially temporal mode of becoming. But the term in question (love) in both cases describes the same selfless pursuit of the highest good of another. The infinite qualitative distinction prevents us from attributing precisely those features of the ontic (the “composite becoming” that “receives its life from outside itself”) that Hart points out cannot logically describe God, but ‘love’ doesn’t thereby change its meaning to hate, say, or to what have you. Why not? What prevents us from wondering whether love in God’s transcendence is not what we call hate or indifference? Most would answer by saying that’s simply not what the word ‘love’ means and would encourage us to find another word (‘hate’ or ‘indifference’).

If all that’s meant by analogy is that the terms we derive from our mode of becoming are understood both to be fulfilled and infinitely exceeded in God’s mode of being, I have no qualms. But I suspect more is meant, I’m just not sure what. I wouldn’t think one need insist that the word ‘univocal’ be abandoned (because it entails ontological commitments not even Scotus tolerated) and ‘analogy’ be substituted. It seems easy enough simply to ask the one doing the talking: Do you think God is a composite God of becoming whose nature is, like all created natures, an endless oscillation between essence and existence? If the answer is no – what other complaint have we?

lost3It is not like Scotus’s disagreeing on the semantic nature of attribution (univocal vs analogical) included his believing God was in fact a composite God of temporal becoming who received his life from outside himself. Scotus was no Process theist or Evangelical. When he says being is to be understood univocally, at the very least he does not mean to say God and creatures alike are assumed under a third reality (being as such) as something other than God, superior to both God and creation and in which both participate. But if Scotus managed a univocal model of theological language in which God was not believed to be a composite being of temporal becoming who derived his life from something greater than himself, how is such a model necessarily beholden to the mistakes Hart warns us of?

It also does not appear to be the case that agreeing entirely with an ontology of participation means one always rightly names God. As Hart notes (“God, Creation, and Evil”):

[D]own the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages— most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness…Nor am I speaking of a few marginal, eccentric sects within Christian history; I mean the broad mainstream….

This is interesting, because if Scotus can affirm a univocal predication of, say, love or goodness, to God while knowing God not to be a composite God of temporal becoming who derives his life by participating in some independent being as such which is greater than him, and if many in “the broad mainstream” of classical theism who agree God is not such “a” being, though their equivocations also “reduce the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness,” then we have to wonder where the danger really lies. What really opens the door to the nihilism Hart warns of? I’m just asking. Certainly the actual belief that God is a composite God of becoming would invite that nihilism. But the latter equivocators (with the right ontology in hand) lead us to the same nihilism. So I’m wondering if there is some other mistake hiding in the details which has nothing to do with whether one explicitly affirms God’s transcendent ontological otherness.

I don’t mean to deny the difference between the perfectio significato (the thing signified) and the modus significandi (mode of signification). Yes, ‘love’ is attributed to God differently (as different as ‘being as such’ is from beings, or ‘truth as such’ is from truths, or ‘beauty as such’ from instances of beauty – all Hartian examples of that difference). My point is that the meaning of ‘love’ (semantically, not ontologically – if the distinction is permitted) is the same, i.e., we’re talking about desiring and pursuing the highest good of another in God (not about hating or fishing or sailing, or whatever random meaning the quantum-semantic wave might collapse us into). The how is not the worry people generally have. It’s whether when we talk about God our terms mean something transparently different or contradictory to what they mean within our experience.

A last thought. Just this morning I was pondering Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (Eph 3). He prays “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Here is the intimacy of transcendency’s presence, not its absence, and yet its presence is no categorical reduction of God, for Paul prays (more literally) “that you know the knowledge-exceeding love of Christ.” Don’t miss the isomorphic affirmation/denial – what is in fact ‘known’ is in fact ‘beyond knowing’. One could throw in all one’s holdings (all one’s ‘categories’) on an ontological call to see what ‘in fact’ is hiding in love’s ‘knowledge-excelling’ hand, but one would lose everything in the wager. For surely here we have as explicit a description of the distance between cataphatic and apophatic, of the “epistemological caesura” one must tolerate between the two as one could ask for. And as long as it remains a propositional exchange, ‘toleration’ is what it will feel like, perhaps intoleration. But when it’s experienced (‘known’) as ‘knowledge-exceeding’ love (v. 19), toleration is transformed into the welcome sweetness of being’s inexhaustible goodness and we are, as Paul said, “filled unto all the fullness of God.”

Lost in translation—Part 1

Lost_in_Translation_posterNot that ‘Lost in Translation’. Rather, the feeling I and a friend both have whenever we talk about what it means to talk about God.

Here’s a bit of our conversation over past couple of weeks. It has to do with how language captures the truth about God. I’ll say up front that I’m comfortable denying particular assumptions or beliefs about what in fact is going on when we claim or deny that God is this or that (loving, just, good, etc.). It’s harder to state positively exactly how language apprehends God. (Or is it that language is already to be apprehended by God?) Truth is, I find myself more comfortable these days with silent modes of speech? Some might balk at even that: Silent speech? “Silence,” Juana de la Cruz wrote, “is not having nothing to say; it’s being unable to find words for all there is to say.”

This categorical failure of language is the greatest surprise faith has brought my way the last ten years or so. I would say today that my most positively apprehending, truth-bearing, reality depicting modes of speech are forms of silence – either a ‘groaning that words cannot express’ (Rom 8), or, at other times, ‘an inexpressible/ineffable and glorious joy’ (1Pet 1).

I wish I had better answers, better “definitions”; a way to cordon off the divine reality within the categorical reach of language for my friend here (who I’ve named Webster to keep him anonymous). The conversation included much more than I’m posting, but I hope what’s here will invite comments and suggestions.


Tom: We possess our life as temporal “becoming,” an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not – a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future. So when you ask what I mean by “being” when I say God is not “a being among beings,” this is what I mean. I don’t see how God can be an instance of such “becoming” even if the process that is his essential life is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.”

God is not that ‘kind’ of thing, and since every kind of thing in creation is, by virtue of being created, the kind of thing that has its being in and as ‘becoming’ (through the grace of participation in that which it is not), it seems to me that saying God cannot be “a being among beings” better captures something truth about God and ourselves.

Webster: To plausibly explain anything ‘by’ God as a least a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, I have to know something about God in terms of his attributes. Since I can’t manufacture attributes by manufacturing new categories, those attributes will be intelligible to me in terms of my existing categories unless God gives me new categories with which to conceive of his attributes.

Without knowing some of God’s attributes, God can’t explain any event whatsoever except as an absolutely spontaneous cause unrelated in any way to his attributes. This is why I say that without defining God as having certain relevant essential attributes, we couldn’t predict anything he will ever do or even whether he will ever do anything else. And that would also rule out any standard teleological thinking about any aspect of the universe. But once we conceive of God as having attributes that are conceived of in terms of our categories (which renders them intelligible), like for example your claiming that God has felt-experience (i.e., God is sentient), then in that one sense, God is a being as we are in ‘that’ one sense.

We [shouldn’t] reject analogy where it explains things that would otherwise be unexplained, like how the validity of induction is entailed in certain relevant attributes of a Designer/Creator of the universe. Only the right kind of theism gives us that kind of ontology. Neither atheism nor deism does. And I contend that impassibilistic theism doesn’t either. Because it can’t get us beyond absolutely spontaneous divine action, which renders divine explanation absolutely arbitrary.

I know you will say that you aren’t being arbitrary. But you always put words that would normally be truly explanatory in quotations. Like God “cares” about us, e.g. Why the quotes? Because you’re not using the dictionary meaning of the word “care,” or “love,” etc. But you never say what meaning these words have after stripping them of their normal definitions. And as far as I can tell, once you take the divine “impassibility” route, there’s no analogy left between human love and caring and God’s putative “love” and “caring” that gives those terms any explanatory power whatsoever. What you seem to be doing to me is arbitrarily assigning divine causality to some event that, if God ‘actually’ loved you by the dictionary meaning of that term, would ‘probably’ have been caused by God – the teleological God that the rest of us believe in. But you’ve already stripped God of all the attributes that make the “probably” an actual “probably.”


Tom: Everything in our universe is contingent. Things come into being, are caused, subsist temporally through participation in that which is other than themselves, pass out of existence, etc. That is the ‘being’ of the world. God isn’t an instance of it, and for that simple reason I don’t describe God as “a being” (without appropriate qualification). If I put quotation marks around something God is or does, it’s only to note this point.

You say that “To plausibly explain anything by God as a least a necessary condition, if not the sufficient condition, I have to know something about God in terms of his attributes.” True. But it’s also true that God explains nothing if he’s just another instance of that which we’re trying to explain.

You say that “once we conceive of God as having attributes that are conceived of in terms of our categories (which renders them intelligible)” like my claiming that God has felt-experience (viz., beatitude), then “God is a being as we are in that one sense.”

There’s likeness – the way a mirror might reflect my likeness while being very unlike me (the reflection will be two- and not three-dimensional, will not share the original’s ontology/being, etc., though it does reflect an image). So, for example, to say God is “cause of all things” is to attribute the being of the world to God, but this is not to say that with respect to causation God is an instance of what we observe between any finite cause and its effects within the causal changes that comprise our world. As the world’s “cause,” God doesn’t stand in relation to the world the same way any finite cause within the world stands in relation to its effects. If that were so, we’d have to ask what caused God and thus would face an infinite regress. The infinite regress is prevented, however, not through logical cosmetics (by virtue of parsimony or by the magical effect of saying “uncaused” before we say “cause” in the case of God) but because God in himself is indeed not another cause among causes.

You wonder whether God’s being ‘impassible’ in the sense I’ve argued (i.e., the beatitude or bliss of his triune experience cannot be diminished or improved upon by the world) means we are at a complete loss to predicting God’s behavior. I’m not seeing why this follows. If the character of God’s beatitude just is his benevolence (i.e., don’t divorce the beatitude of being from its benevolent character) then we can know that God will (predictably) love and not hate, seek the highest good of others, not their destruction, etc. So when you ask, “What do you think God will eventually do, and based on what attributes?” my answer is that God will consistently love what he creates, pursuing its highest good in him, and he’ll do it because he is love.

Webster: I’m not sure how you’re using certain words. On the one hand you say there is no ‘actual infinite’, hence there can be no infinite past. But then you, like Hart, throw the word “infinite” around about God like I’m supposed to understand what you mean by that.

By category I mean those very fundamental conceptions and relations that are at the foundation of all propositional thought. I consider the substance-attribute corollary something at that fundamental a level, as is cause, final-cause, temporal relations/concepts, spatial relations/concepts, etc. So if God doesn’t have attributes as per something as fundamental as what we mean at the abstract level of substance-attribute, I have no idea what we’re saying when we speak of attributes of God.

Also, I’m not sure I know what is being meant by analogy. When I say something is analogous, I mean it is the same in some respect. It matters not to me whether there is such a thing as infinite love, because I can’t conceive of how God will ever infinitely love me or any finite being. Any experience I’ll ever have will be finite. And I will always have existed a finite amount of time. So I can never experience ‘infinite’ love at all. So I see no point in obscuring a conception of God based on what I can never fathom or experience. I conceive of God per what can be known of him by a finite mind, regardless of whether God is infinite in any sense. Since I’ll never experience any infinite experience, even if God is somehow infinite, it explains nothing I’ll ever apprehend. For I have no reason to believe that any finite experience requires an infinite capacity to cause. So I don’t get what role such speculations play in a theology that is to have practical implications.

Tom: Regarding analogical language. Maybe it’s all beyond my pay-grade, but I don’t think one has to assume a shared ontology between two relata in an analogy. There can be a shared ontology between relata, as there undoubtably is between vegetables and me when I say “Vegetables are healthy” and “I am healthy,” where “healthy” describes the same reality but differentiates the possession of it by vegetables (which are healthy because they ‘give’ health) and by us (who are healthy because we’re ‘made healthy’ by vegetables). But vegetables and we are equally created things. We could perhaps span this difference with something approaching a univocal sense of the word. I don’t know. But when we say “Vegetables are healthy” and “the economy is healthy” or “my marriage is healthy,” we’re not talking about a univocal sense of the word “healthy” in the economy or marriage which is derived from the meaning as we find it in vegetables. If our language of God is thought to apprehend an essential unity between God and the world (as relata) on an ontological level, then I don’t see how God can be an ‘answer’ to the question of being/ontology (Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?), for he would just be “one of” the things that creates the question.

Webster: I can’t see how we could know induction is valid if benevolent, competent teleology (a teleology of risk for God, not a guaranteed boon for God that would imply compatibilistic creation) isn’t the impetus for the existence of the universe we inductively infer.

Tom: I agree, except for the fact that the competent teleology we posit needn’t be a risky one for God in the sense you  mean and for the reasons you suppose. An accomplished, benevolent beatitude/bliss can will the existence and pursue the highest good of that which it creates without putting itself at risk.

You say, “transcendence, per se, doesn’t automatically amount to something worthwhile about the destiny of humans” and that “Deism is intelligible transcendence.” But I have to disagree. Deism’s God isn’t transcendent, for transcendence is not absence (as it is in Deism). If God is either locked out of creation or he opts out of intimacy with it, he’s not transcendent in the Christian sense.

face_in_the_crowd_by_smashmethodWebster: If you can’t articulate what I’m misunderstanding, it’s probably because you really don’t understand it yourself. But surely by now you know that there is literally no idea pertinent to any practically-relevant theistic thinking that all intellectuals agree on. If you can’t articulate your own arguments using words that you can define or that I can find in a dictionary, it’s still the case that I can’t read minds.

Tom: I don’t mean to be so frustrating. I thought I’d defined the way I used the words you asked about (“being,” “infinity,” “transcendence”). So let me try again. If I were asked to try to narrow it down, I’d say that by “a being” I mean a subject of temporal becoming, an entity whose existence is a temporal movement toward some final end…and so forth. That’s the realm from which we derive the abstract categories that supervene upon all that is. I don’t include God in this because he’s none of these things. Rather, he is that in which all becoming participates, toward which all teleology tends, and in which all categorical perfections (truth, beauty, goodness, difference, unity, etc.) rest (to be participated in by us).

What about “infinite” as attributed to God? I take it that by saying God is infinite, Hart and others mean to describe the fullness or plenitude and fecundity of God’s life, a plenitude fully realized as love in all its perfections, without needing to be determined by anything outside himself, and that these perfections however endlessly they obtain in creation, are immeasurably actual in God. Since this plenitude is not quantifiable, is immeasurable (because no finite standard can encompass it), is unconditioned by the pathos of contingent becoming, and is its own source and ground and end, “infinite” seems a perfect term for expressing such a radical thing. I think I have this right in Hart’s case, but if not, then let me just say that it is what I mean by saying God is infinite.

I take transcendence to basically capture the same idea. It’s precisely because God is infinite/transcendent in this sense that transcendence does not become ‘absence’, which is basically what happens when we make God “a being among beings” (i.e., a subject of temporal becoming, an “instance of” some category or other, determined by the pathos of the contingent, achieving the plenitude of his being dialectically through relations external to himself, etc.).

Take note too – I don’t take these as “definitions” in the “dictionary” sense of the word. I take these (the good, the true, the beautiful, etc.) to be “names.” And a “name” is not exactly a “definition.” There’s no “defining” God if you mean standing in a relation to God as we do, say, when defining any discrete object in the world. This is so because to define something is to assume a certain relation of sufficient competency to it as an observer, a certain perspective that encompasses its act of being within the terms available to the one doing the defining. But in my view this ia not a relation we can sustain to God. So we “name” God from our experience of him, from his acts in creation, etc., but he’s not some object in the universe (even if we locate him at every point in it) that our categories “supervene upon.” God is not “supervened upon,” and for that reason can’t be de-fined (you like definitions – from the Latin: de + finis/finire [end] = to bring to and end).

Webster: If (a) what are poised as words “about” “God” aren’t really words (i.e., symbols for defined concepts) that can communicate anything “about” God, and (b) the only way I can “get” anything “about” God is to see God seeing me, with words failing me, then: reading those essays you recommended using definitions that don’t apply to their words isn’t going to advance me a wit towards that end, is it? Wouldn’t God just have to reveal himself to me for me to see him, thus? And if God doesn’t, well then, God doesn’t. And there’s nothing that anyone, including me, can do to aid my advance thereto. This is why I have no idea why you ever talk to me at all, unless you just enjoy telling me you have something that I don’t.

Tom: Obviously we have to use words to talk about God, to maintain a corporate faith (with language of evangelism, worship, prayer, etc.) and to talk to ourselves. All I’m saying is however much we must talk (and the more the better, says Denys Turner) we never succeed in drawing a line around God, we never “make an end” (de + finis) of God categorically, packaging him up neatly within our cognitive grasps as do our definitions generally with finite objects.

Is there anything ineffable about your experience of God? Can you reduce everything about your experience of God to neat syllogisms and dictionary entries? Do your categories ever collide in an experience of God that escapes their grasp? Is it really that frustrating to contemplate God as escaping your cognitive grasp?

Danish pastry anyone?

skA second passage (after the first) from Christopher Ben Simpson’s The Way is the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum. It’s a great introduction to Kierkegaard’s vision. When it comes to understanding what faith is and what it means to integrate (“appropriate” is Kierkegaard’s word) the truth of the gospel into and as one’s very life, the nature of the obstacles that must be faced and the costs involved, Kierkegaard captures things best for us.


Objective and Subjective Truth
The problem with what Kierkegaard calls ‘objectivity’ or ‘objective truth’ in relation to being a Christian is that it shifts the ‘medium’ from ‘existence and the ethical to the intellectual, the metaphysical, the imaginational’ (PoV 130). In making Christianity a matter of intellectual reflection, of abstract imagination, ‘a more or less theatrical relationship has been introduced between thinking Christianity and being a Christian’ (PoV 130). The problem with the ‘objective’ approach to the truth of Christianity is that it ignores existence in favour of something that happens on the level of reflection alone ‘as if having thought about something were identical with existing’, and so committing the error ‘that by coming to know objectively what Christianity is…one becomes a Christian’ 9CUP 253, 570, 577). The problem with ‘objectivity’ is that, in its abstraction and so isolation from existence, it is not in touch with actuality, not in relation to truth (EO 542). The reality that it has lost contact with is that of the existing person. Objectivity is a truth that ‘goes away from the subject’ (CUP 193) – a truth that is impersonal and indifferent: ‘indifferent to the individual’s particular condition…indifferent to its relation to him…indifferent to how the individual receives it…indifferent to whether the truth becomes a blessing or a ruination to him’ (FSE 39; EUD 233-4). A Christianity built around such ‘objective’ truth is a ‘professorial-scholarly Christianity’ in which ‘the professor is the truth Christian’ (JFY 195); the problem is ‘not that what they say is an untruth, since they say what is true, but that true statement has no truth in them’ (UDVS 325) – they are ‘rich in truths and poor in virtues’ (EUD 350). When truth becomes ‘objective’, what is lost is the relation between the existing subject and what is seen to be true – the appropriation – ‘how an existing subject in concreto relates himself to the truth’ (CUP 75, 192-3)…

Subjective truth is a being in relation to, being involved in, the truth. ‘The relation of the subject’, Climacus writes, ‘is precisely the knotty difficulty’ (CUP 37). The subjective, for Kierkegaard, is the personal, is related ‘to a person present’ (FSE 39; UDVS 11). ‘Personal consciousness’, he writes, ‘requires that in my knowledge I also have knowledge of myself and my relation to my knowledge’ (CD 194). Central to this personal involvement is one’s decisions, one’s choices. Choice is, as Judge Vilhelm states, ‘decisive for a personality’s content’ (EO 482). An understanding of truth that includes decision as a necessary component is ‘subjective’, for ‘all decision is rooted in subjectivity’ and ‘only in subjectivity is there decision’ (CUP 33, 129, 203). In resolution one re-engages with actuality (after reflection). The choices one makes in relating to and engaging with the world constitute who one is as a person. Subjective truth is choosing to be in relation to what is. This implies that choosing rightly matters – that the content of the choice matters – for one’s life (EO 483). As deciding, choosing, actively relating to the world (to oneself, to others, to God) the thinking subject is involved in an ongoing process of existence as a continual striving (CUP 91-2)…

What Kierkegaard advocates is a movement from the ‘objective’ to the ‘subjective’, from reflection to resolution, from abstraction to action. One of Kierkegaard’s characteristic ways of describing this movement…is as appropriation. Appropriation is the movement of incarnating a truth that is not initially your own. It is a receiving that, as a genuine receiving, is a producing; appropriation…is literally: making something one’s own (CUP 21). In appropriation, a thesis, an objective truth to be known, becomes a task – ‘something quite different from knowing’ (CUP 297; JC 131) – or rather, the ethical and religious ‘theses’ are given their proper existential resonance as something more than propositions to be affirmed (JC 152-3). Subjective truth is then ‘the truth of appropriation’ where focus is brought upon ‘the subject’s acceptance of it’ such that, as Climacus famously writes, ‘when subjectivity is truth…a definition of truth [would then be this]: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person’ (CUP 21, 129, 203)…


Christianity, Christian truth, is at the end of a trajectory that begins with subjective truth and ascends and focuses in ethical and religious truth. Given ‘that subjectivity, inwardness, is truth’, Climacus writes that this ‘at its maximum is Christianity’ (CUP 279). If ‘subjectivity is truth and subjectivity is the existing subjectivity, then, if I may put it this way, Christianity is a perfect fit’ (CUP 230). To truly exist humanly is to exist religiously, and to truly exist religiously is to exist Christianly (CUP 249)…Truth, then, as transcendent, as revealed, should be expected as something transcendent, as something from above challenging and frustrating our merely immanent categories here below, as something paradoxical. The trajectory does not lead to paradox or absurdity as such, to nonsense – as if one’s ‘subjective’ passion and earnestness is all that matters – ‘as a beatifying universal balm’. The trajectory points to a particular paradox…

Johannes Climacus writes in the Postscript: ‘The paradox came into existence through the relating of the eternal, essential truth to the existing person. Let us go further; let us assume that the eternal essential truth is itself a paradox’ (CUP 209). At the heart of Christianity is the paradox that ‘the eternal, essential truth…has come into existence in time’ (CUP 213). Christianity claims to present the eternal truth of human life – the truth of what we are and what we are to be – but this, Climacus writes, ‘is not an eternal truth in the sense of a mathematical or ontological theorem’; rather ‘Christianity is the paradoxical truth; it is the paradox that the eternal one came into existence in time’ – ‘the difficulty and the paradox are that it is actual’ (CUP 580; BoA 37).

This eternal truth come into existence is Christ – ‘Christ’s life upon earth, every moment of this life, was truth’ (PIC 203)…If Christ is this truth, the highest truth that is Christianity, is existing in the reality revealed in Christ. True human being, as living in community with God, with others, and with oneself, is a life ‘defined’ by Christ; it is the life of a disciple, an imitator of Christ…

Climacus presents the Christian way, Christian subjectivity as singular. ‘The appropriation by which a Christian is Christian’, he writes, ‘must be so specific that it cannot be confused with anything else (CUP 609); it is a ‘paradoxical inwardness that is specifically different from all other inwardness’ (CUP 610). The Christian way is based on Christ. Climacus holds that Christianity as paradoxical-religiousness is so unique that one, ‘just by describing the “how” of his inwardness can indirectly indicate that he is a Christian without mentioning Christ’s name’ for ‘this’ “how” fits only one object’ (CUP 613-14)…

And essential part of the particularly Christian understanding of truth for Kierkegaard – that the truth is ‘transcendent’, that it comes to us, from beyond us, in Christ – is our state as untruth. Untruth, for Kierkegaard, is the ordinary state for humans, is the ‘preceding state’ (EO 599; PF 13-14). While, for Christianity, subjectivity is truth, our subjectivity ‘at first’ is untruth (CUP 213)—that subjectivity is truth, Climacus states, ‘begins in which way: “Subjectivity is untruth”’ (CUP 207). This untruth is a state of isolation or estrangement – of not being in community, in communion with reality – ‘inclosed’ in one’s own false world, at a ‘painful distance from the truth’ (CA 128; CUP 269). One is self-deceived, not relating to what one is and the way things are as one is and as the way things are, in actuality (TDIO 35). One despairingly misrelates to the self either being tricked out of the self by becoming a finite thing bound to necessity without possibility of freedom (SUD 33) or by becoming something ‘fantastic’ (SUD 31), ‘a mirage’ (SUD 36) of infinite possibilities – lacking, not being constrained by actuality and so becoming unreal (SUD 35). This untruth is a despair, an unhappiness, that can manifest itself in a sense of disjunction, a sense that something is wrong with oneself. This despairing untruth, as Kierkegaard’s later pseudonym Anti-Climacus describes it in The Sickness Unto Death, is not willing to be the self that one is – or (what amounts to the same thing) willing to be a self one is not (SUD 52-3). This misrelation to the self is also a misrelation to God insofar as the self is fundamentally related to God – the self ‘is’ a set of relations with the relation to God being the most fundamental, as the power that establishes the self—as the one that made the self as it is an against which one rebels in rejecting oneself (SUD 60). The state of untruth is a loss of this God-relationship. As Climacus writes: ‘It is really the God-relationship that makes a human being into a human being, but this is what he would lack’ (CUP 244). It is being in a state of sin, or rebellion, of mutiny against God (CUP 208) – even to the extreme of the most self-conscious and willful misrelation to oneself in ‘demonic despair’ that, ‘in hatred toward existence…wills to be itself, wills to be itself in accordance with its misery (SUD 73).

skstampTruth for Kierkegaard is a matter of being true to one’s being. The self has a reality that is independent of one’s thoughts and desires – ‘the self he is is a very definite something’, writes Anti-Climacus, ‘it remains itself from first to last;…it becomes neither more nor less than itself’ (SUD 36, 69). There is something that is ‘the original text of individual human existence-relationships, the old familiar text handed down from the fathers’ (CUP 629-30). One can either affirm and enter into one’s nature, one’s actuality or deny it. Truth is a matter of being (becoming) true to the actuality, that one is, ‘the only actuality there is for an existing person’ (CUP 316). Because there is a reality to the self there is a standard for a proper relation to oneself. Thus Climacus writes: ‘That subjectivity, inwardness, is truth…but, please note, not every inwardness’ (CUP 282-3). One becomes true, becomes more fully actual, when one exists in relation to what one is. One’s being, one’s actuality, is that of an active relation, an ‘existing in’, and interestedness – a being-between, ‘an inter-esse’ (CUP 340, 314). ‘Subjectivity is truth; subjectivity is actuality’ when one subjectively lives in accord with (one enters into the actuality of) one’s actuality as a subject – which is itself a being-in-relation—and so becomes subjective, actual, true (CUP 343)…

The self, for Kierkegaard…is ‘a relation that relates itself to itself’ (SUD 13). As such, it is, among other things, a synthesis of the necessary and the possible. Anti-Climacus writes: ‘Insofar as it is itself, it is the necessary, and insofar as it has the task of becoming itself, it is a possibility’ (SUD 35). The necessary is the reality of the self, that cannot be otherwise – ‘the self he is is a very definite something, and thus the necessary’ (SUD 36). The necessary aspect of the self is ‘that place’ (SUD 36) that one is in which one becomes – chooses to relate to the self – possibly rightly, possibly wrongly. The possible is one’s possible relation to one’s necessary reality. With one’s reflective consciousness (with the ‘mirror of possibility’), one has freedom with regard to how one relates to oneself (SUD 37). Thus, one can ‘become lost in possibility’ (SUD 37) – one can conceive of and relate to oneself as other than one is (e.g. not in a fundamental relationship with God as one’s origin and end). The proper (possible) relation to one’s (necessary) self, the true relation is that of ‘taking possibility back into necessity’ – living as (for one could live otherwise) what one is – of ‘submit[ting] to the necessity in one’s life’, for this is what enables one to become a ‘concrete’ and actual self (as opposed to an unreal/illusory one) (SUD 36-7). By choosing the possible way of existing that is in accord with our necessary being, one becomes actual – thus, as Anti-Climacus writes, actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity’ (SUD 36)…

Kierkegaard sees the more profound ‘truth’ of human existence as a correspondence between one’s existing and one’s being – between one’s existence and one’s essence, perhaps (CUP 190-3). Truth is an honest – in ‘that your life expresses what you say’ (CD 167). It is a process of becoming sober – as Kierkegaard writes, ‘to come so close to oneself in one’s understanding , in one’s knowing, that all one’s understanding becomes action‘ (JFY 115). ‘Christianly understood’, the goal is ‘to be the truth’ – and this is achieved when the truth ‘becomes a life in me’ (PIC 205-6). The truth is incarnated in the way one lives. Bringing all of this together powerfully, Anti-Climacus writes that ‘to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is’ (PIC 205). I quote at length:

The being of truth is not the  direct redoubling of being in relation to thinking, which gives only thought-being, safeguards thinking against being a brain-figment that is not, guarantees validity to thinking, that what is thought it – that is, has validity. No, the being of truth is the redoubling of truth within yourself, within me, within him, that your life, my life, his life expresses he truth approximately in the striving for it, that your life, my life, his life is approximately the being of the truth in the striving for for it, just as the truth was in Christ a life, for he was the truth. (PIC 205)

This lived truth is its own best demonstration. Kierkegaard writes that ‘the highest a person is capable of is to make an eternal truth true, to make it true that it is true – by doing it, by being oneself the demonstration, by a life that perhaps will also be able to convince others’ (CD 98). Those who seek to show that Christianity is true in a purely intellectual manner are ‘busy in a strange way in the wrong place’ (CD 189) – for Christianity is to be true in life and should be shown forth as such, much in the  way that ‘the resolution of marriage is its own best recommendation’ (SLW 156). Christian ‘being true’ is a making manifest, a concrete showing, of the truth of Christianity in life.


CA The Concept of Anxiety
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments
EO Either/Or
EUD Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses
FSE For Self-Examination
JFY Judge for Yourself!
PoV The Point of View
SLW Stages on Life’s Way
SUD The Sickness Unto Death
TDIO Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits

Philosophy’s divestment


Western thought had attempted to rise from this superstitious subjugation to the world’s mere event: Plato and Aristotle, however imperfectly, were both shaken by that effulgent moment of wonder that can free reflection from here animal dread; perhaps the one could not quite transcend the dialectic of change and changeless essences, the other the dialectic of finite form and unrealized potency, nor either the still “sacrificial” economy of finitude, but both stood within the opening in Western thought that theology could transform into a genuine openness before the transcendent God. Still, Heidegger may be somewhat correct in seeing, even in this openness, the inauguration of Western reason’s long journey toward technological mastery as the highest ideal, toward instrumental control as the governing model of all truth, toward—in short—nihilism. Perhaps there truly was, precisely in the birth of philosophy as a self-conscious enterprise of rising above the ephemerality of the phenomena to take hold of their immutable premises, a turning away from the light toward the things it illuminated, a forgetfulness of being within philosophy’s very wakefulness to being. And perhaps in this fateful moment of inattention to the mystery of being’s event, the relentless search for being’s positive foundations commenced, and then proceeded along a path that, in the end, would arrive at the ruin of philosophic faith. All of this may be—indeed, in some obvious sense, in—quite true. But the Platonic eros for the beautiful, good, and true was also a longing for something more than mere “grounds”; it was a desire for being’s fullness, though one not yet able to understand being as gift. Other ancient schools of thought were generally less precocious in their advances toward Christian theology. Stoicism, for instance, however magnificent, humane, and sophisticated it was in its most developed forms, was still somewhat retrograde in this regard, and was bound to a vision of the cosmos as a fated economy of placement and displacement, and to a more transparently sacrificial cosmic mythology of eternally repeated ekpyroseis (the universe as an eternal sacrificial pyre); but Stoicism too was profoundly marked by philosophical wonder before the goodness and loveliness of cosmic and divine order. The syncretism of late antiquity may often have produced monstrosities of occult “wisdom” and grotesque aberrations of philosophy and religion alike, but in the case of the Platonic tradition it also made it possible for a philosopher like Plotinus to reflect upon the generosity of the good and the convertibility of the good and being, and thus press against the boundaries of the totality. But it was only when Christian thought arrived, and with it the doctrine of creation, that the totality was broken open and, for the first time ever, philosophy was granted a glimpse of being’s splendid strangeness within its very immediacy and gratuity.

With this “Christian interruption” of metaphysics, every principle of necessity was made subordinate to the higher principle of grace. Christian thought, then, in its long history of metaphysical speculation, far from constituting just another episode in the genealogy of nihilism, was in fact so profound a disruption of many of the most basic premises of philosophy, and so audacious a rescue of many of philosophy’s truths from the impotent embrace of mere metaphysical ambition, that it is doubtful yet that philosophy can grasp what has happened to it, or why now it cannot be anything but an ever more indignant and self-tormenting flight from that interruption. The language of creation—however much it may be parodied as a language regarding efficient causality and metaphysical “founding”—actually introduced into Western thought the radically new idea that an infinite freedom is the “principle” of the world’s being and so for the first time opened up the possibility of a genuine reflection upon the difference between being and beings. And the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, without need of the world for his determination as difference, relatedness, or manifestation, for the first time confronted Western thought with a genuine discourse of transcendence, of an ontological truth whose “identity” is not completed by any ontic order. The event of being is, for beings, a pure gift, into whose mysteries no scala naturae by itself can lead us. And if the world is not a manifestation of necessity, but of gratuity—even if it must necessarily reflect in its intrinsic orderliness and concinnity the goodness of its source—then philosophy may be able to grasp many things, but by its own power it can never attain to the source or end of things. If being is not bound to the dimensions prescribed for it by fate or the need for self-determination or the contumacity of a material substrate, then the misconstrual of the contingent for the necessary constitutes philosophy’s original error.

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinIt is for this reason also that theology’s interruption of the “history of nihilism” was philosophy’s redemption, immeasurably deepening its openness to being and increasing the intensity of its highest eros. Within Christianity’s narrative, the world acquired a new glory; for all that it had been robbed of the imposing dignity of metaphysical necessity, it had been imbued with the still more extraordinary dignity of divine pleasure; the world had become an instance of what could only be called beauty—beauty of a kind more absolute and irreducible than any known to pagan Greek culture. A God whose very being is love, delight in the glory of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense In such a God, beauty and the infinite entirely coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists not in a dialectic between multiplicity and unity, composition and simplicity, shape and indeterminacy, but in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate. Thus it is that theology alone preserves and clarifies all of philosophy’s most enchanting prospects upon being: precisely by detaching them from the mythology of “grounds,” and by resituating them within the space of this peaceful analogical interval between divine and worldly being, within which space the sorrows of necessity enjoy no welcome Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing. Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed. Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it. In a strangely impoverished and negative way, Heidegger—the apostate from theology—almost understood this, but ultimately proved to be only a “metaphysician” after all. Then again, Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was unable to see that his own revolt against metaphysics was itself really nothing but a necessary moment in metaphysics’ recovery of itself from theology. Philosophy could not, after all, accept the gift Christian thought extended to it and remain what it had been—a science of mastery, an interrogation of the “ground”—but neither could it ignore Christianity’s transformation of its native terms: once the splendor of truth had been assumed into the Christian love of beauty, its philokalia, once the light of the world had been taken into the discourse of ontological analogy and divine transcendence, and once the difference between being and beings had entered thought and disrupted every attempt to “deduce” from the world its metaphysical identity, philosophy could not simply reassert itself as an independent project, but had to discover a new foundation. Philosophy, like a king in exile, would have to suffer the most extreme divestment and privation before it could reclaim its lost privileges. This is the true sense in which theology is part of the history of nihilism: it leaves nothing good behind in the philosopher’s hands; it plunders all of philosophy’s most powerful interpretive instruments for its own uses (despoiling the Egyptians, to use the classic metaphor), and so makes it necessary, in the aftermath of theology’s cultural influence, that philosophy advance itself every more openly as a struggle against the light, an ever more vehement refusal of the generosity of the given. If nihilism is indeed the hidden core or secret vocation of metaphysics, in the post-Christian age nothing but that core, that vocation, remains: and so it must become ever less hidden, ever less secret.

(From David Bentley Hart, “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” in The Hidden and the Manifest)

I Can’t

Ican'tTom Oord’s most recent volume God Can’t extends his passion to articulate a solution to the problem of evil. I’m contemplating a review, but I hesitate because it would amount to repeating much of what I said previously regarding Tom’s project. To be sure, there are many places throughout this book where I can agree with what Tom says, i.e., that God is love, that God doesn’t (indeed cannot) unconditionally determine all things and hold the world responsible for its actions, that God has not orchestrated the rise of evil within Creation for some mysterious good, that God continually invites us to cooperate with him in achieving great good in the world, etc.

I also have no aversion to saying “God cannot….” The phrase appears explicitly in Scripture: God cannot lie, cannot deny himself, cannot be tempted (or tempt others), etc. So I’m happy to agree with such statements in all Tom’s works. I rejoice any time the loving nature of God is championed, any time suffering people are assured that evil is not a kind of good within God’s tool-box that he employs for mysterious reasons of his own, and for every challenge to cooperate with God in the pursuit of loving ends.

What’s disturbing in Tom’s work are implications of his metaphysics which do not surface explicitly, or easily for that matter, and which are not perceived by any of the reviewers I’ve read. It matters not whether Tom’s Process metaphysics can support his claim to be able consistently to affirm miracles, or to allow for the resurrection of Christ or those in Christ (to name a couple of issues Tom anticipated previously but which continue to arise). Resurrection is arguably unimaginable within his metaphysics, but never mind this. In the end it’s his eschatology that’s unacceptable and which is, one has to admit, not a recognizably Christian vision of the consummation of all things.

Begin with Tom’s interminable (temporally infinite) cyle, or series, of worlds, each created out of the previous, ours being the most recent, and nothing from any of which has survived into our own world, and evaluate Tom’s solution to the problem of evil from there. This is precisely the point of reference from which Tom’s theology is not reviewed. We are left with individual statements about God’s essence as love we can agree with, by all means. But where the project as a whole leaves us is an entirely different matter.

It’s not a matter of admitting I can’t “go there” with Tom on this or that marginal position, as one reviewer admitted. That misses the point entirely, for the eschatological failure is absolute, and it is inseparable from (and symptomatic of) a more fundamental ontological failure underneath things, for one cannot embrace the underlying metaphysics and decide to pass on the eschatological consequences, for in the end of all things is their beginning (argues David Hart), and only from the perspective of the end do we finally know what they are, who the God is who created them, what his intentions are for them, what God’s love for us means (which is what Tom’s project is all about). But if the end of things is their non-existence, or perhaps their becoming the raw material for the world-to-come, what are we to conclude about the enduring nature of God’s love for us? Only that so long as we endured, God loved us.

I do admire Tom’s passion and intentions. They’re pastoral throughout. The problem of evil is not just an academic exercise. For people whose ghastly conceptions of God wreak havoc with their faith, Tom’s been an unrelenting voice in the wilderness. But the execution of his theological project is, at its core, quite literally our execution, and that by divine love. As I earlier summarized:

The eschatological consequences are fatal. As I understand this cosmology, no discrete entity within any world survives permanently, or, at least, there’s no assurance that any individual member in a world will endure permanently into the future. That’s a significant consequence of Oord’s model that I think ought to be discussed much more, because it exacerbates the problem of evil.

If each world is created “out of” its previous world in a universal reorganization so radical as to constitute a “new world,” the relative question is What does endure from world to world? The cosmology becomes dicey and extremely troublesome at this point and is, I confess, difficult to describe as a “Christian” view of creation and consummation at all…

Why is it a problem? Because it would apply to Christ and his Church and so the entirety of the New Testament’s eschatological vision. Oord has made it clear when pressed on the eschatological question that he could not affirm with any confidence that the risen Christ or any other created being from our present world shall endure permanently. This is more than troubling. I’d be willing to give up a lot to purchase a final solution to the problem of evil, but at such a cost?

Tradition and orthodoxy aside, what are we getting in exchange for the price paid? The essential reason Oord develops this model is to ground our confidence that God will not cease loving us. It is one of Oord’s main complaints against God’s creating gratuitously “out of nothing” that God ends up being as free to stop loving us and begin hating us as he is free to create and not create. God’s love would be arbitrary, Oord maintains, were he to create gratuitously ex nihilo.

…It’s fair to ask: What happened to the infinite number of previous worlds in Oord’s series? They existed as expressions of God’s essential love too, just like ours does. Indeed, Oord argues we cannot consistently say “God is love” apart from positing this infinite [succession] of worlds. But where are those worlds now?

The whole infinite series is recognized, Oord holds, so that we can know for certain that God loves us and will never cease to love us. But nothing of any of the infinite number of worlds that preceded our own has endured. Just how safe and loved are we supposed to feel? What is it about an infinite series of worlds that makes Oord feel that God’s love for us secures our destiny if we believe we will be eventually recycled in the production of a new world order to arise from the reconfiguration of our own (ad infinitum)? An infinite number of worlds created out of love by God and no particular from a single one of them endures into our present world, and yet the mere fact that God co-creates this infinite series out of love and will continue to co-create a world out of ours to succeed our own, is supposed to ground our confidence in our own enduring enjoyment of his love?

Tom is convinced that creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) prevents any final assurance of God’s love, because if God does not create by a necessity of nature (i.e., if he creates freely/gratuitously) he might up and stop loving us tomorrow. This doesn’t follow logically of course, but belief that it does is behind Tom’s rejection of creation ex nihilo. In its place he essentially proposes creatio ad nihilum (“creation unto nothing”), for nothing is the final destiny of every world in Tom’s process system, eternalizing rather than solving the problem of evil.

In any case, surely here a Christian motivation informed by the gospel must ask, Is divine incarnation not enough? Can God’s personal incarnation not tell us what God’s unchangeable opinion of us is, what his abiding intentions for us are? If the permanent-irrevocable union of divine and created being through the Incarnation is not enough to assure us of the unchanging, abiding nature of God’s love for what he creates, we will not find the answer in binding God dialectically to a series of creations extending infinitely into the past, none of the beloved particulars of which survived the recycling process. As one reader pointed out to me, Tom’s overall project reminded him of the 2017 movie Mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence, a kind of modern depiction of the cosmic mythology of Stoicism’s eternally repeating creation. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

In the end, however,

…Christianity has a different answer to the worry about what grounds our confidence in the unchanging nature of God’s love. One thing: the Incarnation, God’s own irrevocable assumption of human nature, the union of divine and created being in the God-Man. Humanity is now forever united to God in the victory of God’s own incarnate life and resurrection. That tells us what God thinks of what he creates. The Incarnation assures us that God will love us as unfailingly as he loves himself. Positing an eternal infinite series of worlds nothing in any one of which will endure forever cannot tell us that we shall never be separated from the love of God. Only God’s own incarnation can do that. Nothing shall ever separate us, St. Paul assures us, from the love of God “in Christ.” You have to finish the sentence. Once we have that, we don’t need an infinite multiplicity of worlds. We have God’s own infinite life personally present in the Incarnate One who embodies the permanence and so the assurance that God will never cease loving us.

Desire that is ‘out of this world’


There is in all human beings a natural desire for beatitude, for a happiness so complete that the desire for it could not be satisfied by the contemplation of any God which reason alone could know, but only by the vision of God of a directness and immediacy which reason is absolutely powerless to achieve and of which it cannot even know the possibility. Therefore, what human beings naturally desire cannot be satisfied by what human beings can naturally know. If follows from this…that even that natural desire for God, which must be frustrated by the incompleteness of the contemplation of any naturally known God, cannot be known in its full character of frustration, except from the standpoint of faith. For it is only by faith that we can know of the possibility of that complete vision of God to which human reason fails to attain. Hence, the ‘noble genius’ of the pagan philosophers – of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Proclus – who did know God by reason, and who, as Thomas says, could experience only a ‘great anguish’ of frustration at reason’s limitedness, did not know the true nature even of their anguish, for they did not, and could not, know that goal of human desire and knowledge by the standard of which theirs fell short.

(Denys Turner, Faith, Reason and the Existence of God)