From Nothing—Part 5

mortalityIn Part 4 I suggested (with McFarland and Eikrem) that mortality (entropy/decay) per se is not an evil consequence of creation’s fall from a primordial perfection but that it constitutes the minimal basic necessary context in terms of which conscious embodied beings such as us must negotiate the choices necessary to becoming what God intended – one with God in love and partnership in the cosmos.

My friend John (comments section) writes that he recognizes that our finitude “might conceivably require…epistemic distances and ontic privations in order to be exercised and realized.” Precisely. But he asks “But what length of distance? And what depth of privation?” Good questions.

A few weeks ago I found myself in conversation with an Eastern Orthodox believer who, strangely, insisted that God’s purposes for us (i.e., our union with him in love and our partnership with him in the cosmos) include not only our mortality, but also our actual moral depravity, and that evil itself is required for creation to find its home in God. I got the feeling this gentleman was speaking from the edge of the edge. In any case, it’s fatally (pun intended) overstating the context in terms of which we must travel the pathway to our end in God, and it’s certainly not reflective of Orthodoxy’s general vision. John’s questions, though, got me to thinking again about the necessity of mortality.

Why think mortality (by which I mean entropy and decay, and thus death) is the necessary context in which human beings find their way to fulfillment in God? To risk offending readers with a needless repetition, let me repeat what I’ve said:

For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. So, mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy” (in the existential/theological sense of Heb 2.14) when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude….

To John’s questions then: What length of [epistemic] distance must define the space in which we make our way Godward? And what depth of privation must define our existence for that existence to arrive to the fulness God intends? For me the answer is bound up with the nature of created finitude, on the one hand, and privation, on the other. Finitude is no privation, obviously. If finitude were a privation, then creation would come privated and evil from God, and we don’t want to say that. When we are all God created us to be, in the full light and enjoyment of God as our end, we shall remain finite. Privation is another matter. Privation is privation of the good. And if finitude is the nature of creation in its goodness, then our privation is misrelation precisely to the truth of our finitude.

What of the epistemic distance that qualifies our finitude? Well, it can’t be that believing falsehoods and lies is a good thing, or even a necessary thing for us. But the ignorance of finitude is no privation. The question is what kind of epistemic distance has to define the context in which we make responsible choices Godward? We have to know enough to choose rightly, not step into it accidentally. But if choice is to be the means of a responsible self-determination toward our end, then we can’t be so overwhelmed with the obvious truth of things that deliberation becomes rationally impossible. The epistemic distance has to be greater than 0 but less than 1.

The end of such distance, its purpose, is its own final closure achieved over time through the exercise of the will. We experience this tendency now as habituation, the solidification of the will. But we’re talking here about the necessary starting point, about what has to be in place for us to make the journey toward final union with God. We can’t start out at the end – obviously – but the beginning, though less than the end, also cannot be “privation” or evil. This is where we locate mortality as entropy and decay. Apart from the experience of mortality (entropy, decay, death) we would have no grounds upon which to perceive the truth of our own finitude and our movement to final union with God would be impossible, for that union is predicated precisely upon our choosing to relate rightly as created, as finite.

So – how much “epistemic distance”? Necessarily, enough to make truly responsible choice possible. That varies. But to what depth of “privation”? If by privation we mean privation of the good, then none at all necessarily. Finitude is the goodness of being created. Privation is the evil of refusing to acknowledge our finitude.

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From Nothing—Part 4

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I earlier shared three passages (as Parts 1, 2, and 3) from the Intro to Lutheran theologian Ian McFarland’s From Nothing: A Theology of Creation. I was later happy to run across this passage in which he seems to argue that mortality (entropy/decay) is a God-given feature of an evolving world. It’s a minority position, but one I find preferable to the majority position (the majority position being that entropy and decay are evils that result from a primordial fall).

And yet part of the ambiguity surrounding the human experience of creatures’ diversity is bound up with the fact that the multiplication of creatures is coupled with (and from a purely biological perspective, needed to compensate for) their regular destruction; rather than persisting in the capacious environments that God provides, living creatures, whether considered as individuals or as classes, die, so that, for example, only a small fraction of the terrestrial species that have existed in the half-billion years since the emergence of multicellular life survive today. Yet this fact in itself need not be viewed as inconsistent with creation’s goodness. Although death has most often been viewed in Christian tradition as a punishment for Adam’s transgression, Genesis 3:19, 22 (cf. 6:3) may also be read as teaching that humans (and by extension, other earth creatures) naturally return to the dust from which they were taken unless some other factor intervenes (see Gen. 2:7, 17 Ps. 103:13-16; Eccl. 3:19-20). Certainly there is nothing inconsistent with the goodness of creation that the “place” occupied by every creature should have temporal as well as spatial boundaries, entailing a limited life span no less than limited bodily dimensions; indeed, such temporal limits actually enhance the capaciousness of creation, since two creatures can occupy the same space if they do so at different times. Death can certainly be experienced as a violation of life and so as a curse, but Scripture also can speak of a kind of death that is a life’s natural conclusion, in which an individual dies “old and full of days’ (Gen. 35;29; 1Chr. 29:28: Job 42;17; cf. gen. 25;8; Isa. 65:20). Insofar as extinction of a species is the analogue to the death of an individual creature, one might equally conceive of classes of creatures—trilobites or dinosaurs, say, both of which thrived for tens of millions of years before becoming extinct—as having experience this sort of death. In this way we can understand death as temporal finitude, as a means by which the fullness of creation is arranged along a temporal axis as well as within contemporary physical spaces….

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Why do I think mortality (entropy/decay) are not evil consequences of a primeval fall but the way creation was given by God from the get-go? From a previous post:

For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. So, mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy” when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude and to respond to it by turning our attention and energies to securing a meaningful existence this side of the Void.

Christ the Heart of Creation

heart of creationI have my eye on Rowan Williams’ new book Christ the Heart of Creation (2018) to purchase when it reaches the top of my to-read list and as soon as my allowance permits. From the table of contents it looks to be like a published (expanded?) version of his 2016 Hulsean Lectures “Christ and the Logic of Creation” which, it seems, you can listen to, and download, in their entirety here.

So looking forward to these!

God’s judgment: “Peace be with you!”

desente-aux-enfersFantastic passage from Raymund Schwager (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption). Schwager (Swiss Jesuite) and Girard carried on a rich and now published correspondence discussing the theological implications of Girard’s anthropology. Schwager was the first to attempt to integrate these implication with orthodox Christian claims. In this passage he contemplates the Father’s activity in Christ’s condemnation.

The way to approach the inner problematic of the resurrection, arising from the consideration of Jesus’ fate, was succinctly expressed in the first epistle of Peter: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; he suffered, but did not threaten; but he handed himself over to the righteous judge” (1Pet. 2:23). The action of the Father at Easter is to be understood as a judgment by which he takes up a position in the conflict between the claim of Jesus and the verdict of his opponents. This statement is central and at the same time liable to misinterpretation, as it could suggest a return to traditional conceptions of judgment and thereby to a distorting horizon of interpretation. In order correctly to understand the judging activity of the heavenly Father at Easter, we must first of all remind ourselves that Jesus in his proclamation of judgment took back nothing from his message of the goodness of God, but rather uncovered the possibility which threatened that people would close themselves off absolutely. Further, we must consider that Jesus, faced with a violent death, gave himself completely for the opponents of God’s kingdom, who had closed themselves off. In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus’ opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they had already turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation.

The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people’s hardened hearts.

Finally, from this perspective it is also understandable why the heavenly Father “held back” in his Easter judgment and why he did not powerfully authenticate his Son before the whole world. Jesus made the claim, by his proclamation and by his lived decision not to meet the violence of his opponents on their own level, that God’s action is not identical with action on this earth which brings immediate victory. He was not able himself to prove this claim, since it led him by an inner logic to earthly defeat. But even the Father was unable to endorse him in a graphic way, since a demonstrative, public intervention in favor of the Son would have worked precisely against his message. The action of God and a historical, public victory would have appeared once again as identical values, and the way of surrender to death would have shown itself to be merely a passing episode. This style of endorsement would have contradicted what was to be endorsed. Rather, what was needed was a sign which on the one hand made explicit the unrestricted divine “yes” to Jesus and on the other hand was “reserved,” so that it was not tantamount to a public victory. Both demands were met by the appearances of the risen one before the women and his disciples. What from the historical-critical viewpoint may be felt to be unsatisfying shows itself to be most appropriate at the level of the inner coherence of content. Thus it emerges once more that the cryptic presuppositions of the historical-critical method do not match the reality which came to expression for the first time in the fate of Jesus.

Scripture’s truth exposes Scripture’s falsehoods

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Reading through Galatians this week, I paused over Paul’s familiar words:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3.10-14)

Paul contrasts two claims which Scripture itself makes with respect to how the ‘life’ which God intends for us is achieved. On the one hand no one can rely upon the law for this life because (v. 11) “the righteous will live by faith” (or “the one who is righteous by faith will live”). Paul is quoting Hab. 2.4. This is the truth of the gospel reflected in the OT and exemplified in Abraham’s experience.

Paul then contrasts this with a different claim which, he argues, shows that “the law is not based on faith” (v. 12). Note the “on the contrary” which establishes the contrary nature ‘faith’ and ‘law’ as incompatible modes of relating to God and enjoying ‘life’. This reference comes from Lev 18:5, which Paul quotes: “the person who does these things [viz., observances of the law] shall live by them.” Paul understands this to be a false promise of life through the law, which is why he believes it shows “the law is not based on faith,” viz., it promises life to those who “do these things.” But as Paul demonstrates, Lev. 18.5 contradicts Hab. 2.4. The promise of life God made to Abraham is possessed and enjoyed by faith (Hab. 2.4), not by law (Lev. 18.5). The Mosaic law, Paul insists, is not “based on faith.”

What’s interesting here is Paul bringing together what he feels are contradictory Scriptural (i.e., biblical) claims about ‘law’ and ‘life’. It is Hebrew Scripture (Lev. 18.5) that promises life to those who keep the law, and it is also Hebrew Scripture (Abraham’s life and Hab 2.4) which elsewhere promises life to those who believe. Paul agrees with the latter against the former. He thus depends on Scripture (where it confirms the truth of the gospel) to disagree with Scripture (where it does not conform to the truth of the gospel). It will be disturbing news to some that any claim by Scripture can be false in this sense. But Paul’s argument here clearly proceeds on such grounds.

To clarify, I’m not attempting to define faith, life, law, or justification here. I’m merely observing the structure of Paul’s argument. In whatever sense he contemplates the law, Paul feels it is not “based on faith” because it promises life through faithful observance. And whatever Paul might understand faith to be (the believer’s faith or Jesus’ faithfulness), it is still the case that this is contrasted with law. All I’m pointing out here is that the structure of Paul’s argument includes Paul using Scripture’s truth (Hab. 2.4 and Abraham’s experience) to expose what he feels is some falsehood in Scripture (Lev. 18.5’s promise of life through the law).

This passage includes still another Scriptural claim we can be confident is false, namely, the claim that “whoever hangs on a tree is cursed [by God]” (v. 13 and Deut. 21.23). That is Israel’s false belief, but how can God demonstrate it to be false? He demonstrates it false by giving himself to it, by hanging on a tree without being cursed. But why believe Jesus was not cursed on the Cross? Because that is the meaning of the Cross in light of God’s raising him from the dead. The Cross is our verdict wrought upon Jesus. The resurrection is God’s contradicting verdict. Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.