Divine freedom

art

Forgive the infrequency of my posts. For me blogging is like the tide – it swells up and down under the force of issues that bring their urgency to bear upon me at a regularity I can’t make out. But here I am.

The most vexing theological question I’ve been confronting for some time now is the question of divine freedom relative to Creation. As I dance around it, its different aspects come out to greet me, but I can’t resolve them into a contradiction-free view. I know the options on offer but am not completely happy with any of them.

On the one hand:

• God creates ex nihilo (out of nothing) and so freely and unnecessarily.
• This has to at least mean that God’s triune fullness (God as infinite love and beatitude) is not achieved in or through his determination to create, for per ex nihilo the determination to create expresses that triune beatitude; it cannot also constitute it. So it cannot be that the determination to create is co-terminous with the begetting of the Son (as John Milbank recently tweeted) if that means the Father begets the Son ‘with a view to’ creating. This would effectively write the determination to create into the Triune relations in and as their content and telos, as sharing in the content of that act by which God is the God he is. (McCormack and Jenson are already here; God determines himself as Trinity in and via the determination to creation. I’m unable to say this, for it obviously denies creation ex nihilo and the triune plentitude implied therein.)

On the other hand:

• The logoi (God’s creative intentions for the world) of the Word/Logos/Son are uncreated and abide essentially in the Word. This constitutes for me the vexing question regarding divine freedom. For though the determination to create as free and unnecessary does not define the begetting of the Son (and I don’t see how it can), the logoi (which are the very possibility of creation) do have their shape and form in that begetting. If we say creation ex nihilo means the divine logoi may abide unrealized/unactualized in the creation they envision, what’s that really mean? The possibilities of creation define the Word within the scope of his begotten filial identity, but the fullness and beatitude of that identity is indifferent to the realization of these logoi?

You may see the problem. And I’m not uploading unsavory assumptions about some temporal before and after here. Let’s leave that aside for now. We need only contemplate the relationship in God between his triune fullness and his free determination to creation.

Enter divine teleology. What is the ‘end’ of these logoi if not Creation? But if they’re realized freely and unnecessarily, what can their realization in creation be unnecessary to but God’s own triune fullness and beatitude? I wonder if we may imagine the ‘end’ for which the logoi subsist as fulfilled ad intra. After all, we say the end/purpose of all things is God. If Creation is unnecessary, then its very possibility in God has to have God, always and already, as its satisfaction. This may seem strange, but what about any of this isn’t? It would mean the logoi are fulfilled in the Word, as the Word, as possibilities, but the possibility they represent for us is in God a fulfilled end, and that the Word as begotten is that end fulfilled.

In any event, I can’t imagine the divine fullness (or my own salvation in Christ) apart from creation ex nihilo, but I also find it increasingly difficult to imagine the generation of creative potentialities (logoi) in the Son that logically entail nothing whatsoever about God’s determination to create, as if the fullness that begets the logoi is indifferent to their actualization as creation – and yet they must be so. (I’m not entirely satisfied with this, but McCormack and Jenson only exacerbate the problem.)

All I can think to say is that in begetting the Son, the Father constitutes himself as an infinite disposition for creative self-expression ad extra and that this just is God’s freedom, not a reflection of it, but that freedom itself, and that as freedom it must be the case that creating is unnecessary to it, but that as teleological it must be the case that every creative act realizes ends constitutive of it. Hence, God creates freely/unnecessarily in the sense that the ‘end’ for which he acts expresses rather than realizes his own plentitude. Whichever aspect we confess, we confess a mystery and paradox.

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Philosophy’s divestment

Trinity

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)

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.

Creation as intra-trinitarian gift: Postscript 1

bubbles

I was rethinking through an old post of mine: Creation as intra-trinitarian gift. It begins:

Let’s conceive of creation as an intra-trinitarian gift. Take the rationale for incarnation out of the sphere of human salvation. Instead of finding a place for the incarnation within the larger act of creation, let’s turn it around and locate the rationale for creation within incarnation. In other words, creation occurs to make incarnation possible. Creation really is about God celebrating Godself. Creation is God’s gift to Godself. The cosmos is just the means by which God creatively expresses himself to himself for his own enjoyment. One might conclude that we humans are an afterthought, and in a qualified sense, yes, that’s exactly right…

I noticed no integration of Scripture in that post. That was an oversight, for at the time my thought was on 1Cor 15.22-28:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (emphasis mine)

What is the end or telos of creation? God’s being “all in all.” This is achieved through Christ surrendering the Kingdom to the Father. So the entire redemptive economy ends with an intra-trinitarian gift – i.e., Christ giving the Kingdom (all of redeemed creation) to the Father. Eschatology and protology are a single revelation; the end reveals the beginning. If Christ’s giving fulfilled creation (which includes giving his own humanity as Incarnate) is the end, then that is what it was intended for from its beginning. And so, creation is intra-trinitarian gift.

Have a nice day thinking about it: You are God’s gift to himself.

The Devil’s March—Part 2

skeleton-mirrorIn his opening to “The Devil’s March,” David Hart paints a grim picture of the world and our existence in it. “All the things about the world that enchant us,” he urges, “are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness,” a darkness filled with the torments of disease, the blood of the innocent, war, conquests, enslavements – the list goes on. “Everything we love vanishes,” he laments, “and so do we.” If God does exist, and if we do owe him our gratitude for the gift of being, Hart cautions, “this is no obvious truth of reason, but a truth more mysterious than almost any other.” Our knowledge, left to its natural limitations, “instructs us principally that we owe God nothing at all, but that really we should probably regard him with feelings situated somewhere along the continuum between resigned resentment and vehement hatred.”

Surprisingly, the first words that follow this portrait are “And yet Christians must…believe in the goodness of all being.” But Hart is in no hurry to get there and neither should we be. We reduce faith to facile and glib sentimentality if we don’t truly experience the Void and allow it to deconstruct and dismember us, but few of us are that patient. One has to face the nothingness of existence in all its finitude and the violence that Hart rehearses. Whatever essential goodness there is to the world, it cannot be discerned by cordoning off this or that particular good from the world’s pain so that the voice of suffering isn’t heard. After all, if we have to “shout down” evil, we affirm no essential good. The only good worth having is a good that is as immanent within the whole of a suffering world as it is transcendent of the world, and that means affirming the good in full view of the world’s evil. But most treatments of the problem of evil resolve themselves miles before they get to this place.

Here is that following portion of Hart’s piece that affirms the goodness of existence. I’ll meet you on the other side with a few reflections in fear and trembling.

And yet Christians must, of course, believe in the goodness of all being, with a certitude that even the most sanguine Platonist could not match, because they are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence. And so certain affirmations—metaphysical, moral, and narrative—prove inevitable for any coherent Christian reflection on the problem of evil, not only to answer the question of evil’s origin, but also to defend the innocence of God against the evidences of finite experience. One of these affirmations is that evil possess no proper substance or nature of its own, that it exists only as a privation boni, that though it is real—exorbitantly and ubiquitously real—it is so only in the way that cancer is real: as a corruption and perversion of something that in its own proper nature is essentially good. Thus we may say that, in a purely metaphysical sense, God is implicated neither as substance nor as direct cause in the existence or effects of evil. Another equally indispensable claim is that evil possesses a history, one composed entirely of contingencies and compromising both a first and a last moment. Thus we may say that evil, in all its cosmic scope, is still only an episode, with no share in God’s eternity. Another is that the proximate cause of sin lies in the mysterious difference between rational creatures’ natural wills (which necessarily seek the one Good in which all things have their true beginning and end), and their deliberative wills (which, under the transcendental canopy of the Good, can nevertheless be diverted toward lesser goods and false ends). Thus we may say that evil is the creature of our choices, not of God’s creative will. Yet another is that the moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Dreamtime or the supercelestial realm of the pure forms or the Origenist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you.

In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other. From the outset, Christian doctrine denies that suffering, death, and evil in themselves, have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. They are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may, under the conditions of a fallen order, make them the occasion for accomplishing his good ends. It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “power” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

voidI’m working through two issues/questions here. The first has to do with how we bring together the world’s beauties and its evils into the kind of broad assessment we make about the ultimate meaning of existence. The second has to do with the intrinsic evil of death and mortality.

In the first case, Hart argues that our experience of the world’s evil and suffering leads naturally to the existential void he describes in Part 1. Christians, however, believe the world to be good “because [we] are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence.”

I may be over analyzing things or just missing the point altogether, but something seems off here. We know the world is evil based on our experience of the world, but we believe the world is essentially good because of our belief in a particular doctrine? Christians do share the doctrinal convictions Hart names, but it seems to me these convictions just are our belief in the goodness of creation, not why we believe in this goodness. I’d like to suggest that if we know the world to be evil because of our experience of it, it can also only be the case that we believe it is good because of our experience of it.

Might we be falsely defaulting in our valuations of the world to a preference for evil? By this I mean the way we reason that since the world is a world in which innocent children are abused and trafficked as sexual slaves, the beauty and goodness of a child’s loving prayer, or some some very great shared beauty or good, or, to pick a couple of Hart’s favorites, Bach’s final fugue or Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, are all swept out to sea by the force of evil – the idea being that whatever beauties there are, they can’t abide the presence of evil. I’m wondering why this is so. Why do we tend to reason that ‘this’ beauty is reduced to the meaninglessness of ‘that’ evil. Why must our aesthetic valuations run in that direction? In this instance, evil is so consuming that we (unintentionally) settle for the belief that evil is the substantial reality and love is the privation, as if by some default of logic evil becomes the gate-keeper for our evaluations of experience and history. Evil gets to say what beauty and goodness are, or whether they are. Hart doesn’t believe this of course, but it seems to me that in his opening call to sobriety, goodness and love are relativized by evil in the world.

I don’t mean to sneak in a conviction of faith into the conversation as the basis for questioning the way love and goodness in the world are related to evil in our valuations. On the contrary, I mean simply to observe the nature of aesthetic experience per se. Why should the many obvious acts of loving kindness and creative beauties that litter the world not be the final arbiter of our overall response to its evils? I’m not sure exactly how to answer this question myself, except to say that the a priori transcendental shape to all our experience prevents the sort of rise to preference which evil seems to enjoy in treatments of the problem of evil. There is a problem of evil, yes. But there is also the problem of beauty and goodness; and the latter defines, even makes possible, the former. That we approach all our experience of the world within a prior transcendental framework of truth, beauty and goodness is what makes possible our viewing evil and suffering as something objectionable. Our affirmation of beauty, truth, and goodness – apart from any developed doctrines – forces itself upon us. I’m suggesting that its force is categorically greater than the world’s evils, for no objection to the evils Hart describes is even possible apart from the prior transcendental orientation of all experience as essentially good, true, and beautiful. These are the measure of evil; they say what evil is, or that it is, and they shape the conclusions we come to regarding the ultimate meaning of the world.

My point is that it is not experience of the world that tells us it is meaningless because of its evils and doctrines of faith, on the other hand, that tell us the world is good. It is experience that tells us both, and experience of world’s good and beauty that tells us its evils cannot arbitrate the final truth of things. Doctrines make sense of those convictions and organize them into a faith. We don’t always navigate this split in the road rightly, but it’s a split in one and the same experience of the world. I apologize if I’m articulating this poorly.

Secondly, I struggle with the notion that mortality is an evil that has perverted the goodness of creation through a primeval catastrophe occurring outside the history of this world, in the unsearchable foundations of its coming to be. Let me suggest something less other worldly: humankind was created mortal by God – from the get-go. This world, its material becoming, and us in it, were created subject to the decay and entropy by which the earth absorbs the energy of the sun and seeds die to give us vegetation, etc. Mortality isn’t itself a privation.

Why do I suppose this? 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. 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.

What difference does Jesus really make?

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

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

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

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

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

God takes responsibility for sin – or not

spider2 - CopyBack in late spring/early summer of this year reviews of Boyd’s CWG began to surface and online discussion of the book took off. Of the reviews that were published online at the time, I don’t recall any that gave CWG all-around thumbs up. Some who passionately defend a non-violent view of the atonement nevertheless had serious concerns about core arguments and implications of Greg’s project. I suspect that has changed some, I don’t know. I’m not following the reviews at this point. I posted my own support for points I thought Greg made well alongside criticisms of weakness.

However, Greg is a friend whose ideas – even those I disagree with – I don’t mind returning to on occasion, if only because the concerns that motivate them and the passion that propels them are inspiring. Here I’d like to reflect a bit upon a particular phrase Greg uses to describe the Cross as God’s “taking responsibility for the world’s evil.” For example:

[T]he fact that the Son took responsibility for all the evil that he as Creator allowed to come to pass in his creation entails that the Father and Spirit, in their own unique ways, also took responsibility for all this evil, though they are no more morally culpable for any of it than is the Son.

Or here:

God assumed responsibility for all that he allowed to take place in his creation.

The idea derives ultimately from Greg’s belief that God creates freely, unnecessarily. That’s important, because the question of why God would take responsibility for a necessary God-world relationship (as proposed by standard Process metaphysics) never really arises. But for someone like Greg who espouses the (quite orthodox belief in the) utter gratuity of God’s choice to create, the question of God’s “taking responsibility” for the absolute mess the world introduces a challenge. Consider:

  • God creates freely and unnecessarily.
  • Creation freely corrupts itself and becomes overwhelmed by violence and suffering.

The freedom involved in the latter would be explanation enough for some, maybe most. But Greg believes that though we are endowed with the freedom to self-determine (which makes us and not God morally culpable for our individual choices), there remains an additional factor that we need to account for:

  • The eruption of evil was inevitable.

Over top all of humanity’s particular free choices stands the all-embracing statistical inevitability of sin and violence. Given the precarious condition of our origins (human weakness, finitude, ignorance, basic appetites and drives, the influence of socialization, the Satanic corruption of matter, and more), sooner or later creation would go off the rails. Greg may be an open theist who holds the future to be (partly) open, but he maintains the causal closure of the world’s descent into evil given these factors. God knows human sin and vice will inevitably erupt, and it is this inevitability that God freely creates and (I will suggest regarding his view) what God takes responsibility for.

van-gogh-pietaIt’s true of course, in an almost trivial sense, that God takes responsibility for what God does if by that we mean to say that God’s actions are fully informed, fully intended, fully acknowledged, fully his own, utterly embraced – entailments and all. But this is not news. The staunchest classical theist would affirm it.

But this is not what Greg means by saying God “takes responsibility for evil.” What Greg means, I gather, is that God assumes something approaching a moral responsibility for the world’s evil and suffering. In suffering the despair of godforsakenness, God suffers his own free choice to create, and this responsibility has a definite moral shape to it. God didn’t have to create but he did so knowing things would go desperately wrong. Thus (and this “thus” reveals the logic of God’s “responsibility” in Greg’s view) God suffers for us by suffering for having freely created us. That is at least part of the logic at work. Greg explains further:

[O]nly by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [cf. Moltmann] In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.” [cf. Moltmann] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

A few thoughts in response. First, it’s important to note that such claims as Greg makes in this last quote are nowhere found in the New Testament. Are they legitimate inferences drawn from biblical passages? Examining this question would take me outside the narrow interest of this post, and I’ve already reviewed CWG elsewhere and responded to key biblical passages (2Cor 5.21’s “God made Jesus to become sin”; Gal 3.13’s “Christ’s became a curse”; the Cry of Dereliction in Mk 15.34|Mt 27.46). Such passages needn’t imply that the Triune relations suffer the curse of godforsakeness which is the intrinsic consequence of our sin.

I am, secondly, more interested in exploring the nature of this suffering as a “taking of responsibility for evil” and the assumptions behind viewing it in such terms. True, Greg notes that God cannot be morally culpable for any of the particular evils of free agents. However, over top our particularity is the inevitability of sin and evil as such. Though God may not be responsible for the former, he is for the latter, and this gives every appearance of being moral in nature. Consider the gravity of the consequences God suffers and why. What constitutes this gravity in Greg’s project? What reality makes God’s suffering godforsakeness a “responsibility”? It would seem that since the inevitability of the depths of evil and suffering derives from God’s free choice to create, God owes it to the world (morally, not logically – given the gratuity of God’s choice to create and the wretched mess we made of ourselves) to suffer the godforsakeness we suffer.

It is important to say that this responsibility is beyond the fact that our salvation requires a demonstration of love sufficient to address our addiction and bondage to sin and violence. Here things get interesting inside Greg’s view. Certainly our created and fallen state presents natural conditions God must accommodate to rescue us from that state, (God’s redemptive manifestation to us must be embodied, human, finite – as opposed to be incarnate as a cow or a porpoise). Greg recognizes these. However, these include the particular extent and nature of God’s suffering (the reducing of God’s ad intra triune experience to the fragmentation and despair of godforsakeness). That God suffer so is entirely dictated by our condition.

But this leaves the “taking responsibility for sin” ungrounded. There’s no truth of human fallenness that makes it obvious that our rescue requires that God suffer the particular godforsakeness and despair which are the consequences for us of our evil. It appears that what ultimately grounds the necessity that God suffer in this particular godforsaken sense is the gratuity of creating a world bound inevitably to do great violence and suffer immeasurable evil. Because God is not culpable for particular human evils but must suffer infinitely to assume all human (and animal) suffering and godforsakeness, the responsibility God assumes in suffering so would be grounded antecedently in the very inevitability that supervenes upon the entire “the whole uproar of history.” This, not anything human beings require per se, appears to define why God must suffer so.

For Greg everything rides on it being the case that on the Cross God assumes this responsibility through suffering the despair of godforsakeness intrinsic to our sinful choices. The very “authenticity” of Jesus’ suffering as a redemptive act, its very ‘saving efficacy’, requires that God experience the combined sum of the world’s godforsakenness. We get a clue toward the end of the previous quote from Greg into what constitutes the link between God’s godforsakeness and our godforsakeness in terms of “responsibility.” God’s suffering must be “authentic” relative to our need. And it is only authentic if it is equivalent (same despair, same godforsakeness, same crisis of identity, same loss of hope, same pain), but infinitely so for God of course because he has the entirety of human and animal suffering to assume). Only if we perceive the Cross as being this may we have “confiden[ce] that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.” This “confidence,” for Greg, is how faith appropriates the healing, reconciling work of the Cross.

But why suppose any of this? It’s not an explicit claim of any NT writer. And it isn’t obvious that our being reconciled to God or healed from our own godforsakeness requires that God be equally as godforsaken as us. Why must our healing from godforsakeness require the multiplication of godforsakeness in God? We don’t universally assume that acts of saving or healing of an inter-personal, loving nature are only authentically transforming and redeeming if the gracious saving party shares every consequence intrinsic to the offending party’s choices.

We do agree, with Greg, that it is not anything human beings do to Jesus that saves us, rather it is what the Father is doing “behind the scenes.” But where Greg sees the Father abandoning Jesus behind the scene of the the human abandonment of Jesus, we see the Father doing something else, namely, not abandoning Jesus but empowering him to endure human rejection “for the joy set before him,” to forgive those lynching him, to offer paradise to those who entreat him. On the Cross, Jesus still “does what he sees the Father doing.” But on Greg’s view, as I understand it, Jesus sees the Father abandoning him but does something else, namely, not abandon others but forgive and offer paradise instead.

The more I’ve pondered these differences with Greg, the more I come to recognize the more fundamental difference from which our other disagreements derive. Surprisingly, it is not that Greg is a Kenoticist and we are not, nor is it that we believe in God’s undiminished triune delight and Greg does not. It is, I believe, our very different views of the human predicament. Just what is the “fallen human condition” the rescue from which we give the name “salvation” to? And how does Jesus’ dying and rising together heal that condition? For us, the notion of godforsakeness (viz., that God must, objectively speaking, become “cursed” [Gal 3.13] by experiencing the despair of ‘forsaking’ and ‘being forsaken by’ God) that informs Greg’s whole project, is the very myth we need saving from. Where, for Greg, God’s own godforsakeness constitutes our salvation, for us godforsakeness is what Jesus’ death and resurrection expose to be the myth that enslaves us – and one doesn’t expose myths by believing them.

All that said, let me shift directions here —

Part of Greg’s project involves a hermeneutical re-centering, a cruciform hermeneutic. The cruciform hermeneutic makes what happens on the Cross the hermeneutical center (or “lens”) through which everything else in the Bible is read. I’ve already reviewed why I think this is impossible, but I though I might find it helpful to turn this entire dilemma of Greg’s on its head. Instead of God taking responsibility for creating, what would happen if we view God as taking responsibility for being created? That is, in Christ, God the human being fulfills humanity’s responsibility before God to present itself humbly, obedient and trusting in the face of all the vicissitudes inherent in that nature, and fulfills human nature’s calling and purpose. In this case Jesus’ death fulfills created nature, loving and trusting God within the constraints of created finitude. Christ, the God-Man, represents creation to God, takes responsibility for being creatED (not for creatING), unites creation to God, and in so doing reconciles the world to God, not God to the world.

Am I suggesting that we replace the Cross with something else, the Resurrection perhaps, as “the” hermeneutical center? No. I’m suggesting (following James Alison) that we define the center phenomenologically as the act of faith integrating incarnation, passion, resurrection through knowledge of the One Christ – the “risen-crucified” One. These events (atonement, ministry, passion, resurrection, ascension) are all temporally distinct but aesthetically one.

vgflowersWhat do I mean by temporally distinct but aesthetically one? Take the transforming effects of beauty encountered in, say, Van Gogh’s “Vase with Cornflower and Poppies” (1887). I’ve stood before this painting many times, completely lost in the moment. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.

Consider – the hermeneutical center of its beauty is not divisible into any of the temporally distinct steps it took to produce it. Its beauty – which is what we relate to, what we believe in, that which saves us – is indivisibly one. We could (and we do) separate the painting into its contributing events (gathering and grinding the raw materials to make the colors, mixing the colors on the palette, composing the under layers, sketching the outline, the particular brush techniques used, filling in the main features, adding the final touches, and so forth). But to do this – and this is the point – is to step away from the immediate experience of its beauty.

Furthermore, no one’s experience of the beauty of this painting is reducible to a hermeneutic that views one of these steps as the primary “lens” through which the others are defined or their beauty understood. Yet this, it seems to me, is precisely what Greg attempts theologically, and it is aesthetically violent. There is no possible way for faith to apprehend Christ in only one of any of the contributing events of his existence as a human being (incarnation, ministry, passion, resurrection). To try to elevate one hermeneutically is to do violence to them all.

In the end, then, there is no cruciform hermeneutic, that is, no hermeneutic of transforming faith that derives from the Cross. There is “a” hermeneutic – a way to read/interpret life – which one can derive merely from the Cross, yes. We see it in the two on the road to Emmaus before they recognize the risen Christ, and we note it in the disciples crouched in fear and uncertainty before the risen Christ arrives to say “Peace.” But a cruciform hermeneutic that takes the Cross as a saving act of love through which lens all else is to be interpreted? Quite impossible. It’s impossible because to read the Cross as a “saving event” is already to read it through the resurrrection. There’s no getting around it. The Cross only becomes (viz., is revealed to be) a saving act when faith interprets the Cross in light of the resurrection. We wouldn’t possibly know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself apart from the interpretive light of the risen Jesus. So all of Greg’s descriptions of the Cross as God’s love stooping to accommodate us in our weakness, etc., – all true – are by definition post-resurrection readings of the Cross.

So, the hermeneutical center cannot be a single proposition or event, but rather must be faith perceiving itself as apprehended by the risen-slaughtered One, and so not taking responsibility for having created if that means God must become cursed and share in the despair of godforsakenness. There is only need for that (and arguably not even then) if one insists on a reason to believe, or for the meaning for faith, or for redemption, that derives solely from the Cross (i.e., the Cross interpreted linearly with its doors closed to the resurrection). But that would be like looking to the weight required to press organic raw materials until they yield their beautiful reds, yellows, and blues as “the” explanation for everything else that goes into a Van Gogh painting, including why it’s beautiful.