Christ and the End of Meaning

schloeI’m in the middle of Paul Hessert’s Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (1993). Nearly every page offers an insight that finds in me some corresponding weakness to address. I’m so glad I found this wonderful work and I highly recommend it. It will provoke several posts I’m sure. Here’s a first:

The Order We Make
The idea of a creating Mind, a Creator, is not derived from nature but is brought to our observations of nature from our human experience of having to make order. We find order present in nature because of the analogies our reason establishes between our inner and outer experience. Unlike many creatures whose “social organization” appears to be ready-made, transmitted from generation to generation through instinct, human beings must make untold deliberations, experiments, and hard choices about such matters. In this respect, human life is self-determined, not fixed by “nature.” What we call “human nature” usually turns out to be a matter of conditioning and education. What is “natural” for humans is defined more by culture – that is, by what humans do in and with their natural environment – than by “nature.”

From our experience of continually having to make order in the midst of present or threatening social disintegration, we may imagine primeval chaos, but we do not experience such chaos in nature. We do, however, experience instability and confusion in the conflicts of human values and desires. Those who have lived through the tension and hostility between the “communist” and “free” worlds in the twentieth century know the struggle and danger of trying to establish a way of living together in peace. The earth “without from and void” (Gen. 1:2) is a metaphor derived from human affairs, arising from the experience of having to provide a fit environment for human life.

Nature experienced is always ordered in one way or another – sometimes benevolently for humans, sometimes not. The wilderness is not chaos but order untouched by or undirected to human purpose. From the movements of subatomic particles to the fundamental forms of life, nature presents itself as already ordered – intrinsically so. The notion that the order we find in nature was put there by a Mind operating similarity to our own is projected from our experience of having to order human affairs by self-conscious intention and action. This is the grand analogy that shapes our understanding. And if a different sort of “creative mechanism” is envisioned in the future (as with certain kinds of science fiction, for example), it will have been drawn from the revised or expanded experience of our human affairs. The creative edge of science and philosophy is the search for, or the stumbling onto, creative analogies. Our experience of having to order human affairs and our historical knowledge of past efforts to order human affairs underlie the notion that the natural order must have had a Creator.

Thought about the natural order is another form of our thought about the social order – and vice versa. They share a common structure. A review of the relation between scientific Darwinism and social and economic developments (for example, laissez-faire, British liberalism, right- and left-wing Hegelianism) in the nineteenth century should make this clear. In major periods of history, subjects as different from each other as monetary theory, biology, political thought, and economics have shared a common structure.

Ancient creation stories reflect this connection. Although they are cast in the imagery of nature (earth, air, fire, water, light, darkness, life, death), their origin is not much independent speculation about natural beginnings as musings on the human experience of establishing order under changing conditions. In other words, they do not belong in the same category with current scientific speculation about the origin of the universe and the beginning of life. (They belong with investigation of the creation and nature of human order.)

The violence of old myths – Marduk (god of Babylon) slaying Tiamat (the chaos monster), Yahweh (of Israel) subduing Leviathan (Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10), Zeus (of Greece) rising up against Kronos (lord of the old order) – reflects tumultuous times when agriculture city-states were displacing a more ancient hunting and gathering way of life. People living in the older ways were forced into every more remote areas (behind boundaries they might not cross, as with the sea in Psalm 104:5-9) or compelled to abide by the new ways.

At that time, strong-arm rulers seemed to be the key to imposing social order and this strong-arm force characterized the gods in creating and ruling the world as well. Later, such ruthless order itself came to be experienced as chaos. New ways of providing order were found in persuasion, rhetoric, parliamentary processes, codes of law, covenants, and constitutions. Plato’s Republic deals with this political development. In a different way, so does Genesis 1 with its emphasis on the creative word. Genesis 1 is not the chronologically first writing in the Bible, nor is it the only biblical account of creation (there are others in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible as well as in John, Colossians, and Revelation in the New Testament). Genesis 1 comes from the relatively late concern to establish Israel as a liturgical community after the collapse of the Davidic dynastic in the sixth century B.C.E. The order in Genesis 1 culminates in the establishment of the seven-day week and the Sabbath.

…Creation stories are calls to create a “world,” to establish an order, to give an answer to the confusion of life.

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I love the painting featured above – Christian Schloe’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It depicts what I want to try to describe. It occurred to me while reading Hessert to take an approach to the creation narratives (Gen 1-3) that doesn’t begin with assuming these texts intend to give us a description of the actual creation of the material order (or even of our particular home, the Earth), or a historical (pre-historical) description even of the functional (I’m thinking of John Walton) ordering of material cosmos. I don’t question God’s creation of the world or the ordering or its functions and dispositions. These are rationally discernible from the nature of things and the Bible’s overall descriptions of the material world. But this may be just the point – viz., that what we have in Gen 1-3 is just such a discerning of the world, the world’s ‘creation’ in the sense of the world’s emerging into human consciousness, ‘history’ in the sense of human beings apprehending the order and purpose of the world. If that is what’s in view, then Walton is right in making the point “function” and not the “coming into being” per se of things, though he too seems still to see here in the text a description of pre-historic “events.” But I’m not sure even that much is required or is the point. What if what we have here is the story of our creating the world, i.e., the coming into consciousness of the unique function of the human spirit, that drive to make-meaning? Perhaps Gen 1-3 is Israel making-meaning in her world, dealing with her own chaos, by imposing order and purpose upon it. That’s not to say the world isn’t ordered and purposeful. It’s to say that we don’t derive this from the world. It derives this from us. Just a thought.

Jump

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Man’s whole helplessness, indeed, his whole lack of future, yawns open – that is, unless he resolves to jump over his own abyss to God. God’s “thou” is so surpassingly powerful that man, no matter which way he moves, always remains in his clasp. A truce with God is out of the question. You have to stick it out right where you are until you have heard everything. God does not just go his way; he wants to be listened to now, and man has to be all ears. (Adrienne von Speyr)

What reading metaphysics should be like

0268037078.01.LZZZZZZZKudos to Fr Aidan for sending me a copy of Norris Clarke’s The One and the Many (2001). I’ve read essays and chapters by Clarke and enjoyed him. Clear, easy to follow, well-informed, and – and this is what inspired this post in the first place – “godly.” I mean that in the classical sense of having an explicit awareness of God’s presence. I picked up on it earlier in Clarke, but not like I sense it in The One and the Many, which is a major philosophical work on metaphysics. Finding writers who are clear and genuinely helpful is rare. Finding one who makes it impossible for you to read without coming into an explicit awareness of the subject matter, whether God as so-named or God under any of his transcendental names (the Good, the Beautiful, the True), is priceless. You don’t get past the first chapter of Clarke without encounter his deep humility, his sense of dependence, and most of all, his infectious sense of ‘wonder’ (which, as we know, is the first true philosophical intuition), wonder that there is anything at all. Clarke doesn’t relay information. He shares an experience of the intelligibility and goodness of ‘being’. Come to think of it, I pick up this same sense of wonder when I read Hartshorne – and you can’t get any more non-Thomistic than Hartshorne!

Since I’m talking about Clarke for the moment, let me share a passage that slowed me down and brought me into this reflection:

Personal awakening to the wonder of being. To be a good metaphysician…one must move beyond the merely abstract understanding of the meaning of being toward an existential “awakening” to experience what actual existence means in the concrete for the whole person – mind, heart, imagination, feeling, all together. In the light of this intuitive experience one can then take reflective possession of its meaning, generalize it to the whole realm of actual existents, and develop it into the fully explicit metaphysical understanding of being as that which is. Various personal experiences have been found apt for leading us to such an existential awakening to what it means to be. Examples are:

1) The threat of loss of one’s own existence or that of a loved one: realization of existence through contrast with its absence.
2) And intense love experience: the wonder and delight that so and so is truly real.
3) Experience of an intense hope, longing, at last realized: “At last it’s real, not just a dream.”
4) The contemplative wonder of a child, a poet, an artist, or a scientist at the beauty and order of the universe, and, even deeper, at its presence at all.
5) A profound religious experience of gratitude for creation as gift (Jews, Christians, Moslems in the revelation of creation tradition, and, mysteriously, Buddhists).
6) The experience of radical boredom, despair, existential anxiety, total loss of meaning or significance of the universe as a whole and of my life in it: this puts existence itself in question by awareness of our radical contingency, precariousness, as poised over nothingness, “surrounded” by nothingness, e.g., Heidegger, for whom the awareness of being is inseparable from the awareness of nothingness, Das Nichts.

If you’re familiar with what Dwayne and I often reflect upon here, you’ll recognize in Clarke’s statements the role of what we (following Loder and others) call ‘The Void’. I haven’t read everything there is to read on metaphysics, but I can count on one hand those I’ve read who manage in their opening pages to stand me before the mirror to perceive in myself the wonder of being at all, and, in addition, to appreciate this wonder precisely in light of its gratuity and givenness in the face of my nothingness – Le Vide, Das Nichts. This, I think, is what reading metaphysics (by Christian authors) should be like.

To end with a thought on this in a very different context (e.g., origins and evolution), this is why I think humankind was created mortal from the get-go. There’s no coming into the fullness of being that is not a coming into to truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God, and that means embracing the truth of our utter nothingness; and you don’t get that without mortality. To the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace.

Prepositional knowledge

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From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”    (Rom 11.36)

To hear God in Scripture is to see oneself (James 1). To see oneself truly is to see God – to see God speaking me into existence, painting me into being. To know oneself is to know the truth about oneself, and that means experiencing oneself as given. Acknowledgment of this is all we truly give back to the God who gives us life and being – to know ourselves within the absolute priority of God’s initiative, of God before all things, in all things, beyond all things, “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.” We possess ourselves, the purpose, meaning and fullness of our existence, prepositionally. Can “I” be something over and above this? Can “I” possess a truth that exceeds these prepositions? No, the gift I am given to be is the gift I am given to see, and that is to see and know myself as the truth and beauty of being “from,” “through,” and “to” God.

Memory lane

lib3-3a1I apologize for my absence. New job. Learning curve has me pretty busy. I’ve been reflecting on some previous thoughts regarding the ‘will’, ‘freedom’, issues related to ‘libertarian’ choice, and – no surprise – Incarnation. If such questions interest you, here are a few previous  posts (teasers included) you might enjoy

Creation ex nihilo
“In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from us.”

God’s creative options
“God either creates to bring all he creates to fulfillment in/through Incarnation, or he doesn’t create at all. All other varieties and created distinctions don’t constitute a range of options God chooses between. They are all potentialities inherent in the capacities and dispositions God breathes into his one determination to create for Incarnation. It should then be impossible not just to speak of this creation apart from Incarnation/Christology, but to speak of God’s creating at all apart from the intention to incarnate. Indeed, I’m suggesting that all possibilities for creation derive from and return to the one possibility of Incarnation.”

God wills our improvisation
“God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, which means—I’m afraid to utter it—the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. I mean, if you want to retain mystery, there you are. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is his will, then it seems to me that the mode of God’s knowing creation would reflect the mode of his willing; that is, God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as a knowledge of form ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ and not only a knowledge of created being as ‘given’. What the world gives to God is what it gives back to God in improvisation upon and within the grace of being.”

God at the improv
“…so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others — viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.”

Freedom as creative liberty among loving options
“Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom.”

Incarnation or nothing at all
“…theologians feel themselves forced to give an account of the faith in terms of innumerable ‘logically’ possible worlds, worlds the possibility of which have to be accounted for theologically so long as they generate no logical contradiction (strictly speaking) but which are unthinkable Christologically.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vita ex nihilo

val-hammond-coeurFor a moment, think of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) as vita ex nihilo (“living out of nothing”). It might let some light in on the what I’ve been trying to get at in exploring the Void.

In a comment intended to clarify the relation between the ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ will (between our ‘will’ as given and sustained by God as its ‘natural’ end, on the one hand, and its ‘deliberative’ capacity to determine itself relative to God, on the other), David Bentley Hart writes:

In the interval between these two movements [natural and gnomic] – both of which are rational – the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with that glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us – through our [gnomic] refusal to submit to love – becomes the unnatural experience of reprobabtion. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace.” (emphasis mine)

All I want to pick out from this is its perspective on hell as the unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence of God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him. Hell is unwelcomed intimacy. (Think of Sartre’s play “No Exit” which tells the story of three people bereft of eyelids and condemned to spend eternity together in a single room, hence Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”) Similarly, hell is how those who refuse God’s beauty in this life experience the revelation of it within themselves in the next. Their posture with respect to God, not God’s with respect to them, is their self-determined agony.

I think this is a kind of general principle true of all our struggles and difficulties throughout life. I’m not interested here in the doctrine of hell per se. I’m more interested in the idea that we create torment for ourselves by misrelating “within” a certain truth of God’s glory and beauty. I’m wondering if some of the difficulty that my passibilist friends (those who believe we are in a position to diminish and improve God’s experienced beatitude) have with the notion of an undiminished divine beatitude might be a reluctance to embrace the Void, i.e., the truth of our nothingness and contingency. It’s a very peculiar sort of self-awareness that goes beyond any academic recognition that we are not eternal, or self-sufficient, and that we depend upon God as Creator.

We want to mean something, to be something permanent. Fair enough. That’s our ‘natural’ will/desire at work. But for passibilist believers, this natural desire precedes rather than follows the truth that grounds it, and when that happens we misconstrue our ‘meaning’ as the difference we make to God rather than the difference God makes to us and so misinterpret our God-given desire to make-meaning. We may recognize that we “live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17.28), but we live by construing our fullest meaning otherwise, partly at least, as the sense or measure in which God lives and moves and has his being in us. So to be in the presence of a beauty and delight that doesn’t need us, that isn’t improved upon or completed by us, ends up being viewed by passibilists not as the fulfillment of desire but as its denial and so as a kind of torment. Such was my own experience.

This all makes me think of hell as passibilism’s last stand, as the experience of wanting to mean something prior to and independent of what God means (to himself and to us), of wanting one’s meaning to be a meaning one introduces into the Meaning-Maker (God) who is source and giver of life, as opposed to an utterly receptive mode of meaning-making as vita ex nihilo, i.e., as accepting and celebrating one’s existence as a mode of divine self-expression. When this is thought not to be enough, glory and beauty become torment.