Rorschach creation

ror2Kudos to our good friend Chad for a recent question that inspired these thoughts.

Rorschach, a Swiss psychologist, developed his inkblot test to study a person’s psychological/emotional health. It’s a projective (not an objective) test; that is, you’re show abstract inkblot images that have substantial form to them but which are sufficiently ambiguous. The mind wants to fill in the gaps and resolve the ambiguity and interpret the image definitively as a ‘this’ or a ‘that’. How an individual fills in the blanks reveals that individual, for we each project ourselves in our interpretation of things. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I previously appropriated the Rorschach inkblot test as an analogy for thinking about how we ought to read the Bible.

Chad asked whether the Rorschach test might be an analogy also for what the universe itself is, how it works, as created and given to us by God as a context for the emergence of mind and personal existence. I think it’s a helpful analogy, if we take the dynamics involved in the Rorschach test suggest that creation (the cosmos in its entirety as a Rorschach image) is inherently ambiguous; it presents us with questions, a stage upon which we shape and determine ourselves. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning and purpose of existence? We project our internal struggles against the backdrop of all the world throws at us, and humanity appears to be alone in its capacity to contemplate the meaning and purpose of the whole.

Existence imposes itself upon as a desire or drive for meaning, as questions begging to be answered. And over time we become the answers we offer in acts of interpretation. But not just any act of interpretation will do, because there are despairing/violent interpretive acts that are mis-interpretations. Is there an act of interpretation sufficient to resolve the whole Rorschach image of human existence into a unified, meaningful composition? This, Christians claim, is what God accomplishes in Christ. Christ takes the human journey, assuming the entirety of our interpretive embeddedness in the universe, and he interprets creation successfully (non-violently, lovingly, in unfailing love of and submission to God, including our suffering, etc.). He then offers his own humanity as an interpretive act (as logos, as a peaceful-pacific divine-human rhetoric) in whose completeness all may resolve themselves peacefully. Christ embodies humanity’s Rorschach ambiguities and with them resolves creation into its final and peaceful way of being.

To my mind, this is another way of expressing what the Orthodox describe when they talk about the Eighth Day of Creation, the idea being that creation isn’t really created, hasn’t finally arrived at its creative potential, until its meaning is universally resolved through the free acts of participation by all sentient beings in the one definitive and universal act of creative interpretation which is Christ himself. Divine incarnation into human being is thus God personally submitting himself to a Rorschach test (where the ink blot isn’t just a card but is phenomenal experience itself, the whole range of human existence from conception to the grave), comprehending the whole on an existential scale universal enough to resolve its inherent ambiguities, so that those who make Christ’s pattern of perceiving and meaning-making their own live in its life-giving power.

Advertisements

I Can’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, however,

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

Leap of faith

sk

…Kierkegaard set forth…the “stages along life’s way”…. These stages appear throughout Kierkegaard’s dialectical writings and, though there are sometimes more than four, the most prominent designations are: the Aesthetic Stage, the Ethical Stage, Religiousness A, and Religiousness B. Since these stages are cumulative, the later stages include the features of the previous stages transformed by “the leap” that moves the individual from one stage to the next. Since the decisive turning point for Kierkegaard is between Religiousness A and Religiousness B (Christianity), we will focus this discussion on these two stages and “the leap of faith” that makes the transition from A to B.

Before proceeding further, we should remember that Kierkegaard’s dialectic…is not the Hegelian version in which thesis and antithesis move systematically into a synthesis of a higher order, including but transcending both foregoing thesis and antithesis. Kierkegaard recognizes the existential power of opposites in tension, but he insists that smooth transition to a high-order synthesis not only is a violation of the ontology of human nature, but is fundamentally contrary to Christianity. The opposites, in his view, must be held passionately in tension; indeed, authentic self-understanding short of faith—Religiousness A—consists in full recognition that the tension has broken and given way to a deep dichotomous condition which is pervasive throughout human nature. The French existentialists, such as J. P. Sartre and the early Camus, and to some extent the German philosopher Heidegger, have recognized the power of Kierkegaard’s claim and made this human anguish descriptive of all human existence. The French especially have elaborated the absurdity of existence (apart from Christ) very effectively. In and by itself, human existence is indeed absurd and full of despair. Even if one seeks an “eternal happiness” in this broken form of existence and posits a God, the only God that despair will allow is totally inaccessible. This aspect of Kierkegaard recognized in the early works of Barth led to Barth’s description of God as “wholly other.” Thus, for Kierkegaard, passionate unresolvable dialectical opposition is the given human condition. Furthermore, for one to become fully conscious of this condition before the radically inaccessible God generates the intense passion and profound humor of Religiousness A.

Only from the standpoint of this stage is the full import of the contradiction which the God-man poses for human nature evident. The contradiction is that, given the dialectical opposition between existence and eternity, it is a major offense to the anguish of this assumption that God, the eternal One, should take on the fullness of human nature and yet remain fully God. The offense is maximized when it is further claimed that this God-man not only exposes the dichotomy between eternity and existence (Religiousness A) as an ontological error about what it means to be human, but also proposes to bestow his nature upon the believer, if the believer would so choose or take “the leap of faith.” In Kierkegaard’s words, the contradiction is that one’s eternal blessedness in time may be based upon a relationship to something else in time that is simultaneously eternal.

Thus, for Kierkegaard, the fundamental issue in what it means to be human is drawn out clearly in the ultimate dichotomy between A and B. This issue is precisely the core of the relationship between human existence and the eternal when they are mutually distorting, as in despair (A), and when both are fully real and simultaneously present in a singular location (B). This later condition refers first to the historical singularity of the incarnation in Jesus Christ and, second, to the singularity of an individual when by faith the tensive unity between the existential and the eternal is restored.

(James Loder, The Knight’s Move, p. 92f)

_________________________

And this, friends, is the contradiction (which just is the space over which faith must leap) that open theists, while laying claim to a proposition about God’s ‘knowledge of the world’ which in itself is defensible and probably right, will not embrace, and in not embracing reject a far more consequential truth – the Christological nature (or better, the Christological content) of that contradiction which defines Christianity as faith. It is too “offensive” a leap (in the Kierkegaardian sense).

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.

Virgin birth

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bridge to nowhere?

bridge-to-nowhereYes, to nowhere – but just for three days. What?

“If without the Son no one can see the Father (John 1.18), nor anyone come to the Father (John 14.6), and if, without him, the Father is revealed to nobody (Matthew 11.27), then when the Son, the Word of the Father, is dead, no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father accordingly inaccessible… While the grain of corn is dying, there is nothing to harvest.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ch 2 “The Hiatus,” in Mysterium Paschale).