Inspiration the presence of final causality

divineinspirationI will end this post with the suggestion that when it comes to what Christians call the inspiration of Scripture, inspiration is the presence of final causality. But I want to explain this thought on the heels of a few reflections.

Along with recently revisiting Greg’s claim that God “takes responsibility for sin and evil,” I was thinking about how he imagines the divine inspiration of Scripture’s violent passages which falsely portray God’s character on their “surface” but which in their “depths” truthfully reveal God as gracious and non-violent. Just as God stoops to bear the falsehoods of human beings on the Cross, in Scripture God often condescends to accommodate human falsehood, and this accommodation reveals the depths of God’s non-violent love.

I like a lot about this part of CWG. The “dialectical” nature of inspiration makes good sense. But to recognize the dialectical (conversational) nature of Scripture is to re-conceive how God is inspirationally present on the human side of the conversation. In what sense does inspiration embrace human contributions that ‘get God wrong’? Does saying the Bible may get it wrong (in the explicit claims of its “surface”) mean such texts do not reveal God? Greg parses out the dialectical nature of Scripture by distinguishing between a text’s “surface” (the explicit, intended claims of its authors/editors) and its “depths.” If a text gets God wrong, it does so on its surface. These same texts, however, possess a “depth” which is brought to light by faith reading the texts in light of the Cross. Greg explores this at length and I found his discussion insightful.

I’m unsure, though, how Greg understands “surface” and “depth” to relate to one another in the composing of texts. Are surface and depth each a feature of the OT texts themselves, or are the “depths” a separate text, as it were, composed as the Church reads the OT Christologically? The latter tends toward what Greg objects to as a “dismissive” approach to the violent texts, not very different from simply denying that these texts are inspired. Greg, I believe, wants to take the additional step in making the Christological “depths” of OT violence texts a feature of those texts. Why? Because Jesus took those violent texts to be inspired (in their textual form and claims), and we shouldn’t think that Christ was mistaken in this belief. This would be in contrast to a view that identified inspiration with the light of the Cross cast upon the surface of texts enabling us to perceive in the shadows cast the extent to which texts fail to portray the cruciform shape of God’s character and intentions. But how is this any different than reading Vedas, the Quran, or The Pearl of Great Price Christologically?

I occupy a place somewhere in the middle, I think. I do not want to dismiss OT texts that “get God wrong” as so much uninspired paganism. I do value these texts and I think together they constitute an inspired space where we encounter the voice of God. But I also recognize that I’m only able to value these texts this way through and because of Christ. I’ve tried to work through this in my What is the Bible? series. Permit me a quote from Part 1 of the series:

We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.

What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way…

Might some errors belonging to these persons find their way into the text? Yes. No human author possesses an inerrant set of beliefs. No one person’s transformation and world-construction is complete or error-free. But overtime, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said in enough ways that a worldview is formed adequate for the Incarnate One and the Church as his Body. This means we view inspiration as relative in the first sense to preparing a context adequate for incarnation and not primarily about providing us a philosophical or scientific textbook with inerrant answers to whatever questions we might put to it.


What I’d like to add here is an analogy to help expresses how we might imagine the dialectical nature of God’s inspiring presence in Scripture – both in the composing of texts and in reading them Christologically. We ask students to imagine reading the Bible in terms of listening to one end of a telephone conversation. We read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for example, and find ourselves on one end of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians.

Often what a person says on the phone can only finally be understood in the context of the whole conversation. Those of us listening to one side have to construct a picture of the whole conversation as best we can. Reading the Bible is a bit like that. Its texts are dialectical. When we read 1Corinthians, we have to reconstruct the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians based only on what we hear Paul say (never mind the fact that we ourselves are conversation partners who bring our own contributions to interpreting the half of the conversation we possess).

IMG_0306_0Widen this analogy a bit and imagine the Bible in its entirety to be one side of a conversation Israel and God are having. When we read the Bible, we are listening to one side of that conversation. Right here we immediately meet a fundamental question about the Bible. When the Bible says, “And thus says the Lord” aren’t we listening to the divine side of the conversation? Isn’t the Bible essentially on “speakerphone” so that at one moment we’re directly hearing the human side of the conversation (a prophet or king) and at the next moment hearing God?

I apologize if you’re hearing it first from me, but the answer is ‘no’, that’s not what’s going on. Divine inspiration, whatever it is, does not give us God’s side of the conversation unmediated by the instrumentation of human voices. If or when we hear God’s voice in Scripture, we hear it in their voices. “And God said” means “And Israel said ‘God said’.” We are listening to Israel’s side of her conversation with God – hearing Israel speak, repeat what she thinks God is  saying, disagree with other Israelites about what God is saying, cry, scream, interpret and misinterpret. All this is comprises the “surface” of the text (Israel’s side of the conversation), and it’s all we have.

That’s not bad news. We have every reason to believe that Israel could and did faithfully represent God’s voice. But sometimes – and here some will become uncomfortable – we have good reason to suspect Israel did not hear God rightly but that she monopolized the conversation to promote her own agenda. The good news is that when it comes to a text’s portrayal of God, the Christian reader has in Christ a way to adjudicate things. Why think Jesus gets God right? We think Christ faithfully embodies the drama of divine-human conversation because God raised him from the dead.

We have, in Christ then, a truthful revelation of the conversation between God and Israel. It is this conversation that brings the entirety of the Israel’s recorded conversation to light – to the light of confirmation and to the light of judgment – confirmation because God can be seen to be faithfully carving out on the human side of the conversation (Israel) truth sufficient for Incarnation (where God will assume the human side of this conversation) and judgment because now through Christ we’re able to distinguish where and how human authors get God wrong.

Once we admit this much, I’m not sure how exactly to locate in the disfigured “surface” of texts an inspiration by which God renders that surface the means of accessing a “depth” which faithfully reveals God. Functionally speaking, once Christ’s voice becomes the means by which we listen to the entire conversation we call Scripture, inspiration is reduced to Christ who defines the hermeneutical center, and when you’re standing at the center relating to everything in terms of its relationship to that center, it doesn’t really matter how close or distant things are from the center.

This is a real problem for inerrantists who want every explicit claim of the text to be the center. Every “surface” has to be its own “depth.” It is a view of the drama of divine-human relations utterly void of any real appreciation for transcendence and teleology. It is a shallow approach to understanding the Bible, for if God is truly transcendent, and all things tend toward their final end in Christ, and God is covenantally united to Israel to carve out space for his own Incarnation – then we’re free to let the Bible be the mixed-bag that it is. I suggested previously:

We prefer that every part of the Bible [on its “surface”] be a perfect, inerrant conclusion to some aspect of the human struggle and journey. Girard’s phrase [“texts in travail”] suggests that the Bible itself is that journey. The texts of Scripture are Israel in process, in travail, trying to figure the world out. At times Israel lunges forward with the profoundest of insights, while at other times she conscripts God into the service of her own religious violence and apostate nationalism. Sometimes she gets it right. Other times she gets it horribly wrong. The texts we call the Old Testament are not just neutral, third part records of observations of events. They are one of the events. They participate in and constitute Israel’s up and down journey of faith. They lay bare the heart and soul of the human journey in its best and worst. They are “texts in travail.”

All that said, let me bring back the suggested axiom I opened with. I’ll probably hack this up fairly well, so be patient. Don’t laugh too loudly. This is tentative and speculative.

I’m suggesting that when it comes to understanding God’s inspiration of the Bible:

  • Inspiration is the presence of final causation.

We can express this as a formula. A what? Yes, a formula.


As I pondered how a God of constant truth would give us a book whose portrayals of God are only relatively accurate, I found myself back and forth between this ‘constancy’ and ‘relativity’. Now, don’t laugh too loudly, but Einstein’s E=mc2 came to mind. The relativistic mass (m) of a body times the (constant) speed of light squared (c2) is equal to the energy (E) of that body. Notice the presence of both a relativistic factor (the mass of a body) and a constant (the speed of light). I’m not transposing this into a theological axiom. It’s just an analogy that got me thinking. But for those of you who love logical notation, we can express the dialectical nature of the inspiration of biblical texts as:


The biblical text (t), relative in the extent to which it approximates the truth (that is, all texts are relative), times (the constant of) final causality squared (c2) expresses the divine inspiration (I) present in/as the text.

What the heck?

Start with the constant, final causality (c). By final causality I mean God as the final end of all things. I’m not thinking of Greek philosophical arguments here. I’m contemplating Christ as the ‘telos’ or ‘end’ (of the Law, Rm 10.4, and of all things created “through and for” Christ, Col 1.15-20). I’m thinking especially of the risen-crucified Christ as in himself embodying the telos or fulfillment of creation. I’ve previously suggested that the Bible be understood in the context of Incarnation being the means of achieving God’s unitive purposes for creation, and this context makes it relatively easy to understand the inspiration of texts:

Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of one’s understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop his sense of a unique identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficiently truthful to inform that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation. Creation is the context for incarnation to begin with, yes, but beyond that the construction of a suitable context for identity formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.

By ‘final causation’ (c), then, I mean the final union of creation with God in Christ, the conformity of all things to the character and intentions of Christ. I view inspiration teleologically, not just in the sense that OT narratives anticipate their fulfillment in NT realities (a kind of rhetorical teleology that any inerrantist would affirm). I mean something that demonstrates the ability of a transcendent final end to be present to and in every religious aspiration, even when they miss the mark (a compositional teleology, something no inerrantist would agree to). Previously here:

bibleartIn a word, [Scripture] must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this…

Scripture’s…function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness…

In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with.

Why is final causality squared (c2)? It is squared to represent the function of final causes in both opening creation up to the future and, interpretively, clarifying the past. The Spirit of God is present both in the authors of Scripture orienting and opening them toward the future, toward some realization of the truth, and, realized in Christ, orienting them toward the past as explaining, judging, and confirming the history of its own conversation with Israel in her texts. Final causation is squared as an expression of its presence both in texts prompting and calling them forward and in Christ (the final cause/end embodied) judging and calling texts to account. As final end, God both opens texts to the future as they are composed (dialectically) and closes the question of their truth value as they are read in light of the fulfilled embodiment of that final end – Christ. This is the way I understand inspiration (I) to be fully present at work in the composition of texts (which I think Greg will appreciate) and also present in the Christological reading of those same texts.


The risen Christ a saturated phenomenon—Part 1


Adam Friedman

Robinette (Grammars of Resurrection) appropriates Marion’s work in understanding the resurrection of Christ. I’d like here to share Robinettes’ summary Marion’s notion of “saturated phenomena” and then follow up with a second post showing how Robinette understands the Resurrection to be a “saturated phenomenonpar excellence.

Always in the encounter with the risen Christ is he acknowledge in the midst of alterity, as a stranger, in the mode of transcendence, and thus in the mode of “absence.” But again, this “absence” is not a result of a weakness in the given. It is the result of an excess. In the same way unadjusted eyes see darkness when flooded with light, the perceptual absence in the resurrection narratives is the correlate to the eschatology surplus of Jesus’ risen presence, which cannot be objectified or reduced to a single horizon of perception. This paradoxical relationship is the ultimate key for understanding the resurrection narratives in their extant form… [Bold mine – love the analogy]

Here I enlist the work of Jean-Luc Marion whose study of givenness and sketches of saturated phenomena will prove helpful in exploring the eschatological signs of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e., how they are uniquely disclosive of a “presence” that, in its eschatological (excessive) givenness, remains “absent” from the witnesses whose capacity for representation remains saturated.

In setting up a strategy for sketching the characteristics of saturated phenomena, Marion adopts Kant’s categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality to show how each becomes overexposed. A broader concern for Marion is to show how the a priori conditions for experience and thought in Kant’s philosophy (and by extension much modern thought) are too restrictive to account for phenomena that, rather than conforming to the subject’s power of knowing, greatly exceed it. Marion is troubled by how the “turn to the subject” so frequently valorizes the knowable over the un-known, the visible over the in-visible, the objectifiable over the non-objectifiable, the conditions of the possibility over the im-possible.

The saturated phenomenon, according to Marion, refers to “the impossibility of attaining knowledge of an object, comprehension in the strict sense,” not “from a deficiency in the giving intuition, but from its surplus, which neither concept, signification, nor intention can foresee, organize, or contain.” [“In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology’” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism (1999).] As a result of its excessive givenness to perception and intuition, the saturated phenomenon makes definitive and stable conceptualization impossible. It is always “more than,” disclosive of a depth dimension or in-visibility that cannot be fully grasped by the subject’s objectifying intentionality. Such phenomena would require rethinking the “subject” as our primary starting point—particularly its pretension to self-constitution and conceptual mastery—and to begin instead with the givenness of phenomena as they given themselves to intuition.


But what phenomena might we imagine as saturating the subject in this way? Kant himself provides an initial clue with the experience of the beautiful. Whereas Kant typically regards intuition the weaker in arriving at conceptual knowledge, aesthetic experience is said to engulf the power of thought so that the “representation of the imagination furnishes much to think, but to which no determinate thought, or concept, can be adequate.” Marion comments: “The impossibility of the concept arranging this disposition comes from the fact that the intuitive overabundance no longer succeeds in exposing itself in a priori rules, whatever they might be, but rather submerges them. Intuition is no longer exposed in the concept; it saturates it and renders it overexposed—invisible, unreadable, not by lack, but indeed by an excess of light.” [Marion, Being Given]

Take the example of listening to music. In the opening moments of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, even though the listener has settled in to enjoy the musical performance, and while the listener may already be quite familiar with the piece, the first reception of its givenness to the senses is truly magical. A sudden upsurge of intuition floods comprehension and leaves the listener without the ability to fully comprehend, though the effect is delight. The “sonorous mass…comes upon me and submerges me,” leaving me “belated” to the “deployment of this becoming.” [Being Given] The actual event of music is always surprising, something I cannot fully anticipate. It is something to which I respond and follow. “I” am not coincident with the piece as listener but a witness to its givenness. To be sure, I discern patterns and intelligence. I follow the musical story it tells through tonal and temporal tensions and resolutions. Without being able to describe it in the least, the piece of music may be remarkably satisfying in its supreme musical sense. It is not unintelligible but inexhaustibly intelligible. It generates much greater intuition than I can possible objectify through concepts and words. Herein lays the delight of its astonishing, beautiful unfolding. I am “caught up” in the piece, “outside” of my self in ek-stasis. What is occurring is an event in which I am transported. In the “play” of music I am moved to a kind of “self-forgetfulness,” with self-forgetfulness being the “positive possibility of being wholly with something else.”

Or consider the event of beholding the beautiful form presented in painting. Although it may be possible to consider a painting as a “thing,” made up of elements like wood, gold leafing, canvas, paint, and so forth, it is not primarily the painting’s thingness in which the beauty consists. The beautiful form does not present itself as merely something ready-to-hand, an object for instrumental use, but gives itself as an appearing of unsuspected depth Beauty discloses itself in the visible but never as strictly visible or completely objectifiable. It remains in-visible in its “crossing of the visible”:

060502-01015075[T]o see it as a painting, in its own phenomenality of the beautiful, I must of course apprehend it as a thing (subsisting, ready-to-hand), but it is precisely not this that opens it to me as beautiful; it is that I “live” its meaning, namely its beautiful appearing, which has nothing like to it, since it cannot be described as the property of a thing, demonstrated by reasons, or hardly even be said. What is essential—the beautiful appearing—remains unreal, an “I know not what,” that I must seek, await, touch, but which is not comprehensible. [Being Given]

The beautiful, writes David Bentley Hart, is objective, not in the sense that it concerns “things,” but in its precedence to the response it evokes. “There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply.” [Hart, Beauty of the Infinite] Beauty appears in “distance,” or better, it gives distance. What is beautiful opens up a space for its inexhaustible beholding, an infinity of perspectives. “And because the surplus of ‘meaning’ in the beautiful consists in and urges attention toward this infinite content of distance, it allows for ceaseless supplementation: it is always unmoored, capable of disrupting stable hierarchies of interpretation, of inspiring endless departures and returns, and of calling for repetition and variation; it releases a continual distribution of meaning across the distance.” [Beauty of the Infinite]…

There are many other examples of saturated phenomena Marion examines in his works, including memory, birth, death, the experience of one’s own body, erotic love, and the interpretation of a text. But we should briefly consider one more, since it strikes important ethical keys.

Drawing upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Marion shows how the encounter with another person, “the face’ of the Other, is saturated in its givenness. Visible yet inexhaustible in its irreducible depth, the face of the Other (his or her alterity) breaks in upon my egoic self-sameness (ipseity) and calls me to hospitality and responsibility. The Other is no objectifiable thing, something to be comprehended within a conceptual category such as humanity, society, ethnicity, gender, or nationality. To reduce the Other to strict visibility or comprehension in this way constitutes an act of violence. Persons are not “things, “commodities,” or “parts” within a broader totality. The Other is an unsubstitutable revelation, illimitable and irrepressible in his or her self-gift. The Other reverses my gaze in a “counter-experience.” In beholding the Other, I see one who sees me, as thus one who returns my gaze through different eyes. Here I am not a self-constituting “subject” regarding some “object,” but a “witness” to an Other who calls me into an ethical relationship. “For as face, he faces me, imposes on me to face up to him as he for whom I must respond…. I have received (and suffered) a call [un appel]. The face makes an appeal [un appel]; it therefore calls me forth as gifted. My very sense of self is in fact given to me by the Other. My “being” is a “being given.” The pretension to immediate self-presence is an illusion. I encounter myself only in mediation, in a multitude of face-to-face relations with Others who call me from the confines of egoic existence. Despite our persistent efforts to think of ourselves in terms of a transcendental ego gazing upon the world from a position of nowhere, the order of manifestation which phenomenological research unveils shows again and again that alterity precedes and radically conditions every sense of “mineness.”

(To be continued)

A theology of fragments

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a helpful passage* from David Tracy that ties in to what I’ve been exploring with others about Paul Hessert’s book Christ and the End of Meaning, the second chapter of which contrasts (1Cor 1.22-25) human ways of meaning-making through the use of ‘power’ (Jews demand signs) and ‘rational systems that seek total explanations’ (Greeks seek wisdom) with the abandonment of this structure of meaning that faith calls us to in Christ.

Beyond this early Romantic groping after ‘fragments’ which helped to challenge the stranglehold of the Enlightenment system lay the two greatest unveilers of modernity’s secret dream to be the logos of its own secret, ontotheology – Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Is there anyone, even today, better than Kierkegaard at exposing the bizarre drive to totality of almost all modern rationalist, idealist systems including Christianity become Christendom? What Kierkegaard showed is that Christendom, not Christianity, is an attempted triumphalism, a triumphant totality system that could not and cannot survive any experiment with authentic Christian living. Philosophy should abjure its modern pretensions to a total understanding of life, the individual, art and religion and learn to think anew from the new forms for dialectical though invented by Kierkegaard in two of his greatest works; the works by Johannes Climacus, entitled Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He left us what? Fragments and inconclusive postscripts. Both are fine forms indeed to challenge Hegelianism, the then reigning totality system of Kierkegaard’s culture. As several post-modern thinkers now argue, Kierkegaard’s fragments smashed not only Hegelianism with its temptations to totality. It is Kierkegaard, in several of his works, who first begins to use the category of the “Impossible.” He strove, through Johannes Climacus, not for the actual, nor the possible, but for the Impossible. In nearly all his work, on how religion – both religiousness “A” and religiousness “B” (Christian religion for Kierkegaard) – showed how to render what would otherwise be consider Impossible.

Kierkegaard will do almost anything to break the reified ice of what he considers modernity’s hold on all our thinking or Christendom’s hold on Christians…He will forge a new and indirect discourse for the sacred to undo any claim to adequacy of direct discourse in the idealist version of totality…But then what about this breakthrough into a form for the Impossible, into grace?…Kierkegaard did not have the calling to preach…Therefore he invented form after form to render present the one content modernity denied—the reality of the Impossible—grace, Christ, God.

Kierkegaard’s paradoxically anti-Christian double, Nietzsche, plays the same fragmentation role for Christendom and Enlightenment modernity alike, but now with a hammer. When Nietzsche’s hammer becomes too blunt a tool against Christianity as well as against bourgeois modernity, he too, like Kierkegaard will try any form, any genre, any intellectual strategy to try to break out of any totalizing system. He forged style and style just as Kierkegaard forged genre after genre. Form Nietzsche’s early essays to his quasi-gospel genre in his great Thus Spoke Zarathustra to genealogical analysis through aphorisms piled upon aphorisms to fragments juxtaposed to fragments, Nietzsche organized in what seems to me in an increasingly desperate attempt to recover…not merely the controlled rhetoric of Aristotle’s topics but the out of control rhetoric of the tropes, especially the trope of irony careening with joy at the very edge of what he saw as an Abyss or Void opened up once the totality systems collapsed.

For those familiar with Hessert, compare Hessert’s exposition of culture’s false attempt find the world “meaningful” (per the ancient Greek’s search for “wisdom,” 1Cor 1.22) to Kierkegaard’s attack upon modernity’s “systems of totality” and it’s “dream to be the logos of its own secret.” Achieving a single logos, a single, all-embracing system of rational explanation that can reduce the cosmos to a fixed account of the whole is not what Christianity is about. Any truly Christian attempt at a rational account of things will necessarily be ‘fragmentary’. It can be logos. It can never be Logos. And oh how we balk and complain with ‘fragments’. So as Tracy said, faith is necessarily a way to live with fragments, and we need a ‘theology of fragments’. This is not to say faith does not locate all fragments (all logoi, however imperfectly understood) in the One (unfragmented) Logos who is Christ the God-Man. We may have only fragments, but each is a small mirror that reflects, in its limited capacity, Christ who is in all things and in whom are all things.

*“Form and Fragment: The Recovery of the Hidden and Incomprehensible God” in The Concept of God in Global Dialogue, eds. Werner Jeanrond and Aasulv Lande (Orbis Books, 2005).

The coincidence of loving and being loved

unity-rhiannon-marhiFellow Californian Rhiannon Marhi combines captivating colors and themes that settle the heart down and help it find its center where all is gift – where one experiences oneself most fundamentally as graciously gifted. It’s popular (and correct, I think) to argue that beauty describes a more fundamental, more primal mode of knowing than language. That’s why ‘ineffable’ doesn’t imply ‘irrational’ or ‘meaningless’. When I find a great quote, I think of what it would look like if it were painted. Nicholas of Cusa’s quote here speaks of self-knowledge as coincident with knowledge of being loved by God. I thought that quote sounds like Marhi’s painting appears.

“The likeness which seems to be created by me is the Truth which creates me, so that in this way, at least, I apprehend how closely I ought to be bound to You, since, in You, being loved coincides with loving. For if in You who are my likeness I ought to love myself, then I am exceedingly bound to do so when I see that You love me as Your creature and image.” (Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464 CE)

The myth of ‘divine withdrawal’

crucifixionWhy the gruesome picture? Because sometimes theology gets in the way.

I continue to contemplate the crucifixion. Where was God? What was he up to? What was his part in this? What happened there that day which God gives to faith to perceive that so radically transforms the world? God-talk these days is full of references to ‘divine withdrawal’, and to the Cross as the quintessential manifestation of divine withdrawal. I’d like to reflect here a bit upon that idea.

• If we understand God to be inseparably present to creation (as its creator and sustainer – a fairly unobjectionable reading of Scripture), then talk of God “withdrawing” from can only be a figurative expression for the phenomenological aspects of our suffering. We experience ourselves and the world in ways we explain by removing God from the scene. If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so God must “really” be somewhere else; he must have withdrawn himself.

• But it cannot literally be the case that God withdraws himself absolutely, metaphysically speaking, such that the created things he withdraws from continue to exist in a state wholly vacated by God. Not even hell – whatever that is – can be construed as so absolute an absence of God. For nothing created has created itself, nor can it sustain its own existence. Creation remains, at every level of its being, inseparable from God who is creatively present actively sustaining it and knowing what he sustains.

• Consider too that God isn’t a ‘composite’ being, i.e., he isn’t composed or assembled from parts more fundamental to him than his actual triune life. He isn’t the achievement or product of a series of divine events which combine over time to produce God’s triune fullness as its effect. “All that God is” is “everywhere God is,” and that’s everywhere without conceivable exception. God is fully all he is everywhere he is, and that means immeasurable and inseparable intimacy with and love for created things. Any notion of divine withdrawal has to be understood as a kind of presence to things as the most intimate act of their being, even when we suffer, even as we do the evil we do. Divine withdrawal, properly understood, is a ‘mode of presence’ not of ‘absence’, a way of being with and sustaining us, not a way of being without us or moving away from us.

• The Cross cannot, then, be understood as contradicting this fundamental sense in which God is fully present, always and everywhere, creatively at work in sustaining and loving the world. Everything God does, including dying, reveals this much to faith. The Cross manifests God’s triune fullness within every narrative of divine withdrawal (even biblical ones), but the Cross is not itself a narrative of withdrawal. It is a narrative of approach, of nearness, of presence. It is where God, in the full simplicity of triune love, insists upon being with us, thus judging (viz., rendering) all narratives of divine withdrawal to be myths and fabrications of despair and dereliction. The ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (as theologians have named it) is not that cry Jesus utters on the Cross (“My God, My God! Why?”) The true cry of dereliction is ours: “Crucify him!” There’s the despair and dereliction. Dereliction put Jesus on the Cross. Sanity is what we crucified. The dereliction is heard in a thousand other cries – cries that give up altogether, but also cries that scream their despair all the louder. Much of our despairing dereliction gets published as Christian theology.

• To speak of God ‘witdrawing, then, is to describe the suffering and despair of a life that refuses to welcome the truth of God’s presence. But that refusal does not thereby affirm some other truth – namely, a truth of divine absence. It is rather the pain of our taking the myth of divine absence to be true. But happily God needn’t suffer the pain of falsely believing such a myth in order to free us from it.

We are all wardrobes—Part 1


I wonder if the univocity insisted upon by advocates of “relational theologies” doesn’t actually suppress human aspirations for the relational by corralling it within the limits of what can be said determinately. The relational becomes a real experience only when we’re able to “say it” because we only really experience what we can describe given the laws of univocal apprehension. But I think we know the sequestering of experience to determinate language is impossible, and attempting it ends in despair, or perhaps it’s motivated by despair. We fear losing our identity, our very self, to an undomesticated infinite. So language domesticates God and we become happy the way a child addicted to playing the same pinball game again and again is happy with an endless repetition of the same – same game, same features, same distances. God will not – cannot – offer us this kind of happiness. There are no predictable borders to the ecstasy of knowing God, and I suspect that in our most honest moments of reflection, we realize that this is what we truly want. The indeterminacy of language is where and how that divine adventure calls to us. We are all Lewisian wardrobes, and only the childlike find Narnia.

Recent conversations I’m enjoying have focused on the well-worn problem of theological predication, which is shoptalk for how our language apprehends God, how it captures and expresses the truth about God. It’s a very old conversation that few master. Anyone remotely familiar with the conversation knows that it concerns the relationship between God’s transcendence and the reach of our concepts.

The standard options on the menu are three:

Univocity (in which “Being” is predicated of God and creatures in the same way. “Love,” for example, has the same sense predicated to God that it has when predicated of creatures.)
Equivocity (what is predicated of God and creatures is predicated with entirely different senses)
Analogy (what is predicated of God is predicated analogously to what is predicated of creatures)

Equivocity is yoked to univocity as its contrary mode of predication. Both represent options of a single all-inclusive understanding of predication that supervenes upon a single reality, ‘being’, whether we’re talking about divine or created being. Analogical predication (itself a slippery concept prone to endless qualification) represents the ancient and, say classical theists, only viable alternative to the facile reductions of a univocal theology. I’m assured by people who know better than I that these options exhaust the possibilities, and while I appreciate and agree with various concerns expressed by those who argue these approaches, I’d like to suggest a completely different way to approach these concerns – an approach that’s performative and functional.

On a recent out of town visit to my sister-in-law, she reminded me, “The water here is hard.” As we know, hard water is water that has a high mineral content. The phrase “hard water” lodged in my brain and set me thinking of how strange, almost illusive, language is that a word like “hard” can mean so many things. Take for example:

“Possesses high mineral content” used of water
“Dense or resistant to change” describing the mass of a physical object
“Intellectually challenging” of solving a math problem
“Stable in value” used of stocks or commodities
“Not prone to displays of sympathy or affection” describing a strict or severe father
“Potent or powerful in effect” of liquor
“Harsh or unpleasant” of a long and cold winter

272_-_words_as_artSome of these meanings are more closely related than others, but taken together they form the semantic field (the scope of possible meanings) of the word “hard.” Several interesting points this observation yields are that (1) there is no one meaning to the word “hard” (or to all but a small number of highly technical terms). There are only possibilities of meanings. And (2) the possibilities are contextually and socially determined, and they all describe aspects of our experience of the world. Language never escapes this existential grounding and social context. It is an attempt (and never more than an attempt) to map our experience of ourselves in the world we inhabit.

This grounding in experience is crucial to me because I’m going to suggest that existentially speaking, the distinctions between univocity/equivocity and analogy disappear (or it might be that they converge) in one and the same attempt to make sense of the experiences we have. Instead of assuming that language is our immediate reality and then adopting a deflationary view of our experience, let us explore the possibility that our experience is the more fundamental reality and that we should take a more deflationary or circumspect opinion about the adequacy of language to capture reality – whether the reality we’re talking about is God or the world. It seems to me that language fails at rendering both finally determinate.

I’d like to explore this debate and its subject (theological language and predication), then, from an entirely different approach, one that sidesteps the three standard options (univocity, equivocity, and analogy) and suggests a fourth, which I’ll call:


Or we might say that language predicates of God:


Theological predication is functionally related to theosis – to empowering, facilitating, and sharing the experience of God to the end that we become finally transformed in and – carefully said – into Christ. Christ-formation (in one’s self and the extent to which one is instrumental in empowering it in others) ought to be the measure of the success of our God-talk and not particularly which theory of reference one might adopt to express that transformation. Keeping this point central gives us a different vantage point than the standard options from which to think about our God-talk.

Let me state up front in this post a tentative conclusion and then explain in a Part 2 what reasons I think I have for taking this view. Simply stated, I’d like to suggest that there is no such thing as univocal predication when it comes to God-talk (and probably when it comes to talk of anything at all for that matter, but I’ll leave that for now), that analogy is probably the only thing we have but that as it is argued in the context of this debate, analogy also ends up failing. The chief reason I think these all fail is because they tend to excuse themselves from certain irreducible existential givens that define all human experience and end up becoming just theories of language and reference.

csm_asawa_bmc76_nd-1_7ffa4cfd83As strange as it may sound, I do mean to say that even univocal theories of theological language fail to take proper account of certain existential givens, which explains my opening paragraph. I mention this because proponents of univocity will appeal to the fact that we do experience God – not an analogy of God – for a view of reference that seeks to secure the integrity of this encounter but whicch ends up being very uncomfortable with the possibility that there is might be no conceptual horizon within which God can be circumscribed. I will agree we truly experience God within the givens of our finite, created capacities, but I’ll also agree (with Pryzwara) that all our experience has an irreducible transcendence about it to begin with which we never overcome or exhaust whether it’s the experience of God or the world around us that we’re describing. Because our capacities bear the image of God and are grounded and sustained in God, they remain irresistibly open to forever expanding our experience and enjoyment of God, an experience of one’s own self as unbounded and uncircumscribed.

Transcendence is experienced as an overwhelming presence to which our created natures answer with existential (never linguistic) fulfillment and ecstasy which at the same time perfectly anticipate the unknown the way awakened desire knows what it anticipates and anticipates what it doesn’t know. As far as one explores outwardly or inwardly, one finds no horizon that draws a final end to the possibilities of the ever-new, ever-surprising, and ever-enticing beauty of God which will not permit us to speak with finality. Language does what it can, and because we create our languages to map our shared experience, and new experiences (like the transforming ecstasy of experiencing God) will always stretch and exceed language.

The vantage point from which I’m suggesting we consider the purpose and function of theological language is a ‘functional’ view of language – functional relative to the “formation of Christ in us” (Gal. 4.19). The concern for language, then, ought to be about the success to which our language serves to increase conformity to Christ—period. From this vantage point, proponents of the standard alternatives – univocity and analogy – are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant. Why do I say this? Because proponents of both agree that we truly experience God, not an analogy of God, and that our natures are fulfilled and perfected as Christ is truly formed in us. This agreement I believe makes irrelevant to a large extent theories of predication. Disagreements between these theories become a bit like arguing over whether the words “red” and “round” apprehending an apple univocally or analogically has anything to do with the experience of enjoying its sweetness when eaten. I’m suggesting the experience of the apple transcends (surprise) that entire disagreement.

Divine Mångata

12725078_1704032533176899_126138029_nMångata is a Swedish word that refers to the Moon’s road-like reflection cast upon water. You’ve seen it on clear nights when the Moon is bright. Its reflection stretches out like a winding road of interrupted shards of light. It’s a true reflection, but given the nature of the water’s rippling surface, the moon’s reflection appears partial, broken, and imperfect.

Should this remind us of the way we (and our language) reflect God? We truly are a reflection of God, but finitude’s surface ripples with the inherent limitations of our ignorance, the pressing necessities of survival, the vagaries of mortal existence—need I go on?—which at the very least attenuate or impair our ability to determine the Moon’s precise shape, size, and nature. There’s a lot of the ‘water’ in the reflection. Indeed, any reflection is bound by the limitations and nature of the surface upon which an image is cast.

However perplexing it may be to think as deeply upon how our language (as mediating surface) appropriates God as we do upon God himself, I don’t see any happy ending for theologies that pretend there is no such tension. There may be no permanent rest from this tension in the middle ground between univocity and equivocity, but as unsettling as the middle is, the options on either end are dead on arrival. David Bentley Hart (“God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho” (Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, Vol. 3, Number 1 [September 2015]: 1-17) laments (to be fair, Hart simply “states” it, but to me it amounts to an honest “lament,” for there is as much ‘letting die’ in theological language as there is hoping for a new day):

It must be possible to speak of God without mistaking him for a being among beings, an instance of something greater than himself. Between God and creatures lies an epistemological chasm nothing less than infinite, which no predicate can span univocally. Even Scotists believe that, within the weak embrace of a largely negative conceptum univocum entis, the modal disproportion between the infinite and the finite renders the analogy between God and creatures irreducibly disjunctive. But neither can theological language consist in nothing but equivocal expostulations, piously but fruitlessly offered up into the abyss of the divine mystery; this would evacuate theological language not only of logical, but of semantic content; nothing could be affirmed—nothing could mean anything at all. And yet, down the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages—most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness.

I want to play the Devil’s advocate here and ask “Why?” Why “must” it be possible to speak of God without reducing him univocally to the catagories inherent to our very thinking? Why “must” we be able to speak meaningfully of the identity and nature of that which we name “God”? And are not all possible answers to these questions dictated by the very categories and existential needs from which God is expressly said to be qualitatively, infinitely removed?