Divine freedom


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

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

On the one hand:

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

On the other hand:

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cessation of consciousness’ and ‘being’ constitute each other in God?

JensonChris Green’s “Robert Jenson” may be the truest representation of Jenson out there, better than photographs of him for capturing the colorful fire of his intellect and work; and my thanks to Caleb Sanchez for alerting me to this passage in Jenson (from On Thinking the Human). I’m traveling for the next few days and will have to wait to gather my thoughts in response to it, but I’d like to post it now and invite others to think through it in the meantime.

Regarding death, Jenson writes:

It has often been suggested that our immortality is in the mind of God, that although my death is simply my non-existence, this is not a sheer occurrence of non-being because the whole of my experience is preserved in his universal consciousness, because I am remembered by God. Such proposals do not work if we leave the matter where it is usually left, that is, if we presume with modernity that God is a monadic consciousness. Merely that I am remembered by you, even if you are God, does not help with the problem that presents itself to us, does not help my effort to think my own death. For me, the cessation of consciousness is exactly the same and remains exactly as unrepresentable whether you remain conscious of me or not; and we have seen that also “for me” must finally be dropped.

But the matter works out very differently if the Christian dogma just adduced is taken into account. It is a point belabored through all the centuries of Christian reflection: my existence as an actual other than God, my existence as “a” creature over against a God who is someone other than me…is enabled only by and within the otherness of the Son from the Father. But the Son’s death is integral to this otherness and so to this Sonship, and therefore to the relation within which my distinct being is enabled. And therefore the non-being to which I as creature return at death is integral to that relation within which my distinct being is enabled in the first place. The vanishing of being belongs to that relation between the Son and the Father which is the very life that is God, belongs to the Being that grounds all beings. The ‘mind of God’ is the reason and will lived between the Son and the Father in the Spirit, and to be remembered there is to live.

It may perhaps a little help understanding, if we recur to the analogy just used, of the created second-person. There is after all someone who sees me whole, and that is any of you. For to you I am an object, that is, you can and in some circumstances must deal with me as if I were an already known thing, and that is, as if I were dead. But you know the object I am as a presumed consciousness; I am for you a person-type object. Thus you, who know me as if I were dead, nevertheless can address me out of that very apprehension. And in hearkening and responding to that address, I too have myself as my object, that is, have my dead self as the content of my consciousness.

With these reflections we may seem to have undone my contention: we may seem to have found a way to think my death without invoking God. But of course this does not quite work. In the dialectic just described, you and I remain each partly aloof from the relation between us. Thus your consciousness of my dead self can indeed be communicated to me, but this consciousness that you enable in me cannot be wholly identical with my consciousness of my self, and so is not truly a consciousness of myself as dead.

But in God, according to standard trinitarian thinking, the persons Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the relations between them none of the three has any position aloof from his self-giving to or through the others. The Father knows the Son’s death as God’s own, and so as his own, suffered in the person of the Son. The Son knows the Father’s continuing consciousness of his dead self as God’s own, and so as his own consciousness of his dead self, active in the person of the Father.

Here we must again take a step taken before: my being is participation in his triune Being. Thus the cessation of my being for my consciousness is participation in a mutual consciousness in which cessation and being each constitute the other. And that is a thought which, however difficult, can be entertained.

A beating Hart

the bodyI’m working my way through David Hart’s essays, more slowly than I’d like. But I happened upon his piece “The anti-Theology of the Body” (in The New Atlantis, Summer of 2005). It is a reflection, based upon a collection of John Paul’s sermons, referred to collectively as his Theology of the Body. Both Hart and Jenson were asked to reflect upon the implications that John Paul’s work might have for questions raised by the field of bioethics. Hart’s reflections can be found here, and Jenson’s here. I’m including a portion from the opening thoughts from each. I hope you’re challenged and stimulated.

David Bentley Hart
To ask what the legacy of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body might be for future debates in bioethics is implicitly to ask what relevance it has for current debates in bioethics. And this creates something of a problem, because there is a real sense in which it has none at all — at least, if by “relevance” one means discrete logical propositions or policy recommendations that might be extracted from the larger context of John Paul’s teachings so as to “advance the conversation” or “suggest a middle course” or “clarify ethical ambiguities.” Simply said, the book does not offer arguments, or propositions, or (thank God) “suggestions.” Rather, it enunciates with extraordinary fullness a complete vision of the spiritual and corporeal life of the human being; that vision is a self-sufficient totality, which one is free to embrace or reject as a whole. To one who holds to John Paul’s Christian understanding of the body, and so believes that each human being, from the very first moment of existence, emerges from and is called towards eternity, there are no negotiable or even very perplexing issues regarding our moral obligations before the mystery of life. Not only is every abortion performed an act of murder, but so is the destruction of every “superfluous” embryo created in fertility clinics or every embryo produced for the purposes of embryonic stem cell research. The fabrication of clones, the invention of “chimeras” through the miscegenation of human and animal DNA, and of course the termination of supernumerary, dispensable, or defective specimens that such experimentation inevitably entails are in every case irredeemably evil. Even if, say, research on embryonic stem cells could produce therapies that would heal the lame, or reverse senility, or repair a damaged brain, or prolong life, this would in no measure alter the moral calculus of the situation: human life is an infinite good, never an instrumental resource; human life is possessed of an absolute sanctity, and no benefit (real or supposed) can justify its destruction.

In a wider sense, though, I would want to argue that it is precisely this “irrelevance” that makes John Paul’s theology truly relevant (in another sense) to contemporary bioethics. I must say that what I, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, find most exhilarating about the Theology of the Body is not simply that it is perfectly consonant with the Orthodox understanding of the origins and ends of human nature (as indeed it is), but that from beginning to end it is a text awash in the clear bright light of uncompromising conviction. There is about it something of that sublime indifference to the banal pieties and prejudices of modernity that characterizes Eastern Orthodoxy at its best. It simply restates the ancient Christian understanding of man, albeit in the somewhat phenomenological idiom for which John Paul had so marked a penchant, and invites the reader to enter into the world it describes. And at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

Robert Jenson
I begin with four preliminary observations. First, the boundary between “bioethics” and “medical ethics” wavers in both public and more scholarly discussion. Thus research employing embryonic stem cells is regularly defended, like many other problematic biotechnical projects, by appealing to the possible medical benefits. And some allegedly medical interventions produce severe “bioethical” problems: in vitro fertilization, performed by doctors for infertile persons, has created a Pandora’s Box of bioethical quandaries — and indeed this technical means of lifting the burden of infertility is not really medical treatment of the patients at all. In the following, I will therefore push the boundary of what is usually called bioethics some distance into the conventional territory of medical ethics, since much of these catecheses’ impact is at the overlap between them.

Second, to display the significance of John Paul’s thought in this area without endless circumlocution, I propose that most questions conventionally bundled together as “bioethical,” together with some medical-ethical questions at the boundary, can be cast in the form: Should/may we do (x) with/to bodies that are human? Interpreting bioethical problems as problems about bodies, so as to bring them clearly within the field of the present texts, does assume that some entities — such as embryos or even cells — may be regarded as bodies that are human without necessarily insisting that they have the status of human persons. If this is allowed, John Paul’s catecheses indeed suggest general maxims that can be powerful warrants in bioethical deliberations.

The place of general maxims in moral deliberation is surely disputed, including in contemporary Catholic moral theology. For my third preliminary consideration, I must refer outside the book immediately before us. The late pope was clearly on one side of an inner-Catholic argument as an opponent of “proportionalism”: human acts, he believed, can be called good, bad, or indifferent according to their kinds, and those kinds can be sorted out by rational processes in which principles are invoked.

In any case, these catecheses themselves are not exercises in casuistry, but are rather specifically theological and indeed pastoral. They trace the “revelation” of the body, from discovery by “the man” of his own body, in the beginning, through the perverted but still wonderful experience of “historical man” with his body, to the body’s final glorification in God. And always they circle around Jesus’ saying and texts from the first chapters of Genesis.

Finally and fourth, in this collection the pope does not insistently query the sense of “body” itself, when used in reference to humans. Most of us assume without much analysis that my “body” is that organism I see when I look down, and that I feed and otherwise do or do not care for. John Paul seems to assume the same, and offers only one modifying consideration: I see my body as mine just when an other sees it so. That John Paul does not in these meditations further analyze the notion of “body” itself is in my judgment their one real shortcoming. The opportunity was there in a set of passages where he reflects on the role of the body in the resurrected life, in the course of which he makes much use of I Corinthians 15:35-50. But he does not ask: What is common to the “organic body” as which I die and the “spiritual body” as which I am raised and glorified? That is, he does not ask: What, in Paul’s thinking at this conceptually difficult and spiritually crucial juncture, makes a body a body? It seems that for Paul my body need not always be of the organic sort I now see when I look at myself, that a “spiritual” resurrection-body which is precisely not an organic body can nevertheless be my body, and indeed somehow the same body as the organic body that died. The profoundly evocative rhetoric with which John Paul wields “body” throughout his reflections on resurrection and eternal life would, I think, have contributed more to his general position had it been assisted by some more pedestrian analysis of the language.

I turn now to the more directly bioethical significance of John Paul’s meditations. Within these homilies, the turn to ethics is most clearly — if somewhat belatedly — marked by the notion of “reading the body in truth,” which means both “reading the body in the light of the Truth which is Christ” and “reading the body truly.” Only as we know what the body truly is, that is, when we read the meaning the triune Creator inscribes in it, can we know how to behave with it.

This of course supposes that the body can be read, that it has a truth inscribed in its being and that this inscription can be made known to us. Here we already come to a parting of the ways. Most recent “ethicists” presuppose no such thing about human bodies, or indeed about any entity which might in some way be called a body — the cosmos, an amoeba, a rock, or whatever. To be sure, human beings have mostly conducted their lives on the subliminal supposition that the various kinds of things we find about ourselves somehow have corresponding inherent significances for moral action. But the race of experts is now for the most part — at least overtly — of a different persuasion; and those labeled bioethicists usually line up with their fellow experts. Whatever the particular theory of moral judgment, it will be supposed that bodies are morally significant only if they fall within the field of some individual or corporate subject’s antecedent rights or interests or aspirations, and that their value is given them by those who “have” or claim title to them, or by the society or legislatures or courts that grant such titles.

Does a blastula have anything to tell us? That is its message and not that of a doctor or mother or father? Does even a despairing person’s body have its own claim on that person, which neither law nor society can authorize him or her to deny? Would a clone have the same moral significance as its original? Is the destruction of an embryo to “harvest” its cells or genes a killing? What is going on when a human cell divides on and on, not into a person but as a cell line? Are some of us right in feeling queasy? In academic society, such questions will be received with embarrassed silence — if not denounced as exhalations from the “religious right.” Just so, if John Paul’s method is right, our present academic society — including many official bioethicists — must from the start be simply incapable of deliberating the rights and wrongs of the body.

So how does John Paul himself read the body? We will take up his readings in the order in which the catecheses present them…

God’s duration is without loss

glass2I’ve been reading and listening to reflections on God and time. I get such headaches when I dwell on this question, but four core convictions come to mind as I consider these conversations again.

(1) Creation as irreducible becoming or processu operis (a work in progress). We exist entirely as an act of “becoming,” an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we wish to be. We are a perpetual hourglass that negotiates between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

(2) God’s self-constituting triune perfections and beatitude are actus purus. In our view, God cannot be reduced to the “becoming” described in (1) above, even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” God’s self-constituting triune act (the Father’s begetting of the Son, the proceeding of the Spirit, the triune fullness and beatitude of this knowing and loving) cannot itself be subject to temporal becoming; it cannot supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which God’s ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not ‘now’. To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it), we suggest that God’s essential triune act is the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity,” an infinite specious present, an indivisible occasion of plenitude not composed of successive temporal moments upon whose unending process it supervenes (i.e., it has neither past which it remembers nor future changes it anticipates).

(3) God’s free self-expression in creation is contingent and involves duration. If God cannot be reduced to a processu operis, neither can he be reduced to actus purus as a totum simul. If God’s self-constituting, triune fullness is the living immediacy of an infinite ‘specious present’, it is not on that account intolerant of contingent self-expressive modes of willing and knowing. Thus we believe God’s free self-expression in creation (the creating, sustaining, and knowledge of the world in its contingent temporal actualities) involves temporal duration for God. Time flows from God as we “live and move and have our being in God.”

(4) God’s duration is without loss. The phrase is Robert Jenson’s. I don’t include in it all that he does. I employ it only to say that God’s duration as expressed in (3) is without loss (because it’s asymmetrically related) to the triune fullness expressed in (2). God’s self-expressive act in creation, with its duration and change, is purely expressive of his triune identity. God does not constitute himself dialectically within the economy of creation, though his knowledge of and relation to the world involve change and reciprocal relations such as prayer within an open horizon whose precise unfolding even God does not immutably (fore)know. This openness (for free, creaturely becoming in love) just is God’s free, creative self-expression. Free creaturely self-expression (ultimately in unfailing love and union with God) perfectly manifests free divine self-expression because the latter grounds and guarantees the former. But the entire economy of creation, even the Incarnation itself, only expresses or manifests (rather than determines or alters) God’s self-constituting triune fullness.