Being Young in God’s presence

9781107642782_p0_v1_s260x420Frances Young is Emeritus Professor of University of Birmingham and a Methodist Minister.

Once in a while you pick up a book and know from its first pages you’re entering a conversation destined to change you in deep ways. From Nicaea to Chalcedon (2nd ed. 2010) was my first (apart from a few articles here and there) exposure to Frances Young’s scholarship and thinking. Loved it. Her Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering (1986), in which she shares her journey of faith in caring for a severely disabled son (whose care has continued for some 40 years now). Neither of these works is the book I mean when I talk about knowing you’re picked up one of those ‘game changing’ books. The book I mean is her most recent God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (which is a much expanded version of her 2011 Bampton Lectures) in which she takes “a stab at a systematic theology which has contemporary coherence but is informed not by the usual dialogue with contemporary philosophers or theologians but rather by engagement with the theology of the early church fathers,” a “conversation in which the interests and anxieties of [her]self and [her] contemporaries influence the selection and reading of past texts, yet allow sometimes strange ideas to contribute to shaping our own understanding.” Sounds a bit dry. But nothing Young writes could be dry.

Reviewing it is some time in the future, but I did want to share a few paragraphs from her introduction—

“Each of the eight chapters might stand alone as an essay on a particular theological topic, yet together they provide a consistent overview of the subject. Recurring motifs shape the over-arching theological perspective.

  • a reading of the Bible as essentially a transformative text, the Creator God being presented in scripture as constantly at work to bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and inviting human actors into this activity
  • the inadequacy of the ‘Craftsman’ or Demiurge analogy for God’s creativity (with attendant consequences for ‘intelligent design’)
  • the sense of ‘creatureliness’ as a fundamental constituent in theological reasoning in the Christian tradition, as well as in liturgical and ethical responses to life’s giftedness
  • the wisdom of intellectual humility: the limitations of created intelligence, human language and conceptuality — the potential for idolatrous language and conceptuality — the hybris of attempts at theodicy — the privilege of ‘liminal’ experiences and utter weakness as access to the deepest theological insights
  • the apparent will of the transcendent God to accommodate the divine self to the human level, to work through particularities and the constraints of history, paradoxically exercising power through weakness
  • the sacramental perspective which seems to shape and unite the incarnation, the scriptures as Word of God, the eucharist, the church, enabling the discernment of the Creator through the creation, of the Spirit in ordinary, physical dailiness, of God in God’s human image and the human community of the Body of Christ
  • corruption optima pessima — fall and redemption as an over-arching narrative that rings true to the way the world is, with all its ambiguities, and the way human persons experience their innermost selves and actions
  • the inseparability of truth, beauty and goodness
  • true love as without power or possessiveness — apatheia/detachment as essential to love, and the fundamental significance of that for understanding God’s oikonomia, as well as human response to the love commandments in contemplation and action
  • the significance of facing the ‘other’ for theological, ethical and spiritual transformation
  • the ‘otherness’ of God — we know something of God through the divine activities, but not the divine essence — God’s utter transcendence yet universal episcopē — the paradox of God’s concurrent absence and presence
  • the mystery of the Trinity as the all-embracing, overflowing wisdom of divine love.”

Can’t wait.

On Infants’ Early Deaths

baby_ambroWe thought we’d share some interesting comments by Gregory of Nyssa regarding divine foreknowledge. The Tradition affirms that God, to use Gregory’s expression, “knows all things before they be” (from Gregory’s On the Making of Man). That seems pretty straightforward. And there are many such examples from the Fathers that repeat the same thought.

More interesting, however, are Gregory’s thoughts on the providential use of such foreknowledge which he expounds at some length in his On Infants’ Early Deaths, explaining that God uses his foreknowledge of evils as the basis upon which to bring their life to an end before they commit those evils. But it is not possible that what is in fact foreknown can be the basis upon which God acts either to bring about or prevent what is foreknown. What is foreknown (on the traditional view) is by definition already the result of whatever was done to bring it about attempting to prevent it. Gregory’s logic here is impossible. Here are a few his comments from On Infants’ Early Deaths:

“It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that he not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which he has forbidden; it is reasonable to expect that he who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which his foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice.”

“Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them [foreknown evils] before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants.”

“But seeing that our reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions. Well, then, not only one might pronounce that God, in kindness to the founders of some family, withdraws a member of it who is going to live a bad life from that bad life, but, even if there is no antecedent such as this in the case of some early deaths, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness. That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is reason, and wisdom, and perfect goodness, and truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with his truth. Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.”

“The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil. That some of the wicked have lived on does not upset this reason which we have rendered; for the evil was in their case hindered in kindness to their parents; whereas, in the case of those whose parents have never imparted to them any power of calling upon God, such a form of the Divine kindness, which accompanies such a power, is not transmitted to their own children; otherwise the infant now prevented by death from growing up wicked would have exhibited a far more desperate wickedness than the most notorious sinners, seeing that it would have been unhindered.”

“Take courage good mother, your son would have been worse than the worst human being who ever lived, so in his kindness God has prevented your child’s foreknown sins from being committed” hardly provides a basis for comfort. But the logic doesn’t work either. What is foreknowledge if foreknown sins can be prevented? They were foreknown. Is Gregory (inconsistently) assuming a category of possibilities knowable ‘as possibilities’ but not knowable (as is traditionally held) as the the world’s actual history?

(Picture from here.)

On the Incarnation

athanFrom Athanasius (d. 373 CE) in his On the Incarnation.

“The Word was not hedged in by his body, nor did his presence in the body prevent his being present elsewhere as well. When he moved his body he did not cease also to direct the universe by his mind and might. No. The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being himself contained by anything, he actually contained all things himself….”

“As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which he himself gives life, he is still source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and he is revealed both through the works of his body and through his activity in the world. It is, indeed, the function of soul to behold things that are outside the body, but it cannot energize or move them. A man cannot transport things from one place to another, for instance, merely by thinking about them; nor can you or I move the sun and the stars just by sitting at home and looking at them. With the Word of God in his human nature, however, it was otherwise. His body was for him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that he was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as man he was living a human life, and as Word he was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son he was in constant union with the Father….”

“You must understand, therefore, that when writers on this sacred theme speak of him as eating and drinking and being born, they mean that the body, as a body, was born and sustained with the food proper to its nature; while God the Word, who was united with it, was at the same time ordering the universe.”

Change you can believe in

442px-Nicaea_iconGood friend TC Moore over at Theological Graffiti has asked some good questions that will get us into an important follow-up to our response to Boyd’s recent comments about the Son’s separation from the Father on the Cross. We wanted a third post to explore the question of why any of this matters. Why care about whether or not the Father and Son were separated on the Cross or whether the event of their eternal enjoyment of each other is unbreakable? What’s it matter if the eternal Logos was still personally present throughout the universe upholding it when Jesus was a zygote in Mary’s womb? Some might wonder how these issues are relevant to the everyday concerns of struggling Christian believers.

These questions lead naturally to questions TC poses regarding the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: How are these to be understood and related? Can a person truly possess one (either orthodoxy or orthopraxy) without the other? And perhaps more interestingly, Can a heterodox belief bring about right praxis in a person’s life? If so, wouldn’t that belief be orthodox for that person?

It seems unnecessary to have to justify the claim that ‘what we believe’ and ‘how we live’ are intimately (causally) related. We don’t think anyone would question the relationship, so we won’t question it either. But we will ask which takes precedence and why? We’d like to suggest that while they shape and are shaped each another, it is ‘believing’ (orthodoxy) which is primary in the sense that it is the gateway to the intentional and responsible transforming of our ‘behavior’. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” said Jesus. That’s the proper order. And Prov. 27.3 reminds us that “as a person thinks, so is he.” Orthodoxy (“right believing”) matters to orthopraxy (“right living”) by identifying those belief states that motivate and shape behavior to the fullest extent possible. Given that, orthopraxy is the true test of whether one truly believes the relevant truths.

Ultimately the truth cannot be the enemy of our best and highest good. On a Christian account of things in which the God creates, sustains and knows the world he loves in its entirety, truth is both singular (no ultimate contradictions in God) and empowering. Empowering? Yes. By that we mean that it can’t be the case ultimately that what is false better empowers us to become the persons God intends. Orthodoxy (right believing) is a truth designed for our living (orthopraxy) and to which our living best conforms. So we can’t see how somebody’s orthopraxy (their transformation in love to Christlikeness) is better served by heterodox beliefs (believing what is in fact false about God, the world, and themselves).

Of course, we need not possess perfect beliefs about everything in order to progress spiritually at all. We don’t see how being wrong about geography, a cake recipe, or the truth of quantum mechanics will diminish our spiritual development. Not everything matters equally. The challenge for the Church has always been to define that kind of life we’re created for and then identify those beliefs that best explain, protect, defend, promote and empower transformation into that life. Believe it or not, that’s what the early Creeds intend. They are not speculative philosophical meanderings unrelated to the experience of the transforming power of the gospel. It was because Arianism could not properly articulate our salvation and perfection in Christ that it was opposed so vehemently. The point was that ‘who’ Jesus is and ‘how’ Jesus saves are intimately related. And one couldn’t tamper with the former without affecting the latter.

What about the Trinity? More specifically, what about Greg Boyd’s specific claim that the divine persons may severe their own experience of one another? Isn’t this so speculative as to make any opinion on it beside the point and irrelevant to Christian living? Greg doesn’t think so. Otherwise he wouldn’t advocate his position as passionately as he does. He believes that our perception of (or belief about) God’s love of us has the power to radically transform us. We agree. But Greg also thinks that this love is best accounted for in terms of imagining the consequence of God’s love for us to be the cessation of God’s own triune happiness.

It sounds wonderful to think God would give that much on that level. We applaud the kind of love that “gives its life” for another. It’s thoroughly biblical. Greater love hath no man than that, and so forth. But does it really best account for what it is about God that saves us? Might there be unpleasant fallout to the belief that the experienced fullness of God’s triune life cannot transcend the suffering of the Cross? Might we be giving up something which our salvation requires by supposing that God, in the triune fullness of his own experience as Father, Son and Spirit, does not in fact transcend the world’s evil and ugliness? Even now, how we are expected to experientially transcend our own suffering (in the way Greg surprisingly describes in the first 30 seconds of his most recent video blog here) if God is unable experientially to transcend his suffering? How does believing that the Triune God remains the fullest, most complete experience of the divine persons-in-relation while the Son suffers empower us in that kind of transcendence? It’s worth exploring.