What reading metaphysics should be like

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at the stars

4d025d9df94433c3bff094fa9bc179eb“As for what always turns out to be beyond any impression that can reveal it, how could it ever be understood by means of an indication included in this or that name? This is why the soul excogitates every meaning of names, in order to indicate that inexpressible Good, but every discursive capacity of reasoning is always defeated and declared inferior to the object that it is looking for. This is why the soul says: ‘I have called him as I could, excogitating words that indicate its inexpressible beatitude, but he was always superior to the indication suggested by their meanings’.” (Gregory of Nyssa)

We are all wardrobes—Part 1

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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:

Functional

Or we might say that language predicates of God:

Functionally-teleologically

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Jesus?

resurrection_side_cs_500A friend asks:

Where is Christ’s resurrected body right now?

Fascinating when you think about it. I’ll risk putting my own speculations out there.

I suggest that Christ’s resurrected body is a disposition of all material reality that guarantees creation’s eventual perfection and glorification in him and that this disposition is free to particularize on occasion.

In the One Logos all things are one and so are inseparable both from the Logos in whom they inhere and from each other. We are all connected, and as deeply as our created essences go, we are there equally connected. I think of how entangled quantum particles are immediately implicated in one another’s experiences regardless of the distance that separates them, and their connection is not accountable for any given physical reality within the system.

So what about Jesus’ body? No one of our bodies (because our bodies are each animated by created, finite persons) can mediate life to all other material bodies and bring them to fulfillment. Only the Logos, an infinite Person, in whom all things are sustained, can stand in that kind of relation to material realities. All things inhere in him, not in us. In a real sense, then, Christ’s resurrected body now just is the entire material cosmos (dispositionally speaking), and in a more accomplished sense as the Church embodies God’s intentions for human existence. The Church is that portion of the fallen, material, sentient world being redeemed and brought into union with God.

Thinking of the double-slit experiment. We know that matter fundamentally is a superposition (a wave-function, a disposition for a range of concrete manifestation) which collapses/particularizes under sufficient conditions. Consider thinking of Christ’s glorified body as dispositionally everywhere (superpositioned throughout the cosmos), but which like other created material realities can collapse, in Christ’s case into a ‘particular’ manifestation of the risen Christ in his hypostatic uniqueness. Christ can ‘show up’ here or there. How? Because by virtue of being the Logos, his body is dispositionally-possibly everywhere his Person is, and particularly-concretely anywhere he wills. Can Christ’s body not be ‘particularized’ anywhere and still be a “body”? I think so, yes. The wave function is constitutive of the material order.

So where is Jesus right now? He’s everywhere dispositionally (inherent in all things, a transcendent wave function which is the material world’s receptivity to God and now the universal possibility of his particular manifestation). Where is Jesus’ body ‘collapsed into particularity’? Wherever and whenever he wills it to be. Maybe nowhere right now.

Divine Sophia and the experience of wonder

54bc1ecec0311_-_hbz-sophia-loren-20-1964-rexusa-210677bq-xlBack in 2013 at Biola’s Art Symposium, David Bentley Hart suggested that true beauty isn’t always reducible to the predictably neat and tidy forms of beauty classically understood as ‘right proportionality’. An example Hart gives of disproportionate beauty is Sophia Loren’s face, “magnificently beautiful,” he says, but “nothing in it of classical proportion.” Conversely, he notes, objects that possess all the ideal features of proportionality often “bore us with their banality.” Rembrandt’s obscure canvases are beautiful, while the glittery canvases of Thomas Kinkade are repellent.

It was while listening through Hart’s Biola presentation, together with working with staff on our upcoming Advent sermon series, that I got to thinking again on the experience of “wonder” (which Aristotle believed to be the beginning of philosophy).

The reason Hart’s talk and our Advent series planning meeting got connected in my mind is because our Advent theme is “Capture the Wonder.” There ya go. So obviously I asked: What really is the experience of wonder? Why do we desire the experience of wonder so irresistibly? And what ought an Advent sermon series branded “Capture the Wonder” urge upon listeners regarding the satisfaction of this desire?

As I thought on our theme I couldn’t help but invert it to “Captured by Wonder.” It seems to me there’s a mistaken presumption in the standard phrase. A more proper perspective on the order of grace and creation, I think, sees the experience of wonder not as captured by us, but as capturing us. After all, “there is no one who seeks God.” (Rom 3.11) It is God who seeks, his beauty that captures, his wonder that entices, enthralls, and defines us. Wonder precedes us, creates us, arouses our desire, draws out our hunger. There’s a real danger (a threat to true wonder) then in supposing that God is found by us or that wonder is somehow captured by us at all. At best these are as true of the experience of God as is “sunrise” a true description of what the earth and sun actually do when we look eastward every morning. The deeper, more revealing narrative is that we, not the sun, are doing the moving. Similarly, our search for meaning and fulfillment ends precisely in the realization that we are sought by God, captured by him, and that if there is any evading going on it is we who evade the wonder that frees and fulfills us. The “advent” of Christmas, then, is creation’s arrival at its intended end, earth’s being caught up into heaven, humanity taken up into divinity. We don’t capture the wonder. It captures us.

What is ‘wonder’? Synonyms pop up—awe, astonishment, fascination, amazement. These all describe a certain ineffable pleasure, the satisfying of an appetite of the heart, a beatitude possessed (or let us now say, as possessing us) in the perceiving of beauty. It might be some event in the natural order of things or encountered through a work of art. But the proper order of grace and creation is important. Why am I so inclined to invert “capture the wonder” to “captured by the wonder”? Because a proper perspective on the relation is precisely where ‘grace’ is encountered. There’s a gratuity and graciousness to our existence that is present and offered to us in every experience of wonder. We intuitively know when we experience the beauty of a sunset, or are caught up in the rapture of a musical composition, or sit before a Renoir unable to exhaust the ways it mystifies us, that we are being addressed and possessed by something not under our control, something we do not define but which defines us precisely in its power to draw us out of ourselves and in drawing us out of ourselves define our most inward depths. This is as true for the artist who paints or composes as it is for the art aficionado, as true for Monet as for the tourist who visits him in the Musée d’Orsay.

da408ced982d40d63e022733cf831ad9First of all, then, the experience of wonder is an experience of grace, the realization that I am at home in the world, that I am welcome in it, and that the truest thing about my being here at all is the experienced beauty of the world in its gracious giftedness and goodness.

Secondly, the experience of wonder is also beautifying. When we wonder at some beauty, we are made beautiful. The experience of beauty is itself beautiful. So anyone experiencing beauty is beautiful to the extent one perceives and opens oneself to beauty’s transforming wonder, for there is something beautiful in/to us as well, in our very openness to the world. In our experience of wonder we reflect the beauty around us and so experience not only the world but ourselves as beautiful. We wonder at ourselves wondering and so become all wonder. We experience ourselves as painted into being.

Not only is the experience of wonder firstly an experience of the grace that gives and welcomes our being, and not only is it a beautifying (sanctifying) wonder, but, thirdly, wonder is also an experience of the essential unity of all things. Not only are there beautiful things in the world, but all beautiful things are a single, unified beautiful “thing,” a single beautiful act of being.

Fourthly, every experience of wonder is irreducible to itself (and I confess here the influence of David Hart’s piece “The Mirror of the Infinite” on Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of creation). That is, no beauty in creation that excites true wonder in us, not even the whole of creation contemplated as a single beautiful thing, can offer an account of itself. The experience of wonder is an experience of transcendence and thus a token and reflection of an Artist (not just art), a primal Gift Giver (not just gift), a Beautiful One who makes beautiful (but who is not made beautiful by the things he makes).

Finally, in all this I was drawn back to Celia Deane-Drummond’s comments about divine wonder, about the fact that God also ‘wonders’, that he is wonderful, that he is a God of Wonder, and to comments I then made:

I imagine God to be ‘wonderful’, to experience and know himself with an infinite sense of wonder, not because he is forever discovering things about himself he hasn’t always known, but because there is nothing possibly boring or redundant about God. God is never bored with himself. That is (partly I suppose) his infinitude. The Father’s eternal begetting of his Logos is an exclamatory act (!), an eternal “Wow!” whose utterance is God’s own existence.

Can open theism escape modernity?

solipsism_by_sehroyal-d96wkitThis may be an ill-fitting comparison, but let me give it a go.

Dwayne and I started this blog in order to:

…explore the relationship between the open view of the future and Eastern Orthodox theology. We wonder what would come of a conversation between the two. So we aim to clarify the theological values of the open view, define its core claims and convictions, establish its diversities, and situate it relative to the values, experience and vision of the ancient Eastern Fathers.

That still pretty much expresses our interest. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, but we still affirm open theism’s (apparently only) core, defining claim, viz., divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, and we are (I think) farther down the road to understanding and appreciating Orthodoxy’s theological values and spirituality than when we began. We’ve grown in important ways, though it seems to me we stand like the last Two Witnesses of Revelation crying out between two ends of a spectrum whose via media we jokingly call our Babylon. Perhaps it’s a hopeless venture. But it’s doing wonders for us if for nobody else.

Early on open theism declared itself squarely within classical theism’s belief in creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) or God’s freedom relative to creation, even if open theists didn’t unpack this belief in all the classical ways. Today the lines between open theism and Process-inclined theologies are increasingly blurred (intentionally and unintentionally) and open theism as a theological movement (to the extent the word “movement” applies) is all but defunct. The preferred form of identifying open and process theologies (Christian and otherwise) seems to be “Relational theologies,” which nicely reduces all the invited views to one common denominator, I think.

This is all fine I suppose, if that’s what captures your interest. My own interests are in appropriating the insights and spirituality of the past in light of the prevailing existential despair (in and outside the Church) brought on by modernity but doing so in fresh terms and analogies. As a matter of fact I’m convinced of the open view’s core claim regarding God’s knowledge of the future, and that obviously inclines my interests and explorations, but back in our earliest days I suggested that the fundamental weakness of open theism was its failure to adequately think through God’s transcendence of the world:

…the fundamental theological question which stands behind all the relevant standard disagreements between open theism and Orthodoxy has to do with one’s understanding of and motivation for embracing or rejecting the reality one believes is named by the word “transcendence.”

solipsism-julie-de-waroquier-3I still think this is true. Transcendence for open theism (and for most evangelicals of my acquaintance), it seems to me, is just the inexhaustibility of the known. It’s a quantitative transcendence. God is known, and God is just what is known as he’s known, and transcendence is the name we give to our inability to measure how much of this God there is, how big the mountain of “the known” is. If God is infinite, it’s in this immeasurably repetitious sense purged of uncomfortable mysteries. God ends up being an infinite set of the best of us. My Orthodox friends perhaps think I’m as empty handed as any open theist when it comes to possessing a true notion of transcendence because I think God’s knowledge of the world’s changing actualities also changes. But I’m confident in any event that salvation is personal transformation in Christ precisely in terms of God’s transcendent immediacy, which I was never in a position even to conceive within the scope and horizon of open theism’s conversations. Part of our reason for starting An Open Orthodoxy was to explore that horizon.

What I’d like to do here is set aside theology proper for a moment and turn to a recent article by Michael Hanby which brings divine transcendence to bear upon the political and social spheres. Some interesting parallels might make themselves evident. Hanby writes:

However much one insists upon the classical and Christian elements in the American Founding—and I fully concede the presence of these elements—there is no disputing that the United States is a quintessentially modern nation, both in the character of its theoretical first principles—and indeed the fact that it was self-consciously founded on theoretical first principles—and in the fact that we have no shared tradition and no common memory from before the modern age. It is a subject worthy of reflection that the common “culture” we share even now is largely the product of a culture industry, itself a technological achievement whose advent roughly coincides with the completion and consolidation of American continental expansion at the turn of the twentieth century.

There are many ways to characterize modernity, but perhaps one of the most succinct and insightful comes from the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. I paraphrase, but for Del Noce modernity (and especially late modernity) is predicated upon the attempted elimination of every form of transcendence: the transcendence of truth over pragmatic function, the transcendence of the orders of being and nature over the order of historical construction, the transcendence of the civitas dei over the civitas terrena, the transcendence of eternity over time, the transcendence of God over creation. Every form of transcendence save one, that is. For once real transcendence is eliminated or suppressed, political order itself becomes the transcendental horizon, assuming sovereignty over nature, truth, and morality—over anything that would precede, exceed, and limit it. Politics then becomes “the matter of ultimate concern,” even for those who strive to prevent the ultimacy of politics. The political order becomes that to which all meaningful (i.e. public) arguments are referred, while religion becomes a domesticated amalgam of congregationalism, pietism, moralism, and pragmatism.

I feel like Hanby’s comments about the effects of being without any transformative notion of transcendence upon politics and culture can be applied to the Church, its unity within a proper tradition of worship, spiritual exercise, the transformation it offers and, to the extent it wishes to inform that transformation, to open theism especially, since open theists seek to understand and articulate a doctrine of God and creation more intentionally and passionately than your average evangelical church-goer.