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 from creation (as its creator and sustainer), then talk of God “withdrawing” 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 If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so God must “really” be somewhere else; he must have withdrawn himself.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. Consider, 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 of 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 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 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.

Imitating God

maximusI was reading Justin Coyle’s opening remarks for Syndicate’s symposium on Paul Blowers’ book Maximus. Coyle writes:

Chapter 8 treats of Maximus on eros – God’s and ours. There he maps Maximus’ “dialectics of desire” to show that eros stands as the beating heart of the theo-drama. Its players enact the drama by learning to imitate God’s eros for them, principally in virtue and liturgical formation. (Emphasis mine)

When I read the description of Maximus’s view of the drama of creation as “learning to imitate God’s eros,” I couldn’t help but think of Girard’s work in mimetic theory. Girard views mimesis (the ‘imitation’, and thus the ‘interdividuality’, of desire and identity) as the irreducible essence of human consciousness and culture and the occasion for human renesinfulness in all its competitive selfishness and violence. Many pick up on Girard’s theories as they relate to negative mimesis (viz., how the mimetic/imitative constitution of human consciousness and relations accounts for violence and sinfulness). Fewer appreciate Girard’s thoughts on positive mimesis (viz., the mimetic formation of human character and culture in the image of its divine source mediated through faith in Christ; cf. 1Cor 11.1; Eph 5.1).

Nothing extraordinary perhaps – just a possible confirmation of Girard’s insights from Maximus.

God’s inspiring presence

Mideast Israel Bible AlgorithmRecent conversations with friends about the nature of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures (2Tim 3.16’s “All Scripture is God-breathed”) occasioned a few thoughts which I’d like to share. I’ve previously expressed my sense of how God is present in and experienced through the reading of Scripture. See our What is the Bible?—Part 2, which says:

(4) CANONIZATION OF HISTORY. In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the sufficiently truthful context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.

We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts per se) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history; a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that sufficiently succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions necessary for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.

I come back to these thoughts regularly, and here I’d like to think aloud again on the nature of Scripture as “inspired.” Growing up, you might have played with magnets and metal shavings. Run the magnet underneath a paper on which rest shavings and the attraction moves the shavings now this way, now that. It’s just an analogy, mind you, but imagine God’s inspiring presence a bit like the effect upon shavings of the presence of a magnetic field. The attraction orients the shavings. Given the presence of other factors/attractions, the shavings will be variously directed. Let us say that as the source and ground of being, God is an abiding, ever-present aesthetic field of attraction. Imagine here the transcendent presence of God establishing us in a teleological orientation in/toward God as the good. That much is metaphysically the case of all things. This much embraces all texts – the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Zend Avesta, the Nag Hammadi, the Quran, everything. On this level – every text. Why? Because God is the grammar of the being of all things. All rational and aesthetic appetite is a response to the orienting presence of God’s Spirit at work. I consider it a weakness of most theories of the inspiration of Scripture that they do not being by assuming this much, or worse, they begin by denying this. Creaturely freedom will mean some religious traditions more accurately approximate their transcendent/teleological orientation. We are free to misrelate to a certain extent within an overall aesthetic orientation.

What’s this got to do with the inspiration of the Bible? Well, like all human expression, the Bible manifests the transcendental good of being. But is the Bible more unique, more specifically inspired than what is generally true about all faith traditions? Do we need to even suppose such a thing of the Bible? I think so, yes. How might we understand this uniqueness? Let me suggest that what makes the Bible unique (among other things) is not anything God is doing in the authors when they compose their texts. This is different than supposing divine inspiration to be about how God gets texts written. Indeed, texts can be written on occasion in a matter of hours. But they are inspired over some length of time.

Arch_of_Titus_MenorahI understand the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture to be not about what God is doing in the composition of texts in order to make the text say something or other, but rather about what God does (far from papyrus and ink) to compose authors who will perceive something or other and be changed by what they see. That they will write who they are is an almost uninteresting given. That they are who God makes them to be over time is where the inspiring gets done — “out there” in the market, at Temple, at prayer, harvesting grain, slaughtering sheep, reconciling neighbors, returning from war, suffering, observing, watching, experiencing and pondering life in light of what faith one has. What makes the Bible (really, any book) unique in any sense worth being ‘unique’ is its content and the effect it has upon those to live it, not the mode of its composition.

The Scriptures derive their unique inspiration from God’s commitment to be in a unique covenant relationship with Israel, a relationship that reduces to essentially the same divine presence in all human expression (what other presence could we even consider?) but which in Scripture is different and which difference secures the relevant outcomes God wants, and that difference is the covenantal context of Israel’s life out of which texts naturally emerge. God makes the formation and journey of Israel (as opposed to Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, or Greek paganism) the context in which he intends to Incarnate. It is this unique intention to become a human being, and only this, which explains the Bible’s unique character, because it is Incarnation that calls for a peculiar human partnership as its proper and sufficient context.

Some human partner has to stand on the human side, a partner who agrees to enter into this representative space. This person has to understand what he’s doing and exercise faith and trust. Why? Because that faith and the narrative that creates it (and, in a sense, the narrative it creates) become the context for the community that grows up around it, constituting that community’s identity and defining its purpose. God gets this with Abraham. From Abrham’s faithful abandonment to God, God commits to bring out into the open all the issues and truths representative of the whole of humanity and to do so progressively as the community (Israel) that identifies itself with Abraham’s faith continues to grow increasingly into a deeper understanding of the God who called them into covenant. That progress is massaged carefully and lovingly by God for the purpose of Incarnation. The production of ‘texts’ is the one thing God doesn’t have to worry about. Texts get written by every community. It’s what human beings do. We’re story tellers. Over time, enough of the truth needing to be said gets said, and in the fullness of time the Incarnate One will arrive. And he did.

If all Scriptural texts are ‘inerrant’ in the common sense we take it, if God can secure that kind of error-free worldview, then there’s no explaining biblical history as we know it. God could have dropped down into any inspired maiden’s womb and produced an inerrant incarnation at will — poof. But that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because it couldn’t happen. And it couldn’t happen because of what incarnation means — God truly becoming a human being whose sense of identity and purpose, whose values and vocation, develop through the same developmental stages and vulnerabilities that every human being journeys through.

So what about those texts? Well, they’re going to be as hit and miss as Israel was hit and miss throughout her journey. Those texts are Israel’s journey. Inspiration doesn’t make them something else. Inspiration makes Israel increasingly something else, something unique. But that takes time, and there is genuine evolution in the text until Israel’s faith and tradition arrive at their (and our) ‘end’ in and as the One who in the fullness of time (and texts) came to be personally present in Christ, God’s Word.

Just another nigga

philando

My skin is black, got melanin of cocoa,
Preservin’ my consciousness in the Land of the Loco;
Smarter than the average, but my life doesn’t matter,
Scared cop, mistaken identity, and my blood will still splatter –

Cuz of a fear of a black planet and a hoodie that I rock,
Just another nigga dead, yeah, there may be some shock;
And some of my friends would defend the officer in the face of my death,
Yet they smilin’ in my face now while I’m still drawin’ breath.

But that’s OK. I forgive ya. It is what it is.
But if I die, could you at least make it better for my kids?
Don’t let them fear for their lives cuz of their original beauty,
I’ll charge you from the grave, do your original duty!

Mourn for me or don’t, just think about the future;
Stitch together this wound in justice like a suture;
Give me my flowers while I yet live and fight the Power.
Don’t just stand with me when it’s come my final hour.

(Dwayne Polk)

See here, Thomas

Doubting+Thomas

I’m anxious to chat with St. Thomas someday. Besides the name, we have other things in common, ‘doubt’ for instance. And if the tradition of him is accurate, we were both also missionaries in cultures very different than our own.

I love this painting by Caravaggio (16th cent). Thomas the ‘doubter’. Jesus (Jn 20.27) says to him, “Put your finger here. See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” There are several directions in which one could take this. Today I’m thinking about the nature of the resurrected body (something Paul discusses in 1Cor 15).

Start with what should be an uncontroversial statement: The resurrected Jesus is the Eschaton. He is what we shall be. His body is the only created reality that is already on the other side of death in its fulfilled, glorified state. And when we see him we shall be like him. And yet here in Jn 20 Jesus’ body bears its “wounds” for Thomas to inspect. A glorified, perfected, immortal body that bears the wounds of mortality? Resurrected perfection makes the lame walk and the blind see but it cannot heal scar tissue?

Hear me out. I don’t think this passage is evidence that Jesus’ “wounds” endure the way most people are likely to read the story of Thomas. Consider the possibility that Jesus presents his risen embodied self to Thomas in a way Thomas required, in a manner determined by Thomas. He doesn’t believe. Why? He can’t get past the Cross. The Cross is speaking the “last word” for Thomas. Jesus really did die. Thomas needs to see the Cross in the resurrected Jesus so Thomas’ faith can connect the real world he lives in to the real God in whom the world lives. That moment opens his capacity for faith to embracing the resurrection. Jesus is happy to manifest himself in a way Thomas requires, but I don’t think Jesus’ resurrected body permanently bears the wounds of death – holes in his hands and side, scar tissue down his back from flogging. (Folks will not hobble around or limp when perfected in God’s presence.) I think we (in part) determine what it is we see, and I suspect that when his faith finally rested secure, there were no holes for Thomas to see.

Just a thought.

Christ and the End of Meaning

schloeI’m in the middle of Paul Hessert’s Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (1993). Nearly every page offers an insight that finds in me some corresponding weakness to address. I’m so glad I found this wonderful work and I highly recommend it. It will provoke several posts I’m sure. Here’s a first:

The Order We Make
The idea of a creating Mind, a Creator, is not derived from nature but is brought to our observations of nature from our human experience of having to make order. We find order present in nature because of the analogies our reason establishes between our inner and outer experience. Unlike many creatures whose “social organization” appears to be ready-made, transmitted from generation to generation through instinct, human beings must make untold deliberations, experiments, and hard choices about such matters. In this respect, human life is self-determined, not fixed by “nature.” What we call “human nature” usually turns out to be a matter of conditioning and education. What is “natural” for humans is defined more by culture – that is, by what humans do in and with their natural environment – than by “nature.”

From our experience of continually having to make order in the midst of present or threatening social disintegration, we may imagine primeval chaos, but we do not experience such chaos in nature. We do, however, experience instability and confusion in the conflicts of human values and desires. Those who have lived through the tension and hostility between the “communist” and “free” worlds in the twentieth century know the struggle and danger of trying to establish a way of living together in peace. The earth “without from and void” (Gen. 1:2) is a metaphor derived from human affairs, arising from the experience of having to provide a fit environment for human life.

Nature experienced is always ordered in one way or another – sometimes benevolently for humans, sometimes not. The wilderness is not chaos but order untouched by or undirected to human purpose. From the movements of subatomic particles to the fundamental forms of life, nature presents itself as already ordered – intrinsically so. The notion that the order we find in nature was put there by a Mind operating similarity to our own is projected from our experience of having to order human affairs by self-conscious intention and action. This is the grand analogy that shapes our understanding. And if a different sort of “creative mechanism” is envisioned in the future (as with certain kinds of science fiction, for example), it will have been drawn from the revised or expanded experience of our human affairs. The creative edge of science and philosophy is the search for, or the stumbling onto, creative analogies. Our experience of having to order human affairs and our historical knowledge of past efforts to order human affairs underlie the notion that the natural order must have had a Creator.

Thought about the natural order is another form of our thought about the social order – and vice versa. They share a common structure. A review of the relation between scientific Darwinism and social and economic developments (for example, laissez-faire, British liberalism, right- and left-wing Hegelianism) in the nineteenth century should make this clear. In major periods of history, subjects as different from each other as monetary theory, biology, political thought, and economics have shared a common structure.

Ancient creation stories reflect this connection. Although they are cast in the imagery of nature (earth, air, fire, water, light, darkness, life, death), their origin is not much independent speculation about natural beginnings as musings on the human experience of establishing order under changing conditions. In other words, they do not belong in the same category with current scientific speculation about the origin of the universe and the beginning of life. (They belong with investigation of the creation and nature of human order.)

The violence of old myths – Marduk (god of Babylon) slaying Tiamat (the chaos monster), Yahweh (of Israel) subduing Leviathan (Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10), Zeus (of Greece) rising up against Kronos (lord of the old order) – reflects tumultuous times when agriculture city-states were displacing a more ancient hunting and gathering way of life. People living in the older ways were forced into every more remote areas (behind boundaries they might not cross, as with the sea in Psalm 104:5-9) or compelled to abide by the new ways.

At that time, strong-arm rulers seemed to be the key to imposing social order and this strong-arm force characterized the gods in creating and ruling the world as well. Later, such ruthless order itself came to be experienced as chaos. New ways of providing order were found in persuasion, rhetoric, parliamentary processes, codes of law, covenants, and constitutions. Plato’s Republic deals with this political development. In a different way, so does Genesis 1 with its emphasis on the creative word. Genesis 1 is not the chronologically first writing in the Bible, nor is it the only biblical account of creation (there are others in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible as well as in John, Colossians, and Revelation in the New Testament). Genesis 1 comes from the relatively late concern to establish Israel as a liturgical community after the collapse of the Davidic dynastic in the sixth century B.C.E. The order in Genesis 1 culminates in the establishment of the seven-day week and the Sabbath.

…Creation stories are calls to create a “world,” to establish an order, to give an answer to the confusion of life.

___________________

I love the painting featured above – Christian Schloe’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It depicts what I want to try to describe. It occurred to me while reading Hessert to take an approach to the creation narratives (Gen 1-3) that doesn’t begin with assuming these texts intend to give us a description of the actual creation of the material order (or even of our particular home, the Earth), or a historical (pre-historical) description even of the functional (I’m thinking of John Walton) ordering of material cosmos. I don’t question God’s creation of the world or the ordering or its functions and dispositions. These are rationally discernible from the nature of things and the Bible’s overall descriptions of the material world. But this may be just the point – viz., that what we have in Gen 1-3 is just such a discerning of the world, the world’s ‘creation’ in the sense of the world’s emerging into human consciousness, ‘history’ in the sense of human beings apprehending the order and purpose of the world. If that is what’s in view, then Walton is right in making the point “function” and not the “coming into being” per se of things, though he too seems still to see here in the text a description of pre-historic “events.” But I’m not sure even that much is required or is the point. What if what we have here is the story of our creating the world, i.e., the coming into consciousness of the unique function of the human spirit, that drive to make-meaning? Perhaps Gen 1-3 is Israel making-meaning in her world, dealing with her own chaos, by imposing order and purpose upon it. That’s not to say the world isn’t ordered and purposeful. It’s to say that we don’t derive this from the world. It derives this from us. Just a thought.

The Risk of Creation

alex-honnold-freerider-climb (1)

Talk about risk. On June 3rd of this month Alex Honnold became the first person to successfully free-ascend (no ropes!) the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan – 3,000 feet of sheer, unforgiving granite. It’s an amazing story that National Geographic will document in an upcoming special. It got me contemplating ‘risk’ and was in my mind when I happened upon the following passage about risk and suffering:

To produce something new is always a gamble, and God’s creation of man in His image after after His likeness involved a certain degree of risk. It was not that He risked introducing an element of instability or shock into His eternal being but that to give man god-like freedom shut the door against predestination in any form. Man is at full liberty to determine himself negatively in any form. Man is at full liberty to determine himself negatively in relation to God—even to enter into conflict with Him. As infinite love, the Heavenly Father cannot abandon man whom He created for eternity, in order to impart to him His divine plenitude. He lives with us our human tragedy. We appreciate this risk, so breath-taking in its majesty, when we contemplate the life of Christ on earth.

…In creating us as free beings, He anticipated the likelihood, perhaps the inevitability, of the tragedy of the fall of man Summoning us from the darkness of non-being. His fateful gesture flings us into the secret realms of cosmic life. ‘In all places and fulfilling all things’. He stays forever close to us. He loves us in spite of our senseless behavior. He calls to us, is always ready to respond to our cries for help and guide our fragile steps through all the obstacles that lie in our path. He respects us as on a part with Him. His ultimate idea for us is to see us in eternity verily His equals, His friends and brothers, the sons of the Father. He strives for this, He longs for it. This is our Christ, and as Man He sat o the right hand of the Father.

In the beginning God creates our spirit as pure potential. What follows does not depend altogether on Him. Man is free to disagree, even to resist Him. A situation arises in which we ourselves determine our eternal future—always, of course, in relation to Him; without Him, we should not exist. And if we seek a hallowed eternity with essentially appertains to Him alone, then our every action, all our creative activity, just most certainly proceed not separately from Him but together with Him and in Him.

Born as pure potential, our spirit must go on to actualize our being as hypostasis. We need to grow, and this growth is linked with pain and suffering. However strange it may seem, suffering is imperative for the preservation of life created from nothing. If animals did not feel hunger, they would never make any effort to find food but would simply lie down and die. Similarly, acute discomfort compels primitive man to look for nourishment. Then, as he advances towards rational cognition, suffering discloses to his contemplative mind both his own imperfection and that of the world around him. This forces him to recognize the necessity for a new form of creative effort to perfect life in all its manifestations. Later, he will arrive at a certain perception of Supreme Being which will inspire his soul to seek for better knowledge of Him. As so on, until he realizes that this Primordial Being, Whom apprehension first caused him to esteem, does not refuse congress with him; and in the light of this contact death is seen as an absurdity, the very possibility of which must be fought against relentlessly. And history has shown that many of those who waged this war with unflagging energy, even while they were still here on earth in spirit beheld the eternal kingdom of the Living God, and passed from death to unending life in the Light of Divine Being.”

Archimandrite Sophrony (His Life is Mine)