Creation at the Improv


I’m grateful to Brian who in a comment recommended Antonio Lopez’s very interesting “Eternal Happening: God as an Event of Love” (Communio: International Catholic Review 32, Summer 2005). Lopez is a priest and assistant professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In the article he explores Balthasar’s understanding of God’s “super-time.” I was about to process an initial response to it in the comments section to Brian but decided I’d rather embarrass myself before a slightly larger audience.

Balthasar uses the term “super-time” to denote the living fullness of the divine relations without the “fleeting” loss involved in temporal becoming characteristic of creaturely existence. Those relations, argues Balthasar, obtain in “the perpetual immediacy of this sudden moment without limits of time, without sequence in their reciprocal vision.” It is a single, perfect moment, an ever-newer “happening.” This is “not simply timeless but a present that always was and is always coming.”

All very intriguing, if somewhat ambiguous, but curiously similar in my mind to what I’ve been trying to express via the notion of God’s “specious present,” something which is neither of the two contradictory options typically considered in debates, i.e., divine temporality understood along Process lines which views God’s actuality as a processu opiris (“work in progress”), and actus purus understood as incompatible with all conceivable unrealized potential. Balthasar’s “super-time” is neither of these (as far as I can tell). So if we can conceive of God neither as processu operis nor as actus purus in the “hard” sense, then might the truth be some third option which each of these options reflects in part but not in whole?

For example, Lopez says, “…one could describe…historical occurrences and phenomena as ‘events’…on the other hand, one could rightly claim that Christianity itself is most adequately understood as an event,” and asks, “Can this term also refer to divine love itself?” Then he seems to work out the ‘event’ of God’s triune being as the over-arching ‘moment’ (specious present) in which other created ‘moments’ may come and go but without the latter involving a “confusi[on of divine] ‘happening’ with ‘becoming’.” Lopez goes on to describe Balthasar’s view of God’s ‘eternity’ as “consist[ing] of an immemorial past that is always poured forth in the present, a present that is receptivity and grateful giving in return, and a future that is both eternal confirmation of the gift of love and ever-new response. Divine communion is both from eternity and ‘created afresh’ at every instant.” This is not your standard atemporal Godhead.

Without understanding talk of ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ to the triune fullness in terms of “becoming,” it nevertheless yields an understanding of Balthasar’s notiong of divine infinity as involving surprise and wonderment (to which I reacted with surprise and wonderment): “There is no absolute love if it does not exceed the ‘wildest expectations’, and there is no true plenitude if it ‘contains itself’, that is to say, if it does not exceed itself in giving itself over without any limitation, only to receive itself back over-abundantly in an excess of love.”


hqdefaultPermit me a slight detour. If one attempts to boil such talk down analytically into a mathematical proposition, one’s bound to be disappointed, which is why I find poetic, musical analogies more persuasive, like that of ‘improvisation’. (Fernando Sor’s “Variations on a theme of Mozart” comes to mind.) Poetic language and aesthetic sensibilities can sometimes take us farther than strict analysis can. I don’t know how else to say it. God-talk is like music notation. Even when correct, it’s still an long way from the experience of music. Something of aesthetic encounters can never be reduced to notation. I remember the amazing Andres Segovia (playing the above Sor variation on Mozart) rebuking a student in a master’s class for playing too obedient to the time signature. Keeping so strictly to the prescribed rhythm, Segovia said, was “contrary to aesthetics.” One such instance of this can be seen here (at minute 5:00 onward) where he says “The nuance in the rhythm is the result of the delicate lack of respect that we have for the rhythm.” A kind of musical apophaticism. Music as experience, as aesthetics, must in a real sense say “not this” to its own language. And “in this lack of respect,” Segovia says, “you can define the good artist from the bad artist.”


Perhaps most interesting to me was a line about how Balthasar understood omniscience not as synonymous with “having been exhausted.” I see room here for construing God’s grounding of creation’s possibilities (on the one hand) and his knowing their free (actual) becoming (on the other) in ‘open view’ terms. That is, creation’s possibilities are ‘exhaustively known’ in God as their ground. That much is self-knowledge. But God truly ‘comes to know’ the actual coming to be (of some possibilities and not of other possibilities) of the world’s events, a divine knowing which is as open as we say the world is and which manifests rather than contradicts the surprise and wonderment of God’s eternal specious moment (viewed, as Balthasar repeatedly says, not as a nunc stans). God’s eternity (the absolute, kenotic, self-surrender of the persons to each other in perpetual, over-abundant astonishment) could only manifest in created time in a truly “open” manner which is known to God in its created openness and not as the unfolding in time of a blueprint “having been exhausted” in eternity, but—and I need to say this carefully—

…just as Balthasar says the divine persons give themselves to each other without reservation or expectation of response (such ‘expectation’ could only be that portion of one’s self withheld from the other), so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others—viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.

You might say that in the open view, God ‘over-knows’ rather than ‘under-knows’ the future. I suggest (boldly, yes) that the ‘open view’ is the best way to work out an understanding of divine triune fullness that creates freely and endows creatures with a measure of ‘improvisational’ say-so in its return to God.

Actus Purus: Act 1 Scene 1

We’ve agreed that CEN (creation ex nihilo) ought to be understood in relationship to divine transcendence. Many open theists affirm CEN without, we suspect, thinking through what CEN implies. One might grant that it entails God’s freedom from creation (on the one hand) and creation’s utter and complete gratuity (on the other) without exploring what must be the case with God if his is this free, or the case with us if we are that contingent. So a good place to begin would be to grant that ‘divine transcendence’ is that about God which constitutes his freedom from creation and creation’s consequent gratuity (and even then we are not sitting inside transcendence taking notes). And this is something open theists can (and ought) to heartily affirm with the Orthodox. Disagreements emerge when we start to describe just what “that about God which…” is.

Fr Aidan did a great job of summarizing a core Orthodox commitment to divine transcendence centered upon God as actus purus (pure act). Last year we observed that this defines the core belief of ‘classical theism’. What’s the fundamental point of actus purus? It is the denial of all potentiality in God, all movement within God from ‘possibly this’ to ‘actually this’. Such “movement” is believed by the Orthodox to be equivalent to saying “God becomes God” which cannot be possible if it’s true (per CEN) that the fullness of God’s life/existence is utterly free from the world and God is self-existent. It is the world in its finitude which is essentially defined as temporal becoming, as the movement from ‘what it is not but could be possibly be’ to ‘actually being what it can possibly be’. If God is the ground of all contingent temporal becoming, it would seem to follow that this ground cannot “become” in any temporal sense. On the contrary, God is always-already all God can possibly be.

If ‘classical theism’ advances a view of divine transcendence as actus purus, ‘Process theism’, we’ve also noted, can be described as processu operis (a “work in progress” for those addicted to Latin phrases). What other alternative is there, right? Here God is “temporal becoming” par excellence, the One whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe.

The vision and burden of this site is to challenge this either/or and to suggest (to the Orthodox on the one hand) that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute Gods’ freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity (which are what CEN is essentially about and what actus purus aims to protect) are absolutely to be maintained but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se, and (to open theists on the other hand) that these traditional perfections do not threaten or undermine the sense which open theists view God as engaged in the temporal processes and relations which define creation.

The question then becomes just what are those divine perfections which constitute God’s transcendence of the world? Well, there’s no apprehending the transcendent directly by the transcended. That goes without saying (pun intended). But created being can reflect upon itself (as bearing the divine image, as divine artistry, as divine playfulness [perLila’ in Hinduism] in terms of ‘divine vestigia’ within the created order) and therein perceive the ‘character’ or ‘image’ of those transcendent realities. It is certainly the legacy of the classical reflection upon these that they entail actus purus and thus preclude all possibility of temporal experience in God, for temporal experience is defined as “becoming” which is a movement from ‘unrealized potency’ to ‘realized actuality’, while the Process reflection has, as we noted, led to quite opposite conclusions. Our reflections land us in the middle. So it’s our challenge to identify those ‘transcendental’ perfections (of beauty, goodness, will, etc.) as the ground of all creaturely becoming and argue that they can subsist necessarily, fully and unchangingly in God without categorically precluding the possibility of all temporal experience; i.e., actus purus is false, but what it essentially seeks to protect is not false.

(Picture here.)

Is actus purus believed in by the Orthodox?

DSC_3153 copy 2We’d like to describe what we feel are the main objections to the two defining claims of two contrary theistic worldviews we’ve introduced, “classical” theism’s defining and non-negotiable claim that God is actus purus (a God in whom there is no unfulfilled potential) and Process theism’s belief in a God who is, if we may coin the phrase, processu operis, a “work in process” (whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe).

Before we jump into the objections of these two understandings of God, I want first to clarify our earlier question about whether the Orthodox affirm actus purus. It is after all a well-known axiom of scholastic (Western) theology embodied in Aquinas, and the Orthodox are on record as criticizing scholasticism in general and the failure of the West to make a key Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and his energies. Fr Aidan also earlier registered some reservation about our suggestion that the Orthodox believe in actus purus. So before we describe the objections to both ‘classical’ and ‘process’ views, we’d like to offer a clarification.

All we mean by actus purus is what we understand Orthodox theologian David Hart to refer to as the denial of all potentiality in God. If that’s not an Orthodox belief, that would be great news to us. Besides Hart, I also remember discussing this over lunch with Paul Gavrilyuk a couple of years ago. He had mentioned what a promising work he thought Richard Creel’s Divine Impassibility (1986) was. “But Creel is an open theist,” I thought to myself. So when I asked Paul about open theism and what the main Orthodox objection(s) to it would be, he slightly shook his head and said that it goes too far by placing God “in time,” and that this wasn’t compatible with Orthodoxy. I get this sort of reminder that the Orthodox do share the fundamental tenet of actus purus (viz., that there is no potentiality in God) even though they don’t use the phrase and can criticize what the West does with it. But we’re open to the Orthodox clarifying this for us.