Philosophy’s divestment

Trinity

Western thought had attempted to rise from this superstitious subjugation to the world’s mere event: Plato and Aristotle, however imperfectly, were both shaken by that effulgent moment of wonder that can free reflection from here animal dread; perhaps the one could not quite transcend the dialectic of change and changeless essences, the other the dialectic of finite form and unrealized potency, nor either the still “sacrificial” economy of finitude, but both stood within the opening in Western thought that theology could transform into a genuine openness before the transcendent God. Still, Heidegger may be somewhat correct in seeing, even in this openness, the inauguration of Western reason’s long journey toward technological mastery as the highest ideal, toward instrumental control as the governing model of all truth, toward—in short—nihilism. Perhaps there truly was, precisely in the birth of philosophy as a self-conscious enterprise of rising above the ephemerality of the phenomena to take hold of their immutable premises, a turning away from the light toward the things it illuminated, a forgetfulness of being within philosophy’s very wakefulness to being. And perhaps in this fateful moment of inattention to the mystery of being’s event, the relentless search for being’s positive foundations commenced, and then proceeded along a path that, in the end, would arrive at the ruin of philosophic faith. All of this may be—indeed, in some obvious sense, in—quite true. But the Platonic eros for the beautiful, good, and true was also a longing for something more than mere “grounds”; it was a desire for being’s fullness, though one not yet able to understand being as gift. Other ancient schools of thought were generally less precocious in their advances toward Christian theology. Stoicism, for instance, however magnificent, humane, and sophisticated it was in its most developed forms, was still somewhat retrograde in this regard, and was bound to a vision of the cosmos as a fated economy of placement and displacement, and to a more transparently sacrificial cosmic mythology of eternally repeated ekpyroseis (the universe as an eternal sacrificial pyre); but Stoicism too was profoundly marked by philosophical wonder before the goodness and loveliness of cosmic and divine order. The syncretism of late antiquity may often have produced monstrosities of occult “wisdom” and grotesque aberrations of philosophy and religion alike, but in the case of the Platonic tradition it also made it possible for a philosopher like Plotinus to reflect upon the generosity of the good and the convertibility of the good and being, and thus press against the boundaries of the totality. But it was only when Christian thought arrived, and with it the doctrine of creation, that the totality was broken open and, for the first time ever, philosophy was granted a glimpse of being’s splendid strangeness within its very immediacy and gratuity.

With this “Christian interruption” of metaphysics, every principle of necessity was made subordinate to the higher principle of grace. Christian thought, then, in its long history of metaphysical speculation, far from constituting just another episode in the genealogy of nihilism, was in fact so profound a disruption of many of the most basic premises of philosophy, and so audacious a rescue of many of philosophy’s truths from the impotent embrace of mere metaphysical ambition, that it is doubtful yet that philosophy can grasp what has happened to it, or why now it cannot be anything but an ever more indignant and self-tormenting flight from that interruption. The language of creation—however much it may be parodied as a language regarding efficient causality and metaphysical “founding”—actually introduced into Western thought the radically new idea that an infinite freedom is the “principle” of the world’s being and so for the first time opened up the possibility of a genuine reflection upon the difference between being and beings. And the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, without need of the world for his determination as difference, relatedness, or manifestation, for the first time confronted Western thought with a genuine discourse of transcendence, of an ontological truth whose “identity” is not completed by any ontic order. The event of being is, for beings, a pure gift, into whose mysteries no scala naturae by itself can lead us. And if the world is not a manifestation of necessity, but of gratuity—even if it must necessarily reflect in its intrinsic orderliness and concinnity the goodness of its source—then philosophy may be able to grasp many things, but by its own power it can never attain to the source or end of things. If being is not bound to the dimensions prescribed for it by fate or the need for self-determination or the contumacity of a material substrate, then the misconstrual of the contingent for the necessary constitutes philosophy’s original error.

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinIt is for this reason also that theology’s interruption of the “history of nihilism” was philosophy’s redemption, immeasurably deepening its openness to being and increasing the intensity of its highest eros. Within Christianity’s narrative, the world acquired a new glory; for all that it had been robbed of the imposing dignity of metaphysical necessity, it had been imbued with the still more extraordinary dignity of divine pleasure; the world had become an instance of what could only be called beauty—beauty of a kind more absolute and irreducible than any known to pagan Greek culture. A God whose very being is love, delight in the glory of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense In such a God, beauty and the infinite entirely coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists not in a dialectic between multiplicity and unity, composition and simplicity, shape and indeterminacy, but in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate. Thus it is that theology alone preserves and clarifies all of philosophy’s most enchanting prospects upon being: precisely by detaching them from the mythology of “grounds,” and by resituating them within the space of this peaceful analogical interval between divine and worldly being, within which space the sorrows of necessity enjoy no welcome Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing. Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed. Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it. In a strangely impoverished and negative way, Heidegger—the apostate from theology—almost understood this, but ultimately proved to be only a “metaphysician” after all. Then again, Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was unable to see that his own revolt against metaphysics was itself really nothing but a necessary moment in metaphysics’ recovery of itself from theology. Philosophy could not, after all, accept the gift Christian thought extended to it and remain what it had been—a science of mastery, an interrogation of the “ground”—but neither could it ignore Christianity’s transformation of its native terms: once the splendor of truth had been assumed into the Christian love of beauty, its philokalia, once the light of the world had been taken into the discourse of ontological analogy and divine transcendence, and once the difference between being and beings had entered thought and disrupted every attempt to “deduce” from the world its metaphysical identity, philosophy could not simply reassert itself as an independent project, but had to discover a new foundation. Philosophy, like a king in exile, would have to suffer the most extreme divestment and privation before it could reclaim its lost privileges. This is the true sense in which theology is part of the history of nihilism: it leaves nothing good behind in the philosopher’s hands; it plunders all of philosophy’s most powerful interpretive instruments for its own uses (despoiling the Egyptians, to use the classic metaphor), and so makes it necessary, in the aftermath of theology’s cultural influence, that philosophy advance itself every more openly as a struggle against the light, an ever more vehement refusal of the generosity of the given. If nihilism is indeed the hidden core or secret vocation of metaphysics, in the post-Christian age nothing but that core, that vocation, remains: and so it must become ever less hidden, ever less secret.

(From David Bentley Hart, “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” in The Hidden and the Manifest)

Advertisements

The difference that ‘nothing’ makes

For you theological nerds, I encourage you to digest this wonderful piece by Brian Robinette (Theological Studies 72|2011) “The Difference Nothing Makes: Creatio Ex Nihilo, Resurrection, and Divine Gratuity.”

Has Tom Oord solved the problem of evil?—Part 2

infinite

A quick thank you to friends and family who have supported Anita and me in our recent move from Minnesota to California. I’m settling into a new job which promises to be a wonderful experience as general manager for an Arabic language non-prof dedicated to translating and publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. More on that latter perhaps.

Moving to California hasn’t left me time for blogging, but I’d like to get back in the saddle. To begin with I’m here offering Part 2 of my reflections on Tom Oord (see Part 1). I also have simmering some thoughts on a couple of Greg Boyd’s latest posts (Cross Shaped Transcendence and The Cross and the Trinity) that address topics of special interest to me.

For now, let’s return to Tom Oord’s work on God’s essential kenosis. I see John Sanders has posted a second reply to Oord in their exchange over whether the way Oord unpacks this essential kenosis solves the problems Oord claims it does or whether it creates other insurmountable problems. (See John’s first post here and Oord’s reply here).

I’d like to approach an aspect of Oord’s views that perhaps isn’t discussed much. Those unfamiliar with Process theology might find this post a bit tedious. I apologize. It’s important, however, because it brings us round to the fundamental importance of the question of the necessity vs the contingency of God’s creating which is bound up in the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing (the rejection of which is a cornerstone of Oord’s project). I shared these thoughts in email conversations and other online venues, but I’m dusting them off here in light of Sanders and Oord’s conversations.

Those familiar with Tom Oord will know he qualifies the standard Process belief that God is essentially related to the world. Supposing there to be a single world as such presents problems which Oord wishes to avoid by holding that God eternally creates world after world after world, an infinite series of contingent creations, each of which is created out of the previous. God alone, Oord agrees, is that eternal, necessary self-sufficient reality unlike every individual world in the infinite series of worlds.

What I’d wish to show here is that in the end there’s no real departure from or advantage over Process here because given Oord’s metaphysics, his infinite series of worlds reduces to a single world order in process and circles Oord round to the standard Process view he wishes to avoid on this point, and that overall Oord’s view is fatal to Christian faith as regards Christianity’s claims regarding any ‘final’ closure and consummation to God’s creative work.

But first, why think his worlds all collapse into a single world?

First, keep in mind Oord’s process (or quasi-process, whatever is more accurate) metaphysics on this point: God and the world, essentially related and in process, creatively bring about novel states in a mutual process of becoming. God supplies “initial aims” to created entities for their becoming, and the world creatively synthesizes past, objectified data in freely determining what it becomes next. Whatever the world (any world) becomes is always a creative achievement between God and the world, given antecedent data and divine subjective aims informing the present. Keep that in mind.

Second, then, consider Oord’s infinite series of worlds, each created out of the previous. Each world in the series is supposed to be sufficiently distinct from preceding worlds such that the entire series doesn’t constitute a single world or world order. But there’s nothing in Oord’s metaphysics to secure this distinction between worlds and stop it from collapsing into a single world order in process. Some time ago I suggested to Oord that if each world is made out of the previous world, as he claims, then given his metaphysics (i.e., the process doctrine of actual occasions being the concrescence of antecedent data that form new occasions, and so forth), his infinite series must constitute a single world order because each world is ontologically continuous with the previous world. There must be, I said, some abiding “material substrate” that is continuous throughout the series. Oord said this wasn’t the case. The example he gave was the distinction between the material which is my body today and the material which made up my body ten years ago. They’re not the same material. So there’s no material substrate throughout.

Quite right. So let me concede that there’s no “material” substrate throughout Oord’s infinite series and make my point in different terms. I grant that my body today isn’t the “same material” as my body ten years ago. But this example establishes my essential point that Oord’s infinite series of worlds (each arising out of the previous) constitutes a single, indivisible world-process. What constitutes the collapse of the series into a single world is simply the continuity of the worlds (and the transitions between them) defined and governed by Oord’s (Process) metaphysics.

How so? Given that governing metaphysics (joint God-World creative synthesis as an unending process of becoming), none of Oord’s worlds is any more distinct from its previous world than one actual occasion is from its antecedent actual occasions within a single world. The metaphysics…

…forbids the kind of distinction between his successive worlds that he needs in order for the series to advance his project beyond standard Process cosmologies at this point. Oord’s worlds are just consecutive, novel moments within a single process of becoming governed by uniform laws that define and guide that process.

turtlesWe can divide this eternal process of becoming by assigning different names (world-a, world-b, world-c) to divisions we have reason to impose upon the process, but there’s nothing new metaphysically speaking in this. We’re not naming a distinction between worlds that isn’t just convertible with the distinction between actual occasions within any one world. Oord’s infinite multiplicity of worlds, each created out of the previous and all governed by the abiding laws of (quasi-)Process metaphysics, reduces to a single world, i.e., a single process of becoming that defines the series throughout.

Third, we could suppose that each of Oord’s distinct worlds in the series begins as a novel reconfiguration of all non-divine reality on a grand universal scale. But it would still the case that this change, as universal and inclusive as it would be, follows the same Process laws of becoming (i.e., actual occasions as the concrescence of antecedent data creatively synthesized). Such grand reconfigurations would not be sufficiently distinct from previous reconfigurations within a single process of becoming. The entirety of a world’s process of becoming would swell in scope and consequence as a kind of universal, epochal-social event, but metaphysically speaking we still have a single, seamless continuum of process in which antecedent (past) data and divine subjective aims inform creative synthesis (present) and the concrescence of new occasions. “New” in Oord’s “new worlds” cannot mean anything essentially different than “new” understood on the level of a single new occasion within any one world. So we’re talking about a single world in the end.

God only creates (or rather co-creates) a new world via Process through antecedent data provided by previous occasions and in cooperation with the creative dispositions of existing entities. Whatever comes to be is the creative achievement of both God and whatever state of process God is in relation with. This holds for every moment within so-called distinct worlds as well as the becoming that defines each world’s emergence “out of” its previous world as Oord maintains. So there’s no way any “new world” in Oord’s model is uniquely distinct from its previous world any more than one actual occasion is distinct from its own antecedent occasion in any single world of the series. There might be other arguments Oord can make that set his view apart from Process in this regard, but positing an infinite series of worlds doesn’t achieve it.

Lastly, the eschatological consequences are fatal. As I understand this cosmology, no discrete entity within any world survives permanently, or, at least, there’s no assurance that any individual member in a world will endure permanently into the future. That’s a significant consequence of Oord’s model that I think ought to be discussed much more, because it exacerbates the problem of evil.

If each world is created “out of” its previous world in a universal reorganization so radical as to constitute a “new world,” the relative question is What does endure from world to world? The cosmology becomes dicey and extremely troublesome at this point and is, I confess, difficult to describe as a “Christian” view of creation and consummation at all. Will we endure forever subjectively in relationship to God as this world, redeemed and consummated? Does Oord hold to a doctrine of objective immortality – the belief that we do not permanently endure subjectively-personally but only persist as objectified in the divine mind? I’m unsure what Oord’s specific eschatology is on this crucial question, and I’d be happy to understand it better, but the problem is inherent in his project as we can here see.

Why is it a problem? Because it would apply to Christ and his Church and so the entirety of the New Testament’s eschatological vision. Oord has made it clear when pressed on the eschatological question that he could not affirm with any confidence that the risen Christ or any other created being from our present world shall endure permanently. This is more than troubling. I’d be willing to give up a lot to purchase a final solution to the problem of evil, but at such a cost?

Tradition and orthodoxy aside, what are we getting in exchange for the price paid? The essential reason Oord develops this model is to ground our confidence that God will not cease loving us. It is one of Oord’s main complaints against God’s creating gratuitously “out of nothing” that God ends up being as free to stop loving us and begin hating us as he is free to create and not create. God’s love would be arbitrary, Oord maintains, were he to create gratuitously ex nihilo.

I’ll leave for another post the logical question of whether that last conclusion follows (it doesn’t) and simply ask whether Oord’s model on its own terms secures the confidence he seeks. It’s fair to ask: What happened to the infinite number of previous worlds in Oord’s series? They existed as expressions of God’s essential love too, just like ours does. Indeed, Oord argues we cannot consistently say “God is love” apart from positing this infinite multiplicity of worlds. But where are those worlds now?

The whole infinite series is recognized, Oord holds, so that we can know for certain that God loves us and will never cease to love us. But nothing of any of the infinite number of worlds that preceded our own has endured. Just how safe and loved are we supposed to feel? What is it about an infinite series of worlds that makes Oord feel that God’s love for us secures our destiny if we believe we will be eventually recycled in the production of a new world order to arise from the reconfiguration of our own? An infinite number of worlds created out of love by God and no particular from a single one of them endures into our present world, and yet the mere fact that God co-creates this infinite series out of love and will continue to co-create a world out of ours to succeed our own, is supposed to ground our confidence in our own enduring enjoyment of his love? The math doesn’t work.

nativity

Christianity has a different answer to the worry about what grounds our confidence in the unchanging nature of God’s love. One thing: the Incarnation, God’s own irrevocable assumption of human nature, the union of divine and created being in the God-Man. Humanity is now forever united to God in the victory of God’s own incarnate life and resurrection. That tells us what God thinks of what he creates. The Incarnation assures us that God will love us as unfailingly as he loves himself. Positing an eternal infinite series of worlds nothing in any one of which will endure forever cannot tell us that we shall never be separated from the love of God. Only God’s own incarnation can do that. Nothing shall ever separate us, St. Paul assures us, from the love of God “in Christ.” You have to finish the sentence. Once we have that, we don’t need an infinite multiplicity of worlds. We have God’s own infinite life personally present in the Incarnate One who embodies the permanence and so the assurance that God will never cease loving us.

I could close with St. Paul, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, or any of the Cappadocians, but let me end with open theist (irony of ironies) Clark Pinnock:

By his resurrection, Christ pre-actualized the consummation of the world. Its transformation is anticipated, and all things are sure to be made new. The Risen One is the vanguard and embodiment of the new order. Jesus prefigures what will be true for us also in the new creation. It is the seminal event, the seed from which the new reality grows.

The Lord’s human body was not discarded but shared in resurrection, pointing to the salvation of the whole person…The incarnation is an event within history pointing to the goal and moving humanity toward union with God. In Christ, the world has entered its final phase, and its redemption in that sense is clear. In Karl Rahner’s words, the incarnation and resurrection enacted “the irreversible beginning of the coming of God as the absolute future of the world.” As the first-fruits of the new humanity, Jesus says, “Because I live, you also will live” (JN 14:19). (Flame of Love)

To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 1

infinite_stairwell_span02I believe in creatio ex nihilo (CEN), or creation out of nothing. I’ve always taken this to mean the created order ‘began to be’. I don’t get into debates over the temporal semantics of such a unique beginning (for example, in what sense can we talk about God “before” creation?), but I do understand “being created” as entailing “having begun to exist.” I also equate “being created” with “being a subject of temporal becoming.” But there are certain implications to supposing creation is eternal that present problems. So let me grope around here and try to make some sense of my questions.

Recently the distinction between kinds of “contingency” came up in a conversation with Bill Vallicella. He had posted on this distinction in reply to Fr Aidan’s request. I asked a few questions. Bill responded.

Bill makes a distinction between two kinds of contingency:

  • Modal Contingency. Something is modally contingent if it might not have existed and/or it might fail to exist. (I take it this is equivalent to metaphysical or ontological contingency).
  • Dependent Contingency. Something is dependently contingent if it depends for its existence upon something else.

These are meaningful categories under which to contemplate the nature of things. My questions engage a further step Bill made regarding the relationship between modal necessity/contingency and dependent contingency/non-contingency. Hopefully the quadrants below will clarify my issues.

Page1

Whatever exists, then, is either modally contingent or modally necessary AND either dependently contingent or dependently non-contingent (or not dependently contingent; if you’re a professional philosopher trained in logical notation, forgive me if I get the negation in the wrong place).

An example of a Quad 3 reality would be (carefully said) “God” who exists necessarily and depends upon nothing for his existence. An example of a Quad 4 reality would (in my view) be all non-divine realities (the world and all that is in it) as created. Quad 1 arguably is empty since (I’m assuming here) nothing can exist necessarily which also depends for its existence as such upon something outside itself.

Now we come to my first difficulty—Quad 2, that is, things that are modally/ontologically contingent (they might fail to exist) but their existence, though contingent, depends upon nothing whatsoever. Their existence is a “brute fact.” Nothing ‘explains’ or ‘accounts for’ their existing. Bill finds this a meaningful concept. I don’t.

My second difficulty has to do with the temporal nature and implications of modally contingent realities. For the sake of argument, let’s limit this to Quad 4. Is it intrinsic to such realities that they “begin to exist”? Bill and, as I’m discovering, every modern Orthodox person I ask about this curiously hold that Quad 4 realities needn’t be thought of as having a beginning. Being “created” doesn’t entail “beginning to exist.” Entities may be modally/ontologically contingent (i.e., they may not have existed at all and may fail to exist), and they may depend upon God for their existence, but they have always existed and always will exist. Their modal contingency requires only that it be true that they “may” not have existed or they may cease to exist, not that it be the case that they “began to exist.” Thus the “out of nothing” in CEN (on this view) merely describes a “dependency” relationship. It says nothing about whether creation is eternal or whether it “began” to be.

I’ll just leave the descriptions there for now and come back with a follow-up post to share some thoughts on why it seems to me we should think of non-divine, created being as (among other things) “having a beginning.”