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.

Nothing but nihil

skeleton-mirrorIf you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Alexei Nesteruk (Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Portsmouth, UK), I encourage you to explore his work. Start with his Light From the East. Here I’d like to share an interesting article of his (from 2005) that I’ve just run across this week. Given events in my own life the past month, this piece spoke deeply to me. Parts of the article connect with things I’ve tried to express about the Void, death, identity formation, meaning-making, and I’ll stop there. If it doesn’t connect with you the way it did with me, that’s fine. Its effect upon me had as much to do with where I am these days as with anything else. I tried to express my sense of discovering the meaning of life in the context of the Void here where I describe experiencing (as opposed to just believing in) “being spoken into being.” It comes up in Nesteruk.

There is a moment, a place, an experience of one’s own self, precipitated by suffering, loss, or the careful contemplation of one’s own mortality, that brings one into the truth of one’s utter contingency and absolute ontological poverty. James Loder calls it the Void. It’s depicted in the picture that accompanies this post. I spent quite some time trying to find an appropriate picture to represent this Void. Not easy. Every representation I considered portrayed the Void as outside one’s self, as a threat that is external to one’s existence. But the truth is that the Void is one’s self, an experience of one’s own existence. I don’t know how else to say it. If you’ve entered the black abyss there in the picture, you know. If you’re still under the delusion that your worth and value to God are something God perceives (as other than his own value expressed ad extra) and is attracted to and so dies on the Cross to affirm so you can achieve self-realization, in turn enriching and growing God’s own existence, then what I’m describing will all seem BS, because part of the Void is coming to see our gratuity and radical contingency in precisely this sense. You’ll just have to encounter what I’m talking about later; and you will. I’ll see you on the other side.

Nesteruk explores the Void in other terms in his piece “The Universe Transcended: God’s ‘Presence in Absence’ in Science and Theology” (2005). But whatever you call it, it has to be faced. Momento mori (“Remember to die”) so it is said. It is not evil, by the way, though relating to it falsely spawns all manner of evil. It is simply the truth of contingent finitude. We are loath to confront it. It is the death of everything in us other than the good God gives and invites us eternally toward. But that incomparable glory of being we crave is knowable by us only on the other side of the Void. Nesteruk nails its logic and description, and I highly recommend it. Here’s a portion:

In order to know about God, one’s mind should descend inside the hellish furnace of the Big Bang in order to realise all emptiness of impersonal being. Only then becoming aware about the Big Bang as merely a lure of the evil one, who wants to distract and detach our consciousness from the reality of it hypostatic incarnate existence, is it that human consciousness attempts to acquire back itself as existence in a concrete person. But having divested itself, i.e. cleansing itself from all sorts of contents about impersonal substance, hypostatic consciousness realises the whole scale of the paradoxical tragedy of its own existence: on the one hand, being incarnate consciousness, it exists in the context of substance of the world, but is not rooted in this substance; on the other hand it does not understand the foundations of its own facticity: it feels itself brought into being without knowing its reasons and motives. It is through this acute feeling of ontological loneliness and an incessant desire to enquire about the foundations of personal life, that some other channels of human communication with reality at large experience transformation so that the intentionality of repentance comes forth, and at this initial stage one can claim that faith in God is called out in a being by the power of God and his Spirit. In a way the very fact of awareness of the loss of personhood and the mystery of its own facticity comes from acquiring a sort of faith. To feel loneliness in the universe and abandonment by God one needs faith: “those who do not believe in God do not know the meaning of being abandoned by Him.”

And when a human being by the virtue of its fate is placed to contemplate the perspective of its finitude and finality, the perspective of its own dissolution and return into that substance from which it was born, at this very moment, man realises the scale of its own falleness and apostasy against God – that single and life-giving source which makes human life indeed the most valued thing in the universe. At this very moment a human being reduces itself to the zero of feeling alone and realising a tragic mode of existence of a person in a vast and hardly comprehensible universe without a link with God, in its own effective loneliness in being withdrawn from God, that God who is still present in his incomprehensible absence. This acute awareness of the mystery of life in personhood, which is devoid of any visible care from God and comprehension of its own facticity is described by Archimandrite Sophrony as “uncreated energy,” as the arrival of the Divine Light, and the entry of the Spirit of God into the heart of a person: “…through the repentance given to me – even up to the extend when I hated myself – I unexpectedly for myself experienced a wonderful world, and uncreated light surrounded me, permeated through me and transformed me into light, and was giving to me in the Kingdom of God of Love. The Kingdom to which ‘there will no be end’ (c.f. Matthew 18: 10-14).”

This entry of the Spirit acts also as the invocation through the repentant soul (so that the intentionality of the Spirit enters human cognitive life only through the ontological repentance in which the tragic place of hypostatic consciousness in the case of detachment from God is realised) of that God who is the real Father to all humanity and to the whole universe. Here the Spirit exercises its action in a human heart providentially: through the awareness of the tragic facticity of personal life and effective abandonment by God, the economy of the Spirit reveals itself tacitly by showing us God in the conditions when God withdraws from His phenomenality and is given to us through some mediated manifestations.

A moment of true vision, when man faces himself before the abyss of nothingness, when he perceives, through being providentially abandoned by God, all transitiveness of cosmological being, this moment one can compare with that grace, which is given to a man for the first time, which enters the reality of the human heart when one is reduced to zero and when one is open those flows of Divine energies which transform the human constitution and when God, being initially absent in human life, comes back into consciousness of a man in the form of ‘presence in absence’. Afterwards this ‘presence in absence’ becomes that stable phase in the human condition in which human freedom is subjected to a trial: freedom either to achieve the fullness of communion with God, or, alternatively, to reject God and to live blind life by being turned onto itself through following the cult of mere rationality. (bold emphases mine, all the quirky spelling is his!)

Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2

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I don’t intend to respond to each of the seven theodicies Richard Rice surveys and which I briefly summarized in Part 1. There are, however, a couple of interesting points that Rice himself raises which I’d like comment on before I add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven.

As I emphasized this summer in reviewing existential arguments for (im)passibility (Parts 1-6), it’s difficult to evaluate how well particular beliefs help a person world-construct in healthy and transformative ways, particularly because what counts as ‘healthy’ is part of what is in dispute in existential arguments. At the same time, however, there’s no avoiding existential questions. Christianity is ultimately a life to be lived. As ubiquitous as evil and suffering are, it is precisely our living that throws us into the path of questions about the relationship between God’s goodness and providence (on the one hand) and evil and suffering (on the other). We are incurable meaning-makers who must integrate life’s experiences into a narrative that satisfies both heart and mind. Everybody has to sort this out for him/herself, of course, and Rice recognizes this.

We should distinguish between one of Rice’s seven theodicies and all the rest. The first approach he mentions (Perfect Plan Theodicy) maintains that all evil and suffering are unconditionally decreed by God. No other theodicy Rice lists takes this particular view of God’s relationship to evil, and for that reason I think we can draw our first distinction between Perfect Plan theodicies and every other theodicy that at least attempts to take creaturely freedom seriously. I respect the experience of those who find the Perfect Plan model meaningful and satisfying, but I don’t find it existentially viable on any level. There’s just no making sense of a God whose being is pure beatitude and holy delight exhaustively and unconditionally determining the evil and suffering of our world in the sense this theodicy maintains.

Of the other six approaches Rice describes, there are features I resonate with, so let me describe those features briefly.

First, there’s the integrity of the agency or ‘say-so’ God endows us with to determine ourselves in morally responsible ways. Whatever the extent to which one views created ‘say-so’ as having the power to realize evils not willed by God, it remains the case that created causes are real and do not collapse into mere occasions whose evil and suffering unfold in time the timeless will of God. This view of agency, or libertarian free will (not as the absolute unconstrained freedom to determine oneself without reference to transcendent goods and orientations), is an abiding feature throughout all the options Rice summarizes other than Perfect Plan theodicy.

Second, it was interesting to see Rice introduce the traditional understanding of evil as a privatio boni (privation of the good). Evil has no being or substance of its own but exists merely in a negative sense as a failure of what is to be all it was created to be. It is thus a diminished experience of the Good. It seems to me (as I’ve much argued the point on this blog) that the implications of this view of evil are vastly underappreciated, for once one admits evil as privation of the good, one admits a Supreme Good (viz., God) incapable of privation. And once this is admitted, it fundamentally guides and empowers meaning-making in a fallen and suffering world.

Burning Fiery FurnaceHowever we integrate our experiences of evil and suffering into a meaningful narrative that satisfies the mind and empowers our living for God, God cannot be viewed as willing evil or as willing his own privated forms of reflection within the world. Such willing would itself be privation. The essential point is that if there is privation of the good, there must be an undiminished and absolute Supreme Good. This has huge implications for meaning-making. Not only is evil not itself willed by God, but neither can the evil willed by us through our free choice manufacture within God or within our perfected forms (as contingent, embodied reflections of God) any sort of positive moment or contribution of beauty. Evil is in the strictest sense meaningless (or meaninglessness itself).

Interestingly, this understanding of God as the summum bonum becomes part of Rice’s argument against Protest theodicies (though it never takes center stage in his own understanding of how we meaning-make in the face of suffering). On what basis, Rice argues, does one ‘protest’ believing in the good in the face of horrendous evil if the conclusion of such protest is the eradication of the good needed to get the protest off the ground in the first place? Protest theodicies are self-contradictory because they seek to deny what their principled protest requires, namely, an undiminished and absolute Good to which the goodness of all things is related, from which all things derive their goodness, and by which all finite goods and claims are measured.

On a somewhat related note, I think the failure to understand the undiminished nature of the Good along concrete, existential lines is the fundamental mistake of all passibilisms. This has enormous implications for how we find meaning in suffering as well.

Lastly, I want to register my interest in soul-making approaches. While I don’t agree that actual evils contribute positively to God’s purposes, I do think there’s something worth affirming in the claim that we cannot become all God designs and calls us to be apart from certain challenges. I suggest that there’s no getting around having to world-construct (toward full, hypostatic-personal being) in the face of the truth about our createdness, and that truth includes our finitude as created ex nihilo, and in my view that means mortality. Apart from the experience of mortality we have no way to comprehend the truth of such radical finitude and contingency. Our fullest personal being is our truest being, and the truth of our being includes the truth of our being created ex nihilo. That ‘nothingness’ is the one truth we have to world-construct in light of if we’re going to live a meaningful life. So in our view mortality is a grace when seen as an embodiment of the truth of our finitude, a way to experience ourselves as created ex nihilo.

This is not to say misrelating to mortality in despairing ways (when ‘mortality’ becomes ‘death’ as viewed theologically) is necessary. One has only to embrace the truth of one’s existence as unconditionally given freely and ex nihilo. As much as we talk about creation ex nihilo, I think we forget to figure it into our understanding of the structure of human becoming and perfection. We talk about creation ex nihilo a lot. We experience it very little. So while I don’t affirm soul-making in the sense that I think who we finally become is positively shaped by evil or that we come to embody a goodness that is inconceivable apart from evil, I do think who we are meant by God to become cannot be embraced by us apart from our perceiving and embracing the truth of the nihil out of which God unconditionally called us into being. I’m happy to describe seeing and embracing that truth as a “soul making” moment. But I don’t see anything evil about finitude or mortality per se, though it can occasion suffering.

390.-The-Three-Holy-Youths

In summary then, the key meaning-making resources I gather from the seven approaches Rice describes are as follows:

(1) The necessity of libertarian free will for human being. Properly understood, such exercise of the will is fundamental to our achieving God’s ends for us even if it is not the fullest expression of our freedom in Christ. However God is ultimately responsible for creating a world facing possibilities for both good and evil, he does not will evil and suffering as such, so the popular “there’s a purpose for everything that happens” isn’t a viable truth for meaning-making.

(2) Evil as privation. Understanding evil as privation of the good is inseparable from understanding God as the summum bonum (the Supreme Good) as well as inseparable from understanding the rational structure of aesthetic perception and volition as irrevocably oriented toward the Good. So if there isn’t a specific divine purpose for every evil that occurs, there nevertheless is divine purpose in or available to everything that occurs. Simply stated, no privation of evil can so diminish our lives that we become inseparable from God’s purposes. We may suffer evils God does not will, evil that does not lie within the scope of his purposes for us, but these evils cannot permanently foreclose on us all possibility of realizing our truest purpose and meaning. Again, this radically shapes how we perceive the meaning of our lives relative to suffering.

(3) Qualified soul-making. Soul-making approaches are right to emphasize that perfection is the end of human being, not its beginning. And the ends for which we are created have to be chosen, learned, and acquired. Human fulfillment is a creative achievement. Such choice requires a context in which we can responsibly choose in light of the truth of our finitude and the nothingness from which God calls us to be. Finitude must embrace the truth about itself, and that is a painful journey – though not necessarily an evil one.

To which I’d add:

(4) God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum. A qualified sense of apatheia, or God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum, is a fundamental truth for human meaning-making. Believing God’s triune beatitude is undiminished by evil and suffering provides a radically different framework within which we world-construct and process meaning. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my difference with all the models Rice surveys. None of them takes time to contemplate God’s experienced triune beatitude as that about God which constitutes his being the summum bonum (the highest good and supreme value). But once the link between God’s experienced beatitude and God as the highest good and greatest value is made, one then finds meaning in suffering quite differently than any of the approaches Rice discusses. Evil does not come to mean anything. As I’ve argued often, our meaning is not the difference we make to God (i.e., the difference our suffering makes to God as he suffers as we suffer), but the difference God makes to us (i.e., the transcendent healing which God’s joy and delight provide in our suffering).

If I boil down points 1 through 4 into an eighth approach to suffering, I wouldn’t know what to call it. Perhaps:

Undiminished divine delight | Therapeutic theodicy
or
Participation in God | Theosis theodicy

I’ll end with a passage from Daniel 3 which should explain my choice of pictures attending this post, all depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s throwing the three Jewish men into the consuming fires of a furnace:

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Were not there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’.” (Daniel Ch 3)

What’s the powerful imagery of this story have to do with the points I’ve here tried to express regarding suffering within the framework of God’s undiminished beatitude? If you have to ask, I’ve done a lousy job of explaining myself.

Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 3

rainI’ve explored 2Corinthians 4 before in a couple of posts that discuss human vulnerability as the capacity of finitude to bear the glory of God, arguing that “the vessels [jars of clay] are fragile and vulnerable, the treasure is not.” This chapter came up again in conversation recently and phrases that had not previously caught my attention jumped out at me.

I’m particularly interested in biblical resources for the belief that God is immeasurable delight, a delight essentially undiminished by the world’s sufferings (not at all a popular view for an evangelical to hold), and that our salvation is precisely a participation in this delight. Such a view of God has been objected to partly on the grounds that it’s a pure, unedited Hellenism foreign to biblical thought. So one of our interests here has been to explore biblical reasons for thinking God to be essentially, unimprovably, happy. We’ve discussed passage after passage the explicit claims of which entail the logic of divine beatitude. See Psalm 23; Psalm 46; Rom 8.18ff; Paul’s prayer in Eph 3; 1Cor 2.9-10; Phil 4.7; James 1.17; 1Peter 1.8f, all of which we’ve discussed and to which I’d like to add 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 2Cor 3.18 comp Rom 8.18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Several things come to mind. First, note the distinction between “wasting away outwardly” [lit. “the outward man” wastes away] while “being renewed inwardly” (lit. “inward man” is renewed day by day) based (v. 18) on a vision of what is unseen. At the very least, we are not reduced to the suffering we experience. But more specifically, there is something inside which is not subject to, nor diminished by, the conditions associated with suffering and mortality. On the contrary, the inner man is continually renewed while the outward man wastes away. Here you have the transcendence of the inward man, the undiminished nature of our true selves in Christ. While we waste away and suffer on one level or dimension of experience (outwardly), we are continuously renewed in another respect (inwardly).

Secondly, the curious phrase καθ υπερβολην εις υπερβολην (literally “according to transcendence unto transcendence”). The phrase is likely a Hebraism (מאד מאד; “very, very” or “greatly, greatly”) designed to stress the immeasurable and exceeding nature of something. In the NIV this phrase gets reduced to “far outweighs” and qualifies “glory” (i.e., the glory far outweighs the suffering). While it is no doubt true that the glory to which we are destined immeasurably exceeds our present sufferings, I think those commentators who take the phrase to qualify the verb κατεργαζεται (“achieves” or “produces”) better understand the verse (cf. the construction in Galatians 1.13 where “how intensely” qualifies “persecuted” in the NIV). So between our “light and temporary troubles” and our “weighty and eternal glory” lies an immeasurable “according to transcendence unto transcendence.” The final glory which is our destiny is produced in us intensely, exceedingly, increasingly, transcendently. That is, our journey does not merely end in immeasurable glory, it is reached in an increasingly immeasurable way through daily participation in it. This is what Paul means by saying our “inward man is renewed day by day.” Apatheia is not some mysterious divine attribute that locks creation out of God’s life, nor is it merely a heavenly reward presently inaccessible. It is the truest, inward reality of created things (our “inward man” or “true self”).

Thirdly, v. 18 introduces, as Alford says (yes, Henry Alford; I love the older guys) “the subjective condition under which this working out takes place.” We participate in the increasingly transcendent progress of becoming our truest self by way of ‘contemplation’ (or ‘mindfulness’, nepsis). We become what we behold as we become beholden to it. And this is where the practical difference between our view of God (as undiminishing beatitude) and the standard passibilist views is most acute, for the “unseen” realities perceived in the Spirit (see 1Cor 2.9-10) shape the course of our spiritual development and transformation in conformity to God as ‘end’ . If what I see is a “pissed off” God (what one passibilist insisted a truly loving God would be in the face of injustice), I’ll be “pissed of.” Why wouldn’t I be? We become what we see. That’s the transformative power of the human spirit that gives itself, through mindfulness, to a particular vision of ultimate ends and so becomes what it sees. But if what I see is peace in the storm, if what I see is Christ walking on the water of the storm, if what I see is an undiminished glory which is my destiny and the destiny of all persons, if what I see is divine beatitude always already pursuing the highest good of all things as the highest good of those things, I’ll be increasingly transformed into that.

Are we reading into Paul here? I don’t think so. Back up a bit from 2Cor 4 to 2Cor 3.18 for confirmation of what we’re saying:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Come on somebody!

Lastly, I suggest reading 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 3.18) alongside Rom 8.18f, a passage I’ve commented on a good deal. All these refer to essentially the same transforming vision of divine ‘glory’. In Rom 8 that glory is God as ‘end’, and in 2Cor 3 & 4 that glory is contemplate end ‘as means’ of present renewal. Together these outline perhaps the strongest reasons in the New Testament for believing God to be undiminished, glorious beatitude. I’ll leave you with a few lines on Rom 8 which I’ve previously shared and which I’m now happy to see expressed equally in 2Cor 4.18:

Transcendence as apatheia or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless?

Prayer: Lord, fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habb 2.4). Fill ‘this’ earth, me, the earth that I am, with the knowledge of your glory.

Who touched me?

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I love this beautiful work of Ed de Guzman depicting the healing of the woman who suffered 12 years with an issue of blood (LK 8). I’ll get to her as an illustration toward the end  of my thoughts, but I first wish to make a few comments in light of discussions with Malcolm (Comments section) regarding God and time, something about which it seems all any of us can do is speculate. But I appreciate the opportunity that challenging conversation gives me to clarify and grow. Malcolm asks:

You say the reason you prefer the temporal view is because you can ‘posit changing states of knowledge in God’. But that seems to me precisely the problem, isn’t it? That would make God mutable, insofar as I can see, and don’t we both want to avoid that?

In answer to Malcolm, the only problem I see here is attributing to God self-constituting becoming. I don’t see a problem in attributing to God “changing states of mind” that are not self-constituting. I think the objection to this comes from understanding divine simplicity in a way that views everything we say about God as expressive of his ‘self-constituting’ plenitude, whether we’re speaking about the Father’s begetting of the Son or the procession of the Spirit (on the one hand), or the creation of the world and God’s relations to it (on the other), whether we’re speaking about God’s knowledge of himself as fount, as begotten, as proceeding (on the one hand), or his knowledge of the world in its changing actualities (on the other). If divine simplicity means that what God does freely in creating a contingent world is as self-constituting of God as the Father’s begetting the Son, then I can’t espouse divine simplicity.

I don’t think I’m dragging God “into time” when I say the possibility (but not the actuality) of what we call the creation’s experience of “becoming” is a feature of God’s abiding, unchanging specious present. The analogies I shared explain how we ourselves are familiar with extended specious presents that are not in themselves defined or interrupted by tacit awareness of other specious presents that come to be and cease to be. True, for us it’s never the case that any specious present is infinite. All our conscious experiences are subject to temporal becoming, even if we sometimes have “specious presents” that do, without loss or change, contain other specious presents that come and go. But it’s not obviously incoherent to suppose that a specious present can be infinite and eternal and also accommodate tacit specious presents which, we might say, mirror or reflect the eternally actual truth, beauty and goodness of God’s essential, self-constituting present.

I don’t think of God’s eternal “specious present” as an unblinking cosmic stare or the temporal equivalent of a knife’s edge, an atemporal point with no width or content. That kind of timeless instant is an abstraction pure and simple. What I’m trying to imagine is more like a ‘saddle’ than a ‘knife’s edge’. (Language strains!) It has content to it but no history of becoming. It is not a temporal “process,” i.e., not an actuality possessed of some unrealized self-constituting potential which in actualizing it becomes (and so forth). I agree God cannot be thought of as “taking time” to become the triune God of hypostatic/personal fullness. It seems to me that the classical tradition supposes that if this much is true about God, that’s all that can be true about God, i.e., if God is actus purus (in a personally, self-constituting sense) there’s no room left in that plenitude for God to freely, contingently “contract” (like fractals contract their infinitude in a self-same way across finite scales) into real relations with, and changing states of knowledge of, created realities.

If God does not “take time” to become the triune, self-sustaining God, I don’t think it follows that God cannot “make time” for us. Let me give an example that functions as an analogy or illustration. In LK 8 we have the story of the woman who suffered with an issue of blood for more than a decade. She had seen doctors and spent all she had but never improved. As the crowds press around Jesus, she manages to push her way through and touch the hem of his garment and be healed. What she did could hardly be noticed given the crowds. But what does Jesus say? He questions, “Who touched me?” A bit surprised, Peter responds, “You’re being touched by dozens of people pressing in on you. What do you mean?” (Perhaps Peter can stand in for all analytic philosopher-theologians!) Jesus basically answers, “Somebody’s faith touched me. I know it because I felt power leave me.”

Jesus-heals-the-bleeding-woman-157251Interesting. Jesus felt healing power leave him. My question is this: Was there less healing power available on account of power “leaving” Jesus? Was the healing virtue present in Christ partially depleted or used up on account of having “left” him? Is that divine relation some scarce commodity that gets used up as our needs spend it in acquiring the healing we seek? Obviously not. What then? Power really left, but it also really didn’t make a difference. It left in one sense, and didn’t leave in another. There’s a real relation, a real going out of divine power to heal, but no determination of measurable loss in return. The relation can be known ‘in its going out’ without being known ‘as a going out’ (i.e., as a lessening of itself). We might liken all of creation, and God’s changing knowledge of and within it, as ‘interest’ paid out into and as creation on an immeasurable ‘principal’. Creation enjoys the interest but never spends the principle, and there is real expenditure even if no loss of principle.

Analogously, I’m (doing a very poor job at) suggesting that God can experience the world as tacit contractions of his plenitude—in his ‘going out’ in sustaining us—without the relation in turn depleting/lessening him. But if the simplicity of God’s plenitude is taken to mean that any ‘going out’ (temporal or otherwise) constitutes a depletion or loss, is not this view as guilty of viewing divine plenitude in ‘competitive’ terms as is typically thought to be the case in reverse? If God has a changing thought in knowing the changing world, divine plenitude is thus “depleted” like a finite commodity? To answer ‘yes’ seems to assume a competitive view of God’s presence and activity in the world.

Let me wind things down. Malcolm asks how it can be that God comes to know created realities contingently without it being the case that this potential to know is, like all contingent possibilities, grounded in some antecedent actuality. For on my view only God’s specious present can be the required actuality. So how can God also be open to contingent experiences and states of knowing? How can what is necessarily actual be the ground for its own unrealized potential? That seems obviously self-contradictory.

The short answer, I think, is that it is self-contradictory if we’re talking about an openness to self-constituting potential. I don’t think there can be any unrealized self-constituting potential in God. But neither do I think all change is self-constituting. As I suggested above, if one views divine simplicity as a totalizing proposition that means everything we say about God must express what is ‘self-constituting’ of God, then I agree there can be no unrealized potential in God—no changing states of knowing, acting, or sustaining the world.

It’s not a question of supposing such immutability to be in competition with the world. It functions on another level altogether. I don’t suppose for a tiny temporal instant that David Hart would agree with my appropriation of him on this point, but he made an interesting comment last summer at Notre Dame in arguing on moral grounds for the absolute incompatibility of divine benevolence and eternal conscious torment. I can only hope others see the similarity. Hart writes:

The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like “good,” “just,” “love” to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.

Precisely.

In the same Notre Dame piece, Hart says, “It must be possible to speak of God without mistaking him for a being among beings.” And if this applies to moral categories, and by extension generally existential ones, what of temporal categories? Are these neatly separable? I don’t know. But I get the sense that in supposing God to be absolutely atemporal/timeless (in the sense of precluding all conceivable potential to act or know freely in relationship to contingent creatures in ways not essentially self-constituting of God) we use words such as “know,” “act,” and “create” of God “not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures,” but instead “as if they bear transparently opposite meanings” and end up saying nothing.

I don’t see the obvious reduction of God’s infinite plenitude to mere finite becoming in supposing an unrealized possibility to create to be a necessary feature of God’s unchanging perfection. That is, God’s triune perfections are—necessarily—more than necessary. The divine disposition by which God constitutes himself in triune fullness is itself a disposition for self-constituting and freely self-expressive modes of being, his freedom to do other than constitute himself in triune bliss. In this sense, to act and to know contingently in relationship to the world are a free and contingent exercise of the disposition to be God in ways that express the divine identities without determining them. As Hart said on another occasion, and I freely appropriate his words knowing he intended them in some other way I don’t understand, “God even transcends his own transcendence.”

Prayer: Created by you I am all desire. Called by you I am all response. Received by you I am all at home.

God’s infinite “specious present”

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This is one of those freely speculating posts where I just think out loud. I know some think that’s pretty much all I do anyhow. If that’s you, then this won’t be any different. Why I’ve chosen Bernini’s (the greatest sculptor of all time) Blessed Ludovica Albertoni is something I’ll let the post explain (or not). (Hint: it has something to do with the immediacy and ecstasy of fulfilled desire relative to temporal becoming.) Bernini dedicated this work to a wealthy Roman widow who devoted herself to the poor and who (like his The Ecstasy of St. Teresa that pursues the same theme) testified to having unusual spiritual ecstasies. Both works are a kind of perichoretic embodiment of the rapturous experience of mystical union with God. This is no doubt a strange introduction to thoughts about God and time, but let’s see where it takes us.

In Trinity & Process (a work we’ve discussed a great deal), Greg Boyd constructively critiques Process theism (PT). Much of his criticism parallels criticisms that Fr Tom Hopko made in his doctoral dissertation on PT. More interestingly, Greg’s conclusions at points end up articulating Orthodox insights without having any real knowledge of or appreciation for Orthodoxy as such. That said, one critique of PT that Greg engages is PT’s thoroughly dipolar doctrine of God with respect to divine temporal becoming. I’d like to think aloud on this aspect of Greg’s thought and make a suggestion that takes Greg’s thought in a direction that he perhaps didn’t intend.

Dipolar theism is a complicated philosophical project which has since Whitehead diverged into a variety of conflicting views. I wish only to pick up on Greg’s treatment of God and time through his use of the concept of the “specious present.” By “specious” I don’t mean “misleading” or “false” in appearance. The term “specious present” was coined in the late 19th century by E. Robert Kelly (known under the pseudonym E. R. Clay) and popularized by William James. It roughly describes the time duration wherein one’s perceptions are considered to be in the present, one’s “intuited duration” (Pringle-Pattison, 1913). It’s a concept that I think helps us imagine God as temporally immutable and open to the temporal world. By temporally immutable I mean experience having neither beginning, end, nor succession, an extended interval without becoming. Can such an experience nevertheless be open to contingent relations with the changing world?

The life and experience of finite creatures who derive their existence from God is one of irreducible “becoming.” We know that much. Our experience is temporal in the sense that it is always mediated within the given restrictions of material existence. In particular:

…we possess our life as “becoming,” as an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not (i.e., more than we are). We just are this ever-moving act of becoming, a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

Let me say unequivocally here that I don’t see how God can be reduced to such “becoming” even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” Giving such “becoming” the status of necessity doesn’t make this concept of God fundamentally unlike that of Zeus or other members of the Greek pantheon.

clock_silhouette_by_ginnyhahaThat said, by “specious present” I am not talking about a totum simul, which is how Bill Craig takes it in his criticism of the idea. And I don’t particularly have in mind Robert Jenson’s curious description of Jesus as God’s “specious present,” but I agree with Jenson’s pursuit of a divine temporality of which he says, “God’s duration is without loss.” I say yes to this. And so I’m asking if it’s possible to conceive of an infinite “specious present,” an experience not divisible into or reducible to more fundamental experiences, having neither beginning, end, nor succession; i.e., an “experience” which is not an experience of “becoming.” Can we conceive of God’s eternity, his essential, triune plenitude, as such a “specious present” but which is not intolerant of or incompatible with the possibility of relations with the finite “specious presents” of created entities that occur within it?

An infinite “specious present” not a moment of “becoming” would encompass rather than preclude specious presents of finite duration and accommodate real relations with the world. All creation’s possibilities would be tacitly enfolded within its fullness. All our “specious presents” would have the movement of their temporal becoming—their past, present, and future as they contingently and freely unfold—within the embrace of God’s single, indivisible “specious present.” And the world’s finite becoming would freely self-determine itself within the all-encompassing fullness of God’s accomplished beatitude. Time would “flow from” God as God flowed to and within the world. This would (I think) roughly parallel the sense in which Bulgakov suggested that God “posits himself outside himself.”

God’s eternity, we’re suggesting, is an infinite “specious present”—a “moment” (just to go with the analogy for now) analogous to our “moments” of experience but which, unlike our “specious presents,” does not exist as ‘memory informing a present resolve to become what one is not in light of future possibilities’. We’re thinking of a “moment” of experience as such, a simple act not composed of beginning, end, and succession (i.e., it does not “become”) because it does not possess itself as ‘memory informing a present resolve in light of future possibilities’. God’s specious present does not “take time” to “become” in this way, but it does not negate created ‘becoming’ or relations to created entities. It is becoming’s possibility and so compatible with it without being an instance of it. As such God’s specious present is the infinite ground of every created specious present of finite duration (i.e., experiences of finite perspective and surpassable beauty which have beginning, end, and succession—i.e. they ‘become’).

One specious present may contain other specious presents. To unpack this a bit, here’s Greg Boyd in TP:

Self-identity [for Hartshorne], therefore, whether at a human or sub-atomic level, is abstract, partial and relative. It is, in contrast, the present moment of becoming which is concrete, complete, and absolute, as we have seen. There can, for Hartshorne, therefore be no concrete self-identity which preserves over time. The only concrete reality is in the “specious present,” the present momentary experience of becoming. For human beings, for example, the concrete self becomes anew “every tenth of a second or so.” This alone constitutes truly concrete reality. Everything else concerning human self-identity is an abstract feature of this.

This means, clearly, that one’s self-now is not the same as the self of one’s childhood, or even one’s self an instant ago. To be sure, the self-now must relate to (prehend) the self-past. But it must also prehend other past occasions. And it is, strictly speaking, no more concretely identical with the past self than it is with any other past occasion.

a9818396559c4039e0998b5ce79f128aHartshorne defines finite, temporal “becoming” as the prehension of immediately past data via creative synthesis. One’s “identity” supervenes upon and is derived from this process. But this sort of becoming could not describe God’s essential-necessary actuality. God’s identity as God could not supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which his actual ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not now. That’s very important (for Dwayne and me) to say.

To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it, since he rejects creatio ex nihilo): God’s essential triune act would be the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity.” Our suggestion is that God be understood as an infinite such occasion. Moving on with Greg in TP:

Beyond the already discussed difficulties with this understanding of the dipolarity of God, one must wonder what is intrinsically contradictory about saying that a being can be actual in different respects? Why cannot one aspect of the divine actuality be necessary and eternal, and another aspect of God’s actuality contingent? It seems that, in at least one sense, even Process thought must admit that this is possible in terms of its own categories.

According to Process thought, any given “society of actual occasions” can be made up of entities whose “living immediacy” and “specious present” varies from one another considerably. A “specious present,” according to Hartshorne, can vary about as far as the imagination can stretch: from less than one millionth of a second to more than a century is one suggestion Hartshorne toys with.

Now it seems that there is no a priori reason why a “specious moment” may not be eternal, though the society which it “dominates over” includes occasions whose “specious present” is finite. Just as the mind, the dominate occasion of the human person, consists of “specious presents” whose durations vary from those occasions which it rules over, so too we might conceive of God’s essential self as an eternal specious present which encompasses other “specious presents” of finite duration within itself. (emphasis mine)

…So far as I can see, then, there are no grounds for supposing a priori that the “specious present” of an experiencing actuality could not be both definite and actual, while being, at the same time, endless in its duration.

After some discussion, Greg continues:

The only remaining question, then, is whether or not one subject could be both infinitely and finitely, both necessarily and contingently, actual at the same time. Here again I see no reason to deny this. One subject can, in Process terms, be constituted by numerous occasions of varying duration of subjective immediacy, as we have said. But then what in principle is there from disallowing the possibility of a subject who is necessarily constituted by an everlasting…experience, on the one hand, and yet who has finite contingent experiences on the other?

We can render this point clearer by appealing to the analogy of human experiences. We have, it seems, the ability (however limited) to be aware of different things in relatively different modes of consciousness at the same time. If, for example, I go to the art museum and become absorbed in (say) Munck’s painting “The Scream,” I do not completely block out the noise around me; I am not completely oblivious to the people around me. If a person next to me faints, I will no doubt notice it and turn to help him or her. But clearly my awareness of my surroundings is relatively tacit in relation to my awareness of the painting.

I thus pick up, in a relatively tacit manner, the moment by moment changes in my environment, but my dominant sense of time is measured not by these changes, but by my experience of the work of art. What constitutes my consciousness-now are many experiences had at differing levels of distinctness, but all are now conditioned by the dominant experience of Munck’s painting.

My “specious present,” then, is in one respect very long—hence my “ordinary” sense of time is distorted in such experiences. Yet the fact that I am at least tacitly conscious of the bustle around me shows that I also have, at the same time, occasions whose “specious present” is much shorter. Every sensed alteration in my environment is, in Hartshorne’s view, a new “specious present” for some actual occasion(s) I am composed of.

Or again, when listening to a symphony, one is aware of the minute moment by moment tonal changes of the many different instruments, and yet it is the over-all musical piece, not the individual contributions, which is enjoyed. One could not enjoy the wholeness of the piece without, in some sense, attending to each of the individual instruments, and indeed to each tonal change that was made every fraction of a second or so. But the “mode of consciousness” is quite different with respect to the individual changes than it is with respect to our appreciation of the whole.

Thus experience, including the experience of consciousness, can be multifarious and multidimensional. Indeed, at a human level it always is. Hartshorne, of course, argues that it is only the “lowest” dimension of consciousness the minute alterations in our experience, which are “truly concrete.” Our experience of wholes, whether they be of art, music, or the world around us, is “abstract.” But this supposition we have already shown to be the result of an arbitrary reductionistic presupposition. Once the definition of “concrete” and “abstract” are recognized are being perspectivally contingent, the actuality (concreteness) of our phenomenological experiences, as well as (from a different perspective) the actuality of the minute alterations which, in one sense, comprise these experiences, can be admitted. To say that our normal sense of consciousness is multifarious is thus to say that our dominant perspective always encompasses relatively tacit perspectives.

Prima facie, then, no obvious absurdity is committed in maintaining that God can be, in one sense, necessarily actually infinite while further maintaining that God can also be, at the same time but in another sense, contingently actually infinite. This is, from another angle, simply to say that God can have a necessary eternal perspective on Godself which may include a perspective which encompasses non-divine perspectives. God is eternally and necessarily defined by this one’s eternal experience of Godself, and this experience may encompass, and find expression in, the interaction of non-divine creatures.

When we say that God might be actually eternal and actually contingent, therefore, we do not mean to suggest that God is essentially defined by both an eternal and contingent actuality. God is essentially defined only by this One’s necessary actuality. Thus we have not in the preceding said simply that “God’s essence is God’s existence,” but rather, “God’s essence is God’s essential existence.” For if there can be contingency in God, then God’s existence can encompass more than what this One essentially and necessarily is. God can be “more than necessary.” (emphasis mine)

_____________________________

www-St-Takla-org--Moses-Prophet-05-Burning-Bush-CopticThere is much to question in Greg’s project when it comes to how theological language functions, and I don’t mean to endorse every point he makes. But I don’t think our differences undermine the helpfulness of his main thought here. We believe it’s possible to conceive of God’s essential-necessary triune fullness as the living immediacy of a ‘specious present’, an experienced plenitude which is not an instance of temporal becoming (i.e., it has neither past nor future). But neither is it the negation of such becoming. On the contrary, it is free and able to open itself to ‘specious presents’ of finite duration which aim at contingently expressing (not constituting) the beatitude of God’s abiding present.

An immutable temporal interval that does not “become” (i.e., has no past or future or the kind of present which negotiates the two)? I think so, yes. It’s the temporal equivalent of a ‘burning bush’. I call it a ‘temporal’ interval because I believe it has living-loving content and that leads me to default analogically to ‘temporal’ (as opposed to ‘atemporal’). I’d rather say ‘temporal’ and then qualify it (i.e., it isn’t an instance of temporal becoming). That is—it’s a bush. And it’s on fire without being consumed. Doesn’t make sense, but there it is. At the same time it’s is not the experience of a “becoming” subject (viz., a subject in temporal pursuit of personal realization). We have to say this also, because it’s fire that does not need the bush for fuel. It’s an off-the-map sort of experience.

The controversial claim we make here is that God’s infinite specious present would not preclude real relations with finite creatures and changing states of knowledge with respect to the world. Created realities do indeed come to be and pass out of being. These are possibilities immutably contained in God. However, which particular possibilities come to be the actual world (and, for my Orthodox friends, the relevant point here is that not all possibilities pre-contained in God come to be) is not something immutably pre-contained in God. God would know the ‘actually contingent’ contingently, i.e., in its contingent actuality, without suffering any negation of the living immediacy of his immutable specious present. That is to say, the world “lives and moves and has its being” in God. It is then not the case that God lives and moves and has his being in the world (viz., PT).

Does this make God just another finite subject of “becoming,” one who possesses his identity and full beatitude in the realizing of possibilities given him under the constraints of past experience negotiating his way toward some unfulfilled desire? I don’t see that it does. If God were to know the changing contingencies of the actual world with a knowledge that changes as well, this “as well” needn’t be understood as introducing “loss” into God’s special present. God’s duration is without loss (Jenson).Surely we are not confined to an occasionalism in which God’s sustaining of the world reduces the world to divine will, nor to an opposite occasionalism which views God as reduced to the world’s becoming (viz., Process theism) simply for holding that God’s knowledge of the changing world changes.

Prayer

Always fulfilled, always at rest,
You never wait to be your best;
And yet you can take time to be,
To stoop in partnership with me.
You know me within my own time,
And yet remain wholly sublime.
Give me a heart to give myself
In poverty to your own wealth.

Payless Theologies

knippersmoses-and-the-burning-bush

Moses’ encounters with God are the source of some of my favorite biblical stories. They’re honest and down to earth, and they reveal a brokenness and vulnerability common to us all. Though I’ve never identified with Moses in his achievements, I certainly identify with him in his earlier objections to being used of God and his self-deprecation. His early formative encounters with God shed light on interesting aspects of experiencing God which I think apply to us all. And of all Moses’ encounters with God, the Burning Bush episode (Ex 3) has to be my favorite, perhaps because it’s the most revealing. I come back to it often, and here I’d like to share a couple of thoughts I’m processing.

God met in the mundane
The first interesting thing about this encounter is that Moses meets God while tending to his father-in-law’s flocks. At this point in his life he’s a shepherd in an uncharted landscape. Once known. Once popular. Once in the headlines. Once a man of power and means. But that’s not where Moses meets God, who shows up elsewhere.

Moses encounters God in the mundane. He doesn’t remove himself from the common, daily, mundane activities of secular life. Same is true of us. We are not required to leave such spaces to meet God “at Court” the way a British subject might be presented to the Crown. God’s court is creation—all of it, everywhere, all the time.

God’s court—the desert.
God’s crown—a bush.

Bushes are here today and gone tomorrow. Lilies of the field. God is at home in the most mundane, transient, throw-away spaces and moments of our lives. We don’t have to “leave” wherever we might be and travel to some sacred space to meet God.

Where’er you trod the sky is a cathedral made,
The ground beneath your feet a pew within its shade.

Wherever God is, and God is fully present everywhere, there God renders space “holy ground.” Nor does God abandon the cosmic, all-encompassing realities of his relationship to creation to be completely, fully present and invested in a bush in the desert of Moses’ exile.

On fire but not consumed
A second element of this event that must grab our attention is the strange and inexplicable fact of the bush’s being on fire but not consumed. This strange occurrence is what arrests Moses’ full attention. The bush is on fire but not consumed. Fire present in/with the bush, inseparable from it, its flames both following the form and path of the bush’s own branches and leaves but not fueled by the bush. The fire doesn’t need the bush for fuel, and that is why the bush is not consumed. This would get my attention as well.

This is transcendence. This is the myth of the secular, pure and simple.

Divine fire,
Both touching and touched by the world, neither needing nor negating it
Temporal and timeless
Burning without consuming
Located and uncircumscribed
“In but not of” the world

A ‘what’ cannot be this, cannot ‘do’ this. Only a ‘who’ is capable of such presence. A ‘what’ is a part of a whole, a slice of something, a species of a genus, a class of a phylum. But Moses doesn’t meet a ‘what’. He meets a ‘who’.

He sees the contradiction but cannot explain it
He experiences it but cannot account for it
He says it but must unsay it

It is in him (because he’s really taking it in as an experience of something) and yet he is in it (because he experiences this One as not confined to this bush, not needing it as fuel). This bush is a microcosm of the world itself. It is every bush, every tree, every flower, every human being. And we each can come to know ourselves aflame with God without being consumed by him. Less than transcendent gods consume the world, feed off it, are dependent upon its religious economies.

The burning bush is ‘categorically inexplicable’. It is ‘given’ and so undeniable, but it is only known in the combining of otherwise contradictory modes of being. Burning bushes are consumed. That’s what bushes are and that’s what fire does to bushes. And yet this fire doesn’t need the bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire.

“And yet” is that moment when you connect to something you don’t have categories to possess, something you cannot turn into your cognitive property. You experience yourself as someone else’s, as ‘thought’, as ‘written’, as ‘authored’. Not other than free, of course, but ‘given’ to be free. I don’t know how to express it. It seems to me that the more analytically regimented, categorized, or logically policed a theological worldview becomes (all phrases I’m trying offering to get at our intolerance for the categorically inexplicable) the more existentially inert it becomes. Of course I can only speak for myself, but some notion of transcendence is the one thing that animates our desire for the world as a longing to know it as more than merely bushes, trees, i.e., as complex physical systems operating under the laws of physics. But without a healthy transcendence, our theologies become mere complex systems operating under the laws of created taxonomies. And by transcendence I don’t mean just a word that describes elements of the world we in principle possess but which our analysis has not yet tamed though we expect it one day shall. I mean something more. I mean the categorical inexplicability of a burning bush.

Take your shoes off
Why the shoes? (Joshua had the same experience; Joshua 5.15) If it’s true that God burns in and through all things, if God is not offended by any created thing or place, either ‘bush’ or the ‘dirt’ out which we are made, what’s the problem with shoes? I had my suspicions, and a brief search of a few resources confirmed it sufficiently for me. A few suggest that removing shoes here is a token of recognition and respect, like standing when a lady approaches or leaves your table, or tipping your hat to a lady. No doubt we recognize and respect God, but that’s not the point here. Something far more profound is at work.

paylessWhat are shoes? Why do we make them? What’s their purpose? We make shoes to protect our feet from the dangers of traveling barefoot upon rough ground. Shoes are a layer of protection between us and the world, a man-made technology that separates us from dangers to our feet. Shoes mediate the world to our feet, but only by first screening out threats. You get the idea.

True, we perform formalities of token significance in the presence of earthly royalties. You don’t sit in the presence of the Queen of England unless she gives you leave to sit down. You don’t extend a handshake to her unless she initiates. You certainly wouldn’t take your shoes off in her presence. But you would take your shoes off in your home, or in the presence of family and close friends, where you feel safest and ‘at home’. But God is no earthly royalty. And where we observe formalities for kings and queens when in their presence, God commands no such division of behavior into formalities we perform to honor him on occasion and our most ‘at home’ behavior. He’s no less God, and we are no less ‘at court’ in his presence, in our most relaxed, dressed-down moments in our homes than we are in Church before the altar or partaking of the Eucharist. Moses takes his shoes off not to divide life into places where formalities are to be performed which honor God and other places we let our hair down. He takes his shoes off because God invites him to be at home in him. Welcoming him into the ease and rhythm of the mundane is the formality God seeks.

When we come into an experience of God, then, we take our shoes off. We expose ourselves. We strip. We become vulnerable to divine fire. Nothing of our making stands between God and us to mediate God to us. God is not to be managed by us, mediated to us by us, screened and vetted by us for our safe travel. God is not sifted through filters—physical or conceptual—that secure our well-being from dangers posed by walking barefoot through the terrain of the divine. We must be vulnerable before a transcendent God, for being aflame with divine fire is our most natural state. The bush was more, not less, itself when manifesting the divine presence explicitly. Moses saw not an exception to the rule. He saw the rule. That he ‘saw’ it is exceptional.

Theology should be about this—pursuing it, articulating it, encouraging it. Theology should be shoe-removing. But much of our theology is so much shoe-making and shoe-selling, and so ‘Payless’ theologies.

Prayer: O fire who does not consume, “Here I am.” Take my shoes. I remove them. Burn in and through me. Let me occasion you in the world, as the world.