Tuesday, May 31, 2016

I have not come to bring peace

Consider the following "hard saying" of Jesus:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matt 10:34-39).
The difficulty of this saying lies in the fact that it contradicts so many of the stereotyped images we have in our mind about Jesus. We sing at Christmastime that he comes to bring peace on earth, goodwill towards men, but here he denies that he's come to bring peace! Rather than turning the hearts of parents towards their children and vice versa, as we read (Mal 4:6; Luke 1:17), he seems here to be saying that the exact opposite will happen: families will be split in half because of him, and his followers will find themselves at odds with their parents and children and family members. And it seems to contradict our implicit understanding of the commandment to honor our father and mother -- here he says that if we love father and mother more than we love him, we are not worthy of him! These are certainly hard things to understand!

It seems to me that the truth of the matter is this: Jesus' arrival on the scene of this world calls for a fundamental choice on the part of everyone he confronts. His central message is this: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news! (Mark 1.15) This is a message which only permits two options: total faith and self-offering, or else indifference or opposition, which in the end amount to the same thing. Hence Jesus says: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matt 12:30). Either you are with him or you are against him, whether this "against" is expressed through indifference or active, intentional opposition. All things meet at Jesus at a crossroads, at the end of the day, and this fundamental choice between obedience to Jesus or not defines our total destiny.

Everybody has to make this choice at one point or another, and this choice will define us and every aspect of our life. What Jesus is saying in the passage quoted above is this: if you prefer the friendship of your family and close ones to obedience to Jesus, then you are not worthy of Jesus. We pray that it should never happen this way, and that our parents and loved ones would be on the same page as us in this respect. But sometimes they are not, and in those very painful and difficult situations, we have to make a choice about who we will serve. Will we prefer the friendship of Jesus or the friendship of our family?

Joseph Ratzinger makes the point that, in the early history of the Christian church, this new religion had to define itself in a very profound and striking way, in stark contrast to the religious milieu in which it developed. Christians began to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was himself God incarnate, and that the Messiah had to die killed by the Romans in order to make atonement for the sins of the world, something utterly thinkable to the Jewish context in which this faith arose. Likewise, Gentile Christians had to abandon the practice of sacrificing to the gods or to the emperor, despite the fact that these rituals held together their cultures and families for thousands of years. Ratzinger notes that this mean that Christianity, as a religion, was fundamentally defined by its adherence to truth over custom:
[Pagan] Religion did not go the way of the logos but lingered in myths already seen to be devoid of reality. Consequently its decline was inevitable; this followed from its divorce from the truth, a state of affairs that led to its being regarded as a mere institutio vitae, that is, as a mere contrivance and outward form of life. The Christian position, as opposed to this situation, is put emphatically by Tertullian when he says with splendid boldness: "Christ called himself truth, not custom." In my view this is one of the really great assertions of patristic theology. In it the struggle of the early Church, and the abiding task with which the Christian faith is confronted if it is to remain itself, is summed up with the unique conciseness. The idolization of the consuetudo Romana, of the "tradition" of the city of Rome, which had made its own customs into a self-sufficient code of behavior, was challenged by the truth and its claim to uniqueness. Christianity thus put itself resolutely on the side of truth and turned its back on a conception of religion satisfied to be mere outward ceremonial that in the end can be interpreted to mean anything one fancies (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 140-1).
What Ratzinger is saying is: Christianity had to make a choice in favor of the truth against the apparent stability of custom. The Christians had to reject what was the custom, what was practiced for so many hundreds of years, because it was false. This meant their rejection as atheists and irreligious by the Romans, and their rejection as blasphemers and heretics by the Jews. But this was the cross they had to bear, in order to follow the truth of Christ.

We may take these remarks and apply them to the context of the saying of Jesus. It may be that a person finds herself at a crossroads between following Christ, on the one hand, and following her parents and family and what it has always known, on the other. A person who prefers custom and familiarity and comfort to the truth in Jesus Christ is not worthy of Christ -- that is what is being asserted. On the other hand, the truth which Christ brings into the world is contrary to many of its customs and its habits; it calls for a fundamental rethinking of much of human life. Therefore a choice in favor of Christ will inevitably put one at odds with her greater culture -- that is why Christ will come to bring a sword, rather than peace. Christ's challenge to every person will require they abandon much, if not all, of what they have known and cherished for so long. Some people are willing to make this choice, or at least to consider it, and others are not: that is why there will inevitably be conflict.

Breaking ties with one's parents and family and community (whether is a religious community or not) is deeply painful experience. It can seem like death, because suddenly one's life is in disarray, and all connections and ties have been cut. Therefore Christ calls it a cross. But -- we are quick to forget this -- becoming a Christian means picking up our cross and following Jesus wherever he may lead us: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). As for those who have made this choice against family and friends in favor of Jesus, they have to remain steadfast and recall the verse: My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back (Heb 10:38).

Of course, it goes without saying that Jesus' suggestion here does not give a person license to mistreat their parents out of feigned obedience to Christ. He denounces the Pharisees who would justify the neglect of one's parents by appeal to some tradition about Corban (Mark 7:5-13). But there will come a time when a decision must be made between one's allegiances to parents and family, and one's allegiance to Christ. At that difficult time, we ought to be reminded of Christ's very difficult words: whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The victory that overcomes the world

I want to comment some more on the topic of the burdensome (or not) nature of the commandments of God. First John 5:3-5 says this:
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
In John's line of reasoning, the commandments are not burdensome because whatever is born of God conquers the world. This 'birth of God' refers to the activity of the Holy Spirit, by which a person is born anew and brought by God into the life of the Holy Trinity. This birth implies a new-found strength against previously slavery to sin: Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because the have been born of God (3:9).

As I was reading this verse, I was struck by John's powerful phrasing about a victory that conquers the world. So many persons throughout history have attempted to conquer the world: various emperors whose empires have all fallen sooner or later, be it Julius Caesar or Alexander or Hitler or whoever else. Their efforts, violent and oppressive, have fallen to the ground in the end. But John says that Christians, by virtue of their faith in Jesus as Son of God, have become the true conquerors of the world. That is certainly an impressive claim! What could it mean?

In the first place, because he is speaking about obedience to God's commandments, he clearly means that Christians have conquered the world in the sense that they have conquered the sinful environment and pressure of the world. They do not (need not) engage in that which everyone else wants and enjoys -- whether it is violence, or illicit sex, or scapegoating rejection of false enemies, or thievery and lying, or whatever else it might be. The life that seems not only normal but also inevitable to people in the world, along with the sense of meaninglessness and emptiness that follows from it, is not an inevitability to the Christian. Led into the life of the Holy Trinity, given a new understanding of herself and her place in the world and her relation to God, the Christian begins to see a different life available to her, by virtue of which she is said to conquer the world and all it offers.

Secondly, faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is itself a conquest of the world. This is because everything in the world militates against it. In this day and age, too many people (wrongly) think that faith in God is baseless, so that to believe that God has a Son is even worse. But to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried -- to believe that he is the Son of God requires a fundamental reevaluation of what we think God to be like! Like Father, like Son: if the Son of God suffers and dies for a wretched, sinful humanity, accepting death in the place of catastrophic, world-destroying judgment, then we can no longer think of God in empty categories of power and subordination, fundamental enmity towards humanity, competition with human concerns, and so on. These all got to go.

And to believe that Jesus is the Son of God also means following what he says -- about violence and retaliation, about love for enemies, about marriage and sexuality, about the use of monetary resources, and so on. Here, too, the Christian finds herself essentially at odds with the dominant thinking of so many people in the world, especially in this day and age. Jesus says that the gate is strait and the way is narrow which leads to life; it's a squeeze, and people in the world tend to be fattened with selfish concerns. To be able to believe that Christ's word is the truth, in the face of so many pressures to the contrary -- that is also a conquest of the world.

The Christian ought to think about herself with some measure of confidence -- not in her own strengths and abilities, but in the strength and ability of God who is on her side. Her faith is a conquest of the world! Through God's power, and not without her own cooperation, she has been brought out of the muck and mire of the world into a better and different life. Why look back into the swamp longingly, then, when you have been pulled out of its quicksand and put on solid ground, to enjoy a life not constricted and constrained by suffocating vines?

It's a struggle; I am writing about myself. I think to the words of John of Damascus: it is impossible to observe the commandments of the Lord except by patience and prayer (De Fide Orthodoxa IV:22).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

God's commandments are not burdensome

First John 5:3 says this:

For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.

The first thing to note is that John intimately connects love for God with obedience to his commandments. In this manner, he is merely echoing what he heard Jesus say on the night in which he was betrayed, during the upper room discourse: You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14). It seems to me that John is far from any notion that our continued fellowship and friendship with God is unaffected or indifferent to our behavior. On the contrary, the greatest commandment is that we love God with everything that we have, and if we do this, certainly we will obey the other commandments he gives us as well.

Our sin -- its frequency, its mode, our contrition or lack thereof over it -- reveals to us a bit about ourselves. Specifically, it teaches us whether or not we really love God, as we might say that we do, or whether our love prefers something else. Thomas Aquinas wrote: The very fact that anyone chooses something that is contrary to divine charity, proves that he prefers it to the love of God, and consequently, that he loves it more than he loves God (ST Ia-IIae, 88, 2). So we have to ask ourselves tough questions and come to terms with our actual state. If we prefer something else to God, we ought to ask why, and how we have been caught in the trap of idolatry.

What is especially fascinating is that John says that God's commandments are not burdensome. To the average person, this would seem very much contrary to experience! How can John say that it isn't burdensome constantly to have to say 'no' to the various impulses which arise within you -- whether they be to sexual immorality or anger or mistreatment of others or cheating or whatever?

It seems to me that the burdensomeness of the commandments arises not from themselves but from us. In other words, the commandment is not burdensome in itself because it is supposed to express that life which is natural and authentic for human beings, created ad imaginem Dei. To love your neighbor ought to be natural and normal and fulfilling for the human person, because that is what it means to be like God, and the human creature was intended to be like God. Rather, the commandment can seem burdensome only because we are disordered, because we are so far from exemplifying that which God intends for us. And more than anything, it is out of a love for God that the commandments seem burdensome, because we do not yet love God enough to do what he wants.

Thomas Aquinas comments thus in his commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew:
Likewise, in regard to circumstances there are many adversities; hence "All who desire to lead a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim 3:12). But they are not burdensome, because they are seasoned with the condiment of love; for when a person loves someone, it is not a burden to suffer anything for him. Hence love makes easy all difficult and impossible things. Therefore, if one loves Christ properly, nothing is difficult for him; consequently, the New Law does not impose a burden (Super Evangelium S. Matthaei, caput 11, lectio 3, §30). 
The love of God is what makes his commandments to be light rather than burdensome. Just as a man might tell a woman whom he loves that he would do anything for her, or a mother might do anything for the children that she loves, so also a person who loves God is willing to undergo anything for his sake. Thus, this beautiful line from Mechthild of Magdeburg:
Three things make the soul worthy of this way so that it recognizes it and walks in it. Firstly, that it wills to come to God, renouncing all self-will, joyfully welcoming God's grace and willingly accepting all its demands against human desires. The second thing which keeps the soul in the way is that all things are welcome to it save sin alone. The third thing makes the creature perfect in the way, namely, that it does all things to the glory of God, so that even its smallest desire will be as highly prized by God as if it were in the highest state of contemplation possible to humanity (The Flowing Light of the Godhead, 27).
But how can we love God? Can we just produce it within us?

The obvious answer is no. We do not love God by making ourselves do it, any more than we make ourselves love other people. But God makes us to love him by revealing to us who he is and how much he loves us: through the self-offering of Christ, and through the Holy Spirit which testifies within us that God loves us and has chosen us for salvation. This is what I have been saying over the course of my last few posts on 1 John: the Holy Trinity brings us to itself, the Holy Spirit helping us to believe that Christ is the Son of God, given for the sins of the whole world, the demonstration of the love of the Father for all.

So when we find the commandments of God burdensome, we ought to look deep within ourselves and try to find the voice of the Holy Spirit, prompting us towards something better. But if we hear no such voice, if we feel no such desire, at the very least we see that something is wrong -- which is itself a sign of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit! So we ought to ask of God, who gladly will give the Holy Spirit to all who ask of him (Luke 11:13).

Monday, May 23, 2016

Love as a mode of deification

First John 4:7-21 is perhaps one of the most profound and impressive reflections in Scripture on the nature of God and the life of a Christian. The central theme of this section is love as a mode of deification, a way of participating in the divine life. In this post, I want to consider some aspects of the life of deification according to vv. 16-21 of this passage.

First, John says: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (v. 16). This constitutes a straightforward statement of the nature of John's understanding of deification. Because the nature of God is love (cf. also v. 8), therefore those who abide in God -- who live in the life of the Holy Trinity, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit as adopted sons and co-heirs with Jesus Christ -- must be characterized by love. What God is by nature, Christians become through participation by grace. Importantly, too, there is an element of voluntary participation and collaboration with God: those who would abide in God must abide, must remain, must stay in the life of love. Certainly this love is not produced by them -- it comes from God (v. 7) -- but we must cooperate with God in this process.

Second, John says: Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world (v. 17). Notice the boldness to which John appeals: our boldness on the day of judgment comes from the fact that, through God's grace and through our own cooperation with him, we have become like him. When we will see God -- perhaps this is not too radical to say! -- we will see something of ourselves, because we have been transformed into his image and likeness through his mercy. Maybe it will be better to say that God will see himself in us. In any case, the boldness on the day of judgment comes from that which, by God's help, we have become. We will find ourselves at home and at rest in the presence of God: he won't be a stranger but someone rather familiar.

An important corollary of this is that, just as I have emphasized previously, the work of the Holy Spirit is to reconcile us to God. Our relationship with God is elevated to one of friendship, rather than servile fear: I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (John 15:15). Cast away is every fear or punishment or of rejection; in its place is planted the seed of righteousness: a genuine and true love for God. Thus John repeats: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love (v. 18).

Importantly, too, the deified person recognizes that this is all due to the grace of God: We love because he first loved us (v. 19). There is no pride in all of this, nor is there any room for boasting, though we do not negate the necessity of the human person's faithfulness and persistence in God's grace through her own effort. As St. Mark the Ascetic wrote, if we are righteous, we are only giving God what is due to him in the first place; but he gives us eternal life and the gift of deification as a gift in response to our efforts:

A slave does not demand his freedom as a reward; but he gives satisfaction as one who is in debt, and he receives freedom as a gift. (§3) 
A master is under no obligation to reward his slaves; on the other hand, those who do not serve him well are not given their freedom. (§19) 
When Scripture says 'He will reward every man according to his works' (Matt. 16: 27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer. (§22; On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works, in Philokalia, vol. I)
So we must think of ourselves in this way: Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ (Luke 17:9-10).

John goes on to emphasize the inextricably social aspects to deification: Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (v. 20). As I have emphasized in a previous post, if God is love and this means he loves all people and works towards their salvation, this means further that he wishes to do it through you and me. This is the high calling and grace of God towards humans: the offer that they be the instruments through which he saves this world. But if a person instead adopts a stance of indifference or even hatred towards another person, that is tantamount to turning one's back on God, as well, for God cannot be separated from the person about whom he is concerned. We ought to check ourselves often, to see if indifference or hatred for a bother is separating us from God, who is love.

And so the final verse: The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters (v. 21). There is much to say here, but I want to emphasize one thing only. The deified person, I think, does not see the commandments of God as burdensome or tedious, but rather takes joy in them. He sees that they are right, he rejoices in them, he finds they resonate with what he feels on the inside and what he knows. Thus John later says: For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome (5:3). Those persons who teach about a God of "grace" who does away with all commandments, or who does not impose any commandment or necessity on the Christian, are coming very close to teaching a false god. Christ himself said: You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14). If your Christ does not command us anything, does not expect anything of us, then he is not John's Christ, and certainly not the Christ of the apostles.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The problem with deterministic theology

Theological determinism of the sort affirmed in classical Calvinist theology holds the following principle: the will and voluntary determination of God is causally and logically prior to the contingent historical occurrences which take place thanks to God's providence. Thus if a certain person turns out sinful, dies unreconciled to God and inherits eternal damnation, God's own will that this should be so is both logically and causally prior to this event itself: God's creation of the world and its preservation in existence is clearly the causally prior condition; but also God's will is logically prior, in that God did not merely foreknow that this would happen but instead decided that it would, without acting on the basis of foreknowledge of causally independent creatures' choices.

This view is arguably entailed by the classical theistic conception of God. On this view, God is omniscient, and this means he knows what people are going to do in the future. He knows what I will do tomorrow, and whether I will be saved or lost, etc. But God is also characterized by aseity, which means that he owes the perfection of his being to nothing outside of him. God isn't strong by virtue of something outside of him, for example, but simply is omnipotent in himself. But now if God is omniscient and knows what I will do in the future, and if by his aseity he doesn't know this through anything outside of himself, then presumably the only way he can know it is by knowing himself—or more specifically, by knowing what he has willed to happen with me. So classical theism seems to entail theological determinism.

This wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that God evidently will judge us for the good and evil that we do. If you hold, for example, that Jones is going to die and be punished in hell for his sins, the theological determinist has also to maintain that God's will is both causally and logically prior to this event. His will ultimately explains why it will happen. The problem now is this: it is contrary to the phenomenology of moral accountability and responsibility that one person should punish another for the latter's actions, so long as the former's will stands in an explanatory relation of total causal and logical priority to the latter's action. If Smith's volition is both causally and logically prior to Jones's crime (say he hypnotized Jones and convinced him to want to kill his wife as well as to go through with it), then it is impossible for Smith rightly and justly to punish Jones for this particular crime. In the same way, on the theological determinist picture, God's will is causally and logically prior to every facet of a human person's existence and history; the whole human person is only exactly that which God wanted her to be. For this reason, it can never be just for God to punish her for things she has done wrong.

The key issue here is that of logical priority. If a know a person is liable to commit a crime under certain circumstances, I may work to bring about those circumstances so as to catch them in the act. And I could rightly punish them for what I catch them doing. But this presupposes that my own volition is not logically prior to theirs, since the success of my scheme depends intrinsically on the free cooperation of the other person. There is an essential element of spontaneity and a lack of total control that is absolutely essential to genuine moral relations. As soon as I assume a position of logical priority to the volition of the other person—if I hypnotize them or take control of their brain through an implant or whatever—then my ability to punish is fatally compromised. Likewise, if another person should have stood in such relations of priority to my own volition as regards some particular action, then I rightly renounce all responsibility for it—regardless of whether I wanted to do it, or whether I satisfy whatever other conditions of compatibilist notions of freedom.

This is why Calvinism and other deterministic theological paradigms are to be rejected. So long as we hold that God's will is logically and causally prior to the will of the creature in every way, there is no longer any justice in punishing sinners, nor is there any genuine fellowship between God and humankind more generally.

Put another way, this is the central and most important "problem of evil" for deterministic theology: the phenomenology of moral relations makes it impossible for God justly and rightly to punish sinners, so long as his will is logically and causally prior to the volition of the agent. On the contrary, there now seems to be no conceivable, justifiable reason for God to do such a thing in the first place. It seems to speak more than anything of pure and unmotivated malice.

Suppose someone says that God decrees the damnation of the reprobate for the sake of the elect, so that they might know God's mercy better as well as his justice. On this view, God still exhibits an apparently arbitrary malice towards the reprobate considered in themselves, who are ultimately as they are simply because God decided they would be. Even if they should, perhaps through some sort of perversity of their own will, agree that they deserve eternal punishment or even desire it, this too would still be ultimately explained by God's logically and causally prior will. The potential for that kind of pure malevolence is despicable in itself, something no one would conceive of as possible for even a good person, let alone God, and so cannot rightly be attributed to God without blasphemy.

For this reason, too, deterministic theology is to be rejected. If the alternative is maintaining an apparently irreconcilable tension between classical theism and genuine human freedom, that is preferable. Perhaps there are simply some mysteries that cannot be known. Better that than to describe God in these terms.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Sin is the failure to love

First John 4:16b says this:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
I understand from this verse that sin which ruptures our relationship with God, sin which separates us from God so that he no longer abides in us nor do we abide in him, can be understood as a failure to love in the manner that is natural to God. Put another way, to remain in friendship with God means to love in the way that is natural to God, to love in a way that reflects that same love which is God himself. The failure to love in this manner is effectively to cut off friendship with God.

Why is this important? Why does this matter? In this day and age, many people simply do not see why Christians think some things are sins. Some persons talk and think as if God simply named certain things at random and declared them sins, perhaps for no other reason than to rain on our parade. But this verse suggests a different line of thinking altogether: rather than being arbitrary in his declarations of sin, God himself in his love functions as the standard and measure of the life a human should live; sin is a failure to conform with the love that God himself is. God wants us to be like him and to reflect his character; this is what we were made for. Sin consequently is the failure to maintain this likeness and to step outside of the boundaries dictated for human nature.

I want to emphasize this point with respect to sexual sin. Love, of course, is a concern for the good of the other person for her own sake, a respect for her intrinsic dignity and a refusal to objectify her or to treat her merely as a means to personal gain. Sexual sin, however, constitutes a failure to adopt this attitude towards the other person with respect to her sexuality. This is why lust is always a sin: it means gazing upon the other person merely as a sexual object, merely as a means for the satisfaction of sexual desire. (It goes without saying that sexual attraction as such is not the same as lust.)

Sex outside of the context of marriage is also a sin, and a grave one. The desire to engage in sexual activity with the other person without fundamentally committing oneself to her, without accepting responsibility for the natural consequence of sex (namely, procreation), demonstrates a level of objectification and disrespect for the full being of the other person. The same line of reasoning clearly applies to intentionally and unnaturally non-procreative sex within the context of marriage.

I mention all of these things because sexual ethics is one perennially controversial element of Christian teaching, even among Christians themselves who in large numbers have abandoned the traditional views (and not typically for any good reasons). There is something about the unrestrained sexual impulse that presents a deep and fundamental impediment to religious devotion. John of Damascus writes the following about sinful postlapsum humans:
For, since [man] had been created half way between God and matter, should he be freed from his natural relationship to creatures and united to God by keeping the commandment, then he was to be permanently united to God and immutably rooted in good. Should he, on the other hand through his disobedience turn his mind away from his Author—I mean God—and tend rather toward matter, then he was to be associated with corruption, to become passible rather than impassible, and mortal rather than immortal. He was to stand in need of carnal copulation and seminal generation, and because of his attachment to life was not only to cling to these pleasures as if they were necessary to sustain his life, but also to hate without limit such as would think of depriving him of them (De Fide Orthodoxa II:30).
The Damascene apparently connects the obsession with sex and the violent resistance to the attempt to limit engagement in sex to some kind of deep awareness of death, guilt, and separation from God. Perhaps Ernest Becker might say the same thing, even if in different terms and for different reasons. In any case, the central point and observation to note here is this: sex and exaggerated attachment to it presents a powerful, sometimes violent impediment to true religion and morals.

But it is not a thinking or rational obstacle; it is unthinking. The arguments in favor of Christian sexual ethics are relatively clear, and the responses to the arguments are in many cases attempts to confuse matters by appeal to alleged persistent ambiguities and uncertainties about issues of metaphysics and nature with relatively easy answers. Other persons are just overwhelmed at the prospect of having to limit themselves in this particular domain of their lives. But that it is difficult, or that it provokes a response of revulsion, does nothing to show that Christian sexual ethics is false.

The truth remains in spite of all this: those who live outside of love, those who knowingly fail to love in the manner which God has taught us through the self-sacrifice of Christ (cf. 1 John 4:7-10), sin in a way that fractures their friendship with God. Precisely because the desires involved in this domain of life are so powerful and often overwhelming, we therefore ought to be increasingly careful and watchful over ourselves. And we should not forget this profound truth from the Damascene: it is impossible to observe the commandments of the Lord except by patience and prayer (De Fide Orthodoxa IV:22).

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What about Romans 9?

Someone asked me for some comments on how I understand Romans 9. Of course, the ninth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans is the go-to passage for all discussions involving predestination, Calvinism, and other unseemly topics such as these. It is taken by many as straightforwardly teaching that God has predestined some to salvation, others to damnation, and even gives the classic answer to those who question the goodness of this: But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? (v. 20).

I agree with the predestinarian exegesis of this chapter on the following basic ideas: God has exercised the right of election at various points in the history of the Israelite people, and this is his right as God to make what he wishes of his creation. However, I deny that this is the whole story, because Paul clearly goes on to say much more about the persons involved in his discussion in context.

Reading Romans 9, the Calvinist would have you understand that the Jews who do not believe in Jesus (these are, after all, the persons he opens up the discussion about in vv. 1-5) have been predestined by God unto damnation. This is why they do not believe: God has chosen not to soften their hearts to the truth, and this was his prerogative, so as to make the depth of his mercy all the deeper known to his elect. But the fate of these very same persons is later brought up in ch. 11, and there Paul's answer is far more optimistic and open.

He asks: have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, to as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if they defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! (11:11-12).  Here has suddenly raised the possibility of the full inclusion of the same Israelites who have stumbled, whose hearts are hardened. He makes it clear that this hardening which has come upon the Israelites has indeed been imposed by God, but with a salutary providential end in mind: to make them jealous of the Gentiles.

Now the implication of the Calvinist exegesis of Romans 9 is not only that the Jews who do not believe are reprobate, but also that the Gentile readers are elect -- and if you are a Calvinist, your election is from eternity and irreversible; an elect person can fail to be saved. But he explicitly denies this in the next verses of ch. 11:

But if some of the branches [of Israel] were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. ... They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you (vv. 17-21).

The status of the Gentile believers is no longer as certain as they might have thought. There is a peril and a danger affecting them: if they do not stand firm in faith but instead get proud, they will be cut off too. And the other Jews, apparently reprobate from the beginning of eternity, were cut off (i.e., removed from God's community while previously being part of it) because of their unbelief. God's removal is not ante praevisa merita, prior to foreseen merits, but as a result of it. Because they did not believe, therefore they were cut off, not prior to this. On the other hand, notice what else Paul says:

Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again (vv. 22-23).

At this point Paul understands there to be some sort of mobility with respect to the people of God, and the explicitly named cause of entry or forced exit is the will of the human person herself: God cuts off those who fall through unbelief, but is continually kind to those who persist in his kindness, that is, who maintain faithfulness to that which God has revealed and to which he has called us. And neither is the cutting off permanent, contrary to the predestinarian story the Calvinist tries to find in Romans 9: those who are cut off, these same persons who were supposedly rejected by God from all eternity, may nevertheless be welcomed back in, provided that they did not insist on their unbelief. This phrasing implies that it depends on them! Paul doesn't say that God has the power to bring them back in simpliciter, but the power to bring them back in provided that they renounce their unbelief, just as he cut them off because of their unbelief, not through it.

In brief, then, my argument against the Calvinist who points to Romans 9 as proof positive of his predestinarian story is this: the very conclusions the Calvinist wants to draw, given his interpretation of that chapter, are later negated and reversed by Paul in ch. 11. Those who do not believe were hardened by God, yes, but this state need not be permanent, and it depends on them whether it remains so or not, which is exactly the opposite of the belief of the Calvinist who holds that they have been reprobated from all eternity.

Will this convince Calvinists? No, probably not. But on the other hand, I don't really care about that. Epictetus once exclaimed, God save me from people who've studied a little philosophy! No one is harder to win over. In the same way, God save me from people who've studied a little theology -- and that only Calvinist! No one is harder to win over. The view that God has decided from eternity to create certain persons for the sake of damning them deservedly for their sins is morally abhorrent, and most people immediately feel the same way upon first hearing about it. The proposal attributes malice and ill-will to God -- that's the only intelligible way to understand the claim that God determines to create some person for the sake of making him a right candidate for eternal punishment -- which, in the words of Isaac the Syrian, is unspeakably blasphemous and calumny, originating from a childish way of thinking. Strong words, yes, but so many Calvinists are so divisive and lacking in any ecumenical spirit that they probably feel the same way about other groups, anyway, so it's a taste of their own medicine. Numerous and important Church Fathers explicitly reject predestination of the Calvinist sort: e.g., John of Damascus in De Fide Orthodoxa IV, 19-21. This intuition that predestination so described is unworthy of God ought not be ignored.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The cry of dereliction

What is going on at the scene of the cross, when Jesus cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34). Can it really be that the Son of God is genuinely abandoned by his Father, so that the trinitarian relations are ruptured? This is what many contemporary theologians affirm, such as Jürgen Moltmann in The Crucified God. I think this position is hopeless, however, a metaphysical impossibility. What would it mean for the Father and the Son to be at odds with each other except now there are two gods? Or worse, now there is no God at all, since social trinitarians such as Moltmann understand the unity of God to consist in the relations of love and faithfulness between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It seems to me obvious that Jesus is citing from Ps 22, which opens up with those very words. But it is equally well known that Ps 22, though it begins on a note of desparation, ends with hopeful assurance of God's faithfulness:

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sistesrs;
  in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
  All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
  stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
  the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
  but heard when I cried to him (vv. 20-24).

The common explanation of the cry of dereliction I heard growing up was this: Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, and since God the Father is too holy to look upon sin, therefore he turned his countenance away from Jesus. But v. 24 of Ps 22 explicitly contradicts this explanation: he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. So much for that!

I think that Jesus is citing the psalm when he quotes its opening line during his crucifixion. And I think it is critically important that he does so, because he clearly would have known that the ending of the psalm is not the same as its beginning:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
  and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
  shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
  and he rules over the nations (vv. 27-8).

Jesus knew and announced ahead of time that he would be resurrected from the dead. That doesn't mean that his sufferings weren't real, but it does mean that he wasn't utterly hopeless and overcome by despair at the moment of death. Jesus hear cites the psalm to do two things: first, to show his identification with the desperate and abandoned state of humanity in general; second, to call our attention to the inevitability of his resurrection, after which this apparent defeat will become obviously merely apparent.

In this way, then, I maintain that Jesus was not totally overcome by despair in his sufferings. Why is that so important? Because it means that we are not totally overcome in our sufferings, either. All throughout the New Testament, it is clear that Christians will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven only by suffering persecutions and trials. But we cannot think that such suffering constitutes abandonment by God, as if God is only with us if we are doing well. Rather, God is with us precisely in our sufferings, just as the divine nature of Christ did not separate from the human at the moment of his crucifixion. Knowing that God is always with us, our suffering becomes a participation in Christ's suffering: this life is the cross, but after the cross follows resurrection. And as Athanasius said, with this hope in mind, we can trample upon death as on something dead, because death is dead to us.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Is sin against God infinitely heinous?

It is interesting to note the reaction people have when they notice some dearly beloved symbol being offended, even if strictly no physical harm is done. Consider the reaction you might get, for example, if you drive around certain parts of downtown flying a Confederate flag from the back of your truck; or if you use an American flag as a doormat; or even if you insult a beloved and dearly departed figure of national history. These actions are not strictly speaking harmful: no one will bleed if you use the American flag to wipe your feet as you enter the house. But plenty of people take great offense at these symbolic acts of rejection and irreverence, and oftentimes the response is even violent.

Why is this? I take it this happens because we understand something to be of great value, and that valued demands a corresponding respect in the behavior of others. Some things are to be respected and treated with dignity because they are good, and the opposite behavior is subject to punishment and censure. This is true even if the beloved object which has been insulted is incapable of harm -- say because an American flag is not sentient at all, or because the dearly beloved person who has been insulted is dead and so incapable of suffering harm.

This shows that the gravity of an immoral act is not always a function of the harm it produced. Some things can be deeply immoral and consequently censurable even if they are not strictly speaking harmful.

These reflections help us to understand the Christian claim that sins against God are especially heinous. This is because God represents the ultimate value; everything else is truly good only thanks to some resemblance to and participation in the goodness which God is himself. God is the paradigm and embodiment of intrinsic value; nothing could be good unless God himself shared some goodness with it in some way or other. Because God is the Good Itself, consequently sins against God -- refusal to live in keeping with God's will -- are all the more heinous. It is not merely some good person or good thing which has been insulted; it is the Good itself, it is value itself, it is goodness and meaning and life itself which has been insulted and rejected.

Now of course God cannot be harmed by anything we do. This is the classical theistic doctrine of God's impassibility: he is incapable of suffering harm or of being affected by anything we do. But we have already seen that the gravity of an act does not necessarily consist in the harm it produces in another being. The gravity of sin comes not from the supposition that God has been harmed in some way, but rather from the insult and attitude implicit in a rejection of Goodness itself.

Certainly not every sin is on a par. Some sins represent more heinous rejections of goodness than others, and not every sin is undertaken in a manner that is fully responsible. Many people reject God but out of an ignorance of who he is: they do not know that God is the Good; they think of him as just another being among beings, and a particularly annoying one at that, who is just concerned to keep us from having fun. A person like that who rejects God doesn't know what he's rejecting, and although serious, I should think his sin is less grave. But a person who understands and sees clearly that God represents the paradigm of value, and that consequently a life should be lived in keeping with God's will, but instead rejects God because only in this manner can he act as his own guide and source of value in life -- such a person's sin is truly mortal and deserves infinite punishment. A rejection of the Good itself, of everything that is valuable and intrinsically worthy of dignity and worship and respect: this is the attitude of an utter reprobate who deserves punishment by any reasonable judgment.

Because sin is so grave, consequently we ought to be so careful in our own lives. Too often we are tricked into thinking that sin is not bad, that is really a "forbidden pleasure," and the more we ruminate on the pleasure, the less reasonable we find that it is forbidden. We have to remind ourselves what is really at stake in an act of sin: it is an act of cosmic rebellion and a usurping of true and proper values. Furthermore, because sin is so grave, it is therefore all the more wondrous and unbelievable that God himself, the Good against whom we sin and insult, took on human nature in Jesus Christ and made atonement for our sins through his life and his cross. The Good, though we insult him, wants our salvation and not our death. Beyond teaching us what is right and wrong, he makes efforts to bring us in line with the truth in our actions as well, and does everything in his providence to keep us from punishment. Thanks be to God!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An argument for the existence of God

I have been thinking lately about an argument for the existence of God which I have found stated more informally in Joseph Ratzinger as well as Dumitru Stăniloae. I think it is a fascinating argument and a very good one, at that. The basic idea is that the intelligibility of the world (a precondition for the possibility of knowledge) speaks to its origin in an intelligent cause. 

First, I begin with the premise that if we are to have genuine knowledge of the world, there must be a certain isomorphism between the structures of our understanding and the real ontological structures of the things in the world which we know. In other words, our concepts of things have somehow to match and reflect and represent the way the actual things are in themselves. Otherwise we do not genuinely know about anything outside of our minds. But I take it that in the modern scientific age, we cannot seriously deny that we know things; it's taken for granted by the religious devotees of Modern Science. Not only that, the denial that we know anything cannot be coherently affirmed, unless the person who affirms it admits to not knowing whether the denial is true. 

So the structures of our understanding, if we are to have genuine knowledge, must in someway match and represent the actual ontological structure of the things we know. Now, second, we find that there is a certain contingency in the way things are actually structured. For example, I have an understanding of my coffee cup as blue, cylindrical, and being made of porcelain. But not everything that's blue has to be cylindrical, nor does everything made of porcelain have to be blue, and so on. These qualities are separable from each other. The most obvious evidence of this separability is the fact that I can destroy my cup in such a manner that it might no longer exhibit all these qualities at once. And if my understanding of the cup is genuine knowledge, then the contingent unity of these qualities in my concept of the cup matches with a genuine contingency of their unity in the actual cup itself. 

Now, this contingent unity has to be explained somehow. In the case of my own concept of the cup, it is my mind which brings the various component concepts of the cup into a single concept: my mind unites blueness, cylindricality, and being made of porcelain into a single concept of my coffee cup. It would seem reasonable, then, that the actual unity of the component qualities of the coffee cup (which is its existence) is itself ultimately brought about by a Mind, one which has the power to produce contingent beings and to bring them into existence by thinking of them. 

Of course, the immediate efficient cause of my coffee cup was some particular artisan or whatever who molded the porcelain, painted it, and so on. But that is just to raise the same problem at a different level. That person, too, exists as a result of the unity of her ontological constituents; she exists thanks to the unity of the organic matter composing her body and its arrangement in such a manner as to produce a living, functioning human body. Because the artisan is herself a composite object capable of being understood, the contingent unity of her constituent ontological parts also has to be explained somehow. 

Merely positing a long chain of composite objects which exist contingently will never explain the existence of those objects in the first place. Unless a book is first produced, it cannot be lended from one person to another, even if the chain were infinitely long, because the independent existence of the book is a precondition of the lending in the first place; an infinite chain of lenders does not and cannot explain the existence of the book. In the same way, an infinitely long chain of contingently existing composite objects cannot explain the existence of such objects in the first place. 

The ultimate explain of contingent composite intelligible objects must not be any of these things. It must be necessarily existent, because otherwise it would need a cause of its own and could not function as an ultimate explanation. It must not be composite for the same reason: if it were composite, it would need something to explain the unity of its constituent parts. And finally, it cannot be intelligible because it isn't capable of being dissected into component parts and analyzed in that way. Rather, this ultimate explanation has to be the ultimate ground of all intelligibility. 

This ultimate explanation must also be a Mind. It must be intelligent because it must be capable of teleological, goal-oriented behavior: it must be capable of producing particular effects and obviously a wide variety of them, as well. It must be capable, for example, of uniting subatomic particles in such a manner as to produce a hydrogen atom and not something else, and of uniting hydrogen and other sorts of atoms in such a manner as to produce planets capable of sustaining life, etc. 

The intelligibility of the universe, then, is evidence of its origin in an intelligent source. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The sin of questioning God

When humans suffer, they often question God, as if he has done them some wrong. For example, consider the recent case of an Israeli man who asked a court for a restraining order against God. According to the article, this man "argued that over a three-year period God, had exhibited a seriously negative attitude toward him." Why should this be happening to me? What is your problem? -- That is the questioning spirit of the person who is suffering.

To say that questioning God is a sin is provocative and perhaps even offensive. What about persons who have suffered such intolerable evils as famine, death, kidnapping, rape, and all other sorts of things? It is a sin for those persons to question why God should have allowed all this to happen? 

The title of this blog post comes from the following exchange in Niko Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (Scribner, 1960). After heavy rains destroys a village's harvest, Jacob and Jesus have the following exchange:
The son of Mary sighed. "Ah, if there was only one man who had the strength to starve to death so that the people would not die of hunger!" 
Jacob glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "If you were able to become wheat," he scoffed, "so that the people could eat you and be saved, would you do it?" 
"Who wouldn't?" said the son of Mary. 
Jacob's hawk eyes flickered, as did his thick, protruding lips. "Me," he answered. 
The son of Mary went silent. The other took offense. "Why should I perish?" he growled. "It was God who sent the flood. What did I do wrong?" He looked fiercely at the sky. "Why did God do it? How did the people offend him? I don't understand -- do you, son of Mary?" 
"Don't ask, my brother: it's a sin. Until a few days ago I too asked, but now I understand. This was the serpent which corrupted the first creatures and made God banish us from Paradise." 
"What do you mean by 'this'?" 
"Asking questions." 
"I don't understand," said Zebedee's son, and he quickened his pace (p. 120).
Jesus here suggests that it's a sin to ask questions of why God does this or that. (He doesn't say that it is a mortal sin, however.) In fact, questioning God -- doubting his character and the sincerity of his words, his good intentions for us in everything he does -- was the cause of the original sin, because of which the first humans were expelled from Paradise. Can there be anything to support this proposition?

This morning I was reading from the prophet Jeremiah. He writes this:

You will be in the right, O Lord, 
  when I lay charges against you;
  but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
  Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jer 12:1).

The complaint is the typical one of the apparent moral imbalance in the world: against what would seem to us plainly just, those who are righteous suffer and those who are wicked seem to benefit from God's special favor. The prophet goes on: 

You plant them, and they take root;
  they grow and bring forth fruit;
you are near in their mouths
  yet far from their hearts (v. 2).

But notice that the prophet, while bringing forth his complaint about God's apparent injustice, at the same time is confident that God has done nothing wrong. You will be in the right, O Lord, when I lay charges against you. So there is a strange paradoxical attitude embodied in this passage: on the one hand, the prophet is deeply dissatisfied with God's actual practice and is convinced that something is wrong; yet on the other, he is confident that God will be proved to be right. Why then bring the complaint at all, if you think God is in the right? 

There is an interesting kind of conflict here between a philosophically and scripturally adequate conception of deity, on the one hand, and our own sense of injustice and resentment when we suffer, on the other. If we are convinced, for example, that God is love (1 John 4:8), then we must think that everything that comes into our life is ordered by that love for our own ultimate benefit, as St. Anthony the Great has said -- even if things should appear otherwise to us. But when we come across some bit of adversity, to put it mildly, or when we suffer greatly, we might find ourselves questioning everything we previously believed, and impugning God's character.

Consider the case of the Hebrews being led into the promised land, an example I've mentioned various times on my blog here. Moses says to them:

All of you came to me and said, "Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to." The plan seemed good to me, and I selected twelve of you, one from each tribe. They set out and went up into the hill country, and when they reached the Valley of Eshcol they spied it out and gathered some of the land's produce, which they brought down to us. They brought back a report to us, and said, "It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving to us."

But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you grumbled in your tents and said, "It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. Where are we headed? Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, 'The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!'" (Deut 1:22-8).

The Hebrew people, in spite of all the miracles and wonders they had seen coming out of slavery in Egypt, still doubted God when they had come across the first bit of adversity. No sign of his goodwill was enough; they were convinced that it was all a ruse to bring them out into the desert so they could be slaughtered like animals. They questioned God's motives and his goodwill, and because of that, When the LORD heard your words, he was wrathful and swore: "Not one of these -- not one of this evil generation -- shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors" (Deut 1:34-5). 

Why do the Hebrews question God? This is clearly speculative, but my hunch is that there is some kind of deep awareness of our own guilt before God which comes out and manifests itself in these ugly ways at times of suffering and adversity. We know that we have sinned before God; but rather than admit the guilt and ask forgiveness, we project the guilt onto God, as if he has done us wrong and we are in the right. Indeed, almost any time we suffer in some way because of the actions of others, we think we don't deserve this, that we are being wronged, that our crimes are not actually that bad, and so on. Clearly the fear of and aversion to suffering and pain leads us to justify ourselves, even when our suffering is deserved and appropriate. So also when we discern God to be the only explicable cause of our suffering: we think we can't have done anything wrong, so it must be that he is in the wrong here. We are supposed to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20); we are not supposed to oppose ourselves to him.

Is it a sin, then, to question God? There are at least two senses of the word "question" which need to be specified. On the one hand, there is a questioning which seeks to understand rather than to accuse. Here I am thinking of that wonderful phrase fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. This is a quaestio or an investigation that begins from a place of trust. This could not be a sin. On the other hand, there is a "questioning" which does not begin from trust but rather from mistrust. This kind of questioning is an accusation, whether implicit or explicit, of the goodness of God. Of course, God could not in principle do wrong; God is, in Anselm's phrase, that than which no greater can be conceived, and such a person could not do wrong. Questioning God in this accusatory sense consequently seems to be a sin because it opposes the questioner to God, and it puts the questioner in a position of moral superiority to God -- which can never be the case.

It is especially interesting to note the deep irrationality of questioning God in this second sense, at least as it comes from persons who ought to know better. Persons who are theologically and philosophically informed, who know that God cannot in principle do any wrong, nevertheless sometimes find themselves disposed to question or to accuse God in times of suffering. This is another case of the irrationality of sin, about which I've written before. In light of this, the reality of suffering presents us with the responsibility to exercise some amount of control over how we will live our life: will rationality and scripture, by which we know that God cannot do wrong, prevail over our thinking, or will the truth of the matter -- that God is righteous, and that he cannot do any wrong -- dictate our thoughts?

Now, it is obvious that not every sin is mortal, and often times persons are exculpated by various factors implicit in their situation. I do not claim that persons who are in the middle of extreme suffering or horrendous evil are guilty for questioning God's character; they might not be able to help it in those circumstances. Still, however, the tendency to question God -- and by this, I mean accusingly to question -- is a dangerous one that ought to be taken note of and not cultivated or engaged in.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Suspicion of metaphysics can make you a bad person

The title of this blog post is intentionally provocative, but I stand by the general idea, as I will make it clear throughout this post.

Kant developed a particular approach to reconciling the rationalist and empiricist philosophies of previous generations which is called transcendental idealism. On the one hand, the rationalists were metaphysical realists who understood ordinary objects of experience in categories that strictly speaking were not empirically discovered. The empiricists, on the other hand, decided to limit their claim to knowledge to what can be directly observed through the senses. David Hume and his extreme metaphysical skepticism represents the logical terminus of empiricist epistemology: even causality, as basic a concept as it is to understanding the real world, became instead a habit of the mind imposed on objects, with no real (i.e. extra-mental) existence.

Kant sees the importance of the metaphysical concepts of time, causality, etc. for understanding the world, yet he grants the empiricist claim that these concepts are not gained through sense experience. His resolution is to call these concepts "transcendental": they are preconditions of experience, without which intelligible experience isn't possible. These act like a "filter" through which the mind understands the world. In a sense, these concepts are imposed upon the object of experience to make it intelligible. The result of this is that genuine metaphysical knowledge of reality in itself is impossible; we can only know things as they appear to us.

Now this means that we cannot ground ethics in metaphysics. We cannot construct an ethical system on such a notion as human nature and natural teleology, because we cannot know such things. Kant cannot claim to know what human nature consists in, because this is not knowable, given his distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal, that is, between the thing in itself and the thing as it appears to us.

If metaphysical knowledge is impossible, then ethics quickly becomes relativist and subjectivist. That is because there is nothing in the real world by appeal to which you can justify or motivate your actions; the "real" world is cut off from your access. Instead, ethics can only be grounded in the contingent and subjective impulses with which you find yourself.

What happens when your impulses are not good? What happens when your impulse is to engage in sexual activity with someone other than your husband or wife, or when your impulse is to manipulate another person for your own monetary gain, or when your impulse is to dominate the other person out of a fear of the exotic, or whatever? There is now nothing beyond your own impulse and desire to which you can appeal to justify or condemn your own actions. Very quickly, then, given the fact of human depravity, this kind of metaphysical skepticism will translate into debauchery and sin. Lacking a principled reason to prefer conscience, and lacking a principled reason to prefer self-control, you might quickly fall into a kind of crass hedonism that is utterly repulsive.

Of course, you might say that you have a conscience which condemns you when you do those things. But you cannot provide a principled reason for preferring conscience to the impulse for evil which has arisen in you; there is no metaphysical basis for preferring one to the other. More than that, conscience is not an infallible guide to right and wrong: some persons consciences are seared, and you have no grounds for convincing them that they are wrong, nor even of justifying the judgment that their consciences are seared (i.e., defective or dead) apart from your own baseless moral intuition.

It is not difficult to see that this kind of thinking can motivate a kind of totalitarian and intolerant attitude toward differing moral opinions, too. Reasoning with others on moral matters by appeal to objective criteria is no longer possible, because we can have no metaphysical knowledge. The only way forward is empty appeals to intuition or else shouting the other person down, or worse.

So a skepticism about metaphysics can quickly or slowly make you a bad person.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Spirit and knowing God's love

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us (1 John 4:13-16).
There are an interesting number of parallelisms present in these brief verses, and they can prove illuminating for understanding John's own theology of the Spirit.

On the one hand, the mutual abiding of God and the Christian is known through the possession of the Holy Spirit. Yet this possession cannot be separated from confession: those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God abide in God, and God abides in them, too. John perhaps make this clear in light of the dangerous teachers afflicting his target audience, who might even have claimed to have the Spirit of God but who denied that Jesus was the Son of God. He certainly has false teachers in mind when writing this letter, for he mentions them: I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you (2:26). Over and against these false teachers, John consistently appeals to his authority as a member of the apostolic community (cf. the eyewitness claims in 1:1-4). So this provides a fine measure of a person's possession of the Spirit of God: does that person confess that Jesus is the Son of God, or not? If he does not, then that person cannot have the Spirit -- whatever other manifestations of spirituality there might be.

On the other hand, there is also a close connection between possession of the Spirit and certain conceptions about God's attitude towards us in Jesus Christ. Notice how John defines the apostolic confession: we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Of course, if Christ is the Savior of the world, then he is my savior too! A person who possesses the Spirit of God will not live in servile fear of God, worrying constantly about being stricken or damned with no trust in God whatsoever. On the contrary, the Spirit of God convinces us of the love that God has for us, as John says. This is echoed also in Paul's theology of the Spirit: For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom 8:15-16). The Spirit convinces us that God is fundamentally for us; that his primary attitude towards us is one of love and concern, and that he has made us his children.

So we see, then, that possession of the Spirit, for John anyway, is closely connected to a Christian's beliefs and confession. The Spirit convinces us that God is love (1 John 4:8) and makes us aware of that love as it has been manifested and expressed through Christ (vv. 9-10). In this way, we can see how the Holy Spirit to some extent directs our attention to Christ as the unique medium through which the love of God and his salvific concern are made known. It is hard not to draw the inference that, as far as John is concerned, the Holy Spirit will not draw our attention to some other would-be savior, since certainly these were available at the time of his writing. On the contrary, the Holy Trinity brings us to itself and not to another: the Spirit opens our eyes to Christ, and Christ reveals to us the love of the Father.

I hesitate to make another point here, as well. If a part of the confession of the Spirit is that Jesus is the Savior of the world, what sense can we make of theologies which attempt to limit the salvific intent of God in Christ to something less than the whole world? It seems clear to me that "world" in this context means "all human persons," because this is evidently the way that John uses the phrase when previously talking about the atonement of Christ: He is the atoning sacrifices for our sins , and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world (2:2). Because he is atoning for the sins of  the whole world, consequently the "whole world" has to be understood as human persons, who have sins to be atoned, rather than some other impersonal object. Yet if this is the way that John is using the word "world," then can we draw the conclusion that predestinarian theologies which limit the salvific intent of God in Christ are not from the Spirit?

If John is dealing with gnostic teachers afflicting his congregations, then it might not be a stretch to think that a part of their false teaching included a kind of predestinarian anthropology: some spiritual types are destined to gain saving knowledge of secret truths, whereas other, more earthy types are destined never to go beyond the awareness of the body and its passions. This kind of ontological predestination would have been unsatisfying to John, as I am reading him -- not because of the kind of determinism involved, but because it limited the salvific scope of God's work in Christ. This doesn't mean that John was a universalist; it means, however, that as far as God is concerned, John understands him to desire and to work for the salvation of all, though this might not be accomplished because of human freedom.

Whether or not I ought to push this latter point about predestination, I don't know. Certainly it doesn't follow from this that Calvinists and other predestinarians don't have the Spirit; my own experiences contradict such an extremist conclusion. But I am not very sympathetic to Calvinist predestinarian theology, though I can see the various arguments in its favor. In any case, the greater point of my posting is this: the Spirit, according to John, convinces us of the love which God has for us in Jesus Christ, and leads us to confess this.

Friday, May 6, 2016

John of Damascus against social trinitarianism

For some of my theology courses, I have had to read Plantinga, Thompson, and Lundberg's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). I am not really sympathetic to very much of their theological vision. I think they make a lot of the wrong dialectical moves: they reject classical theism; they affirm social trinitarianism and kenotic Christology; etc. In this post, I want to consider an argument against their proposed social trinitarian model drawing from John of Damascus, De Fide Orthodoxa.

PTL write the following about the trinity:

God is like a family, a community, or a society of persons (p. 138).

So it seems better to understand the Nicene homoousios in [terms of Aristotle's "secondary essence"]: Father and Son (and Spirit) are of the same essence in the sense that they are the same sort, same class, same kind -- persons who are all divine, who share a generic essence, each one manifesting the requisite divine attributes (eternal, almighty, etc.). Applied to the Trinity, on this view there are three persons as three primary essences united in one divine secondary essence, satisfying the classical trinitarian formula (p. 139).

There are some difficulties looming here, because this looks very close to polytheism. Presumably PTL want to maintain ardenly that "God" properly refers to the Holy Trinity, which is a single family:

But, finally, "God" in Christian perspective ought to refer first and foremost to the Holy Trinity -- the whole community of Father, Son, and Spirit (p. 146).

The problem now arises that typically, three things of a certain kind don't form another thing of the same kind. Three dogs do not form a single dog, any more than myself and my brother and my parents form a single human person. On the contrary, the name for the collection of three individual things with perfect individual existence is different than the name for the individuals: three dogs form a pack, and my brother, my parents, and I form a family. How, then, can the three persons of the Trinity, each of which are primary substances sharing in a common divine nature form a single God? "God" is what you would call the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, by virtue of their divine nature. Consequently, the collection of them has to have another name!

Consider the argument from John of Damascus:

We say that each of the three has perfect distinct subsistence; not, however, in such a way as to understand one perfect nature compounded of three imperfect natures, but one simple essence, eminently and antecedently perfect, in three Persons. For, anything that is made up of imperfect things is most definitely compounded, and it is impossible for there to be a compound of perfect individual substances. Hence, we do not say that the species is of the Persons, but in the Persons. Those things which do not retain the species of the thing made of them we call imperfect. Thus, stone, wood, and iron are each perfect in themselves according to their individual natures; but in relation to a house built of them they are all imperfect, because no one of them is by itself a house (De Fide Orthodoxa I:8).

The doctrine of the Trinity, according to John, is definitely not to be understood in social trinitarian terms such as PTL here suggest.

On the one hand, a compound can only be a compound of things which are imperfect as regards the nature of the compound. A brick is perfect or complete in itself as a brick, but as a house it is incomplete; it stands in need of other bricks, as well as wood and other such, in order for it to become a house. On the other hand, John insists that there cannot be a compound of perfect substances. This means that a mere collection of things complete in their own nature does not form another thing of that nature. As I said above, three dogs do not form one dog; they form something else, for example a pack. Likewise, a collection of football players do not form a big football player; rather they form something else, namely a team.

In the same way, if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfect in themselves as God or divine beings, then the collection of them cannot also be called "God." If the Father is God, then the three of them as a collective cannot be called God; it has to be called something else. Alternatively, if "God" properly refers to the Holy Trinity, the fellowship of the three persons, then each of them taken individually has to be imperfect as regards being God. They need to stand in that relation to one another in order to compose God, and none of them could properly be called God in his own right. Clearly both options are absurd and blasphemous!

So the social trinitarianism of PTL is hopeless, I think. To say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three primary essences (three individual things) which share a secondary essence (in other words, they fall under the same category of 'God') is just polytheism -- regardless of how tight we wish to make the connections between them. If it isn't polytheism, then it is something worse: denying the full divinity of the three Persons considered individually.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Christian apokatastasis: Two Paradigmatic Objections

I announce my first peer-reviewed publication:

"Christian apokatastasis: Two Paradigmatic Objections," Journal of Analytic Theology 4 (2016): 66-86.

Here is the abstract:

The present essay elaborates upon some of the important constituent elements of the classical universalist tradition, documented in detail by Ilaria Ramelli’s recent research, in dialog with Oliver Crisp and Jerry Walls, two contemporary objectors to the doctrine of different backgrounds. Its central claim is that the classical universalist tradition can respond to and accommodate the concerns of its objectors while maintaining the firm conviction of the eventual universal salvation.

I am thankful that by God's grace and by the help of many friends I was able to get an article accepted for publication in a very estimable journal while completing my M.Div. This paper is a later draft of the paper I read at the Rethinking Hell 2015 conference at Fuller in Pasadena last year, which you can find here: "Christian apokatastasis contra Crisp and Walls."

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When you hate the beloved of God

Yesterday I considered the following passage from 1 John:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another (4:11).

I noted that this verse invites an interpretation in light of the Christian doctrine of theosis. If God loves all people, and if he works for the good of all people and ultimately for their salvation, then my calling to live in love towards others is really a call to arms: God wishes me to work alongside him, or perhaps it is better to say that God wishes to work in the world through me. This is the highly dignifying and exalting call of Christianity: to present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God and instruments of righteousness (Rom 6:13).

There is another corollary of this, however. When I live and act out of love, I am used by God to further his salvific purposes and providential goals in the world. But what if instead of loving, I live in hate? What if instead of loving, I live in an attitude of indifference towards others? What follows then? The outcome is a grave one: I find myself opposing God and working, whether knowingly or not, to impede his providential purposes! I make myself into an enemy of God!

John puts it like this, though the context is slightly different: everyone who loves the parent loves the child (5:1). If you do not love the child, or worse, if you hate the child, then you have put yourself up against the parent. This is something to which we can all relate: the enemies of our children or of our spouses or of our best friends are our enemies; we don't stand idly by while someone tries to harm the people we love. What can we expect, then, if we turn out to hate the very person whom God loves, and whose salvation God desires, and for whom Christ died?

This is why hating a brother or a sister is such a grave and mortal sin: because through doing this, we turn ourselves against God. This is why John says that whoever does not love abides in death (3:14). When we fail to love, we turn ourselves against God and his providential purposes. What can the result be, except that we will be lost forever unless we turn and repent? No one who hates or who fails to love can be saved.

We have to take a close look at ourselves and search ourselves to see if we are not harboring any fatal hatred or indifference in our hearts which will separate us from God. I learned the lesson this weekend in a hard way that I don't have God's love in my heart many times. I respond out of fear, or out of contempt, or out of indifference, or out of coldness to the approach of another person. Rather than exercising simple hospitality and welcoming a person's advent into my life, I close myself off coldly -- for whatever reason, it is not always clear. This is a grave sin, and I realized that my primary orientation towards the world and towards others is not love, as it should be, but rather something else. Lord have mercy! God help me to cast out this darkness and to be filled instead with light; only this way can I or anyone else be saved.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Our love and God's love

I want to reflect briefly on this passage from 1 John:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another (4:11).

There are many interesting things going on in this verse. For example, John establishes God as a moral paradigm for human persons. Human ethical imperatives can be defined (at least some of the time) by reference to divine action; in other words, what God does can at times provide us with an authoritative example of how we ought to act. Of course, there are certain things which God is said to do and we are forbidden from doing (see Romans 12:19-20). But in this particular case, the loving intervention of God in the person of his Son (1 John 4:8-10) is taken as a binding moral example for Christians to follow.

Beyond this, there is also a certain way of understanding the relation of human love to divine love which is implicit in this passage. It is taken as proven that God loves us, and therefore because of this love, he acts towards us in various ways, always seeking our benefit. In that context, we are told that we also ought to love one another. It seems to me clear, then, that our love for one another becomes a way of participating in the loving activity of God towards all people.

If God loves Bill, then he acts towards Bill out of that love, seeking his good. But if I am being called also to love Bill, well, another way of understanding this call is that I am being summoned to participate in the loving work of God towards Bill. Just as God is concerned for Bill's salvation and seeks to do Bill good in various ways, so also I am being invited to work alongside God—or perhaps it is better to say that God wants to work through me for Bill's salvation.

This is the doctrine of theosis: I participate in the "energies" or works of God in the world, and in this way I am deified. I don't become God by nature; rather, I work alongside him and he works through me to take care of the world. That's the dignity of the call to love! God himself, through my love which he gives me (because love is from God: 1 Jn 4:7), wants to take care of my neighbors.

Some people think that the call to love our neighbors and especially our enemies is an invitation to foolishness. It demands that we open ourselves up to victimization in a way that is beneath our dignity. On the contrary! The call to love bestows upon the human person a dignity which no other terrestrial creature shares: a chance to participate in the loving providence of God and in this way to be deified.