Saturday, 24 November 2012

cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Speaking from the pulpit last Sunday at the Church of the Ascension, I said that "[prayer] is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God."

Looking over a recent post from Roger E. Olson, one of my favorite theo-bloggers among those with whom I typically expect to disagree, I see him developing this point by describing his youthful encounter with an essay by Reformed theologian James Daane called “Can a Man Bless God?”:
Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do.
While I am as I said sympathetic with their premise to a point, I find myself only able to go so far with Daane and Olson. [And, for that matter, with Tony Jones.] I entered into my theism--such as it is--through Wittgenstein and Tillich. It was, in some important sense, at the very "waterholes of Western rationalism" that I learned to make sense of my belief in the Ground of Being. If we too divorce the God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar too much from the God of philosophy, then the "Biblical" God we are left with may seem more like a superpowered alien than anything else, an empirical being which can be said to either exist or not exist and demands evidence, empirical evidence, for the claim that it exists. And that evidence is, to say the least, sorely lacking. Worse yet, it would always make God and our belief in God contingent upon that evidence--the God Who Might Be, and Who Might Not Have Been in some other possible world--instead of allowing God to exist in Godself as the One Who Is, the most-real reality which is primal and ultimate. If God exists, then God exists necessarily, for any being who exists other than necessarily cannot in truth, by my reckoning, be called God.

More importantly, even if we were to conclude such evidence did exist, little would flow from it. I do not worship a being simply because it is more powerful than I am. I do not consent to obey its edicts simply because it has the power to torture or annihilate me--or if I do, then I do so out of cowardice rather than virtue. Such a view of God degrades God in a way which makes theism unpalatable down to its core. Instead of the source of all goodness in which we live and move and have our being, we are left with a jealous tyrant in the sky.

Admittedly, I have subtitled this blog "A Messiah without Metaphysics." But I write that as a Wittgensteinian, so what I am trying to describe is not so much a God without metaphysics as it is a God which is past metaphysics. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche--two of the philosophers who have influenced me most profoundly--were not afraid to use "metaphysics" as a pejorative. But I think both of them also understood the subtle truth that the movement beyond metaphysics is itself in some sense always-already a deeply metaphysical move. We cannot escape the limits of our language even as we do our best to gesture at what lies beyond them.

But to believe in a truly unmetaphysical God in the sense I've laid out above--a God who is simply a contingent being who can be said to exist or not on the basis of contingent evidence--represents turning our back on millennia of theological tradition and Church teaching, as Olson plainly admits:
I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.
Now of course I do not assume that everything the Church fathers and mothers, or Augustine or Aquinas, wrote is inspired and authorative truth. Far from it! If anything, I am the first to critique what I see as an untenable neo-Aristotelianism in Roman Catholic theology since Aquinas.

But as an Anglo-Catholic, I am also far more wary than a Protestant like Olson might be to conclude that such constant and uniform Church teaching represents some sort of poisoned well. The solution is to put Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas in dialogue with Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, not to retreat to some illusion of sola scriptura. This is especially important because I cannot see the Greek-influenced understandings of God's nature as being something separable from other key conclusions made by the early Councils, e.g. about the Trinity. I don't see how we can throw out the influence of Greek philosophy and still keep our understanding of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as described in the creeds and confessions of the ecumenical councils.

At the same time, I agree--as I said plainly in my sermon--that God's being in true relationship with humanity requires God to be able to be transformed by us and by our prayers. And Scripture does indeed seem to agree with this point and confirm it: even if we don't understand the repeated references to God changing God's mind in the Hebrew scriptures completely literally, neither do I think we can write them off entirely. Instead, I see them gesturing towards the higher reality of a mysterious God who is at once immutable and always changing, who is at once relational and absolute. And as I said in my sermon, I don't really pretend to understand this paradox, but I do think that either of our choices in trying to defuse it is going to end up falling short in one way or another.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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