Divine Freedom

Saturday, 30 April 2016 01:55 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
Let me take a break, for a moment, from talking about human free will to touch upon the freedom of God. It is probably natural that my views on the former--my rejection of libertarian free will, in particular--influences my understanding of the latter. This does not mean, of course, that I think any of God's actions are caused by anything outside of Godself. If that were the case, God would not be God. But the fact that I don't understand human freedom as consisting of the ability to have done other than what one has done in some sort of absolute sense (i.e., a sense that is incompatible with the causally deterministic nature of the universe as we understand it) almost certainly does influence the way I talk and write about God's freedom, which must in some sense be analagous to human freedom for the phrase to have any meaning.

One of the classic questions about God's freedom is whether God could have chosen not to create a world dependent upon Godself, yet outside Godself such that God is not dependent upon it. Many Christians would claim that the only possible orthodox answer to that question is "Yes." Insofar as that is the case, however, I can only accept it as a paradox, a divine mystery. Certainly God cannot act against God's own nature, and so I cannot imagine God, in "the free, overflowing rapture" (Moltmann) of perichoretic love which is the Trinity, doing other than creating a world separate from Godself. Perhaps that is due to the finite nature of my own human mind. Perhaps.

A human analogy might be my "ability" to rob a bank. Clearly I am physically capable of attempting to rob a bank in the sense we usually use that term. Yet my unique blend of moral courage (I know robbing banks is wrong) and moral cowardice (I'm afraid of getting caught) is such that it is inconceivable I could ever rob a bank because it is contrary to my nature. We could say perhaps that I have a "hypothetical" ability to rob a bank, and God has a hypothetical ability to not create the world. But there is no possible world in which those hypotheses could take place without first rendering either God or I unrecognizable. (And while my nature is mutable across possible worlds, God's is not.)

The above is something of a preamble to another question I encountered in Roger Olson's Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith, which I am currently listening to on audiobook. The question was, "Can God change the past?" and Olson seems to imply he thinks the question ought to be, "No."

But why? Unless we are to become open theists, then God is eternal, and the difference between future and past is as meaningful to God as the difference between left and right is to us. We might as well ask if we are able to make changes to our left as well as to our right. Unless one is a character in a side-scrolling video game from the 1980's, such a question is either absurd or meaningless.

Of course, one might well question the use of "change" at all. From God's perspective, viewing all of time and space as a unity, any intervention God might make would not be a "change" at all but a seamless element of God's creation as executed according to God's divine plan. After all, every element of the world is a consequence of either God's deliberation action or else our own human free will, which is itself a gift from God, being the exceptional sign of the image of God within us. So the very idea of God desiring to "change" anything which exists is revealed to be contradictory, and certainly God cannot act against God's own desires.

Some will argue that this understanding of divine freedom renders prayer meaningless, but such an argument misunderstands the place and purpose of prayer. As I preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in my 2012 sermon on the prayers of Hannah and Penninah, the revealed purpose of petitionary prayer is not "to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want" but to enter into relationship with the Triune God, to put our hopes and fears before the Lord that God's will may be done.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
It's been a while since I've posted an entry in my "What I Want From an Atonement Theology" series, but I have not forgotten it! I'm still very interested in articulating just what I'd like to see in a theology of atonement, and then perhaps thinking about just how a theology might manage to fill those requirements.

And one of the important--I was tempted to say "most important," but really all of the criteria I specified at the beginning of this project are pretty critically important--requirements which I have for an atonement theology is that it treat the Incarnation not merely as a necessary prerequisite for the Cross, but recognize that "Incarnation is redemption."

You might remember that I actually preached on this in my sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name:
[There is] a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”
I contrasted this with a Franciscan understanding of the Incarnation as articulated by Fr. Richard Rohr:
For Francis and the early Franciscans, "incarnation was already redemption," and the feast of Christmas said that God was saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of his Son in our midst. If that were true, then all questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation. That's why Francis liked animals and nature, praising the sun, moon, and stars, like some New Ager from California. It was all good and chosen and beautiful if God came among us "as Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
What are the implications of this understanding of the Incarnation as "already redemption" on how we view the Atonement? What happens when we view the Cross through the lens of the Incarnation instead of vice versa?

Jesus' death was an inevitable consequence of the Christ becoming human, of sharing our mortal nature. Whether it was at 33 years old on the Cross, or as an elderly person on a deathbed, Jesus was always going to die. That's part and parcel of being human, an inescapable result of the kenotic process described in the early Christian hymn quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Phillipians:
Christ, though in the image of God,
didn't deem equality with God
something to be clung to--
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition,
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled--
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! (2:6-8, The Inclusive Bible)
By emptying Christself and becoming human, Christ doomed Christself to death. So it seems to me that the question of the Cross is: in what ways, if any, does Jesus' violent death on a cross accomplish something that a death in bed from natural causes at age 90 would not have? I think the hymn above implies an answer in its phrase "death, even death on a cross!" Crucifixion is, in a sense, the sine qua non of deaths, dramatically underscoring what it means to be mortal, to be subject to suffering and ultimately to death. Jesus' experience on the Cross was what every human being faces in death, only more so. "Jesus' cry from the cross—'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'—shows that in the crucifixion, God experienced the most human of all feelings: the absence of God. In so doing, God bridged the gap that sin had caused between us," writes Tony Jones, explicating the view of the atonement held by theologian Jürgen Moltman.

In The Crucified God, Moltman writes--quoted by Tony Jones here--that it is on the Cross that Christ takes upon Christself "the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion" with the Christ. That's the sort of insight that I think a theology of the atonement has to take into account if it is to properly understand the Cross in light of the Incarnation, rather than simply understanding the Incarnation in light of the Cross, as has been lamentably more common within Western Christianity.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
The Gospel According to St. Mark

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the river Jordan by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: "You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests."

Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.

Scot McKnight in 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, 25-27:

At the center of the Shema is the God of love, and at the center of the God of love is the word “one”- and that word “one” is a dance. Let me explain briefly. When Jesus said in John’s tenth chapter that he and the Father were “one,” every Jew who heard him thought of theShema: “Here, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord isone.” Now Jesus was claiming that he and the Father were one. So somehow there were “two in one,” and, as the church gradually began to comprehend, there were actually “three in one.” The Jesus Creed derives from this “three-in-oneness of God.”

How are the three “one”? Here are Jesus’ own words: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” The oneness of the Father and the Son is the oneness of mutual indwelling of one another. Now, if we add to the Father and the Son the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, we arrive at something distinct to our Christian faith: the Father and the Son and the Spirit are one because they indwell one another. They interpenetrate one another so deeply that they are one. This “oneness” is often called by theologians the “dance of the Trinity.” God is almost, to quote C.S. Lewis, “if you think me not irreverent, a kind of dance.” God is, to change the image only slightly, the dance of rope in the Celtic knot.

The same theologians often call this oneness of God the
perichoresis, a Greek word referring to mutual indwelling. To say the three are one is to say the one God is a community of mutually indwelling persons where each person delightfully dances with the other in endless holy love. This perichoretic dance is the love of the persons of the Trinity for each other- the Father for the Son and the Spirit, and the Son for the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father and the Son. Theologians and philosophers remind us that this perichoretic love is the origin, the tone, and the standard for all the love in the universe. There is no other love than God’s love.

Tony Jones in “Comp Three, Question Three” (an imaginary conversation with Jürgen Moltmann)

TJ: Doug, on this same theme, you have publicly wondered if the concept of the Trinity has run its course – this, of course, is a significant part of Dr. Moltmann’s corpus.

DP: What I think is that the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Augustine and his peers, solved a certain problem at a certain time. Back then, people were saddled with this Greek concept of God as a distant, removed Being who wanted nothing to do with this earth, this creation. So, when these people inherited the story of Jesus, they had a bog problem to solve: how could the distant, removed God have possibly come to Earth? The concept of that was preposterous to them!

So the doctrine of the Trinity was of great help to them in getting over that dilemma. By conceiving of God as three persons or three parts, they could say that God did come to Earth, and he also stayed in heaven…and he also still dwells here today and still dwells in heaven.
Not only is this concept of a three-part God foreign to a holistic Hebrew-Old Testament mind, it is also becoming more and more unnecessary today. We don’t have the same Hellenistic philosophy mind-set of the Early Church. The people in my community, at Solomon’s Porch, have no trouble believing that God is holistically related to the entirety of creation. That’s just not an issue for us. Quantum physics? Nano-technology? Now those are issues that beg for theological consideration. But God becoming a man? That one is no problem.

JM: But, Doug, what I want to challenge you on is the beauty of the concept of the Trinity. Yes, I agree that when it is used as a rationalistic proof for the deity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Trinity falls short of its full theological potential. But instead of thinking of it rationalistically, I’d like you to consider it aesthetically. The Trinity affords a great deal of theological creativity to you as a pastor and preacher, and to the people who write the music for worship in your community. Don’t disparage the concept just because it’s old. Now, I don’t want you to idolize it, as some do, just because it’s old, but I don’t want you to disparage it, either.

Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words? I read the book about your church, and I think that Solomon’s Porch would be very well served by a robust and vibrant doctrine of the Trinity. You can talk about “following God in the way of Jesus,” and I am fully supportive of that, but part of your role as a pastor is to help the people paint a picture of God that is so beautiful that they can’t help but to follow him – that they can’t imagine following anyone else. I think the idea of Trinity as perichoresis would be a great help to you in that task.

TJ: It’s true that, just last month when I talked a bit about the Trinity at Solomon’s Porch – when I introduced that concept of the perichoresis – there were many who resonated with that idea. One man, a truck driver named Frank, said that he had been introduced to that idea just the previous week in Eugene Peterson’s new spiritual theology, God Plays in a Thousand Places, and he loves the idea. He said the world is moving so fast, it’s changing so dynamically, that it seems like we should have an image of God that is dynamic and changing.

DP: Listen, I’m open to it. I just don’t want us blindly following along with this doctrine or that doctrine because that’s the way they believed “back in the day.”

JM: Then we are of one accord. But I want to encourage you to explore the richness of the Trinity, because I am quite sure that you and your church will greatly benefit from it.’




Questions for Discussion

1. What do you think of the doctrine of the Trinity as put forward by McKnight and Jones? How is it similar to or different than your understanding of the Triune God?

2. When we begin new journeys, we often have a dance, from high school proms to wedding receptions. How is the “dance” of the Trinity at the River Jordan similar to or different than this?

3. When you begin a journey, what type of “dance” do you want from your community--and who is that community?

4. How can you be a part of that “dance” for others?

The Holy Trinity

Sunday, 23 January 2011 11:08 pm
cjbanning: (Trinity)
God exists in community, in relationship, in conversation. (The technical account of how the Trinity works is, of course, found in the Athanasian Creed. The Episcopal catechism is, as it often is, less than useless on this point, more or less referring one to the Creed.)

For many Trinitarian Christians, including me, this mystery--and, yes, it is a mystery--is absolutely central to our understanding and experience of divinity. Try out this account of the Trinity by a fictionalized Jürgen Moltmann (but actually by Tony Jones): "Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words?"

C. Leonard Allan writes in Things Unseen that:
God is not a solitary, domineering individual who rules through arbitrary exercise of power but rather the perfect model of loving community—becoming vulnerable, entering into partnership, sharing the divine life, loving like a parent. [. . .]

In this view God is essentially dynamic, relational, and ecstatic (going outside oneself). God is the very paragon of love in relationship, of living in intimate community and submissive freedom—the God who loved Israel like Hosea loved Gomer and who so loved the world that [God] sent [God's] only [Child]. And God invites human beings, [God's] creatures, to share the rich life and fellowship of the divine community, and through partaking of that life to become like [God's Child]. [. . .]

The Trinity provides our pattern or exemplar for unity and fellowship. God leads a relational life as [Parent], [Child], and Spirit. That life is characterized by submissive love, as each member of the Trinity pours [their] life into the other. In God’s own self there is an abundant outpouring of life, so abundant that it overflows and creates community with God’s creatures—those outside the relationship within God.
God's relational character as Three in One models for us our way of being Church, enmeshed in loving relationship, and also the way that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason remain in conversation with each other as complementary sources of revelation.

ETA:
The RCC catechism can be long-winded sometimes )
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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

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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