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: (Trinity)
This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday, and I celebrated (beyond of course attending morning mass at the Church of the Ascension) by composing a couple of prayers about the Trinity and posting them to my Facebook. One was Trinitarian in its structure, singling out each hypostasis of the Trinity in turn as an object of praise and blesssing:
Almighty God, you created us and our world and taught us to call you Parent. We praise you and we bless you.

Incarnate God, you redeemed us by sharing in our suffering as our loving Sibling. We praise you and we bless you.

Everliving God, you comfort and sustain us and are always with us in Spirit. We praise you and we bless you.

Mysterious God, Three in One, we praise you and we bless you. Amen.
The other is more theological, focusing on the relationship(s) among the hypostases:
Lord God, you have revealed yourself to your catholic Church as a God of diversity in unity, of community in solidarity, of loving relationship and overflowing perichoresis, of dialectic and dialogue and mystical paradox. Help us to contemplate the holy mystery of your triunity, not in order to understand the incomprehensible, but to reflect and share in the living dynamism of your eternal mercy, and to always and everywhere lift our voices in praise of you: one God, Parent and Child and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it 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. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
This is the third in a series of posts reposting content from "Our Lenten Collage," in which my cell at the time blogged our way through the Lenten season of 2009.

12 March 2009: Going Deep with Prayer )
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
This is the first in a series of posts reposting content from "Our Lenten Collage," in which my cell at the time blogged our way through the Lenten season of 2009.

26 Feb 2009: Prayer and Scripture )
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Reading this article about how a vote on gay clergy promises to create upheavals in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), has got me thinking about issues of church unity, about the many divisions which render the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Since I'm an Anglo-Catholic sort of guy, who accepts the patristic practices of the invocation and intercession of Saints in all its high church glory,* I wrote a prayer to Mary:
Most Blessed Mary, Virgin Mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Mother of His Church which He founded upon the Rock of Saint Peter, we ask of you your intercession before God, that God may eliminate from us all hatred or intolerance which prevents us from coming before God as one Church, sisters and brothers in Christ, united in our constant striving towards justice, peace, and love.

Queen of Heaven, may God grant that all of us, of all races, religions, and creeds; of all genders and sexualities; those in communion with Rome, or Canterbury, or any see of the historical episcopate, and those who are simply members of the priesthood of all believers, may work together towards the building of God's Kingdom, each answering God's call as we hear it, judging not lest we ourselves be judged, one people but many human persons beautiful in our differences, so that we may truly call ourselves the Church Catholic.

Queen of Apostles, may your acceptance of the Divine Will act as an example to us as we seek to live out in this age, as have the Saints of old in ages past, the apostolic commission given to us by Jesus Christ, that His Church may be a light to the entire world.

Queen of Martyrs, your example, before Saint Joseph your betrothed, in Egypt, and before the cross, emboldens us to accept the suffering we may face as consequence for righteousness, to trust that it will be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and made a holy offering before God, and that God will lead us out of the darkness.

We praise you, Holy Mother Mary, as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church established by your Son, led by His Spirit, and devoted in its being to the glory of His Father in Heaven. Amen.
*The Catholic Encyclopedia tells me this isn't necessarily in contravention of the 22nd Article of Religion (none of which are binding to ECUSA members anyway):
Indeed the High Church Anglicans contend that it is not the invocation of saints that is here rejected, but only the "Romish doctrine", i.e. the excesses prevailing at the time and afterwards condemned by the Council of Trent. "In principle there is no question herein between us and any other portion of the Catholic Church. . . . Let not that most ancient custom, common to the Universal Church, as well Greek as Latin, of addressing Angels and Saints in the way we have said, be condemned as impious, or as vain and foolish" [Forbes, Bishop of Brechin (Anglican), "Of the Thirty-nine Articles", p. 422].

Things I've Written

Monday, 1 June 2009 09:51 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
I haven't quite decided how I'm going to use this journal--mostly I've set it up so I can follow the various blogs of people with whom I've interacted offline on this account's flist.

But it occurs to me that, to keep everything together, I should use this space to link to some things I've written elsewhere on the internet non-pseudonymously.

Over at Our Lenten Collage, I made a series of posts throughout Lent, once a week (posting on Thursdays), as I struggled with my Lenten devotion. The exact details of my Lenten devotion, which involved a combination of prayer and Scripture-reading, were described in my introductory post--entitled, simply enough, Prayer and Scripture. In the next two weeks I went on to provide in-depth exploration of each of these concepts and my complicated thoughts surrounding them in Going Deep with Scripture and Going Deep with Prayer. If you're interested in what I believe in terms of religion or what my approach to theology is, those two posts are very good places to start.

In A Parable, I tell a story about a Zen master and the student who comes to him seeking enlightenment. And in Emmaus Moments I briefly looked ahead out of Lent into Easter to meditate on the way in which I was walking to Emmaus in my own journey through Lent: "But unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus," I remind myself, "we do know the end of the story, that God will do what is necessary to make Godself known to us." And finally, in This Boat I've Built, I return to the parable I told earlier as a means of looking back on and taking stock of my Lenten journey.

I also served as Symposium Editor for the first issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, an online academic journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works which examines "popular media, fan communities, and transformative works, broadly conceived."
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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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