Sunday, May 22, 2016

The voice of God

My firstborn son left the safety of his mother's womb on April 26. After the initial euphoria of the birth, there is a certain let down as one realizes, this baby barely knows how to feed, much less communicate. Other than his (sometimes violent) cries, I have no way of hearing from him, no way of knowing that he needs something.

That doesn't keep me from speaking to him, of course. I have heard that babies like their parents' voices. I've seen first hand that it can be soothing. More importantly, I take it as self-evident that without hearing his parents' voice, he will never learn our language.

Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The immediate application is of course humility, but I think there is a deeper corollary (which is not at all detached from humility).

I have often wondered why, if God truly speaks, I do not hear him. But I do hear him, all the time. If God governs all creation, then every single thing that exists is available as a symbol of communication between God and humans. It is just that I don't yet speak his language.

Life is essentially growth, a process of constantly advancing toward maturity. Unless we humble ourselves and realize that it is a long process to learn the language of God, we will never hear him.

In the meantime, what, then, are our prayers? "We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." Our prayers are mere cries of anguish. We do not even understand what we need or what we are hungry for. "Your heavenly Father knows what you need even before you ask it." Thankfully, God is not a new father; he knows why we cry.

I realize all of this can sound very cruel, because life is very cruel. How can it be for our good that we watch the innocent die? How can it be for our good when we see oppression or are oppressed ourselves? We so often feel helpless, unable to get justice for ourselves or for others. It is as if "God is testing us to show that we are but animals." How, then, can we call God Father?

But there is no growth without suffering. Creation itself cannot exist without destruction. Existence is meaningless without non-existence.

When we hear the voice of God, we will not find that it says what our weak spirits want to hear. We wish that no harm would come to us. But what does he say to us instead? "Anyone who does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

There are many people who seem to listen for the voice of God in order to find some serenity in the midst of a world full of anxiety. But God is a refuge for the time of battle, not a retreat away from this world.

How do we go so quickly from children to soldiers? "When I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish things. ... Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." I don't think the point of becoming a child is to enter the kingdom of heaven and remain a child. It is to grow up into a citizen of that kingdom, and if there's one thing the Bible makes clear, it's that every citizen in this kingdom must be prepared for war. Not literal war--"for our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh"--but a war against "the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

In this way the Christian life is a bit like a fairy tale, if I may say so. Chesterton was fond of fairy tales, and he thought they were much better education for children than any modern rationalism could ever be. I think probably he was right.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Evil and nothingness

A good deal of Christian thought treats evil as having a lower ontological category than good. Everything God created is good, so evil can't possibly have any genuine existence. Here's St. Maximus the Confessor, for example:
"[I]ndeed, mere fantasy deceives the mind and, through passion, causes vain attachment to objects that do not exist, but provides no foundation in reality." (Ad Thalassium 64)
That's from a translation by Paul Blowers in the collection, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ from the Popular Patristics Series. There's also a footnote that says, "Cf Gregory of Nyssa's famous dictum that man 'invented' evil."

I'm not sure I agree with that exactly, but I do think evil must be in a different ontological category than good. God created light, then separated it from the darkness. He did not create the darkness.

The existence of evil is an eternal puzzle, but one way to explain it is as a perversion of something, for which I cannot find the right word, which must necessarily exist. Perhaps I'll call it "non-existence" or nothingness. Existence needs non-existence. Light needs dark. But there are good and bad ways for this nothingness to exist.

If light existed without darkness, there would be only light and nothing else. But in that case there would really be nothing. A pure unitarian existence is no existence at all, because such an existence cannot differentiate between something and nothing.

Since everything which is both important and true about God must be stated as a paradox, I would not hesitate to say that God's existence is both absolutely necessary and dramatically contingent. The threat of God's non-existence is precisely the drama that unfolds in His trinitarian union. God the Father does not want to lose God the Son, and vice versa. Whatever else love is, it means desiring the continued existence of the other, and if that is to mean anything real, there must be a genuine threat to that existence.

Indeed, that genuine threat is played out in the drama of creation and, ultimately, in the cross of Jesus Christ. God actually died. To say otherwise would be to deny the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, And a tremendous corollary: the Father actually lost the Son. In this drama, God's love is proved more real than it ever could have been otherwise. The threat of nothingness was so real that it was actually fulfilled.

This drama is played out in all of creation. Why, I asked earlier, would God risk creating a world which is capable of producing evil? Because such is the only kind of world that can genuinely exist. And in our world the threat is so real that we see its fulfillment on a daily basis. We see nothingness win over existence. We see chaos triumph over order. We see creatures separate themselves from their Creator.

The difference between us and God is that we do not use nothingness in support of existence, death in support of life. Our pain becomes suffering because we experience it in isolation. Because we make our existence entirely our own, any threat to that existence becomes a threat to our entire universe. That is what evil is.

But God does not let nothingness turn into evil. As the psalmist writes, Even darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day. When God died, when God lost God, He raised Him up from the dead. In dying He defeated death; in not existing He showed that He truly exists. As Jesus said, Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Which means we always have the chance to become like God. Instead of wanting to be free from the drama of existence, we ought to embrace it. Life is risky; everyone knows that. The source of eternal life is not the elimination of all risk, but rather than paradoxical joining of the absolute assurance and the total uncertainty of our future existence--and not just our own, but that of everything else, as well.

I don't think this "lets God off the hook," so to speak, for terrible things that happen. He could have intervened, so why didn't He? If we love God, this question will come up again and again. To stop asking it would be to deny the essential drama of life, which is that paradoxical union of God's presence and absence.

So it is not about coming to God's defense, but rather finding the way forward which concerns me most. If we have lost, let us mourn that loss. If we have gained, let us rejoice in that gain. Either way, let us always desire life all the more. Not a monotonous, stable existence which is equivalent to nothingness, but rather a dramatic, risky existence which never ceases to puzzle the imagination.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Love, creation, and the pain of separation

I often wonder why God created the universe.

The question is difficult for two reasons. One is that, if God is perfect and all-sufficient in Himself, He didn't need creation at all, and in fact it would appear that creating anything would be a step down from perfection. Wouldn't creating something other than Himself introduce imperfection where there was perfection?

Another is that, in fact, there is evil in this world. Now the presence of evil can be explained in many ways that make it appear to be not God's fault. But nevertheless the act of creating the universe at least runs the risk of introducing evil, since in fact the universe that is contains evil. Why run the risk? This is similar to the first point, but more pointed. Even if there were no evil in the universe, the first point would stand; but the fact that there is evil makes the problem even worse.

Or if the universe is uncreated, why does it exist? That is an equally haunting question. For if the universe is uncreated, it has no inherent purpose. Its only purpose is what we (beings capable of defining purposes for things) give it. The world becomes a tool for the (sufficiently) powerful to gain some utilitarian benefit. And one must admit that most of human civilization tends to operate on the assumption that this is true. Yet deep down, don't we all know this is somehow unjust? Where does our sense of justice come from if not the idea that the universe is meant for harmony? And if it is meant for harmony, how can it be uncreated?

But then the question stands: why create anything?

If I were a strict unitarian theist and not a trinitarian Christian, I don't know if I'd have anywhere to start. I suppose one could invent stories about how creation is a spontaneous act of love from the Creator, but if so, that leads to all sorts of puzzling questions, such as how the Creator could have loved anything that did not exist. And anyway, it doesn't respond very well to my first question.

Since I'm a trinitarian, I find a hint of an answer in the very nature of God. God is love. What is love?

Although love is many things, I do find, somewhat to my distress, that love necessitates pain. What is love if not the desire to be wholly united to the other, while simultaneously affirming the other's separate identity? Love is a continual movement toward the other without ever destroying the other. It is an eternally unsatisfied desire, in the sense that the more it is satisfied the more it desires. There is, in my vocabulary, a certain kind of pain involved in the continual desire of love.

God is triune. He knows this desire, always wanting to be united and yet never wanting to erase the identity of the other. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and they are wholly one, yet they maintain separate identities. They each have such a relationship to the Spirit, as well. How can I not admit that there must be a certain kind of "pain" in this relationship? Or, as the Bible says, God is a jealous God.

But I would distinguish pain from suffering. The pain experienced by those who love one another is in fact the opposite of the suffering lived by those who end a relationship. It is as if refusing to experience the pain of love leads to the suffering of love's absence. By insisting on a unitarian existence, one only experiences loneliness, whether by separating from or destroying the other.

What does this have to do with creation? All of us creatures are made to experience the pain of life. Growth always involves pain. We move from immaturity to maturity, and in the process there is always an act of self-denial. We can either embrace this change, or we can reject it and therefore suffer from it, but we cannot escape it, because time and the existence of other creatures will impose its way on us.

We are called to more than just growth and maturity. God invites us to love Him and to become more like Him. It is an eternal adventure. We will never have the end in sight. There must be a certain kind of pain in this, but God is jealous for our love. We either embrace that love or experience the suffering of separation. Either way, we are always called toward Him.

Therefore, creation actually adds to God's perfection. This is paradoxical, but essentially creation is an outpouring of the very love that already exists within the Trinity. The relationship modeled by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit expands to include an indefinite number of new living creatures, whose experience of time, growth, and eternity is a reflection of that infinite love.

I don't say this fully answers my question, but it is a sort of beginning of something I've been working out. I hope I can come back to it later.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Cursed from the ground

And the Lord said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand." (Genesis 4:10-11, NRSV)
One question I've often pondered, especially since I first read the Euthyphro in college, is the relationship between God and morality. A common argument for the existence of God is that the moral law is commonly believe in by all human beings, yet such a moral law could not exist without a (unique) divine law giver. Monotheism certainly avoids Socrates's problem with Euthyphro's definition of piety as pleasing the gods--if there is only God, He doesn't contradict Himself. Still, there's that lingering question of whether God's divine command is arbitrary. If so, it doesn't make the moral law very commendable, does it? If not, why not? It seems the only way God's law wouldn't be arbitrary is if it followed a higher moral law not given by God. It's still a dilemma, even if you have only one God involved.

The story of Cain and Abel inspires a possible alternative. When Cain murders his brother, God does not judge him according to an abstract principle. Rather, God curses Cain in response to something far more elemental: blood and earth. The image is haunting: the ground drinks Abel's blood after Cain murders him. God can then hear the blood crying out from inside the earth. It is as if the blood and the earth are in pain. Cain has destroyed the harmony of creation, and for that he receives a curse in proportion to the damage done: "When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength" (verse 13).

This is a cosmic vision of morality. It is not utilitarian, since it is not based solely on what happens to conscious beings. Neither is it rationalist, because there is no clear logical or empirical connection between one human's mistreatment of another and the well being of the whole natural order. However, it is not arbitrary, either. It is based on the essential goodness of creation. His orders are rational consequences of His intimate knowledge of the reality He created. God punishes human beings because they damage the earth, whether they realize it or not.

Such a vision of morality doesn't seem common today. Most of our moral discussion tends to assume that morality is about allowing human beings to get along in the world. Even environmental concerns seem more often than not fixated on what will happen to human civilization if the world becomes uninhabitable. On the other hand, those who do assign moral worth to the natural order itself tend to take a rationalistic approach; that is, science, rather than moral tradition, will tell us how we ought to act.

A cosmic vision of morality is far more compelling on the level of motivation. If morality is only about human beings getting along, I don't see why any skeptical person should be all that concerned with it. After all, each of us individually will one day almost certainly die, and in the absence of any divine intervention this hardly makes a strict adherence to moral principles worth it. You could, of course, relax your moral principles to make them easy to follow, but then suddenly there's not much point thinking about morality. And even if you are inspired by romantic notions of all human beings having an enduring connection to one another, the fact is that the entire human race has very little chance of surviving (again, absent divine intervention). There may be a certain logical coherence to an ethical system such as utilitarianism, but its underlying purpose is sadly underwhelming.

And as for a rationalistic, atheistic morality which assigns inherent worth to nature, I find this incoherent. What possible value can the whole natural order have? We might say that it comes from us, because we appreciate it so much. But the fact is, the universe is not ours to dispose of as we please, no matter how powerful we may think we are. What's more is that we are the unintended consequence of natural processes that were already at work long before we ever existed. Seeing inherent value in this "blind watchmaker" seems bizarre.

(On second thought, I suppose it's possible. Perhaps one could be genuinely thankful to the universe for having completely unintentionally given us the chance to live here. Rather than worship an all-knowing, all-loving God, one could choose to worship a deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid God who by accident creates beautiful things. I mean this metaphorically, of course, though at the level of metaphysics I often wonder whether metaphors aren't in fact literal truths.)

The downside is that it takes a great deal of faith to hold a cosmic vision of morality. The notion that all of our actions have cosmic consequences is implausible when considered by our natural reason. Yet if the universe really is created--that is, if there really is a meaning and purpose tying all things together--then moral truth becomes no mere matter of getting along. It becomes a question of the ultimate fate of everything. Here we find not only motivation to act justly, but also hope that there is justice. If God loves His creation, He will not let us get away with destroying it. (Why He should ever give us the opportunity is a question for another time.)

It's fascinating how the story of Cain and Abel ends. God doesn't avenge Abel by killing Cain. On the contrary, he protects Cain from being killed by someone else. He doesn't want the ground to swallow any more blood. At least not in this story.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

God against humanity

I'm going to be intentionally provocative here, exaggerating my point just to make it clear.

Traditionally (in our culture) Christianity is presented as a story about humanity. We were meant to live in relationship with God, and the problem is that sin destroys that relationship and leads to death. So in order to fulfill our purpose and find happiness we need to deal with sin. The Christian answer to this problem is to put our faith in Jesus Christ, whose perfect sacrifice on our behalf completely erases our guilty, and whose Spirit enables us to live holy lives.

This story is beautiful, but it's totally anthropocentric. There is no need for the world to exist. "Relationship" can be rather abstract--it can be minds or souls that interact on an ethereal plane, without any need for bodies. Moreover, sin in this story could come from anywhere. It could be that sin exists solely because God has established certain arbitrary rules. If He would just relent and change the rules, couldn't He deal with sin that way instead? So while beautiful from one point of view, the anthropocentric story might be problematic.

What's really interesting is that as I read the Bible, the story is not at all anthropocentric. God starts by creating a world. He spends six days creating before human beings ever cross His mind. When He does create them, He wants them specifically to cultivate the ground and rule over the animals. When they turn against Him, God is sorry He ever made them. He destroys them with a flood, except for one family, whom He watches grow into another human population, most of which will become utterly evil once again.

He calls out the Israelites from their enslavement to go wipe out the people who live in the land of Canaan. He assures them that it is not for their sake that He is calling them, it is for the sake of the land. The evil of the Canaanites pollutes the land, and their evil has to be utterly wiped out so that the land will be purified. If the Israelites sin as the Canaanites did, God assures them that the land will "vomit them out" just like the Canaanites. Yes, God is faithful to His convenant with Abraham, and eventually He will bring the Israelites back to the promised land after they repent with all their heart. But, He says, the land must have a sabbath before permitting them to return.

In this story, the nature of sin is clear: it hurts the land. That is, it hurts God's good creation. God create humankind to tend to His garden, and instead they destroy it. God has to strike back, or else humans will totally ruin everything. It's God versus humanity.

God's violence in the Bible appears horrendous if God is some abstractly conceived "perfect" being--omniscienct, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. But in the Bible, God is first and foremost the Creator of a good world, who must keep things in order by maintaining justice and restoring balance. He creates human beings in order to help Him do this, but they turn against Him and do just the opposite.

From that point of view, the story of Jesus takes a whole new meaning. Rather than continuing to fight back, God surrenders. He humbles Himself to the point of taking on human flesh, then lets Himself be killed by the empire of humanity. Yet He has the last victory by coming back from the dead. What is His purpose? Presumably the same as it ever was: to save the world that He made.

I suppose that raises many more questions than answers, but it's a way to throw out old baggage and to think about the whole story in a different way. Because the story is not so anthropocentric, it's a little more mysterious how humans fit into it. I guess I'll leave that for another time.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why not intentionality?

A typical explanation (or "explaining away") of human religion is that we tend to see intentionality everywhere, since we are so familiar with the concept from our own thought processes. In other words, since our own actions can typically be explained by our own purposes, it is natural to explain events in nature according to some purpose--the storm has come because the gods are angry, there is no rain because the gods are punishing us, we won the war because the gods were on our side, and so on. We know better now, the argument goes, than to impose our anthropocentric reasoning on the world around us. Nature doesn't follow any purpose; it follows laws.

I don't have a problem with the idea that intentionality is a concept we impose on our vision of reality in order to understand it. What I would like people to call into question is whether there's any other way to understand reality. Cartesian coordinates are not inherent to space; they are a conceptual framework which aids spatial reasoning. Mathematical laws are likewise not inherently "there;" we filter our experience through them in order to understand some particular feature of what's going on. Seeing our favorite conceptual framework as the way things "really are" is normally not a problem in science. In fact, coming up with a conceptual framework to "impose" on reality is one of the most important roles of a scientist.

The question is, of course, whether the concept of intentionality helps us understand anything, whether it ought to be replaced by a better framework, and whether it can be refined to give better understanding. I submit that most complex systems really need to be understood in intentional terms. When we observe the behavior of animals, for example, there is really no substitute for saying they want or don't want food. It is no triumph of modern science to "reduce" living things down to mere machines, because there simply is no mechanical language that significantly captures desire as a state of being. Desire and intention are fundamental concepts. They can be applied to plenty of other complex systems, too, which may not traditionally be considered beings with "souls." The market, for example, clearly wants things. If there is too much of a good, its price will go down. If there is too much uncertainty in financial markets, there will be large price volatility. It is vain to continually "remind" ourselves that the market does not "really" want things, because after all it is not a human being. So what? It is not a human being, but like human beings, it clearly moves in such a way as to pursue discernible goals.

One day computers may become intelligent enough to have intentions. Certainly computers are machines. If even they can have intentions, why can't we just admit that intentionality is a much more general concept than just some "anthropocentric" rendering of the world around us? Perhaps, on the contrary, we experience intentionality because we are part of a universe where it is abundant, and somehow we satisfy the criteria necessary to experience it.

The universe itself is, by definition, the most complex thing that exists. It only seems natural that it should have intentions. Perhaps this sounds more like pantheism than monotheism. Yet one thing that is still unclear, no matter how many people assert that it is clear, is what relationship exists between being and intention. Does my intention drive my being, or does my being drive my intention? In many ways this is an extremely practical concern. Do the ugly things I say result from hunger or a lack of sleep? Or am I responsible for those words in a way that transcends my physical existence? Well, the same question could be asked of the universe. Does all the complexity of the universe arise from a promordial physical state, thus allowing intentionality to emerge? Or is the universe intended to exist?

As much as scientists these days seem increasingly successful at showing that complex phenomena can emerge out of simpler ones, I don't think this question is any more decided by science than whether human beings have free will. It is of course entirely reasonable to explain human life in terms of simpler physical processes. That gives rise to modern medicine and improvements in physical well-being. Yet it doesn't help anyone decide whether life is really worth living or not. It doesn't tell anyone whether there's something wonderful about the world we live in. And ultimtely it doesn't really explain how we do anything. I have no doubt in my mind that, whatever difficulties might be there on account of my physical limitations, I make decisions that determine my behavior. If, indeed, this experience of free will is only an illusion, who, exactly, is performing it?

The grand irony is that we jettison the concept of intentionality more vigorously precisely when we wish all the more to control things. We wish to control how long we live, so clearly the human body is nothing but physical processes. We wish to control nature, so clearly there is no meaning to nature other than physical laws. Thus in seeking to control life, we render it totally unintelligible. Life cannot truly be life unless it has that spontaneous force we call intention. Living longer is certainly an understandable goal, but if in order to do so we must view ourselves as machines rather than as living things, is it truly life that is prolonged?

The concept of intentionality is robust and can be refined. We need not believe the gods are angry when there is a storm. But it is not at all unreasonable to talk about nature "seeking" a kind of equilibrium, so that weather can indeed be seen as a result of nature's intentions. And why wouldn't it be reasonable to extend this more broadly, to see broad connections between all the processes in the universe, and to find common purpose behind them? For example, we know that through a cycle of birth and death living things evolve and branch out into many different organisms of increasing complexity. Why shouldn't that be part of the purpose of the universe? In dying, we give life. Through suffering, we are purified. Perhaps this process can continue indefinitely, and one day the universe will see the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. Who knows? Such questions may be beyond the scope of any one scientific discipline, but there is no reason why intelligent human beings should find such questions ridiculous.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Name of God in everything

I've spent a lot of time rejecting Descartes, because I've found such deep critiques of rationalism as to convince me it's one of the greatest intellectual sins of the modern world. You cannot build up all knowledge from nothing; starting from absolute doubt, you will get nowhere, and wherever you think you've gotten, you're secretly drawing from the assumptions you were supposed to have rejected. Human knowledge is heavily dependent on tradition, imitation, and intuition, and Cartesian rationalism seems to me a form of intellectual self-flattery with no solid foundation.

Then again, we often rebel the hardest against that which is closest to our hearts. In the classic statement, "I think, therefore I am," I've always seen a most profound and courageous kind of insight. Even if nothing else is certain, there is still one thing of which I'm absolutely sure: I exist. And the reason I am certain of that is the very act of thinking. Do I exist? If I have the ability to ask the question, then surely the answer is yes.

If there is any weakness in this argument, it's in the subject, not the verb. Normally when I use the word "I," either in public communication or private thought, it is to distinguish an inner and an outer world. I have thoughts which, I presume, are hidden from others. The world "out there" might be totally mysterious and deceptive, but at least I am sure of my own inner life.

But why should I think that? What gives me the right, a priori, to distinguish between "inner" and "outer"? That is a metaphor imposed on me by the language I use; it is not an inevitable deduction made from experience. What is certain is that thought occurs. If others claim not to be able to see these thoughts--"my" thoughts--happening, that will perhaps lead me to claim the thoughts as "mine." But if I take nothing for granted, if I seek to go back to first principles, then the only thing absolutely sure is that something is happening. Thought occurs. Therefore something--everything--must exist. That is to say, there exists an "everything" which really is there. And I arrive at that conclusion by the mere act of thought.

That is to say, every act of thought finally reposes on the firm foundation of God's very Name--"I Am." This is not an individual I, not an interiority or a selfish ego. It is, rather, existence itself.

The most profound mystery of life is neither its origin nor its ultimate destiny nor even its purpose. It is the fact that it exists. I've always wondered why "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge." That "fear," it seems to me, is the overwhelming awe one experiences at the very thought that something exists at all. If you start from there, everything else is trivial by comparison.