Sunday, May 29, 2016

Anthropocentric religion?

One of the criticisms of Christianity I've heard a lot is that today we know how vast the universe is, and how small a place humans have in it, and therefore how insignificant we are, and therefore how silly it is to think there is a Creator of the universe who cares about us, loves us.

I suppose that would be a strong critique, if only the Bible were not so full of similar sentiments. Whether it's Psalm 8:4, "Whare human beings that you are mindful of them?" or Ecclesiastes 3:18, "I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals," or Isaiah 55:9, "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts," the Bible is full of famous passages which demonstrate human beings' insignifance next to God. Job, the book of the Bible that most directly deals with the problem of evil, culminates with this haunting answer from God: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" If we cannot answer this question, the implication is that we have no right to demand an account from God for our suffering. In the Bible, human beings are very clearly put in their place.

Which is, of course, what makes its more "anthropomorphic" parts all the more powerful. The idea that God loves human beings is simply fantastic, as in Psalm 8:5-6: "Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all thins under their feet."

Now, let's be clear about something. No matter how much we increase in scientific sophistication, in our knowledge of just how vast this great universe is, Psalm 8 is still fundamentally accurate. There is a silly modern interpretation of the theory of biological evolution which states that human beings are not special, since we are just one of the many cousins descended from the same basic life forms billions of years ago. The silliness of this interpretation is self-evident. What other species even asks whether it is special? What other species has a word for species? What other species ever stops to wonder whether God is justified in creating this universe or not? What other species ever writes down extended arguments and passes them on, so that future generations may write back? What other species feels responsible for other species?

In other words, the Christian tradition is no more anthropocentric than mere common sense allows. The fact that the world is billions, not thousands, of years old and that our species emerged as a gradual process of evolution makes not a shred of difference. In fact, perhaps we should be all the more mystified and perplexed that humans exist at all. If intelligence is really the result of purely natural processes, why don't we see it more often? Why is it apparently so unique in the history of the world? And if it is not unique, what happened to all the other intelligent species?

(To be fair, it's a bit hard to know what a Christian would do if faced with intelligent species from other planets. But C. S. Lewis (as well as others, I'm sure) has dealt with this quite imaginatively in his Space Trilogy, so it's not as if Christians need be completely agnostic on that question. I have no idea if the Word became flesh on other planets. Would that be so troubling? It would certainly change certain doctrines, but to me that's hardly a concern.)

There is something troubling to me about a tendency in modern thought which, in a desperate attempt to get rid of theology, seeks to demean humanity as far as possible. Of course we are small, but we know we are small; of course we are insignificant, but we thirst for significance. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." It is not to feed our anthropocentric pride that we so desperately need the gospel, but, on the contrary, it is to remind us how far down God was willing to come in order to satisfy this desire for the transcendent.

Or are we simply a meaningless clump of particles, searching for meaning where there is none? In that case, what sense does the word meaning have in the first place?

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.