Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Some theological bones to be chewed...

A few theological thoughts rolling around in my mind just now:

1) It seems to me there is an untapped profundity in the notion of God's patience. God's patience is not mere delay, of course, nor is it ever other than God's wisdom. But it still seems as if God is patient in some important ways -- presumably, the time since the sending of the Spirit and the waiting for the return of Jesus, the Messiah, is a time of patience. Does this also imply trust, on God's part? Trust in humans -- not to completely 'get it right' per se, we'd be waiting a long time for that -- but a certain sort of trust in humans, particularly the church (and above all, in the Spirit working through these means) to bring about the kingdom and participate in God's glory? Certainly also a trust of God in God's own agency and plans (the Spirit is, after all, God at work). Patience in God also implies an ability to bear with pain and suffering on the part of God.

Some problems with the idea of God's patience arise in the face of great evils, of course; we might well ask where is God, for example, during the Shoah? But this is a problem for all but the atheist (who has problems of his own). That is not to say there are no problems here, but that the problems are broader than the issue of God's patience.

If this is a fair description of some quality which obtains in God, then it also implies (I think) a practice in ourselves. If God is patient in God's wisdom, bearing with suffering and pain, then it seems that we are to be patient, growing into discernment, willing to participate with Christ in the suffering of the world. This latter is a particularly Pauline way of putting the issue. Much more to be laid out here and thought through.

2) Is there a sense in which God improvises? Sam Wells has put out a fine book entitled Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics. In it, he uses the terms and habits of dramatic improvisation to inform the practice of Christian ethics -- in fact, he does it to overwhelmingly good effect, and I highly recommend the book.

But this has suggested to me an intuition which goes beyond anything Wells has in mind, that perhaps God improvises, in some sense. Now, I disagree with the main tenets of Process Theology, and I generally tend to shy away from anything that smacks of it. (Process Theology (PT) tends to deny many of what people think of as classical attributes of God: being omnipotent, for example, or being totally other than the universe, for another. Check out the Wikipedia article, it explains more. I tend to think that 'classical theism' against which PT reacts, often becomes more of a straw figure than an actual position found in history. I don't find PT persuasive.) To say that God improvises might imply that God doesn't know the future, for example, and could be interpreted in a PT direction; that's not what I mean here.

The intuition is based on this: as Christians we believe that the mission of the Son (in Jesus Christ) and the mission of the Spirit (in the sending of the Holy Spirit) are decided from before time; creation and redemption are simultaneous in the mind of God. And, as in one of my favourite collects in the prayer book (one of the ones for Easter season), we pray to God who wonderfully made us and yet more wonderfully redeemed us. So glory and honour redound to God for creation and redemption. We might even say, hypothetically, that because of God's act in Jesus Christ to redeem humanity and creation, God has actually given us even more reason to honour and glorify God.

But that seems to indicate then that God benefits from our sin, or indeed that we benefit from our sin (i.e. through God coming to us in Christ). Yet it seems we must echo the apostle Paul here and say 'God forbid!' There is no excuse, no justification for sin, and even if God, in God's far-sighted wisdom determined to bring gracious excess and profound love out of sin, this does not justify the sin itself. Therefore we cannot say, I think, that the sin itself is 'necessary'.

Rather, we might say that the sin has been 'taken up' by God. Humans killed the Father's Son, and God (using the terminology of improv now) not only accepted that offer, but overaccepted it, reincorporating it into God's plan for the creation. Rather than resisting the offer -- simply saying 'no', or responding with force or violence to save his life, or merely accepting the offer -- that is, dying -- God overaccepted the offer -- took the death offered and made far more out of it than could have been conventionally imagined. The death of Jesus is not just the death of a Mediterranean peasant (although it is that), but, oddly, it is also the victory of God over death. The resurrection of Jesus is not just one person going beyond death to new life (although it is that), but, oddly, it is also the source of hope and life to all that believe. Or as some have summed it up, God took the worst that we could do and made it into the best thing for all of us.

Theologians have talked about this seeming paradox -- the apparent need for sin to demonstrate the justice and mercy of God -- in terms such as Felix Culpa, happy fault. Not that our sin is necessary, but that God can bring wondrous things out of whatever is offered.

3) It is an ongoing struggle for me (and 2000 years of Christian theology) to do justice to talking about human and divine agency. The only thing I'm sure of is that they do not compete with one another, as (say) one force against another. The most profound thing I have read on it so far is William Placher's The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong. I would like to do some more reading (and perhaps some writing) about this at another time. Part of the difficulty is doing justice to both parts of the question -- and both are profound mysteries. Of course, it is a commonplace that the actions/agency of God is mysterious; but, frankly, I am continually amazed by the genuine depth of mystery at the core of humanity, too.

4) I think I have come to realise that any catholic worth his or her salt -- and I guess I am thinking specifically of catholic Anglicans -- will have a profound sense of our own inadequacy and sin. Not a preoccupation mind you, as if our sin must be a true puzzlement for God; this ends up being just another way of focusing on ourselves, and let's face it, that's a huge part of the problem to begin with. But a genuine, bracing honesty about our sin with God, ourselves and our confessors. Let us never labour under the tidy fiction that we're all okay, for here we encounter something far worse than the depths of our lostness: willful blindness to reality.

I wonder if this is akin to the 'blasphemy against the Holy Spirit' that Jesus mentions is the unforgiveable sin? That is, if you are willfully blind to your own sin, then you are cut off from God's grace and the work of the Spirit because why would you need them?

I really really wish I could say that most of our churches, thankfully, are free from this. I mean, of all people who ought to be in touch with the depth of our incompleteness, the richness of God's grace, new life in Christ, the work of the Spirit, and all of it, surely we who bear the name of Christ ought to be foremost?

I find Archbishops + Ramsey (above) and + Williams to be rather good examples of this. Ramsey in particular, I have recently realised, did this well. As a catholic Anglican, he fell into neither insipid optimism, nor a narcissistic despair. In fact, he was able to appreciate many of the genuine insights of more Protestant theologies of sin and the cross, incorporating them in his own theology, piety and teaching, while also remaining a dedicated catholic.

5) And my friend Simeon Zahl is writing again about imputed vs. infused righteousness, good stuff, although I'm still not sure. I had something cogent to say about the whole debate (which has gone on (and on) since the 16th century), something along the lines of it being an ultimately unhelpful distinction, but I honestly can't recall because it is now 2 am and I need to sleep.

(Oh, I know what you folks who live in the Eastern time zone in America are thinking: What? it's really only 9pm, how can you be tired? To which I respond, usually if I wake up by 2am EDT, it's only because I'm sleeping in.)

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Blogger Rev Sam said...

"Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation" (2 Peter 3.15).

I'm totally with you on Ramsey and Williams.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

So, do you thoroughly reject anologia entis? Is God so thoroughly "other" that we cannot discern anything of God within creation? Especially, can we not discern something of God in ourselves? If not, what does it mean to be made "in the image and likeness"?

I also find myself somewhere between neo-Orthodoxy (hey, it's how I was raised!) and process thought (although not a process person). We believe God does not change. We observe that we do change, and have to figure out how those observations intersect and interact.

Regarding your larger sequence (patience, providence, et al): I describe myself as a "pastoral theologian" rather than a "systematic theologian," meaning that I work in response to the person in front of me. I usually say (admitting that there is little that I "always" say) that God can act (omnipotence) and chooses not to. For God to micromanage undermines the free will that is, I think, essential to what it means to be human. It certainly undermines our capacity to relate to God. I believe this may well cause God frustration, if not outright pain (I do not hold with the classically apathetic God), but is worth it to God out of love for us.

No, that doesn't resolve the problem of pain, much less of evil. As a hospital chaplain I face that with some regularity. At that point I can only acknowledge my faith in God's love and God's justice, and in God's overall control; and acknowledge that there are many things we don't get to understand.

Friday, May 19, 2006 7:03:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hi Sam,
Welcome! Thanks for your remark, and it helps to remind me that I'd like to link to your site.

Hi Marshall,
Thanks for these thoughts. I'm not entirely sure what would make you think that I would reject analogia entis outright. I don't. I greatly appreciate Barth, but he isn't everything. He has his limits -- and since we're both Anglicans, we would probably agree to some of what they are! But even with the classic expressions of analogia entis (e.g. Aquinas), it seems well to keep in mind that analogical language about God is always characterised more by unlikeness than likeness. It seems to me that theology must proceed by equal parts analogy and dialectic, but that might be a conversation for another time.

I think the image of God in us is important. But I also know enough of myself to know that I can be rather startlingly pleased with idols of my own making. So I'm entirely comfortable affirming the imago dei (although I'm not always confident that I know precisely what it designates), but I try to be cautious in its use. (Part of that caution is worked out in conversation with others, which is one way, I think, of getting past some of the most obvious idols and being closer to the real God.)

As for where I find myself, in terms of theological school, I honestly don't know any more. The more work I've done, the less comfortable I am with settling for a label. I've been influenced by (and still appreciate to some extent) postliberal theology and radical orthodoxy, but I don't identify my work with their projects. I've named Ramsey and Williams as two lights for me. I love catholic theology (small and, sometimes, big c); and I also love orthodoxy (small and, often, big o -- although sometimes orthodoxy is asociated with either 'a big enough stick to hit you with' or 'frozen dead belief over against orthopraxy' and I reject those senses: you see the problems with labels!) Enough of this for now.

I think you are really on to something in trying to think human change and divine stability. I'd like to consider that some more myself, at some point. (It implies a sort of eschatological account of God in some way, no?)

As for human and divine agency, this seems to me (recently, anyway) to be the greatest mystery. On the one hand, I do hold that God is (in some sense) sovereign or omnipotent; and on the other hand, that humans are free (relatively: at least, perhaps, in relation to God). And I also believe that there is no contradiction between the two. (And that omnipotence doesn't imply being a 'marionettist' or a micromanager.) Is part of it that perhaps divine and human agency are different 'levels' of causality? I'm still trying to work out a model that does justice to the intuition! Trying to think about divine activity and causality really stretches the imagination, I think. (So does thinking about human agency, etc.!)

I don't have any particular problem with the notion that we might 'frustrate' or 'anger' or 'sadden' God, or that God feels pain or suffering. (I posted a few months ago the notion that perhaps God is the one who truly suffers, whereas human suffering, while genuine and deep, is only partial.)(Also, I'm not sure 'apathetic' is the best way to translate the Greek notion of 'apatheia'.)

(I'm glad that I pay a flat rate for parentheses! If I paid by the bracket I'd be broke!)

One last thing: my blogger id box still says 'systematic theology', but I am somewhat wary of the term, inasmuch as it seems to imply nailing down and dissecting God.The more I pray and study, the more wonderful and mysterious God seems, such that theology needs to be something other than a cut-and-dried systematic account to do justice to its subject. That's not to say that we can't have genuine knowledge, etc., of God: but that perhaps it isn't the kind of science some have taken it for in the last 500 years or so; also that such knowledge is not for casual consumption, but draws us in and transforms us and our relationships.

Anyway, I've been banging on a bit. Thanks so much for your comment! I really appreciate your pastoral, theological reflections. Conversations like these are a blessing to the task of theology!


Friday, May 19, 2006 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger Marshall said...


Whew! I'm always flattered when I inspire someone to think about what i said.

I agree that "apathetic" is not the best translation (denotative or conceptual) of apatheia. But clearly you did understand what I was getting at. And, yes, I do appreciate what you say about a "systematic" approach dissecting God, or at least our experience. But sometimes there's a real point to organizing the material. I think it's a useful teaching tool, too often applied inappropriately to individual pastoral situations. After 25 years at the bedside, I don't find a crisis to be a good teaching moment.

Speaking of which: the pager just went off. Another time I'll reflect on using ikon theou instead of imago dei, which gets at a nuance that I think is interesting.

Saturday, May 20, 2006 2:56:00 AM  

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