Archives For Metaphysics

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

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1. Here’s a money quote that all but begs the reader to ponder whether the exclusive practice of adult baptism, premised as it is on human initiative, is absurd:

 

‘The Spirit is present in every action of redemption- completing it, perfecting it- so that to deny the divinity of the Spirit would be to deny the efficacy of one’s own baptism; as only God can join us to God (which is what salvation is), the Spirit who unites us to the Son (who bears us up to the Father) must be God.’

 

2. Often people object to the ancient, patristic doctrine of immutability, that is, the belief that God does not change, by lamenting that any God who does not change as we do is not a God to whom we can relate. More roughly put: ‘I don’t to want love God if God’s not like me.’

Here, DBH channels Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important Church Father, to point out that, far from being an argument against, our mutability is but another sign of God’s immutability:

 

‘In the end, creaturely mutability itself proves to be at once the way of difference from God and the way of union with God. To begin with, change is a means of release from sin; that same changeableness that grants us liberty to turn toward evil allows us also to recover the measure of divine harmony and to become an ever shifting shape of the good, a peaceful cadence of change.

For creatures, who cannot statically comprehend the infinite, progress in the good is the most beautiful work of change, and an inability to change would be a penalty. We are pure movement; the changeable puts on changeless beauty, always thirsting for more of God’s beauty which is changeless because it encompasses all beauty.’

 

3. It’s Reformation Sunday coming up so there’s no better time to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the well-intentioned mis-adventure which held that all of Christian vision should conform to and initiate from scripture solely.

The problem of course is that existence itself begets particular questions of existence (‘metaphysics’) towards which the bible shows little interest but logic (another manifestation of God’s truth) demonstrates to be necessary.

For example, scripture- because its the narrative of a People- speaks often of God’s wrath and violence. However, the logic of creation betrays the unnecessariness and hence gratuity of life itself so God, at bottom, in God’s essence is Goodness/Love itself.

Anyways, here’s DBH weighing in on my side:

‘The God of scripture is infinite precisely as the God who loves and acts, and who can be loved in turn; infinite precisely because he will be what and where he will be. What though does this mean?

What has been said regarding being- and with what measure of coherence- when one has said that God is ‘infinitely determinate’ source of all being, the eternal ‘I Am’?’

This is not a question to be evaded by fideistic, biblicist recoil to some destructive (and largely modern) division between ‘biblical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology; theology that refuses to address questions of ontology can never be more than a mythology, and so must remain deplorably defenseless against serious philosophical criticism.’

 

4. Rob Bell got into a hot water for the wrong thing a few years ago. The heat came when he implied in his book, Love Wins, that the God of Easter Love has neither capacity nor inclination for the eternal torment of Hell. That God comes in the flesh for all is clear; equally clear is that God not ultimately getting all would be defeat not victory.

Rob Bell, though, should’ve caught Hell not for the above assertion but for the fact he shamelessly ripped it off from the ancient Church Fathers.

They believed that all humanity comprises the image of the God who is Trinity therefore salvation must include all of the human community.

Citing them, DBH writes:

‘Redemption is God assuming human nature in order to join it to the divine nature…salvation is that creation has been rescued from sin and death by the divinity that Christ has introduced into the entirety of the common human nature…all humanity is now transfigured in Christ, and is saved through its endless transformation into what God brings near; the human soul, assumed into Christ, is striving ever after, seeking the uncontainable plenitude of God…the salvation of all souls is inevitable because each soul is a changing image of the infinite God; the dynamism of the soul has only God’s absolute, changeless fullness as its source and end, and God’s eternity as its element.’

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes. First, though, a few vocab words are in order to orient you to DBH’s argument:

Apatheia: the attribute of God, held by the ancients, in which God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, is unaffected by objects outside of himself.

Impassible: the ancient doctrine that God, as perfect within himself and possessing all possibilities as actualities, does not suffer due to the actions of another.

Immutable: the ancient belief that God, as eternal and existing outside of creation, does not change.

So then…God does not change- not ever- and God is not changed- by us.

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Here are the $ quotes:

“The contents of the creed do not constitute simply some system of metaphysical affirmations, but first and foremost a kind of ‘phenomenology of salvation’; the experience of redemption- of being joined by the Spirit to the Son and through the Son to the Father- was the ground from which the church’s doctrinal grammar arose.”

 

“The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting and joy.”

 

“Liberal theology’s dogmatic wasting disease- of which no symptom could be more acute than the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge- was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization of salvation that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian proclamation.”

 

“If the identity of the immanent Trinity (who God is in himself) with the economic Trinity (who God is as revealed by his works) is taken to mean history is the theater within which God- as absolute mind, process or divine event- finds or determines himself as God, there can be no way of convincingly avoiding the conclusion that God depends upon creation to be God and that creation exists by necessity (because of some lack in God); so that, God is robbed of his true transcendence and creation of its true gratuity.

The God whom Genesis depicts as pronouncing a deliberative ‘Let us…’ in creating humanity after his image and as looking on in approbation of his handiwork, which he sees to be good, is the eternal God who is the God he is forever is, with or without creation, to whom creation adds absolutely nothing.

God does not require creation to ‘fecundate’ his being, nor does he require the pathos of creation to determine his personality as though he were some finite subjectivity writ large…

God and creation do not belong to an interdependent history of necessity, because Trinity is already infinitely sufficient, infinitely diverse, infinitely at peace; God is good and sovereign and wholly beautiful, and creation is gift, loveliness, pleasure, dignity and freedom; which is to say that God is possessed of that loveliest ‘attribute:’ apatheia.”

 

“God does not even need us to be ‘our‘ God.

All we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness and virtue of the Logos, where it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not.”

 

“Immutability, impassibility, timelessness- surely, many argue, these relics of an obsolete metaphysics lingered on in Christian theology just as false believe and sinful inclinations linger on in a soul after baptism; and surely they always were fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a God of election and love, who proves himself through fidelity to his own promises against the horizon of history, who became flesh for us (was this not a change in God, after all?) and endured the passion of the cross out of pity for us. Have we not seen the wounded heart of God, wounded by our sin in his eternal life?

This is why so much modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but in his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the living God of scripture, not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.

At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a sort of self-indulgence..a sense that, before God, though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot rather than simply judge us; he must be absolved of his transcendence, so to speak, before we can consent to his verdict.”

 

“The Christian doctrine of divine apatheia, in its developed patristic and medieval form, never concerned an abstract deity incapable of loving us…the juxtaposition of the language of apatheia with the story of crucified love is precisely what makes the entire narrative of salvation in Christ intelligible. It is an almost agonizing irony that, in our attempt to revise trinitarian doctrine in the ‘light’ of Auschwitz, invariably we end up describing a God- who it turns out- is actually simply the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz.”

For being conditioned by history such a god is ultimately culpable for that history.

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes.

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Lingering barely behind these quotes is a critique of the Christianity that liberal Protestantism inherited from Paul Tillich, which seeks to make the faith ‘relevant’ to modernity by translating it into generalized principles of human experience. It’s this sort of Christianity that turns the resurrection into a metaphor for ‘life after death.’

DBH’s other sparring partner here is post liberalism (perhaps best represented by Stanley Hauerwas) which tends to conceive of Christianity as a particular cultural-linguistic expression as a way of avoiding the sort of all-encompassing metaphysical claims ancient Christianity made. In other words, you don’t know what ‘resurrection’ means until you’ve been part of the community of faith and learned the language we call Christian. Such a move, DBH argues, fails to account for the deep, universal claim about all of creation that resurrection makes.  rp_faith4.jpg

 

Anyway, as always, DBH says it better than me:

 

“The starkly stated alternative between thoroughgoing demythologization and thoroughgoing [biblical] literalism looks altogether too much like simple critical indolence; one must at least have some feel for the difference between a story as openly fabulous as the narrative of Eden and a story as concrete as that of Christ’s Resurrection, which makes a disorienting (and scandalous) claim to historical actuality, with repercussions that can be described in terms of places and times.”

 

“The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus tell us nothing in the abstract about human dereliction or human hope- they are not motifs of a tragic wisdom or goads to an existential resolve- but concern first what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, to whose particular truth and radiance all the general ‘truths’ of human experience must defer.”

 

“I dislike the tendency [postliberals] have of employing ‘narrative’ as such as an antifoundationalist shelter against critique and against the ontological and epistemological questions that theology must address.”

 

Ontological…epistemological…silly words, I know. But they set up this money quote:

“I believe the Christian story is the true story of being, and so speaks of that end toward which all human thought and every natural human act are actually oriented, and so can and must speak out of its story in a way that is not ‘narrative’ only, in a simple sense, and in a way that can find resonances and correspondences in the language and ‘experience’ of those who are not Christian.

 

And, I confess, I believe there is indeed the possibility of a consummation of all reason in a vision and a wisdom that cannot be reached without language.”

 

“Whereas the story of violence [being intrinsic to the universe] simply excludes the Christian story of [ontological] peace, the Christian story can encompass, and indeed heal, the story that rejects it; because that story too belongs to the peace of creation, the beauty of the infinite, and only its narrative and its desires blind it to a glory that everywhere pours in upon it.”

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

I took 3 of his classes.

I had no idea of what he was talking about 93% of the time.

He didn’t betray any indication that he cared even 1%.

I was hooked 100%.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

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“Beauty is a category indispensable to Christian thought: all that theology says of the triune life of God, the gratuity of creation, the incarnation of the Word, and the salvation of the world makes room for us a thought, and a narrative, of the beautiful.”

 

“The kerygma that Christ enjoins his disciples to preach is not some timeless wisdom, an ethical or spiritual creed fortified by the edifying example of its propagator, but a particular story, a particular Jew; a particular form, which we call the beautiful…The Christian use of the word ‘beauty’ refers most properly to a relationship of donation and transfiguration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.”

 

“It is what one loves- what one desires- that determines to what kingdom one belongs.”

 

“Beauty’s authority, within Christianity, guards against any tendency toward gnosticism, for two reasons: on the one hand, worldly beauty shows creation to be the real theater of divine glory- good, gracious, lovely, and desirable, participating in God’s splendor- and on the other hand, it shows the world to be absolutely unnecessary, an expression of divine glory that is free, framed for God’s pleasure.”

 

“The gnostic impulse belongs not only to antiquity: it has haunted every age. Wherever theology seeks to soothe those who are offended by the particularity of Christ or struggles to extract a universally valid wisdom from the parochialism of the Gospels, a gnosis begins to take shape at the expense of the Christian kerygma.”

 

“The real danger that liberal Protestantism represents is a gnostic etiolation of the gospel:

Its transformation into a fable of the soul, whose true meaning is a wisdom and peace vouchsafed inwardly, in the intactile depths of the self. Liberal Protestantism demonstrates with extraordinary clarity that to demythologize is not to demystify; its ultimate effect is not to ground faith in history or the worldliness of creaturely being, but to de-historicize, to unworld the soul, to make faith the experience of a mystical eschaton in perpetual advent, in the inner core of the present, imparted to the self in its most inviolable subjectivity, The church as a society in time (and society, therefore, as potentially the church) is displaced from the center of faith by the story of the self as a homeless wanderer seeking escape from history.”

“It is of course good to acknowledge that the geocentric view of the universe is incorrect, or that the spheres of the heavens do not physically separate the realm of the Most High from the world below, but Liberal Protestantism goes farther; it brings the entire weight of faith to rest upon a transcendental interiority by annihilating all aesthetic continuity between God and creation.”

And I’m only on page 26.

Untitled101One of the things our youth have conveyed to our new youth director is their desire for catechesis before college. Training tobefore we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Here are questions 15-17

I. The Father:

15. Does God Change?

No.

God is immutable, immune to change, for change implies that where was an absence or deficiency prior to the change. For something to change, in other words, there must be some potential in it which is not yet realized.

 

But in God there is no absence, for God is Being itself. God does not change (to be more loving, for example) because already in God is the perfection of Love itself.

 

Perfect Love is already eternally actual in God; therefore, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and- good news- there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

 

“I the Lord your God I do not change.” – Malachi 3.6

 

16. Why Does Scripture So Often Speak of God Changing God’s Disposition?

Scripture speaks of God changing because scripture narrates not God’s essence but Israel’s experience of God in the world.

 

Scripture speaks of God with such human language because we have no way of comprehending or conveying God by any means but our words.

 

Likewise, since humans are ‘talking animals’ the infinite has no other means to reveal himself to us but finite words.

 

“Who is this that questions my work with such ignorant words?”

– Job 38.2

17. Does God Suffer?

No, the idea that God suffers (patripassianism) is an ancient heresy.

The Father does not suffer. For 3 reasons:

 

As Being itself in whom there is no potentiality but only actuality, the perfection of all emotions (Love) is already present eternally in God.

 

To suffer is to be affected by another outside you. To be changed.

But God does not change because there is no potentiality in God only actuality.

 

God subsists in all things that exist and holds all things in existence. God cannot be affected by anything outside God because there is nothing that is outside God.

 

“He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” – Colossians 1.17 

 

Untitled10I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

I’ve used the catechism of the Catholic Church as a basic skeleton of categories. I’ve phrased the questions in the approximate wording of the questions I’ve received from doubters and believers over the past couple years while the answers are an incestuous amalgamation of Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas and all my other theological crushes.

Here are Q’s 4-6

I. The Father

4. What do we mean by calling God Creator?

We call God ‘Creator’ not because God at some point long ago created the world.

If the world ceased to exist, God would still be ‘Creator,’ for all the atomic laws and mathematical principles which comprise the world- and which God created- would still exist.

We call God ‘Creator’ because God is the Cause of all that exists in the universe and holds it all, at all moments, in existence and apart from God, at any moment, all would cease to exist.

By ‘Creator’ we mean God is our answer to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?

“For in God we live and move and have our being.” – Acts 17.28

5. Can God be proven?

No.

God cannot be proven because God is not a god. God is beyond the limits of science, the powers of reason or the perceptions of sensory experience because God is not a being within the material, observable universe.

God is Being itself, distinct from and encompassing all universes.

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closet relationship with the Father, has made him known.” – 1 John 1.18 

“…God’s greatness is unsearchable.” – Psalm 145.3

6. Can God be disproven?

No.

God cannot be disproven because God is not a god. God is beyond the limits of science, the powers of reason or the perceptions of sensory experience because God is not a being within the material, observable universe.

God is Being itself, distinct from and encompassing all universes.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 

– Isaiah 55.8

 

 

 

image001A few weeks ago I posted a reflection on the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability, God’s unchangingness. Admittedly the jumping off quote from the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, was a rhetorical stick of dynamite:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

In the posts that followed the initial reflection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that retrieving the first Christians’ speech about God could pull away some of the cobwebs believers and nonbelievers get tangled up in today.

Just as immutability was a surprise to many, I think many Christians would be surprised by what we mean by ‘Creation’ and how that impacts our speech about ‘miracles.’

The Apostles’ Creed begins seemingly innocuously: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.’

But already in that first breath most believers have already gotten off on the wrong track. The creed’s beginning is neither innocuous nor, it seems, self-evident, for most Christians mistakenly assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we refer to God’s prior activity that we can locate at some debatable point in the past (millions or thousands of years, depending on whether or not you’re ignorant).

Those same believers erroneously assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we mean that long ago God rolled up his sleeves and worked on some-thing called no-thing which resulted in creation. Once set in motion, God stepped back and, as though on a cross, declared it is finished. Like a watchmaker, God could hang up his ‘creator’ hat confident that the atomic and evolutionary gears would hum in perpetuity. Or, if not a watchmaker, God could step back and like Santa watch us from afar, keeping track of who is naughty and who is nice and occasionally intervening in creation to answer a prayer, smite a sinner or take responsibility for insurance claims.

To profess the first line of the creed with this in your head is to get the ‘Creator’ exactly wrong from how the ancient Christians so thought of God. For them, to call God Creator is to believe that God is the One who makes things to be without there being anything prior to his creative act save himself. For God to create is to make it be that something simply exists. When we name God as Creator, we confess that without God there would not be anything at all.

Whereas the watchmaker makes it be that there is a watch out of all the disparate parts that were prior to the watch, God makes it be that things just are- from the quartz in the clock to the simplest raindrop.

By calling God Creator we profess that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing, and this is a confession that quite obviously renders any debates about the earth’s age or the mode of creation forehead-slappingly irrelevant. To say God the Creator is the reason there is something instead of nothing is to say that God makes it that things are at all moments of their existence, past, present and future. Without God, all things would cease to exist in an instant.

The ancient Christians so emphasized this ongoing, continual, present creative act of God that they even believed it was irrelevant whether or not the earth had a beginning.

This is the ancient doctrine of creation that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing- a question beyond the bounds of the material world and thus a question science could never answer in the affirmative or the negative. According to this ancient doctrine of creation, everything other than God is completely dependent on God for its existing and for being as it is; therefore, God’s presence is nearer to every thing and every creature than believers today often suppose. God is everywhere, closer to us than we are to ourselves, for God is the one making it that we exist at all. God is not everywhere in the sense of taking up physical space but everywhere in the sense of causing the existence of all things.

According to the doctrine of creation, God is always everywhere, always present to creatures.

This means, in a certain manner of speaking, that there is no such that we commonly call ‘miracles.’

imagesWhat we mean by ‘miracles’ are those occasions when (the distant watchmaker) God intervenes in the created order. Implicit in our use of the word ‘miracle’ is the Enlightenment presumption that God otherwise is set apart from creation; that is, you can only intervene where you were not previously present and active.

To intervene, as Herbert McCabe says, you have to be an alternative to, or alongside what you are interfering with.

But if God is present everywhere, in everything, at all times the reason there is something instead no thing at all then there is no thing that God is alongside of or apart from.

There is no such thing we call ‘miracles’ because

you cannot intervene in what you yourself are doing.

To call God Creator is to name the most mysterious miracle of all- that there is something instead of nothing. This is a miracle that then determines what we properly mean by the word ‘miracle.‘

A miracle is not when God intervenes in our lives from outside our lives to act upon us. A miracle is when only God- and no other secondary causes- is acting in our lives, not from beyond but from the nearness where God has been all along.

 

image001Led by Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, I’ve spent nights and early mornings the past few months rereading many of the ancient Church Fathers as well as St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church.

I discovered McCabe a few years ago by tracking back through the footnotes of in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ books, and he’s provoked me to return to material I’ve not read since my very first theology classes with David Bentley Hart. dbh-ima

Back then, as an undergrad, I had no inkling that archaic church doctrines like immutabilty could be explosive in both the life-giving and death-causing connotations of the word.

Back then, I had no idea my inbox would one day be filled with messages from all over the globe, from believers and non, pro and non, because of this simple pericope from a blog post:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

This has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To some, the idea that God is unchanging allows them to hear the gospel for the very first time.

After all, who would want a god whose love could change because of little old me?

To others, the insinuation that God is unchanging sounds like an a-biblical intrusion into a narrative that gives us nothing but a pathos-filled God.

And, after all, who would want a God whose immutable nature necessarily means he’s also impassible- unaffected? By my love and devotion? By the world’s sin and injustice?

To the former, a God who changes based on relationship with us not only contradicts God’s self-disclosure (‘I am He who is’) it threatens to break the first commandment. Such a god bears a striking resemblance to us.

To the latter, however, a God who is unchanging seems to bear no resemblance to the God of Israel who frequently rages and weeps like a cuckolded husband.

For reasons that fill more space than I can devote here, my feelings convictions passion lie with the former. I’m convinced the first Christians rightly held God to be immutable.

Not only do I think this is the only logical way to insure that the God the first testament is identified with the God who takes flesh in the second, I also do not think it renders a dispassionate god.

Far from saying God has no feelings or love towards us, immutability secures the fact that God has nothing but loving feelings in perfection towards us. Our relationship with God doesn’t change God because God literally can’t love us more than God already does.

Nor do I think the ancients’ immutable God an abstraction since at several points scripture tells us that the Word made flesh is the visible image of this immutable God.

Alright, but admittedly that begs the next question.

If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?

Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?

Doesn’t answered prayer imply a changed god?

No.

imagesAt least that’s how Herbert McCabe sees it.

In line with Thomas Aquinas, McCabe sees all prayer as a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is made possible by the fact that the Son prayed to the Father and all prayer continues that prayer in that whenever we pray it is not us praying but the Spirit praying through us, as St Paul says.

Just as no one can understand or know God except God himself- the Word being God’s idea of himself made flesh- no one can speak to God except God himself. It is the same with prayer, McCabe argues.

“Prayer is God’s communion with God, prayer is the Holy Spirit breathed forth by the Father and by the Son because of the Father. We share in the Spirit in the inarticulacy of our prayer…When we pray we are prayed in, we become the locus of the exchange between the Father and the Son, the Trinity has made its home in us- for that we don’t need the right words with which to pray.’ 

So we don’t pray to God so much as God prays through us. Or, we pray to God in the sense that the Spirit prays through us to the Father and the Son.

As Aquinas says, ‘we should not say in accordance with my prayer God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that God wills it to be a fine day in accordance with my prayer.’

God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.

What does that mean?

It means, says McCabe/Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than a fine day. God wills through us that that fine day should be a sacrament of God’s love.

To understand prayer in the categories of answered/unanswered prayer gets prayer exactly wrong, according to Aquinas, in the same way that the category ‘miracles’ gets God’s activity in the world all wrong.

God is never not active in any part or at any moment of the world. A ‘miracle’ is not when God is suddenly intervening in the world; a miracle is when only God is acting upon something in the world.

Similarly, an ‘answered’ prayed implies God is not active until/unless the answer arrives but rather, says Aquinas, the very wants and desires we pray are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God. Unknown

The desire you pray pray for healing, love, fill-in-the-blank is not your desire.

It’s God for you.

Implanted in you by God.

Prayed in and through you by the Holy Spirit.

Put another way, prayer is the sacrament that God wants healing, love, fill-in-the-blank for you as much as you do.

imagesDeadly Sins and Atonement Theories are both on my mind and on the preaching docket this Lent.

This weekend I’ll have limited preaching time due to our Worship Through Service event, but I hope to give a few minutes to reflecting on how Wrath plays into our understanding of God and ourselves.

Spoiler: Jesus’ (the True Human) Wrath is most usually directed at mistreatment of the poor and marginalized.

I blame it on Dennis Perry, who gave me Aquinas to read as soon as I came to faith as a teenager, but I’ve always been troubled, theologically and intellectually, by the notion that salvation’s balance requires Jesus’ death to be paid to God.

Such a transaction- and that’s exactly the language used by proponents- posits a change in God’s disposition towards us because of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I’ve always found this problematic and partial because God, by (ancient) definition is immune to change.

God is not a god.

The God of ex nihilo fame is not a being within the universe. God is pure Essence. Perfect. Changeless. Eternal.

God, as John says, just is…LOVE.

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

UnknownGiving articulation to that ancient Thomistic perspective is Herbert McCabe:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin.

So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult.

What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change.

When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite.For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner.

God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God.

It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.