Monday, October 28, 2013

Sound Bite Theology: Summing up Fundamentalism in One Sentence

For Fundamentalism, Jesus' incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection serve primarily as the central narrative-core of their true savior, the inerrant Bible.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sound Bite Theology: On Christian Dualism

Much of what passes for Christian theology is hopelessly compromised by dualism, particularly the notion that the physical universe is meaningless without the superimposition of other "stuff," whether this stuff is called "spirit" or an "immaterial soul." Consequently this spiritual stuff is understood as existing independently and autonomously from the physical universe. Hence, the human brain is but a useful tool or a processor in the operations of the immaterial soul in its interaction with the physical universe. The brain cannot reason without a "rational soul," nor can a person love without a soul. Personhood itself is deemed impossible without the superimposition of the soul upon the biological substratum of the human body.

This unfortunate deprecation of matter as something insufficient to support the divine qualities of love, morality, relationship, rationality, and even personhood, is something worthy of Gnosticism or the religio-philosophy of Mani, not of Christianity. So it should not really surprise us that the main proponent of such dualistic thinking in early western Christianity was himself a former Manichee. Yet as the ancient Hebrews knew well, our physical nature is not only sufficient for the emergence of the soul but, indeed, is its very constitution.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Sound Bite Theology: Theologians & Apologists

There are inquirers after truth, and there are defenders of truth conceived. In Christianity (or in any religion), the former are the theologians the latter are the apologists. The greatest mistake that either could make is to see their tasks as mutually exclusive.

Both serve a useful purpose. The apologist seeks to preserve and conserve the warranted conclusions of past inquiries after truth. The theologian seeks further truth, or to articulate deeper truth, in light of new discoveries and new insights within new contexts, specifically in areas where earlier articulations of truth may be found insufficient or shortsighted.

The wise theologian knows that while all inquiry is provisional, the most fruitful inquiry happens along the well-trodden paths of earlier inquiry, heeding the sign-posts of past travelers. The wise apologist knows that while the resilience of truth renders it impervious to spurious inquiry, the failure to acknowledge new discovery essentially amounts to a denial of the very truth that the apologist is duty-bound to defend.

The disposition of the apologist is to regard orthodoxy as the end of the journey. The disposition of the theologian is to regard orthodoxy as a means to an end. Therein lies their greatest difference and their greatest bone of contention.

The apologist should never mistake apologia for theologia. Neither should the theologian trivialize the hesitations of the apologist.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Theodicy and Determinism: The Folly of Leibniz's "Best Possible World"

Theodicy: In Christian theology,any attempt to reconcile the occurrence of evil and/or suffering in the world with the traditional theistic attributes of omnibenevolence (i.e."all-loving"), omniscience (i.e. "all-knowledge"), and omnipotence (i.e. "all-power"). 
The theodicy conundrum is typically set up as a "best possible worlds" dilemma: of all possible worlds that could have been created, why would an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God create a world in which evil and suffering exist? Why did God create the circumstances that would allow Adam to sin? These questions, the stuff of anti-theist rejoinders, have been the perennial bane of Christian theology for time immemorial.

In his Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, the German mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), proposed a rather ingenious solution to the best possible worlds dilemma. Leibniz agreed that a world created by an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God would necessarily have to be the best of all possible worlds, and so he believed the world to be! His ingenuity was seen in his novel solution to the problem of evil. The presence of evil and suffering in the world, so he argued, was necessary for the realization of the highest possible good. In other words, God was an "optimizer" of sorts, allowing evil in order to optimize the degree of goodness manifested in the world. A world devoid of evil, while perhaps paradisaical, could never know the higher virtues characteristic of a world in which evil existed -- virtues such as fidelity, sacrifice, bravery, courage, altruism and the like. These can only be known in a world like ours, that is, the best of all possible worlds. Leibniz not only believed that his solution resolved the theodicy conundrum, he also saw it as the best proof for Christian theism.

Naturally, Leibniz's solution produced many critics. The celebrated atheist, Voltaire, would opine that the amount of suffering actually seen in the world could in no way justify Leibniz's optimism. Voltaire's retort had the force of the preponderance of human experience behind it, at least for those who did not turn a blind eye towards the ravages of poverty, war and disease. Yet little did Voltaire know in his day that such societal evils were merely the tip of the iceberg. Modern science, particularly the insights of evolutionary theory, would go on to reveal a world where the formation and exhaustion of stars, the energy demands of biological life forms, tooth-and-claw competition, suffering, pain, death, biological dead-ends, mass extinctions and the like not only existed, but were in fact the rule: the metanarrative of "the world of the universe that is." In fact, the "higher virtues" of Leibniz's best possible world would not emerge until eons and eons of senseless, ravenous and cannibalistic processes had finally produced -- in a tiny, unremarkable recess of the universe -- moral creatures such as ourselves. Relatively speaking, such virtues appear to be a meaningless aberration in a world defined by "death"; illusions born of evolutionary adaptations that our species happened to find useful in the competition of the survival of the fittest.

Voltaire's retort certainly had subjective and emotive force behind it, but it would still be possible to  argue that the "highest possible good" was ultimately a valuation judgment best left to God, the judge of all things. Indeed, the real weakness of Leibniz's solution was not his "optimizing of the good" explanation for the existence of evil, but rather the implicit determinism that the "best possible worlds" dilemma assumes from the outset. If, as the dilemma contends, an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God must create a world in which the most optimal conditions exist for the realization of the highest possible good, then all future reality must in some sense already exist in the mind of God. Simply put, from eternity past, God would have had to will the creation of a world in which he infallibly knew all that would take place, and could not have chosen to create any other!

Leibniz was not the first to fall unwittingly into the trap of determinism. Christian theology had been entangled in determinism since the days of Origen. Indeed, even today most Christians are little aware of how pervasive determinism is and how it affects their theistic beliefs, often in self-contradictory ways. This is particularly the case with the traditional understandings of omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. A God who is bound by his "all-loving" character to create the "best possible world" can hardly be said to be "all-powerful." The very concept of "best possible" becomes nonsensical, since, in the infallible foreknowledge of God, only one possibility exists!

Determinism has created more problems than necessary, particularly in the perennial preoccupation of Christian theologians to absolve God as the cause of evil and suffering. This is typically done by distinguishing between the "two wills" of God, namely, the causative and the permissive. So it is argued that to permit evil is not the same thing as causing it; hence, God cannot be said to be the author of evil if he merely permits it to exist (its causation being attributed to other moral agents, like fallen angels and Adam).

However, the knowledge of future actions and the decree to create in view of them amounts to the same net result: soft determinism is still determinism. Even if (in good Molinist fashion) the free agency of moral beings is built into the system to account for the causation of evil (i.e. sin, suffering, etc.), this could only be admitted as a means towards a divinely appointed end. In actuality, free agency would simply not exist in such a world; only the appearance of it. One may choose chocolate over vanilla, but if that choice were determined ahead of time (insofar as God chose to create a world in which all future actions were infallibly foreknown), then no other choice would ever be possible. In another scenario, one could just as well "choose" to commit murder, and that choice would be just as certain from an eternal standpoint. In the final analysis, it is impossible to exonerate God entirely from evil in any deterministic system.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rehabilitating Nestorius (Part Two): The Conflicting Agendas of Chalcedon

Read Part One Here.

There is no way of knowing for certain when Nestorius died, but apparently he survived long enough to hear of the triumph of Flavian of Constantinople and Leo of Rome's orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Naturally, since they had both supported a dyophysite Christology over against Dioscorus (Cyril's successor in Alexandria), Nestorius took this news as vindication of his own orthodoxy. We know this from his last surviving work, written during his exile in Egypt, entitled The Bazaar of Heracleides. Interestingly, while this book shows that he was aware of Dioscorus's hasty flight from the council proceedings, it betrays no awareness on Nestorius's part of the council's actual formal rulings, including his own condemnation.

A casual observer of events might be excused for concluding that Chalcedon was a plethora of contradictions. For instance, while upholding Cyril's Twelve Chapters as the standard of orthodoxy for all other Christological statements (including Leo's Tome!), the council nonetheless deposed Cyril's successor and main advocate, Dioscorus. (Admittedly, this was done by an underwhelming number of bishops on the final day.) Meanwhile, much to the Cyrillian party's chagrine, the council conscripted into service Leo's Tome and its explicit dyophysite language for its own definition. To make matters worse (for the Cyrillian party anyway), the council failed to anathematize the revered Antiochene teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia, along with two other prominent bishops, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, both of whom had written scathing refutations of Cyril's Twelve Chapters. Nonetheless, Chalcedon also saw fit to uphold the condemnation of Nestorius, the most notorious dyophysite of all.

It should come as no surprise then that the near-immediate result of Chalcedon was major schism, on both sides of the divide: Those who could not assent to the condemnation of Nestorius as well as those who judged that Dioscorus of Alexandria had been unfairly deposed. In the latter case, nearly the entire ancient Church of Alexandria, Cyril's former see, would break away from the rest of the Orthodox world. (The Coptic Orthodox Church descends from this break.)

Yet a closer look at the council's rationale reveals Chalcedon not so much as a cacophony of conflicting agendas and compromised solutions as it was a reconciliation of the legitimate insights of both sides of the miaphysite/dyophysite divide. Dioscorus had given every assurance that his understanding of the "one incarnate nature" formula of Cyril involved "no confusion, neither division nor change." Indeed, it was admitted at the time that Cyril's formula could be read in an orthodox way. Hence, though he fell short of Chalcedon's "in two natures" language, Dioscorus could at least affirm that Christ was from two natures. However, his misstep was that he defended Eutyches, the infamous archimandrite of Constantinople, whose position had been the presenting cause of Chalcedon in its assertion that Christ's humanity had been completely absorbed into his divinity.

In a similar vein, it was not Nestorius's insistence that Christ was "in two natures" after the union that caused the council to uphold his condemnation. Rather it was the fear that his "prosopic union" had compromised Cyril's insistence on a hypostatic union of the two natures (i.e. the unipersonality of Christ). Leo's Tome had affirmed both dyophysitism and unipersonality, and so won the day not as a compromise, but as masterful reconciliation.

One could be forgiven for thinking that these ancient debates are tediously irrelevant to the challenges facing Christians today. Yet even though the language may seem alien, these ontological categories are the foundation for how Christians have understood and taught their faith up to our very day; and they appear to be resilient enough to continue in that capacity for those who aspire to chart out a course for the articulation of the Christian faith in light of modern scientific inquiry and discovery, something that will be explored in a later post in this series.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rehabilitating Nestorius (Part One): Historical background

The philosophical issues surrounding the Christological controversies of the 5th century may seem tedious, but they have been the stuff of lasting division in Christianity. The Chalcedonian definition of 451, often seen as a triumph for orthodoxy in bringing together disparate approaches to the question of how the divine and human natures are united in Christ (indeed settling that question for the greater portion of Christianity) also produced a number of non-Chalcedonian churches. Separating not so much over substantive differences of faith, but rather over semantics, these unfortunate divisions persist to this day.

This sorry episode of Christian history begins with the controversy that set the stage for a contentious council held in Ephesus in 431, twenty years before the Council of Chalcedon. The warring sides in this debate were two competing schools based out of two cities: Antioch and Alexandria. The Antiochenes contended for a dyophysite or "two-nature" Christology (from the Greek duo physeis), positing not only the reality of two natures in Christ, but insisting that the full integrity of both natures remained intact after the union. The Alexandrians contended for a miaphysite or "one-nature" Christology (from the Greek mia physis), summarized in the dictums: "one nature out of the two" and "the one nature (physis) of the incarnate Logos." This latter approach was not intended to diminish the integrity of the two natures after the union, but rather to emphasize the completeness of their union in the one hypostasis (subsistence) and prosopon (person) of the Logos.

The champion of the Antiochene approach was Nestorius (386-450), who had been elevated to the all important see of Constantinople in 428. Shortly after his arrival in Constantinople, Nestorius instigated the controversy that would prove to be his undoing by teaching against the use of the title Theotokos ("God-bearer") for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nestorius argued that the title was unfitting since Mary could only have given birth to the human nature of Christ; the eternal God could not be born. He suggested a compromise: Christotokos ("Christ-bearer"). But his objections to the traditional title were already perceived by the Alexandrians and their bishop Cyril (376-444) as a direct attack on their Christology.

Like his compatriots of the Antiochene school, Nestorius was a dyophysite, ironically, the position that would ultimately win the day at the Council of Chalcedon. Had it been as simple as the question of one or two natures, history might have been kinder to Nestorius, perhaps even vindicating him as the champion of orthodoxy rather than Cyril. But Nestorius's misstep was in the way he went about articulating the dyophysite position. For Nestorius, the two-natures Christology necessitated the reality of two corresponding hypostases or subsistences, each the proper and unique subject of its own nature. But if this were the case then how could a true union of the divine and human in Christ be posited?

Nestorius's solution was to propose a prosopic union (from the Greek prosopon). Most often translated "person," a more accurate rendering would be "manifestation of self." Nestorius had argued that even though each nature or hypostasis could be said to possess its own prosopon, yet in Christ the union meant that the two natures were united together in one "public face" or prosopon. However, this seemed to imply a conjoining of natures/hypostases in Christ rather than their true union. For that reason Nestorius's articulation fell short of both Antiochene and Alexandrian expectations.

On account of that misstep, Nestorius would find himself condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431 (a council chaired by Cyril!). He fared even worse during the follow-up negotiations with Cyrillian party, when his Antiochene compatriots finally agreed to his condemnation and signed onto the compromise Formula of Reunion (433). Though imperial politics played a large part in all of this, there can be no doubt that Nestorius's condemnation was due mainly to theological clumsiness on his part.

However, Cyril was not to be outdone in theological clumsiness, offering up a rationale for miaphysitism that amounted to the merging of two natures to make one. Yet how could one speak of one "incarnate divine nature" without confusing the attributes and properties of the two natures that made up that one nature? This would be the conundrum taken up by Chalcedon and settled, ironically, in favor of dyophysitism. Yet where Cyril succeeded in uncutting his adversary was in his insistence that there could be but one subject in Christ, both in terms of subsistence (hypostasis) and manifestation (prosopon).

While Cyril's argument would win the day at Ephesus, the difference between heretic and orthodox actually amounted to a question of whose clumsiness was deemed the more egregious. Nestorius position may have been the one condemned, but some way forward would have to be found to prevent Cyril's Christology from degrading into Eutychian admixture and confusion, or worse, Apollinarian compositeness. Indeed, the only way forward would be to admit the dyophysitism that Nestorius had championed, but in such a way as to maintain Cyril's insistence on unipersonality. The marriage of the two would be the triumph of Chalcedon, in its "each nature (physeos) concurring in one person (prosopon) and one subsistence (hypostasin)" formula -- phraseology directly dependent on, if not conscripted from, the Tome of Pope Leo I. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Natural (s)Election, Part Two: Anthropocentrism, Myopia, and the Uniqueness of Humanity

Read Part One.

The acceptance of evolution by theologians is inevitable. Why say this? Because it must be. The Christian faith cannot hope to speak meaningfully to the world if those responsible for the articulation of that faith cannot see clearly to accept what has been established by science beyond all reasonable doubt, and to adapt accordingly. This assertion, however, should not be misconstrued as a plea to theology to accommodate a foreign idea or a conflicting set of values or principles in some vain attempt to keep Christianity relevant. Rather if Christianity is true then it will be found to be consistent with all other truth, and prove sufficient in its ability to adapt its articulation to our expanding understanding of the world around us. Nevertheless, the theologian should be prepared for the radical shift that must take place in his or her perspective; for, upon acceptance, the theologian will have to account for the drama of evolution, not only as natural occurrence, but for what it truly is: the history of redemption itself.

Part One presented Anthropocentrism as a necessary presupposition in theology, albeit an illusory one. It is necessary because any coherent account of divine disclosure to human experience must be interpreted from within human experience. It is illusory when it fails to account for the vast array of possibilities that the "freedom-to-become" (creatio continua) implies, inevitably leading to an anthropological exceptionalism that will ring less and less "true" with each new discovery. This is both a danger and an opportunity for the theologian.

So it was, not too long ago, that theologians regarded humankind as the primary or even the exclusive object of redemption. This was quite understandable within an ancient framework that saw the rest of the cosmos as a secondary consideration at best -- "mankind's" habitation. After the Fall, the cosmos became the arena of judgment for humanity, a place hardship, perils, floods, famines, disease and eventually physical death. The state of death and decay being irreversible, it was easy for theologians to regard the physical universe as consigned to a hopeless destiny, at least on this side of the resurrection.

Certainly, human beings shared this habitation with other living things -- plants and animals -- but "mankind" alone was seen as the "image-bearer" of God. All other creatures existed (at least originally) for the benefit and enjoyment of human beings, and later for their judgment. Like a parent who cares that a child takes proper care of his toys, cleans his room, and feeds the dog (not for the sake of these things as much as for the betterment of the child) so traditional theology saw God as the divine parent providing in creation all things needed to sustain human beings, to teach them obedience, and to bring their lives to fulfillment. Thus the value of the cosmos was seen as relative to humankind's use, discipline, and pleasure. That God would show anything more than a concern for the proper stewardship of creation was hardly a consideration ever taken up by theology.

However, Copernicus shattered this perspective long ago. While many theologians have certainly failed to appreciate fully the vastness of the universe that Copernicus bequeathed to us, Darwin's breakthrough insight of natural selection, once embraced by the theologian, will certainly prove to be the undoing of anthropological exceptionalism. Simply put, the scientific investigation of our universe, from the sub-atomic to the astrophysical to the realm of biological processes, has wrought nothing less than the relativization of humanity's place in the cosmos.

No longer can the theologian afford to regard anthropos as the sole object of God's redemptive love, the exclusive image-bearer, or the center of the created order. If natural selection means anything in theology it means that the phenomenological emergence of anthropos in our small corner of the universe is the creative response of a cosmos imbued by the loving call of its Creator towards greater and greater complexity in the exercise of its freedom-to-become. Thus, the entirety of the cosmos, not just one minuscule part of it, must be considered in terms of the imago Dei (or rather as potentia imaginem Dei).

Indeed, we have emerged as imaginem Dei intellexit -- as the image of God realized. Yet anthropos considered in terms of an a priori goal or telos of the cosmos can no longer be taken as a theological presupposition. From a natural standpoint, we emerged from stochastic processes. From a theological standpoint, we are the ends for which God created the cosmos, but one possibility of myriad outcomes.

Is it any wonder then that many Christian religionists object so strongly to the notion of evolution by natural selection? The shift in perspective that is required by Darwin's breakthrough theory is regarded as too radical, too seismic in scope and extent for the "old time religion" to survive. It simply leaves no room for anthropological exceptionalism. Even the anthropocentrism that is readily admitted as a necessary theological presupposition is revealed as myopic. Perhaps such myopia can be excused when corrective lenses are not available. But once placed over our eyes the spectacles reveal a world in sudden relief that we are compelled either to accept or, in madness, to deny. Yet, rarely, do religionists take on the full view at once. In matters of religion, first reactions are typically irrational. New perspectives are initially denied, suppressed, and all-too-readily explained away or selectively accommodated when no other recourse remains.

But fear not! The faith as revealed has demonstrated time and time again to be more than sufficient for the task, even during seismic shifts of perspective. If, as we believe, the Christian faith is a divinely revealed faith, then it is true. If true, then it will agree with all else that is true no matter where such truth is found (e.g. in the "book of nature"). It stands to reason then that the relativization of humanity foisted upon us by the acceptance of natural selection (not to mention the vastness of the universe) serves the ends of theological truth by opening up a greater world to the theologian -- a greater realm of redemption to consider. All at once the entire cosmos becomes the object of God's elective grace, the receiver of the gift of incarnation, the subject of theosis.

Yet this is not to say that humanity's place, while no longer exclusive in principle, is no longer special or unique. Certainly it is both special and unique in our small corner of the cosmos. Even if life with consciousness very much like our own existed elsewhere in the universe, the distances (for us) are far too great to be meaningful; and while nothing precludes God "becoming flesh" in other contexts, and in ways appropriate to those contexts, this would be of no immediate concern to us. In the final analysis, and for the time being, we perhaps can still afford a vestige of our exceptionalism, if only for the impracticability of ever discovering such as ourselves in other corners of the "world of the universe that is."

Part One

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rehabilitating Pelagius: The Making of the West's Most Notorious "Heretic"

Perhaps no greater acrimony can be meted out in Christian debate than to accuse someone of "Pelagianism." Pelagius (354-418) was a popular ascetic whom most scholars accept was born somewhere in the British isles. Around 380 he moved to Rome where he took up writing and teaching about his ascetic practices. Around 405 he was exposed to some passages from Augustine's Confessions which provoked his first publicly-made objections to Augustine's views on predestination and grace, suggesting that such views were to blame for the moral laxity that he observed among Augustine's admirers in Rome. After the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, Pelagius relocated for a short time to the city of Carthage where he had a brief, but memorable encounter with Augustine. Shortly thereafter the two adversaries began their famous literary debate.

Nowadays, it is generally conceded by scholars that Pelagius's notoriety in the Western Church owes at least as much to a misunderstanding and/or the misrepresentation of his views as it does to the ascendancy of Augustinianism in the West. The anti-Pelagian propositions of the Council Carthage (418) appear more to have been addressing Augustine's caricature of Pelagius's views and/or what the Council may have been led to believe were the logical implications of his views than they do an accurate account of what he actually taught. Among the propositions affirmed at Carthage (contra Pelagius) were:

1. That death came from sin and not from our physical nature;
2. That infants must be baptized to be cleansed from the guilt of Adam's original sin;
3. That justifying grace (infused not imputed) remits past sins and helps to avoid future ones;
4. That grace imparts both the strength and the will to act out God's commandments;
5. That no good works are possible without divine grace;
6. That saints confess to be sinners because they truly are;
7. That children dying without baptism are excluded from eternal life.

Amazingly, a contemporary assessment of at least some of these propositions is enough to make many Christians cringe with discomfort, even in contexts where the spirit of Augustinianism runs deep. Indeed, it is a testimony to Augustine's polemical skills and prolific output during this period that he is remembered as the premier patristic voice in the West, despite that fact that some of his views have either been largely qualified or quietly discarded, which makes it even more ironic that Pelagius is reckoned to be one of the church's most despicable heretics.

Naturally, Pelagius's literary output was suppressed after his condemnation and is thus no longer extant. Yet what does remain of his work demonstrates that many of the views attributed to him he in fact did not hold. For instance, it turns out that Pelagius actually did believe that baptism was necessary for the salvation of children, though he did not believe they were held accountable for Adam's sin; he did in fact believe that saints were sinners, though he also held that some saints had successfully stopped sinning (a common enough belief in his day, especially among ascetics); and he did hold that grace was necessary for good works and to please God, though he did not hold that such grace cancelled out the freedom of the will. Indeed, it appears that Pelagius even held to a form of prevenient grace that was necessary to draw a person to salvation, though obviously such grace was resistible.

Where Pelagius fell afoul of his great adversary Augustine was in his criticism of the latter's strict predestinarianism which, to Pelagius, seemed to suggest that human beings were mere automatons. Pelagius attributed this position to a residual "Manichaeism" in Augustine (recall that Augustine had been a Manichee), in which the flesh was considered utterly corrupt and evil and thus powerless to perform any works that could please God. In fact, all acts of the flesh were inherently sinful and worthy only of divine condemnation. Pelagius was appalled by what seemed to be the implication that human beings could be condemned for something they could not avoid (sin).

That Augustine did indeed retain something of his former Manichee views of human nature seems a fair assessment on Pelagius's part. But rather than base his pessimistic views of human nature in the Manichee mythos that the physical universe was not created by God at all, but rather by evil forces, Augustine found in his new Christian faith an explanation that seemed to uphold the doctrine of God as Creator of all things while at the same time exonerating God from being the author of sin. This was, of course, the story of the Fall of Adam in the Book of Genesis, especially as interpreted by Paul in his Letter to the Romans (chapter 5). Augustine reckoned that Adam's first sin was both the root of all evil and corruption in the world as well as the cause of mortality. As nothing remained of meritorious value in human nature after the Fall, salvation would necessarily be regarded as being of pure grace, in which the human will or volition could play only a passive role and only after it had first been regenerated by grace. Since it was obvious to Augustine that not all are redeemed, it must be the case that those who are redeemed are also predestined by God to salvation.

This would explain why Pelagius's positive views of the human will would be characterized by Augustine as amounting to the outright denial of such things as the necessity of grace in salvation, the universality of human sin, and even the need of baptism for the salvation of children. For Augustine, to deny the utter depravity of human beings (the foundation of his absolute view of predestination) was to deny the entirety of the catholic faith. Thus condemning Pelagius on these lesser matters (whether or not he had actually denied them) made him out to be the foe of long-cherished Christian doctrine and practice and thus someone who was eminently more condemnable by councils; whereas to challenge Pelagius's orthodoxy on the greater matter of the nature of predestination would have been to wage a war in an area that was not yet (nor ever would be) settled doctrine.

The background and issues raised in this ancient debate have never been more important than they are today, if only because of the near total monopoly that Augustinianism has had over western theology over the last sixteen centuries. This has not been without its consequences in the development of western theology, particularly in our own day when theologians are compelled to deal with the challenges presented by the discoveries of modern science, especially human origins. Indeed, rehabilitating Pelagius, at least in part, may go a long way to dismantle assumptions that have kept theologians from adequately facing these challenges.

For instance, given what we now know to be the origin of the human species through the process of evolution via natural selection, contemporary theologians can hardly take for granted the Augustinian notion that "death came from sin" and not from our physical nature; nor can it be seriously entertained that the "flesh," that is our "sin nature," derives from some supposed "first" or "original" sinful act that took place in an Edenic paradise. Simply put, the theological-narrative that Augustine had constructed from the Book of Genesis no longer suffices as an explanation for the origin of sin, the onset of mortality, or the need for grace, at least not in any reified or historical sense. Once this is admitted, even Augustine's doctrine of predestination loses much of its raison d'etre and begins to look suspiciously more and more like the fatalism that Pelagius contended that it was.

For further discussion see: Adam and the Undoing of Augustine.
See also: The "Two Minds" of Augustine: Original Sin Considered from an Evolutionary Perspective.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Theistic Evolution: A Theological Narrative

What follows is offered up as a provisional theological narrative for a Christian account of theistic evolution:

1. Creatio ex nihilo (creation "from or, out of, nothing"). In contrast to pantheism (and even panentheism), creatio ex nihilo asserts that the cosmos, i.e. "the world of the universe that is," has its origin in God as its ground of being, not out of divine necessity but rather of divine will. Hence, as a fundamental assertion of theism, the cosmos cannot in any way be identified with the Divine or be said to possess an essentially divine nature. The Creator, the one whom we call "God," is wholly other, i.e. utterly transcendent from the cosmos.

2. Divine Kenosis. Creation is nonetheless an act of divine kenosis, or "self-emptying," wherein the Creator freely and gratuitously "makes room" for something other than the Divine-Self: the "gift of being." This "gift of being" (creatio ex nihilo) includes the "gift of becoming" (creatio continua), i.e. the unfolding of divine purpose in the cosmos as it evolves from essentially random fluctuations in the continuum of time and space, to the formation of the basic elements, the coalescence of matter, the formation of stars, galaxies, solar systems, planets, the emergence of organic chemical processes, self-replicating molecules, biological life, and finally consciousness itself with its attending consequence of "existential estrangement."

3. Cosmic Stochasis. The extent of divine "self-emptying" can be detected in the stochastic or non-deterministic (so-called "random") natural processes of the cosmos. Orthogenesis, or so-called "progressive evolution," i.e. the hypothesis that evolution follows a straight or unilateral course towards a determined end or goal, must be excluded on both scientific and theological grounds. Scientifically speaking, the process known as Natural Selection simply precludes the notion. Theologically, the "gift of becoming" must contain within itself a true, rather than apparent, freedom, i.e. the "freedom-to-become." In other words, the physical universe contains no necessary internal, directional or teleological ("end-driven") goals.

4. Teleonomic Contingency. The admission, both scientifically and theologically, that precludes the existence in creation of necessary teleological or "end-driven" goals does not preclude the existence of inherent teleonomic or "end-seeking" goals grounded in teleomatic processes, i.e. natural laws that the physical universe follows. These processes are inherent in the universe as created. Consequently, the universe does not unfold in a chaotic or "directionless" manner, but rather in accordance with the purpose and will of its Creator towards greater and greater complexity. Be that as it may, this inherent direction towards greater and greater complexity follows a permissive course rather than a determined one. Hence, the universe is free within the confines of its own natural laws to evolve in an infinite number of ways, but always in the direction of greater and greater complexity -- termed "self-transcendence" by K. Rahner.

5. Theosis. Neither does contingency in nature in any way preclude an overall divine teleology or purpose for the cosmos. Theologically, this purpose is called "theosis" -- the participation of the created order in the Divine life, divinization, union with God. From the very moment of existence, the Creator has been drawing and calling the cosmos into closer and closer proximity to the Divine-self. The cosmos in turn responds through continuous evolution, more and more organization, emerging properties that yield, self-transcendentally, even more wondrous properties. Consciousness and self-awareness just happen to be among the wondrous properties that have emerged in our small corner of "the world of the universe that is," and just happen to be unique (as far as we know) to our species. In humankind, the cosmos possesses the ability to look back on itself in wonder, mystery and awe. Implicit in such emergence is the realization of the imago Dei, the faculty of volition, and the actualized moral realm wherein natural contingency self-transcends into human "choice."

6. Existential Estrangement. Estrangement is the angst of the self-aware cosmos -- the human species -- in coming to terms, at least implicitly, with its inability to attain the goal and purpose for which it has been created -- union with the Divine (theosis). In traditional terms, this is called Original Sin. The struggles to adapt and survive, to survive and compete, to compete and overcome -- struggles common to all biological life -- are but the birth pangs of theosis. Yet these struggles lie at the root of human estrangement and are indirectly the cause of sin, wherein biological competition is superseded by social competition, which in turn is superseded by economic and political competition, and ultimately by spiritual competition. The divine self-giving Logos challenges estrangement, undermines it, and threatens to overthrow it; yet while still "other" and speaking from a distance, the Logos cannot conquer it apart from the annihilation of the cosmos itself. In moral beings estrangement is inevitable; yet it is also necessary in the realization that theosis cannot be attained apart from grace, as a divine gift, and thus is the necessary condition of a true receptivity.

7. Incarnation. Far from being a divine afterthought, incarnation is the ultimate goal of creation. Indeed, creation and incarnation are but two acts of the same divine drama. Together they constitute theosis -- the perfect, inseparable union of God and creation -- which is not possible without the initiative of divine visitation: "The Word made flesh."  On evolutionary terms we may speak appropriately of incarnation as "ascendant Christology," but only in respect of the receptivity of the cosmos to unite with the divine Logos. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo entirely precludes our ever speaking of incarnation in terms of a cosmos evolving into the divine in and of itself. As gift it must be received. Evolution, whether biological or spiritual, can only produce the conditions conducive to its reception.

Yet given the unfathomable gulf of being, divine grace from a distance can only hope to persuade through imperfect witness, hoping to woo a self-aware cosmos into receiving the divine "in the fullness of time." The biblical record is filled with stories of divine call and human receptivity. Even paganism has its myths of divine union with humankind. Yet each account fails by degrees to be that perfect moment of receptivity until the incarnation of Christ -- a holy mother's fiat -- the mythos of Annunciation -- the cosmos ready to receive the divine seed of its own theosis.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Natural (s)Election, Part One: Incarnation & Evolution

Note: The "s" is intended to be silent.

Anthropocentrism can be defined as the assessment of reality through an exclusively human perspective. At best it appears to be an illusory assessment, relativized as it is in the age of science by what we now know of the vastness of the universe, the diversity of life, and the indeterminacy of natural processes. Yet it is not what we actually know about the cosmos that so relativizes our anthropocentric impulses as much as it is the profound sense of what we do not know.

In theology, however, anthropocentrism is a necessary presupposition. Any coherent account of divine disclosure to human experience within human experience must be interpreted from human experience. While some may balk at this assertion on the grounds that the Christian assessment of reality is grounded in Christ (thus, "Christocentrism") the fact remains that the significance of the Christ-event lies in the incarnation. So the fourth gospel says, "The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us." Hence, theological anthropocentrism is Christocentrism, and vice versa.

Yet, in view of science, the theological task must take great care lest its presupposition of theological anthropocentrism degrades into crass "anthropological exceptionalism," wherein lies the failure of much of what passes for religious discourse to speak meaningfully to a scientific age. For the purposes of this essay (and the one that follows), anthropological exceptionalism can be defined as the belief that humanity has a unique call, a unique place, a unique destiny which the rest of the cosmos either has no share in or has a share in only in respect of human mediation or administration.

As argued in "Imago Dei, Divine Risk & the Freedom to Become," nothing precludes the emergence of life elsewhere in the universe, even sentient, conscious and intelligent life. From a theistic-evolutionary perspective, not only can we "hardly afford to reify the Edenic myth of the earth as a place in the universe specially prepared to await the arrival of our species," but we can hardly claim, as a theological necessity, that there is anything exceptional about our peculiar species of terrestrially-bound hominid that would preclude the possibility of multiple instances of divine incarnation elsewhere in the "world of the universe that is."

While the human species may indeed be considered unique among all known living things, and thus extraordinary in that regard, the theistic-evolutionist must regard, in principle, the potential to be "self-aware" -- conscious, intelligent, and even moral -- as instilled in the created order itself, endowed by its Creator who draws all of creation into the divine life (defined in another essay in terms of imago Dei in potentia). Indeed, nothing precludes the possibility of self-awareness emerging elsewhere in the universe, perhaps many times over. It just so happens to have happened here on planet earth, through the evolutionary, adaptive process known as "natural selection"; and it just so happens to have been actualized in anthropos -- the universe become both "self-aware" and aware of its Creator, and, as a consequence, aware (at least partially) of the purpose for its creation: theosis.

It would not, therefore, be unreasonable (from a theistic-evolutionary perspective) to consider natural selection as the process that brings about the necessary conditions of and context for incarnation. This would mean then that incarnation should not be regarded as a divine afterthought or contingency plan in view of the Fall, but rather as the divinely-purposed natural outcome of creation, its pinnacle, its final end, its telos.

Read Part Two.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Rehabilitating Arius (Part Two): Trinity, Time & Language

From the one unoriginate Father the Logos (Son) is begotten and the Spirit proceeds eternally, or so goes the orthodox understanding of the immanent Trinity (i.e. the interior life of the Godhead). Yet both "begetting" and "proceeding" imply time and motion, meaningless concepts from an eternal frame of reference. Hence, linguistically speaking, Arius was correct: sons are begotten of fathers in time, necessitating a distinct terminus a quo -- a beginning. Similarly, to "proceed from" or to be "sent forth from" implies movement and progression from a distinct point of origin.

The problem of finding a coherent language to describe the immanent Trinity was apparent from the first controversies of the church. The Arians, in attempting to prove the creaturely nature of the Son, posed the question of whether God begat the Logos out of necessity (i.e. by nature) or out of volition (i.e. by will). If by nature then, they reasoned, the Father could not be said to have begotten the Son willingly, but rather out of necessity (out of compulsion of nature), which mitigated the freedom of God and compromised the simplicity of God -- in other words, making God less than God. If, however, God willed the existence (the begetting) of the Logos then the Arian aphorism was correct: "There was a time when he was not," ergo the Logos was a creature.

The orthodox response was twofold; firstly, they countered that what pertains to the necessity of nature in the creaturely realm does not apply to the Eternal. On this point, the orthodox would have done well simply to rest their case. But they went further to contend that indeed God does beget by nature -- hence, eternally -- but not in any way that would conflict with or contradict his willingness to beget. In other words it is of God's nature to beget and he does so willingly; and since nature is a prior consideration to volition the principle of the causation of the Son was upheld to be the divine nature not the divine will.

The foregoing brief summary hardly does justice to the tediousness of the arguments involved, though it is enough to show how superfluous it is to attempt saying anything about the mystery of the interior life of the God; that is, apart from the self-communication of God in history! Indeed, Karl Rahner's Grundaxiom rings true: "The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity." In other words, there is no Trinity, at least not one about which we can speak coherently, apart from the oikomenos (the economy) wherein God communicates God-self to human experience within human experience.

"The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa." In other words, we must be content in our language about God to settle for a grammatical truth (to borrow a concept from Nicholas Lash), that is to say, a referential truth about God in history, rather than a descriptive truth about God as God. For instance, to speak of the Son as homoousios with the Father is not to say anything more than that which pertains to the Father pertains to the Son, except that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. Homoousios cannot otherwise speak about the divine essence or define what it means to say that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three hypostases of that one divine essence. Similarly, to say that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father is merely to refer to the One who was really begotten in history as the revealed Son of the self-revealing God. It is this Trinity, not some immanent Trinity beyond our ken, that is revealed to us and thus becomes the object of our worship.

Theological language serves as boundary and parameter, as pedagogue and teacher; but preeminently it serves as witness. In this sense, it speaks forth referential truth rather than descriptive truth about God, pointing us truly to the God who is worthy of our adoration rather than to a divine specimen subject to our taxonomic investigation. From the standpoint of eternity, nothing descriptive can be said of God that is not, and does not remain, mystery. This does not mean that our language about God is untrue. Rather, it is "true enough," in that it is grounded in divine encounter, and thus constitutes true revelation to human experience within human experience -- that is to say, IN TIME.

Indeed, time is the only realm in which both divine encounter with, and thus true language about, God are possible: "The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and vice versa." This makes it all the more imperative that what we say about God is true, that is, a true witness pointing to (i.e. referring to) the Eternal One who breaks into history and human experience, thus ensuring that our worship and adoration are directed to none other.

Part One

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Rehabilitating Arius (Part One): Eternity, Time & Incarnation

Eternity: we cannot hope to understand this concept. All of our explanations are at best provisional. Specifically we cannot hope to understand God's eternity -- God as "ever-present." We exist, that is, we derive from a causation outside of ourselves. This means that we are of necessity bound to temporality -- progression, development, adaptation, change on a continuum. For us eternity can be known only via intuition, as the ground of what it means to be created ex nihilo.

Thus in talking about eternity we are trapped in a paradox of conscripting temporal metaphors into service as witnesses to that which is beyond their power to describe: timelessness. The use of theological terms such as "eternity past," or even the credal "before all worlds (aeons)," unwittingly introduces duration and change to our conceptions of the divine. Yet we are compelled either to describe the eternal in such manner or fastidiously to avoid temporal metaphors altogether and consequently fail to appreciate the dynamism of the Eternal-Present One who never ceases to convict, to call, and to draw all things to himself.

In any case, the former approach has antiquity to commend it, particularly in biblical metaphor: "The same yesterday, today, and forever..." "The Alpha and the Omega..." "The Beginning and the End..." -- time language where no time applies. The vicissitudes of Israel's God who "changes his mind" often may tell us little about God as God, but such stories do serve to reveal something about ourselves.

It is in the limitation of language that Arius fell into error. Arius inferred from the begottenness of the Son a temporal beginning, hence, "There was a time when he was not." This is precisely where language -- "begotten" -- failed Arius (and fails us) in its insufficiency to communicate ontological eternity, while at the same time eminently succeeding in expressing something of the dynamic ever-present filialism of God the Father, for truly, "in the beginning," the Logos was with God and was itself divine.

Yet, still, there is an element of truth in Arius' statement: "There was a time when he was not." To speak of a "pre-incarnate Christ," that is from a temporal point of reference, is nonsensical. Ironically, such language infuses a degree of Docetism into the Godhead, not in "seeming to be human" but rather in "seeming to be divine." A pre-incarnate Christ, which is to say a NON-incarnate Christ, is at best an abstraction and at worst a demigod waiting (a temporal verb) for a body. Yet, historically speaking, there was a "before the incarnation" when there was no Son for Israel to worship, no Trinity to adore -- not merely from the revelatory standpoint of a truth awaiting its full disclosure, but from the temporal standpoint of a people who were still waiting for the visitation of their God. This is precisely why the fourth evangelist, in describing both creation "in the beginning" and incarnation, sets forth the Divine Logos, not Jesus, as their historical referent.

Yet from the standpoint of eternity -- God's reality of "ever-presence" -- the Father does not exist apart the Son, nor the Son in abstraction from the Father. The Son knows no "time" (again the limits of language) when he was unbegotten. The "one Lord Jesus," the fully-incarnate Christ (not some divine shade awaiting a body), is "begotten of the Father before all worlds...begotten not made." Nor does the Father exist without humanity, because, in the words of Barth scholar George Hunsinger, "God has decided in Jesus Christ not to be God without us" (How to Read Karl Barth, p. 153).

This is indeed a great mystery, but one born of the limits of our temporality, within which we must somehow grasp, even for a moment, that what is and always has been true about God still lies in our future.

Part Two

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Follow up to "On the Nature of Demons": Answer to a Reader

(1) The original article -- "On the Nature of Demons" -- was a preliminary proposal. Its intention was not to deny the existence of what the New Testament describes as demonic, but rather to suggest that the demonic derives from and is dependent upon the noetic (the mind) rather than originating in the genus of angels. Hence rather than asserting that demons do not exist, the article simply proposes that demons do not exist apart from the mind.

(2) Neither does the article in any way deny the reality of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare exists and demonic activity is a very real (and universal) human experience. However, spiritual warfare is rooted in consciousness, both individually and collectively considered.

(3) The underlying assumption of the article is that what religionists describe as "demon possession" and what scientists identify as "psychopathology" are essentially identical phenomena (particularly in cases of severe psychosis, such as dissociative identity disorder). Did the ancients know or make a distinction between "mental illness" and "demon possession"? Is such a difference recognizable or distinguishable today? The author suggests not.

(4) The proposal that demons and the demonic have no independent existence apart from the mind seems eminently reasonable in an age when science is entertaining the possibility of computer-generated Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Consciousness. There is nothing shocking in the idea that the human brain might be able to give rise to and support not only its own inherent consciousness but perhaps also one or more "quasi-consciousnesses," which in severe cases could appear to "take over" and "possess" the very minds from which they emerge.

(5) Whether or not the "the world of the universe that is" also contains an independent realm where actual demons exist and operate apart from the human mind, one must admit that the article's proposal may otherwise help to explain the pathological consequences of sin (e.g. addictive behavior, which acts like a quasi-consciousness on some level -- in the suppression of the will and the power of unwanted desires, etc.).

(6) Consequently "spiritual warfare" (what the article alludes to as the virulence of the demonic) could easily be explained in terms of memetics. Indeed, the epiphenomenon of quasi-consciousness might not be something that only inflicts the minds of individuals, but could also affect and operate within the collective, cultural consciousness of societies at large. This could very well explain what is seen in primitive societies where superstitions prevail (i.e. contexts where "spells," "magic" and "sorcery" possess real tangible power over the lives of people).

(7) The need or desire of human beings, particularly religionists, to locate the root cause of evil in the world and universe in something else -- "something other" -- is understandable. This desire is as old as blaming the serpent in the garden.

(8) Demons are not the counterparts of angels. While the Old Testament certainly refers to angels, i.e. "sons of God" (even fallen ones! -- cf. Gen. 6), it never addresses either demons or demon-possession. Even Job's Satan (who looks quite different than the "Satan" that Jesus refers to) is a member of the Almighty's heavenly court.

(9) The evidence points to Zoroastrianism as the source for post-exilic Jewish (and hence New Testament) Demonology, at least more so than to the stories of the Old Testament.

(10) The author of "On the Nature of Demons" is not troubled in the least by Jesus' belief (or assumed belief) in the notions or causes of demonology current in his day any more than he is troubled by the fact that Jesus would not have been able to solve a quadratic equation had we the ability to send one back to him in a time machine.

Read "On the Nature of Demons" here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

On the Nature of Demons

In the world of the universe that is, demons have no reality apart from that which they derive from us. They are not real; yet that does not mean they do not exist. They exist as pure potential, as projections of our own psyche; projections that become "real enough" when we feed them.

In the world of the universe that is, demons have no independent existence apart from the mind, for they exist only to those who are conscious, emerging from our material existence -- our brains -- in the very way that consciousness itself emerges, but as byproducts or appendages of consciousness, born of noetic imperfection.

In the world of the universe that is, that which belongs to the genus daemonica is contagious, a spiritual virulence -- like so many memes that self-replicate through word and action; alien spermatozoa that implant themselves in the fertile recesses of our gray matter, lying dormant perhaps for many years, until hatched as thoughts, suckled as desires, nurtured as deeds. But they are not demons yet...merely imps.

In the world of the universe that is, demons take on noetic form as the rational, moral soul attempts to place objective distance between itself and the thoughts, desires, and actions that the soul itself has fed and nurtured over time, and yet has also come to despise. The result is "reality enough": an imp that is granted "space" in and by the mind, a quasi-objectivity that can never be sated by playing the role of mere tempter. In time it demands control, suppresses the will, and, when invited (or rather when the mind can no longer resist it), takes full possession of the mind as a mature demon.

In the world of the universe that is, the mind is sufficient to support not only its own inherent consciousness, but every quasi-consciousness the mind is able to conjure -- the personified "somethings" that haunt not only our dreams but even our waking moments. These can be expelled only through prayer and fasting, starving our demons of the energy of our thoughts and the passions of our flesh.

Follow-up Article (Answer to a Reader)