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)