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.