Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Curious Rise of Cosmological Dualism?

There is no need, one hopes, to argue for the centrality of the Shema to Christian faith:

שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד

or, read with appropriate deference to the holiness of the Tetragrammaton:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad;

or in the LXX:

ἄκουε Ισραηλ κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν κύριος εἷς ἐστιν;

in other words:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!

Across languages, across the vagaries of translation, the cry of the Shema has endured the passing of time, the rise and fall of empires and princes: an essential point of reference, if anything can be.

Eventually, in the course of Israel's long love affair with the Lord, the elements of henotheism that might have attended initial use of the Shema drained out, leaving a committed monotheism in its place--so far as I can tell. And that shift toward monotheism is, I should think, extremely significant, even decisive for any contemporary canonical reading of Scripture.

So, for instance, it is difficult not to read the P creation story as carrying implicit, tacit criticism of Babylonian creation mythology. The Lord had no need to slay a Dragon in order to fashion the world of our acquaintance; the earth passively awaited his mere word in obediential potency. Such was his power, a type of power apparently beyond the comprehension of pagan myth. I take it we should see the P creation myth, in its scriptural context, as establishing a trajectory in Israel's knowledge of God, so that although the P story does not actually teach creation ex nihilo, later Jews encountering Greek metaphysics during the intertestamental period will look on the doctrine as coherent and complementary to their story's prior articulation. The one Lord God comes to be understood as a Creator God whose power is of such extraordinary magnitude, he not only need not slay a dragon--he needs no dragon at all: no co-eternal sludge from which to work.

There are not two principles of creation, God and something else--a primordial sludge, say, awaiting his word. And a fortiriori there are not two opposed, contending principles of creation, God and an anti-God, a principle of Good and a principle of Evil, fighting it out on the cosmic stage. That would be a cosmology reminiscent of Manichaeism, a faith of the third century persian Mani whose teaching so famously tempted Augustine. I do not mean to contend that Augustine's temptation is ours, that Manichaeism has returned to tempt the unwary away from the Shema's canonical monotheism. Rather, I mean to point out the general doctrine of which Manicaeism is merely a species has returned to tempt us into revision: what I will call cosmological dualism, the idea that God must compete with another principle, personal or otherwise, an idea implying the wrongheadedness of the Shema's devotion. Maybe I am just plain wrong, blowing minor indications up out of proportion, but if I am right, I hope you will agree we have a problem indeed.

Contemporary Judeo-Christian theology has largely given up the traditional notion of divine apatheia, or impassibility, generally under the impression that "only the suffering God can help"--and not merely suffering in terms of Christ's human nature, as Aquinas might have parsed the phrase. After the horrors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the traumas of Nazism and Stalinism, the genocides and atrocities of the twentieth century, it is thought surely God suffers with us--and in particular the Father, or God in his divinity. Consider a quick survey of the literature: Nicolas Berdyaev in The Meaning of History, Miguel de Unamuno in The Tragic Sense of Life, Emil Brunner in The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics I, Karl Barth in Jungel's The Doctrine of the Trinity: God's Being is in Becoming & Barth in Church Dogmatics IV/2, Moltmann in The Crucified God and The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, Abraham Heschel in The Prophets--is there any sense in revisiting the revision of the Doctrine of God with a who's-who list like this favoring passibility? Oh yes--the Anglican Communion started playing with passibility early on, with JK Mozley's The Impassibility of God, commissioned by the CoE, from the '20s. And I should mention the contemporary evangelical open theism movement, with a list of books in favor here, and against here; do not forget process theology--see the lists here and here.

What worries me about the move toward accepting passibility in our concept of God is the danger of losing our grip on the canonical monotheism developed so slowly and painfully through the OT/Hebrew Scripture. In effect, we seem to run a risk of falling away from the devotion properly expressed by the Shema into something henotheistic, or dualist--I want to say "pagan" but that would not be quite right, inasmuch as early henotheistic Israelites would not have counted as pagan; it is better to say that we should--with more than a milennium of Christian theology behind us--be more circumspect. We should know better.

Implied in giving up the notion of apatheia is a revision of the notion of God--and Christ--Pantocrator, and the concomitant creedal profession of faith. Omnipotence or being all powerful had been thought to go with God alone, who had no rivals, no obstacles, who could do whatever was possible. But to say God suffers is to subject God to the flux, to succession, and to imperfection: there are some things God cannot overcome with Power, which he must--being Love--suffer along with us. For instance, it might be thought he cannot overcome the human capacity to misuse freedom for sin by his mere power alone. A divinity who could not share our pain would be somehow deficient--especially seeing that he could not overcome it by an exercise of his power--and a divinity that could but would not share our pain would not be a loving divinity, or so it might be thought.

I disagree with such sentiments, and they seem to me to lead to a costly revision of our concept of God--a costly one, inasmuch as a revision here implies across-the-board revision. That is, if we revise our understanding of God to accept passibility into the concept, then we shall have to revise our understanding of the Incarnation, and with that the Atonement, the Doctrine of the Trinity, and that of the Church, and so on, as each of these makes use of the notion "God". At each point, we shall have to--it seems--move from a traditional teaching to a contrary teaching, inasmuch as passibility and impassibility are contradictories--or at least contraries.

What does all this have to do with cosmological dualism? On the face of it, when passibility is introduced into the concept of God, it is done so for the reason that God faces an obstacle that could not be overcome by power alone--or knowledge and goodness alone. The obstacle puts a limit on what God could accomplish given his power, knowledge, and goodness, and coming up against that limit, being a God of love, God cannot remain indifferent: he suffers, or so it is thought. It seems to me that such an understanding opposes an obstacle to God; there is something, X, over and against God, which he cannot rule and overcome alone. The X may be the human capacity for free choice, say, or something else. Whatever it is, this X explains the crappy state of things in the world; God would prefer things be better, but given X, this is the best that can be done. In opposing God's preferences, X functions in this scheme like a principle of evil, a reason for evil, and as a consequence we muct understand the world to feature a struggle between God and X--whatever X may be, even if it is impersonal like a human capacity of some sort. The schema "God vs. X" is a type of cosmological dualism--not Manichaeism exactly, nor mere paganism, but a dualism nevertheless related to the teaching of Mani by resemblance.

My criticism is all too brief; I admit it. But I hope the intent is clear enough. Let us reconsider, and at least pause, at the introduction of passibility into our understanding of God. It seems to introduce a tension into our faith, as it seems to be incompatible with the canonical reading of the Shema evident in Scripture and tradition, and that incompatibility should be like a red flag, an indication that the new revised version of God bears an especially great burden of proof, as it asks so much of us in asking that we back away from the profession of the Shema:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!


At 9:18 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Three things:

First, you need to be quite a bit more clear by what you mean abut passibility and impassibility. You mention the term, then assume that it has a stable self-evident meaning to criticize from there. And I take issue with what I see as your implicit definition. As I read classic Stoic thought, impassibility does not mean that the actor does not suffer. It's not about sensing and experiencing. Rather, it's about acting and what controls how and why we act.

For the Stoics, the passions were something to be mastered. Not avoided, because that's not possible; emotions like fear, anger, pain, etc. arise spontaneously. The question for the Stoic was hopw to proceed from there. Do you let the passion control you and determine how you then go on to act , think, and be? Or does the higher intellect exert control? St Paul is indeed showing his Stoic roots when he tells us: "Be angry but d not sin." The fullest explication of this is, of course, found in Seneca's De Ira. (My copy's packed away in a box that has other boxes piled on it or I'd offer some choice quotes...)

The upshot? A classical Christianity with its traditional Stoic moral philosophy can have both a God who suffers and a God with apatheia.

Second, I was taught early on that the problem of evil has to be negotiated around the three omnis: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. That is God cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good (or, as McLeash's Satan in JB puts it: "If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, then he is not God"). So where do you hedge?

Some prefer the omnibenevolence hedge: everything God does is for th good, you're just too stupid to realize it. This is the theology that underwrites the trite pastoral care of "God's got a plan". Especially offensive at funerals, this is the classic "Well, I don't know why X died, but God's got a plan; he just needed X more than you did..." Once again, bad theology leads to bad pastoral care...

Boethius uses a more elegant version of this in a slightly different way in On the Consolation of Philosophy as he grappled with the issue of why he was sitting in a Roman jail waiting to get his head chopped off. He distinguished between Providence and Fate. Providence is God's long-range big picture which we know from Scripture to turn out well in the end and the Great Reckon. Fate is the date to day crap that, on ours scale, seems to operate pretty much independently from Providence...

So--while I acknowledge the limits of human knowledge, I'd really rather not go with the goodness hedge; rather, I go with a form of the power hedge. That is, God is not able to exercise his entire possible power. But what can possibly constrain or limit God? One thing--God himself--if he has made a prior commitment to a greater principle than helping us out of jams. I believe that God has voluntarily limited his power for the sake of free will. To avoid coercion and to provide autonomy for the created order, God self-limits his possible divine power the exercise of which in ways we might like would irrevocably screw with the autonomy of masses of other people.

I did some thinking aloud about this earlier during the aftermath of Katrina: part I and part II.

Third, I go back and forth on dualism. There's no question that in many times and places Christianity has been firmly as dualistic religion. And, I tend to be a dualist myself. The reason is because my experience confirms what Scripture and Tradition state: that evil is a living, active presence at work in our lives. Far more than just a passive absence of good, it is an active cancerous thing that demands a response.

I've gone on way to long here so I'll just point you to theses in my defense: On Sin and evil and the modern paradigm, On the existence of Satan, On the persistence of evil.

At 4:05 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for the challenging response; I'm interested to see how you handle these difficulties in the links, though it will take a few days to get to them--and it seems absolutely right to say they are not merely theoretical, but can have an impact on the direction of pastoral care.

The whole topic seems to deserve something extensive, but for the moment, two quick points:

(1)When you say Stoic apatheia permits the sage emotions like anger, that sounds irrefutable. But why would that fact imply the notion of apatheia extended to an immaterial, personal God would permit, or should permit, emotions like anger?

Sure the meaning of the term shifts, as we woudl expect given the distance of Christianity from late Stoicism, but a core resemblance remains--acting under rational self-control, come what may--to support extension of the term to a new context.

(2)It looks like I have to hedge on God's goodness--and that is a really big problem.

But let's skip my big problem, and talk about your problems instead. Like the notion of God limiting his power for the sake of free will. A couple things: (A)it sounds like you are picturing God as Omnipotent, in a way I would agree with, but then saying God can alter his Omnipotence for our sake, and take on lesser power. That is not a position forced by Christ's kenosis, and it seems to raise the difficulty of whether God could survive the loss of an attribute like that--one that seems essential. (B)What about Molinism? It seems our freedom just is not that big a deal for God--why couldn't he just create the one possible world where our free choices--uncoerced in any way--just happen, however improbably, to always come out right, or at least come out substantialy better than they in fact do? That is, God's power need not infringe on our freedom at all.

Of course, Molinism seems to amplify the severity of our original problem, the problem of evil. But we can come back to that.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Here are two quick responses...

1) The issue isn't about God feeling anger, though. It's the question of whether God has experienced real suffering in the flesh in the self-same way that we have. The answer's got to be yes.

2A) No, it's not *forced* by kenosis. However, in this sense, Christ's kenosis is part of a pattern that God prefers--choosing weakness which in the end is no weakness at all but the greater power of love. I'd point not just to Phil 2 but also to Rev 4-5. The conquering Lion of Judah is the Lamb standing as if it had been slain: Love, though weaker in appearance, is the stronger power.

2B) Our world sucks in many ways, but it's the one we have. We can theorize better (and wqrse) worlds all day long--but how does that help us live in the one we've been given?

At 2:36 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

OK; keeping with the brevity thing:

I agree with the direction of your (2B), and would add we should worship God in the world we are given, not shutting that worship out from any part of our lives in the world. That point leads away from our discussion into other waters though.

On your (1): Sure God suffers just as we do, in the person of Christ's human nature. But it seems you want more--something like "God the Father suffers just as we do." But that's tricky--we suffer in temporal succession, say, and so does Christ--does the Father too? You'd have to give up eternity or transcendence of time for God.

On (2B): Rev 4-5 needs to be read in context, e.g Rev 1:8, whcih seems to be open to connecting Power with Eternity (KJV):
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty. It can sound almost Boethian. (Also 4:8, 11; 11:17; 15:4; 16:5--Outside Rev texts: John 1:1, 17:5, Heb 13:8, Jer 12:1; Isa 41:4, 43:10, 44:6) The locution seems to apply to the Word as well as the Father. see esp the hebres text--Christ is the same over all time; that cannot refer to the person of Jesus in his human nature, as he was born of Mary. It can only refer to the person of Jesus in his divine nature, or the Word.

There is some Scriptural warrant then for reading the wounded Lamb text as a metaphor, or as figurative so that it can be consistent with the traditional understanding of God as eternal and impassible; the text need not force a reading of the Word as wounded in his divine nature.

It seems open at least to say suffering in Christ's human nature is as far as God could go in suffering with us, given who he is.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

The upshot of my case would be the beginning of a rehabilitation of the traditional doctrine of God in the worship life of the church.

Here, I have only gone so far as (a) to point out Scripture is open to the old view, even if the old view is not compelled by Scripture as if it were the only view that could come out of a faithful reading, and (b) to point out a potential difficulty for teh revised view of God, namely that it seems to revive dualism.


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