A companion in pain or a savior?

Originally posted on Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea:

I was not planning on this post, but after reading yet another blog today asserting that a “suffering God” is a good thing I dug out (metaphorically speaking-Kindle user) David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite and offer (via his far more erudite voice) the following rejoinder:

This is why modern theology keenly desires a God who suffers, not simply with us and in our nature, but his own nature as well; such a God, it is believed, is the Living God of Scripture; not the cold abstraction of a God of the philosophers; only such a God would die for us.  At its most culpable, the modern appetite for a passible God can reflect simply a self-indulgence and apologetical plaintiveness, a sense that before God though we are sinners, we also have a valid perspective, one he must learn to share with us so that he can sympathize with our lot…

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God is Prayer

All prayer is a participation in the divine communion of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. This is the truth that Herbert McCabe would have us understand, but he takes a couple of steps to bring us to this recognition. Somewhat surprisingly, McCabe does not dwell on the role of prayer in the ministry of Jesus. He points us directly to the Paschal Triduum.

Why did Jesus die? Because he would not compromise his mission. What was his mission? McCabe boils it down to three words—to be human. Forget all the theological theories and pietistic mumbo-jumbo. The mission of the incarnate Son was to live an authentic human existence, utterly devoted to the will of his Father; and in this way to simultaneously reveal the trinitarian life of divine love and the meaning of human being. But our world is broken, fallen, held in bondage to sin and death and therefore can only respond to this manifestation of perfect love in one way—with violence:

The gospels … insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you,do love you will be killed. If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live. If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed. … The life and death of Jesus dramatise this state of affairs. (God Matters, p. 218)

Is McCabe’s analysis here too simplistic? Perhaps … but let’s grant him a hearing. Is it far-fetched to suggest that Jesus was killed because his teaching and ministry threatened both Roman colonialism and Sadduceean clericalism? Historians will no doubt unpack the nature of this threat in various ways, yet only such a threat can explain the judicial condemnation and execution of the Nazarene. But McCabe wanders into more controversial ground when he suggests that it was the manifested love of Jesus that ultimately explains his authority and the hostility that it generated:

We cannot live without love and yet we are afraid of the destructive creative power of love. We need and deeply want to be loved and to love, and yet when that happens it seems a threat, because we are asked to give ourselves up, to abandon our selves; and so when we meet love we kill it.

Not all the time, of course; there could not be any community at all without some friendship; but, still, we are uneasy with it, and love has to disguise itself if it is to survive. It is when love appears nakedly for what it is that it is most vulnerable; and that is why we crucified Christ. Jesus was the first human being who had no fear of love at all; the first to have no fear of being human.

Jesus had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as gift from him whom he called ‘the Father’. You might say that as he lived and gradually explored into himself, asking not just the question ‘Who do men say that I am?’ but ‘Who do I say that I am?’, he found nothing but the Father’s love. This is what gave all the meaning to his life—the love which is the ultimate basis and meaning of the universe. However he would have put it to himself (and of this we know nothing), he saw himself as simply an expression of the love which is the Father and in which the Father delights. His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human. (p. 95)

McCabe thus rejects the popular theories that claim that God sent Jesus into the world for the express purpose of dying, presumably for some atoning or juridical purpose. “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human” (p. 93). The crucifixion, rather, was our idea. The tradition calls this the state of original sin: the cross reveals that we have created a world in which perfect love is inevitably met with hostility, condemnation, and murder.

When Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he fully expected to be rejected and killed. But he committed himself to the task given to him. He did not seek escape. He did not evade his duty. He did not compromise the integrity of his message and being, even though he knew that his death would mean the apparent “failure” of his mission. Jesus freely accepted all of the consequences of his faithfulness to the will of his Father. “He was prepared,” continues McCabe, “to see all that he had apparently achieved come down in ruins, to see his followers deserting him, scattered and demoralized. He accepted all this because he did not wish to be the founder of anything, the man of power who would compel the coming of the kingdom. He wished only to do what he called ‘the will of his Father’, which was simply to accept the condition of humanity, to see the fullness of humanity which is in love and to accept the failure that characterises loving humanity” (pp. 218-219). In the end Jesus casts all of his hopes upon his Father. This is his prayer. The kingdom must come as the gratuitous gift of God … or not at all. If the cross is the petition of Jesus, then Easter is the Father’s answer. Prayer is the life of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

Gift is an expression of an exchange of love. To believe in the resurrection, to believe in God, is to believe that the resolution of the tragedy of the human condition comes as gift, as an act of love encompassing mankind. The crucifixion/resurrection is the archetypal exchange of prayer and answer to prayer. … But [Jesus] wanted that all men should be as possessed by love as he was, he wanted that they should be divine, and this could only come as gift. Crucifixion and resurrection, the prayer of Christ and the response of the Father are the archetype and source of all our prayer. It is this we share in sacramentally in the Eucharist, it is this we share in in all our prayer. …

[Jesus] is not first of all an individual person who then prays to the Father, his prayer to the Father is what constitutes him as who he is. He is not just one who prays, not even one who prays best, he is sheer prayer. In other words the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus is simply the showing forth, the visibility in human terms, in human history, of the relationship to the Father which constitutes the person who is Jesus. The prayer of Jesus which is his crucifixion, his absolute renunciation of himself in love to the Father, is the eternal relationship of Father and Son made available as part of our history, part of the web of mankind of which we are fragments, a part of the web that gives it a new centre, a new pattern.

All our prayer, whether the Mass itself or those reflections from the Mass that we call our prayers, is a sharing into the sacrifice of Christ and therefore a sharing into the life of the Trinity, a sharing that is in the Spirit. All our prayer is, in a very precise sense, in Spirit and in truth. For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son. … So our stance in prayer is not simply, or even primarily, that of the creature before the creator but that of the Son before the Father. At the most fundamental level, the level which defines prayer as prayer, we receive from the Father not as creatures receiving what they need to make up their deficiencies, but as the Son eternally receives his being from the Father. Our praying is an expression in history of our eternal trinitarian life. (pp. 219-220)

As long as we think of God as a god, as a being to whom we present our petitions and from whom we then await an answer, we remain trapped within a pagan or, at best, a unitarian worldview: God remains purely other. But the God of the gospel cannot be other in this way, as one standing over against us, as Zeus or Allah does; for he is the one who, in Christ, has lifted us into the rhythm of eternal prayer.  To him we address our prayers; but we do, can do so, so only because he prays within us in the depths of our being. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). “Our praying itself,” explains McCabe, “is as much God’s gift as is the answer to it. And prayer is not just God’s gift in the way that our power of speech or our health is God’s gift; prayer is God’s grace, and that means it is due to God’s own life within us, God’s own spirit within us. For God gives us not just our marvellous human power and skills; he gives us himself, makes us able to live by his own divine life through his Son, Jesus Christ” (God, Christ and Us, p. 7).

Prayer is the trinitarian Being of God. Prayer is sharing in the Love that is God. Prayer is communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.


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If God is Being, does prayer make sense?

In a recent article, Roger Olson contrasts his own “biblical” understanding of God as a personal being, albeit “the greatest of all beings, transcendently surpassing in greatness and glory all creatures,” with the traditional understanding of God as Being itself, infinite, unconditioned, absolute. The underlying assumption of the latter, he writes, “is that the biblical narrative does not give us an adequate, or any, metaphysical world picture, account of reality-itself, but expresses especially transcendent reality in myths, symbols and images which must be interpreted through the lens of some ontology borrowed from outside the Bible.” Defenders of the traditional understanding will immediately protest that Olson has ignored the revolutionary ways patristic and medieval theologians altered the pagan construal of divinity in the very process of appropriating Greek philosophical categories—to wit, the Christian assertion of the creatio ex nihilo and the Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Olson’s article might lead one to conclude that once having identified God as Being (St Gregory Nazianzen, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas) or as beyond Being (Dionysius the Areopagite, St Maximus the Confessor, St Gregory Palamas), Christians ceased to preach the living God of the Scriptures and to pray to him for forgiveness and healing and every good gift. Curiously this did not happen.

Olson fears that the identification of God as Being inevitably leads to an impersonal realization of divinity:

One reason I resist thinking of God as Being Itself as opposed to a personal being is that it tends to undermine prayer except as meditation. It lends itself easily to the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” That is, it undermines petitionary prayer which Schleiermacher, understandably because of his philosophical influences, called “immature prayer.” If God is Being Itself, the Absolute, Unconditioned, then it would seem prayer cannot affect God. In fact, it would seem God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. My early Christian faith, which I have not entirely discarded (!), focused much on a “personal relationship with God.” God is someone, a being, who is other than I, and we stand vis-a-vis one another in what Buber and Brunner called an “I-Thou relationship.” Regarding God as Being Itself tends to lead away from relating to God as “Thou” with whom one can have a real, personal relationship.

This passage raised for me the following question: How does a classical theist like Aquinas, who confesses God as eternal, impassible, immutable, omnipotent, and omniscient, understand petitionary prayer? Does it make any sense to ask the Ipsum Esse Subsistens to heal my wife of her debilitating migraine headaches? I am insufficiently conversant with the writings of Aquinas to answer this question, but fortunately one of his 20th century students, Fr Herbert McCabe, addresses the subject of petitionary prayer in several of his essays.

God is not a being among beings. That’s precisely what the gods are—powerful beings within the universe that stand over against all other beings. Because they are distinct individuals with their own personal agendas, they may be petitioned, cajoled, persuaded, influenced, bribed, propitiated, placated, appeased, manipulated; and because they are powerful beings who can both do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves and do things to us against which we have no defense, petition and sacrifice are practical necessities for human survival and flourishing. But God, as transcendent Creator of all that is, cannot be such a god:

Why? Because gods are bits of the world or anyway bits of the universe. They stand alongside heroes and human beings and teacups, none of which are gods. Gods are different; they are a superior kind of being. The universe is divided into gods and non-gods as it is divided into sheep and non-sheep; the gods are items in the universe. Top items maybe, but still items. It is immediately apparent that whether the gods exist or not they cannot be the answer to why there is a universe at all, for they are part of the universe. Whatever is the answer to our question as put in the form ‘Why is there anything?’, it could not be one kind of thing in the universe or anything in the universe. In whatever way we understand the phrase ‘all of it’, God cannot be part of it. God cannot exist in the way that parts of the universe exist. He could not be an item in the universe. (God Still Matters, p. 56)

McCabe announces that the great Jewish discovery was the realization that the one God is the transcendent source of all that exists. Only this God is worthy of the worship and service of humanity. “The Creator is the reason why there is a universe with or without the gods in it,” he writes. “But if there are gods in it, it would be degrading for a human being to worship them” (p. 56). And for this reason, prayer within the Jewish, and therefore Christian, tradition “cannot mean petitioning a god. It cannot mean cajoling and persuading a god to be on your side” (p. 56).

It is at this point where the divide between classical theists and theistic personalists begins to emerge. Olson reads the biblical narrative and sees a conditioned, passible, dialogical divine being. Only such a God, he believes, is capable of entering into personal relationship with his creatures; only such a God is capable of making covenant and responding to the petitions of his people. McCabe would probably suggest that biblical theists like Olson are coming very close to reducing God to a god. If God has truly made the world from out of nothing, every moment sustaining it in existence by his omnipotent will, then he must not be pictured as standing alongside the realm of created beings. Olson would respond that biblical theists also affirm the one Creator, maker of heaven and earth, the critical difference being the seriousness with which they take the narrative rendering of deity. A plain reading of Scripture invites us, he believes, to construe divine sovereignty in relational terms. But how is this God not a god, even though there is only one of him? McCabe hammers home the implications of the Christian doctrine of creation:

The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is at the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (p. 59)

Though the biblical stories certainly appear to present God as a being among beings, they cannot be literally true. We must read them through our knowledge of him as transcendent Creator and infinite source of all being.  As the Apostle Paul declared to the Athenians: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. … Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:24-25, 27-28).

The radical transcendence of the Creator thus requires us to reconfigure and expand our understanding of prayer. The gods stand alongside us precisely as beings whom we may entreat and supplicate, just as we might a parent, friend, or king. They either accede to our requests or not, as they determine. But when god becomes God, then our understanding of prayer must change. “How then can we call upon God,” asks McCabe, “beseech Her, gain His attention, when our very cry for attention is made by God, more due to God than it is to ourselves, for it must be God that brings it about that I pray as it is God that brings it about that I draw my next breath?” (p. 59). The Creator does not only hear our prayers; he initiates them, causes them, and sustains them in being.

Prayer confronts us with the mystery of our creaturely existence and thus with the Mystery who is Prayer.

(Go to “God is Prayer”)

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Favorite Theological Books Updated

I have updated the list of my favorite theological books.  I lifted the self-imposed restriction of one book per theologian, thus allowing me to include other titles.  I have also added theologians that I either failed to mention the first time round or read after the original composition of the list.  And now it’s alphabetized, too!

Do take a look.  Perhaps you’ll see something you will want to read someday.

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“But the Word is said to be and is alone from the Father because he is not a creature”

The council wished to banish the impious phrases of the Arians and to inscribe the words confessed by the Scriptures: that the Son is not from non-being but from God; that he is Word and Wisdom, neither creature nor something made, but from the Father as his own (idion) offspring. But the party of Eusebius, compelled by their longstanding perversity, wished the designation of his being “from God” to be taken as something in common with us and the Word of God to be no different from us in this respect, as it is written: “one God from whom are all things” (1 Cor 8:6) and “the old things have passed away; behold all that is new has come to be; and all this is from God” (2 Cor 5:17, 18). So the fathers of the council, seeing their deceit and the machinations of their impiety, finally found it necessary to proclaim the “from God” more clearly and to write “the Son is from the essence of the Father” (ek tes ousias tou theou), so that “from God” may not be considered to be the same and equal in the case of the Son as it is with things that have come to be; but that it may be confessed that while all others are creatures, the Word is uniquely from the Father. For even if all things are said to be from God, this is altogether otherwise than how the Son is. In the case of created things, they are said to be from God in that they do not exist randomly and unaccountably; neither do they attain their origination by chance, as those who speak of an origination that comes about from the intertwining of atoms and of like parts; nor, as certain heretics say, is there another creator, nor, as again others say, do all things have their subsistence through some angels. Rather, all things are said to be from God because the existent God, by himself and through the Word, brought all things that formerly did not exist into being. But the Word is said to be and is alone from the Father because he is not a creature; and the Son’s being “from the essence of the Father” is indicative of this sense, which does not pertain to anything that has come into being.

Yet again, when the bishops said that it is necessary to proclaim the Word as true power and image of the Father and unchangeably like the Father in all things (homoion te kai aparallakton auton kata panta to patri) and inalterable and that he is always and inseparably in the Father—for never was he not, but rather, the Word is always with the Father, as the radiance and the light—the party of Eusebius persevered, though because of their shame at the refutations leveled against them, they did not dare to contradict. Instead, they were caught winking their eyes and murmuring among themselves that “like” (homoion) and “always” and the name of “Power” and “in him” are also common to us and the Son, so that it would not hurt them to agree with us. As to “like,” because it is written of us also, “the human being is the image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11: 7); as to “always,” because it is written, “we who live are always…” (2 Cor 4: 11); “in him,” because “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28); “inalterable,” because it is written, “Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom 8:39); as to “Power,” because the caterpillar and the locust are called “power” and “great power” (cf. Joel 2:25) whereas it is often written in reference to the people, as “all the power of God came out from the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:41); and there are other heavenly powers, for it says, “the Lord of powers is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob” (Ps 46:8).

Asterius, who is called “the sophist,” has written these things, having learned from them and, along with him, Arius also, as has been said. But the bishops, perceiving their hypocrisy here also and seeing that, according to what is written, “deceit is in the hearts of the impious who plot evil” (Prov 12:20), found it necessary again to gather together the sense of the Scriptures and to speak more clearly the things which they said before, and to write, “the Son is one in essence (homoousion) with the Father,” in order to signify that the Son is not only like, but from the Father as the same in likeness (tauton te homoiosei), and in order to show that the likeness and inalterability of the Son is other than the imitative likeness that is ascribed to us and which we attain through virtue by keeping the commandments. For it is possible for bodies which are like each other to become in some way separated and distant from one another, which happens with the sons of human beings in relation to their begetters, as it is written concerning Adam and Seth, who was begotten of Adam and who was like him “according to his kind” (Gen 5:3). But since the generation of the Son from the Father is other than that which pertains to the nature of human beings and he is not only like (homoios) but also inseparable from the essence (ousia) of the Father and he and the Father are one, as he himself said (Jn 10:30), and the Word is always in the Father and the Father in the Word (cf. Jn 10:38)—as is the radiance in relation to the light (for this is what the phrase means)—the council, understanding all this, aptly wrote “one in essence” (homoousion). They did this in order to overturn the perversity of the hypocrites and to show that the Word is other than the things which come to be. For immediately after writing it, they added: “But those who say that the Son of God is from non-being or is a creature or changeable or made or from another essence (ousia), these the holy and catholic Church anathematizes.” In saying this, they made it manifestly clear that “from the essence” and “of one essence” are abrogations of the trite slogans of the impious: such as that he is a “creature” and “made” and something which has come into being (geneton) and changeable and that he was not before he was generated. The one who thinks such things is contradicting the council. But the one who does not think along with Arius necessarily holds and takes to mind the teachings of the council and views them appropriately, as indicating a relation like that of the radiance to the light, and in this way attains to an image of the truth.

St Athanasius of Alexandria

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“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”

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Objections to the Universalist Hope: Carrot, Stick, and the Kimel Principle

I actually didn’t intend to write again on the universalist hope for at least a good while, but some thoughtful comments on my blog encouraged me to change my mind. For purposes of clarity, I’m going to structure this series in terms of objections to the universalist hope, followed by my brief responses.

1) The universalist hope undermines evangelism and the summons to repentance.

The objection has an initial plausibility. There is no question that fear can be a powerful motivator within the Church. One doesn’t have to look very hard to find examples where the threat of everlasting punishment has been effectively employed to move people to specific kinds of positive action, whether it be personal reform (“I don’t want to go to hell. I hereby repent of my adultery”) or the undertaking of the arduous task of mission (“I will go to China and preach the gospel, lest they never know Christ and be everlastingly damned”). It’s possible, of course, to mute or tone down the threat, yet to be effective it must always be present to some degree, if only as background music. The gospel thus becomes carrot and stick—the carrot of eternal good and the stick of everlasting torment. Its “if, then” rhetorical structure is similar to the discourse we find in many places in the Old Testament, with the prophetic threat of temporal punishment being replaced by interminable eschatological punishment. The only real difference is that the stakes have been infinitely raised. “I’ve got really good news and really bad news,” the preacher tells us. “Which one do you want to hear first?”

It should be noted that the terror generated by the threat of eternal damnation is not eliminated by the the increasingly popular free-will defense of hell. In the older presentations of perdition, God retributively punishes the wicked (see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on hell). God is the one who actively inflicts suffering in the name of justice. But in the free-will model, God assumes an unbiblical passive role. He does not so much as judge as ratify the fundamental choice of those who stand before him in the eschatological dock. God continues to love the damned, yet because of the kind of people they have irreversibly become, they can only experience the divine presence as torment. The intent of this model is clear—to get God off the moral hook for the horrors of damnation. Whether it in fact accomplishes this goal is debatable, but one thing it does not do—it does not mitigate the fear of the future generated by the threat of eternal perdition. We can call it the Kimel principle: if we can find a way to damn ourselves forever, we probably will.

The important question: Should terror, anxiety, and dread be the principal motivators for repentance? Fear of painful consequence can certainly produce changes in behavior, but can it generate genuine love of God and heartfelt trust in his providence? No theologian in the Christian tradition has been more emphatic in his rejection of the “pedagogy of fear” than Fr Sergius Bulgakov. Not only is “this doctrine of terror … totally incapable of achieving its pedagogic goal,” states Bulgakov; but “striking sensitive hearts with horror, paralyzing filial love and the childlike trust in the Heavenly Father, this idea makes Christianity resemble Islam, replacing love with fear” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 484).

Only the good news of God’s absolute love and infinite mercy, embodied in Jesus Christ and the community of the Church, can convert sinful hearts to the Savior.

Opponents of the universalist hope repeatedly speak as if advocates of apokatastasis reject Gehenna altogether, as if everyone gets into heaven without repentance and regeneration: “I’m okay, you’re okay, we will all be okay.”  This is patently false. Numerous contrary examples might be provided, ranging from Origen and St Gregory Nyssen to George MacDonald, Sergius Bulgakov, and Thomas Talbott. For each, perdition remains a horrible possibility for every sinner. If a person does not repent in this life, he will take his hell into the next. As Neil Gaiman remarks: “I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go to.” There can be no escape from the necessity of repentance, for only the pure in heart shall see God. The hopeful universalist, therefore, differs from the traditional infernalist not on the existence of hell but on its duration and purpose. St Isaac the Syrian writes:

Accordingly we say that, even in the matter of the afflictions and sentence of Gehenna, there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and wilfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection His dispensation wherein lies the teaching which makes wise, and the advantage beyond description, hidden from both angels and human beings, hidden too from those who are being chastised, whether they be demons or human beings, hidden for as long as the ordained period of time holds sway. (Second Part 39.20; also see “The Triumph of the Kingdom“)

The universalist refuses to limit either God’s love, omnipotence, or wisdom. Even Gehenna has a purpose, a terrible but ultimately converting purpose—to bring all into the Kingdom.


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