The Mystery of the Non-transactional God

by Robert Farrar Capon

I suggest, therefore, that we take a much closer look at the connection between Mystery and transaction—that we reexamine the assumption that the opera­tion of the Mystery can be equated with a series of schticks which God did at various times in the history of creation. My thesis is that transac­tional views of Christianity have caused more problems than we suspect, and that if we can manage to cor­rect them, a lot of heretofore unresolvable conflicts may well just disappear. On with it then, beginning, as always, with a distinction.

The Mystery does indeed manifest itself through transactions; for this is, after all, a totally transac­tional world. Nothing happens here that isn’t done somewhere, sometime, somehow, by somebody. If the Mystery wants to tip its hand among the likes of us, it’s going to have to work up its shtick just like everything else. And it has. The covenants—from Adam to Jesus, from the Tree of Life to the Tree of Calvary—are all pieces of business. So there is no way of escaping transactional language when we talk about the Mystery—or transactional behavior on our part when we respond to it.

On the other hand, the Mystery is not only in the world, busy with piecework. It is also in God, totally busy just being. The Mystery as it is in God, however—before, during and after all worlds—isn’t inching its way toward a goal it hasn’t reached yet. In God, the end is fully present at the beginning; the beginning is fully realized in the end. God, in his mysterious relationship with the world, never changes his mind or his manners, never does anything he didn’t have in mind before, never drops a stitch, pulls out a row, reverses engines or slams on the brakes. And therefore, while in one sense, everything he does in creation involves doing business with somebody, in another sense, he never does business with anybody. He doesn’t trade. He doesn’t transact. He doesn’t haggle. He doesn’t ever really do; he just “be’s.”

That sounds strange until you look at the Gospels. Then, suddenly, it sounds right: Sal­vation as a gift given, not a bargain struck. A father who does not trade forgiveness for good behav­ior, but who kisses the prodigal son before he gets his confession out of his mouth. A vine­yard owner who pays what he pleases, not what the laborers earn. A shep­herd who allows no sensible business considerations to keep him from leaving ninety-nine sheep in jeopardy to bring one to safety. A wheat grower who runs his farm, not for profit, but for the sake of letting everything grow as it pleases till the end. An Incarnate Word who won’t talk to Pilate, a Carpenter of Nazareth who saves the world by nailing down his own hands; a risen Lord who runs everything by going away. A God, in other words, who does all things well by doing practically nothing right, whose wisdom is foolishness, whose strength is weakness—who runs this whole operation by being no operator at all and who makes no deals because, in the high Mystery of his being, he’s got it made already.

There is, perhaps, no topic in theology on which more barbaric, fatuous, dumfounding things have been written than on predestination. I am not about to add to the confusion here, but I do want to insist that, in spite of its wretched history, the subject must be kept in the hopper for discussion. At the very least, it keeps before our minds this incompre­hen­sible intractability of God. Much more than that, of course, needs to be said about it—and a good deal of it will have to be in paradoxical opposition to anything that predesti­na­tion could possibly mean. But the impossible doctrine itself must never be skipped over. It is theology’s star witness to the non-transactional nature of the Mystery at its deepest level—to the truth that even though creation may be mightily out of hand, he’s got it all together from the beginning, without moving a solitary muscle or trading a single horse.

But enough. That’s another hunt, and another beast. Time now to draw a bead on the Mystery through our newly purchased one-hundred-power non-transactional sight. Aim high and bring the gun down slowly on the subject.

Consider first how the act of creation is not a transaction, even though we ordinarily imag­ine it to be one. When we think of God as the cause of the world, we almost invariably figure the Mystery involved by forming a sentence whose main verb is in the plain, unvar­nished past tense. We speak of his creating as if it were a piece of business he once did: Last summer, I made a boat, closed on a house, played a gig. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

But that isn’t really the case. It is a usage which conceives of the act of creating as an act of starting up—which seems to say that all you need God for is to get things going, and that once he has created, the world needs no more causing. He could, of course, destroy it, but short of that, it continues to be on its own steam.

As St Thomas pointed out, however, that’s not so. If God wanted to destroy the world, he wouldn’t have to do anything; he would have to stop doing something. God is not only the initial cause of the world at its beginning; he is the present and immediate cause of the world at every moment of its being. Things exist, not because he made them, but because he makes them, everywhere and everywhen: Of course he made them at the beginning; but that’s only one moment in the billions of instants of time to which the Mystery of his creative act is eternally contemporary.

Examine next, therefore, what that means as far as his relationship to the world is con­cerned. It is not as if he once made the world and then turned it loose. That is a view which allows you to see history as something the world did largely apart from God. And it allows you to see his repair and rehabilitation of history as a superadded transaction—a new shtick by which he gets back into a show from which he was mostly absent after the opening night.

Once again though, that can’t be right. God creates everything at every moment. The freedom of the world to wander at will is a freedom it has, not after it gets loose from God, but while it is locked forever in the viselike grip of his creative power. That means that all its sins, all its enormities, all its bloodshed, all its savagery, occur right in the palm of his hand because his hand is what lets it be. (The phrase, you will note, is pregnant. In its prim and proper sense, it refers to his actively creative power: Let there be! “Light! Firmament! Sun! Moon! Stars!” But the divine Wisdom also makes a fool of himself with creation. He leaves it free. Within the aggressive Let it be! he includes a slangy, laissez-faire Leave it be. “Whales? Birds? Cattle? Men? Leave ’em be. Anything they want is O.K. by me.” The Infinite Card Sharp, the master of every deal, is also just the Infinite Kibitzer, hanging around doing nothing. The Ultimate Agent is also the Ultimate Patient.)

But notice what kind of world that produces. The ordinariness we see around us and take for granted turns out to be an illusion; and the strangeness, the fingerprints of the Mys­tery, turn out to be the reality.

There are three possible views of the world, each of which is true. The first is that the world consists entirely of winners: Every single thing that is, is a triumph of being, shout­ing from the housetops its praise of the Mystery by which it stands extra nihil and extra causas. The second view is that the world, at any given moment, consists of fifty percent winners and fifty percent losers: The river is wearing down the rock; the weasel is doing in the goose; these shoes are killing me. The last view is that the world is all losers. The shoes go to dust, the dust goes down the river, the river is evaporated by the sun and the sun itself goes cold. The last course at the banquet of creation is frozen entropy—with no chocolate sauce.

On any given day, of course, you and I will be in such a mood as is appropriate to one or the other of these Weltanschauungen: Exultant, as we and the surf frolic together. Game, as we take up arms against slings and arrows. Or stone-cold sad, when we sit by the waters of Babylon and the songs of Zion stick in our throats.

But on every given day, with every given thing—and on all the ungiven, unending days of eternity—God is in all three moods at once. Do you see what that means? He is always winning, always struggling and always losing. He doesn’t win and lose by turns in tran­sac­tions. He doesn’t simply win on Sunday, simply struggle on Thursday, simply die on Friday, and simply rise again on Sunday. He does all three on all days. He loses on the first Sabbath, because creation is free to defeat him at the Tree. And he reigns from the Tree on Good Friday, because in the Mystery of predestination, it is precisely by losing that he wins.

Therefore, the transactions by which he seems now to win, now to lose, are not, at their deepest root in him, transactions at all. They are rather revelations by degrees of what the Mystery is all at once. They are not bits of business which God transacts in order to get somewhere. They are sacramentalizations, outcroppings—effective and real manifestations under the form of transactions—of the one, constant, non-transactional Mystery by which he sets the world as a seal upon his heart, and forevermore has no place else to go.

The supreme outcropping of the Mystery, of course, is Jesus. But what happened in and through Jesus was not something new that God finally got around to plugging into the system. Rather it is what God was really up to all along, finally and effectively sacramenta­lized. In Jesus, we see thrust up before our eyes what has always worked below the surface of the world. Looking at history without Jesus in it is like looking at the Great Plains and trying to figure out what the earth is made of: You never really catch on to the fact that, except for the surface, it’s mostly stone. But when you come to the Rockies, you under­stand: There before you is a clear outcropping of what lies beneath the plains.

Follow that to the end and see how it eliminates once and for all the problem of tagging up with those who somehow miss the Incarnation. We call Christ’s dying and rising the Paschal Mystery, the Passover Mystery. But seen in the light of a non-transactional view, this isn’t just typology anymore. It’s a flat assertion that the Passover and the Resurrection are, beneath the surface, the same thing. You don’t have to work up some system for getting the Israelites in the wilderness in touch with Christ: They already were, long before Jesus turned up on the scene. And so were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And so, to take it all the way, is everybody and everything that is.

Christ wins in every triumph and loses in every loss. Christ dies when a chicken dies, and rises when an egg hatches. He lies slain the the wreckage of all Aprils. He weeps in the ruins of all springs. This strange, savage, gorgeous world is the way it is because, incom­pre­hen­si­bly, that is his style. The Gospel of the Incarnation is preached, not so that we can tell men that the world now means something it didn’t mean before, but so that they may finally learn what it has been about all along. We proclaim Christ crucified, the formless, uncomely Root Out Of A Dry Ground, in order to show men, at the undesired roots of their own being, the Incarnate Word who is already there, making Jerusalem to flourish. We do not bring Jesus to people or people to Jesus. We preach the Word who sends their roots rain, whether they hear or whether they forbear.

And so at last, the theologial Rube Goldberg contraptions go into the trash can. At Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the Jews died in Christ and Christ in them. No limbos. No bookkeeping. If the church never got around to them—or if it did, but put them off with rotten manners—Christ still draws all men to himself. He descends into every hell. The Incarnate Word preaches on all days, to all spirits, in all prisons. The Good Shepherd has other sheep, and he flatly refuses to lose a single one.

* * *

(Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox (1974), pp. 108-115; this out-of-print title is available in the Robert Capon anthology The Romance of the Word.)

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11 Responses to The Mystery of the Non-transactional God

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I wasn’t planning on publishing today this long extract from Robert Capon’s Hunting the Divine Fox, but it seems timely to do so, given recent discussions on the blog. As I have mentioned before, Thomas F. Torrance and Robert W. Jenson were absolutely critical in my discovery during my seminary days of the unconditionality of divine grace. But in some ways, this book was equally important, both in seminary but especially afterwards in my pastoral ministry. Capon had a gift for translating the theology of theologians into a popular idiom. I confess that his colloquialism sometimes irritate, but even still it still speaks to the mind and heart. Capon’s writings, especially his books on the parables, were a huge help to my preaching.

    I remember this passage and offer it today to invite your reflections. This was a passage, and others like it in Capon’s writings, that I never fully internalized; yet I now find myself returning to it, wanting to give it full reconsideration.

    It immediately raises for me a couple of theodicy questions, which Capon addresses in his little book The Third Peacock (also included in The Romance of the Word). I may have read that book 40 years ago, but I do not remember anything about his arguments. Hopefully someone who reads the extract will be able to elaborate for us Capon’s views on God and evil.

    In early 2022 I hope to write a series of articles on Capon’s interpretation of the parables of Jesus. Stay tuned. No one delights more than Capon in declaring the scandal of God’s unconditional grace!

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Beautiful. Like you said he uses common idiom, but I find it refreshing and one can see how this is useful for preaching, in explaining complex theological concepts to the untrained. Thanks for posting this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ashpenaz says:

    Here’s a question–why would God, who is perfect, create something less perfect than He is? Wouldn’t everything God creates have to be equal to God? The same as God? If God creates something which will forever be less perfect than God, isn’t that essentially creating Hell–because that something will be aware of perfection but never be able to be perfect?

    Why would God create matter if God is Spirit and Spirit is perfect? Why create a substance fundamentally different from His own substance? Matter can suffer and Spirit can’t–why create something that can suffer?

    A perfect universe would be where each of God’s creations is exactly the same as God in every way–except for having been created. And God can only create a perfect universe. Right?

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I’d agree, with two caveats.
      First of all, all God’s creations are different and unique in their own way. It is not possible for each of God’s creations individually to be the same as God save for being created, because to be individual creations at all they must be different from each other as well as different from God. I would say that it must be creation *as a whole* that must be the “same as God only created”, not the individual parts. (That being said, for this to be true, each individual part must be perfected according to its particular nature, because a perfect whole cannot have defective parts.)
      The second caveat is that “except for having been created” is doing a lot of legwork here: the absolute difference between creator and created is going to mean that perfection for creator and created are inherently going to look pretty different.

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    • Tom says:

      Ashpenaz,

      I could be wrong, but for what they’re worth, here are a couple thoughts (sorry if I’m misunderstanding you):

      1) If God creates, he can only create what is not God, since God is uncreated. That seems to follow, no? God is equal to God, and whatever God is – is at the very least uncreated. So if we’re going to imagine God creating, what he creates can’t be uncreated and so cannot be the uncreated God.

      2) But though being created means being other than God, that doesn’t mean being ‘imperfect’. It means of course not possessing the divine perfection of being uncreated, but it’s no imperfection for the created not to be uncreated. It’s the nature of the created to be created, obviously. ‘Perfection’ can distribute itself out along the distinctions between things given their nature. This is important to the distinction between God and Creation, for nothing God created can ‘begin’ its existence at its perfected end. What it means to be created is just to be the sort of thing that moves from origin to end in God. But this doesn’t mean its beginning is ‘imperfect’. A ‘perfect’ newborn can’t speak or walk, but ‘not being able to speak or walk’ is not an imperfection ‘for a newborn’. But if you’re 20 yrs old and still can’t speak or walk, then something’s wrong. Likewise, creation has its infancy, its beginning, and though its beginning is *not* its end, it can be a perfect beginning (even if that beginning would make a lousy end – like a 20 yr old who can’t speak or walk). We have to spread creation’s perfection out along the entire trajectory of its movement from origin to end.

      Why did God create – freely and unnecessarily – that which is other than him, that which by virtue of being created *must* proceed temporally, through inevitable suffering, from its origin toward its end in God? That’s a great question which n-o-b-o-d-y knows the answer to. But I don’t think suppose God can (only) create that which ‘begins’ by being all that God intends it to be ‘at its end’ is part of the answer.

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    • Ashpenaz says:

      Great answers. I’m trying to sort this out.

      As ideas in God’s mind, everything He creates is perfect. It may be that as created beings they have to begin in imperfection and move toward perfection–but they couldn’t move toward perfection unless the idea of them was perfect. Everything God creates is both perfect and potentially perfect.

      So, in one sense, I exist as an idea in God’s mind, and I am as perfect now as the moment God created me, since ideas in God’s mind are eternal and perfect. On the other hand, I am a created being moving towards perfection.

      Universalism comes into this because ultimately, I must return to the perfection of God’s idea or God’s ideas aren’t perfect.

      I think this comes from Origen. Genesis 1 was the blueprint–all of God’s ideas in their perfect, eternal form. Genesis 2 was their move into matter and thus into imperfection. Jesus’ atonement is what leads us on the path back to the perfection we had in Genesis 1, a perfection which we actually never fundamentally lost.

      Or something like that! 🙂

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  3. Thank you for publishing that section.

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  4. “…with the advent of the vegetable creation we see for the first time the ecology of good and evil, of life and death. Understandably, this may strike you as far-fetched. For a very long time, biblical interpreters have imagined that good and evil are implacable enemies, and that death (at least human death) came into the world only as a punishment for sin. (Despite my enthusiasm for Augustine, there’s no doubt in my mind that he was as responsible for such views as anybody.) But right on the face of this third day—with its invention of plants bearing seeds—something more complex is being said. The “evil” of the seeds’ corruption and the new life that comes out of their deaths point to God as the party responsible for the introduction of death into a world which has not yet fallen. As I’ve said many times already, death has been the engine of the world’s life from the beginning. It’s never been absent from the creation God loves. And thus when the Beginning himself appears as the Incarnate Word in the death and resurrection of Jesus, he’s just reiterating the same old story he’s told from the start. Every death in the world has always been a sacrament, a real presence, of the rising from the dead that the Word has had in mind all along.

    So death as it appears here is not a curse but a blessing. True enough, we human beings may see it as a robbery of life, a fatal abolition of our being. But that’s only because we rejected God’s hands-off management of the ecology of life and death at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Refusing to see our mortality as a boon, we decided to use our own hands-on mismanagement and fight it as an enemy. I’m not saying, of course, that we’re meant to rush to our deaths at the first opportunity. (By God’s Design, no living creature with its wits about it does that.) Still, by God’s eternal Purpose, every living creature does die sooner or later—and its death becomes an instrument of life for other creatures.”

    Genesis the Movie, pg. 90-91, Robert Capon

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  5. Owen-Maximus says:

    I’ve never read Capon, Fr, but this is a profound selection. Thanks for posting it. His exposition, and your question about his views on God and evil, reminds me of a passage in the work of Frithjof Schuon.

    He writes about the Absolute Reality, and its “Infinitude—All-Possibility—which is its intrinsic consequence and which causes that projection which is Relativity or Contingency [this created world]. The Relative on the one hand is prefigured in the Absolute-Infinite and on the other hand manifests the latter at various degrees. Now, the cosmogonical projection, since it necessarily moves away from the Principle, necessarily gives rise within Manifestation which it creates to the enigma that is imperfection, privation, absurdity, evil; but evil, being quite paradoxically the image of a nothingness inexistent in itself, cannot prevail against the Good, which is the very essence of Being; vincit omnia Veritas.”

    What is most interesting to me in this dense quote is the *necessary* enigma of imperfection, privation, absurdity, and evil, based on divine infinitude and all-possibility. To quote one more passage, Schuon explains:

    “According to Plato and Saint Augustine, the cause of the world is the tendency of the Good to communicate Itself; negatively speaking, this cause is a result of the Infinitude of the Supreme Principle, which necessarily implies the “possibility of the impossible,” namely the possibility of the Absolute not to be the Absolute. But since this possibility is absurd, it can be realized only in an illusory dimension, that of Relativity, of Maya; whence the ambiguous possibility of the world, precisely.”

    Read together, the point seems to be that God as the Infinite one contains in himself all possibilities, and because it is the tendency of the Good to communicate Itself, all those possibilities must be somehow realized, including—impossibly—the absurd possibility of privation and evil.

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    • mercifullayman says:

      I can dig this, although, I’d be left asking myself that in the view of Plato/Augustine then, doesn’t God seemingly have to lie beyond Being to allow for that to happen. As Being then becomes the idiom of communication, we then experience all possibilities as truly possible. That way, there would be no contradiction within God himself? Or do we embrace that as a possibility too? All the possibilities….they’re endless haha

      Or in another sense, we, as bearers of the image of God, are tiny communications of the Good ourselves, therefore the possibility of not communicating the good (evil, etc) is our way of getting in the way of the ultimate communication God is trying to communicate, as we are not God? So all suffering, maya, whatever we want to call it, is really rooted in an imperfection of our being?

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  6. Milton Finch says:

    Located in this link is something on Universalism in Capon’s own words if that is any sort of your question on God and evil.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Farrar_Capon

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