Posts Tagged ‘Mysticism’

Supernatural or not?

October 27th, 2015

I’ve had much the same kind of question asked of me a few times recently. In essence, it’s “Chris, you don’t believe in the supernatural, so how can you be a Christian?”

This tends to come up which someone puts to me that, in order to be a Christian, I have to believe that some supernatural event either took place or will take place (usually the first). It is, I’m sorry to say, completely beyond me to say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event actually happened. That said, I also can’t say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event didn’t or couldn’t happen. I am, strictly speaking, agnostic on the subject, though I have a powerful tendency against seeing supernatural causes for things.

This is because I am methodologically naturalistic. That’s a mouthful, but what it means is that where anything happens, I look for naturalistic explanations, explanations which rest on the operation of established scientific principles. Almost every Christian I know tends strongly to do the same; OK, I did hear a preacher recently who claimed to have tried to walk on water, buoyed up by God’s power (he failed, on his account), but very few people of my acquaintance would try this with even a remote expectation of success. Most think that the popular story of the man caught in a flood quite reasonably justifies methodological naturalism even if you believe that God just might intervene (and I agree).

Where I perhaps start parting company with some more conservative Christians is that where I cannot find a plausible naturalistic explanation for some event, I assume that there actually is some naturalistic explanation, it’s just that either I’m not clever enough to figure it out or there is some feature of reality which science hasn’t yet found an explanation for, but might in principle. The figures aren’t as much with me there as in the previous case, but I think probably a majority of the Christians I know take pretty much that view except when considering miracles in the Bible. They would, for instance, take exactly the same view as I do when considering an account drawn from Judaism other than in the Bible (say the story of the Oven of Akhnai), but still hold that Jesus actually multiplied the loaves and fishes.

Then  there’s the case of events for which there’s definitely a naturalistic explanation, but which seem to people to be coincidental beyond the bounds of expectation. There, a majority of the Christians I know tend to talk of God guiding events, and I reserve my position, because I know too much about human tendencies to detect patterns in the random (hyperactive agency detection) and other cognitive biases. I notice, for instance, that the same people who detect the hand of God where something good happens to them very often don’t detect the hand of God where something bad happens, though some I know tend to identify those as the work of Satan.

Actually, the concept that God is not an agent in the world is a lot more respectable than many of my questioners might think. Formal scholastic Catholic thinking, for instance, as well as being keen on Aquinas’ for proofs of (the existence of) God, also decided that “exist” was the wrong concept to use of God, as it argued that God was a part of creation rather than the creator. I happen to disagree with Aquinas’ five proofs and the Catholic insistence on God’s complete otherness, but they do represent theological orthodoxy on the point. How miracles could actually happen on this basis rather escapes me, however, as a completely separate God would seem to have no mechanism to effect miracles!

Going back to the question of naturalistic phenomena for which science does not as yet have a viable explanation, I’m open to possibilities. Indeed, back in my youth I spent a lot of time exploring such concepts as astrology, astral projection, telepathy and telekinesis – I was, after all, 15 in the year when the musical “Hair” proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the New Age movement was becoming popular, and having just had a peak mystical experience which scientific naturalism didn’t have any good description or explanation of. I was, however, looking for evidence that the phenomena occurred, and trying to develop naturalistic concepts of how they did (if they did).

The snag is, I ended up with the conclusion that none of these things actually works, at least not in any remotely reliable manner. Not, at any event, in any place other than the consciousness of the person who is trying to do things; there, some New Age concepts can definitely have profound effects. I say this with one caveat; there is, I think, a small possibility that some of these may operate if and only if all the people involved fervently believe that they will (this would mean that they would probably not operate if any sceptical observer were involved). I think this unlikely, given that an “all believer” audience will be prone to detect what they expect irrespective of whether it has in fact happened, but I cannot rule out the possibility.

That said, I have personally experienced what I interpret as God breaking down the resistance of a very sceptical individual with no belief in any such thing as the supernatural, let alone God, and providing a set of insights; this was what happened in my first peak mystical experience. I have also experienced (due to a large amount of experimentation in my younger days) the apparent fact that certain techniques can improve the likelihood of such peak experiences happening, including certain forms of prayer and meditation (which I recommend); so can things such as sleep deprivation and temporary anoxia, and certain drugs (which I do not recommend).

Was this a “supernatural” occurrence? I don’t know. I have gone over the circumstances of my first such experience in detail with doctors, psychologists and several ardent sceptics, and we cannot identify a cause from within any of those science has identified a mechanism for. I had done nothing to facilitate such an experience and didn’t desire one, having no conception that that was a possibility. No drugs were involved, I was neither sleep-deprived, anoxic or stressed and electromagnetic stimulation was easily ruled out. I was not epileptic or schizotypal (or any of the other potential neuropsychological candidates). That leaves us with either an as yet unidentified physical (or neurological) cause or supernatural intervention.

In passing, I can’t really do more experimentation, as all repetitions of the experience have followed a lot of work conditioning my mind and practising prayer and meditation, so might well result from that rather than from whatever the cause of the original experience was. I can say, however, that I have not found it possible to “force” a full-bodied repetition – those are few and far between and seem to be “out of the blue” as well. I think the evidence is that certain practices improve the likelihood, however, and therefore recommend prayer and meditation without any note of caution (and anything else with considerable caution).

Of course, if God is conceived of as fundamentally supernatural, it was clearly a supernatural experience. However, one feature of what was an extremely self-verifying experience was that God was radically immanent, i.e. all things were at the least permeated by God to the very smallest and very largest scales, and probably all things could be regarded as being part of God as all fixed boundaries appeared capable (at least) of dissolution; I was a part of this, and all other things were also parts of it. If that is a true insight, then God is in any event able in principle to act through everything that is, including (of course) the material, if one assumes that there is anything which is not material in and of itself.

I therefore, on balance, think that there was some mechanism the details of which are not clear to me (though one of my atheist friends said it must have been a “brain fart”). It is, of course, possible that this mechanism was God (whether supernatural or immanent) deciding to do this. Another facet of the experience was that God had at least some aspects of what I understand as being a person.

I think it reasonable to point out that most people who believe in a supernatural God also believe that God acts in rational ways, and develop theologies which, probably non-accidentally, have an objective of being able to predict what God will do in any particular circumstance. This, it seems to me, is almost imperceptibly different from me seeking to establish by what mechanism this occurred. We are all, in one sense, trying to psychoanalyse God. There are plenty of scriptures to indicate both that one shouldn’t do that and that it won’t work, including Isaiah 55:8, the whole of Ecclesiastes and the last portion of Job.

These, indeed, illustrate my problem; I do not know how anyone else can experience something akin to my peak experiences (and I would dearly like more people, and preferably all people, to be able to – these have been by far the best experiences of my life), and if this all does indicate a God who is acting as an agent and can break into the minds of humans at will, why does this not happen more often?

This does, however, leave me with the conclusion that God acts in the world, in all probability, only by influencing the minds of His creatures.

 

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Eternal conscious bull****

September 28th, 2015

There is a nice piece at Unfundamentalist Christians about hell as “eternal conscious torment”. I agree with it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

The idea of Hell (assuming that Hell is not a mere rhetorical device, or even, perhaps, a metaphor for what an eternity separated from God might feel like – which is something which I might, perhaps, contemplate to be a viable possibility if, firstly, our consciousness, once created, cannot under any circumstances ever be destroyed and, secondly, if God has renounced any coercion to force a change of mind on us, and allows us freely to elect not to turn to Him and, thirdly, if there is any possibility that, given eternity, any consciousness would not so turn) is one which has been orthodox in Christianity for most of its history.

Incidentally, I do not think that the first and third of the provisoes above are correct, although I am reasonably confident that the second is at least largely correct. I say “reasonably confident” and “largely correct” on the basis that my personal history indicates that God will occasionally give the consciousness of even the most recalcitrant (i.e. the 14 years old evangelical atheist Chris) a good kicking to persuade it differently, but does not appear to have got round to doing the same to (for example) Richard Dawkins.

Let’s leave reformed theology on one side for a moment – given its insistence that God determines absolutely who is going to be saved and who damned without any reference to character, circumstances or effort, and therefore just creates humans destined for Hell – and concentrate on the rest of Christianity.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned. This, at least, is frequently quoted; I cannot as yet find an accurate reference to it in the Summa, however. Thomas was, no doubt, thinking of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which, taken literally and aside the real point of the parable (which is that some cannot be convinced by whatever evidence you  can conceive of), indicates that the saved in Heaven can see the damned in Hell. 

And that would make Heaven into eternal conscious torment for anyone who had lived their life trying to follow Jesus’ second Great Commandment, that you love your neighbour as yourself. He even went on to point out in the version recorded by Luke, using the parable of the Good Samaritan, that “neighbour” meant anyone, even your traditional enemy. Maybe not physical torment, but certainly mental.

I wonder how St. Thomas could have managed to ignore this absolutely basic tenet of his faith. Could he, I ask, have been basically a sociopath, setting out the rules by which things worked and pointing out that by following these, you would end up in a good place, irrespective of any human feeling (which sociopaths do not experience)? In the system described by him, indeed, success would go to the rational sociopaths – and that makes it look like a system of corporatist free market capitalism to me rather than the radically inclusionary kingdom of God preached by Jesus – and I have been known to describe corporatist free market capitalism as a Satanic system.

Could it have been that Thomas’ famed rationality had taken over to the point at which mere human feeling was far from him? If so, this is not the spirituality of Christianity, it is the spirituality of the Eastern traditions in which freedom from attachment is the highest aspiration, and freedom from attachment does, of course, mean an end to compassion. I will grant that the mystical ways of the East do have a tendency to produce this withdrawal from humanity in service of uninterrupted ecstatic contemplation of union with God. That has, in a way, been dangled before me as a possibility; I do not consider it one to be aspired to unless the rest of humanity can join me there, and that is a long way off, but perhaps Thomas was a mystic and was seduced by that promise himself. I don’t know. I prefer not to think of one of the greatest theologians of all time as a potential sociopath, or even someone prepared in the final instance to abandon his fellow men to agony, but that seems to be where the evidence leads.

Also, of course, the God whose fulness dwelt in Jesus, of whom Jesus was the most perfect expression, could not, would not, set up a system in which those favoured by him could be those who would look upon even the most evil of their fellows and relish their torment endlessly, without any hope of either annihilation or and eventual purgation and return to Him. If that is indeed the system which has been set up, the one responsible for it must be Satan rather than God, and I want nothing to do with him or his works.

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OCD, TLE and Schizo theologians…

September 12th, 2015

The inimitable Robert Sapolsky, in his younger days, gave a lecture on the biological underpinnings of religiosity. It’s fascinating for many reasons, but watch it at your peril, as it may seem to explain away your own spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology. Thus I feel impelled to comment immediately that just because neurobiology finds that certain psychological conditions which are commonly understood as abnormal tend to produce experiences which have typically been understood as spiritual does not necessarily invalidate them. This kind of argument is, indeed, one of those which Richard Beck seeks to correct in his book “The Authenticity of Faith”, which I strongly recommend to anyone who has a problem with this, or indeed with the outlooks of any of the “Masters of Suspicion”, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. All three of them had explanations of religion, which reduced it to something which could be regarded as an aberration; Beck shows, I think, that although all three might have some measure of truth in their views, they do not offer an adequate explanation of faith. Sapolsky brings the Freudian critique up to date…

One of the fascinating aspects is Sapolsky’s presentation of the case study of a young monk called Luder, who exhibits all of the symptoms of a fairly crippling degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He then remarks that this monk is more commonly known as Martin Luther. He does not, however, go on to comment much about Luther’s contributions to theology; however, it becomes immediately clear to any student of post-Luther theology that his concepts of personal inability to avoid sinning and of the natural state of man as being “incurvatus in se” (obsessively self-analysing) are exactly symptoms of OCD. Inability to avoid sinning links directly to the typical OCD conviction that one can never manage to wash enough to be thoroughly clean; I saw this at close quarters in my late mother-in-law, whose OCD was not particularly severe, but who would feel obliged to wash her hands ten or fifteen times where most of us would wash once, and in the process actually scrubbed off skin from time to time.

Now, I do not suffer from OCD. I have also not tended to find any real difficulty in following sets of rules, particularly given the fact that I don’t suffer from an obsessive tendency to reinspect what I’ve been doing and find it not good enough; OK, yes, I have some measure of that, but trained myself many years ago not to obsess about it, as that way leads to never getting anything done (I’ve blogged before about the perils of taking “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” literally…). I also haven’t since childhood suffered from a compulsion to test the boundaries of rules and regard something forbidden as therefore irresistibly attractive; I acquired a really rather strong impulse control by the time I was in my early teens, as did probably the majority of my acquaintances.

So when Luther, and Calvin on the back of his thinking, suggest that we cannot ever by our own efforts live in a way acceptable to God, I fail to understand them. Sapolsky has here opened my eyes to the fact that this line of thinking may well be just the result of a personal psychological quirk of Luther’s, which these days would be labelled as a personality disorder. I might suspect, although I have no clear evidence of it, that Calvin was afflicted to some extent by the same problem.

However, what about Paul? Luther based his thinking on Paul’s tortured reflections that he could not do good, even where he wished to; he would still find himself doing something bad. Now, there’s no real evidence that Paul suffered from OCD either, although I have always wondered what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been. There, Sapolsky’s lecture offers a couple of other possibilities – Paul’s account of his conversion experience could well have been an episode of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, or could have been a vision associated with a Schizotypal Personality Disorder. We can’t know for certain, but the mere fact that most adults I know don’t have significant problems in obeying sets of rules makes me think that Paul’s thinking was not what we’d now describe as normal (and no Orthodox Jews I know have problems following all of the 613 commandments which Judaism finds in the Torah, in contradistinction from Paul – indeed, they applaud the efforts of the Rabbis to make these even more restrictive).

I think it’s well worth bringing in another theological giant here, in the form of St. Augustine. Reading his “Confessions”, I could very readily find someone suffering from sex addiction (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), in addition to a distinct tendency to the Obsessive Compulsive. I ask myself if the whole history of the Church’s doctrine of original sin and it’s attitude to women has been based on one or more personality disorders suffered by it’s greatest theologian between Paul and Luther.

“Hold on a moment”, I might hear the reader ask, “haven’t you started with a caveat that just because an abnormal condition may have produced an experience doesn’t invalidate that experience, so why are you now saying that there’s a problem where abnormal conditions seem to have produced particular theologies?”. An understandable comment, so I need to distinguish between two different types of result we are seeing here. In the case of the “nobody can do good” and “everyone is obsessed with sex to the exclusion of any spiritual life” positions, these theologians are creating an anthropology out of their own experience; they are assuming that everyone is like they are, and that just isn’t the case.

In the case of visions which may be the product of TLE or Schizotypalism, there is no assumption that everyone else has the same visions, it is the content of the vision which the seer puts forward as containing a truth. That, incidentally, is seer as “the person who sees”, without any connotation of the content of the vision being validated, though typically visions in both cases have a strong component of self-validation to them.

As, indeed, do mystical experiences, and I would not be self-identifying as a panentheistic mystic Christian and writing this blog if I hadn’t had a set of self-validating mystical experiences. This leads to the obvious question “Were these the product of TLE or Schizotypalism?”. That is a question I asked myself shortly after the first such experience I had, which was an extremely rude shock for someone who was at the time a scientific-materialist evangelical atheist very much in the Dawkins mould (although this occurred before Dawkins had written anything much more than, perhaps, an undergraduate paper or two).

It was not TLE, as confirmed by my then doctor, to whom I expressed some worries (that visit also eliminated any environmental factors including drugs, exhaustion, pain and hypoxia as possible contributors – it was fairly thorough!). I was also not then suffering from any diagnosable Schizotypalism, nor have I since been diagnosed as such.

That said, I have scored fairly highly on Schizotypal in a self-test of “What personality disorder do you suffer from?” a little over 15 years ago, though in fairness it has proved in hindsight that I was at the time suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Depression and Chronic Anxiety, and possibly as a result of those (which the test didn’t disclose) I also tested fairly highly on every other personality disorder the test dealt with, with the exception of narcissism (on which I tested very low indeed). I do sort of fit Sapolsky’s criteria of loose associations (I love wordplay and odd associations) and social withdrawal (this may just be being an introvert) but I really don’t do metamagical thinking. I don’t tend to believe in strange things (in fact, some would argue that I don’t tend to believe in anything much at all, and I’d have some sympathy with that); out of Sapolsky’s selection of metamagical traits, OK, I like SF and fantasy, though I don’t take it immensely seriously, I don’t have much time for any New Age stuff and I don’t believe in UFOs, though I hold onto a gentle wish that telepathy worked (It would make some other theories I toy with much easier to deal with!) but finally, and most stridently, I really do not tend to concrete interpretations (i.e. fundamentalism) at all. So OK, I may be just a little bit of a shaman, but not really very much of one by Sapolsky’s set of signs.

Not, at least, if you look at the integral Chris. If I split myself down into the SR (scientific rationalist) and EC (emotional Chris) bits (see my “About” page), EC would be a lot more along the lines Sapolsky paints as schizotypal. EC does tend to black and white thinking, for instance, and has a lot more time for “strange things” than SR – my generally agnostic position on these represents a compromise between SR and EC. There is the distinct possibility that I have shoehorned into my brain a borderline schizotypal and a more or less passionless rationalist, who have worked out a modus vivendi. In passing, had I not had several years of extreme depression and anxiety, I would probably never have self-examined (or perhaps been able to self-examine) sufficiently to realise this – another instance of finding, in retrospect, some reason why those years were not entirely “ruined time”.

The question I eventually asked myself, both in the beginning and after that realisation, was “does it really matter?”. Karen Armstrong has written at some length about her own experiences in “Through the Narrow Gate” and “The Spiral Staircase”; she suffered from TLE, which gave her some extremely strong unitive mystical experiences similar in many ways to my own, but which she has continued to base her faith on. I do likewise. I can still entertain the possibility that my peak spiritual experiences may be the product of abnormal psychology (they certainly seem to be the products of unusual psychology, because relatively few people seem to have such powerful experiences of this kind), but they nonetheless  carried with them this colossal self-verification, somewhere within which is faith.

I entertain the possibility that the following analogy might hold good; I have a friend who, when he was younger and his eyesight better, could see the convergence of the Balmer series of the Hydrogen spectrum. This lies just outside the normal visible range, in the ultraviolet (those with normal vision can see the lines becoming progressively closer, but not the point where they merge and stop). His eyes were, clearly, abnormal – but this meant that he could see something real which was denied to the rest of us. On the other hand, a reader could well dismiss anything I report about spiritual experiences in the kind of terms an old atheist friend (a psychology professor) did after interrogating me to find what the trigger for the experience was, and finding nothing; he said it was a “brain fart”. Bless him!

Going back to the anthropological assumptions of Paul, Augustine and Luther, it is unfortunate that these have given us between them (with some assistance from a couple of mediaeval theologians) the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which is very dominant in Protestant thinking and has significant traction in Catholic; a significant number of Christians I know would say that this IS the story of salvation, and that that IS the gospel. I reject both suggestions on a number of grounds, but the one I present here is that the whole theory assumes an incorrect picture of human anthropology. By and large, we are quite capable of following a set of rules; this is, I think, a considerable consolation to many conservative Christians, who seem to have reduced following Jesus back to following a set of rules.

What we are not capable of, of course, is loving our neighbour as ourselves (which, in the spirit of affirmative action, really means loving our neighbours rather more than ourselves); we are not capable of doing that after our conversion experiences any more than we were before them, though we may well come a lot closer – and some of us manage to come very close indeed, as witness the “Little Way” of Therese of Lisieux. Incidentally, a brief look at her biography strongly suggests that she also suffered from OCD in some measure.

Some of us, I reluctantly conceded, may also not be capable of having, say, an intense peak unitive mystical experience; it may be that that is reserved for those with TLE or Schizotypalism in some measure. Some may not be capable of the kind of conversion experience which seems, in evangelical circles, to be thought of as the one and only way to become a Christian. I have certainly known quite a few people who would have loved to have such a conversion experience, and who put themselves in a position to have one as nearly as they could time after time, only to be disappointed, and I rather suspect that those who have first had a peak unitive experience are among them. Does it invalidate their experiences if some of us cannot share those?

I would hope that we do not think so; I would hope that instead, we can listen to the testimony of those who have had experiences we cannot share ourselves, and can take from that as much as we are able to. That’ of course, includes those eminent theologians who have been suffering from OCD or some other psychological “disorder”.

I have, however, pointed out one thing in previous criticisms of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and that is that there are some people, commonly people who have had particularly awful life experience, for whom no other concept of salvation seems to have any traction. I cannot find any comfort, any salvation, any link to God in this theology – but there are those for whom it is the only theology which can bring those things.

For them, I say, this is a valid way for you. Do not ask that it be a valid way for me. For me, mystical unitive experience is the valid way; I do not demand that it be the only way for you.

 

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Transcendence, immanence and the uniqueness of incarnation

July 14th, 2015

I was reading an article by Andrew Robinson about Thomas Aquinas seen through the eyes of modern Continental philosophy, and came across this statement:-

“The difficulty is that humans can’t have direct sensory access to God, or see from God’s point of view. How, then, is it possible to make claims like “God is good” or “God is wise”?”

It struck me immediately that this argues a transcendent-only God, not surprisingly as this is overwhelmingly the “God of the philosophers”, including Aquinas. The article goes on to say:-

“So why is this interesting for radical thought? Of course, this question is still important for Christian anarchists, liberation theologians, Jewish and Muslim anarchists, who are radicals and also monotheists. At first, this discussion might not seem very relevant to people with a secular disposition (atheists, humanists etc), or to pantheists, but it is also relevant to the question of how to talk about other kinds of things we don’t understand very well or cannot access directly. In contemporary poststructuralism, notably in the work of Derrida, Levinas and Spivak, the question of the unknowability of God is closely connected to the unknowability of earthly others.”

Note the exclusion of pantheists. I’m a panentheist, which is the uncomfortable position between the pantheist who sees in immanence-only terms and the transcendentalist who sees only God-as-wholly other. I suspect that Mr. Robinson has rightly seen that the pantheist (and panentheist) would say that they experience some things (notably God) apparently unmediated; I would certainly say that of some of my spiritual experiences if not all. However, the point is good – one cannot float around in a mystic haze all the time, as that tends to lead to bumping into lamp posts and dying of hunger…

In one of those coincidences which enliven the life of faith so much, we were talking about transcendence -v- immanence last Thursday night at our small group. The occasion was discussion of the second meditation from Jane Williams in book 5 session 2 of the Pilgrim Course (audio available online) in which she says:-

“If God were not Trinity, how could we know about God? We could learn about God through the creation but that means that knowledge of God would only come to us through what is not God. Alternatively, our knowledge of God could, somehow, be imposed directly by God, bypassing human cooperation. But the Trinitarian God is able to hold together transcendence and immanence because this God is already outpouring and returning relationship, in God’s very being”.

I wasn’t the only person for whom this made little or no sense. Knowledge of God always comes to us through what is not God, just as knowledge of everything comes through sense-impressions which are never the things-in-themselves. Arguably there is an exception if there is some form of direct revelation. But, of course, we assume direct revelation in the concept of the inspiration of scripture and pray for it ourselves when we ask for God’s wisdom and guidance.

We do not feel drawn to say that everything we come to know in the outside world is therefore Trinity, because otherwise we could not know it – my computer, for instance, is obviously much more than three, being possessed by Legion (it let me down printing yesterday and has crashed once during the writing of this post so far, so please forgive the anthropomorphic vitriol…). No, in fact it’s for these purposes one, albeit an unity composed of very many parts.

It seems to me that Ms. Williams fails to take account adequately of the experience of the immanence of God, whereas in a sense Mr. Robinson does at least mention an avenue in that direction (the pantheist). Is this surprising? I don’t think so – in discussion, some indicated that they didn’t really relate to the immanent God at all, and I think most related better to the transcendent God. In a less committed and less Charismatic-leaning group, I would have expected most if not all not to relate to the immanence of God at all.

This is not a new experience for me; I have regularly found myself talking with transcendence-only people over the years, and have not infrequently come over as an immanence-only person myself (For many years I used, irritatingly, to say that I didn’t need to believe in God because I experienced God). It is, of course, possible for philosophers to deduce the existence of a God (Aquinas is famous for it!), although I have never been very convinced of their lines of reasoning. The thing is, they always seem to end up with a transcendent God; the immanent God is, it seems, only accessible to direct experience.

Direct experience can also tell us that God is transcendent – but that is as far as experience can go, because transcendence is, I think, intrinsically impossible for the human consciousness to grasp. Human consciousness can become open to transcendence, but if my own experience is anything to go by, such occasions are fleeting because the mind recoils before the immensity of that which it cannot contain.

Immanence, however, is a different matter. Immanence collapses the transcendent into the real, the material (insofar as these are actually knowable, considering the general problem outlined above, they are far more readily knowable than the transcendent). It is, I think, what Jesus does in the Great Commandments; love of God has no practical form (there’s worship, but it’s hard to see that that is any benefit to God when conceived of as purely transcendent) but love of neighbour is how we can express that love in a practical way. It is, again arguably, what God does in Jesus; the incarnation shows God via the person, life and sayings of a real person, which allows Whitehead to say “God has to be at least as nice as Jesus”.

Of course, there is at root a philosophical problem, that of how the transcendent can be known at all. A more conventional approach to this in Christianity than Ms. Williams appears to be pursuing is to take Jesus/Christ (and I use the / to advert to the man/god duality of Christ which is orthodox Christianity) as the one and only possible mediator, being the intersection of the transcendent-only (in this conception) God with the immanent-only (in this conception) humanity. This agrees, for instance, with John 1:18, Col. 1:15 and in a different sense with the general argument of Hebrews, where Christ becomes in heaven a priestly figure of mediation. I will come back to this. I don’t actually think Ms. Williams is correct in saying that you need a concept of trinity in order to express this; incarnation by itself, it seems to me, does the job more clearly.

In a further coincidence later (much later, i.e. 2 in the morning) I found myself involved in an online exposition and some discussion through a Homebrewed Christianity course of Frank Tupper’s essay “The Self-Limitation of God”. (You may need to subscribe in order actually to read it, unfortunately). As you might gather from the title, Tupper puts forward a concept of God as creator having limited himself in order to allow human freedom and, indeed, the freedom of the rest of creation. Tupper is trying to address two problems there, the first being of theodicy (or, how an omnipotent and omniscient God can allow evil and suffering), the second being the manifest lack of interventionary action of God in the world as we observe it. This is in principle attractive to me, as someone who has major difficulty with supernatural interventions of any kind, being methodologically if not philosophically a naturalist (i.e. I expect to find natural answers to anything which I observe).

However, Tupper also wishes to be dogmatic about Jesus being “the definitive self-revelation of God”, and thus thinks that he needs Jesus to be  unique as a demonstration of this, i.e. the incarnation is a one-off event (which is close to the orthodox viewpoint of bridging the transdent-immanent gap). This has to be supernatural in Tupper’s framework, as it is an intrusion of God into the area of God’s previous self-limitation.

I agree with Tupper that God has to be limited, and self-limitation has to be the answer to preserving God’s axiomatic ultimacy and unity (any alternative would argue dualism, i.e. a real and preexistent contrary, therefore evil, force), but as I outline in “Rather different answers in Genesis”,  I see the creation as being a near-complete self-investment of God in creation, such that it would be contrary to God’s creative purpose to exert supernatural power on material things which God has formed out of his own essence (granted, Genesis only says “in his likeness”, though the word used could be interpreted as “substance”). This amply explains how God is immanent – all that is, is God, or at least is a part of that-which-is-God. My use of “near complete” rather than “complete” indicates that I am a panentheist rather than a pantheist; my experience tells me there is radically more of God than is invested in the material world (or cosmos). I see immanence and transcendence, in other words.

Or, at least, I see the inadequacy of my ability to grasp the fullness of that-which-is-God. Despite the temptation, I cannot state from this that anything about God is actually infinite, as I am (as finite) axiomatically unable to grasp fully anything which is infinite. I have, indeed, played with the idea that all infinities are no more than mathematical constructs, without any referent in reality. Unfortunately, the concept is so useful in Mathematics that the formulation of a new Mathematics (and therefore a new Physics) avoiding the concept seems impossible… at least so far.

I am unconvinced that any of the Biblical writers can say more than this, for the same reason. As a result, I do not actually need a conception like Tupper’s to argue that omnipotence and omniscience (at least in the sense of knowledge of future as well as past events) are likely to be flawed concepts; the limitation of those receiving inspiration on the subject means that even if those were truly characteristics of God, it would be beyond their ability to state. Omnipresence (which Tupper wishes to retain) is a different matter, as it merely requires that God be everywhere there is a somewhere to be.

That said, my quibbles about infinite attributes do not answer the problem of theodicy, which Tupper’s concept, and my own (of effectively universal incarnation, kenosis and self-investment), both do, at least to some extent. I set these against the alternative kenotic concept used by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who says:- “It was essential that Christ, in his Incarnation, should bring the fullness of heaven to earth . . . . Otherwise the contemplation of God would only have been possible in the forms of negative apophatic mysticism, which seeks to encounter God beyond all that is of the world, as the Wholly Other, who can be neither conceived, nor beheld, nor comprehended. Such a view, inevitably, does a great injustice to the world and our fellow creatures”. (Balthasar, “Prayer”, 1986). Balthasar (in common with quite a few other modern conservative theologians) solves the problem of theodicy by positing a self-withdrawal of God in order to allow room for creation to have free will, but this is at the expense of immanence, as clearly God’s ongoing immanence offers an immediate (and non-apophatic) route to contemplation of God, in accordance, indeed, with Psalm 19:1.

There can only be radical immanence, it seems to me, if the kenosis of God in creation is accompanied by near-complete self-investment, just as we see in the incarnation in Jesus a self-investment. For me, therefore, the uniqueness of the incarnation is not in the fact that in Jesus God is uniquely present in creation, but in the fact that this was recognised, and recognised both due to the unusual degree in which Jesus was conscious of God’s self-investment in him, to Jesus’ willingness to subordinate his will to that of God as a whole and to the particularity of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection to his disciples.

Jesus therefore exemplifies the human, being the “second Adam” as Paul sees him in 1. Cor. 15:45; the imitation of Christ is to seek to draw closer to his unique features, and as St. Athanasius put it “God became man in order that man might become God”. Christ is the template, the type and, indeed, “the way, the truth and the life”.

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Faith -v- humility

May 26th, 2015