The Weight of Beauty: Considering a Nonexplanatory Response to Suffering

Kuvahaun tulos haulle chagall white crucifixion
White Crufixion, Mark Chagall 1938

This is an essay I wrote for one of my university courses. The name of the course was “Evil, Suffering and Death”.

1.Introduction

1.1. Purpose and Aim

The purpose of this essay is to explore the possibility of an ethical and non-explanatory response to the reality of suffering within Christian context – context here understood as both theory and practice, theology and life. I shall ask later whether this broader understanding of context as the unity of theory and practice might necessitated by the very issue at hand itself, but first I’ll delineate the shape of this essay in general.

I would like to consider the question of suffering not as a sub-species of the atheism/theism -debate – and hence not merely in evidentialist terms – but rather as a more broader, perhaps even more fundamental, question; suffering is ubiquitous and common to all humans in its various forms, whether they be atheists or theists.[1] Hence, ‘theodicy’ is not a theist’s problem – it is a human problem. In a way, therefore, faith in the triune God – although it can be drawn into a crisis due to suffering – is something that is presumed here. Thus, the focus of this essay will be the possibility of a continued Christian existence amidst suffering, that is, the question of how one can live as a responsible Christian, holding onto the basic tenets of Christian faith (as they shall be outlined later), while acknowledging the reality of suffering – her own or other’s. Those who know the intensity of faith and suffering – the faith which draws us, calls us and cannot, despite all, be given up – will most likely know what would motivate an exploration like this.[2] However, I do acknowledge that for some this approach may seem strange, especially if one is accustomed to approaching the question of suffering primarily as an evidentialist problem.

I will also – to the extent that it is possible – engage the theodicy/antitheodicy debate, especially as it comes to the antitheodicists’ charge that all theodicies are fundamentally immoral and fail to properly acknowledge the reality of suffering. Considering these charges, I will delineate – in a very rudimentary sense – a possible theological, but also ethical and nonexplanatory response to the reality of suffering. I have purposively chosen the word ‘response’ rather than antitheodicy or theodicy.[3] I would also like to avoid the language of “problems and explanations” – a language perhaps native to the evidentialist discourse on the matter, which I wish circumvent here. Hence I prefer terms such as “reality”, “response” and “comfort”. Nevertheless, I wish to explore different aspects of the question of suffering as it poses a challenge to Christian theism[4] and I will attempt to carry out this exploration under the following, rudimental framework: that an ethical, theological, but nonexplanatory response to the problem of suffering should be able to (1) have reverence for the human experience, (2) offer comfort, (3) allow beauty and (4) awaken hope, and in this sense – as John Bishop has put it – ‘maintain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living in the face of all that may undermine human fulfilment’.[5] But first it is perhaps useful to try and specify the terms employed.

1.2. Definitions and Limitations

Strictly speaking, theodicy can be understood as “the attempt to understand, to explain, and to justify the co-existence of God and evil through reason and the formulation of theories”[6], i.e. as a theistic response to the challenge of the argument from evil. More broadly, theodicy can be understood as a form of evidentialist discourse that includes also the arguments against the existence of a perfectly good, omniscient and omnipotent God. Nevertheless, in its most basic form, theodicy can be seen as a problem that rises from the following premises:

  1. God exists, and is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
  2. Evil exists.[7]

From these two premises, then, emerges various theodicies that seek to either prove that premises one or two  – usually (1) – are untrue or that there is a way of reconciling the two without modifying either one. The argument can take a logical or an evidentialist form; in the former one would argue that the premises are logically inconsistent while in the latter one would argue that the existence of God is – as evidence is considered – improbable (or, vice versa, that the existence of God can follow logically from the premises or be probable). There is also a distinction to be made between theodicy as a mere defence and as a more full-blown solution. In the former – put forward, for example, by Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen – one simply argues that it is possible that God has good reasons (such as free will) to allow suffering. In a mere defence, thus, one does not claim to know exactly what those reasons might be and the goal of the argument is mainly to preserve theism as a live option, to make rational belief possible despite the suffering we encounter.[8]

Despite the fact that “suffering is the locus or context of evil; whenever there is evil, there is someone’s (or something’s) suffering of some kind”[9] the question of evil and the question of suffering are, although very closely intertwined, somewhat distinct questions.[10] In relation to theodicy one should, hence, also ask what kind of suffering we are discussing and how is this suffering related to evil – be that evil of moral or natural kind, as the common distinction stands. In its strongest form a theistic response to the problem of suffering should thus be able to explain how perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscient God can have morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering that seems gratuitous, wholly unnecessary. It is this kind of seemingly gratuitous suffering – rather than evil or any other kind of suffering, such as suffering resulting from one’s own immoral actions  – that is also the main focus of this essay.

Antitheodicy seems to be a term that is more difficult to define. If one thinks theodicy as an attempt – as John Milton put it – to “justify the ways of God to man”, then antitheodicy can be considered to be a “refusal and rejection of any such justification”. The heart of the antitheodicist project would then be to show how all theodicies are inadequate in their response to the reality of evil and suffering – that they fail to deliver what they promise, namely, a justification of suffering.[11] More fundamentally, however, antitheodicy can be seen as a rejection of the whole project of theodicy, the whole “theodicist discourse”, because – as, for example, Kenneth Surin has argued – theoretical theodicy is “irrelevant to the real problem, immoral, tacitly an endorsement of evil, and undermined by the reality of evil”.[12] Motivations for this kind of fundamental rejection vary and are, of course, interconnected.

In this essay I will leave aside the question whether antitheodicy is necessitated because of the inadequacy of the theodicist solutions, for there will not be room for such an extensive study within the limits of this essay, nor will it be necessary, for other a priori considerations related to the nature of the theodicist discourse might be enough to motivate an antitheodicist argument. Although, at least intuitively, it seems that an antitheodicist approach would be naturally connected to some kind of a priori metaphysical or epistemistemic considerations (for example, some kind of Kantian transcendental criticism and its cousins, such as wittgensteinian philosophy of religion of D.Z. Phillips) it might not be necessary to presume, say, some kind of anti-realism in relation to religious language or to completely reject evidentialism.[13] Thus these epistemic considerations won’t be the main focus of this essay.

So then, “the actual antitheodicist arguments will unfold starting from the idea that theodicies are morally inadequate, or even immoral, responses to the evil and suffering.”[14] According to antitheodicists theodicies can be immoral for various, intertwined reasons, such as that they fail in acknowledgment or recognition by, for example, calling into the question the sincerity of the suffering person[15] or the very idea of God having morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil might be seen as immoral when the reality of evil is properly apprehended[16]. One could also suggest that at least some – though many would argue that the problem is essential to the whole project – theodicies can be seen as immoral because they are instrumental in their nature: a person’s suffering, or – more strongly put – the suffering person herself, becomes a means to and end that is supposed to justify the suffering, this might so even if one would appeal to some “patient-centered good” as the good that justifies suffering.[17] On the other hand, some have claimed that theodicies endanger the moral development of those involved in the theodicist project and thus keep us from becoming the kind of moral agents we would have to be in a world such as ours, that, in fact, theodicies are a tacit ‘endorsement of a world with evil’.[19] There are also moral criticisms that have do with more specific aspects of certain kinds of theodicies, such as the criticism that appealing to some retribution in the afterlife – for example, in a form of beatific vision – would, in fact, undo the “evilness” of evil, and thus theodicies cannot really respond to evil in an ethical manner, but rather end up diminishing evil. Nor all convinced that such a retribution could be truly redemptive even if it did occur.[20]

Many, often analytic, philosophers and theologians who wish to defend theodicies against such charges, have appealed to the distinction between theory and practice: they do not claim that their theodicies are meant to comfort the suffering – theodicy is a purely intellectual exercise which aims to defend theism.[21] Some theodicist have also emphasised that “to explain suffering is not to explain it away”, for “no matter how successful a theodicy is, it cannot possibly alter the fact of suffering”.[22] However, one could plausibly argue that at least in this particular issue such an approach is uncalled for; that the very issue at hand – suffering – is of such kind that it cannot be discussed as an intellectual challenge in abstracto – to discuss it as such would not be to address the issue itself, but rather to engage in a kind of “pseudo-discourse”. Hence one could also argue that a theological response to the reality of suffering should be inherently holistic, taking into account both theory and practice, theology and life.

In this essay, I cannot discuss all of the above mentioned charges against theodicies in a very detailed manner. I will, instead, focus on two them and consider a possible theological response to suffering in light of them: (1) that theodicies lack proper reverence for the human experience and (2) that the theodicy-project is detrimental to our moral development, making us unable to respond to other people’s suffering in an ethical manner. I will consider these charges within the boundaries and possibilities of Christian theism while suggesting that our response to suffering, for all that it’s worth, be it an antitheodicy or some kind of “ethically modified” theodicy, should be able to do at least the following: (1) have reverence for the human experience, (2) offer comfort, (3) allow beauty and (4) awaken hope. I will especially focus on theology of the cross and theological aesthetics as resources from which a possible theological response could emerge.

However, before these considerations I would like to outline some of these boundaries and possibilities set by Christian theism. Boundaries set by, say, confessions of faith set the limits within which one’s response to suffering should operate in order to retain to its integrity, that is, in order to still be a Christian response to the reality of suffering. In some ways, then, the issue at hand here parallels that between natural theology and ‘revelation theology’: there is, perhaps, a tension between public credibility and integrity.[23] Nevertheless, for the purposes of this essay the relevant, basic boundaries could be stated – roughly – as follows: Christian response to suffering cannot dispense with the fact that (1) the world has an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent Creator,[24] (2) that this Creator God has revealed Himself definatevely in the Jesus of Nazareth (3) whose death and resurrection are fundamental to our understanding of God’s plan to deal with evil and suffering, and that, indeed, (4) God is going to eradicate evil and suffering – they are not permanent realities, not as, if you wish, “ontologically established”’ as goodness, and that God will bring about (5) a final judgment where the world will be set right. One should also note that fundamental to Christian theism is a narrative understanding of reality, and of humanity, as created, fallen and redeemed. Taking seriously this meta-narrative means that a Christian response to suffering cannot ‘marginalize the beginning or the end’, the fall and the future judgment, for example.[25] In essence, then, Christian worldview is what we might call ‘salvific’ and as such the question of suffering, as presented within that worldview, faces particular challenges that other kinds of worldviews might not face.[26] Hopefully I will be able to – albeit in a limited way – show during the course of this essay how these basic tenets or “boundaries” do not merely acts as limits, but how they also form the basis of an ethical response to suffering – that the resources of Christian theism themselves make such a response possible.

2. On the Possibility of A Nonexplanatory, Ethical Response

2.1. Reverence for the Human Experience as a Precondition

There are evils that are so horrendous that they call into the question the whole positive meaning of one’s existence, rendering one’s entire existence incomprehensible.[27] At the deepest, then, there seems to be this ineffable, incomprehensible quality to suffering, a silence around which all talk, all theodicies and theologies, swirl – and this silence, this incomprehensibility, is first and foremost the experience of the one who suffers. And as “each heart knows its own bitterness” (Pr. 14.10), so also our response to suffering should have reverence for this experience, for this incomprehensibility and ineffability. A response to suffering should start from reverence and silence that can allow for a sincere response.

Kant offered his own transcendental criticism of theodicies in On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy, arguing – roughly speaking – that theodicies fail not simply because they claim to have theoretical knowledge about God as such, but also because they are unethical due to their insincerity. Thus in his essay Kant sets Job’s sincerity and his friends attempts at explanation into a juxtaposition from which only Job emerges as vindicated before God.[28] “Job speaks as he thinks, and with the courage with which he – – can well afford; his friends, on the contrary, speak as if they we being secretly listened to by the mighty one, over whose cause they are passing judgment, and as if gaining his favor through their judgment were closer to their heart than the truth. Their malice in pretending to assert things into which they yet must admit they have no insight, and in simulating a conviction which they in fact do not have, contrasts with Job’s frankness – -.”[29] One must note that Job’s friends spend first seven days and nights in silence, “because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2.13), but apparently their own agony and desire for explanation grows too heavy, too much to bear in silence, and so they begin to speak and the painful theodicy-debate ensues. Perhaps we could argue then, that any proper ethical response to suffering should start from this silence which is reverence for the human experience: not to rush into explanations or possible solutions, especially at the expense of ignoring the claims of the suffering person himself. In their rush to offer explanations – to justify the ways of God to man, as it were – Job’s friends fail to be sincere themselves, but they also fail to take seriously Job’s experience: they fail to relate to Job’s suffering in an appropriate ethical manner by not acknowledging Job’s sincerity.

There are, thus, many ways in which a theodicy might fail in recognition.[30] However, according to Levinas, the reason we must abandon theodicies is not merely that we should not offer explanations for suffering, but rather that we cannot offer such explanations. Suffering is itself inherently inexplicable, it is “an excess, an unwelcome superfluity, – – penetrating – -, the dimensions of meaning that seem to open themselves to it, or become grafted onto it”, “suffering is a pure undergoing” and as such, the least one can say about suffering is that it is “for nothing”.[31] Hence, for Levinas evil does not simply resist theodicy, but opposes it: suffering is not something that human beings can comprehend, nor can evil be truly comprehended, not even as some kind of dialectical negation of good.[32] Many other antitheodicists also appeal to the fundamental incomprehensibility of suffering, for example Kenneth Surin: “Evil and suffering in their innermost depths are fundamentally mysterious; they confound the human mind. And yet the goal of theodicy is, somehow, to render them comprehensible, explicable.”[33]

In some ways, perhaps, the incomprehensibility of suffering rises from Levina’s fundamental question – question which Levinas thought to be even more fundamental than the ontological question of ‘why there is something rather than nothing?’: “Why there is evil rather than good?”[34] If one presses upon Levina’s question – if one takes it to its very core – one is inclined to agree that suffering is incomprehensible. Here examples of “useful suffering” – such as that which the child experiences at the dentist – aren’t of much help: even then, if one presses the question, one cannot fully understand why we live in a kind of world where even some good things seem to require suffering. It’s the question that parallels that of Lila in Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name: “Why things go the way they do?” Why this kind of world, and not any other kind? Why suffering rather than not suffering?

Perhaps there is, then, behind this profound question, a denial of one of the most fundamental axioms of most theodicies: the necessity of suffering, i.e. that there is some good that is essential to us and can be achieved only through suffering and that good will outweigh the suffering experienced,[35] and hence God has sufficient moral reasons to allow such suffering.[36] Many have argued that horrendous evils, such as the Holocaust, call into question this axiom, but even more fundamentally, that asking the whole question is itself immoral. However, even some theodicists, such as Eleonore Stump, agree that “for some evils, the grief and the pain are so great that – – those evils are not fit subjects for academic exploration of the problem of evil”. For Stump the Holocaust is that type of evil: to the Holocaust the only appropriate response – besides making sure that nothing like that will ever happen again and so on – is “stricken awe in the face of it”, that is, silence.[37]

Thus at this point, it might be useful to attempt to draw some distinctions between different kinds of antitheodicist stances. First, one could argue that (1) it is immoral to form theodicies that attempt to justify suffering, i.e. that would attempt to make visible even the possible reasons why God would allow suffering, rather than fall silent on those reasons for ethical or epistemic reasons (while still leaving open the possibility that (a) such reasons might exist, or even asserting that (b) such reasons – all things considered – must exist).[38]  Slightly distinct from this would be the stronger argument that (2) we should deny that any such possible reasons could exist (instead of merely denying our knowledge of such reasons – the epistemic argument – or refusing to engage in a discussion of such reasons – the ethical argument) since entertaining even the possibility of such reasons existing is immoral.

Nevertheless, we might conclude that theodicies fail in recognition at least unless they manage to make room for reverence and silence in the face of suffering, because suffering, by definition, is something that cannot be explained,[39] at least not from an outsider’s perspective. So then, reverence for the human experience of suffering in all of its terrible, life-shattering awfulness – reverence that does not explain the suffering away, that refuses any explanation that would belittle the suffering – is perhaps the first prerequisite for an ethical response to suffering. However, a theological response cannot, in my view, remain in the “unavenged and unassuaged indignation”; refusal to ‘forgive’ must not be considered as the only option available for those who wish to have “love for the mankind”.[40] Since Christianity makes claims on the salvific nature of reality and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, antitheodicy in Ivan Karamazov’s ‘moral atheist’ sense seems unsatisfactory.[41] And although we should take seriously and learn from ‘Jamesian-like sick souls’ who refuse to ‘throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil’,[42] we should also ask for the possibility of a kind of ‘deep, serious joy’ (1Ts. 5.16, 2Cr. 7.4) amidst suffering; we should be “perplexed, but not in despair” (2Cr. 4.8).  A theological and ethical response should thus ask for the possibility of meaning, beauty and hope – the possibility of comfort – despite the often incomprehensible nature of suffering while keeping in mind the constant danger that our attempts to offer comfort become explanations that explain the suffering away.

2.2. Offering Comfort: Reconsidering and Relativizing Explanations

It seems that human beings have a natural tendency to explain things teleologically.[43] When it comes to suffering, these explanation can take various forms. In this essay I will  focus on those that presume the axiom I called ‘the necessity of suffering’. These explanations often take, approximately, the following form: “God caused/allowed one to suffer ‘x’ in order that ‘y’.” What is essential here is that the relation between ‘x’ and ‘y’ is understood as a logical necessity where ‘y’ is some kind of essential good that will outweigh the suffering ‘x’ and cannot be gained without it. An explanation would then make explicable the (possible or actual) relation between ‘x’ and ‘y’ and thus also justify the suffering. Depending on one’s epistemic position one could claim this justification either as an actual (a strong theodicy) or as a possible (a mere defence). Both of these solutions would then assert that (1) God does have sufficient moral reasons to allow suffering and that (2) we can have some kind of epistemic access to these reasons. If, as many antitheodicists have argued, the very act of explaining suffering in these terms explains it away, then – in order to fulfill the precondition of reverence and recognition – an ethical response to suffering should deny at least (2) and thus refuse to offer an explanation of suffering.[44]

However, it seems also true that many people find comfort in their suffering through some kind of explanation. Is it possible to relativize these explanations by understanding them in terms of comfort and thus modify (2) in order to fulfill ‘the precondition of reverence’? Also, if ‘the foundational problem of evil’ is understood as that of “dealing with, coping with, or coming to terms with evil”,[45] then one could plausibly argue that a proper response to suffering should also be able to help us ‘deal with’ or ‘cope with’ suffering – and comfort might be necessary for this.

So then, let’s presume that, in reality, the relationship between ‘x’ and ‘y’ – suffering and its consequences – is contingent[46]: suffering ‘x’ doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘y’ nor does gaining ‘y’ necessarily require suffering ‘x’.[47] This would not be a denial of the possibility that ‘x’ might lead to ‘y’, but it would deny that there can be an absolute, necessary explanation for ‘x’ that would justify it. Hence there could be comfort, not as a justification, but as a recognition of suffering that would also allow for relativized explanations. In fact, it seems that recognition of suffering in its fullest sense should also include a recognition of the explanations that the suffering person gives to her suffering.

How, then, could an ethical, theological response to suffering offer comfort? When it comes to relativizing explanations we must ask about the relation between our own and other’s suffering: explanations – or comforts, as I would like to call them – should be “patient-centered”, i.e. they should be a comfort, first and foremost, to the suffering person herself.  Also, as I noted earlier, Christian response to suffering should take into account the central belief that “the Creator God has revealed Himself definatevely in the Jesus of Nazareth whose death and resurrection are fundamental to our understanding of God’s plan to deal with evil and suffering”. It is in the theology of the cross that Christian faith has often found its richest comforts.[48]

Through the cross – Christ’s death and resurrection, our mortificatio and vivificatio – the incomprehensibility of suffering becomes an inter-personal mystery, for to it is added the reality of mutual participation: that ‘in Christ God participates in my suffering and I in His victorious suffering’. For the cross is followed by the resurrection: via participatio Christi the suffering person is caught up in the divine drama of redemption. This comfort is not something that is brought forcefully from outside, and as it is with mysteries the question of causality, of a definitive explanation, becomes almost obsolete.[49] At the same time the cross reveals the compassion and care of the mysterious God: through this inter-personal mystery, an identification with the Crucified One, is made available ‘a second-person address’ – an encounter – which can yield ‘non-propositional, personal knowledge’, and which as such is ‘not the sort of thing to be true or false’;[50] not an explanation, but comfort.

From a theological perspective the cross of Christ is the ultimate reality of “suffering for the useless suffering of the other – – which opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human”.[51] The cross is thus not a sanctification of suffering as such that would deny “suffering its quality of contingency within divine providence”[52] – would require that ‘x’ necessarily precedes ‘y’, as I put it earlier –  but rather it makes it possible for us to become ethical agents capable of responding to other people’s suffering, able to ‘comfort others with the comfort we ourselves receive’ (cf. 1Cr. 1.3-7). Suffering or the cross cannot be converted into a principle: suffering is a mystery, ‘not a method’.[53] The cross is, hence, not an explanation of suffering, but quite the opposite: the cross of Christ is a comfort that reveals suffering as incomprehensible but not indissoluble, that is, as a mystery, while at the same time beckoning us to become people capable of responding to suffering in an ethical manner, opening up a horizon of hope.

2.3. Allowing Beauty and Awakening Hope: the Desire for Goodness and Justice Satisfied

Presuming as contingent the relation between suffering and its consequences and hence refusing explanations draws us into the mystery of suffering (which, when theology of the cross in considered, might be more appropriate term than incomprehensibility). Christian theology, however, cannot leave it to that, for – as I put it earlier – we cannot dispense with hope, with the the fact that “God is going to eradicate evil and suffering and that God will bring about a final judgment where the world will be set right”. In addition, the comforts that are available to the suffering should not merely assert that God is present in one’s sufferings (theology of the cross), but also, in some sense, be able to heal the deep wound inflicted by the double-edged sword of suffering – the questioning of God’s goodness and justice.

In addition, if we agree that – pace O’Connor – the very reality of suffering requires a rejection of the ‘theory/practice -distinction’ in the responses we give to suffering, then, at least to some extent, “the measures of success and failure [of our responses] are subjective, existential, and pragmatic – – we succeed – – to the degree we cope”.[54] But cope in what sense? We should cope in a way that allows us to become capable ethical agents, “maintain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living”, as Bishop put it. It is my intuition that Christian hope – including hope of the beatific vision in God’s new Creation – is essential here, but first I’d like to consider whether the question of goodness and justice could be reformulated in aesthetic terms.

For in many ways the question of God’s justice and goodness comes down to this: even if God would have some ‘morally sufficient reason’ to allow horrendous suffering, should we want such a god? Would such a god be beautiful? For “beauty is a splendour of the true and the good” and “in it man senses the attractive power of all that is good and true”.[55] In other words, is there “something in God, the God of all the perfections, which justifies us in having joy, desire and pleasure towards Him, which indeed obliges, summons and attracts us to do this”?[56] Is God, despite all the horrendous suffering in this world, still the origin of all things good, true and beautiful, someone we should want as the summum bonum of human existence? Is He lovable and desirable? Or should we, rather, choose Ivan Karamazov’s “protest atheism” and “return our tickets”?[57]

God’s simplicity,[58] His Oneness, is that which ultimately calls for a unity of justice and goodness in beauty, and in mystery. It is ‘a permanent mystery’, that is, not “an epistemic matter alone – – [for] God is not mystery because we cannot know enough or comprehend what we know”. This is to say, “Divine mystery is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, rather our success”, since “radical oneness, radial uniqueness, demands thought beyond any class, any universal, any likeness”. Thus to know this God, “is to be taken up in into an unparalleled ineffability and ignorance”, it is hence knowledge that can never be “fully proper or exhaustively third-personal knowledge of the Lord’s Oneness”.[59] That is, in relation to the question of suffering, the ‘answer’ we are looking for might never yield to the kind of third-personal, distanced arguments that the evidentialist are looking for. It might be that these arguments remain unpersuasive precisely because, due to their very nature, they cannot convince one of God’s healing beauty, i.e. they do not make Him attractive.

So then, the question of God’s justice and goodness can be reformulated as a question of God’s beauty: is God beautiful?[60]  One must note that to answer ‘yes’ to this question is not necessarily to claim that some future, transcendental good of a beatific vision would eventually ‘engulf’ or ‘defeat’ the horrendous evils we encounter – it would not necessarily be an explanation, a kind of aesthetic theodicy such as that of Marilyn McCord Adam’s.[61] Rather, beauty is something that transcends “the realms of profit and utility”,[62] it transcends explanation and calculation and thus makes room for an ultimate mystery: God’s beauty revealed at the cross, in the suffering servant, the man of suffering (Cf. Ish. 53.2-5). The inter-personal mystery of encounter and identification with the Crucified One is hence also an aesthetic experience: theology of the cross cuts through theological aesthetics and offers a vision of God as a mysterious, even dark beauty – beauty which can, in a mysterious way, comfort the suffering person and satisfy the desire for justice and goodness in the present by drawing us towards the future. For, within the eschatological narrative of Christian faith, beauty allows for a satisfaction in hope – if one can conceive God’s beauty as the attractive, mysterious, complex harmony of His goodness and justice as displayed in the face of Christ, the man of suffering (cf. Heb. 1.3).  This might be a kind of modified, cruciform version of classical arguments like those of James Kellenberg or Paul Draper – who both seem to argue, essentially, that the ‘epistemic weight’ of the creation’s beauty would allow us to trust in God’s goodness despite suffering and evil. The problem with these arguments is that they are subject to critiques like that of C.S. Lewis: on the basis of creation one might as well conclude that God is “quite merciless and no friend of man”.[63] However, if we can conceive beauty as mysteriously revealed in Jesus Christ at the cross, and as an eschatologically open possibility proclaimed in His resurrection, then we might be able to begin to imagine a true unity of goodness and justice, begin to trust. Trust, that is, that the God of the cross is also the God of creation.

The word ‘conceive’ might be vital here, for – to return to the question of God’s ‘ineffable, permanent mystery’ – can we conceive such a Beauty? Can we be comforted by such a Beauty? To answer this question we would have to make an extensive foray into epistemology of theology for which there is no room here. Instead, I’ll be satisfied to suggest this: a sanctified imagination – pneumatically orientated, refined through spiritual practice and encounter with the Crucified One[64] – can already in hope imagine and sense that which is possible: a harmony of goodness and justice, perfect, complete and effortless, ultimately ineffable. Such a sanctified imagination may be essential for those wish to ‘retain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living’: hope can form us into the kind of ethical agents we must be in a world such as ours.

An experience of God’s beauty can thus comfort the troubled soul that asks for justice and goodness in this life, and in the life to come – for in beauty one tastes the future glory of God’s new Creation, the final eradication of evil and suffering. This beauty that will eventually satisfy in the ultimate, eschatological vision doesn’t act as an explanation, but as comfort, since as a mystery it won’t relate to suffering and evil in neat categories, in fact, it does not necessarily relate at all – necessitating suffering in some way, making suffering its necessary precondition. This beauty then – and its infinite value – is something that would not justify horrendous suffering: it would bear no such relation to it, it would not yield to theodicy.[65] Rather, it might simply be something that weighs more; something heavier (although it is lighter), something more fundamental, more important. Parentheses of love, closing us in, comforting without an explanation, a satisfying mystery, an answer without answers.


Footnotes

1 Cf. for example, Trakakis (2018): ‘The Problem of Evil for Atheists’.

2 Here I have in mind, for literary examples, accounts like those of C.S. Lewis’ in A Grief Observed, the Book of Job, Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest or Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which all explore the unyielding tension between faith and suffering.

3 This choice is partly motivated by the fact that what exactly constitutes a theodicy (or an antitheodicy, for that matter) seems to be a matter of debate. Those advocating for an antitheodicist stance (such as Trakakis 2008, Pihlström and Kivistö 2016) seem to understand ‘theodicy’ more broadly than many theodicists (such as O’Connor 1988, Stump 2010), including within it also “mere defences”, or, in fact, the whole ‘theodicist discourse’.

4 Challenge here understood mostly as an existential, personal challenge to one’s continued Christian existence, rather than a public, intellectual challenge to the credibility of Christian faith, although these two aspects can be seen as interconnected.

5 Bishop 2018: 42.

6 O’Connor 1988: 62.

7 McCord Adams (1989).

8 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 2ff.

9 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 4-5.

10 Stump 2010: 4.

11 Trakakis 2018: 97.

12 As characterized by O’Connor (1988: 62).

13 Cf. for example Pihlström and Kivistö (2016: 5-6) and Trakakis (2018: 97-98).

14 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 5.

15 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 5.

16 Trakakis 2008: 6, 13ff.

17 Trakakis 2008: 16.

18 Cf. Levinas 1998: 91ff.

19 O’Connor 1988: 63.

20 Trakakis 2008: 22.

21 Cf. for example, O’Connor (1988) or Langtry (2008: 4-6).

22 Stump 2010: 16.

23 Cf. Bruce Marshall’s Trinity and Truth (2000, Cambridge University Press).

24 However, these attributes – taken individually or together – may of course be understood in various ways and the conversation on the topic is immense and ever-continuing. Here I simply wish to draw some very general boundaries.

25 Cf. for example Wright (2007). N.T. Wright has offered an understanding of Christian hope as it is shaped by the Biblical narrative. In this narrative can be found resources for hope that can also guide the Christian church into hopeful living in the midst of suffering. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of space, in this essay I’ll only be able to briefly address some aspects of this narrative (the cross, beatific vision).

26 Bishop 2018: 44ff.

27 McCord Adams 1989: 299f. Cf. also Job 3.1-26.

28 Kant 8:255ff; 8:266.

29 Kant 8:266.

30 Pihlström and Kivistö 2006: 5-6.

31 Levinas 1998: 91-93.

32 Bernstein 2006: 260.

33 As quotes by Trakakis (2008: 20).

34 Bernstein 2006: 261.

35 Be this ‘outweighting good’ either transcendental or non-transcendental, of which the former would constitute, in some theist’s opinion, a stronger argument (cf. McCord Adams 1989).

36 Cf. Stump 2010: 13.

37 Stump 2010: 16.

38 Also, this approach might not require a rejection of the axiom I called ‘the necessity of suffering’.

39 Or – if one wishes to retain to some kind of “ethically modified theodicy” – should not be explained unless this precondition of sincerity and reverence is fulfilled. I’ll leave open the question whether such an explanation is possible.

40 Trakakis 2008: 23.

41 As characterized by Trakakis (2008: 23).

42 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 260.

43 de Cruz 2014: 148. (The Enduring Appeal of Natural Theological Arguments, Philosophy Compass 9/2 (2014)).

44 For now I’ll leave open the question whether an ethical response would also require a rejection of (1), that is, the question of how these epistemic and ethical aspects relate to each other.

45 Bishop 2018: 42.

46 This would, of course, challenge most if not all soul-making theodicies (cf. Speak 2014), not to mention appreciation theodicies or counterpart theodicies (cf. McBrayer 2014), all of which – in some essential sense – depend on the axiom of ‘the necessity of suffering’. Without wanting to make too comprehensive claims, it does seem that most theodicies depend, in some way, on this axiom and hence presuming, instead, as axiomatic ‘the non-necessity of suffering’, would lead us into a nonexplanatory direction and leave room for responses other than explanation.

47 Intuitively, it would seem that this contingency or ‘non-necessity’ would result from the fundamental incomprehensibility of suffering (cf. above): “Why there is evil rather than good? Why suffering rather than no suffering?” This is the question, the mystery of suffering, that cannot be answered in any absolute sense.

48 For classical examples Luther often comes to mind first, but ‘theology of the cross’ has its deeps roots in the Biblical tradition itself (cf. for example 2Cr. 2.14-6.12) and it has provided rich resources for creative, Christian rearticulations of hope during the modern period, too, for example in various forms of liberation theology (for example in Jürgen Moltmann’s or Gustavo Gutierréz’s theology).

49 Cf. McCord Adams 1989: 307-309.

50 Cf. Stump 2010: 192f.

51 Levinas 1998: 94.

52 Bonhoeffer 2013: 808.

53 Ibid.

54 O’Connor 1988: 63.

55 Bernard Häring in Theological Aesthetics: a Reader (TA 2014: 338). Italics mine.

56 Cf. Karl Barth (TA 2014: 318). Italics mine.

57 Trakakis 2008: 23.

58 Here, besides theological aesthetics, I have in mind the classical doctrines of transcendentals and Deus simplicitas: God’s justice and beauty come together in His utter Oneness, they are His beauty. I don’t have the space here to go into detail, but I think it should be noted that, from a Christian, theological perspective, an answer to the question of suffering should also address metaphysical questions, i.e. God’s being and relation to creatures. (See also Navone TA 2014: 355.) One could also argue that a kind of Kantian, a priori separation of aesthetics from ethics might not be necessary (Tallon 2011: 17), that, indeed – when the classical doctrine of transcendentals is considered – it might be uncalled for.

59 Sonderegger 2014: 23-27.

60 Tallon 2011: 41.

61 See McCord Adams (1989).

62 Häring (TA 2014: 341).

63 Tallon 2011: 39-40.

64 Cf. Sherry 1992: 86-91.

65 In this way one might also, in some sense, be able to avoid the criticism that appealing to future retribution or beatific vision would somehow “undo” the ‘evilness of evil’ by making an experience of some evils a necessary condition of a refined, beatific vision. It is, perhaps, possible to conceive beatific vision without such appeals to necessity of suffering, appealing instead to a “non-relating”, absolute mystery.


Bibliography

Bernstein, Richard J. (2006). Article Evil and the tempation of theodicy in the Cambridge Companion to Levinas (ed. Robert Bernasconi, Simon Critchley). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bishop, John. (2018). Article On Identifying the Problem of Evil and The Possibility of Its Theist Solution in The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (ed. N.N. Trakakis). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2013). The Bonhoeffer Reader. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.

De Cruz, Helen (2014). Article The Enduring Appeal of Natural Theological Arguments. In Philosophy Compass 9/2: 145-153.

Kant, Immanuel. Essay On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy in Religion and Rational Theology. (Translated and edited by Allen W. Wood, George Di Giovanni). Cambridge University Press.

Langtry, Bruce (2008). God, the Best and Evil. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Levinas, Emmanuel (1998). On Thinking-of-the-Other – entre nous. Columbia University Press, New York.

McBrayer, Justin P. (2014). Article Counterpart and Appreciation Theodicies in the Blackwell Companion to Problem of Evil. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England.

McCord Adams, Marilyn (1989). Article Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Volumes Vol. 63, pp. 297-323).

O’Connor, David (1988). Article In Defense of Theoretical Theodicy in Modern Theology 5:1.

Pihlström, Sami; Kivistö Sari (2016). Kantian Antitheodicy: Philosophical and Literary Varieties. Pagrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland.

Sherry, Patrick (1992). Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction To Theological Aesthetics. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Sonderegger, Katherine (2014). Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.

Speak, Daniel (2014). Article Free-will and Soul-Making Theodicies in  the Blackwell Companion to Problem of Evil. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England.

Stump, Eleonore (2010). Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Tallon, Philip (2011). The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (2014). Ed. Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, UK.

Trakakis, N. N. (2018). Article The Problem of Evil for Atheists in The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (ed. N.N. Trakakis). Oxford University Press, Oxford.

(2008) The End of Philosophy of Religion. Continuum, Norfolk, UK.Wright, N.T. (2007). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, UK.

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Language in Love

The final part of the series* comes as a very brief one:

in love abstractions live.

All language must travel through love, all language must be love, or nothing.

This is to say, as a theologian, avoid this fate: you have a comfortable armchair. You have ideas. You pronounce your ideas, you refine them, you make them very sophisticated, perhaps many people listen to you, they read your books, your articles. You have such fine ideas, they say. You believe it. Then you die. Your ideas die, too.

What have you spend your life saying? Have you said anything that is true? In love, in love only, you have.

I could make a fine argument of this, I can sense it: the nature and object of love, Deus simplicitas, speech-acts etc, etc. You imagine it, if you wish. You make your own, if you wish.

Sometimes I think to myself: maybe I’ll become a poet instead (that would probably be an equally rational choice in terms of financial stability). It is not that I have come to resist theological truths. Rather, it’s the theological language that exhausts me. I despair weekly.

Love is loyal. David Bentley Hart: “I do not expect perfect consistency from Paul, but only fervent fidelity to the mysteries with which he is grappling.”

Fervent fidelity to the mysteries with which we are grappling; love. Love of God drives away despair, it opens up an avenue of grace and light. You must love Him, then you can talk about Him. You must speak in love: adoration, fidelity, attraction, praise. Love is loyal to the integrity of its object, love is loyal in retaining its object’s independence, its essential realism.

Love lasts even when language does not. Love stronger than death.

 

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1Cr. 13.1-2, 8-end.

 


Series on theological language as it is justified in faith, hope and love:

Faithful Discourse

Hope of Meaning

A Higher Realism

Kuvahaun tulos haulle ewing paddock
Rupert, Lydienne, Rebeca (Ewing Paddock)

 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Mt. 5.8

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.

T.S. Elliot (Preludes)

1

Illumination: like turning on the light, gradually. A light not itself seen, or seen only in the things that are seen in it, things illuminated: a barely noticeable change at first, but then, quite suddenly perhaps, we are in the full light of day. Or so we think: the light increases, increases still, even after we think we see it all. For we don’t know the dark to be dark before the light removes it: those who have lived their whole lives in the night easily mistake the first glimmer of light to be the Day.

The true light that gives light to everything has come in to the world (Jh. 1.9) – and the world is unwilling to receive it, its own light (Jh. 1.10-11), for the world loves the darkness (Jh. 3.19-20). But He calls us (Rm. 13.12): “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deed of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the light illuminates us: we become light in the Lord (Eph. 5.8), the children of the light and the children of the day (1Ts. 5.5) – we put aside the fruitless deeds of the darkness, and put on Christ Jesus (Rm. 13.14). And the fruit of that Light is goodness, righteousness and truth (Eph. 5.9); faith, hope and love (1Ts. 5.8).

And so the call resounds: Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! (Eph. 5.14).

And so, we who are now qualified to share in the inheritance of His holy people in the kingdom of light (Col. 1.12) become the ambassadors – the missionaries – of this Kingdom (Mt. 5.1-16). For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (Jh. 1.5).

2

“The cynical tend to see everything through the projection of their own inability to integrate around goodness. The cynical person sees romantic love only as lust, political leadership only as power-seeking, disagreement as only personal enmity, compassion and benevolence only as manipulation. In short the cynical person sees others through the lens of his own character because his character is divided against itself, it tends to mix an evil, such as manipulation, with any good, such as compassion, that is sees. And so the cynical person, who sees others through his understanding of himself, has a seriously impaired vision.” [Stump 2010: 203]

Culture that is ‘divided against itself’ is a culture that cannot believe in the goodness it nevertheless desires. And this dividedness is precisely what differentiates cynicism from unbelief: there is still left that distant, dream-like memory of the Good That Should Be, like a sweet taste turn sour, a feeble sense of this-should-not-be, a hidden, buried heartbreak: the ache, the longing suppressed, felt so deeply that it is not felt at all. And yet we do not want to come in to the Light.

It is this culture ‘divided against itself’ that praises cynicism as the highest form of realism, the savvy option for those who wish not be fooled, who rather make sure to slap first than turn the other cheek (cf. Mt. 5.38-42). The whole Sermon on the Mount is really an antidote to cynicism of this kind, ethics of hope and trust, available only for those who truly believe the Resurrection, who dwell in its light. For those who believe the Resurrection hope is the higher form of realism. The Resurrection awakens our hope and hope reveals the ache, the heartbreak, the longing suppressed. It confesses that which the cynic never dares to, even though he might sense it to be true (hence the bitterness); it confesses that This Should Not Be. Hope breaks our heart and molds it anew; it ‘rips open the inconsolable secret in each one of us’.

“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.” [C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory] Katherine Sonderegger [2014: 455f.] taps into the same idea: “It is an act of faith to affirm that the transcendentals exist – -. Ours is an intellectual culture that long ago learned to take less, to exercise intellectual modesty and restraint, to accept deflationary accounts of all grand ideas, to suspect with a moral earnestness all large-scale theories, to lower ourselves, in every field, to something reduced, even inert – -. – – But those called and healed and freed by the gospel may allow themselves to take more: to be haunted by this song of Zion, to ascend to its heights and hear the aching melody of the high and lifted up, to be dazzled by the exceeding weight of glory that is the human destiny and stature. – – More is the name of Christian dignity. – – This is the larger room we are invited to habit; it is the greater confidence and hope that we dare to profess – -.”

‘The larger room we are invited to inhabit’: this is the hope, like a lamp shining in a dark place, lighting our way until the bright  morning star rises in our hearts (2Pt. 1.19, cf. Rev. 22.16). As the light shines in our hearts, driving away the darkness of despair, ignorance and sin, we begin to truly see the reality, we shake off cynicism and bitterness and embrace hope and heartbreak. This is the higher realism of hope.

3

Realism – in the sense our modern culture – comes close to cynicism. We pride ourselves in our narrow view of reality we call ‘scientific world-view’: we are impoverished by “the artificial limits we put on our sense of things”, we have come to be persuaded of a definition of the real that is so “arbitrarily exclusive”, leaving much of what we have intuited and even what we know “in the limbo of the unarticulated and the unacknowledged”. Cynicism is the “realism” that is ‘arbitrarily exclusive’, unable to acknowledge goodness it can not find it in itself. But as the light shines in us – revealing the world as it truly is – we are called to abandon “realism that distracts us from reality”. [Robinson 2014: 274]

Grace comes close to hope. For hope allows us to see that which could be; it teaches us to look at the world gracefully, generously and charitably (these are the virtues of the hopeful) and to let go of our desire to ‘pry into the sins of others’ (Bonhoeffer). And this not simply in relation to our immediate encounters with other human beings, but in relation to the whole reality; grace, too, is “a higher realism, an ethics of truth” (Robinson, again) that won’t allow us to harbor contempt for the masses, to characterize the human situation in cynical terms.

“There is a sort of evil satisfaction in knowing that every person has failings and weak spots. – – It is as if you wouldn’t know a fine house until you have found cobwebs in the remotest cellar – -. The same trend is found in novels of the last fifty years, which only think they have portrayed their characters honestly if they depict them in the marriage bed, and in movies, which have to have scenes of people undressing. To be clothed, veiled, pure and chaste is considered a lie, a disguise, impure from the outset, which only gives proof of one’s own impurity. This mistrust and suspicion as the basic attitude toward others people is the rebellion of the inferior. From a theological point of view the error is twofold: thinking one can only address people as sinners after having spied out their weaknesses and meanness; second, thinking that the essential nature of a person consists of his innermost, intimate depths and background.” [Bonhoeffer 2013: 799]

“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” – this is a profound grace (Gen. 3.20). Grace is alleviation, says Robinson, and that is true. She is also right in saying that “respect is a profound alleviation”, a profound grace. Grace respects the way people would like to be seen, even against our ‘better knowledge’. And it is not ‘a higher realism’ despite this, but because of this. We must become realists, that is, we must learn to look at the world as it is permeated with grace. Cynicism or vulgarity won’t do. To refuse to interpret reality graciously is to miss it.

I mean this: to look at the world without grace is to look at it without truth, because grace and truth belong together. There is no contradiction. To suggest a contradiction is to reveal how unaccustomed we are to mystery, how our view of reality is impoverished by “the artificial limits we put on our sense of things”: we struggle to comprehend God who is utterly and completely just and good, full of grace and truth. We are divided against ourselves, and so Deus simplicitas eludes us.

God, however, is utterly perfect and complete: infinite peace and rest, effortless harmony  – certain, faithful, constant ‘mutable immutability’. He is not ‘first this’ and ‘then that’, ‘good, but also just’. As this Very One He is not burdened by tensions or paradoxes, ‘buts’ or ‘despites’, He is not ‘good, but then also…’ There is, thus, no ‘grace despite the truth’, grace that would ignore truth – no divine pardon in such cheap sense is available here.  He is utterly One.

Hence there is no need to force grace and truth into unity, since there is no contradiction to overcome in the first place. Rather, we need to learn to understand grace that is truth and truth that is grace: we must learn to live with mysteries rather than just problems. We must learn to dwell in that which is not to be understood merely by thinking, but in prayer; not merely with reason, but with emotion and intuition.

So we need to open our eyes to the peculiar strangeness of this existence: the terrible horror and the wonderful beauty of the human condition, the prosaic mystery of the usual life. And I mean, truly, the usual life: not some platonic idea, but an average, mundane life with all its pettiness; ordinary people with all the usual bitterness, disoriented desires and selfish motives; the average existence with its mediocre problems and usual – and as such terrible, life-shattering – pain; the day-to-day ebb and flow of suffering that – instead of making saints – often simply erodes. To all this grace is a gentle alleviation, lifting the burden of this existence; to look at this life and see the incomprehensible mystery of the weight of its glory is to look with grace. It is to look with hope.

Grace is truth: to allow respect and alleviation into the ordinary human condition is not to circle around the “hard facts”, to live in denial. It is not sacrificio intellectum in that sense. To allow such alleviation, such grace, is to embrace a higher realism that is possible only if we are illuminated by the Holy Spirit. To look, to contemplate the human life as it appears to us through prayer in the Spirit and in truth, to probe into it with graceful and hopeful spirit so that we are able to see the invisible God in the things visible by dwelling in the – sometimes dark – light of faith. This is to be illuminated, to be open towards the profound, fundamental incomprehensibility of life – its mystery, the silent center.

And since this is a hopeful vision, it is irreducibly eschatological: the unity of grace and truth is essentially in spe and in fide. For now it is trust that opens up towards the future, waiting for its final vindication: visio Dei. The full light of Day. And so shame and fear that keep us away from the light (Eph. 5.12; Jh. 3.20) find their undoing in the hope of the grace of this light (Eph. 5.13; Jh. 3.21): He is full of grace and truth (Jh. 1.14).


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich 2013. The Bonhoeffer Reader. Fortress Press. (July 9 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge).

Robinson, Marilynne 2015. The Givenness of Things. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (The essay “Realism”.)

Sonderegger, Katherine 2014. Systematic Theology v. 1: the Doctrine of God. Fortress Press.

Stump, Eleanore 2014. Wandering in Darkness. Clarendon Press.

 

‘Light My Way, Lord’: A Moment of Prayer with a Theme of Light

Kuvahaun tulos haulle christ in art
Christ in the Realm of the Dead, Joakim Skovgaard, 1891.

 

Refrain

Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,

Your Light is Christ who shines on me.

 

Song of Colossians Three

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead

And Christ shall give you light.

You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead.

Set your mind on things that are above,

not on things that are on the earth.

And Christ shall give you light.

When Christ our life appears you will appear with Him in glory.

Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead,

And Christ shall give you light.

 

Refrain

Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,

Your Light is Christ who shines on me.

 

Reading

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
    rise from the dead,
    and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.

Ephesians 5.1-2, 8-17

 

Refrain

Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,

Your Light is Christ who shines on me.

 

Prayer

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ;
today I am glorified with him.
Yesterday I died with Christ;
today I am made alive in him.
Yesterday I was buried with Christ;
today I am raised up in him.

Gregory pf Nazianzus

 

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6.4

 

Refrain

Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,

Your Light is Christ who shines on me.

 


The refrain and the Song of Colossians Three can also be sung. Perhaps I will be able to upload the notes for that later on.

 

Trusting In and Taking Up: Brief Reflections on the Cross

Aiheeseen liittyvä kuva
The Narrow Way, David Hayward

 

I. We must learn to trust in the cross before we can take up the cross.

I.1. The cross must never become for us a mere imperative: something to do, to take, to follow. It must always first and foremost be for us the cross of Christ and only secondarily – via participatio Christi – our cross.

I.2. This is to say, participatio must not eclipse substitutio: He goes first and He goes alone. We are mere spectators: this is His work, His initiative, fully and completely. Only after are we to understand our calling.

I.3. In Christian existence the objective (substitutio) and the subjective (participatio) dwell together, enclose each other, are intertwined, but always: Christ first, Christ last. He is the end and the beginning of my salvation.

II. The cross is a symbol that is effective only because it is the cross of Christ. No general principle, no suffering in abstracto will do.

II.1. For suffering itself is contingent: only through our participation in Christ the cross can gain its meaning. It can become the Way for us.

II.2. To take the cross as some universal symbol of suffering and its transformative power, as a manifestation of some age-old universal wisdom, is to neglect it, to become blind to it: it is to do violence, it is to sanctify and justify suffering. This violent cross can be for us a symbol of peace only in and through Christ, only within the economy of salvation of the Triune God.

II.3. This is the offensive particularity of the cross which we must embrace to be blessed by it.

III. God forbid that we objectify the subjectivity of the cross: that we sanctify suffering and thus lose sight of its fundamental evil, its contingency in God’s plan, that we lose sight of our call to alleviate suffering.

III.1. The cross can not be imposed from outside: taking up is an inner choice. Hence, subjectivity.

III.2. The cross of Christ is not a theodicy, not an explanation. It is, rather, an anti-theodicy: the cross says that suffering is not a problem to be solved. That it is a mystery.

III.3. As a mystery, as the cross of Christ, the cross is our comfort, but not in a manner that would sanctify suffering, would render it a static reality, something to be prized in itself. Suffering is temporary and contingent, suffering is something to be done away with.

IV. This is to say: the cross can only be understood in light of the resurrection.

IV.1. In light of hope and new life, that is. In light of God’s victory over evil, suffering, pain and death. It is precisely the resurrection that invests the cross with its proper sense of contingency.

V. Nor is the cross just a piece in our soteriological puzzle, a solution to a problem. God doesn’t have problems.

V.1. This is to say, after Anselm (approximately speaking), the western theological tradition (especially in Reformed theology) has given too much weight to legal metaphors, understanding the cross merely as a solution to a problem (penal substitution), instead of seeing as a reality of God to be embraced, to be wondered at. (And this not only in terms of the cross, the problematic approach extents to incarnation in general.)

V.2. The cross, thus, is not only a manifestation of God’s righteousness (iustitia Dei), but of His love, too.

V.3. We must be weary of systematizing the cross, of rationalizing it in a way that makes it captive to narrow theological perspectives and explanations. At the center there is no theory or an ‘idea’, but the incomprehensible mystery and wonder of God’s reality. All speech comes after that wonder, after that reality.

V.4. Generally speaking, an overwhelming emphasis on penal substitution – the cross as a ‘solution’ – can overlook the subjective aspect of the cross as the reality of Christian existence that expands to all areas of theology and life.

VI. God forbid that we subjectify the objectivity of the cross: that the reality of reconciliation becomes dependent on our ability to receive it, to live it.

VI.2. We must empathetically disagree with Luther: God does not only pardon us to the extent we accuse ourselves (cf. Heidelberg Disputation, article 12). The cross is absolute grace: nothing before or after in our doing can ever count for merit.

VI.3. The Cross of Christ stands as the objective reality of our salvation, objective beyond our feelings, thoughts, doubts and prayers, even.

VII. His gentle calling is a miracle: we can love the cross.

 

Rukous epätoivoiselle

Aiheeseen liittyvä kuva
Pietro Lorenzetti (1340s)

Pohdin sitä miten voimme ottaa ristimme ja seurata vasta kun olemme ymmärtäneet, että ristimme on jo otettu, kannettu. Aloitamme aina valmiista ja voimme nojata siihen valmiiseen, siihen kuka Kristus on meille, elää vapaana häpeästä, syyllisyydestä ja kalvavasta riittämättömyyden tunteesta. Ja sen sijaan, että epätoivon iskiessä rukoilisimme aina Jumalan muuttavan meitä – vievän siitä, mitä on siihen mitä pitäisi olla – voimme rukoilla myös sitä, mikä on jo valmista ja totta. Sen seurauksena syntyi tämmöinen melko yksinkertainen rukous, jonka ajattelin jakaa iloksenne, ja ehkä rohkaisuksi jollekin, joka sellaista kaipaa:

Jeesus Kristus,
Sinä olet kuollut kuolemani
tullut tuomituksi sijastani
kantanut syyllisyyteni
parantanut haavoillasi haavani
ottanut omaksesi kärsimykseni.

Sinä olet Jumalan Pyhä, Karitsa
joka ottaa pois maailman synnin.

Jeesus Kristus,
Sinä olet voittanut kuoleman ylösnousemuksessasi
särkenyt synnin kahleet
tuhonnut pahan vallan
hiljentänyt syyttäjän äänen
tuonut orjat vapauteen,
Jumalan lasten vapauteen,
jotta eläisimme Sinussa ikuisesti.

Jeesus Kristus,
Sinä olet herättänyt todellisen toivon
Sinä olet meille kaikki se, mitä me emme ole.
Sinä olet meille elämä.

Sinussa me olemme,
Sinun ihmeesi me olemme.
Me, jotka voimme nyt rakastaa ristiä.

Perintö

Kiertelimme suvun maita, taloja joissa on synnytty ja kuoltu, kauan sitten menneitä sukupolvia, joiden nimet menevät sekaisin, sedät, tädit, serkut sekoittuvat toisiinsa. Talo, johon tultiin pakolaisina, ullakko, tupa ja yksi huone. Jäljellä on laatikollinen saarnakasetteja: isoisälläni, näin kerrotaan, oli tapana kulkea talosta taloon soittamassa asukkaille saarnoja. Antoi muiden puhua kun ei itse osannut.

20180817_111717_resized

Ihminen ei ole abstraktio – on hyvä tuntea juurensa. Liitymme sukupolvien ketjuun, tulemme jostakin. Ihminen ei ole abstraktio – on hyvä oppia unohtamaan. Paljon on paikkoja, joista muut puhuvat täynnä nostalgiaa ja muistoja, mutta jotka ovat minulle tyhjiä merkityksistä. On hyvä muistaa niin kauan kuin se on luonnollista, niin kauan kuin rakastamme. Mutta – jos Hän ei vielä saavu – joskus meidät kaikki unohdetaan, muistamisen ketju katkeaa. Sillä ihminen on tässä ja näitä ihmisiä varten. Ei muisto, ei abstraktio, ei nimi sukupuussa. Hetken hän välähtää, jatkaa vielä jonkin aikaa niiden mielissä, jotka muistavat ja sitten, hän maatuu historian maahan, tulee osaksi sitä.

Hautuumaalla, riveittäin sukulaisten hautoja, etäisiä yhteyksiä ihmisiin, joiden kanssa en ole jakanut samaa aikaa. Aukkoja niiden kohdalla, joiden kanssa olen. Kun muut menevät, minä jään. On minun vuoroni muistaa. Puut humisevat ja tuuli vie kyyneleet. Kallis kipuni, jota en halua päästää – että en ollut täällä, vaan toisella puolella maailmaa. Lopulta ajatus: mitä minä tässä? Ylösnousemus on totta. Hän on jossain, missä minun syyllisyydelläni ja surullani ei ole merkitystä. Ne hukkuvat hyvyyteen, sulavat lopulta armoon. Todellisuus ei ole mekanistinen laskukoneisto, johon syötetään ansio ja saadaan ulos palkka. Ei niin kylmää ja selvää.

Sillä millainen on tämä Jumala, joka ei luonut vain järkeä ja luonnonlakeja, vaan myös ilon, naurun, musiikin, tanssin, mielikuvituksen ja lapsuuden? Kärsimys: minulla ei ole vastausta, mutta on jotain, mikä painaa enemmän, vaikka se on keveämpää. Keveää kuin ikuisuus itse: valo, joka näyttää toisin päin; ilo, joka irrottaa; rakkauden sulkumerkit (mitään selittämättä); hiljainen aita kokemuksen rajalla, jonka tuntee vain Henki, johon liityn mysteerissä. Toivo, joka vetää kohti tulevaa kuin olisi sitonut sieluni liekaan, raahaa kohti näkymätöntä näkyvää. Ylösnousemus.

Aikaisemmin kesällä kävin toisella hautuumaalla, valtava monumentti kuolleiden muistamiseksi Tukholman liepeillä. Viisi kappelia, kokonaisia metsiä, hehtaareittain muistomerkkejä, vain sen tähden, että me kuolemme. Keskellä kaikkea veistos: ylösnousemus. Ruumiit vetäytyvät kohti valoa, joka vetää niitä vastustamattomasti.

Ylösnousemus tarkoittaa, että emme jää abstraktioiksi, muistoiksi, vaan säilymme, palaamme itsenämme. Ne ihmissuhteet ja merkitysten verkostot, joissa me tulemme näkyviin, palautetaan. Sillä minä olen minä – koska sinä olet sinä. Jatkuvuutta eivät takaa muistaminen ja monumentit, vaan Hän, joka nousi ja Hänessä myös ne, jotka ovat vaipuneet.

 

Hope of Meaning

Aiheeseen liittyvä kuva
The Last Judgment, Michelangelo 1537–1541

 

My apologies for the obscurity; these are quite gnomic statements, trying to express ‘intuitions too deep for words’.

1. It is very troubling to me that most theologians live as if they are going to die. That theology is done in light of death, as a theology of the dying people for the dying, not as a theology of the people made new on their way to God’s New Jerusalem.

1.1. In too much of western theology death – not life – is the ultimate boundary, the absolute that defines theology, our thinking of God and humanity. Too much value is diminished by the imminent expectation of death. Too much of our hoping is feeble, vague, inarticulated. For we haven’t understood the cross and the resurrection.

1.2. Too much of theology is done as if we were still in the complete darkness of the night, too much of theology is unable to see the bright Morning Star already shining upon us.

2. Our theology should be defined by the eschatological horizon of His imminent Coming. This eschatological horizon, when kept at sight, instills theology with its proper sense of contingency and providentiality, as a shadow of things to come.

2.1. It is my hypothesis – stemming from my intuition – that, though not visible from every locus of theology, this eschatological horizon – or lack thereof – radically orientates the theology one does.

2.1.1. An Example and a slight deviation: After the Constantinian turn the often noted inability of the Western Christianity to perceive ’the state’ as possibly ’alien’ [cf. Luther’s doctrine of two regimes, German Christians etc.] stems from a failure to identify the eschatological community of God exclusively as the church, that is, the eschatological horizon is not visible, and thus the failure to realize that the whole point of Christ’s life was to show that the Kingdom of God ’is not of this world’, it doesn’t come ’by the sword’ or ’by force’ (i.e. by violence). Yes, God reigns in the whole world, but this reign is through the church which is the marginal, nonviolent counter-cultural community. The church witnesses to God’s Kingdom and reign through sacrifice, martyrdom, service and forgiveness. And though it may not always seem like it now, the nonviolent witness through service is the way by which the church gains victory. For it was the way her Lord gained victory. And in the end, the church will be vindicated. I think it would be a mistake to understand the New Testament’s assertations of the legitimate power of the authorities of the state to be of equal value to that of the church, i.e. of Christ – it is true that the authority of the secular rulers is in some ways affirmed, but not in an eschatological manner, rather as a practical matter that has to do with the ”things of this world” that are passing away.

2.2. Theological truth is, thus, ultimately eschatologically providential. There will be the Day that brings our work into light, the Day when theology is transformed by the visio Dei – when we shall see ‘face to face’.

2.2.1. In many ways, for a theology that has lost its eschatological horizon, certainty is the mirage, the ignis fatuus, that keeps deceiving the pilgrimage people in the desert, pulling us towards itself with an almost irresistible draw, bending our theological pilgrimage towards itself, distorting it, warping our theological ‘systems’ with its gravitational pull. (For we often call this pilgrimage ‘a system’, another sympton of the disease.) Of all things we cannot be entirely and absolutely certain, but we can have faith and hope; we can learn to wait. We can go on.

2.3. His Coming will be the final justification of our theological truths, and also their judgment. This means, that for now, our truths are justified in hope: to the extent that they correspond to God’s future. This relation is not entirely equivocal, although it is not univocal either: wisdom is to understand the nature of analogy in this and courage is to dare to face the question – the futility of our concepts and words. The fact that language does not always grasp and capture. This is the epistemic aspect of analogia spei.

2.4. Expectation of His imminent coming should fill us with a sense of urgency and reality; the theologian can never get too comfortable. The goal of theology is not to build a steady theory of the right religion any more than the goal of Christian life is to be a static system of salvation of souls into heaven. For this world and the things of this world are passing away. This is the eschatological question we cannot wish to elude. The question that calls into question all our questions – the question we must encounter.

3. And yet, we must live as a part of the historical continuum, we must live as if there is going to be a future after us. We have to consider heritage. Our hope is robust and rooted in creation: the things of this world are passing away, away into their transformation.

3.1. This – the eschatological continuity, the eschatological value of things – yields futuristic metaphysics: understanding things in relation to their futures. This is the metaphysical aspect of analogia spei.

3.2. ‘Things in relation to their futures’, analogia spei: we cannot retreat into nihilism. Not even that of the pious kind which abandons this world in favour of a vision of heaven, which refuses to see value.

3.2.1. An example: a younger pastor was telling to another, older one, of his next Sunday’s sermon. He was going to preach about the wonderful joys of earthly, created life – how to cherish the gifts that God has given us and use them to bring glory to Him (for He is our Creator). After listening for a while, the older pastor uttered, straight-faced: “And then you die.” This inability to cherish things that are Given – the givenness of things – is often especially poignant in protestant, Reformed theology. As if creation, value and good were wiped out after the fall, as if there was only the cross, only sin and evil and, then, amazingly, in an empty havoc left by the explosion of ‘No!’, grace. As if grace annihilated nature.

3.2.2. “And then you die.” Memento mori. This is a strange perspective for the children of the Light, for the children of the Day, for the firstfruits of all He created. “Every good and perfect gift comes from the above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created.” [Jm. 1.17f.]

3.3. Creaturely principle: life has been created and it is this life that will be redeemed. This creation is the object of God’s redemptive act. This means that things have value simply because they are. Utilitarianism is no companion to love and earthly things are not valuable only in as much as they increase the number of ‘souls’ that will ‘fly into heaven’ after death. Friendship, art, family, play, music, language – all human things, all created things, all valuable in and of themselves, all objects of God’s redemptive act, all worth treasuring and saving.

3.4. So we must love the world.

3.4.1. We must love the world. Not with the pseudo-love of selfish desire which destroys that which it “loves”, but with the life-giving, redemptive love of Christ. We must consider carefully these words [Mt. 24.13]: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”

3.5. For we are saved not into an abstraction, but into life, into this life that was created. The fall does not cancel creation, leaving only a hope of some distant abstraction after death – a spiritualized hope – and us wondering: what, then, of this life?

3.6. The resurrection of the body – a pattern of the whole creation in transformation. ‘For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’ [1Cr. 15.53]

3.7. All this is simply to say: in eschatology creation and redemption come together. They cannot be separated. No gnostic escapism or detached indifference is available for those who wait for His Coming.

4. The church stands as the sign of God’s new Creation that has begun in Christ, and so our whole existence spreads towards the future through and in Christ. Theology also, then, is an eschatological discipline: its meaning is open, open towards the future.

4.1. This means that we need to inquire into the conditions of eschatological thought: how would it be possible for us, to think about the future? To speak about the future? We need not only to learn to read, think and write, but we need to learn to pray. We must learn to venture into there where there are no words yet.

4.2. Thus we need to understand the nature of prophecy as a sign that points towards the future.

4.2.1. Have you ever experienced a fulfillment of prophecy? In the fulfillment: the strange pattern of continuity and break. The future of God both is and is not what we are expecting. It is more natural, growing from within, more embedded into this world and its reality than we could imagine, more fitting. 

4.2.2. Creaturely principle again, as Pannenberg has pointed out: the Spirit is the future of God already present within us, anticipating the future. And being the same Spirit which was present in creation, the coming of God’s future is not a total, abrupt break in our ’creatureleness’, something ’far-fetched’, though at the same time the fulfillment is something ’other’, not a creaturely initiative.

’What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love Him – -. These are the things God has revealed to us by His Spirit.’ [2Cr. 2.6-16]

The Spirit dwelling in us is the first, absolute condition of proper eschatological thought.

4.2.3. The source of disappointment is wishing, guessing – the wrong kind of anticipation. Reality arrives more smoothly, easily, realistically; things come in a manner fitting to their natures. It’s an uncontrolled process in which we participate, we observe: now it happens.

4.2.4.We must learn to sit silently, even in the dark, we must learn to wait – we must learn to hope. Hope is an art that we learn to master through trials and disappointments – learning to hope in this sense is to understand analogia spei.

4.2.5. So we mustn’t fear when are our ideas, wishes, guesses are poured out, we mustn’t fear the silence, the empty canvas. T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: “Because I do not hope to know again / The infirm glory of the positive hour.”

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.’ [1Cr. 15.36f.]

4.2.6. Our imagination must he purified. Guessing – work of a mind too eager to go there where it can not be – is of no help. You can not guess, but you may sense it. Guessing, trying to match the patterns of mystery with our own images – we must let go of those childish images. ‘When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.’

4.2.7. T.S. Eliot, in East Coker: “I said to my sould, be still and waith without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love / For love would be love for the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” (East Coker) And in Little Gidding: “And what you though you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all. Either you had no purpose / or the purpose is beyond the end you figured / And is altered in fulfilment. – – / You would have to put off / Sense and notion. You are not here to verify / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.” In many ways, analogy is just another word for mystery.

4.2.8. An Exercise in Hope

4.3. So we need to learn to live – meaning is realized in life. Theology is concrete, embedded work of hope – we must become craftsmen of hope.

4.4. The subjective corollary of the larger eschatological openness of meaning towards God’s future, is the openness of meaning towards experience: meaning is never ‘fixed’. However, it doesn’t so much change as it expands, perhaps infinitely. Meaning unfolds with experience, returning and approaching. Returning: to its original source in the Revelation. Approaching: coming ever-closer to the truth of its source. This is the ever tightening ‘hermeneutical spiral’ of theology. This is the craft of theology, the art of hope – the methodological implications of analogia spei.

4.4.1. ‘Wisdom is to understand the nature of analogy in this’: formation, sanctification, life – the openness of meaning in which we grasp analogy, we grasp the nature of our language, the possibility of our truths. To say ‘analogy‘ is not thus to announce a tie between language and reality, analogy is not static, nor does it need to be “a fully armored technical term” (to paraphrase Sonderegger*). Analogy is constant openness: discernment and contemplation, ‘reflection as in a mirror’.  As we become wiser – more holy – we shall see more, we shall approach the truth.

‘Bless are poor in heart, for they shall see God.’ ‘And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ [Mt. 5.8, 2Cr. 3.18]

4.4.2. Thus, for example, the sentence p (such as, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”) can have such a living and deep meaning that it cannot be comprehended at once or ‘permanently possessed’. The meaning of p unfolds through one’s experience: prayer, personal history, reflection, reading, trouble, encounters with others, art, loving, sanctification, writing, travelling; you name it. For embodied epistemic agents meaning is a historical process. Meaning is a living thing. The question then is: how should we live in order to grasp the right meaning?

4.4.3. T.S. Eliot (East Coker, again): “As we grow older / The World becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living. Not the intense moment / Isolated, with no before and after / But a lifetime burning in every moment / And not the lifetime of one man only / But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.” And then, in The Dry Salvages: “For most of us, there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight / The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning / Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses / Hints followed by guesses; and the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

4.4.4. This is to say that the meaning – the subtle difference – is often manifested on the fringes rather than at the core (this also relates to the hypothesis about the eschatological horizon in 2.1). When we look at the edges of doctrine we can sense its meaning. The fringe, the edge of doctrine is praxis, intuition, personality, doxology – something that is not about the doctrine itself explicitly, but reveals its true meaning. The core is a verbal statement. We often say what we mean when we don’t mean to say it.

An example: a pastor reveals something very essential about his understanding of the nature of God as he talks about the way he raises his children, that is, by offering a theological justification for use of violence (i.e. spanking) as a child-rearing method. Praxis makes meaning visible.

4.4.5. That is, ad hominem -arguments shouldn’t be entirely dismissed in theology – wisdom, discernment and care can salvage ad hominem as a tool for revealing meaning.

4.5. However, this is not process theology: already/not yet – this is the eschatological tension that will not be eased by history. Truth is not a historical process, revelation is not ever unfolding in time, chronologically and partially revealed. Creaturely epistemology does not transfer into metaphysics so easily. Truth is at once, for it is God Himself, His presence. Eschatological providentiality is not the same as an unfolding historical process, precisely because it is eschatological and apocalyptic. Nor does the openness of meaning simply mean ‘progress’. The tension remains and is not eased by history, but only in the apocalyptic (and ontological) moment of His Coming.

4.5.1. T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding: “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

4.6. Katherine Sonderegger (Systematic Theology, the Doctrine of God, p.125, 129f.): “God is known in creation, His very own reality disclosed in the words of His creatures: that is the theological compatibilism – -. God alone can be at once compatible with and distinct from the creaturely virtues, powers, and life He has made. Just this is the Mystery, the measureless Mystery of the One God, hidden in His own world. – – He is free in our knowledge of Him, just because He alone can be present in such a way that we securely know Him, and know that in His stooping down into and through our language, our hopes and ideals and longings, He remains infinitely beyond all that.” This is the “gracious pattern of identity and distinction” at the heart of dynamic understanding of analogy.

4.7. Hope of Meaning, then: that He will come and make our words live, establish them in the reality of His own being. That His Light shall swallow up our little lights, life shall be swallowed up by Life – than our finite concepts are taken up into His infinite life. He is the Hope of Meaning.

 

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease: where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass way. For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when the completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1Cr. 13.8-end

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.

1Cr. 3.10-13


On the use of T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets in this post: I do not, of course, agree with all of T.S. Eliot’s theological insights, but I do enjoy his poetry and I  wanted to add some passages from him into these reflections to stimulate your thinking and my own.

* For Sonderegger’s account of the nature of analogy see her Systematic Theology part 1 (The Doctrine of God), p. 201ff.

The examples used are based on public comments made by actual, even rather well-known, theologians. However, the point I’m trying to make is made abundantly clear without revealing who these individuals are and thus, for the sake of respect and peace (and in order to keep the focus on my actual argument), I decided not to disclose the identity of these theologians.

Faithful Discourse

Caravaggio: Supper at Emmaus (1606)
Supper at Emmaus (1606), Caravaggio

Sometimes, when I listen, I am astonished by the sheer act of communication. Other minds, souls, speak out of the depths of their inner life which remains forever hidden for everyone not-them. They speak out of the unfathomable depths of their experience, knowledge and memory. The weight of this is almost incomprehensible: these who speak, they are souls, their inner life, with all its contents, as real as mine. There is a whole world of understanding, of concept and relations, images and metaphors, memories and experiences, connections and quirks, that is entirely unknown to me. An Other Mind.

And out of that depth language emerges. It is the narrow path, the thin channel, the bridge – the hanging bridge – above the chasm. These sentences, words, delicate figures. Shapes and shadows of things unseen. These tools, worn in use, rickety limbs trying to reach out. Souvenires from a country I’ve never visited, the boundary line I shall never cross, the remains of conscientiousness. Language.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

T.S. Eliot (the Four Quartets)

And yet we seem to be able to express ourselves. We manage to communicate our innermost feelings and experiences, at least to some extent. Where words run out, we use other languages, such as art. Despite it being often difficult, even raw and painful, we want to communicate our selves – the ‘I’ longs to become visible to the otherAnd it is one’s experience, that it can happen.

I don’t know whether postmodernism is to blame, but nowadays this conviction seems to be questioned: many say that language is but a power-play, serving the interests of whoever happens to be speaking, rendering truth trivial in the process. That it is, if not impossible, at least extremely difficult to break the interior of our subjectiveness and truly speak to and about the other. That, perhaps, all we ever do is speak about ourselves: reference is challenged, meaning remains forever open and all narratives are but social constructions. Aesthetics triumph over truth and relativism reigns. Or so they say.

But beauty without truth is no beauty. And so we must ask about our language and its redemption, that is, about the relationship between truth and language, truth and abstraction. For ultimately it is the Truth Himself that redeems our language, this ‘shabby equipment, always deteriorating’. It is because of this Hope that our language has that we should not ask about the impossibility of language, but about the joyful possibility of it.

 

The Possibility of Language

We may trust joyfully that we can speak of God – but that is only the first side of the mystery. For sometimes I feel like theological language is almost haunted by its object, the Living Subject; the burning fire in the middle, the heavy presence, calling into question our sophisticated systems. To speak of God – the Infinite Mystery, Being like no other – can never be too comfortable. In theology language is always strained. One must learn to speak there where it becomes its own contradiction, on the brink of annihilation. “Finitum non capax infiniti.”

And yet grace: in the free act of God creaturely realities can, in fact, capax infiniti, though only finitely. Infinite, precisely because it is infinite, can accommodate finite realities. It is divine condescension that does not endanger God’s freedom or aseity, but celebrates it. Thus, the theologian can never get comfortable but she may trust in Him. He who is faithful sustains and justifies our language by His own presence. He is committed – this is the constancy of human expression of truth – to our expressions. He humbles Himself to become an object of our knowledge. Thus, faith is the first mysterious relief of language; language is redeemed through faith.

For faith is an entrance: it takes us into the mystery, into the reality of God. Into the unexplainable and ineffable. And when it comes to that Mystery, language is the sacrifice we sometimes have to make. We must yield to expression, for we can not wish to escape it, we can not wish to elude concepts. “Those things we can not say, we must say in a different way.” Theological language is thus dependent on God’s mercy and presence, it lives through faith and by grace alone. And yet, it is not arbitrary, the reference is not lost – for the God who sustains is a faithful Creator. Faith is thus that which can attest to the mystery, unity and complexity of the Word and Creation, revelation and reality. Thus faithful discourse can speak of that which is not language, not an abstraction, but reality.

So then, our language lives through faith; theology must be a faithful discourse, a conversation that is coram Deo, where God is present through faith. Through the faithfulness of God it becomes possible for theology to be faithful to its object – God and His revelation. He sustains our language, He guides it: that is the providentia of human expression. And He sustains faithfully – through divine faithfulness that is not located merely within the will, but within His very being. The faithfulness of God is the consistency of His being – His utterly Unique Being, Simplicity and Oneness. For to locate God’s faithfulness merely in His decision (voluntas) to keep His promise would be to beg the question and undo the whole concept of faithfulness. Thus the meaning that is through the faithfulness of God is not voluntaristic: our reference is not lost arbitrarily, it cannot cease whimsically. And yet God remains utterly free. This is the mystery of language – for I’m weary of the word ‘paradox’ which seems to suggest some kind of unity of two contradictions, ‘a possible impossibility’, a confusion on the human side of things, which is not what this is. This is, rather, the mystery of His commitment to us, the mystery of His Love; in the act of creation and promise, God in His freedom commits Himself to His creation. It is His mercy and love: we may speak of Him. Our language has been justified, sanctified to carry the yoke of truth.

Thus Sonderegger: “Almighty God hides Himself in our world in His Humility, gracing this cosmos with His silent Truth and Glory. This lowly Objectivity, laid down in our earth, is never without its Subjectivity.” His ‘lowly Objectivity’: language made possible. His holy ‘Subjectivity’: language at the brink of its own annihilation. This is the tension, the mystery by which we must learn to abide, the strangeness of faith. Our words can reach this Free, Humble and Holy God in His very Aseity, for He that’s what He is, just that is the mystery of His compatibilism with His creation; this is the – to some ears, radical – conviction put forward by Sonderegger. Perhaps following Sonderegger, we might want to give a little more dignity to the Objective than would, for example, some kind of Barthian version of analogia fidei. God is able to retain to His freedom and yet become an Object, a steady Object, for our knowledge of Him, for our language.

And so also, in an act of faithful commitment, the Word became flesh. He becomes the reference point of all our language, the center through which our words must travel. The Radiance of God’s Glory, the exact representation of His Being. Our wisdom and sanctification. Before and after this Particular there may be knowledge of other kind, another kind of analogies – sensus divinitas – but in order to truly be redeemed and justified knowledge our language must live through Him, through faith in Him. Perhaps here the much debated notion of analogia fidei would have its fitting place, having its proper – that is, soteriological – origins in Christology, but opening up towards the creation in a holistic manner. Faith – which is through the Son and in the Spirit – is the gift, the light, which opens our eyes – blinded by sin – to see the reality as it is graced with God’s own presence, as created reality, which as such can communicate God’s own perfections (to paraphrase Sonderegger). Creation can – this world can – yield genuine knowledge of God.For He promises us (Jh. 7.38): “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will from within them.” And by that He meant the Spirit, the Spirit who creates faith and sustains it.

 

Quarrelling About Words

Intuitively it has, for some time already, seemed a strange thought to me that God would have opinions. That He would be holding, within some infinite storehouse of His ‘mind’, all the correct propositions, ready deliver the answers to all our human questions, were we just able to encounter Him directly and ask. That God would ‘take sides’, in this sense, in our human debates and arguments, in our painstakingly pedantic fussing over some theological nitty-gritty. In fact I often doubt whether most of our ‘theological’ problems are really just human problems, generated by the magnificent complexity of our conceptual schemes: whether they are mere language. And so, although this might sound controversial for a theologian to claim, I seriously doubt whether God has an opinion to our debates over baptism or the proper meaning of Eucharist, for example.

This is not to travel down the slippery slope into relativism, however, for certainly God is Truth and Knowledge, and certainly there are some boundaries that must not be crossed. Rather I’m inclined to somewhat agree with Sonderegger: “God is Knowledge itself, perfect Intelligibility and Insight such that He in His very Being is not simply a storehouse of every particular and all universals, but rather the very life, the very heart and veins, the very taste of each living thing, in its own manner, in its own indelible mark as this very one.” He is the Knowledge of our knowing, illuminating us and our capabilities. God’s knowledge is not simply a synthesis or negation of our knowledge: He transcends our knowledge.

Thus, without going into too much into detail here, I would say that all this relates to truth-likeness and conceptual relativity, which are highly technical notions that I will perhaps elucidate later in another post, but in this post – and the posts to come, concerning hope and love – the corresponding Biblical idioms will do: our human concepts and truths are essentially justified through faith, in hope and by love. That is, especially in ambiguous cases, it is the attitude of our hearts that justifies our truths, not necessarily some relation they might bear to some ideal proposition that God holds in His ‘mind’, for God’s Knowledge is not of that kind.

Thus, in the middle of our often all too human conversations, debates and arguments, there can flow the River of Living Water. Through faith in Him our reference is secured: He who is Knowledge, Wisdom and Truth makes our world sensible and our words intelligible by illuminating our minds. He is the Radiant Fire in the middle. And it is through faith that we enter that light, and thus through prayer. Essentially then theology can be ‘in the right’ only by orienting itself towards this Reality of God in prayer, worship and petition. The task of theology is to be faithful discourse – faithful to this  Presence of the Holy One in our midst. Hence the end and the proper goal of theological language is not to build conceptual cathedrals in which we may rest, no longer bothered by this consuming Presence, but doxology, and perhaps at last, the ineffable, silent mystery of faith.

And so James warns us (3.6): “The tongue is also a great fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Whoever wishes to speak of God – to be a theologian, essentially – must walk the narrow line, near the edge, close to the danger, between the warning and the promise.

So then, this now for the justification of our knowledge through faith. Through faith our knowledge also opens up towards the future – that is the dimension of hope. Thus language is not only redeemed through faith, but also in hope. That’ll be the topic of my next post: the Hope of Meaning.

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  1. This means something also for theological epistemology: theology must grow out of the soil of this land we inhabit. This thus relates to the relation between revelation and reality/creation, the two components of our knowledge of God, which faith brings back to their essential and original unity in love (ethics, analogia entis) and in hope (analogia spei), our knowledge thus being eschatological, a pilgrim’s wisdom, still waiting for its final (thought not static) realization – visio Dei. I have made some preliminary remarks on this earlier (in II,2).