Eternal Kenosis

God cannot acquire some virtue – some mode of goodness – simply because he created. Otherwise God would depend on creation for his own being, in which case he would be just as contingent as the world. And then we would have either two contingent principles – the world and God – or two necessary principles, and neither one of these metaphysics is satisfactory. We must have a God who is necessary and a creation which is contingent.

But then, every mode of goodness must pre-exist in God, apart from the world, since he cannot get some new good in virtue of what need not itself exist (the world.) On a purely Platonic conception of God, in which he is “goodness” or “being” as such, abstractly, we have the old classical idea of an impassible God, experiencing nothing but bliss, an unwavering “joyous” psychological experience. But on a Christian conception – or rather on an Incarnational one – in which the human Jesus shows us the father, we have something different. We have a God who, in himself, experiences a full array of human emotions – some quite other than joy. In other words, in Jesus, we have a person who experiences things that a Platonic God could never experience.

In fact, we do not need even the Incarnation to prove this point. Take any human, and consider various virtues or goods, which would not be possible for a Platonic God to have: self-sacrifice, courage, patience, vulnerability, spontaneity, surprise. Now ask yourself: how could a created person have virtues or moral goods that God himself does not have?

It seems to me there are only two ways to go here. We can either say such things are really Good Things for a personal being to possess, or they are not. If they are not – if a person can be just as good and have just as full a life without ever experiencing them – then we have no problem saying that God, in his inner Trinitarian being apart from creation, does not experience them. But if such things are good – if, that is, we can all agree that, if we were given the choice of living a life in which these emotions were present in various ways, or a life in which they were absent, but we were in full orgasmic bliss constantly – if then we really think such things are good, then they must pre-exist in God’s very essence itself.

Consider which being you find the “greatest possible being.” Is it a being who cannot in any way experience any painful psychological experience; a being who, necessarily, is not even able to feel anything other than joyous bliss? Or is it a being who has a multitude of emotions – none of them with evil intent – some of which involve real suffering and pain, perhaps even courage and vulnerability, for the sake of another?

If God is, to borrow from Balthasar, “essentially kenotic” this does not mean his timeless experience is somehow a negative thing. Thinking that way looks at God’s experience atomistically. What is more accurate, I think, is to imagine the whole drama of human existence, and all its emotions, minus those which have an evil intention, as being themselves a sort of diagram for the inner life of God. A timeless God experiences all his life “at once.” This is the famous dictum from Boethius, God’s timelessness involves “the full possession of illimitable life.” Therefore, any mention of kenosis is not an event for God that comes to him, and that he experiences, and that passes away. Neither is it something that in itself dominates his whole experience such as to be his primary existential feeling. It is, rather, a note in the divine and timeless Song – a theme in the eternal and Triune drama.

God experiences self-sacrifice and emptying, true. But he also rises from the dead afterwards. The pain does not have the last word, but it does serve as fertilizer for the blessed fruit that is eventually borne.

God: Abstraction or Person?

I find it reasonable to think that at the back of all changing things stands a changeless, fully active principle – one which causes other things to change in various ways. In short, I’m convinced of Aristotle’s unmoved mover argument.

But the argument takes you, not to the concept of a changing, thinking person, but some abstract notion of “pure being” as such. Thus we are driven to hold concepts like the impassibility of God – i.e. that the existence and even suffering of humans makes no difference to his own experienced, changeless bliss. This view of God is Platonic – it involves viewing God as the abstraction “good” as such. That being the case, he cannot have any sort of evil – any sort of psychologically painful experience – infect his being. This is because as the abstraction “good” he is an ideal, something which is purely what it is, like the color white. As soon as you make a mark on a perfectly white page, you no longer have perfect, ideal white as such. You have tainted your abstraction and mixed it with something else.

If this is how God is, it means it literally makes no difference to him what goes on in the world. Every human being could be experiencing torture right now, and he would be just as infinitely happy if none of them were, or even if they didn’t exist. Of course, Classical theologians will say that an impassible God can still “care” for his creation on this model. God need not suffer just because others are suffering in order to be fully concerned with helping those sufferers out. He need not be starving himself in order to give food to starving people.

But when I ask myself which thing is a better person – one who cannot suffer and therefore one to whom it makes no difference whether or not other people suffer or even exist, or one who can so suffer with and because other people are suffering – when I ask which person is greater, rather than which notion lines up better with a Platonic abstraction of “The Good,” I think I choose the latter.

But what about the argument for an unchangeable principle? And what about all the other arguments that classical theism employs (and which are quite powerful), such as the argument from contingency and mutability?

Well suppose that principle still exists and that those arguments are valid. Suppose God does have a necessary and unchanging nature. The question seems to be, why suppose that such a thing is identical with his personal experience? 

Undoubtedly there is some aspect of me that is unchanging. Otherwise, I could not be myself as I endured through time. But that aspect, whatever it is, is certainly not my conscious experience. It is not my emotional life, nor my creative life, nor my actions, nor my love. These things constantly break forth anew – sometimes in ways I did not previously imagine, even though they are from my own being. And that seems to me a good thing. It seems to me something enjoyable, joyous even, to be surprised at one’s own being. If you were to tell me that a new thought could never enter my mind and that I would never experience “novelty” again, I would be quite disappointed.

And it is not only the experience as such which makes the enjoyment. It is the passage, the creative rhythms to life, the unknown discovery of oneself and others, which is most wondrous and fascinating. To be held in awe, to be able only to marvel at one’s lack of comprehension, to be surprised at oneself: these are deeply meaningful personal experiences. If God is a person, how could he be fully alive if he lacked them?

The classical theologian will object that if God is emotionally moved by the world, or if his experience is enriched or diminished by it, then he is not the ultimate first cause. He is one more contingent thing that gets its being and is actualized by something outside himself. In which case, he is not the supreme being. But I have always wondered, why cannot God be emotionally moved by the world and depend on it if he has freely chosen to be? If God freely decides to enter into such a relation, why can’t he? To say it such is impossible is to conclude that God necessarily cannot be related to the world at all. But then how could he freely create at all? If God can only be what he necessarily is in himself, and cannot turn to other things outside himself because that would make his being actualized by such things, then how could he even create such things, which would then at the very least involve him now having the property “creator” which he did not have before?

In fact what is so interesting is that Aquinas and the whole classical line held that God “could” do other than he does. He could have not created. But wouldn’t that mean that God was able, at some time, to either create or not create? If we say of anything that it “can” or “could” that implies that at one time it stood or is standing in a potential relation to whatever that thing is we are referencing. If I “can” get up from the chair that means that right now I can potentially stand up. It makes no sense to say I could do something other than I am doing if I am changelessly doing that very thing.

And look what follows: if God could have not created, he must have existed at some time in the past when he was able to either create or not. But then he would not be timeless. At best he could only be eternal. Further, if God really was able to create or not, then he must have been able to relate himself to something outside himself by his own free action.

Thus, the classical model cracks under the pressure of trying to fit the personal, choosing, acting God into the mould of the Aristotelian-Platonic abstraction of The Good, Actus Purus, or Being as such.

Perhaps we should take a longer look at replacing that picture – or at least modifying it – to better reflect a being who seems to us to be greater and more worthy of love and worship.

Circumlocution

Why does it take so many words to express a thought?

Round and round my words go, more and more.

They generate more words, but come no closer to the truth.

I can only get so close to the fire.

If I touch it I become ash.

 

Right Now

right now, a white haired man is laying on a hospital bed, thinking about the close of his life, with slow breathing
right now, a form of flesh is passing through its mother, and being held up to her face, and opening its eyes, taking into its little soul the universe for the first time,
right now, a soldier is splayed out on a hot battlefield, holding his guts in with his hand, anxiously wondering if he will die, and if so if this is the end, and thinking of his loved ones with a bursting heart,
right now, a young girl is behind a wall in a playground, blushing as a young boy hands her a flower, and feels a sweet rush when they touch hands like she has never felt before,
right now a father is sitting in an aisle with the sun on his face, watching his daughter, his little one, who he taught to walk and coddled in his arms, pledge her till death do us part to a man who seems to him so young,
right now a teenage boy is standing on the edge, desperately hating with all the energy of his spirit that he is not normal, not knowing that that standard, when he is older, will cease to be rememberable,
right now, a new college student is scribbling on paper, with books piled high (or a hundred tabs open in his browser), trying to figure out what is true about God, and what he believes, and trying to parse his wishes and his upbringing from what is really the case,
right now, a woman sips her drink at a table of friends and laughs with sparkling eyes, and feels a perfect warmth in the airs of society,
right now, a rage envelopes the heart of a youth who learns that his lover has betrayed him, and the redness drives him to hatch a bloodthirsty plan of murder,
right now a widow is making her bed alone in her house, feeling an emptiness that has only grown these last 15 years, but who for all the world feels most blessed to live, and knows beyond argument that life is a good thing,
right now a resolve is being made with an atomic strength of will, which will be broken tomorrow,
right now a conviction fills the breast of one so strongly, that she will carry it throughout her life unshakeably,
right now happiness and sadness, peace and anxiety, horror and joy, pain and pleasure, wickedness and virtue saturate the spirits of this globe, all in the same right now,
all in the same mind of God, who’s experience enfolds everything,
in his right now.

A Curious Light

if you look for it,
it doesn’t come.
it hides itself,
knowing that you look for it.
if you try to call it forth,
you get no reply
except a nothing or a blankness
that causes a hitch or stammering
in your thinking
that feels like trying to breathe through a straw
after running hard up a hill.
yet halfway thru the doing of some task
which you have planned to do
and wish you could finish
like the reading of a book

or the doing of a chore
or in the midst of driving on four lanes of interstate
where you go nervously but smoothly
until tail lights flash ahead
and make you go as slow as a snail
inching across the edges of the universe
or while sitting on the porch
watching the birds chirping in the trees
jumping from one branch to another
for reasons unknown
and keeping an eye out for the red one
that sometimes show up
or in eating an egg
that you have scrambled in the microwave
and sprinkled some salt on,
with a dab of ketchup
or while taking a shower

and closing your eyes
as the warm water massages your oily morning skin
and getting some  of that water in your mouth
and spitting it out –
sometimes in these unlikely places
inspiration strikes
(and by my now calling and naming them
i have robbed them of their fertility
for i have openly acknowledged
that these such places are bushes hiding secrets
behind their leaves
and now the secrets will move)
i say inspiration strikes because
i know not how else to say it.
it hits like a slap in the brain
that instead of causing pain
or even shock
causes an injection of curious light
like a momentary flooding
of a color never seen
or a smell never smelt
from outside mysteriously.
thus sometimes it is sudden.
but other times it is a rising up,
a slow coming-into-focus
of something somehow not more well defined
even though it is more well known and felt
right then than before.
how odd that
just like its coming
Inspiration’s staying
depends largely on the minds
periphery.

The Relation

The most accurate description

of the relation between God and man

is not that of cause to effect

but that

of creator to created.

If we think of God merely as a cause

and ourselves as merely an effect

we bring in the idea

of a physical pre-motion

working like a line of domino’s

where one falls just because the one before

hits it.

This leads to two errors –

The first

is of God acting in time, and doing things

one after another

(first he thinks of what to do

and then he does it).

This splits up his being

since he is limited in doing and feeling

only one thing at once

(and what would limit him?

a limit must come from some place

above or outside.)

Further,

what reason would there be

that God changed this way

rather than that?

If this reason itself is changing,

then the same question can again be put,

and so on

infinitely.

But if not,

then we at last arrive

at an unchanging principle

which just eternally is

what it is

and acts itself to establish and ground

all changing things.

Second of all,

thinking of God as cause

and us as his effect

makes us think that things

are “pre” determined

and that what we do “now”

is “already” decided.

And so we call his plans irresistible

and conclude that what we do

doesn’t matter

or is no different than a play

already written by a Cosmic director.

The truth is that God does all he does

at once:

between him and us

there is no “pre” or before.

What he does

is not cause some effect

like some billiard ball

that strikes another

and moves it to its destination.

Rather, all at once,

without any intermediary or middle tool

(he does not use a billiard ball,

or even a cue stick)

God acts as creator

and timelessly brings about,

spontaneously

and with full energy

something created.

The very content of God’s creative act

just is our free selves

doing what we do.

Simply put

God creates us

acting.

And since he operates on a higher plane

he does not compete with what he makes.

There is no sense in which

his causative powers

take anything away from our own.

For his causative powers

create our own

like how the artist

in painting the image

creates the reality of the image

in the very painting.

Milton talked of wanting

to justify the ways of God to man.

But justification is the wrong word

once we realize

that the relation between us and God

is not that between physical cause and effect

but rather between a creator

to a thing created.

Does it make sense

to speak of a work of art

being “justified”

or of asking

of a work of free

and creative genius

why such and such a thing was made

rather than another?

It just is

what it is.

There is no deciding

or deliberating

or weighing options

in an act of spontaneous creation.

Does this mean that

since God creates all

he also creates the bad?

Well no one can deny

that whatever bad exists

must have first existed in the creator’s mind

at least as a potential happening.

Everything that happens

is ultimately rooted in

the metaphysical playground of his mind

from which springs every

particular possibility.

Could a good God create

suffering?

Well there is suffering

of that there is no denying.

But why would he create the universe

his cherished piece of art

his love

which such a stain

with such moans and groans

and shrieks and tortures?

Perhaps because

in so creating

he pours himself into his work

such that he takes up all suffering

all bad

vicariously

and lives through it and in it.

Perhaps

of his own choice

he deigns to experience it all,

the whole creation,

just such a thing,

like how an artist or a writer

or a Father

becomes one with the emotions

of his painting or his novel

or his child

and is most fully united and alive

and himself

in so doing.

Perhaps God so takes up a project

of creating a universe with suffering

to partake of the experience

and

along with his creatures

triumph over it all

and so relish his being

and expand theirs

with a far greater multiplicity of notes

of meaning and existence.

A Taste of Existence

The loudest and most convincing voice

that rises up above the others

when different thoughts challenge the existence of God

is the one that asks, honestly:

why the evil?

A brother chokes on a chicken bone

at a holiday dinner

to enjoy family

when he took off for work to be there.

A new mother dies in a car accident

when a rock flies through the windshield

and goes through her brain

while her baby sleeps quietly in the backseat.

A father outlives his son

who had the potential to conquer the world

but instead for some reason

has a heart attack on the basketball court.

And yet we are told that God intervenes

in the world of Nature.

That he suspends its laws

or sticks his magic finger in

and turns water into wine

or gives sight to the blind

or brings back the ruler’s daughter

who was not dead, but only sleeping.

If God can do this once, he would be able to

a thousand times

or a million,

or every time, logic would imply.

Thus he must hold back flexing his omnipotence

for some wise reason

and permit the evil to occur

rather than intervene.

Yet would this not mean

that each evil that comes to pass

is justified

and that it were better that it happened,

than not?

Yet here, I believe, we slip.

For the Creator creates

the whole

and so what we call

his intervention

is as much as part of his entire work

as what we call

his permission.

It makes no sense to say

from his perspective

“what could have been”

for he works at once, at all times,

creating a single Creation

enveloping every moment of all,

which makes a Singular

absolutely unique

and unable to be compared

with anything else.

Comparisons take place within the universe

not without it.

Each whole – which is what universe means –

stands independently.

Take away suffering, and, true

you introduce a good.

But what finite mind

that cannot see the goods of the whole

could tell what other is being sacrificed

by the omission?

Take away all suffering from love.

I have something good

but is it something I would recognize

as Love?

The goods which spring forth

in the soil of pain

are so connected to the pains themselves

that the two cannot be separated,

like how a marriage

which is composed of two people

ceases to be a marriage

if but one person stands alone.

Who knows what fruit God is seeing

in the soil of a suffering creation?

Who knows what mighty tree springs forth

from  what appears afterward

such a small seed?

I am not saying that

God could not make a world free of pain.

Perhaps he could – I see no contradiction.

But it seems quite a logical necessity to say

that if he were to make this world

one in which the good is asserted

over and against the evil

and which good is born and raised and purified

in the midst of pain and horror

then he could not make it without these things

for they are part and parcel

of the whole of creation.

All we must ask

and all we must decide

is

whether this world

even with all its pain

is still something we would say

Yes to.

Is it still something

when

taken as a whole

and balling up all its good and its bads

we would still want to taste

on the palate of our spirits.

And if so

then it seems strange

to see a contradiction in this process

of God making us into things

that have a certain appreciation

for existence.

The meaning that God is giving us

is what it is

infused with goods and bads

inextricably connected

like a drink of different flavors

that cannot be parsed

but only tasted and enjoyed

and then assimilated into

oneself.