Monday, June 15, 2015

The Freedom of God

Our catechism questions tonight focus on the part of the Apostles’ Creed that describes the Father as “creator of heaven and earth.” Question 44 addresses the question of why we call the Father “Creator.” Let’s read it together:
44. Why do you call God the Father “Creator?” I call God the Father “Creator” because he is the sole designer and originator of everything that exists. He creates and sustains all things through his Word, and gives life to all creatures through his Spirit.
Question 45 explains why that is important.
45. How does recognizing God as Creator affect your understanding of his creation? I acknowledge that God made for his own glory everything that exists. He created human beings in his image, male and female, to serve him as creation’s stewards, managers, and caretakers. He entrusts his good creation to us as a gift to enjoy and a responsibility to fulfill.
Freedom is something very important to us. As Americans, we sometimes describe our country as the land of the free. The largest benchmarks in American History: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, just to name some of the big ones, all have to do with us as a people craving, seeking, or defending freedom. Freedom from what? Usually some sort of tyranny, some sort of oppressive rule. At the heart of this love for freedom is a more fundamental belief: an idea that there is something degrading about being enslaved, about being controlled, about having our wills directed by another. And on top of this, that humans are special and unique. Being human entitles you to be free.

This very fact has led to one of the largest riddles of existence: Are we free? Or is the entire universe (us included) so ordered and structured that every single event is determined from the very beginning, making every choice simply an illusion? We’re not going to answer that today. But the question, if you see what’s at stake, pits two deep passions together: On the one hand, we want to know that the world is a place of order and that it’s not completely random. We want to know that we can rely on our car to start when we turn the ignition. On the other hand, we want to know that we aren’t just cogs in a machine, driven by fate. We want to know that we aren’t controlled. We want to know that we are free. Again, we’re not going to answer that question right now – at least, not directly. What we are going to focus on is what the Bible says. Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth.” This means that before “in the beginning,” before there was a “beginning,” there was nothing. Question 46 reads:
46. What does it mean that God made both heaven and earth? It means that all things, whether visible or invisible, physical or spiritual, were brought into being out of nothing by the Word of the eternal God.
There is some very old Christian language here. It goes back at least as far as St. Augustine in the 4th century. It’s the phrase “out of nothing.” A lot of times you will hear it in the Latin, “ex nihilo.” The Christian doctrine of creation is not that there was some amorphous blob called the universe, and then God came along and shaped it and worked it into the world we know today. It’s that, before there was anything – anything “physical” like planets, plants, animals, and people, as well as anything that we might call “spiritual,” like heaven, hell, angels, demons, souls, whatever – before any of that, there was nothing. Ex nihilo – “out of nothing.”

The idea that God created heaven and earth “out of nothing” tells us at least two important things about God.

1. It tells us that God created the world freely.
2. It tells us that God created the world for freedom.

So, first, God created the world “freely.” What do we mean by this? Remember that philosophical problem I mentioned earlier: We might wonder whether or not our own choices are really just the carrying out of a large series of causes and effects. We wonder, “Are we really free?” But with God, we do not have to wonder – we know. If anyone is really free, it’s God. How so? Because before God created heaven and earth, there was only God. So the only cause for God to do anything was God himself. Nobody told God what to do because there was nobody to tell God what to do. He simply created the world because he freely chose to. He did it because he felt like it. He didn’t have to, he didn’t have some deep emptiness inside his heart, and only a universe would allow him to ease the pain of his loneliness. No. In fact, traditionally, the phrase theologians have used to describe God’s utter freedom is “divine apatheia,” or divine apathy.

Divine apathy is the idea that God is so infinitely free from need, from constraints, that he is even immune to what we call the passions or the emotions. This isn’t to say that God doesn’t care about us or that God doesn’t love us. It’s actually the opposite. A father might be stressed about work, and takes it out on his children. A child takes a cookie from the forbidden cookie jar because he can’t control his desire for a cookie. A woman’s child has died and she becomes a recluse and hides herself from the world until she quietly dies. Think of the way you talk to your loved ones moments after you hit your finger with a hammer. Think of the way that our anger, our desires, our sorrows, our pain can control us and totally overtake our will so that we act irrationally, we do crazy, and often sinful things. Divine apathy means that God experiences emotions in a way that doesn’t overtake him. And because of that, we can trust that he is good and will only do good towards us. This is why it is important to insist that God is free, that he acts and creates only out of his good freedom, and is compelled by none other than himself. This means that everything is a gift. Everything is, at its most basic level, grace – the free gift of God. Life is a gift, love is a gift, salvation is a gift, but even our very existence, the fact that we might not exist, but God desires that we do anyway – it’s all the radically free gift of God. And there is only one proper response to give to the giver of a gift: thanksgiving. Our entire lives are to be acts of thanks in response to the grace given to us. This, of course, is exactly what Jesus does in the Eucharist: He lifts the bread, looks toward heaven, and gives thanks to God. This is why we can call the Eucharist, “eucharist.” Eucharist means simply “thanksgiving.” That is what we do as we share that meal together, we give thanks to God.

And this brings us to our second point: Not only has God created the world freely, but he created it for a reason: that it might be free. God created the world for freedom. Before heaven and earth, there was God, the Triune God, eternally existing in perfect peace, love, and fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This eternal harmony between the persons of the Trinity is what freedom looks like.

We read in Genesis that God spoke heaven and earth into existence. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we read that this speech is the speech or “Word” of the Trinity. We mentioned this before when talking about the Holy Spirit: The Father speaks, the Son is the word, and the Spirit is the breath which carries the voice of God. This Holy speech is the sound of God’s free love, and as we already mentioned, the creation of heaven and earth out of nothing is indicative of the utter freeness with which God created heaven and earth. But God’s goodness knows no end. For he created us that we might be like him. This is what it means that he created us in his image and likeness. The same perfection of peace, love, and fellowship of the Trinity – the freedom of God – is exactly what God desires that we imitate together as the Church.

Of course, we are not God. We have to distinguish between God, the creator, and us, the creature. The way we enjoy the freedom of God is set forth in Genesis. Understand, first of all, that when the story of Genesis 1 was written, it was written in contrast to many of the other creation stories of the time. It would take certain elements of those stories, retell them, but then give them a twist which said something like, “See it wasn’t like that, it was actually like this…” One good example of this is the creation story of the Akkadians, who told the story of Marduk, chief of the gods. The Hebrew creation story and the Akkadian story certainly had some similarities, but one big difference was that Marduk created man from the blood of a rebel god – whereas in Genesis, man is made from the dust of the earth, given life by the Spirit. An even bigger difference is that the Akkadian gods are not at all like our god. Our god eternally exists in peace and love. Their warring, savage, angry god exists among other gods. Maybe the biggest difference, though, is that Marduk creates man to serve the gods food to ease their hunger. The Akkadian gods are not at all like our god. Our god needs nothing. In fact, compare this with the story of Genesis: God creates the world, creates men, and then says, “Go ahead and eat.” Marduk enslaves man to meet his needs. Yahweh needs nothing, but simply creates man freely so that he may meet man’s needs.

Christianity is, among other things, a feasting religion. From the get go, God wants to eat with us. That is the shape of creaturely freedom. That is what we were created for, to know the freedom of God, by sharing in a meal of peace and love in the presence of the Father. And of you read the whole bible closely, you could see that the whole thing could be organized as a series of dinner dates from Genesis to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in Revelation. Sadly, there is that part, only few pages in, about how we failed to play our part as honored guests. Question 47:
47. If God made the world good, why do I sin? Adam and Eve rebelled against God, thus bringing into the world pain, fruitless toil, alienation from God and from each other, and death. I have inherited a fallen and corrupted human nature, and I too sin and fall short of God’s glory.
If any human person lived freely, it was Adam and Eve – and they freely rejected God’s hospitality, they failed to show gratitude for endless grace, and thus introduced what Christians have called “sin” – that word which indicates slavery and bondage to self-centeredness. The self-centered person is enslaved to his own passions, is unable to see others, unable both to give to others, and unable to return thanks to them. In short, “sin” is the impossibility of experiencing the freedom of God.

Just to drive the point home once more, let’s close with Question 48:
48. How does sin affect you? The God-opposing, self-centered power of sin, which is present in all people, corrupts me and my relationship with God, with others and with creation. Because of sin and apart from Christ, I am spiritually dead, separated from God, under his righteous condemnation, and without hope.
Unfortunately, it’s my job this week to end on this bad note. Next week, Ryan will share with you the good news – kind of a good cop, bad cop scenario. I do have a spoiler, though: Sin doesn’t go unanswered. Much of the bible tells about God’s patient work to disentangle us, to free us, to redeem us from the slavery of sin. He finally accomplished that through Jesus.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see, but now fortified by the ability to translate some of that vision into words, however inadequate.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

'The Cardinal Difficulty with Naturalism'

In Chapter 3 of his Miracles, Lewis' argument is simultaneously thick while his point is simple: Reason must precede Nature. Too sort out the logic of the chapter, I have tried to confer the argument in a syllogistic outline (which is neither my forte nor my preference). But I have done so, not only for my own sake, but for the sake of others, that the argument can become less opaque. Below is my best effort strewn together over free time during a couple of days.

I.                    It is clear that everything we know, beyond our own immediate sensations, is inferred from those sensations.
a.       Put in its most general form the inference would run, ‘Since I am presented with colours, sounds, shapes, pleasures and pains which I cannot perfectly predict or control, and since the more I investigate them the more regular their behaviour appears, therefore there must exist something other than myself and it must be systematic’.
II.                  All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning… Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.
III.                It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight.
IV.                Naturalism discredits our processes of reasoning or at least reduces their credit to such a humble level that it can no longer support Naturalism itself.
a.       There are two senses of the word ‘because’.
                                                               i.      Cause and Effect
1.       Definition
a.       a dynamic connection between events or ‘states of affairs’
b.      essential to every event in Nature
2.       Example
a.       ’Grandfather is ill today because he ate lobster yesterday.’
b.      ’He cried out because it hurt him.’
                                                             ii.      Ground and Consequent
1.       Definition
a.       a logical relation between beliefs or assertions
b.      essential to valid trains of reasoning
2.       Example
a.       ’Grandfather is ill today because he hasn’t got up yet (and we know he is an invariably early riser when he is well).’
b.      ’It must have hurt him because he cried out.’
b.      Two answers to the question ‘Why do you think this?’
                                                               i.      Because…’ (Ground-Consequent)
1.       Valid thinking flows thusly: One truth necessarily follows from another truth.
                                                             ii.      Because…’ (Cause-Effect)
1.       Our acts of thinking are events.
2.       Every event in Nature must be connected with previous events.
3.       Our acts of thinking must be connected with previous events.
c.       This raises a dilemma: How can a thought-event be both valid and caused? Or What is the relationship between logical causation and natural causation in the event of a thought?
                                                               i.      To be caused is not to be proved.
1.       Example
a.       Wishful thinkings, prejudices, and the delusions of madness, are all caused but they are ungrounded.
2.       Often, in fact, if a thought can be wholly accounted for in terms of cause, it is considered false.
a.       Example
                                                                                                                                       i.      ‘You say that because you are a capitalist, or a hypochondriac, or a mere man, or only a woman.’
3.       The system of logic (ground-consequent) and the system of nature (cause-effect) are wholly distinct.
                                                             ii.      But even if a thought is grounded, this seems irrelevant to its causation.
1.       Thoughts tend to happen both logically and illogically – in either case, they are caused.
                                                            iii.      The solution may be this: We must say that just as one way in which a mental event causes a subsequent mental event is by Association (when I think of parsnips I think of my first school), so another way in which it can cause it, is simply by being a ground for it.
1.       Being logical causes a thought to happen.
2.       Being a cause and being a proof coincide.
                                                           iv.      But this is false because a thought does not cause (like a trigger) the thoughts which logically precede or proceed from it.
1.       This would mean thinking the thought ‘This is glass’ would instantly trigger an infinite series of thoughts that are deduced from it.
                                                             v.      So then, this: One thought can cause another not by being, but by being seen to be, a ground for it.
                                                           vi.      Thoughts are unique events.
1.       Most events are value neutral (neither true or false, but merely states of affairs.)
a.       To say ‘these events, or facts are false’ means of course that someone’s account of them is false.
2.       But a thought is about something other than itself and can be true or false.
                                                          vii.      Acts of inference demand to be seen in two lights:
1.       A subjective event in somebody’s psychological history.
a.       In the inference ‘If A, then B’ we would say ‘Thought B followed Thought A’.
2.       They are insights into, or knowings of, something other than themselves.
a.       In the inference ‘If A, then B’ we would say ‘A follows from B’.
                                                                                                                                       i.      If it ever ‘follows from’ in the logical sense, it does so always.
b.      We cannot possibly reject this as a subjective illusion without discrediting all human knowledge.
                                                                                                                                       i.      We can know nothing, beyond our own sensations at the moment unless the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be.
                                                                                                                                     ii.      An act of knowing must be determined, in a sense, solely by what is known; we must know it to be thus solely because it is thus. That is what knowing means.
3.       An act of knowing can be described in the Cause-Effect version of ‘because’ – but uniquely so.
a.       An act of knowing is conditioned by attention, states of will, and health.
b.      But its positive content is determined by the truth it knows.
c.       It is caused, but it is not determined by the sum of its causes.
d.      Any thing which professes to explain our reasoning fully without introducing an act of knowing thus solely determined by what is known, is really a theory that there is no reasoning.
e.      Naturalism offers what professes to be a full account of our mental behaviour; but this account, on inspection, leaves no room for acts of knowing or insight on which the whole value of our thinking, as a means of truth, depends.
V.                  The origin of reason, historically, is difficult to account for on a purely naturalistic basis.
a.       Mental behaviour is to be distinguished from Rational Thought.
                                                               i.      Natural selection adequately explains the arrival of complex mental faculties.
1.       Lewis uses the example of vision.
                                                             ii.      Rational Thought is marked by abstract (reflective) thought.
1.       Our Physical vision is a far more useful response to light than that of cruder organisms which have only a photo-sensitive spot. But neither this improvement nor any possible improvements we can suppose could bring it an inch nearer to being a knowledge of light.
2.       It is not men with specially good eyes who know about light, but men who have studied the relevant sciences.
b.      Tradition and Repeated experience are to be distinguished from Rational Thought.
                                                               i.      Repeated experiences of finding fire where he had seen smoke would condition a man to expect fire whenever he saw smoke. This expectation, expressed in the form ‘If smoke, then fire’ becomes what we call inference.
1.       All such inferences are invalid.
a.       Example
                                                                                                                                       i.      Water always boils at 212 (until someone tried a picnic in the mountain).
2.       The assumption that things which have been conjoined in the past will always be conjoined in the future is the guiding principle not of rational but of animal behaviour.
                                                             ii.      Reason comes in precisely when you make the inference ‘Since always conjoined, therefore probably connected’ and go on to attempt the discovery of the connection.
                                                            iii.      Sometimes, an inference can be made without experience.
1.       In these cases, those inferences proceed from tautologies (axioms).
2.       Tautologies are things which are completely and certainly known.
3.       The degree to which any true proportion is a tautology depends on the degree of your insight into it.
a.       Example
                                                                                                                                       i.      9 x 7 = 63 is a tautology to an arithmetician.
                                                                                                                                     ii.      9 x 7 = 63 is not a tautology to a child.
4.       If Nature is a totally interlocked system, then every true statement about her would be a tautology to an intelligence that could grasp that system in its entirety.
VI.                The problem is this: a naturalistic history is… an account in Cause and Effect terms, of how people came to think the way they do. And this of course leaves in the air the quite different question of how they could possibly be justified in so thinking.
a.       This imposes on him the very embarrassing task of trying to show how the evolutionary product which he has described could also be a power of ‘seeing’ truths.
b.      The naturalist may in turn claim that inference, too, is a product of natural selection, even if we cannot yet explain the origin of inference.
                                                               i.      The argument goes thusly:
1.       What is most useful is what is selected.
2.       Inference is quite useful.
3.       Therefore, it is likely naturally selected.
                                                             ii.      ‘If useful, then true.’
                                                            iii.      This, of course, is an inference.
1.       And so is reducible to mere matters of Cause and Effect.             
c.       The humble alternative for the naturalist is to suspend any value to things like theology, ontology, metaphysics, etc…
                                                               i.      But this also means suspension of belief in naturalism, which is, after all, a metaphysical claim.
VII.              Theism, on the other hand, offers itself as a less audacious alternative to naturalism.
a.       For the theist, reason is older than Nature, and is the source of nature’s orderliness.
b.      Reason, Logic, and Order, inherent in God, and imparted to Nature, is the very thing that allows us to know Nature.
c.       To subsume Reason under Nature would be to lose both Reason and Nature.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Divine Incompressibility in the Church Fathers

Marion demonstrates the deeply patristic pedigree of divine incompressibility:
Consequently the requirement to neither know nor name God in terms of presence traverses the entirety of Christian theology. (a) It appears in the Apologists of the second century - first Justin Martyr: "No one can utter a name for the ineffable God;" then Athenagoras: "Hear this, oh man: the form of God cannot be uttered, nor expressed and eyes of flesh do not have the power to see it." (b) Likewise, it shows up in the first of the Alexandrians - take the Christians, first Clement "the First Cause is not in space, but above space and time and name and conception ... For our interrogation bears on the formless and invisible"; "invisible and incapable of being circumscribed"; "the invisible and ineffable God." Then Origen: "God is incomprehensible and incapable of being measured." Consider also Philo, the Jew: "It is a great good to comprehend that God is incomprehensible in terms of his Being and to see that he is invisible." (c) And also Athanasius: "God is good and the friend of men.... By his nature, he is invisible and incomprehensible, residing beyond all begotten essence." (d) Basil clearly indicates the paradox with this remark: "[K]nowledge of the of the divine essence involves sensing His incompressibility." (e) And there is nothing surprising in the fact that Gregory of Nyssa should have repeated it almost word for word: "This is the true knowledge of what is sought [sc., seeing the invisible and incomprehensible God] - ; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incompressibility as by a kind of darkness." (f) John Chrysostom parses it in a slightly different form: "All the while knowing that God is, he [Saint Paul] does not know what his essence is," for "the essence of God is incomprehensible." (g) Of course John of Damascus comes next: "No one has seen God. The only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father has himself taught this. The divine is ineffable and incomprehensible" (h) Nothing different from Augustine: "God the highest, who is known better than knowing." (i) Nor from Bernard: "Non ea disputatio comprehendit, sed sanctitas: si quo modo tamen comprehendi potest quod incomprehensibile est." (k) Nor even from Thomas Aquinas, for whom seeing as "what God himself is remains hidden and unknown," it is necessary that man knows how to unknown. Thomas therefore comments on the principle advanced by Dionysius in perfectly appropriate terms: "[W]hat the substance of God is remains in excess of our intellect and therefore is unknown to us; on account of this, the highest human knowledge of God is to know that one does not know God." Without continuing ad infinitum with this anthology of citations, it seems legitimate to admit as a fact still to be explained that at least for the Church Fathers theology does not consist in naming God properly, but in knowing him precisely as what cannot be known properly - what must not be known, if one wants to know it as such.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Christian Words

One of the more beautiful passages from Against Christianity (p. 68):
"Several years ago, I happened to be visiting my parents when a longtime friend of my mother died. As I left the funeral, I spoke briefly to the woman's son and in parting said, 'The Lord be with you.' Without hesitation, he responded , 'And also with you.' We had not seen one another in nearly a decade, but in that moment our common training in the Lutheran liturgy gave us words to say - Christian words - words of comfort and encouragement in the face of death.

Our common training in liturgy had taught us, in that moment at least, to speak Christianly."
I recalled this passage a week into Lent, the day we buried my brother-in-law, and stood silently over the grave site. My Irish uncle suggested we say an Our Father before departing, which we in turn did. It felt meet and right to have the grace of such words of solidarity in the face of death. And even now, as I never know soundly how to pray rightly, having the words of our Lord is an incredible blessing.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Schmemann, The Eucharist, p. 39:
This means that in the final analysis the true and original symbol is inseparable from faith, for faith is "the evidence of things unseen" (Heb 11:1), the knowledge that there is another reality different from the "empirical" one, and that this reality can be entered, can be communicated, can in truth become "the most real of realities." Therefore, if the symbol presupposes faith, faith of necessity requires the symbol. For, unlike "convictions," philosophical "points of view," etc., faith certainly is contact and a thirst for contact, embodiment and a thirst for embodiment: it is the manifestation, the presence, the operation of one reality within the other. All of this is the symbol (from simballo, "unite," "hold together"). In it - unlike in a simple "illustration," simple sign, and even in the sacrament in its scholastic-rationalistic "reduction" - the empirical (or "visible") and the spiritual (or "invisible") are united not logically (this "stands for" that), nor analogically (this "illustrates" that), nor yet by cause and effect (this is the "means" or "generator" of that), but epiphanically. One reality manifests (epiphaino) and communicates the other, but - and this is immensely important - only to the degree to which the symbol itself is a participant in the spiritual reality and is able or called upon to embody it. In other words, into the symbol everything manifests the spiritual reality, but not everything pertaining to the spiritual reality appears embodied in the symbol. The symbol is always partial, always imperfect: "for our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect" (1 Co 13:9). By its very nature the symbol unites disparate realities, the relation of the one to the other always remaining "absolutely other." However, real a symbol may be, however successfully it may communicate to us that other reality, its function is not to quench our thirst but to intensify it:"Grant us that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the never ending day of Thy Kingdom." It is not that this or that part of "this world" - space, time, or matter - be made sacred, but rather that everything in it be seen and comprehended as expectation and thirst for its complete spiritualization: "that God may be all in all."

Friday, September 27, 2013


DBH, "At some level, it is even tempting to think that since strict materialism is among the most incoherent of superstitions - one that has never really asked the question of the being of things in any depth or with any persistence, or one that has at best attempted to conjure that question away as a fallacy of grammar - it is incapable of imagining any conception of God more sophisticated than its own. The materialist encounters an instance of unjust suffering and, by a sort of magical thinking, concludes from the absence of any immediately visible moral order that there must be nothing transcendent of material causality, in much the same way that certain of our more remote, primitive ancestors might have seen a flash of lightning in the sky and concluded that some god must have flung it from on high. In neither case (though in the latter case the reasoning is somewhat more rigorous); and in neither case is the god at issue much more than an affective myth." -Doors of the Sea, p. 10

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Because the Master of Catholic Truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but also to instruct the beginners (according to the Apostle: As Unto Little Ones in Christ, I Have You Milk to Drink, Not Meat - 1 Cor. iii. 1, 2), we purpose in this book to treat whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. We have considered that students in this Science have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments; partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer; partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers.

Endeavoring to avoid these and other like faults, we shall try, by God's help, to set forth whatever is included in this Sacred Science as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.