Wednesday, September 07, 2022

"I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate."

I read the following excerpt from the book Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (Eerdman's 2016) by Dale C. Allison, Jr., Richard J. Dearborn professor of New Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, on the blog "Eclectic Orthodoxy." As a young man, Dr. Allison almost died in a car accident. From living in that momento mori for several decades, he wrote this little book of honesty at 185 pages. It captures something of where my soul is right now. Here is the excerpt:


"But what about the now popular conceptualization of hell as radical freedom, as God letting us choose what we want, including a godless existence? It’s problematic, although it makes for effective apologetics. For if we hate hell, then learn that it’s simply the unavoidable consequence of individual liberty and self-actualization —things we prize so highly—then perhaps hell computes after all. We can think of our freedom to reject God as on a par with all those other freedoms that we can’t do without—academic freedom and economic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of association, and so on.

"Yet when human freedom is front and center, God moves to the wings. In the modern myth, our names are on the marquee, and our destiny is up to us. What we make of ourselves here determines what we are to become there.

"Should we, however, desire starring roles and such Pelagian freedom? Although not an old-fashioned Calvinist, I think it’s obvious that all of us are broken creatures, that we’re selfish and self-deluded, and that we constantly abuse our freedom, which is so often illusory. Because of this, I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate. I don’t want to be my own God. Nor do I want the Supreme Being to respect my alleged autonomy no matter what, just as I don’t want the police to respect the autonomy of the despondent guy threatening to jump off the top of the high-rise. I rather desire, for myself and for everyone else, rescue. Our decisions need to be undone, not confirmed. We need to be saved despite ourselves. Even if we’re allowed, in our freedom, to kindle the fires of hell and to forge its chains, isn’t it God’s part to break our chains and put out the fire?

"If the libertarian hell doesn’t give God enough to do, it’s also, perhaps, simplistic in its binary logic. It posits that people move either toward God and so toward heaven or away from God and so toward hell. But, as the Scarecrow says to Dorothy, “People do go both ways.”

"Human beings aren’t unidirectional vectors but bundles of contradictions. Saints are sinners; sinners are saints. Everyone is Jekyll; everyone is Hyde. And everyone is in between. We advance toward God one moment and sound retreat the next, and most of the time we’re stuck in the middle.

We’re confused and divided in ourselves, or rather fragmented. Our wills, our desires, our faith are always veering off course. We don’t just fail to do the good that we will; we just as often fail to do the bad that we will. Who travels the straight and narrow, whether up or down? The modern hell, however, posits that, in the world to come, we keep moving in the direction we’re already headed. Our momentum, so to speak, carries us up to heaven or down to hell. Yet what if, like me, you keep moving in circles?"

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Sollereder 2: The Bible and The Fall

Bethany Sollereder is trying to make sense of God's goodness as creator in the light of natural selection. In the previous chapter, she explained her overall goal and defined some terms. In this chapter, she wants to dismantal cultural readings of the curse language in Genesis three. Why? Because such language has been used to support a cosmic or ontological fall. If such readings can be be upended, nature can be treated as unfallen. That would clear the way for a theodicy that includes natural selection.
I want to argue against the reading that finds a justification for the theology of a cosmic fall . . . [so that] apart from human sin and its direct effects, the world remains God's "very good" creation. . . . [And therefore] the realities of death and suffering are not unambiguously condemned as irreconcilable with God's goodness. (13)

What is meant by fall?

What do Christians mean when they talk about a fall?[1] Turns out, several things. Sollereder groups them into event-based fall theories, such as a human or satanic fall, and mysterious fallenness theories, such as the cosmic fall. Event-based theories are relational; sin enters the word through willful disobedience. The cosmic fall is not a direct but indirect result; it is a punishment for disobedience. Because of it, the cosmos suffers natural evils. Dividing the types of fall into groups is necessary to peel off and, hopefully, disprove the cosmic fall while leaving the human and satanic falls intact.[2] "If it can be shown that the non-human creation is considered uncorrupted at any point in real history by [scripture], the primordial fall theories [read: mysterious fallenness] will face a serious challenge" (14).

Before advancing further, let me reproduce her description of the human and satanic falls in order to highlight their antimony to the thick community of shalom called flourishing in the previous chapter.

The human fall, sometimes called the "relational fall," refers to the event that marks the entrance of sin into the world through human action. The effect of the human fall is the severing of harmonious relationship between human persons and God, between one person and other people, and between humans and the non-human creation. However, apart from the direct result of human sinful action in the world, such as pollution or exploitation of natural resources, the human fall does not independently affect the wider cosmos . . . In the same way, the satanic fall refers to the event of some of the heavenly host deciding to rebel against God and becoming fallen angels. The satanic fall was primordial, meaning that it was in effect from the very origin of physical creation. (Ibid)

Does the Curse of Genesis 3 Require a Cosmic Fall?

The Curse on Childbearing. Sollereder begins her examination of Genesis 3:14-19 by choosing one particular curse, the curse on childbearing. The idea is to show not only that tradition has read it incorrectly, but that a fresh examination yields better data. The traditional way of reading the curse on childbearing is that, because of Eve's sin, the act of childbirth would now be painful due to an actual physiological change. What may have been painful before is now severe. But we know today, she says, that the pain of childbirth is the result of physics, not an alteration to the poorer of a once-better design. Nevertheless, an examination of the Hebrew suggets a better reading than has been available in English translations. Nowhere else do the two words used refer to the pain of childbirth; there are other words for that. The kind of pain these words convey is emotional. Children born now will enter a world of difficulty, uncertainty, and, yes, pain. "Genesis 3 makes no claims at all about the origins of physical labor pains, but only of the sorrow-filled world into which children are born" (25). In this one part of the curse, (a) no physiological/ontological change is required and (b) the pain of the curse is disvalue created by social alienation and violence, not natural evil. And there is also hope: hope that birth and life will go on, fulfilling the creation mandate, and hope that sin itself will one day be dealt with as well.

The Curse on the Ground Sollereder also addresses the curse of the ground. "And to the man [God] said, 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life" (Gen. 3.17). The Hebrew here in God's address to Adam is paralleled in God's later address to Noah in Genesis 5.29. Noah is prophecied to bring a relief of this curse for humankind. And, after the flood, when Noah is offering a thanksgiving sacrifice to God, God says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humans." God is not here talking about the flood, but about the curse on the land. Adam's curse and Noah's relief form an inclusio. What Adam wrought, Noah relieved.

The removal of the curse [on the ground] means that nature is fully alive once again, fully green and vibrant. Now there is no fallen creation, no dark side to nature because of human sin. Nature is free of the curse, liberated to become lush, green and plentiful."[3]
Sollereder's case is made that there is no cosmic or ontological fall in the curse texts of Genesis. There remains now only to address Paul's interpretation of the status of the ground in Romans chapter eight.

Romans 8

Romans 8.18-23 is often cited as a prooftext that joins the event-based fall of human beings and a cosmic or ontological fall of nature.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time (τὰ παθήματα τοῦ νῦν καιροῦ) are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, for the creation was subjected to futility (τῇ ματαιότητι), not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor (πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις συστενάζει καὶ συνωδίνει ἄχρι τοῦ νῦν), and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

I have never heard this passage interpreted formally or casually where it did not cement a human and natural fall; this text exists and therefore nature is fallen and yet-unredeemed--an eschatological passage. Sollereder references a marginal (though Richard Bauckham and Gordon Moo are fans) reading of the text where συστενάζει and συνωδίνει, rather than being read together in a hendiadys, "groaning in labor," should be read separately, "groaning" and "trevailing." The tradition appealed to by this change is a Biblical motif of the earth going into mourning, a mourning based on suffering at the hands of sinful human beings. "The world is made subject (by God) to matoites, to a frustrated state where the world displays the 'ineffeciveness of that which fails to attain its goal.'"[4] Nature can suffer without a fall because human beings are fallen. In parallel, nature flourishes when human beings flourish. Paul's statement does not necessitate a cursed creation, only one continually traumatized and victimized.

God and Nature's Violence

There is another argument going on in this chapter about God and violence. Examining the primordial state before creation in Genesis 1, Sollereder interacts with the Chaoskampf tradition about whether Yahweh was in combat with or ruled over original chaos or the flood or Tiamat or satanic forces etc.[5] The argument is close, and her interlocutors come, oddly, not from ANE people but from Openness theologians, e.g. Gregory Boyd of God at War. In the argument is the entire point of the book: God can be good and natural selection be what it is. So although it does not take up majority of the chapter, it is no less an important part of the overall argument. Here's where she winds up:

Chaos has [not] in any way inhibited God's creative endeavor. Instead, . . . even the waters and the darkness form a necessary part of creation. The (literally) dark and dangerous elements of creation were left precisely because they were good and useful--fit for the purposes of God's very good creation" (17).


Previous Posts in this Series: Sollereder 1: Leaving the Courtroom

[1] Sollereder does not like this term "fall" because it presupposes a height to fall from, an Augustinian fall from moral perfection.

[2]] "The view that the fall of Satan had no effect on the goodness of the world was held by most Christian thinkers during the Patristic period" (37n8).

[3] Norman Habel, The Birth, the Curse and the Greening of the Earth: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 1-11 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011), 111.

[4] Quoting C. E. B. Cranfield.

[5] p. 39n53: The refusal to see chaos in the creation narratives is not . . . a recent phenomenon: it was characteristic of the Patristics (Clement and Hippolytus), and many post-enlightenment writers as well (Herder). [Rebecca] Watson [Chaos Uncreated (Walter de Gryter, 2005) also adds that "the association of the supposed 'Chaoskampf' theme with creation seems not to be original or central in the Hebrew Bible." (379).

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Theology along Three Axes

Theology is stretched across a frame of three sides. Let me illustrate, using election:
  1. Theological ideas consist coordinately along three axes: a horizontal (neighbor, X, abscissa), a vertical (God, Y, ordinate), and a Z-axis (eschatology, Z, applicate).
  2. The doctrine of creation gives pride of place to the vertical axis.
  3. Soteriology, because it is a branch of theology, exists along these three coordinates.
  4. Y: with the Reformed tradition, I assert the mystery of divine election under the lordship of the Spirit and the inability of human beings to savingly believe of themselves.
  5. X: There is no salvation without ethics / faith without works is dead. A person's "heart, soul, mind, and strength" is necessary for saving faith to exist.
  6. Z: The salvation of individuals and of all things may begin in history but it always on the move to its apotheosis in the next age.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

faith is a creaturely knowing

I am just finishing C. Stephen Evans Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (IVP, 1985) and, in a concluding chapter about faith and religious pluralism, I discovered something worth putting down. Evans is exploring how people believe. Hegel-like, he demarcates two opposing poles which he calls fideism and foundationalism, and then he bisects them with a solution which I call hermeneutical knowing. I have dealt with all of these topics before in this blog, but there is something clear about the way Evans puts it out there. I want to get down his definitions.

foundationalism. Earlier in the book, Evans called this option neutralism, which he said is a desire to be objective in everything--a desire that critiques religious faith, saying religion lacks objectivity. It is too involved. Foundationalists want every stone to be so certain as to be unassailable. This, they say, is reasonable, and faith, because it gets involved, is unreasonable. Evans says foundationalism can take various forms. What all of them share is a deep avoidance of risk.

In [foundationalism's] empiricist form it demands that we rely solely on objective facts in determining our beliefs (Descartes). In its rationalist form it asks that we begin with basic premises which are self-evident to reason. In all its forms foundationalism is an attempt to eliminate subjectivity--and risk--from the knowing process. . . . It is a "quest for certainty" . . . [and] not merely certainty but objective certainty in which the individual makes no risky commitments.

The foundationalist can only engage in critical thinking if he feels it is impartial and unbiased. This is a high bar that, when it is critically examined, cannot support its own committments. Nevertheless, I like what he says a bit later about people liking foundationalism because it keeps out supersition and nonsense. And, frankly, that is me. Recall a two-post series I did some years ago decrying the weakening of science's grip on the public square for the crazy that might force its way in. But I see now that this was reactionary. A weakened foundationalist grip doesn't mean the way is open to blind belief (in anything and everything). I hadn't thought about hermeneutical knowing. But, first, fideism.

fideism. Fideism puts the all-or-nothing not in reason, like the foundationalist, but in belief itself. Only the believer can see the truth. Fideism makes faith a precondition of knowledge. Therefore, the believer herself cannot engage reason or argument to defend or evangelize for her faith because there is no common ground between outsider and insider.

The attitude of the fideist resembles . . . the attitude of some orthodox Marxists, who dismiss the criticisms of Marxism made by non-Marxist economists, political scientists, and philosophers. The Marxist reasons that these people are committed to the economic status quo and that their criticism are therefore merely an idological smokescreen which hides economic self-interest. If a Marxist holds to this position universally in a rigid a priori manner, he eliminates any true dialog between Marxists and non-Marxists. The orthodox Marxist loses the benefit of criticism which might enable him to improve his theories. He shuts himself up in a sterile "world of the committed" and thereby loses the chance to show non-Marxists that Marxism really does provide a superior framework for interpreting political and economic events. In the long run his party-line theories . . . are accepted only by those who find it expedient to do so, and by those who know no alternatives. (19,20)

Evans goes on to talk about how this hobbles any ability to negotiate between religious options. And he says that the fideist overestimates dogmatically the impact of unbelief. Because, to the fideist, reason is so twisted by unbelief, at least where religion and morals are concerned, there is no reason for an unbeliever to evaluate a religious claim. It must be believed first and only then may it be evaluated. (But what if God wanted people to think critically about religious and moral questions?)

hermeneutical knowing. Evans says that there is a lot of space between fideism and foundationalism, space where reasonable judgments can and do come into play. Historians, for example, cannot retreat to either pole but must make their case based on careful observation and critical methodology. Qualified interpretation (such a peer review) provide an answer to my fear of the crazies, and it opens the door for moral and religious argument and to the evaluation of dogma and experiences claimed by religions and ideologies. Key to this, says Evans, is the willingness of faith to be self-critical. An interpretive judgment is reasonable when it can survive the process of critical testing. He suggests a basic criteria (169):

  1. Logical consistency. Does the system of beliefs contradict itself?
  2. Coherence. This is more than bare logical consistency, which is simply the absence of contradiction. Coherence is positive harmony, a fitting-together of beliefs into a coherent whole.
  3. Factual adequacy. Does the belief system account for all the facts?
  4. Intellectual fertility. Does a belief system give rise to new discoveries and insights, suggest new illuminating patterns, call one's attention to unnoticed dimensions of experience?

There is, then, a cumulative case, a building up of evidence born of the hermeneutical spiral, which achieves evaluative reasonableness. And as for the charge that because religions require full committment they usurp themselves, Evans points out that many things also do that: a program of exercise, a commitment to AAA or a model of therapy, a marriage vow. All of these require wholehearted commitment from the outset to achieve success. (I'm left to wonder where Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum "faith seeking understanding, fits into all of this.)


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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Lambeth's new model isn't pretty, but it's right

The Fifteenth Lambeth Conference ended at Canterbury Cathedral just a few days ago from this writing. There was much to celebrate about the conference. Even having the conference is worth celebrating! Deep disagreements over human sexual identity and practice have torn at the unity of the Anglican Communion for years. And even now, delegates from several conservative African diocese did not attend. This conference tried very hard to bracket that disagreement. There is a lot for the worldwide church to do. And, to a large degree, the many delegates were able to do that. But not wholly. The sore points of division cannot just be ignored. To his credit, Archbishop of Canterbury, the most reverend and right honored Justin Welby, understood this. And, in three addresses to the delegates, he admitted frankly that the communion was not whole. In his remarks on the Lambeth Call for Human Dignity, Welby said,
For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

So let us not treat each other lightly or carelessly. We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.

Dr. Ian Paul, writing on not only Welby's remarks and on the state of discussion throughout the conference sees emerging two different models of unity. And it is these models that I want to highlight in this post. The first model of unity is the historic understanding of the Anglican communion, with its high degree of communion, a thick community, and its historic pattern of faith. This communion Catholicism talked about "living 'in communion with autonomy and accountability'" and being "enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ" as churches "bound together 'not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference' and of the other instruments of Communion." This was understood to entail a commitment on the part of each member church of the Communion "to have regard for the common good of the Communion in the exercise of its authority" (3.2.1) and "to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission." Welby's remarks, however, have turned the communion toward another definition of unity called autonomous inclusivism.

In autonomous inclusivism each Province of the Anglican Communion is autonomous and called to live interdependently. It seeks "faithfulness to God in richly diverse cultures, distinct human experiences, and deep disagreements." Quoting Dr. Paul at length here:

The opening declaration [began] with the astonishing statement that "We believe in God who is both three and one, who holds difference and unity in the heart of God’s being, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit" and then connects this to ecclesiology by claiming "Our differences embodied in the Anglican Communion both challenge and deepen our experience of God in the other. As we join in God’s mission of reconciliation through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, our differences are celebrated and redeemed, as we are made whole in the body of Christ. In that diverse whole, we more fully reflect the image of God". The theological statement represents a serious, arguably heretical, error in relation to the doctrine of God while the ecclesiological application of this seems to make difference and diversity central without drawing any distinction between types of difference, particularly the difference between truth and error. This may help explain the new "Many . . . Other" and "walking together . . . despite our deep disagreement” wordings in the Human Dignity call in relation to sexuality.

This call, if accepted by the Lambeth Conference presided over by Archbishop Justin six years later, effectively says "those who depart from Communion teaching will face no consequences". In fact, it goes further and effectively states "the consequence of their 'unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity' is that they render the Communion as a whole lacking a teaching and they require all churches in the Communion to recognise a plurality of views which everyone has to accept within Communion life". It is, I think impossible to see this as anything other than a shift from "communion Catholicism" to "autonomous inclusivism".

The one defence of the new draft call that has some weight is that it is at least speaking honestly about our realities. The problem is that it does so in a paradigm diametrically opposed to that which the Communion has developed and worked with until now.

So, there you have it, the dissolving of communion Catholicism into an autonomous inclusivism. I wonder, as I think about this, whether I am looking at a judgment of my developing ideas around St. Augustine's church. Am I looking at the weakness of a church built apart from circle drawing? And does communion Catholicism equate to a giant circle? Can a church be a hospital for the sick, or does it have to require idealogical sameness?

Just today I read an article by Joe Carter, a senior writer for the Gospel Coalition entitled "You can't love Jesus and Condone Immorality." In it he says, "The way God accepts us is 'just as I am, despite who I am, intending to change who I am.'" And he concludes, "We all have a choice to make: we can either choose to obey [Jesus] or admit we don't truly love him." It sure sounds like love, right?

I guess I'm starting to see a process, perhaps a lifelong process, where Joe Carter sees a single event. I guess I'm starting to wonder if the thickness of the communion Catholicism model--and who doesn't feel the safety and togetherness of such a model?--is really just an agreement to lie in the appropriate places. As Ian Paul said about the Archbishop's autonomous inclusivism model: "it is at least speaking honestly." What does honest unity look like? Does Joe Carter's bouncer-at-the-church-door policy produce honesty? I think Carter's is an over-realized expectation. It is circle drawing. And what is needed is eschatological hope providing a common horizon point, a Celestial City, toward which we all move. Such hope has no purchase with power-unto-conformity but only for weakness and prayer and the bitter miracle of the cross of Jesus.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Stephen Evans on the Thomistic Doctrine of Analogy

The following is listed straight off from pp. 154-156 of C. Stephen Evans. Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith. Contours of Christian Theology. Downers Grove: Ill. Intervarsity Press. 1985. I'm copying it here because it adds data to my questions about the problem of religious language. It talks about analogy, which is the accepted solution. See previous posts on this topic:


According to [Thomas] Aquinas, when we speak about God we inevitably must use language originally developed for finite creatures. Such language cannot be used to apply to God precisly in its original sense.

When we speak about God, we do not speak univocally, which is to use the same term in precisely the same sense; nor do we speak equivocally, which is to use the same term in two unrelated senses, as when one uses the term race to refer to an athletic contest on one occasion and an ethnically related group of human beings on another. Rather, talk about God is analogical, which is to use the same term in a similar or related sense.[1] One might, for example, call both a dog and a person faithful. In this case there is a resemblance between a faithful person and a faithful dog; the termis not being used equivocally. Nevertheless, faithfulness in a person is not identical with faithfulness in a dog.

Aquinas defines two major types of analogy. The analogy of attribution uses a term originally employed for one thing for a second thing because of a causal relation between the two things. Thus, one calls a certain geographical location "healthy" because it causes the people who live there to be healthy, and one calls a rosy complexion "healthy" because it is the effect of a healthy body. Religious people use terms like "living" and "loving" to refer to God because he is the cause of life and love in his creation.

The other type of analogy is the analogy of proportionality. Here a term is employed to refer to something proportionately to the kind of reality the thing possesses. A dog is brave in the way dogs can be brave, in proportion to its reality as a dog. A human being's bravery is proportionately richer because her nature is richer. God is loving, holy, and powerful, but he possesses all these qualities in proportion to his infinite nature; human love, holiness, and power resemble but fall short of these qualities in God.

The analogy theory is often criticized on the grounds that one must be able to reformulate an analogy in literal, univocal language for the analogy to be meaningful. Unless we know precisely how God's love resembles human love, so the argument goes, we do not really know what it means to say God is loving. But to know how God's love resembles human love, we must know what that love is like and be able to describe it univocally.

Whether this objection is sound is controversial. But it seems to me that all this objection really establishes, if one is inclined to accept it, is that it must be possible in principle to replace analogous language with univocal language, not that this replacement must be actually carried out for analogous language to have meaning. If an analogy is valid, then a person who has sufficient knowledge and has a language sufficiently rich should be able to describe the analogous relationship in a direct fashion. However, it is surely too strong to claim that analogous language is meaningless unless it can be "cashed in" with univocal language. If that were the case, what need would we have for analogous language? Analogies would be proper in that case only where they were unnecessary. Surely the uses of analogy, metaphor, and other nonunivocal discourse in poetry, and even scientific model-building, show that such language is useful and meaningful, even where we are not yet able to dispense with such language, and perhaps even if we are not able to do this at all.

The objection may also presuppose an overly wooden view of "literal" language, and an overly sharp dichotomy between such language and the language of analogy. Many ordinary, literal terms began their careers as metaphors. It is hard to see how language could creatively develop and new concepts be originated if a nonliteral usage were always meaningless until it could be replaced by a more literal statement.

It is true that Aquinas's analogy theory implies that we lack a clear and precise understanding of God and his characteristics. We only know God as the being who resembles though surpasses what we humans know as "love," "power," "holiness" and so on. However, it is quite in keeping with ordinary religious belief to claim that God is in some way essentially mysterious. Our knowledge of God is not supposed to be theoretically and scientifically precise; it has an essentially practical purpose. It may be sufficient for human beings if they have enough of an understanding of God to know how to relate to him properly. If it turns out that humans, in this life at least, lack any knowledge of God's essence, as Aquinas claims, this will not faze the believer, so long as she has enough of an idea of God to know how to worship and serve him properly.

[1] Aquinas's theory is developed in part 1 question 13 of the Summa Theologica.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Sollereder 1: Leaving the Courtroom

A few posts ago, I said that epicenter for questions about theodicy has moved from human to animal suffering. In future posts, I will be working through the theodicy of Bethany A. Sollereder, who is a lecturer in science and religion at the University of Edinburgh. I am going to blog through her fascinating book God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall (Routledge 2019). I heard an interview with Dr. Sollereder on the excellent theology podcast "OnScript" in 2021, and her arguments caught my imagination. She made some profound Christological statements that excited me. I wanted to know more!

The big idea here is: "I want to argue that evolution is the process by which God has created the world, and that the violence and suffering inherent in the process can be both contextualised and redeemed in light of the creative suffering of God" (2). There is a lot to unpack. But, first, she must do some intellectual floor clearing.

Chapter 1: Leaving the courtroom

Sollereder is an experimental theologian. Though she does a lot of careful exegesis, she is not trying to do Biblical theology or construct a systematic. She operates at the line of dialogue between theology and science. Nevertheless, her instincts are evangelical. Her motivation is the fundamental fact that since life began living things suffer violence. God made the world with natural selection in it and called it good. So how can this be true? And waving it away with the fall, as theology has been wont to do, simply will not do.

Traditional theology once drew a familiar map. It stated that God created a perfect and peaceable world. Then humans . . . ruined the whole scene . . . and now we live in a profoundly broken world characterised by the previously unknown elements of violence, death, and suffering. But using the fall as an explanation is . . . no longer a plausible way forward. Evolutionary evidence suggests that the world was only free from death and competition when it was also free from life. The complexity, interrelatedness, and beauty of life are directly related to the ever-present violence, death, and extinction of numberless creatures. . . . A new theological map is needed. (4)

As Dr. Gordon Heugenberger, my Old Testament professor in seminary, used to say, Animal death had to exist in the garden or Adam wouldn't have understood what God meant when he said, "On the day you eat of it, you will surely die." Heugenberger's point, ignoring the genre problem, is analogous to Sollereder's. The Bible assumes this evolutionary world and all that goes with it. How, then, can God call it good?

So, step one: the doctrine of the fall is problematic. Sollereder argues that the Bible does not require it: "The biblical witness does not require the assumption that disvalues such as suffering and death entered the world due to human or Satanic sin," (8). A fall also requires some kind of point of original perfection. And, where the natural world is concerned, no amount of geology or physics can discover one. And finally, the term itself is not always clear. She will go on in later chapters to differentiate and examine the arguments for a cosmological (or mysterious) fall, a Satanic fall, and a human fall.

Now step two: natural evil needs to go. Theology has taught that fallenness unleashed sin upon the world, producing moral and natural evil. But, setting moral evil aside, natural evil is a highly anthropocentric concept lacking evidentiary sophistication. Sollereder easily overturns it and, in its absence, suggests new vocabulary: harm and disvalue. Harm is suffering caused by natural things: tornadoes, flash flooding, ice storms, etc. That's the sort of thing Calvin said was produced by sin: but tornadoes are produced by weather. Calvin was thinking like a medieval man. Disvalue is the suffering produced by the violence of living things living. It has its origin not in some kind of supernatural evil but in the way that natural selection and the results of human fallenness (Sollereder believes in a human fall) combine to damage the cosmos, even though, she says, the natural world remains unfallen.

On the positive side, disvalue is antinomous to two other terms: flourishing and selving. Flourishing, she says, means the overall well-being of an individual creature, which would include a 360-degree relational goodness analogous to the Hebrew shalom.

A flourishing creature is in proper relationship to other members of its own species, to environmental conditions, to God, and to the stage of life it is in. This relational component might lead to some counterintuitive results, such as after a full life and in light of the new creation, a creature's best flourishing at a particular moment may be to die. (8)

Selving is subjective; it is concerned with the individual. Selving is a creature acting as itself in fulfillment of its God-given course. Here she follows the work of Christopher Southgate who said, "When a living creature 'selves' . . . it is conforming to the pattern offered by the divine Logos."[1] Sollereder is careful to avoid eugenic undertones here saying individual creatures have a common characteristic but also may innovate. "It would be better to speak of the gift of community and genetic inheritance that creatures are born into which confer regular ways of being rather than a sense of Platonic 'pattern' to which creatures are meant to conform" (Ibid.) I suspect these two terms, flourishing and selving, will play an important role as her argument moves forward.

These states--disvalue, harm, flourishing and selving--each operate at every level at which living things exist. And there is a kind of order to them. The basic id-like desires that go along with natural selection, aggression and self-interest are like raw materials. And the disvalue and harm which are their result exhibit behaviors which result from a kind of moral immaturity. Above that is a higher rung of altruistic level of self-giving which can itself be transcended via divine action into love itself. Love is, she says, "a particular divine act in the person that transmutes the basic evolutionary desires into the desires of divine love." "Love is a transformation of the spectrum of desires entirely" (6).

But how, then, does she understand love? Love is "non-controlling, particular, vulnerable to suffering, and responsive to the needs of the beloved." And, as in so much theology, freedom plays its part, for love requires radical freedom and divine interaction.

Traditional accounts of freewill have been heavily anthropocentric . . . I attempt to work out what freedom for the non-human world entails in light of the two desires of love: the desire for the good of the beloved and the desire for union with the beloved. God's love leaves room for creatures to develop towards their own good, the good of the ecosystem they participate in, and in the ultimate history of the world.

A final aside. Sollereder has positioned these two systems of transcending love and natural selection together in a way. First, there is the mechanism of natural selection, where fitness creates an ability to step above or transcend. Natural selection produces disvalue, but it also produces selving, as individuals can improve on their genetic and socially conditioned model of behavior. Second, there is a definition of love built from desire and freedom. Love is a result of developmental leaps from lower to higher, from self-interest to selflessness. Love seems to set the board on which natural selection plays. Or, is love more fundamental? I am not sure.


[1] Christopher Southgate. The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 16. Note also: Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming -- Natural, Divine, and Human (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993) and Daryl Domning and Monika Hellwig. Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in Light of Evolution. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).

Note this interesting footnote about Southgate's understanding of selving: "[Selving] allows a unique view of fallenness: a creature is fallen when it does not embrace the divine invitation to transcendence and therefore remains what it is. In this notion of fallenness, it is potential that is lost rather than acquired characteristics" (12n29).

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Not the Guilt but the Consequences

It seems in keeping with the way Genesis works that human beings suffer the consequences of our parents' primordial sin but not their guilt. Putting aside the question of historicity, the point is the meaning now, and not some kind of historical meaning, but a cultic meaning more interested in helping me understand me (as a member of humanity today) than caring much about the details of the past. Adam and Eve are my story and the story of everyone else in my community. The fall, then, marred but did not eliminate the imago. Human beings cannot walk a straight line, morally speaking, but they have a sense of straightness. Innocence shatters against pitiless experience again and again. The story of the world is the long failure--but not without hope.

I do think this includes mortality because human beings are by nature mortal. It is the tree of life, the gift of God, that grants ongoing everlastingness to mortal flesh. This also means that I do not ascribe to the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul.[1]

In saying this, I do not agree with Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin as it teaches the universal application of guilt. Historical theologians do not see it taught in the first few centuries of the church. Gerald Bray has said, "It is a virtual axiom of historical theology that the doctrine of original sin, as we recognize it today, cannot be traced back beyond Augustine." What the early church, Greek and Latin-speaking, affirmed was what I have said here--inherited consequences, not guilt. J. N. D Kelley said, "There is hardly a hint in the Greek fathers that mankind as a whole shares in Adam's guilt." The Latin fathers did teach sin as a corrupting force, but Adam's guilt, they said, "attaches to Adam himself, not to us." Had the apostles taught guilt, wouldn't it be evident? It is just as evident they did not.

Damnation, then, is not a product of our being, but of the inevitable and irresistable selfward curvature of our hearts and the inevitable choices and consequences this creates. Damnation is just a recognition of the truth of things. Damnation is every day.

Simultaneously, justification undoes damnation. Salvation promises and begins the restoration of the imago. In the words of the church: "I will with God's help."


See also "Penciling in a gesture toward providence, determinism, liberty."

[1] A careful reader will note a dialogue here with Plato's Phaedo 74-76. In that dialogue, Plato argues that even though we only see imperfect things, such as sticks of different length, we discern the underlying ideal form of Equality. We discern ideal forms, he said, because our souls see them in the state between reincarnated embodiment. Platonism teaches the immortality of the soul. And the discernment of ideal forms is a plank in Plato's argument for soul immortality. This scaffolding further informs the Platonic doctrine that education is reminding the embodied soul of what it already knows; education as recollection. In that case, knowledge is a priori and the seventeen-century Rationalists were correct. Marc Cohen provides a thorough analysis of Plato's argument in the Phaedo and its context in the history of ideas.

Plato's doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a direct influence on the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment. Because souls are immortal, punishment must be analagous. But if souls are not immortal, then eternal punishment is not a dogmatic necessity.

The knowledge of the ideal forms is reworked in Christian theology from a knowledge obtained in some pre-bodied state of unmediated contemplation to a product of logos which, through creation, is available in the imago of every human being. The logos is the source of all ideal knowledge, which humans reflect imperfectly by means of participation in the imago Dei.

Monday, June 06, 2022

Occasional Theology Delivered at the Wedding of D and K Perry

Homily at the Marriage of D___ and K___ Perry

By the Reverends Robert and Caroline Osborne
Delivered June 4, 2022 at St. Joseph of Arimathea

Welcome to a moment that has been in the making for a long time. K__ shared with me that she has known D___ for her entire life. Their story began in Massachusetts when K___ was still in the womb, as both sets of parents became friends while studying in seminary.

For years their different but in many ways parallel paths crisscrossed at different events—until last year when they hit it off at a wedding of all places.

So it feels full circle in a wonderful way for us to be gathered here today to celebrate their marriage. Those two parallel but different paths are here and now merging into one path that they will walk together for the rest of their lives.

The road may have had several twists and turns, but perhaps that is part of why the joy of today is so great. Facing the challenges of a long distance relationship, D___ then moving to Tennessee in the midst of a pandemic to be closer to K___, all these things make the joy of this day all the more beautiful.

Having been through so much this past year, it is no surprise to either of you that, as wonderful as today is, there will also be challenges ahead. And the vows you make today are meant both for when it is easy to love each other and for when it is hard.

That is why one of our readings for today, 1 Corinthians 13, is such a good reading for a wedding – it talks about love not just as a joyful, sunshiney feeling of butterflies and beautiful wedding dresses and happy tears, but also as a choice and a commitment.

That love, which the Apostle Paul wrote about for the whole church, should also be lived out in your marriage, especially since God made marriage to be a representation of Jesus and his bride, the Church. When you pursue the sort of love described in that passage, you show the world a picture of the sort of love God has for us, and we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, have for him. That is a pretty high calling! If you don’t feel some awe for what you are about to step into, then you don’t understand it!

1 Corinthians tells us that this is a love that is unselfish: it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it does not boast. This is a considerate love. A love in which you each put the other person’s needs above your own. If only one of you did that, it would become an unbalanced and painful love. But when you both put each others’ needs first, it is an incredible, self-giving, generous, and refreshing love. A 1 Corinthians love is a longsuffering love. It always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. It is not easily angered.

In fairy tales, the hero and heroine get married and live happily ever after. They fail to tell you that one of them might forget to clean up their toenail clippings or is grouchy when they're hungry--not that I am saying K__ or D___ will do those things.

All I am saying is, a love like the one described in 1 Corinthians is longsuffering. It doesn’t get hung up on the small, though sometimes very irritating, things, and it persists through the big and difficult things. When you commit to a longsuffering love, you will both rest in the security of that committed love even in the most difficult times.

And finally, this love is a humble and forgiving love. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, and it delights in the truth.

K___ and D___, in planning a wedding and preparing for a marriage the two of you have learned a bit about forgiveness. The times you have forgiven each other--both big and small--over the course of your time dating are not an exception to the way relationships work. Forgiveness in marriage, as in all of the life of faith, is the rule. A forgiving love is a safe, joy-filled, and growing place for a sinner, and all of us here are sinners, bride and groom included.

A forgiving love is one that best exemplifies the love of Christ for the Church. A forgiving love is one that is a witness to the world of the greatest love, the love from which all other loves derive: that is, the love of God.

So, D___ and K___, as you enter into marriage today, as the two of you cease to be just two separate individuals and are joined into one union by God--my charge to you is to choose, commit to, and embrace a love like that described in 1 Corinthians: an unselfish, longsuffering, humble and forgiving love.

Just like today’s joy is made all the sweeter by the long road it took to get here, when you love with a 1 Corinthians love, all those wonderful good times will be even better.

As you pursue that life of loving witness, may God bless your marriage with joy, peace, and an overflow of love that, in turn, blesses the lives around you. Amen.


A Toast at the Marriage of D and K Perry

by Thom Chittom

D___ and K___,

When I look at you now, I see nothing but blessing. The blessing you have been in your childhoods. The blessing you are to each other. The blessing of our families’ friendship made permanent today. And the river of blessing that is rolling into you and through you and on into your future together.

Today you take up, hand-in-hand, God’s original command for human beings to go out into the wild world together and cultivate it. What an adventure you have ahead!

Let me say a few words to take on your way:

Always cherish the truth. People are forever unfinished. Talk about it. Time brings new things. Meet them in the strength of a united transparency. God is a god of light and not darkness after all.

When you disagree, fight for each other and not for yourselves. You win when you, plural, win. Remember, our God is three persons in one loving and even erotic mutuality.

And finally, think on the mystery of marriage—there is not two of you, but three. Going with you today there is one who sticks closer than a brother, one like a son of man. He is wisdom itself. Listen to him! If you do that, you will be blessed. If you do that, he will make saints of you in time, and you will be a blessing.

Now, I join everyone here and celebrate your marriage today. We love you. We support you. We bless you.



D___'s father delivered a wedding toast during the wedding mentioned in the homily above. It is recorded on this blog as occasional theology and should be considered in parallel.

The liturgical material may be of interest to provide wider theological context. Gen. 2.4-9, 15-24; Ps. 127; 1 Cor. 13.1-13; Ps. 67.; Matt. 7.21, 24-29. Fr. Jody Howard also gave the longer nuptial blessing and concluding prayer from the BCP pp. 430-431.

A Facebook post I made on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020: "I can think of no better day in these circumstances than Trinity Sunday. For the unity of the three persons is to be one without monotony, to be unity without destroying plurality. And for that unity to be a forever bliss of giving and receiving love. We human beings, then, may know that it is possible to fully love without destroying the uniqueness of others and to be loved without destroying ourselves. This is a unity that worldly power knows not of. All the powers can do is destroy the other or press chaotic difference into submission with brutal force. That is unity without freedom, which is no unity at all. It will never understand or be the freedom that love freely gives." I might also point out that the triune persons are not homo sapiens. We are analogy not equality.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

more thinking about purity (circle drawing) and hermeneutics' constant bickering

If the theory of science sets itself the further task of investigating such conditions as are subject to our power, on which the realization of valid methods depends, and if it draws up rules for our procedure in the methodical tracking down of truth, in the valid demarcation and construction of the sciences, in the discovery and use, in particular, of the many methods that advance such sciences, and in the avoidance of errors in all of these concerns, then it has become a technology of science. ~ Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, 11.

The more I pursue theological studies, the more I am challenged to give up my purity addiction and embrace the lordship of Jesus. Let me unpack this, beginning with evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism came out of the fundamentalist movement. While confessing the authority of scripture, evangelicals did not want to disengage from cultural ideas and science. They wanted to stay in dialogue. Nevertheless, evangelicalism retained the purity culture of fundamentalism. And what is purity? Purity is an over-realized eschatology. It is "radical discipleship." It is what the Bible is really saying. Call it the first-century church, call it Christian America," call it the Christian home, xmarriage, xsingleness--it goes by many names. At the deep center of all of these purity moves is, I believe (and I'm still thinking about this), a baptized existentialism (or a spoon-cooked commercial ethic) which privileges individual action as the locus of truth. In that I see the Enlightenment plus the Great Bargain. Let me put these together.

The Enlightenment was and is a profound eruption in the Western mind. It removed most accepted forms of knowledge in favor of experiment and demonstration. The invidivual was encouraged to doubt everything. Knowledge was democratized. Its basis was experience rather than revelation.

The Great Bargain is far older than the Enlightenment. It is in the DNA of human living. The Great Bargain is when a human being decides that if they perform an act or produce a thing then God (or whatever passes for God or the gods) will hand over whatever good it is that the human being wants: fertility, a cushy job, rain on the crops, victory over the enemies, get a girlfriend, be free of illness, whatever. This is the root of idolatry. It goes back into the deepest selfishness of the human heart. And people make this bargain without even realizing they are doing it.

The Enlightenment makes the individual king of his own knowing. The Great Bargain makes the individual's actions or choices the king of their own success. Combine them in a religious context, and we get purity as control of knowing and control of acting where control and conformity produce the happy and highest form of life. Consider, as an example of this, the Bible.

The Bible is so central to evangelicalism, examining its use in that movement should isolate a bias toward purity. Evangelicals properly profess the Bible to be God's prophetic word. I certainly do not deny that. Observe that how that is can be understood differently. From the purity side, it means embracing an obedience to the Bible in the form of sola scriptura, but it is an obedience of adherence. Understanding is cultivated in order to conform. Exegesis and other textual disciplines work to isolate and explain in order that the present may be brought into conformity with the past. Certain hermeneutical tools or methods will be favored over others as they aid in this task. Of understanding, there may never be exactness, but the pursuit of exactness can be even more useful than a clear arrival. Even as I write this, I struggle hard in my soul. These are my people and the tools I was trained on. This hermeneutic is my hermeneutic, and I am still convinced of their value and am a student of them. But if they are sound, they can be shaken without harm. Purity culture is a subtle beast. The question is worth asking; truth has a way of broadening into freedom. The cathedral of Christian orthodoxy is larger than any one historical movement or moment.

Back to the Bible, then. Isn't it interesting that the Bible itself always defers to Jesus; Jesus is the revelation of God. It is hermeneutical about itself, certainly, but in the center is not an exegetical arrival but the person Jesus. It is as if we've decided the Pledge of Allegiance is about a flag and not about the country; we have switched out the sign and the signified (nodding toward Augustine's On Christian Teaching (de doctrina Christiana)).

This does not discount the Bible or the careful study of the Bible. The Bible is the divinely sanctioned, apostolic, human witness to the visitation of Yahweh to his people. Yet, it is not what is worshiped; Jesus is worshiped. So we don't study the Bible to be right; we study it to better know its author. Nor do we expect perfection in the Bible, but we do expect it in the one about whom it witnesses. That is one step.

The second step is the Walter Bruggemann step. Bruggemann is a well-respected Old Testament scholar. He points to Jewish ideas of belonging and says that to belong is not to agree in everything, but to join in and participate with others in the argument. The Bible, he says, is like an argument. Different perspectives crush up against one another and battle it out. And one is invited to take up the Bible and join the age-old community of arguers. Participation is community. Argument is being formed by and forming that community. And that community itself is being formed by its texts, which are the fundamental arguments of one's worldview.

That is a much, much different way of thinking about reading and participating and approaching the Bible than the perfection model. The argument model does not guarantee resolution, but formation. Not arrival so as to be right, but struggling to understand and in the struggling becoming a kind of struggler (lex orandi; lex credendi).

Let's say we adopt the Bruggemann model. Now we ask about the unity of the church. Before, in the purity model, we groaned about how far the church has fallen from Jesus's utopic plea that "they would be one as we are one." But now, in the argument model (that may not be the best word; I'm thinking out loud), the church in its struggle to embody the teaching of Jesus, in its centuries of debate and dialogue, looks different. Burning people at the stake is something purity models do (especially when they are wed to political purity); the argument model sees argument as engagement--as listening--as caring together with others.

I'd be willing to bet purity model churches structure their liturgies (for even non-denoms have liturgies) around purity. I'd be willing to bet purity models adopt a purity model of outreach, of the use of church funds, of the education of their children, of the expectations of the faithful, of their dialogue with communities and individuals outside the church. Purity culture is a circle-drawing culture: agape is on the inside; judgment is on the outside.

The Bible itself, in the argument model, models its resultant community in a different way. And its God is probably going to be a unity of plurality and not a monad (but that goes in a different direction). Consider grace. The scandal of grace is God’s operation to break a purity circle “while we were yet sinners.” The second are the many instances where Jesus breaks purity and yet, instead of being made unclean, he makes clean. When I talk about circle drawing, by the way, I'm talking about the creation of purity culture. The difference between purity and argumentation is the negation or acceptance of a hermeneutical model of knowing.