4 Nov

In Him we have our being

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/04/15

E. L. Mascall on the meaning of creation

E. L. Mascall (1905-1993)

“[F]or Christian thought, the idea of creation is not primarily concerned with the coming of the world into being at some moment in the past, but with a never-ceasing act by which God preserves the world in existence so long as he wills that it shall exist. It is true that the great majority of Christians have interpreted the opening chapters of the Bible as describing, either literally or in a pictorial and metaphorical way, the first beginning of the finite universe, whether or not they have adopted Archbishop Ussher’s dating of the event as 4004 B.C. It is also true that scholars commonly use the term ‘creation-narratives’ to denote the passages in question, and they go on to point out how in the Bible the world is represented as coming into existence through the almighty command of the one supreme and unique Lord, and not, as in most other religions, as a result of the loves and hates of a whole set of miscellaneous deities. Christian theology, however, was not slow to understand that, in whatever manner the stories in Genesis are to be interpreted, the relation between God and the world, to which the term ‘creation’ properly applies, is not to be thought of as an act in the past by which the universe originated, but as an incessant activity by which it is conserved in existence. . . .

“Even when we describe creation as a continuous act of God, this does not mean that God is himself in time exercising a continuous activity. Time, as we have seen, is the condition of existence of creatures, not of God. God himself is ‘above’ or ‘outside’ time. The act by which God creates the universe does not occur in time, for time itself is an attribute of that which is created. The difference between the creation of a world which had a beginning and the creation of a world which has always existed is not the difference between an act which began at a certain moment and an act which has always been going on. It is the difference between two acts both of which are timeless: the act of creating a world whose time-measure has a lower boundary and the act of creating a world whose time-measure has no lower boundary. Creation is not a ‘process’; it is the timeless act of God on which all processes depend. 

“There are thus two fundamental notions in the Christian doctrine of creation. First, that creation is an act of God which operates upon a creature not only at the moment when it comes into being (if indeed there is such a moment) but at every moment of its existence. Secondly, that the act of creation does not itself take place in time, since time is an attribute of the creature and comes into existence with it.”

—from E. L. Mascall, What do we Mean by the Creation of the World? (The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1960)

4 Nov

God’s love: originating, sustaining, restoring

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/04/15

Jonathan R. Wilson on the inseparability of creation and redemption

“To say that humans are creatures is to say that our identity, our meaning, our life depend on our relationship to the One who created us. This assertion runs counter to most of what we are taught. On the one hand, we are told that we are our own rulers. We have been set free from all external authority and power. We are dependent on no one but ourselves. . . . We make ourselves. We determine our own destiny. . . .”

“On the other hand, we may be told (if we are not creatures) that we have no identity. There is no such thing as constructing our own selves and determining our own destinies. We are merely products of the forces to which we have been subject and other forces that determine our lives today. Our genes, our families of origin, our traumas, our failures and successes, our particular biochemical make-up, market forces, ideologies, brain chemistry, and more converge on the aggregation of molecules that constitutes our lives. These forces determine who each of us is. We have been constructed by these forces. . . .

“One of the gravest errors we can make in our witness to the good news of Jesus Christ is to separate creation and redemption from each other. The place and meaning of creation are found in its redemption. The place and meaning of redemption are its reclaiming and healing of creation. This is the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. Apart from redemption, creation has no purpose in the gospel. As we will see in detail later in this chapter, we recognize ‘creation’ as creation only in relation to God’s work of redemption. Likewise, we recognize ‘redemption’ as redemption only in its relation to God’s work of creation. When we sever the connection between creation and redemption, we lose both: we remove both creation and redemption from the gospel. In doing so, we may continue to perpetuate some version of the ‘good news of Jesus Christ’ that we live and proclaim, but it will be a pale version that often drifts into a loud proclamation of ‘good news,’ which upon close examination turns out to be bad news. . . .

“This commonplace denial of the interweaving of creation and redemption is deeply enshrined in beliefs and practices that regard this world merely as a container for God’s work of salvation, not as an actual participant in God’s work of salvation. It is as if this world were the stage set for God’s work of redemption. Once that work is done, the set is taken down and discarded because it is no longer needed. . . .

“We reduce the incarnation by regarding it only as a necessary step toward God’s act of redemption. In this reduction, the Word became flesh to bear our sins and live long enough as a human to teach and perform miracles that display and confirm his divinity before being crucified. In variations on this reductionist account of the incarnation, the Word becomes flesh as an instrumental act necessary to the work of redemption.

“But that understanding of the incarnation reduces the Word becoming flesh to a skeleton with some flesh hanging on it. In contrast to this deracinated image, we must retrieve, celebrate, and live the fulness of the incarnation as the climactic act of God’s love for God’s creation. The Word became flesh not as an instrument toward our salvation but as an embrace of the whole of creation in this one person — an embrace that redeems all creation. As it is, this ‘one person’ is the one by whom, through whom, and for whom all things were made. It is this very one who enters fully, deeply, passionately into the life of the creation. This is the action of love, love that began before the creation of the cosmos, gives life to the cosmos, holds the cosmos together, embraces and enfolds the cosmos into the life of God through Jesus Christ, and promises life eternal for the cosmos by weaving together creation and redemption in a new heavens and a new earth.”

—from Jonathan R. Wilson, God’s Good World: Reclaiming the Doctrine of Creation (BakerAcademic, 2013)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

4 Nov

A capricious god, a meaningless world

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/04/15

Louis Dupré on the emergence of pure nature

“In Aquinas there had been no question of a supernatural order ‘added’ to nature. For him, the term ‘supernatural’ referred to the means for attaining the one, final end for which our natural powers no longer suffice. God himself is called agens supernaturale, not to separate the order of grace from that of nature, but rather to distinguish the order of the Creator from that of creation (in which nature and grace appear together). Nature itself thereby becomes the effect of a ‘supernatural’ agent. The term supernatural would not begin to refer to an order of grace separate from the order of nature until in the sixteenth century man’s ‘natural’ end came to be conceived as distinct from his revealed destiny. Thus, St. Thomas’s sixteenth-century commentator, Sylvester of Ferrara, interprets his master’s position as if it separated the reality of nature from that of grace. If God were man’s ‘natural’ end to be acquired only in a ‘supernatural’ way, he argues, we would have a conflict that is not conveniens between nature and its goal. Yet for Aquinas nature is not an independent reality endowed with a self-sufficient finis naturalis. . . .

“The nominalist theologies which came to dominate the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries destroyed the intelligible continuity between Creator and creature. The idea of an absolute divine power unrelated to any known laws or principles definitively severed the order of nature from that of grace. A nature created by an unpredictable God loses its intrinsic intelligibility in favor of the mere observation of actual fact. Nor does creation itself teach us anything of God beyond what this divine omnipotence has revealed in Scripture. Grace itself became a matter of divine decree unmeasurable by human standards and randomly dispensed. Detached from its transcendent moorings, nature was left to chart its own course. The rise of the supernatural signaled the loss of an intrinsically transcendent dimension in nature and the emergence of a profound distrust of that nature on the part of theology. The delicate balance was permanently disturbed. The distinction between God’s potentia absoluta (what he can do, if he chooses to do it) and the potentia ordinata (what he actually does) had originated in the eleventh century and had become universally accepted to preserve the idea of God’s total freedom in creation. Nominalist theology had extended its meaning by freeing divine omnipotence from any limits other than internal contradiction. The resulting increase in opposition between an unlimited divine power and a wholly contingent world order conveyed to distinctions which previously had been no more than rational abstractions a reality status they had never possessed before. Among them was the idea of a pure nature, that is, nature conceived without any supernatural destiny to be attained in the order of grace. As the term had been used in St. Thomas and in thirteenth-century Scholasticism, ‘nature’ had been a theological concept: it referred to a concrete existing reality, either in the prelapsarian state of grace, or in the condition after the fall. As theologians commonly used it, ‘nature’ was no longer human nature in its original state, but a transformed nature that had not remained untouched by sin and grace. Hence the original state of innocence could not serve as the norm, nor were such concepts as natural law based upon it. 

“The concept of pure nature, however, that emerged between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries overruled those distinctions elevating an abstract idea derived from the theory of God’s potentia absoluta into a real entity. Though claiming to be independent of the historical stages of the fall and redemption which theology had traditionally distinguished, from a theological point of view, its very bracketing of those stages introduced yet another, albeit artificial, historical concept. When later ethical and political philosophies adopted this concept as a theologically neutral basis for speculation, they did, in fact, build upon a negative theological concept. . . .

“[O]nce the concept of pure nature became detached from its hypothetic context (within the idea of a potentia absoluta) and acquired an assumed reality in its own right, it provoked a new, wholly unprecedented attempt to establish a science of God on purely natural grounds. If ‘nature’ could be understood independently of revelation, so could the transcendent cause of that nature to the extent that it was actively operative in that nature. Natural theology came to occupy the same independent position vis-à-vis revelation which ‘nature’ took with respect to what henceforth was to be called the ‘super-natural.’”

—from Louis Dupré, “Nature and Grace: Fateful Separation and Attempted Reunion,” in David L. Schindler, editor, Catholicism and Secularization in America: Essays on Nature, Grace, and Culture (Communio Books, 1990)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

30 Oct

CSA's: Church Supported Agriculture

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Eve Ruotsinoja
Published: 10/30/15

Norman Wirzba on assuming our creaturely identity

“I am especially asking Christians that they learn to appreciate eating as being of the highest theological significance, and one of the most practical ways to show that they have committed to extending God's hospitable presence in the world. For too long too many Christians have believed that God's primary concern is the fate of their individual soul. This drastic reduction of the sphere of God's activity needs to be expanded to include the whole scope of creation, because that is where God is daily at work. . . .

“If Christians and their churches take this task seriously, many possibilities come into view. To start, many churches own land and house large kitchens. Could these lands not be converted to grow food and flowers for parishioners and the community around? Could these kitchens not be put to neighborly use, teaching people the arts of preparing and preserving food grown with their own hands? If gardening work is indeed work that introduces us to God's ways of being with the world, then churches should seek out opportunities for parishioners to get their hands in the soil, caring for the creatures that God so clearly loves. They should profile the skills of gardening and cooking work as vital to their own faith development. . . . 

“What would it look like to implement a system like Church Supported Agriculture? In this system, specific congregations, or a collection of congregations, can partner with farmers so that both benefit. More than simply a buying club, such a system will enable these congregations to arrange to bring parishioners to the farm so that they can see with greater clarity and honesty the fragility and freshness of life, and the demands of care. Participating in farmwork, they may even come to appreciate the kinds of faith formation that happen while one is seeding, weeding, treating a sick animal, and gathering in a harvest. Churches could also come to understand the financial pressures farmers face in the purchase of land and in the production of food, and then perhaps provide financial backing and support. What if the ‘mission field’ came also to be understood as an actual agricultural field? I don't think this is a stretch. Farming that honors God and creatures is a powerful countercultural witness to a system bent on degrading the sources of life. . . . 

“The scriptural witness is clear: the scope of God’s reconciling ways has never been confined to the human realm. What God seeks is the reconciliation of all things, ‘whether on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1:20). Insofar as Christians commit, through their eating, to be a reconciling presence in the world, they may yet learn to be agents of the ‘good news’ that Paul says has been proclaimed ‘to every creature under heaven’ (Col. 1:23). Doing that, they will, perhaps, learn to assume their creaturely identity.”

—Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Baker Academic, 2015)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

27 Oct

Festivity: real or sham?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/27/15

Josef Pieper on why we celebrate (and why some people can’t)

“Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself. Naturally, this approval need not be a product of conscious reflection; it need not be formulated at all. Nevertheless, it remains the sole foundation for festivity, no matter what happens to be celebrated in concreto. And as the radical nature of negation deepens, and consequently as anything but ultimate arguments become ineffectual, it becomes more necessary to refer to this ultimate foundation. By ultimate foundation I mean the conviction that the prime festive occasion, which alone can ultimately justify all celebration, really exists; that, to reduce it to the most concise phrase, at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist. For man cannot have the experience of receiving what is loved, unless the world and existence as a whole represent something good and therefore beloved to him. . . .

“Strictly speaking, however, it is insufficient to call affirmation of the world a mere prerequisite and premise for festivity. In fact it is far more; it is the substance of festivity. Festivity, in its essential core, is nothing but the living out of this affirmation. . . .

To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole. . . .

“Whenever or wherever assent to the world is expressly rejected, expressly and consistently (though this last is not easy), the root of both festivity and the arts is destroyed. . . . 

“It is indubitably true that refusal of assent makes ‘song’ impossible. If assent to the world can no longer be celebrated festively at all, then every one of the fine arts becomes homeless, useless, idle, unbelievable, and at bottom impossible. To be sure, such refusal can exist side-by-side with the greatest technical skill. That is precisely what complicates the matter. For wherever truthful form is achieved, no matter how ‘formalistic’ it may be, there exists eo ipso in some sense harmony, concord with a pre-established image of order — and thus inevitably a grain of affirmation. Complete negation is necessarily formless; it presupposes the shattering of form; whereas negation proclaimed in perfect form is only a half-negation, inherently a contradiction of itself. And in fact, the arts of our time are characterized by such abstrusities of structure, quite aside from the fact that a good deal of art that pretends to metaphysical negation is really founded upon assent to a hidden order. . . .

“Worse than clear negation, however, is mendacious affirmation. Worse than the silencing and stifling of festivity and the arts is a sham practicing of them. And once again we may see that pseudo-art is related in a variety of ways to pseudo-festivity. The sham is inherent in the fact that the affirmation and ascent compatible only with true reality is falsified into a smug yea saying, whose basic element is a desire to fend off reality, so as not to be disturbed, at any price. A deceptive escape from the narrowness of the workaday utilitarian world is found in the form of entertainment and ‘forgetting one’s worries.’ And the same mendacious message also reaches men through the medium of the pseudo-arts, whether trivial or pretentious, flattering or entertaining, or intoxicating like a drug. Man craves by nature to enter the ‘other’ world, but he can attain it only if true festivity truly comes to pass.”

—Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (New American Library, 1952)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.