Monday, April 30, 2012

Is it a contradiction to bleieve in something that is beyond our understnanding? (part 1)

detail of the Ceiling of the Hagia Sophia
"In 404 AD the church was destroyed by mobs set into action when Emperor Arcadius sent Archbishop John Chrysostom into exile for his criticism of the Empress. In 415 AD Emperor Theodosius II rebuilt the church. It too fell victim to a rampaging mob at the time of Monophysite heretics in 532 AD. "

Twice now I was explaining to atheists that the Eastern Orthodox approach to apophatic theology invovles the idea that God is beyond our understanding but we know certain realities about God through mystical union. I said it was a tradition and they said "the tradition is old and out modded." A tradition, Old? Pull the other one! Being old is what you want in  a tradition. No one every says "this is a bran new tradition it must be good." The idea of a tradition is that it is a conversation, it serves as a guide to mistakes and successes of the past by recording what's been said. People who don't understand the nature of religious belief assume tradition is arbitrary and outmoded because our education system stopped teaching how to learn and began imprinting technology on kids about 40 years ago.

Atheists seem truly alarmed by the idea that God is beyond our understanding. For me it's a fundamental to my belief in God. It's the first premise in mystical theology. Here I will present a blog piece about the use of that concept in Orthodox theology and how they deal with that. Then in part 2 on Wednesday I'll present a dialogue form the comment contention and make a few additional comments.

Most people tend to think of God as a big man in the sky. Feminism tries to counter by thinking of God/ess as a big woman in the sky, but it’s the same principle. God is seen as a thing, a human, a big person who is only the most powerful but still part of creation.  Even those of us trained in a more liberal kind of theology still have a hard time shaking the childhood notion. In trying to discuss Tillich’s ideas with both Christians and atheists I find atheists are as committed to “the big guy in the sky” as are fundamentalist Christians. Both can be very strong about insisting that Tillich’s idea is not the Christian concept of God. Of course Tillich was convinced that he had hold of a deep forgotten truth buried beneath the tradition that one can see hinted at by all the major theologians. I will discuss in this chapter some of the theologians whom Tillich uses as such examples, but I will not critique his understanding of them extensively. I assume Tillich was reading into the theologians he liked ideas that may not be there originally. On the other hand some of the ideas are obvious. I will get that toward the end of this chapter. In this chapter I want to explore the notion that while Tillich’s idea is controversial and in some quarters much objected to, in a general sense its concerns if not its assertions are generally favorable to Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, and that one can find in all of these traditions major thinkers who are in a general sense in agreement with either Tillich’s idea or his concerns. I think at least we can say these views are not anti-Christian, not heretical.

Two Major Passages

            We start with the Bible since that for so many forms the basis of Christian theological tradition. There are no passages that blatantly say God is being itself. Of course we are not going to find one that says “verily Verily, I say unto you, Tillich is right.” The main aspect of Biblical theology in which we can expect to find support is not the overt quotation of passages but the imagery and other theological devices used to communicate truth about the nature of God and God’s relation to reality. Also the relation of the concept of being to the concept of God as we see it used in the Bible is a major aspect of this evidence. Moreover, the endorsement of the idea outright by other theologians both living and ancient is a major part of the proof. Nevertheless, there is one passage that may be taken as embodying a concept the consequence of which would entail that God is being itself, or the ground of being. Thais passage is actually a translation; it’s the Septuagint (LXX) version, the Greek translation of the OT produced in the Intertestamental period. This passage is found in Exodus 3: 14 where God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush and tells him to go demand of Pharos “let my people God.” Moses says “whom shall I say is calling?”  God tells him, as translated from Hebrew to English from the Masoretic text, “I am that I am.” In the LXX however, he says ego eimi ‘O on, which literally means “I am he who is.” The meaning implied is that of eternal necessary being. Why say “I am he who is” when anyone who exists can say that? He’s not talking bout the mere fact of existence but the implication of being the basis of all existence. “He who is” implies an eternal and necessary nature.
            The famous passage of God appearing out of the burning bush and giving Moses his name as “I am” is an important passage, not only is it important for movie goers and Charlton Hesston fans but also in the history of philosophy. It was upon the basis of this passage that Etinene Gilson says Thomas Aquinas based the notion he had of God as the primary act of existence, and the basis of the argument about existential energy.

Quote the passage in Gilson

Why, St. Tomas asks, do we say that Qui est  is the most proper name among all those that can be given to God? And his answer is because it signifies ‘to be.’ : ipsum esse. And what is it to be? In answering this most difficult of all metaphysical questions, we must carefully distinguish between the meaning of two words which are both different and yet immediately realted, ens, or being and esse or ‘to be.’ To the question “what is being” the correct answer is, “being is that which is, or exits” If for instance we ask the same question with regard for God the correct answer would be “the being of God is an infinite and boundless ocean of substance.” But esse or to be is something else and much harder to grasp because it lies more deeply hidden in the metaphysical structure of reality. The word being as a noun designates some substance;the word “to be”—or esse—is a verb, because it designates an act. To understand this is also to reach beyond the level of essence, the deeper level of existence…we first conceive certain beings, then we define their essences, and last we confirm their existences by means of a judgment. But the metaphysical order of reality is just the reverse of the order of human knowledge. What first comes into it is a certain act of existing, which. Because it is this particular act of existing, circumscribes at once a certain essence and causes a certain substance to come into being. In this deeper sense “to be” is the deeper and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists…to be is the very act whereby an essence is.[1]

Of course for those not enamored of Thomistic philosophy this may seem a bit questionable but the point in bringing it up is to show the profound power and importance of the passage, which served as a spring board for a major movement in the history of philosophy and of faith. The meaning is obviously bound up in questions of the metaphysical nature of being and what it means to be. The Scholastics derived from this idea of essence and existence the notion that God alone is unique because the divine essence (what God is) is the same as the divine existence (the fact that God is), or to put it another way God’s essence is the same as his existence. For everything else existence is a function of essence. The up shot of all of this is that the thing God is is an eternally existing act.  The job description of God so to speak is to always be because what God is eternal necessary being. We can see that in the passage just by translating in the stadanrd way form Hebrew as “I am that I am.”
            Aquinas’ view of God is counter to that of Tillich even though they are both termed “existential.” Wolfhart Pannenberg used Aquinas to actually counter Tilich (one can see the contradiction between Aquinas’ use of the term “existence of God” and Tillich’s abhorrence f the term). [2] Even so I would argue that weather one works from the Hebrew derived translation “I am that I am” or the Greek “I am being” it’s hinting at the same thing. He doesn’t say “I am the most powerful being” or even “I am the creator” but either way it definitely rests the relationship between God and the world upon the notion of God as the basis of reality. “I am that I am” implies a self sustaining uncaused or eternal state, aka aseity, and that implies that the one who has aseity would have to be the foundation of all reality and the creator of all things. The interview between God and Moses is so crucial to the Christian concept of God, it is the unveiling of God’s identity to the great Patriarch of Israel, their leader out of slavery and to the promised land. This is a very key verse. This is where we are given the basic revelation of who God is. What does it tell us but that God is fundamentally connected to being at the most foundational level? The Hebrew word most used for God derives from this passage and it basically means “being.” “The name of god, which in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, is difficult to explain. Scholars generally believe that it derives from the Semitic word, "to be," and so means something like, "he causes to be."[3]
            The other archetypical passage that literally connects God to being itself proceeds from the other end of the equation, from the standpoint of the being and their connection to God. That passage is found in Acts 17: 28 “In him we live and move and have our being. Paul is telling the Greek philosophers and worshippers on Mars Hill that their alter to “the unknown God” hints at the reality of the true God. These were pagan followers of another religion. Paul stood up and said to them, "Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious for as I walked around and observed your objects of worship I even found an alter with this inscription 'TO AN UNKOWN GOD' Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you." He basically says that they are worshiping God, they just don't know who he is. That's why he says "I will make it known to you." He doesn't say "you have the wrong idea completely." Most Evangelicals dismiss this as a neat rhetorical trick. But if we assume that Paul would not lie or distort his beliefs for the sake of cheap tricks, we must consider that he did not say "you are all a bunch of pagans and you are going to hell!" He essentially told them, "God is working in your culture, you do know God, but you don't know who God is. You seek him, without knowing the one you seek. He goes on,(v27)"God did this [created humanity and scattered them into different cultures] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him though he is not far form each one of us." This implies that God not only wants to work in other cultures, but that it is actually his plan to do things in this way. Perhaps through a diversity of insights we might come to know God better. Perhaps it means that through spreading the Gospel people would come to contemplate better the meaning of God's love. The significance is that the Hebrew passage is God’s revelation to his chosen people, to the Israelites, the Greek passage of the NT is the revelation of the Christian God reaching out to other people. In both cases God is revealing himself or being revealed. In both cases God’s basic identity is related to God’s relation to being.  The passage in v28 says “In him we live and move and have our being.” Literally it says “in him we live and move and are.” The tense is present. The translation in English is usually slanted to the poetic. The notion of our being is not only derived from God but is played out “in” God suggests the concept of Being and the beings. The beings are produced and sustained as part of being. Since God is the producer and sustainer of our being, of all being it stands to reason that God is the foundation of all that is, and that God is therefore, fundamentally related to Being itself. This is also a picture of the depth of being. God’s estrangement from other cultures and revelation to those cultures demonstrates a fundamental relation to being, he is not an idol made with hands, (as Paul says in the passage) he is not served by men with their hands, yet he is “not far from any one of us.” In fact Paul quotes the Greek poet “we are all his offspring.” One is reminded of the notion “being is present and manifest in the beings.”
The Formation of Christian Doctrine.

            Nothing could be more deeply Orthodox than the doctrine of the Trinity; this is the seminal concept that defines Orthodox Christianity. The concept of Being itself is at the heart of the Trinitarian doctrine. The doctrine of the Trinity was one of the major doctrines that shaped the Christian tradition as a separate and distinct tradition form that of Judaism, and gave it its own unique flavor and character. Embodied in the making of that doctrine at a fundamental level was the idea of being itself. Yet in this context that idea if masked by another, or rather the modern phrase of Tillich’s is the old idea masked and packed for modern thinkers. The original concept, as already pointed out in the chapter on Tillich and Being itself is homoousios, substance, essence. The concepts of being and essence are closely related. “Being” can be used of the fact of existing; in him we live and move and have our being. The verb “to be” for example speaks of the act of existing. Essence is that which makes something what it is, being is not just the fact that something it but also hints at what something is since essence can be described as “being itself.”
            Tillich, in tracing the development of Trinitarian Christology recounts the rise of monarchism among the masses. The masses wanted God on earth, and one man as God not three persona of God. The stressed the monarchist nature of God as opposed to what they took to be three gods in Trinitarian thinking. In the chapter on Tillich and Being itself I discussed the link between substance (or “essence”) homoousios and being itself.(see fn 77 previous chapter). Essence is partly the power of being. The concept of essence was left to the Greek and Roman Christians through the gentile drift of the church. Because they were gentile they naturally gravitated to Greek based philosophical explanations (that meant Platonic ones). They did not understand the Hebrew origin of the OT thought about God and probably didn’t care either. They moved everything into Greek categories because to them that was the official seat of knowledge in that day. Tillich Talks about the mystical nature of Origen’s doctrine and the mystical and devotional nature of his philosophical creeds, they sound to us like abstract philosophy but to the believers of Alexandrian who followed Origen (b185-d253/254) they were suitable as devotional confessions. “We believe in Jesus Christ, Logos of God, God from God, light from light, life from life, first born of all creatures generated out of the father before all generations.”[4] While this sounds like a technical description of doctrine, the follower of Origen who was reciting might well be having a mystical experience after the recitation. Tillich speaks of this as “the mystical intuition of essences, of powers of being.” This is interesting for several reasons. As pointed out, it links being itself with essence in the Platonic sense, in the sense of homoousios, but also because it implies that an understanding of being itself could well be a mystical intuition and the trigger for a mystical experience. homoousios was the universal understanding and used in one way or another by all sides in the controversies.[5]
            The Christiological controversies are far too complex to go into here. That would take the reader far off track. I will stick to a direct course and just cut to the meat of the matter: I confine this argument to the outcome of the controversy, and just deal with the meaning and implications of the term homoousios. My position is that Tillich uses “being itself’ as a modernized version of “essence” so that he brings concepts which would otherwise be labeled outmoded into package more acceptable to the modern clement. When he did this the climate was largely one in which existentialism was valued and was seen as “modern.” Talk of “being” in a Hideggerian context was part of the contemporary cutting edge of the day. Therefore I will focus up what this means for the Christian concept of God and not upon the developments of the Christological dispute. I will point out, however, that the term wound up being used in the major creeds and came to be the defining term for the nature of the deity shared by the three persons of the Trinity.
            Origen had overcome a heretical movement that interposed the Trinity in certain way. These were the modal monarchists. They reduced the three persons of the Trinity to “modes” of being. They wanted God on earth directly, not mediated by a hierarchy of emanations. So they had the three persons as mere masks or identities, just as one takes on a false identity to spy or escape the law, or for whatever reason. These three identities were “modes” into which God alternate or shift, they all were actually of the same essence, or hamousios, (being). Origen ran roughshod over the moralistic groups for at time but eventually his movement was fragmented into left and right. This term was used throughout the controversies, and was used of both Monarchians and Origeinists and other Othodox theologians some scholars feel it was employed to combat the Arians. The modal monarchists and the Arians were both defeated but the victors also used “essence” or homoousios.  The term had a checkered past, political opposing rose against it, and theologically it was challenged as Sabalien[6] but it stuck and has clung to the creeds. In the translation of the old wording for the Nicene creed the term is translated “being of one substance with the Father;” the modern western wording has it, “of one being with the Father..”[7]
            None of this is to say that the Church leaders taking part in the Christological disputes thought of God in the way that Tillich did. If they were ask “what is God?” They would not say “being itself” as a clear and meaningful answer. If Tillich’s view is a way of modernizing ancient Orthodoxy then the link is clear; being itself refers to the act of God’s being in reality and as the basis of reality, the realization that God is the basic primary act of being has always been a keystone of the Christian faith. The basic formation of Christianity as we know it, based upon the Trinity, is conditioned upon an understanding of the concept of essence that is linked to the notion of God’s act of being and the way it is shared by the three persona of the Godhead. As a noun being designates a substance. [8]That’s the link between homoousios and being. Gilson not using the terms the way Tillich does, talking about existence as lying more deeply hidden in the metaphysical structure of reality (see quote in fn 2). To be designates action, being as a noun designates substance. But the substance and the act meet up, the “what” God is meets the “that” God is in God’s eternal and necessary nature, his being is his substance. I like the way Gilson put it

Because it is this particular act of existing, circumscribes at once a certain essence and causes a certain substance to come into being. In this deeper sense “to be” is the deeper and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists…to be is the very act whereby an essence is. In this deeper sense to be is the primitive and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists. In St. Thomas’ own words…to be is the very act whereby an essence is.  A world where ‘to be’ is the act par excellence, the act of all acts is also a world wherein, for each and everything existence is the original energy whence flows all that deserves the name of being. Such an existential world can be accounted for by no other cause than a supremely existential God[9]

This is why Tillich speaks of the term essence (homoousios) as “divine power of being.” Even though he uses the term “existence” differently than does Gilson, they are really saying the same thing about God. When Gilson speaks of “the original energy” from which all flows, as the Thomists say “existential energy” he means work. Greek, from which our term “energy” derives, ergon, means “to work.” Energy is work and that correlates to Tillich’s phrase “power of being.” Energy, work, power, all the same thing, flowing from God is the act of God’s on eternal reality and from that the power to make all that is; of course that same power of God flows through all that is. The power of being is the work that God dos in creating and sustaining all things. God’s own being then is an eternal work of acting to be, participating in the act of being.
            This is why Tillich says the Modal monarchists embraced their creeds as mystical confessions. The creeds acted as triggers for mystical experiences. They were intuitively picking up on the idea of God’s power in the act of creation and the act of being. We engage in the act of being with God as contingent properties of God’s energies, or his act of being. That is according to God’s will, of course. This notion of primordial being and our participation as sort of cosmic hitchhiker’s on God’s eternal act of self sustenance is at the core of the Christological doctrine. As the phrase “essence” (creative power of being—homoousios)    connotes this sense of the act of existence hidden beneath the notion of substance—the three persona of the Godhead sharing in the same eternal act of being. The hitchhiker metaphor is not to imply anything in the sense of our own per existence or God’s lack of will in creating humans and bring all things out of nothing. Our very existence is a result of the creative energy of being. This is implied at the core of the stodgy boring old Christological stuff at the root of the doctrine of the Trinity. These controversies were the making of Christianity. Nothing could be more orthodox than the concept of God as being itself.
The Orthodox Tradition

Eastern Orthodox Church. Timothy Ware wrote a fine book, The Orthodox Church that does a good job of introducing Western Christians to the Eastern Church.[10]
            Ware explains the great schism and how the gulf between east and west continued to grow. He wants to explain the ways in which the east contributed to the gulf. He says that nothing was so radical as the scholastic “revolution” but he lists as the eastern counterpart the Hesychast controversy (pg2). 14th century Byzantium. This involved God’s nature and the method of prayer. To explain the controversy he goes back to history of eastern mystical theology, back to Clement of Alexandria (early third century) and Origen (mid 3d). The Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa and also Evagrius, a monk in the Egyptian desert (d399) developed the ideas of Clement and Origen. This entire tradition depended upon an apophatic approach, especially as developed by Clement and Gregory. God is beyond our understanding. We cannot speak accurately about God because we can’t understand God and we don’t know if our experiences of God are so very encompassing or just fragmentary. Therefore, the mystics of the Eastern Church use negative language of God rather than positive. That is to say they concern themselves with what God is not, rather than what God is.[11] (63)
“The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this—in seeing that he is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility.” –Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 11, 163 (377A).

The Height of Negative theology is reached in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite. (unknown writer lived in Syria toward the end of the fifth century). Saint Maximus the Confessor (662) compassed a commentary on these writings and assured their place in the Eastern Church. [12]

He is also an influence on the west, as Ware points out, as Aquinas quotes him heavily in Summa Theologica.  The concept of God as Being itself is ratified by Vatican II and is a major premise of modern Catholic doctrine.[13]

It doesn't just stop there with God being beyond our understanding and saying what God is not. We get the postive side affirmations from mystical union. We can expedience God and "understand" without words, without intellecutal left brain knowledge. We experience directly the love and presence of God. This leaves those who have not had such experiences feeling that they are in the dark, but they can take heart. We can't translate those experiences into words without the mediation of metaphors. We have to relate them to what is known so that we can bridge to what is unknown through its similarity. In this way we have a approximate and even parallax view of God. Parallax because the other side of it is using deductive reasoning and empirical fact to rule out what God is not. Thus for those without "big" experiences, in the moment that the reality of God seems "right" to them that is probalby an experience of God's presence. People experience thing differently.

The realization of God is a realization of one's place in being.

[1] Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy. New Haven and London: Yale University press, Powell lectures on Philosophy Indiana University, 1941, 63-64.
[2] Find--Gilson
[3] Jewish Virtual Library, “Egypt and the Wanderings:Moses and the Cult of Yahweh ” visited 4/23/10, URL:  “the Hebrews a Learning Module Washington  State Universality, copyright Richard Hooker 2010.

[4] Tillich, History, 68
[5] Ibid
[6] Tillich, History, 67-70
[7] “nciene creed symbol of faith” Internet Christian Library: URL:  visted 5/12/10.
[8] Gilson, Ibid, 63
[9] Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy. New Haven and London: Yale University press, Powell lectures on Philosophy Indiana University, 1941, 63-64.
[10] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, New York: Penguin books, 1963 (1993 edition).
[11]  Ibid. 63
[12]  Ibid. quotes John of Damascus from On the Orthodox Faith 1,4 (P.G. Xciv, 800b
[13] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, Thomas A. Carlson Trans. 1991 (original language publication 1982). xxii.


Miles said...

You can also point to negative theology. Also, such things never stopped the daoists

Metacrock said...

I did. I mentioned apophatic. That's what negative theology is. I may have misspelled it.

Such things as what never stopped the daoists?