Thursday, April 10, 2008

Is Rowan Williams Wrong?

I have just started Rowan Williams’ charming little book, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). It presents edited-for-publication “talks” that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave during Holy Week in 2005. In the talks, Abp. Williams summarizes the fundamentals of Christian faith to an era in which the long catechumenate of early Church history (which would have filled the current void in basic pre-Baptismal instruction) has been long abandoned.

Now an excursus: I would give money to have available to me such a series of homiletical lectures by a scholarly (or even remotely theologically astute) bishop. Such an experience seems to me to be what bishops and Lent and Holy Week are for. It is, to my eye, a measure of the degradation of the Church that we (and here I include most “denominations”) have allowed the office so to deteriorate that bishops are more comfortable discussing terms of 401k plans (or whatever they are in the non-profic sphere) than Christological controversies.

But back to Abp. Rowan.

In his first talk, the Archbishop sets the fundamental theme of his talks – viz., that Christian faith is trust in God. The title of the essay is “Who Can We Trust?” (OK, a complaint: Abp. Rowan is a good thinker and pretty felicitous writer, but he has some nasty habits resulting in errors of grammar and punctuation. These should have been corrected by his editors. I mean, I know that we are always to treat God as “subject” and not as “object,” but I don’t think the rule extends to our grammar. "WhoM can we trust?" – that’s what it ought to have said. And there are several other misuses of the objective case already in only the first chapter.)

At page 12, he says this:

A word of caution here: some modern thinkers have been very tempted by language that seems to suggest that God is in some way in need of having something else around in order to become more fully himself. … But I think we have to face a challenge here; we must get to grips with the idea that we don’t ‘contribute’ anything to God, that God would have been the same God if we had never been created. (Italics added.)

And it’s that last phrase, “God would have been the same God if we had never been created,” that brought me up short. My initial reaction was, “Wrong!” And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became in my original reaction.

I readily admit at the outset that I am no philosophical theologian (I can’t even play one in Sunday School). And I am not particularly facile in the arguments surrounding the Theopaschite controversy. And I figure that with the heft of his tome on Arius, the Archbishop is fluent in the controversies of Christian polemics. But I can’t figure out how one -- i.e., he -- squares the claim that Jesus was God and that he died with the claim that God would have been the same had that not happened. Here’s my reasoning.

God is what happens among the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is not God without the either the Son or the Spirit – and the same holds for the others. (And I think this stands up whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.) God is dynamic, relational -- an event, even. He is not static or reified in the way a statue or a photograph is.

God created humanity (as a part of the creation of all that we know) ex nihilo. There was something new brought into being and, thus, already something must have changed in the nature of the relationship among Father and Son and Spirit -- which is to say, in God --, because the love that binds them in their eternal perichoresis was in some sense adjusted or opened to include what had not been there before. Doesn’t that mark a difference already in God – not exactly an evolution (I’m not that daft!), but certainly a change (as in a change in the dynamic)? Admittedly, I suppose, it represents no fundamental change in the essential nature of God (if one wants to go all Aristotelian). But it does change God. Does it complete God in some way? No, but it does complicate his existence.

Take it to the next step: Only because God created humanity did Jesus become human. (Obviously, that is speculation, but it does seem naturally to follow from the Christian reading of the "Fall" which followed from the creation.) The Son took on flesh and lived, suffered, died, and was buried in both his human and divine “natures.” Now look: If Jesus was both fully human and divine, then when he died, the Son died, didn’t he? And if the Son died, God died – because God is what happens among the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. If there is no Son, there is no longer God -- at least in the sense that there was God when the Son was alive. Because of the contingent nature of the Christian narrative, are we not compelled to say that had humanity never been created, God may never have died. But since God did die, was God not different from what he would have been had he not died never created humanity?

Did God not weep over Jerusalem? Did God not mourn Lazarus’ death? Did God not revel in the wedding banquet at Cana (OK: that’s an embellishment on the pericope)? Did God not feel the scourging done to him? Did God not suffer on his cross? If any and all of these are true of Jesus, and they are, are they not true of God by nature of the infinite perichoresis among Father and Son and Holy Spirit? And were not all of these contingent on the creation of humanity?

My reading of Heilsgeschichte is that God regularly changes his mind, alters his course. These changes are perfectly consistent with his fundamental identity, which is love. But are we so to isolate God away from human experience that we can – or that we want – to say that God was affected by none of this?

Fundamentally, we I don’t see how we can continue to hold that God did not change, did not experience different things differently, did not suffer as a result of the contingent event of his creating humankind – that is, unless we want to put everything on the level of pagan myth. It seems to me, without knowing what I’m talking about, that I must be a heretic of the Theopaschite variety. The immutability of God may have served an importance at one point in history. Now it seems to be to be something better ignored.

In my defense, I think that I can find support for my position in a number of big-wig theological thinkers who are not talking through their hats: Barth, Bonhoeffer, Moltmann, and others (don't I remember something from Jenson's Systematic raising this point?) seem to be on board with a new reading of that old problem.

I suppose, from the Archbishop’s perspective in his lectures, it makes sense to stress the unchangeability of God to underscore God’s reliability (although that's not what the context suggests). But I think his assertion goes too far and ultimately undercuts the theme he pursues.

6 comments:

Mystical Seeker said...

The more things that I run across that Rowan Williams has written or said, the less I think of him.

If God is unaffected by what we do, then what kind of God is that? Why did God even create (or evoke the creation of) the world anyway, if nothing that happens in creation matters to God or affects him/her in any way? Rowan Williams's conception of God ultimately leads to a view of God who is impassive and not sympathetic to the human condition.

Eric Lee said...

Rowan Williams sounds spot-on, to me.

First, creation is no 'change' in God. This is the first error. Conor Cunningham in his book Genealogy of Nihilism says this very well:

(but bear with it as it covers some difficult concepts: "univocity of being" is the bring down of everything, including God [who is not a 'thing'!] down to the same level of being as creation):

"Furthermore, we must realise that creation is caused by the procession of the Divine Persons of the Trinity: 'The issuing forth of the Person in a unity of essence is the cause of the issuing forth of the creatures in a diversity of essence.' As a result, creation cannot be thought of as a change, for the 'temporal procession is not other than the eternal procession'. Indeed, Aquinas specifically says, 'Creation is not a change.' He further argues that 'Creation does not involve any passage into being, nor any transformation.' At one point Aquinas states that 'we cannot say that Being itself is'. Here Aquinas is ensuring that there is no univocity of being according a certain pre-eminence to the Good as final cause; this allows us to know creation as having been created in the distinct absence of comprehension. What this disables is any ontic logic that would presume the ultimate legitimacy of certain formal logics. For example, it is tempting to think of creation as different, a difference involving a before and after, but this is to commit a rather Kantian theoretical sin. If we were to say 'creation is a change' then we must have already presumed or have in place, the concept of change -- whereby the change literally takes place or occurs within something outside the change which is the transcendental possibility of change. However, only creation once established is the sphere of change, which is therefor a finite actuality, not a univocal possibility indifferent to finite and infinite. Not only this, but we also have, again in a quasi-Kantian manner, presumed without declaration the concept of time. The change which creation is thought to be has, as such, a before and after. Yet it must be asked 'where is the time of this time, from where does it issue forth'? The time of such a change would, in a sense, have to have been before the subsequent change. Such thinking usually elevates efficient causality above final causality. In so doing an implicit univocity remains, for what can it mean to cause something efficiently without a prior efficiency having already been there ad infinitum, and so again in indifference to finite and infinite. The fact that, for Aquinas, creation is not a change, but a way of understanding--a certain relationship--allows him to avoid such univocity. This is in line with Augustine who argued that time only arises with creation. More importantly it begins to allow a more adequate understanding of difference to arise: difference is prior to change, and so is different since change occurs only within the same framework of change" (p. 223).

In sum, for us to say that a real 'change' occurred in God it to presuppose that we know what it means to say change as we perceive it is the same kind of thing when we say 'difference' in God.

You say:

"Here’s my reasoning. God is what happens among the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is not God without the either the Son or the Spirit – and the same holds for the others. (And I think this stands up whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.) God is dynamic, relational -- an event, even. He is not static or reified in the way a statue or a photograph is. God created humanity (as a part of the creation of all that we know) ex nihilo. There was something new brought into being and, thus, already something must have changed in the nature of the relationship among Father and Son and Spirit -- which is to say, in God --, because the love that binds them in their eternal perichoresis was in some sense adjusted or opened to include what had not been there before. Doesn’t that mark a difference already in God – not exactly an evolution (I’m not that daft!), but certainly a change (as in a change in the dynamic)? Admittedly, I suppose, it represents no fundamental change in the essential nature of God (if one wants to go all Aristotelian)."

You are right to say that God is perichoresis of the Father, Son, and Spirit. You are right that God is not static, and that God created ex nihilo. And you are right that the essential nature of God did not change. So then it becomes a bit odd to declare that something 'new' must have been created such that it was a change 'in' God.

Now, I am not arguing whatsoever for a kind of eternal existence of souls at all, for it is true that we did not exist before our conception, etc.; no real platonic metaphysics here.

But while Moltmann and Jenson (who does talk that way in vol. 1 of his Systematic Theology, btw) emphasize is the important 'economic' or Trinity 'ad extra' of God. Yes, the economic and immanent Trinity is the same as Karl Rahner's dictum says, however the one bit that I would agree with David Bentley Hart very strongly on is that there must be an "analogical interval" between these two. The interval prevents us from collapsing God into history in a kind of panentheism but still affirms that we do indeed know God through history and thus the revealed divine/human Scriptures historically mediated to us by the Church.

Jenson and Moltmann's spirit is to be affirmed though, as it is clearly in response to ivory-tower theology that has an impersonal (and thus truly Aristotelian) God. However, it seems a bit dangerous to proclaim a need to affirm that something "in" God is actually changing (which I don't think Jenson actually does). For don't we already live, move, and have our being in God?

Hart's critiques of Jenson in The Beauty of the Infinite I think are spot-on (but also shouldn't be divorced from Hart's positive affirmation of Jenson in that First Things article he wrote). Hart also offers a helpful understanding of the infinity of God which while I guess none of us can really understand it, it helps to shed light on creation as being an analogy of God.

This has gone on rather long, but one last note. Another thing I think the "there must be change 'in' God" thing does is that it tends to flatten out (or slacken) the paradoxical nature of much of this. Yes, creation is created out of nothing, yet God does not change. In the crucifixion, also, we would get dangerously close to saying that God in God's self actually suffered here too, as opposed to the traditional affirmation of the paradoxical nature of this: Following Augustine's forumation, God both suffered in the form of a servant as Jesus, yet in the form of God Jesus did not suffer.

So yeah, I am with Archbishop Rowan Williams on this :P

Also, in regards to the previous comment by mystical seeker, I think that is a rather wrong-headed conclusion. Amazingly, John Wesley (for instance) affirmed divine impassibility, but also preached God as the living God. Saying that God is 'unaffected' does not immediately lead to what we think of as 'unsympathetic' at all; I wouldn't believe in a God that I could affect! The living God as the divine perichoresis of the Trinity already contains and 'knows' what it means to be human in the unity of the fully divine/human person of Jesus Christ. It's not like suffering is actually a 'good' thing in the end, despite how much good God makes of it and leads us toward hope and love (Romans 5).

If the Triune God in God's infinite knowledge and condescension in the form of the servant of Jesus didn't already contain and 'know' what our condition is, then I don't know why making God 'sympathetic' somehow makes that better? Anyway, it doesn't seem like that 'gets' us anything by thinking that God can just 'feel' us. If God is God then God already knows everything about us more than we know ourselves and is closer to ourselves than ourselves!

Peace,

Eric

Camassia said...

I think this all depends on what we mean by "the same," which depends on the context. Am I the same person you met in the summer of 2005? Sure. I haven't been destroyed and replaced by a pod person. But have I gone along totally unaffected by everything that's happened since then? Certainly not.

From the quote you cite here, it sounds like Williams means "same" in the former sense. It sounds like he's arguing against some kind of pantheistic idea that creation is a consituent part of God, so he was not a discrete and developed being until we came along. In that regard, I don't see anything unorthodox about it.

Mystical Seeker said...

Saying that God is 'unaffected' does not immediately lead to what we think of as 'unsympathetic' at all; I wouldn't believe in a God that I could affect!

I disagree. Sympathy by definition means being affected by the object of sympathy. If you are impassive to that which goes on around you, then sympathy does not come into play. And I wouldn't believe in a God that I could NOT affect. So there you have it.

As far as I am concerned, there really isn't any way around this problem, John Wesley notwithstanding, unless you take the approach that process theologians have taken, which is to understand that God has both a primordial and a consequent nature. There is a lot of muddled theology out there that equates perfection with being unchanged and unaffected. Rowan Williams exemplifies this, unfortunately.

And God hardly needs to have lived on earth as a human being in order to know what suffering is. That severely limits God's knowledge, first of all, and secondly it only means that God has a personal experience of suffering so that God can somehow relate to other instances of suffering that God did not experience. But I would argue that God's understanding of suffering (and joys) is perfect and it encompasses not just suffering (and joy) in the abstract, but full and perfect knowledge of every instance of suffering that has ever taken place. However, since actions in the universe are the product of free will and are contingent, then God's understanding and sympathy with our suffering is also contingent on the specific acts that take place. That requires that God, at least in some aspects, changes over time, by encompassing and perfectly sympathizing with every feeling that occurs.

Lee said...

I think there are two distinct, though related, issues here. What Williams is speaking to is not so much the question of whether God changes, but whether God needed to create in order to "fulfill" himself. The orthodox view has always, as far as I know, been that creation is, strictly speaking, "unnecessary" or purely gratuitous, coming to be only out of God's pure beneficence. To assert otherwise is to suggest that creation is not something that springs from God's love, but from a certain lack in God.

Dwight P. said...

I am often inclined to give up theology: The enterprise SO depends on clarity of expression, correct reference to background, a million hermeneutical traps, and all the rest: What does change mean? Just how far can we analogize what we mean to say about God to human experience? Oh, lawsy, it's just too complicated. (And with all respect, Eric, I get about 10% of your quote; I am a simple man with a mind ill-suited to philosophical grandiloquence. "Procession" language is something I still need to get my head around; maybe that's the problem?)

I readily affirm that the Creation is utterly and absolutely unnecessary to God as He was, is, and ever shall be. It was a gracious act that seems, in retrospect and perhaps paradoxically, to be an utterly logical outpouring of his love. There is no sense in which God "needed" to create or that creation constitutes a fourth person in the Trinity. But if ex nihilo means anything -- pretty broad statement, I know -- does it not point to a new reality, to which God has opened himself? And doesn't that require that we recognize some wort of change? Whereas the Divine Three had been chanting and dancing around each other with their eyes on each other and their hands in each others' arms, don't they now chant and dance and talk in the same love, but now sometimes referring to those problematic earth-bound humans that they've worked so hard to keep with them?

Eric, here I follow your line: It may be in the immanent Trinity that the change occurs. That the (worrisomely phrased) "eternal character" of God -- i.e., his identity within himself, the beings of the hypostases -- has not changed I don't deny. And I'll support the gap between economic and immanent, I guess (but not as a final statement, given Rahner's talk -- which is also way over my pay grade).

Camassia clarifies what I mean -- as she is so good at doing. (And it was good to see her recently again!) And she gives the Archbishop the benefit of the doubt in his phrasing. (I think the problem for me is that he doesn't make the necessary distinctions in offering up such a summary thesis statement. Context helps, but it's a devotional talk and therefore it requires a little more clarity.

I think with Mystical Seeker, what I mind is injecting this metaphysical stuff into a context that doesn't require it.