Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Scandal of the Cross

The Cross has been a scandal in every age.  It subverts our dreams and overturns our idealisms.  Human nobility and spirituality die upon this Cross.[1]  It stands in opposition to the values of the world, the values summed up in the expression ‘theology of glory’.   Because, as Luther says, “Crux sola est nostra theologia” (“the cross alone is our theology”), it follows that the Cross is opposed to all theologies of glory.[2]  But what is a theology of glory, and how does it compare to the theology of the Cross?

The question brings us to other questions.  What is the best of man?   What is it that makes human beings noble?  We might start with the following catalog of virtues: 

Human beings:

·      have an eternal soul
·      are bearers of reason
·      have free will and inhabit a moral order
·      can actualize their potentiality
·      have a taste for the infinite
·      can know the truth, do the good, and appreciate beauty
·      understand justice and law as their highest good
·      know God to be the foundation of truth, goodness and beauty 

Theologies of glory understand that human and divine being stand on a continuum with human being either participating in divine being, or instantiating properties of the divine.  Theologies of glory can be stronger or weaker to the degree to which they instantiate divine being or divine attributes.   My favorite expression of a theology of glory comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who quipped:

Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line,
Severing rightly his from thine,
Which is human, which divine.

Human beings are the embodiment of the highest aim of God, and God is the projection of the highest sentiments of humanity.  It is difficult to know where the one leaves off and the other begins.  

Human beings are created in imago dei and, although that divine image is now tarnished by the waywardness of sin, it still shines forth weakly, and human beings, through greater or lesser degrees of effort and divine succor, pilgrimage to polish up that which is now tarnished.     

An historically important theology of glory was bequeathed to us by a philosopher living over 400 years before Christ. The Greek philosopher Plato argued that the human soul bears the marks of the divine world from which it fell:  indestructibility, simplicity and eternity.   This soul, whose essence is to be without body, has unfortunately been joined to matter in the veil of tears of life.   At death the sickness of the soul is healed as it sheds its body forever and lives in eternity beyond time.    In vast areas of the ancient world, the Greek idea of the immortal soul formed the intellectual backdrop on which Christ’s death and resurrection were understood. 

While time does not permit me to spell out all the theologies of glory in the western tradition, one must at least sketch the dominant one: Neo-Platonism.  This philosophy held that all things are ultimately ONE and that this ONE in the course of history flows out of itself into the alienated world of matter. Salvation demands that material men and women become more spiritual as they are freed from the corruption of the flesh and returned to the ONE from which they sprang.  Christian variations emphasized that God sends grace which is infused in believers so that they might become more spiritual.   

By the sixteenth century, Neo-Platonism had waned, but the impulse of the theologian of glory remained.  The idea was that God gives human beings particular laws and that humans must act in accordance with those laws.  To act in accordance is to be just; to not act in accordance is to be unjust.  In Luther’s time it was widely thought that just as a person is just when he acts in accordance with divine law, so is God just when he rewards likes for likes.  God’s justice demands He punish sin and save sinless. 

However, because humanity is not sinless, God had to give grace that either makes the believer sinless enough for God not to punish, or which “covers” him such that if he makes some small effort towards God (‘fac quod in se ipsum’), God does not deny His grace (‘facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam’).  God justly acts to reward the sinner who has worked merit congruent with his ability (meritum de congruo) as if he or she has actually worked a merit worthy of salvation (meritum de condigno). Because of Christ, the wretched faltering steps towards God the believer makes in his life are regarded as if the were worthy of salvation.    

It is not important that we follow all the specifics here.   The theological tradition is rich in reflection on the nature of justification.  Suffice it to say that a person’s justification and salvation are coninstantiated.  Conceptually, it is impossible for one to be justified and not saved, or for one to be saved and not justified.   Accordingly, it is a necessary truth that ‘x is justified just in case x is saved’.

A theology of glory understands that proximity to God is a function of the worldly instantiation of properties that perfectly and properly apply to God.  


What then is a theology of the Cross?  While a theology of glory understands the presence of God as a worldly manifestation of properties like those of God, a theology of the cross finds the divine presented sub specie contrario (underneath its contrary).  Thus, a theology of the Cross finds God where you least expect to find God: in weakness, in suffering, in death, in finitude.  Whereas the theologian of glory locates God in the divine apathei of detachment, peace and impassibility, the theologian of the cross finds God in despair, suffering, and emotional turmoil.  

In 1518, 35 year-old Martin Luther gave a presentation at the Augustinian monastery in Heidelberg in which he provided a classic distinction between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross.    

(19) Non ille digne theologus dicitur, qui invisibilia Dei per ea, quae facta sunt, intellecta conspicit.  (20) Sed qui visibilia et posteriori Dei per passionses et crucem conspecta intelligit.   [(19) That person is not worthy to be called a theologian who looks to the invisible things of God as understood through those things that have happened.  (20) But who understands the visible and “back side” of God through having looked at his passion and cross.] 

The theologian of glory in thesis 19 is one who looks at how the world is to get a clue about how God is.  Since God is like the world in that both are measured by goodness, the better the world is, the better or closer the divine source and goal of existence is. This theologian expects to find God where there is maximum goodness.   Luther says that this theologian of glory is not worthy to be called a theologian. 
The one worthy to be called a theologian is he or she who understands that what can be known of God is available only by looking at the cross.  The theologian of the cross finds God precisely where one would not expect Him to be found: in His ignoble suffering and death on the cross.   

The ancient notion of the anologia entis claims that there is an analogy between the being of God and the being of the world.  When the world is a particular way, then God must be a particular way.  But the one who searches for God in this way always misses Him, says Luther.  Instead of moving from how the world is to how God is, the theologian of the cross finds God in how the world is not.  She finds God in how Christ is!  God is not discerned by looking lovingly at the world, but by looking at the One who Himself looks lovingly at us.  God is found in Jesus Christ and only there, and this is precisely not where we would expect to find him. 
Luther says it clearly in thesis 21:

 (21) Theologus gloriae dicit malum bonum et bonum malum, Theologus crucis dicit id quod res est.  [The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil; the theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.]   
While the theologian of glory sees through creation and finds God at the ground or source of it, the theologian of the Cross finds God revealed in the desolation of the Cross.  While the theologian of glory uses analogy to reason to what God is like, the theologian of the Cross admits that God remains hidden in his worldly actions, and that He reveals Himself only when and where he wills it: on the Cross and in the proclamation of that Cross.  The theologian of the Cross proclaims God’s presence in the midst of His apparent absence.  

Instead of the soul being liberated by divine grace to fly closer to God, the theologian of the Cross declares the death of the soul and the dissolution of the self.  While the theologian of glory assumes some continuity between the divine and human, the theologian of the Cross exploits their discontinuity.  The old being dies and the new rises and takes its place.  It is not that the eternal essence of a man needs readjustment, it is rather that the old Adam in us is put to death and the New man in Christ is constituted in his stead.   There is no perdurance of individual substance across the domains of the old and new.  


So we have now sketched a difference between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.   What is the problem?   Why is there a “crisis of the cross” in our time?   Is it that we no longer understand the distinction between the theology of the cross and theologies of glory?

I don’t believe that the crisis is found in our not seeming to understand it. Lutherans from many different theological trajectories seem to get it.  The problem, I shall argue, is that certain moves within Lutheran theology have made it difficult to state meaningfully the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.  How is this possible? 

Theology is a discourse, and like other kinds of discourses, it is concerned with meaning and truth, the realm of semantics.  Classically, the semantics of theological propositions was more or less realist. Terms like ‘God’ were thought to refer to a determinate being, while relational terms like ‘creates’ would refer to a relation between that divine determinate being and the ‘world’, a term which itself referred to that which is outside of God.   Prima facie, to say that a person does not deserve to be called a theologian who “looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were perceptible in those things that have actually happened," is to deny the statement claiming that there is some divine being such that humans perceive something of the existence and properties of that being by perceiving some set of events within the universe.  

At this point it is necessary to make things very precise.  The theologian of the glory apparently holds: 

There is a divine being and there is a universe that is not divine but created by that divine being, and there are sentient human beings such that these beings can perceive some set of events in the universe, and their perception of this class of events within the universe rationally justifies these human beings to hold that a particular set of properties is instantiated by that divine being.

This way of saying this I term the epistemic formulation because it refers both to events and the perception or the knowing of those events.   Let us see if we can make this more perspicuous: 

(1)  There is some x such that x is God, and some y such that y is the universe and x is not y, and there are some z such that z perceived events in y, and z is rationally justified to hold that x has property set S on the basis of z’s perception of events in y.   

Those holding to (1) are theologians of glory; those denying (1) are theologians of the cross.  This epistemological formulation concerns states of knowing and is a weaker formulation of the theology of glory than the following: 

There is a divine being and a universe distinct from that being, such that a particular class of events within the universe is manifest if and only if a particular cluster of properties is present within the divine being. 

This ontological formulation of the theology of glory can be clarified as follows: 

(2)  There is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

It is this stronger ontological formulation of which I am most interested.  Notice that the theologian of the cross can deny (2) in either of two ways I will call (3) and (3’). 

(3)  It is not the case that there is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

(3') There is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that it is not the case that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

This formulation does not simply deny the entire ontological formulation, but rather a part of it.  Accordingly, he or she would claim: 
There is a divine being and a universe distinct from that being, such that it is false that a particular class of events within the universe is manifest if and only if a particular cluster of properties is present within divine being. 
Now at this point a dizzying variety of senses of the epistemological and ontological formulations can be investigated as to their meaning in order to make possible precise senses undergirding Luther’s thesis 19.  However, this is not the issue about which I am concerned.  What I am concerned with is that my semantic formulation here presupposes a particular ontological contour, a contour that much of Lutheran theology no longer claims to be true. 


Since the time of Kant academic theology on Lutheran soil has denied the epistemological formulations (and almost always the ontological ones as well) because it has held that God is not a substance that in principle can possess properties or be engaged in relevant kinds of relations: causality is the most important.  If God is not a being having properties, then what is He? 

Schleiermacher famously claimed that God was the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.  Fichte talked of God as the infinite striving of the ego in positing the non-ego.  Hegel understood God to be the Absolute Spirit coming to consciousness of Himself in time through human consciousness: God is God in Spirit coming to consciousness of itself through relating to what is seemingly other to it.  Ritschl and his school downplayed metaphysical assertions about God and spoke only of the effect of that which is other than the world.  Barth, though strongly opposed to the liberal theology of Ritschl, Harnack and company, spoke of God as the totaliter aliter, the “wholly other” in human experience.   God is thus “wholly other” than being, just as He is “wholly other” than nonbeing.  Other theologians have spoken of God in such ways as the infinite fore-grasp of the illimitability of Being in every act of thinking particular being (Rahner), or as a type of being of God when God is not being God (Scharleman), or as a primal matrix (Reuther).  

The problem here is that even if one could clarify what it is that one is meaning by ”God being God only when God is not being God” or God as Henry Nelson Wieman’s  “primal event,” it is not clear why such diverse referents should be called by the same name, nor is it clear what exactly could be meant by Luther’s thesis 19 when the referent of ‘God’ changes so radically under different interpretations. 

The problem here is that theologians have not paid sufficient attention to the “depth grammar” of their statements.   ‘Julie fishes from a bank’ means quite different things when ‘bank’ means ‘an institution allowing the deposit of money’ on the one hand, and ‘that which abuts a creek’ on the other hand.   While the surface grammar of ‘God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’ can be held constant in various languages in which the locution is used, the depth grammar, the propositions actually expressed or the states of affairs actually named vary greatly across theological schools. 


Imagine a Bultmannian view of things where there is no being having divine properties or attributes and no being that is the second person of the Trinity that actually has the properties of divinity and humanity.  Imagine the Bultmannian view of things in which the proclamation of certain locutions is itself a performative use of language in which existential empowerment can occur in the listener.  On this view of things, the semantics of ‘Christ is raised from the dead’ is not a state of affairs in which there is a particular being such that this being had the property of death then afterward life.  The semantics instead would have meaning on the basis of transformed existential horizons in its hearing.  While Bultmann could speak of a theology of the cross here, and could even accept Luther’s thesis 19, he would not be meaning by that either the epistemic or ontological formulations given above.  He would be meaning by it something quite complicated pertaining to horizons of expectation and empowerment in a succession of historical beings having particular existential constitutions.  

Time does not permit me to work all of this out here, but the point should be clear enough. In the absence of a traditional, realist semantics of theological language it is very difficult to state clearly the distinction between the theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory.  However, the last 200 years of academic theology has tended not to work with a realist semantics for theological language.  It has indeed tacitly rejected semantic realism, the assertion that theological statements have truth values even when we are in no position evidentially to ascertain their truth.  Semantic realism is a strong criterion of theological meaning: a theological proposition is true if and only if it correctly states what is the case.  Notice that truth here does not connect to epistemology at all.  

Much more needs to be said, but maybe this can get the ball rolling.  My contention is that the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory cannot be sustained if a realist semantics is not presupposed.  However, for almost 200 years a realist semantics has not been presupposed.  Therefore, the distinction is no longer clear.  This is the scandal of the theology of the cross.  It is a formal, not a material scandal.  The necessary condition for the former scandal is for the latter scandal to be assuaged.  It is my hope to do the latter.   

[1] ‘Cross’ here means the entire narrative of the crucified and risen Jesus.   See Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 1.  
[2] WA 5, 176:32 (Operationes).  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

God and Inferences to the Best Explanation

Pascal famously stitched a dictum in his coat sleeve declaring, "FIRE.  God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.  Certitude, heartfelt joy, peace.  God of Jesus Christ."  
Clearly, it is a long way from the God of the philosophers to the God of Jesus Christ.  This distance has for many simply meant that when speaking about these two gods, one is speaking about two different matters entirely. The God of the philosophers is a projection of our own best moral and rational characteristics; the God of Jesus Christ is other than this, a God forever tied to the phenomenon of salvation freely given by the Other to unworthy men and women.  
Theologians have often assumed that the identity conditions for gods are found in the meanings that these gods have for those thinking them.  The idealist penchant in theology is a very long and rich.  Phenomenological theological starting points which trace to the zu den Dingen selbst understand the "thing" as a noema, a content intended by the noetic act of the agent.  Accordingly, the god of philosophy apprehended in such-and-such a way is a different noema than the God of Jesus Christ given in such-and-such a way.  There are different identity conditions for different things thought about, and so the identity conditions of the God of Jesus Christ are simply different than those for the god of the philosophers.  
We have been idealist so long in our theology that we don't understand the relevance Frege's seminal "On Sense and Reference" should have for theology.  Frege understood his notion of Sinn (sense) to be of a kind with Husserl's noema, and argued persuasively that two different senses can be simply different "modes of presentation" of the same thing.  Famously, the Evening Star has a different sense the does the Morning Star, yet Frege realized that 'Evening Star' and 'Morning Star' are, nonetheless, coreferential expressions picking out the same planet Venus. They are not, however, simply different names, but instead constitute different senses with their own unique identity conditions, senses which nonetheless are able to pick out the same object in the actual world.  
Applying this insight to the situation of Pascal's two gods, one might claim that 'god of Jesus Christ' and 'god of the philosophers' are neither simply two different objects or entities nor merely different names of one individual God (with a big 'G'), but rather they name different senses picking out that same God.  We ought not simply assume that because 'god of the philosophers' has a different sense than 'god of Jesus Christ', these senses can't be referring to the same God.  Simply put, why assume that the sense of God encountered in the philosophical enterprise does not pick out the same individual as the sense of god encountered in theology?  Why think that when one apprehends God philosophically, one is not referring to the very same God one apprehends theologically?  
I have never been wary of using the tools of philosophy within theology because I am both a theological realist as well as a monotheist.  As a realist, I assume that theology is talking about something that is God and that philosophy is talking about something that is God.  As a monotheist, I reject the claim that there is more than one god. It follows from this, of course, that philosophy and theology must be talking about the same thing, though in radically different ways.  Although the experience, the "mode of presentation" and the conceptuality of the two may differ markedly, the reference is the same.  While one linguistic description may be far more accurate than the other -- 'God of Jesus Christ' may describe God more deeply -- this does not entail that the other expression, 'God of the philosophers' does not refer.   It is in the spirit of 'God of the philosophers' referring that I offer the following brief reflection.

If we step back from the methodological exclusion of God as a causally relevant entity within naturalistic scientific theory, and consider an inference to the best metaphysical explanation of why there is a universe at all with the cosmological constants necessary to support life -- and why there is self-organizing life of sufficient complexity to develop human consciousness -- we are faced with the following question: What is the probability of there being Reason (a Designing Agent or God) present prior to the emergence of the universe? 
Bayes Theorem (derivable in standard probability theory) states that the probability of the occurrence of a state of affairs or event S given a particular set of experiences (or other states of affairs or events) E is equal to the product of probability of E on the hypothesis of S and the probability of S, over the product of probability of E given S and the probability of S plus the product of the probability of E given ~S and the probability of ~S. 
Consider then that the "forward" probability of a Designing Agent's existence is .1% (S). Now what are rational assignments of probabilities to the following?
  1. What is the probability that a universe would exist tuned for development of human beings with the complexity of consciousness on the supposition that a Designing Agent exists? (It seems that were there to be a Designing Agent, it is highly likely that a universe like ours would exist with the complexities of human consciousness. Let us set this at 99% 
  2. What is the probability that a universe would exist seemingly tuned for the development of human beings with the complexity of consciousness on the supposition that a Designing Agent does not exist? (If the authors of the "multiverse" solution to the existence of the universe are to be trusted, our universe is highly unlikely, much greater than the order of .000001%.) 
Now do the calculation: .99 x .001 = .00099/[.00099 + (.00000001 x .99 = .0000000099)]. Thus we obtain .00099 over (.00099 + .0000000099) or .00099/.0009900099 = .99999900001 or 99.99%. The probability that a Designing Agent exists given the state of the universe and its development to the complexities of human consciousness is 99.99% even though the forward probability of that Agent's existence is only .001 or .1%. 
We realize that the plausibility of the multiverse hypothesis in quantum cosmology is based on an admission of the overwhelming unlikely odds of the universe existing with the features its has. Admitting this, drives the inference to the best metaphysical explanation for there to be a Designing Agent/Reason (God). The only way to avoid this conclusion is to claim that the existence of God in itself is almost as unlikely as a forward probability as is the conditional probability of the existence of the universe with features making possible the complexity of human life on the supposition that God does not exist. But why would any rational agent believe that the existence of God as the supreme rational agent is almost as unlikely as the universe developing into the order it has on the supposition of there being no supreme rational agent at all? 
It appears that someone claiming that a multiverse is needed to explain the universe must either be irrationally prejudiced against the forward probability of God's existence or be unable or unwilling to do the simple calculations in basic probability theory. 

Does this reflection prove somehow the God of Jesus Christ?  Of course not!  Does it make more plausible the existence of the God of the philosophers?  One might readily affirm it is so.  But if the rumination in Section I is plausible and the 'God of Jesus Christ' has the same referent as the 'God of the philosophers', then the claim that the God of Jesus Christ exists is strengthened by the rumination of Section II.  Advances in theology may be possible if we have the courage to do things differently.  

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Flacius and Strigel Revisited

The question between Flacius and Strigel in 1557 was this: How deep is sinfulness in human beings? Flacius thought it was so profound that it determined the very substance of human being. Strigel did not go that far, believing that sin while inevitably present, was nonetheless merely accidental to human being. Much has been written about this controversy over the years. The Formula of Concord attempted to follow the spirit of Flacius, if not the letter of his claim, declaring: 
That original sin (in human nature) is not only this entire absence of all good in spiritual, divine things, but that, instead of the lost image of God in man, it is at the same time also a deep, wicked, horrible, fathomless, inscrutable, and unspeakable corruption of the entire nature and all its powers, especially of the highest, principal powers of the soul in the understanding, heart, and will, so that now, since the Fall, man inherits an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, evil lust and propensity. (SD, I) 
The question as to the profundity of human sin, and the attempt to claim that it is of the very substance of human being, involves us quickly in modal claims -- claims about necessity, possibility and contingency. Aristotle famously held a "two tiered" notion of substance. Accordingly, there are certain properties the substance has which are necessary and sufficient for it to be the substance it is, and others that the possess that they might not have.
Unfortunately, the phrase "necessary and sufficient for it to be the substance it is" is ambiguous, trading between the following:
  • Necessarily, it is the case that for any x, x is identical to individual i if and only if i instantiates a particular property group A.
  • Necessarily, it is the case that for any x, x is a member of kind k if and only if x  instantiates a particular property group B.  
The first claims that there is an individual essence A which is instantiated just in case a particular individual i obtains; the second declares that a general essence B is instantiated when some individual or other of kind k obtains.  While Aristotle clearly held that an individual substance has a general essence, most believe he did not countenance individual essences.  Thus, while it is necessary and sufficient for the individual Socrates to possess the essence man, it is more dubious that the individual Socrates possesses an essence of Socrativity.  While more could be said about this, I will not say it here.  

In addition to the essential properties that make a substance the kind of substance it is, there are also properties of the substance that are not necessary for it to be the substance it is. While properties of the first type are essential to the subject, properties of the second type, are contingent and do not constitute the substantiality of the substance.  While the substance Socrates must have the property of being a human being or not be Socrates, Socrates can either be pale or not pale and yet still be Socrates.  Using the language of Aristotle's de Categoria,  'man' is "said of" Socrates, paleness is "present in" Socrates.  'Man' is thus essentially predicated of Socrates while 'pale' is only accidentally predicated.

But this is not the end of the matter.  According to Aristotle, since 'man' is "said of" Socrates, 'mammal' and 'animal' must be "said of" him as well.  These secondary sayings about Socrates form transitive relationships: If the general essence of Socrates is to be human, then in being human Socrates must also be a mammal, be an animal, be a living being, etc.  That is to say, Socrates could not be at all if Socrates were not a living (as opposed to non-living) being. Flacius was arguing, in effect, that sin is essentially predicated of man (human beings), that is, that any substance having the general essence of being human must also instantiate the property of being sinful.  Strigel, on the contrary, claimed that sin is only accidentally predicated of any individual that is a man.  That is to say, the property of being sinful is "present in" primary substances having the essence of being human, but is not "said of" those substances.  'Sin' is accidentally predicated of a particular human being, not essentially predicated. 

While Flacius was trying to emphasize the inevitability of sin in our actual world, his claim that sin is essentially predicated of man (human beings) actually denies the existence of a possible world in which humans do not sin. Since there is no possible world in which a human being does not sin, the notion of 'man' (human being) contains within itself the notion of sin. Thus, just as the notion of square excludes the notion of circle, so too does the notion of 'man' exclude the notion of not sinning. Just as it is inconceivable that a square could be a circle, so it is inconceivable that a man could not sin. None of this can be countenanced, of course, by the Christian holding that God's creation is good. 

But the contrary position that sin is accidental, seemingly suggests a superficiality to sin, as if human beings might not sin because they are not determined metaphysically to do so. The problem in the debate, as I see it, is simply that neither Strigel nor Flavius yet had the notion of a physical law which, on any non-Humean interpretation, determines the distribution of physical properties universally within nature without this distribution holding in all possible worlds.  Human nature is fixed and, as Luther declares, human beings inevitably sin.  Yet this determinate human nature need not obtain in all possible worlds. There are worlds in which human beings do not sin. This, in fact, is necessary for claiming that God's creation is good, and necessary as well for being able to imagine an original paradise from which man and women fell.  One might say, that Flacius' views presuppose the impossibility of the Fall, because they make impossible the existence of a state from which human beings have lapsed.  

The Christian story is that human nature which was made good -- contingently, not metaphysically so -- contingently became a determinately corrupt nature contingently fixing the spectrum of human behaviors and responses.  Just as the acceleration of earthly objects downward is 9.8 m/sec2 universally under standard conditions, so too is human nature universally sinful and cannot (physically or through human agency) free itself.  However, just as there are possible worlds with different laws of motion, so are there worlds in which human nature is not corrupt. The depravity of man is metaphysically contingent, but physically (or agentially) necessary. Total depravity does not extend to all possible worlds.

These simple distinctions show that Strigel was correct, no matter how much Flacius may have fumed otherwise.  Somebody might argue, of course, that the modal distinction I am drawing here is still somehow practically unimportant, that Flacius was right in spirit because he was rightly pointing out that for all x, if x is human, then x is sinful.  He was arguing that human beings are inescapably and inevitably sinful, and this physical necessity of each x to sin is the important matter.  So what if Flacius somehow used the language of essentiality.  Was this not all that he had at the time, and would not other language suggest that human beings might proudly somehow escape sin?  

I aver, however, that modal difference makes all the difference.  We now have a clear notion of physical law; we understand determinate causal chains underlying universal regularities in the actual world.  We now know that for something to be contingently so does not mean that it is somehow capriciously so, obtaining sometimes and not other times.  Simply put, we understand that necessities are of different kinds: There are logical necessities, conceptual necessities, metaphysical necessities, physical necessities, etc.  Just because something is physically necessary does not mean that it is metaphysically necessary.  While we may cringe at calling human sin a "physical necessity," it is indeed so: Each and every human being has a set of dispositional properties such that were conditions x, y or z to obtain, h would act in u or v fashion, where u and v are instantiations of what theology has always identified as sin.  Since it is a fact of our world that conditions x, y, or z obtain, it is not possible for a human being to exist having the set of dispositional properties he/she has and not sin.  The fact that this dispositional properties do not hold in all possible worlds should not obviate the obvious: This dispositional set does indeed obtain in the actual world.  Thus, each and every human being necessarily sins given the metaphysically contingent fact of the universal human proclivity to sin.  That we all necessarily sin given this metaphysical contingency should be enough confidently to proclaim, "We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone."  What more is needed?  If the creation of the universe is a contingent fact given the freedom of God, surely the existence of a fallen universe is contingent as well.  

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sin Essential and Contingent

I must admit that I have always thought Augustine fundamentally correct when saying, "My heart is not at rest until it finds its rest in thee, O Lord."  We denizens of the finite are not completed by the finite.  We search inescapably for "more-than-ness."  The problem is that while we search for this "something more than the finite," we look for it in the only place seemingly we can look: in the finite.  So we arrive at the dilemma of human being: An inhabitant of the finite looks for the infinite, but can only apprehend the finite.  Such a situation in which an infinite grasping connects to a finite object or meaning -- "connects" in being prima facie satisfied -- produces the phenomenon of sin.  And so Calvin could claim that the human mind is a factory of idols, for it is of the very being of our being, it seems, to "elevate the conditioned to the level of the unconditioned," to use Tillich's trenchant phrase.

Now all of this is pretty standard fare for the theologian, particularly the Lutheran theologian.  We know that the human mind is a factory of idols -- though we Lutherans don't often employ these words -- and that it is of the nature of human beings that we turn away from God in unbelief, pride, idolatry and concupiscence.  While we have an "ontological thirst" towards God, towards that Infinite which can only satisfy our thirsting after completion, we find ourselves a'whoring (using the traditional language) after false gods, after those seemings within the finite that seemingly satisfy.  In so doing we turn away from the horizon of the infinite, believing that a finite bird in the hand is worth the entire bevy of the infinite.  This is unbelief.  As we turn towards the finite, we realize that the turning is ours.  It is a matter now of our identification of that within the finite that can satisfy our ontological search.  This identification is pride.  That which is not infinite, but is now to satisfy the drive towards the infinite is an idol; it is something conditional now elevated to the level of the unconditional.  And the a'whoring is something done with an almost infinite zest, an excitement of the finite beyond what the finite can support.  Such an excitement is concupiscence, a desire to devour and dominate the infinite as one's own religious and erotic ecstasy.

I have always been fairly comfortable claiming that this is the basic condition of human being.  Although I have read many things about our getting over of transcendence -- Bonhoeffer probably first -- I never seriously thought human beings could or would do it.  The imprint was just too strong. "We are but a little lower than the angels," I thought, "and surely the complexity of our consciousness, of its hopes, aspirations, motivations, reasonings, rationalizations, fears, etc., witnesses deeply to this."  As the years have churned by, it seems, I have not really lost the sense of the striking difference between human self-consciousness and the consciousness of animals.  "There is something different," I tell myself, "and this something different is the divine imprint."  But lately I have been wondering if what I tell myself is accurate, or even of much significance.  Charles Taylor's A Secular Age lays out our western plight pretty well, and there is nothing in the macros of his diagnosis of the human problem that seems to me fundamentally inaccurate.

It seems like human beings in the old North Atlantic world just are quite different now.  Many I meet appear not at all to have an ontological thirst.  While I can always satisfy myself with the hope that they do retain this nonetheless -- even though they don't know it -- this interpretation is getting more difficult to sustain.  When people look with blank eyes when one attempts to uncover the hidden religious dimension of their secularity and/or atheism, the philosopher must take a step back and at least question his assumption.  What if these people don't have an ontological thirst at all?  What if they don't try to satisfy it in all of the wrong places?  What if their seeming drive for pleasure is not prideful concupiscence grounded in idolatry, but merely a drive for pleasure?  What if human beings aren't who we theologians have always assumed them to be?  What then? 

Charles Taylor attempts to show that the ambiguity of our present situation -- there still is some haunting of transcendence, after all -- can strike a significant counterpoise to exclusive humanism, that reveling in the immanent as if the question of transcendence could be jettisoned completely.  He tries to display how certain trajectories within the immanent are cross-pressured by the question of transcendence, though now of a post-modern and "excarnational" type.  So for him, at least, the ontological thirst is still somehow present, though perhaps not directly experienced as thirst.  It is as if one had a physical malady that disallowed the experience of thirst, so that one would identify one's states by certain of one's actions.  So the traditional strategy is not fundamentally different for Taylor.  One still has the condition, after all, even if one is not experiencing it.  So we are left with the question:  What if there is no ontological thirst at all?  What if the having of it was merely a stage in the history of consciousness, and not an element in the structure of consciousness?

I am enough of a philosopher to know that I can't really pull a rabbit out of the hat.  If there is no ontological thirst as an element in the structure of consciousness, then the transcendent fall into sin is problematic.  If this is the case, then the paradise story is not an exemplification of a timeless condition, a story that is true because it states in narrative form what deeply is: We temporal voyagers are existentially not somehow who we essentially are, and the gap between our existence and our essence is manifest as sin.  If there is no universal ontological thirst, even an unexperienced universal ontological thirst, then our sin and salvation, our capacity to thirst, to wander into idolatry, unbelief, pride and concupiscence, is a thoroughgoingly contingent, historical-conditioned state of affairs.  It does not have to be that way, and, indeed, it is becoming less so.  So what then?

At this time all that is left is preaching.  Preaching does not uncover the structures of consciousness so that they are accordingly recognized, but changes the contour of consciousness.  It creates.  Verbum dei manet in aeternum not because of the underlying structures it brings to expression, but because of the new realities it creates, realities of sin and salvation.  Accordingly, preaching the law really does create sin -- or at least what we denizens of the North Atlantic countries have traditionally identified as sin.  (There is much that needs to be said here, but I am not saying it now.)  That there are very sizable tensions here with traditional theological assertions goes without saying.  But theological tensions are nothing new.  Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been extraordinarily difficult to provide a coherent theological account of God and world.  Tensions abound; it is a question for the theologian of what one can live with.  If one wants to take seriously the possibility that exclusive humanism may become the dominant ethos in our part of the world, and that this humanism is not delusionally occluding a more profound ontological structure, then we have to talk seriously about the contingency of that which we once thought essential.  That this places even more importance on the reality of the preached Word both in law and gospel is not something that Lutheran theologians will find surprising.