Give me an undivided heart

Lately I have been reading from Ps 86 and meditating on these words from v. 11:

Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk on your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

I would comment specifically on the evidently passive attitude of the psalmist: he needs to be taught the right way, rather than discovering it for himself or deciding for himself how he should live; he needs to be given an undivided heart, rather than cultivating one for himself. He adopts a posture of complete dependence on God.

Strictly speaking, such an approach simply recognizes the fact that everything whatsoever only exists because it is granted existence by God in every passing moment. This is the essential meaning of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. If God creates out of nothing, then it follows that nothing apart from God has existence of itself; existence is not the “default” state of anything except God; nothing but God can take existence “for granted,” so to speak. And if our very existence is a gift, then everything else — our good qualities, our strength, our talents, etc. — which presupposes our existence also ought to be understood as gifts, ultimately received from God rather than won through personal effort. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

At the same time, it is also true in our own experience that if we do not put forth an effort, if we do not try by ourselves to advance in the spiritual life, whether by praying or reading Scripture or doing good works, then we will never make progress — on the contrary, we become worse. And this effort plainly comes “from us” in most cases, rather than being akin to a wave that sweeps us along. Though there are times in which we find ourselves taken by a wave, they are not all that common, at least not in my own experience.

How to reconcile the two realities? Is everything a gift or do some things come from us, being won by our own effort? If an undivided heart of reverence before God can only come from God, what room is there for human freedom and struggle?

I think there is always a synergistic dynamic in the spiritual life: God gives and the human being responds. The first gift, of course, is existence, but there are also other gifts of God as well: health, strength, talents, ideas, insights, etc. It is up to us, however, to make use of these gifts well and in a way that is pleasing to God. Yet, there are times in the spiritual life when, because of laziness or sin or other factors, we find ourselves lacking the necessary “fuel” to keep going forward. This is especially true after a person commits a mortal sin: her spiritual “energy” and vitality is quenched, she runs out of juice, and can no longer bring herself gladly to read or pray or sing or do good. When we find ourselves in such situations, we realize how much we depend on God, and we ask Him to renew our hearts and newly strengthen us and revive us to perform His work.

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What matters most for God?

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us. Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation” (Ps 85:4-7).

The Scriptures present a picture of God according to which it is not all the same if His people are restored to righteousness or suffer for their sins. On the contrary, God Himself prefers that His people be saved and healed. This is implicit in the question the psalmist raises: “Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?” This question would have no pull unless it were somehow preferable to God that His people rejoice in Him than be destroyed for their sins.

What this means — or so it seems to me — is that, in the final analysis, God does not operate according to a principle of merit, being happy with the state of things so long as everyone receives what he deserves. On the contrary, though sinners do get what they deserve, nevertheless the better option would be for sinners to be restored to righteousness. It is impossible to justify this preference by appeal to merit alone, since the restoration of a sinner is by definition unmerited, which means that goodness, rather than merit, is for God the higher principle.

Oftentimes it is easy to fall into the trap of approaching God only on the basis of our merits. When we do this, we are inevitably disappointed: either we overestimate our actual goodness and disregard the grace of God by which we have any access to Him in the first place, or else we do not come to Him at all, convincing ourselves that it would be inappropriate to do so, since we are sinners. In both cases, however, the grace of God — that which defines Him par excellence — is disregarded, and this is a grave sin.

It may seem strange to say that disregarding God’s grace is a grave sin. My initial instinct is to “measure” the gravity of a sin according to its offense against God’s holiness. On the other hand, perhaps God’s holiness is not something other than His grace, His willingness to receive sinners and to lead them in the right way out of His goodness (Ps. 25:8). This translates into a different picture of holiness for human beings, as well. If we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16), then our holiness does not consist in the avoidance of contaminating influence so much as in goodness and grace shown to those who have fallen.

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On Peter’s denial of Christ

The Gospel according to Matthew relates the betrayal of Jesus in chapter 26. While Jesus is on trial, Peter is questioned by various persons around him as to his connection with Jesus. On the one hand, Peter’s Galilean accent betrays him as coming from the same region as Christ. On the other, Peter repeatedly denies having any connection with Christ, contrary to the truth and to the promise he made to Jesus that same night, during the final supper. Continue reading

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On apostasy and temptations of theology

In the Sermon the Mount, we find the following injunction:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits (Matt 7:15-16).

In every domain of life there are temptations, because sin is of such a nature as to infect everything. This means that even in the domain of theology, where a person is principally concerned with studying God and the things of God, there are temptations of which to be wary. Satan makes his appearance under the guise of an angel of light. Continue reading

Posted in biblical commentary, theology

My friend JD Walters has recently started a podcast titled “The Ultimist,” which “features interviews with emerging scholars producing cutting-edge research on topics of ultimate concern.” I am his first guest on the podcast, so if you’d like to hear me talk about myself and my research interests for about an hour, check out the link HERE. We talk about universalism and theological method.

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Some speculations on divine providence

The relation between divine providence and human freedom is at the center of Christian theology: on the one hand, God has created the world and cares for it and leads it to a particular end; on the other, human beings are free and responsible for what they do and must give an account at the end for the life they lived. How are the two to be reconciled?

Classical theism affirms a doctrine of God according to which the Creator is eternal, timeless, immutable, impassible, completely a se and perfect within Himself, etc. It might seem very difficult to understand how God so conceived can “interact” with a world of free, contingently existing creatures.

One option is to make God’s will absolutely prior to every contingent occurrence and existence within the order of finite beings, so that God is like an author and the history of the world is His story: He has complete control over everything which happens and knows how human beings behave and will act because He knows what He wills to happen.

This option saves the classical theistic doctrine but it is disputable whether it preserves human freedom in any profound way. It seems to me phenomenologically evident that if I relate to another person and take myself to be doing so freely, I understand myself to have a measure of freedom from the control and determinations of the other person; I operate freely and independently, to some extent, of the influence and control of the other. If I come to think of the other person’s will as prior and determining of my own, for instance if she hypnotizes me to act in a certain way, then I think of freedom as having been compromised and disrespected. Since, furthermore, we must relate to God in a personal way, taking Him to be a person similar to us, addressing Him with the personal pronoun and so on, then these same phenomenological considerations apply. I cannot think that God’s own will is absolutely prior to my own without simultaneously losing a sense of my freedom in my relation to God.

Another option  is simply to deny the classical theistic description of God. This is something like open theism: God is mutable, He changes and is affected by what takes place within the created order, He comes to learn to knew things about myself and others on the basis of the choices we make, and so on.

This option is unsatisfactory from a philosophical or natural-theological perspective. I can’t argue the point here, but I take it that the classical theistic description of God is true and capable of being more or less demonstrated on philosophical grounds. So this is not a genuine option for me, either.

What to do? Both of the previous two views attempt to situate God’s providential interaction with the world in Himself, either by making His will the ultimate cause of everything that happens or else by interacting in a dynamic and mutable manner with the finite order. But there also exists the possibility of “ontologizing” divine providence by situating some of its elements within the very structure or fabric of the created order itself.

For instance, part of God’s providential care for the world includes justice, in virtue of which He punishes sinners and rewards the righteous. The “ontologization” of divine justice means locating its essence in the manner in which finite being experiences beatitude or desolation as a result of sin. Whereas in our political orders the state has to administer justice through punishment and incarceration, for example, because criminals are not immediately affected by what they do in a way that is satisfactory for us, God’s justice is perhaps immediately satisfied when a person commits a mortal sin insofar as that very sin turns her away from the vision of God, the ultimate good of human existence, and sets her on the path for dissatisfaction and suffering in the pursuit of mere finite goods (or finite merely-apparent-goods).

Another aspect of God’s providential care concerns eschatology: the universe as a whole is “headed in a particular direction,” so to speak, and this in virtue of God’s so-directing it. But this direction and the various twists and turns it takes, especially when human freedom is included in the equation, may seem hard to reconcile with the notion of a God who is perfectly immutable and impassible and unaffected by what takes place within the finite order. The response may be to put the “teleology” of finite history into the very fabric of finite being itself, so that, in addition to the natural teleology of a flower or of a human being, the world itself is intrinsically ordered to move in a particular direction.

Now, human freedom, according to my earlier reflections, requires that we possess a measure of independence from the control of God in what we do. Thus, it seems to me right to think of every moment of time as consisting of two super-imposed “stages” of sort: first there is the stage of God’s conserving the world as it is in existence, giving it being, presenting it to human consciousness in some sense, and so on; then, there is the free choice of the human being to act in some way or other in “response” to the world as it is given.

It is obvious that human choices have tremendous effects on the way things are: a father who chooses to be abusive to his children produces an effect that would be quite different than if he were loving to them; likewise, human beings can destroy the environment or else take good care of it; etc. At the same time, a doctrine of divine providence requires us to think that human freedom is nevertheless exercised within certain limitations specified by God ahead of time in light of His purpose for the world. Thus, we can think that human choices are in principle limited by the intrinsic teleology of finite being which it has been given by God.

The future, on this view, is open in a limited way. There are very many ways things could go in the future, there are very many forking paths, and human choices close off certain possibilities forever while simultaneously bringing about new ones. But the paths are all headed in a particular direction, and God is never, strictly speaking, surprised by anything that happens — first because He is not affected by anything within the finite order, nor does He respond it, and second because He has given finite being itself a specific intrinsic teleology which leads it in the direction He wishes to go.

I take from St. Maximus the Confessor the teaching that Christ is the goal of the whole cosmos. God’s purpose is “to unite all things in him” (Eph 1:10). The intrinsic direction of finite being in history is towards unity with Christ, but the fulfillment of this unity in any particular person’s case depends on her free will: through sin she may turn herself away from a proper ordering to Christ, in which case this “unity of all things” will prove hellish to her. Or, if she loves Christ and desires to be so united with Him, then it will be heaven.

One problem for any attempted reconciliation of divine providence with human freedom is the phenomenon of prophecy: how can a human being foretell the future by God’s help if it is essentially open and undetermined? I think that we can say the following in response. Prophecies are inevitably formulated in an essentially ambiguous way, so that the completely determinate meaning of the words evades even the persons who utter them. This permits that the prophecy be fulfilled in any number of ways; from the utterance of a prophecy, any potential future which is still realizable is contains a potential fulfillment of the prophecy itself, though this fulfillment is only recognizable retrospectively, after the fact.

But whence does a prophecy arise in the first place? How can there be any prophecies, if God does not respond to what takes place in the created order in some sense? Here my speculations perhaps border on the magical. The biblical formula says that “the word of the Lord came to” some prophet or other, so that it is effectively a passive experience: some unique impression is given to the prophet which presses upon him to speak or act in some way in the relevant context. This occurs at the right time and in the right place somehow without God’s having planned the whole story ahead of time. If there is an intrinsic teleological orientation to finite being as such, then it is possible that certain historical events (such as the reception of a prophecy) take place as they should, when they should, to whom they should, in the same way that the simultaneous development of various parts of the human body take place at the right time and in the right way in its own development.

This is a classical theistic scheme which simultaneously preserves a doctrine of divine providence while maintaining that human beings are profoundly free in a libertarian sense, thanks to which God does not always have control over what they do. It is important also to emphasize a further point about theological language: on this scheme of things, I think we should take a very firm apophatic approach to divine language which does not permit us to read too much into notions like “will” and “knowledge” attributed to God. God is spoken of in a personal manner and approached in a personal way because that is appropriate for human beings; it is an accommodation to human finitude and not a really adequate description of God’s being, who is strictly speaking beyond those categories and unknowable.

Posted in metaphysics, natural theology, theology

On how to gain Wisdom

The Wisdom of Solomon addresses the notion of Wisdom, in many ways anticipating the eventual Christian doctrine of the λόγος which is with God and is God, from the beginning (cf. John 1:1-2). This Wisdom is present in all of creation, guiding it and bringing it to its proper place, but also in the spirit of the righteous man. Wisdom, we might say, is simultaneously ontological and ethical, outside of mankind as a part of the world as well as inside of him as the understanding of the natural order. Continue reading

Posted in metaphysics, natural theology