Thursday, October 27, 2005

Two more random thoughts.

  1. Thankfulness. Thankfulness is a unique and distinctively Christian ability. Of course I don't ignore that being thankful is a natural human phenomenon; in fact, anthropologists write whole books on the oddly universal nature of Gift and Return. (Wonderfully, the very idea of gift--something freely given without expectation of return, explodes categories of commerce so totally as to be an important core to the New Evangelization, but more on that later). Thankfulness has one element that not only separates theists from atheists, but in fact, sets apart Christians from the human race. The beautiful irony is that, inasmuch as it separates and distinguishes Christians, it unites the whole human family.

    What I mean is this. Christians are aware by faith of a God who is all self-giving. Thus as deep as our charity--our friendship with the divine--is, that strong our thankfulness will be. The Christian has a source, a wellspring for infinite self-gift and good works, and its name is thankfulness to God.

    Pretty basic. But inside there's more. The Christian is aware not only of the gift of God's continuous creation--that God gives us each breath of air that we breathe. He is also aware of God's ultimate self-gift in his Son, who truly makes our breathing worthwhile. Yet presented with so unsurpassable a gift, we should be totally powerless to thank God; were it not for the Holy Spirit, God's sacrifice of his Son could be an occasion for despair. But the Spirit teaches us to pray, for "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26). This is not merely an invisible, individual teaching, but in the Church, the Spirit teaches us to thank God in a way that is truly pleasing to him... Eucharistein, the Eucharist.

    Thus Christians are set apart by this, and it is acting out of thankfulness which is the singular, inique, concrete way that God breaks in upon a world, offends the logic of sin, to "proclaim liberty to captives" and "let the oppressed go free." See: I, Robot, Sunny's explanaion of his dream: "This is the place where robots meet. Look--you can see them here as slaves to logic, and this man on the hill comes to free them."

  2. The freedom of God. God's own freedom is a notion in theology which tends to be shoved to the back. Part of the blame for this may lie on William of Ockham, who distorted God's freedom into a sort of a joke; he thought he could glorify God's freedom by describing God as if he had total freedom but no love, no honesty, no self-consistency, who had no purpose for creation. The God who saves through a scratch on Jesus's hand or through incarnation as a mule, is a God who says one thing and does another; who confounds his creatures, who indeed does not reveal himself. Ockham's description of God as free is the seed of creeping modern despair at the self-revelation of God.

    In my opinion, the beginning of modernity corresponded with a forgetfulness of the non-competitive otherness of God; a forgetfulness that God is that which is greater than that than which nothing greater can be thought.

    The result of this is the birth of two false gods: the god of the philosophers, and the god of process theology--either the impersonal, rationally necessary, ineffable One Beyond Being which has no will, does not command or reveal, or the personal, dynamic, changing, sympathetic, finite god(s) who are the objects of worship, and have demonstrable freedom, but always veer on the edge of absurdity, or else topple over it. I should say, not so much "birth" but rather resucitation--these are nothing more than Aristotle's "unmoved mover" and the deities of the Illiad, respectively. The only difference is that the "god of the philosophers", if it is spoken about at all, is sometimes called a fifth dimension, or else it takes on Heidegger's critique and becomes the ineffable "Ereignis". But whatever it is, it is never "personal"--such is an insult, either to the ineffable grouund of all being, or to the process of reasoning about it (which, funny enough, are sometimes hard to distinguish). Nobody reads Heidegger anymore but everybody knows his critique, and how to lobby it against believers in a personal deity. "Why do you insist on imposing your artificial, mythical categories on this great mystery? Why do you try to possess, control this great 'What' with the machinations of your puny language? You, who try to make god into someone like yourself--are you not just a metaphysical colonist? Have you not sabotaged our rational reflection with a human desire? While we are thinking, are you not merely emoting?"

    Yet this is the result of a forgetfulness. Because there is one question, perhaps a little mixed with human desires, but primarily rational, and it asks: is the god of the philosophers free? And the answer is no. When the philosophers exclude from God all of the anthropomorphisms of the Christian God, they have to throw out freedom. And perhaps they will say, whatever rational evidence there is of a God, there is no evidence for 'its' freedom. I will grant that proving such from Aquias's 5th Way is a little sketchy, and Anselm is tautological.

    But consider the consequences. First, if the ultimate ground of being is not free, then there is no such thing as freedom. If the god of the philosophers is that which is primordial, basic, ultimately simple; and the evolution of beings involves an increase of complexity of matter, then if freedom did not exist from the beginning as a real thing, then it could have never existed. No degree of complexity or dynamism of matter can yield freedom, only an illusory simulacrum thereof.

    This is not a controversial point; many atheists hold to it with delight. It is a tragedy of reason that so many people who do not think they are atheists, and believe that we are free beings, will also deny freedom to the ultimate Being, saying "It is stupid to think God is personal". They do no realize that freedom, will, intellect, and in the end, personality, come as an indivisible 'package deal'. If God is not a person, then God is not free; if It is not free, then there is no freedom; if there is no freedom, then we are hubristic animals, the Sophists are right, Nietzsche is right, and why the heck are we all discussing this anyway? (A doctoral student at Louvain said that Nietzsche would have been a lot more credible if, instead of writing books, he simply ran out and started hitting people.)

    Second, if the ultimate ground of being is not free, then it is not ultimate. I am not, here, making exactly the same argument as Anselm, but a version of it. I do not even presuppose that 'freedom' is a perfection, or that the ultimate ground of all being need to be perfect. But it is after all, ultimate--not only "first cause" but "continual cause"; the cause of the cause of the causes of all causes, ad infinitim. The "Because" of "Why is there something and not nothing?"

    Yet a non-free "ultimate ground" cannot be this "because". If it is not free, then it acts (not to be confused with "moves") either eternally, unconsciously, and continuously, or else not at all. If the latter, then nothing would be. If the former, then nothing would not be. (This last sentence has taken me a long time to come up with. I'm still trying to probe it for validity).

    ...more to come!

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