Kenosis and pleroma

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been reading the volume The Work of Love—a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne that explore the idea of divine “kenosis” or self-limitation.

Keith Ward, in his essay “Cosmos and Kenosis,” provides what I think is a helpful nuance to the concept of kenosis. He notes that the Lutheran theologians who pioneered a “kenotic” Christology understood it in terms of the divine Word divesting itself of its divine properties in the Incarnation. Appeal in this case was often made to Paul’s “hymn” in Philippians 2. However, Ward says, it’s just as natural, if not moreso, to interpret kenosis here in a moral rather than a metaphysical sense. Moreover, we can see kenosis as characterizing not just the incarnation or the life of Christ, but how God creates and interacts with the entire world.

In particular, Ward argues that kenosis is not just a self-limitation on God’s part, but a means of actualizing certain potentialities in the divine being that would otherwise remain un-realized. How so? First, by creating finite creatures, God is able to attain “affective knowledge” of their joys and sufferings. This goes beyond simple propositional knowledge that a creature is, for instance, suffering; it encompasses an empathetic experience on God’s part. This is a limitation for God—God gives up the perfect, undisturbed bliss God enjoyed in eternity. But it also adds something genuinely new to God’s knowledge and experience. Similarly, by creating a world with its own relative autonomy and creativity, God permits new forms of value to come into existence, which God delights in, even though this limits God’s power and knowledge.

Thus, on Ward’s account, kenosis—God’s self-limitation in giving up perfect bliss, as well as total omniscience and omnipotence—is not sheer self-abnegation. Rather it is for the sake of genuinely new values and experiences that would have been unavailable to God otherwise (scandalous as that may sound). In Ward’s terms, kenosis (self-emptying) leads to “pleroma,” or greater fulfillment:

God limits the divine properties in order that a cosmos of free finite agents should exist. But God thereby realizes new aspects of the divine nature as God enters into real relationship with creatures. God not only suffers new things. God also enjoys and delights in new things. And in the end all those good things are to be conserved in God, and perhaps shared with creatures, for ever. There is an addition to the divine being as well as a limitation of it, and the two are essentially bound together. So if we can speak of a kenosis in God, a renunciation of his absolute and unmixed perfection, we must also speak of a pleroma, or fulfillment, in God, by which new forms of perfection are added by creatures to the divine being. (p. 160)

This is obviously at odds with the classical view of God, in which God cannot be changed or affected by what creatures do, and nothing can be added to or taken away from the divine bliss. It could be argued, however, that what Ward calls this “more relational and participative view of God” is supported by certain passages in the Bible which portray God in more relational and passionate terms.

In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if God’s love should necessarily be portrayed strictly in terms of disinterested agape without a trace of eros. Does God not long to be united with God’s creatures? Does the existence of creation really add nothing to God’s happiness? As Ward says, it would be presumptions to claim certainty about what is essential to the divine nature, but on the face of it this movement of divine kenosis and pleroma seems to resonate with large parts of the biblical portrait of God.

It can be—and has been–argued that God’s love can only be truly self-giving if creation is utterly gratuitous and God gains nothing by the existence of creatures. However, this isn’t how we usually think about love between humans. If I claim to love you but remain totally unaffected by you and get nothing out of our relationship, you might reasonably infer that my love was less than genuine. Of course, God’s love should not be thought of as exactly like human love. But if our language is to point–however metaphorically or analogously–to God, we may well wonder if God can be said to truly love creation without being affected by it in some way.


Nature’s “transparent rational beauty”

The kinds of considerations I was discussing in the last post are very similar to those that physicist-priest John Polkinghorne offered as part of a “modest” natural theology in his book Belief in God in an Age of Science. I posted on this several years back, but here’s the relevant portion of the post reproduced:

In the first chapter Polkinghorne discusses what he calls the “new natural theology.” There are two aspects of the physical world, Polkinghorne thinks, that provide “hints” of the existence of God. The first is the fact that our minds are fitted to understand the deep structure of the physical universe and that this structure can be expressed in elegant mathematical forumlas. “This use of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty” (p. 2).

Polkinghorne rejects as implausible the view that our ability to comprehend the fabric of the physical world and express it in the language of mathematics is a mere by-product of our evolutionary development:

No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have moulded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. (p. 2-3)

He likewise rejects any “constructivist” account of knowledge which says that we merely project our preference for mathematical reasoning onto the physical world. “Nature is not so plastic as to be subject to our whim in this way” (p. 3). The great discoveries of physics, however aesthetically pleasing they may be, depend on the belief that it is nature speaking to us in revealing aspects of its deep structure.

Revisiting this, it now looks to me like Polkinghorne is stealing some argumentative bases with his statement that it “beggars belief that this [capability for understanding the world] is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life.” That is to say, just because something seems surprising or astonishing doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Polkinghorne might well reply that in the absence of a convincing account of how it could happen “naturalistically,” this “remarkable conformity of our human minds to [the universe’s] patterning” does provide a “hint” that something beyond blind natural processes is at work. So the question is whether there is such a convincing account (or maybe more basically what such an account would have to look like). Or is it enough to say that it’s simply a contingent fact–resulting from our minds’ long evolutionary history–that we’re able to successfully model aspects of reality?

Resurrection and Docetism

People sometimes argue against “spiritual” interpretations of the Resurrection of Jesus on the grounds that they are “Docetic”–that is, they deny the full reality of the Incarnation after the fashion of the ancient heresy of Docetism, which said that Jesus only appeared to be fully human. Specifically, it held that Jesus’ body was an illusion and he was not really crucified.

Interestingly, however, in a dialogue on the Resurrection between British theologians Geoffrey Lampe and Donald MacKinnon published in the 60s, Lampe makes precisely the reverse argument:

He shared our human death; and I remain convinced that his entry into life beyond death was not dissimilar in its mode from ours. What may await us on the other side of death must not, if the Incarnation is real and Christ is the second Adam, be a room into which his presence has not preceded us. Unless we take an impossibly ‘spiritualist’ view of our human make-up, we cannot lightly contemplate the dissolution of the body without which we are unable, since we are physical beings, to conceive of a personality. Yet the dissolution of the body is most certainly part of the universal lot of man. I do not find it possible to believe that bodily corruption, that ultimate negation, as it seems, of all human endeavor, aspiration and hope, can be something from which the manhood of Christ was exempt. If God will raise us from death to a new life of fuller communion with himself then this will be sheer miracle: God’s re-creative Word affirming us in the moment of our utter nothingness. And if Christ is the firstfruits of the dead, his Resurrection cannot be of a different order from this. A Resurrection of his physical body, such as is implied by the empty tomb and by some of the stories in the Gospels of his appearances, would point towards a docetic Christ who does not fully share the lot of men; unless, indeed, bodily corruption were to be regarded as being bound up with the sinfulness of man which Christ did not share (but, unless we accept an impossibly literalistic interpretation of Genesis 3 as factual history, it is impossible to hold that physical dissolution is not part of the Creator’s original and constant intention for his creatures in this world). Such a Resurrection, moreover, would offer in itself no promise of risen life beyond death for those who have to face both death and corruption. The miracle which we need would never yet have taken place.

Lampe’s argument seems to boil down to this:

1. For Jesus’ Resurrection to be meaningful to us, it must be similar in kind to the resurrection we hope for for ourselves.

2. But we cannot hope for a “fleshly” resurrection (Lampe writes that “we clearly cannot expect to be raised in our fleshly bodies”).

3. Therefore, Jesus’ Resurrection must not have been “fleshly.”

I think Lampe is at least partly right about this. Christians sometimes gloss over what it means to talk about the “resurrection of the body”, but whatever it means it presumably can’t be that we will be raised in the very same bodies we have now. This is because human bodies decay, get eaten, get blown to bits, etc., and the particles they comprise end up in other material objects (including other people’s bodies). So it’s hard, if not impossible, to conceive how we could all be raised in our selfsame physical bodies.

What we have to suppose instead, I think, is that we will be raised in new bodies–“spiritual” bodies, to use St. Paul’s phrase. These will be bodies that are fitted to whatever environment in which we will exist (“heaven” or the “new heaven and new earth” or whatever one’s preferred symbol is). In short, Christian hope is that we will, after death, enjoy fellowship with God and the blessed company of heaven. This requires, presumably, some medium of self-expression and interaction–which is what the “spiritual body” provides.

Now, I’m not as convinced that it follows from this that Jesus’ Resurrection didn’t include the raising of his physical body or that his tomb wasn’t empty. Certainly the appearance stories in the gospels suggest that the form taken by the risen Jesus transcended the usual limitations of physicality. But could it be that his physical body was transmuted into the substance of his “spiritual body”? Maybe this indicates–as John Polkinghorne and others have suggested–that the new heavens and new earth will be, in some mysterious way, composed of the “stuff” of this universe, but “transposed” into a spiritual key. On that view, we could still speak of a degree of continuity between this physical world and the world to come, even if there isn’t a direct continuity between our fleshly bodies and our spiritual ones.

Addendum: This isn’t directly relevant to the main point of the post, but I also like Lampe’s way of describing how judgment and mercy are united on the Cross:

I cannot set acceptance over against judgement as though there were any incompatibility between them. The Cross is a place of judgement and condemnation. Not of any judgement or condemnation of Jesus by God the Father. The judge is Jesus. Calvary is a place of execution, the execution of the Son of God by sinners, but by becoming this it is made to be Christ’s judgement seat. Man’s sin is disclosed there in its fullest odiousness. It is shown up and condemned by its encounter with steadfast love. Christ’s acceptance of sinners is no easy tolerance. He offers no sanction for that artificial, blindly uncritical, ‘Christian goodwill’ which sometimes does duty for true charity. The Cross itself is the measure of the cost of acceptance. The width of the gulf between heaven and hell is revealed there, where the greatest act of human sin is wrought out in a darkness that covered all the land. Acceptance at the hands of the victim of that sin is itself the judgement and condemnation of sin; for it is only when the sinner is accepted that the judgement of his sin becomes effective, and only divine love is able to condemn sin by accepting the sinner. It makes no compromise with sin, nor does it need to be safeguarded from contamination by sinners, for it has sovereign power to reclaim them in the act of accepting them. Acceptance and judgement do not have to be balanced against each other. At the Cross the divine mercy, justice and truth are united, for they are inseparable aspects of that definitive declaration of the ways of God to man. [Emphasis added–L.M.]

Friday links

–Augustinian and Pelagian software.

–A John Polkinghorne lecture on science and religion.

–Batman as plutocrat.

–Korn and Limp Bizkit: the soundtrack to nihilism.

–Martha Nussbaum on John Stuart Mill: between Bentham and Aristotle.

–The disconnect between the science and economics of climate change.

–Peter Berger, who describes himself as a political conservative and a theological liberal, has some reflections on same-sex marriage.

–The trailer for the X-Men prequel: “X-Men: First Class.”

–Toward an agenda for the left.

–B. R. Meyers’ moral crusade against foodie-ism.

–Noam Chomsky on how global warming became a “liberal hoax” (and a bunch of other stuff).

ADDED LATER: Sunken ship commanded by real-life ‘Moby Dick’ captain discovered. And here’s a link to the “Power Moby-Dick” website referred to in the article.

“Reason” vs. reasons

I want to zero in further on one small part of the John Polkinghorne interview excerpted below:

I think that the fundamental question about something, whether science or religion, is not, “Is it reasonable?” as if we know beforehand what is reasonable, or what shape rationality has. The better question is, “What makes you think that might be the case?” If you are going to propose something surprising and counterintuitive to me, then you need to produce evidence, something to persuade me that that might be the case, perhaps experiments. That is motivated belief.

I think this is important. Too often “reason” is used as a cudgel to whack positions that are deemed “irrational.” But reason, in this abstract sense, is pretty hard to pin down. How can we say a priori what counts as “reasonable”? It’s hard to see how we can, at least with any great specificity.

A more promising route is to look for reasons for believing something. What counts as a good reason will depend largely on the subject matter and context. As Aristotle pointed out, it’s foolish to expect the same kind of proof in ethics as you would in mathematics.

Much contemporary Christian theology has criticized “Enlightenment reason,” sometimes excessively. But there is a legitimate point to be made. I think if you take, for example, Descartes’ criteria of absolute certainty (or indubitability) as something that any belief must meet to count as knowledge, you’re going to end up drawing the circle of knowledge very narrowly. That’s because he takes a criteria that may be appropriate to one subject area (mathematics, say) and tries to make it the foundation of all knowledge.

But repudiating a one-size-fits-all account of knowledge doesn’t mean that we can’t offer reasons for accepting particular religious truth-claims. Rejecting Cartesian foundationalism doesn’t imply that all bets are off epistemically speaking. In making the case for Christianity, for example, you could make an appeal to a variety of reasons: historical plausibility, logical consistency, moral attractiveness, experiential confirmation, etc. You’re never going to get to an air-tight, irrefutable case, but you’re also not going to be left with a sheer leap of faith. This is the zone in which most of our believing–including that with the most existential import–takes place. There’s no particular reason to demand that religion meet a bar of certainty that we wouldn’t expect in other areas of life.

Proof vs. “motivated belief”

I liked this interview with physicist/Anglican priest John Polkinghorne. In particular, his distinction between proving a belief and having a belief that is well motivated is worth highlighting:

Is it important to be able to prove the existence of God?

Well, I don’t think it’s possible to prove the existence of God. There are many things I don’t think you can prove in an absolutely cast-iron, logical way. You can prove that two plus two equals four; you can’t prove the foolishness or falseness of ridiculous assumptions. I could maintain that the whole world came into existence five minutes ago and that our memories of the past were created at that moment. I don’t think you could defeat me in logical argument about that, though we all know that would be an absurd thing to say. So proof, cast-iron proof, is pretty limited and not actually a very interesting category of things. I believe in quarks and gluons and electrons. I believe that’s the most intelligible, economic, persuasive interpretation of a whole swath of physical phenomena, but I don’t think I’ve proved their existence in the two plus two equals four sense — just as I can’t prove the existence of God. What we need, I think, is beliefs that are sufficiently well-motivated for us to feel that we can commit our lives to them, knowing that they may be false, but believing that they are the best explanation. I’m very sold on motivated belief but I am not sold on knowledge through proofs either in science or religion, or anything in between.

What is motivated belief?

I call myself a bottom-up thinker. I try to move from experience to understanding, to look at experiences, which may be our own experiences or accounts of others; in fact, in the religious case, they are very extensively accounts of experiences other people have had which we believe are being truly described to us and which support particular beliefs we are seeking to embrace. It means that we don’t just sit and dream things up out of our heads. It’s very important that we deliver ourselves from fantasy. You see, I think that the fundamental question about something, whether science or religion, is not, “Is it reasonable?” as if we know beforehand what is reasonable, or what shape rationality has. The better question is, “What makes you think that might be the case?” If you are going to propose something surprising and counterintuitive to me, then you need to produce evidence, something to persuade me that that might be the case, perhaps experiments. That is motivated belief. It contrasts with top-down thinking. Top-down thinkers have certain big ideas, clear and general ideas, which, if you grasp, they have the key to understanding everything. I think it’s the other way around. I think you should start at the bottom and the ideas will grow out of experience rather than being imposed upon it.

Except for a brief period when I was convinced by a version of the ontological argument, I’ve never thought that God’s existence can be proved. But, as Polkinghorne says, that doesn’t leave us in the realm of pure fideism. The universe as we experience it is, as philosopher John Hick says, “religiously ambiguous.” That is, there are facts and experiences that incline us to a religious (and specifically theistic) interpretation of our experinece, and there are others that point toward an a-theistic interpretation. No one has provided a knock-down argument or piece of evidence that one of these must rationally be preferred to the other. Plus, different people may give different weight to various pieces of experience in forming their beliefs. Religious experience, for example, is undoubtedly a widespread phenomenon, but it’s far from obvious what it shows or how much weight we should put on it. The same goes for moral, aesthetic, and other forms of experience that seem to point beyond a clockwork, materialist world. On balance, I’m persuaded that these experiences provide insight into a genuine transcendent reality and that a broadly theistic worldview provides the best available way of conceptualizing that reality. But I can’t claim that this interpretation forces itself on all rational observers.

2008: The year in book blogging

I’m not going to provide a best books of the year list, but here’s a sampling of those that got their hooks into me enough to generate some more or less in-depth blogging (needless to say, most of these weren’t published in 2008):

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power

“Empire of dysfunction”

Evelyn Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

“Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective”
“More thoughts on omnipotence and creation”

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Index of posts here.

John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

“Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”

S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals

“What kind of equality?”

James Alison, On Being Liked

“An end to sacrifices”

John Gray, Straw Dogs

“John Gray contra humanism”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Against the globalized food chain”
“Pollan on the ethics of meat eating”
“More on Pollan and vegetarianism”