Welch’s at the communion table

I used to make fun of churches who substituted grape juice for wine in communion. Then I joined a Methodist church where that’s standard practice. Its roots lie in the temperance movement, when zealous Methodists and other Christians decided that people struggling with alcohol shouldn’t be presented with temptation at the Lord’s table. Welch’s grape juice even owes its origins to Methodists looking for a shelf-stable substitute for communion wine!

I’m not sure what the research says about how small amounts of alcohol, like what you’d get at a typical communion service, affect people with drinking problems. But now that I’m at a church with a fairly significant number of people in that category, it’s not just a theoretical question. Our church has a large homelessness ministry, and many people at worship on a given Sunday struggle with addictions of various sorts (nor is this confined to the homeless or recently homeless).

Like a lot of people, I drank to excess in college and grad school, and occasionally well into my 20s. But I’ve become more sensitized over the years to the problems alcohol can cause. I’ve known more than a few people who, while not necessarily addicts, have problems with binge drinking or lean too heavily on alcohol to get through the week. And it’s clear that alcohol plays a non-negligible role in public health problems.

There’s a wide grey area here. Plenty of people can drink in moderation without it ever becoming a problem. Nowadays I typically have a few drinks a week, and I still think alcohol can foster a spirit of conviviality among friends and loved ones. Heck, John Wesley himself enjoyed a pint of cider or beer, though he looked askance at the stronger spirits.

But it still seems like our society doesn’t have the healthiest relationship to alcohol. Binge drinking appears to be on the rise, possibly because people feel the need for something to take the edge off our massively unjust and anxiety-producing world. Booze can seem omnipresent in our social lives (and even in some cases our workplaces).

So whereas I used to dismiss it as a kind of pietistic hangover (pardon the expression), I now see the use of grape juice in more concrete terms as a practice of Christian hospitality. And maybe recovering a bit more of that old-time temperance spirit wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. At the very least, it no longer bothers me when I approach the altar to receive my morsel of bread and a sip of Mr. Welch’s finest.

God as Ultimate Mind: Keith Ward’s “Christian Idea of God”

Keith Ward’s recent book The Christian Idea of God is a slim but ambitious volume. It aims to turn on its head the common belief we know the material world is real while ethereal objects like God and the soul are at best speculative inferences.

Ward points out that we’re actually more certain of the existence of mind than we are of matter. Our own first-person experience makes the reality of consciousness certain to all but the most determined reductionists. It’s matter, he says, that is an inference from or interpretation of our experience. The “material world” as we experience it is in no small part a construction of our mind’s own perceptual and conceptual apparatus.

He bolsters this by appealing to contemporary physics, which has “de-mattered” matter in a sense: physicists no longer see matter (and haven’t for a long time) as composed of little solid bits bumping into each other. Matter in contemporary physics is described in the language of entities and forces that don’t correspond to anything that we can picture in normal three-dimensional space. Matter turns out to be just as mysterious as mind!

The point is that we shouldn’t think of consciousness as an alien intruder into the cosmos, or as some kind of epiphenomenon. Consciousness and self-hood are central to our experience, and they should be integrated into our understanding of the world, not explained away. In fact, the conditions that led to the emergence of consciousness are woven into the deep structure of nature’s laws.

If we see consciousness as fundamental to reality, Ward argues, we should understand reality as a whole in a way that is hospitable to mind. The postulate of a mind-like ultimate reality is one way of doing this. The case is further bolstered by the intelligibility, beauty and goodness that we perceive in the world. Ward calls the belief in an Ultimate Mind an “interpretative hypothesis”–which “interprets some experienced reality in terms of concepts that do not derive simply from the observations in themselves” (p. 54). God, of course, is the name that most people would give to such an Ultimate Mind, and Ward adds that “God is a reasonable and natural interpretive hypothesis that helps us integrate these [aspects of experience] into a coherent whole” (p. 55).

The idea of God Ward goes on to develop will be familiar to readers of his other works. His is a personal God of awareness, purpose, and goodness who can be affected by what happens in the world. God brings the universe into existence for a reason—to realize goods that would otherwise be unavailable. And in particular, God wants conscious beings to enter into a loving relationship with God that will allow them to attain their true fulfillment.

It’s really only in the last section of the book where Ward connects his argument to more specifically Christian doctrines. One of the most important ones is the exemplification of God’s kenosis—or self-sacrificial love—in the incarnation of Christ. In Christ, God enters into the world of human sin and suffering. This is for purpose of theosis—uniting human beings to the divine so they can share in the divine life.

The specific revelation of God in Christ is complementary, Ward thinks, to the philosophical foundation he has laid. There’s a natural consonance between the idea of a God who creates new forms of goodness and relates to his creation in empathy and the loving Father of Jesus. Ward doesn’t make a hard-and-fast distinction between “natural” and “revealed” theology. Traces of this God can be found through general human reason and experience, as well as among the insights of other religious traditions.

To show my own cards, I find much of what Ward says persuasive (which isn’t surprising given the amount of virtual ink I’ve spilled on his writing over the years). His ongoing project of “open orthodoxy” has been very helpful in my own thinking. On this view, Christian theology and faith can’t be walled off from the findings of science or history, philosophical argument, or other religious traditions. Christianity should develop and change, incorporating insights from the full spectrum of human experience, while retaining its core commitment to God’s universal love revealed in Jesus.

p.s. Ward says he intends this book to be the completion of a trilogy on philosophical theology that includes his earlier books Morality, Autonomy and God and Christ and the Cosmos. I discussed those books here and here.

p.p.s. Listen to Tripp Fuller talk to Ward about the book here.

Hell and other theological gut-checks

He [God] created this speck of dirt and the human species for his glory; and with the deliberate design of making nine tenths of our species miserable forever, for his glory? This is the doctrine of Christian theologians in general, ten to one. Now, my friend, can prophecies or miracles convince you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable forever, for his own glory?

–John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, quoted by Garry Wills in his review of David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament

Adams, like many of the founders, was far from an orthodox churchman, but this statement seems to me fully congruent with the spirit of the gospel. As I’ve written before, though you can find passages in the New Testament that seem to support a doctrine of unending infernal torment, the inner logic of the gospel message seems to point toward some kind of universal salvation.

My views on this have changed somewhat since I’ve had kids. Before, I was probably in the Hans Urs Von Balthasar “hopeful almost-universalism” camp. But I’ve found that having children presents a series of theological “gut checks.” The prospect of passing them on to your children forces you–at least in my experience–to reexamine your beliefs. Could I, in all honesty, tell my kids that God loves them but he also might sentence them (or their friends) to an eternity of of unimaginable torment if they don’t believe the right things, or belong to right church, etc? I decided the answer was no.

As Jesus might have said, if you who are wicked, would never condemn your children to everlasting, conscious torment, how much less would your Father in heaven dream of doing such a thing?

The multifaceted life and theology of Marilyn McCord Adams

I recently came across this career retrospective/spiritual and intellectual autobiography from Marilyn McCord Adams, the prominent Anglican philosopher-theologian who died last year. She had a wide-ranging career as an important analytic philosopher working in the philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy, an Episcopal priest ministering to gay men in Hollywood at the height of the Aids crisis, and a theologian teaching at Yale and Oxford.

McCord was also a survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse who spent decades, by her account, trying to reconcile her suffering and the wellspring of hatred it created in her with her experience of the all-loving God revealed in Jesus. Accordingly, much of her later work is dedicated to understanding how God can redeem human life from its participation in “horrendous evils,” both as victims and perpetrators. Her approach draws heavily on an incarnational Christology in which God in Jesus participates in these horrors and leads us toward healing.

One of McCord’s more controversial moves is to argue that the primary purpose of God’s salvific action is not to fix the “sin-problem” but the problem of these evils so horrendous that they threaten to render human existence meaningless. With Julian of Norwich she was more inclined to view humans as immature children in need of mercy and healing than fully competent moral agents standing before the bar of an inflexible divine justice.

The reflections in McCord’s essay include a number of interesting observations on, inter alia, the riches and shortcomings of Anglo-Catholicism, the controversies over women’s ordination and LGBT people in the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion, her criticism of the “postliberal” school of theology associated with George Lindbeck, and why she remained an unapologetic (albeit “pessimistic”) liberal.

On a personal note, one of the pieces of work I was proudest of in graduate school was an essay on the problem of evil in which I drew heavily on McCord’s earlier work on divine suffering.

 

 

Augustinian universalism

I recently came across a very interesting paper from 2003 by philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker: “Why Christians Should Not Be Libertarians: An Augustinian Challenge.” “Libertarian” in this case doesn’t refer to a political stance but a metaphysical position on the nature of free will. As Rudder Baker notes, Christian philosophers, at least in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, are nearly unanimous in holding that human beings have free will in the libertarian sense. This means that human free choices are genuinely undetermined and that human agents are the ultimate source of (at least some of) their choices.

Against this consensus, however, Rudder Baker argues that Christians should not be metaphysical libertarians. She marshals several arguments: It is inconsistent with an orthodox, Augustinian view of grace shared by both Catholics and Protestants; moral responsibility is compatible with our choices being caused by factors outside our ultimate control; philosophers have struggled to give a coherent account of how exactly libertarian free will is supposed to work; and the common motivations for affirming libertarian freedom (e.g., as a response to the problem of evil) aren’t as strong as they appear.

Rudder Baker does acknowledge one troubling element of the Augustinian-compatibilist legacy: the doctrine of double predestination. However, she contends that instead of abandoning the Augustinian view of grace and salvation (i.e, our salvation is entirely in God’s hands), Christians should affirm its universal scope. That is, if God wills to save all people (e.g., I Timothy 2:4) and God’s omnipotent will is sufficient to achieve this, then we can hope all will ultimately be saved.

What resonated with me about this paper is that I have long had doubts about libertarian accounts of free will (going back to my graduate school and undergrad studies), even though they seem integral to many contemporary efforts to describe the relationship between divine and human agency. For instance, many recent efforts to mitigate the problem of evil lean heavily on the idea that God cannot determine human choices. But even if you could give a coherent account of libertarian free will (and I share Rudder Baker’s doubts here), it’s far from clear to me that this does as much work as its proponents think. I also agree with Rudder Baker that it’s possible to develop a compatibilist account of free will that preserves our intuitive notions of moral responsibility. (She deploys a modified version of Harry Frankfrurt’s compatibilism, which is probably one of the strongest versions going.)

I also have long-standing sympathy with the Augustinian view of grace that Rudder Baker describes and that was embraced by Luther and Calvin, along with other reformers. When I was a Lutheran (and in a lot of ways I’m still theologically Lutheran), I often thought that Lutheranism’s doctrine of grace and its rejection of double predestination ought to logically lead to universalism, though many Lutherans seem reluctant to make that inference.

In any event, the debate will continue, but I found Rudder Baker’s paper to be a refreshing bit of iconoclasm.

 

 

Macquarrie on divine self-giving and the risk of creation

In his Principles of Christian Theology, a book I’ve returned to a number of times over the years, John Macquarrie considers what it means to talk about God’s “risk” in creating the world in a way that strikingly resembles more recent discussions.

Recall that for Macquarrie, God is Holy Being, characterized by a self-giving that empowers the being of created things. God pours the divine being out in the act of creation, giving rise to particular, determinate things. But this creation of finite, determinate things inherently involves an element of risk:

In creation, God gives being, and he gives it to the plurality of particular beings. But what constitutes a particular or finite being is just that it is determinate; and whatever is determinate is what it is just in so far as it is not anything else. To have any determinate character is to be without some other characters. Hence creation may be considered as the going out of Being into nothing and the acceptance by Being of the limitations of determinate characteristics. All this makes possible the expression of Being in a richly diversified community of beings that would utterly transcend in value and interest what we can only visualize as a hypothetical limiting case, namely, a purely undifferentiated primal Being. But this creative process inevitably involves risk. There is a genuine self-giving of Being. We have already seen that this imposes a self-limitation on God, when we discussed the problem of his omnipotence. But more than this, it means that God risks himself, so to speak, with the nothing; he opens himself and pours himself out into nothing. His very essence is to let be, to confer being. He lets be by giving himself, for he is Being; and in giving himself in this way, he places himself in jeopardy, for he takes the risk that Being may be dissolved in nothing. Did Bonhoeffer have something like this in mind when he talked about the “weakness” of God, the God who manifests himself in the crucified Christ as placing himself at the mercy of the world? One would have to say, however, that this weakness of God is his strength. We have seen that a God who securely hoarded his being would be no God, and perhaps nothing at all. Only the God who does confer being and so goes out from himself into creation and into the risks of finite being that is bounded by nothing—only this God is holy Being and lays claim to our worship and allegiance. Only this God is a God of love, for love is precisely his self-giving and letting-be. (Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition, 1977, pp. 255-6)

A side-effect of this “going out” of the divine being is the existence of what we usually refer to as “natural” evil. Finite, particular things, being limited, have an in-built potential to lapse back into nonbeing. “These beings have been created out of nothing, and it is possible for them to slip back into nothing or to advance into the potentialities for being which belong to them. Evil is this slipping back toward nothing, a reversal and defeat of the creative process” (p. 255).

Providence is God’s ongoing creative activity to overcome “negativity by positive beingness,” but along the way there will be “many a reverse and many a detour.” This is because the existence of a multiplicity of finite things means that conflict is possible—and perhaps inevitable; one being’s flourishing often comes at the expense of another’s. But the venture of faith is that creation was worth it: that the unfolding of being in richer, more diverse and complex forms has immeasurably more value than if there had been no creation.

Macquarrie is working out of what he calls an “existential-ongological” perspective influenced by Heidegger, Tillich and Karl Rahner among others; but his view resembles other positions that have been developed in recent decades which emphasize limits on divine power. The central idea is that, for there to be a free, self-developing creation with its own integrity, God cannot micromanage it to eliminate any risk of evil or suffering.

There are disagreements over whether this means that creation inherently limits God’s power or whether this is a kind of voluntary self-limitation on God’s part. The former is characteristic of process theology: God’s power over creation is limited as a matter of metaphysical necessity. The latter view is associated more with open theism and thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who emphasize the voluntary nature of God’s self-limitation (or kenosis).

Macquarrie’s view doesn’t seem to fit neatly into either of these categories. There is certainly a kind of gratuity to the divine outpouring of being; in that sense, it resembles the “kenotic” view of Moltmann and the open theists. At the same time, he does hint that creation is in some way necessary to God—or at least to God being God (as noted in his provocative statement that a God who “hoarded” being would be “perhaps nothing at all”).

One contemporary view that may lie closest to Macquarrie’s is that of Thomas Jay Oord, a Wesleyan “relational” theologian who develops a position he calls “essential kenosis” in his interesting recent book The Uncontrolling Love of God. According to Oord, God is not limited by a metaphysical structure (as in process theology), but nor does God “voluntarily” self-limit in the manner of open theism and Moltmann. Rather, God’s very nature is one of self-giving love (hence essential kenosis). God’s outpouring of being and “letting-be” of particular beings flows from the divine nature itself. For Oord, this act of letting-be inherently precludes a deterministic micro-managing of creation by God; that would be a kind of divine self-contradiction.

This seems to me to be close to what Macquarrie is getting at. To be God just is to pour out being into the creation of finite, particular things. Because these things have their own determinate natures, creation is an inherently risky endeavor. But at the same time God is everywhere and always active and present to move creation toward its fulfillment.

I don’t know that this provides a fully satisfactory “solution” to the problem of evil. (In fact, I’m pretty sure there is no satisfactory solution at an intellectual level.) But I think a position along these lines has certain advantages over its main competitors.

Does it matter if Jesus never returns?

A friend on Twitter asks:

“Will there be a point at which Christians accept that Jesus won’t return? 5,000 years? 10,000 years? When the sun consumes the earth?”

For what it’s worth, my view is that Christians don’t need to believe in a “literal” second coming. Eschatology, like creation, points to something that lies beyond the boundaries of normal, historical experience and thus escapes precise conceptualization or description. Just as the biblical creation story can (and should) be seen as a symbol pointing to a trans-historical reality, so can the stories of Jesus’ return, the last judgment, etc.

In the case of creation, what the stories point to is the absolute dependence of all created reality on its divine Source. Creation is not something that happened “once upon a time” such that, say, you could hop in the TARDIS and go back and observe it. Similarly, eschatology is not about events that will occur in the historical future. Rather, the eschatological symbols point to the destiny of all created beings and their ultimate consummation in and with God. What this will look like is not something that human beings can describe in any precise, “literal” way, since our language and conceptual apparatus are fitted for mundane, historical realities. But from a Christian point of view, the symbol of the second coming of Jesus provides a powerful assurance that our destiny is with the God who Jesus re-presented to us as a loving Parent, and not an implacable judge.

Obviously there are Christians who would take issue with this interpretation, and many people are able to reconcile the “tarrying of the Lord” with belief in a historical, this-worldly second coming. But I also think a view like that one I outlined has a respectable pedigree in the history of Christianity. Church fathers like Augustine and Origen recognized the highly symbolic nature of the biblical language about ultimate realities and did not insist on literalism. The function of the biblical symbols is to orient us to that inexhaustible fountain of love and creativity that Christian faith maintains is the source and goal of our being.

UPDATE: Here are some relevant posts from the archives:

A better hope

Jesus and the end: what if he was “wrong”?

Keith Ward at the National Cathedral