Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Inchoate Musings on Understanding God

I have been thinking about God, and how I appropriate God. [I want to think that this is a valuable exercise. Most of life is simply lived without reflection and without questioning the presuppositions that undergird it. One's belief in God is the most fundamental presupposition of all; I persuade myself that it cannot be endlessly assumed, but must be challenged.]

It has occurred to me that the God I believe in is, on a quotidian basis, a pagan one. I believe (or profess to believe) in a loving God. But this love I don't understand - it is an alien and foreign love - and so I lapse into a default position of alternating between attempts at bribery (or placation) and anger at or with God when my bribery doesn't work.

To bribe God, to placate God is the faith of the non-believer. It is faith in the pre-Christian malleable and persuadable gods of the pagan pantheons, and has nothing to do with the personal God of Holy Writ.

Anger at or with God is the faith of a thwarted child. It is based upon a relationship, but one ill conceived and distorted. It assumes that love is there, but obviously an inconsistent one.

As I peel back the layers to my private theology, I find a surface declaration in a loving God, a deeper pagan disbelief, a still deeper anger in a God who is not manipulated, and somewhere beneath it all, I find a measure of trust.

When all else has been lost - when little b. was so sick, when my grandfather died, when I fell into Bunyan's Slough of Despond - I have found myself at peace with the Divine, reconciled to the contrariness and irrationality of human existence, no longer troubled by theodicy, but simply dependent and trusting in God and in a love that persists and is sustained despite and in the midst of madness.

But only then. It strikes me that the trouble is taking the childlike faith and trust in God that is with me then and applying it to the rest of my life.

In point of fact, isn't the entire Christian journey, the pilgrimage of each life, a journey through the endless misappropriations and misunderstandings of God into pure faith? Is it not true that this struggle to see God, to have Him revealed, is not just the journey of a people, from Abraham to the Church, but belongs to each one of us?


And then I think of certain theologies. Formalized ones that belong to a particular Christian sect or other.

And it seems to me that there is a development.

There is the child's faith, pure, innocent, and untrammeled. But immature. Adamic.
There is the adolescent's faith, ideological, dogmatic, and often strenuously logical. Systematizing the faith with a nascent intellect. Still immature. Scholastic. Calvinistic.
There is the teenager's faith, romantic, emotional, and vaguely mystical. Some forms of Catholicism. Arminian.

But to the adult there is no type, no theology that can be called truly mature. There are only individuals working their way to sanctity, endlessly discovering the depths of God, until they reach a point - a mature faith - which is a faith that is childlike without immaturity. It is a faith tried, tested, and purified.

- V.

[In the above it is understood, but nowhere stated, that Orthodoxy provides a framework (the best framework) to attain this mature faith, but does not assume it. Orthodoxy provides no shorthand for her theology, no easy dogmatics, no fast mysticism. There is simply a carefully delineated but very rocky road that leads to maturity.]


Anonymous said...

This is a very personal piece that you have written, and so I hope you will accept my unsolicited comments. I do hope we can interact at least a little.

I realize that the Orthodox Church does not do cataphatic theology [“expressing of God or the divine by what is or expressing God through positive terminology. This is in contrast to defining God or the divine in what God is not which is referred to as negative or apophatic theology: a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in terms of what may not be said about God.”] For you, then, apophatic theology is the “truly mature” theology.

I think that the Orthodox Church is mistaken here, and I would be happy to discuss my reasoning with you [not least is the fact that much of the New Testament is doctrinal and theological in a positive and cataphatic sense]. HOWEVER, I would like first to comment on the manner in which you have classified Calvinism. Here I think you are unfair. Calvinists are no more/no less scholastic or systematic than are Arminians. Protestant Calvinists like Protestant Arminians have a high view of Scripture. Indeed, we believe that Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice. This is one of the things that separate us from Catholics and Orthodox. Calvinists and Arminians alike have an interest in cataphatic theology and both have an interest in Scripture and both can and do appeal to reason. However, Calvinists are no more prone to what is “strenuously logical...Systematizing the faith with a nascent intellect” than are Arminians. In fact, I have found that Protestant Arminians are far more susceptible to the temptation to be both reasonable and logical than are Calvinists. Calvinists often hold views that seem contradictory simply because they feel bound to do so by Scripture. It is Arminians who argue that the sovereignty and election and calling of God are ‘inconsistent’ with human free will and incompatible with what we “know to be true”. Calvinists, on the other hand, are much more willing to accept the mysteries of election.

I would enjoy discussing the pros and cons of Calvinism and the Scriptural grounds for accepting or dismissing its doctrines... but let’s be fair. Calvinists are not a group of strange, harsh, simple minded and spiritually immature men – there are many different types of Calvinists as there are many different types of Arminians [you will much prefer the theology of John Wesley but I think you will have to agree that Whitefield was the more godly. John Owen was a great ‘systematizer’ but also a very godly and spiritual man]. There are many differences between these groups and there are many similarities – the key difference has to do with salvation. Do I choose God or does God choose me? Do I save myself or does God save me? At the key moment of conversion is it me converting myself or is it God converting me? Now some Arminians will argue for a ‘bit of both’, but ultimately they will place most weight on the will of the individual whereas Calvinists place most weight on the will and sovereignty of God.

Whether cataphatic or not...whether systematic or not ‘Calvinists’ are convinced that the doctrines of grace also known as Reformed theology or Calvinism are declared to us in Scripture. So how do you as an Orthodox Arminian answer Scripture? How do you deal with Romans 3, 8, 9, 10 and Ephesians 1 and 2 and 2 Timothy 1 for example?

Anonymous said...

Indeed, how do you deal with the gospel of John? [Please see first comment above]

John 8:43- "Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. [44] You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! [46] Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? [47] He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

10:14- "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-- [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay down my life for the sheep. [16] I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. [17] The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. [18] No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father... If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, [26] but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. [27] My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. [28] I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. [29] My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. [30] I and the Father are one."

John 12:40 - "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn--and I would heal them."

See also John 17...for example: "I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours..."

V & E said...

Hello, Stephen, and thank you for your comments.

I see that I should have left off sideswiping specific doctrinal systems (such as Calvinism), for in doing so I have drawn your attention away from the primary thrust of this post (which centres on an unfolding revelation of the nature of God in individuals as well as peoples).

This post starts with my misappropriation of the nature of God and ends with several misappropriations of God, whose underpinnings I compared to the inclinations of youth. At no point was apophatic theology or cataphatic theology under question, nor was I debating Calvinistic or Arminian doctrine. For better or worse, I characterized the sentiments behind these doctrines without bothering to discuss the doctrines themselves. Such a discussion does not fall under the purview of this post.

However, I take it as understood that you object to my characterization, I readily admit that mature faith can be attained by any Christian by the grace of God, and I thank you for taking the time to defend your theological stance.

- V.

V & E said...

As a sidebar, by "mature faith" I do not refer to a sect, but to a stage in a relationship marked by faith, trust, dependence, and peace, but tried, tested, and purified by the adversity that is human existence. It is a true knowledge of God.

Acquiring such a knowledge can be achieved by anyone over a course of a lifetime in relationship with Him.

Orthodox have the best parameters, but our people are just as fallible as anyone else: just as prone to ideological dogmatism, just as prone to romantic mysticism, just as prone to boxing God into human categories (like the pagans of old).

Again, Orthodoxy offers no simple shorthand; her theology neither elevates the "Superdox" nor the wannabe mystic.

- V.

Anonymous said...

V - you said, "At no point was apophatic theology or cataphatic theology under question, nor was I debating Calvinistic or Arminian doctrine."

Yet, the very type of theology you call adolescent is an approach to theology that is cataphatic. Indeed, by stating that there is no mature theology and no type for the spiritual adult you are declaring your own affinity for apophatic theology.

You say, "Orthodoxy provides no shorthand for her theology, no easy dogmatics, no fast mysticism." What you are describing is apophatic theology - I am aware that this is how the Orthodox Church does theology, and naturally it is an approach that you endorse. Yours may not be a "fast mysticism" but I would argue that it is type of mysticism: "the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, or insight."

Again, while not debating Calvinism/Arminianism in your post you have labelled Calvinistic theology as adolescent in contrast to the teenage Arminianism which is in contrast to adult Orthodoxy (which while Arminian is apophatic rather that cataphatic).

You also said, "As a sidebar, by "mature faith" I do not refer to a sect, but to a stage in a relationship marked by faith, trust, dependence, and peace, but tried, tested, and purified by the adversity that is human existence. It is a true knowledge of God." Is this knowledge of God mediated through orthodoxy or are you describing a kind of mysticism?