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Don Giussani alla lavagna durante una lezione

An illustration of the interplay of eternity and history, and the intersection of God and man. Lost when the “ever-rolling stream of time” carries both us and God.

 

This post could have been titled, “Taking the Mystery Out of God.” It also must be prefaced with the admission that I am not familiar with analytic philosophy, and that the concept of God as a temporal deity by Christian philosophers is new to me. I first became aware of this a few months ago over at Fr. Aidan Kimel’s very fine blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. Fr. Aidan has begun yet another series of thought-provoking posts. The first post of the series is Prisoner of Time: The Temporal Deity of Analytic Philosophy. Background: God being a prisoner of time is an objection raised by classical theists against the notion of a temporal deity. While Fr. Aidan does not hold to this particular idea of God, he does say that to show that it reduces God to a prisoner of time one must show how it inhibits God’s providence and the accomplishing of His purposes. As Fr. Aidan puts it, “Divine sovereignty can hardly be said to be compromised if God is still able to execute his omnipotent will in history and bring the world to eschatological glory.” The purpose of my post is to jump into the deep end (and perhaps drown) to meet this challenge of Fr. Aidan’s. All arguments for and explanations of a temporal god come from the post linked above.

In response to the objection that God is a prisoner of time, Richard Swinburne, a proponent of God being temporal and mutable, makes two points. The first is that God freely chose such a limitation. This free act maintains God’s sovereignty so that it is He, “not time, who calls the shots.” In other words, God is a prisoner of time to a degree. For example, He must wait for future events to arrive before He can act in them. His knowledge is also of a completely different kind. His knowledge of past events are only a memory and of future events He has no perfect knowledge because they have not yet happened. His second point is that God, being the one who calls the shots, maintains His sovereignty in creation. Whether one voluntarily becomes a prisoner or not is a mute point, either way, they are still a prisoner. It is also irrelevant that God may “step out” at His pleasure and completely change things or wipe all creation away if He chooses. While He is in the system, He works according to the system. In this way, a constraint from without is put upon Him and is one shared with us mere creatures. His sovereignty is not perfect; He is limited in what He may do and when He may do it by the system to which He has submitted Himself.

R.T. Mullins, in his support for a temporal god, takes into account the above objections. He says,

God is completely in control of the physical time associated with creation, and He can begin it or end it whenever He desires. True, He cannot undo the succession that He freely brought upon Himself, nor can He retrieve His lost moments, but so what? He cannot do anything that is logically and metaphysically impossible, and He is no less sovereign for all that. What is needed for God to be sovereign is for God to be able to achieve His ultimate purposes for creation, and the temporalist holds that God cannot create a temporal universe without undergoing succession.

Here Mullins reduces God’s sovereignty to a telos. This, however, fails to take into account that God is sovereign in and of Himself. God is only perfectly sovereign in that He possesses perfect freedom. Had there been no creation God would still be sovereign. If one is going to speak of the sovereignty of God, they must do so in such a way as to take into account the whole, not just a part, and creation is just a part of the whole. Whereas in the temporalist view there is a constraint on God (again, whether it is voluntary or not is irrelevant), God knows no constraint. Mullins is correct when he asserts that God “cannot do anything that is logically and metaphysically impossible.” However, this is not a constraint, it is acting in perfect freedom. Freedom is not just the ability to choose. It is the ability to choose in accordance with the good. For God, this means to choose in accordance with the truth of Himself. This is markedly different from creating a system and then constraining yourself by way of subjection to that system.

One could argue that even understanding God as eternal, we can properly speak of His constraining and subjecting Himself simply because He created us. There are certain “demands” placed on a person when they enter into a relationship, and in this God is no different. There is an important difference between this reality and the temporalist perspective though. In the temporalist perspective time is part of a structure; it is impersonal. Better put, time is something without rather than being within. In regards to the relationship entered into with man, we once again come to acts of freedom rightly understood, acts that are in accord with what is within. God here acts in accordance with Himself, not under the constraint of an external property.

Finally, Mullins says, “the temporalist holds that God cannot create a temporal universe without undergoing succession.” Why? There are perfectly cogent explanations of how God relates to temporal creation without any loss of being eternal. (You can read another post by Fr. Kimel that touches on this. I found it immensely helpful). Eternity, however, is shrouded in mystery. Nothing truly positive can be said of it. It is beyond our comprehension, and this seems to me to be the difficulty for the temporalist. When we make God temporal, we aim to make Him comprehensible and take the mystery out of the One who is Mystery.

Postscript: In the end, the argument against a temporalist understanding of God is not, I think, dependent on the objection that it makes God a prisoner of time. I think temporalists know they cannot argue He is not because both Swinburne and Mullins admit that He is; they just say it doesn’t matter and that the limitations are not unwelcome. A much greater problem with the temporalist position for me is its necessary connection to a belief that God is mutable. How can we speak of the perfections of God when perfection knows no change?

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For the first Sunday of Advent, we hear in the Collect: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming…” Often when one thinks of Advent and our preparation for Christ’s coming, they think of His coming 2,000 years ago. Many know that in Advent we are also preparing for His second coming. There is also a third coming: His present coming. Jesus Christ with the Father and Holy Spirit is ever-present. His coming to us is not just an event of the past nor one to which we look ahead, but one that is always present. His coming in the past enables us now to welcome Him in His present coming, and His present coming prepares us and leads us along the way to His final coming.

This collect calls us to run forth to meet Christ. We run to His second coming, but we do so by running to His present coming. We cannot come with empty hands. Indeed, it is not possible to run to Him with empty hands. There is a requirement here, a condition: we must run to Him with our hands full of righteous deeds. What are these righteous deeds? The context of Jesus’s second coming calls to mind Matt 25 where we hear of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, etc. However, before running to Him with these righteous deeds there are other righteous deeds with which we must run. Those first called to mind are for our neighbor. However, to truly render those deeds righteous we must exercise righteous deeds to God; this is the virtue of religion. The actions of religion are not enough in themselves. The Psalmist reminds us that God desires a contrite heart. This requires that we exercise righteous deeds toward ourselves.

Before continuing, a few clarifications must be made. First, these three groups of righteous deeds are not mutually exclusive. Life requires that all three are exercised as one rather than as a neat step-by-step progression. Where one is in the spiritual life, though, will determine where the emphasis lies. Second, it is God above all else who is loved in all three. Love for God is obvious, but our love for neighbor is rooted in our love for Him in them, and a proper love of ourselves is rooted in love for Him in us. Third, the working of these righteous deeds is only possible by and in God’s grace. Without a desire for Him and an opening of ourselves to Him, we can do nothing.

Where do we start? With ourselves. What might a righteous deed toward ourselves look like? Purification. Every saint, every spiritual doctor of the Church is unanimous on this. The first stage of the spiritual path is purification. Without it, we cannot enter into true intimacy with the Holy One, the Lover. There are certain practices that are universal in this, namely, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The path of purification, though, is not limited to these three. Not only are there myriad ways and degrees to practice each of these, there are also many other practices one will need to include. Each person is different and each person walks the path of purification differently. For myself, I am an incredibly physical person and I glory in the senses. I am also very intellectual and when I attempt to make progress in the spiritual life it is always greatly characterized by intellection. What I have come to realize is that until I address the physical I will have no progress. The problem is I am terrible at fasting (no surprise, considering how physical/sensual I am). My own first little step into mortification of the flesh is weight training. The immediate goal is for my muscles to hurt. It is my hope that beginning with this little step I will progressively make greater strides in the path of purification.

Having been made ready through purification and died to the world, we are able to render truly righteous deeds to the Lord and enter into intimacy with Him. These deeds are all those that entail the giving of our hearts in devotion to Him. This person runs to God in prayer; it is a search. The person, who is now free of the world, seeks God with urgency. He becomes their sole focus, the Lover of their hearts without whom they cannot rest or have satisfaction. When they come to Him it is only then that they stop and their soul is content.

The person who has rendered righteous deeds to themselves and to God is now capable of rendering them to neighbor. Just as Peter, James, and John had to descend Mt. Tabor, so too must the person who has found rest in God. We descend Mt. Tabor in order to ascend Mt. Calvary. Finding rest and love’s fulfillment, we are prompted by love to hear and answer the cry of those in need. We do not do this alone. When Peter, James, and John descended the mountain, they were led and descended with Jesus Christ. We also are led by Jesus and accompany Him in giving of ourselves to all others.

Almighty God, may we run to Your Christ this Advent and always with hands full of righteous deeds given to ourselves, to You, and to our neighbors. In all things, by Your grace, may we ever live what St. Patrick prayed: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me. Amen.

 

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

The Fords at Osgiliath are taken and its defenders, commanded by Faramir, are in full retreat back across the Pelennor Fields to Minas Tirith. Meanwhile Denethor awaits the end in his tower.

Pippin fears that the Dark Lord himself has come but Denethor replies with a bitter laugh:

“Nay, not yet Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons?”

In recent weeks on this blog we have seen that Denethor is not the self-indulgent coward that Jackson portrays him to be in his films. He lives and eats austerely and even sleeps in his armour so that his body should not “grow soft and timid.” It…

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There is a charming little book of definitions written by kindergarteners called “A Hole is to Dig”. I suppose if they had been asked what winter was one of the answers would be “Winter is to celebrate Christmas.” Okay, it would be more along the lines of “Winter is to get presents,” but you get the idea. Over at Caregiving Stinks, there is a delightful little post on just this. Just like his son, Joey, winter is Christmas for me too. It is one of the reasons why winter is by far my favorite season. But it wasn’t always this way for me and for many years Christmas was not something to which I looked forward.

I use to be quite a Scrooge. Christmas was a time of added stress: the stress of spending so much extra money on gifts that if I did not get would make me a horrible person; and the stress planning, plans being disrupted, and drama ensuing. Added to this was the resentment and anger directed toward a society attempting to divorce Christmas from its origins, to usurp its message from the One who gives that message meaning and makes it possible. Hearing Christmas music during Advent was like a grater on my skin. I loathed secular Christmas and being filled with such strong negative feelings I was unable to enjoy Christmas as one of the great solemnities of the Church.

Then I got married. Every Christmas of my married life has been wonderful. It is a time I always look forward to with great anticipation, and for me it is never too early to start. My wife and I start buying Christmas gifts many months before December. The first new ornament for the tree is bought early November (we’re behind schedule this year). The planning for feasting and celebrating begins at least a month prior. But what about that divide between secular Christmas and Christmas? My attitude is to render what is Ceasar’s to Ceasar.

We live in a secular society; it is no longer Christian though there are many vestiges of the prior Christian society which preseded our’s. It is vitally important that as Christians we celebrate Advent/Christmas. However, I also think that as Americans it is vitally important that we celebrate the “holiday” feastivities with all the other Christian, athiest, pagan, et. al. citizens of this country. We are not called to be isolationists. By inserting ourselves into the secular we can help bring it to the sacred. Of course, this requires that we have a very strong sense of the sacred and an identity as Christians. My wife and I have our Advent devotions. We set up our Christmas tree a week before Christmas. We set up other Christmas decorations before that. The creche remains empty until after the praying of Vespers on Christmas Eve. During Advent we sing Advent hymns – when praying – and on Christmas Eve we joyously sing Christmas hymns. If we are having a Christmas party, yes, it is during Advent and, yes, we sing Christmas songs. Why do I do this? Because a Christmas party isn’t sacred, plain and simple.

Today is the first day of winter here in Indianapolis. By which I mean, it is the first day that has truly felt like winter. On this magnificent winter morning, we are enjoying our tea and cocoa (cocoa for me) and kicking back to some Christmas music (on vinyl, of course). And I quite proudly proclaim that we are doing all this before Thanksgiving, today being only Novemeber 19. I pray that all you readers have a very blessed winter and Christmas. God bless us, every one.

All Souls Day

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This morning I came across an article on the Catholic origins of Halloween. Reading it, I was reminded that the three days of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 are a reminder of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory (not respectively), and the four last things. A post, therefore, on the danse macabre seems rather appropriate with Halloween so near.

The danse macabre (dance of death) is a literary and artistic theme with strong roots in the late Middle Ages. Its precise emergence is debatable (perhaps the 13th century, perhaps earlier), but it was a common and powerful theme throughout much of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. After waning during the Renaissance it re-emerged in the 19th century and continues in various depictions – including music and film – to our own day. The danse macabre is not only a reminder of our own death, but the death of all. In the eyes of death all are equal: one’s status, wealth, prestige, and talent is of no consequence where death is concerned.

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The two images below, separated by centuries, depict the same scene: a dance coming to its end. In the first image a soul is being lowered into their grave, their hand not grasping anyone else’s they are clearly separated now from the dance. The second image, however, has some significant differences. The first is that the person is being lowered into a hole which is definitely not a grave. The look of pain on the shrouded face coupled with a lowering into darkness is indicative not merely of a grave, but entering into hell. The person’s hand is also still holding on to the hands of those still in the dance: they are not simply going to their own graves, but will also be joining this person in eternal pain and anguish.

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While images such as the first depicted above and the one at the end of this post remind us of the universality of death, some images such as the one below remind us of this more poignantly as well as of death’s perceived untimeliness.

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In Western society (or at the very least American), the reality of death is something people actively try to avoid confronting. We don’t want to think about death and even less do we really want to think about what may possibly come after death. We comfort ourselves with all kinds of sayings: “They’re in a better place.” “God will see how good I am.” “They’re angels now watching over us.” We automatically assume that when someone dies they go to Heaven. We come up with excuses not to visit someone’s grave such as their being everywhere. And, yet, we fool ourselves because there is something so different about the grave that we dare not go! Instead of praying for them, we only celebrate them. It’s amazing to me how many people with all their faults are suddenly saints upon their death. Parents pass this on to their little ones. Children are kept from funerals because it will “freak” them out. They are not brought to grave sides to remember loved ones who have passed. This inability to confront death is then passed on to the next generation. For all our avoidance, death is all around us. It is an inescapable part of our life. It is for that reason that images focusing on the individual such as the child typically (at least for me) elicit a more emotional response.

This is also true of some images that come from another theme derived from danse macabre: death and the maiden.

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The anguish on the woman’s face is palpable with hands clasped, pleading not to go down into darkness. Death has no pity here. He is rough, tugging her hair and indicating with his other hand where she must go. We do not know her story; only the sad culmination of her life.

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Here we see a very different picture. Again, we are presented with a woman in the prime of her youth. She is surprised, obviously not expecting that her time had come, and pulls the blanket to herself – a defensive and modest gesture in response to her vulnerability. Death here is not rough. The raised hand is a calming gesture, the wing stretched to embrace her. The lantern will light the way to we do not know where. In this painting all that matters is the immediate moment of encounter with death.

There are, unfortunately, depictions of this theme that are perversions of the mystery of death rather than being a rumination. One of the reasons for this is the separation of danse macabre and death of the maiden from the context in which they originated: Christian Europe. For the Christian, death is not the end; it is not finality. Rather, it is a comma in life as it was so wonderfully stated by Dr. Evelyn Ashford in Wit. This view of death is not avoidance. It is not an expression of the sickness of society as seen above. No, this comes from viewing death in its proper context: the victory of Jesus Christ, it’s unbinding. The context is the Resurrection. But the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is not a free pass. It is not something to be taken for granted and to be presumed upon. We are called to partake in the Paschal Mystery. We are called to take up our cross and be crucified with our Lord. It is through the dying of self and to the world in Christ that our physical death will bring Life. Without this previous dying our physical death will bring eternal death.

The inability of our society to confront and live with the reality of death points to just how sick our society has become. If we do not embrace death, we cannot embrace life – either here on Earth or after our departure. Today, perhaps more than ever in this country, we need images like those above. We need them urgently. We need them in our churches, our homes, and our schools. We need them to confront us with the mystery of death and what happens after. We need them to remind us of our hope in the Resurrection, rather than thinking it is something owed to us. So on Halloween enjoy the danse macabre in its varied depictions. Remember the reality of Hell and the wages of sin, and look forward in hope to Heaven. On the following day joyously celebrate that hope with all saints.

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And just for a bit of fun…

 

Way of Faith

DarylMadden

A simple desperate soul
Offers up a prayer
Sent unto His Lord
Receives no answer clear

What is he to do?
Should he be dismayed?
Give up all his hope
Or faith now lead the way

What is this way of faith?
Not letting heart go sour
Conforming will to Gods
Not Gods will to ours

Little steps of trust
Seeking of roots deep
Reflecting of the growth
Faith begins to seep

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I once heard that Christ was known through the Old Testament – meaning, if you want to know Christ look to the Old Testament – and this is true. For instance, if you want to know about Christ’s high priesthood, you need to know about the various aspects of priesthood found throughout the Old Testament beginning with Adam through the whole of salvation history up to Christ. The first antiphon for today’s morning prayer (the feast of St. Luke) says, “The holy evangelists searched the wisdom of past ages. Through their gospels they confirmed the words of the prophets.” We can rightly say that the prophets testify to Jesus Christ. We can even say they confirm Him, but we can only say this because Jesus first confirms them. One does not conclude that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and son of man, by checking off each item on a prophetic list. Yes, He fulfills all that the prophets said, but He is also more. It is He who confirms the prophets and all the Old Testament. We must know them for ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, but to truly know them (the Word which has been inked) you must know the Word-made-flesh.

Shiite Catholic

This is very interesting. Please check it out and what Fr. Edmund links to as well.

Sancrucensis

Google informs me that an American comedian likes to refer to his wife as a “Shiite Catholic.” If I understand the term correctly, I think I could apply it to myself given my religious self-understanding (not to mention my theory of the relation of religion and politics).

But this post is about a conference involving both Shi’a and Catholic scholars that I participated in last week. The conference was organized by a friend of mine as a follow up for a conference in Qom, the holy city of the Shi’a in Iran, two years ago. I had been planning to attend that conference, but it didn’t work out in the end. As I put it over on Owen White’s blog at the time:

I was actually hoping to go to a conference [in Qom] earlier this month, but sadly I wasn’t able to make it in the end. A friend of mine was…

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Today I am assigning a Rosary project to my students. They will each need to put together a Rosary meditation using images and quotes on PowerPoint slides. It’s very simple. They choose a set of mysteries and devote one slide per mystery for the set they have chosen. Each slide has the name of the mystery, one image to depict that mystery, and one short quote. Usually when images accompany Rosary meditations they are depictions of the mystery itself. This is what I am modeling for my students and what I expect to see from most of them. However, I’m also going to show them examples of images that do not so much depict the mystery, but rather give a narrowed interpretation of the mystery. (I call this an interpretive image. This is not the best name, however, because all images are interpretive). It’s an interesting exercise. The advantage of the mystery itself being depicted is that it allows for greater freedom in what one may meditate upon concerning that mystery. The advantage of an “interpretive” image is that it brings our attention to an aspect of the mystery that we may have otherwise never thought of. The following are the examples I am giving to my students of interpretive images with accompanying quotes.

The Annunciation

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I will make all things new.

The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

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For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 

The Carrying of the Cross

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He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases. 

The Ascension

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One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more, death, though shalt die. 

This last image more than the others requires a little explanation. It points more to the fruit of the mystery – hope – rather than the mystery itself. I was struck by the bleakness of the environment and the contrast of the girl’s interiority with it. Within her is light, warmth, joy, and life. Within her is hope.