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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Monism part 2

Stephen Milliken, who provoked my first post on monism, pointed out that I never actually got around to defining it.

Indeed--with good reason, since it seems to me to be a term that can mean several things. I'm more interested in teasing out what those several things could be than in deciding which of them is the right definition. Insofar as I provided one, it was "that all things emanate from God." But as I pointed out, that's rather ambiguous.

Stephen then gives one possible definition:

for God to really be God, there cannot exist something which does not first find its origin in God. For if there was something that exists was not first found in God, evil perhaps, it would be said to have its own eternality and existence in some way distinct and separate from God. Thus, I do not think it probably for this to be the case for anything, including what we call bad things. That’s why, to not give them too much credit, I like Lewis’ construct of evil as a perversion or a twisting of an original good. However, if I can be nit-picky, even this perversion, to exist, must itself have an ultimate origin in this God thing.

The first sentence is, I think, totally orthodox. The problem comes when you throw evil into the mix. That's why Christians have historically said (Lewis didn't make this up) that evil is not a thing in itself--it's a privation, a lack of something that should be there. This lack has powerful effects--it distorts the nature of the created thing in question. So a human being with the "goods" of physical strength, intelligence, etc., but lacking a rightly ordered will, can do horrific evil, and the more of these goods one has the more evil one can do.

In the traditional view, the privation doesn't have to be "traced back" to a source, because it isn't a thing itself. But this is a difficult concept. William Babcock pointed out the difficulties that Augustine gets himself into in this regard in his article, "The Human and the Angelic Fall," in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian (1992). Humans fell because Satan tempted them; Satan fell because? . . . . well, because he turned away from God to himself. But why would a good being, in a state of glory and bliss, do a thing like that, unless the Creator in some way caused him to? The origin of evil is perhaps the single most difficult problem in orthodox Christian theology, and I can see why you have problems with the conventional account. But if one endorses a robust theology of free will (more robust than Augustine's mature position), then one can argue that the "perversion" doesn't find its origin in God--only the ability to choose freely does. (I've been reading Greg Boyd, and while I don't agree with him on a lot of points, I think he's right to challenge any view that says that evil is something God looks on with some kind of acquiescence because it's part of a bigger plan.)

Anyway, I think it is tricky to suggest that we are to separate Creator and creation, which, importantly, the former is supposedly pure spirit and the latter is (or is defined by the former) what is material or non-spirit. Are we not setting ourselves up to value spirit over matter?

This is certainly a tricky question. As I believe I said in the first post, the traditional position at least since the 13th century in the West has been that angels are also wholly immaterial. Aquinas, who championed this position, argues that the difference between even such immaterial beings and God is that they are a "compound of existence and essence." I'm not sure I'm convinced, but I'm also not sure it's orthodox to say that angels are in some sense material. So I'm not necessarily defending the view that all created beings are in some sense material. Using Thomist terms, what I would say is that all created beings are in part potentiality and not pure act, as God is.

I think part of the problem is that because our minds are the part of us that most consciously shares in the divine nature, and are also the most "immaterial" part of us, we tend to equate "spirit" with "idea." And the Platonic heritage pushes us in that direction. I think this is where the Platonic heritage needs to be challenged, and perhaps, ironically, why the teaching that angels are immaterial is important. The Creator/creature distinction is much more radical than the material/immaterial distinction. Whatever it means for angels to be "spirit," angels are far more unlike God than they are unlike us. In fact, due to the Incarnation, there's an important sense in which we are more like God than angels are. God isn't the highest angel. So it can be true that God is immaterial without that being the fundamental thing that makes God God.

I think we can say that both "created spirit" and "created matter" reflect something of God without saying that God is both spirit and matter. "Spirit" is a less inadequate term for God than "matter," because it doesn't affirm something that is simply false about God. Matter is, in itself, limitation. Spirit is freedom from that kind of limitation. It is, in itself, a negative term about the absence of certain kinds of limitations. Or so it seems to me. Of course, created spirits would have their own kinds of limitations. But we wouldn't necessarily know much about those. That's why idolatry (in the literal, traditional, pagan sense of the word) is such a temptation. From our perspective, angels/gods look a lot like God, because angels are free of many of the limitations that make us unlike God. We have trouble seeing the far more radical ways in which "gods" are unlike God.

The Catholic theologian Stephen Webb has written a book called Mormon Christianity which argues, apparently, that God is beyond both spirit and matter and thus can be said in some sense to be material, just as he can be said in some sense to be spirit. I am not convinced by this, but it's interesting and I have not yet read the book.

A more traditional position can be found in Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict). I find his discussion of the Christian concept of God and how it relates to Greek philosophy (in Part One of the book-actually not the first part because there is a lengthy "Introduction" on the nature of belief) very helpful. On p. 146, he sums up the orthodox understanding of God as spirit this way:

The boundless spirit who bears in himself the totality of "Being" reaches beyond the "greatest," so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit.
That is why I don't believe that saying God is "pure spirit" or "pure good" somehow limits God's ability to sustain all creation from within, as you and I agree that He does.

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