Monday, May 11, 2009

Beautiful Reasons

The expert film-making duo of Matt and Elisa have done it again!  They have presented us with a very personal and intimate story of Matt's own struggles with anxiety and the places that he finds hope and love to overcome them.  In this short documentary, Matt opens up a quiet space within his own life that is filled with fear and despair, and yet even more full of hope.

Matt and Elisa entered this documentary into a contest, and they were selected as one of thirteen finalists.  On the website where you can view their film (it is only five minutes, you have time), and vote for the audience choice award.  There are so many reasons to vote for 'Beautiful Reasons.'

See the documentary here

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Worldview Behind the Work of Art: Five Cautionary Statements

Analysing a work of art by constructing a worldview that supposedly shaped the work of art is currently a fashionable trend in Christian engagement with the arts. While I think this is a valuable approach, I am sometimes uncomfortable with the way that the relationship between the worldview and the work of art is conceived.  Thus, I offer five cautionary statements that are meant to clarify how we appreciate works of art:

1. Works of art do not have worldviews; they are to lesser and greater degrees shaped by them. People have worldviews.

2. Analysing the worldview of a work of art sometimes offers the critic a false sense of confidence upon which to base judgements. A work of art is not ‘better’ because it has clearly been shaped by one coherent worldview.

3. Worldviews are exclusive. They have the unfortunate consequence of putting works of art in the misleading categories of ‘Christian worldview’ or ‘secular worldview.’ While the magician may be able to pull these convenient rabbits out of his hat, it seems plain that works of art generally dwell within the grey areas between worldviews.  In view of an accurate understanding of a work of art, it may not even be desirable to categorize a work of art according a worldview that appears to lie behind it.

4. A worldview is only one aspect of many that contribute to the meaning of a work of art. It is not, as Flannery O’Connor cautions us, ‘the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with.’ Some folks might be under the impression that if you pick out the worldview ‘the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens.’

5. The purpose of appreciating a work of art is not to determine the worldview that shaped it, but to allow the work of art to shape, challenge, question, and enrich our own worldviews.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Redemptive Vision of Charles Williams

I have been getting into Charles Williams' book He Came Down From Heaven. It is a fascinating read and very expansive in its theological scope. I was telling Emily about Williams' take on the first sin in the Garden, and she wasn't very impressed. Williams' theology is new to me, so I am sure her disatisfaction was more me than Williams. In the interest of a clearer understanding and making Williams' ideas a bit more appealing to my wife, I have carefully selected some portions of Williams' writing.

The following quote is basically what I was trying to describe to Emily. I was blundering about trying to understand what it means to 'know the good as evil.' Emily did not really like this idea, but as we will see Williams' notion that 'man desired to know schism in the universe' is grounded in Adam and Eve's desire to be as God. Williams describes the Fall this way:

'It was merely to wish to know an antagonism in the good, to find out what the good would be like if a contradiction were introduced into it. Man desired to know schism in the universe. It was a knowledge reserved to God; man had been warned that he could not bear it – ‘in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ A serpentine subtlety overwhelmed that statement with a grander promise – ‘ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.’ Unfortunately to be as gods meant, for the Adam, to die, for to know evil, for them, was to know it by pure intelligence and by experience. It was, precisely, to experience the opposite of good, that is the deprivation of the good, the slow destruction of the good, and of themselves with the good.' (20)

Williams then goes on to describe the affects of sin on Adam and Eve. I like what he says for two important reasons: (1) it anticipates William's theology of redemption and (2) it is funny. Here's what he says:

'They made themselves aprons. It was exactly what they had determined. Since then it has often been thought that we might recover the single and simple knowledge of good in that respect by tearing up the aprons. It has never, so far, been found that the return is so easy. To revoke the knowledge of unlovely shame can only be done by discovering a loveliness of shame (not necessarily that shame, but something more profound) in the good. The Lord, it may be remarked, did not make aprons for the Adam; he made them coats. He was not so sex-conscious as some of the commentators, pious and other.' (21)

The affect of the Fall is reversed in the Passion and Ressurection of Christ. It is in the Passion that Christ knows evil in deprivation of all good, and in the Resurrection that the world can know evil as good. Williams writes:

'The knowledge of good and evil which man desired is offered as the excuse for their false knowledge of good. But the offer brings their false knowledge into consciousness and will no longer like the prophets blot it out. The new way of pardon is to be different from the old, for the evil is still to be known. It is known, in what follows, by the Thing that has come down from Heaven. He experiences a complete and utter deprivation of all knowledge of the good.' (57)

'The Passion and the Resurrection have been necessarily divided in ritual and we think of them as separate events. So certainly they were, and yet not as separate as all that. They are two operations in one; they are the hour of the coming of the kingdom. A new knowledge arises. Man had determined to know good as evil; there could be but one perfect remedy for that – to know the evil of the past itself as good, and to be free from the necessity of the knowledge of evil in the future; to find right knowledge and perfect freedom together; to know all things as occasions of love.' (58)

This ultimate reversal of the Fall is anticipated in the Incarnation, for it is here that humanity's desire to be as God is reversed by God's becoming as man:

'Men were never meant to be as gods or to know as gods, and for men to make any such intention a part of their pardon is precisely to try to behave as gods. It is the renewal of the first and most dreadful error, the desire to know as gods; the reversal of the Incarnation, by which God knew as Man, the heresy of thought and action denounced in the Athanasian Creed – it is precisely the attempt to convert the Godhead into flesh and not taking the manhood into God.' (60)

In Williams' theology, redemption is pictured as a great reversal.  The moment of reversal begins with the Incarnation and ends with the Resurrection.  By becoming man, God reverses the original desire to be as God.  By becoming sin, God reverses the knowledge of good as evil, and, in his Resurrection, shows the evil of the past as good.  God makes all crooked roads straight, and shows that what was meant for evil He now means it for good.  

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Society for the Study of Theology and Amsterdam

I have been absent from the blogosphere for a couple months, and it feels good to be back. I am especially excited to share my recent trip to the Society for the Study of Theology Conference in The Netherlands. Sadly, I do not have any pictures from the conference itself. It was tempting to snap some pictures of all the 'famous' theologians who were there, but I held back. I didn't even ask for an autograph.

The conference was a lot of fun, and I met some great folks. Every night there was 'bar time,' which was a great opportunity to meet people and to discuss theology without the consequence of anyone actually remembering what you said.

I attended more papers than I have fingers to count. There were times when I felt a bit overloaded with theology. Listening to papers can actually be exhausting after awhile. A number of my friends from St Andrews offered papers at the conference, and they were all, of course, excellent. I think there were 8 (2 profs and 6 phds) of us from St Andrews total: strength in numbers. I also had the opportunity to give a paper at the conference on the relationship between creativity and vulnerability. This was a much more intimidating venue than Durham.

After the conference, some St Andrews friends (David and Joy Sonju, Shawn and Sarah Bawulski) and I did a bit of sight seeing in The Netherlands. Our first stop was the beautiful town of Utrecht (I believe this is the 'Utrecht' of 'Utrecht Art Supplies'). We visited its remarkable medieval cathedral and tower. Below is a view through the passageway underneath the tower looking towards the cathedral.

Yes, there is an accordion player. As we walked through this vaulted tunnel, I felt, just for a moment, that I had discovered a secret portal into 'movieland.' The whole scene was literally dripping with nostalgia. All that perfection required was a little dancing monkey.

The Utrecht cathedral was large and impressive. It was filled with contemporary art commissions. I took a number of pictures of old and new art, but this painting was my favorite.

It is titled 'The Director.' I wish I could remember who the painter is and when it was painted. A bit of observation reveals that this director is, in fact, Christ. We recognize that it is Jesus by the wounds in his hands and feet, the lamb on the floor, and the crossbeams of the window. The director's gaze is emphatically aimed at us, who, in looking at the painting, become incorporated within the work of art as we find that we are the ones who are being directed. It is a simple, poignant, and direct image that carefully balances a profound truth about the universe with a rather mundane human scene.

After going to the cathedral, we visited the tower. I can't remember how many steps we climbed to get to the top, but it was a lot. The view was worth it.
Bit of trivia: the tower in Utrecht at one time housed the highest (in terms of elevation) bar in The Netherlands. One of the original tower guards, who lived in the tower, got a little lonely and decided to open a bar inside the tower. Today, sadly, the tower is a museum for tourists and there is no working bar.

Below is a picture from the tower looking at the cathedral. If you have seen a cathedral before you might notice something is missing. Look carefully...
Its the nave! The cathedral does not have a nave! What you can see is the transept and the portion of the cathedral that houses the altar. In the sixteenth century a nave was built for the cathedral to connect what you see in this picture to the tower. In its glory days, you would walk under the tower and into the cathedral, but now there is a square that separates the tower from the cathedral. What happened, you ask? Well, by the time they got around to building the nave, the protestant reformation had happened, and people weren't as keen on funding large church building projects. So they built the nave, but decided to leave out what seemed, at the time, to be a superfluous element: the flying buttresses! One fateful evening, a large storm blew through Utrecht and knocked down the nave. The rubble remained there for 150 years until it was finally removed and replaced with a very nice square.

After Utrecht, we went to Amsterdam. Below is a picture that I took of the Rijksmuseum from the large park in the museum quarter.
The Rijksmuseum houses a remarkable collection of 16th century Dutch paintings. This is the primary reason, even more than the conference, that I wanted to go to The Netherlands. All the big names were there: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Frans Hals and more. They have an excellent collection of Dutch Genre Painting (my personal favorite). In short, this is like the mecca of my painting world (more than the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Tate, or the MOMA). The Rembrandts in particular were stunning. Just getting to see 'The Nightwatch' (which is gigantic) made it worth it.

After the Rijksmuseum, I went to the Van Gogh Museum. As art museums go, this was one of the best I had ever been to. I actually came away feeling as though I had learned a lot about Van Gogh and his paintings. See his work in person is a must. The prints don't cut. The man could lay paint on the canvas like nobody else (some of his paintings had to be close to an inch thick). His sense of color was absolutely mind boggling, especially to someone who has never been good at utilizing color in paintings. And Starry Night lives up to the hype.
Walking through the two museums was an absolute privilege. The experience of seeing these paintings in person will stay with me a long time: at least until I get back to Amsterdam.

I also went to the Anne Frank house. This was exceedingly powerful. It had been awhile since I had really thought about the Holocaust, and certainly a long time since I had been confronted with the many disturbing images and stories. I had forgotten the horror of it, and I was affected in new ways by this exhibit. It is hard to say much more, or really anything at all, after walking through the Anne Frank house.

And, of course, Amsterdam would not be complete without tulips and canals. So, I leave you with these two photographs.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Is Creation Ex Nihilo?

How are we to understand what Creation ex nihilo is? The ‘ex nihilo’ part undoubtedly signals that whatever God was doing when he created the universe extends beyond human comprehension and experience. We do not know how to make something from nothing, and though we can find interesting analogies they fall short very quickly. Any yet the ‘creation’ part suggests that God was doing something not totally foreign to the world that he made. As Dorothy Sayers points out, “We use the word ‘create’ to convey an extension and amplification of something that we do know, and we limit the application of the metaphor precisely as we limit the application of the metaphor of fatherhood.” (21) If we are talking about two different activities we might use different words to describe them (such as sweeping the floor and mowing the lawn), but at the same time recognize that there is a same word (chore) which points to their similarities. Thus, it seems that Sayers is arguing that both human beings and God ‘create,’ but that ‘creation ex nihilo’ points out that they create in different ways.

It is of great importance, however, that we construct an analogy between creation ex nihilo and human creativity very carefully. If the gardener and the maid were to have lunch and discuss the similarties between their respective ‘chores,’ much common ground may be found, but at the same time their intimate knowledge of their respective occupations may lead them to discuss ‘the finer points’ of mowing the lawn or sweeping the floor. They each may find that the peculiarities of their task are essential to understanding what their task is, and so, for both of them, ‘chore’ cannot possibly come close to saying all that needs to be said. Analogies, then, are helpful because they can point out similarities between different things (‘sweeping the floor is like mowing the lawn), but at the same time analogies may conceal significant differences. In the case of human creativity and divine creation ex nihilo, ‘analogy’ may be too strong a word because the mystery of the creative act that brought into existence all time, space, and matter far outweighs anything that can be said positively about it. Therefore, one might say that human experience can provide some insights into creation ex nihilo, but little more than that. Let us consider two (potential) insights, one from Dorothy Sayers and the other from M. B. Foster, that attempt to shed some light on creation ex nihilo.

Dorothy Sayers, in her book the Mind of the Maker argues that humans have experience of something approximating creation ex nihilo. She writes that “It is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something from nothing. A whole artistic work is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.” (22) Most people would agree that this is a peculiar feature of a work of art as opposed to, say, a grocery cart. The grocery cart has little significance or meaning apart from its intended use, and so, unless it was imbued with some greater significance or value, we would hesitate to call it art. Sayers goes on to argue that we have “experience that the work of art has real existence apart from its translation into material form.” (22) Here it seems to me, she makes a mistake. Although it would seem that, if art is something greater than a physical object, one could have access to or experience of a work of art apart from the physical object, she has made a tacit assumption about the nature of the work of art: that the material and imaginary components of a work of art can somehow be separated. She argues that we experience creation ex nihilo in the world of the imagination, but not the material world. Her distinction between the imaginary work of art and the physical work of art is fully articulated in her description of the creative process where the Idea in the mind of the artist is the complete work of art prior to its translation into material form.

I would like to suggest that Sayers is both right (the work of art is more than the sum of its parts) and wrong (we do not have experience of the work of art apart from its translation into material form). M. B. Foster, in his article “The Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science,” will help me to articulate how this is so. To show what creation ex nihilo means, Foster begins by showing what it is not. Creation ex nihilo is not, as numerous theologians have argued, the Platonic Demiurge who creates like a Cosmic Craftsman. Plato argues that the Demiurge created the world by taking eternal matter and forming it according to an eternal pattern. Theologians have rightly seen that creation ex nihilo means there can be no eternal matter or pattern. And yet, as Foster shows, it means quite more than this.

The Demiurge, Foster argues, creates according to his intellect. Foster writes, “The the form of an object is intelligible, means that it is distinguishable in conception from the sensible material of its embodiment.” (462) For example, if God creates various things in the world according to a pattern or Idea in His mind, they may be said to have form distinguishable from their materiality. To the extent that God has an ‘end’ in mind prior to creating the world, we may say that his creativity is purposive and that the conception of the material object exists apart from the actual material object. The grocery cart was made according to a plan (the end, which is the ideal grocery cart), and so the conception of what a grocery cart is can exist entirely apart from the grocery cart.

Foster argues that the Christian God, who creates ex nihilo, creates according to his will. This implies that “there is no end distinctly conceived by the creator in advance of his execution, so there is no form distinguishable by us from the accidents of its embodiment.” (462) Only if there is a clear plan prior to the act of creation can the conception of the created thing be distinguishable from the material created thing. To show how this is so he employs an analogy between divine and human creativity:

It is notorious that the creative artist, e.g. the painter, has no clear knowledge of what he is going to achieve before he has achieved it; and the critic on his side, when confronted with a work of creative art, is indeed aware that there is ‘something more’ in it than the sensible material—a great painting is more than a certain complexity of coloured surfaces – but this ‘something more’ (we may loosely call it the ‘meaning’) is not capable of being conceived in distinction from the sensible material in which it is expressed. (462)

We may say then that the meaning of the painting is not intelligible in the same way that the meaning of the grocery cart is. Every feature of the grocery cart contributes to the ‘end,’ the plan, according to which it was designed. But in God’s creation there is an element of contingency, which “is sensible only, without being intelligible.”(463) There are things in creation which simply are, and there is no ‘reason’ for their being the way they are.

Sayers’ reliance on the Platonic Demiurge as a background for her thoughts about creativity is made even clearer in her understanding of what an artistic idea is. She argues that a book, for example, can be completed in the artist’s mind prior to being put down on paper. The imaginary book and the written book are only different to the extent that the written book gives the author a greater awareness and understanding of the imaginary book. Thus, the meaning in the written book can be reduced to the idea in the mind of the author. Once a person (author or reader) has understood the idea that formed the book, there appears to be little reason for reading the book because the idea and written book are essentially the same.

If creation ex nihilo means that there is no eternal material and that there is no eternal pattern, then it is quite easy to see how the meaning of creation “is not capable of being conceived in distinction from the sensible material in which it is expressed.” Foster argues that this forms the basis for modern empirical science because it requires people to go out and take a good hard look at creation to know what it is. But the same must be, at least to some extant, true of God as well. If God cannot simply deduce from the Ideas in his mind the 'meaning' of creation, but must actually look at it, then his point of view is not entirely different from ours. Thus, because of creation ex nihilo, I would like to suggest that God’s relationship to creation as Creator is best described as Kenotic.

But how does God relate to His creation as Creator now that the creation ex nihilo is finished. Is God creating anything else? We may point to God’s creative efforts to sustain creation and bring it to completion in the New Creation. These activities are indeed aimed at ‘making all things new,’ but are not the same as creation ex nihilo. Calling these activities Kenotic implies that analogies between human and divine creativity may, in fact, be more helpful than they originally appeared (for now that God has made something from nothing He must surely work with that ‘something’ to continue to be creative). Therefore, I would like to offer the following as starting points for an analogy between divine and human creativity: (1) God’s creativity works in and through the material universe, (2) God’s creative activities make space for the creative response of the ‘other,’ and (3) God’s creative activities collaborate with his creatures.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wendell Berry on Art

My friend Tim Stone recommended that I read a chapter from Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community titled "Christianity and the Survival of Creation." Berry presents a vision of the arts that departs quite nicely from the modern idea of creative genius. Here we find an ode to the craftsman. Berry moves technical skill to the center of the arts, and suggest that doing so may return the arts to their rightful place within human relatedness. I have transcribed a large chunk here for your enjoyment:

All of us are makers, within mortal terms and limits, of our lives, of one another's lives, of things we need and use.

This, Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote, is "the normal view," which "assumes... not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler of parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist." But since even mere idlers and parasites may be said to work inescapably, by proxy or influence, it might be better to say that everybody is an artist-- either good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world. This is why our division of the "fine arts" from "craftsmanship," and "craftsmanship" from "labor," is so arbitrary, meaningless, and destructive. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both "the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function." And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation.

Explaining "the perfection, order, and illumination" of the artistry of Shaker furniture makers, Coomaraswamy wrote, "All tradition has seen in the Master Craftsman of the Universe the exemplar of the human artist or 'maker by art,' and we are told to be 'perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." Searching out this lesson, for us, of the Shakers' humble, impersonal, perfect artistry, which refused the modern divorce of utility and beauty, he wrote, "Unfortunately, we do not desire to be such as the Shaker was; we do not propose to 'work as though we had a thousand years to live, and as though we were to die tomorrow.' Just as we desire art but not the things that make for art ... we have the art that we deserve. If the sight of it puts us to shame, it is with ourselves that the reformation must begin."

Any genuine effort to "re-form" our arts, our ways of making, must take thought of "the things that make for art." We must see that no art begins in itself; it begins in other arts, in attitudes and ideas antecedent to any art, in nature, and in inspiration. If we look at the greatest artistic traditions, as it is necessary to do, we will see that they have never been divorced either from religion or from economy. The possibility of an entirely secular art and of works of art that are spiritless or ugly or useless is not a possibility that has been among us for very long. Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, on the uses and the users of the things made by art, and of the artists themselves. The have, that is, been ways of giving honor to the works of God. The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call "self-expression." They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life. Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius. Coomaraswamy, a good guide as always, makes an indispensable distinction between genius in the moder sense and craftsmanship: "Genius inhabits a world of its own. The master craftsman lives in a world inhabited by other men: he has neighbors." The arts, traditionally, belong to the neighborhood. They are the means by which the neighborhood lives, works, remembers, worships, and enjoys itself.

But most important of all, now, is to see that the artistic traditions understood every art primarily as a skill or craft and ultimately as a service to fellow creatures and to God. An artist's first duty, according to this view, is technical. It is assumed that one will have talents, materials, subjects--perhaps even genius or inspiration or vision. But these are traditionally understood not as personal properties with which one may do as one chooses but as gifts of God or nature that must be honored in use. One does not dare to use these things without the skill to use them well. As Dante said of his own art, "far worse than in vain does he leave the shore ... who fishes for the truth and has not the art." To use gifts less than well is to dishonor them and their Giver. There is no material or subject in Creation that in using, we are excused from using well; there is no work in which we are excused from being able and responsible artists.

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, pp. 110 - 113.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Durham Conference: Jan. 13, 14 2009

Postgraduates at the University of Durham organized and hosted a conference on interdisciplinarity in theology and religion (Subtitle: How to Tie Knots that Will Hold). I was able to attend the two days of the conference (Jan, 13, 14) and had a wonderful time.
Sarah Coakley gave an excellent keynote address on her own experience as an interdisciplinary researcher. She has had a fascinating career as a researcher that has included projects with the Mind, Brain, Behavior group at Harvard as well as a recent collaborative project with the game theorist Micheal Nowak. Look out for an upcoming book co-written by Coakley and Nowak that has the potential to change the landscape of research in the area of science and religion. Also, she recently edited a book on pain that I am hoping to read at some point, and I recommend it to anyone else interested in the subject.

The conference was composed of primarily post graduate students (my guess is about 60). There was lots of time (although more would have been nice) to get to know one another and hear about each other's research interests. Because of the nature of the conference everyone was doing such different and unique things. There were projects ranging from the more traditional (such as The Role of the Holy Spirit in Deification in Athanasius) to the more popular interdisciplinary areas (such as my own project on the analogy between divine and human creativity, Church and Empire, music and theology) to the unique and unusual (such as Christian belief and the popular UK practice of woodland burial, how christians watch reality tv, and angelology as a necessarily interdisciplinary discipline). Everything was fascinating and there was a general sense of curiosity about one another's projects that pervaded the conference.

I also had the opportunity to present my own work in the form of a paper titled, "Is Creation the Expression of the Creator? An Exploration in Theology, Art, and Philosophy. " (click on title to read paper) This is the first time that I have presented a paper at a conference, and I was very happy with the way that it went. The discussion time afterward, which seemed to last a long time (there had to have been at least 15 questions/comments) went well and I received a good response and good constructive criticism. I really enjoyed the question time. It was fun to have people interact with my research and have the opportunity to respond and dialogue.

Two friends of mine from St Andrews also presented papers: Paul Warhust (on Kierkegaard as a Matthew scholar) and Christian George (on Pilgrimage as a locus of interdisciplinary study). I unfortunately did not attend Paul's, but I am sure it was excellent. I did attend Christian's, and I know his was excellent. He has got me thinking about how to appropriate prilgimage as a metaphor and christian practice today, as well as wishing that I had keynote on my pc so that I too can have graphics that make the other presenters salivate with longing.

Speaking of longing:

I also fell in love with Durham while we were there. Emily, Jonah, and I stayed in a great little bed and breakfast called the Chestnut Villa. The oldest portion of town is situated on a hill inside a bend in the beautiful river Wear. Durham Cathedral (more than 1000 years old) dominates the landscape, along with the castle that is connected to it. I could have spent two days inside the cathedral instead of the conference. The sense of scale produced by the walls that seem to shoot up and soar overhead is overwhelming. There were a number of stain glass windows of immense size and intricacy. And in one portion of the cathedral are a number of more contemporary art installations, including a massive pieta that is utterly captivating, evoking the deepest sorrow and tragedy alongside the glimmer of hope and resurrection.
Overall it was a great trip, even though a number of logistical things went wrong. Emily may comment on these in her blog post, but I won't go into them here.  Here are a few more pictures that Emily won't show you:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Christ, Kenosis, and Creation

Colin Gunton argues, in his book Christ and Creation, that the relationship between Christ and Creation must be understood within the context of the Triune relationships. He writes, "It is because God the Father creates through the Son and Spirit, his two hands (Irenaeus), that we can conceive a world that is both real in itself, and yet only itself in relation to its creator.” The concept of Kenosis, the self-emptying of God, is typically empoyed to relate the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, to Creation, and in what follows are some interesting comments on the relationship between Christ, Kenosis, and Creation:

“If the self-emptying is seen as the expression of the divine being rather than its depotentiation, it is a different matter altogether. The concept is used, for example, in Cyril of Alexandria. ‘The emptying was a voluntary reduction to our level, undertaken as an act of pure love … : “He who fills all things lowered Himself to emptying.” What is claimed is that the eternal relatedness of the Son to the world here takes, through the Spirit, a particular and unique form. Because the Father created and upholds the world in being through the Son, it is ontologically appropriate, so to speak, for the Son to be the one who takes on flesh. The one who holds in being the realms of time and space enters their confines in order to renew them. In that respect, the emptying is an expression at once of the love of the Son and of his being in relation with that which was created through and is upheld by him. Kenosis is therefore one concept by which we may express the way in which the eternal Son related himself to that which is not God—to the creation.”

Gunton goes on to say that “It is doubtful whether the continuity between creation and incarnation should be expressed by calling the activity of divine creation also an act of Kenosis. It is one thing to give to the world a being and form, another to enter its fallen structures to renew them.” I have two comments about this statement.

First, Gunton seems to imply earlier that creation and kenosis are closely linked when he writes “the emptying is an expression at once of the love of the son and of his being in relation with that which was created through and is upheld by him.” How does one separate the love of God and the creativity of God? W. H. Vanstone writes, “Christianity should have no hesitation in attributing to God that authenticity of love which it recognizes in Christ – in attributing to the Creator that authenticity of love which it recognizes in the Redeemer.” The argument here is that the self-emptying of Christ, as implied in the incarnation and crucifixion, is indicative of a love for creation that God has in general.

Second, although the incarnation suggests the consummation of God’s creation, it does not ultimately reach that fulfillment, which is God dwelling with his creature in the New Creation. If “God dwelling with His creation” has been the final goal all along, then all of God’s creative activities could be called Kenotic for they strive toward intimate relatedness with Creation. The concept of Kenosis can be employed to describe the free relatedness of God to creation, because it is not only the Son who wishes to dwell with His creatures.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Kenosis and Freedom

This one goes out to Shawn Bawulski.  We have had a number of conversations about the nature of human freedom, and, while I am still far from having answers to the many questions that have come up, I came across an article by Sarah Coakley entitled "Kenosis: Theological Meanings and Gender Connotations" in The Work of Love (ed. John Polkinghorne) that is very helpful.  

I have been wrestling with the idea that God's Kenosis is essential to his relationship with creation.  Indeed, the idea for my phd dissertation is predicated upon the assumption that the analogous relationships Creator-creation and artist-artwork are characterized by kenosis: a "self-emptying" or "self-giving" on the part of the Creator/artist that ensures the "otherness" of creation/artwork.  The Work of Love is a collection of essays that explores the theme of "Creation as Kenosis" as a response to classical doctrines of creation that emphasis omnipotence, omniscience, and immutability.  Thus, "Creation as Kenosis" implies an amount of "vulnerability," "risk," and "sacrifice" on the part of the Creator.

Coakley points out what I had suspected, but not yet articulated.  She writes, "the striking commitment in this book to a libertarian view of freedom may be the linchpin holding several other systematic choices together." (204)  Libertarian freedom is the kind that considers a human being to be "free from conditioning control by another." (205)  The visual picture of Kenosis, with its connotations of "limitation" and "otherness," provided in The Work of Love is one of God stepping aside so that His creatures won't be dominated.  Coakley describes the picture as "a (very big) divine figure backing out of the scene, or restraining his influence, in order that other (little) figures may exercise completely independent thinking and acting." (205)

This picture, she argues, is a male-gendered picture of freedom.  She connects this kind of freedom to "the male child's repudiation of the power of the mother." (205)  There is a sense in which this freedom by distancing is a peculiarly male fantasy.  "The underlying symbolish -- this argument goes on -- is of a normative 'masculine' self who gains independence by setting himself apart from that which gave him life and indeed continues to sustain him." (205)  This type of freedom ensures "otherness," which is arguably essential for the existence of a loving relationship, by creating distance between God and his creation.  

Does Kenosis present us with an alternative to libertarian freedom, or do the two go hand in hand?  The alternative, Coakley argues, is compatibilist, but at the same time free from the determinism that the contributors of The Work of Love believe to characterize classical approaches to divine interaction with the world.  She observes, in fact that such an alternative is ironically present within The Work of Love. 

The alternative picture of Creator-creature interaction "undoes this assumption about the supposedly strangling effect of a continuous dependence on the divine." (206)  What is suggested by Coakley, and Ian Barbour in his essay "God's Power: A Process View," is an understanding of God's power "not as overpowering but as empowering." (15)  Barbour draws on the work of Anna Case-Winter (God's Power: Traditional Understanding and Contemporary Challenges, 1990) who suggests that God's power may be better understood in terms of mothering.  The child's response to the mother is not in competition with the desires of the mother that the child become a full person in his/her own right.  In fact, the child's response completes the activities of the mother.  This type of freedom ensures the "otherness" of creation through the continual and intimate sustaining of the creature by the Creator.

Coakley concludes her thoughts on Kenosis and freedom by writing: "If we think of divine kenosis as required for a God who must get out of the way in order that 'freedom' be enacted, then one sort of gendered picture is probably in play; whereas if we think of God as nurturing and sustaining us into freedom (of a different, compatibilist, sort), then it may be that another set of gender associations are present in the background.  For the latter view, it is not God who is in need of restriction or 'emptying', but rather a false form of hubristic human power." (206)  

It is interesting that Kenosis should generate two different accounts of freedom, one based upon distance, the other on intimacy.  Similarly, theologians writing about kenosis will use the terms "self-giving" and "self-emptying," as I did at the beginning of this post, despite their different connotations of fullness and absence.  That the kenosis of God, primarily a theological concept about the relationship between Creator and creature, should be articulated in such disparate terms seems, to me at least, to be a good thing because it suggests the struggle within a relationship of persons to define one's self while leaving room for the 'other.' 

I am also happily surprised to see that "Kenotic Theology" (if I can use the term) does not require one to accept libertarian freedom, but that compatibilism is an option as well.  How libertarian freedom is articulated within a kenotic understanding of the relationship between Creator and creature appears to be fairly straightforward.  How compatibilism is articulated, however, within the same understanding will require more thinking and reading on my part, as well as more conversations with Shawn Bawulski.