Monday, February 25, 2013

Faith in Faith

I don't take faith, and a person's believing that they have faith, to be the same thing. Nor do I take unbelief, or being without faith, and doubting whether they have it, to be the same thing, but entirely different. 
- Jonathan Edwards

This is why, along with Stanley Hauerwas, we shouldn't take our subjectivity too seriously. Protestant spirituality is often driven by an anxious need to know that we know. Belief in God amounts to believing that we believe in God, even if we don't actually believe in God. We are consumed by our individuality. We are, in short, a community of solipsists, otherwise known as the church!

What I need instead is a community of people who know that I know, even when I don't know that I know. Or who know that I don't know, even if I don't know that I don't know.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Edwards and Malick

It is a strange country indeed whose first philosopher is a man who preached a sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". And it is a strange blog post that begins a piece on Terrence Malick's new film with mention of Jonathan Edwards. To the Wonder is released today, though I won't see it until Tuesday.

But reading this passage on Jonathan Edwards made me think immediately of Terrence Malick, who, one could argue, is an American philosopher from the Edwardsian school. The proofs for that argument might make for an interesting dissertation, but for now I'll let the passage speak for itself:

In Edwards' view God's sovereignty was not an abstraction, but a description of God's active love. In his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World, for instance, he described how God's creation was an ongoing communication of his beauty and his love. Throughout Edwards's works he reiterated how rebellious humans, loving themselves, have refused to see this love. Conversion, then, is being given by the Holy Spirit new eyes to see; but the seeing is not just an intellectual apprehension. Rather it was an experiencing of the overwhelming beauty of the love of God, manifested in its most immediately transforming aspects in the sacrificial redemptive work of Christ. To recognize the beauty of this love is to have one's heart drawn to it. The transforming work is all God's doing, but it is not against anyone's will, since we are drawn to beauty voluntarily, even if we cannot help being so compelled by it. Edwards explicates such an understanding of freedom of the will, as being free to do what one wants, even though we cannot ultimately control our most essential dispositions.

I am unfamiliar with the theology of Jonathan Edwards, but if this is an accurate description of it then I'm beginning to see why he is not only America's first philosopher, but also widely considered its greatest theologian.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nature and Grace

Conor Cunningham says that the relationship between nature and grace is at the centre of everything, from metaphysical debates to football. Having just watched The Tree of Life for the severalth time, the following was a timely video to supplement Terrence Malick's cinematic exploration of this ubiquitous relationship:


The Book of Job, from which Malick plucks a verse to launch his exploration, has an interesting perspective on this relationship: In response to the questioning of His grace, God responds with nature.

Any time nature and grace appear in a theological discussion it is always helpful to ask the question, What would Karl Barth say? He might say something along the lines of "Grace is the internal basis of nature, and nature is the external basis of grace." But more than that, he would point to Jesus. To talk about "nature" and "grace" outside of the incarnation is to talk nonsense as a Christian. In Jesus's human nature, through his concrete form, grace and truth are made known. In Jesus, nature and grace are seen to be not two things but one.

But there is a particularity about that sentence that is not always respected. Materialist theology -- or atheology -- tends to collapse grace into nature. Zizek, for example, sees the church not as the people of God in the belonging sense of the word "of" but in the sense of her now being the very being of God, the "community of the holy spirit" that continues on the life of the divine even after his death on the cross. The distinction between Creator and creature that the Bible -- and more importantly, Barth! -- is eager to maintain is erased. There is nothing outside of nature. In seeking to harmonise nature and grace we have equated totality with infinity. Christian theology cannot do this if it is to remain both Christian and theological.

To bring a contemporary cultural reference in to the mix, this is why it is misguided to quote approvingly the line "To love another person is to see the face of God" from Les Miserables. God is love, but love is not God. Much better to say (or sing) something like "To see the image of God in another is to begin to love them". The difference is subtle but crucial.