Update: Part 2 of this post is up.
Last week, I wrote a post about being overwhelmed by God’s beauty in Western Pennsylvania. In it, I talked of the beautiful paradox of a God who would incorporate within his own divine life both Beauty and Suffering. My good friend (and huge theological influence) Austin Ricketts (who’s written on this blog before) took issue with these statements, saying that he fears that they lead to making God the author of Sin and Evil. I wrote a reply to his comments in which I asked whether the very nature of God might be “narratival” and unfold over the course of history, and perhaps suffering and even Evil itself are “motifs” or “themes” in that “Storied Essence” of God–a story that eventually does away with these things. He wrote a reply in which he countered some of my views on revelation and some biblical texts.
Here, in the two parts of this post, I plan on (1) responding to Austin’s refutation, and (2) writing up some final thoughts (and fears) on my end. I’ll leave the final word to Austin if he so desires. Feel free to also chime in with your own thoughts if you like!
What I got wrong
First, Austin was right that my argument from Hebrew was flawed and elementary. I shouldn’t have appealed to Hebrew when I never actually finished the Hebrew class that Austin and I were both in! Admittedly, in these arguments, I was regurgitating some of the compatibilist middle-knowledge arguments of Dr. Bruce Ware of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (particularly in this message). And for the record, I have never read or heard anything by Robert Jensen, a theologian who Austin believes has a comparable view to my own.
Secondly, Austin knows more about the history and thought of philosophy than anyone else I personally know. I was wrong to make the mistake of assuming his thought of “form” was Platonic rather than Aristotelian. I would still say, though, that most of Western Theological thinking is closer to the former than the latter, and so my comments still apply to the popular opinion, even if not Austin’s.
Lastly, Maybe my choice of “story” language was (and is), in fact, giving in to the recent “narrative” fad in philosophy and theology. Actually, what I was trying to say was much closer to what Austin said he believes–Aristotle’s view of “form”, which contains “movement” and “progression” within it (like a flower moving from seed to blossom).
I wish there were some word I could think of for some middle-space between “story” and “progression”. You see, I don’t think the Essence and Nature of God is “storied” in the sense that there is a “past-tense” or “change” in God (or at least how we usually conceive of “change”), but I do think that there is a telos towards which the Nature of God is working and moving all things, and the Story of arriving at this telos is an expressions of God’s Nature and Character.
Some clarifications & conclusions
I said that every source of revelation of God (Christ, Bible, Tradition, Nature) is storied. This was the first thing Austin took issue with. He talked of the many instances in those things that are descriptive, declarative, propositional, “plotless”, and isolated.
My last point in my post was meant to address this, by saying that this “narratival” framework to God is not the death of proposition and declaration. But rather, you consistently see that proposition always flows from within a storied context. I’m referring much more, in all of these cases, to a much grander meta-narratival substance, rather than a necessary narratival structure to each and every instance.
So yes, there are many non-narrative genres in the Bible, but every one of these are intimately connected to, and rooted in, both a past storied redemptive-historical context from which they were borne and a present “revealing” event of God when joined by the Holy Spirit and Faith (ala Barth’s view of the misnomer “revelation”).
When I say Nature is “storied”, I’m referring to two things. First, Evolution gives all of Creation a beginning, a past, development, conflict, and–in the New Creation–a climax. Secondly, even in the particulars, though a flower growing and blossoming has no Natural telos towards which it is evolving (with Evolution being a passive, scientifically random process), as Christians, I believe we must think of Creation having a Theological telos–in the present, as presenting the glory of the Creator God; and in the future, as testified to by the Prophets’ visions of pastoral and harvest peace and abundance. And so these unfolding natural processes play a role in a bigger, progressive scheme.
Yes, Austin is right to point out that ritual and practice at times appear without meaning or reason attached to them, but surely none of them arise from no context at all, do they? Even if this context is as ethereal as the essence of God himself, there is some progressive context from which declarative practices develop (my belief in a God who’s fundamental Nature is one of Sufferer, Dying One, and Forgiver would answer Austin’s conundrum of the seemingly-unknown origin of the idea that blood sacrifice is an answer to sin).
And even if there is seemingly no meaning attached to it initially, who’s to say that it’s purpose is more to develop meaning over time? In other words, couldn’t some rituals and practices be the beginning of “story-ing”, forming, shaping, and narratively liturgizing individuals rather than being borne from an already-existing context? (I still don’t feel like I expressed that well, but we’ll go with it for now.)
Similarly, I don’t understand what (as Austin calls it) an “unstoried-miracle” might be. Isn’t a miracle, at its simplest, some movement from one state, to another, by a supernatural act of God? How is this not storied? A “romantic Psalm” (the example offered by Austin of an “unstoried-miracle”) is both connected to a longer history of the knowledge of this God moving in the world (after all, the Psalmist knows this God’s name and nature in the world), as well as the story of God’s action in the Psalmist’s life that led to the writing of said Psalm.
Wrecking Balls or Construction Workers?
Another thing that I found interesting was that there was no alternative vision or scheme offered by Austin. I understand this was not his purpose-he said as much. But I feel I offered what was–in his own words–a very logical understanding of God’s Nature and its relation to Evil. I offered many “premises” that led to these conclusions, and Austin said he would be taking issue with these “premises”, but he only talked about three things, none of which were quite a “premise” of my argument–more like proofs:
First, he exposed my poor communication of the idea that revelation was storied. I feel that he had very reasonable misunderstandings of what I was saying–misunderstandings that I hope were addressed above. But still, I don’t know that his refutation fully counters a fuller account of what I was saying.
Second, he focused on my linguistic appeal to one verse in the Bible. Admittedly, I spent some considerable time referencing this verse in my post, but it is, in my estimation, only the most explicit expression of some of these ideas. It’s neither the source of my thinking on this, nor is it the only part of Scripture I spoke of, and it is by no means the cornerstone upon which my whole post was laid. Further, I feel that, at most, Austin showed how my interpretation of the verse is not the only interpretation, not necessarily the wrong one.
And lastly, Austin simply states, “But God’s essence, considered as event, does not include evil, not as something that actually has existence in God.” This is the entire idea upon which we disagree (even though I would not at all phrase my own thinking as he seems to summarize it–and so, in one major sense, we agree on the surface of this statement). And yet, he offers no reason why his statement should be the case, he only goes on to the linguistic issues mentioned above.
Perhaps I misunderstand the theological nuance of the idea and development of “God as event”, but I don’t know how it would automatically follow from that premise that Evil as a theme (however non-fundamental) can have no place in the “Story” of God’s Nature.
That concludes my response to Austin’s post. Tomorrow, I’ll put up some concluding thoughts, as well as some of my own doubts about what I’ve written.