As I’ve been outlining a Male Feminist Theology, I have said there is an aspect of Suffering-Unto Life in the very nature of God. This started some conversation on Facebook. Today, along this vein, we have a guest post by one of my dearest friends (and blog contributor), Austin Ricketts. Years ago, he wrote in favor of God’s Suffering. Years later, he took it back in a little debate we had. Today, he offers a sophisticated sort of “middle way”. It’s more dense than most things I post here, so I’ve linked to relevant articles elsewhere to help you follow along.
If I were to set my doctrine of God down as a scene from a play, you would see the Cappadocian fathers meeting Thomas Aquinas at table, somewhere in Tuscany, while Charles Hartshorne comes in out of the Spring air from some bird watching. Thomas eats a large chicken, all by himself, while the fathers drink wine; their arms around him. Hartshorne is taken aback by the size and quiddity of the meal—how could he eat a bird, after all—so he orders a salad and sparkling water. Soon after, the fair Charles is assaulted by a paper airplane from the end of the table, and he looks up to see Augustine, who had up to that point been cloaked and hooded. After all this, the set goes dim, stage props move to reveal a completely different mise-en-scene.
The lights brighten to reveal one, Carl Jung, waking from a dream, saying “Hmm. How bout that?”
The curtains quickly close, all goes quiet, and a voice—preferably that of James Earl Jones—says, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Then, this Quaker Poet with a long gray beard and large hat comes streaking—that is to say naked, except for the hat—across the stage shouting, “I sing the Body electric. Eidolons! Eidolons everywhere!”
This is how I imagine things moving together. It would, at the very least, be an interesting show.
More boringly, I would say that the Cappadocian view of the Trinity, when it emphasizes the monarchy of the Father, is on the right track. It’s a key point. And even while Thomas says that “Person” is the most perfect kind of nature that there is, especially when considering God, there is still a sense in which Thomas has foreshortened this instinct.
Granted, the medievals worked with a logic of perfection, and few if any did that better than Thomas. Even still, the logic was more abstract than it needed to be. This is Hartshorne’s point: the logic of perfection made a good beginning while talking about being, even God’s act of existence, but it could have done better with bringing personality to play a more decisive role in the logic. For instance, when the Bible talks about God not changing it does not primarily mean anything about Being in the Aristotelian sense. Rather, it means that God will be faithful to God’s covenant. This says something about the nature or being of God, to be sure, but only by implication.
(An interesting aside could be made here about the essentially critical nature that Aristotelian philosophy has and does play in biblical interpretation. It’s a point which, I think, would be interesting to those who are opposed to biblical criticism and yet still use Aristotelian philosophy. But I won’t make the point, except as I’ve already apophatically done so.)
Returning to the point, Hartshorne would say that this immutability should be rendered as a personal characteristic, not judged simply in terms of being qua being. The logic of perfection comes in to balance the situation, showing that immutability doesn’t mean stasis. Neither does it, in personal terms, mean something like stubbornness. Rather, again, it means faithfulness, steadiness.
Upon this, I enter plea number one: Why, if we’re speaking analogically anyway, shouldn’t we speak more in personal terms? It ends up sounding a lot more like the Bible when we talk about God personally.
But as we are want to continue with metaphysics, let’s go deep…straight to the core. What if Aquinas was wrong, at least here and there? What if, starting with natural theology, we actually could prove something like the Trinity?
The thing is, I think that we actually can prove the Trinity from a natural theological stance. I’ll say that the Trinity looks like a Tri-Aspectual Unity. And I think that we can get there by going along Aquinas’ way from contingent to necessary being. Without the entirety of the argument, here’s an overview.
Given that something exists, we have to say that something has always existed. There is no logical way to get something from nothing. In other words, Lawrence Krauss doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Anyway, there has always been something. But it’s not any of the things we see in daily life. It’s not even the universe itself, which has not always existed. You eventually have to settle on something necessary and stable. This is necessary being, the necessary aspect of the Tri-Aspectual Unity.
But you then have to realize that, well hey, these contingent things do exist. So, there’s a twofold realization that happens at this point. Numero uno: There must be some way in which these contingent beings are connected to necessary being. Nummer zwei: There is something about contingency that seems like it always was a possibility. In fact, I will presently assert that it’s an eternally subsistent reality. This is the contingent aspect of the Tri-Aspectual Unity.
And in the above twofold realization we already have mention of the third aspect. There needs to be a way in which the necessary aspect and the contingent aspect are related while remaining distinct. This is the third aspect of the Tri-Aspectual Unity, the relative or unifying aspect. My contention is that all three of these aspects are logically required, even especially in their seeming paradoxical nature. And much of the logic unsurprisingly sounds like Thomas, if I were to go into it more deeply, even if some of the terms and applications differ.
Given this Tri-Aspectual Unity, there is an aspect of God that can change, which is able to change in a certain sense at the level of being. From the contingent aspect, God can create. The contingent aspect is moldable, even while it remains eternal as an aspect. It holds within it the possibility for all kinds of beings to come forth, to live and move and have their being within the confines of this aspect. And the way it happens is that the necessary aspect relates, by means of the relative aspect, to the contingent aspect: it relates to it as other. The relative aspect, being real, makes these other beings.
Relations are real, ontologically, on my account, although not as abidingly real as other aspects of being which are modeled more closely to the necessary aspect. I hold that Thomas has mostly got the notion of relations correct in Question 28 and it’s where he’s closest to grounding things in personhood. I’m not sure how well my notion works with his notion of essence and existence as synonymous in God. I think I fit better with an Eastern Essence-Energies distinction.
Anyway, when it comes to God creating and incarnating, I think in analogous terms as Thomas does in Question 14, Article 9, reply to objection 3, with my obvious twist that God is working on God’s own being. And maybe there’s an analogy between my understanding of the contingent aspect and Thomas’ understanding of Prime Matter. But I’ll leave that to the imagination.
Now to the relevant points:
1) This contingent aspect implies change; it does not imply and certainly doesn’t necessitate suffering.
2) It opens the possibility for death in creation, apart from sin, though it doesn’t entail suffering in this.
3) Since the contingent aspect holds within it all possibilities of contingent being it implies a great deal of freedom, but this freedom is bound by the goodness of being (Questions 5 and 6 in the Summa are relevant here).
4) There is no new fact in the knowledge of God, even given the great amount of freedom. God knows all contingency as possible until it is actualized. So, there is only a change in the mode of God’s knowledge. In other words, there is only a change in the relation of God to this or that thing which is held within the contingent aspect of God. And remember: relations are real, even if lower on the totem pole of reality.
5) God yields his will to otherness for a time, though his being remains necessarily good. Any determinism, then, is utterly ontological and it is funneled toward ultimate, inescapable good, which is true freedom. God does not will the suffering of Christians in the Middle East. Those who are evil will this by misusing the good they have. But because all is upheld by necessary being, and being is good, the good will prevail by a kind of attrition. There is only so far that bad can leach on to good.
6) Most importantly, God can enter into the situation as a person and actually feel things, actually suffer. But given the supremacy of the necessary aspect of being, this suffering is not the most powerful thing. Necessary Life is the most powerful thing. That is, the Resurrection is preeminent in Christian theology, not the crucifixion. I’m with the East here, too.
Finally, this is what I mean when I have Walt Whitman yelling: “I sing the Body electric. Eidolons! Eidolons everywhere!” For old Walt, eidolons (spiritual realities) are the entity of entities. Yet they are not opposed to the body. Spiritual realities are what found everything, but they do not despise the material. The spiritual realities, God being ultimate, are alive. They move and react, but they keep their form. This is what I’m after.
And I resonate with this sentiment from Jung:
There is no doubt that there is something behind these images that transcends consciousness and operates in such a way that the statements do not vary limitlessly and chaotically, but clearly all relate to a few basic principles or archetypes. These, like the psyche itself, or like matter, are unknowable as such. All we can do is to construct models of them which we know to be inadequate, a fact which is confirmed again and again by religious statements.
Now that’s a statement as apophatic as any Thomas would like to have made.
Peace be with you all.
[image credit: “Composition T. 50-5” by Hans Hartung]