Saturday, March 7, 2009

tentative thoughts on transcendence and theology...

The mystery of theism is a development within the essence of each person; a development which - guided by God, I believe - is both evolutionarily and spiritually beneficial. This development cannot be traced through empirical or rational inquiry; in fact, it is beyond the capacity of the human species to effectively trace even the contours of the search for that which lies beyond the phenomenal world. We can only respond to the desire for the divine, and speculate on the source of that desire.

Many theories may be posited to explain the search, but in the end it is simply a desire - a desire for transcendence that cannot be systematized or rationalized - one that is not only within every person but also beyond every person. It is both a human and a conscious trait, and humans are the only beings (as far as we know) who are aware of this conscious trait within themselves.

Everyone desires transcendence, whether they recognize it or not. Even the most committed materialist cannot escape the desire for transcendence. It is within every attempt to move beyond our limitations, within each surge of imagination, underneath every action that we claim is "new" or "progressive."

It is certainly not proper to call Christianity a fundamental philosophical notion. First, one must hold to theism, or Christianity becomes an exercise in folly. But, if theism is tenable in any fashion, then Christianity becomes a vaible form of theism for consideration.

In spite of the culturally relative aspect of religious development, one must decide to commit to a particular religious (or non-religious) faith at some point in one's life, if only because there is no way to avoid some commitment, given the freedom of will inherent within each person.

Of course, there is another side to this: God is drawing all those who will turn to God, and Christians believe that this is done through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate. However, this is the language of faith, the language of the committed, and as such, even if the work of God in Christ does precede all else, we can only speak of it subsequently to our religious development, therefore we can only view it as second - not secondary! - to the desire for transcendence.


phil said...

Interesting post. Where are you getting your perspective on transcendence from? For example, the desire for transcendence is stated as a necessary postulation. Why should transcendence be desired? What is transcendence, properly?

I think transcendence could easily be replaced with relationship/communion through desire. This, I would argue, is what every person longs and thirsts for. But I suppose you kind of get to that when you get to the incarnation. It's inescapable to be sure.

Just some thoughts...

Geoff said...

Hi Phil, I'm using some ideas I've gotten along the way (and admittedly I have a lot more to learn here) from Ricoeur, Eugene Long, Heidegger, and other places... basically the first point is that since humans are finite and limited, our perspectives are also ultimately finite and limited.

Yet, we all operate with some recognition of infinite/unbounded aspects of reality. The debate is whether these aspects of reality "really" exist, and if so, how to describe them. For example, a "real," perfect square or circle doesn't exist in the natural world, yet we all have a conception of what those are. So do "real" squares exist, or do we only have close approximations?

Where do idealized forms come from to begin with? I blend Aristotle and Plato here, I think, but from a Christian perspective. I suggest that the universal is in the particular, but only in a very limited way. The true "Universal" (God) cannot be contained in any particular - with the one exception being Christ, when universal and particular became one. But I digress... my point is that each particular reflects a bit of the universal, and HOW that all happens is still a mystery.

For humans, this infinite reflection is recognized, for example, in the (evolutionary) process of development. I would argue that no one, even the most ardent materialist, wants herself, or the human race, to disappear, unless something "better" takes its place. They may resign themselves to the fact that, in a random universe, someday we will all be gone. But, unlike all other beings (as far as we know) human beings don't WANT that to happen. For all other animals it's just a brute fact. Is this "wanting" just an evolutionary feature, or a sign of something else?

Another way to say it: We see this is in our personal response to non-existence/death. We all (if we think about it) have a recognition that we are finite; that someday we will cease to exist. Religion believes that death is not the end. But I propose that even atheists have a desire to exist that surpasses their acceptance that someday they will die. This desire to "surpass" ourselves is what makes all human innovation possible: Everything that humanity has accomplished has been in an attempt to get "beyond" where we are right now. To use a current example, if Dawkins, et al, really believed that there was nothing "more" to strive for, then they would stop writing books.

The most obvious examples of this paradox are the non-theistic scientists who, nevertheless, study and posit ideas of how humanity can become "post-human" in some form - technologically, or however. If that's not a desire for transcendence, I don't know what it is.

Now, from a psychological angle, we could use the term "relationship" to describe a type of transcendent desire. That's also a trendy word in Christian circles, but I think it ultimately points us back to the desire for something more than just "I" -- the reason Descartes' cogito fails isn't because there is no such subject, it's because the subject can never BE itself without an external "other" to give it some reference. But, as soon as we seek a reference point beyond ourselves, we open up the possibility of transcendence.

An atheistic materialist would probably ask here, "Why not just accept that religion, etc, are just ways of coping with the brute fact of a world that has no transcendent meaning, and you make meaning for yourself?"

To that, I would reply, "Because even you, in your subjectivity, recognize that desire for 'something else' and so your attempts to describe the non-transcendent world are quite possibly self-defeating. Moreover, they are a means of coping as well, since you are trying to give yourself meaning. Since we're all coping with the desire for 'something else', let's not close off possibilities just because they seem illogical when viewed through a scientific lens."

Does that make sense at all? I'm rambling a bit...

Phil said...

I know the title said tentative thoughts so I don’t want to ask you to write a dissertation or anything;-)

As a brief response, I don't think that the term "relationship" should be stated, as you did, from a psychological angle at all. In fact, when it's stated this way, the term is immediately bracketed into a world of baggage. I guess my point is that "relationship" is a more demonstrative aspect of your point of transcendence. That is, it’s a good way for our cognitive faculties to handle the term, to use Plantinga’s language, because that's how we operate in a proper epistemic enviroment.

I'm also not sure how to take your comment about relationship being a "trendy" word. After all, the very nature of God as understood in relation to the Trinity is profoundly and radically relational. Being made in the imago dei, we are too. I think I recall God saying in the creation account that it’s not good that “man” should be alone; I will make him a helper. This is an interesting comment that was brought to my attention by Burton a while back. For example, “man” had the creation, God, and his transcendent fancies (I’m sure, hehe), but there was something missing of course. That something was relationship eve. I think this is analogous to the desire for something else, but that something else is not just some ethereal form of “otherness.” It is a desire for real relational completeness, both physically and spiritually---indeed I would say holistically.

Is not the aspect of relationship exactly what we humans were created for? We were created for community, as Grenz so simplistically but aptly stated. Added to that concept of community and relationship is something that is more relevant, I think, than the word transcendence. It is love. Love has no context or meaning or purpose without relationship. As you stated, the incarnation is the most loving and mysterious exercise of the divine disposition of love imaginable. But the incarnation is not just the noumenal breaking into the phenomenal---as Kant would have it, but an intensely organic and relational event that is grounded in the world and by human experience (I’ve just revealed that I’m an empiricist, hehe; but a Berkelian type). Because of these reasons, and because I’m coming at this whole philosophical issue by way of Trinitarian perspective, I guess it would make sense that I would like to define the transcendence you’re speaking of in terms of communion/relationship.

I'm also thinking that we might be speaking past one another. You are hitting on some stuff in your reading that I'm not aware of, so I'm limited in my response by way of not being aware of your current research. Henceforth, my friend, I look forward to hearing your paper in a couple of months:-)

Geoff said...

Hi Phil, yeah, I realized after writing that, it probably came across as though I was brushing "relationship" aside... that wasn't my intent. Thanks for catching that! :-)

All I meant was, Christians talk about relationship a LOT (if I hear one more person say "Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship" I think I'll go nuts!), but I don't think most of have reflected much on what it means to relate to God. I think we've relied too much upon the metaphor of human relationships as a guide to our relationship with God. I mean, that's our reference point, so it's completely understandable, but we ought to be aware that when we say, for example, "God is love", that really is quite different from saying, "I love my wife" or "my parents love me." I think we need to examine the radical nature of a relationship with God and how very foreign and mysterious that relationship continues to be.

You're right about the Trinity and imago Dei and our human need to be truly known. I think all of that is part of the picture. I think what I would say is, we relate to God, theologically, in faith; we relate to God, philosophically, through the transcendence aspects of our existence. Which all begs the question of course, what does that mean? That's kind of what I'm thinking about - describing transcendence and faith, and seeing what connections there are between the two, and how they relate :-) to each other.

As an aside, this has nothing to do with my AAR paper, just some stuff I've been mulling over...

Kyle said...

"We can only respond to the desire for the divine, and speculate on the source of that desire."

Is that all we can say? That we have a desire for the divine and all that is left to do is speculate on the source of that desire and craving? Does that not end in fashioning God after our own image and our own likeness?

Might we be able to speak positively about how God has revealed Himself to be in being and in action? Might it be better to allow God to determine the direction of our speculation?

I don't think that we can speak of our religious development before we speak of the work of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. It was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that created the possibility of faith. Faith or a religious experience did not create the resurrection, but the objective reality of the resurrection awakened the disciples to faith.

I'm looking forward to seeing you at AAR Geoff.

Geoff said...

See, this is the kind of good Reformed response I want to interact with! :-) Hi Kyle, good to know you'll be at AAR! Are you presenting a paper?

Obviously what I'm struggling with here is the tension over which "language" should come first in my research: theology or philosophy. Of course I want to say theology. And certainly I will echo your last paragraph (though of course faith existed prior to the disciples) - but I wonder if that simply closes off conversation with those who do not share our faith? I mean in an academic dialogue, not with regard to bearing witness to the Gospel.

Is there a way to speak positively about God's being and action that leaves us open to productive dialogue with those who see things differently? I find my language becomes circular when I try to speak of God: Faith is only possible because of what I believe by faith. This seems problematic even for productive theological discussion, let alone inter-disciplinary discussion. (Once we Protestants get past the basics, we can't agree on anything - how will we ever be able to talk to anyone else?)

Barth is, as you know, well-known as someone who felt that the primacy of the Word, and our witness to that Word, is all that matters. There is no need to use another language. Although, from what I've read by Barth, I don't think he was quite as rigid as some people have made him out to be.

But, anyway, if I'm going to be in dialogue with those who don't share my faith, it seems that the language of transcendence contains a philosophical "nugget" of truth that might provide a common ground - not to replace my witness to Christ, but to offer an explanation that might enable others to see why I have this faith. Explaining how that faith comes to be, theologically, would be a "first principle" (so to speak) that would be articulated secondarily.

Barth would probably answer, "No! That is natural theology!" Perhaps... I guess I'm a bit more like Tillich than Barth at this point... have mercy! :-)

Phil said...

Geoff, you’ve got to give me the benefit of the doubt and not lump me in with some cliché perspective on “relationship” in the fuzzy sense. Come on, that’s not what I’m talking about.

With respect to Trinitarian perspectives on God, Barth, Augustine, Edwards, Gunton, Grenz, McGrath, etc. have all posited the maxim of relationship—I’ll use communion (how’s that?)—as a good place to start with respect for what we desire as humans beings in this life. Again, that concept of relationality/communion is tied to love. John Zizoulas says, for example, that when we take communion in the Eucharist, we are taking communion and being in relationship with all the confessing saints throughout the history of the church and we are in mystical union with God too. That’s a radical perspective on relational ontology to say the least!

You said “I think we’ve relied too much upon the metaphor of human relationships as a guide to our relationship with God.” I think this is quite the opposite. God, for most people, is some sort of transcendent deistic boogie-man in the sky. For Dennett, god’s a spaghetti monster. The person, message, and God-man, Jesus shatters this perspective in the Gospels. I know I’m preaching to the choir here but I’d like to challenge your generalization that you think we’ve relied too much upon the human metaphor. Added to that is your point about God being love and saying that is quite different from the loving of one’s wife or family or parents, etc. Of course it’s quite different, but it’s also not as different as you might imagine. I’m thinking of the radical and profound nexus of God’s love within the communion of the Trinity and the participation we have in that love for God and for one another (e.g., JOHN 17). This was the premise of my JE Trinity paper at last year’s AAR.

"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. "Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them."

I like your last point about faith and transcendence, as it is a little more revealing about where you’re coming from. It seems as though you are finding a “point of contact,” as McGrath would say. However, I’m not one to bifurcate philosophy and theology to the extent of saying, for example that we relate to God theologically through faith, and also that we relate to God philosophically through the transcendent aspects of our existence. With Barth, and as you stated in Kyle’s post—Nien! I’ll jump onboard with Augustine here and say that we were restless until we find rest in God. Perhaps philosophical transcendence is tantamount, then, to existential angst (I’m thinking Watchmen). In sum, then: philosophy needs to be philosophical-theology. This is one of the reasons I like Plantinga’s work so much. He starts out with his belief in God as properly basic according to his cognitive faculties, which one could say are quite operational and properly functioning in terms of analytic philosophy, and secondly, his assertion that we don’t have to be apologetic about our belief in the affections and relationality that is profoundly evident in the nature of the Trinity. I think this is all in chapter 10, or the Affections chapter, of Warranted Christian Belief.

Geoff said...


Sorry, my friend, no disrespect intended... I know you aren't a part of that "fuzzy" group. :-)

I like your last paragraph; a lot to think about there. But I'm still going to push back a bit regarding the "love" metaphor -- of course I agree with the majority of your points, but as for your statement that a love relationship with God is:

"...not as different as you might imagine. I’m thinking of the radical and profound nexus of God’s love within the communion of the Trinity and the participation we have in that love for God and for one another..."

While I readily affirm the truth of God's love and our participation in it, I can't avoid the apparent realization that what you're describing in the above statement is, at best, extremely rare in human relationship and experience.

I don't mean to be a pessimist, but I just don't think that, even in the best human relationships, we have that many moments where we are reflecting Godly love (and community). My view of depravity does not eliminate the imago Dei entirely (I'm not ready to go there). I think humans are still capable of good - by the Spirit of God that enlivens each of us. But it seems to me that evil has so deeply corrupted us that even when we're doing good, we usually are also contributing to evil.

I won't follow that rabbit trail now; my point is just to say that much of what we call "love", even as Christians, does not appear - to me, at least - to be Godly love.

So, I guess that necessitates me giving a definition of Godly love - how's this: A radical, complete, all-surpassing, self-sacrificial commitment to the good and wholeness of the O/other (Deut. 6:4-6, many of the Psalms, Luke 10:27, John 3:16, Romans 5:8 & 8:39, 1 John chapter 4, and lots of other passages are my support here...).

Looking through the lens of this definition, I see a lot less similarity between what we call "love" and what Godly love purports to be. Now granted, I'm not "in love" currently; perhaps my opinion would change if I fell in love! :-)

But I can't help thinking that that is precisely the problem: To really love like God means being "in love," somehow, with people that I don't even like. Love really means following Christ to the cross. And I just don't see much of that, not in my own life, not anywhere else.

In fact, when's the last time you heard someone rejoicing in their sufferings, because they are a reminder that God loves us? The typical Christian response is to praise God when good happens, and when bad happens, to say, "Oh, it's a mystery why God allows these things..." No, they are reminders that God loves us!

It's easy to say that about someone else's suffering; when it's MY life, the suffering sucks and I don't understand why God would do this to me. That's been my experience with most people and situations in my life, at least.

So, that's where I'm coming from... sorry if I'm going off-topic... but then, it's my topic! :-)


Geoff said...

addendum to last comment: I would also like to say that I do think there are evil forces at work in creation and that's not what I mean when I say that all suffering is a sign that God loves us. Not sure if I was very clear there...

Matt Markell said...

Great conversation! Hope I can keep up. When I think of the concept of transcendence, I do think relationally, and because I think relationally, I can't seem to escape the concept of immanence. When I think of God, "the Father," I think of the vertical relationship of transcendence. When I think of God, "the son," or the Christ, I think of God becoming present within the relational matrix of humanity; immanence; God, fully embodied in human experience. I think you are right to assert that a starting point for proper relationship with the divine, begins with God, but, if I except that inherent in the definition of God is the nature of relationship (a point that could be challenged), perhaps what we learn from our human relationships does have something to say about the nature of our relationship with God, despite the many conflicting motives with which we enter into relationships. One could argue, as I think you are to a certain degree, that our desire for transcendence often looks like what Charlies Kimball describes as "mimetic desire," or a desire to emulate someone or something we covet, which leads to violence rather than reconciliation. So perhaps the idea of transcendence as a human longing is troubling as well. What if transcendence has more to do with God longing to reach out to us, and what if that occurs on the plane where transcendence and immanence intersect? Don't know if this is a good rabbit trail or not, but these are some beginning points to my thoughts. Again, good discussion!

Matt Markell said...

Correction: the author I quoted is Charles Bellinger, not Kimball. Sorry!

Phil said...

Thanks for the good discussion to everyone chiming in on Geoff’s post, especially Geoff, hehe.

Geoff, I will respectfully disagree with your comment that this ‘loving communion’ concept is, “extremely rare in human relationship and experience.” Before I briefly explain why I believe this to be the case, I’ll also say that I think you are being far too pessimistic indeed. Again, I hardily and seriously disagree with your comment that you don’t think that, “even in the best human relationships, we have that many moments where we are reflecting Godly love (and community.)

The reason I disagree with you is because such a pessimistic perspective is simply not an attitude that is warranted by the corpus of Scripture, common post-conversion Christian experience, the teaching of the Apostles, and the person and message of Jesus. Now, what I’m not saying is that everything is great and we’re living in “fairyland.” We have sickness, suffering, and death—but—we can have hope in our sufferings, etc. only through the power of the Holy Spirit. So, sure, your perspective on depravity is fine, but you are simply going too far, with all due respect, in your supposition.

Why are you going too far? Because you are not taking into account a plethora of testimony, joy, healing, and profoundly evident transformations of relationships which are a direct result from the experience of conversion. Wait, qualification: sure we can appeal to a great cloud of suffering and martyred witnesses throughout the history of the church, but we can also appeal to the love and joy from seeing a beautiful newborn child coming into the world, or perhaps the awesome love of getting down on one knee and proposing to one’s fiancée, or attending a funeral and hearing about the love and devotion of a wife’s 50yr marriage to her husband and her devotion to God, or perhaps being overcome with joy when one hikes through the Cascades and awes at the beauty of creation and subsequently give glory to God and writes about it, or the selfless desire to see Christ in starving and needy children in India. All of these instances are but a handful of an ineffable amount of love that reflects and is founded in the very person of God. So, yes, I see God’s love all around me, to be sure. And when I don’t see his love, his love is amplified all the more because it shouts out where injustices reign. On these points, I’m indebted to a more developed pneumatology that I obviously can’t flush out here.

But I’d like to digress about my comment on conversion experience and how that specifically turns one’s will from self to other—not transcendent other in the generic sense—but relational other. I could say it in my own words, but Plantinga says it better, well, actually Edwards says it better in his Religious Affections.

Plantinga says: “Conversion, therefore, is fundamentally a turning of the will, a healing of the disorder of affection that afflicts us. It is a turning away from love of self, from thinking of oneself as the chief being of the universe, to love of God.” What Plantinga’s saying here is something very interesting in the sense that conversion is actually an awakening of malfunctioning affection in the human person But that desire to love God does not function and cannot exist without there being a relational maxim by which to understand and apprehend it. Turning away from one’s self, therefore, which obviously is indicative of looking and desiring the “other” is not transcendental, per se, but relationally fulfilling in ways that are multidimensional. Your point about suffering is thought of in this respect.

To go further, however, the method and message of Jesus indicates that love of God is love of others too. The two points are necessarily linked together in his summation of the law and the prophets: Love God and love one another. He says something similar in John 15. I’ll type it out because proof texting is so boring;-)

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. "If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. "Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. "These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.

There’s lots a good stuff here, but what I find compelling and joyous is the fact that Jesus says his joy will be in believers (disciples here but believers is warranted based upon ch 17) and that their joy may be made full. So my point is simply that a converted state for the Christian should be full of loving affections that are demonstrable in one’s love for God and by virtue of that--others. Again, qualification, I’m not saying everything is lovey-dovey in the hedonistic sense, but what I am making a case for is that your pessimism is, at best, extremely called for “in Christian relationship and experience.”

Just for the heck of it, I’m going to follow Plantinga’s point here and flush this conversion thing out a little more due to the fact that this love that we’re talking about is extremely important to get a handle on.

Plantinga asks the question: “But what is this love of God like, and how shall we understand it? William James, that cultured, sophisticated New England Victorian gentleman, notes the throbbing elements of longing, yearning, desire, eros in the writings of Teresa of Avila, looks down his cultivated nose, and finds all that a bit, well, TASTELESS, a bit déclassé. Sniffs James, ‘in the main her idea of religion seems to have been that of an endless amatory flirtation…between the devotee and the deity.’ Here, Plantinga says, “the joke is on William James.” Why? Plantinga goes on to say that “there is an intimate and long-standing connection between eros and developed spirituality. The Bible is full of expressions of that longing, yearning Sehnsucht, desire.” Here Plantinga’s perspective on eros in terms of relational communion with God is profoundly stated, and he goes to great lengths to make his point. He says that “the Hebrew word for knowledge, as in knowledge of God, is also a word for sexual intercourse; and when the children of Israel are unfaithful, turning aside to false gods, this is represented as adultery.” Here, Geoff, is perhaps the most evident means of showing a relational dynamic by which God identifies with people. When they fail to follow him and love him and love one another, they are tantamount to whores. Pretty emotional and relational stuff indeed. But there is more: The Psalms are particularly rich in such expressions of eros and relationality with God by analogy.

My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. (Ps 84)

Oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirst for you, my body longs for you. (Ps 63)

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I…behold the beauty of the Lord (Ps 27)

The New Testament also makes profound analogies from the believer in God and compares it within the context of human relationships, namely, the loving relationship between Christ and his church is repeatedly compared to that between husband and wife:

“He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father nad mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Gen 2:24). This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:28b-32)

Plantinga goes on to say that “this love for God isn’t like, say, an inclination to spend the afternoon organizing your stamp collection. It is longing, filled with desire and yearning; and it is physical as well as spiritual….It is erotic; and on the closest analogues would be with sexual eros. There is powerful desire for union with God, the oneness Christ refers to in John 17. Another perhaps equally close analogue would be love between parent and small child; and this kind of love too is often employed in Scripture as a figure for love of God—both God’s love for us and our for him [and I add to Plantinga here, our love for each other!]. Here too, of course, there is longing, yearning, desire for closeness, though not sexual longing; think of the longing in the homesickness of an eight-year-old or in the love of a mother for her hurt and suffering child.”

One of the reasons I employ Plantinga so much on such a theological proper subject is because I think he’s really hitting on something important with respect to the love with which we love God, and by virtue of that love, the love that we ought to have (and many times do have) for one another. I’ve seen this love I assure you. I seen it, experienced, lived, and have also been convicted by falling short of it according to my own depravity (hey, I’m reformed after all). But I’m a Christian! I see Godly love in relationships all the time! When I long for closeness with a friend or my wife, I understand that that love is founded within the very love of God himself. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but, hey, it’s somehow a reflection of God’s love. When I see and have compassion on a little child in need of a mother or father, or see the neediness of a homeless person, that love to help in any way I can is founded in Godly love. If it’s not, then what’s the point of being a Christian?

Of course I could go on and on with this topic, but I just wanted to really delve in and point out that relational love within community and between one another is intricately—often times ineffably so—linked between our loving relationship with God and with one another. Thus, I suppose that my argument, I believe, not only provides clarification for your point on the rarity of God’s love in human relationship and experience, but it necessarily defeats it based on the elementary maxims of Christian conversion. Here I’m thinking of the fruits of the Spirit primarily.

This has been a good discussion and it has got me thinking about quite a lot, Geoff. With all my ramblings stated above, I’m going to think hard about what we’re talking about. It’s obviously important and it’s good to make this not just a mental assent, but to be transformed wholly in action and word. I think we can both agree on that;-)

Three good quotes to end with:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion.”

Geoff said...

Wow Phil, we've definitely hit upon your area of interest! Go Plantinga and Edwards! :-)

Lots to good stuff to ponder in your comments. Clearly this is a vital topic for me as well, but I'm also going to try to connect it to my original topic... haha.

Though we may disagree somewhat, I really appreciate your point of view and it's encouraging to read your take on things. I just want to make a few points:

First, it may be entirely fair to say that I've gone too far in my presupposition. I think perhaps what I'm really discovering here is my own struggle to define my faith. My presuppositions, like everyone's, are grounded in my interpretations of revelation (Scripture) and experience (mine and others). (How does the Holy Spirit fit in? I'm curious about your pneumatology...) But you are right to remind me not to ignore the goodness and joy in life!

However, the evidences of goodness and joy are not, as far as I can see, exclusive to Christianity: any person is able to experience something of the joy of life and goodness of God, regardless of their faith. I take that to be God's grace for all.

But this begs the question (as you note), what is different about Christian love?

Plantinga's point (and I think it's correct) indicates a direct and unavoidable link between "conversion" and Godly love. But this implies that the love we see around us, in the non-Christian world, is disordered love. Ok, but then, why does this "disordered" love look so much like "Christian" love? In fact, by our own standards (divorce rates, sex before marriage, etc), it appears, statistically, that "Christian" love is sometimes even in a WORSE state than typical "disordered" love!

(Aside: Again, this is not to dismiss your point about all the great love and goodness that comes into the world because of faith in Christ. You're right, I need to keep that in balance.)

Now, my experience has been that the typical response from Christians is to say that we simply are not living up to what God desires, that we, in our sin, reject the love relationship that God desires with us, and so we are reaping the results of that rejection.

Certainly I think there is truth in that assessment. But I wonder if even that is merely a symptom of a deeper issue, which is that many Christians have chosen to interpret Godly love using common terms that are fundamentally insufficient, because of the underlying realization that real Godly love might have some very unpleasant effects for us.

This is where your question: "If it’s not [different], then what’s the point of being a Christian?" becomes vital. For many people today, they are saying, "EXACTLY!" and then walking away from faith because they see very little difference. (Did you see the new study that finds the # of Christians in America has dropped from 85% to 75% since 1990, while those with no religious affiliation has doubled in that same amount of time!?)

Clearly, conversion means that something has changed about our love. It must be more/different than the type of love we experienced and shared before our "new life" in Christ began. So what does that look like?

Jesus' statements like "If you love only those you will love you in return, what good is that?" and "Love your enemies" indicate to me an entirely different starting point when it comes to love. It is no longer primarily about the love for a spouse, or child, or parent, as helpful as those metaphors might be. It is about finding a way to really love the beggar, the AIDS victim, the greedy businessman, the criminal, etc... and not, primarily, because God tells us to love them, but because Christ has transformed our lives so that we REALLY do love them!

This seems, at least from my perspective, to be a very foreign concept for most Christians, including myself.

So, how does this relate to transcendence? (I'll see if this works... haha!)

You said "Turning away from one’s self, therefore, which obviously is indicative of looking and desiring the 'other', is not transcendental, per se, but relationally fulfilling in ways that are multidimensional."

I like this; it indicates that Godly love is not necessarily something we feel or understand. It may be something we simply need to do - following Christ's example may be the proper first step, even if we don't have the best motives or clear direction. God's love is transformative in its "earthiness" as well as its "transcendence."

However, I submit that there is a transcendent element (the Holy Spirit?) that must be at work for our attempts at Godly love to actually become Godly love. In Christ, humanity is going some sort of ontological shift. But, since this shift is not, in my view, limited only to Christianity* (God's desire is to redeem all creation), then I would argue the transcendent element within humanity provides, again, a "link" between people that might prove valuable in not only academic exchange, but in the extraction of the true source of love, which is God. This is all because of Christ, but Christ does not replace us - we still have a role to play.

Again, I'm still speculating and sorting all this out... thanks for the dialogue! It really is helping! Maybe someday my thoughts won't be so convoluted! :-)

* Note: this does not mean I am now a universalist... though I would welcome such a reality if it is the case!

Phil said...

Good conversation. I'll let you have the last word, since it is your blog, hehe. Seriously, good conversation though.

I've got to write some stuff for my own blog now;-)