A Brief Return to Transcendence

I’ve been mostly busy working on other projects this week, so I haven’t done much blogging, but I wanted to point out this comment from Jim:

You could show that there is a rationality inherent in the universe, and yet the transcendence of that rationality is a non sequitur. Perhaps my confusion–which I will say has not been abated by anything anyone has yet written, here or elsewhere–is due to the fact that “transcendence” and “utterly other” are such slippery concepts. Are they equivalent?

Jim’s excellent question underscored for me my own lack of clarity on the issue of transcendence. I have, to this point in my life, affirmed it. I wholeheartedly expect to continue to affirm it. But as I have thought about it more with Jim, I am also not sure that I understand it. I remain unpersuaded by any argument against the rationality of God that he has yet advanced, or any proof text he has asserted without argument. Nor do I agree with his interpretation of the Pope’s speech, especially his attempt to find irony where it isn’t.

But I do find common ground in his question above: what, exactly, does it mean that God is transcendent? I have not read contemporary, analytic accounts of the term, so I am sketching in the shadows. That, though, has never stopped me before.

I would offer two thoughts on the doctrine of “transcendence.” One, God is sui generis. Even if we disagree with Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God–and I don’t–what they demonstrate is that God is in a separate category than creation. He is the Being on which the whole temporal and contingent creation rests. Aquinas, of course, thinks that Being is coextensive with Goodness. That is, if God Is, then He Is Good. While most of modern philosophy rejects this prima facie, I accept it prima facie. It is the axiom that drives medieval thought, and I think it true.

That said, predications of God that are based on human categories–reasonable, good, loving–point to something beyond the human categories, but not in such a way that they are meaningless or in such a way that the opposite qualities are in danger of breaking out. Rather, our categories–good, loving, reasonable–are accurate insofar as they approximate the Goodness that is God. Hence Ephesians 3:14-15: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Fatherhood–a predication–is most properly God’s, and only ours derivatively. So also with rationality–Jesus as Logos–and Goodness.

What this means, of course, is that for us to know which qualities God has, he must enter our framework and reveal Himself to us in our categories. He must, in fact, incarnate Himself and enter our conversation. But all the while, our conversation rests upon His Logos, not the other way around.

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  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson
  • MatthewLee

    Jim:

    The defense you offer is irrelevant to the post. My criticism in this post is that you quoted a text without argumentation (in this case, Romans 9). Other than that, I was mainly pointing out areas of disagreement to clarify for readers who may have followed the discussion and to make it clear that in finding common ground with your question, I wasn’t affirming your position.

    As for specific disagreements, once Mark took over the bulk of the argumentation, I left it alone because I started to disagree with both of you–with your conclusions and with his appeal to Kierkegaard to defeat them.

    That said, if you want a specific disagreement, here’s a clarification of one I listed above: the irony you identified in the Pope’s speech exists only if you misinterpret Paleologos’s statement, as you did. First, you interpreted “God is not satisfied by blood” to include ALL blood, which of course would make the atonement a bit silly. Then you interpreted it to mean violence, but that would make hell untenable. Of course, what Paleologos meant was conversion at the sword, a decidely different thing than either the atonement or hell. Even IF we grant that hell is a type of violence(which is far more than I think reasonable), no orthodox theologian–not Calvin, not Edwards, not Aquinas, not anyone that I can think of–thinks that the doctrine of hell constitutes the role of the sword in our conversion, mainly because they all think conversion is something different than avoiding punishment. Even for Edwards, who might be your best case with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” talks about conversion being affected by the beauty of God’s holiness in Religious Affections. Conversion and our subsequent sanctification are cast in primarily Lockian terms, with a special emphasis on beauty.

    So I think the irony fails. As to your other thoughts, I will save my thoughts about Joshua for another time, as I am still working out my argument in my mind. For now, I think that overall, the hermeneutics you employ is, well, troubling. As with the Romans 9 passage, you took the passage in Judges out of its historical, social, textual, and perhaps most importantly, canonical contexts, and then expected it to be a knock-down, drag-out argument for your case. That sort of proof-texting is, frankly, tiring and time consuming to respond to, and doesn’t seem to be a very charitable approach to the text or author(s). No more for know–this is far too long already. Pax Christi!

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Eventually I’m going to round up everything I’ve written (and you and Mark have written) on this subject, since links just don’t cut it.

    I’m not arguing that conversion is always made in reference to hellfire and brimstone. To focus exclusively on God’s “Beauty,” though, creates its own tunnel view.

    Consider an analogy: you walk into a BMW dealership, ready to buy a Z4, drawn in by its speed, its handling, its sex appeal. You’re signing the papers, joyous and excited, when you look out the window and see a friend being worked over by a couple of goons. “Why in hell are they beating him?” you ask, baffled.

    “Oh,” says the dealer, “It’s nothing. He tried to cross the street to lower prices.”

    You are now presented with a problem: your purchase was completely rational at the point where you decided, but only because you were ignorant of the horrific consequences should you have chosen wrongly.

    That’s why, as I pointed out elsewhere, it’s an irony, and not a knock-down argument.

    As to the Judges claim, that I am somehow less than charitable to the author of Judges–who is pretty psyched about Joshua’s (purported) romp through Canaan–is surprising. I’m just following Luther, Calvin, and… Augustine.

  • MatthewLee

    Jim,

    Regarding God’s “Beauty,” I said specifically that it is the “beauty of God’s holiness” that motivates our conversion, a concept that includes his wrath and justice. Except in conversion, it isn’t fear but rather an attraction to the holy quality behind such attributes.

    Regarding your analogy, I’m just dense. I admit it. I don’t see how it creates an irony (isn’t it a fun time, getting someone else to see irony? Either you see it or you don’t, and in this case, I don’t.).

    Finally, regarding Joshua (er, I wrote Judges and so did you, but we meant Joshua), I’d be interested to know where you read Luther and Augustine on it (I haven’t found anything by either one of them on the passage). Calvin, though, has this to say:

    The indiscriminate and promiscuous slaughter, making no distinction of age or sex, but including alike women and children, the aged and decrepit, might seem an inhuman massacre, had it not been executed by the command of God. But as he, in whose hands are life and death, had justly doomed those nations to destruction, this puts an end to all discussion. We may add, that they had been borne with for four hundred years, until their iniquity was complete. Who will now presume to complain of excessive rigor, after God had so long delayed to execute judgment? If any one object that children, at least, were still free from fault, it is easy to answer, that they perished justly, as the race was accursed and reprobated. Here then it ought always to be remembered, that it would have been barbarous and atrocious cruelty had the Israelites gratified their own lust and rage, in slaughtering mothers and their children, but that they are justly praised for their active piety and holy zeal, in executing the command of God, who was pleased in this way to purge the land of Canaan of the foul and loathsome defilement’s by which it had long been polluted.

    Notice, sociological context, historical context in an attempt justify the justice of God. Whether or not he succeeds is one question, but it’s clearly more sympathetic to the text than your interpretation, wouldn’t you say?

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  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    This discussion has meandered away out of my thoughts in the intervening months, but I will say that Calvin’s reading of Judges is exactly like mine: he takes Judges at its word, that God literally commanded genocide. Where Calvin and I part ways isn’t in our sympathy toward the text, but in our sympathy for Divine Command Theory. Calvin essentially (and ironically, as I’ve argued) takes a view that sits closer to Islam than you’re willing to admit. Calvin: You think it’s inhuman to slaughter noncombatants, even children? Too bad. God commanded it, that settles it. Who are you to judge God? (I also note the irony of writing “puts an end to all discussion,” then immediately continuing the discussion.)

    How is Calvin’s justification any different from a Muslim’s defense of jihad?

    2. I still think my analogy is perfectly clear. But that’s just me.