I’m gearing up for my presentation on the theology of presence for the twenty-first century for the upcoming Christian Web Conference out at Biola.  The conference is always one of my favorite times, as it draws a more thoughtful and dedicated crowd than your average conference.

Here’s what I’m wondering: what does it mean that God is present with us?  Is that presence mediated or unmediated, and if the former, mediated by what? And what implications, if any, might that have for our theological anthropology and the nature of human presence?

I’d love to hear any thoughts, insights, resources, etc. you might have on the issue.

And if you’re planning on coming to the conference–and you should–let me know.  If there are enough of you, we’ll plan a Mere-O readers meet-up at some point during the weekend.  And if not, I’d love to say “hi” anyways.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Gary

    You ask: Is God’s presence mediated or unmediated?
    I answer: Both.

    You ask: Mediated by what?
    I answer: Other people, sacraments, Scripture, buildings, to name a few.

    You ask: What implications, if any, might that have for our theological anthropology and the nature of human presence?
    I answer: Not much. God’s nature is different from ours in that he is essentially without a body. He is also omnipotent. Although human beings are perfect of their kind, they are not bodiless, nor are they omnipotent.

    You didn’t ask, but I answer: I’m enough of a Platonist to think that human presence is naturally mediated through a body. The more Aristotelian one tends to be means that inasmuch as the person is (in part, at least) identified with a particular body one’s human presence will be (partially, at least) necessarily unmediated.

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Gary,

    You’re right about the Platonic/Aristotelian divide on this. And I think I’m on the latter half of it.

    Out of curiosity, would you differentiate the nature of God’s presence in the sacraments, Scripture, buildings, other people, etc? Or is he present in the same way in each of them?

    Also, your rejection of implications for theological anthropology is very Barthian. I like it! : )

    matt

    • Gary

      In response to your question, I don’t know. In particular, I don’t know how one would distinguish the epistemology from the metaphysics. It could be that one experiences the same nature in different ways or that one experiences different manifestations of the nature. Also, what you call Barthian I call Thomist, but I’m happy to be Barthian on this point.

  • Matt,
    Might a suggest a foray into an oft under-emphasized area of Reformed theology? Delve into Calvin’s view on the doctrine of the union of Christ and you will find a treasure trove of answers to your questions. If you want a brief primer, read Michael Horton’s new systematic theology entitled “The Christian Faith,” and head for his chapter on union with Christ. It will not disappoint.

    David

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      David,

      Thanks for the recommendation. I actually worked my way through that doctrine as an undergrad (Bk. III of the Institutes is my favorite section of Calvin). But I have turned more toward his stuff on communion for resources on the nature of “presence.” He’s got very interesting thoughts there about the way in which Christ is present (and not present!) with us.

      Haven’t read Horton’s new theology yet. Heard great things about it, though.

      matt

  • Good question, Matt. Here’s my preliminary, off-the-cuff answer. The so-called “hermeneutical turn,” precipitated by Schleiermacher and Dilthey and sustained by Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Ricoeur, and Gadamer, emphasizes what we tend to forget: human beings are hermeneutical creatures. Put differently, there is no contact with naked facts, not even the Supreme Fact of God. At first blush, we might think that a few privileged folks have unmediated encounters with God, such as Moses and the burning bush or Paul on the road to Damascus. But even their encounters are mediated through scripture, reason, tradition, experience, language, and culture. My take-away is this: if the presence of God is always mediated, we must be circumspect about our interpretations of his presence, otherwise we risk hubristic knowledge-claims. Although this seems obvious, it’s worth noting that no single human being has an exhaustive knowledge of our inexhaustible God. No one has a God’s-eye-view of God. I can hear the objection: “Does that mean our understanding of God’s presence is merely subjective?” No! Revelation corrects the errors of subjectivism with the caveat that revelation is also interpreted, which will upset the fundamentalist who thinks revelation needs no interpretation. The challenge for all of us is to let the Word of God dwell richly in us. Our faith does not depend on us moving toward God through hermeneutical virtuosity, although that certainly helps, but learning to receive God through spiritual and intellectual submission.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Christopher,

      “But even their encounters are mediated through scripture, reason, tradition, experience, language, and culture.”

      Do you mean to say that Moses on the mountain or Paul on the road to Damascus did *not* have direct, unmediated encounters with the presence of God?

      Matt

      • I affirm that human beings are hermeneutical creatures. Consequently, Moses or Paul interpreted the presence of God through their reason, experience, tradition, language, and culture. Put differently, the presence of God is always known from somewhere as opposed to nowhere. For a man who encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul still acknowledges that his knowing is partial and perspectival: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          I’d note that you’re confusing categories. Partial (and even perspectival) do not necessarily entail “mediated.”

          • Yes, I did confuse categories. My apology. Nevertheless, I still maintain that Moses and Paul experienced the mediated presence of God. Where some might think the interpretation of an experience diminishes the experience, I accept this as a joyful fact of our creatureliness. As I said below to Dave, our “participation” in the divine presence is unmediated at the metaphysical (or ontological) level but mediated at the epistemological level.

          • Matthew Lee Anderson

            I think you did it again. An “interpretation” isn’t “mediation.” Within a metaphysical account of “presence,” I don’t see how it helps to distinguish ontology and epistemology. If we are aware of the presence ontologically, then we are aware of it…epistemologically. How does that distinction help? It seems like the distinction is for a separate conversation than the mediated/unmediated one.

  • Matt,
    My thought in bringing up the doctrine of union with Christ is to note that the mystical (though not necessarily the forensic; though that is true too) aspect of union with Christ implies presence. Calvin talks about it almost as if our very spirit is simply hanging out with Jesus, right this very minute, at the right hand of God.

    There’s something in the doctrine that speaks, as Moo (who I’m sure you are familiar with as a Wheaton guy) says in his commentary on Romans in chapter 6, that union with Christ means we died and rose in Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s as if we were actually there 2000 years ago, accompanying the presence of Christ to be with him when he did what he did.

    In other words, the doctrine of the union with Christ flips your question a little on its head. Instead of asking what it means for God to be present with us, it really addresses the answer to the question: what does it mean for Christ to make our presence be with his presence in a historical and mystical sense?

    Regarding, then, the mediation question, I’d simply say that we are, somehow, someway, with Christ unmediated now, and in the future our bodies will get to experience that reality since Revelation 22 says we’ll finally see God face to face. The only mediation then will be air, I suppose.

    I don’t know. I suppose I’m just trying to think about the issue more from a theological side and less from a philosophical one. I like to think not just about what is but what will be.

    • Hey Dave: I’m glad you’ve brought up mystical union with Christ – a topic that usually produces uneasiness among Protestants. I really want to read Julie Canlis’ acclaimed book, “Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension.” Christianity Today gave it the “Award of Merit” for their 2011 book awards. The author “recovers some of the common (and neglected) themes that Calvin shared with the patristic fathers. She shows that his works are shot through with a vibrant theology of ‘participation,’ thus placing Calvin within the Christian mystical tradition.” Not having read the book, I would suggest that “participation” in God’s presence is unmediated at the metaphysical (or ontological) level but mediated at the epistemological level. In other words, as soon as we open our mouths to describe the presence of God, mediation begins (see the works of Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila for evidence).

      • Matthew Lee Anderson

        This strikes me as contradicting what you wrote above. Here you say the mediation begins when we open our mouths. There you said that there is no unmediated awareness of God’s presence. Which is it?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      David,

      First off, I’ll try not to be offended but I am most definitely NOT a Wheaton guy. : )

      Second, I love this question: “what does it mean for Christ to make our presence be with his presence in a historical and mystical sense?” That’s VERY well put. I need to work through this a little more, but I think Calvin actually answers this in his doctrine of communion.

      It reminds me of the hymn: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Yes. Yes I was.

      One of the things that makes me think we have both unmediated access both now and then is that “the Spirit testifies to our spirit that we are sons of God.” That strikes me as about as intimate, unmediated relationship as one could possibly have.

      Either way, I’m a big fan of thinking this through theologically. You won’t hear any objection from me. : )

      matt

      • David Strunk

        Right…a biola guy?

        • Yes, Dave, don’t ever call Matt a “Wheatie.” He takes umbrage because, for him, the sun rises and sets at Biola. I’m the Wheaton guy. :-)

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          Yes, much better. : )

          • Well I consider all Christian school folks sheltered, and I’m proud of my own pedigree as a Tennessee Volunteer. ;)

            That was all tongue in cheek, btw. ;)

          • Matthew Lee Anderson

            Sheltered under the wings of love, Strunk. Under the Wings. of. Love.

  • @Matt: Do you why there isn’t a REPLY tab on your last comment in our thread? In the absence of the tab I have to start a new thread.

    ** An “interpretation” isn’t “mediation.” **

    I disagree. Interpretations mediate between our minds and the things our minds try to understand and express. For example, when I’m driving down the road and see a traffic light that turns yellow, I interpret the color to mean “slow down” or “caution” because of parental instruction and defensive driving lessons.

    ** Within a metaphysical account of “presence,” I don’t see how it helps to distinguish ontology and epistemology. If we are aware of the presence ontologically, then we are aware of it…epistemologically. How does that distinction help? **

    Thinking out loud here. I think the distinction helps because what is cannot always be understood as it is or expressed as it is. We routinely bump up against Reality but don’t have a naked encounter with it or privileged access to it. My being-in-Christ is an article of faith. I accept its reality but realize it’s understood and expressed through the mediating role of my reason, experience, language, gender, culture, race, and tradition. When the Angel of the Lord appears to Moses in flames of fire from a bush, his situatedness in the Hebrew tribe mediates his understanding and expression of the event as an epiphany of Yahweh – the deity who made a covenant with his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and not as an epiphany of an Egyptian deity.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Christopher,

      Yeah, the replies only go so many replies deep (5, I think). You can also “reply” to the last one on the thread and it drops it below the last comment, like mine did.

      I still don’t see how an interpretation is a “mediation.” When I walk in the room and am confronted by my wife smiling at me, it seems like I don’t have a third thing between me and her at that moment. When I walk out of the room and start hypothesizing about what her smile meant, that seems like a reflective action on the event–not something that stands between me and my wife’s smile.

      Same point to your collapsing of ontology/epistemology in an account of presence. Seems like I reflectively deliberate upon and express my encounters with God. But that is a very different thing than something standing between me and God in the moment of encounter.

      • I suspect you don’t see how interpretation is a form of mediation between the mind and object because, as a realist, you believe “knowledge must conform to objects.” You walk in the room and “Voilà, my wife qua wife.” But how do you really know that the smiling woman in your bedroom is your wife and not a stranger who has sneaked into your home? I would suggest that your mind, serving as a receiving apparatus, interprets the woman as wife because of your shared history and memories. In other words, Charity conforms to your knowledge of her as “wife.” To use Kantian language, the thing (Charity) as known by you owes its existence (in the phenomenal world) to the receiving apparatus, though the thing as it is in itself does not. The application to our experience of God’s presence should be clear.

        • Matthew Lee Anderson

          And since you and I have had that conversation plenty, I’m going to let this one pass into silence.

  • greg

    Matt, Andy, et al.,

    RE Communion: what happens to the leftovers?

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Greg,

      We’re not unpacking a full-blown doctrine of communion here. We’re discussing the possibility of a theological account of presence. Thanks.

      Matt

  • Sarah

    In the spirit of this article,

    An amazing man spreading the faith in an unconventional way throughout New York City!

    http://newyorkknowsbest.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/if-you-need-me-call-me-no-matter-where-you-are-no-matter-how-far/

    This cab driver is a Pastor!
    A great read!!!