The Disenchantment of Salvation: Part 4, Saving Yourself

In this series we've been focusing upon how disenchantment facilitated the rise of penal substitutionary atonement in the West. Today a final post to point out how this development really didn't end with forensic views of salvation. Penal substitutionary atonement itself gave way to the moral influence view of atonement.

Recall the very first post of this series, about the demise of Christus Victor atonement. In that post we observed how when beliefs about the role and power of the devil became harder and harder to believe in it paved the way for "satisfaction" views of the atonement, culminating in the modern popularity of penal substitutionary atonement. In these satisfaction views the only actor we needed was God, his wrath toward sin and his gracious provision of an atoning sacrifice. Unlike Christus Victor, no devil was necessary for any of the satisfaction theories to "work."

But what happens when disenchantment deepens, as it did in the West after the Enlightenment? What happens when God himself becomes an object of doubt and skepticism? 

Well, the satisfaction theories will falter and give way to the most disenchanted of the atonement theories: the moral influence view. You don't even need God in this view. All we need is goodness itself.

As we've observed, penal substitutionary atonement helped pave the way for this view by cashing out "goodness" within a consequentialist framework, as good versus bad behavior leading to either reward or punishment. The mystical union of the prior participatory metaphysics was traded for the moralism of Protestantism. 

In the West we underwent what I describe in Hunting Magic Eels as "the mystical to moral shift." We began to seek the good over God. Right moral action, and nowadays right political activism, became the entire aim of "following Jesus." 

This gave rise to what is called the moral influence view of the atonement. Jesus "saves" us by showing us how to live. Jesus teaches us the ways of justice, peace, and love. When we follow Jesus as "the Way" we experience healing, wholeness, and shalom. 

To be sure, this view can be infused with enchantment. We can speak of Jesus as a moral and spiritual guru, as an enlightened being who first exhibited a "Christ-consciousness," a plane of moral and spiritual insight that allows us to perceive and experience the unity and oneness of the cosmos. (Note: Psychedelics can help.)

But really, you don't need any New Age woo-woo. It's just not necessary. The key thing is being a good person. Love. Be a kind human. Speak the truth. Be Woke. Fight for justice. Care for the planet. Do these things. This is all you need. It's the last stop on the train ride to a disenchanted salvation, a salvation where you save yourself.

The Disenchantment of Salvation: Part 3, The Shift from Christmas to Good Friday

In Part 2 of this series I argued that as the participatory metaphysics of the early Christians faded in the West our view of salvation became less ontological--divine union with God--and more consequentialist. Salvation became less about participation in the divine life of the Trinity and more about avoiding hell and getting to heaven. 

In this post I want to say something more about that. Specifically, how is salvation supposed to flow out of "divine union" with God? How's that supposed to work?

Again, the imagination required here is hard for us disenchanted, Western Christians. But here's a try.

In the early Christian imagination, and I'm speaking here of the church fathers, mortal human life was unstable and prone to dissolution, decay and death. This part, I'm guessing, is not too hard to understand. From dust we are and to dust we will return.

In the Incarnation corruptible human life was reconnected with God's own Life. Through the Incarnation an ontological merger occurred, a metaphysical connection was established between our life and God's Life. And through that connection our life is rendered immune to death, incorruptible. 

Notice the difference here between life as consequence (getting to heaven) versus life as ontological change. It's a very different way of thinking about how salvation involves the defeat of death. Here's how St. Athanasius describes this in his famous treatise "On Incarnation":

For the nature of created things, having come into being from nothing, is unstable, and is weak and mortal when considered by itself...So seeing that all created nature according to its own definition is in a state of flux and dissolution, therefore to prevent this happening and the universe dissolving back into nothing, after making everything by his own eternal Word and bringing creation into existence, [God] did not abandon it to be carried away and suffer through its own nature, lest it run the risk of returning to nothing...lest it suffer what would happen...a relapse into non-existence, if it were not protected by the Word.

Note how the issues here are ontological. The created, mortal world is "unstable," in a state of "flux and dissolution" when separated from God. On its own, created reality is "dissolving back into nothing[ness]." That was the ontological predicament requiring rehabilitation, rescue, and saving, and it was accomplished through the Incarnation by (re)establishing an ontological connection between material reality and the Word. And it was precisely for this reason that the early church considered the Incarnation itself to be the critical, decisive act of salvation, and the resurrection the subsequent confirmation that death could not destroy mortal flesh when it had been mystically united with God's very Life.

All of this is pretty foreign to Western Christians. The metaphysical picture here is way too enchanted. As disenchanted Christians we can't fathom why the Incarnation made such an ontological difference, a difference vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus. Yet it was because of these enchanted ontological commitments that the early church focused salvation history upon Christmas and Easter. Disenchanted modern believers, by contrast, have lost this enchanted, ontological thread and have therefore focused salvation history on the only thing remaining in the story: Good Friday. And with that shift, with the marginalization of the Incarnation and Easter in salvation history, forensic notions of salvation focused on the death of Jesus came to predominate. 

The Disenchantment of Salvation: Part 2, From Ontology to Consequence

Beyond the decline of Christus Victor atonement, another big reason for the rise of penal substitutionary atonement in the West was the loss of a participatory metaphysics.

"Participatory metaphysics" is a theological term used to describe the Christian notion that God holds all things together and permeates all things. All existence is held in being by God, and humanity can deepen that union. Material life can "participate" in the life of God, merging the human and the divine spheres of existence. Salvation looks here like Jesus in his transfiguration. Salvation via divine participation and union is described as theosis, deification, or divinization. 

I'll have more to say about that in the next post, but for this post I want to highlight the location and nature of "the good" in a participatory metaphysics in contrast to modern Western materialism.

Specifically, in a participatory metaphysics "the good" is an ontological reality, God's presence in all things. Thus, salvation is seeking and uniting with this good. And, obviously, this view of reality is very enchanted given that the material world is suffused with spiritual life.

But with the rise of disenchantment in the West we began to perceive material reality as just that, raw material, material devoid of any spiritual vitality or moral grain. "Goodness" was no longer an ontological reality existing independently and prior to human consciousness. "Goodness" became a subjective, interior phenomenon. In a disenchanted cosmos, material reality cannot be good or bad. It's just neutral "stuff." But material reality can impinge upon my subjective consciousness, and my consciousness can call certain states of affairs "good" or "bad." Eating chocolate is "good" to me. Cutting my finger is "bad."

Summarizing, when the material world becomes disenchanted "goodness" exists not in the world but in our minds, in our reactions to the world. Goodness shifts from being objective to subjective, from being ontological to phenomenological

What does this have to do with salvation? This, I think. When "goodness" shifts toward the psychological and subjective salvation becomes less about uniting with the good than receiving something we subjectively register as good. We shift from divine union to consequence, from ontology to reward. Basically, what is "good" about salvation is heaven. Heaven is "good" not as mystical union with God but as a reward that I would enjoy and be happy with. Notice here how "goodness" exists as our psychological response to salvation.

Basically, the demise of a participatory metaphysics in the West shifted thoughts about salvation toward consequentialism, "good" and "bad" registering as "reward" or "punishment." In a thoroughly disenchanted cosmos, stripped of any moral texture, the only "good" I can receive from God is in some future consequence and reward, a heaven in the afterlife. This metaphysical shift in the West, the loss of a participatory metaphysics, fueled the rise of atonement theories which turned away from divine union to reward and punishment, goodness as consequence. Salvation was reduced to "going to heaven."

Pascal's Pensées: Week 19, Metaphysics and Mental Health


It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.


I'm reminded here of how the young William James went through an existential crisis when he doubted that he had free will. He resolved the crisis by making his first act of free will to believe in free will. 

Following Pascal, James realized that it affects your whole life to know whether you have free will or not. This is true. Studies have shown that your mental health is negatively affected if you doubt you have free will.

Metaphysics has mental health consequences. It will affect your whole life if you believe or doubt whether your soul is immortal.

The Disenchantment of Salvation: Part 1, The Enchantments of Christus Victor

I want to devote four posts to the relationship between penal substitutionary atonement and disenchantment. 

It's not news that penal substitutionary atonement has come under a lot of criticism. And not just among progressive Christians. Theologians and biblical scholars have also raised concerns about how a narrow focus on the forensic aspects of salvation warps and distorts the full scope of what the Bible and the early Christians meant by "salvation." Salvation is more than guilt and punishment, more that God's wrath and God's forgiveness. 

Still, for better or worse, penal substitutionary atonement has become the dominant model in Protestant churches, especially evangelical churches. And the thesis I want to argue for across three posts is that the disenchantment of the West was one of the forces that made penal substitutionary atonement ascendant. Basically, penal substitutionary atonement is what happens when Christian salvation becomes disenchanted. 

Today, let's start with the decline of Christus Victor and the rise of penal substitutionary atonement.

To catch everyone up, Christus Victor was a dominant, if not the dominant, way in which the early church viewed atonement and salvation. In this view, humanity was enslaved to dark cosmic forces--Sin, death and the devil. The work of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection was to defeat these powers and set captive humanity free.

Starting around 1094, with St. Anselm's treatise Cur Deus Homo? ("Why Did God Become Human?"), Christus Victor began to fade within the Western church. To be clear, Anselm didn't really preach penal substitutionary atonement, but he does mark a turn which culminated in the ascendency of penal substitutionary atonement in modern times.

Why this turn? In his seminal treatment of the subject, Gustaf Aulen argues Christus Victor began to struggle in the West because it was too tied up with a metaphysical imagination where the devil played a large role in human affairs and salvation history. Here's Aulen describing how Christus Victor took a beating among modern theologians:

[Modern theologians] inclined to be critical of the forms in which the patristic teaching had usually expressed itself. They disliked intensely the 'mythological' language of the early church about Christ's redemptive work, and the realistic, often undeniably grotesque imagery, in which the victory of Christ over the devil, or the deception of the devil, was depicted in lurid colours. Thus the whole dramatic view was branded as 'mythological.' The matter was settled. The patristic teaching was of inferior value, and could be summarily relegated to the nursery or the lumber-room of theology.
Basically, Christus Victor atonement was too enchanted for the increasingly disenchanted West. Especially when it came to the devil. So the earliest view of atonement in the church was slowly swept aside for a more disenchanted view of salvation, penal substitutionary atonement. 

Gratitude, Vulnerability, and Joy

I was recently reminded of a post from 2016 about connections between my book The Slavery of Death and Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly:

One of the take home points from The Slavery of Death is how the practices of doxological gratitude help us overcome our slavery to the fear of death, our fear of loss. In Daring Greatly Brené Brown makes similar observations about gratitude and our fear of loss.

Specifically, in her work on vulnerability Brené has discovered, somewhat paradoxically, a connection between joy and our fear of loss. When we experience deep joy we feel extraordinarily vulnerable, we fear that the joy will not last, that something tragic will happen that will rob us of happiness.

Anyone who is a parent understands this. The birth of a child is a deep and profound joy. But the birth of a child also introduces into our lives a chronic fear of loss. Our joy is fragile and precarious. Tainted by the prospect of death. In becoming a parent I was never more joyful but I was also never more afraid and cognizant of death.

In Brown’s research she has asked people about when they have felt the most vulnerable and exposed to loss. And more often than not what people have shared with her are experiences of great joy. According to Brown these are the sorts of experiences in life that make us feel most vulnerable (Daring Greatly, p. 119):
  • Standing over my children while they are sleeping.
  • Acknowledging how much I love my husband/wife.
  • Knowing how good I’ve got it.
  • Loving my job.
  • Spending time with my parents.
  • Getting engaged.
  • Going into remission.
  • Having a baby.
  • Being happy.
  • Falling in love.
As you can see from this list, joy and the fear of loss go hand in hand.

In the face of this anxiety Brown goes on to describe how many people, in the face of this exposure and vulnerability, practice what she calls “foreboding joy.”

According to Brown, foreboding joy is a way of coping with our fear of loss by emotionally withdrawing from joy so that we might protect ourselves from disappointment. Brown describes a continuum of strategies here from “rehearsing tragedy” to “perpetual disappointment,” from ruminating about worst-case scenarios to keeping our expectations very, very low. According to Brown, all these strategies share a central idea:
We’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.
Relevant to my analysis in The Slavery of Death, the antidote to foreboding joy, according to Brown, are the practices of gratitude. People who stay open to joy, despite its risks, are those who practice gratitude. As Brown summarizes, joy is “a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

In addition, Brown also describes gratitude as a spiritual practice, which connects gratitude to doxology. As Brown writes, “joyfulness and gratitude [are] spiritual practices that [are] bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us.”

Silence, Solitude and the Shyness of the Soul

“The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”

--Parker Palmer

Sunset Is My Business

I recently came across this lovely story about Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

While a young doctoral student in Berlin Heschel was walking the city, his head troubled with all the academic questions he was wrestling with along with all his personal problems. Lost in anxieties, Heschel failed to notice the sun setting, the moment when he, an observant Jew, should have offered up his evening prayer. Heschel recounting the moment:

In those months in Berlin I went through moments of profound bitterness. I felt very much alone with my own problems and anxieties...[During one walk in the city] suddenly I noticed the sun had gone down, evening had arrived.

From what time may one recite Shema in the evening?

I had forgotten God—I had forgotten Sinai—I had forgotten that sunset is my business—that my task is “to restore the world to the kingship of the Lord.” So I began to utter the words of the evening prayer...

How grateful I am to God that there is a duty to worship, a law to remind my distraught mind that it is time to think of God, time to disregard my ego for at least a moment!

I love the line, "I had forgotten that sunset is my business," the Jewish duty to pray each evening. But I also love the sentiment that this "duty to worship" pulls Heschel out of himself, out of his distraught mind.

This, I think, is what so many people are missing in this anxious, post-Christian age, something that pulls you out of your head, out of your neurotic ruminations, out of your morbid self-absorption to disregard your ego at least for a moment.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 18, Foxhole


Anyone with only a week to live will not find it in his interest to believe that all this is just a matter of chance.

Now, if we were not bound by our passions, a week and a hundred years would come to the same thing.


You've heard the saying, "There are no atheists in foxholes." When we're facing death the meaning of life becomes an acute, pressing question. This is only natural. 

Pascal's point, though, is that there isn't really any difference between a week or a hundred years of life. The existential question is still just as pressing. We just don't notice it. 

Pascal says we miss it because we are "bound by our passions," distracted by entertainments and desires. That's true, but I also think we miss the acuteness of our existential predicament because we repress these anxieties, creating a state of blissful oblivion. Our distraction is a bit motivated and willful, even if unconscious. We live each day assuming we are immortal, that we have all the time in the world. And because of this, we live superficial lives. Life is wasted, precious time poured down the drain of Netflix, social media, and pornography.

It reminds me of the final, shocking scene in Flannery O'Connor's most anthologized story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." The Misfit says, after shooting the grandmother, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." 

That is precisely Pascal's point. Death is holding a gun at us. We just pretend it isn't there. But if we gave it more thought we might have a chance at being better people.

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 7, Keeping the Balance

Okay, last post in this series. 

Tanner concludes her analysis about God's transcendence in relation to human agency by discussing the "two sides" of how we might talk about God's relation to creatures.

First, there is the "positive side" of how we can talk about creaturely power and agency. That is, we can highlight how God graciously gives humans agency and power within the created order. This positive speech about human agency "promotes theological discussion of the creature in itself, its own value and dignity." When we speak positively of creaturely powers the creature "can be considered in itself apart from an immediate reference to the God who brings it to be." We can coherently speak of created causes in relation to created effects without reference to God's agency.

And then there is the "negative side" in how we talk about creaturely power and agency. This negative speech points to our total dependence upon God, how we are "nothing" without God. 

Both of these "sides" are true, and follow from the non-contrastive metaphysics we've surveyed over the last few posts. We have agency and power and we are wholly dependent upon God. It's not either/or, it's both/and. Borrowing from the last post, for example, therapy and medication work because we are wholly dependent upon God. 

Now, due to this "two-sided" nature concerning our speech about creatures, Tanner goes on to point out how conversations about God's relation to human agency can become distorted and warped. By emphasizing one side of the conversation over the other we can unwittingly tip back into a contrastive metaphysics. 

For example, when our theological descriptions lean too heavily on the positive side of describing human agency and power we can tip into deism and Pelagianism. That is, we can start to assume that the creature stands alone and exercises power independently of God. Consequently, God's action in our lives has to be construed "miraculously," as a situational and alien intrusion from outside the creature's sphere of power. This is an excellent example of how a robust "supernaturalism" remains fundamentally deistic, as the intervention of God comes to us from a "distance." As Tanner has taught us, such a "supernaturalist" view of transcendence is not radical enough to bring God close.

And on the other side, our language can also become distorted by leaning too heavily upon the negative side of the conversation. Talk of human dependency upon God and God's sovereignty can tip into theological determinism, where creatures are taken to possess no power of agency or choice. Again, we're back at a contrastive metaphysics where the sovereignty and power of God is exerted over against His creatures, diminishing them to passive instruments, puppets, and automatons.

Summarizing, Tanner says, "The rules have a positive and negative side. Some theologians emphasize the negative side, some the positive." Due to these emphases, distortions to one side or the other can occur. So the theologian has to weigh the respective dangers. Tanner summarizing:

Is it more dangerous to talk of divine sovereignty, according to the negative side of our rules, or about the creature's capacities, according to the positive side? Consideration of audience reaction in a particular historical context is therefore fundamental...

Let us be clear about this. Statements that are formed according to our rules are correct as they stand whatever the historical circumstances. Sometimes, however, some forms of those statements are especially dangerous: what they suggest to a particular audience will be incorrect...The theologian may make statements that are quite prone to misinterpretation.

My hunch is that, if you reflect on this a bit, you've witnessed these distortions and misinterpretations. All the Pelagian errors to one side, and all the Calvinistic errors to the other side. It's a tour of all the classic problems that have bedeviled denominational squabbles. If God is sovereign do we have free will? Faith or works? Shall we sin so that grace abound? Why pray if God knows everything? And so on, and so on. Our speech about God's relation to humanity is always being twisted and warped in one of these two directions, the positive or the negative, depending upon the speech habits of a particular audience. 

All that to say, Tanner's big point is that we have to be vigilant in how these debates keep pulling us into a contrastive metaphysics. 

And with that in mind, let's turn back to mental health. 

When we emphasize the efficacy of therapy and medication we are leaning into the "positive side" of the conversation. That is, we are talking about creaturely causes and effects without direct reference to God. This is legitimate, but if we dwell too exclusively on this "positive side" of the conversation we can fail to notice, confess, and praise God for how this entire creational matrix is held in being by God, how medication and therapy and our own efforts in self-care would be nothing without God. 

By and large, distortions of this sort from the "positive side" haunt progressive Christians in discussions about mental health, where functional deism, Pelagianism, and atheism are chronic theological temptations. 

By contrast, we see temptations from the "negative side" among the charismatics, Pentecostals, and proponents of the prosperity gospel when they approach mental health as they spotlight the power and sovereignty of God along with human powerlessness. As they preach: We can do nothing without God. And this also is true. But an exclusive, even morbid, focus upon this truth tempts us to distort and ignore the fact that God has graciously gifted us power and agency for our own flourishing. This emphasis on the negative side can produce passivity in relation to mental health, an assumption that we can take no positive action in seeking our own flourishing. Worse, any positive action or initiative can become stigmatized as prideful and idolatrous, as turning your back on God.

Time now to wrap this up.

My hope is that, after all the metaphysics fireworks of this series, you can now glimpse some practical payoffs in having taken this journey with me.

First, I hope it's very clear now how conversations about God and mental health are chronically tempted into a contrastive metaphysics. God or therapy. God or medication. After reading this series I hope you feel better equipped to spot these errors and see how they bedevil this conversation in many churches.

Second, I hope you can see how conversations about mental health get tempted and distorted among various audiences, how, for example, progressives are tempted by the "positive side" and the prosperity gospel by the "negative side." After this series I hope you can spot how the conversation about mental health twists and turns depending upon audience and church context, and what distortion each community is tempted with.

Third, and lastly, I hope you can see how keeping the two sides of this conversation, positive and negative, in dialectical tension, being alert to the temptations in a given audience, can help keep a conversation about God's relation to mental health situated with a non-contrastive metaphysics of "both/and." When you see a community tipping to one side of the debate you respond by drawing attention back to the other side. You keep reminding them about what they are ignoring or forgetting.

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 6, A Bad Habit and Forgetting Gratitude and Praise

My hunch is that many readers will find, or have been finding, all the metaphysical abstractions of this series a bit much. Personally, I love this sort of thing.

But to remind us of the goal, why I'm slowly gathering up notes from Kathryn Tanner's book God and Creation in Christian Theology, is to help us push back on a bad habit in talking about God and creaturely causality. 

This bad habit has been to declare, when we discover "X causes Y" in some science lab, that God has been evacuated from that location. The metaphysics we've inherited from the Enlightenment is contrastive. That is, if we discover a material cause God is "not there." So, wherever science "advances" God has to "retreat."

But such contrastive assumptions violate Tanner's rules, the grammar of God's transcendence.  Recall Rule #1, "avoid a simple contrast of divine and non-divine predicates." And Rule #2, "Avoid in talk about God's creative agency all suggestions of limitation of scope or manner." An Enlightenment-style metaphysics breaks both these rules by pitting creaturely causality against God's agency while also limiting God's agency by saying God is "not" active in "X causes Y." 

Swinging back to my series on January, in trying to connect metaphysics to mental health, Tanner's non-contrastive metaphysics and her rules help us avoid the bad habits of Enlightenment-style assumptions when speaking of mental health, where God and therapeutic science are routinely pitted against each other. There's this deistic assumption that if you take your medication or go to therapy that God isn't present and active in those technologies. To my mind, as a psychologist, this deism is the biggest temptation from my side of the debate. 

But there is also a temptation from the other side, assuming that if I take creaturely action in my pursuit of mental health that I'm "turning my back on God," rejecting the offer of God's power in my healing. We're back to choosing between medication versus miracles. But again, it's not an either/or. As Tanner observes,

[We should not assume] that created causes simply take their marching orders from God. The all-encompassing creative agency of God directly founds and sustains a created being in power, operations and actual productions of created effects. Created beings are the executors of the order of the world for the world that God ordains but only as God's creative agency is at work every step of the way by which such an order is produced. 

Summarizing, created agents possess "powers" and "operations" which allow us to be causal actors ("executors") within "the order of the world." But as the Ground of Being, none of that action takes place independently of God. You can take your medications and go to therapy but God remains the ground of your being and your mental health. 

Now, in many ways, all of this is simply a fancy way of saying what Paul declares in his sermon on Mars Hill, that in God "we live, move and have our being." We can confess that truth. And yet, it's also true that as creaturely powers get highlighted and spotlighted we are tempted to forget God. As our technological prowess expands we become practicing deists, and come to see domains like mental health in deistic terms, as evacuated of the divine Presence. We forget gratitude and praise. We begin to take and give credit to the created causes and forget the Ground of that causality. Borrowing from the last post, our attention becomes wholly focused on the horizontal, material frame and becomes forgetful of the vertical. Charles Taylor calls this narrowed attention the "immanent frame," a focus on material reality to the exclusion of the metaphysical. Phrased differently, our view of mental health become disenchanted. We take our medication and are thankful to the scientists and the drug companies but that gratitude never makes the turn toward God. Because if the scientist discovered the drug God didn't do anything. We're back to a contrastive metaphysics where God and drug companies are competitors within the same order of being.

So for those who have been lost in the metaphysical maze of these posts, here's a practical thing to hang you hat on. How have deistic assumptions, bad habits of contrastive metaphysics, affected your ability to offer God gratitude and praise? For a poverty of gratitude and praise is a symptom of bad metaphysics.

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 5, The Horizontal and the Vertical

Kathryn Tanner's two rules for speaking of God's transcendence in relation to creation might seem way too abstract to help us in a conversation about faith and mental health. But I'd like to now turn to try to unpack some implications from Tanner's work.

Specifically, Tanner's rules in speaking about a non-contrastive metaphysics help us express a both/and relation between God and human agency. As noted in our discussion of Tanner's rules, God is universally present and active in creation and human agency is wholly dependent upon God. And yet, this transcendence is so radically immanent that creaturely reality possesses its own creaturely integrity. Not separately or independently of God, but simply in its existence as a creature. The creature is wholly dependent upon God, yet is not God. In keeping with Tanner's two rules, the creature cannot be identified with God (pantheism) or be independent from God (deism). 

Summarizing, creaturely reality has a logic and internal coherence within its domain. And yet, this domain is also wholly dependent upon God for its reality and existence. Here's how Tanner describes this in God and Creation:

The theologian talks of an ordered nexus of created causes and effects in a relation of total and immediate dependence upon divine agency. Two different orders of efficacy become evident: along a 'horizontal' plane, an order of created causes and effects; along a 'vertical' plane, the order whereby God founds the former. Predicates applied to created beings may concern what happens within the created order; they can be understood to hold simply within the horizontal plane of relations among created beings. Predicates of that sort say nothing about the vertical relation of a creature's dependence upon God. Ascribing them to created beings cannot run contrary, then, to our rules for talk of God's agency and the creature.

This is just the sort of both/and metaphysics we were searching for in January. Instead of God and the creature competing against each other within a single plane of being--where more of God means less of the creature, and more of the creature means less of God--Tanner suggests a two-dimensional model. The "horizontal" plane is our creaturely reality, our world of "created causes and effects." This is our material, empirical world. This world can be described and understood from within its material frame of reference. And yet, due to God's transcendence, there is also a "vertical" plane that intersects horizontal, creaturely reality. This plane represents the dependence of creatures upon God, the ground and founding of the horizontal as the horizontal. (Though the word "intersects" may be confusing as intersections occur at only one point. The better way to say this is that the vertical dimension intersects at every point of the horizontal.) 

The point to be observed here, as Tanner points out above, is that any empirical description regarding how the horizontal, material plane relates to itself does not preclude God's presence and activity in founding and sustaining the creature in a universal and comprehensive way.

To be concrete, let's say we're describing the effectiveness of antidepressants or cognitive-behavioral therapy in mental health. Following Tanner's rules, just because these things "work" as "causes" within the material, horizontal plane doesn't mean God is not both active and present in those very causes and effects. God is, in fact, the ground establishing and sustaining the plane containing those causes and effects. The metaphysics here are not contrastive--God or medication, God or therapy. Rather, two dimensions are at work, the horizontal and the vertical--God and medication, God and therapy.

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 4, Two Rules for Talking about God's Transcendence

Assuming you've read Part 3, following from a non-contrastive metaphysics Kathryn Tanner in God and Creation sets out two rules for talking about God's transcendence. 

Now, to start, putting forward "rules" for talking about God might seems strange to some of us. But this "grammatical" approach is common in theology. Theologians speak of "grammar" to monitor and police speech about God to provide some guardrails so that our talk about God doesn't tip into the idolatrous. "Grammatical" speech about God keeps all metaphysical confessions and distinctions properly in their place. "Ungrammatical" speech about God tips into metaphysical confusion or idolatry. Clearing up "grammatical" versus "ungrammatical" claims about God is Tanner's aim in positing her two rules. How can we keep our speech about God clear of a contrastive metaphysics, where God and creaturely agency are not pitted competitively against each other?

So, what are Tanner's two rules for speaking about God's transcendence in relation to creation?

The first rule is this:

Rule #1: "Avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and the world and a simple contrast of divine and non-divine predicates." 

Tanner comments on this rule: "In the case of univocality, God is really not transcendent at all. In the case of simple contrast, God's transcendence is not radical enough. We can call this first rule a rule for talk of God's transcendence beyond both identity and opposition with the non-divine."

Your head is likely spinning, so let me try to unpack this a bit. Going back to the temptations in Part 3, between deism and pantheism, Tanner here describes these errors as "identity" and "opposition." Pantheism is an error of "identity," or "univocality." That is to say, God can't ever be "identified" or "equated" with any creaturely reality or agency. In such an identity, as Tanner says, "God is really not transcendent at all." For example, God "exists" and creation "exists" but not in a univocal way, not in an "identical" way. "Existence" is different when speaking of creature versus Creator. 

Swinging to the other mistake, deism, the rule also says we cannot make a simple contrast between God and the world. For example, in speaking of creaturely agency we can't say, "If God is active the creature is passive." Or, "If the creature is active God is passive." We also can't say, regarding God's presence, that, "If the creature is here then God is there." Again, that's deism, the notion that God exists at some remove from creature by way of power or presence. Such contrastive either/or talk about God, says Tanner, is a problem because "God's transcendence is not radical enough." As pointed out in Part 3, God's transcendence has to be so radical so that God can come close to the creature while not becoming the creature. 

By following Rule #1 we avoid the mistakes of "identity and opposition" in speaking of God and creation. Rule #1 allows us to speak of God's transcendence and immanence "grammatically," avoiding the garbled sentences of pantheism and deism.     

Tanner's second rule is:

Rule #2: "Avoid in talk about God's creative agency all suggestions of limitation of scope or manner."

The point of this rule, says Tanner, is to prescribe "talk of God's creative agency as immediate and universally extensive." More simply, God is active and present everywhere. We can never say that God "isn't" present or at work in a given situation or location. 

Summarizing the impact of the two rules on theological speech about God, Tanner says:

Should Christians affirm [God's] involvement [with the world], the rule for talk of God as transcendent requires talk of it as a universally extensive and immediate agency. God must not be said to be at work to a limited extent on or with what pre-exists it. God must not be talked about as only indirectly efficacious of the whole in virtue of intermediate agencies. In either case God would take on the character of a finite agent; and the rule of talk of God as transcendent would be thereby be violated. According to our rules, then, statements about God's transcendence imply statements about a direct and comprehensive agency of God.

Again, this avoids deism, God as Watchmaker and creation as a watch. God doesn't "wind up" creation and step back, working distantly and indirectly via creaturely effects God once set in motion some time in the past. It's not a chain of dominos. God's agency is, rather, always directly and comprehensively at work.

The point for a conversation about mental health is that we cannot say, "God helps me 'through' this antidepressant." God doesn't operate deistically, at a remove, through a chain of intermediate causes. God is at work directly in the antidepressant, but also in a way radically unlike an antidepressant. As Tanner continues,

The reverse holds as well. When Christian discourse conforms to our rules, statements about God's creative agency imply statements about the radical transcendence of God. God may be talked about as a creative agent, immediately effecting every non-divine being in every respect by which it may be likened to or distinguished from other finite beings; but only if God's nature as a transcendent being cannot be captured by any characterization in the same terms of similarity and difference. Talk of that sort about God's creative agency makes sense only if Christian statements about God as transcendent conform to our rule. 

So, God is directly at work in the antidepressant, but neither is God's action reduced or limited to what the antidepressant does for me. 

In short, God is directly and comprehensively at work in all mental health technologies, but neither can God's healing be reduced to these technologies. 

My hunch is that, right now, you have a confused look on your face. What's the win here? Why dig into these two rules?

In the coming posts I'll be unpack some implications, but for today let me say this to help hold you over. Think about our awareness of God's presence. When we take our antidepressant our default is toward a deistic imagination. I take my pill and hardly think that God is there, or doing anything to help me. But as I hope you can see, that imagination is "ungrammatical," a violation of Tanner's rules. Both of them. Rule #1 is broken because we're assuming that if I take a pill then it's the pill and not God helping me. And that breaks Rule #2 because I'm assuming God power to help me is absent in the pill taking. 

A "grammatical" approach to the pill is to say: "God is here, directly helping me in this pill." But neither should I think that God 'just is' the pill, that God's presence and help for me is restricted to the pill, that God can't help my depression except through the pill. What these two rules are doing is bringing God closer to the pill taking (immanence) while being careful to not reduce God to the pill taking (transcendence). If we can do this, we have in hand a metaphysics that doesn't pit God against medication, or any therapy, in a competitive way. 

Pascal's Pensées: Week 17, At Home in the Universe?


The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.


Here we have one of Pascal's most famous lines.

Are we at home in the universe? Or are we an accident?

Many non-theists turn to life in the cosmos to instill and inspire wonder and awe, the surest materialistic route to something akin to religious transcendence. Carl Sagan was famous for making this move. Given the long cosmic odds, and all the necessary fine-tuning of the physical constants of the universe, it's really quite remarkable, even miraculous, that we find ourselves existing on this Pale Blue Dot. 

And as I point out in Hunting Magic Eels, these facts about our existence, and the energy of its attendant wonder, can be leveraged into a moral response, a materialistic warrant for loving and caring for life and the world we inhabit. Life is so very precious and rare, we must cherish and care for it.

Amen. But as I go on to point out in Hunting Magic Eels, and as Pascal points out above, our winning the cosmic lottery can cut both ways. There's a difference between feeling grateful versus feeling lucky. A difference between feeling at home in the universe and feeling liked you dodged a cosmic bullet to the head. As the scientists remind us, we're all quite fortunate and lucky to be here. But feeling lucky for life is different from feeling grateful. Gratitude is a social emotion, the response we feel when we've been given a gift. And where there is a gift, there is a gift-giver. As I say in the book, you can't feel grateful for life and creation and be an atheist, not emotionally. Being awed at the cosmic odds is different from saying "Thank you."

As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, the psychological and existential difference between luck and grace (grace is the same word as gift in the New Testament) is illustrated in how feeling lucky, while able to be leveraged positively, also has the nagging and chronic vulnerability of slipping into despair and nihilism. This is Pascal's point. Feeling lucky is not too far from feeling like an accident, even a mistake, that the universe didn't want us, need us, and, regardless, will soon be rid of us. As the great atheist Jean-Paul Sartre put it, "Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance." Suck on that Carl Sagan.

Experiencing your life and creation as a gift, however, protects us from this nihilistic pit. Life is more than luck. You were meant to be here. Life is a gift. Existence is graced. A grace that provides a sturdier platform for both mental health and love than chance and cosmic rolls of the dice.

So look around, in wonder and awe, and say, "Thank you."

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 3, A Non-Contrastive Metaphysics of Transcendence and Immanence

According to Kathryn Tanner in God and Creation in Christian Theology, the problem with a contrastive metaphysics is univocality of being. 

By "univocal," a term of art in theological conversations, we mean "the same thing" or "the same meaning." So, "univocality of being" means that "being" or "existence" for God is "the same" or "means the same thing" as "being" or "existence" for creation. That is to say, God and creation both "exist" in approximately the same way. 

Phrased differently, God is one being among other beings. The most powerful being, perhaps, but still a being. 

Following up on the last post we can see how univocality of being is at work in both pantheism and deism. In pantheism God just is the cosmos and is, therefore, a being like other beings. The totality of being, perhaps, but existing as created things exist. Relatedly, in deism God exists at a distance from creation, two beings alongside each other, the way a table and a chair exist side by side. Creation is "here" and God is "there."

The point for Tanner is that when transcendence and immanence are framed contrastively we assume univocality of being, which means we lose track of how to properly frame God's relation to creation. Univocality of being, where God is a being among beings, sets up the either/or problems we've been talking about regarding mental health. Either human agency is at work (e.g., therapy, medication) or God is at work (via prayer, for example). One being or the other, one cause or the other, has to be at work in a zerosum, competitive relation.

So what we need here is a non-contrastive metaphysics, one that escapes framing being univocally. And Tanner suggests we accomplish this by "radicalizing" our notions of divine transcendence and immanence. Here's Tanner from God and Creation:

[An] extreme of divine involvement requires, one could say, an extreme of divine transcendence. A contrastive definition is not radical enough to allow a direct creative involvement of God with the world in its entirety....A God who genuinely transcends the world must not be characterized, therefore, by a direct contrast with it. A contrastive definition will show its failure to follow through consistently on divine transcendence by inevitably bringing God down to the level of the non-divine to which it is opposed...

The Christian theologian therefore needs to radicalize claims about both God's transcendence and involvement with the world if the two are to work for rather than against one another...This insistence upon a non-contrastive characterization of God's transcendence forces, in turn, Christian talk of God's creative agency to be worked out in a genuinely radical way: God must be directly productive of everything that is in every aspect of its existence. Anything short of that supposes, I have argued, a diminished transcendence. Apparent problems of incompatibility are resolved in this manner--not at the cost of either claim [regarding both God's transcendence and immanence] but in taking both to their genuine extremes. 

Basically, we must so radicalize our notion of divine transcendence so that God can become radically immanent. Phrased differently, it's God's Otherness which allows God to come close. For if God were the "same" as us (univocality of being) God's closeness would start to crowd us and nudge us aside. But since God's Being is radically unlike our being (a non-contrasting metaphysics) we can confess with Augustine that "God is closer to me than I am to myself." Only when God's Being is different from my own (radical transcendence) can such intimacy be achieved (radical immanence). 

This non-contrastive metaphysics, I am suggesting, is the metaphysics we need to puzzle through how God relates to mental health, as it allows for both divine and human agency to exist in a non-competitive relationship. One shouldn’t need to choose between prayer and prescriptions.

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 2, A Contrastive Metaphysics of Transcendence and Immanence

One of the things I argued for in January in my series on mental health was that we need a fresher, clearer metaphysical approach to divine and human agency in order to make sense of how God aids and accompanies us on our mental health journey. 

By "fresher" I don't mean new and innovative. (What we are looking for actually goes back to the church fathers.) I mean moving away from the soteriological models which, I think, have dominated and impeded progress in Christian psychology. This was the point of my last post, how the soteriological-to-therapeutic shift has created some problems for Christian reflection regarding therapy and mental health. We seem to toggle between the "competent to counsel" approach of "biblical counseling," where the sciences of human flourishing can be breezily ignored. Or swing to the humanism of positive psychology where "faith" and "spirituality" can be picked up or laid down as one among many coping strategies: Pray if you want, or not, do what works for you. As I wrote about in January, when we rely on soteriological models of divine and human agency we tend find ourselves in an either/or competition between God and humanity, choosing between Augustine or Pelagius in thinking about mental health. Both, I think, are problematic. 

So we need to search for some fresher metaphysical waters than the nature versus grace debates in soteriology. And I think we find those waters when we look at theologies of creation, how properly to think about the transcendence of God in relation to the created order.

As noted in January, I've been convinced of this move through my encounter with the work of Kathryn Tanner, along with the word of Thomas Aquinas. The book of Tanner's I used in January was Christ the Key. But that book wasn't Tanner's first in tackling this subject. Her initial look at transcendence goes back to her very first book, published in 1988, God and Creation in Christian Theology

I've actually found God and Creation more helpful than Christ the Key, as God and Creation is directly and specifically about the problem we're talking about, God's relation to created being. So, for the rest of this series I want to sketch out (and archive for myself) some key moves of Tanner's argument. 

We start with the relation between God's transcendence versus immanence. 

Tanner starts by focusing on Christian speech. Specifically, Christians want to say two different things about God. First, we want to say that God is transcendent. God is Wholly Other, separate from creation. Second, we also want to say that God is present, close, intimate, and active in our lives. God is transcendent, but also immanent. God is Wholly Other and we are also radically dependent upon God: "In Him we move, live and have our being." 

As Tanner points out, and as we've also observed, these two claims exist in some tension. Many philosophers have argued that they are incoherent, that you can't claim both without contradiction. This goes to my point about the necessity of metaphysics. The paradoxes and issues we struggle with regarding God's role in mental health flow out of missteps we make here, at the start, with our metaphysical assumptions about God's transcendence and immanence. Mistakes with the metaphysics lead to downstream contradictions. 

Following Tanner, here's the mistake we make. We tend to frame transcendence and immanence "contrastively," as an either/or. That is, the more we focus on God's transcendence, the more God is Wholly Other and separated from creation, the more we start drifting toward deism. God is "far away" and distant from creation, which moves along without God. In short, the more God is defined as transcendent the less immanent God seems. 

Conversely, the more God is defined immanently, the more God is identified with creation itself, the more we tend toward pantheism, where Nature/Reality simply is God. (This is Spinoza's Deus sive Natura, "God or nature." It's also the immanent God of process theology.) This is the reciprocal to what we observed above: The more we toggle toward immanence the less God is transcendent and Other.

Here's a crude summary of the either/or of a contrastive metaphysics of transcendence and immanence:

Suffice it to say, almost all of our problems regarding God's relation to mental health are rooted in this sort of contrastive metaphysics. This tends to play out in all of the tensions outlined above, where either God or human agency is present and given credit for mental health. 

What is needed, says Tanner, is a non-contrastive metaphysics when we speak of God's transcendence and immanence. We'll turn to that metaphysics in the next post.

On Divine and Human Agency: Part 1, The Soteriological To Therapeutic Shift

Back in January I devoted a series of posts to what I called "the metaphysics of mental health." 

The purpose of those posts was to explore the role of God in human flourishing, how God helps us with mental health issues. In the area of Christian psychology there have been barrels of ink split on the relationship of God and faith to psychotherapy, but little consensus about how best to understand this relationship. Rival models proliferate, each, unsurprisingly, reflective of the underlying denominational commitments of the various proponents and therapists. For example, I've written before about how an Arminian versus a Calvinist therapist would look differently at their clients. Theological anthropologies have implications for therapy. 

But the main issue I was focusing on in January was how to think about Divine and human agency, especially how they relate to each other. What's interesting here is how this is, in fact, a very old problem. It goes right back to the debates that produced the Nicene Creed: How can Jesus be both fully God and fully human? How does Jesus' divine nature relate to his human nature? Do the two natures mix to create a composite, blended nature? Or does Jesus have two natures that struggle against each other? And so forth.

And this debate about Jesus' nature isn't esoteric, as it sets up a model for our own natures. For example, throughout Christian history there's been debates about divine sovereignty and human freedom. Are the two compatible? If everything in the cosmos has been "predestined" by God's sovereign will then can humans be truly free? And if humans are truly free, able to thwart God's will and plans, can God be truly sovereign? 

It seems that contradictions and paradoxes abound whenever we contemplate the nexus of divine and human agency. Consider this famous text:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2.12-13)
Work out your own salvation, for it is God who wills and works in you. How to make sense of that?

Again, theologians reading this will be saying, "These are very old problems and debates." Yes, that's exactly my point. What's of interest to me is how these debates have tended to focus on theological problems. Christology. Theological anthropology. Nature versus grace. Predestination and human freedom. Justification and sanctification. And so on. 

Much of this debate, when it comes to human beings, has been about soteriology. To what extent is the human person to participate in salvation? One traditional answer, going back to Augustine's debate with Pelagius, has been "None at all." Salvation is achieved by the 100% unilateral movement of divine grace. Humans contribute nothing, on our side, to the salvation equation. 

Obviously, this is a very beautiful doctrine. And it's made for millions of beautiful sermons. But here's my observation: A model of divine and human agency worked out in the domain of soteriology might be ill-suited for work in other domains, like therapy and mental health. The passivity of humans in the soteriological domain, where we must wait upon God's grace, doesn't work very well when it comes to human flourishing. 

And yet, if we swing too far in the other direction, toward an embrace of human agency and initiative, therapy and the technologies of human flourishing can become functionally atheistic, devoid of the divine presence, power, and agency. In theological terms, therapy becomes "Pelagian" or, in psychological terms, "humanistic." We're back to puzzles about human and divine agency. And yet, it's my assessment that the models that have been worked out over generations to handle soteriological questions struggle to be of use to us. In fact, they can create a lot of problems. Many, many models of Christian counseling have floundered on this soteriological-to-therapeutic shift

This, then, is my summary assessment. We need to do more work on the metaphysics of mental health because the models of divine/human agency that have been worked out in soteriological contexts aren't often suited to help us think through how God aids in human flourishing. 

On the Existence of God: The Argument from Evil

Here's "an argument from evil" for the existence of God:

1. If evil is a problem, then God exists.

2. Evil is a problem.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The logical form of the argument is modus ponens:

1. If P then Q.

2. P.

3. Therefore, Q.

Two key words in the argument that need definition are "problem" and "God." 

By "problem" I mean the conviction that evil "could and ought to be otherwise," a judgment that the existence of evil is "wrong," that the cosmos is "broken," that evil mars reality as a "flaw." 

By "God" I mean "a power that could make reality otherwise than what it is."

Okay, how serious am I expecting you to take this argument? I'd say semi-seriously. 

On the non-serious side, I don't think this is very convincing argument or "proof" for the existence of God. 

But on the serious side, the argument highlights how our felt experience of evil is that evil is a problem, a flaw with the design of the cosmos, and how that experience presupposes a power (God) that could, and should, make things otherwise. 

Of course, not everyone experiences evil as a problem or design flaw. Suffering, pain, and evil could be taken as brute facts of existence. And brute facts cannot be "problems." Facts cannot be flaws. Evil might be tragic and sad, and we might wish it were otherwise, but since it can't be otherwise there's nothing "wrong" or "off" here. There's sadness, but no problem

But my sense is that most people experience evil as a problem. We feel something has gone "wrong" when a child dies of cancer. We feel that this tragedy could have and should have been otherwise. This death revealed that something is broken in the cosmos, something that should be fixed and rectified. Sure, perhaps a logical interrogation of our grief would reveal it to be sentimental and superstitious. But I think a lot of us would go with our gut over logic in this instance as the more truthful. Evil really is a problem. 

Therefore God exists.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 16, The HPtFtU


What amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at their own weakness.


I don't know if Pascal got it right with this one. As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can really be proved. 

I think most people feel that there's something wrong with themselves, and us collectively. Our moral, relational, and mental health seems pretty fragile. Consequently, our "weakness" is not a bad place to begin a conversation about God. 

That is the strategy Francis Spufford uses in his book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Spufford begins his defense of Christianity with HPtFTU--the Human Propensity to F@#! Things Up. Spufford describes HPtFTU as "our active inclination to break stuff," our health, our happiness, our relationships, and our world.

We all, at some point, will come face to face with our weakness, our own HPtFTU. As Spufford writes:

Our appointment with realization often comes at one of the classic moments of adult failure: when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when a relationship fades away with a child seen only on Saturdays, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream. It need not be dramatic, though. It can equally well just be the drifting into place of one more pleasant, indistinguishable little atom of wasted time, one more morning like all the others, which quietly discloses you to yourself. You’re lying in the bath and you notice that you’re thirty-nine, and you don’t have children and that the way your living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you’ve always wanted; yet you got here by choice, by a long series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid the things you say you wanted most. And as the water cools, and the light of Saturday morning in summer ripples heartlessly on the bathroom ceiling, you glimpse an unflattering vision of yourself as a being whose wants make no sense, don’t harmonize: whose desires, deep down, are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and you truly want not to, at the very same time. You’re equipped, you realize, for farce (or even tragedy) more than you are for happy endings. The HPtFtU dawns on you. You have, indeed, f---d things up. Of course you have. You’re human, and that’s where we live; that’s our normal experience.

Maybe Pascal is right, maybe people are not amazed at their HPtFtU. If that were so, well, yes, I would find that to be amazing.

On Nondual Thinking: Part 5, Apocalyptic Paul

Nondual paradigms don't just struggle getting Jesus right, they also struggle getting Paul right. 

There's a broad scholarly consensus that Paul was an apocalyptic thinker, even among those who aren't a part of the apocalyptic school. Specifically, Paul's experience of receiving his gospel as "an apocalypse of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1.12) caused Paul to rethink a host of issues, from Torah observance to God's plan for the Gentiles. The blazing vision of the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus illuminated but also cast some dark shadows of contrast. Law versus Faith. Flesh versus Spirit. The Present Evil Age versus New Creation. 

Louis Martyn calls these Pauline dualisms "cosmic antinomies," opposed pairs that constitute the "elementary principles of the world" (Gal. 4.3). The apocalypse of Christ erased these pairs and replaced them with new pairs. For example, old antinomies like those in Galatians 3.28--male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile--are overcome, since we are all "one in Christ." But these pairs are replaced with the dualisms of the Messianic Age, like Flesh versus Spirit: 

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other. (Gal. 5.16-17)

All this simply to say, it's hard to understand Paul's gospel without understanding the antinomies inherent in his apocalyptic cosmology. As Paul declares to the saints in Galatia, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age." Apocalyptic Paul is a dualistic Paul. 

Yes, just as with Jesus, we have to handle these dualisms with care. But also like with Jesus, I don't think we can force the apocalyptic Paul into a nondualistic frame without doing great damage to our understanding of how Paul saw both the cosmos and the gospel. I'd rather stay true to Paul as an apocalyptic thinker, antinomies and all, then to turn him into something he wouldn't recognize. 

On Nondual Thinking: Part 4, The Dualisms of the Cosmic Christ

One response to my last post, about the dualisms that show up in the gospels, might be that this observation really only holds for the Synoptic gospels--Mark, Matthew and Luke. The Jesus we find in the gospel of John, it might be argued, is more mystical and cosmic and, thus, a better candidate for a nondualistic Jesus.

It certainly seems that way right out of the gate. The cosmic Christ is right there at the start: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made." Along with the Christ Hymn of Colossians 1, the Logos of John is Cosmic Christology 101.

And yet, this cosmic Christology quickly runs into a recurrent Johannine dualism. Very quickly in John 1 we arrive at this:  

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.

It's true that the Jesus of John is more cosmic and mystical. But it's also true that the Johannine community shared many of the metaphysical sensibilities of the Qumran community, and that both communities trafficked a lot in dualisms. Death and Life. Light and Darkness. Christ and the World. Consider from John 3 and 12:

"And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light."
This contrast between the "Children of Light" and the "Children of Darkness" is a dualism common to both the Johannine and Qumran communities. Other strong dualisms abound in John. For example, some selected sayings of Jesus from the gospel of John:
"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." (John 3.36)

"Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear the voice of the Son of Man and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment." (John 5.28-29)

"Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires." (John 8.43-44) 

"Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God." (John 8.47)

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9.39)

"I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (John 15.5-6)

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." (John 15.18-19)

"I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world." (John 17.15-16)
As I mentioned in my last post, these dualisms have to handled with great care. And I understand the impulse to either ignore them or sweep them away. Truly, I have great sympathy for this sort of concern.

But my point here is that we're not doing the gospel of John justice if we think that his "high Christology," John's more cosmic and mystical Jesus, doesn't traffic in dualisms. John's Jesus most certainly does. A high Christology doesn't necessarily imply nondualism. In fact, John's high Christology seems to highlight, deepen, and up the stakes of the dualisms. We're not just contrasting good versus bad moral actions but speaking of a metaphysical clash between Light and Darkness.

On Nondual Thinking: Part 3, Dualistic Jesus

In conversations about nonduality Jesus is pointed to as the primary example of nondual thinking. And yet, I think that is a hard case to make.

As any cursory familiarity with the biblical scholarship on Jesus would reveal, the scholarly consensus is that Jesus stood solidly within Israel's prophetic tradition which, with its moral castigations and proclamations of judgment, tended to traffic in moral and eschatological dualisms. 

For example, while we take it as a truism that Jesus was more tolerant than St. Paul, it is simply a fact that Paul never talked about hell while Jesus talked about it all the time. Jesus was a hellfire and brimstone preacher. Paul proclaimed a message of grace.

To be clear, Jesus most certainly didn't preach about hell as it came to be imagined in later Christian tradition. And Paul did speak of judgment and the wrath of God. My point is that we tend to trade pretty heavily on some misleading stereotypes when we speak of "Jesus" or "Paul." We think we know Jesus. Jesus is a liberal, loving, tolerant, humanist. Jesus was a nondual thinker. 

But that image of Jesus struggles to fit the person revealed to us on the pages of the Bible. As a nondual thinker Jesus preached a great deal about moral and eschatological dualisms. That makes sense given how Jesus stood in the stream of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. That said, we should rush to note, however, that Jesus used these dualisms to proclaim a message of love and care. A classic case is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, which starts: 

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left."
And the parable ends with this:
"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'"
This is pretty dualistic. There are sheep and there are goats. Which are you? There is a fate of blessedness or an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Where are you headed?

And yet, Jesus is leveraging the dualism in the parable for the cause of care: care for the hungry, naked, thirsty, homeless, sick and incarcerated. "Truly," declares Jesus, "as you did to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me." 

Summarizing, some of the actions we undertake in the world stand under God's judgment and censor. Other actions are graced and blessed. To be sure, from a psychospiritual and therapeutic stance we shouldn't rush to label experiences or ourselves in a binary, good versus bad, fashion. I'm all for mindfulness. Still, the Jesus we encounter in the gospels is laying over life a moral and eschatological dualism that he wants us to face with the utmost urgency and seriousness. Mindfulness, being fully and non-judgmentally aware and present to life, is wonderful. But at some point you have to face Jesus' question: Are you a sheep or a goat? Where's the moral trajectory of your life headed? Questions not to push you into a depressive, shame-filled funk--our neuroses does no one any good--but to rouse you to repentance and action. "Repent," Jesus preaches in the gospels, "for the Kingdom of God is at hand."

I will readily admit that we have to be very, very careful in how we handle the dualistic Jesus. The dualistic Jesus is prone to abuse. There are dualisms which are helpful (for example, Matthew 25), and dualisms that are toxic and dysfunctional. And insofar as practices of nondualism nurse us away from toxic dualisms it's doing good work. My concern with describing Jesus as nondualistic is that it extracts him from the pathos and matrix of the Hebrew prophetic tradition. In my estimation, this tames and domesticates Jesus, turning him into a guru, a philosopher, and a teacher of wisdom. A figure attractive to educated liberals. I'd prefer to keep Jesus' moral and eschatological dualisms in place keeping a focused, vigilant, and energetic eye on the prize he was aiming for, such as compassion for the "least of these." This Jesus is less cozy and more a hellfire and brimstone preacher. And for my part, if I can be a little nondualistic here, I say let him love and let him rage. 

On Nondual Thinking: Part 2, Gnosticism

I confess that, right from the very start, the thing that gave me pause about "nondual thinking" was that it was about consciousness. That focus on mental states made me worry about gnosticism. 

That nondual thinking shades into gnosticism goes to its Eastern origins. In the East, nondual thinking is a part of the path to enlightenment. 

But Christianity isn't about about enlightenment, higher states of consciousness, or achieving the Buddha-nature. 

Now, of course, there are deep and rich intersections between Christianity and Eastern religions. This is well trod territory. Thomas Merton is my favorite gateway into that conversation. And it's also very true that Christians are supposed to attend to their thinking and strive to attain "the mind of Christ." And if the "mind of Christ" is characterized by nondual thinking, well, there you go.

So my issue isn't with nondual thinking precisely, but with its exalted, central, and privileged location in many conversations, the importance it holds for many as the pivot point of the spiritual life. Again, there's something in me that squirms when thinking, some exalted state of consciousness, is placed at the center.

Let me illustrate some of what I'm talking about. For example, nondual proponents will often turn to Philippians 2 to illustrate some of their key ideas. In this text Paul says we are to have "the mind of Christ." And what is that "mind"? Well, Paul says that Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be "grasped." Rather, Jesus "emptied" himself to take on the form of a servant. In nondual conversations these ideas are typically unpacked in very gnostic ways. That is, the "grasping" in the text is a grasping mind, a mind that is "attached" to thoughts. "Emptying," then, is practicing "non-attachment" in meditation and centering prayer, not becoming attached to our thoughts and emotions but learning to "let them go."

Again, let me be very, very clear. As a spiritual practice, things like centering prayer, mindfulness, and meditation are potent tools for spiritual growth and development. Our minds do too quickly "attach" to experience and are quick to label experiences as "good" or "bad." Such attachments create an inner experience--a self--that is jumpy, volatile, and triggered. Bringing calm, tranquility, and equnaminity to our inner life in this distracted and anxious age is hugely important. Consequently, I recommend prayer and meditation techniques. We need some inner peace. 

But that said, notice how a nondual description of Philippians 2, Jesus' kenosis, is described as a wholly cognitive journey. The "grasping" and "emptying" is mental, a journey and practice of consciousness. But that's not actually what Philippians 2 is describing. What Philippians 2 is describing is a physical change of social locations, a descent from "high status" to acts of servanthood. What Philippians 2 is describing is Maundy Thursday. Jesus isn't sitting under a Bodhi tree or on his meditation cushion in Philippians 2. He's on his knees washing feet. Love is action. 

To be sure, the practice of nondual thinking in disciplines like centering prayer help us on this journey toward servanthood. A non-grasping mind aids our non-grasping of status. But the key here is keeping nondual thinking in its rightful place, to not mistake the means for the end. If nondual meditation helps you become a servant then engage in the practice. But you can also just walk out the door and volunteer to serve a needy community in your city. For my part, I don't really care how you get out the door, but the goal is to get out the door to see you serving, somewhere, on the streets. Prayer practices are vital. Let's just make sure we've got some dirty knees. In the language of Bob Goff, love does

I also have a related concern about elitism. Recall, many nondual proponents describe nondual thinking as more mature, sophisticated, and advanced. An elitism is baked into the conversation. Which raises a question: Are people with more concrete and binary cognitive styles--due to genetic, developmental, cognitive, personality and/or educational factors--doomed to be spiritually immature? For example, almost all of my pastoral work occurs in prisons or among the poor. And it's simply a truth that the thinking in these locations tends to pretty concrete and dualistic. So I'm reluctant to make anything the preeminent virtue of Christianity when it is only accessible to the highly intelligent and college-educated. 

Now, this could be my own, perhaps biased, take on the situation. But I'm not the only one who has noticed this. I once heard an exchange with a leader in the nondualistic world who shared that they struggled with prison ministry, because the inmates were too dualistic in their thinking. That's revealing. I thought to myself upon hearing that: Is that a problem with the incarcerated or with the message?

Listen, again, this isn't a broadside against the nondualistic message. As I said in the last post, many, including many dear friends of mine, have found the nondualistic insight absolutely transformative. And to that I say, Praise God. My caution here is simply to keep our focus on love rather than consciousness, and to make sure we don't exclude or stigmatize people who have different cognitive styles.

Pascal's Pensées: Week 15, Distrusting Human Justice


I spent much of my life believing that there was such a thing as justice, and in this I was not mistaken, for in so far as God has chosen to reveal it to us there is such a thing. But I did not take it in this way, and that is where I was wrong, for I thought that our justice was essentially just, and that I had the means to understand and judge it, but I found myself so often making unsound judgments that I began to distrust myself and then others.


Our reflections could go a lot of different directions with this pensée. Big picture, Pascal is dwelling upon one of his major themes, the inconstancy of human beings. We are unsteady creatures. Fickle, myopic, and inconstant. Consequently, we require a foundation and ground more sure and constant than ourselves.

In this particular pensée Pascal's concern is the volatility and mutability of human justice. Can human justice ever be truly just? I'm put in mind of some reflections from N.T. Wright on the elusiveness of justice. Wright observes:

We all know that some things are fair, and some are not. Children know this without studying moral philosophy. When a country signs a treaty and then breaks it, we know it matters. If people think a criminal has 'got away with' a ridiculously light sentence, the hunger for justice may lead to vigilantism... 

Here is the paradox: how can something we all know matters so much be so hard to attain? We can't do without justice, but enacting it on a small or a large scale is harder than we might imagine...Though we all know [justice] matters, we all find it difficult--sometimes, it seems, impossible.
Ponder our criminal justice system. Does it produce justice? 

We can despair here, but my takeaway from this pensée isn't resignation but this: "I found myself so often making unsound judgments that I began to distrust myself." 

I think the scariest thing about our pursuit of justice is when we lose this sort of humility, when we become dogmatic about who deserves justice and who does not, along with what consequences people deserve. We should pursue justice, but we need to distrust ourselves more.  

On Nondual Thinking: Part 1, Definitions

A focus on "nondual" thinking or "nonduality" is all the rage among Christians, especially progressive Christians. And yet, I, for one, have been puzzled about the enthusiasm, and have not found the frame of "dual versus nondual" to be all the illuminating and helpful in my own journey. 

In this, I confess to being peculiar. (Not a news flash.) Almost everyone I know who has encountered the idea has found it helpful. And not just helpful, life-changing and faith-sustaining. So I fear venturing into this conversation with some questions that have perplexed me. In fact, I've re-read these posts so many times, hovering over them, so close to deleting them for fear of people's feelings. But then I thought: You, dear reader, are a grown adult. You can handle this. 

And so, being who I am, I'll trouble these waters. But I want to be clear, my questions are just that, my questions. They likely are not your questions. It's sort of like the Enneagram. The Enneagram has a large and enthusiastic following who have found it to be profoundly transformative. And yet, the Enneagram has its critics. The same, I'd suggest, goes for nondual thinking. Nondual thinking has a large and enthusiastic following who have found it to be profoundly transformative. And yet, I'd like to take up the lonely job of asking some questions.

Let's start with definitions.

Truth be told, it's hard to pin down exactly what nondual thinking is. The various leaders in this area vary in their definitions and descriptions. That gives me pause. Sometimes nondual means avoiding crude, simplistic thinking. Sometimes it means not being ego-centric. Sometimes it means embracing mystery and unknowing. Sometimes it just means loving people. 

Here's my concern. It's often the case that a buzzword hits Christian culture. And when that buzzword hits what happens is that all things good and holy get grouped under that word, and all the bad stuff gets left out. I think the nondual conversation is tempted like this. Not that this is bad if people find it helpful, just that our previous language in describing such things still remains effective. 

For example, as mentioned above, when people describe nondual thinking what they often describe are things like love, non-judgmentalism, complexity, inclusiveness, relationality, generosity, or humility. Basically, we make a list of a suite of social, moral, and intellectual virtues and then declare: "This is nondual thinking."

Maybe this is helpful for some. A fresh take on some very traditional virtues. But to my eye, this can appear to be simply re-branding some perfectly good ways of thinking and talking about these virtues already. 

For example, if by "nondual" you mean that I shouldn't rigidly divide the world between "the good" and "the evil," well, I agree. Life is a lot more morally complex than that. And if by "recognizing moral complexity" you mean "nondual," well, okay. The same goes if you say that nondual thinking is holistic and focused upon interrelationships. And again, if seeing our world as an interdependent whole is what you mean by "nondual," well, okay. I confess that I'm very willing to admit to seeing moral complexity and webs of mutual dependence. And I think everyone else should as well.

And yet, as I consult my mind about how I've reached those conclusions I don't recognize these truths because I've adopted an esoteric, mystical perspective on the world. I haven't attained a "Christ-consciousness" or some Christian version of Eastern enlightenment. I recognize such things because they accurately reflect life and experience. And if a person refused to admit these realities I wouldn't describe them as a "dualistic" thinker. I'd just say they were wrong. As in, empirically wrong, ignoring obvious facts about the world. People, in point of fact, are not wholly good or bad, not me or you. Nor does anyone stand isolated and autonomous in the world. Them's the facts, revealed to us through a bland empiricism, at least in my case, than rather through some exotic mystical insight. 

This brings me to another conceptual issue, which is how much of the nondual conversation traffics in dualism. For example, a savvy reader would object to what I just said above, "See Richard, you are trafficking in dualistic thinking, thinking that there is a 'right' versus a 'wrong' view of the world." 

To which I would respond, "I do see some things as right or wrong, as true or false, as good or evil. But isn't that why you're opting for nondualism in the first place, because you take it to be a truer and better way of viewing the world? Doesn't nondual thinking move you toward something more beautiful, gracious, and loving and away from something something ugly, violent and hateful? Why prefer nondualism over dualism if not for an antecedent moral valuation?"

It is interesting how many conversations about nondual thinking trade pretty heavily on some dualisms. For example, there is "dual" and "nondual" thinking. There is "the false self" and "the true self." Dual thinking is "Western" and nondual thinking is "Eastern." Dual thinking is "individualistic" and nondual thinking is "holistic." Dual thinking is "I-It" and nondual thinking is "I-Thou." Dual thinking is "ego-centric" and nondual thinking is "other-centric." Dual thinking is "narrow and shallow" and nondual thinking is "deep and broad." Dual thinking is "bad" and nondual thinking is "good." Or if not bad versus good, then immature/simplistic/primitive versus mature/complex/developed. 

Think about, for example, Spiral Dynamics, a parallel theory that shows up a lot among nondual proponents. Spiral Dynamics is based upon an evolutionary, developmental model, going from primitive forms of thought and morality to more complex and sophisticated. Dualistic thinking is associated with the more primitive modes of thought, and nondual thinking is associated with the higher, more abstract, forms of thought. Which, I hope you can see, is a sort of paradox, how a moral and developmental dualism (primitive/advanced) is being used to evaluate a mode of thinking (dual/nondual). 

To be clear, the very best of the nondual crowd avoid such dualisms in describing nondualism. But a lot of the nondualistic world is pretty dualistic. 

By and large, what I think is happening is that "nondual" is being used as a synonym for things like love, relationality, and complexity. And it's my personal opinion that clarity and moral potency is best achieved if we stay at this more granular level, where particular and delineated virtues are named and described. If you're talking about love, let's talk about love. If we're talking about mystery, let's talk about mystery. Because the two are really different things. You can embrace mystery and be an entitled, selfish jerk. I've seen vain and selfish mysterians. And you can be the most loving person in the world and be a pretty concrete, black and white thinker. In my estimation, abstracting away from these particular virtues with the label "nondual" muddies the spiritual formation waters. I lose track of what we're talking about.

Because of its vague, high-level abstractions, where "nondual" can almost mean anything, whenever I've tried to enter the nondual conversation I've tended to find, after some unpacking, a fairly obvious and recognizable territory, hearing about things I already hold sacred: by "nondual" you mean love, interrelationship, intellectual complexity, spiritual maturity. For a lot of people "nondual" has been a helpful, life-giving, one-word handle to grab ahold of this suite of virtues (social, moral, intellectual and spiritual). But for me, "nondual" hasn't been a key, necessary, or insightful tag. 

Perhaps we should be more nondualistic about nonduality as the royal road to spiritual growth. For it would the height of irony if nonduality became the newest fad by which we secure our place among the elect.