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Posts Tagged ‘non-being’

I went through a really rough couple of months this year. Nonetheless, in it I came to know something of Jesus that has been greatly significant for my faith. I would like to stress that this refers to a specific period in a specific person’s life and I am in no way providing reflections on some kind of universal suffering. I understand that suffering escapes definition. It is better understood piecemeal in the particular stories that individuals and communities choose to share with others. I won’t be sharing my “rough couple of months” but only indirectly by way of my reflection on these.

The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). As promised, after three days in the grave, Jesus is risen from the dead and appears to the disciples. As glorious as it is,  however, there remains for the disciples the enormous task of making disciples of all the nations, by whom they will be hated (24:9-14). They will be called blessed for sharing his sufferings (5:10-11). And, before joining him in his resurrection they must join him in his crucifixion (16:24-25). It seems that Jesus’ being with the disciples is not only in the love, hope, and power of the Spirit, his body which is the church, and his future return, but his being with them is also in the call to crucifixion. That Jesus is with us is the confirmation of our suffering.

(The above refers to specifically Christian suffering, i.e., taking up your cross is an active and voluntary identification with Jesus in his suffering that characterises being Christian. My concern here, however, is not only with these sufferings but also suffering that is not specifically Christian. Indeed, this “everything-else-suffering” forms part of the precondition of Christian suffering, as God on the cross has identified with all human suffering and death).

While the New Testament provides much material on suffering, such as its littleness in relation to the coming return of Jesus and the new life that he offers (e.g., Rom 8:18-30; 2 Cor 4:7-18), or, not unrelatedly, as a way of building character or faith (e.g., Heb 12:3-13; 1 Pet 1:6-7), this is not all that Scripture provides. The Book of Job, for example, counters other Jewish wisdom literature of its time that advocate righteousness (fear of God, obedience to the law, being just in your relationships with others and the land) because it is the righteous who will prosper. But the wicked, who act as if there is no God and do to others as they please, will surely have their comeuppance. Job, however, is a righteous person who is thrust into the depths of suffering. In one day, a series of events takes away all of his livestock, servants, and children. While he is still grieving these losses, he gets covered in sores from head to toe. Three of his friends come to comfort him. But they are ill-received. They consistently locate the source of Job’s suffering in some sin that must have brought judgement upon him. Yet Job will not buy it. He turns his attention to his Judge on high, perplexed at why in actual fact the wicked do prosper and the righteous often suffer: “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (Job 21:7; see whole chapter).

For me though, the most important part of the Book of Job is the two chapters just before the last where God answers Job’s complaints. The disturbing thing is that God does not really provide an answer:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?

(38:4-5).

God goes on to rebuke Job with further questions on the wherefores and whatabouts of morning and night, the rains, the constellations, and exactly how numerous animals undertake their daily lives. God seems to be saying that the answer to Job’s suffering cannot be found by reflecting intelligibly on the nature of God or the world. Suffering is a fact inasmuch as everything else is a fact. There’s probably a lot more there, and, as said above, this is not all that Scripture has to say of suffering. What can be said on my part though is that the fact of suffering means first of all that it is. It’s not something that if we look hard enough actually is not. Secondly, while nonetheless affirming the particularity of everything that is, suffering as a fact is as factual as everything else. To affirm the fact of suffering is to affirm its albeit violent and disruptive arbitrarity. Thus to say that suffering is a fact is at the same time to say that it is not. It is not, in the same sense that everything else is not, that is, it is not because it is seen in the context of the arbitrary totality which encompasses everything and is “just there,” without any connection to some transcendent purpose.

Job is a type of Christ. In the Book of Job we see the righteous Christ in a suffering that does not acknowledge this righteousness. (We also see a resurrection of sorts, but that can wait for another time). The cross bares the utter factuality of suffering. No longer is it that suffering is a fact only for the world. He from whom “All things came into being … and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3) has given himself completely to suffering and death, asserting it not just as a fact for us but a fact for himself. So, too, the cross bares the utter arbitrarity of suffering. It is true that Christ suffers out of love, a suffering for us, that we may gain infinitely from it. But it is such a death that the whence and whither of any why for this suffering is swallowed up in the moment of death itself, in the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). There is no purpose, only utter arbitrarity and nothingness: he from whom all being comes has been swallowed up in non-being. If we say otherwise, have we said that Christ has given himself to death?

It is true that the resurrection must be seen on either side of this, proleptically in the hope of the Old Testament, the miracles and sayings of Jesus, and the transfiguration, and then on the other side, in its actuality on Easter Sunday. But the fact of suffering which Christ takes upon himself means also a separation of himself from resurrection. In that “moment” of humiliation and death on the cross, there is no resurrection. Resurrection is the impossibility that God raises that which is not, from the dead. It has its own absoluteness that in a limited sense precedes but in its true sense comes after the absoluteness of death.

Yet we must go further than a separation of resurrection from crucifixion. In the suffering of the cross, Christ enters into death and is emphatically separated from his Father, and the Spirit of life who sustains him. It is in the Garden of Gethsemane that this separation is prefigured. Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39). Jesus does not want to submit himself to death, yet he knows this is the Father’s will, indeed, his will (e.g. Phil 2:6). He thus lays aside his desire for self-preservation and submits to death. But in this sense he is forsaken by God. The Father has forsaken the Son in neglecting to answer his prayer, “let this cup pass from me.” The Father has forsaken the Son in submitting him to utter meaninglessness. So, too, Jesus is forsaken by the Spirit. In death, the Spirit of life who kept so close to Jesus in his earthly life, indeed in all eternity, has allowed death to overtake him (Matt 27:50).

This is not the end of the story but it takes place at its disturbing center. The crucifixion reveals not so much the presence of God in suffering but his absence. The absence of deliverance, purpose, and life in the Father and the Spirit, and in the Son the absence of the sufferer from comfort. Jesus suffers alone. Nonetheless, this absence at the heart of the crucifixion demonstrates just in what way God is present in human suffering. He is present in the Son, suffering alone, but, paradoxically, with us. He is present insofar as suffering and death are now facts for God. Thus, so too is God present in the Father and the Spirit, in the Father sending his Son and in the Spirit in bringing the Son to us and making him real for us. God is absent, but this is not any absence. It is the awful and beautiful absence of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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I just realised that there was a fatal flaw in the reasoning of my last post. By positing all possibilities as actuality in the way I described, I implied that all possibilities are eventually fulfilled. But if possibilities are only actual insofar as they are fulfilled then this leads to a very fatalistic understanding of time, because there are no possibilities other than what will be! I wish to maintain that possibility is actual in that it takes place within actuality, that which is.

Nevertheless, the possibility — and this is perhaps an unnecessary, tautologous qualification, but — the potential of that possibility should be distinct from its fulfillment. So, possibility as a whole encompasses actuality insofar as it is rooted in the present, that which could be, potential, but the totality of possibility maintains one foot outside of actuality, in non-being. An unfulfilled possibility which is no longer possible remains in history as a historical possibility, so in this case it has being, actuality, yet it never found completeness and thus remains forever as … half-being? (Though, of course, this is only if viewed in totality. The potential and fulfillment, and whatever other parts make up this possibility can be seen each as having respectively a being and non-being (or being if this is made reference to) fully in themselves). This can be illustrated with reference to an illustration from an earlier post. I have not yet learned to distinguish between probability and possibility, though in a literal sense the former appears much more biased! Arguendo I’ll equate them. If something has a 0.5 probability of coming into being, then, my lack of experience with probability notwithstanding, I assume that the possibility of being or non-being is equal. However if the probability is 1 then there is no possibility, only necessity, let’s say of being. Likewise, for 0, there is only necessity of non-being. Possibility, as it views from the perspective of the not yet, is awkwardly and beautifully thrust between being and non-being.

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One of my recent posts explored the possibility of God’s particularity. With some more time to think about it, I was assailed by a host of further thoughts yesterday at the laundromat. I’ve never had so much fun waiting for my undies to get clean. Before starting, I should mention that this is really just a bit of fun, although it would be awesome to explore it properly one day. I’m constrained firstly by my classical approach, employing Greco-German categories. If anyone can figure out a way of looking at this sideways then I heartily welcome you. Secondly, although research would undoubtedly be helpful, this is a lazy attempt to create my own solutions and problems to problems and solutions I have come across where I may very well be misrepresenting the concepts so much that I am in actuality saying nothing. Onwards!

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Is God particular or universal? Clearly it would be helpful to first define these two terms. If I’m right, a universal is that which encompasses a set of particulars. So I can say that a particular friend is a friend only with reference to the concept of friendship, though that friend is only a particularised expression of that universal. They are not equal to friendship but occupy some part of it. However, friendship is not the universal, that is, not all things can be defined as a part of friendship. It is therefore necessary to find a universal which encompasses both friendship and that which is not friendship. This is probably an imperfect suggestion but we’ll roll with it for example’s sake: Love. Is it possible to say that love is a universal as all things friendship and all things romance, though they cannot be completely referred to each other, can both be completely referred to love? (For example’s sake just say yes. Thanks). And onwards until all things are under one universal. It might be being. All things are. So love and hate, for example, are particulars of the universal being because they both exist.

The problem with being as the universal (and here’s where some Heidegger or Hegel would have probably helped me!) is that it excludes non-being, that which is not. But in that case, how can non-being even be referenced? If there is nothing then there is nothing to reference. Being is the universal for all that is. It sounds too simple. Non-being, paradoxically is being. It is potential being, possibility. Non-being exists, for example, as that which can be thought or posited though it does yet exist. But not only is its possibility in human reason but in all that is becoming. When being through becoming moves towards non-being then that non-being is actualised into being. Thus being is a universal insofar as non-being is exists within it as possibility.¹

In sum, being is the universal; all else, in reference to being without exhausting its totality, is particular.

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God, then, must be defined in terms of the universal as he encompasses all things and all things have their being in him. The first difficulty with this is that if God is free and sovereign then is he constrained by his being, thus negating these, or does he choose it freely, which apparently would first require being…? In other words, to define God in terms of being is to reduce him to something, so that this designation is always provisional.

If God is universal then whence cometh creation? Creation is a collection of particularities which occupies a space on God’s universality. The problem with this is that creation as finite occupies the spatio-temporal whereas God occupies the eternal. If creation operates within time then when in eternity did God create? If creation operates within space then where in eternity did God create? In creation, God moves from being to becoming. God as the I am, changeless and eternal, brings change and temporality through the act of creation, birthing a history to accompany his being. God as being, all that there is, brings non-being into being, and it occupies a space. This is the pantheistic problem: That which is not is brought into being to occupy a space within/outside all that is (God). How can God, when he is all that there is, bring that which is not him into being? The only, probably heretical, suggestion I have is that God withdraws from or extends a part of himself and calls it not-God.

Both further create the problem that being moves into becoming, and becoming is a problem because it is change. If God is being then at what point (there is no point!) does he become? But if God is eternally becoming then this is essential to his nature and is not change. God’s becoming is rooted in his being, which always is, and thus he is changeless. As Anti-Climacus put it: “The being of God means that everything is possible, or that everything is possible means the being of God.”² If only being then there would be no possibility, only actuality. Possibility requires becoming. This nuances the main problem with God as particular: At any given time not all things make reference to him; there is that which is outside of him. But this is God only as actuality; as regards possibility he is a universal because all things are possibile, yet he is in actuality possibility so that, paradoxically, as regards his actuality he is both universal and particular.

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Here are some further thoughts, addressing mainly the problem of sin in terms of what has just been stated. God creates in freedom. He is under no necessity to create but enters into necessity through the act of creating. As Hosea records, the dual pain and love of God:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

(Hosea 11:5-9).

Israel has forsaken Yahweh so he too will forsake them. But even after the hurt they have caused him he cannot give them up. In creating, God limits himself to a necessity within that creation, the necessity to care for it and even depend upon it. Ostensibly the freedom to forsake creation is ever-present, but, rather, God has already forsaken his freedom through the choice to create. In creation he loves and cannot do otherwise. God freely creates and creation freely loves him.

For creation to love freely there must be the possibility of not loving, which is not in accordance with God’s will, and therefore sin. God cannot sin because sin is that which is against his will. He can do all things but none of them are sin because he only does what he wills. In creation, however, God enters into covenant, a covenant inherent to the act of creation itself. God loves his creation and is thus obligated to it. He does not sin, but that which he does in accordance with his will is not only understood on his own terms but mediated through creation. No interaction with creation is sin yet creation may ask him otherwise. He freely forsakes his will that creation may take some part in it. This is prayer, the construction of God’s will mediated through his creation. Creation, however, sins because he has given it freedom to do so. It is not himself that sins but that which is not-God, which has been given a share of God’s freedom yet acts otherwise to this freedom.

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¹It is very optimistic of me to suggest that all non-being can be actualised. As this is all speculative at this point, this definition excludes that which can never be actualised. Yet if it cannot be actualised it probably cannot exist as possibility either (imagination doesn’t count, contra Anselm!).

²Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (1849), translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 40.

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