Wednesday, September 16, 2015

David Bentley Hart on Creation and Universalism

I was rather surprised to discover that David Bentley Hart is a universalist.  In a recent talk at Notre Dame, he laid out his case for universalism in his usual grand rhetorical style.  Universalism is, of course, the idea that eventually human being, and possibly even the demons, will eventually be redeemed and none left to eternal punishment.  It is a minority view to be sure, but it is a perennial question for theologians, not lacking in practical repercussions.  

In my experience, it is not only a minority view, but among traditionalist Christians who reject universalism, it is generally regarded as a pernicious heresy rather than a benign error.  It is frequently conflated with Pluralism (all religions lead to God), and seen as a blatant rejection of Biblical teaching.  Universalism is within the exclusive purview of liberal Protestants, bleeding hearts, left-wing Catholic nuns and other undesirables.  Consider for example, the furor that followed Rob Bell's publication of Love Wins in which he suggested that maybe, possibly, perhaps universalism might turn out to be true at the end of time... maybe.  It wasn't a very substantial book and Bell seems to have taken up free style shark jumping on Oprah's network since then, but at the time it hardly seemed to merit the opprobrium it received.  

Admittedly many, if not most, contemporary universalists are possessed of a merely tenuous relation to the Bible or anything approaching mainstream Christian tradition.  This is why Hart's position is so interesting.  He is emphatically not a bleeding heart, a pluralist or a Liberal Protestant.  He is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, acquainted with the Fathers and modern theologians as well, and an ardent defender of Classical Theism.  

The lecture is below.  I think it is a very important piece.  Hart lays out a profoundly Christ centered, even cross centered case for universalism, and whether one thinks he is right or wrong, his are the arguments that must be met.  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14

As you may have noticed, Americans love elections. They are a chance to make our voice as free citizens heard. If we're honest, elections are also a chance to take part in one of our favorite national pastimes: complaining about politicians. Open season has already begun as we anticipate next year's presidential election. That's probably why I have been thinking about elections a lot lately. You can't go online without hearing that another person has thrown his or her hat in the ring and wants your vote. While there may be a famine of truly inspiring candidates, it is a feast for comedians and critics. I recommend any of the fine reporting at the Onion for good laugh.

Elections are about choice, our choice, and every candidate has to spend a vast amount of their energy proving that they deserve to be chosen. The burden of proof is on them to prove that they are more than what comedians and critics make them out to be. We weigh the merits and demerits of candidates mercilessly, and make our choice based on that measure.
Let me assuage any fears that may be growing by saying, this isn't a political sermon. My point is not about the particular candidates, but really, about the way that we make choices. We choose people to be our elected officials, because we believe they are good for that position... or in the case of presidential elections, at least not too bad. They are required to convince us that they are good enough.

God also makes choices. In our Epistle reading Paul names God's great choice: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” This is what theologians call the doctrine of Election: The biblical teaching that God chooses men and women, chooses us.

Throughout the Bible, God continually chooses individuals and nations. He chose Abraham, and promised to bless him and make him a blessing to all peoples. He chose the people of Israel. Above all, he choose his Son Jesus Christ, and in him God chose us. As Christians, we have been elected by God, and we are a chosen people.

Now that may sound like it's giving us an awful lot of credit, as if we were better than any other people. After all, when we elect someone, it is because they are exceptional, great, good – better than the other candidates. Are Christians somehow better people than others, that God should elect us? If anything, just the opposite.

This is where we go wrong. We think that God makes choices the way we make them. God does not choose us because we are great, or nice people. We choose a person because they are good. God's chooses us because he is good.

Here we are near the very heart of the gospel. God chooses weak people, little people, foolish people and bad people, because God is love. His chooses without regard to the good or evil we have done or will do. God chose you and me before we had even done anything, and even “before the foundation of the World.”

Again, God's choice is different from ours. We choose people to be our leaders or even our friends, because we believe they are good. In fact, anything we choose, we choose because it's good. God's choice makes things good. God has chosen us, not because we are holy and blameless, but so that we will be “holy and blameless before him in love.”

The great Scottish theologian George MacDonald said “love loves unto purity... where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love it's fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely... therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of Love's kind, must be destroyed.” God's love is unstoppable, implacable, irresistible. All that is wicked, broken, twisted in us, will be consumed in the fire of God's love. All that is good in us, will be nurtured, blessed, strengthened, until we stand before the Father in the likeness of his Son.

That is what it means to be holy and blameless: to be like Jesus Christ. God has chosen us to make us Christ like. God created us to be like Jesus Christ, to reflect the goodness of Jesus. This is getting beyond the scope of a sermon like this, but in fact, this is why God created the world. God's plan for the whole cosmos is to “to gather up all things in [Jesus Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Jesus, as they say, is the answer. The whole world, each of our lives, only makes sense, or is good or beautiful to the degree that we have Christ, present and living in us. He is, so to speak, the model, the plan that God used when he created us, and he is still shaping us to conform us to Jesus Christ. This is what we have been chosen for.

God's choice sets us free forever. Many of us live in fear that if people knew what we were really like, they would not love us. God knows each of us, more perfectly than we know ourselves, including all the awful things we think, rightly or wrongly, make us unlovable. God chooses us anyway, in his love, and nothing we have done or can do can ultimately ever overcome that love.

God's love is stronger than our brokenness. For any of us who have struggled with deep sins, and been afraid that our sins would overwhelm us, we have hope. Not only sin, but no power in the world is greater than the love of God. Nothing , no sadness, no fear, not loss, can ultimately triumph in our hearts. No tyrant, no violence, no injustice can prevail; we have the promise of God. It is the promise that the same love that raised Jesus from the Dead will raise us from the deadly power of our own sins. The love that destroyed death on Good Friday and plundered hell on Holy Saturday will utterly destroy every hint of ugliness in our hearts and in the world, until all things are gathered together in Jesus Christ. This is what God's choice, the doctrine of election, means.

There is one more thing to be said about election, and that's this. If God has chosen us, it is not so that we can look down from a lofty height on the rest of humanity, all the un-chosen heathens. Again, it is the opposite. When God chooses people he chooses us to make them a blessing to this world not a curse. When God called Abraham, he said “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing”(Gen 12:12).  We are not chosen by God to enjoy a smug self-satisfaction, but to bless others. Above all we are chosen so that we can make God's love known to all the world, to each person we meet, so that they too can be set free by the irresistible love of the Father in Jesus Christ.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bulgakov, Negative Theology, and the Incarnation (UPDATED)

Novgorod Icon of the Wisdom of God
(Hagia Sophia)
I have found Sergius Bulgakov a fascinating thinker since encountering his work a couple years back. He is by no means the most significant theological influence on my thought, but he was a fascinating, deep and original thinker.  I appreciate his fidelity to traditional theological categories and formulations, combined with an occasionally radical willingness to press at the weak points of those same formulas.  For example, it was in reading Bulgakov I first realized that the Hypostatic union is not really an explanation of how the incarnation happens. Bulgakov attempted to answer that question of 'how' the incarnation happened in his study of Christology, The Lamb of God. What does it mean to speak of a personal union of the divine and the human?

Which brings me to exactly the critical point I want to make. I was browsing through The Lamb of God the other day, and ran across this quote.

The fundamental question of Christology is: how can one understand the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one hypostasis of the Logos not only from the negative side, as it is defined in the Chalcedonian dogma (with it's four negatives: inconfusably, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably) but also from the positive side? we know what the Chalcedonian 'no' is, but what is the 'yes'? (Lamb of God. Tr. Jakim. Grand Rapids; Eerdmans. 2008. 444)
Bulgakov wants to expand clarify the Chalcedonian definition, which while true, expresses the union of divine and human natures in Christ in generally negative terms, affirming that the Church confesses:
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence,  not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ. (Translation taken from The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. New York; Church Publishing. 1979. 864)
In other words, Christ is one person (hypostasis) with two distinct natures, that are not mixed up to create some third, new nature.  There is no explanation about how this could be, simply that it is, and that we must deny either that Christ is two distinct persons (the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth) who are closely united, or that Christ is a sort of mingling of divinity and humanity.

Of course, this is a creedal statement, not a philosophical treatise.  The point is to state clearly what the Orthodox position is, and not even to provide an argument for it. Even turning to the theological treatises of the Fathers, however, we find that in general the union of the two natures in Christ is simply described as 'ineffable.'  Bulgakov sees this as evading the question.   He is particularly critical, for example, of Cyril of Alexandria since "To seek refuge in the idea that the union of the two essences surpasses human understanding is, of course, inappropriate for a theologian who made this the main subject of his investigation" (The Lamb of God. 30).  So in other words, what Bulgakov wants to do is really answer the question: how can Christ be both Perfectly God and Man, without confusion, change, etc.?

At first glance, Bulgakov's question it is not unreasonable, and when I first read The Lamb of God two years ago it struck a chord and the urgency of this theological problem seemed self-evident. Now, I find myself wondering whether it is even really a good question.

His question expresses some of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Bulgakov's approach. It shows his admirable desire to both respect and deepen the theological formulations that have been handed on by Tradition.  It shows also, his ability to formulate probing and clear questions that illuminate the lacunae in those formulations.  On the other hand, betrays what seems to be a characteristic and problematic lack of appreciation for the real significance of 'negative' theology.

He goes on to propose that there must be some bridge, some unity between the divine and the human that permits the union of two natures in Christ.  Unsurprisingly if you know Bulgakov at all, this bridge is Sophia.  Sophia is an elusive figure in Bulgakov's thought, occasionally identified with the divine essence or ousia.  She is emphatically not a fourth person in the godhead, but neither is she a mere impersonal abstraction, because nothing in God is impersonal.  She is rather, that in God which is necessarily expressed personally, i.e., in the persons of the Trinity.  If this seems confusing, that's because it is.  Sophiology is what got Bulgakov in trouble. For my part I think you can read Bulgakov in an orthodox way, I can understand why the Russian Orthodox hierarchy generally disagrees.  His language is slippery and every time I think I have a handle on just what he means by speaking of Sophia, his meaning seems to shift ever so slightly.

In any case, Sophia is the bridge in his thought.  Sophia is the image in which man (and by extension the World) are created.  When the Bible speaks of man as created in the image of God, Sophia is that image.  She is the plan according to which creation is laid out.  There is thus a distinction between Sophia as the uncreated divine-world and Sophia as the created world of Becoming.  This is not, in basic outline, all that different from saying that the created world is an image of the uncreated, divine plan; other theologians might speak of divine ideas or logoi, rather than Sophia.  This has certain biblical resonances, as the Bible speaks of Sophia in an architectonic role at the creation (e.g., Prov. 8:22-31).  These passages are generally given a Christological reading, of course.

How does this explain the hypostatic union?  "[Christ's] two natures are the Divine Sophia and the Creaturely Sophia... one and the same principle in two forms, divine fullness and creaturely becoming" (Lamb of God. 445).  Essentially, Bulgakov seems to be saying there must be some common principle between the divine and human natures in Christ, or they will be locked in hopeless contradiction.  This is an almost unstated presupposition of Bulgakov's Christology.

Is this true though?  Bulgakov wants to establish a unity between God and Man on the basis of similarity, and is perpetually on the verge of suggesting a unity on the basis of identity.  This is due in part to Bulgakov's pervasive lack of appreciation for negative or apophatic theology.  For the robustly apophatic theologian, the hypostatic union is not a problem. The Chalcedonian statement is necessarily negative in it's approach, because ultimately no explanation of the sort that Bulgakov wants can be given. Were such an explanation to be given, it would collapse into incoherence. He is correct to seek a deeper theological explanation of what the Definition confesses.  But a true deepening comes not by replacing the negative statements of the Fathers, but explaining why the negative, apophatic approach is actually necessary.

Bulgakov speaks more than occasionally as if the Divine and Human nature were two things, related to each other extrinsically. God and creatures, however do not operate on a 'flat plane' to steal Sarah Coakley's phrase, or like two objects in a room, of which God is the bigger, more powerful being. If that were the case, the divine nature would be always threatening to displace the human, because two things cannot exist in the same place at the same time. Indeed, even apart from the issues around the incarnation, this view sets up an inevitable conflict between creator and creature that could never be resolved except by one being absorbed into the other.

But to solve this problem we need an understanding of God's transcendence that is not "a merely quantifiable relationship between extrinsically related objects," but an infinite qualitative difference. Such an infinite qualitative difference is necessarily expressed through two interrelated theological modes of speech: the apophatic and the analagous.  God is so totally unlike creatures, that we must express that difference through a radical negation of created categories. God's transcendence is such that he is so radically different from creatures, that even difference is an inadequate term, because it suggests some commonality, some broader category encompassing God and creatures, relating them 'extrinsically.'  Rather, God's transcendence can only be captured by negation, and ultimately by "negation of negations."  In other words, apophatic theology does not just say "God is not being" but also "God is not non-being." God exceeds both categories, and therefore both are negated.  Dionysius the Areopagite even goes so far as to say that God is neither similar nor different from created beings.

Paradoxically, however, this leads us back to an affirmation of those same created categories.  Denys Turner helpfully summarizes.
The Divine Transcendence is therefore the transcendence even of the difference between God and creation. Since there is no knowable 'distance' between God and Creation, there is no language in which it is possible to state one. For all our terms of contrast state differentiations between Creatures. There is none in which to state the difference between God and Creatures. God is therefore not opposed to Creatures, cannot displace them. (Turner. The Darkness of God. 45).
God's transcendence, understood this way, actually grounds him immanence and leaves space for the participation of creatures in God, since "God is not opposed to creatures, cannot displace them."  It also creates the space in which it is possible to speak of God positively, by way of analogy.  Through a radically apophatic theology, that even negates negation, created categories are paradoxically reaffirmed, and can be freely employed to articulate the creature's participation in the transcendent God.

Returning to the question of the incarnation, it should be relatively clear from this perspective that the hypostatic union, while mysterious, is not logically problematic. David Bentley Hart puts this well and succinctly.  Because the difference between God and human beings is 'an infinite qualitative difference'
...There is no conflict between Christ's divinity and his humanity, and... the latter participates in the former so naturally that the one person of the Son can be both fully divine and fully human at once. If the difference between God and creatures were a merely quantifiable difference between extrinsically related beings, the incarnation would be a real change in one or both natures, an amalgamation or synthesis. (D. Hart. "The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics" in The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God. ed. Thomas Joseph White. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2011. 409). 
Again, the Chalcedonian Definition expressed the union of divine and human nature in highly negative terms, and the Fathers describe this union as 'ineffable.'  Bulgakov is certainly correct to apply some pressure to this point.  The ineffability of the hypostatic union needs to be more than a mere shrug of the shoulders. In fact, though, the ineffability of the union is a necessary condition of its possibility.  The divine transcendence, the same complete transcendence that requires us to speak of God in negations, is also the transcendence which makes the hypostatic union, the incarnation, not only possible but coherent.  We may even say, it is precisely because no one ever has seen, or can see God who dwells in light inaccessible, that he is able to be fully revealed in his eternal Son Jesus Christ.

There is simply no need to posit Sophia as a sort of mediating principle between the divine and the human in Christ. Of course, human beings do need a bridge between our nature and God, but that bridge is nothing other than the person of Jesus Christ himself, the one who is true God and true man.

In this case and some others, Bulgakov seems to see apophatic theology as basically no more than a sort of corrective to positive theology.  Thus, while he affirms the 'negatives' of the Chalcedonian definition, he suggests that they must have positive correlates.  That Chalcedon failed to provide these positive correlates is therefore a failure that must be remedied by later theologians.  It does not seem to occur to him that there may be an irreducible negative element to the theology of the incarnation. Apophatic theology is more than a mere corrective, though, more than a mere precaution to keep theologians humble. It is not simply that we don't have enough information about God and so must speak cautiously, but that the difference between our mode of knowing (and being) as creatures and that of God is so utterly different that our language could never possibly express, or our intellects comprehend, the fullness of God.  Apophatic theology is thus a distinct, necessary correlative and support of any positive theology.

Post Script: 
This post is not intended as a complete refutation of Bulgakov's views on Sophia. While I am not a sophiologist, I do find some things that Bulgakov does with his reflections on Holy Wisdom quite interesting. I think he can be read as a fully orthodox theologian, although I tend to think his sophiological commitments muddy the waters and are ultimately more of a distraction than a help, even if sophiology does occasionally serve to put old questions in an interesting new light.  He manages, for example, to speak eloquently of the destiny of creation and the way that human beings are created in God's image, and ultimately he is a Christocentric thinker, even while looking at the faith through his peculiar sophiological lens.

Bulgakov has a number of other reasons, besides explaining the hypostatic union, why he wants to talk about this figure, not least his own religious experiences, but also certain traditions of Russian philosophy and theology, and his exegesis of the wisdom literature. My point here though, was, to speak specifically to this one point about the hypostatic union, and (full disclosure) to use Bulgakov's position as something of a foil, to show the constructive role that Apophatic theology can play in the theological formulation of the hypostatic union.

UPDATE and almost a retraction (5/22/15): 
I am not going to take this post down, but as I have looked it over, and reread some Bulgakov, I have to say I am a little embarrassed by it.  While I think the point I make about apophatic theology is correct, in fairness to Bulgakov, I missed some of his point.  He is attempting to say, in a more or less coherent, if still mysterious way, just what the Incarnation reveals about God and about Humanity.  I do not think he is trying to overstep the analogical and ontological distance between God and Man.  That distance remains.
Of course on one level the union of divine and human natures is always and fundamentally a mystery, grounded in the divine transcendence, which can never be fathomed. And Yes, if God were not utterly transcendent, the whole notion of the Hypostatic union would be a metaphysical impossibility, a chimera.

But I also think Bulgakov may finally be asking a different kind of question, with fairly immediate and wide reaching spiritual consequences. My blog post, and perhaps sometimes Bulgakov himself, confused two possible questions about the hypostatic union.

  1. How is it possible that Jesus of Nazareth can be both divine and human without an insoluble contradiction?  This is the question I (drawing on David B. Hart, Dionysius, Denys Turner and St. Cyril of Alexandria) explained by recourse to divine transcendence, expressed in an austerely apophatic mode.
  2. One can also ask: How is the union of divine and human natures in Christ possible in such a way as to be a revelation of God? In other words, what does the incarnation reveal about God, and in what way is humanity a suitable vehicle of that revelation?  Finally, I think think Bulgakov is asking something more like this.  
The God of the Bible is always concealed even as he is revealed, and is always greater than what we know of him, even to eternity... on the other hand his revelations are real revelations, not masks or smokescreens. If the incarnation is a revelation of God (as it plainly is) there must be some content to that revelation. It is true to say that God's transcendence means God does not displace creatures, and there is no conflict between Divinity and Humanity in Christ, but this tells us virtually nothing about Divinity, as any reasonably full account of the incarnation ought to do.

It seems to me that it should also tell us something about humanity.  Why should God become Man? It's true that Divinity and Humanity are not in conflict, but with the austere apophatic solution I put forward above, the same could be said about God and a shrub.  God didn't become a shrub though. What is peculiar to humanity that God should become the Human being Jesus of Nazareth?

These two questions are foci around which a large part of Bulgakov's theology orbits: What does the incarnation reveal about God?  What does the Incarnation reveal about Humanity?  He seems ultimately to suggest that there is one answer to both questions:  The incarnation reveals, finally, perfectly and fully what Bulgakov (and Solovyov and others) call the Divine Humanity.  This is the same as what Bulgakov calls Sophia.  I do not claim to have a handle on just what he means by that, but it's fair to say that humanity, being in the image of God, is created precisely to reveal something of God - whatever that is, we can describe as the "Divine Humanity," that which created humanity mirrors in God.  God becomes Man, reveals Godself in humanity, because that is what humanity is made for.  In the incarnation the uncreated image of God (the Word) assumes the created image of God (humanity), so that in the case of Jesus Christ the two are one.

Sophia (or the Divine Humanity) then, is not a sort of extrinsic metaphysical principle that links the Divine and Human natures in Christ, a sort of bridge between God and Man.  Sophia does not explain how the hypostatic union is possible, but rather explains what the hypostatic union means, how the incarnation can be a revelation of God and also how it can show us what it means to be human.  I am not always sure that Bulgakov himself keeps this distinction in mind, especially in his critique of Cyril, but neither did I, and it is a necessary clarification.

I personally doubt whether Bulgakov's Sophiological answer to these questions is finally adequate, but I do think that he is asking interesting and worthwhile questions. In my blog post, I tended to be excessively dismissive of the questions he was asking.  His vision of humanity is particularly compelling powerful, and is bound up with these probing questions about the Incarnation.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Areopagite and Urban Ministry

Looking south down into Sheridan Hollow from Clinton
Street in Arbor Hill.  The Cathedral is the red brick building
just poking out over the trees.
 Arbor Hill is an Albany neighborhood not too far north of the Cathedral of All Saints. The Cathedral is located downtown, and between us and Arbor Hill there is fixed a not so great chasm, a developed ravine cradling the little tiny neighborhood of Sheridan Hollow.  I usually walk down into Sheridan Hollow once a or twice a week, then up the other side, into Arbor Hill.

Arbor Hill is definitely an inner city neighborhood.  It is poor, and most of the residents are minorities. Though it has pretty places here and there, it's not a pretty neighborhood by any reasonable standard.  Block after block of cracked and uneven sidewalks on Clinton Avenue, the main thoroughfare, are littered with boarded up buildings, scraps of paper, black plastic bags and the occasional bit of rusted metal. Virtually the only businesses are derelict and disreputable looking convenience stores with sun faded advertisements pasted to grimy windows.  Few if any of these sell fresh produce.  Still, Arbor Hill is the real reason I came to Albany.

My wife tells me that every time I go to Arbor Hill and come back, I seem a little more animated and joyful.   When I am discouraged and frustrated by ministry (which happens even in joyful times) a walk in Arbor Hill lifts my spirits.  Sitting on a bench at the corner of a busy intersection, where the paper plates and plastic bags rustle with the autumn leaves around my feet, I am happy.  This is where God wants me to to be.  

I don't think this has anything to do with pity for a poor neighborhood, still less with 'white guilt,' two condescending emotions that have never had much motivating power for me.   As I have tried to articulate why I like Arbor Hill so much, and why I want to minister there so much, help has come from an unexpected source.  My friends know that I have, in the last year or so developed a strong devotion to the anonymous author who wrote under the name Dionysius the Areopagite.  They are probably growing sick of hearing about how great Dionysius is; they better get used to keeping the bicarbonate of soda about though, because I'm going to continue talking about him.  

Dionysius is a very abstract writer, who uses the language and a not a few of the concepts of Neo-Platonism.  He was not someone I initially read to be encouraged about urban ministry, but mainly to satisfy more academic and personal interests. 

He surprised me though.  I was in a laundromat one day in Arbor Hill, waiting for a load of clothes to finish the spin cycle, and I had brought along a book to read in case there was no one else at the laundry. I was struck by this passage from Dionysius' The Divine Names.  

The very Author of all things, by the beautiful and good love of everything, through an overflow of His loving goodness, becomes out of Himself, by His providences for all existing things, and is, as it were, bewitched by goodness and charity and love, and is led down from the Eminence above all, and surpassing all, to being in all... Wherefore, those skilled in Divine things call Him even Jealous... (Divine Names IV. 13)
The metaphysical background of this text is complex, and the meaning has to be carefully parsed, for certain.  But that background is not what I am interested in right now.  At the time, reading this was like having a light turned on.  It struck me, not as a theoretical description of providence or the relation that obtains between the world and God, but as a vivid reality; the terrifying and beautiful reality that God is ecstatically, extravagantly in love with what he has made.  

The rest of the afternoon walking around Arbor Hill, light might as well have poured through the cracks in those uneven sidewalks.  Dionysius had put words around something I already knew on an inarticulate level: God desires Arbor Hill. God longs for this neighborhood, and his longing makes it lovely.  God's is present to whatever he loves, with, in and through the objects of his love, transfiguring them with the light of Christ.  

Of course, this is true of any person, any place, any neighborhood.  Still, there are times and places when God shows us, vividly, intensely, the truth of what we already hold in some abstract way.  I think that's why I love Arbor Hill, myself.  God has let me get a little glimpse of his own love for this neighborhood, a taste of his desire and his delight, and so a sense of his transfiguring love for the place. That, in my mind, is the definition of my own call to Arbor Hill.  
As for the the Areopagite, I am not trying to suggest that every urban missionary read The Divine Names.   He is a generally controversial figure, and many theologians more learned than I are very critical of his thought.  Others simply find his writings too obscure and theoretical to be of much help. I know he wouldn't do so for everyone, but he did give me the words to think and talk about some of these things. Of course, that's part of why I love his writings so much; not just because they satisfy an intellectual enthusiasm, but because they seem to me to be written by someone who really was enthralled by the love of God, with a gentle passion to share that love with others.  For my money that makes a theologian worth reading and a saint worth imitating.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New Blog

I have started a new blog, so that I can move some of my Kyoto School ramblings off this site.  I plan to continue this blog, of course, but I am also continuing to read and reflect upon the Kyoto school, in a much more systematic way.  Having a place set aside for these reflections will free up the space here, which I don't want to have filled with only technical theological and philosophical discussions.  My hope is to have this blog free for more spiritual meditations, reflections on urban ministry, etc.

Anyway, if the Kyoto School or Buddhist/Christian dialogue, have a gander over at the new site,
West of Kyoto.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I, You and It: Some More Kyoto School Ramblings.

This is a somewhat rambling reflection on some of the Kyoto School authors. I have been dipping into a little volume entitled The Buddha Eye, consisting of essays from The Eastern Buddhist, a prominent Japanese journal of Buddhist Studies.  The collection focuses on the writings of the Kyoto School 'founded' by Nishida Kitaro (about whom I have written before).  Sadly, none of Nishida's own essays are included, but there are several by Nishitani Keiji and Abe Masao.  

Abe in particular has been an important writer for me, as it was his essays that first introduced me to the Kyoto School.   He is generally able to write very sympathetically about Christianity and actually has something like a well developed (if heterodox) Christology.

In his essay, "God, Emptiness and the True Self" Abe approvingly quotes a number of Christian mystics, including quoting my favorite passage from St. Dionysius the Aereopagite*, the culmination of his mystical theology, where he concludes by hymning God beyond all names and categories.   I quote at some length below from Dionysius and Abe's commentary.

Ascending higher we say...
not definable,
not nameable,
not knowable,
not dark, not light,
not untrue, not true
not affirmable, not deniable,
while we affirm or deny of those orders of being
that are akin to Him
we neither affirm nor deny Him that is beyond
all affirmation as unique universal Cause,
all negation as simple preeminent Cause,
free of all
and to all transcendent.    
This is strikingly similar to Zen's expressions of Buddha-Nature or Mind... It may not be wrong to say that for [Pseudo-Dionysius] the Godhead in which one is united is the 'emptiness' of the indefinable One... Despite the great similarity between Zen and Christian mysticism we should not overlook an essential difference between them.  In the above quoted passage Pseudo-Dionysius calls that which is beyond all affirmation and all negation by the term him. Many Christian mystics call God "Thou." In Zen, however, what is beyond all affirmation and negation -that is Ultimate reality- should not be "him" or "thou" but "self" or "true self."  (Abe. "God, Emptiness and the True Self." in The Buddha Eye. ed. Frederick Frank. World Wisdom; Bloomington, Ind. 2004, 62-63).  
Abe does highlight an important difference here.  The person is an irreducible category, at least for most Christian mystics.  Eckhart and some others might be an exception, but in general, for Christian mystics ultimate reality is always personal, and in fact tri-personal.

Another way of thinking about this, especially in light of the last post I put up and yesterday being the feast of Catherine of Siena, is to note the prominence of marriage imagery in Christian mysticism, even in an apophatic thinker like St. John of the Cross.  Marriage represents a mystical union, but it is precisely a union of two who become one without being absorbed or annihilated.  This imagery simply does not occur in Zen.

Abe goes on to critique the personalism of Christian mysticism. His main concern seems to be that if we address Ultimate Reality as "Thou" or speak of "Him" we make that Reality an object, something external to the self which can be grasped.  From a Zen perspective even marriage imagery is trapped in a dualistic divide between subject and object.

I have a couple of thoughts on this.  First, I think Abe is historically correct about the difference between Zen and Christianity here.  Christian mysticism is personalistic, and any God who cannot be addressed as "Thou" or as "Father" is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Zen, like most of Buddhism, and many non-Christian systems, tends to regard personhood as a secondary, composite reality, that must be explained by reference to a more primary, impersonal reality.

Where I think Abe has a valid concern when he suggests that there can be a tendency to make Ultimate Reality into a object.  It is easy to fall into thinking of God as if he and I were two objects sharing space in a room, much as I share space with the chair I'm sitting in or the laptop I'm typing on.   This is not orthodox Christianity though, but simply bad theology.  God is not simply a very, very big object in the room with me, but the whole basis on which the room - or more technically, the possibility of the encounter - exists.  That's real transcendence, and I don't think it's anything a good classical theist would disagree with.

I think Abe would counter that Christianity wants to have it both ways.  We want to say God is ultimate reality, transcending all categories, while at the same time treating God as a person - an object with whom I share space.  If God is a person, God is an object and not ultimate reality.  Of course, this all hangs on the problematic presupposition that a person is a type of object.

If persons are objects in the sense Abe means the term, then they are certainly unusual objects, because they are precisely objects which are also subjects.  A "You" is never simply an "it" any more than an "I" is.  In addressing something outside me as "you" or "thou" I cede any right to treat "you" as a mere object, and recognize "you" as somehow equally a free subject. Thus, in the very concept of persons there is something which transcends a mere subject object divide. Is it not possible that it is precisely the personal which is actually able to transcend duality?  In the Christian faith, the dogma of the Trinity hints at this.  Sergius Bulgakov, by the way, seems to have some good things to say on the topic in his book on the Holy Spirit, but that's another post.  

In addition, it's not clear to me why he seems to privilege 'self' over other in the way he does. Why is the subject so much more primary than the object?  And is "self," even "True self" even thinkable without "other?" I don't have a worked out theory of the Person, but this seems to me to be an important point that Abe does not consider. There almost seems to be a latent sense that there's some kind of competition between self and other here, rather than Nishda's complex philosophy of absolutely contradictory self-identity.

Finally, I wonder why he is so uninterested in the idea of person, give Nishida's fairly deep reflections on personality, especially in his earlier works like An Inquiry into the Good, and his appreciation of "other power" and the Christian theology of grace.  In any case, I just would think as a student of Nishida's philosophy, Abe might be more sensitive to this.   Anyway, I'm not sure what this whole reflection amounts to, except that I find I am really suspicious of this tendency to privilege the self in this way.  It seems to fall short of the best in Kyoto School thought, and to fall short of a Trinitarian view of the self, in which self and other are not opposed but dynamically one even in difference.

*I know that the author of the Dionysian Corpus is not actually the Dionysius mentioned in Acts 17:34, but I don't like having to tack Pseudo onto his name all the time.  It is awkward.  It may be taken as a given that I mean Pseudo-Dionysius when I refer to him, unless otherwise stated.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Behold The Bridegroom...

I had a small thought about Holy Week that I could not resist sharing. By some blessed coincidence, I have been thinking a lot about marriage at the same time as I have been thinking about Holy Week, this year.  A number of things - like doing premarital counselling with a couple, etc., - have happened to come up around the same time that I have had to write a Good Friday sermon and been praying through the events of this week.  The Cathedral provides a quasi monastic setting at this time of year, with daily morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist, so it is easy to enter into the flow of holy week very deeply.  

There is not any obvious external connection (to me) between the horrors of Gethsemane and Golgotha and the joyful celebration of marriage.  Still, because both were on my mind I realized, perhaps for the first time, something I am sure is obvious to many people. Christ so often speaks of himself as the bridegroom, and we his people, are the bride.  Revelation of course, strikingly and beautifully describes the return of Christ as a wedding feast  "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev 21:1-2 ESV)

It occurred to me that as Christ walks the way of the cross he is going to meet his bride, and the way of the cross is also a wedding procession.  Just as God's glory appears in the shame of cross, the joy of the wedding feast of the Lamb appears in the sorrow of Good Friday.  As Our Lady stands at the foot of the cross with St. John the Beloved disciple, Jesus brings them together as mother and son, establishing the new family of God through the cross.  

To my pleasant surprise, it turns out I am not the only one to think about this connection.  It is the primary theme of the Holy Week hymns in the Eastern Church.  
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

The Cross is what Love looks like, and it is in the cross, the new covenant in Christ's blood, that God fulfills his promise to Israel "I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy" (Hos 2:19) This is the hidden joy of holy week, the joy that constantly underlies all the sorrow and horror.  It is the time for the Church, for us, to make ourselves ready for Jesus Christ, who comes as the bridegroom.   
The Icon of Christ "The Bridegroom"

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Night

Nicodemus talking to Jesus, by Alexander Ivanov.
A bit of metaphysical poetry for this Sunday.  Henry Vaughan meditates on Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus.  

The Night
                   John 3.2

      Through that pure virgin shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glowworms shine,
         And face the moon,
    Wise Nicodemus saw such light
    As made him know his God by night.

      Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
         When Thou didst rise!
    And, what can never more be done,
    Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

      O who will tell me where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
         So rare a flower,
    Within whose sacred leaves did lie
    The fulness of the Deity?

      No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
         And lodge alone;
    Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
    And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

      Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
         Which none disturb!
    Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
    The hours to which high heaven doth chime;

      God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
         His still, soft call;
    His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
    When spirits their fair kindred catch.

      Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
         Is seldom rent,
    Then I in heaven all the long year
    Would keep, and never wander here.

      But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
         To every mire,
    And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
    Err more than I can do by night.

      There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
         See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!

Friday, January 3, 2014


There have been some big ones this year, of the ontological variety (depending on your theology of ordination), and the personal, financial, etc.,  The biggest change on the horizon though is a change in ministry.

For just under a year I have served as deacon, then curate at Christ Church, Cooperstown and been incredibly blessed by the time there.  I love all the saints (and even perhaps a few Saints) at Christ Church, and I could not have asked for a better mentor in my first year of ministry than Fr. Michael, the rector of Christ Church.  So, it took some serious prayer, and it is a little melancholy to say that I will be leaving that parish to answer a call from the Cathedral in Albany, and to serve as Canon Missioner.

The Cathedral of All Saints in Albany has discerned the need for a renewed focus on evangelism and outreach to the people of the city, especially to some of the poorer neighborhoods.  In response to this, they have reestablished the position of Canon Missioner - a priest in whose job is to be a missionary in residence at the Cathedral.  There is a team in place that has already been doing some work and is very committed to this undertaking.

The Cathedral is located in a perfect spot for outreach, right by the NY state capitol and other government buildings, but also right within sight of Arbor Hill, a very economically depressed neighborhood, and the Lark Street neighborhood, that tends to draw an arts crowd.  Basically, there's a lot going on; a lot of need and a lot of opportunity. I have long had a sense of call to urban ministry.  Reflecting on the ministry of the 'slum priests' like Charles Lowder, has been a great inspiration to me and I have been praying for the opportunity to do something in that line, but was really uncertain of how or where that call would work out. Well, God seems to have provided an answer.    Starting in January, we will begin a phase of information gathering and discernment. This is going to be a challenging ministry, because the newly formed outreach team and I will be building it from the ground up, and its going to involve a lot of footwork, just getting to know people in the neighborhood and building relationships, praying and discerning what God is doing in this place. What are unmet needs in the area? What are services that are already being offered, and how can we articulate the gospel in Albany - by some measures the most "Post-Christian City" in the country?  It's going to be an adventure!  Officially, I start next Tuesday, the 7th.

A bonus is that I will be part of the Cathedral parish and staff.  I will be celebrating once a week during the week, preaching regularly, and attending daily Morning Prayer.  This is a good foundation to have, especially for a Prayer Book Catholic like me, who feels a real need for the stability of the Office and the nourishment of the Sacraments.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holy Cloud Bearing Mountain: An Opportunity to Help

As some of you know, I serve on the board of a Christian center for contemplative prayer, called Mons Nubifer Sanctus. Mons Nubifer Sanctus is Latin for “Holy Cloud-Bearing Mountain.” The name takes its inspiration chiefly from Exodus 24:18, which describes Moses’ ascent up the Holy Mountain into the cloud of the presence of God. This account is fulfilled in the New Testament passages dealing with the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.

These texts, and others like them, have consistently been read by the great spiritual masters of the Church in terms of the heights of contemplative prayer, heights to which all Christians are called in Christ. Christian spiritual classics such as Dionysius the Areopagite’s The Mystical Theology, and the 14th century anonymous English work The Cloud of Unknowing all follow in this tradition, as do numerous other writings through the ages of the Church and up the present day.

The goal of Mons Nubifer Sanctus is to provide a retreat and training center where men and women can cultivate a life of deep and transformative prayer, practiced in common and grounded in the ancient spirituality and fullness of the Christian faith. The center’s programs will be geared specifically for people living and working “in the world;” in other words, for active people in secular positions who yet seek a deeper spirituality than most church communities can offer.

The founder and president of the board, Mr. James Krueger expects be ordained to the Deaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany shortly, and soon after that to the priesthood. He has devoted a great deal of time, energy and work to get us to this point. We have gathered a Board of Directors and incorporated as a not-for-profit, Mons Nubifer Sanctus and are currently raising funds to purchase a suitable building and grounds to be located in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The property will be conductive to contemplation, adequate to house twelve to sixteen participants in dorm-style rooms, have room to grow if necessary, and have some decent land for sustainable growing. Donations will also be used to cover other start-up and initial operating expenses.

I’m writing to you to ask your help in making this center a reality, a center which will do its part to reinvigorate an authentic and truly transformative Christianity in the west, by making a donation to Mons Nubifer Sanctus. I would not normally be so bold as to ask this, but I am goaded on by a most wonderful opportunity presented to us by an anonymous donor who will match every donation made from now until the end of 2013 dollar for dollar up to $50,000! This means that every dollar you give will be turned into two! Can you help us, then, to reach our goal of purchasing a suitable property and beginning programs, however gingerly, in 2014?

Please visit for further information, seeing especially our “Vision and Feasibility” page, and feel free to contact us and keep in touch as this unfolds. Donations can be made to Mons Nubifer Sanctus, PO Box 568, Pine Hill, NY 12465. Please also find and follow us on Facebook!

In Christ, who is our peace,

Father Paul Hunter.