Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ectasis of Being Part II: Concepts of the Self and the Doctrine of Justification

In the first part of our discussion of ontology we noted that the Christian metanarrative, rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity and creation ex nihillo necessitates a view of being that is ecstatic.  In other words, the category of being as conceived by Christians cannot be centered in itself, but in the other.  The person of the Trinity find themselves not in themselves, but in their subsisting relations.  Creation as described in the history of Genesis 1 finds its being in the narration of God's speech.  We connected this also to the doctrine of justification.  If we find ourselves external to ourselves, then salvation and righteousness must itself be something external to us in Christ.  Trent is therefore gravely mistaken because it posits that righteousness becomes a predicate of our being and thereby centers the sinner in him or herself.  Since sin in its essence is the delusion of being centered in one's self, then the doctrine of justification presented in session six of Trent exacerbates the problem of sin rather than solves it.

In light of this insight and the fact that I will be sitting on a panel in Ft. Wayne on the issue of Reformation and modern views of justification, I have been thinking about the basis of both medieval Catholicism and Liberal Protestantism's view of justification.  What I think that I would suggest is that both take their cue from their foundation ontological claims, claims that are in fact in conflict with the ecstatic nature of being that I previously described.  

Notably, Catholicism operates from the perspective of substance ontology.  Substance ontology is in and of itself not bad.  At its most basic level substance ontology merely claims that there is an inner reality to things that makes them what they are and that our language can realistically (or critically realistically) portray this fact to us.  The difficulty comes when such discourse becomes to reified, which happens in Catholic thought.  When this is the case, the self is conceived has being made up of qualities internal to it and therefore can only be what it is coram Deo if those predicates are actualized within it.  Hence, Aquinas insisted that God cannot love sinners.  Why?  Because God is goodness itself and if he doesn't find a certain number of qualities within the sinner that prompts his love, he's incapable of loving the sinner because of his fundamental qualities as God.  Granted, God will help the creature acquire these qualities, but that is mercy and not love.  

Liberal Protestantism has the same difficulty.  It should be noted that due to the influence of Pietism, Liberal Protestant largely operated with a similar understanding of justification as moral regeneration that Catholics do.  Nevertheless, in contrast to Catholicism, for Liberal Protestants, the accent was always on the meaningfulness of certain forms of theological knowledge.  This arose because of certain shifts in philosophy during the early modern period.   
After Decartes, modern philosophy understood the ontic structure of the human (and reality in general) not on the basis of the category of substance but rather on the basis of the duality of matter (which Decartes described as "extension") and consciousness.  To make a long story short, if the self is defined by its consciousness, then it is essentially centered in itself, rather than ecstatic.  In other words, if I am defined by my consciousness then I am a defined by a particular faculty found within me.  That being the case, for reconciliation to be something real for me as a person or as Forde puts it "actual," it must therefore be an event in my own consciousness.  If the content of reconciliation is defined as "the Son of God dying for me 2,000 years ago" then it cannot be an event within my own consciousness, and thereby becomes an abstraction.  If it is described as my own experience of reconciliation, then it can be real.  Now, with the experience of reconciliation necessarily comes moral regeneration.  This is a logical consequence of the assumption stated above, because if reconciliation is an experience then it must be the overcoming of the barrier of sin.  If the barrier was not overcome on the cross, then it must be overcome inside the the person, and, da--da-da!= justification automatically becomes moral regeneration.

5 comments:

  1. This is interesting. It seems that more "conservative" Protestantism owes much to the liberal Protestantism on this point, as well.

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  2. Do you mean Reformed? The Reformed certainly have a tendency of interiorizing faith. Notice though that Schleiermacher and Calvin begin that the same place: the inner experience of divinity. Schleiermacher's "feeling of absolute dependency" is merely a post-Kantian version of Calvin's "sensus divinitas."

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  3. A metaphysics of substance is utilized in our Confessions (or at least in the Formula) and also is deployed in the age of Lutheran orthodoxy. I think you may be exploiting a particular understanding of the Latin scholastic tradition of subsistent relations in order to further a general (and inherited) Kantian influenced quasi-Lutheran missive against a catholic metaphysical bogey. In this, you may be as modern as the strain of liberal theology you describe. Uncreated Being cannot essentially be ecstasis, although created accidental being is ecstatic. It is not possible to say that the Father bequeaths, as it were, His essence to the Son without offering Himself as Father, since His being is identical to His being Father. If the Father gave everything in the manner of the subsistent relation you are suggesting He is, then he would beget not a Son, but another Father.

    In your first paragraph, you conflate created being with the uncreated Being of the Trinity, this will generate certain problems. I do think that you make some important points concerning the ecstatic nature of creaturely being. A direct question such as, "In what way do created beings posses their being, and their qualities (such as righteousness)" is instructive here. One extreme would collapse the reality of our existence into gnostic shadowplay, and another would sound like the arrogance of Satan.

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  4. Gropper,

    A couple points.

    1. I recognize that the metaphysics of substance are used by our Confessions. Notice though that I do not engage in a wholesale condemnation of the metaphysics of substance, in fact I validate it in a limited sense. What I reject is the use these metaphysics to center human beings in themselves and to be create false doctrines of justification.

    2. "It is not possible to say that the Father bequeaths, as it were, His essence to the Son without offering Himself as Father, since His being is identical to His being Father. If the Father gave everything in the manner of the subsistent relation you are suggesting He is, then he would beget not a Son, but another Father."

    This I think is a misunderstanding of Trinitarian theology. The Father does not refer to the divine nature but to the role of the Father in the subsisting relation of begetting. The Father as Athanasius points out is only the Father because he begets the Son. My point being, that the Father finds his identity as Father external to himself in his subsisting relation to the Son. The Father is of course the Father in himself, but this identity is not centered within himself but rather radiates out from his relationship to the Son.

    3. "In your first paragraph, you conflate created being with the uncreated Being of the Trinity, this will generate certain problems."

    No, what I am doing is suggesting that there is an analogy of being. The analogy of being means that created beings are similar, though infinitely different that uncreated being. Moreover, this analogy is one of relation rather than abstract qualities as it was developed by the Scholastic authors. The relationality of creatures mirrors the relationality of the subsisting relations of the Trinity without being identical with them.

    I suggest you go back and read part one to see the full discussion.

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  5. If you are upholding analogy, then I take back my criticisms. Sometimes I am not sure that you mean to do this in your efforts.

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