The Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions Online site went moribund for a while, and now has come back in a much subdued form, with only an occasional post.
The author of the latest: Father John Behr, described as “Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary, Professor of Patristics at St Vladimir’s Seminary and Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics at Fordham University.” (“Patristics,” in case you didn’t know, is the study of the writings of early Church fathers.)
Behr’s question (notice that there’s no attempt to hide the religious agenda here) is this: “Is God wholly separate from the material universe?” The essay is completely opaque to me, for it simply assumes a God without proof, and then doesn’t appear to answer the question, swathing it in layers of fine theological verbiage. Behr equivocates, making up stuff as he goes along. If there’s an answer to the question, it’s this: “it’s . . . a dynamic tension!”
The Christian tradition, with its fundamental convictions that God is the Creator and that the Son of God was incarnate within this world, approaches this Big Question in a very particular way, holding its various elements together in a dynamic tension.
. . . On the one hand, the claim that God created the world, understood to mean the universe, underscores the radical otherness of God. If God is the creator of all that is, then God is not part of “all that is”; God is not somewhere out there, beyond the limits of what we can see or beyond the boundaries of the universe in a realm that we can’t see. And neither, consequently, is God subject to the various limitations of created reality; God is not spatially and temporally restricted. As one Eastern theologian from the Byzantine period, Gregory Palamas, put it: “If God is being, we are not being, if we are being, God is not”. One cannot use the word “is” of God and created reality synonymously or in parallel.
On the other hand, despite the apparently enormous difficulties that this seems to raise for even speaking about God, a God who “is” not (at least as we use the word “is” for things in this world), it also opens up a very dynamic space in which God can act. God and created reality are not set in opposition to each other, as they would be if God were somewhere “outside” the material universe. Nor does any particular aspect of created reality, say the “spirit,” have any greater kinship with God than any other, for instance the “flesh.” We might hold that one aspect of our being is higher, superior, or more noble or supposedly “divine” than another, but all aspects of our being stand together on this side of created reality, in distinction to the God who has created all things.
Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me. It’s Sophisticated Theology™! Pity me for having to read this stuff.
But wait, there’s more! A lot more! I won’t inflict it on you, but here’s the ending. This is where Templeton’s money is going (they announced a while back that they pay handsomely for such pieces):
Beginning with Kant, modern thought has often found itself in a bind, trying to make a connection between “things in themselves” and our perception, intuition, or concept of them, situated as this must be within our minds and structured accordingly. All we can actually know, it is argued, are the intuitions we have of the “things in themselves,” and our only secure knowledge is of this and the categories by which the intuitions are structured. Marion argues, on the other hand, that we should begin with the “givennness” of the “phenomenon” (meaning: “that which appears”), recognizing that it always exceeds our attempts to grasp it, that there is more to what appears than is captured by our perceptions, that phenomena are “saturated”.
Beginning with this givenness of what shows itself to us, as it shows itself, phenomenon are “saturated,” as Event (saturating according to quantity, unable to be accounted); as Idol (saturating according to quality, being unbearable by the look); as Flesh (saturating according to relation, being absolute); and as Icon (saturating to modality, being unable to be looked at). Accepting phenomena as saturated in this way, also means accepting their revelatory nature, accepting that something is being revealed to us, rather than “things in themselves” being posited as correlates of our own internal intuitions. Moreover, according to Marion, these four modes of saturation culminate in the figure of Christ, “precisely because as icon He [Christ] regards me in such a way that he constitutes me as his witness rather than as some transcendentalIconstituting Him to its own liking.” If we learn to “see” again, Marion is suggesting, to see what is shown as revelation rather than by setting it in a world which we ourselves create by our own thought processes, we will not simple see more but rather see anew, with new eyes in a new world; as the Psalmist puts it, “in Thy light we see light”.
Note that both passages contain large number of words in quotation marks. That’s there to add the needed ambiguity—as if any were needed.
As H. L. Mencken said when reviewing a dreadful book by Thorstein Veblen, “What is the sweating professor trying to say?” I would add: “How does the sweating professor know this stuff?”
If any scientist wrote with this degree of unnecessary opacity, she’d be kicked in the rump and made to express herself more clearly. The reason for the opacity, of course, is that the writer doesn’t really know the answer to his question, but has to say something to get those Templeton bucks.