Thursday, November 9, 2017

Kathryn Tanner and "Grace Without Nature"

In her recent theological work, Kathryn Tanner, professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, has stressed that theological anthropology is only viable when it is carried out in close association with christology. In her book, Christ the Key, she begins with an extensive foray into discussing human nature in order to press this point. This reinforce a related goal which is that Christology needs to pay close attention to theological anthropology. In another contribution to a book that summarizes some of the same theological terrain, (titled "Grace without Nature" in a volume titled Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology), Tanner develops one aspect of this theme: the relationship between nature and grace.

Her argument in this article, "Grace Without Nature", is essentially twofold:
1) "The image of God... is primarily a divine image and not a human one. Human beings do not image God in and of themselves." (364) and

2) There is no human nature, at least not a human nature that is understood as something defined, cast in stone or unchanging. Rather, because of rationality, humans are different from other creatures with stable natures: "While humans are a definite sort of creature distinct from others and in that sense of course still have a particular nature (they are not God who alone is different from others by not being a kind of thing), humans still stand out by their failure to be clearly limited by a particular nature as other creatures are." (367) She goes on to claim, among other things, that there is warrant from patristic sources for this idea of a human nature that is "not a nature."

In such a short space as a book chapter, Tanner's sweeping comments on human nature are liable to misinterpretation and although I find her argument convoluted, I think it is nevertheless necessary to draw out of it the essential insights of her argument.

The key to Christ, in alluding to the book for the moment, is that the Spirit of God may be said to work most effectively in ordinary situations, in the everyday life of human operations (274-5). One can see a strategy of mutual reinforcement at work: the true image of God is identifiable in the person of Christ, a divine person. In order to support the re-location of the imago dei away from human nature to Christ's divine person, human nature is said to be unstable enough to support such an image. It needs a different account of the Holy Spirit which does not start to work when human thinking stops.

Yet, from Tanner's perspective, the doctrine of grace not only emphasizes the significance of transformation of the human person, it does so at the expense of the nature of humans. Where this argument goes next is the part that begins to baffle the reader. The focus of Tanner's argument shifts quickly to the body: having justified the non-nature of human nature through the plasticity entailed by rationality (and in the book, faith), she then claims that "plastic or nonnatured bodies are the ultimate issue even for these early church theologians. at the end of the day, it is human bodies that are to be remade into Christ's body." (368)

So, here is the question: can a creature whose body is created in an evolutionary lineage of descent from other creatures with whom it shares so many morphological and genetic features be said to lack its own nature? Can the embodied human, a creature who is promised the resurrected life on account of Christ's own resurrected human body be said to be non-natural therefore? Essentially, Tanner says yes.

She says yes, amazingly, on the basis of a critique of Henri de Lubac's position on the relationship between nature and grace. de Lubac had argued for the natural human desire for the beatific vision, a desire that is naturally gifted to us. It is not bestowed on us by "our own powers." Where she goes wrong here is in elaborating the Thomist view of de Lubac as the view that "humans are moving on their own accord toward God on the basis of their natural capacities." (369) But which is it? Is de Lubac saying that we rely on some human capacity in order to attain the state of grace or is de Lubac affirming ? Tanner seems to say both of these in order to suit her argument.

I think that Tanner wants to say that grace is both divinely initiated and as such it is a process with which human beings can cooperate. This is why she speaks of the ordinary character of the Holy Spirit in her book. For this reason, grace has been traditionally understood as both operative (divinely initiated) and cooperative (humanly mediated). de Lubac is simply correcting the modern neo-thomist characterization of the relationship between nature and grace in order to say that it is consistent with the Augustinian-Thomist adage that "grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it." In contrast, Tanner can only see tension between the gratuity of grace and its effects via human freedom. She sees tension as between faithful existence and nothing. But God did not create us as nothing.

She critiques de Lubac essentially for not going far enough in his critique of the idea of 'pure nature'. What she does in the process however is she advocates the overwhelming of nature with a univocal form of grace. This way of conceiving grace will end up being burdensome by not having any relevance for the salvation of the body, an issue of ostensible concern to her. Human beings have natures because we are formed bodies. Christ's resurrection is the template for our salvation because he rescues human nature, including our bodies. Our human nature cannot be incidental to the salvific process. Christ does not wipe it out completely in his transforming action made effective in the work of the Spirit.




Friday, October 6, 2017

The Consolation of Boethius

On the basis of his early remonstrations over his unjust imprisonment at the hands of Emperor Theodoric, Boethius concludes the discourse from Lady Philosophy (described early on as at times very tall, when at full height, "she penetrated the heavens") thus: "I know another cause of your sickness, and the most important: you have forgotten who you are. And so I am fully aware of the reason for your sickness and the remedy for it too. You are confused because you have forgotten what you are, and therefore you are upset because you are in exile and stripped of all your possessions. Because you are ignorant of the purpose of things, you think that stupid and evil men are powerful and happy. And because you have forgotten how the world is governed, you suppose that these changes of your fortune came about without purpose. Such notions are enough to cause not only sickness but also death. But be grateful to the Giver of health that nature has not entirely forsaken you. For you have the best medicine for your health in your grasp of the truth about the way that the world is governed."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On Heretical Anthropology - A Response to James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith of Calvin College has recently posted on the question of what comprises the elements of orthodox Christianity. The question is about doctrine (not Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and Smith refers to the statements of the Christian creed; for instance, the one affirming the divinity of Christ. Smith summarizes the common understanding of what the term 'orthodox' means with reference to those items of the creed that pertain to the nature of God and so forth. Then he suggests:
In some contexts, the use of the word "orthodox" seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases "orthodox Christianity" means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage. 
Which raises the obvious question: is there such a thing as a heretical anthropology? While I tend to agree with Smith (at least in terms of the somewhat narrow terms of the question as he has defined it), I think the more complicated answer is this: while there is no anthropological heresy, there are anthropological conditions for the possibility of orthodox or heresy. That is: some conditions for the possibility of heresy/orthodoxy have to do with assessing human creaturehood.

What does this mean? I think there are a number of implications, but first, note that I am not trying to heresy hunt, as the expression has it. I am merely following up Smith's observation about the broad use of the term orthodoxy. And of course, there are plenty of theologically driven questions to ask about when it comes to anthropology such as marriage, the role of sexuality in human identity making, the ethical propriety of genetic therapies etc.etc.

So, while I doubt whether one could stipulate an anthropological orthodoxy per se, there are plenty of candidates for false anthropologies floating around that would make for a difficult starting point (or backdrop if we are trying to avoid expressing ourselves in a Schleiermacherian mode) to affirming the Christian creed.

For instance, if one were to articulate human capacities in terms of an inherent perfectibility, that would seem to rule out the need for salvation. The number of ideologies or thinkers whom we might link to an idea of human perfectibility seem clear enough at the outset: extreme nationalists cite the glory of their nation, doctrinaire socialists cite the infallibility of the state, fascists cite some mystical idea that unites the powerful against a disheveled scapegoat. Each of these ideologiues suppose an ideal to which human persons can aspire without worrying about any inherent flaws in our way.

But, are there Christian theologians who believe - inadvertently - in human perfectibility, such that it places pressure on their ability to affirm the creed? Does the condition for the possibility of denying creedal orthodoxy exist in the fields of philosophical and theological anthropology?

I think the answer is yes, and perfectibility is often dressed up with reference to plasticity or malleability. These are philosophical terms that denote a certain interpretation of human freedom, but the scope of the freedom that is implied is very wide indeed. How we measure the goodness of human beings alongside the inevitable character of sin is a difficult task, a task that hangs over the last chapter of the book I am currently finishing. One thing seems certain: simply because an issue is not a question of orthodoxy and heresy does not seem to lessen its importance. Its importance may be indirectly related to a creedal matter. But that does not render it unimportant. Anthropology lurks between the lines of the creed, we can be sure.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ecumenical Christian Art

Matthew Milliner's blog has the details, including a fascinating look at a couple of artists who work at an art centre near Boston.

Monday, July 17, 2017

On waiting

  One of the joys of summer is the experience of spending time doing nothing. It is often a pleasant experience, although some of that waiting is spent by people near big cities who are tied up in traffic, waiting to get out of the city or back into it at the end of vacation.

  Waiting is most often related to the theological virtue of hope, as in expectation: the expecting of a Messiah, of great change, of the parousia, God's interruption and bringing to a close historical time. In yesterday's second reading, we hear Paul speak of the importance of waiting for what one does not have. According to Paul, we await adoption, a good that is for now unseen:    
we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Rom. 8: 23b-25)
  What is less understood is that it is another theological virtue, love, that serves to interrupt the waiting. Indeed, it is love that is often sought or desired in order to stop the waiting. Love is what is awaited psychologically. (Though in a biblical context, it is arguably justice, namely Israel's hope for divine vindication that Jesus' messiahship both fulfills and transforms.) 

  This is why romantic love is often more relevant to the experience of waiting than it first appears. This is despite the fact that we translate love, the theological virtue, as caritas - translated as "charity" in English, but meaning love of God and neighbor in biblical terms. We are accustomed to seeing an opposition between two other kinds of love; agape and eros. These two forms of love are theologically not so much opposed but rather complementary. The experience of eros can (ought, in the context of marriage vows) lead to the self-giving toward one's lover that entails sacrifice, self-sacrifice. 

  Love and expectation are closely related to waiting. On a wooden railing at the hiking area at the Chutes de la Mastigouche in the Lanaudiere region of Quebec a couple of weeks ago, I saw that someone has carved “Fanny et Matthew: jamais un sans l’autre’ (Matthew and Fanny: never one without the other”). One can recognize in the graffiti of lovers an expectation that their love is binding. Two become one. Spatially, these lovers imagine future space as occupied by both of them together or neither of them. Time stands still to somehow honour the unity of this love the power of which feels like it has the authority to be inscribed in wood railings. Grafitti is a permanent marker of love that others will notice publicly. 

  In the experience of intense romantic love, time does have this character of lacking chronology or duration because the waiting appears to be over. What has been so elusive is now within one's grasp - supposedly. Augustine is the one who describes time as duration and it is this very quality of time that disappears in erotic love when physical passion and emotional vulnerability of self-giving allow one to lose touch with events, commitments and other people. This interrupting quality of love ends one sort of waiting and inaugurates another. Human beings are insatiable. We are created with the kind of desires that C.S. Lewis describes: 
"If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
  It is for this reason that erotic love can serve as an analogue for the kind of relationship that we will eventually enjoy in a condition with God in which the qualities of time as duration dissolve. (I suppose this entails some sort of atemporal view of God, which is interesting but not my main claim here.) The fleeting and proleptic features of romantic love are hints of the heavenly ecstasy promised by God as love. God is love according to the Christian tradition (1 Jn. 4:8) 

  Our craving for God –as lovers craving for each other -- consists of a unity that will overcome the business and duration of time. Waiting therefore is the kind of experience that perfectly contrasts the perichoresis or non-temporal succession of love that exists among the persons of the Trinity and our participation in that community in eternal life. Between earthly loves and heavenly love lies the self-sacrifice of agape that straddles time and eternity, which is why married life ought to intertwine both loves (eros and agape) so as to allow the earthly to prepare for the heavenly.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Montreal concert going

Not a theology post! I went to see Jesse Cook the other evening. Not to be missed if you have the chance! My favourite song was Bombay Slam. It was part of Montreal's spectacular and very diverse jazz festival (read: probably too diverse to be called a jazz festival). Last year, I went with my son to hear this band for free in a street venue: Beirut. Also not to be missed!