Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Further Thoughts on Transcendence

A guest post from the Revd Dr Phillip Tolliday, lecturer in historical and systematic theology at Flinders University SA and St Barnabas College.

I want to explore further the connection Warren made earlier between transcendence and immanence. There is little doubt that to use a phrase first coined by the post liberal theologian William Placher, we have been witnessing the ‘domestication of transcendence.’ Since at least the 1960s the motif of divine transcendence has been steadily eroding. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which has been the suspicion that a transcendent god is not only a god who is removed and distant from us, but more worryingly, a God whose disposition toward the world is necessarily one of tyranny. The way of overcoming this alleged divine tyranny is to ensure that divine transcendence is subverted by divine immanence.

The problem is alleged to be that divine transcendence necessarily leads to belief in a domineering supreme being. Not surprisingly, as Craig Baron, among others, has pointed out, this leads people to wonder how the existence of such a supreme being is reconcilable with human flourishing. God and humanity appear locked in a competitive death struggle. In attempts to dissolve the dilemma various ‘solutions’ have been proposed, ranging from Deism through to the outright atheism of Feuerbach. It is against this background that we should interpret Sartre’s aphorism that we cannot be fully free as long as God exists. According to this competitive construction of divine transcendence a key project of modernity has consisted of the solving of the problem of this competitive supreme being, either through its marginalization or its elimination.

In our scenario the two protagonists circle each other constantly; one the supreme being and the other the supreme ego. As in the best westerns there isn’t room in town for both of them! One has to die. And the story of modernity may be characterized as the progressive erosion of the supreme being in favour of the equally progressive exultation of the supreme ego. Commencing with Descartes’ Cogito the supreme ego eventually morphs into ‘the self-grounding and self-justifying ego’ that seeks to master its world. However, our less than perfect world is eloquent and manifest testimony to the limitations of the supreme ego. The supreme ego, it seems, is no less tyrannical than the supreme being was alleged to be.

Could it be that competition is the problem here? Might it not be possible to speak of divine transcendence in a way that is non-contrastive (Kathryn Tanner) and thus non-competitive? This is precisely what Craig Baron attempts in his exploration of Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts about God. He notes that competition demands that there be a shared background for both the supreme being and the supreme ego. It doesn’t matter whether that background is the metaphysical equivalent of the boxing ring or the OK Corral – it simply matters that there is one. And the background that has been commonly assumed to be shared by both God and the world is being.

But it is this very notion of a shared background between God and the world, or between a supreme being and a supreme ego that Aquinas calls into question. Aquinas claims that ‘God is not a species or an individual, nor is there any difference in him; nor can he be defined, since every definition is in terms of genus and species.’ Let us not miss the significance of what he is saying here. Everything in the world can be classified in precisely those terms that Aquinas says are not able to be predicated of God. In other words Aquinas is claiming that God is incomparable. God is not another in the world but transcendent to the world, where this transcendence is understood in a non-competitive and non-contrastive way. As Baron puts it, ‘God is not so much somewhere else as somehow else…the non-competitiveness of this differentiation appears when we realize that there is no common frame of reference for God and the world, no field that they share, no ground for which they are fighting, no genus in which they are both contained.’

Ironically our uncritical disdain for divine transcendence has had the unforeseen and presumably unintended consequence of aggregating the tyranny which we had feared from the supreme being and placing it at the feet of the supreme ego. Doubtless this is where it belongs but the domestication of transcendence has meant that the supreme ego must now fix the world - a task requiring, dare I say it, transcendence.

1 comment:

Stephen James Bloor said...

I think this has significance in other areas of our theology as well. I've been reading recently N.T.Wright's Suprised by Hope and in Chapter Seven "Jesus, Heaven and New Creation" he discusses the Ascension of Jesus. I was reflecting recently that in my theological training I have often encounter people around the time of Ascension feeling really uncomfortable with the concept. And in someways I understood where they were coming from. "How could the risen Christ leave us? Should we really symbolize Christ not being with us?" Yet, from reading Wright's chapter I'm starting to realize that these questions themselves are actually wrong. Wright says on Page 111 "Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or mater. They are two different dimensions of God's good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO's office, the place from which instructions are given. "All authority is given to me," said Jesus at the end of Matthew's gospel, "in heaven and earth.""

For me, I start to see the same logic playing out here. To say that Heaven is up there is just silly, but also to say that God is over in that space as being and is in competition with us is also equally as silly. We are not dealing with things that are of the same species or order.