Archive for July, 2011

Eastern Orthodoxy, Participation, and Theosis.

I’ve spent a lot of time this last week or so reading up on Eastern Orthodox theology – I’ve been reading bits of Bishop Kalistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Way,” Paul Valliere’s “Modern Russian Theology,” along with the “Cambridge Companion to Christian Orthodox Theology.”

One of the things that strikes me about the Orthodox tradition is the thoroughly ontological (or metaphysical) emphasis in all aspects of it’s theology. Central to Orthodox theology, it seems, is an “ontology of participation,” that is, a view according to which all things that exist have their being insofar as they participate in God’s essential being. This ontology figured prominently in the writings of the early church fathers and permeates all of Orthodox teaching – from creation and the imago dei, to sin, and ultimately salvation.

According to the early fathers of the Eastern church, “man is a microcosm, a summation of the composition of the created world.” Human beings, as both spiritual and physical, mirror the whole of reality as heaven and earth. This ontology of man is important to how the Orthodox tradition sees man’s role in salvation – as mediator between heaven and earth. “The ‘priestly’ vocation that is common to all humanity is to offer up all of creation to God. Inasmuch as we sin in any way, we fail in this vocation, and the whole of creation suffers as a result.” (CCCOT, p94).

Augustine is often credited with having identified evil as “the privation of being.” When asked “Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither?” Augustine’s answer was, “Evil has no positive nature, but the loss of good has received the name evil.” However, Athanasius had already articulated this view when he said, “Now reality is the good, unreality what is evil.” Both of these views are informed by an ontology of participation. Because all things are good only insofar as they participate in the goodness of God’s being, evil is then a falling away from God’s goodness.

What’s interesting is the ontological depth this gives to Orthodox soteriology. Granted, Orthodox soteriology is, like the rest of Orthodox theology, content to leave mystery as mystery. There is in Orthodox theology, none of the frantic compulsion that surrounds Western attempts to pin down the true nature of salvation to a single dimension – e.g., is salvation a matter of deification, divine illumination, freedom from captivity, is it achieved through the incarnation, the crucufixion, the ressurection, or adherence to Christ’s teachings, is it mediated through the church? The Eastern tradition sees these different aspects of salvation as interdependent, indeed as revealing a single reality. They are only separate in human logic. Thus, when Orthodoxy emphasizes a particular strand of the multidimensional reality of salvation, it is not to the exclusion of other important aspects. For instance, it is often assumed by those in the West that the Orthodox church rejects “transactional” concepts in soteriology such as bondage and debt, divine ransom, atonment and redemption. But this is not the case. What the Eastern church rejects are later “substitutionary” models of the atonement according to which God demands the sacrifice of His son as repayment for His defiled honor. Not only is this a distorted portrayal of God’s character from the Eastern perspective, but it also undermines the comprehensive work of God in Christ and the spirit for the salvation of the world (i.e., the multidimensionality of savlation).

The ontological depth that makes Orthodox soteriology different from Western views, is distilled in the Eastern church’s teachings on “theosis,” or “deification.” First and foremost, salvation has to do with the reconciliation of God and creation, through the mediating role of the central creature, the human being. The doctrine of theosis signifies a single aspect of this reconciliation: it is salvation as union. In my experience many westerners have trouble with the idea (or at least the language) of “deification.” Theosis is simply conformity to Christ, it is created being’s participation, by grace, in what Christ participates in by nature: God’s work, will, light and glory. It is the gift of participation in the life of God.

Reading G.A. Cohen’s “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” (Pt.2)

           In the first post of this (hopefully three-part) series on G.A. Cohen’s article On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom I challenged a fairly typical, common-discourse, defense of capitalism against the Marxist claim that under capitalism the working class is forced to sell their labor to those who own the means of production (namely the defense that says they are not forced because they have other options, i.e., poverty, crime, starve to death etc.). This facile, but typical response of course rests on a simplistic misunderstanding of what it is to be forced to do something. I followed Cohen’s reasoning that in ordinary usage, when we say “one is forced to do A, because one has no choice,” this is meant as shorthand for, “one is forced to choose to do A, because one has no reasonable or acceptable alternative.”

           But how does this Marxist claim about working-class unfreedom stand against a more serious criticism: namely real-life examples of individuals whose objective position within the relations of production under capitalism is identical to that of the proletarian, who nevertheless manage to work their way out of the working class to become small business owners or capitalists? Since such cases show that the working class are not relevantly forced to sell their labor – i.e., they have at least one option other than wage labor, beggary, or starvation, which appears perfectly reasonable and acceptable – this seems to form a powerful counterexample to the Marxist thesis. Cohen recognizes this as a powerful case against the Marxist claim about proletarian unfreedom, and even attempts to show how two of the most common arguments against this powerful counterexample fail to recognize the argument’s strength, and thus, ultimately do not work. Read more…

Towards a Theology of Logic?!

I’ve been thinking today: Is it possible to concieve of a “Theology of logic”? By this I don’t mean merely “doing theology” with the use of formal logic or something lame like that. I mean viewing philosophical logic itself from the perspective of Christian theology. In this sense, a theology of logic, would be similar to those other “Theology of…” disciplines (e.g., theology of the body, theology of money, theology of animals etc.) which seek to offer critical insights on a sepecific subject using the resources of theology (e.g., the bible, patristic writings, ecclesial practice, theologians etc.). A “theology of logic,” it seems, would most comfortably be categorized as a branch of theological anthropology (i.e., the nature of man/woman from a theological vantage point). But, it seems, it would also be much broader than this too, since any critique of logic would inevitably entail larger implications for empistmology, metaphysics, and ultimately the interface between human knowing and reality.

What can theology say about logic? A theology of logic might ask questions about the nature of the relationship of “the word” to “the world” in light of, say, a Johannine theology of the “logos,” or even “wisdom” in the book of Proverbs, or the Eastern church. It might ask questions about the relationship between “omnipotence” and logical im/possibility, e.g., “Does the omnipotence of God imply that God could instantiate a logical impossibility, or is this simply non-sense that has no meaning?” More simply perhaps, “Where does logic come from?” Does it bear an analogy to (and thus participate in) something immanent within the trinity? Is it a product of, or somehow affected by the fall?


Categories: Logic, Philosophy, Theology

July 4th

On this July fourh, I pray for the day to come when we will turn our swords in for plowshares, and beat our spears into pruning hooks. I pray that, even as we are thankful for what freedoms we do have, we will remember those who’s freedoms have been and continue to be trampled upon, so that we can enjoy the luxury of privelage. That even in thankful humility, we will not forget this deep injustice. I pray too, that rather than looking back, to some supposed time in the past when “freedom was gained,” we will instead realize that freedom has yet to come. I pray that we continue to look to Christ, and to his return, and to the coming of his kingdom. And also that we will not abondon the hard work of paving a path to freedom in which everyone can participate, not through waging wars in third world countries but through sharing our own peace and abundance.

It’s Not Like Anyone is Holding a Gun to Your Head: Reading G.A. Cohen’s “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” (pt. 1)

What does it mean to be forced to do something? In an article entitled “The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,” G.A. Cohen argues that in common conversation, to say that someone was forced to do X, implies that they were forced to choose to do X. Similarly, when we say that someone “had no other choice,” this is simply meant as shorthand to say that person “had no other choice worthy of consideration,” or that there were “no reasonable or acceptable alternatives.” Thus to say that “someone was forced to do X, and that they had no other choice,” is simply to say that that person was forced to choose to do X, because they had no other choice worthy of consideration – there simply was no reasonable or acceptable alternative. Let’s refer to this definition of unfreedom as the common sense of unfreedom, since it is, according to Cohen, rooted in our common understanding of what is is to be forced to do something. Read more…