Archive for March, 2009

Metaphysical Theology

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

I’m not surprised you had “some reservations” regarding my comments at the Common Word conference last week. You will understand, of course, that in the concluding section of the paper I was deliberately pushing past the dogmatic limits of the Christian tradition in order to underscore the difference between what I called a “planimetric” theology and a “three-dimensional” and “spherical” metaphysics. I think when you actually read the paper, rather than simply relying on a single hearing, my aims will be clearer, though perhaps no more acceptable to exoterists! I hope to have the talk, “Disagreeing to Agree”, posted with my other articles and papers on within the next two or three weeks.

To answer your specific question, however, we needn’t turn to metaphysics per se, for in this case my remarks were quite within the mainstream of traditional Christian theology. The line you’ve singled out for criticism, far from being (as you mistakenly suppose) my own formulation, was a direct quotation from the “Athanasian Creed”, or Quicunque Vult. I realize, of course, that the eastern Church has never been as amenable as the West to this statement of faith, in part because it fails to honor the primacy of God the Father within the Trinity. Nevertheless, I don’t think any Orthodox Christian would, or should, dispute the way in which this Creed expresses the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ.

If you are unfamiliar with it, the Creed can be found here.

As you can see, I was quoting line 35, which explains that the unity of God and man in the Person of Christ came about “not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking [or assumption] of the manhood into God”. And of course, as I said in my talk, the reason for putting things this way is to safeguard the impassibility of the Divine. Keep in mind that the Bible speaks, for the most part, not sub specie aeternitatis, but within a temporal frame of reference, treating God as if He were an actor in a cosmic drama. For this reason the Incarnation is described, as in Philippians 2:5-12 and the other passages you cite, as if it involved an alteration in God. And yet, as your Catholic Saint Thomas Aquinas and a host of other theologians would insist, He who is actus purus, “pure act”, never begins and never stops doing whatever He does, for His Being is an Eternal Doing, if one may put it this way.

Occasionally, the Scriptures themselves include certain openings or pointers toward this trans-temporal dimension. With regard to the Incarnation, I’m thinking for example of John 3:13, where Christ informs the no doubt baffled Nicodemus that “no man has ascended into Heaven but He who descended from Heaven, even the Son of Man, who is in Heaven.” In other words, no one goes up except the One who came down, and even though this One seems to be speaking to you right now and right here on this earth, He’s actually still there! This is the Bible’s way of making one of the points I underscored in the lecture: God has always been man, and man God.

The “taking up” or “assumption” of humanity should not, however, be confused—as I fear you have—with the heresy of adoptionism, which was rejected by the Church, though not formally so, well before the eighth century synod and council you mention. The adoptionist—or “dynamic monarchianist”, to use the technical terminology—claims that Jesus was simply a man, who was empowered by God to work miracles and who, as a matter of honor, can be called God’s (adopted) son. By contrast, the passage quoted from the Athanasian Creed in no way disputes, but rather confirms, orthodox Christology, for in this case Christ’s hypostatic or consubstantial divinity is not in question. Indeed, it’s precisely because He does share fully in the Father’s divine nature that the “event” of the Incarnation must be understood as involving change, not in the eternal Son or Word Himself, but in the human nature that was “drawn” into participation in Him.

This is no more than Theology 101—remembering of course that there’s no such thing as a theology without at least some metaphysical basis. Having drawn a rather bold line between planimetry and sphericality, I’ll be the first to admit that, here as elsewhere, traditional Christian teaching depended for its formulation, and depends for its expression, upon the very metaphysics—largely Platonic and Plotinian—which the theologians have so often, and so carelessly, dismissed!

Theory and Application of a Common Word

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Several correspondents have inquired about the upcoming Common Word conference at the University of South Carolina, which I mentioned in my last post, “Esoteric Ecumenism“, so I thought I should provide some additional information.

This is one in a series of “interfaith dialogues” prompted by A Common Word Between Us and You, an open letter to Christians issued by 138 Muslim scholars and clerics on 13 October 2007. The fundamental premise of the letter is that “the best basis for future dialogue and understanding [between Muslims and Christians] is the love of God and the love of the neighbor”.

Common Word gatherings have since been held in a number of locations throughout the world, including a July 2008 conference at Yale and, most recently, a “Catholic-Muslim” forum in Rome last November.

Our conference, offered under the auspices of the USC Barnes Symposium and co-sponsored by Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates, is called “Theory and Application of a Common Word“. It will include a day of sessions focused on the “horizontal” issues of environmental policy and human rights (Thursday, March 26) and a day on the “vertical” issues arising from a comparative exploration of theology, mysticism, and metaphysics in the two traditions (Friday, March 27). All sessions are to be held in the auditorium of the USC School of Law, and there will be a live webcast in both video and audio formats. Here is the agenda for both days.

My own presentation is scheduled for the 2:30 P.M. session on Friday, March 27. I am paired with Dr Joseph Lumbard, a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. Dr Lumbard, like several other conference participants—including my USC colleague Dr Waleed El-Ansary—is a former student of Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s. I’m calling my talk “Disagreeing to Agree”.

One of my aims, as perhaps can be guessed from this title, will be to challenge what I call “planimetric ecumenism”. Key to the presentation is Schuon’s crucial “dialogical” insight that one must “conform to holy separation at the base to realize holy union at the summit” (see the chapter “The Nature and Function of the Spiritual Master” in his book Logic and Transcendence). However well intentioned, an emphasis on superficial or extrinsic commonalities must not lead us to neglect the essential and intrinsic differences between religions, for only by accepting, indeed emphasizing, those differences can we hope to come to true Unity.

Or so at least I shall argue. Stay tuned.