Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Know Thyself, Pt. 2

Part One

It's been awhile since my last post, so I apologize in advance for any discrepancies in tone or content.

As I mentioned last time, Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that the classical and biblical worldviews are necessarily distinct but brought together on the issue of man's contingency. Man is subject to the world around him; really this is to say that he is the object of the world around him, that things happen to him beyond his control and his understanding.

The Jewish tradition differs from the Greek, of course, in its monotheism, from which most of the other differences spring. Suddenly we are presented with a singular God, rather than the capricious and contradictory pantheon of the Greeks--and while there's an argument to made that the God of the Hebrews is capricious and bloodthirsty, He enters into a covenant relationship with Noah, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and down through the line. He seeks a relationship with mankind, and if it comes primarily through the nation of Israel, there are at least glimpses in the Hebrew Bible that He wishes to extend it to humanity as a whole. (See, for example, the Book of Jonah, my favorite part of the Hebrew Bible, in which God reveals not only His sense of humor but His concern for those outside of the fold.)

But God's covenant with the Jews does not result in freedom from contingency. It may change man's place in the universe but it certainly does not change the fact that he has one and that it is inescapable. Man's place becomes less fragile but more defined:
"Come now, and let us reason together,"
Says the Lord.
"Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.
If you consent and obey,
You will eat the best of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
You will be devoured by the sword." (Isaiah 1:18-20, NAS)
This is the message we get over and over again from the prophets: Do what God requires of you, and He will bless you; refuse to do so, and He will cripple you. There's little room in this for self-made morality or for choice as choice. If you submit, you will receive what is coming to you; if you don't--well, you'll also receive what's coming to you, although you may not like it. Either way, God sets the terms of the covenant and the penalties for breaking it.

Note that there is no theodicy in this covenant. God, as far as I can tell, does not promise understanding of the way He works. Nowhere is this more clear than the Book of Job, in which God makes a deal with the devil that he may destroy a righteous man's life. Job keeps his cool for thirty excruciating chapters, at the end of which he finally questions his lot in life. He is innocent, he claims; he has kept the Law of God; he has done what is right, even through the extreme trials he's suffered:
Have I not wept for the one whose life is hard?
Was not my soul grieved for the needy?
When I expected good, then evil came;
When I waited for light, then darkness came.
I am seething within, and cannot relax;
Days of affliction confront me . . .
Have I covered my transgressions like Adam,
By hiding my iniquity in my bosom,
Because I feared the great multitude,
And the contempt of families terrified me,
And kept silent and did not go out of doors?
Oh, that I had one to hear me!
Behold, here is my signature;
Let the Almighty answer me! (Job 30:25-27, 31:33-35)
This is not a harsh statement, exactly; Job does not curse God, as his wife tells him to. He merely asks questions, questions we've probably all asked at some point. But God doesn't explain. He gets angry (and sarcastic--I love it when God gets sarcastic):
Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth!
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements, since you know?
Or who stretched the line on it? (38:2-5)
He continues in this vein for two entire chapters, until Job collapses under the weight of his own questions. The moral is clear here--man is what he is, and he can neither understand nor question God's decisions about the operation of the universe. He can only accept it.

The New Testament extends more or less logically from the Old, but it also has the advantage of showing up after Plato and Aristotle had already set the rules for philosophy. As such, St. Paul's admonitions to the Church sometimes read like a combination of Hebrew theology and Platonic philosophy. Nowhere is that more clear than in 1 Corinthians. (I shamefully admit that I shamelessly stole this analysis from Nathan Gilmour, great or otherwise.):
Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:27-31)
The echoes of The Republic should be clear--each has his place in life and in the life of the Church, and one must act within one's place. (Paul leaves open a desire for greater gifts but leaves it at desire--you can't make those happen; they must come from God, if they come at all.) Further, that your station depends on gifts rather than merit suggests there's not a whole lot you can do about it. You are what you are, and you have to operate as such.

Christian theologians through the years have softened these hard truths, for better or for worse. This post is already getting long, so I'm not going to go through a lot of them, but I do want to address John Calvin's view on contingency, both because I'm a Presbyterian and because I'm reading through The Institutes right now. Calvin expands and explicates the Book of Job on understanding God. Calvin's God is more understandable than Job's, it is true, but the end result is essentially the same:
Our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence; secondly, with it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him, and, having received it, to credit it to his account. For how can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handiwork, you have been made over and bound to his command by right of creation, that you owe your life to him?--that whatever you undertake, whatever you do, ought to be ascribed to him? (Institutes I.ii.2).
Calvin thus collapses knowledge about God into submission to Him; in the end, knowledge and submission become the same thing, since knowledge without submission gets corrupted due to human stupidity--which "is caused not only by vain curiosity but by an inordinate desire to know more than is fitting" (I.iv.1). True knowledge, true wisdom, and true submission are thus all the same thing, all bound up in what Calvin calls piety. To know anything requires a recognition of one's place in the universe and a submission to it.

Next time: Where it all went wrong, at least in America.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Calvin thus collapses knowledge about God into submission to Him; in the end, knowledge and submission become the same thing, since knowledge without submission gets corrupted due to human stupidity--which "is caused not only by vain curiosity but by an inordinate desire to know more than is fitting" (I.iv.1).

I'm surprised you resisted the temptation to quote Augustine's answer when someone asked him what God was doing before God created time.

The translation traditions on that Isaiah passage have always baffled me--after all, the conditional particles on all those clauses are identical, yet King James (and most translations that follow) render the first two as concessional ("even though your sins...") and the rest as more straightforwardly contingent ("if you do good..." "if you do evil...").

I know that the "though your sins be as red..." is a popular hymnal riff and a nice Protestant sentiment, but the passage should read like straight Deuteronomic threats and promises--after all, in those days, to be "white as snow" meant to have leprosy.

I know, I know. Not your main point. I should get to your main point.

Certainly you're right that covenant always involves one party surrendering to another, and you note well that the implications of that surrender all involve treating God as Lord rather than as Aristotelian friend. Obviously that gets mucked up in the more mystical bits of the gospel of John, but Paul shows up straightway to keep souls from wandering too far down that path. ;)

Michial said...

I had no idea it was a mistranslation. The way it's normally rendered sounds much better, doesn't it?

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

To a Calvinist, I'm sure it does. ;)

I've got no problem with grace's showing up in Isaiah--after all, Deutero-Isaiah (chs. 40-55) are nothing if not an anthem to divine grace on a sinful and destroyed nation. But to invent connotations for that conjunction for no good reason strikes me as sqirrelly.

stanford said...

So what I have been able to gather from my brief time perusing your excellent blog is that you are a Calvinist and an existentialist. I’d love to hear you talk about how these two interact. Existentialism puts ultimate premium on personal responsibility (‘condemned to be free’) while Calvinism puts ultimate premium on God’s sovereign, unilateral, will. I’ve been interested in this since I caught wiffs of Luther’s ‘Bondage of the Will’ in Kierkegaard’s ‘Practice in Christianity.’

Anyway, great blog (and interesting comments Nathan).

Michial said...

Thank you for your kind remarks!

My existentialism and my Calvinism can be traced back to a single source, which is the theology of Karl Barth.

In combining the two, I probably dilute both of them--as you note, they are on the surface incompatible, although I think my "Know Thyself" series of posts explains to some extent how they mesh together.

I do believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, and I believe in double predestination and the other points of Calvinism. (I, like Barth, am at least an emotional universalist, but I think most people are.)

But I also believe that predestination and free will are a terrible mystery of sorts, an odd combination that somehow works anyway. God controls everything, but we're also given free will, and that free will is valid only in as much as we recognize and submit to God's predestination.

I'm still an existentialist because I believe that existence precedes essence, though I would modify Sartre to say that there is a meaning to life--but it's not set out to us. We discover it through a Buberian I-Thou encounter with God.

I realize all of this is self-contradictory to some extent; I'm still processing how to put existentialism and Calvinism together in my life. But that's what I've got so far.

Thanks for reading. The dream of every blogger, best I can tell, is to get real discussion from people he does not know.