The Priority of Theology in Moltmann

The idea that the world will end with God’s final judgement is not originally a Christian concept, and not even a biblical one. Israel took over Babylon, and later Egyptian, ideas about justice in its own independent way, and reshaped them in the power of its belief in God.”–Jurgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness: The Gospel about Judgment and the New Creation of All Things in Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity of the Earth

Moltmann goes on to describe “The Day of the Lord” at the end of history as having two aspects in scripture —judgment of the past and bringing to light the new creation. In Egyptian thought about the afterlife “the human being is the sum of his good and evil anubisworks.” The weighing of these individual deeds, the weight of the heart, is the central feature of the justice which ends in a movement toward one of two possible destinations. The creative justice of God that takes into account not only deeds but sufferings and a concept of the judgment of God as the life-giving ‘putting right’ of what has gone wrong, does not appear in this scheme.

Moltmann is critical of this perspective and spends a good deal of time pointing out its flaws when looked at through the life and teachings of Jesus especially.  Judgment exists, but the image of a criminal court is replaced with an arbitration. Victims and victimizers must be brought together; they need each other for truth to reign. Furthermore, there is an emphasis on the communal, even cosmic, spheres. Moltmann, as most know, is an unapologetic universalist. Death and hell will be destroyed (I Cor. 15.26) . God will be universally glorified and every created thing will share in this eternal livingness.

What interests me the most in this chapter, and elsewhere in his writings, is that Moltmann does not try to deny, by ignoring or reinterpreting, that there are texts in the biblical canon that teach something closer to the Egyptian view—the dividing of humanity into friend and enemy, believer and unbeliever. Instead, he uses this fact to put forward the priority of theology over particular texts in the conclusion of the same chapter:

I recognize that Matthew, the Synoptic Little Apocalypse [Matt 24-25; Mark 13], and the book of Revelation talk about an anthropological dualism rather than about a theocentric universalism. For me, the casting vote was given by the Old Testament concept of divine justice for victims and the all-rectifying judgment of God. The different biblical traditions about judgment cannot be harmonized. A decision has to made on the foundation of theological arguments.”

Is God a French, Hippie, Karate Master?

After listening to an interview with Richard Rohr on the Deconstructionists podcast, it got me thinking about the idea of a “vulnerable” God, and I decided to revisit a recent discussion of various definitions of deity found in Eric Hall’s recent (November 2016 Fortress Press) book cheekily entitled God: Everything You Need to Know About the Almighty. Hall, a professor of theology and philosophy at Carroll College in Montana, wrote his book primarily for a younger podcast audience as it belongs to the Homebrewed Christianity series. I think his examination of the options and his peculiar way of imagining the issues is enlightening. He uses some clever and humorous images to draw out the parameters of the discussion. In summary, here are the key ones.

Karate Master—Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid is the  representative image of the stable god of Classical Theism. This God, like Miyagi is not easily provoked or moved, but don’t start messing with him. However, God’s power is also in line with his character. This power, character, and order underlies all existence since God is the Creator. As a philosophical explanation, Miyagi seems unavoidable as an explanation and ground of all that is, but, in Hall’s appraisal, he appears to lack the theology of the cross, the vulnerability, that is distinctive to Christianity. The creation has a certain autonomy to go its own way, but the relationship (in the familiar meaning of the word) between God and creation is a bit hard to understand. This is the basic conception of God that you can find among many Jews, Muslims, and Christians prior to the late middle ages.

Hippie—imagine having a fun-loving, Tai Chi practicing, drum-beating hippie aunt, if you don’t already. The God of process theology would be like her. The world is free to be whatever it wants to be. She will give you advice and try to call out your best self, but you are completely free. She is alongside you, not above you. The element that matters the most in this conception is relationality, the one that appears to be missing from Miyagi.

French—No one ever expected a young peasant girl to be leading the French armies, likewise, the God of Hermeneutics (think Caputo) upsets our expectations. The Joan of Arc God is a deconstructive self-revelation under the theology of the cross. The God of Hermeneutics/Deconstruction reminds us that the world can be other than it is at the moment and that God is not tame or even easily assumable into human language. It’s focus is the constant breaking open of our language. She keeps you off balance.

Hall argues that the Classical Theism, specifically in its Thomistic form, is where we need to begin. It is ontologically primary. He cautions that it’s important to not get this conception mixed up with what he calls the God of Voluntarism (what he calls the “Jersey Shore” view of omnipotence). But is a God who lacks any kind of vulnerability acceptable as an object of worship within the Christian faith? Can this God engage in a relational way? Can the insights of Process Theology and Deconstructive/Hermeneutic Theology be incorporated into the Classical schema? Part of the problem is that the stable grounding provided by the classical view is thought of as unrelated, when it is, in fact, deeply related.

Here is the summative quote for the chapter:

While Miyagi works perfectly well in a philosophical context, he won’t be able to do full justice to Christian theology and it’s biblical underpinnings, not without incorporating these important ideas from Hippie Aunt and Joan of Arc. If God is one who saves, God most be able to draw out of us our best, most unselfish possibilities, which means God must relate to us. So while God’s primary philosophical meaning has to do with the identity undergirding all things in the world, God’s biblical identity pertains to relating to this world and calling it back to the divinely pulsating melody not merely its own. The incomprehensible God is one who actively beckons this world, one who calls us to reject the disharmonies within the world as we’ve become familiar and even enhance, and stand once more in cosmic solidarity with both God and all of creation as God shines light on these things anew.

To my mind, this is a restatement of Classical Theism with reference to the criticism of the followers of Whitehead and Derrida. Much depends on how you interpret ‘biblical identity’. For some conservative process-relational thinkers, the descriptions of God in the scriptures are taken quite literally. If you’ve been around the block in these discussions, you know that the term ‘biblical identity’ does not have a fixed meaning for all parties. The anthropomorphism in the Bible can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Additionally, take even a term like ‘Almighty’, which is an expression that is not as obviously anthropomorphic. What does having all power, being the ruler of everything, mean? Does it refer to a voluntarist view of God ? Or does it refer to the view that God is the trustworthy and stable center of everything?

I believe that the classical definitions of omnipotence, immutability, etc. still hold, but certainly need to be invested with Christocentric meanings. If I’m reading Hall correctly, I imagine he would agree. In the podcast interview below, Hall makes the statement, “We can have this relational expression without saying that this defines the ontology of God.” Another set of questions revolves around how deep the vulnerability of God goes. Jesus on the cross is God in vulnerability, but is the Cosmic Christ, the Logos, the Word essentially vulnerable (Rohr)? Can a deep vulnerability coexist with an equally deep stability?51qcyri3hil-_sx294_bo1204203200_

To listen to Eric Hall discuss his book click on Episode 40 of Crackers and Grape Juice.


Bonhoeffer’s Christology

This past September the 2016 Dubose lectures at Sewanee were given by Rowan Williams on the subject of Bonhoeffer’s Christology, with a view to his ethics and politics. I was thrilled to be able to attend in person since the venue was only a couple of hours from my home in northern Georgia. Thankfully, the School of Theology  released the videos of the lectures (Lecture 1, Lecture 2, Lecture 3) a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the question and answer segments are missing. I do have some of them recorded (I was running out of space on my phone) and will summarize them when I get a chance. I won’t forget, for example, his response to a direct question about Donald Trump and the rise of nationalist demagogues in the world. Rowan explained that his renewed interest in Bonhoeffer was partly due to this phenomenon. Sewanee is an absolutely beautiful and welcoming campus, by the way. If you are ever nearby, don’t miss the opportunity to visit. The following is a summary of the three lectures.


Rowan signing a book for the fanboy.


Rowan began the first lecture with a history of German Protestant Christological perspectives leading up to Bonhoeffer’s time. Most notably, some Lutheran Christology put a radical edge on a persistent Christological issue, that of assuming a false spatial problem and then attempting to solve it. The Lutheran Kryptics, and Thomasius, a Bavarian Lutheran in the 1800s, in particular, essentially looked at this problem in terms of how much divine stuff you can squeeze into the finite and then asked what might need to be trimmed. Interestingly, when I was a theology student, this was the very issue I chose for my graduating thesis. I was interacting with Hicks’ (et al) The Myth of God Incarnate (1977) and found an awful lot of Lutheran krypsis/kenotic ideas like this out there as late as the 1980s. My thesis followed this path, arguing about what is essential to Godhood and what is non-essential (can be trimmed). However, all this is really unnecessary. For Rowan, The persistent problem in the history of Christology of seeing the two natures as competing for space becomes acute [in this view]…It leads to the unpalatable conclusion that the Incarnation is simply a matter of divine agency operating directly in the world by being transformed into a worldly agent, rather than divine agency being embodied in the genuinely finite, created agency of a human subject.

Rowan briefly discusses Karl Barth’s appropriation of the Reformation tradition. He leaves it open as to what the Barth of CD IV would say, but thinks that there is a good chance that Bonhoeffer’s lectures and writings may have had an influence on him. In particular, Barth’s statement,“The omni-causality of God should not be understood as his sole causality”, represents a change from his previous emphasis. After this historical excursus, Rowan continues by explaining how Bonhoeffer combined the two great Reformation questions, Luther’s “Can I trust God?” and Calvin’s “Is God free from our anxiety?”, into “Is God a God we need to placate or, alternatively, a God we can manipulate?” This is the ultimate heritage of the Reformation that he received. What was new in Bonhoeffer was his starting point.

In the second lecture, Rowan shows how beginning with Christ “for us” forms Bonhoeffer’s unique contribution to Christology. What does this entail? First, it means an encounter with Christ is much like running into a brick wall. Humanity seeks the death of the divine logos because we cannot bear to be told we are limited, to come up against our limit. The encounter with Jesus means that we either must die or we must kill Jesus. Bonhoeffer’s “for us”, here, means something like “for our good”.

Bonhoeffer employs some Kierkegaardian tropes, particularly those from Fragments and Training. Sin/untruth is our state, yet there is a hunger in human reason to encounter what it cannot conquer. The only way we can recognize that God in Jesus is “for us” is for him to come to us in hiddenness and non-coercion, in abandonment of proof, force, or external confirmation. The definition of ‘sinlessness’ means a life lived in full transparency with no defended territory. Bonhoeffer connects this to Luther’s pro nobis and pro me. This is not an individualist idea, but a recognition of my own being as untruth. My logos cannot live. I must recognize my limit through recognizing that I live in relationship.
Second, as we grow spiritually, we find that we should be “for others” too as the central feature of Christ-like-ness. Bonhoeffer famously characterized the church as “Christ existing as community”. We must “be there” on behalf of humankind, history, and nature

Bonhoeffer declares in several places that Christ is the center of all reality. The existence of this center, however, isn’t a matter of theoretical demonstration–comparing Christ to a system among systems. The church, rather, is the condition of the legitimate state as an achievement of human self-organization, without the centrality of church requiring or desiring some visible position within the realm of the state. We point to the ultimate order of God, an order of sociality. A body of people living in and from the truthfulness and lawfulness of God is absolutely necessary for the health of any political order. This is one form of the affirmation of human limits; the state isn’t everything.

The final lecture moves into ethics and politics. Here Rowan focuses on Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the “mandates”, or overlapping spheres of earthly life, that ordinarily should point beyond themselves as they are grounded in God’s own Trinitarian life and order. Mandates provide a structure that will eventually appear as the structure of Christ’s own life, the first beginnings of Christ-like-ness. The Christological transformation of human agency is to allow it to move more freely toward its goal, but it has got to be human solidarity itself which points to it.



All Saint’s Chapel at The University of the South, Sewanee


In this third lecture, there is a discussion of the ultima ratio (extreme case, last resort).This preoccupied Bonhoeffer due to the break down of these structures so that they no longer moved toward their ultimate goal of the divine will. In Nazi Germany the state set itself above the mandates of family, culture, and economics. Most of our history is that of prosaically living under mandate. Ethics is ordinarily boring, says Rowan. Steady scrutiny of ordinary habits of the social order, watching for imbalances, such as state over family or economy over culture, as we live out a life of representation and responsibility for others is our ethical task. But what happens when one mandate (state, culture, family) claims the right to override the others? It leaves us stranded. It produces a life or death choice as we discover an unwelcome freedom. This freedom has a radical character. It involves (1) the possibility of breaking the law to save the law, (2) the fact that this breaking can never become a new law that tells you that you are right, (3) and the acceptance of guilt (of either passivity or activity) as inevitable. You must accept the risk (tragic element) in trust. This is not a form of “situation ethics” says Rowan. It isn’t a suspension of the rules. Each case is unique, and you must accept the consequences. Only faithfully living our lives in ordinary times can prepare us for this.

We are responsible to work, share, provide for others in our lives so that they can, in turn, be responsible. To return to Christology proper, for Bonhoeffer, Christ has no identity apart from his solidarity with us. Christ wins no merit (Calvin) except what he wins for others is the medieval way of putting this. Christology means the commitment to the world in its untruth without self-justification. “Watching with Christ in Gethsemane” is the link between Christology, ethics, and politics.

**For some of Williams’ previous reflections on Bonhoeffer, see his sermon in Berlin Feb. 5, 2006.

Elizabeth Johnson on the God-World Relationship

Relation Between  God/World


Associated Theologians

Single-Action Theory God’s intentions are carried out in the overall purpose of the cosmos, not its particulars. Gordon Kaufman, Shubert Ogden, Maurice Wiles
Top-Down Causality Divine information/patterns flow into system as a whole, influencing the parts. Arthur Peacocke
Causal Joint Theory Insertion of divine influence at various levels (quantum, genetic…) John Polkinghorne, Nancey Murphy, George Ellis, Robert Russell
Organic Model The world is God’s “body”. Sallie McFague, Grace Jantzen
Kenotic Position God voluntarily limits power. John Hick, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, John Haught
Process Thought God provides initial aims and then lures. John B. Cobb, Ian Barbour, David Griffin, Charles Hartshorne
Source: Elizabeth A. Johnson. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (2014).

One will immediately notice from the chart that Johnson has limited her choices to Christian theological perspectives that take evolutionary processes seriously. Important theologians are also missing from this useful but limited classification. For example, where would you place Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being/ Unconditioned” (a very traditional, even classical, idea on the surface) ?  Would Jürgen Moltmann best be placed in the Kenotic or Process view? In any case, Elizabeth Johnson uses this discussion as a springboard in her book to discuss a view she is drawn to. The chart is mine. Johnson bases her choice on the classical, Neo-Thomistic, notion of primary and secondary causes. She is careful to note that the terms “primary” and “secondary” in this relationship are not on the same ‘level’.

Thus we must be clear that these two causes, ultimate and proximate, are not two species of the same genus, not two different types of causes united on a common ground of generating effects. They operate on completely different levels (itself an inadequate analogy), one being the wellspring of Being itself, the Cause of all causes, and the other participating in the power to act, as things that are burning participate in the power of fire. The relation precludes competition precisely because the living God, “source and goal of all things,” is not included among the “all things” that work by natural laws. The horizon cannot be included within the horizon. (p. 163)

Johnson makes several important clarifications in dialogue with the representatives on the chart above. One is that the artisan/instrument analogy sometimes used by defenders of this classical view should be replaced by the understanding that there is no mechanism asserted here (“God is not a bigger and better secondary cause.”) as there is, for example, in the ‘causal joint’ theory. As with most typologies, this blurs the edges separating some of the respective views. I suppose you could rearrange this material more  favorably as a series of circles within larger circles (regions) in order to do justice to the overlap.

Those interested in a complete defense of Neo-Thomist classicism would do well to look elsewhere, but if you are already drawn to this perspective, the further discussion in Johnson’s book of how it interacts with specifics of an evolutionary view of the world such as randomness, emergence, and death, is enlightening and imaginative.

Teilhard de Chardin on Various Evils


A friend at church is a big fan of de Chardin, and so I began re-reading sections of his Phenomenon of Man (1948) and some of his other writings over the summer. Overall, I’m impressed with the orderliness of his thinking. Despite some critical comments by readers about his mixing levels of explanationbio-32, on closer reading, he is really quite careful. I agree with Madeleine BartheIemy-Madaule, who said, “ may be that what the thinker in him was seeking was already known to the mystic; but he never let the mystic influence the thinker.

Teilhard’s view of the Cross as absorbing all evil into itself is too mythological for me, but I like other aspects of his thought such as the incorporation of telos into an evolutionary schema. I plan to return to de Chardin at some point, but a brief appendix on the topic of evil, where he gives a typology appears in Phenomenon, and it caught my attention. I think definitions of “evil” or “suffering” are critical to the discussion.

First: evil of disorder and failure. Right up to its reflective zones we have seen the world proceeding by means of groping and chance. Under this heading alone—even up to the human level on which chance is most controlled—how many failures have there been for one success, how many days of misery for one hour’s joy, how many sins for a solitary saint? To begin with we find physical lack-of-arrangement or derangement on the material level; then suffering, which cuts into the sentient flesh; then, on a still higher level, wickedness and the torture of spirit as it analyzes itself and makes choices. Statistically, at every degree of evolution, we find evil always and everywhere, forming and reforming implacably in us and around us. Necesarium est ut scandal eveniant. This is relentlessly imposed by the play of large number at the heart of a multitude undergoing organization.

Second: evil of decomposition. This is no more than a form of the foregoing, for sickness and corruption invariably result from some unhappy chance. It is an aggravated and doubly fatal form, it must be added, inasmuch as, with living creatures, death is the regular, indispensable condition of the replacement of one individual by another along a phyletic stem. Death—the essential lever in the mechanism and upsurge of life.

Third: evil of solitude and anxiety. This is the great anxiety (peculiar to man) of a consciousness wakening up to reflection in a dark universe in which light takes centuries and centuries to reach it—a universe we have no yet succeeded in understanding either in itself, or its demands on us.

Lastly, the least tragic perhaps, because it exalts us, though none the less real: the evil of growth, by which is expressed in us, in the pangs of childbirth, the mysterious law which, from the bumblest chemism to the highest syntheses of the spirit, makes all progress in the direction of increased unity express itself in terms of work and effort.

The final sentence could be seen as a summary of his views on evil and God.

…In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of the mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.



Charles Williams: The Third Inkling [Review]

I wrote the following for The Englewood Review of Books in February.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling Grevel Lindop OUP, pp. 493, ISBN: 9780199284153

Alice Mary (Smyth) Hadfield penned the earliest work about Charles Williams’ life. Because she had replaced Phyllis Jones as the librarian at the London branch of the Oxford University Press where Williams worked nearly his entire career, Alice was a beneficial source of information, but she was, arguably, too close to Williams to ever write a true biography. For some time this was all we had. Secondary literature, on the other hand, seemed ignorant of the facts that would begin to trickle out over the next decade. The introduction to Thomas Howard’s The Novels of Charles Williams (1983), for example, can confidently proclaim, “Charles Williams was not interested in the occult at all except during a brief period in his early life. One might be pardoned for forming the impression from his novels that he was quite caught up in the occult, but that would be a mistake.” We now know this to be false. Lindrop seconds previous research into this area. Williams was heavily involved in Jewish Kabbalism filtered through the modified Rosicrucian philosophy of A.E. Waite. There is also a hint that his parallel membership in the Lee-Nicholson group probably was not a casual preoccupation.

The same goes for his relationships. Details about his fantasy-romantic games were not initially revealed to the public. Enquirers were left with the understanding that he had an unusual appeal to a number of considerably younger women with whom he worked with or who attended his lectures; a phenomenon variously interpreted as everything from evidence of his holiness to a literal magical charm. Since the publication in 1989 of letters to one of his last interests, Lois Lange-Sims, we have learned more.

What we haven’t had is a complete story, weaving together the personal with the professional, poetic, dramatic, and theological strands of his life, which Grevel Lindop provides. Additionally, the author has added nine personal interviews conducted over a twenty-year period leading up to the publication of the book. The timeliness of the research cannot be underestimated, and the story is compelling. The biography both deepens ancharles-williams1d contradicts previous accounts, leaving the reader with a paradoxical portrait of a unique literary figure. Williams influenced many other writers, and indirectly shaped a generation of readers through his work as a senior editor. He should probably be given credit, for instance, for the introduction of Sören Kierkegaard’s writings to an English audience.

Lindop paints a detailed picture of William’s relative and continuing poverty which barred him from standard entrance into the world of academia in a class-bound society. The broken dreams of the working poor, together with Williams’ tenacity, create sympathy for him and hold the reader in the narrative when it threatens to become alienating. The author also does an admirable job of connecting William’s early experiences with his later life without becoming too intrusive with interpretations. For example, his poor eyesight combined with an intense imagination likely contributed, according to Lindop, to “… his lifelong sense that the world could at any moment dissolve into a magical realm of sinister unreality or heavenly illumination …” His father’s atheism and his association with a lively church-based discussion group in his teens are credited with providing the ground for his awareness of, and even sympathy for, pagan and secular perspectives.

These themes continue to be developed throughout the narrative. Of particular interest, especially in light of the church’s continuing dilemma in defining its relationship to sexuality and marriage, is his early fascination with Coventry Patmore (1823-1896). His writings were introduced to Charles by his enthusiastic friend and co-worker at Amen House, Fred Page. Williams later came to link Patmore’s hints about chastity, sexual
desire, and religion with Dante’s Vita Nuova and Milton’s Comus, to create his own vision of a world-accepting ‘Romantic Theology’. Set against the background of the cheap moralistic tracts aimed at the working class, the reader can’t help but sympathize with the revolt against the dour tendencies of the church of that age, but many will also feel that he didn’t display enough caution. As C.S. Lewis, in some of his earliest correspondence with an older Williams, summarizes, “…it all fits in perfectly and must seem to you almost like a trap…

Charles Williams’ soaring, syneisaktistic ideas on this topic would play themselves out in the mundane reality of a publishing house in London. One of the hidden strengths of the book, I mention in passing, are the carefully chosen details about the physical places Williams inhabited. His relationship to Phyllis, the first and longest of his extramarital ‘affairs’, was unconsummated. They both, for different reason, enjoyed each other’s company and even when the fantasy seemed to falter due to time, distance, or circumstance, it would rekindle with much the same passion as it had in the beginning. Phyllis never disappears entirely from the story. In one sense, his love for her was a surprise to him, but rather than reject his feelings, he seems to have accepted thbeatriceem as revelatory. This is understandable to an extent. Williams, and other mystics, would argue that the state of “Being in Love” is close to the experience of God. The true and painful oddity is not that he had an attractive and intelligent young girl who would play along, but that at some point he realized that a kind of sublimated sexuality released him to live and write creatively in a way that nothing else could. Hence, in her absence, he developed similar relationships with other women and, although there were periods of dormancy, this habit never entirely disappeared. Lindop sees this in terms of a growing addiction that increasingly agonized him as he saw what it was doing to himself and to others. He points to places in the novels and letters that expose this self-loathing, and retells his conversation with Lois where he admits of feeling incapable of having normal human relationships.

Charles Williams is considered a Christian writer. Many of his works provide an orthodox Anglo-Catholic perspective on a number of themes. Yet, they can be tantalizingly radical or, at times, even literal. The beautiful vision of a universe marked by fluid hierarchies, the broadening of divine providence into a co-inherence of all time and events, and the wrestling with pain and evil in unique ways, give the impression that he was straining to put into words truths just beyond his grasp. At his best, he is entirely believable, and even the most muddled parts can be useful for what they hint at. He was and continues to be an fascinating, if eccentric, lay theologian. The biography mentions all the important writings, but readers unfamiliar with Williams’ collected works will need to consult them to get a better sense of the theology.

While not discounting his importance as a Christian thinker, Lindop feels that Williams will, or should be, remembered mostly as a poet. He spends time tracing his belated development away from older, flowery forms after years of gushing praise from his early patrons. Sections of various chapters discuss his lifelong goal to publish his elaborate books of Arthurian poems and his influence on younger British poets, not all of who shared the same spiritual interests. Additionally, he makes a case that his most personal ideas are always encapsulated in verse.

It’s hard to imagine a figure as complex and interesting as Charles Williams not being rediscovered at some point, whether it is as a poet, theologian, or dramatist. Grevel Lindop has given us a valuable tool for doing that.


Grevel Lindop, a member of the Charles Williams Society and author of the new biography, speaking on the topic: Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, Who Was Charles Williams?.


Annie Dillard’s God

I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about ten years after it was published and wished I had read it earlier. She was one of few writers I felt an immediate connection with. I was hooked by her ambling curiosity and observations about nature coupled with witty, aphoristic reflections about life, death, and the divine. The writing was earthy and alive, not soaring or remote.  I hadn’t read enough at the time to know that she had pretty much single-handedly revived a literary form that had all but gone extinct–the personal essay. Since then, I’ve always wished that she would write more frequently, but the works that we do have are gems.

Pilgrim cont48ains a number of the themes and characters that have preoccupied Annie for a while. Julian of Norwich and the Kabbalists are there. Also present is the often terrifying engine of evolution that provides a counterpoint to easy claims to the goodness or power of God. Fecundity and death, both together, give us the impression that “…something is everywhere and always amiss.” The existential dilemma of the blindness of the natural world that plagued Darwin is taken up in many of her writings. Darwin had written about the strange fact that the “endless forms most beautiful” often were born from misery:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” (Origin of Species)

Annie similarly took up the problem of pain and has wrestled urgently with it for decades. Life as a whole is beautiful and grand, but the individual suffers and dies for apparently no reason. In fact, the individual seems to have little value. There is so much waste. Babies born with hideous deformities, parasitic wasps,…

“For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.” (For the Time Being)

And there is a lot of bad news we turn our heads from. Mostly because it isn’t happening to us or to people we know well. She claims that we cannot have it both ways. Either the individual is always at at all times infinitely valuable, or they have no worth at all. It messes with your mind to try to think this in relation to God, and Annie seems convinced that most religious answers throughout history have ended up talking pious nonsense.

“Rabbi Akiva taught a curious solution to the ever-galling problem that while many good people and their children suffer enormously, many louses and their children prosper and thrive in the pink of health. God punishes the good, he proposed, in this short life, for their few sins, and rewards them eternally in the world to come. Similarly, God rewards the evil-doers in this short life for their few good deeds, and punishes them eternally in the world to come. I do not know how that sat with people. It is, like every ingenious, Godfearing explanation of natural calamity, harsh all around.” (For the Time Being)

So what is Annie Dillard’s god like? Getting answers to this is a difficult task. Not wanting to be known as religious writer, she has consistently refused to interpret her own books regarding God. However, I believe that she has left us enough hints to piece together a coherent-enough picture. First, I think it is fair to say that the problem of suffering and pain is the landscape in which she stalks God. Jürgen Moltmann, in the post-WWII era, recognized that theology cannot be done any longer without taking into account the Shoah. Similarly, Annie cannot think about God without heeding the silences of creation in the face of suffering. “The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega. It is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; the whine of wings” (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Her biographical work, An American Childhood, and various interviews, inform us that this was an early concern of hers. A pastor had once lent her C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, in an effort to help answer her questions. In at least two separate works she quotes or mentions Lewis’ observation that no one individual ever suffers the sum total of pain in the world. For Annie, this served, to reduce the problem to a slightly more manageable size. Yet, this was only true to a point. The theodicy problem seemed to grow.

Probably the strongest clue to Dillard’s conception of God comes from her last true book, For the Time Being. There are no new pieces and only one unpublished essay in the upcoming 2016 publication. More than any other work, this addresses suffering as one of its primary themes and pulls together her thoughts on the subject.

In the book she quotes Augustine. “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.” This apophatic principle is echoed throughout the Christian tradition, but is an especially foundational concept for those from the mystic and existentialist inheritance.  One can find it in Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil, for example, two thinkers that Dillard is fond of. This is a perspective that claims an answer to the problem without resorting to mental contortions. God is not a being among beings, an actor in the play. God is, rather, in Paul Tillich’s memorable terminology, “The Ground of Being”.

Another view that has some appeal to Dillard is the narrative of Kabbalistic /Hassidic mythology, particularly as expressed by Isaac Luria. She characterizes it as panentheism (the presence of God in all creation), and she notes (in 1999) that it is the secret belief of a good many theologians. Today, in 2016, it isn’t much of a secret. However, panentheism is a broad term that can mean many different things. Specifically, for Kabbalism, it is interpreted as the necccesity of God ‘withdrawing’ some of god’s self in order to create; a poetic and spatial way of describing the autonomy of creation. Yet, deep within the structure of the world are order and life (imaged as divine ‘sparks’), waiting to be released by humanity in the process of restoration (tikkun). In Luria’s imagery, God obliterates himself to achieve this.  The metaphors are beautiful and bold.

In the end these two views are voicing one related proposition that can be summarized:

“God is—for the most part—out of the physical loop of the fallen world he created, let us say. Or God is the loop, or pervades the loop, or the loop runs in God like a hole in his side he never fingers. Certainly God is not a member of the loop like the rest of us, passing the water bucket to splash the fire, kicking the bucket, passing the buck.”

Or put another way:

“It is fatal, Teilhard [de Chardin] said of the old belief that we suffer at the hands of God omnipotent. It is fatal to reason. It does not work. The omnipotence of God makes no sense if it requires the all-causingness of God.”

This is about all that can be said. There is a healthy dose of agnosticism in Annie Dillard’s definition of God. Although she ultimately differs from Emil Brunner on a number of issues, his insistence that “God remains a mystery [Geheimnis] to us even in revelation” is not too far from her emphasis. As a result, she is reluctant to give much to another group you might expect her to agree with, the Whiteheadians. The attempt, according to her, to subject “our partial knowledge of God to the rigors of philosophical inquiry…is an absurd but well-meaning exercise.” 

Annie Dillard’s idea of God may be informed by a variety of sources, but it is profoundly in harmony with traditional Christian belief and practice. I leave you with what I see as the clearest statement of her view concerning God

 from the same book. Judge for yourself.

“Sometimes God moves loudly, as if spinning to another place like ball lightning. God is, oddly, personal; this God knows. Sometimes en route, dazzlingly or dimly, he shows an edge of himself to souls who seek him, and the people who bear those souls, marveling, know it, and see the skies carousing around them, and watch cells stream and multiply in green leaves. He does not give as the world gives; he leads invisibly over many years, or he wallops for thirty seconds at a time. He may touch a mind, too, making a loud sound, or a mind may feel the rim of his mind as he nears. Such experiences are gifts to beginners….”

“Does God budge, nudge, hear, twitch, help? Is heaven pliable? Or is praying eudaemonistically—praying for things and events, for rain and healing—delusional? …True prayer surrenders to God; that willing surrender itself changes the situation a jot or two by adding power which God can use. Since God works in and through existing conditions, I take this to mean that when the situation is close, when your friend might die or might live, then your prayer’s surrender can add enough power—mechanism unknown—to tilt the balance. Though it won’t still earthquakes or halt troops, it might quiet cancer or quell pneumonia. For Tillich, God’s activity is by no means interference, but instead divine creativity—the ongoing creation of life with all its greatness and danger. I don’t know. I don’t know beans about God.
Nature works out its complexities. God suffers the world’s necessities along with us, and suffers our turning away, and joins us in exile. Christians might add that Christ hangs, as it were, on the cross forever, always incarnate, and always nailed.”


Praying Mantis

The praying mantis: beloved by gardeners, but not her mate.