The hypostatic union hard to understand?

Someone told me recently that he didn’t understand how Jesus could have two natures. He wasn’t saying merely that he didn’t believe it, but that he found it incomprehensible.

One thing we need to guard against is the idea that things which are hard to imagine are hard to understand. Imagining and understanding are different things. One or the other may be hard in a given instance, but the one being hard doesn’t have to make the other hard. Examples may be multiplied of things which are easy to imagine but hard to understand, and vice versa.

I suspect that some people have a problem with the hypostatic union because of the idea that two things can’t occupy the same place at the same time. But it’s important to remember that the divine nature, being spiritual, takes up no physical space.

If Jesus is God, then either he is like a centaur, being half God and half man; or he is fully God and fully man. Although, theoretically, an animal could be half human and half horse, there’s no way he can be fully human and fully horse, because part of the nature of human and of horse is to have a physical body, and he can’t have two physical bodies at the same time and in the same place.

But since it is not of the nature of God to have a physical body, there is no necessary conflict in conceiving of Jesus as fully God and fully man.

A nature is that by virtue of which a thing acts as it does. Thus, human beings walk because it’s our nature to have legs, and we think because it’s our nature to have an intellect. Jesus’ having two natures means that in addition to the things he does by virtue of being human, there are also things he does by virtue of being God.

He’s not half God, as if he can act like God but with only half the power. And he’s not half human, as if he only has one eye, one ear, one arm and one leg. He’s fully human, with a whole human body and intellect, and he’s also fully God, having existed for eternity and possessing infinite power, etc.

I don’t see the problem. I can understand people not believing this doctrine, if they already believe something which contradicts it (such as that God and man are of the same nature but at different stages of development). But I don’t see why it must be thought of as incomprehensible or self-contradictory.

The power of the damned

Bruce Charlton argues that the “self-damned” have the power to hurt God. In other words, people sometimes try to lash out at God by rebelling against him and doing evil things, even to the point of damning themselves eternally. And, Bruce says, it works: They do manage to hurt God, emotionally. Because if God couldn’t be hurt, then he would not be a loving father.

You can see Bruce’s post for his argument in detail. Here are just some random thoughts of my own, stimulated by the post and some of the comments:

* You say that when you love someone, you must feel sorrow when they suffer. But that’s not always the case. There have been times when my kids were suffering, yet I could barely stifle a laugh because they were being so ridiculous. Their ridiculousness arose from their ignorance and inability to see the larger context. I wasn’t sad over their suffering because I knew they would get over it in short order and be fine.

In this life we may suffer for a lifetime, but what is a lifetime to God? Who’s to say he doesn’t find our whining and complaining ridiculous, and see us as inflating our troubles because of our inability to see the bigger picture? What else could Paul mean when he says that our present sufferings are “nothing” compared to the glory that is to be? Why can’t God see them as “nothing”, being present, as he is, in the glory that is to be? Certainly he can understand why we see them as a big deal, from our limited perspective, but that doesn’t mean he must see them that way.

If, as some suppose, people in hell choose to be there, and if you pulled them out by force they would resist tooth and nail, because they can’t stand God’s presence, will they not seem ridiculous to God, and to the blessed, for choosing such obvious evil over such obvious good, due to self-inflicted blindness?

* If God is vulnerable to emotional attacks, why is he not vulnerable to physical attacks? Is it only because he is physically far away? If he came close enough that people could attack him physically, would he let himself be vulnerable to knife and bullet wounds, or would he defend himself against physical harm? If he defended himself, would it be through physical barriers like armor, or would he utilize supernatural means of shielding himself from harm? Are there no such means available to shield himself from emotional harm? [Obviously this assumes for the sake of argument that he is capable of feeling physical and emotional pain.]

* Certainly I would agree that God can know what the experience of physical and emotional pain are like, since nothing is beyond his knowledge or understanding.

* Saying that if God can’t feel sorrow then he also can’t love, seems to assume that love is ultimately a feeling.

Emotions are fleeting physical phenomena, arising from the fact that we experience life one moment at a time. As we go through a process we might feel one way at the beginning, another way in the middle and another way at the end. But if we could see the process as a whole instead of being limited to experiencing it in tiny segments, we would not experience it through a range of rising and falling emotions.

Also, we might feel differently in viewing a sorrowful scene, if we knew how it would turn out in the end.

* Emotions and physical pain in us seem to serve the purpose of warning us of danger, as well as deterring us from certain behaviors and encouraging us to others. God, not being susceptible to physical harm, has no need of pain to warn him of danger. He has no need of feelings to encourage him to do certain things and avoid others. For example he has no need of guilt as a punishment and a deterrent for sin, because he can’t sin; nor has he need of feelings of gratification and satisfaction as a reward for good deeds, for he does nothing but good by his very nature. Likewise if suffering in us serves the purpose of building character, God has no need of character-building.

Some thoughts on creation ex nihilo versus creation ex materia

“I answer that, As said above (Question 44, Article 2), we must consider not only the emanation of a particular being from a particular agent, but also the emanation of all being from the universal cause, which is God; and this emanation we designate by the name of creation. Now what proceeds by particular emanation, is not presupposed to that emanation; as when a man is generated, he was not before, but man is made from ‘not-man,’ and white from ‘not-white.’ Hence if the emanation of the whole universal being from the first principle be considered, it is impossible that any being should be presupposed before this emanation. For nothing is the same as no being. Therefore as the generation of a man is from the ‘not-being’ which is ‘not-man,’ so creation, which is the emanation of all being, is from the ‘not-being’ which is ‘nothing.'”

ST I, Q. 45, A. 1

“[W]hat is created, is not made by movement, or by change. For what is made by movement or by change is made from something pre-existing. And this happens, indeed, in the particular productions of some beings, but cannot happen in the production of all being by the universal cause of all beings, which is God.”

ST I, Q. 45, A. 3

St. Thomas is arguing, basically, that if God is the source of all being, then he had to have created ex nihilo. If he created from preexisting matter, then matter is a being which does not have God as its source. This holds true whether you believe that our universe is all that exists, or that ours is but one universe of a multiverse. In other words, even if you believe God is only God of our universe, he nevertheless can’t be the source of all being within even our own universe, if he did not create our universe ex nihilo.

Some believe God didn’t create ex nihilo, but merely formed things out of preexisting matter. But we know that all material things are formed from natural processes, going all the way back to the Big Bang. Even the “heavy” elements of which we and the earth are made are known to have been formed from the lighter elements hydrogen, helium and lithium, through the life cycles of stars.

So if God merely formed everything that exists, it seems that can only mean that he took a bunch of matter, compressed it into the singularity that existed just prior to the Big Bang, and somehow designed and shaped it such that after it exploded, it would form into galaxies, stars and planets, on which life would evolve — presumably according to a plan of his.

In which case the only difference between us, is that we believe God is the source of all the matter/energy that was compressed into the singularity, whereas those who deny creation ex nihilo contend that God took preexisting stuff and formed it into the singularity.

It has been argued (e.g. here) that God’s not being infinite (eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent) goes a long way towards solving the problem of evil. If he is not the source of all that exists and doesn’t have absolute power over it at every moment, then he can’t be held responsible for the evil that occurs. He does the best he can within certain constraints, but can’t do anything and everything he might want to do.

But even if God is not the source of all being, i.e. if matter did not come from him but is eternally preexisting, nevertheless, if he could form matter/energy into the singularity and guide and direct it such that it formed galaxies, stars and planets, and life evolved, all from natural causes — to do all that, wouldn’t he have to be effectively infinite? Wouldn’t he have to know pretty much everything about the universe, and have power over pretty much everything in it, in order to accomplish such a feat?

Whereas if he did not form matter into the singularity such that all things would develop and evolve as they have, and knowing and intending that they would do so, then it’s hard to know in what sense he may be called the Creator.

Is God’s infinitude unscriptural?

Some argue that God as described in the Bible is not like the Catholic idea: Infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being. (For simplicity of reference, I will refer to “infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being” all under the term “infinite”.) The Bible, they say, paints a different picture of God, not as an invisible, immaterial source-of-all-being, but as one to whom a man may speak face-to-face, and who works with what he finds in the cosmos (defined as “all that exists”) rather than creating everything from nothing.

I won’t identify to whom I’m referring that denies God’s infinitude, because I don’t want to get sidetracked on questions of whether a particular person said or meant what I think they did. I only want to discuss the ideas.

Quantity versus quality

Another way of putting it, is they claim that the difference between us and God is quantitative, not qualitative. If God is infinite and we’re finite, then there is a qualitative difference between us, not merely quantitative. This is because there can be no proportion between the finite and the infinite. If we are finite and God is infinite, then he is not 100 times greater than we, or 1,000 times, or a million times — resulting in a 100:1 proportion, or 1,000:1, or a 1,000,000:1 proportion, all of which might be huge but are nevertheless finite proportions. Rather, he is infinitely greater. Therefore there can’t be merely a quantitative difference between us, because you can’t quantify the infinite.

But they deny that God is infinite, and therefore maintain the idea of a quantitative difference only. God is what we are, only he’s much, much (though to a finite extent) stronger, smarter and more knowledgeable, and is also immune from sickness and death.

Those Greek eggheads

A problem that some express with the idea of God’s being infinite (as above defined) is that it comes not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy.

Rather than taking the Bible at face value, they argue, the early Church allowed itself to be influenced by Greek intellectual culture, and reinterpreted the scriptures and the Gospel in Greek philosophical terms, for the sake, I suppose, of making it more acceptable to that culture. And why make it acceptable? Perhaps out of pride? Or giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe for the purpose of spreading the Gospel more easily — even at the cost of corrupting it? Continue reading

An Apologetic for Heaven and Hell

Adam Greenwood argues in his post “An Apologetic for the Three Degrees of Glory“, that the Mormon system of three degrees of glory is more fitting than the traditional “binary” system of one Heaven and one Hell, because “God’s creation of multiple human creatures, endowed with multiple gifts and passions, in a world itself created in many facets, makes for decisions and relations much more complex than [C.S.] Lewis’ simple relation of the soul to God and the single decision yes or no.”

Adam is talking about the LDS (Mormon) doctrine of the Three Kingdoms or Degrees of Glory in the afterlife. In a nutshell, after this life you can go to “outer darkness” if you’re really, thoroughly bad and deliberately, explicitly and thorougly reject God. But most people aren’t like that and go to one of the three Kingdoms of heaven, the Terrestrial, the Telestial or the Celestial Kingdom; the Celestial, of course, being the highest and the one in which its inhabitants dwell in the very presence of God. (No doubt I’ve butchered the description somewhat, if so I apologize.)

Here is my apologetic for just one Heaven:

To be saved requires that you (1) repent, (2) believe and (3) be baptized.

Each of these is binary — a one or a zero: You repent or you don’t; you believe or you don’t; and you’re baptized or you’re not. Each is required: each must be a “one” and not a “zero”. Hence, salvation itself is binary: you’re saved or you’re not — all three boxes are checked, or they’re not.

What does it mean to repent? You’re not only sorry for past sins, but you resolve to sin no more. This resolution covers venial as well as mortal sins: you don’t resolve merely to avoid the “major” sins, but sin itself. Another way of saying this, is that you resolve to submit your will to God’s: “Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”. Mt. 5:48.

Translating this into Adam’s “yes or no” language, repenting or submitting your will to God’s (as also believing and being baptized) is a “yes” to God and to Heaven. Is it true that due to life’s complexities, there are also “no’s” mixed in with these “yeses”?

I would say that it’s true in a sense, and false in a sense. As stated, your repentance must be unconditional. You’re not merely repenting of “really bad” sins, while allowing for the continuance of “not so bad” sins. You’re repenting of sin itself, of placing your will above God’s.

Yet Christians still sin. I don’t deny this, but neither do I contend that venial sins negate one’s repentance. I may speak harsh words to my wife in a moment of anger, or lust after a passing woman, or say something untrue in order to spare someone’s feelings, yet remain in the “state of repentance”. I might die having committed such sins and still go to Heaven. Thus, our doctrine allows for life’s complexities, for a mixture of yeses and no’s.

But some sins do negate our repentance, and these are what we call mortal sins: Sins which involve grave matter, which are done with awareness of their sinful character, and with the full consent of the will. Thus for example deliberate murder or adultery. In this case we’re not talking about things done inadvertently or in the midst of an emotional fit, or involving trivial matters such as taking a pencil home from work; but gravely sinful acts done deliberately and in your right mind, like planning to meet someone and take them to get an abortion.

Such things do result in the negation of your repentance, because they are a deliberate placing of your own will above God’s. They convert the “one” of your repentance into a “zero”. Accordingly, your salvation also changes from a one to a zero, i.e. you forfeit Heaven through your own deliberate act.

Again, I contend that this system of doctrine does allow for differences or degrees of glory: Some may be saved who habitually give in to fits of anger, while others strenuously resist such emotions. Some may tell white lies for the sake of preserving feelings or keeping the peace, whereas others are scrupulously truthful in all things, while yet maintaining a spirit of charity. In short, some are holier than others, and will experience a greater glory. They will know God more fully because they have a greater capacity to know him. Everyone’s glass will be full, but some will have larger glasses than others.

There will in fact be not three degrees of glory, but an infinite number. And those who are most holy (with the biggest glasses) will have chosen God not merely as the only alternative to hell, but as more important than bodily pleasures, or indeed safety; more important than prestige and honors; more important than pleasing others to avoid disturbance: more important, in short, than any other consideration they may encounter in the course of their earthly lives.

Does Mormonism offer more (after death) than mainstream Christianity?

Bruce Charlton writes on his blog “Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany” (one thing about Bruce’s blog: He almost always gives me something to write about!):

“In general, Christianity seems to offer more, far more, than any other religion – greatly more than the ancient Judaism it displaced; we must die but after this there is resurrection in a perfected body, forgiveness of all sins, and eternal life in communinion with God and in His presence.

“And the most recent Christianity, Mormonism, offers even more than mainstream Christianity: not only eternal resurrected life with God, but to live this life in a marriage of total spousal love and with a perfected family community; also the possibility of eternal spiritual progression after death, perhaps including full divinization.”

(Bruce Charlton, “It seems that all actual religions are honest about what they themselves offer (but wrong about other religions)“, Bruce Charlton’s Miscellany, November 13, 2013.)

I question whether these things amount to “more” than what mainstream Christianity “offers”.

It can only be more if people in the other scenario are lacking something offered in this scenario. But what do the saints in heaven lack, in the mainstream Christian scheme? Bruce names three things:

  1. Eternal marriage;
  2. Eternal progression;
  3. Full divinization.

I’ll consider these in turn.

Continue reading

Why did the early Christians adopt metaphysical explanations for their beliefs?

“The early Christians didn’t adopt metaphysical explanations of their beliefs because it was stylish to do so. They weren’t trying to fit in among pagan intellectuals or make themselves popular with their persecutors and former persecutors. Contrary to what some Mormons think, neither is there any evidence of a cabal working to destroy God’s work and using Greek philosophy to do so. Instead, early Christian leaders were, first of all, responding to the real issues that confronted the Christian community as it was attacked from outside and as it encountered heresies within, heresies created or at least underscored as theological arguments and requiring response.

“Whatever the problems of metaphysics, apology is an unavoidable Christian activity, and apology often requires metaphysics. Perhaps eventually it always does. If you’re going to do apology, then you’re going to do theology, and unless you practice your religion in a vacuum, you’re eventually going to do apology of some kind. Q.E.D. for theology.

“Presumably, just as we sometimes run up against questions for which we feel an acute need for rational answers, early Christians were also, secondarily, responding to questions that arose in their minds as they thought about their religious lives. Apart from the challenges to religion made by skeptics of one sort or another — believers or not — genuine intellectual challenges arise as we think about our life before God. In a culture with a history such as that of the West, those challenges push us to demand answers that accord with reason. Unavoidably those answers will eventually be metaphysical / theological. Q.E.D. again.

* * *

“James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.”

James Faulconer, “Just say . . . whatever!”, Speaking Silence blog (on, December 9, 2010.

How to compare Mormon and Catholic teaching on marriage?

This post began as a comment to a post of Bruce Charlton’s titled “The traditional Christian concept of marriage is too weak“.

One of Bruce’s main points in the post is that the traditional Christian concept of marriage denigrates marriage, since it considers celibacy to be a higher state. In a comment Bruce also wrote, “Is it … surprising that Mormons are doing so much better a job of speaking out in defence of marriage, getting married, getting married young, staying married and having children, and having more than two children – than are Catholics?”

In response to which I wrote, in substance[1], the following:

In asserting that the traditional Christian view of marriage denigrates marriage, you are assuming the truth and validity of the LDS view.

If the default view of marriage were that it was for eternity, and then someone came along and said it should only be for this life, then you might be “denigrating” it by taking something that is properly eternal and making it merely temporal. But if it’s properly temporal, then calling it temporal is just calling it what it is, which does not denigrate it. You might say that calling it eternal magnifies or exalts it, but not-exalting something is not the same as denigrating it.

(Of course, even the LDS Church allows for merely temporal marriages, as well as temporal divorce. Temple-sealed marriages are held up as the ideal, but not as essential to marriage as far as I can tell (I welcome correction if I’m wrong of course). See, e.g., the article titled “Divorce” from the Mormon Encyclopedia, posted on the BYU library website.)

In the Catholic view, celibacy is a higher state because it requires giving up natural human goods in order to devote oneself entirely to God. This makes perfect sense within the whole Catholic context. Yet this doesn’t denigrate marriage. In the same way, giving away one’s money is a higher state than keeping it, yet that doesn’t denigrate keeping your money, as if you should be ashamed of yourself for having a checking account. And again, turning the other cheek is a higher state than fighting to defend yourself or your property; yet fighting in self-defense is by no means considered a bad thing.

As far as why the LDS Church does a better job at getting Mormons to obey Church teaching (granting for the sake of argument that that’s true), I don’t think that can be ascribed so simply to its teaching being superior. As discussed before, we’re comparing apples and oranges: The Catholic Church and the LDS Church are too different in too many ways to make direct statistical comparisons. There may be more Mormons, proportionately, who obey their Church’s teachings, but I contend that Catholics who obey their Church’s teachings find them just as fulfilling and derive as much benefit from doing so.

Asking why more Catholics don’t do it, is like asking why more people don’t stop sinning when living virtuously makes you so much happier. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t obey the Church, and a lot of reasons why the Church doesn’t do a better job of conveying its teachings effectively. But neither of these leads necessarily to the conclusion that the teachings themselves are wrong or inferior.

Bruce, in this post and elsewhere on his blog, seems to judge LDS teaching on marriage superior to the Catholic understanding (and that of other Christians), based on things like the divorce rate and how many children the average Mormon couple has, compared with Catholics. But all that tells us is that the LDSC is better at getting Mormons to obey its teaching on marriage (if even that). The efficaciousness of a church’s teaching has to be judged, not by the overall rate of compliance with the teaching, but by the effect the teaching has on those who obey it. It’s fallacious to compare a group with (to pick numbers out of my head) 70% compliance, to a group with 25% compliance, because then you’re comparing a bunch of people who obey their church’s teachings, on the one hand, with people who disobey their church’s teachings on the other. Your conclusion then amounts to something like, “Mormon teaching is better because obedient Mormons steal less than disobedient Catholics.”

When you find large numbers of Catholics getting divorced or having one or no children due to using birth control, what you have are large numbers of disobedient Catholics. Whereas it’s been my observation that Catholics who obey those teachings have just as stable, happy and fruitful marriages as any Mormon.

You may ask the question whether Mormon teachings are more conducive to being obeyed than Catholic teachings, and why (because easier? more inspiring?), and those are legitimate questions. But they can’t be answered by comparing divorce statistics and birth rates of a 2,000-year-old church[2] with over a billion members spread throughout the world, with a 180-year-old church with around 14 million members, nearly half of whom live in the United States, and a sixth of whom live in a single state (Utah of course). Correlation doesn’t equal causation.

[1] Bruce edited my comment before posting it, allowing only about half of it to appear. I don’t know why he felt it needed redacting. Maybe it was just too darned long.

[2] If you dispute that the Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, as undoubtedly many Mormons would, I think one can say without fear of reasonable contradiction that it has existed continuously for at least 1,500 years.

Traditional Christian concept of God borrowed from — the Indians?

I recently discovered the writings of W. Somerset Maugham. I don’t know how I avoided him my whole life, but now that I’ve found him I think he’s great. He doesn’t appear to be Christian at all, certainly not Catholic, but he does seem fascinated with religion in general. It could be that he was privately religious but didn’t choose to advertise it. (For all I know his religious leanings are common knowledge, but I’ve only just started reading him and know little of his biography.)

So far I’ve read On Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge. The following quotes from the latter caught my attention. In particular it struck me that some of the Indian religions seem to have a concept of God, or as they call it the Absolute, that in some ways is very like the traditional Christian conception. I’ve often heard it said that Christianity borrowed its ideas of God’s eternity, infinity and immateriality from the Greeks, but if so then maybe the Greeks got it from the Indians.

Of course there are major differences between these ideas and the traditional Christian God. But there are important differences between the Greek and Christian Gods too. What I’m struck by are the similarities.

These descriptions come from the character named Larry, who has returned from years spent in India seeking spiritual enlightenment:

“I was looking at the colossal image with its three heads which is the great sight at Elephanta and wondering what it was all about when I heard someone behind me say: … ‘Brahma, the Creator,’ he said. ‘Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer. The three manifestations of the Ultimate Reality.'” ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,’ I said.” ‘I’m not surprised,’ he answered, with a little smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, as though he were gently mocking me. ‘A God that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?'” [p. 252.]

“You talk very familiarly of the Absolute, Larry, and it’s an imposing word. What does it actually signify to you?” “Reality. You can’t say what it is; you can only say what it isn’t. It’s inexpressible. The Indians call it Brahman. It’s nowhere and everywhere. All things imply and depend upon it. … It transcends permanence and change; whole and part, finite and infinite. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.” [p. 260]

“You see, the difficulty is to explain why Brahman, which is Being, Bliss and Intelligence, which is unalterable, which ever is and forever maintains itself in rest, which lacks nothing and needs nothing and so knows neither charge nor strife, which is perfect, should create the world.” [p. 268]

There is no reason to think this next part was meant to refer specifically to the Mormons, but its description of God to me sounds a lot like what Bruce Charlton has put forth as the type of God belief in which might solve the problem of evil (which Bruce believes describes the Mormon concept of God):

[After having spoken of the problem of evil, Larry says,] “I didn’t see why you shouldn’t believe in a God who hadn’t created the world, but had to make the best of the bad job he’d found, a being enormously better, wiser and greater than man, who strove with the evil he hadn’t made and who you hoped might in the end overcome it. But on the other hand, I didn’t see why you should.” [p. 247]

And now the best, that is, the most expressly Catholic part, though again Maugham was not a Catholic:

[The character named Elliott says,] “Now call up the bishop and say that I wish to make my confession and receive Extreme Unction. … [L]ittle more than half an hour later a black sedan drew up at the door. … “Conduct me to the sick man,” [the bishop] said. … The bishop turned to the nurse and me. “Leave us.” And then to the abbé: “I will call you when I am ready.” …

Through the closed door I could hear the muffled murmur of voices. Elliott was making his confession. … I heard the bishop’s voice once more and I knew he was saying the prayers that the Church has ordained should be said for the dying. Then there was another silence and I knew that Elliott was partaking of the body and the blood of Christ.

From I know not what feeling, inherited, I suppose, from far-away ancestors, though not a Catholic I can never attend Mass without a sense of tremulous awe when the little tinkle of the servitor’s bell informs me of the Elevation of the Host; and now, similarly, I shivered as though a cold wind ran through me, I shivered with fear and wonder. The door was opened once more, “You may come in,” said the bishop. I entered. The abbé was spreading the cambric napkin over the cup and the little gilt plate on which the consecrated wafer had lain. Elliott’s eyes shone. [pp. 228-229]

W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge, London:Heinemann 1964 (first published 1944).