January 10, 2010

PURE GENEROSITY:

EXCERPT: Of God and Man: The Two Cities in the Third Millennium: chapter one from The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture (FRANCIS CARDINAL GEORGE, O.M.I., CERC)

At the heart of Christianity is a provocative claim: In Jesus Christ, God has become a creature, without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he becomes. Many pre-Christian myths and legends spoke of God or the gods "becoming" creaturely, but such incarnations always resulted in uneasy mixtures of the divine and the nondivine. Thus Achilles and Hercules are quasi-godly and quasi-mortal, their divinity compromised by theIr humanity and vice versa. But as the Greek and Latin theologians of the patristic period struggled to express their incarnational faith, they consciously abandoned this mythological construal. The council of Chalcedon in 451 expressed the radicality of Christian belIef when it said that in the divine person of Jesus Christ, two natures -- divine and human -- come together in a hypostatic union, without mixing, mingling, or confusion. This means that in Jesus the divine and the human unite without competition or compromise. Christ is not quasi-divine and quasi-human; in fact, Just such a mythological reading was rejected in 325 at the Council Nicea during the struggle against Arianism. Rather, Jesus is fully divine and fully human, the proximity of the divine enhancing and not weakening the integrity of the human.

But the condition for the possibility of such a claim is a new understanding of the nature of God. Finite things exist necessarily in a son of mutual exclusivity: the being of one is predicated, at least in part, on its not being the other. Hence, when one finite thing "becomes" another, it does so through ontological aggression and surrender: the desk becomes a pile of ashes through being destroyed by fire, and the lion assimilates the antelope by devouring It. Competition characterizes the play between conditional realities. Therefore, when the Church proclaims that in Jesus Christ the divine and the human have come together without competition and compromise, she is saying something of extraordinary novelty. She is claiming that God is not a worldly nature, not a being, not one thing alongside others. God is not in competition with nature because God does not belong to created nature; God does not overwhelm finite being, because God is not a finite being.

When Christian theologians, inspired by their faith in the Incarnation, attempted to name God, they accordingly reached for language that evoked this distinctiveness. Thus St. Anselm said that God is not so much the supreme being as "that than which no greater can be thought," implying, paradoxically, that God plus the world is not greater than God alone. And when St. Thomas Aquinas named God, he avoided the term ens summum (highest being) and opted for ipsum esse subsistens (the subsistent act of to-be itself).

Both of these theologians thought of God as non competitively transcendent to the realm of finite things and therefore totally immanent to all things as the cause of their being. God is transcendent cause, and therefore Christianity is not a form of pantheism or Emersonian panentheism; but God is therefore closer to his creatures than they are to themselves. God is not related to the world, for that would create too great a division between God and the world, but neither is God identified with the world. The transcendent God is within his creation as the cause of its very being.

It is from this understanding of God, rooted in but developed from Jewish faith, that the peculiarly Christian sense of creation flows. Because God is not one being among others but rather the sheer energy of to-be itself, God does not make the world through manipulation, change, or violence, as the gods of philosophy and mythology do. Since there is literally nothing outside of God, he makes the entirety of the finite realm ex nihilo, through an act of purest and gentlest generosity.


Posted by Orrin Judd at January 10, 2010 12:22 PM
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