Saturday, June 23, 2007

Radical Apologetics: the Dialectic of Opposition

Benedict Seraphim has an interesting post on his blog regarding the "dialectic of opposition" which he sees as the foundation of Evangelical Protestant theology. Let me let Benedict speak for himself:

One of the dominant concepts, if not the dominant concept, in the worldview and doctrines of Protestants is that of what is called the "dialectic of opposition." (Some might argue that this concept dominates most or all of Western Christianity as a whole, but that's for another debate at another time.) This concept, in Protestantism, posits an essential dichotomy, an either/or if you will, into the most fundamental of doctrines, resulting in the bifurcation of such things as Law/Gospel, grace/works, human libertarian free will/God's complete sovereignty and so forth. For Protestants, this "dialectic of opposition" is functionally absolute in these pairings. This is not simply a matter of distinction between essentially different things. After all, men and women are sexually distinct, but that distinction reveals an essential complementarity, not an essential opposition. So, for the dialectic of opposition, it is not the distinction that is the issue, but rather it is the reification of the distinction, a necessitating of a relationship of opposition between the things paired, and thus necessitating a disjuncture between the concepts/realities paired. If humans have libertarian free will then God is not completely sovereign. If it is of the Law then it is not of the Gospel. And so it goes down the list, pairing two concepts in opposition to one another, such that one is forced to make a radical choice between one or the other.

While he (rightly) acknowledges the biblical foundations of such language, he rather rightly observes that as used by many this dialectic

[For the] Orthodox this either/or setup, this dialectic of opposition, starts from an essentially heretical Christology. We're back to the wife-beating question. If Orthodox accept this framework, they either founder on the Scylla of Monophysitism or the Charibdis of Nestorianism. Orthodox must from the start deny the dialectic. The icon of Christ neither divides the human and divine natures in Christ, nor does it confuse them: it depicts the Person of Christ, in which are united the distinct human and divine natures, and which natures cannot be separated. But neither does the icon confuse the natures: What we see in the icon, is the Person, not the natures. Natures are not apprehensible by the senses. Persons are. (This is a very generalized summary of St. Theodore the Studite's defense, which builds on St. John Damascene's.)

I would certainly recommend Benedict's thoughtful analysis especially his defense of the doctrine of theosis or deification.

What caught my attention in Benedict's essay was an experience I had in my recent participation at the annual meeting of the International Society of Theoretical Psychology in Toronto. There were a number of paper presents that tried to position themselves as "transdisciplinary," a goal with which I am in fundamental sympathy.

Where I am not in sympathy is with the implicit use in many papers of the same dialectic of opposition that Benedict criticizes. Such a dialectic encourages us, for example, to see life a a "zero sum" game. By that I mean the very common idea that "my" success comes at "your" expense. Or, at a minimum, that "my" success in some way limits or makes less likely "your" expense. In economic terms, the dialectic of opposition sees wealth as static where (for example) free market capitalism sees wealth as something we can create by our own talents and hard work.

At its foundation the dialectic of opposition fails to take seriously the analogy of being (analogia entis) that sees all of the cosmos as in some way in correspondence or analogous to God. Some Orthodox theologians (for example, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides) dismiss the analogy of being out of hand. Others (for example, David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite) have a more sympathetic view.

In simplest terms, the analogia entis looks at creation as revealing God precisely by being not God, or other than God. In Hart's language. creation is a gift of divine love and an invitation to enter freely into communion not only with God, and in God, with the whole creation, our neighbor and ourselves.

Often in our spiritual lives, or maybe I should say, in our everyday lives, we find ourselves thinking in oppositional terms. When I do this, I find myself wondering how am I going to "fit in." And invariably to "fit in" I need to cut something off and/or tack something on. It is no wonder that for many, the Christian life feels like a mutilation.

What makes all of this talk of "fitting in" so attractive is that it sounds very much like the language of conversion. But conversion is not "fitting in." Conversion is that change of heart that allows me to be who I am in obedience to who God has called me to be from all eternity, and this is a very different thing.

It is worth noting that the Orthodox service of baptism (like the Catholic and other Western Christian versions by the way) begins with prayers of exorcism. In these prayers, we ask God to reach down from heaven and take hold of the candidate, even as He took hold of the Hebrew children in Egypt, and redeem him from the father of lies. In and through baptism we are taken out the clutches of Satan and up into the life of the Holy Trinity--we are "made partakers of the divine nature" as St Peter reminds us (2 Peter 1.4).

St. Irenaeus says that those of us who are in Christ are like iron in fire; as iron takes on the characteristics of fire while remaining iron, we take on all the characteristics of the Uncreated God while ourselves remaining creatures. Our understanding of how we can be like God while remaining different from God is what the analogy of being serves.

If God and I are in some, fundamental, opposite to one another, then the more I become like God, the less I become like myself. But the patristic doctrine is just the opposite: The more I become like God, the more I become myself, and so (paradoxically) different from God. This difference is a real distinction, but it is not an opposition. Or, as Benedict puts it, but for many Christians (and as a psychological reality, I would include here Orthodox Christians), "it is not just simply that Creator and creature are essentially distinct, but that they are opposed: the divine nature is holy, the human nature is sinful."

In this oppositional model, I simply cannot become, holy without ceasing to be human. And so, "because of the dialectic of opposition which sets human nature and divine nature at odds," Benedict concludes, "either there is no unity between God and man or there is no unity between Christ and the rest of humanity."

It is this search for unity through analogy that is an essential part of our spiritual lives as Orthodox (and orthodox) Christians. In paper after paper that I heard in Toronto, the search was less for unity through analogy, then it was a search for a shared agreement that left everyone with only half (or less than half) a pie.

In Jesus Christ, God the Father through the Holy Spirit offers us life in abundance. But this comes to us as a gift which must be both received and acted upon. We must develop our own gifts and work to help others develop their own. To repeat language I used in an earlier post, the former is the work of gratitude, the latter of justice, but neither exists apart from the other and the outpouring of God's grace in Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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