Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–A Contemporary Perspective

Some other voices

In the last class we learned from Anglican theologian Simon Oliver about Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of creation ex nihilo:  creation is not a temporal process but rather expresses the ontological relation and difference between the Creator and the created.  An Anglican contemporary of Oliver’s, Andrew Davison, on the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, explores the key Thomistic notion of “participation” in his book, Participation in God.  Davison says in the Prelude:

Approaching the world in terms of sharing and receiving should be the bedrock of a Christian understanding of reality, and of Christian doctrine. That is the claim of this book. The heart of that perspective, which often goes by the name of ‘participation’, rests in perceiving all things in relation to God, not only as their source but also as their goal, and as the origin of all form and character.

Another contemporary Anglican voice who has taken up the thinking of the earlier Church Fathers and Aquinas on this very deep and powerful notion of “participation” is Hans Boersma, who holds the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Anglican Seminary in Wisconsin.  Boersma has several books along similar lines.  In his Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, he says;

The broad consensus of the church fathers and medieval theologians – which in this book I am calling the Great Tradition – was not satisfied with merely observing “facts.” People were convinced that they could perceive the eternal mystery of the Word of God in these facts. This sacramental vision lies behind Augustine’s words quoted in the epigraph: “We have heard the fact; let us seek the mystery.” Over the past number of years, this Augustinian vision has captured my imagination, to the point that I have become persuaded that the church’s well-being depends on the recovery of this sacramental tapestry.

In other words, we seriously hamstring ourselves if we think all we need to do is to read the “facts” off the things of the world.  Rather, the world is like an icon.  The surface of things hides an infinite depth of understanding and mystery of which the surface is only the “mere matter.”  The Creator is there, hiding in all things, so to speak, if we only have the eyes to see what is beneath the surface.  All things participate in him, as a gift.  Let us then seek the mystery.  Theologically speaking, all human beings, as image-bearers of God, are invited in Christ to a deeper participation in the very life of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever.    That is what “participation” is all about. Thomas expressed it in the classic Exitus–Reditus theme: creation is a gift in which all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus).  It is another way of expressing the fact and mystery that God is love, and love is inescapably relational, according to a definite manner.

If we follow the way of Augustine, in a spirit of listening to and receiving truth from voices that are not Christian, let us now hear from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020), former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He wrote from a Hebraic perspective in his book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.  Rabbi Sacks makes the point, based on a great number of medical, clinical, and neuroscience studies of the human brain, that:

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.  Without going into neuroscientific detail, the first is a predominantly left-brain activity, the second is associated with the right hemisphere. 

Both are necessary, but they are very different. The left brain is good at sorting and analyzing things. The right brain is good at forming relationships with people.

To explore these matters of how our brains work is beyond the scope of this class. Let me just comment that Rabbi Sacks’ understanding is based on solid science and is not the same a discredited popular notions about the two halves of our brains. The two halves of our brains are constantly working in all that we so, although they have very different “modes” of receiving and understanding the world. In brief, the left brain is very good with focus and facts, but lacks context. The right brain is needed to get jokes and understand metaphors, the latter being essential to get beyond a too “literal” reading of the surface of the world.

Furthermore Rabbi Sacks tells us that the meaning of the universe is not to be found by looking only within the universe:

What made Abrahamic monotheism unique is that it endowed life with meaning. That is a point rarely and barely understood, but it is the quintessential argument of this book.

… The meaning of a system lies outside the system. Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. Monotheism, by discovering the transcendental God, the God who stands outside the universe and creates it, made it possible for the first time to believe that life has a meaning, not just a mythic or scientific explanation. 

Monotheism, by giving life a meaning, redeemed it from tragedy. The Greeks understood tragedy better than any other civilization before or since. Ancient Israel, though it suffered much, had no sense of tragedy. It did not even have a word for it.

To put it differently, the meaning of the Immanent Frame lies outside the Immanent Frame. To try to situate meaning inside such a frame by a flattened reductive modern mythos is to render the world meaningless, or what may be worse, to render it as having only self-generated subjective meaning that is essentially nihilistic. Such is the public irrationality of the postmodern world in which we live. Only the reality of an enfolding Transcendent order given by the God of love known to Abrahamic monotheism rescues the Immanent Frame from the tragedy of meaningless fate and chance.

Rabbi Sacks has also put his finger on a decisive difference between the Greek and Hebraic conceptions of Reality. Both conceptions have fed Western Civilization in deep ways. Scripture is written in both Hebrew and Greek, and the Greek philosophers undoubtedly made their mark on the Church Fathers. Christianity draws upon both its Hebraic and Greek roots, but in different ways. A meaning-filled redemption from tragedy through the acts of God in Christ restores to our world the possibility of seeing goodness, truth, beauty, love, and rationality as objective aspects of a good creation. In such a world, science and religion can be complementary and mutually supporting, just as the two hemispheres of our brains should be. Rabbi Sacks has said it very eloquently.

It is worth adding this beautiful reflection from the 3rd Century Christian apologist Origen, written around 230AD in his First Principles (II.11.4). Origen was deeply steeped in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek philosophy and is confident we can get to the root of things:

A desire to know the truth of things has been implanted in our souls and is natural to human beings. … When our eye sees the work of a craftsman, especially if the object is well made, at once the mind burns with desire to know what sort of thing it is, how it was made and for what purpose.  Even more, indeed incomparably more, does this mind burn with desire and ineffable longing to know the design of those things which we perceive to have been made by God.  This desire, this love, we believe, has been implanted in us by God.  For as the eye by nature seeks light and sight and our body instinctively craves food and drink, so our mind nurtures a desire, which is natural and proper, to know the truth of God and to learn the causes of things.  Moreover we have not been given this desire by God in such a way that it should not or cannot be satisfied.  For if the love of truth were never able to be satisfied, it would seem to have been implanted in our mind by the creator in vain.

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