The Sublime Experience of God

If there were a singular term which could include the moral, rational, cosmic, and divine as part of a realization or part of an experience, the term “sublime” may come closest. At any rate, I want to build on the term, to name the ultimate Christian experience or to locate the point of Christianity. To call this an “experience” may already be problematic due to the way we presently divide up our world, but this is also part of the point. There is the need to reunite fundamental human experience with an explicit moral and cognitional content which accounts for the individual before God in the world.

In common usage, the sublime is a combination of experiencing fearsome, overwhelming phenomena such as a raging storm at sea, threatening cliffs or mountains, towering thunder clouds, before which we are normally reduced to insignificance in comparison to their power, but in the sublime experience, instead of feeling diminished, we are able to take it in and feel our own soul or imagination enlarged. As a boy in Texas, there were several occasions in which on a long ride, alone on the prairie, I was surrounded by distant thunder storms, an endless expanse of wilderness, and rather than being frightened I felt a great thrill, which I equated with an experience of God. I could not name this sublime experience, but I presumed correctly (I am now convinced, fifty years later), it was the center of my newfound faith.

There is a terrible beauty that makes of the fearful something attractive the more fearful and powerful it is, as long as we find ourselves in safety. As Immanuel Kant describes the situation,  “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and a superiority over nature…whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion.”[1] The sense of safety and wellbeing is at once physical (involving all of the physical senses) and yet it is centered in our soulish or cognitive capacity.

The problem with Kant is that he identifies the safety of the sublime with objective reason. He equates it with suprasensible reason or the recognition that it is through cognitive capacities or powers of reason that humans can count themselves above nature. It is not just that he may be confusing reason with God, but I believe he fails to understand the experience of God inherent to the sublime.

I think we can go beyond Kant, but Kant himself points beyond what he calls reason, by describing the pleasure of the sublime experience as mixed with something like displeasure or what he calls negative pleasure. Where he characterizes experience of the beautiful as a positive pleasure, the sublime calls forth an admiration or respect which he characterizes as a negative pleasure. What he did not have the psychological vocabulary to describe, but which he seems to be aiming at, is the notion of a limit experience.

A limit-experience is what it feels like to be undone, or to have the notion of the self as a unified subject thrown into question. A limit-experience according to Michel Foucault, is that which wrenches the subject from herself and which throws into question the notion of a unified subject. If we think of Freud’s reading of Kant, in which the reason behind his categorical imperative is identified with the superego, this negative pleasure might be mistaken for a simple masochism or what Freud called a moral masochism. That is, by not acknowledging the supreme limit which the sublime might be challenging, Kant neither faced the limit experience of death, nor the manner in which ultimate unity is linked to the divine. In other words, he fails to connect the sublime experience to the limit experience definitive of Christianity and in this failure, he fails at both ends of his description of the sublime.

He does not recognize that the ultimate experience of nature is to take it in all at once, either in the simple wonder at the fact that a world exists or in recognition of creation ex nihilo. His picture of the world and of human imagination limited it to a priori, necessary, and stable structures which he considered inherent to the world and necessary to the mind. His thought about the world (there are absolute and necessary laws) structured his depiction of the powers of human imagination.  He allowed a role for intuition, but it was an intuition dependent upon an already existing framework of the mind. As Cornelius Castoriadis notes, “the imagination remained bound to functioning in a pre-established field in Kant’s theoretical work.”[2]

Castoriadis turns specifically to creation ex nihilo to suggest an alternative understanding of the human capacity for creation. He acknowledges that there may be a set of historical or natural conditions linked to creativity in general, but these conditions are not sufficient to account for that which is truly creative. Kant’s notion of the sublime only points to a derived realization. Much like the problem of cosmological arguments for God, the God that might be conceived within these arguments tends to be fit to the pattern of reason which implies his existence from the world.

Kant not only limited the extent of the human imagination in its positive mode, he also did not account for the height of the obstacles it might overcome. It is not simply creation from nothing, but the human experience of this creation power in resurrection faith, which he misses. He maintains that the sublime gives one a sense of immortality, but what should be posed against this intimation is the simultaneous recognition of one’s mortality. As in Paul’s definition of Abraham’s resurrection faith, he had faith in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17). The existential realization of the reality of death and God’s ability to give life to the dead is the personal realization of his power to create from nothing. In other words, Paul is depicting the limit experience of death (as in the living death of being old and unable to have children) with the capacity to conceive of creation from nothing.

Kant is instructive as, in his failure of thought, he helps locate the distinctive difference contained in the Christian experience of the sublime. The overwhelming power and danger of the world are not subdued by an innately immortal soul, or immortal reason, but by the specific death dealing work of Christ. Just as the most powerful force in the world is the big bang behind creation from nothing, so too the personal realization of this power is to be had in Christian resurrection faith.

This is the Christian sublime: the simultaneous recognition of the overwhelming power and danger of the universe exploding into existence and the existential recognition that this power is unleashed in our own life in resurrection power. The ground of sublimity lies within each of us as we reflect upon what might be taken as fearsome, formless colliding galaxies and planets coming into being. Or as it says in Genesis, the world was a chaos in the beginning but in verse 2 the Spirit hovered over the waters and brings order out of the chaos. The same hovering, indwelling Spirit brings order out of the chaos of the human mind. This chaotic power brought to order within ourselves and in the world describes the ultimate sublime experience.

 Being quite young, and having no name or developed understanding of Christian doctrine, I had no way of putting flesh on my first experience of the sublime.  I thought it enough to reproduce the situation, returning continually to the prairie, so as to re-experience the wonder.  As the years went by and I was taught to be more rational, and not to confuse faith and experience, my moments of bliss were whittled down. If I had been properly discipled, properly indoctrinated, I would not have been turned from these early experiences but I could have been turned to exploring and understanding them. Of course, we cannot live in continuous wonder and joy, but by putting a name and understanding to this experience, we can at any time or place experience the epiphany of the sublime.


[1] Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 261–262. I am referencing the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Kant’s notion of the sublime.

[2] (Castoriadis Reader 319-337).  See https://iep.utm.edu/castoria/#SSH3aiv

Resurrection as the Personal Realization of Creation Ex Nihilo

The understanding of the world against which Christianity is pitted is one which begins with the world as we know it, as its starting point. This “world as we know it” sort of understanding might explicitly postulate the world as absolute (an infinite uncreated universe or a universe unfolding from a preexistent material) or it might, in its misconstrued Christian form, implicitly give final weight to the present cultural moment. An example of the latter, giving rise to the presumed order of the logic of Christianity, begins with creation (as “naturally” conceived as in the philosophical arguments). It is assumed that we have access to creation and that we build upon this understanding sequentially till we add in the order of salvation. Like the traditional prolegomena, it is presumed a basic knowledge of God and the world are given together and the story of salvation can be added on to this foundation. The influence of this distorted beginning shows itself, almost as bluntly as Greek philosophical understandings, in its treatment of the doctrine of resurrection. Of course, bodily resurrection made no sense in any of the Greek philosophical understandings, but it is shunted to one side even among Christians focused on creation ex nihilo. For example, creationists’ reaction to evolutionary biology, focused as they are on proving a First Cause sort of creator, seem to miss a key point of the resurrection: biology is not the primary human problem. Creation ex nihilo, then, if it is not paired with resurrection, misses the existential import it bears in the Bible and early Christian preaching.

There is some debate as to how explicit or fully realized the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is in the Old and New Testament, but what is clear is that Christian apologists of the 2nd century A.D., in defending the doctrine of the resurrection, fleshed out the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in its fullness.[1] Resurrection would require of Platonists, such as those encountered by apologists like Tatian (120-180 A.D.), a complete reconception of their world. It would demand a rethinking not only of God, but of humans, and of the material world (which was its own sort of absolute). The scoffing reaction of the Areopagites to Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 17.32) indicates the overwhelming change the Gospel called for.

It was not just a matter of accepting resurrection, which would have been seen more as a damnable condition than salvific, but it was a matter of changing up the dominant world view in such a way as to make resurrection seem either plausible or desirable. Within a Greek frame, flesh involved a necessary corruption which could only be escaped by shedding the body and becoming an immaterial soul (not so unlike the continued understanding of a Greek influenced Christianity). Later, Celsus (as recorded by Origen) will mock the despicable lengths to which Christians are willing to go so as to make it seem any human soul would want to occupy a body that had rotted and which will continue to rot. “God in no way is able to do shameful things, neither does he wish things contrary to nature.” As Celsus will explain, God is reasonable and being reasonable he would not preserve the body, which Heraclitus tells us, “is more to be cast off than refuse.” The material and the corporeal are subject to chaos and corruption, and are subject to unreason, thus the reasonable soul must be rid of them.  “God is not willing or able irrationally to make everlasting the flesh which is full of things which are not beautiful. He himself is the reason of all things.” [2]

Seen from the stand-point of resurrection, it is obvious that death and corruption were the primary factor in the Greek conception of both God and the world. God cannot overrule the primary law of death and corruption which mark the material universe, and are separated out from his order of reason. God, equated as he was with reason, was eternally opposed to the discord and disorder of matter and this opposition constitutes an eternal dualism.

To be on the side of God would mean being part of the Greek polis, the counter-ordering of the city of man, built upon the implicit absolute of death. Controlling death, warding it off through religion, disciplining its chaotic inclinations through law, religion, sacrifice and the counter violence of the city, constitute(ed) the imposition of reason in this chaotic world. Much like the doctrines of penal substitution and divine satisfaction in Christianity gone bad, the price of not controlling the violence through violence, is to succumb to it.  But of course, these doctrines have arisen like pagan sacrificial cults on the presupposition that God must negotiate with and attempt to defeat the corrupting power of death, which controls the universe and which opposes him. This is a misreading of the universe, a misunderstanding of God, and a perversion of the Judeo-Christian hope.

The Jewish Scriptures are founded upon God’s creative control over the universe, and though there may not be a full development of creation ex nihilo, there is an explicit counter to divinizing any element in the world or to making any element of the world, divine or material, its source. Genesis seems to counter the violent Babylonian creation myth (or its equivalents), the Enuma Elish, in which the body or blood of the god, Tiamat, slain by Marduk, is the raw material of the created order. As a story of origin, Genesis purposely subordinates the chaos. Though it mentions the “confusion and emptiness,” it is subject to God and his organizing rule. The gods of the Enuma Elish were born from Tiamat and Apsu, the salt and fresh waters (Enuma Elish 1.1-12), but it is God who separates and organizes the chaotic waters of Genesis. The mythological sea and its chaotic waters always threatened, but in Jewish understanding the threat is eliminated. The waters are subject to God’s ordering and are a part of his creative artifice in Genesis. As Job explicitly has God inquire:

“Or who enclosed the sea with doors When it went out from the womb, bursting forth; When I made a cloud its garment, And thick darkness its swaddling bands, And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, And I said, ‘As far as this point you shall come, but no farther; And here your proud waves shall stop’?

(Job 38:8-11).

 It was also a common belief that the heavens are of a different, divine order, than the sublunar world. This notion is also completely thwarted.  The Hebrew texts picture God as the originator of heaven and earth: “Thus says God, Yahweh, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, who hammered out the earth and its produce. Who gave breath to the people upon the earth, and spirit to those who walk on it” (Isaiah 42.5). The oneness of God, as opposed to a duality between God and the gods or the principles of the world, means there is a uniform order between heaven and earth.

“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’ I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.”

(Is. 45:18-19, RVSCR)

As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[3] Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos, is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world. His personified wisdom precedes all of the elements of the world and there is nothing dark or threatening but all of creation is an ode of joy at the display of his wisdom: “The Lord created me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From eternity I was established” (Proverbs 8.22-23). Reason or wisdom does not stand opposed to the created order nor does it illicit escape from this order, rather it is on display throughout creation. This wisdom from eternity is linked with all of creation; the springs, the hills, the fields, the heavens, the skies, and the clear depiction of a boundary put upon sea.  Throughout the Proverb, culminating with human creation, wisdom is described as the master workman (v. 30). So, what is prior to creation is God and the personified wisdom of God.

Here there is no dualism between the created order and reason, or between heaven and earth, or between the realm of God and the realm of the world. In fact, the world is consistently depicted as a fit dwelling place for God:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is the footstool for My feet. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, So all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord.”

(Is. 66:1-2)

Only God can prepare his dwelling place and he has done so by calling the world into being.

While this and many other verses seem to teach creation ex nihilo, it might be denied that they do so, as this doctrine is not a developed or universal understanding among Jews or even among early Christians. (For example several of both faiths view Plato’s creation account in the Timaeus, which depicts the world as created from a preexistent chaos, as borrowed from Moses.) Creation ex nihilo is implied and perhaps it is present in certain texts, but it will not become a definitively developed doctrine apart from belief in resurrection.

The development of the doctrine is clearly tied to the advent of belief in the resurrection, even as it developed among Jews during the Maccabean revolt. A mother encourages her son to submit to submit to martyrdom by looking to the origin of creation, and she ties this to the assurance of resurrection:

“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.  And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”.

(2 Maccabees 7:28-29)

As Alison describes it, two things come together here, as for the first time we encounter the concept of creation ex nihilo and with it a conception of resurrection. With creation there came into being the human race, and so one can challenge the present social order, even upon pain of death, knowing that the social order is itself contingent. God is alive and exuberant and has nothing to do with death or the social order, such that it is a light matter to die rather than become subject to social purposes. What is coming into view is the implication of the work of Christ.

This is as close to an explicit teaching of creation ex nihilo as is to be found among the Jews, and yet it is also tied to an implied resurrection. The question is why this should be the case?

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible serves as an antidote to violent creation myths and it even provides explanation as to how these myths arose. The early chapters of Genesis supply ample material, which Paul calls upon in Romans 1, to describe the turn from worshipping God to deifying parts of creation. The notion of creation ex nihilo, or its near equivalent, is typically called upon in refuting idolatrous religion, and yet this is not enough, as Paul will point out. Though the people Paul is describing had ample knowledge of God and his relationship to creation, this knowledge is inadequate as a point of resistance to death dealing practices. “For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed” (1:25). The specific cause which Paul points out,“they became futile in their reasonings” and in “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Ro. 1:21-22). Their problem is not that they have insufficient information about the First Cause. As Paul will work it out in the course of his explanation in Romans, their acceptance of false views of creation are tied to their orientation to death. As he says at the end of this first chapter, knowing that these things deserved and were tied up with death was no deterrent. They approved of wicked deeds, and knowing they were tied to death was perhaps, an impetus to do them anyway (1:32).

The specific triangulation which he comes to in chapter 4, with the depiction of the faith of Abraham, is that Abraham came to near simultaneous conclusions concerning death, creation, and his being the father of a new sort of nation: “(as it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist (Ro. 4:17). The capacity to believe God can call into being that which does not exist is a direct correlate to believing he gives life to the dead. These two beliefs are at the center of a new identity, based on resurrection faith. This faith, which recognizes the gratuitous nature of God in creation and in regard to rescue from death, is very much tied to Abraham’s relationship to the law. The law has no hold on him; it does not pertain to his benefits and holds out only wrath (4:15), yet faith renders it irrelevant.

All of this though, comes to Abraham as part of his own existential journey into a reorientation to death.  His faith became a realization as “he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old” (4:19). Likewise, it was the recognition that Sarah’s womb was dead, combined with his faith that God could bring life from out of death, that brought him to “being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform” (19-22).

What Abraham, as the prototype of Christian faith comes to, is the understanding that his is not primarily a biological or material problem. Death reigns only for those who, in their sinful orientation, imagine they must negotiate life on the basis of death. Death is put in its place by faith in God, and the faith which is no longer oriented by the sinful orientation, is enabled to put the material order and the corporeal body in their proper place (along with the law).

Even in the sequence of the writing of Genesis, it is the realization of Abraham that precedes the writing of the early chapters of Genesis, so that proper access to creation is enabled by the disabling of death and the idolatrous reification of death, by which Abraham is surrounded. The access to creation is always enabled in the same way. In this sense, creation ex nihilo and resurrection are not simply book-ends at the beginning and end of time, but pertain to this present moment. Where matter, death, biology, and time might be experienced as barriers which block out ultimate reality, faith recognizes that the world, the body, the material order of the cosmos, are the conduits for presently participating in the life of God. Creation understood in light of salvation turns out to be an unfolding of God’s eternality to his human offspring.

 The danger, even with a misconceived creation ex nihilo, would be to imagine that there is a sequence from nothing to something, as if nothing is an actually existing stage in the order of things or a stage which accompanied God prior to creation. The sequence upon which we depend is not marked, as William Lane Craig, has pictured it, as God shifting from his eternal intention (in which nothing accompanies God) to his causal power. The existential encounter with God in the reality of death, empties out the tomb and empties out this reified conception of nothing. The recognition of the power of resurrection in the midst of death opens up recognition of God’s abiding presence in and through creation.  


[1] This is the claim and explanation of James Noel Hubler in his dissertation Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas which can be accessed at https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2119&context=edissertations

[2] In Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.14

[3] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, Herder & Herder (April 1, 2004

Reason Dependent on a Reified Nothing: From Genesis 3 to Kalām

The concept of nothing or emptiness in Scripture is connected to the concept of creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), to the idol (which Paul declares is nothing), to the concept of death (the biblical depiction is of being brought to nothing), and to the empty tomb of Christ. It is connected to evil in a twofold sense, in that Paul concludes the idol is nothing (nothingness reified) but then immediately warns that this particular brand of nothingness is demonic (I Cor. 10:19-20). The reification of nothing, or making nothing an absolute something, characteristic of idolatry, is a process that is not halted in being exposed, as it is the characteristic form of sin and evil in which nothing “comes alive.”

One way of characterizing the problem raised by natural philosophical arguments is that the category of nothing or absence is made to come alive through the form of reason in which these arguments are packaged. Nothing and darkness are made a positive experience in Anselm’s cosmological and ontological arguments (“God I have seen you, yet I have seen only nothing and darkness”), which is not just any old mysticism and rationalism, but it is the characteristic form of thought taken up by Descartes and modernity. Nothingness and emptiness have come to play a key role in the “virtual reality” (the marker of nothing, zero, illustrates the necessity of nothing behind the virtual) that is the modern, which is neither recognized as virtual nor equated with sin and evil, as it is the nihilism of foundational reason (nothing made something) that has come to dominate in theology. Below, I sketch the biblical depiction of sin and evil (revolving around nothing (death, absence) made something), which has been obscured, and explain, in part, the how and why of this obscuring as it is interwoven with the rationale of the kalām cosmological argument.

The devilish or the demonic in Scripture, from Genesis 3, is not portrayed as a positive ontological force which opposes God, but as a corrupting sub-personal entity which would alienate and empty out the presence of God. The serpent appears in Genesis 3 from among the creatures, out of creation – it appears and disappears. The perspective sold by the serpent is the immanent frame (a closed universe) in which knowing (epistemology – “knowing good and evil”) is attached to being (ontology – “you will be like gods”). Death is denied (“you won’t die”) but is displaced by the positive knowing and being which, I presume, are not exposed in the subsequent experience of shame and alienation. The isolating, alienating factor of sin, its death denial, and its exponential mimetic desire (in the first pair and their offspring) will all become part of the biblical depiction of sin. What is offered in place of life is death, in place of God shame and absence are held out as divine experience. In place of naming and knowing God, a knowing which refers back to itself (the reduplicated “I”) is taken up.  And this is always what the arche, the principle of the world does; it constitutes a closed world in which nothing is made an absolute impassable boundary. The idol is an unobtainable object which creates exponential desire which gives rise to child sacrifice.

Paul equates sin with this same idolatrous desire which comes to grip everyone, as they are confronted with the law and they find that their own “I” or ego is as unobtainable as an idol. The death connected with this desire can either be a slow masochistic struggle with one’s own body of death, or it can just turn to murder or idolatrous slaughter (Rom. 3), but the point is to gain, through death, what was withheld by desire. This is why Paul connects universal death with the spread of sin, as death evokes the response which characterizes sin.

The mistranslation of Ro 5:12 and Augustine’s formula for original sin (all somehow mysteriously sin in Adam) reverses cause and effect, so that instead of death spreading to all and giving rise to sin, sin is made the cause of death such that anyone subject to death has to have been thought to have somehow sinned. In Paul’s original argument, it is the reign of death which accounts for the spread of sin and not vice versa. Interwoven throughout the passage is the universally observable truth that death reigns (“death spread to all men” v. 12; “death reigned” v. 14; “the many died” v. 15; “death reigned through the one” v. 17; “as sin reigned in death” v. 21). As Paul concludes in verse 21, “sin reigned in death” and not the other way around. Sin’s struggle, in Paul’s explanation, is a struggle for existence in face of the reality of death. The biblical picture in Genesis and Ro 5 accords with the obvious reality that we all have the problem of death.

The human project is to extract from the mortal that which is immortal, to make the perishable imperishable and this is what Paul calls sin. Notice that the sequence of events in I Cor 15:55-56: O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Paul is describing a law, given power, through sin’s orientation to death.  This law of sin and death pertains to any law, any symbolic framework, which would reify nothing.

A different way of saying all of the above, is through a misconstrued creation ex nihilo (as Jacques Lacan first recognized), in which nothing is posited as that out of which every subject generates himself. The self consists of a three-fold dynamic in which the symbolic order (the law) names and posits an object (the ego – the “I”) which is nonexistent, and the drive or dynamic to grasp or obtain, is death or the death drive. In this depiction the human subject is a continually generated creation ex-nihilo. Like Martin Heidegger’s vision of a vase, as structured around and containing nothing, or actually creating a void, this named void describes every idol. This captures Paul’s depiction of the subject that would displace God: the law acts as father creator, and the ego is the object he would draw from the nothing, and this dynamic of death serves in place of life.  On the way to thinking and grasping after being, there is a generation of nothing. But this exercise is continually reduplicated in various human undertakings, whether religious (idolatrous religion but also every sacrificial form of religion), philosophical (Conor Cunningham runs this down exhaustively), or in the philosophical arguments for God

Many things reduce to nothing, but it is the way in which philosophical arguments providing for the initiation of the theological project have introduced nothing into the heart of theology which is my present concern. It is not so much the legitimacy of the various philosophical arguments for God but the form of reason with which they are connected and to which they give rise, which requires scrutiny. As I have previously claimed, the danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The “reason” that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is the implicit necessity which Hegel and Schelling expose. The peculiar modern form of thought, which René Descartes is usually credited as fathering would generate or identify being with thought (“I think therefore I am”).  The move is a reduplication of the lie of Genesis 3 in its claim to life through knowing, and can be directly traced to Descartes’ deployment of Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm illustrates the same move in both his cosmological and ontological arguments, as in his cosmological argument all thought ceases before the ontological divide but in the latter, there is a singular thought of God or the name of God which begins from the other side of this ontological divide in which immortal being is grasped (though this greatest thought does not allow for any other thought, such as thought of the created order).

 A more obvious and pervasive incidence of the same thing is the Kalām cosmological argument, which develops as part of the Islamic version of scholasticism as an attempt to establish and defend the tenets of Islam. The Arabic Kalām literally means “speech, word, utterance” and is derived from the expression Kalām Allāh (Word of God) and refers to a special mode of thought and argumentation. Kalām denotes then, not just one argument, but the discipline within Islam, and eventually Judaism (as in Jewish Kalām or Kalāmists), which will be absorbed by Christian scholasticism and western rationalism which will foster the same abstraction and the same gap between God and his word. The controversy surrounding the “Word of God” in Islam (is the Word created or part of the essence of God) marks the problem as it will arise in Christian scholasticism regarding the person and work of Christ. The focus on the equivocal or analogous as opposed to the univocal and propositional, describes the gap brought about in the peculiar abstractions surrounding and prompted by kalām.

Knowing God on the basis of the world is obviously very different than knowing God through Christ, which is not inherently a problem, but the first sort of knowing has historically come to interfere with the second order of knowing. It has given rise to a reason to which the Logos of Christ is made to adhere. It is not simply that the argument falls short of the personal God of the Bible, but it fosters a cause and effect notion in which God might be an extrapolated cause of reason, behind or before the universe, but is removed by the very mode of the argument from our words and world.

William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world.” Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated.[1] What is implicitly made to differentiate and divide is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates.

God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

This is not so different than imagining that God is self-caused, as if there is a division between the being of God and the cause of that being – one that allows for the thought of God. This supposition, as worked out in Schelling and Hegel, is not simply necessary for God but it is a necessary move to posit reason as its own sufficient ground. Reason as absolute – the reason of God – cannot be constrained or contingent lest it be caused by something beyond pure reason. Eternity, for Schelling, holds out absolute freedom as that which is enjoyed by a Will which wants nothing as it is wanting in nothing. It is actualized – or in the language of Craig, it becomes a causal power – when it actively and effectively wants this nothing (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Only nothing can avoid the possibility of some determinate content, but this is a nothing made something, so that God himself is produced through the creation ex nihilo of pure and perfect reason. The formal conversion of nothing into an actively sought after “nothing” accounts for the absolute “ground” of God’s coming to himself. “The blissful peace of primordial freedom thus changes into pure contraction, into the vortex of ‘divine madness’ which threatens to swallow everything, into the highest affirmation of God’s egotism which tolerates nothing outside itself” (Indivisible Remainder, 23). Otherwise nothing would ever happen. What Schelling and Hegel expose is the necessary role of negation and nothing in absolute reason.  

God serves as his own ground and posits himself in the absolute freedom and rationalism of the enlightenment. An argument which will deliver God, is an argument in which reason is posited as more primary than belief in God.  The strength of the argument depends upon the strength of the reason deployed and absolute reason depends upon a conclusion arriving at the absolute. Craig’s version of the kalām argument depicts the gap of nothingness which the argument brings to life.

The point of the incarnation, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, is to erase the reifying lie inherent, not only to modern rationalism, but surrounding the impetus to alienation and death (he who would save himself). Where the cosmological argument assumes that something exists, then argues from the existence of that thing to the existence of a First Cause or a Sufficient Reason of the cosmos, Christian believers presume to encounter God in his essence in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in. There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God, but what stands in the way of this revelation is the insistence on a sufficient knowledge apart from the act of God.


[1] “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf

Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.