Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wholly Other?

Trigger Warning: Theology talk! I'm going to try and bring it around to something practical, but no guarantees.

In a recent series of blog posts, Theologian and Philosopher Tom Oord discussed a book by Keith Ward and specifically his contention that the "social Trinity" is a bad idea. I have not read Ward's book, only Oord's take on it.

I won't comment on the book or Oord's argument - you can read all that for yourself, but I do appreciate his willingness to re-examine theological ideas that were developed in a more concrete, Greek-influenced time. I believe sometimes Oord tries to do this in ways that continue the more logical nature of theology that I'd like to critique, but, then again, he is a Philosopher, so it might be expected.

Regardless, this post came to mind as I found myself thinking about the phrase "God is wholly other," in some reading this week. It's a very common phrase, especially in theological circles, so common it's easy to brush over without giving it much thought. For some reason I thought about it this morning. Specifically, I thought about why I don't like it very much.

As Oord and, presumably, Ward, are challenging the notion of "social Trinity," they're not really challenging it. Neither man, I believe, fundamentally disagrees with the principles this theory is trying to maintain, what they do disagree with are the implications of expressing a particular combination of core beliefs in this way. There's no challenge to the idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being divine, but simply pointing out that this particular way of explaining how that works presents some extra-biblical problems as its worked into the larger corpus of theology.

I kind of feel the same way about God being "wholly other." This is a pretty basic tenet of systematic theology that speaks to the substantive difference between creator and creation. They are different in as many ways as two beings can be different. I'm not entirely sure, though, if we can't also say those two entirely different beings aren't also the same in some ways - or at least similar. Perhaps the notion of God as wholly other needs, if not theological, certainly grammatical reconsideration.

The very notion that humans are created in the likeness of God leaves some pause for how we understand "wholly other." I get that we're trying to prevent the assumption that God is some sort of perfected human (and thus nip in the bud the notion that humans can stumble upon salvation without divine help). But as a good Wesleyan (often called semi-Pelagian by my more reformed brethren), I can't discount the ways in which God has chosen to involve creation in the ongoing story of existence.

The whole of scripture, tradition, and experience testifies to a partnership between God and God's creation in the unfolding of reality. god has and does enable creation to participate in its own salvation. It sort of makes Pelagianism obsolete in that creation cannot do anything on its own since God has already been inextricably involved in the core processes that lead us to recognize the need for salvation.

I get that we want to emphasize a difference between God and humans so as to prevent us from getting grandiose ideas about our own abilities, but by engaging in incarnation, God blurs some of those lines beyond true definition. God became a human being; the creator became the created, and no matter how we want to define orthodoxy, that statement seems vitally important to Christian thought, even among those groups excluded by Nicaea. It seems difficult to claim God as wholly other when God specifically chose to become like us. Wholly other creates a distance between God and humanity that God personally bridged.

It shouldn't be that hard for us to say God is God and we are not, without creating these substantive categories that separate creation from Creator in sorely unbiblical ways.

The other element of this, though, is the understanding of purity. Holy means set apart - this is where "wholly other" comes from. A holy thing is consecrated for a divine purpose and must avoid co-mingling with the common to preserve its holiness and, in some sense, maintain universal order. This lead to the strict rules about contamination that existed throughout the Hebrew world. This notion protects us from a kind of casualness in relationship to God that leads to, say, modern "Christian" music that sounds more like love songs to Jesus and the immortal Buddy Christ.

That's an important, worthy goal, but it also needs to be kept in check by the witness of God in Christ - the one who moved through the crowd and instead of being corrupted by the touch of an unclean woman, reversed the process and restored her health and inclusion. This is certainly a God unlike anything we've seen in creation, but this God appears more concerned with removing the notion of "wholly other" and bringing reconciliation. The same Christ who prayed that his followers would be one as Son and Father are one.

I understand that in the end we're saying that there still remains a distance between creation as it is and creation as its intended to be. The great apocalyptic of scripture foretells a future uniting of God's realm with humanity's and an eternal joining of the created with creation. If this picture of reconciliation is both our foundation and our future, we must be more creative in the ways in which we talk about God and human.

Wholly other is wholly inadequate for a God of such great love and grace.


Thomas Jay Oord said...
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Thomas Jay Oord said...

Great stuff, Ryan! I'm with you in disliking the phrase "wholly other." The best I can do to affirm it is if one simply means "God is not us." But most people seem to use the phrase to mean "God is not like us in any way at all." That makes no sense, and I think it undermines the broad biblical witness, the majority of the tradition, reason, experience, and more.

Thanks for your post!


PS> One minor suggested change: my degree is in theology and philosophy of religion, so it's not quite to true to say philosophy is my primary training.

Ryan said...

I removed the "by training," part. You're still the most philosophery non-philosopher I know.