Sunday 2 September 2007

Divine and human agency: no competition

“Drama offers a sort of parable of the fact that the exercise of power resides at least partially in letting other people act. The secret is not to suppose that your agency is incompatible with the agency of others – that there is competition for a limited ‘space’ of agency. Your agency does not need to push the agency of others aside in order to triumph…. Just so, in dealing with the Christian God, we ought not to be in the business of identifying which actions are our achievements, and which God’s puppetry, in order to attribute relative quantities of power respectively…. The highest instance of power we have been given to know in the God of Jesus Christ does not compete for a limited arena so that it can exercise itself in brute solitude over against us.”

—Ben Quash, “The Play Beyond the Play,” in Sounding the Depths: Theology through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (London: SCM, 2002), pp. 102-3.


Anonymous said...

From ethics to miracles, from Intelligent Design to theodicies, if only we could get Quash's point, which goes to the very grammar of God-talk, not to mention to the heart of the ontology of God, and which is, of course, as old as the Fathers, we could save a rain forest of paper and an ocean of ink.

Unknown said...

Nice quote. I have been revisiting my own concept of transcendence and immanence in response to recent posting on Larval Subjects and Rough Theory. I know that art and aesthetics are still pretty "hot" right now but I would still maintain that it is a needed space of reflection as it continues to temper a modernist approach to the Bible and theology.

Heather said...

great quote. I'm just starting div school at Yale, and look forward to reading your blog.

kim fabricius' comment is great as well. so true.

Halden said...

Quash is von Balthasar Anglicanized. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

I'm having trouble understanding what it means to say that human wills can't come into competition with God's will. When Jesus prays 'Not my will but thine be done', I take it that it is difficult, even for Jesus, to submit to God's will. How can that be if his will can't compete with the Father's? There are also examples, such as Jesus' clearing of the temple, when Jesus' will apparently comes into competition with that of others. Why isn't that an example of competition?

I suspect I just don't understand the point being made here, but since several people have emphasized how important it is, I'd appreciate some clarification.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan,

As I began the comments, I hope you and Ben won't mind me jumping in here - on someone else's back! No one is a better expositor of Quash's point - which is a Thomistic axiom - than the late Dominican scholar Herbert McCabe. Here he is, inimitably, in Faith within Reason (2007):

"It is with God's activity as it is with his presence. He does not take up space. If I fill up a basket with apples and oranges, the more apples there are, the less room there is for oranges, and vice versa. The apples and oranges compete for the available space. But apples and God do not compete for available space... We do not say that the more apples there are in the basket the less room there is for God. The presence of God does not leave less room for the apples. On the contrary, it is because of the presence of God that the apples are there at all. We can say, 'There is nothing here except an apple', just because God is there too. The apple is not moved to one side by God. It is where it is because of God.

"Now it is the same with causality as with spatial presence...

"God's activity ... does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place. I am free; I have my own spontaneous activity not determined by other creatures, because God makes me free. Not free of him (this would be to cease to exist), but free of other creatures.

"The idea that God's causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature - a part of the world... But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference - which is the same as making no difference at all. So far as the kind of world we have is concerned, the atheist and the theist will expect to see exactly the same features. The only difference is that if the atheist were right, the question would not arise - indeed the atheist would not arise."

Thus McCabe. I hope you find him helpful.

Unknown said...

It appears that most of the readers here have a much greater theological framework to work from that I do and if any of you have the time or interest I would appreciate a critique of my recent posts in which I am engaging with an atheistic philosopher on the issue of immanence. Just click on IndieFaith above, it should be the most recent posts. I am posting this here also in response to my interest in what K.F. offered. I see them related to what I am working with. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Sorry, here is the link if needed.

Anonymous said...

betwixt the Spongs, hope!
this post is very encouraging, thanks. It is difficult to not fall into believing this way. Some days I want to be ruled (favorably) by brute force and others, not at all. What Quash describes leaves me responsible for me.

Halden said...

I love McCabe. I can't stop reading him these days.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

Thanks for jumping in and for going to the trouble to supply such an extended quote. It is helpful, and I think I understand the point, more or less. My confusion arises when I try to reconcile this vision of God with the vision of God we have in Jesus. There, we see God arguing, denouncing, commending, encouraging and a variety of other actions that imply a separation of wills - in competition or in cooperation, but either way distinct. Perhaps the resolution is that God is more than what we see in Christ.

Another difficulty I have is in seeing why we should accept this 'Thomistic axiom'. I'm not asking for a demonstration, just an incentive. Is its appeal that it solves so many theological problems? Or is it rather that it is interesting, or beautiful?

Anonymous said...

Hi again Jonathan,

The last conclusion one should draw from what I called Quash's Thomistic axiom is that God is uninvolved with the world - that would be deism; rather God is, although precisely not world, the world's pulsing heart, what Rowan Williams (by the way, a student of McCabe's), calls, in his new little gem of a book Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007), "the white heat at the centre of everything." Williams asks us to "think about an electric light burning. The electric current causes the light to shine, but that doesn't mean that the electric power is something that was around only at the moment you put the switch on, so that the light itself is a rather distant result. On the contrary, the light is shining here and now because the electric current is flowing here and now. In the same way, it is the 'current' of divine activity that is here and now making us real." I would only add that it is the same "white heat" that raised Christ from the dead.

You ask why we should accept the axiom, what is its appeal. McCabe and Williams - and I - would say that it reflects the nature of the God we see revealed in creation and redemption, the God revealed in scripture, focussed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is in Christ that we see that God's power is not competitive. Of course Jesus himself, fully human, though Spirit-empowered, must overcome the temptation to see God in competitive terms - and that is precisely the way to look at what is going on in the temptation and Gethsemane narratives. And Jesus does overcome this satanic temptation. Thus is God for Jesus - and, through him, for us - Abba, uncoercive love from tip to toe.

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