The Word of Old: Tradition, Revelation and the Impossibility of Revolution (pt. 2)
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As thinking attempts to transcend its limitations, something eventually surfaces, gradually spreading across the intellectual horizon, merging with it, finally ending up being almost indistinguishable from it.
This elusive, yet ever present, something is time.
One can point out two ways in which it draws the attention of the observant mind.
First, time is disclosed to our senses in a way that is immediately, yet oddly unceremoniously, paradoxical: although there can be no doubt that time exists, it is also utterly impossible to demonstrate its existence empirically; whereas all sensual experience requires presence of its object, the presence of time is utterly elusive – it cannot be perceived as “being here” yet it certainly “was there” the moment one uttered a word about it.
Second, time is essentially related to purpose/s of human act/s; everyone knows that every end, for which men labor, has to be set in the future; everything we do, we do in temporal sequence where the end is always understood in terms of “what will be here”. This was well known to ancients, as exemplified by the way both Plato and Aristotle, no matter how seemingly differently, formulated good as both ethical and metaphysical principle. Everything is done for the sake of some kind of good, while everything that is exists because it is by and for the good, be it in the sense of the ultimate causal exemplar or the ultimate exemplary cause.
So, if the future is so important for everything, how come we know nothing certain about it?
Moreover, how come we seem to be naturally conditioned to know nothing certain about it?
These questions, we would claim, can motivate one peculiar pitfall the human thinking can fall into.
It is a demand to be able to know the future and, consequently, to predict what will be.
At the first sight, the demand appears to be quite justified: if everything we do is related to what will be, then it is only natural that we demand to know what will be beforehand.
However, for some reason we just don’t know it.
Admittedly, we can conjecture from the effects towards the causes and then further, towards the possible future effects, but this is not enough. The knowledge about the future remains uncertain.
But, if no good deed goes unrewarded, as the saying goes, is it not only natural to expect a proof? After all, life teaches us more to the contrary and, if we are to judge by appearances, rewards bestowed on selfless and noble acts tend to range from humiliation to death.
If one should do good acts even to one’s own detriment, wouldn’t it be just to disclose to him this greater good for which he sacrifices his immediate goods?
In a word, why are we not, by nature, fitted to prophesize?
Although the pre-Christian antiquity knew quite a lot about tragic inability of men to live up to what oracles revealed – and more often than not concealed – the form the question acquires here indicates to something new.
It is personal in a highly nuanced way.
It discloses that the one posing it addresses the one who could provide the answer as if they were somehow, if not downright equal, then at least congenial in nature.
There is an air of audacious intimacy about it that would’ve been quite alien to a hybris fearing ancient Hellene approaching the Oracle at Delphi. And that did not pass unnoticed by educated opponents of nascent Christianity.
For this reason we’ll consider a passage from the classic apologetic work where two mentalities clashed in the most comprehensive way:
“Celsus thinks that if something has been predicted by some sort of foreknowledge, then it takes place because it was predicted. But we do not grant this. We say that the man who made the prediction was not the cause of the future event, because he foretold that it would happen; but we hold that the future event, which would take place even if it had not been prophesied, constitutes the cause of its prediction by the one with foreknowledge. And all this is present in the foreknowledge of the prophet; if it is possible for a particular event to happen and possible for it not to happen, either of these alternatives can come to pass (…) Celsus (…) says: “He foretold these events as being a god, and what he foretold must assuredly have come to pass”. If by ‘assuredly’ he thinks ‘necessarily’, we will not grant that to him; for it was also possible for it not to happen. But if by ‘assuredly’ he means simply that ‘it will come to pass’ – and nothing prevents that from being true, even if it is possible for it not to happen – then my position is in no way affected. For it doesn’t follow from the fact that Jesus correctly predicted the actions of the traitor and of the one who denied him, that he was responsible for their impiety and wicked conduct. He saw his evil state of mind, since according to our scriptures, “he knew what was in man”, and perceived what he would venture to do as a result of love for money and lack of loyalty (…)” Origen, Contra Celsum.(Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2008.),II: 20 – II: 23
In this passage, Origen puts forward much more than just an apologetic of incarnate God – he, as we’ll attempt to show, also outlines the understanding of the nature of time and its relation to inner reality of things. By doing so he provides us with one possible distinguishing point, one subtle detail that could help us observe how palaios logos of the ancients was imbibed by Christian revelation, and to also indicate where the danger of, we would claim, specifically Christian hybris, might lay.
The passage is a remarkably succinct snippet of Origen’s point by point refutation of the pagan Celsus’ attempt at, what we might call today, “deconstruction” of the union of divine and human nature in Christ; of course, this is not related to dogmatic debate that will come forward between Christians themselves in later centuries – and by that time Origen’s own legacy will not bode very well, too – but an answer to an outsider’s objection on incomprehensibility of the way in which Christians view God.
The object of the polemical attack is Christ’s divine ability to possess certain knowledge of the future, as exemplified by his prediction of Judas’ betrayal.
Celsus cannot fathom how Christians can, at the same time, hold Judas to blame for the ultimate crime of betraying his teacher, while Jesus himself clearly predicts that this will inevitably come to pass; obviously, Celsus assumes, Judas’ actions are predetermined from eternity, because Jesus is God and nothing occurs against His will or, in other words, nothing occurs unless He directly causes it. Therefore, Judas didn’t have any free agency in what he did, because it couldn’t have occurred otherwise; moreover, to expand on Celsus’ assumption, we could infer that his act of betrayal and subsequent suicide were necessary to initiate the Calvary, so he was either a puppet of God’s deterministic blueprint or even, as both some ancient and modern writers conjectured, the foremost among the Apostles; the one who helped accomplish the ultimate good – a betrayal that led to redemptive death of God.
These objections, Celsus is placing at the feet of the young Church, ring astonishingly familiar to modern ears. The reason could in part be just a residual effect of both the main tenets of Christianity and certain predispositions of human intellectual proclivities remaining unchanged from the antiquity, but, bearing in mind the quality of non-Christian philosophy of the time – Plotinus was a younger contemporary and, in all probability, co-student of Origen at the feet of Ammonius Saccas, the founder of what is now known as Neoplatonism – the objection in part comes out as subpar.
Being subpar, however, doesn’t mean being negligible, still less harmless.
Origen is apparently aware of this when he flatly rejects the first possible meaning of Celsus’ attack – the assumption that the foreknowledge is the cause of the event as if the act of knowledge is at the same time an act of direct origination. The implication here is that everything occurring, both among humans and beings in general, is solely an effect of direct divine causation, where all things are just playthings in the hands of higher power; if God had no foreknowledge – or wouldn’t bother enacting it – there would’ve been nothing occurring.
However, in Origen’s view, prophetic insight, even in the sense of God’s providential knowledge about the contingent future events, is not identical with direct causation; if that were the case it would not only mean that the necessity of divine knowledge of what will be destroys the very contingency itself – by erasing all other numerous causes manifesting various acts the universe, both visible and invisible, consists of – but also because it would degrade the necessity qualified by eternity into necessity qualified by constraint.
For example, the fact that it is necessary for humans to die and the fact that it is necessary for God not to die are not expressing the same kind of necessity, although the qualifier “necessary” has been predicated of both; the inability to exist perpetually is only seemingly alike the inability to cease to exist eternally.
In the first instance we use the qualifier “unable” in the sense of lack or deficiency of power, whereas in the other we are talking about the precise opposite, i.e. the superabundance of the power of life.
To try and equate the two and claim that any talk of necessity in God constrains Him is to argue about words without paying any heed to what they convey or, even worse, by inverting their meaning.
Admittedly, this error is quite natural because the necessity qualified by eternity is not as readily present to us as is our essential finitude, circumscribed by death; it initially comes to mind only by analogy and, further, through intellectual insight into causal participation; so what more often than not occurs is the inversion of the proper, hierarchical order expressed analogically.
In reality, perpetuity is analogous to eternity because it has something of eternity in itself whereas this in turn indicates to the cause of likeness, i.e the fact that perpetuity originates in eternity, not the other way around. The inversion would not happen if the analysis of terms of analogy has been done right, where it would’ve been obvious that the notion of eternity contains more of the basis for analogy than the notion of perpetuity: while perpetuity is a privation of finitude – it is an indefinite duration that can last forever, but also nothing logically prevents that it could terminate in some unforeseeable future – eternity is the positive infinite in itself, therefore it implies all the qualities expressed by the notion of infinite where perpetual duration is just one among others.
In this sense the proper act of analogical intellection is a step towards the origin, because it discloses where the original cause of likeness of the two terms is, and at the same time it points towards deeper form of knowledge, i.e. that of the participation in the activity of the original cause.
So even if we say that knowing and doing in God are one, this doesn’t apply to causality of what is, in a way, outside God – the “outside” being all of the creation because creatures are, obviously, not God: He is only present in them. And to discern His presence certainly doesn’t entail abolishing the possibility as ontological category and, consequently, reducing human freedom to nothing.
This brings us to the core of what seems to have been the dividing line pagans of Celsus’ ilk just couldn’t cross.
Origen’s answer is as simple as it must have been world shattering for someone raised in the culture where taking human faculties as principally constitutive for the very existence of the world was unimaginable hybris: Jesus was able to predict Judas’ betrayal, because, being God, he knew what was in him; He possessed an immediate knowledge of the decision Judas made in his heart.
In this sense Jesus’ knowledge at the first sight doesn’t appear to be anything out of ordinary – just an inordinately prescient act of discerning someone’s character.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The act of immediate knowledge of other people’s hearts is as impossible as it gets, far more blatantly so than an ability to foresee an actual future event.
The knowledge of the decision before it’s being enacted, and thus externalized, is an insight into something that is utterly intrinsic and, thus, presents an act that is in no way mediated by senses. The intimacy of the will, as the most intimate interior of intellectual being, is, therefore, essentially impenetrable to others save in glimpses and conjectures.
To put an analytical approach aside for a moment, this is something one learns through life in those situations when people we think we knew, utterly surprise us: one can have a friend he supposes tried and tested by word and deed, whereas at a certain point this friend does something completely “out of character” like, for example, turns his back on you at the decisive moment. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of suicides who, more often than not, take their fellow men completely by surprise. Suicide, as a “spur of a moment” act of succumbing to observable pain is quite a rare occurrence; in greater number of cases there are precious few or none indicators that someone will commit it and, when the deed is done, the motive remains utterly incomprehensible.
The reason for this is the essential intimacy and incommunicability of the will; the intimacy it shares with everything able to act autonomously from the inside out – in other words: with everything that possesses any degree of essential subsistence or autonomy of act.
And the important distinction between Origen and Celsus lays precisely in that former, in accordance with his Christian faith, understands supreme causes, and indeed all other agents bearing similarity to them, as immaterial, intellectual but, above all, as intimate and, therefore, personal; God’s acts are not impersonal precisely because their true being is utterly intrinsic, far removed from anything we could call mechanical – they are, while remaining in their unknowable Origin, hidden from sight quite similarly as the will in its most intimate acts of decision is hidden from the view of others save, as Christians believe, the One who created and left it to subsist in its own inviolable freedom.
For Celsus the incomprehensibility of Christianity seems to lay in its main tenet that the origin of all is personal: Jesus is God but He is also a person and, consequently, in the true sense comprehensible only on personal level – in the given instance, even, on human level. While metaphysics can lead to recognition of the first principle of all as being essentially both the exemplary cause and a person, true knowledge of such personal cause transcends science, even in the ancient understanding of the science as primarily a faculty of the knower.
The novelty of Christianity in this sense lays in an assumption that what is shared by all beings is something quite human like or, in other words, something that of all creatures the human being resembles the most; anticipation of Judas’ betrayal in such context easily proves to be more important than an ability to know the series of external causes and effects that would produce anticipatory knowledge of some purely external, future, event.
Ultimately, the two cannot be separated, because inner causes are both more powerful, i.e. more capable of producing effects, and more universal than the exterior ones, so the latter can be understood only as being encompassed by the former. If the good is both the purpose of act and the exemplary cause of the universe, it follows that the true knowledge of it must be somehow congenial with Jesus’ exemplary act of discernment – no matter how the former appears to be mundane as opposed to the metaphysical loftiness of the latter. Novelty, let us repeat, lays in the transcendent character of such knowledge: it transcends – or rather renders illusory – the gulf between the knower and the known, because any differentiation in the realm of ontologically intimate and immaterial is to be found only in differing qualities, i.e. various degrees of the purity of act or the different place in the hierarchy the act of being the knower and the known hold; the will that strives towards good is no different than other will striving towards the good save for the degree of good it can achieve and the way in which it made use of its freedom, which in turn nevertheless remains incommensurably greater difference than the one existing between two corporeal things. This means that there is no real subject/object discrepancy between them in the sense that one man would have to reconstruct and project what occurs in another man, based on the inner contents of his own will; it is a customary form of how people attempt to understand each other but it is also ultimately wrongheaded, as is exemplified time and time again both in history and our individual lives.
On the contrary, true insight into other incommunicably intimate being is a participatory knowledge stemming from the revelation of the higher act which discerns the interiority of both myself and the other; we can walk through life never realizing this save in moments when the other reveals that we really don’t know him, or even – as exemplified by the threefold denial of St. Peter – when we realize this about our very selves, against everything we believed and held final. At the same time there’s probably nothing more humiliating and more liberating than getting struck with such instance of direct negation of illusory knowledge – after all, everyone prides himself on being able to read other people well enough – when even our knowledge of our own heart proves to be a mirage.
The act of knowing both oneself and the other self is, therefore, originally an act of being known by the Origin Himself, and participation in His knowledge.
In the context of everyday life, it means that the closest thing to knowing this by our own powers is making these powers receptive of the higher act through identical direction of the will we share with others – the striving towards the same exemplary cause; in turn, this comprises one of the most elementary definitions of what it means to belong to the body of Christ or the Church. Also it indicates that any out of the ordinary knowledge, even what we could call a mystical state, contrary to widespread popular notion, cannot occur in isolation but only in some mode of participation with others. But that is the subject in itself that we cannot dwell upon here.
Whereas antiquity held seemingly similar attitude towards human faculties and their potential to change the world at large, in the sense of human misbehavior being the cause of various catastrophes or, conversely, human sacrifices – and not seldom sacrifices of humans – appeasing higher powers, nothing even resembling this sort of audacious precision was abroad, even among the adherents of palaios logos. One only has to cast a cursory glance on the early passages of St. Augustine’s City of God to see what efforts early Christian fathers, even at the time when Christianity was firmly accepted by political authority, had to rectify the false understanding of the relation of man and cosmos as well as the man and history.
Therefore, as always in this context, one can clearly observe the natural continuity of the forms of understanding as well as the qualitative leap that, rather than breaking them, subtly shifted their purpose – given different quality to what was already present.
All metaphysics falls flat if it doesn’t indicate towards knowledge transcending one’s own ignorance of one’s own heart.
If this appears as an exercise in sentimental subjectivity, let us go back to Origen’s passage.
Judas’ betrayal was a morally evil act; that’s something both Aristotle and Jesus’ apostles would condemn for the same reason: it was the betrayal of a friend.
Yet it was also a betrayal of the act of God, i.e. the betrayal of an act of restoration of both man and the world, both inside and out, visible and invisible.
The first cause personally intervened to change the course of the world and one man attempted to stop him, ending up only aiding the accomplishment of the ultimate purpose.
This is, obviously, not something pagan and Christian could have agreed upon.
Although certainty of the existence of God, even in semi-polytheistic sense, was central to the tradition of palaios logos, the divine power was above all exemplified by indifference about the thina anthropina – affairs of men. This doesn’t mean that ancients understood God as “blind watchmaker” of Enlightenment, “who” just sets the world into mechanical motion and takes the backseat, forever inaccessible to human understanding. It only reflects the correct, but ultimately insufficient, understanding of God as immutable and unaffected by the things below Him. We can glimpse what upheaval the Christian revelation must have caused in the minds of those people, when this proposition – which amounts to affirming God’s absolute power – was accepted but also amended by the claim that creator of the world, first and perfect Origin of all, stepped into His own creation to redeem it by His own sacrifice, therefore on terms that were absolutely below Him. One can trace the confusion about this qualitative leap in the understanding of the relationship of God and creation all the way from the errors of Origen himself to deep into Christian late Antiquity and early Middle Ages, above all exemplified in the great clash over whether there are one or two natures in Christ – Nestorius and his followers were clearly scandalized over the contradiction that one, simple, all-powerful being can at the same time suffer all that can be suffered by created being, and thus flatly denied the main tenet of Christianity – that God indeed became man, not only hid Himself under the human guise.
So, what does this tell us about the knowledge of future and, generally, understanding of time?
The answer seems to be found there where contention between Origen and Celsus lays: the nature of Jesus’ particular act of knowledge described in his prediction of betrayal is such that future is laid bare for Him by the way of insight into inner reality of the agent that will enact the future. Prophetic knowledge is not something akin to weather forecast or strategic analysis – still less to explanation of causal mechanism – but an act discerning the inner reality of things, most notably inner reality of spiritual beings who are principal causes in the universe. Thus, Judas’ – as insignificant as he appears to have been – is the true object of prophetic knowledge, because his moral failure is one of the essential causes of what will come to pass.
One important thing is of note here, and Origen didn’t fail to point it out himself: Judas could’ve acted differently no matter what Jesus saw in him. Yet he didn’t and Jesus knew it will be so.
This implies that there really is something of the future we can know after all, albeit to a certain extent.
The future is, in the light of Christian faith, determined by the morally and/or naturally qualified striving towards the purpose. Prophetic knowledge is therefore not a bare exposition of facts that will come to pass, but first and foremost of the decisions that will produce certain effects; it is not primarily the knowledge of external causes, but of what encompasses and simultaneously transcends them.
Moreover, our own wills, if employed in their full capacity, can be numbered among such inner causes, because deliberate striving towards good, as opposed to natural processes that merely fulfill their proper purposes spontaneously, is a free act mirroring the incomprehensible act of creation.
This doesn’t mean that human will can change the order of kosmos, or that something of that sort can even be conceivable, for the simple reason that everything that exists can be understood – and thus potentially changed – only based on the knowledge of its origin, both in the sense of genitive objectivus and genitive subjectivus: to really know the end of creation – the ens communae itself – would imply knowing and at the same time being the act that created it and keeps it in existence, which is impossible to any finite intellect, even the intellect of pure spiritual being; free as it might be, human being is thus not a creator of anything and the idea that its ability to transcend the external causality implies an ability to change what is created at will is self contradictory. What makes intimate causality of human heart transcend and thus specifically qualify the corporeal side of its nature is its ability to choose good; to make a deliberate choice of future that in turn qualifies both one’s present and past. The events reported in Gospels imply that such choice has decisive consequences for the fate of the world as a whole because it corresponds to its exemplar more so than anything else in the world and is a result of deliberate acceptance of the proposition given by the Origin – a consequence of hearing and obeying the Word of God.
The essential thing about the future is, therefore, that it is a matter of choice.
What human being cannot know is what consequences the choice will produce, because its accomplishment is never only related to individual person but to the whole of creation; and knowledge about something of that scope is possible only in the creative thought of the original cause of all.
The wish to know the future in any other way would represent the rejection of the condition that the Word of God has to be taken on faith.
And it is therefore quite peculiar that precisely those who advocated “faith alone” as the only possible answer to the Word are also those who are, to this day, the most susceptible to temptation to seek the knowledge of the future that eliminates the faith and replaces it with the claim to supposed direct insight into how the future will play out in the end through an attempt to predict it by interpreting the holy Scripture or various private apocalyptic revelations.
This error and the outline of some possible causes of it we’ll attempt to address in the following.
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