‘Ambiguity Is the Dawning’ 

Posted: April 26, 2022 in Uncategorized

John 21: 1-19

‘Ambiguity Is the Dawning’ 

The story we have heard this morning is a story full of images and possibilities and there is a reasonable debate among scholars that this particular section of the book we call Gospel of John, is a later addition to the original collection. That somebody else added this section as a kind of epilogue. So it comes very late in our religious tradition and has lent itself to a whole series of speculative conclusions. Traditionally, the interpretations given to this section are often about the power and majesty of ‘Christ’ after the resurrection. And a call to discipleship – especially Peter’s leadership.

One traditional way of approaching this passage was to begin with the lake itself, the place where they were fishing. Lakes, in both fairy tales and sacred legends, are strange and symbolic places.  Because they are often deep and hold secrets that can’t be discerned from the surface, they are the residences of mystery. “In Jungian psychology, they often represent the unconscious, the realm of our dreams and fantasies. “There is something dreamlike about this scene…  Halfway between night and day, with the first hint of dawn spreading pencil-like along the horizon.  Patches of mist and fog rising from the water.  The gentle noise of waves slapping against the boat or dripping from the nets.  The deep sighs of the fishermen, whose muscles ache from the toil of the fruitless night. “And then the… stranger, standing on the shore and (calling) to them through the mist, telling them they will catch something if they will lower their nets on the other side of the boat…” (Killinger 1992, 30 Good Minutes web site).

John O’Donohue, the Irish theologian and poet, describes a morning experience like this: He writes: “Light is incredibly generous, but also gentle.  When you attend to the way dawn comes, you learn how light can coax the dark.  The first fingers of light appear on the horizon; ever so deftly and gradually, they pull the mantle of darkness away from the world.  Quietly, before you, is the mystery of a new dawn, the new day” (O’Donohue 1997:21.).

It is this idea of light from dark, hope from despair and good from bad that I want to play with again this morning. Dawn and dawning is about the arrival of light or the awareness of something new, or the possible from the impossible. Some time back I suggested that our purpose as human beings was to individuate God and Gods was to individuate us, in other words our task is to make real, to create and thus to co-create. At the root of this argument is the idea that the one-ness at the centre of it all is the intimate relationship we as humans have with God and God has with us, or as I now prefer to say the point at which we acknowledge God does not exist without us and that we do not exist without the insistence new name God. Today I want to have a go at something I have been struggling with in this intimacy with God. What are the differences if any and why do they exist?

One of the most interesting discussions going on today is the intersection of religion, politics, and culture and the subject can also be said to have the deepest and most wide-ranging impact on the world today. I want to explore again one of these conversations that are going on as a means of finding some clarity for myself and hopefully for you.    

Richard Kearney, is a Catholic Philosopher who wrote Anatheism: Returning to God After God takes a view that it is possible to retain a God after the loss of traditional theism (God as Supernatural or metaphysical being) and beyond the idea of atheism or there is no God or God is dead approach. He argues I think for a new kind of theism freed from the metaphysical God yet with many of the qualities of a theistic God. Catherine Keller the other member of this conversation was professor of constructive theology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. She was a process theologian with wide-ranging theoretical interests, encompassing feminist theology, ecotheology, and poststructuralist and postcolonial theory.

I want to draw again on a conversation these two had about Richard’s book and specifically their discussion around the integration of disciplines; specifically Science and faith. Keller, in her highly original and influential theological works has sought to develop the relational potential of a theology of becoming. Her books reconfigure ancient symbols of divinity for the sake of a planetary conviviality—a life together, across vast webs of difference. Her book, Cloud of the Impossible (2014), explored the relation of mystical unknowing, material indeterminacy, and ontological interdependence. Keller’s work is claimed to be exemplary in combining theology and science. She apparently used the findings of quantum physics to move theology from a modernist, static view of the universe to one in which all things are interconnected. In this approach, science allows theology to speak once again with integrity about a mysterious cosmos, a world of relation, interdependence, or the “entanglement” of all things. Keller shares with Kearney a deeply sacramental view of life, an embodiment of God in the material that Keller finds in quantum physics and Kearney in sacramental poetics. Although they agree on most issues, Kearney challenges Keller to clarify her panentheism, for if God is in all things, and if nothing is outside of God, does not God then become responsible for evil?

It has been suggested that I am a socialist, politically at heart, and I was a bit challenged by that in that I don’t personally want to be labelled as either socialist or capitalist or any other sort of ist. Like Kearney I too would challenge the downplaying of human freedom and the uncompromising impervious nature of traditional approaches to divine love. I too have questions about the existence of actual evil acts, such as torture and rape, and find difficulty is assigning those to God. Its helpful here to remember that Kearney’s point is that evil is a deprivation of the good and Keller’s insists that “God has no boundaries outside of which begins the world, or even hell.” I prefer John D Caputo’s approach That claims that evil is irreparably ruined time, without the possibility of compensation and an excess of any event that is a disintegrating destabilisation and a diminished recontextualization. Wordy but if you follow it through evil is still not dependent upon a traditional interventionist God and rather within the insistence of a freely insistent Saredness.

Keller sees anatheism as operating on three main axis, each a kind of chiasmic or overlapping and inclusive interchange. First and most obviously, it oscillates between theism and atheism; second, it forms a crossover between Christianity and non-Christianity which includes, the Abrahamic faiths as well as Buddhism and Hinduism and thirdly it is that inclusive crossover between ethics and politics.

Kearney asks Keller the core question of darkness and light. He suggests that Keller invokes oxymora like “luminous darkness” in order to express the inextricable link between the knowable and the unknowable, the opaque and the diaphanous. And Kearney wonders how this particular chiasmus touches the question of the “dark side” of God. Is the dark side of the cloud always part of God? Is it always divine? Or is there a certain dark capacity for evil, which should not be included in the divine? But left outside or aside? In short, darkness as evil: what do we do with that?         

Keller responds by suggesting that there is a distinction between the dark as menace and destruction and the dark that frightens us because of our insecurity, fear, and vulnerability in the face of mystery and enigma. Kearney confirms that the evil he is concerned with is the evil act of Torture, holocaust, and rape.         

Keller suggests that the discussion on discernment that asks how we tell the difference between the stranger as, one, malicious psychopath and, the, unknowable other who is to be respected and hosted touches on this issue. She argues that as a process theologian it is almost a dogmatic assumption for her that God is not what makes what happens happen, but that it is we creatures who are actualizing the possible. Again seen in Caputo’s None existence but rather insistence. For Keller the evil in the world is not something that God is testing or teaching us with—willing or wanting or even “letting” happen. For here God does not stop evil nor for higher paternal reasons permits it. Evil, such as we know it, is a human activity. And here it gets a bit tricky. For Keller evil is a sort of available actualization. The possibility of evil may be understood, perhaps, as divinely inscribed—as a sort of pre-awareness of the unpredictable diversity and inevitale conflicts between creatures. An evolving world invites greater and greater ranges of complexity, and so, at the same time, of capacity for good—or evil. Therefor God may, rightly so, in Keller’s eyes, get the rap for our capacity for evil—not for any particular horror, but for the fact that there is evil in the world. She argues that if evil is not possible, then love is not possible either, except as performed by marionettes. In Keller’s world for the individual the darkness is of opacity, not evil; of an infinity of all things, indeed of each creature as a created god. But it must also remain in some sense ethically ambiguous because of the relationship with the collective, systemic level. In my view Caputo’s view authenticates the dualistic need for evil to authenticate love and vice versa but removes the need for God to be involved.         

Kearney in approaching this issue suggests that if God is love, and if “God is all he is able to be,” then surely this means: all that God is able to be is love, not non-love in other words, evil. Surely to be non-love would be precisely what God is not, what God is incapable of being. So if there is evil in the world it is our doing, something we do as creatures with freedom and choice. In this sense, Kearney is with the Augustinian view that evil is privatio boni, and that the Good is Love. Evil is not a possibility of God but only of humans. Evil is both a human possibility or actuality, but never a divine possibility or actuality.         

Keller concedes that while she understands the dilemma she still cannot help allowing for some ambiguity in God. For her Evil is not a possibility for God, but even the kindest of Gods can’t miss the possibility of evil entangled in advance in the good. The possibility, for example, that one’s affection will lead to disastrous consequences, or the possibility that followers of Jesus will launch crusades and inquisitions. God is the possibility of love that lures more love.

But this can engender anxiety, too, for as Whitehead’s “Eros of the universe”—a universe where “life feeds on life”—it takes the risks of creativity. Or provokes them. It is also the God of the nonhuman universe, where predation and suffering run through the fabric of biology. Which is not to say that suffering is God’s will for any creature, human or inhuman. But there is nonetheless an element of risk, insofar as divinity signifies the very complicatio of our complicated universe, which includes both the deeply nurturing and the deeply painful.

The greater our decision-making capacity—and our chance to wreak havoc—the greater also the potential for embodying. There is, in the process picture says Keller that erotic side of love: divine desire calling forth all kinds of possible’s. And then there is the agapeic love, which picks up the pieces, so to speak.

Kearney agrees that Eros is as central to the divine posse as agape. But he would not want to put Eros on the side of evil—even the risk of evil—if that is said to be an intrinsic dimension of the divine. Which does not mean he wants dualism, He does not want God as transcendent Good out there in some pure metaphysical realm of light with us humans here in some fallen world of darkness. Kearney agrees with Keller’s radical challenge of this whole transcendence versus immanence dichotomy, and he speaks frequently in Anatheism of transcendence in immanence, God in the world. He would want to complicate any kind of metaphysical dualism between divine light and human darkness by saying that the divine–human chiasmus is both in the cosmos (as “chaosmos”) and in each one of us creatures. The coincidence of opposites is in every relationship.

And here he rejoins Keller’s bracing notion of distributive difference—God is everywhere and in all things. Or, as Gerald Manley Hopkins puts it, “Christ plays in ten thousand places … To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Kearney believes like Keller that the divine is potentially incarnate in all things, explicating, implicating, complicating, duplicating, multiplicating all over the place, in everyone and everything. But, in saying this, Kearney would still want to hold that the divine that dwells in the human, finite, immanent world is nonetheless always love and not non-love. Otherwise, there is no difference at all.

So, while Kearney agrees that every creature is an ambivalent mix of human and divine, he still wants to endorse the hermeneutic task of disambiguating certain situations into (a) love that brings life and (b) non-love that brings cruelty, violence, and destruction. Kearney suggests that Pain, death, and suffering are a very different matter, which can have both good and evil potentials. In other words, he cannot accept that what he calls God, is both good and evil, love and non-love. God, for him, is always good—both actually and potentially. And so, while he agrees totally with Keller’s deconstructive push against the tyranny of certainty be it epistemological certainty or moral certainty and acknowledges the ambivalence of all relations, he still wants to retain the capacity of “discerning between spirits,” of being able to distinguish between loving) and non-loving in a dramatic test case like the holocaust.         

While this topic can go on for much longer I want to round it off today by saying that the question of evil is and always will be ambiguous because that is its nature. And I leave you with a comment about hospitality from Richard Kearney. He says that when we open the door we cannot make a distinction between a psychopath and a messiah who might enter. Much as we would like it to be otherwise, it is often an incredibly difficult call.

There is a story of Dorothy Day saying that when she opened the door to someone at midnight in one of her downtown hospitality houses, she was often unsure whether it was Jesus or Jack the Ripper asking to get in. Or both! So is the ambiguity of such things. If it means God, as Absolute Other, is potentially in all things, he agrees. But if it means that God is actually in all things (including torture and rape), and that there is no difference at all between the divine other (as bringer of life and love) and any kind of other (as torturer, rapist, etcetera), he gives pause. All “others” are not the same.

Which is not to say that, in theological terms, he opposes the idea of universal salvation, going back to Origen. Even Himmler and Hitler may be saved—to take extreme examples—but only as complex agents, insofar as there may be some glint of light mixed up in their appalling darkness. Maybe. Difficult as it is to imagine. But he would never go so far as to say that their evil acts are part of some secret plan of salvation. Here he remains utterly opposed to theodicy of any kind. And  agrees, rather, with Arendt’s Augustinian option to separate the agent from the act. Namely, we can forgive agents (releasing them into the possibility of an alternative future, but we can never forgive their evil acts. So if, at the limit, he might admit that there is no human agent that is irredeemable, he would have to insist that there are certain irredeemable acts. Every act is not divine.         

Keller concedes Of course: But no act is simply divine. Divine action happens in synergy with the creativity of creatures. Every act might be an invitation to the divine, every relationship might invite us to love—as in the hard (almost impossible) imperative to love the enemy—but this does not mean we let the enemy kill our children. It might actually involve killing the enemy, because of deep apophatic entanglements and ambiguities in intensified encounters where we have both love and enmity; unless it passes over into indifference, which is another matter. Original sin means that to love is also to be mixed up in a chaos that involves hostility, pain, and darkness. We are all mixed up and mixed up in all. And at some time, the love of the enemy suggests that the infinite is here, as non fini, nonfinished redemption. There is always work to be done. So she thinks we too, can be quite Augustinian here and say God is the love that is there, but it can be deformed into hideousness by us—into a misguided love of power and possession. Loving the enemy requires some sense of the divine love being actually everywhere, albeit hideously actualized at times.         

What this suggests to me is that we need to be alert for the arrival of evil as it comes in many guises. It also says that even the best minds are engaged continually in interpretation; and that understanding and truth is a dynamic changing thing. It also says that ambiguity, serendipity, and mystery are of life as we know it.

The debatable story about the risen Jesus appearing to the hapless fishermen has him saying “Try your nets on the other side,” and their world changed. Amen.

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