Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The present from the past in the future

Reading John Haught's God After Darwin, I have come back once again to the theology of history. This is because Haught makes repeated reference to a "metaphysics of the future" as a means not only of accommodating the neo-Darwinian "story" about the world, but in fact, ultimately and coherently explaining that story on theological grounds. In contrast to both a deterministic "metaphysics of the past" (e.g., materialism) and a static metaphysics of esse (being) (e.g., dehistoricized dualism-idealism qua escape from material reality), Haught argues that only a metaphysics of the future––a theology of hope––does justice to both the authentic biblical-prophetic vision, and the painful, erratic contingency of the neo-Darwinian story. Instead of seeing God as some static, otiose First Cause in the past, or as some impersonal ground of being behind or beneath every object, Haught argues we must see God as the Absolute Future, as the personal field of alluring potentiality that draws the world from its determined past and chaotic present into ever greater harmony. If the world is a mere sequelae of the past atomic state of affairs, or is simply a tiresome palimpsest veiling a deeper eternal reality, then the world as such is a distraction, a mere afterthought. If however the world is a genuine field of novelty and unheralded beauty, then life takes on greater meaning.

As a Thomist I am not entirely onboard with Haught's process, Teilhardian, Whiteheadian, Rahnerian zeal––in particular his offhand disdain for esse, since there must BE something which undergoes any process––because I think classical Thomism has tremendously deep resources for situating God as the intimate-immanent cause of the world, which both sustains and propels it in the same way Haught's Absolute Future does (cf. St Thomas' Fifth Way). I also find weak Haught's argument that, whereas an absolutist, presentist metaphysics motivates oppressive uniformity (presumably by rejecting 'elements' that bar a return to a once-perfect past), since it could just as easily be argued––and, if Marxism at play is any indication, be executed––that present elements must be excised as obstacles to attaining the great and happy someday future.

A major point on which I do concur with Haught, is his denial that there ever was a pristine past which we have fallen from as historical vagabonds. Instead, he argues, we are born into a world-condition that ineluctably leads to "fall backward" from our covenanted promise in God. Instead of having fallen down from a pristine Eden, we consistently fall back from, and retreat from, the future as the field of novelty and hope that God promises to us. In this light, Haught says, "Nature is essentially promise." By this he means that only the promised fullness of God's fecund futurity accounts for the genuine novelty in evolution and in the human spirit. Nature is not constituted exclusively by its past or its present but in fact is "faithfully" formed and potentially reformed by the ever-broadening field of the future in which God dwells. Indeed, insofar as the past is gone, and the present is always on its way out, the future is, biblically and phenomenologically, the most real and dynamic mode of temporal existence. Complexity theory and self-organization are indicators of the cosmic nisus––and I would say, telos––toward ever greater beauty. Insofar as beauty consists in the harmonious balance between disparate elements, even ugly on their own, the Darwinian saga is the canvas on which God allows nature, and mankind within her, to forge its own distinct, integral, free harmony of competing elements. If I begin writing a line of random scribbles on a paper, and then suddenly shift into writing a coherent sentence, two things have have happened. First, there has been no break in the physical, causal chain between the scribbling and the sentence. Second, order has emerged in a non-physical, but rather an informational, way. This is, analogously, how God brings order into the world, without imposing an extrinsic, causally disruptive order upon nature. Information is the "void" around which physical matter attains increasing complexity, as a window "forms" around the empty space in the wall. All this is so, because God, as self-emptying, self-restricting love, allows the world to "be" and become in its own properly natural way, and thus kenotically ratifies the metaphysical space in which the Darwinian saga has taken place.

Reading all this, I am immediately reminded of Fr. Keefe's great work on the theology of history, Covenantal Theology. I think Keefe's work offers Haught a much deeper grounding in the Catholic tradition by showing how the myth of a perfect Eden-cosmos must defer to the truth that creation only exists IN CHRIST. Keefe, like Haught, assaults the millennium-old obsession with a cosmic order apart from God-in-Christ, an order that terminates in either meaningless necessity, or meaningless chaos. For my own part, I would say, anagogically speaking, that a trinitarian schema for analyzing history is such: the Father is the past, the source of ultimate origin; the Son is the present, the source of incarnate divine kenosis; and the Spirit is the future, the source of promise on Whom we always wait for more, more both from the Father's eternal wisdom and from the Son's sacramentally immanent solidarity with us as Theandros.


Don said...

Pardon me, but I'm having a hard time following this post.

You call yourself a Thomist.

I understand that term as a way of describing onself, but I can't see it as a way of explaining God.

You talk about the past and the future as if they have equal weight with the present.

But what is the past or the future but a continuation of the present.

I speak of the concept of eternal life that I find in my Bible.

The idea of time I find opposed to the idea of God.

Augustine says, I am, therefore God is.

I find this a much more satisfying explanation of existence. It requires no metaphysical retreat into the mythical fall of man.

Darwin doesn't seem to have any concept of eternal life, and thus in spiritual issues he is really not a person who has insights.

Obey God and live is still the best picture of eternal life regardless of what you call yourself. But I would like to understand Thomism better. It sounds like it has something to do with immanence.

I can understand how the transcendence of God could cause fear and despair to an existentialist, and he would need to experience the holy spirit to overcome this dread with a sense of God everpresent. Is this what Thomism is saying?

Thanks, Andrew

Don said...

One thing we know of the future is that the advent of Christ's second coming is as king and Lord of Lords. The idea of freedom at that future time is impossible. Our only freedom now is whether to follow Christ and take up our crosses, or to turn our backs on God entirely. All this talk of freedom sort of sounds disingenuous, as if God needs us to take an active role in shaping our destiny. Our future is in Christ alone. God already knows His plan for our lives. We merely have to apprehend it.