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Metaphysics, Christ, and Creation

This article is based on notes from a lecture delivered by Rowan Williams at Saint Louis University on 7 March, 2017.

Metaphysics and God’s Activity

Austin Farrer was possibly the greatest Anglican theologian of our time. In a 1948 series of lectures (The Glass of Vision), he brought together philosophy, devotion, and Scriptural exegesis in a remarkably beautiful way. It was something of a theological watershed. In these lectures, Farrer builds on his major work Finite and Infinite: A Philosophical Essay, and sketches out a vision of “reality-as-such” that is highly useful for Christian reflection.

For Farrer, the question of metaphysics is a question of what it means to be intelligently active. Some of our actions bring a great deal more into play than others—more innovative vision, more concentrated intelligence. It’s as if there is an ideal state in which the whole of our self is present in the whole of our agency. Most of the time we don’t act with full consciousness and agency. Only rarely do we consciously draw upon all the resources that are within us. We think of God, then, as One who is never absent-minded or half-hearted. God is present in all that God does. God’s action utilizes uses its entire resource; and God’s agency generates possibility for every other kind of agent.

If God acts like that, then you can never use God’s action simply to plug a gap in the world. “Here’s a gap in our explanatory system; let’s invoke God to fill it! Here’s something we can’t understand; God must be doing it!” No. Whatever careless Christian apologists have said in the past will not do. The one who takes this tack turns God into merely another agent within the world. God’s action then stands alongside other actions. If God is at work here and now, what God is doing is the active, intelligent presence of ourselves—of us, of our world.

Finite and Infinite Agency

The unique phenomena of personal will and personal relation characterize our existence. Yet it is God’s personal will and intelligence that create, for finite beings like us, the possibility of relation. Therefore, we must speak not only of the natural working of finite causes, but of supernatural reality (when the life of finite agents is transformed by the infinite). We are sanctified and adopted as children of the heavenly Father. We grow into communion with the life of God the Holy Trinity, and this is an enhancement of our finite human intelligence and love. The challenge for theologians is to work out a model of reality in which infinite and finite agency are radically distinct, while finite creatures can still attain full dignity (in relation to the infinite dignity and reality of God). Articulating this kind of metaphysics will subtly and pervasively alter what we see as “true” in the world.

God may bring about effects, from finite causes, that do not arise from the natural scope of those powers. Our relationship with the infinite means that “finite-related-to-God” produces more than it could alone. Farrer says we have some hint of this reality in the work of our own imagination. Properly supernatural activity in the world is discernable when we act on and discern possibilities that aren’t obvious to the natural observer. Something occurs, in this attunement to God, that we call revelation: a specific communication of infinite agency to a finite mind, by means of arrangement. God does not tear apart the fabric of the world, but the world arranges itself around the magnetic attraction of the infinite. That arrangement uncovers something of God’s selfhood and communication. In God, “there is an act of begotten and responsive love that it is reciprocated by the Spirit … [and so] we come to see that our human destiny is incorporated into the destiny of Christ’s Church” (paraphrased from The Glass of Vision).

Christ: Convergence of “Natural” and “Supernatural”

There is a paradox involved in the idea of a supernatural act. It’s a real act, but it’s not something that ever replaces or interrupts natural action. God’s action is supremely and eternally itself; as such, it shapes and inscribes itself into the act of the finite and limited. Key to understanding this concept is the realization that—whereas, in our finite world, one kind of finite action can’t coexist with another—God does not compete for space with the world. Supernatural agency is not a rival of natural agency. In the finite world, one finite agent doing something excludes another finite agent. My friend and I cannot walk the same path, in the same place, at the same time. This identification of finite/infinite agency has bearing on a range of theological puzzles: grace and free will; Godhead and manhood in Christ’s one person; the efficacy of prayer, etc.

Let’s look, for example, at the hypostatic union. The claim we make about the Incarnation is not just that God brings about a particular historical reality (as when David defeats the Philistine).  The reconciliation of the world to God is not just another event, but a change in the horizon of the finite. The Incarnation is a supernatural act—an outcome that no finite agent or group of agents could bring about—but it can’t happen anywhere except the finite world. In the Incarnation, we meet a model for the union of divine and human action. This model sees Christ as the historical locus of immeasurable actuality, and as the instantiation of what the people of God can hope for. Misunderstandings of this model lie at the heart of the various Christological heresies that have emerged throughout the history of the church; the union of divine and human natures entails no struggle, between those natures, to occupy the same conceptual “space.” Affirming such a struggle requires treating the infinite as something that must vie against the finite—which reduces the infinite reality of God to a mere subcategory of finite reality. Christians have long recognized that the Incarnation is not simply another episode in human history, but something far more metaphysically significant. This subject will be treated in further detail with my next article, “Christ, the Revelation of God’s Agency” (a continued analysis of Rowan Williams’ lecture).

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Ben is currently a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. Ben writes from within the Roman Catholic tradition, and specializes in research on Saint Bonaventure, Saint Augustine, philosophical theology, and Christian mysticism.

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