God as Figment of Our Imagination

In my last post I introduced Zizek’s radical interpretation of the incarnation. This view could be summarized by saying that the the death of Jesus on the cross represented the death of God as a transcendent other and the event which allowed for the subsequent coming of the Spirit, signaling God’s move to fully empty himself into the world. This emptying of God’s self or kenosis means that now God exists only as a subjective presupposition for those who believe in him and act accordingly. In other words, God has so fully emptied himself into the world that he has no being outside the material world. In a lot of ways I find this reading pretty compelling. Perhaps it’s just the season of life I find myself in, one that’s been characterized by more than enough existential angst and a preoccupation with the fact that I’m going to die and that everything I do in my life will more than likely be forgotten in less than a few generations, but I’ve come to find that God, however we imagine him/her/it, may only exist as a figment of my imagination. However, I want to quickly qualify that statement by saying that I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Think of one of the examples that Zizek gives in the quote from my last post: Nation. The concept of Nation is one that is so deeply ingrained in our imaginations that it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like without nations. We sing songs about our nations and learn our nation’s history. We vote and take part in other civic duties that insure the maintenance and continued existence of our nations. We enlist and fight in wars to defend our nation’s inviolable borders. Given the way we enact our allegiance to and make sacrifices for the ideological cause of Nation it’s easy to begin to think that we’re dealing withing something eternal or something God-given. But we’re not. The whole idea of the modern nation-state is a product of the Enlightenment. We made it up. Humans developed this idea, this ideological cause of Nation and it has since captured our imaginations. What’s more, what we call a nation is nothing more than an incredibly complex system of organization, a group of people who share a territory and a desire for unity under a government. In other words, “Nation” describes a certain type of behavior, a certain way of living in the world. Without this certain collective behavior, there is no Nation.

But here’s the kicker: just because the concept of Nation is a man made concept, it doesn’t make its effect on our world any less profound.

Could we not, then, imagine God in the same way? What we call “God” has no actual, ontological existence outside the minds of human beings who talk or think about God. God, as the anthropologists tell us, is a human construct, something we have made up. To use’s Zizek’s language, God has become so fully incarnate in the world that he has no substantial existence outside of it. This doesn’t negate, however, the profound ways in which God (that is, the concept of God as it exists in our imagination) affects our world. One doesn’t need to look far to see the important role that religious devotion plays for the majority of humans living in today’s world.

Just as Nation as a concept represents a certain kind of collective behavior in the world, so God is a symbol that represents our deepest desires concerning our world, desires having to do with peace and justice and companionship and love. All of these desires are summed up in the word ‘God’ and to believe in God is then to orient oneself towards the coming of a future in which these values are more imminently present among us. To believe in God is thus a certain mode of being in the world.

I follow Zizek here because it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would mean to say that God exists in some other-worldly reality. I suppose you could say that I’m a materialist who, in the words of John Caputo, believes that the only metaphysics we’re going to get is what physics itself gives us. I don’t think anything exists but material reality so if God exists then he must do so within the matrix of material reality. Zizek’s idea that God exists only as a subjective presupposition in the minds of humans gives us a way to talk about what it might mean for God to “exist” within material reality, a way that helps us avoid having to resort to metaphysical speculation about a divine realm alongside this earthly realm or any other kind of spiritual obscurantism.

Late Night Musings: Advent and Incarnation

Follow me down this rabbit-hole:

Think of your life as a series of successive, momentary experiences. In each present moment we are faced with innumerable influences that contribute to what we do with the moment we are currently experiencing. The past is one of these influences. In other words, decisions you’ve made in the past have an obvious effect on your present experience. For example, if in a series of recently past momentary experiences I decided to walk into my kitchen, then in my present moment of experience I cannot choose to climb a tree. The options available to me in the present moment are, to an extent, determined by decisions I’ve made in the recent past.

Another influence on our present moment of experience is our environment. Let us return to the example I used above. The fact that I find myself in my kitchen in the present moment (as a result of previous decisions) means that I am encountering a number things that are unique to my kitchen (i.e. the fridge, the dirty dishes that are piling up on the counter, my roommate who happens to be in the kitchen as well, etc.). As I take in my immediate surroundings, certain options become available to me in the present moment: I can choose to open the fridge to find a snack, I can choose to clean the dishes or I can choose to start up a conversation with my roommate, for example.

The language of Incarnation can be utilized to help us understand how the influences of the past and our environment are related to our present moment of experience. Essentially, Incarnation is the idea of one thing being present in another thing. Is this not what’s going on in each present moment of experience? Indeed, as we remember our past and take in our environment, these influences become a part of, or are incarnated in, our present moment of experience.

Let us imagine that these two influences (which are really more than two influences for the past is comprised of multiple decisions that are each, in their own way, influencing the present just as our environment contains a seemingly infinite amount of stimuli that each have an effect on the present moment) are the only influences that contribute to our present moment of experience. It would seem that these influences would have a limiting effect on my present moment of experience. To return, once again, to our example: my past decisions that have led me to my kitchen do not allow me, in my present moment of experience, to choose tree climbing because there are no trees in my kitchen. Similarly, my options for the present moment are limited to some sort of interaction with the various “things” that are in my kitchen (my fridge, the dishes, my roommate, etc.). It would almost seem that these two influences determine what I do with  my present moment of experience. Could not the decision that I choose to make in the present moment be predicted with certainty by someone who had an absolute knowledge of the influences of my past and my immediate environment?

Our intuition would have us answer this question in the negative. Despite the overwhelming influence that our past and our environment has on what we do in the present moment, we still sense a certain level of autonomy and freedom to create something new in the present moment.

Why is this?

The answer lies in the fact that there is something else that is influencing us in each present moment of experience, namely, the open future.

In each present moment of experience the future is presented to us as a number of potential options for what we can do with our present moment. These potential options serve as influences in their own right on us as we decide how to actualize our present moment of experience.

I’ve come to understand God as the one who presents us with these options for the future in each new moment. More needs to be said here, however. Not only does God present us with options for each successive moment of experience, but God lures us towards the options that would lead to the most zest and adventure in that particular moment of experience. Thus, we could say that God is the one who keeps the present from merely collapsing into a reconfiguration of past decisions. In other words, God is that which allows for novelty or creative transformation in each present moment. When I find myself in the kitchen in my apartment I am presented with a number of options for the future, some of which are more creative and adventurous than others. God’s aim would be to have me choose one of these more adventurous or creative options.

Once again, the language of Incarnation becomes useful at this point. We could say that God becomes incarnate in each moment of our experience to the extent that we choose the more creative or zesty options that are presented to us in each moment.

So let’s bring this home.

In this season of Advent we remember the coming of Jesus, the one who responded fully to the lure of God in each moment. The language of Incarnation is absolutely appropriate when it comes to describing what took place with the person of Jesus for as he was responsive to the call of God in each moment God was made manifest in his loving embrace of those he encountered. When we look at Jesus we see God.

As we’ve discovered, however, Incarnation is much bigger than what happened 2,000 years ago with Jesus. In fact, Incarnation is happening in many different ways in each of our moments of experience. There are many different “things” occupying each one of our successive moments of experience (the past, our environment, the lure of the future which includes the aim of God). May this season of Advent remind us that God is attempting to be made manifest in each new moment of our own experience. As Christ was born some 2,ooo years ago, so may he be be born again this day in us.

“We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity…. But if it takes not place in me, what avails it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me.” – Meister Eckhart

 

Overdue Reflections on Advent

The message of Advent is one that is often overshadowed by the Christmas event itself, and for all the wrong reasons. Christmas has become a time characterized mostly by a gross amount of consumption and the telling of pagan myths about a fat guy in a red suit who rewards kids who have been good by giving them a bunch of stuff they don’t really need. The anticipation of Christmas morning starts usually after Thanksgiving for us in the States. In the midst of the anticipation it becomes easy to forget what the time leading up to Christmas, namely Advent, actually symbolizes. Advent is indeed a time of remembering. Each year as we relive the Christ event in our worship and our liturgy we begin by remembering the coming of God into the world in the form of a little baby. The incarnation really is a miraculous event. God, the Creator of all things, chooses to redeem humanity from sin and death by subjecting himself to his very creation. He becomes dependent on us. Our understanding of power and victory is turned on its head as we realize that true conquering comes in the form of self-sacrifice as opposed to violence and coercion. In the words of St. Paul: Jesus, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…” (Phil. 2:6-9). Jesus won not because he was macho or powerful (in the conventional sense of the word), out-wrestling his opponents with brute strength. He won because he died. He won because he came as a helpless baby. This is what we remember at advent. We remember the past. We remember Jesus.

But advent is certainly more than remembering. It is also about waiting. We anticipate the coming of Christ a second time. Indeed the Scriptural narrative ends with a plea for the coming of Christ: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 21:20). One quickly realizes that we are not much different than first century Jews, waiting for the coming of God that all things might be fully redeemed and made new. Just as characters like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah were waiting for the promised Messiah, so we modern day saints await the coming of Jesus for a second time. Advent is about waiting. It is about the future. We anticipate the renewal of heaven and earth.

Is there a third element of Advent, however, that we often neglect? It is my contention that there is indeed something that we miss in the season of Advent when we emphasize only the past and the future. The reality is that the life of discipleship is not lived in the past or the future but the present. In fact, the reason why we remember the past and anticipate the future is so that we are empowered to live as Jesus calls us to in the present.

I want to propose to you that Advent is just as much a present event as it is a past and a future event. Jesus came, will come and is coming presently. It is this third element that is too often missed. The way we often talk about the second coming of Jesus is not helpful when it comes to realizing the implications of the Advent event for the present. Often we think of the second coming as a day when God acts finally and decisively in order to accomplish what his church could not. The result of this way of thinking is that we end up sitting idly by, waiting for God to come and do what only he can do on his own. What’s the use of attempting to build for God’s Kingdom if he’s going to come and let us off the hook sometime in the future anyway. Our eschatology basically becomes a way of pushing our responsibilities for the present off onto God in the future. This life becomes about just getting by, holding on a little bit longer for Jesus to come back and lay the smack down on all things evil.

What if the yearning for the coming of God in the future that we see in the Scriptures is really an invitation for us to allow God to come in our lives daily? What if Jesus is longing to come into the world through us in each moment as we are faced every day with the choice between love or selfishness. This is, I believe the beauty of the incarnation: not that God became man once for all time but that God is continually being incarnated in and through us as we choose love and gentleness, kindness and compassion. Jesus is a model of obedience for us as we attempt to live the incarnation in our day to day life. As we love, we see God come. Advent becomes about the present.

This is what Jesus is getting at in John 14 when Judas asks Jesus why he chooses only to show himself to his disciples and not to the whole world. Jesus responds almost cryptically, typical of the Jesus character in John’s gospel: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). At first glance it seems that Jesus is skirting the issue. Instead of answering Judas’ question Jesus seems to be simply reiterating his emphasis on obedience. However, I think there is more going on here. Notice the result of love of Jesus and obedience to his commands (which can be summed up in with the word “love”): God comes and makes his home in us. Jesus responds to Judas by essentially saying that he is indeed showing himself to the world. When people love each other then he comes. The world sees the coming of God each time compassion is chosen over neglect and love is chosen over hate.

It is my hope that we would be a people that allows for the coming of God to take place within us. Each time we give a listening ear to someone who is hurting or give up our time and energy for the sake of our brother or sister, God is made manifest. Jesus comes in our love. Advent becomes about the present. The possibilities really are endless. Let us open our eyes to the coming of God in our midst. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.